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A Wonder-full Life: Looking In

Text: Matthew 6:19-24

I’ll bet that if you were to have a deep conversation with your average “spiritual-but-not-religious” person on the street, you would find a deep resonance with many of the teachings and values of Christianity — things like loving your neighbor, treating others the way you would like to be treated, helping the vulnerable, respecting others and their unique gifts, caring for the earth, peacemaking instead of resorting to violence to solve problems, even things like prayer (or meditation), gratitude and staying connected to God, or the Holy. Those who are skeptical about organized religion, and even those who are very vocal about their opposition to it, share most of these values. But if you had this deep conversation, chances are that you might come to a parting of ways — or at least, a point of significant tension — when you got to the topic of Jesus’ teachings on money. All too often, you hear the critique: “All preachers ever talk about is money,” as if the whole enterprise of “church” were a giant, self-serving grab for people’s limited financial resources. And you might come to this point of tension, not only with people outside of the community of faith, but also with some who attend church and who otherwise consider themselves to be Christian.

One reason I think that is has to do with the long indoctrination of our consumerist culture and the individualism that marks our “American way” — but I don’t think that is all of it. The prevalence of spiritual poverty in the midst of material abundance, while quite profound today, has also been a struggle in other times and places. That’s why Jesus’ words on the accumulation of treasure rang true in his time, as they do today — and caused as much challenge for his first hearers as they do for us.

But speaking of those first hearers, I want to shed a little light on a couple phrases from this passage that might go past us or might be confusing, because we are not first-century people. These notes come from the annotations in The CEB Study Bible, a version that some of our Wednesday class purchased last year in connection with our “What Is the Bible?” study from the Massachusetts Bible Society. (We haven’t finished that series yet, by the way; we’ll be picking up with the third course, Introduction to the New Testament, next month, and it’s not too late to join up and learn a whole lot about biblical scholarship, how the Bible was put together, the role of archaeology, and other fascinating topics!) What I find, in myself, is a tendency to skip over phrases that don’t really make much sense to me, and this one about “the eye is the lamp of the body” is one of them. What I learned from my new study Bible (and a look at the long list of contributing biblical scholars at the front of my Bible tells me the source for the Matthew notes is a professor from San Francisco Theological Seminary) is that a common belief in the ancient world that “the eye allowed the body’s light (or darkness) to be seen by others.” I think how we can translate this into a contemporary mindset is, it doesn’t take long for your true character to be revealed to others. If you are self-obsessed, or focused only on your own well-being, or on that of those you consider to be “your own,” that lack of generosity of spirit communicates to others. This is where, I think, a lot of the criticism of churches being “full of hypocrites” comes from.

The other note this professor shares about this text is that “the idea of piling up treasures in heaven is found in 2 Esdras 7:77,” a book in the Apocrypha (or “deuteroncanonical materials”), written in the period between the Old Testament and the New, which is not part of the Protestant Bible, but would have been familiar to Jesus and his first hearers. That verse reads: “You have a treasure of works stored up with the Most High, but it won’t be shown to you until the last times.”   

The idea of “treasures on earth” being consumed by moth and rust and stolen by thieves may not seem so relevant in these days of superior storage facilities, banks and insurance policies; though many of us may have lost a beloved item of clothing to moth infestation, a car to rust, or had something stolen from us, most of us have not lost everything to such marauders; we’ve managed to overcome some material losses along the way, and maybe learned to hold things a little more lightly. But this question of the heart (v. 21) is the penetrating one.

