Girded Loins And Burning Lamps

Steve Lindsley
(Luke 12: 35-40; Isaiah 1:1, 10-20)

It is rare, at least that I’ve found, that we find Jesus offering up fashion advice, but such is the case, more or less, in our gospel reading today.  Be dressed for action, is what he tells us. Although that’s not terribly definitive. Be dressed for action.  That could be anything.  A football uniform, a superhero costume, John Travolta’s white suit in “Saturday Night Fever.”

No, I prefer the actual Greek here: Gird up your loins.  Now I have to say, it’s good to know many of you are reading your Weekly Word email each week, which I know because soon after this week’s went out, I got emails and texts from some of you who apparently saw my sermon title and were seeking an explanation for it.

And I confess, I had to google it.  Here’s the gist – back in the day, men wore long robes that were fine for walking around and everyday activity.  But when more physical exertion was required, like running or squatting down to pick something up, the long robe got in the way.  So men would fix this by reaching down between their legs and grabbing the bottom of the back of their robe, and then pulling it up through the front of their legs and tucking it in their belt.  And that’s girding up your loins.  More or less create pants, which allowed greater mobility and range of motion.  Forget that it apparently bore a striking resemblance to a modern-day diaper, it still served its purpose. 

Gird up your loins, Jesus tells them.  Okay.  But he’s not done dispensing advice.  He also tells them to keep your lamps lit. This one’s a little easier to grasp – much the same way that we turn our lights off when we go to bed at night, people back then would extinguish their lamps when the day reached its end.  Unless, of course, they were expecting something or someone; in which case they kept their lamp lit so they’d be prepared for whatever was going to happen.

Gird up your loins and keep your lamps lit.  From there, Jesus segues into a little parable of sorts, about a master returning from his wedding banquet and his servants at home waiting for him.  Now they don’t know exactly when he’s getting back; they didn’t get an ETA and they don’t have a GPS app to track his location.  It’s getting later and later into the night, and he’s still not home. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the servants just called it a night and went on to bed, certainly the master would understand. 

But no: they stay up.  They keep their lamps lit.  And they gird up their loins, because who knows what the master might want done when he returns.  And we are told that the servants are commended for this; for staying awake and being prepared for what they know will eventually come to pass.

In some ways it reminds me of the parent who waits up half the night for their teenager to walk through the door after the prom party; the kids who hang the large “Welcome Home” banner in the front yard on the day Mom comes home from her week-long business trip; the loyal fan base assembled on the tarmac waiting for the championship-winning team to touch down at the airport.

They all are waiting for something or someone they know is coming.  But since they don’t know exactly when, they can’t exactly hold off until the last minute to unlock the door, to make the “Welcome Home” banner, to get their place in the crowd.  So they prepare.  And they certainly don’t want to fall asleep in the midst of everything, even if the waiting goes late into the night.  Because no amount of preparation will matter a bit if they aren’t awake when it comes to pass.

So gird up your loins, Jesus says.  Keep your lamps lit.  Be prepared.  Stay awake.

It is, of course, wonderful advice for those instances when we know something is going to happen, when we know someone is coming soon.

But the question I have in all of this is, what if we don’tknow what’s going to happen?  How exactly does one prepare for something they’re not expecting?

And the reason I ask this is because I wonder how clued-in those disciples would’ve been to what would eventually come for Jesus.   We’re in this long section in the middle of Luke’s gospel where Jesus is teaching, telling parables; classics like the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan.  I have to think later on the disciples would look back on this time as “the good ol’ days.” It wouldn’t be until the latter part of the 19th chapter that Jesus and his little entourage would enter Jerusalem where things start getting real, where the storm brewing around them would become more evident, where sound advice like being prepared and staying awake would make a whole lot more sense.

And yet it’s here in the 12th chapter where Jesus offers his two-prong advice.  Which makes we think that being prepared and staying awake is not just for those instances when we know who or what is coming, but also those instances when we do not.  It is as if Jesus is saying,  You have no idea what’s coming.  Prepare yourselves for it.  You cannot see what I see.  Stay awake.  Gird up. Keep those lamps lit.

Let me ask you this, people of God: what are we as the church preparing for?  At any given point in time, what are we staying awake for?

Is it nothing more than next Sunday’s worship service, a ministry team meeting, Days of Discipleship and Rally Day Sunday and the Montreat retreat and the return of the choir?  The things we know and love about this place; those things which define, at least in a programmatic sense, who we are as a church.  We’ve got them on the calendar; we know they’re coming. Is that the preparing and staying awake Jesus is calling us to?

