We have a Tibetan Buddhist lama, his Eminence, Dzogchen Rinpoche, coming to our community home next month and his public address will be entitled, "How to stop worrying." I dont know what he is going to say, I hope I get the chance to hear him. But it seems Jesus gave a talk on it too.
Of course not all worries are merely imagined or artificial. There are legitimate reasons to worry. Among our friends and family are divorce, unemployment, eating disorders, chemotherapy treatments, sleep disorders and bankruptcy. And when you look at the larger world there are environmental disasters on an unprecedented scale, unpredictable financial markets, and humanitarian crises around the world.
This ancient text today from Luke anticipates both our personal neuroses and our legitimate anxieties, but not in the way that we might want or expect.
Jesus plays by a different set of rules. The coming kingdom that Jesus announced "produced outrageous inversions of normality", like paying a labourer who worked only one hour an entire day's wages. Jesus subverts our natural intuitions with a sense of relish. And such is his advice to us about anxiety.
Dont respond to worry by hoarding or accumulating, but by giving possessions away and alleviating poverty around you. If your mind is always on your material or financial security, you will be anxious. But if you value above and beyond all those things, the treasures of heaven, you will not need to be anxious.
Do not be anxious about your life. .... Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. We all have a tendency to measure the worth of promises and kingdoms according to financial or material values. Our treasures tend to be either intangibles like power, status or prestige or else material security. I dont think there is any human being who doesnt have that natural tendency. And its understandable.
After all, we have to survive in a material world and so much of our work and time is about securing comfort and paying for the things that make life enjoyable. But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isnt about gathering treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future. Its a way of living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again.
Jesus still uses the language that familiar to us all of rewards and purses and treasure, but turns these concepts on their head. "Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out," he says. Instead of the usual financial rewards that our minds go to, these rewards are not material. They do not fade or wear out. The "treasure", by definition, is valuable, but its intangible. And its not an intangible like prestige or position which can be fragile and fickle. This treasure is not so vulnerable to being lost.
Jesus introduces the phrase "store up for yourselves treasure in heaven". So its a spiritual intangible. Treasure in heaven....
But are we talking now about accumulating points for the life hereafter? Is our faith after all about rewards in heaven in the future rather than life here and now? Taken on its own and out of context, it sounds like it, I admit. But combined with the dominant message of Jesus both taught and lived about standing against injustice and having compassion for the poor and the oppressed, that idea just doesnt hold water.
I live in a multi-faith community. We are mostly Christians, with a Buddhist and three Muslims at the moment. I occasionally have some interesting discussions with my friends at home about what we believe. A few months ago two of us (myself and a Muslim lady) talked privately about earning points for rewards in heaven. It was a strange concept to me, although I appreciated the compassion and care for the poor and vulnerable and kindness to others which are all ways in which points are apparently earned in Islam.
Then just on Friday this week I went with another of my Muslim friends at home to the Box Hill Town Hall for the Eid celebration to mark the end of Ramadan. There was a prayer service first followed by food and fun it was a lovely atmosphere with whole families participating. The men were in front and women behind, in rows facing the front for the prayers and the sermon. Later on of course everyone was mixing and enjoying the festival atmosphere. I sat with some of the other women who werent doing prayers at a table at the back of the hall until the prayer service was finished.
Ramsay gave the sermon which was about the reward that is promised to those who fast faithfully during Ramadan. Again, just like our dilemma the reward was not material. The reward promised by God, according to their scriptures, is the forgiveness of all your sins for the past year. Of course this differs significantly from Christian theology in that we deny that there is anything we can do to earn Gods forgiveness.
But when I talked about it with my friend at home, she told me that the intention of the heart is most important. Fasting is not done for rewards, but simply in obedience and to focus on the goodness of God. I must say, I was inspired by the way Ramsay, in his sermon, stressed over and over again the generosity of God who forgives sins. As Christians we think differently, for sure. But we also have some very important meeting points in what we value about the generosity of God.
But lets face it, for us, it is in Christian thought for the best part of the last 2000 years, where either excessive fear or excessive sentimentality about heaven has missed the point and misled us. Those with money and power have tended to ignore the message about treasure in heaven and those in poverty or slavery have had to dream of treasure in heaven after death because they will never see justice on earth. That was the theme of many Negro Spirituals as they are called.
And yet, especially here in Lukes Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven isnt our reward at death, it is the reign of God breaking out in our midst now. Jesus taught his disciples to pray the Kingdom into existence in their lives. "We pray that Your Kingdom will come here. Your will be done on earth just like it is in heaven." It is a Kingdom of daily bread, forgiveness and courage in the face of evil.
It is Gods pleasure to give us the Kingdom. Of course it is. That alternative community built on compassion and justice and beauty and full participation of all where no-one lords it over anyone else is what God longs for.
We are encouraged to participate in the growing and building of this Kingdom of Heaven on earth. "The Kingdom of Heaven is among you", Jesus proclaimed and it grows mysteriously in secret. It shows itself in a life of wholeness and well-being lived out in community.
This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is - in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor - you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before.
Some of us may have to change our idea of treasure. Carlo Carretto discovered early in life that "if I want to be happy on earth I must fall madly in love with God and the things of God."
