Where is Your Treasure?

This text was preached as a sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 August 2019.
Audio for this sermon was recorded on 13 August, after the loss of the original recording.

Jesus said: “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.  Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Luke 12:32-34, ESV

Today’s Gospel reading begins after Jesus has been telling his disciples not to be anxious about our lives, and what great worth the Father sees in us.  The thirty-second verse is a nice summation of this teaching – do not be afraid, because God the Father wants to give you the Kingdom.  Throughout this message, I want you to keep that truth in mind – especially if anything you hear today troubles you, remember that your Father in heaven is pleased to give you the kingdom.

Despite this wondrous pronouncement, which should be enough for all of us to say, “fair enough, Lord, your will be done!” many of us – myself near to the front of the line – find ourselves prisoners of our anxieties.  Our temptation is to think that our very special circumstances somehow warrant more latitude from God in our fears – to use an idiom of today, we expect God to give us the “space” to be afraid.

Having told us not to be afraid, Jesus continues on to tell us what to do with our newfound fearlessness – sell all that we have and give to the needy. 

Much like the command to “fear not,” this command takes us aback and tempts us to look at Jesus and say, “surely you don’t mean all our possessions?”  This command, which is repeated multiple times throughout the Gospels, has been dissected and examined by many trying to determine whether Jesus truly means this to be as extreme as it sounds, or if he’s being hyperbolic.  There are several religious orders from Church history that take vows of poverty, the Franciscans being among the most famous, which clearly shows that taking the command at extreme face value is a valid interpretation. 

At the same time, we know from Luke’s Gospel account that there were several wealthy women who traveled with Jesus and provided for him out of their means, clearly showing that the command is probably not intended in its extreme universally.

Jesus provides the guidance for how to understand the heart behind how he wants us to approach wealth in the remainder of the verses I want to focus on today.  Let’s hear them again:

“Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

On its face, this teaching is somewhat esoteric and feels a little fanciful.  It is best to understand it by thinking of the contrasting reality.  If we have to be provided with a means to store something that “does not grow old” that must imply that the current way we use will one day be inadequate, much like the treasure that it contains. 

Think of it this way: if we have an incorruptible moneybag, why would we store something that will eventually fail in it?  Would the moneybag not therefore be more valuable than the thing it keeps?  Or if we have an incorruptible treasure, why would we store it in something that will fail?  Wouldn’t the failure of the moneybag mean our loss of the treasure?  Therefore, whatever we have on earth is incomparable with what the Father gives to us, and it is foolish for us to value anything whose value will eventually fail with more esteem than that which will remain invaluable forever.

Last week, Fr. Ben taught a paradigm which I think rightly captures what it is that our Lord is looking for out of his people.  While some people are called to a “holy destitution” where they are entirely dependent on the goodness and care of the Church for their day-to-day care and feeding, most of the rest of us are called to live lives where our long-term reliance is on God’s goodness.  Our Father gives us out of his goodness the things we need to live the life he calls us to, and his store of these items is endless and will not lose value or quality over time, nor will it be stolen out of his control so that he would be unable to continue giving us out of his goodness. 

The warning that goes along with this promise is that if we do not trust in the Father’s goodness to provide for us, to answer our prayers and supplications, then whatever we do trust to deliver us will fail, and what it is that we treasure – unless it is the uncorruptible, boundless and invaluable treasure of God – will lead our hearts to perish with it.  “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Today I ask you the question that I ask myself when I read this proverb – “Where is your treasure?”

For unless your heart is fixed on the goodness of God, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your personal wealth and savings, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on the luxuries and pleasures of this life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your strength to overcome in life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your own personal vindication, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on preserving your life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on writing the perfect sermon about a difficult topic, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on Auburn having a winning season, or Alabama winning yet another National Championship, then your treasure is not in heaven.

I felt I needed to include the last two to lighten things a little, but you get my point.  If we set ourselves so firmly on anything less than the goodness of God and his pleasure to give us the Kingdom, then we seek a treasure that may as well be a trash pile and we will aim far below what it is that our Father wants us to seek and to gain.

So, what does this mean?  That we don’t care about providing for ourselves or our families?  Not at all.  As Fr. Ben said last week, saving to ensure that we and our families are taken care of during lean times is much different from saving and storing up to ensure access to luxury and pleasure. 

But even this saving should be seen through the lens of God providing for us and not us relying on our own capabilities and financial prowess.

Are we to totally avoid all of the good things that life affords us?  Again, not at all.  When God rewards us with ease for a time, or bids us to eat and drink in the fullness of a feast, we do so gladly, but with the understanding that the pleasures of life are fleeting, and not the point of life.  Not every season is Lent, but neither is it always Easter in this life.  We look at the rewards given to us as glimmers and glimpses of the eternal feast, the always-Easter of Heaven.

