Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Unexpected Gifts - Proper 14C

7 August 2016

A number of years ago, my father really got into Martin guitars. The Martin guitar factory is fairly close to where my parents live and my father used to love to visit the factory, go on the tour, and hang out in their guitar shop. They are very nice guitars and can be quite expensive. He had all the brochures for trying to figure out which model he wanted. But he knew money was an issue, so he set his mind on a simple classic dreadnought design. However what we all knew was that he really wanted an Eric Clapton model of East Indian rosewood with herringbone trim. On Christmas morning that year we all could see the wrapped guitar shaped present under the tree and we all got excited for my father. He slowly unwrapped the case and we were all gathered around. He opened it up and peered inside. And then all of a sudden he shut the case quickly, set the case down, and walked out of the room! He was so surprised and shocked by the fact that inside the case was not the less costly dreadnought. Instead, sitting inside the case was a gleaming Eric Clapton. He didn't even know what to do with it. It took him a couple of days to work up to being able to actually take the guitar out of the case and try it out.
Unexpected gifts - occasionally we all give or get them. Those are the gifts you don't know what to do with or the ones that completely stop our hearts and minds because of their overwhelming hugeness and our feelings of unworthiness. Some of them are plain odd and only later do we realize what they are for or what it cost/meant to the person who gave them to us.
When I think of all the gifts that God has given me, life, a vocation I love, family and friends, a good home and community, and above all his love and forgiveness for all the sins and mistakes I have done in my life, I cannot imagine that God needs to give me anymore gifts. Instantly, I feel unworthy of receiving any other gifts. Yet, Jesus tells us in the passage today that it is God's good pleasure to give TO US the KINGDOM OF GOD. I mean, what does that mean?! But Jesus also says in that same sentence, "Do not be afraid." Do not be afraid of the idea that God is going to give you the kingdom of God. Do not think to yourselves that you are unworthy. Rachel Held Evans, "Ours is a culture of achievement, of sufficiency, of bootstrap pulling and ladder climbing. We celebrate the winners, the leaders, the do-it-yourselfers. Like any good American, I like to wait until I think I've earned. I like to wait until I think I've deserved. With giving, I can maintain some sense of power, some illusion or control. But receiving means the gig is up. Receiving means I'm not the boss of what comes into life - be it trial or trouble or unmerited good." God is not going to give us such a gift as the kingdom of God because we are going to make ourselves worthy of such a gift. He wants to give us this gift out of love.  In the verses of Luke 12 before what we hear this morning, Jesus tells his followers about how God cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. How they don't feed or clothe themselves and yet they have everything they need for life. (Instead we hear this part of Jesus’ teaching from Matthew at another time. The poster boy for this is Francis of Assisi. He was brave enough to get an audience with Pope Innocent the III and quoted to the richly adorned pope and his court these verses. Francis threw the court of the Pope into outrage. Perhaps there is some reason to be afraid, these verses speak truth to power.) God wants to give us everything we could ever possibly want or need, if we are aligned with God's heart. 
It’s that "if we are aligned with God's heart" bit that causes the trouble though. Immediately after telling us that God wants to give us the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us to sell our possessions and give alms, to examine what our treasures are, to look at what we most value in our hearts. Because if what we value is something else, a possession, pride, fame, fortune, money, the gift of the kingdom of God isn't going to seem like treasure. If all you want in life is American fame, then God could give you everything else in the world and you still wouldn't feel like you were given the right gift. But if we are grounded in God, if what we value is God and we are living that out through valuing each other and caring for each other than the kingdom of God is going to seem like a marvelously overwhelming gift that we are unworthy by ourselves to receive but through the grace and love of God, accept. Many times this last part, the accepting part is the hardest part.
Which brings us to the next part of what Jesus says in the gospel passage this week. He tells his followers to be prepared. Almost seems like a Boy Scout moment. But it is a necessary part of receiving any gift, especially the kingdom of God. Rachel Held Evans in her book, Searching for Sunday, writes, "It seems those mostly likely to miss God's work in the world are those most convinced they know exactly what to look for, the ones who expect God to play by the rules." Now, we know, from reading the Bible and through our own experiences, that God doesn't always play by the rules. Jesus, especially by comparing God to a thief, it doesn't sound like Jesus is describing a God who plays by the rules. This took me by surprise, God as a thief? As I thought about it, I realized there is an apt comparison here. God wants what is most valuable to us. That does make God sound like a thief! There is a fear factor here too. Many thieves leave destruction in their wakes, and does God? Sometimes. Certainly in the Old Testament there is some destruction in the wake of God and the Israelites on his behalf. There is always confusion and feelings of vulnerability after being stolen from. Certainly, after an encounter with God, there is confusion and vulnerability on our part. After thieves take your things, you have to build a new life, and after an encounter with God, you definitely have to build a new life for yourself, because the encounter changes your world view. It is a comparison, not expected to be literal or perfect. A metaphor is recognized to only go so far. But this comparison helps us see new things that change our perspective. Being prepared allows us to accept what God sends our way.
If we are not prepared to accept the unexpected gifts in our lives, when we get upset when a gift is not exactly what we wanted or thought it would be like, we miss the ability to see it as it is. We miss the intent, the purpose, the love that gives the gift and wants for us to accept. Thankfully, God doesn't care about giving us what we deserve. Out of the generosity and abundance of God's heart, God has given us more than we can ever know. More than we could ever return. God gave us creation, God gave us life, Jesus, and love. God wants to give us the kingdom of God. Most of the scriptural references to the kingdom of God include a huge feast, the heavenly banquet. Where we share with all the world as companions along the way, where no one goes hungry, and everyone belongs. What we share here today, at this picnic, in bread and wine, in the hotdogs and hamburgers, salads, casseroles, and cookies, is just a foretaste, just a hint, at the wondrous gift God has to give us. 
May we be open and prepared to accept his wondrous gift. Amen.