Like a Thief in the Night
Luke 12:32-40 One of my favorite authors is Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest who has written on a variety of subjects – from financial advice to cookbooks, from marriage advice to analysis of Jesus’ parables. My favorite book of his is called The Foolishness of Preaching. It is a book on preaching which says, in a nutshell, you’ve got anywhere from ten to twenty minutes for a sermon. You’ll never be able to cram the whole gospel into that time frame, so don’t even try. It was a freeing statement, a reminder that it took Jesus three years of ministry to even hint at what the gospel might mean, and even then his disciples didn’t seem to get it in the least.
Capon’s practical advice for preachers is also helpful: we spend so much time crafting our introductions and our conclusions that we never bother to get around to the meaty middle of our sermon. And our desire to wrap things up nicely tempts us to end our sermons with a “happily ever after” message that guts the gospel of its disruptive center. So, he writes, don’t even bother with all that crafting. Just jump in and start preaching.
So here we go: let’s start out by focusing on this one startling fact from the gospel text: Jesus compares himself to a thief. This is the questionable type of character with whom we Christians have chosen to associate. As followers of the one named Christ, we ally ourselves with the one who chooses to be represented by the midnight burglar, coming to take away our stuff.
As with any text, there are always layers of meaning at work. The first layer into which we might dig is to interpret that God’s presence is surprising. Like a thief in the night, the Lord comes unexpectedly and in ways and forms we would never have imagined.
There are numerous examples of ministries which offer us that tale of surprise, revealing God at work in the world in unexpected and wonderful ways. I think of my own recent awakening to what is known as the Emergent Conversation in the Church, a place where those who are committed to sharing the love of Jesus with the un-churched and de-churched are meeting, sharing, and refining the ways they are doing so. They are reaching out in coffee shops and bars, in prisons and homeless shelters, forging communities of faith that look very little like the traditional mainline Presbyterian American Protestant church.
Or the story of John Newton comes to mind, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, who by his own admission was a slave trader and a generally horrible character until a sinking ship in the mid-Atlantic brought him to the point of desperate prayer, leading him away from his former life and into the ministry.
There are plenty of stories which we might use to illustrate the way that God calls people of faith into ways and modes of witness that they never would have chosen for themselves, surprising them and the world with ministries that demonstrate a glimpse of God’s character. And if that were the only layer this morning’s reading, then we could simply challenge each other to find the surprising ways that God is calling us to be church in this place at this time.
There are certainly other aspects of the passage which would give us the possibility of that interpretation. There is the surprise return of the Master to his household, which finds the servants ready to welcome him. There is the surprise that it is the Master who serves the servants, not the other way around. And yet, if we were to follow the message down that particular trail, it might feel like we had gotten off easy, that we had left the toughest bits of the lesson behind for a journey of relative ease and comfort. After all, we began with the point that Jesus is compared to a thief – not a barista or a bartender, not a caregiver or a social worker, not a reformed slave trader or a composer. Jesus is the thief.
And when we look closer at the rest of the text, we find other layers of disturbance and challenge. We bump into the parable of the rich man who pulls down his storehouses to build larger ones and is scolded for doing so. We find Jesus telling the disciples to sell their possessions in order to benefit the poor. And we hear loud echoes of the wisdom found elsewhere, compelling us to store treasures in heaven, not on earth, where moth and rust destroy, because where our treasure is, we will discover our hearts.
The further we dig into this text, the more we find cause for concern, and the more difficult it becomes for a preacher to find even one example in our modern world which can live up to this radical calling of financial unburdening. Let’s take the wonderful, surprising ministries we talked about earlier. Those Emergent Conversation pastors? They still have salaries. Without telling tales out of school, one such new church development here in Atlanta has two pastors making a generous living in ministry. And John Newton, that hymn writer who went from acknowledged disgrace to Amazing Grace? He continued to profit from the slave trade long after he became a Christian. It wasn’t until many years later that he became an abolitionist and then the spiritual mentor for William Wilberforce, the politician who effectively brought an end to the bestial practice in Great Britain.