What about our strength?  Should we be seen as weak?  Actually, yes – if the alternative is that we boast in our strength as being sufficient to succeed and overcome in this life. 

The same goes for our personal vindication against those who disagree with us – if the alternative is that we boast in our personal rightness, at the expense of facts or the experiences of other people, or contrary to the leading of the Spirit, then we ought to approach each situation as if we have at least the potential to be drastically wrong. 

The only things that we must be right about are the things that we will confess in a few moments in the Creed.  And yet, we are not called to weakness or foolishness – but to strength and wisdom that comes from Christ.  The difference is that if strength and wisdom come from the Lord, then they are not our personal strength and wisdom. 

If we rely on Christ, then Christ will be the one who overcomes on our behalf, and it will be Christ who is vindicated before the world.

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.  This is the gift that is more rich than any amount of money we could earn or save in our lifetime, with might and power that is stronger than any exertion on our part, and which Our Lord tells us we need to yearn for above all other things – even at the expense of our lives.  Previously, I have talked about Jesus’ repeated call to lay down our lives, and that this is more than mere metaphor or hyperbole – sometimes we are actually expected to bear witness in ways that means that someone will do us harm because the days are evil and the hearts of flawed human beings are twisted to work all sorts of malice. 

However, in this day and age, when American Christians are not usually faced with the imminent threat of violence, treasuring something more than our life may apply in  ways that do not lead to our literal dying for the cause of Christ. 

One of the most anti-Christian aspects that I see in our American society is the tendency for many to approach any issue from the perspective of what is best for me, what doesn’t interfere with me, how I want to keep doing the things that I like to do, regardless of what happens to people I don’t know or who don’t look or think or act like me

The messages I get from any kind of popular media are so intent on wedging me off as an individual (even while trying to lump me into a demographic) that it becomes clear to me that the altar the society at large wants me to worship at consists largely of a mirror.  Christianity is not a me-centric faith, and if I approach it as if it is, my treasure is not in heaven. 

This is part of laying down our lives, and part of counting our treasure as being in heaven – that we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit to make sacrifices even when our upbringing, our peers, and our politics tell us that we shouldn’t. 

In so doing, we emulate our Lord who, despite the political expectations of the day, rejected earthly power and followed the path to the cross – because his heart is eternally with the Father, and his treasure is heaven.

Sometimes those sacrifices are big, and require us to take bold stands against oppression that does not affect us directly.  More often these sacrifices are small and just require us to actually listen to the concerns of others, even when hearing them is difficult, rather than warding them off with an impersonal talking point.  Sometimes they require us merely to mourn with those who mourn.

As I said when I began speaking today, the Gospel lesson we have heard is hard – this concept of seeking after a treasure in heaven when all I know is the things of earth is vexing at times.  I know the things that are presented to my physical senses, while the things my Lord asks me to value above all else seem fleeting to me.  The Church recognizes this as well, which is why the Collect for today bids that God would “make us love what [he] commands.” 

The Church recognizes that this command is so difficult that we are unlikely to uphold on our own – if it indeed is possible for us to do so on our own at all – and asks for God to step in and change us so that we are able to please him.

Reflectively praying the Collect this week is the first of two works of prayer that I invite you to join me in this week.  If you already keep to the discipline of the Daily Offices, you will find that you already do this regularly, and all I ask is that you take some extra time to reflect on the words you are praying when you get to this point in the liturgy. 

If you want to incorporate it into other forms of prayer devotions, it is found on page 618 in the BCP, under the heading of Proper 14.  When we ask for God to “make us love what [he] commands” we show that our desire is for our heart to be with God, and that our treasure is in heaven.

In getting to the second work of prayer that I want to invite you to this week, let’s consider again the words Our Savior says: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

The fact that Jesus ties the Father’s gift of the kingdom to the command not to fear, and comes after the Lord has spoken at length against anxieties gives me reason to believe that at least part of the gift of the kingdom is the peace of the Lord, which we will exchange in a few moments.  Therefore, I ask you to join me this week in praying for God’s peace upon our lives throughout our busy days.  This can be as simple as praying in the morning when you wake up, as soon as you meet the first challenge of the day, as the day grows long, and as you look forward to your pillow.

 I encourage you also to pray for the peace of the Lord upon those you meet, even if – especially if – you feel provoked against peace through their actions or their words. 

In today’s world of online interactions, ask yourself continually if what you are commenting, posting, tweeting, or sharing works for the cause of the Kingdom’s peace, and if the answer is ever “no” then turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance on what to do instead.  Ask God to give you words to spread his peace, or to give you patience and contentment to be still in the face of the raging world, whether in our physical reality or in our online discussion spaces. 

