The Dog Days of the Lectionary

Although July is typically the hottest month of the year, August is often the most miserable. It’s as though the heat is cumulative throughout the summer season. You break a sweat getting from the house to the car. You need more than one shower in a day. The air is thick and wet and fogs up your glasses when you go outside. After two months of this, the novelty of summer has worn off, and the idea of leaving your air conditioned couch for a hike or a swim or concert just isn’t that appealing anymore. We are in the “dog days of summer.” But I would like to propose to you today that we are also in the “dog days of the lectionary.”

From Advent through the Feast of the Ascension, we hear the story of Jesus, from the anticipation of his birth through his final leave-taking after the resurrection. But between Ascension and Advent, we hear the story of the Church. We hear all the adventures in the Acts of the Apostles, and we hear all of Jesus’ nitty gritty teachings about how to live in the world once he’d gone. It gets repetitive. It gets tedious. And frankly, it gets a little painful.

This especially true in lectionary year C, when we travel through the Gospel of Luke. Because more than any other Gospel, Luke is particularly passionate about poverty, and particularly critical of wealth. And I’m here to tell you, the last thing your average preacher wants to do is stand up in front of her congregation and remind them that Jesus tells us to sell everything we have and give the money to the poor. So before I dive in, let me just say, I may be young and young in my career, but I’ve been a homeowner for a little under a year and my zeal for filling that home with treasures continues to intensify. You’ll get no judgement from me about accumulating wealth.

So now, let me remind you that in our passage from Luke today, Jesus calls us all the sell our possessions and give the money away. It stings. And then it gets worse. Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the master returning from a wedding banquet in the middle of the night, and then he finishes this section with a warning about thieves and the Son of Man coming at an unexpected hour. The message seems clear: give away all your stuff, and do it quick, because judgement is just around the corner.

As if this confusing and somewhat troubling Gospel passage isn’t enough for one Sunday, we also get a long and fiery diatribe from Isaiah. He compares his community (and presumably ours) to Sodom and Gomorrah, and he ends his speech with a fervent appeal: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Taken together, these passages from Luke and Isaiah are harsh. Dog days of the lectionary, indeed.

But, if we’re willing to accept this criticism of our comfortable lives, if we can muster up the courage to listen to our lectionary with an open heart and an open mind, we will find among the tedium something profound about our call to discipleship. As Kate wisely told us last week, these stories in the middle of Luke’s Gospel aren’t anti-401K parables. Something else is going on here.

In the same breath that Jesus tells us to sell our possessions and give alms, he tells us to make purses for ourselves that do not wear out. Giving away our treasures is only the first part of the task. We also have to figure out how to store up eternal treasures. Isaiah gives us a clue as to how to proceed: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” It seems that our scriptures today aren’t just talking about financial generosity, although that is an important part of the life of discipleship. Our scriptures are talking about solidarity, valuing the undervalued, and sharing in resources and opportunity. They’re talking about shifting our very idea of what treasure is.

New Testament professor Matt Skinner explains that for Jesus, “almsgiving is an expression of true solidarity with others… a solidarity that refuses to let inequalities stand.” In other words, in the Kingdom of God, no one has to survive on the generosity of the privileged, because everyone shares in the same power and opportunity. This vision of the Kingdom is very different from the world we live in today, and while selling everything we own might not be the solution for achieving it, we’ll certainly have to change the way we live. This is a frightening task. Thankfully, the same scripture that shows us the cost of discipleship also shows us the way forward.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Our hearts, as Jesus describes them, are like a muscle that can be trained. The more we use our words and actions to seek justice and rescue the oppressed, to value the undervalued and share in our resources, the more our hearts will follow and be filled with eternal treasures like love and joy. Perhaps we will hate it the first time we give up some of our money, status or power for the sake of justice. But the more we practice it, and the more we depend on Christ to see us through it, the richer in love we will become.

Now you might be thinking, easy for her to say, she works for a church! And you might be right. Christ Church provides ample opportunities for all of us to work on our purses that don’t wear out, from Green Groceries to Mercy Church to helping out at a funeral. The bigger challenge is how to work on those purses in our every day lives. How will you promote justice and live in solidarity this week besides writing a check? Who in your community could use the dignity of a listening ear? Where are your neighbors who need relationship, not just charity?

The dog days of summer may be a test of our patience and our will, but the dog days of the lectionary are not. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’” We don’t have to convince God to give us his treasures. God already lives to do this. While we are busy fretting about money and status and all the candles and lamps and side tables I’ve been filling my house with, God is busy creating opportunities for us to practice putting our treasure in a better place, where we will find comfort and relief like the first cool days of autumn, which simply cannot be bought.

Hannah Hooker