Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Some of you know that I was at Preacher Camp last week. It’s what we call our annual sermon planning retreat, where six of us who have known each other forever get together to plan our preaching for the following year. But we also spend a good bit of time simply talking about what’s going on in the world and in our lives and in our churches. Last week we were wondering if people come to church primarily for the fellowship, or the worship, or the mission, when it struck me that maybe it’s none of those things, primarily: maybe they come to church for the wisdom, and I don’t mean mine.
In the Old Testament there was this idea that life was a journey that presented you with a series of choices. Again and again you might find yourself standing at a fork in the road, wondering whether to go right or left. If you were wise you would make the right choice. That’s what the Book of Proverbs is all about: it’s a collection of short, memorable wisdom sayings, offered in the hope that if people can learn to make good choices they will stay on the path that leads to life. And this book claims to contain the proverbs of Solomon, the wisest and wealthiest person who ever lived.[i] If you could learn his secrets you might live a very good life indeed.
So, maybe that’s why people come to church: because life is a difficult and confusing journey, because they often find themselves standing at a fork in the road and it would be helpful if someone were standing there to point the way, someone they could trust. The Old Testament had Solomon but the New Testament has Jesus, the greatest Wisdom Teacher of all time. We lean in close and listen to his words because we believe they will guide us along the path that leads to life. Only you don’t have to listen long to realize that the wisdom of Jesus is very different from the wisdom of Solomon. Solomon points you to a life of health, wealth, and happiness while Jesus sometimes points in the opposite direction. At the very least, we might say that his is an unconventional wisdom and the question is, are we willing to follow it? Can we trust that if we do what he says, we will end up in the place we want to be? And before you say yes you might think about where he ended up: hanging from a cross like a common criminal. Is that the place you want to go? Or would you rather end up in Solomon’s palace, with more wealth than anyone had ever seen and more wisdom than the world had ever known?
Tough choice, I know. It might help you to read the Book of Ecclesiastes, also attributed to Solomon, in which he confesses that he had it all, everything the world could offer, and found it to be completely unsatisfying. “Behold, all was vanity and a striving after the wind,” he writes.[ii] I think about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, sitting on the deck of his $500 million yacht in the Mediterranean, looking back at the twinkling lights of St. Tropez after finishing up a gourmet meal prepared by his private chef and pouring himself one more glass of Chateau Lafite. Ah! It doesn’t get any better than that, does it? But what if that were your life day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year? When would you get tired of sitting on your yacht, indulging yourself in fancy food and wine, while the crew buzzed about anticipating your every need? When would you be ready to scream and jump overboard? Hard to imagine, I know, but not impossible. Almost anyone can see there has to be more to life than that. And Jesus offers us more. He offers us abundant, overflowing, everlasting life, not only in the hereafter, but also in the here and now. Yet in order to have what he offers we have to trust his wisdom. We have to listen to what he says, and then do it. But much of what he says is hard to hear, and even harder to do.
Today’s Gospel lesson picks up a few verses after last Sunday’s. We are in Luke, chapter 12, where Jesus has just told the story of the Rich Fool, the one who decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones so that he could store his enormous harvest. The line that stays with me from that story is the one where the man says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax! Eat, drink, be merry!” As if his soul could not relax until he was sure he had enough. And maybe you know how he feels. Maybe you are trying to save for your retirement and wondering how much is enough. Even the most frugal financial advisors will tell you that a little more couldn’t hurt. And so you keep on working, and keep on saving, and your soul is like a clenched fist. It can’t relax.
