“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.”But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
When I read this week’s lectionary passages, I went – “Oh no, not again.” Because these week’s passages will lend to what some people have referred jokingly as “scolding sermons.” it is not my intention to scold. it is not my intention to make you feel guilty. Preaching isn’t just about what i want to say – preaching is about me figuring out what God wants me to say, and then figuring out how to find the right words and right way to say it to you.
I have learned through the years, that preaching the sermon is like the sowing of seeds. Some will fall onto along the path and the birds will eat them up. Some will fall onto rocky places without much soil, and spring up quickly, but because the soil is shallow, the plants would be scorched and they will wither because their roots do not go deep enough. Some will fall among the thorns that choked them. And some will fall on good soil – and those will bear bountiful yields of a hundred, sixty or thirty times of what was sown.
So whoever has ears, let them hear.
i have also learned to let go of control. Because preaching the sermon is really like the sowing of seeds. The sower has little control over the weather conditions – whether there is enough sunlight, whether there is enough rain. Like sowing, most of the work is not done by the preacher. Most of the heavy lifting is done by the Spirit. And the rest? The rest is done by the listener. The transforming of hearts, the reflection – what does this mean to me, what do i need to do, what should i be doing or not doing – all the hard work of aligning your hearts with God’s will is really beyond my control. It is up to God. It is up to you.
Today’s Gospel passage from Luke 12:32-40 is rather odd.
It begins with “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” and the very next verse, Jesus tells the people “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
What do you think is the kingdom that God wants to give to you? Is it about possessions? Material stuff? Wealth? Riches? Or is the kingdom something very different?
In the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, we find the Magnificat, Mary’s Hymn of Praise for God -“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
This is a God who is turning everything upside down. This is a God for the poor, not the rich. The order of this new kingdom, this Basilea Theou, this commonwealth, is different from that of the world. This commonwealth is one where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. This is not about just switching the order of things. This is about the changing the rules of the game, a complete overhaul of a corrupt problematic system. A system of exploitation, control, manipulation.
This system is just like the operating system in our computers. The OS. It sets the rules of the game. The principles. The culture. It gets installed into us as we grow up. We learn to be prejudiced. We learn biases. And then we get “upgrades” like learning how to game the system so we get the most out from it. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, all these are learned. They are not inborn.
Like the wave of xenophobia here in Singapore today – it wasn’t like this five, ten years ago. Somebody started saying, “they are here to take our jobs, take our places in the schools, they are crowding us out in Singapore” and people learned it, picked it up, and started parroting it. It is learned behaviour.
I want to caution all of us here, myself included, the danger of seeing material things we accumulate as “blessings.” They are means to an end, but they certainly are not ends in and of themselves. The question we need to ask is – to what ends? What ends will these material things get us? Or are they just things that thieves can come near, and moths can destroy?
When we get what we want, does it make us happy? Do these material things make us happy until they get old, they lose their “freshness,” until the next new thing comes out? Do these things give us only temporary happiness?
Father James Martin, in his book “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” exposes a part of this OS of the consumerist world. He writes:
“All of us have a natural longing for God. But, as Brackley [Fr Dean Brackley who wrote an article “Downward Mobility”] notes, the consumer culture often tells us that we can satisfy this longing through money, status, and possessions. Sound crazy? Just think of the television commercials that promise happiness if you only buy one more thing. How does the process work?
Here is a summary of Brackley’s twelve steps, with some added comments of my own. See if any resonate with your experiences.
1. The consumer culture is primarily individualistic, with people pursuing private goals over more communal ones. In a competitive environment, it’s everyone for himself or herself.
2. People are tempted to alleviate feelings of insecurity by having or consuming. We try to fill our emptiness with things, rather than with God or with loving relationships. Without this impulse the advertising industry would probably collapse: it exists to manufacture desire for things.
3. This individualism and consumerism leads to the ladder as the dominant model for the culture – with some people higher up than others. Some are on top, others on the bottom.
4. Individuals show their status through certain social symbols – job titles, possessions, credentials, and so on. One’s personal worth depends on one’s wealth or job.
