A sermon for August 7, 2022. The readings are for Year C Proper 14.
The other day I was looking for something in my house. I can’t remember what it was, nor even whether or not I found it. What I do remember was that, while scouring the back of my bedside drawer, my eye happened on a glint of silver. It was the old name tag from my Granny Lyle’s dog, Littlun, taken from her windowsill after her funeral, before we cleaned out and left her little council house for the final time. How I still have it, three continents and some forty years later, God alone knows. But then love does have its ways of hanging on, doesn’t it, and resurfacing at the most unexpected times to surprise us with memory, grief, and joy?
We talked a little last week about legacies, and here is Jesus at it again: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What we invest with meaning, what we treasure, what we seek out, accumulate, spend, hoard, love: that tells a story about our orientation, our perspective, our life.
And look, Jesus is not being a scold about this. Sure, he starts with the parable of the rich man with the overstuffed barns and the understuffed heart, but he goes on to tell his disciples about God’s loving provision for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. “Of how much more value are you than the birds?” he asks them (Luke 12:24). So do not worry: God loves you.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
Jesus is not sentimental about it either, mind you. He is eminently practical, saying, sell your possessions in order to give alms to the poor. This is not a theory but a call; one which at least one rich young ruler failed (Luke 18:18-25), and most of us, too.
I read the chapter on Treasure in Gail Ramshaw’s Treasures Old and New. She observes,
“Most readers of this volume live in capitalist societies. The economic theory behind capitalism is that an individual’s accumulation of personal treasure is a social good because it eventually enriches the entire community. Christians who wish to live faithful lives within capitalism continue to reflect how to juggle this idea of treasure with that in the New Testament. What does it mean to treasure God?”[i]
Well, and I have a few follow-up questions. If individual accumulation is good only because it “eventually” enriches the entire community, how can we hurry that process along? Jesus has a suggestion (see, again, his encounter with the rich young ruler). If the accumulation of treasure is good because it enriches the entire community, why is the gap between the very rich and the very poor still increasing, in this country and across the globe? Where have we put our heart? If Christians who wish to live faithful lives have to juggle the claims of capitalism and those of the gospel, which will we drop first?
I’m not loving the implications of these questions. I live too comfortably to be comfortable with them.
But “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Not the power, or the wealth, or the glory, but the kingdom of God, in which the oppressed and the imprisoned are set free, the afflicted are healed, and the poor have good news delivered to them by God’s own Word.
How will we set our hearts there? How can I set my heart there?
The other question that came to me as I was thinking about this passage was, “What did Jesus treasure?” Or, to paraphrase a once-popular wristband, “What would Jesus accumulate?”
He treasured God. He valued the time he set aside for prayer, climbing mountains or going to the lakeshore to find space to be heart to heart with the one he called his Father.
He accumulated stories, told to the astonishment, confusion, and curiosity of his disciples and his detractors alike. He spoke of the always unexpected, often counter-cultural, utterly unnerving mercy and love of God.
He collected people as he went, again, disciples and detractors – honestly he had no standards, he would talk to anyone – and then there were those who came to him for healing, for favours, for a word of encouragement or the touch of forgiveness. He dispensed blessings without a copay, healing without fear, life without observing the limits of death.
Where was his heart? When he saw the people, he had compassion for them – his heart went out to them – because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
Gail Ramshaw, in her article about Treasure, notes that this aphorism, about the treasure and the heart, appears also in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, when we read it out of Matthew. It is bound up with our call to fast, pray, and to give alms. She writes,
“We are called to find our treasure, as we give alms, in the poor; as we pray, in the needy; as we fast, with the hungry.”[ii]
You might say, we are called to find our treasure in the image of God, in our neighbour, in those whom Christ came to serve, and whom we are called to serve in his name, with our whole heart.
By the time my grandmother died, I was a little old for a child’s treasure box. Still, I hung onto that dog tag. Granny Lyle left next to nothing when she died: a windowsill full of bird seed; the bird and the dog went to live with a neighbour. She had loved that dog like nobody’s business, and he only had eyes for her, and teeth for everyone else. I didn’t keep his broken nametag because I loved him, but because it reminded me of how much, how stubbornly, how idiosyncratically she could love something, someone, through her last breath.
I am not sure whether she would have called herself a Christian. I would never have dared to ask. But the kind of love that invests itself where others hold back, that spends itself without counting the cost, that endures well after death has had its final say: that is something like the kind of love Jesus has for us wretched people, who make often unwise investments and who juggle our hearts and hope for the best, who stumble unexpectedly and often over the surprise of God’s merciful grace. We have the map; we have seen its cross. There lies abundant, unburied treasure.
[i] Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary (Fortress Press, 2002), 392