If that’s you then you are the person Jesus is addressing in the very next paragraph, verses 22-31. It’s not in today’s lectionary reading, but it should be. Jesus says:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, you of little faith! 29 And do not keep seeking what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the [heathen who] seek all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Jesus doesn’t really answer the question of how much is enough, but he does speak to the condition of a clenched soul. He says, “Relax! Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear. Your father knows what you need. He’ll give it to you. Just seek his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” Jesus isn’t talking about money; he’s talking about worry. He’s talking about how we worry when we think we won’t have enough money. And he is dismissing that worry with a wave of his hand. “You’ve got a heavenly father who loves you! One who is able to provide for your every need! Why should you have to worry about anything?” And yet we do. Of course we do. We worry so much that Jesus has to continue this conversation in the next paragraph, today’s Gospel lesson, where he says, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”
I explained it like this in a previous sermon: “Jesus is saying that God, who is the king of the universe, wants to give us his kingdom. He calls him our ‘father,’ and suggests that we will inherit what belongs to him just as surely as children inherit what belongs to their earthly fathers. And what belongs to God is everything: as I said, he’s the king of the universe! We are the young princes and princesses who sit around his supper table, swinging our legs. Which makes our anxiety about our lives, about what we will eat and what we will wear, almost laughable.”[iii]
Jesus doesn’t want us to worry and he doesn’t want us to fear. He wants us to trust the Father’s love and generosity so completely that we can do the next thing on his list, which is to sell our possessions and give alms. It’s right there in verse 33. But for all the people who say they take the Bible literally I don’t see many people taking this verse literally. I don’t see many people selling their possessions and giving the money to the poor. If everybody did that, even if only every Christian did that, there might not be any poor people in the world, and if I were Jesus, that’s probably what I would want them to do. But I believe Jesus was talking to poor people when he said it, people who were clutching their handful of possessions as if those things could save them. “No,” he said. “Only God can save you. And that is God’s intention. It is his good pleasure to give you not only what you need to survive, but also what you need to thrive. God wants to give you the Kingdom. In light of that you don’t need to cling to your possessions any longer. You can sell them and give the money away.”
Because here’s the thing about possessions: they can possess you. When I took up sailing on a friend’s boat recently I decided to give away my canoe, the one Al Hopper gave me fourteen years ago when I came to Richmond (thank you, Al). I gave it to my niece, and now I don’t have to worry about it anymore. And when Christy was cleaning out the basement recently and asked me if I still wanted to keep my bicycle, the old Panama Jack beach cruiser that I rarely ride, I said no. The next day it was gone. But I’ve been enjoying my friend’s sailboat and every once in a while I get an itch to buy one for myself, you know, just a small one. But then I will remember the old joke that “the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day you buy a boat and the day you sell it.” That tells you something about the burden of caring for things, and if you have a lot of things the burden can be enormous. You can lie awake at night worrying about thieves breaking in and stealing, or moth and rust destroying.
It’s like I say to people who are struggling with addiction: “You have to know who is the master and who is the slave in this relationship. If you can’t say no to something then you are the slave, not the master.” And for people who are addicted to money or things one of the best ways you can show them who’s boss is to give them away. On Facebook yesterday my friend Linda confessed that one of the biggest challenges of her marriage was when her husband came home from a deacons’ meeting and said they needed to start tithing. She said she struggled with that, trying to find a loophole (“Ten percent? Really?”). But in the end she bit the bullet and wrote the check. She said she had to work on the “cheerful” part of being a cheerful giver. But over time her heart changed and her checkbook opened. She wrote, “This was over fifteen years ago. We haven’t wavered on this giving since. God does provide what you need. He blesses you so can bless others.” As I’ve been saying, when the clenched fist of your soul relaxes and opens up, God can fill it with good things so you can share them with others.
I think Linda might say what Jesus says here, that when you can learn to overcome the fear and the worry, when you can find the courage to sell your possessions and give alms, then you will have treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” That is unconventional wisdom, especially these days, but let the one who has ears hear this: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
And that’s just true.
I think about those first disciples. When Jesus called them to follow they could have said, “Well, we’d love to, but we have all this stuff: these boats, these nets, this business.” But that’s not what they said. They just dropped their nets and followed. And there must have been times along the way when they wondered where their next meal would come from or where they would sleep at night, but that didn’t stop them from following. They followed Jesus all the way to the end. And I think if you had asked any of them even on their worst day, even on Good Friday, if they would do it again they would have said, “Yes. Absolutely. Following Jesus is the greatest thing I have ever done.” And if you asked them if the life they had discovered in him was a life worth living I think they would have said, “Yes. Absolutely. It’s the only life worth living.”
And that’s unconventional. There aren’t a lot of people interested in a life like that. They would much rather follow Jeff Bezos, and end up on a yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean than follow Jesus and end up standing at the foot of the cross. But I have this feeling that if we were brave enough to try it, if we could give up our worry and give up our fear, we might find that those disciples were absolutely right: that a life of following Jesus is the only one worth living, no matter how hard it is, no matter how much it costs. And when we get to heaven we may find that our hearts got there ahead of us, and so did our treasure, because hearts and treasure, treasure and hearts—they always end up in the same place. So, here we are in this place, standing at a fork in the road with a decision to make: whose wisdom will we trust, and which way will we go?
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] See Proverbs 1:1
[ii] Ecclesiastes 2:11.
[iii] Jim Somerville, “Where Is Your Treasure?” a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on August 11, 2019.