5. Gradually, you interiorize these external measures. You judge yourself on your job, your salary, on what you “produce.” Now, all of us are called to act, to do, to work. But when you judge yourself solely by these measures, you become a “human doing” rather than a “human being.” Also, if you’re not higher on the ladder or moving up that ladder, you feel inferior to others. In your desire to belong, the climb up the ladder becomes even more urgent.
6. At the top of the ladder is the mythical figure – the celebrity, the rich man or woman, the model. At the bottom is the “loser” – the unemployed, the refugee, the homeless.
7. Under these conditions competition becomes the guiding force of social life. Your security is not enhanced, but threatened, by others’ successes. As Gore Vidal once wrote, “It is not enough that I succeed. Others must fail.”
8. One’s security depends on climbing. As Brackley notes, not everyone intent on upward mobility is arrogant or power hungry. But even the compassionate are forced to confront the dangers and risks of the ladder. You are tempted to ask not “is this right?” but “Is this the best for me?”
9. The social model is therefore not simply a ladder but a pyramid, in which whole groups band together against threats from above or below. Divisions are formed not just between persons but between groups.
10. Not everyone can be on top. So those on top work to maintain their positions and keep those on the bottom in place. Power often is exercised to keep the lower groups dependent or disorganized or ignorant.
11. Social class, race, gender, sexual orientation, education, physical appearance, and other factors help to define the pyramid. This leads to further divisions.
12. Finally, competition between groups breeds not trust and cooperation but fear, mistrust, and I would add, loneliness.”
This is the OS of the world.
The Prosperity Gospel is aligned to this OS. That’s why it is so attractive. Have faith and you will be rewarded. Believe and you will get what you want. The Prosperity Gospel is aligned with the capitalist consumerist culture that is part of the OS is installed in us.
But that is so different from what Jesus taught. Because Christianity is a different OS altogether. And it is not compatible with the current operating system we have.
When you get what you want, are you really happy? Are you really centered on God? Or are we really concerned about us?
Because the current OS we have installed is all about us. Even Christianity has been twisted to fit our own needs and ends. It becomes a religion about what we get out from it. Worship becomes how it makes us feel, instead about being centered on God. Even the concepts of divine reward and divine punishment, the expectation of heaven and the fear of hell, aren’t about God – it is about us, and our own self-interests.
Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book The Wisdom Jesus, notes that when Jesus said “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” and “The Kingdom of God is at Hand,” that the kingdom isn’t something you die into – but rather something you awaken into.
You install a new OS. You awaken into something new.
This OS gives you new perspectives. New ways of looking at things. A different way of valuing what is important and what is not. Most importantly, this new OS anchors you in God.
It frees you from the old OS that was installed all these years in you. It sets you free. Free from the need to prove yourself through more possessions, through status, through credentials, through being higher up in the pyramid. You do not need to prove yourself worthy. You are beloved just the way you are.
Why did the rich man walk away from Jesus despondent when Jesus told him “One thing you still lack. Sell your possessions. Follow me?” Because he was still shackled to the old OS. He was unwilling to let go. To surrender. To install the new OS.
Possessions are not the only things that can shackle us to the old OS. Our need for status, our need to climb the ladder, our need to look good, our unwillingness to surrender our ways hold us prisoner to this old OS. We are still focused on ourselves. We are the center of the universe.
Surrender is not about flipping the coin and asking God what to do, but to discern, what will make you become fully alive – fully abiding in God, as God is fully abiding in you.
Surrender is knowing all that we have is God’s. When Jesus was asked by people trying to trap him about whether they should pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus says “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”
Tertullian, one of the Christian theologians in the 2nd and 3rd century, interprets Jesus as saying to render “the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on man, to God”
Surrender is installing the new OS that aligns ourselves with God.
This OS is one that rejects hierarchies – we are all equally beloved. Our belovedness does not come from what we did or did not do, what we possess, our status, or where we are on the ladder. Our belovedness is just because. That is grace. That is love.
Once we surrender into that knowing we are beloved, once we awaken to this new kingdom, this Basileo Theou, this Commonwealth, we recognize who we are, and who others are. We learn to love them as God’s beloved as well. “Love each other as I have loved you, by this the world knows you are my disciples.”
