Knowing Where Our Heart Is
A sermon on Luke 12:32-40.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.]
My first thought this week, when I looked at the lectionary texts was, “Oh cool! I remember this gospel reading.
It was the gospel I preached on for my call sermon!”
Kind of a fun connection for re-entering the community after my month away!
My second thought on re-reading these texts was, “Oh dear! Am I just out of practice? I have NO IDEA what to do with this!”
Apparently, preaching was easier when I had very little experience!
The problem was that this section of Luke’s gospel falls into the category that I like to call “mish mash scriptures.” Rather than having a clear, coherent narrative thread, it feels kind of like Luke just took a bunch of Jesus’s random sayings and mashed them together… which might be true.
You see, as you may be aware, when Jesus was engaged in his earthly ministry, he did not have scribes following him around and writing down his words verbatim. That’s not how we got the scriptures.
Instead, people remembered things they heard him say. And they told these things to other people. And a lot of them eventually got written down. And decades later, the gospel writers gathered these written remembrances from lots of different sources, and they put them together into narratives that told the story of Jesus in the way that made the most sense to the gospel writer.
And, of course, the Holy Spirit was involved in that process, so the stories DO make sense, and reflect truth, but sometimes… the flow isn’t super smooth.
And this reading is one of those cases.
That’s not just my opinion. One of the commentaries I read this week describes verses 38-40 as “an amalgamation of traditional material,” and another essay focuses on how “the metaphors keep shapeshifting from verse to verse.”
In other words, reading these nine verses in sequence can give us an experience of theological whiplash:
How exactly are we supposed to think of God? As a Shepherd? Or a Master? But one who Serves? Or is he actually the Thief that breaks into the master’s house?
And who are we? Are we frightened sheep? Heirs to God’s kingdom? Slaves to an exacting master or to a humble one? Or Householders who need to defend our property? What?
WHAT IS JESUS TRYING TO TEACH US HERE, BECAUSE I DON’T FEEL LIKE I HAVE ANY CENTRAL IDEA TO HOLD ON TO?!
But what if that’s part of the point? What if Luke intentionally pulled together this disorienting variety of images and ideas to throw us off balance… because what do we do when we feel off-balance?
We look for something solid to hold onto.
If the result of this barrage of metaphors and exhortations is to confront us with a little existential uncertainty, then that experience is going to naturally call our attention to the recognition that we NEED a central, orienting focus.
And that’s what Jesus is telling us too: that whether or not we are conscious of it… we do have a focus that orients us… our heart is somewhere, and we should know where that is.
If we don’t, there’s an easy way to figure it out: just look at what we treasure.
This is the point at which my discomfort shifts from intellectual (“I don’t understand what Jesus is saying”) to emotional (“I feel exposed”).
Because, in the abstract, I can hear Jesus say “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” and think “well, of course my treasure is with God.”
But it’s not that easy to pacify myself when I have just gone through the anxiety-inducing experience of metaphorically feeling around for my solid ground. Because I wouldn’t feel any existential panic if I really did just “trust God,” to have me like a good little sheep, right?
The book we are studying this summer for book club, Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, reflects on the research-based finding that the majority of people in our time and culture have a dangerous lack of self-awareness about where their heart is.
It’s dangerous, because when we don’t understand the connection between our emotions and our behaviors, we become disconnected – untethered - from ourselves and from each other (and I would add that we also become disconnected from God).
And when we are disconnected, when we don’t feel that solid ground, we act out in fear. We desperately try to grab hold of the security that we know we need.
Although we usually do it poorly.
Our first reading today reflects one of the ways that we can grasp for solid ground: by creating performative acts of righteousness.
In the ancient context that looked like investment in elaborate sacrificial rituals, while ignoring the needs of the poor.… The prophet makes it clear that God was not impressed.
In our context performative righteousness can take lots of different forms.
Of course, it can look like self-righteous piety that stands in judgment over anyone whose life does not comply with our moral standards (whatever those might be).
But, it can look like buying into the Puritan Work Ethic and equating financial success with worthiness, and financial struggle with unworthiness.
Or, it can conflate loyalty to God and to country, leading to the quicksand of Christian Nationalism.
Or, it can look like virtue-signalizing and woke buzz-words, without actual investment in taking care of people.
Or, it can look like commitment to protecting church institutions, even at the expense of the people the church is supposed to nourish and serve.
Whatever the form our performative righteousness takes… I still don’t think God is impressed.
Because it’s showing that our treasure is laid up in the belief that we can manipulate God into valuing us, more than we value others.
And that is NOT what God is about.
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber published a reflection this week titled “Our drug of choice right now is knowing who we’re better than.”
In her analysis of the dumpster fire that is the American social conversation right now, and its vulnerability to intentional baiting on both sides, she identifies the “loop” in human nature, “the thing inside of us that is so easily exploited… it is our need to think of ourselves as “good.”
It’s so simple, but so true.
The need to think of ourselves as “good” – not to actually BE good, but to THINK of ourselves as good – is what lies behind every expression of performative righteousness.
It’s behind the resistance to self-knowledge that causes all the disconnection and harmful behavior explored in Atlas of the Heart.
In a way, it’s even what’s behind my frustration with the mish mash gospel reading we heard today, because a mish mash doesn’t give me a clear message about what I have to do to follow Jesus’ teaching so that I can feel “good” about doing it right.
But Jesus starts this mish mash with an important command – a command that we hear more often in the mish mash that is scripture than any other command: “do not be afraid.”
Ultimately, the need to “think of ourselves as good” is all about fear.
It’s a shield against shame, and against rejection, and against the danger that “the Master” might come and find us wanting.
But if our “treasure” is in our own goodness, then our heart will always be caught in fear. Because our goodness is never guaranteed.
Instead, Jesus wants our treasure stored in God’s goodness. In the assurance that it is God’s “good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Not as a reward for a job well-done, but as a different way to live here and now.
A way that rejects self-protection and self-righteousness and turns toward others.
A way that reconnects us instead of setting us at odds.
A way that takes away our fear because we are living our treasure by being part of God’s kingdom on earth.
Thanks be to God.
 Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 353.  Jerusha Matsen Neal: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-19-3/commentary-on-luke-1232-40-5  https://thecorners.substack.com/p/our-drug-of-choice-right-now-is-knowing?s=r&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web