The Heart of the Matter

On the Lookout(Creative Commons image by Nathan Rupert on Flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,

I suspect that you, like I, know at least one person who doesn’t need to read the Bible because he or she already knows what’s in it. Maybe it’s a friend or coworker. Maybe a neighbor or family member. Maybe it’s even a member of your congregation!

If you dare to press the question, you’ll discover that this person is convinced there’s no need to read the Bible because it all pretty much boils down to one of two things: 1) arcane moral laws and 2) threats to those who don’t follow them. Well, when you read a passage like the one appointed for this week, that characterization suddenly doesn’t seem all that far from the mark.

I mean, really: “Do not be afraid…” “Sell your possessions…” “You must be ready…”?  These feel more like pious catch phrases than anything serious 21st century people would consider.

Except … except there’s just one phrase in this passage that is easily overlooked that changes everything. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Did you catch that? God doesn’t just want to give us some things. God doesn’t just hope we do alright. God isn’t just sitting around waiting for us to earn God’s favor or watching to make sure we’re toeing the line. Rather, God wants to give us the kingdom and all good things. In fact, Jesus says it’s “your Father’s good pleasure” — that is, God really, really wants to give us the kingdom and all good things.

Anchored by the promise that God wants to give us all good things, we can hear these commands differently.

Which of course changes everything. I mean, it’s one thing for someone just to demand things of you, it’s another when that person is a parent who you know (if not always in the moment!) seeks only what is best for you or a coach who wants you do to your best. Intention, attitude, disposition, relationship — these things make a difference.

And so anchored by the promise that God wants to give us all good things, we can hear these commands and injunctions differently. God wants us not to be beset by worries, to keep our priorities straight, to not be consumed by greed or love of those things that do not bring real happiness. Rather, God wants us to have and enjoy and share the abundant life that comes from authentic community and right relationship with God and each other.

As for being on the lookout for the coming kingdom, Jesus doesn’t want us to miss when God comes in ways that might surprise us — in generosity instead of accumulation, in community instead of looking out for ourselves, in vulnerability and relationship rather than in strength. It’s easy to miss the God who comes in love and grace, you see, when all we expect is law and punishment.

Even when we recognize that God’s gracious motivation changes the way we hear these commands, we have to admit that they’re still hard to keep. Why?

Maybe it’s because so much of the rest of our lives are filled by demands both great and small: like the demand to accumulate more and more in exchange for a false sense of security. Or the demand to prove your worth day in and day out. Or the demand to worry about innumerable things because we have been convinced that we are always at risk. In this kind of climate, it’s hard to trust God’s promises and give over our worries and live more fully and generously.

So perhaps the task this week, Working Preacher, is twofold. First, we should articulate clearly the promise that God wants to give us all good things and reframe the brief exhortations of this passage as the means by which God helps us live more fully and abundantly. Second, recognizing that the culture we live in often works against these exhortations, we might also help us see our faith community as the place where we can be encouraged in our Christian faith and equipped to receive and live the abundant life. Martin Luther once described the church as a place of “conversation and consolation of the faithful,” and maybe it’s time to live into that vision more fully.

One suggestion in that direction. Perhaps you could place 3×5 cards and pencils in the pews ahead of time and ask people to write on one side of the card “God wants to give you all good things” and on the other one fear or worry or concern they’d be willing to share. Then have folks pass their cards in and, collecting them in a basket or common place, invite people to take a card on their way out.

The task for the week ahead is simply to pray for whomever wrote down the concern on the card you received on the way out. You don’t need to know who it is, just that it’s a fellow member of the body of Christ who has this concern. As you are praying for that person, you also know that someone is praying for you. And you realize that you are not alone. We all have the promise that God wants to give us the kingdom; we all have trouble remembering and acting on that promise; we all are praying for and supporting each other.

This is just one idea, Working Preacher, to equip us to hear and believe and live into God’s promise that God wants to give us the kingdom and all good things … not eventually but right now, right here. You’ll know other ways, I’m sure, to help your people grasp — and be grasped by — this promise, I’m sure.

Thanks for your good work, Working Preacher, because it is through your words and ministry that God is, in fact, giving the kingdom … here, now, and forever.

Yours in Christ,