Calvary - St. George's Church
When I was a kid I had friends who were huge Harry Potter fans. They’d talk about the books all the time. When a new one was announced they’d anticipate it for months. And on the midnight of its release they’d dress as their favorite characters and wait in line for hours all to get their hands on the first available copies. Even for a non-Potterite it was exciting: there was a palpable energy in the air. These kids were passionate, disciplined, alert.
Last Sunday was the release of the newest and (allegedly) final Harry Potter story. Once again, lines were long, costumes donned, and the books gone. It had been ten years since the release of book seven, but when the long hoped for day had finally come, fans had not been caught unprepared.
In this morning’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus calls for his disciples to be ready. Luke tells us to be alert in anticipation of Jesus’ return. We are to be like those on watch late into the night; like those who’ve been tipped off that someone is about to try and steal our stuff. But what do these similes even mean for you and me? It’s one thing to be expectant when you have a release date or know the day and time of the master’s return, but what about when you don’t? What about when you have no idea when he's coming? How can we honestly be expected to be alert and ready when he’s already taken two thousand years?
Sometimes when I read Jesus’ hyperbolic sayings about selling everything we own, like at the beginning of our reading, I think to myself, “Luke must have thought Jesus was coming back in a week.” The kind of readiness he’s calling for might seem plausible if you've got a deadline, but what about when the homecoming is open-ended? What about when it’s been this long already? I mean who can really blame the bondservants in our text who get caught napping? Who can criticize those like Beckett who’ve come to think we’re merely waiting for Godot?
Now, contrary to what some have thought, biblical commentators make clear that Luke is not, in fact, suggesting a life of intentional poverty. Though there are many who, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, have received it that way. And in most instances that's been well and good. Luke, though, is instead suggesting a strategic appropriation of one’s possessions for the poor and for the mission of the church.* And later, in his comments about being alert and ready for Christ in the next two paragraphs, Luke is calling for a considered setting aside of one’s time for Christ.
For while it's true that this passage, taken as a whole, is about being ready for the second coming, it’s also about the everyday vocation of the Christian. You see Jesus’ call for us to anticipate him is not just about being prepared for him at the end, but also about receiving him in the here and now. Which includes being ready to receive his call to act. To be prepared to seize the opportunity to spread the good news of the Gospel, which of course includes evangelism but is also much more than that. For as our text makes clear it's also a call to be agents of generosity, justice, love, grace, and peace. Like potential energy ready to be changed into kinetic energy, we too are called to be ready to receive and act upon Christ’s sudden call to us.
But how do we do this? We can’t possibly be expected to be on alert at all times, can we? What is Jesus getting at? What is he really saying? This passage reminds me of St. Paul’s call to ‘pray without ceasing.’ Taken literally, it’s impossible. And on some level that’s just it, it’s a hyperbolic saying. But, at the same time, I don’t want to explain it away. I don’t want to unfairly soften it’s rough edges. So how might we honestly appropriate Jesus’ saying?
Now, I don’t know about you but in addition to being naturally spacy, I’m also overwhelmed by my own responsibilities. I feel frazzled all the time, like I’m being pulled in a thousand different directions. Alert and ready, watchful and prepared for the unexpected are not descriptors used to define me very often. Most days I’m so addicted to my own busyness that I’m in a perpetual state of fog. The opposite of what this passage is calling for.
I used to think that this frenzied activity was due to the fact that I just have too much to do in so little time. I’d watch BBC shows about everyday life in early 20th century England and think, “they had so much more time than we do.” “Life was so much simpler and leisurely back then.” It’s only very recently that I’ve come to realize that this is not at all true. John P. Robinson, a researcher at the University of Maryland, found that Americans actually have more free time now than we did a hundred years ago, even more than those Downton Abbey aristocrats had. He says it’s how we use that free time that's critical. And after thinking about it I’ve come to think he’s probably onto something. I mean when’s the last time we paid attention to our television and social media habits? When’s the last time we tracked our computer and smartphone screen time?
Chuck DeGroat, a clinical psychologist at Western Theological Seminary, writes that when he’s told by his clients that they feel exhausted by their own lives, he asks questions like, “When’s the last time you were silent in a room by yourself for more than five minutes? The last time you really paid attention to your inner voice? The last time you really tried to develop an inner life?”
So how might we become more ready, more alert, more present... to Christ and his call? Well, one way is to use some of that screen time to instead cultivate stillness. To be silent before Christ. To pray with but also without words. To take five minutes out of our day so that we might sit, receive, and listen.
It seems like everyone from psychologists to sociologists, neurobiologists to theoretical physicists, are all currently saying what those in the Christian contemplative tradition have been talking about for thousands of years, that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest but wholeness.** The cure for our frenzied hearts is not necessarily more sleep or that much needed vacation but wholeheartedness. It’s being silent. It’s being still. The antidote to exhaustion by busyness is getting in touch with our own inner terrain and finding Christ there.
So in addition to the ordinary means of being receptive to Christ in the Word read, preached and received in bread and wine, this is yet another way for us to be attentive to and present with Christ.
But maybe you’re like me and you're curious but skeptical. You feel good about the idea right now, but you know that right after you've walked out those doors your addiction to busyness is gonna take right back over and you'll be right back to being a zombie. Right back to being completely oblivious to Christ and his call. Fair enough. I’ve got that fear too. But unlike your Crossfit coach who told you that quitters never win, the best spiritual directors say that the cultivation of the inner life is much more characterized by a continual falling and failing than winning. You see, those most acquainted with contemplative prayer say that being attentive to Christ is much less a goal to be attained, much less a project to be completed, and more like a soft place to land when you fallen for the umpteenth time.
And isn't that just what's part of, or at least what leads to, the good news of the Gospel? That despite the fact that we will fall short in our attempts to be still and present with God there is nevertheless still “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That despite the fact that we continue to jump back onto the hamster wheel of our own busyness, we are still told time and time again, “Do not be afraid” for I am with you, and I will strengthen you, and I’ll even on occasion interrupt your frenzied life to make you alert and attentive to my unfailing love for you.
For ultimately that's what being present with Christ is really all about. It's about experiencing his relentless love. A love that heals and strengthens and will not let you go.
And so, may the same Lord who calls us to be ready for him make a way where there seems to be no way. May he break down our addiction to busyness and create in us an alertness to him, so that when he comes we won’t be caught unprepared but ready to receive him and all the love he has for us.
* Erick J. Thompson, Commentary on Luke 12:32-40.
**A saying by Brother David Steindle-Rast in a much publicized conversation with the poet David Whyte.
*** Audio to sermon on title hyperlink