Overriding the Operating System
A sermon on Luke 12:32-40 by Nathan Nettleton, 9 August 1998
The search for meaning and fullness of life without cost, risk or struggle is futile, but the Kingdom is still a free gift, given by God, to all who will accept it.
It is somewhat ironic that in our gospel reading Jesus opens with the words, Do not be afraid, little flock, and then goes straight into the words that we are perhaps more afraid of than anything else Jesus ever said, Sell your possessions, and give away money to the poor.
Afraid of it? Well I am. Im afraid of it because I dont do that much of it. Im afraid of it because Im scared that maybe we are supposed to take it literally, that maybe we are supposed to give away all we own. All of it. Afraid that maybe every CD I buy, or each meal in a restaurant or the new clothes dryer, is a sign of my lack of faith in God, of my unwillingness to give it all away and trust God to supply what I need for life.
I can wriggle out of my discomfort to some extent, especially in this case. Clearly it says it is Gods good pleasure to give you the kingdom, therefore sell and give. It doesnt say sell and give in order that you might receive the kingdom. And while thats true that doesnt entirely dampen down the uneasiness.
If I start trying to explain my way around these kind of verses, Ive got a lot of explaining to do. About one sixth of all the things the Bible records Jesus as having said are about our relationship to money and material possessions. He speaks more about this than he does about love, about prayer or about forgiveness. Especially in the Gospel of Luke and were following Lukes gospel for most of the rest of the year.
Why does Jesus speak so much about this issue, about money and material possessions? He gives the answer right here, because where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. And perhaps there is nothing else that can seduce us away from the things that really matter faster than money, and certainly if we added sex and power wed probably just about have the field sewn up. Im told that Mark Twain once wrote that some people worship heroes, some worship power, some worship God, and over these ideals they dispute endlessly, but they all worship money.
Now we could wrestle here with how we might go about being more faithful with our money, or how to learn to live more simply and give more generously, and that would be a perfectly appropriate thing to do with this passage, but I think there is another question that underlies our fear of Jesus talking about money, and if we dont address that question, well probably be wasting our time pooling our thoughts on the straight money question.
You see I reckon that underneath this is a question about the place that Christian faith occupies in our lives. In fact the very wording I just used is probably symptomatic of the issue. What place in our lives? Does Christianity just occupy a defined place in our lives and if so what is it doing making claims on other areas of our lives? Like our money for example. Or do our lives occupy a place in the reign of Christ and everything is up for grabs.
You will often encounter people visiting a church like ours, or any other church for that matter, as part of their search for the right church for them. Now I have no objection to this - I think it is important to find a church that is right for you - but I think all too often we actually have a similar approach to Christian faith as a whole. We look around for a version that sits comfortably with us. We dont hand ourselves over to Jesus Christ and say, Whatever, wherever, whenever. We want meaning, we want purpose, we want spiritual growth, we want fullness of life, but we want it to fit in comfortably with our chosen careers and lifestyles and interests. We want a Christianity that will be the cream on the cake, not something that will trash the cake and rebake from scratch. Or for those of you who now speak computer language, we want a Christianity that is a user-friendly, platform compatible add-on, not a Christianity that overrides the operating system and installs a radically different version.
This of course is no surprise. We live in a culture that trains us early to approach everything that way. What does this have to offer that I could benefit from? What is available here that would make a welcome addition to my life? For every possible desire there is a vendor offering it to those who seek it. Do I need a break, some time out? Theres the travel agent with a rock bottom price for a week on Hayman Island. Do I need to unravel my complicated feelings about my relationship with my mother? Theres a psychologist offering an appointment on Tuesday. Do I need to get lost in a good story? Theres the cinema offering the latest movie at 7 pm. Do I need to appease my hunger for spirit or strengthen my sense of connection with the mysteries of life? Theres a church where I can pick up this weeks worship and sermon session at 10:30.
The church becomes one more vendor supplying another product in response to consumer demand and Christian faith and spirituality becomes one more product out there in the market place. Pick some up when ever you feel the need. Evangelism of course becomes the advertising and marketing strategy for the product or the particular supplier, encouraging people to pick some up a bit more often.
And why should it be any different we might ask. Why should the church and Christian faith be exempted from competing in the market place like everything else? Im actually not suggesting that it should be exempted from competing like everything else but that we should wake up and realize what it is competing for. To revert to computer language for a moment it is not competing against the other add-on modules, it is competing against the operating platforms. If you are buying a home computer you first have to choose whether to have a Windows platform or a Macintosh platform. Whichever way you choose, that basic decision will then limit what programs you can run with it. You cant run Word for Windows on a Mac.
