Pentecost 11C, 2010
One Spring Break when I was a campus minister, I took a group of students to Southwest Virginia, where we worked with the Appalachian Service Project to rebuild the houses of poor people in the area. Most of the students on our team were liberal arts majors from the suburbs; they knew how to swing a hammer, but, like their campus minister, knew little else about construction. Our mission trips were always wonderful experiences of spiritual community, as we received more from the poor people of the mountains than they received from us.
On this particular trip, there was also a group on break from East Tennessee State University. The contrast between the UVa and ETSU students was remarkable. Several of the ETSU students were young men in their twenties who had already served a hitch in the Army 82nd Airborne Division before coming back to finish their college work. Those paratroopers came from a different place, in every way, than my English majors from Northern Virginia.
The ETSU students were putting a new roof on a two story house. One day as they were working, one of the former paratroopers slipped on a loose shingle, slid down the roof, and went over the edge head first. As he fell, his paratrooper training kicked in. He twisted in mid-air, like a cat, and positioned himself with his feet down and his knees bent, as though he were landing with a parachute. He landed on his feet, without so much as a twisted ankle.
That young man was prepared. Hours and hours of rigorous training had equipped him in the event of disaster. The training had become instinct, and when he fell of that roof, his body instantly, intuitively, knew what to do.
I received my first guitar for Christmas when I was in eighth grade. The guitar came with an instruction book, showing me where to place my fingers on the strings. For hours on end, I painfully contorted my fingers to match the diagrams in the book. Then I rearranged my fingers to match another chord’s fingering. My fingertips hurt from pressing on the strings, and my muscles ached from the strange new positions and pressures. Over, and over, and over, practicing those chords, looking at the neck of the guitar to see if my fingers were in the right place. Forty-five years later, I don’t look at my hands. The fingers go – most of the time – where they’re supposed to go, without thinking.
No matter what the discipline – a sport, a craft, a profession, a route we drive or walk – practice and repetition imbed the actions deep within our lives. They become so intuitive that sometimes we don’t even remember doing them: how many times have you driven a familiar route, and arrived at your destination not remembering having passed through the places along the way, stepped out of the shower not remembering that you shampooed your hair, or kissed your loved ones goodbye in the morning without remembering that you did so? Those are imbedded actions. We do them without thinking.
Now, on one level, it’s not good to pass through life without paying attention. But that’s another sermon. This morning, it seems to me that Jesus’ call to be dressed for action is a call to so deeply imbed the habits of discipleship in our lives that when the time comes for our faith to be applied, we do so intuitively, instinctively, and naturally.
There is a notion among well-meaning Christians that every moment of our faith should be filled with great passion and meaning. In worship, for example, we shouldn’t repeat the Lord’s Prayer and creeds and responses week after week, because we should only say them when they are filled with deep meaning. There is a story about two parents who decided they weren’t going to make their children say “please” and “thank you” to other people unless they really, really felt it. What do you think happened? That’s right – the two children grew up to be the rudest and most ungrateful adults anyone knew. Please, thank you, thanks be to God, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the hymns, thanks be to God, praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, and the hundred other things we practice week in and week out are like paratroopers learning how to twist their bodies in mid-air, or like a guitarist practicing chords, or a baseball player taking batting practice. We are imbedding faithful actions, so when we need them they will be instantly available.
Today’s Gospel lesson begins with Jesus’ stunning announcement that it is God’s will – God’s pleasure – to give us his kingdom. If any of you remember Bishop Goodson, who was our bishop back in the 1970’s, this was his favorite Bible verse. We don’t have to beg God to be allowed into his kingdom of love and justice and grace. God delights to give it to us, free: Jesus has already paid for it.
Then Jesus talks about servants waiting for their master to return. They should be dressed and ready to have dinner with him. Note the remarkable image in verse 37: the master will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. In the Kingdom of God, the master is the servant. All the world’s values are stood on their head.
At first glance, this image seems to be about the end of the world: God’s people should always be ready for Christ’s return. When I was in college, I was part of a group of students who snuck a Billy Graham Revival into Cabell Hall auditorium at UVa. Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, Leighton Ford, was the prime evangelist, and Washington Redskins chaplain Tom Skinner was another preacher. The night before the revival, when we were trying to see if we had finished all our preparations, one of the leaders grabbed his head and said, “Oh NO! I just had a terrible thought! What if Jesus returns tonight and messes up all our plans?”
I don’t think this passage about being ready is about the end of the world. I don’t even think it’s about the possibility that any one of us, any day, could fall off a rafter like Earnie Wells did yesterday, or get hit by a tomato truck, or throw a pulmonary embolism, all of which are true. I think Jesus is saying that since it is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom, it has already happened. The kingdom is not when we die or when Jesus comes back: it’s right here and now. We prayed for it a few minutes ago: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Whenever you and I and other folks live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ in what we think and say and do, that’s the kingdom of God. No matter what anyone else is thinking and saying and doing, when you and I live under the Lordship of Jesus, the kingdom of God is in the midst of us.
You see, when Jesus talks about the return of the Master, or the coming of the Son of Man, that can be this morning when someone asks you to help in the nursery. It might be this afternoon when you hear someone talking trash about a public official. It could be this evening at youth group when someone’s picking on one of the kids. It could be tomorrow morning when someone you work with says they just don’t know how they can make it through another day. It could be this week when someone you know gets a fatal diagnosis from a doctor. It could be when you sit down to pay the bills and have to make the choice between something you want and something your family really needs. It could be in the middle of the store when you see someone struggling to keep her emotions in check. It could be when you see your boss mistreating one of your fellow employees. It could be when you have to choose between voting for something that benefits you at the expense of the many, or for something that benefits the many at your expense. The kingdom comes every day, brothers and sisters, in a hundred ways.
So, how do we stay ready, and dressed for action?
Go back and look at the song we just sang from Ephesians 6. It’s all about putting on the whole armor of God, because we are not fighting with mere physical powers, but with structures and powers of evil at work in the cosmos. We need to be prepared all the time for that battle. It’s possible to parse all the different images of the verse and the song, but I believe it comes down to this: clothe yourself in faith, justice, love, and peace. Practice constantly the disciplines of prayer, worship, study, and justice. Walk in God’s peace, and let the Holy Spirit take the offensive.
The powers of darkness are always trying to trip us up so we can slide off the roof. That’s why we have to be prepared at any moment to act on what we’ve been practicing for so long. The Master has already returned, and is fastening his belt to serve us. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Now, let’s live like it.