Perhaps. But there’s more, isn’t there?  Listen to what one commentator had to say about this passage:

A major, world shifting change is coming, and Jesus wants his people to be prepared for it. So Jesus calls his church to be a transition community, where we learn to see the world differently.  And Jesus is telling us that the way we become secure in these changing times is not through possessions or “things,” but rather by living toward what God has been calling us to as far back as Isaiah…

British read earlier from the prophet Isaiah – you remember the exasperation in his voice:

I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams.
     and the fat of fed beasts;
Bringing offerings is futile;
     incense is an abomination to me.
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
     they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of them.

It is the voice of one fed up with rituals and practices that have lost their meaning because they’ve been divorced from that which really matters, that which the people of God are truly called to – as Isaiah puts it:

Cease doing evil,
     learn to do good;
Seek justice,
     rescue the oppressed,
Defend the orphan,
     plead for the widow.

The call to God’s people,our commentator continues,is to transition now into the Kingdom that is coming. It is an orientation that will set us toward a deeper rhythm rather than the clamor of our age. So let us be wise to what is breaking into the world.[1]

Granted, it is never easy work; “being wise to what is breaking in the world.”  But I would suggest that this is exactly what Jesus is calling the church to do in this day and time, as he has been in the habit of doing every time a “major, world-shifting change” occurs.  For that is right where we find ourselves, friends.  In one sense, no one could’ve seen coming what happened in El Paso and Dayton a week ago.  And yet, in another sense we’d have to be blind not to see it.  Our 297th mass shooting of the year, according to one source.[2]  Today is the 223rd day of 2019.

What do we do?  This is the question that lurks deep in our soul, often unspoken because to give it voice is to risk acknowledging in the open that we have no clue.  We don’t know what to do.  And “thoughts and prayers” have gone from being words of comfort to a cliche to the kind of thing the prophet Isaiah railed against – meaningless rituals void of meaningful action.

What do we do?  We sit uncomfortably with this question as Americans and, I hope, as the church.  This question ought to bug the church to no end.  How does one do anything in the face of such evil; both the evil that is gun violence and white supremacy, as well as the evil of minimizing, downplaying, or even denying those things?

Jill Duffield, who is editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, wonders aloud if we are asking the wrong question. “Repair is possible,” she writes.  “Reconciliation is possible. Through Christ all things are possible. The question Christians must answer is not “What do we do?” The question is “What are we willing to do?”[3]

So – what do you think?

Are we willing to acknowledge the ways in which we’ve been complicit in systems and structures that contribute to greater violence, to more heated rhetoric, to racial injustice?

Are we willing to recognize the ways in which we have benefited from white privilege, whether we’ve asked for it or not?

Are we willing to encounter some discomfort as we intentionally put ourselves in position to connect with and listen to those who do not look like us, who do not share the same background and experiences as us?

Are we willing to call out language, behaviors, and structures that are racist in nature, even those we might be part of, even that part within ourselves?

What are we willing to do?

Because here’s the truth of our current situation; a truth becoming more and more evident with each senseless tragedy: there is a reason these mass shooters are almost exclusively white males: they are afraid. Full of hate, yes, but the fear comes first.  And it’s not mental illness or video games, according to most every scientific study out there.[4]  It’s fear. They are afraid.

They are afraid because they’ve bought into a false narrative about the cultural reality you and I are living in: that a more diverse America is a bad America, and that an increased awareness of and focus on those different from them somehow means they matter less. They hear these lies from the loudest of voices, and they choose to believe them because fear is always easier to latch on to than hope.  They see no way forward.  And they refuse to go down alone.

So how does the church gird up for that?

Toni Morrison, who died this past week, was an American novelist, essayist, editor, and professor at Princeton University.  As a person of color, her understanding of race and its role in both history and contemporary culture allowed her to write about the importance of remembering and how it plays into our lives.

Morrison once said: I tell my studentswhen you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, your job is to empower somebody else.[5]

I wonder, in these trying and unsettling and frightening times, if you feel what I feel – the eyes of the world looking squarely at us, the church; looking to see if we are more like what Isaiah saw and railed against; or if we are willing to do what needs to be done – to free somebody else, to empower somebody else, to call out the roots of our human brokenness and speak the truth:

That our voices of hope must always be louder than the voices of fear. That our dream for a more diverse world must shine brighter than the nightmare that is white supremacy.  That our love must overcome their hate.

So gird up, people of God.  Keep those lamps lit.  A major, world-shifting change is coming and Jesus needs his people to be wise to what is breaking into the world.  Are we willing to be prepared and stay awake?  Are we willing to do what needs to be done?

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1]http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2016/08/what-are-you-preparing-for/
[2]https://www.massshootingtracker.org/data
[3]https://pres-outlook.org/2019/08/payback-time/
[4]https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/health/mass-shootings-mental-health.html
[5]https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2019/08/06/honoring-toni-morrison-through-words-she-shared-with-world/