One morning last spring I was walking out of the parsonage. I closed the door, without paying much attention to my surroundings. I mindlessly put one foot in front of the other and walked toward the driveway. Then I heard a guy who was working on the power lines shout from the street: “Hey look out!” I looked over to see if he was talking to me. And as I looked, I saw bear ten feet away from me. I woke up quick and became hyper alert. My heart raced. My fight or flight response kicked in. And I also realized that I should slowly walk away and not act afraid. The bear sauntered on by and was no threat. So all was well. When I got far enough away from the bear I shouted a word of thanks to the man and went about my day.
There’s nothing like being frightened to wake us up. To make us alert and aware of our surroundings. Try to remember the last time you were afraid of something. What did it do to your attention? Were your senses heightened? Were you hyper vigilant? Were you suddenly on edge? Fear has a way of gripping our attention and calling us to action like nothing else. This week’s Gospel lesson is about having such attentiveness. But it’s about having attentiveness without fear. A spiritual alertness that’s both free of fear and wide awake. Peaceful and alert.
We are again in Luke chapter 12. Jesus begins with an instruction to fear not and then tells two examples to inspire his disciples to be alert, attentive, awake. At first the sections of this passage may seem like the old Sesame Street game: one of these things is not like the other. A paragraph on storing up treasures in heaven followed by two examples about being alert and prepared. But to connect these apparently dissimilar things, I think it’s important to notice the passage begins with one of the most comforting lines in all scripture: “Have no fear little flock, for it is the Father’s good will to give you the kingdom.” That phrase should be kept in mind when we read everything that follows. Because what follows has to do with things Jesus’ disciples might be afraid of, like a master coming home to find slaves unprepared or a thief breaking into an unguarded house.
Many Christians have interpreted Jesus’ message about being prepared as being about the end of the world that might happen any day now. But after 2000 years I think it’s pretty safe to say that’s not what Jesus was referring to. Rather, I think Jesus’ teaching on being ready, keeping awake, being alert, is actually what we might call today a lesson on mindfulness. Being attentive to life. Discovering God in the present moment. Being aware of the kingdom of God, the divine presence in all things. Not being distracted by all those things that turn our attention away from reality. Jesus’ teachings about being prepared, ready, and awake are his instructions on the age-old practice of mindfulness. Of non-anxious awareness. Peaceful attentiveness. Alertness that’s free of fear.
Considering that, it makes perfect sense why these two seemingly different sections are paired together when you think of them all as a teaching on mindfulness. The first statement tells the little flock to have no fear for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. And then it flows into a teaching on how to be aware of this good pleasure by practicing spiritual alertness. And because his scenarios might suggest a fearful alertness, Jesus is clear from the start about not being afraid: that it’s the preparedness and attentiveness he wants them to practice, not the fear or worry. Fear is not the point. Mindfulness is the point.
Jesus teaches us to be attentive, to be mindful, to be alert, not because we have anything to fear, but because that’s how we discover the reality of the kingdom here and now. We should be as attentive to life as a slave whose master is about to come home. As mindful and focused as a homeowner who sees a thief outside. But not with the fearful attentiveness they might have. Rather, an attentiveness that embodies the peace and gentleness of a flock of sheep.
It becomes even more clear that this is a teaching about mindfulness or non-anxious attentiveness when we consider what comes immediately before this passage in Luke 12. It’s Jesus’ teaching of “Do not worry” where he says things like “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap and yet God feeds them.” And “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, and yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Jesus calls his disciples’ attention to natural things which rely solely on God and are cared for. Then he tells them not to worry and offers examples of situations where people would need to be hyper alert and attentive. It’s a masterful lesson on how to be embody mindfulness, spiritual awareness, gratitude, and loving attention to our experience of reality.
Living into such awareness helps us recognize the divine presence all around us: the kingdom of God manifesting here and now. Practicing such awareness helps us grow in love for God, love for creation, love for one another, and even love for oneself in a more genuine way. Keeping a vigilant eye out for the presence of God helps us see God’s activity everywhere. Being attentive to the birds of the air and the flowers of the meadow connects us to the natural world. Being alert and focused on our interactions with others helps us be more attuned to our neighbors and loved ones, and aware of how what we say and do affects them. And being more aware of our own thoughts and inner patterns helps us understand and accept ourselves more; and it is only when you truly accept yourself as you are that you can authentically change and grow.
Too often we’re so burdened by the stress of life that we fall into a lower level of awareness and can’t recognize the gifts all around us. We go on auto-pilot and are trapped in our heads, thinking about the past or the future. Jesus calls us to wake up out of that sleepwalk and become aware of the kingdom all around us!
All of these things are contained in Jesus’ teaching on fear-free alertness, peaceful attentiveness, mindful awareness. It's a wonderful teaching, full of wisdom about how to live life to the fullest, attuned to the divine. But the bad news is that we Christians historically haven’t followed this teaching or even recognized it. In fact, the church for most of its history has misinterpreted such texts and understood them in a way that actually promotes fear and worry! When Jesus specifically says do not fear, we fear. When he says do not worry, we worry. Christians throughout history have taken these words to mean we better be prepared and look busy when God comes to settle accounts! And even when his teaching is about being mindful of the present moment with non-anxious awareness, historically Christians have misunderstood this same text to be about anxiously waiting for the future! The church has interpreted this passage as saying: God’s coming soon, we better be alert, we better be on edge, we better be worried or else!
It's been so common for pastors and theologians to misinterpret passages like this that we’ve led Christians into a fearful way of living. And the repercussions have been traumatizing. But a proper interpretation of this scripture leads to a gentle, calm, non-anxious way of being in the world. When we understand Jesus’ message properly and follow his teaching to practice mindfulness in our daily life, we discover a new freedom, a new peacefulness, and a new attunement to the divine and awareness of God’s love and action in the world. Living this way heightens our awareness of how connected we are with God, how connected we are with creation, and how connected we are with all humanity. We recognize that this is a beautiful world. A world loved by God. And that we are beloved children of the divine. Yes there is pain and suffering, sin and evil in the world. But in the grand scheme of things this is a benevolent universe, full of grace and love. And Jesus is inviting us all to be aware of that, calling us to pay attention to it all and grow in mindful awareness, appreciation, gratitude, and love.
And so, be as attentive to life as a servant whose master is about to come home. As alert as a homeowner who sees a thief outside. As wide awake as a guy who suddenly bumps into a bear. Be as alert as that, but without the fear. Keep awake. Keep mindful. Give life reverent attention and you will see the kingdom. Be fully in the present moment and you will find yourself attuned with the divine flow. Practice being attentive to God’s presence everywhere and you’ll be eternally surprised at what you find!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 8/7/22