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Any Time Now
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
August 11, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
If you have seen the normal messiness of my desk then you could probably hazard a guess at the normal messiness of my house. Just imagine taking the person responsible for that desk and putting them in a home with an eight-year-old and laundry and you can picture the results pretty quickly. Sarah and I have adopted a saying from my parents which is that we split the housework evenly; each of us does about ten percent, although I think it’s pretty clear that Sarah does her ten percent much better than I do. We are both gifted at many things. Keeping flat surfaces empty is not one of them.
But fortunately, sometimes people come over. When people come over, we clean the house. I suspect this is normal behavior. When people come over, you clean the house. In fact one of the nice side benefits of having people over is that it sort of forces us to clean. I would not definitively say that we have ever structured our social calendar in order to guarantee that we would have a flow of guests sufficient keep the house clean but it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The point is that we are always glad to have guests and we are always glad for the excuse, the imperative, maybe, to get the house together. But we do need a bit of warning. You can’t just drop in. We have work to do. We are not normally at a state of readiness.
So I feel like I appreciate the scale of the ask that Jesus makes of his disciples in this corner of Luke’s Gospel, which is, of course, to be at a constant state of readiness. Like many of the first audiences of the writings of the New Testament, Luke’s first hearers are caught up in no small amount of first-century anxiety about when and how Jesus might return from the Ascension. In some cases of course, that coming is announced in advance, reckoned by the signs of the stars or the heralds of the seasons. Not so here in Luke, where Jesus counsels the disciples to constant vigilance. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit. You must be ready at all times, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
There is something rude about this gospel. If your in-laws announced that they were coming over for dinner, but they refused to say at what date or time, we would count this as rude. We would count this as beyond rude. I mean. You would have to keep the house clean all the time. You would have to keep the fridge stocked all the time. You would have no patience even for pillows left askew on the couch, nor for the light bulb that’s been out for a month. Not even for those pictures in the upstairs room we’ve been meaning to frame and hang on the wall for maybe a year and a half. Housekeeping, as we normally practice it, is a long game. But in this gospel everything becomes urgent, all the time, because you would never know, this could be the day, this could be the hour, the in-laws could show up at any moment. It is an anxiety we wish on nobody.
But, I have to say, at least the house would be clean. At least, like a student living under the constant threat of a pop quiz, at least all our homework would be done. At least nothing would get put off until tomorrow. At least we would do what we have to do to be ready.
A few weeks ago, I got an email asking me to complete an online reference for a colleague of mine from seminary days, a friend who is applying for a program in specialized ministry. It was just a website survey and I started clicking through and answering what I could, how do you know the applicant, what do you think about the applicant’s spiritual gifts, how do you think about the applicant’s qualities for leadership? And then I got to a page where it asked me to note how frequently I observed my colleague displaying each of a whole list of what they called Negative Traits. How frequently was he irritable? Intolerant? Domineering? Inflexible? And I admit that I began to sort of have a bit of a critical dialog in my head with the survey. I mean, intolerant of what? Inflexible about what? Are there times in which inflexibility might be a good thing? And then it asked me how frequently my friend showed himself to have the negative trait of impatience. And I got stuck.
Of course, impatience is a very easy thing to pick on because patience is such a classical virtue. Saint Augustine calls it the “companion of wisdom,” always refined, always dignified, always just a few steps ahead, always knowing just a little bit more than you do. And of course, patience is a virtue with deep biblical roots. The prophets sing of the patience of God, that sticks with Israel despite their wandering ways. The New Testament writers extol the patience of these early churches who persist in their faith despite the difficulty and hazard of doing so. Patience, it seems like, sees the big picture. Patience reads the room. Patience comes with maturity. Patience knows the long backstory. Patience anticipates the long arc of history. Patience pats you on the head and says “You’ll understand this better when you’re older.” Patience can play a very, very long game.
