Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Jesus the burglar
August 8, 2010, 12:19 pm
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A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 8th August 2010

When the children were small we had a much loved story-book called “Burglar Bill”, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Some of you may know it. Burglar Bill lives by himself in a tall house full of stolen property. He habitually wears a striped jersey and a black mask over his eyes. When he goes out to work each night he carries a sack for his swag. He has stolen toast and marmalade, and stolen coffee for breakfast; and every evening he has stolen fish and chips and a cup of stolen tea. When he breaks into a house he shines his torch around to see what he can find. “That’s a nice toothbrush,” he says, “I’ll have that!” and he puts it in his sack. Or “That’s a nice tin of beans, I’ll have that!” Or whatever it may be.

To cut a long story short, one night he comes home at midnight and goes to bed. But suddenly he wakes up. There is a noise downstairs, the noise of someone opening a window and climbing in. “Blow me down,” says Burglar Bill. “I’m being burgled!” He creeps downstairs, puts on the light and there, with a black mask over her eyes and her hand in the breadbin, stands a lady. It is Burglar Betty, and she is so embarrassed to find that she has broken into the house of Burglar Bill, whose picture she has seen in the Police Gazette.

The story has a happy ending. “You know, Betty,” says Burglar Bill, “getting burgled like that give me a fright.” “I can see the error of my ways,” he says, “I’ve been a bad man.” And Burglar Bill and Burglar Betty take back all the things they have stolen, and resolve to live a better life. Bill stops being a Burglar and gets a job in the local bakery, and Betty stops being a burglar and marries Burglar Bill (now Bakery Bill). And as far as I know they live happily ever after.

How reassuring are our Lord’s words: “Don’t be afraid, little flock. It is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.” It is true, isn’t it, that we are so often afraid and anxious about the future. These times of economic stringency bring a lot of worries- about jobs, about pensions, about our children’s future. In the Church we have other worries too, especially since the decisions made about women bishops here in England, but also about the wider divisions in the Anglican Communion worldwide. This parish has particular cause for anxiety, because we know we are small geographically, and our viability has been questioned. So we need to take particular heed of our Lord’s words, “Do not be afraid.”

Those first disciples to whom Jesus spoke, they had a very uncertain future ahead of them. They had attached themselves to a wandering Rabbi whom they believed to be, in fact, the Messiah sent by God to save his people. But Jesus must have seemed a very problematic candidate for that exalted role. He had no armies, did not seem interested in political influence, and yet he spoke of a future kingdom, and was clearly training up his closest followers for future responsibilities of some kind. But he spoke of the Cross, too, of betrayal and death. The disciples would hardly have been human if they had not had all kinds of doubts and fears. But he said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Most movements that want to gain influence look to raising funds and acquiring material means to carry on their work. Jesus told his followers to sell what they owned, and give the proceeds away! Instead of a bank account, they would have treasure in heaven: what sort of policy was that? In the parable he told, it was clear that whatever the kingdom might be, it was not going to be built up by human effort, but would be given by God. The disciples’ role was simply to be ready for the moment when God would act.

It is a topsy-turvy parable. Normally, if an employer is due to return at a possibly inconvenient moment, the employees are expected to wait on him when he comes. Here, it is the Master who makes the servants sit down, while he waits on them, wearing an apron! Again, the implication seems to be, you don’t need to worry, because it is not you who are expected to do anything. God is going to do it, you must just be patient and wait for him to do it. “Constant vigilance”, as Mad-Eye Moody would say. There are other shocking elements in the parable, sometimes masked by the translation. We often read “servants”, but our translation today says “slaves”. Not so shocking in the Roman world, maybe, where slavery was taken for granted, but nowadays… can we represent God as a slave-owner? What does that say to us now?

And what picture are we supposed to get from the image of the burglar? We would expect the householder to stand for God, the burglar to be the devil- but no! Jesus is the burglar who is going to break into the house and steal the contents! Just try to imagine it: Jesus wearing a mask, a striped jersey and with a bag marked “swag” over his shoulder! Again, it is such a topsy-turvy picture: the real owner breaking into his own house to steal back what had been taken from him! It is like “The Wind in the Willows”, where the wild-wooders are carousing in Toad Hall, while the rightful owner and his friends are creeping through the cellars to surprise them and reclaim the house.

After the parable (but not read today) Peter was a bit confused. Who was the parable aimed at, he asked. The disciples? Or the world in general? Clearly, it is directed to those who already recognise Christ and his claims, and in particular to those who hold responsible positions in the community of disciples. The danger, it seems to me, is a mixture of over-anxiety and complacency. We are anxious about many things in this world that we don’t know what to do about. But in other areas of life, we are confident in our own ability to find solutions, and we neither expect nor wish God to intervene. We have life mapped out, and pursue our plans as if there were no tomorrow- remember last week’s Gospel, the rich fool who did not expect to be called to account.

Burglar Bill was happy in his burgling, until he himself was burgled. That was his wake-up call. “Getting burgled like that give me a fright,” he said, “I can see the error of my ways. I’ve been a bad man.” Jesus breaks into our cosy world sometimes, with sickness or redundancy or even the experience of being burgled. We realise that our lives are fragile and precarious. Indeed, we may even see ourselves as burglars in our hearts. We take credit for achievements, instead of giving it to God to whom it belongs. We pass judgement on others, when judgement belongs only to God. In all sorts of ways we secretly steal from God. We need to see the error of our ways, admit our faults, and ask the Lord to heal us. Jesus the Burglar is also Jesus the Baker, who feeds us with the Bread of Life.

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