If you want to install Christianity on the hard disk of your life, you will have to uninstall the previous operating system. You cant run it on top of Consumer 98 or Windows Money Sex & Power. Contrary to much publicity you cant even run it on top of Traditional Family Values 55. Christianity is not an add-on or even general application. It is an integrated operating system, incompatible with other operating systems, and it dictates what else can be run with it.
The thing is, as those of you who use computers a lot will know, sometimes an incompatibility doesnt show up straight away. Sometimes it just starts corrupting things and causing seemingly random malfunctions until eventually the whole system crashes. So it is with attempting to retain incompatible applications with your new Christianity operating system.
Career Path 2.0 might have been running smoothly with your old operating system, and at first it may seem to have no problems with Christianity. The Growing Share Portfolio Add-on and Casino 1.2 might initially seem to be OK too. But after a while if youre noticing things starting to react strangely and malfunction you may have to do a careful search, a prayerful search in fact, for the compatibility problem. If nothing in your life has ever caused a significant compatibility problem with your Christianity, then can I suggest in all seriousness that you havent installed Christianity at all, youve just got its icon sitting benignly on your desktop while you continue to run the old system.
Let me illustrate again completely differently for those of you who arent into computers. As you know I recently became a dad, and as those of you who know me well are aware I went through a lot of anxiety firstly about whether I wanted to be a dad, and then once that decision became irrelevant, about whether I would cope with being a dad. And one of the main reasons for that anxiety was that I knew that I couldnt just treat my child as a one more addition to my life. In becoming a dad I knew that I had to be willing to reassess the appropriateness of everything else in my life, I had to let go of my life as I knew it and wait to see what things were compatible with my new life as a dad. Now there is no doubt that there are plenty of parents who treat their children as additions to their lives and change little else. Youve probably met plenty of them and heard things like, Weve got the house, our careers are established and progressing well, its time to have children. The children are just expected to fit in around their parents lifestyle choices. And of course the psychologists and the parole officers are kept busy by those children for years to come. They are just treated as items to be ticked off on a list of goals. By the time Im forty I want a townhouse, a beach house at Rye, a partnership in the firm, a blue chip share portfolio, a classy professional wife, two children, and a BMW sports. And they set about ticking off the goals and collecting the trophies.
And I dont know about you, but my observation is that the people whove managed to accumulate all those trophies dont seem to me to be any less anxious or any more at peace in their hearts than the people who are having to decide what to go without this week - toilet paper or butter. Theyre anxious about different things most of the time, but just as anxious. And every now and then something pulls the rug out and calls them to put things back in perspective. I read an interview with Ringo Starr, the drummer from the Beatles, the other day. He spoke about how when his daughter was diagnosed as having a brain tumour he suddenly realized that in the face of some things all the fame and fortune is not worth a thing.
Do not be afraid, little flock, it is your Fathers good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. The good news of new life in Jesus Christ is still a free gift. Meaning, purpose, hope, peace, fullness of life - all are a free gift from the God who loves you and longs to bless you more richly than you could ever imagine. It is a free gift to everyone who will accept it. But you see I could hand out free copies of of Windows 98 too, and unless you installed it on your computer its a pretty useless gift. I suppose you could use it as a beer coaster or something. I could hand out free Bibles and only those who read them will benefit. Those who use them as pot plant stands will never comprehend the significance of the free gift.
When we come to this table in a moment you will be offered a free gift - a piece of broken bread. Nothing much for sure. But if you will allow yourself to hear the words Take, eat, this is my body, and recognize the presence of Jesus Christ you will be at a moment of decision. You can take and eat, accept the broken Christ who gives himself to you and say, I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; Put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you; exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
Or you can just eat the bread and walk away, perhaps enjoy the ritual, the sense of mystery, the links with an ancient tradition. Perhaps even be stirred by the prayers and the song and sense of sharing a special moment with others. Perhaps even value your friendships with those you come to the table with and appreciate the sense of belonging and community. But just walk away, close the spiritual compartment of your life for another week and go on living the other bits of your life unaffected by it all, and ultimately unintegrated with one another, the different part of your life continuing to spin in all directions and even tearing you in all directions.
Do not be afraid, little flock, it is your Fathers good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. You can file a few Christian values and experiences in a little spiritual compartment of your life, or you can open up everything and receive the free gift of the Kingdom. Sure living that way can be scarier, but if your life is invested in the one who breathes life into the universe, it will also be far richer, deeper, and more integrated. Paddling in the shallows is not swimming. If you can still touch the bottom safely, youre not really living. The choice is yours. Take, eat, this is my body.