Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
September 10, 2017
Text: Luke 12:35-40
The past several weeks have provided little hope in the news. Between saber rattling on the Korean peninsula, the terrible destruction caused by two strong hurricanes and a new storm in the Atlantic, the rescission of protection from more than 800,000 immigrants brought to the United States as children, and the withdrawal of all kinds of environmental and consumer protections by the current political administration, there seems to be more despair than hope.
Although one could say that things weren’t much different in Jesus’ time, that was then and this is now. Comparing the brutality of the Roman occupation of Israel in the first century with our current situation does not help us in creating hope in our time and place. What Jesus said about finding hope was specific to his time and his place and finding hope today is specific to ours.
This does not mean, however, that Jesus’ words should be dismissed as comments as irrelevant to us in our time today. The parables that we have been reading over this year offer us new insights into our own ways of responding to the world we inhabit today. They have helped us to think about our relationship with other as well as with God. They continue to offer us the opportunity to consider how we live, and, in many cases, how to still have hope in a time of despair.
This morning’s reading is not so far from the “Look busy. Jesus is coming!” bumper stickers I see on some cars in my travels. It seems to be pretty clear that Jesus believed that he was ushering in a new age. In other places, other parables, Jesus also gives us a pretty strong clue regarding this new kingdom.
First, the new kingdom will be a place of radical equality. In some of the other parables we have read this year, Jesus talked about a shift in the balance of power between the rich and the poor. This vision of God’s kingdom emphasizes not justice in our traditional legalistic understanding of the word, but the elements of a just society.
In this vision of a just society, one in which there is equity, Jesus reflects the call of the prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea as well as the call of people to God in the Psalms. But Jesus offers something more than prophecy; he offers promise, the promise that God’s vision for human society will be fulfilled. This is hope.
Moreover, the new kingdom of God will be more than merely a place of justice and equity. It is also a place of radical inclusion. Everyone, everyone is acceptable and accepted because everyone reflects God’s image, no matter race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, disability or immigration status, and, I would argue, religion.
One could argue that the rich man is not acceptable or accepted since he is burning. But the reason the rich man burns is that he has not repented of his sin. And what was his sin? Ignoring Lazarus who sat by his door with sores that the dogs licked. The rich man ignored the poor; that’s what made him neither acceptable nor accepted. Repentance is essential to becoming acceptable.
In addition, the new kingdom of God enters our lives when we least expect it. That is why we must be dressed for action and have our lamps lit, as the text this morning says. But, we may ask, what does it mean to be dressed for action? What lamps are we to have lit? We need to light the lamps of our minds and hearts in order to be ready, as Jesus metaphorically puts it, to be dressed for action.
Lighting the lamps of our minds and hearts is essential. We need to do both. Jesus is telling us here to open our hearts. Now, clearly we have open hearts. We work to feed the poor, to house the homeless, to care for the sick. But that’s just part of it. We also need to open the lamps of our minds not just by educating ourselves about the issues that we face as a society, but also by strategizing on how best to address them in order to have an open and equitable society.
Strategizing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We aren’t hermits in a cave; we are social beings and work best when we work with others to fulfill the promise of the kingdom. Even in the worst times of despair, working together builds hope. Then we can share the light from our lamps with others and be ready for action, even in the darkest night. Many of us have despaired from time to time but have been lifted out of our isolation through the community of faith.
In this parable as well as others, Jesus is always telling us to be ready for the unexpected. It’s certainly true sometimes that the word “unexpected” usually has a negative connotation. We seek to make events expected, or as someone I know tells me, “I don’t like surprises.” And she did not mean birthdays.
We seek to control the events of our lives. That makes sense, if we think about it. Who wants to have events around us totally or even somewhat out of control? We like to think of ourselves as planners, as persons who can control the events of our lives so that we aren’t caught short or wanting. In the bulletin you have there’s a statement requesting information about events three months in advance so we can properly plan.
However, opening the lamps of our minds can easily move us into the realm of the unexpected. And the events of our world certainly add to that feeling of the un-expected. In the hymn we sing Once to Every Man and Nation, the lyrics from James Russell Lowell’s poem The Present Crisis include the lines, “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient truth uncouth.” Putting aside ancient truths we harbor is essential to ushering in the kingdom.
The ancient truth Lowell wrote about was slavery; we face new intellectual challenges today. It’s important to state that the word “intellectual” refers to our way of thinking, which shapes how we respond to the world around us. Opening our minds is essential to knowing how to open our hearts.
There are many ways to open our minds, of course. Studying an issue is obviously important but it’s also important not just to study by ourselves but with others so we can share ideas and learn from others. Knowing the past experiences of others is essential but because new occasions do teach new duties, we need not to be locked into those past experiences. Flexibility is critical.
All this sounds good, of course, but what about those events that seem to be utterly beyond our control? There certainly are events that are beyond our control, such as saber rattling over North Korea. Although we may watch in horror as two leaders of their respective countries may act like adolescents and feel there is little or nothing we can do, putting pressure on our elected representatives in Congress can assist at least in ratcheting down the verbal invective on our side giving diplomacy the opportunity it deserves.
This past week that self-professed defender of the justice system, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions announced the termination of the DACA program, which gave some quasi legal status to the over 800,000 unauthorized immigrants who were brought here as children. In his announcement, he misrepresented the law on regarding the eligibility of DACA beneficiaries for Social Security and other benefits. They are not eligible to receive SNAP benefits and the crime rate among DACA holders is far less than that of the same age cohort of the citizen population. The majority work and the rest are still in school.
Sessions also has targeted the group of people arrested for minor drug offenses and has ordered his U.S. attorneys to step up enforcement and to ask for enhanced sentencing. And he also opposes any kind of rehabilitative support for drug offenders including but not limited to lifetime bars from voting and any kind of federal benefits for which they might be eligible otherwise.
Fortunately, there are organizations fighting against this lifetime exclusion from civil society. How better to make sure that ex-offenders will re-enter a life of crime than to cut them off from civil society? Here in New Jersey those convicted of a felony once the sentence is completed can register to vote. Former governor Jim McGreevey heads up an organization working to reintegrate ex-offenders into society. Beyond despair, here, there is hope.
Our English word hope has its roots in the late Old English hopa, which means to have confidence in the future, especially in relation to God or Christ. Some etymologists suggest a connection with the Old Frisian hop, or to leap in expectation. And isn’t that, in the final analysis, what hope is? Leaping forward in expectation?
Leaping forward in the expectation and confidence and trust in God is the basis of our hope. It is not merely wishing or wanting; it is a word of action. It is not just wondering whether something will happen. It is to make something happen. As Jesus said in this morning’s parable, we are to be dressed for action and have our lamps lit so we can see the road ahead. The road ahead is one of uncertainty, to be sure, but without moving ahead, we will never know what could happen. That is the essence of hope: not despairing but moving ahead while trusting in God to show us the way.
Let us come to God in prayer: Eternal One, who watches over us and gives us hope for the future, help us to open our minds and hearts, light the lamps of knowledge and perception, and dress for the action of ushering in the kingdom that is promised by the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.