Living with open hands

Advent 1A; 1 December, 2019                                            Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister

Isaiah 2:1-5; Ps 122

Romans 13:11-14; Matt 24:36-44

When I was in college, I had the good fortune to travel to Rome. One day, I fell into conversation with an Anglican priest, standing by a fountain. While we were speaking, a Lutheran pastor with whom he was traveling ran toward us, brandishing a scroll in his hand and crying out, “They’re still doing it!” He opened the scroll, and there it was: an indulgence, the document whose sales had, in part, sparked the Reformation, and which the Catholics were apparently handing out at the church nearby. And not just any indulgence, but a plenary one, which offered divine exculpation not only for any sins the purchaser had already committed, but for any that they would commit over the course of their life. The ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card. It was audacious; it was laughable. And yet, I couldn’t help thinking, If it were true, that would be a thing to have.

The scene in today’s Scriptures could not be more distinct. The prophet Isaiah imagines a future — God’s future — in which people from all nations will stream toward the mountain of God, not for absolution, but for instruction. They yearn to know the Lord and to walk in God’s paths. They are seeking, in other words, Torah: the long, rich, and detailed set of laws by which the ancient Hebrews structured their society. The rules God gave to order our relationships with God and with one another.

Old Testament law gets a bad rap in modern Christianity, but at its heart, it’s about mutual accountability. Spend some time wandering in the thickets of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and you will fit a set of ligaments meant to bind society together: how to order our economic life, how to handle accidental or deliberate harm inflicted by one person or animal on another; how to help your relatives when they fall into poverty; how to treat the alien and the immigrant; how to honor the needs of the land and maintain its fruitfulness. Today, some of those laws strike us as barbarous, others as deeply wise. But taken together, they point us to the divine truth: that the freedom God offers us is not a matter of absolving our accountability to one another, but of embracing it. Not a Get Out of Jail Free card, but an invitation to accept the bonds of love.

That lens is the lens through which we must view Jesus’ parable, if we do not wish to be led badly astray. Keep awake!, urges Jesus, for you do not know the time of your visitation. Keep awake, for the Son of Man is coming. This theme of readiness connects easily with other parables, most particularly the parable of the servant waiting for his master to return from the wedding feast, and of the bridesmaids waiting for the groom with their flickering lanterns. Those images, of course, pointed toward joy: a bride and bridegroom alone (at last) in their chamber; a new family begun; the continuation of a world of joy and love.

Today’s parable, however, goes wrong almost immediately: the long-awaited wedding feast is swept away in a great flood; bride, bridegroom and guests perish alike; neighbors are spared or lost, apparently without cause; and nobody saw the danger before it was upon them.  When I was young, I used to disdain this kind of fear-mongering, even when it came from Jesus. Today, of course, we are all too familiar with disaster, and any of us can imagine this scenario coming to pass.

But if the end is to come like a flood or a fire, what can we possibly do to be ready? Jesus adds, if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not have let his house be broken into. The warning seems clear: Lock your doors. Bind up your treasure-chest. Safeguard your children. Above all, guard your heart.

There’s only one problem: the parables of Jesus show us many figures who do just that, from the rich man who does not succor Lazarus, to the man who built a bigger barn to store up his overflowing crop, to the rich man (not in a parable this time, but in the flesh) who heard the command of Jesus to sell what he had, and turned away. Each of them safeguarded what was his, and it did not end well for any of them. What, then, could Jesus mean?

Torah might suggest that what we are to keep awake and notice is the people around us: their hopes and their fears, their needs and their gifts, the way they can enrich our lives, and the ways we can enrich theirs. David Brooks draws a distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues, the skills we bring to the marketplace, and the gifts we bring to one another. If, at the time of your death, people stand up and recite your resume (She graduated from such-and-such a school; worked 30 years in the accounting department at Corporation Z; published thirty articles in peer-reviewed journals), that is the sign of a life poorly lived. But if they stand up and tell stories of your kindness and your joy, your warmth and your integrity and your courage, their words point to someone who has learned to be a human being.

What Christ urges, over and again, is that we live with an open heart, not a locked one. He urges us not to hold fast to our possessions, but to share them; not to covet a place of honor, but to welcome those whose gifts might exceed our own; not to turn away from those in need, but to spend our lives in their service. And that gives a strange shape to the work we are supposed to do in Advent, the work of considering the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Our preparation should be a thoughtful assessment of our lives, of all the places we hoard: our money, our affection, our time, our gifts, and our love. Our work is to ask God to loosen our hands.

A few centuries after the death of Christ, a monk named Macarius was living in the Egyptian desert. One day, when he came back to his cell, he found a man there with a donkey, onto which he was loading all of Macarius’ possessions. Macarius went up to the man and helped him, as if Macarius had been a bystander. Then he blessed the man and sent him on his way, saying, “We brought nothing into this world (1 Tim. 6:7) but the Lord gave; as he willed, so it is done: blessed be the Lord in all things.”

Few of us could live like that; I do not pretend that I could so easily let go (and particularly not to a robber). And yet, for a culture which defines people by where they live, what they have, and what they wear, there is medicine in this strange tale. It restores things to their rightful place, as objects to be used, tended, and, when necessary, shared or left behind, and it restores people to their place as the one good above all to be cherished. Too often, we reverse these, breaking and impoverishing the people who are the living image of God in order to foster industry which turns out an unending supply of new and sexier widgets with which to cram our homes, until they are supplanted by more.  But when the flood overwhelms us, you will have only two hands. Will you reach for your iPhone or your children; your stock certificates or your friends? Spend yourself there.

The truth is that that day will come for each of us. We cannot know the day nor the hour, but we do know this: that the one who comes like a thief in the night is Jesus, and if our doors and windows are locked against his arrival, we are the ones who will be impoverished. So keep awake! You cannot be robbed if you live with open hands, giving to all who ask, pouring out your good things upon those around you who need them.  You will not be alone, if you spend your life on others. And if you embrace the bonds of love, you will find that when you stand before the throne of God, you do not stand there unaccompanied, but with a chorus of witnesses who will speak of your kindness, your truth, your generosity — and among them will be your judge.

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