Monday, 9 August 2010

Trinity 10: Treasure that lasts

Luke 12.32-40

There is a story told about St Lawrence, who was martyred in the third Century in Rome. In St Lawrence’s time the church was still just a collection of small groups of people worshipping together in their homes, often enduring suspicion and persecution. Many of them still followed the practice of the early church, holding their property and wealth in common and distributing it to others as they had need. Lawrence was a deacon; and the deacon’s job would have been primarily to share out those common funds, giving money to the poor, to unsupported widows, to the sick and disabled.

It is said that during one particularly savage time of persecution, the Emperor Valerian arrested the leader of the Church in Rome, Bishop Sixtus. Before he was executed the Emperor insisted that he reveal where the Church’s possessions were. Sixtus told him that Lawrence, as a deacon, was in charge of them. So the Emperor had Lawrence arrested too, and demanded that the church’s treasure from him.
“Give me three days,” said Lawrence, “and I’ll bring it to you.” So Lawrence was released, and three days later he came back to the Emperor’s palace bringing with him not bags of gold as the Emperor had hoped but a crowd of people – bedraggled, poor, sick, widowed, all those to whom the church’s money had been given. “Here are the treasures of the church,” he said to the Emperor “you see them in these people”.

The Emperor wasn’t impressed, and promptly had Lawrence executed too, burnt on a grid-iron according to legend, but the point had been made. Treasure comes in many shapes and sizes, and you may not always be able to weigh it or count it or put it in the bank!

“Where your treasure is,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, “there your heart will be also.” It was the people who really mattered to Lawrence, these people who Christ had called him to serve. That was where his heart was and they were his treasure. Money came and went. It could be stolen or lost, but investing in the real lives of those in need was like putting your money into a purse that didn’t wear out. His gift might change their lives, giving them new opportunities, a chance to get onto their own feet. Even if it just provided a meal or two it would have told them that someone cared about them, that they counted, and knowing you are loved can be the most life-transforming gift of all.

Lawrence had his priorities right, and the church honours him because of that, but it has often been hard for us to follow his example both as an institution and as individuals. In every generation we’ve needed people like Lawrence, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, or a myriad of other lesser known saints to challenge our human instinct to grasp and to hoard.

The reason we find it so hard to follow in their footsteps, though, is that money isn’t just material stuff. It also carries emotional meanings for us. As Jesus put it, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our treasures and our hearts are inextricably mixed up.

It is said that if you want to know what really matters to someone you only need to see two things; their bank statement and their diary. Money and time are both limited, so we have to choose how we spend them and those choices reveal what we really care about. That’s especially true if they are in short supply. When there’s little to spare we have to think really hard. What must we have and what can we do without? Would we rather buy the children new shoes for school or pay the electricity bill? Should we say no to that immediate demand so we can pay for the longer term expense or meet today’s need today? If it‘s time that is in short supply will we spend it with the family, or at work, in some community activity or on ourselves?

There aren’t necessarily any right or wrong answers to these questions – it all depends on the circumstances - but our decisions will reflect our true priorities whether we like it or not, and it may be that the bank statement and the diary won’t be in line with the values we claim to hold.
We might like to think that we are generous in our giving to good causes, but perhaps the bank statement will reveal that actually we are just giving, what’s leftover when we have got what we want. We might say we want our local communities to thrive, but how much time have we got roped off in the diary to help out? Or perhaps we talk about the importance of family life, but always manage to be somewhere else when they need us, or we neglect our own need for time to reflect and grow – that is a perfectly valid thing to spend time on. The diary will tell us the truth whether we like it or not.

So if we aren’t always living the message we proclaim, what is it that is stopping us? Why do we invest our time and money on purses that wear out, as the Gospel puts it, rather than on things which we really believe matter, which will bear lasting dividends of love, joy, peace and justice? Long experience of listening to people struggling with life – and my own struggles too – suggest to me that its often not just idleness or thoughtlessness. Our most stubborn greed, the desires that we just can’t conquer are usually fed from a much deeper and more powerful source, and Jesus gives us a clue to what that is in the words which open the Gospel reading. “Do not be afraid, little flock” he says, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Do not be afraid.
It is fear that often makes us hoard and stops us living with the open handed generosity we would like to have. It’s not a positive desire to have something because it is beautiful or useful, but a fear of what will happen if we don’t have it and hang onto it.

Some people have a justified and real fear of hunger which leads to unmanageable anxiety. Survivors of the concentration camps, for example, often found that years after their liberation they couldn’t stop hoarding food, keeping crusts under their pillows, despite the fact that there was plenty of food in the cupboard. They could never quite believe that the next meal would come.

But for others it’s not physical huger which drives their acquisitiveness. You may recall the tragic story a few years back of the wealthy businessman, Christopher Foster, who shot his wife and teenage daughter and burnt down his mansion, finally killing himself. It emerged later that his business had run into trouble and bankruptcy was looming. He knew he’d have to pull his daughter out of her expensive school, and give up his membership of the clubs he belonged to. Life would change dramatically, and he couldn’t bear the loss of face this would involve. He couldn’t even bear to tell his wife and daughter what had happened. So he killed them instead, and himself too. The thought of losing his wealth was literally a fate worse than death for him, not because he couldn’t survive physically, but because his sense of himself would be so damaged by it.

His response was very extreme, but I don’t think his fears are unusual at all. Many people share them. Possessions can easily become comfort blankets, safety nets, signs of status, sources of self-worth and self-respect, ways of proving our love to our families because we don’t think they’d believe it otherwise. Lose those possessions and all those other things are lost too. If people feel like this, no wonder they hoard. No wonder they are cautious about giving. No wonder they find it hard to invest in things which don’t bring a guaranteed return, as St Lawrence did when he gave away the church’s wealth to the poor.

But Jesus’ message is that we don’t need to fear – God is here and he is at work and nothing we do in his name and for his purposes is wasted. Jesus rams that message home by telling a story about servants waiting for their master’s return from his wedding with his bride. Weddings in the Bible aren’t about love – that wasn’t at all important in the first century. They are about starting a new family, making a new beginning, creating a new world. They are about the coming of the kingdom of God. This master comes home eager to begin a new chapter in the life of his household, eager to share his joy with them, but will the servants be equally eager, or will they have fallen asleep as if this were just a night like any other? Would you rather invest your time in the new kingdom God is building among the poor and the outcast, Jesus asks his disciples, or would you rather have a few hours extra kip for yourself?

The challenge of today’s Gospel is to go home and look at that all too revealing bank statement, and that diary that doesn’t lie. Where are our treasures of money and of time actually being spent? On things that we really think are worthwhile, or not? If we don’t like what we see, why is that? What stops us spending our money and time in ways which we really feel will be of lasting benefit, bringing God’s kingdom to birth in the world? Is it fear – and if so, what are we afraid of?

I can’t give you the answers to those questions – for each one of us they will be different – but I pray that we’ll find the courage that St Lawrence knew, the courage to invest in God’s real treasures, the people around us who need our help, the things which lead to hope and joy and justice. In doing that I pray that we’ll also discover that whatever we have or don’t have in material terms, God’s love for us is inexhaustible and indestructible.

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