Our heart’s treasure
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
In the name of God who is Giver, life-giving and our heart’s true treasure, Amen.
Earlier this summer, our family completed a task that I wouldn’t wish on anyone but so many of us have to do: clean out the home of a loved one so that it can be sold. My father lives in a small cottage in a retirement community now and could take very little with him, so this job involved sorting through a massive amount of possessions and trying to make thoughtful decisions about what to keep and what to give away or sell. Both of my parents were born during the Great Depression into families who lived very frugally out of necessity, and my mother loved the freedom later in her life to buy and collect things-sets of dishes, all kinds of glassware, quantities of linens, decorative objects, furniture. All of it was beautiful and there was so much- so incredibly much. We had already been going through our own home and getting rid of possessions that were cluttering up our space- such as the 1950s avocado green party size coffee percolater, for example. For weeks on end, there was an ongoing parade from their house to ours of things that could not be simply dropped off at the donation bin on the way home. It was too complicated for that, because these were items with invisible threads of memory that bound them to us long enough to touch and remember, one last time.
The hardest items to deal with were actually the things with little or no monetary worth but with deep sentimental value. I fully believe every greeting card they had ever received was stored there- cards from my own baptism, my sweet sixteen, all my graduations-lovingly signed by people long gone. There was a doll from my mother’s childhood that had been damaged by years in the attic, but she could not bring herself to throw it out. Her wedding dress was hanging in a closet- yellowed beyond any hope of use. True to the values of that thrifty and creative generation, everything was kept forever- you never knew when you might need it again! At the end, we were all so overwhelmed that we kept very little and made hasty decisions, unable to clearly decide what treasure was worth keeping and what was not.
I believe our Gospel reading today brings us face to face with many of the struggles that marked our house emptying experience. I am certain- and comforted by my certainty- that Jesus knew this particular teaching would raise our anxiety level and thus tells us “do not fear, little flock”, giving us this tender image of himself as the loving Shepherd. Following immediately on the heels of last week’s parable of the rich fool, a person who stockpiles many possessions only to lose his earthly life that same night, hearing “do not be afraid” links the stories together, preparing us to hear that this message will not be an entirely comfortable one. Scarcity and abundance are compared in the Gospel way of turning them upside down, contrasting the abundance found in the Kingdom of God with the anxiety over possessions that we humans often feel, reminding us that our prevailing culture of accumulating “stuff” can lead to a scarcity of the things that truly matter.
As long as human beings have existed our possessions have represented both simple and complex things in our minds. In societies where survival was the dominating force, possessions tended to be practical- a tent to pitch wherever you found yourself, a cloak to keep you warm, some kind of bag to carry the bare essentials. In the Depression-era landscape of my parents’ childhood, people owned a bit more than that, but there was precious little time or money to spend on non-essentials. By the time 2019 rolled around, not only have we accumulated lots of possessions that are not really treasure, but they have become linked in our minds with more valuable things- making it harder to let them go. A worn-out toy might represent a happy childhood, for example, or a frayed linen tablecloth bring us warm memories of holiday dinners. And so, when we look at this Gospel story with our twenty-first century perspective, we understand that the call to rely less on earthly possessions and focus instead on the treasures of Heaven demands that we realize first what we have done- we have associated physical belongings, precious as they may be, with the unseen gifts that really are our heart’s treasure.
We are told in this story to do things few of us will find easy- sell your possessions, use the money to bless the poorest among you, store up treasure that will not wear out or be destroyed, remember that what you choose represents your heart. This leads us to some tough questions that will not have quick or easy answers: How do we allow ourselves to be unafraid enough to let go of our “things”- both seen and unseen- and decide what we do need to hang onto because it is real treasure? How does receiving the greatest gift- the Father’s kingdom, joyfully given- free us enough to realize that we already have everything we need? And if we can learn that, can we go a step further to realize that we can even give away what is real treasure- not stockpile it- but share it with others so that they too may know the kingdom and live in true abundance?
We can know that God loves us enough to want us to accept this gift of the Kingdom without fear, we can long to fill our hearts with true treasure, but first let’s be honest-this is a hard, hard thing to do. It can be profoundly difficult to let go of the familiar to embrace gifts we cannot yet see, allowing our lives to be a tunnel for these things to pass through on their way to bless others. If you have ever felt this way, I hear your heart. It takes commitment to the hard and good work of transformation to understand that the only treasures really worth keeping are the ones we should also give away-things which last forever and cannot be stolen or destroyed- gifts such as love and honor, righteousness and obedience, faithfulness and courage, joy and peace.
Our human need is to cling to things outgrown, no longer needed or desired, yet we sorrow as we put them aside. The space where they were, this newness of life can feel like both a death and a birth and it is understandable that we need Jesus’ reminder to help us feel less afraid. It takes acceptance that the kingdom is already ours, given to us by God, to live into what it means to leave the old things behind, freed from what does not truly matter to grow more fully into what does. We need to invite our heart’s treasures to transform us so we can become kingdom-bearers ourselves, ready at all times to share in making God’s kingdom on earth a reality.
In our Epistle today is one of the loveliest and most beloved lines in the New Testament: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”, the verse that led us to name our daughter Faith. We hear in this reading the example of our spiritual ancestors who were faithful in kingdom seeking through a long season of active readiness, faithful to what the journey involved despite its persistent call to letting go. Abraham and his family left both tangible and intangible things behind in their search for this true homeland, freeing themselves up to be alert and ready to receive the gift they were promised. I often refer to this as a “pioneer mentality”, a mindset that sometimes it is necessary to throw overboard the things that we can live without to be certain we keep only what we truly need. On the long journey west, our pioneer forebears faced often heartbreaking decisions that involved leaving behind everything that they had brought with them from their old life in order to continue onwards towards their destination, sustained by the treasures that revealed their heart.
On Tuesday, Patrick and I will celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. As we try to enter daily into what a life centered on God’s love really looks like, the call to discover our hearts’ treasure is already a familiar one. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to be made new, we are finding it a little easier to understand what will matter on the journey onwards, both with possessions we can see and treasures we cannot. It is our family’s hope that what we treasure will be revealed through our actions as well, in how we prepare ourselves to live in readiness to serve and promote the kingdom. We strengthen ourselves through these gifts so that we, in turn, can give them away. If at our best we do not fear, it is only because we believe this- and I am grateful and glad.
And so, little flock, using this term of endearment spoken to us by the One who calls us beloved, let us move together away from anxiety and towards the reassurance of God’s loving care. Let us offer thanks that we have been given the kingdom- the best of all possible gifts- by the God who “took good pleasure” in giving us all that there is, all that we will ever need. Let us learn to give away anything that holds us back from living a life where we are always ready, where we are free to love as God loves us. As the great teacher and theologian Frederick Buechner says: “The life you clutch, hoard, guard, and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself, and only a life given away for love’s sake is a life worth living.”