This isnt a prosperity gospel its an identity gospel - we choose to behave as people of God and our hearts follow our treasures defines who we are and what matters to us. In response to the invitation of God within us we use our material wealth to create beauty, to give dignity to those who are struggling, to develop community and compassion and what follows is our own joy at seeing the kingdom of God take shape here and now.
George MacDonald 1824-1905, the famous Scottish author, poet and Christian minister, made a challenging comment about this teaching of Jesus, "Nor does the lesson apply to those only who worship Mammon, who give their lives, their best energies to the accumulation of wealth: it applies to those equally who in any way worship the transitory; who seek the praise of men more than the praise of God; who would make a show in the world by wealth, by taste, by intellect, by power, by art, by genius of any kind, and so would gather golden opinions to be treasured in a storehouse of earth."
Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out," Jesus says. Treasure that lasts. What is your treasure? Thats what I started asking myself and others this week in preparation for today.
Some might say that "having faith" is the treasure. Certainly thats the theme of that reading about Abraham. But what is faith? We know its not primarily a set of beliefs that we can give our intellectual assent to.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said: Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.
Frederick Buechner: "Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises .Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing, than a hunch. Faith is waiting."
We begin life thinking that faith is about believing things about God or Jesus and trying to make sure we dont doubt the truth of what we are taught. Then later we move towards faith as trusting God and developing a relationship with God who is still "out there". But as we move on in a life of listening, contemplation, and searching, we find that faith is discovering that the mysterious and beautiful Spirit within us and within all things excites and leads us beyond ourselves.
Perhaps then Faith is the treasure, if this is what we come to understand as faith.
This week I asked one of my community "what is your treasure?" He is remarkable man whose passion is growing community and reconciliation in his homeland of Sri Lanka in the northern district of Manar. He spends 3 months here then 3 months there and everything expresses that commitment. I said. "What is your treasure?" He didnt need long to think about it. "Influence" he said. That is what I treasure. The influence of his life to make a difference in the lives of real people in a real community is his participation in building the kingdom of God.
What is your treasure? My treasure is in healing. Of all the things Ive had the opportunity to do as a Minister and in other roles in my life the greatest treasure is seeing damaged lives healed. Other treasures may be peace-making, creating or appreciating beauty, or simply savouring the wonder of life and creation.
Where do you look for the treasure? How is this "treasure in heaven" to be found?
Ive begun to see that all treasures are hard-won. Jesus tried to help us understand that. "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it." (Matthew 13:44-46)
Paradox again! God wants to give us the kingdom of Heaven, and yet the greatest treasure of our lives, which may be spiritual or at least intangible, does not come to us easily.
Jean Chevalier, in exploring symbols says, "The treasure generally lies deep in some cavern or buried underground. Its position symbolizes the difficulties inherent in its quest, but above all, the fact that human effort is essential. The treasure is not freely given by Heaven and is only to be found at the end of a long series of ordeals. This bears witness to the fact that the buried treasure is spiritual and moral and that these ordeals, battles with monsters, with the elements and with robbers along the road belong also to the moral and spiritual order. The buried treasure is a symbol of the inner life and the monsters which guard it none other than aspects of ourselves."
Teresa of Avila said the same: "The truth is that the treasure lies within our very selves."
Id like to share with you one of my favourite stories. Its a story that was apparently first told by Martin Buber.
There was once a pious rabbi, Eisik of Cracow, capital of Poland, who had a dream in which a Voice told him to go to far-off Prague. There, under the great bridge to the royal castle, he would discover a hidden treasure. This same commanding dream was repeated twice. He finally decided to go making the long journey by foot.
On arriving in Prague he found the bridge. But as there were sentinels posted there day and night, he did not venture to dig. However, day after day he returned and loitered around unostentatiously trying to study the situation. Finally he attracted the attention of one of the guards. "Have you lost anything, my good man?" he asked. The rabbi told him of his dream.
The officer laughed and exclaimed, "You poor man to have worn out a pair of shoes travelling all this way only because of a dream! Why, I had a foolish dream once. A Voice commanded me to go to Cracow and search for the home of a Rabbi Eisik, son of Jekel, where I would find a great treasure buried in a dirty corner behind the stove. Imagine believing in such a dream!" And he laughed again.
Rabbi Eisik, bowing politely bid the officer farewell. He then hurried back to Cracow. Finally home again in Cracow, he dug under the neglected corner behind his stove. The treasure he found there put an end to his poverty forever. _____________________________________________________________
In commenting on this tale, Heinrich Zimmer writes:
"Now the real treasure, the end to our misery and trials, is never far away. It is not to be sought in any distant region. It lies buried in the innermost recess of our home, that is to say, our own being. And it lies behind the stove, the life and warmth-giving centre of the structure of our existence, our heart of hearts if we could only dig.
But there is the odd and persistent fact that it is only after a faithful journey to a distant region, a foreign country, a strange land, that the meaning of the inner voice that is to guide our quest can be revealed to us."
The treasure of faith, of beauty, of joy, healing, and love lies within you.
May God bless us all on our quest to discover it. Amen..