By asking God’s peace upon our neighbors and even our enemies we show that our heart is with those whom God has made, and that our treasure is in heaven.

To close out my time today, I invite you to turn to page 672 in the prayer book.  Prayer 87, For Participation in the Peace of God, has been on my mind throughout this sermon preparation, and I invite you to join me in praying it either aloud or silently.

“Lord make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is error, truth; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, grant that I may seek not so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

Prayer 87, For Participation in the Peace of God – The Book of Common Prayer 2019, according to the use of the ACNA

“The Lord is With Thee”

(Year B, Advent 4/Christmas Eve; Gospel reading from Luke 1:26-38)

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’”
– Luke 1:26-28

Tree_of_life_with_virgin_and_eve
Tree of Life with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale

We are almost there.  The past few weeks, as we have followed the readings in Advent, have you felt the anticipation building?  Especially in the last couple of weeks, we have seen glimpses of Jesus in the Gospel readings, but he plays a relatively minor part.  This week, that anticipation builds to a head as we have arrived both in the last Sunday of Advent and at Christmas Eve.  Advent 2 and 3 both focused heavily on John the Baptist; this week’s Gospel is all about Mary.

As an Anglican Christian, sometimes it seems hard to know what to “do” with Mary.  Anglicans get asked all the time if we are Catholic or Protestant.  The stock (and true) answer is that we are both catholic and reformed.  We are catholic in the ancient sense of the word, in that we believe and express the faith once preached by the Apostles, and we are reformed as it relates to setting to rights the excesses and errors of the Medieval Church.  Where does Mary fit in with this?

Mary is an extremely important figure in the Salvation story.  Just as Jesus redeemed the sin of Adam by laying down his life for the sake of the world, God undid the shame and reproach brought on by Eve’s sin by causing the Christ to be miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit acting upon a virgin.  The Son could have materialized as a bodily Savior without any interaction with a mother, but Christians believe that this was the better way, because it left no doubt as to His origin as it concerns His manhood (at least not to those who hear and believe the power of God).  By being born of the virgin, the Son explicitly shows His Creation that He truly came for all humanity, and explicitly shows that both male and female have a place in the Kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, in response to the excesses of the Middle Ages, many Protestant movements eschewed any kind of Marian contemplation whatever (although this was not true from the beginning; Luther himself promoted a reverence – but not veneration – of Mary).  It can be a rare thing to see Protestant religious art that depicts Mary as a subject.  Many “mainline” Protestants will acknowledge other Biblical saints, but shy away from observing feasts related to Mary, such as the Dormition of the Theotokos (Mary’s Saint Day).  Is this reaction borne out in Scripture?

I contend that the total demotion of Mary to just “merely” the vehicle by which the Incarnate Son of God entered the world is just as error prone as the over-zealous promotion of the Blessed Virgin to near deity.  For how does Gabriel address her?  “Greetings O favored one, the Lord is with you!”  The King James says “Hail thou that art highly favored,” from which we get the opening to the prayer known as the Hail Mary.

The Church has said the Hail Mary since nearly the beginning, though it was originally rendered as

Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast given birth to the Savior of our Souls.

None of this is objectionable: the first sentence and first two clauses of the second are found directly in Luke’s Gospel account of the Annunciation; the closing clause is no less scriptural, since Mary did indeed bear the Savior of our Souls, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, what do we “do” with Mary?  We do exactly as the angel Gabriel did.  We acknowledge before God that he chose a mortal woman to deliver His Christ into the world.  We reflect upon the Gospel truth that “blessed [is she] among women!”  We rejoice in the fulfillment of prophecy first given by Isaiah that “a virgin shall give birth to a child, and call his name Emmanuel.” If you feel led, there is no harm in praying the Eastern Orthodox Hail Mary, because it does all of this and no more.  It gives all the honor due to the Blessed Virgin without embellishment or detraction.

Alternatively, when I say the Hail Mary, I say a form that acknowledges the Scriptural witness about the Blessed Virgin and points the salvific focus back on Christ:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Son of God, son of Mary, have mercy on us sinners now and in the hour of our deaths.

This is not so different from the original English rendering of the Orthodox Hail Mary, and I believe such a form should be said when the Christian feels led to reverence Mary.  I do not recall now where I first came across this form; if anyone reading this recognizes it please reference it in the comments.

As we approach Christmas Day, and celebrate the First Advent of Our Lord, I encourage you to join the angel Gabriel, the historic Church, and modern day Christians as we all say “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!”

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.