It is not easy to install a new OS. How many of you have tried to install a new OS in your computers?
Fr James Martin provides a few suggestions how we operate within the new OS. He writes:
“But it is an invitation to freedom, not to guilt. The turn to a simple lifestyle frees us, reminds us of our reliance on God, makes us more grateful, and leads us to desire “upward mobility” for everyone, not just for the few. Ultimately, it also moves us closer to the forgot ten and outcast, something at the heart of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and a theme frequently mentioned in the Old Testament…
That still raises the question, How can you live simply? Given that you’re not called to give up everything, how can you simplify your life and respond to the invitation to live with less stuff coming between God and you?
Let me suggest three steps, of increasing difficulty. Then a challenge. In all these things, trust that God will help you along this path, because it’s a path to freedom, which God desires for you.
First, get rid of whatever you don’t need. It’s the obvious first step to simplifying. What should you do with all that stuff? Well, once again, the extra coat you’re not using doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to the poor. Call a local church, shelter, or clothing distribution center.
But some friendly advice: don’t give your junky stuff to the poor – toss that out. During the novitiate, I worked in a homeless shelter in Boston for several months. One day I handed one fellow a tattered orange corduroy jacket. “Ugh,” he said, “I wouldn’t wear that!” Initially I thought, He should be grateful. Then, as if reading my mind, he said, “Would you want to wear it?” No, I wouldn’t. The poor deserve decent clothes, just like you do.
Second, distinguish between wants and needs. Is it “nice to have” or “need to have”? Do you “need” a bigger television or the latest phone or the newest computer? Or is it something you want because your friends just bought one or because you’ve seen it advertised? It’s difficult to resist the desire to have what friends have and what marketers say you need, but again, turning these things down leads to freedom.
Think of it like a diet. Hard as it is, you feel better if you avoid unnecessary calories. You’ll also feel better if you avoid unnecessary purchases-lighter, healthier, freer. Go on a buying diet.
Third, get rid of things you think you need, but can actually live without. This goes beyond things you know you don’t need into things you believe you need but can, in a pinch, forego. This is something I still find difficult, even after twenty years living under a vow of poverty. But I’m always happier after I’ve walked this path. After a friend cared for my father during his final illness, I gave her a treasured possession: a multicolored quilt given to me by some of the refugees in East Africa, which I had used on my bed. It was hard to give it away, but every time I see my friend, and remember her great kindness, I’m glad I did so.
Finally, here’s a challenge: get to know the poor. That’s difficult for some of us, since we are sometimes trained to ignore them, view them as lazy, or fear them. But finding opportunities to volunteer in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter (and finding appropriate and safe ways for your children to do so as well) will introduce you to people like Gauddy, Agustino, and Loyce in your own community. You will soon come to know them not as “the poor,” but as individuals with their own stories.
They will have often suffered much, and it may, initially, be hard to be around them, but they can also teach you a great deal about gratitude, about perseverance, and about being close to God.”
“Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”
The question isn’t where your treasure is. The question is what you should be treasuring. Where should your heart be.
Should we be treasuring things? Material wealth? Or should we be treasuring and valuing our relationships with each other, and with God?What was it that Jesus said were the greatest commandment? “Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
If we are operating with the Old OS, we would say that we can ask things from God, and if we have faith we would get want we ask for.But really – how often do we get what we ask for? Is it because we are asking for the wrong things – things that does nothing for us, but rather, brings us further from God, further from the people we have relationships with? Could it be, that we are not given what we ask for because it does us no good? That we are asking for the wrong things?
Could it be that we should be asking to surrender ourselves, to get the new OS installed? And when we ask, when we seek, when we knock, we would be awakened to the Kingdom, the Basilea Theou, the Commonwealth that is within us – that God so much wants to give us. That we would be awakened to the way of Christ, the Gospel of Christ.
Then you would be dressed for action, and your lamp lit. And you would be ready.
What is your treasure? Where is your treasure? Where is your heart?
What OS are you running on?
Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind: A New Perspective on Christ and His Message. 1st ed. Boston, Mass: New Seeds Books, 2008.
Martin, James. Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. San Francisco: Harper One, 2011