One of our most notable human characteristics is our proclivity to collect things. Whether my Dept. 56 Dickens Village, the record collection I no longer have a turntable for, or Susan’s teacups, we all collect and hold onto “treasures.”
Sadie Sieker was a missionary for many years in the Philippines. Her role was as a house-parent and teacher for the children of other missionaries. Sadie loved books. So much so that the ones she treasured the most she kept in a footlocker under her bed.
Once in the quiet of the evening Sadie heard a faint gnawing sound. After searching all around her room, she discovered that the noise was coming from her footlocker. When she opened it, she found nothing but an enormous pile of dust. All the books she treasured and kept to herself had been lost to termites.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our word for the week is treasure. Defined simply as something of great value.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is getting at the heart of our human problem of stockpiling possessions that we think of value as a hedge against insecurity. The problem with investing our sense of worth in cash and possessions is that such an investment is always at peril. It is never safe.
H. Ross Perot, in a way only he could say it, noted: “Guys, just remember, if you get real lucky, if you make a lot of money, if you go out and buy a lot of stuff- it’s gonna break. You got your biggest, fanciest mansion in the world. It has air conditioning. It’s got a pool. Just think of all the pumps that are going to go out. Or go to a yacht basin any place in the world. Nobody is smiling, and I’ll tell you why. Something broke that morning. The generator’s out; the microwave oven doesn’t work…Things just don’t mean happiness.”
Yet it can be even more problematic than the simple frustration and expense of upkeep on all that we posses, or desire. It can be downright deadly.
A find the excavation of Pompeii underscores the ancient nature of human desire for material treasure. The body of a woman embalmed by the ashes of Vesuvius was discovered. Her feet were turned toward the city gate, but her face was turned backward toward something that lay just beyond her outstretched hands.
The prize for which those ash-frozen fingers were reaching was a bag of pearls. Maybe she had dropped them, as she was fleeing for her life. Maybe she found them where they had been dropped by another. Be that as it may, though death was hard at her heels, and life was beckoning to her beyond the city gates, she could not shake off their spell. She had turned to pick them up, with death her reward. The eruption of the volcano did not lead to her loving pearls more than life. It only froze her in an attitude of greed.
In other words, the lifestyles of the rich and famous are lifestyles of the always vulnerable and ever fearful. More than that, there is always someone around who has more than we do, so the quest to keep up becomes an endless burden. As the woman from Pompeii shows, it can be a deadly burden. Deadbolts, safety deposit boxes, tax shelters – none of them, in the end – protect what we really desire, none of them make secure a treasure worthy of our hearts.
What faithful hearts really desire is to count – to count for something, to count to someone. Our goal, our desire, is to come to the end of each day – or the end of life – with the satisfaction of having stood for what is good, with the joy of having been loved and having loved well in return. We should have the memory of having shown mercy and the peace of having walked with God. That is true treasure. That is treasure no thief can plunder nor termite consume.
The decision, however, to store up treasures on earth or in heaven is not one of mere financial planning. It is about the basic orientation of our lives. The call to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” is not a question of prudence. It is more radical than that. It is a question of vision and freedom – what a person sees and what holds a person captive.
If a person sees life as a gift from God, a bountiful outpouring of God’s providence, then that person is free to hold possessions with a light grasp and to be generous and merciful toward others.
On the other hand, if life is seen as a competitive struggle between winners and losers over limited resources, then one is a slave to the struggle, and the only viable creed is “where is mine?”
It is this sin of violence, racism and hatred that shattered Charlottesville this weekend and shaken the commonwealth. White supremacy is an evil “treasure” oriented away from Jesus’ treasured call to show mercy toward others, stranger and neighbor alike.
Chanting ideologies soaked in supremacy and racism is idolatry of the self. It will always lead to persecution, discrimination, alienation and as history as shown, holocaust.
When we orient the worth, the value, of our lives solely around acquired treasures, or worse, our race, our gender, or our nationality, we are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.
Followers of Jesus are instructed to avoid such insecurity by accumulating the invulnerable treasure of a lifetime of kindness performed to the glory of God.
Life will not necessarily be easy, or safe. It may look like the repair job the new England Pipe Cleaning Company of Watertown Connecticut performed in March 1995. The company was contracted to dig twenty-five feet beneath the streets of Revere, Massachusetts in order to clean a clogged ten-inch sewer line.
In addition to the usual materials one might expect to find in a clogged sewer line, the tree-man team found sixty-one rings, vintage coins, eyeglasses and antique silverware, all of which they were allowed to keep.
Whether it’s pipes, or people, if you put up with some mess, sorting through the muck, sometimes you will find real treasure.
For followers of Jesus, such as us, Fredrick Buechner put it this way: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
So it is that the one treasure we must seek to possess, is the treasure that must always be given away, the love of God.