But patience, at least in our family, does not clean the house. Patience does not put the cardboard in the recycling. Patience does not change out the old light bulbm nor does it get the pictures framed. Patience is profoundly ill-equipped for the in-laws to drop by at the drop of a hat. Patience is profoundly ill-equipped for the master to show up an unexpected hour. For that, you need something much more urgent. It might even be one of those negative traits. For that, you need impatience. For that, you need the voices of scripture that cannot wait, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever?” For that, you need the voices of scripture that scream with urgency, “Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will it be until you are made clean?” For that, you need the rudeness of this gospel, Jesus’ impatience with his own disciples, the fierce urgency with which he calls them to new life now, now, now, “You must be ready, for the son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Maybe we all need a little impatience. A little righteous impatience. A little holy impatience. Especially now.
Back in February, Emily Witt wrote in the New Yorker about the recent surge in youth activism — the Dreamers organizing around immigration, the youth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and, of course, the Parkland students who have come to the forefront of our national debate about gun violence. Witt writes about these kids whose entire lives have been spent waiting for changes that never quite materialize. In one scene she follows a group of activists from the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate-change-advocacy group, as they called on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office in California, hoping for her support for something like a Green New Deal. The activists feel all the urgency of the moment. Witt quotes one of them, a student at UCLA, “It’s such an everyday, grinding kind of acceptance that there’s probably going to be an apocalypse within our lifetime, and nobody is really doing anything to stop it, so it’s the young people who feel the need to save our own futures.”
But of course, they do not have a formal appointment. They do not have a paid lobby. They don’t have the access they need to have. They haven’t gone through channels. Security won’t let them upstairs. A couple of staffers come down to run interference and eventually, the Sunrise Movement activists get moved over by the parking deck, which strikes me as probably not the place where they put their most valuable visitors. Finally another staffer comes down to hear their concerns. And when they ask why the Senator has not yet endorsed the climate change legislation, they hear back that the whole process just needs more time. “The senator is a very deliberative person who reviews things very closely,” he says, at which point, Witt reports, “The crowd erupts with anxiety. ‘We don’t have a lot of time! There is no time!’”
One of the students exclaims, “These issues have existed since I was born!” which is surely true; scientists have been talking, asking, begging, screaming about climate change for fifty years; the science itself goes back fifty years before that. By comparison, of course, The Parkland students navigating our epidemic of mass shootings are encountering a relative newcomer; only twenty years since Columbine, twenty years of reading the same headlines over and over, of asking for the same things over and over. Those kids working with Black Lives Matter and immigration rights, of course, are working with the oldest stuff on earth, the toxic racism and white supremacy that ebbs and flows and runs through the veins of thecountry from its origins and certainly seems to be having the run of the place right about now. The point is that the folks out there who have been beating the drum for change on all these fronts have been beating that same drum for a long time, over and over and over, and how often have they and their ancestors and their ancestors before them been told that the process needs more time? How often have they been told to wait their turn? How often have they been counseled just to show a little patience?
And meanwhile, the house is in disarray. And it’s not just boxes left on the floor and dishes on the counter. It’s the water rising through the foundation. It’s bullet holes in the wall. So maybe we need a little of that holy impatience. Maybe we should be a little impatient when shootings happen over and over and over and nothing changes. Maybe we should be a little impatient when the storms come stronger and deadlier and nothing changes. Maybe we should be a little impatient when the worst kinds of racism thrive moreso and moreso even in the corridors of the powerful and nothing changes. Maybe we need a little it of that holy impatience that we pray every Sunday, thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Maybe we need a little of that holy impatience that we sing as the calendar turns towards Advent, Come, Lord Jesus, Quickly. Quickly. Quickly.
He will come, of course. There’s a rudeness in this gospel, but there’s also a promise. “Blessed are those whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” There’s a promise in this gospel of the feast yet to come. Of the kingdom yet to come. Of that day yet to come when all those who have kept their long vigilant watch over this broken world will rest and abide in the presence of the almighty from then and forevermore. I hold to that promise. I stand firm on that promise. I long for that promise, and I earnestly hope that you will long for that promise with me. But I will not stand here today and ask your patience while we wait. Instead, know this. It comes at an unexpected hour. Let’s clean the house, just in case.
Thanks be to God. Amen.