Last week, a bit in worship and a lot in our Wednesday small group, we took “a look back” at our past, examining how our history and our families of origin had a role in shaping our attitudes and anxieties about money. Some of us had a little fun comparing ourselves — or people we know and love — to characters in the film It’s a Wonderful Life.  Looking at the past, with a dose of self-compassion and without judgment, is a first step to healing anxiety and moving toward freedom, according to Maggie Kulyk, author of the book Integrating Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart-Centered Life, which our Wednesday group is reading together. The second step is “looking in,” uncovering our values and thinking more deeply about the choices we make concerning the spending of our time, to earn, spend, give and store our wealth. Suggesting that money is defined as “something we choose to trade our life energy for,” Kulyk asks, “Are we really ‘saving’ our lives by ‘saving’ money? While it is possible to make more money, we cannot under any circumstances, make more time. Think of the weight of our society’s motto, ‘Time is money…’” She then notes, in contrast that the national motto of the tiny country of Bhutan is: “Time is life” (Integrating Money and Meaning, p. 93). Which sounds closer to the sentiment Jesus?

I’ve asked you to submit pictures of what you “treasure,” and often, when I ask about what people are grateful for, I get the same answers: “Family. Health.” Those are probably the top two (or first two) answers, just about every time. But you know, even those things can become an idol — things that we sink our wealth into, storing up “treasures on earth.”

I spend a fair amount of time and resources on my health. Over the past four years or so, I’ve mostly eaten organic food. I exercise. And I recognize that I live in a world where not everyone can afford to eat that way; not everyone can afford a gym membership. And no everyone has the same access to health care or insurance. In our world of increasing income disparity and haves and have-nots, these things are luxuries. And even if I wish for these things for others, if I’m not doing anything about bringing justice to that system, I am storing (or hoarding) my treasures in my self, and not being rich toward God.

This week I was diagnosed with a serious, chronic, autoimmune condition. Over the next several weeks — or months — I will be going through the process of finding treatment that works for my body, in hopes of keeping symptoms in check (and I thank you for your prayers and support). I am imagining this disease as a pirate, whom I’ve named “Sori Art,” for Psoriatic Arthritis. In my mind, he looks like Capitan Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean — not a pleasant fellow — who, with his band of marauders, has been roving from place to place in my body, attacking and sacking and pillaging. I’ve been having these conversations with Sori Art, telling him that he is mistaken, that I am not his enemy but his friend, that the whole ocean he is sailing is his host, and he does not need to resort to violence to find the treasure he so hungrily seeks. I am imagining myself as a calm sea, and apologizing to Art for having fed him things like sugar, anger, sorrow and anxiety. I have told him that the medicines I’ll be taking will confuse him for a time, because he cannot presently see correctly what is friend and what is foe, but I am determined to feed him a steady diet of love, so he might transform into a friendly, more benign pirate (one that looks more like actors Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom). I’ve told him that I’ve known some pretty great men named Art, and that art (with a small “a”) is beauty, and someday he may be more like the legendary King Arthur, noble and good-hearted, and a defender against the real enemies to my immune system.

But in all this, I am also realizing I cannot make my body be something I “treasure” just for my own sake, for it, like all human bodies, is not designed to last forever. So I must invest my “heart” and “soul” in godly things, godly matters, investing in others, in helping those in need. Not that those relationships last forever, or that the practical “good” I will do for people will last, nor that there will be a memory of my “investment” by anyone “recognizing” me. But I believe that there is something that is added to the universe when I focus the power of Love outside of myself, spend my life energy on bringing dignity to others, honoring their personhood, reflecting light that somehow, mysteriously, multiplies — not for my benefit, nor even, ultimately, for the benefit of the person whose “day is made.” We connect to the Love at the heart of the universe, and that Love is unleashed and perpetuated in the divine economy. And there is always enough. 

Can the divine economy be diminished? We can certainly block it in our own hearts when we turn inward, turn grasping and hard, fearful and hoarding. 

So I pray that you will join me in looking inward, at what you value and what you treasure, how you spend your time and life’s energy, to see what lines up, and what courageous vision might emerge. That’s the wrestling topic for this Wednesday’s small group, and if you can come, you’re cordially invited. If you’re unable to attend, take one of the handouts on the back table and do the exercises yourself, or I can send you a link to a meditation that’s part of Maggie Kulyk’s book. This is a journey worth taking, this “getting up and dealing with your money.” It is a path toward the heart, and toward a treasure worth uncovering.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you. Amen.