Season after Epiphany 2017
LET US WALK IN THE LIGHT OF THE LORD
Storing Up Treasure In Heaven Click here for audio
Pastor Donna Buell
In 1998 we finally did it. For years we had been saying to one another that we really ought to do it. But every time the thought crossed my mind, I quickly found something else to think about. My parents had never done it. I had never done it. And I don’t think I had even gone to more than a handful of homes of people who had done it. This was not something I wanted to do. But it was something that had to be done. We had to have — a garage sale!
You see, it had gotten to the point where every storage space in the house was filled to overflowing with stuff. Our guest room closet was so full of storage boxes that our guests couldn’t even hang up a shirt. Nate, who was 10 at that time, was the youngest grandchild on both sides of the family, and so we had been the end of the line for all the hand-me-downs. We still had every item of clothing Nate had ever worn from the time he was born, every toy he had ever played with, every piece of baby equipment he had ever used. But it wasn’t all Nate’s stuff. Marty and I had clothes we no longer wore, books we hadn’t opened in years, boxes of class notes from college and seminary, scrapbooks and photo albums, gifts we had received, and all the other stuff we had managed to accumulate through the years, and which had moved with us from New York to Mason City to Gordonsville to Cass Lake to Redwood Falls. How do we manage to end up with so much stuff?
Over the years I’ve had many conversations with church folks about this very subject, I was even part of one such conversation on Wednesday night at dinner, so I know we are not alone. Whether you’ve sold a house you’ve lived in for years and moved to a more manageable town home or apartment, or if, like us, you’ve helped your parents do this, you have surely asked yourself this same question. How do we manage to end up with so much stuff?
Of course, the stuff isn’t just stuff, is it? If that was all it was, it wouldn’t be such a problem, unless we were serious hoarders. We’d just load it up and take it to the thrift store or the church rummage sale, or we’d order a dumpster and have it hauled away, and be done with it. But a lot of that stuff might be useful someday. A lot of that stuff was given to us or handed down to us by someone we love. A lot of that stuff comes with a story or a memory firmly attached. So we become attached to the stuff, and we find it hard to let it go. And of course the longer we live the more stuff there is and the more attached we become. I came across a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin asked his dad, “What’s it like being a grownup?” To which his father replied, “Well, it’s not too different from being a kid…except your more attached to your toys.”
I recall that when we were preparing for that garage sale I showed Nate a box of his old stuff and asked what he wanted to do with it. He very quickly said “Sell it!” and walked away. I sat there, stunned, thinking, “Don’t you at least want to look through this? How can you sell all your little dinosaurs? You used to play with them all the time!” I guess nostalgia really doesn’t kick in to high gear until we’re parents.
It is hard to let go of the stuff when the stuff represents the people and places and experiences that have helped to make us who we are. It feels wrong to get rid of your grandmother’s tarnished old silver service or your mother’s punch bowl, neither of which you have even been tempted to use in all the 30 some years you’ve had them. It seems wrong to throw away your track medals and football trophies. And even though they couldn’t pay you enough to go back and relive those years, somehow it just seems wrong to get rid of your junior high school yearbook.
You see, that stuff helps provide a tangible connection to our earlier selves and to previous generations. But there does come a time when something has to be done. You simply can’t keep all that stuff. As pastors who signed on to a life of itineracy in the United Methodist Church, we’ve tried to do some downsizing whenever we have moved, and that was especially necessary in our most recent move from a large parsonage and to a much smaller townhome. It wasn’t always easy to decide what would stay and what would go, but in the end we tried to hang on to those things that were of greatest value to us…things that were most useful to us, things that were most meaningful to us, things that were most important to us.
It’s interesting to me that Jesus was concerned about the accumulation of stuff even in his day. We tend to think of that as a modern problem, but as one commentator has suggested,
One of the most noticeable characteristics of the human species is its proclivity to collect things…[H]umans everywhere collect “treasures” and assign status to one another on the basis of what has been acquired. In some societies one is judged by one’s livestock, in others by the possession of precious metals and rare stones. In a money economy the acquisition of financial assets becomes the primary goal for any who aspire to a higher status. Once achieved this higher status can then be displayed to community view in luxury cars, sumptuous homes, rare jewelry, and fine paintings – to name only a few of our collectibles. Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation Commentary
This conspicuous consumption can become all-consuming and self-perpetuating, and sometimes it leads to questionable, unethical, and even illegal practices. For most of us it will never be so extreme, but we too can get caught up by our “treasure.”
The Gospel of Luke includes a parable Jesus told about a rich man whose land had such an abundance of grain that he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Afterward the man told himself that he was set for life, so now he could just sit back and relax and enjoy the ride. What he did was not criminal, there were no laws prohibiting making money and accumulating wealth. But according to Jesus he was foolish. He was storing up treasure on earth, without realizing that that very night he would die, and then what would become of all his wealth? As one commentator puts it: “He lives for himself, he talks to himself, he plans for himself, he congratulates himself.” Tom Wright (Luke for Everyone). He is a fool.
As Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount he speaks about our tendency to worry and be anxious about what we will eat and drink, about our bodies and what we will wear. He draws attention to the lilies of the field and to how beautifully the natural world is arrayed. He draws attention to the birds of the air and to how God’s creation provides for their basic needs. He encourages his followers not to get caught up in worry about tomorrow, but to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. In God’s kingdom those basic needs are provided for through the compassionate service of those who live according to the values of God’s kingdom. Where God’s kingdom values are practiced, the hungry are fed, the thirsty have something to drink, the naked are clothed, the sick receive healing attention, and the stranger is welcomed.
I think Jesus is right to connect this tendency to accumulate “treasure” with anxiety, worry, and a sense of insecurity. We live in a time when that sense of insecurity is very intense for many people. Even those who are living fairly comfortable lives recognize that things could change in an instant. Illness or accident could land us in the hospital, caught up in a costly health care system. The unexpected loss of a job can all too easily lead to the loss of a home. Many of us worry about our ability to provide for our children’s education and our own retirement, let alone allowing for some of the extras that enrich our lives along the way. And in our anxiety, we start hanging on to what we do have all the more tightly.
In the midst of all of this we are bombarded with marketing, which tries to convince us how essential all of the latest, newest products are if we are to keep up with our fast paced world. Some choose to buy in, working longer and longer hours, buying on credit, falling deeper and deeper into debt. And others, who choose not to buy in and seek to live within their means, can at times feel a growing resentment. Given these circumstances, many of us are left feeling anxious and troubled and worried.
The Quakers see this for the spiritual problem it is. They call it cumber. We just sang “cumbered with a load of care” in our hymn a few moments ago. Cumber is all the stuff and all those burdens that weigh us down and hinder our lives. In the Quaker tradition the antidote to cumber has been the practice of simplicity, which has much to teach us. And yet any who have seriously tried to practice simplicity know that it is anything but simple. Intentionally pursuing a simpler lifestyle within this fast-paced consumer culture comes with its own set of demands upon our time and energy. Yet the Quakers know that in the end it really isn’t about the stuff. It’s about what that stuff and the accumulation of that stuff says about who we are and about what we value.
There is an old Sufi tale that speaks to this. In the city of Baghdad there was a man called Hakeem, The Wise One, to whom many people would come for counsel and advice. He gave it freely, asking nothing in return. One day a young man came to him. The young man had squandered much of his life and had little to show for it. He inquired of Hakeem, “Tell me, Wise One, what shall I do to receive the most for what I do with my life?” Hakeem answered, “A thing that is bought or sold has no value unless it contains that which cannot be bought or sold. Look for the priceless ingredient.” “But what is the priceless ingredient?” asked the young man. The Wise One said, “My son, the priceless ingredient is the honor and integrity of those who make the product. Consider this well before you buy.”
I like that phrase, “the priceless ingredient.” The Wise One, who also spoke in parable, was suggesting that the value of a product, in this case the young man’s life, would be found in the honesty and integrity by which it was produced. In other words, his value would come from the way he lived his life. And I think that is certainly a wise observation. “A thing that is bought or sold has no value unless it contains that which cannot be bought or sold.”
“Look for the priceless ingredient.” This is useful advice not only when thinking about our stuff, but when thinking about the way we live our lives.
Jesus put it this way, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Now it’s important to know that when Jesus talked here about heaven, he wasn’t talking about what will happen to us after we die, and he wasn’t talking about racking up credit here on earth in order to secure heavenly blessings in the future. No, he was talking about investing our lives, here and now, in the things that really matter, which aren’t things at all. Storing up treasure in heaven is about claiming those Kingdom values, and setting priorities that are based upon those values, and then seeking to put those priorities into practice.
We don’t need bigger barns or larger closets, because the things that really matter are not things at all. What we need to store up are the things that have real and lasting value: nurturing relationships with people we love, accumulating life experiences from which we learn valuable lessons, creating memories that will sustain us in the future, treasuring the values and the faith we have received from previous generations and passing our values on to future generations not only by what we say but by how we live, spending our resources of time and energy and money in ways that help to make this world a better place, sharing from the abundance of all we have received to help those in need, living in that dynamic interplay between loving God and loving our neighbor as our self.
Those are the treasures that contain a priceless ingredient and have lasting value. Those are the treasures that give life meaning and purpose. Those are the treasures that make a real difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Those are the treasures that are worth the expenditure of our precious resources. Those are the treasures that are truly worth passing on to future generations. Those are the treasures that help us and others to experience heaven here and now: God’s presence – God’s kingdom – God’s righteousness. For where our treasure is, there our heart will be, also. Amen.