And lest we think we can turn the microscope on others without examining ourselves, how are we measuring up to this challenge? The preacher needs look no further than himself, with IRAs and deferred savings plans and a generous pension waiting for him at retirement; not to mention medical insurance and theft insurance and fire insurance in case of emergency. Ever year my barns seem to get bigger. And as a congregation, while we seem to live up to this text in some ways by struggling year to year to meet our expenses with income, we still have rainy day treasures stored up in the storehouses of stock market moths and equity rust.
This could be a moment where we would do well to learn from our sisters and brothers in the two-thirds world. In Kenya, I’m told that Presbyterian pastors are given two weeks of seminary education before being sent out with a Bible and enough provisions for only a few months, after which God will provide. Pastors in Pakistan save up money for years and years in order to buy one theology book that they can share with their congregation. Churches in India are growing among the untouchable class, with pastors living at the same level of abject poverty as their members. In other words, there are still places where the Church is living out its radical call to put possessions in their proper context, as temporary treasures that can distract from the things to which we are being called. This may be as much out of financial reality as out of faithful witness on their part. At the least, however, it points out the inherent tension for us in our desire to live out the calling to be Christians in a first world context of wealth and plenty. And maybe it reminds us of our need to be in relationship with these sisters and brothers, if only to keep us honest in our own discipleship.
Friends, don’t get me wrong: I struggle with this passage and those like it intensely. I am brought to the brink of despair about my own righteousness and selective heed to God’s call to trust for provision and discipleship. And yet I doubt that the gospel writers could have dreamed up our elaborate systems of financial stability. And then I think of a colleague whose ministry with the homeless convinced her to forego the benefits of the Presbyterian pension and medical benefits. It was an admirable act of solidarity with those with whom she ministered who had no access to such generous safety nets. It was also an uncomfortably prophetic statement to those of us who grasp tightly onto our own golden nets. When she was diagnosed with and treated for cancer, the ministry held special fundraising to cover the medical bills – the very financial reality for which the Presbyterian Church offers its pastors coverage in the first place. And yet, in the end, provision was there…
Here’s the bottom line: the focus on stuff that seems so central to this passage – the stuff we don’t sell in order to give alms; the stuff we keep in our larger and larger barns – we are convicted by it all, the possessions and riches we keep for ourselves and protect from the world around and unforeseen events of days to come. And here, in our conviction, in our moment of doubt and disbelief, Jesus arrives to announce himself as the thief! Let’s let that sink in for a moment. Jesus is the one who comes like a thief in the night. Could it be that he’s here to take our stuff away?
Perhaps there’s something in the curious fact that the lectionary passage begins in verse 32 with Jesus’ saying, “Do not be afraid.” These familiar words in Luke’s gospel always accompany a moment of great panic – the angel that appears to Mary and Joseph announcing her pregnancy; the angels that appear to the Bethlehem shepherds. Where there is fear, there is the comforting message, “Do not be afraid.” Or perhaps it’s the other way around – wherever we see the words, “Do not be afraid,” there is reason to fear.
Could it be that this is the root of it all, that we are afraid? Not without reason, mind you – fear can be a rational response to an irrational world. But could it be that our desire to live in comfort and security is rooted in our own fear of discomfort and insecurity? The future always remains uncertain, that much we already seem to know, no matter what steps we may take to protect ourselves and our loved ones. But what would it mean for our faith if we were to live in a whirl of uncertainty about not only what the future holds, but even to be unsure about what the day holds? What if we didn’t know where our next meal would come from, or whether we would have a roof over our heads or not, would we be able to call ourselves Christian? Are we only able to praise God for grace when our provision moves beyond ample to overflowing?
In the end, perhaps Capon is right in The Foolishness of Preaching. Maybe it’s impossible for a reflection on such a text to be wrapped up neatly with an uplifting conclusion. Do we find any comfort in the possibility that in the end Jesus the thief is there to take our stuff away? Would this allow us to live more fully into the prayer that God give us enough bread for today alone? Perhaps the faithfully foolish thing to do is to end with the dis-ease this passage seems to suggest, to let questions linger and stick in our craw like theological popcorn kernels that’ll take a while to dislodge. The one thing we know, though: when they do, it will surprise us.