Sermon: Where Your Treasure Is
Text: Matthew 6:19-23
Date: November 10, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
The gospel throws down quite a challenge for us today, doesn’t it? “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” One of the commentaries I read pointed out that in Greek the verb translated “store up” and the noun “treasure” have the same root, so that one could literally render the phrase this way: “Do not treasure up treasures.” Do not treasure up for yourselves treasures on earth, where they may be destroyed by moth and rust and fire and flood, or lost to theft or repossession. Jesus goes on to remind us that the heart follows the treasure; the heart will be locked up with the treasures we treasure up. We agreed in Bible study Tuesday that this is one of those sayings that just seems true, even though it may make us squirm a bit. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The converse may be true as well—where your heart is, your treasure is inclined to follow.
Speaking of treasures, did you see the story in the news the other day about a treasure that survived fire? This is the firefighter’s social media post that got picked up in news stories: “In 1961, 484 homes were destroyed by the Bel Air [California] Fire. This past week, some of those same (rebuilt) homes were again destroyed in the Getty Fire [which recently burned 745 acres and at least 10 homes]. On October 30th, Engine 89 was working at the fire and found a small ring box out in front of the only home destroyed in that section of the street. Sitting there all by itself. When they opened it and saw the beautiful ring inside, they just knew this would be very important to the homeowner. They delivered it to the Command Post. A few days later, once residents were safely able to return to their homes, a couple LAFD officers set off on their mission to find the ring’s owner. They found her. That ring belonged to her mother…who lived in the home when it was destroyed in 1961 and this ring—it was the only thing that survived. Her mother was with her in the home when they had to evacuate last week. And now, the ring is again the survivor…finding its way to a spot where firefighters ‘rescued’ it. The resident was speechless and beyond happy to have the ring back. Among the stories of heartbreak and devastation, these moments lighten our hearts. We hope this beloved family heirloom continues to bring joy and smiles to its family.”
Quite a story. I imagine that diamond ring will be all the more treasured for having survived not one, but two fires. It is probably freighted with a ton of meaning for that family at this point. I wonder what steps they will take now to keep the ring safe? Will they hide it in the glove box of the car so it will go with them if they have to evacuate their home again? But then what if someone steals the car? Will they rent a safe deposit box for it in the vault of a big granite bank? If their son or grandson wants to propose marriage with it, will the apple of his eye get extra-tough scrutiny from the family regarding whether she deserves such a treasure? It would be hard to hold that ring lightly at this point.
Truthfully, it’s hard for us humans to hold any treasure very lightly. There’s a story about Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which sticks with me because of its rarity. A donor came into the Catholic Worker House and gave Dorothy a diamond ring to support the mission. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?” Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
Dorothy Day could see that diamond ring more clearly than I could have in that situation. Her eye, I believe, was more healthy, in the sense that the gospel uses that phrase. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” [Matthew 6:22-23] In Jesus’s day the folks thought about eyes a little differently than we do. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, “We know that the eye responds to light from outside the body, but in antiquity the common understanding in both Greco-Roman and Jewish literature was that the eye emitted light and that sight was possible when the light from within met light from outside. The Testament of Job, for example, contains the following statement: ‘My eyes, acting as lamps, looked about.’ Therefore, the eye, that sparkles and flashes, is the lamp of the body. The light on the outside—the light that came into the world at Creation and was reflected anew into the world in Christ—is met in this ancient understanding of sight by the light within the disciple. The light within the disciple is a sign of faith, of ethical purity, of spiritual health.
Dorothy Day’s eye, according to the gospel standard in today’s text, was healthy. She could see a diamond ring as a thing of beauty that could be shared and not hoarded; and she could see the demented, irritating bag lady as a beloved child of God deserving a generous gift. Healthy eye; light spirit. Free spirit.
I’m guessing the family whose ring was rescued from the fire won’t be looking at their ring the way Dorothy Day looked at the ring she received and then gave away. I’m hazarding a guess, in fact, that the rescued ring is going to get in their eye (metaphorically speaking) and cast a shadow, because it’s going to become too significant; it’s going to signify more than an object can bear. I have no evidence for this hazardous guess except observation of humans, of which I am one. It’s hard to see the things we begin to treasure as mere things. In the gospel’s ancient world view, there is the potential for darkness to seep into or sully the light in the eye of the disciple.
That’s why I suggested that the rescued ring could (metaphorically speaking) get into the (metaphorical/spiritual) eyes of its owners and cast a shadow. Because any treasure we treasure up here on earth has that same potential—to interfere with a healthy view of their ultimate value and usefulness. I’m just musing on the story of the ring that survived two destructive fires because it makes such a good story and focal point. Most of our treasures—our money and stuff—probably don’t carry that singular amount of freight, partly because the freight is spread out over hundreds or thousands of objects and numerous dollars. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get into our spiritual/metaphorical eyes, casting shadows, distorting vision.
The theme in the “Wonder-full Life” worship series for today is “Looking In.” Imagine the eye that the gospel verse pictures as a lamp is turned inward, shining a light on our inner lives, our thoughts and dreams and feelings and values, our perceptions, our memories. What would this lamp, this light turned inward reveal? Suppose we were asked to describe our inner selves, and urged to be honest about it? It wouldn’t be easy, would it, even if one did earnestly wish to make an honest account? One of my little story books has the protagonist saying that he is often “more of a wall than a window to myself.” There’s a ring of truth to that; we don’t understand ourselves half the time. We don’t know always what motivates our own behavior. It’s not all about rational choice, that’s for sure. My quote of the day desk calendar had this thought from Alfred North Whitehead a few days ago: “Ninety percent of our lives is governed by emotion…Intellect is to emotion as our clothes are to our bodies.” Though we don’t always recognize it because we like to think we are rational about our money, economists point out that many decisions about money are emotional—feeling based more than rational.
In the classic movie that serves as inspiration for this worship series, George Bailey gets into a financial pickle and the light inside him becomes very dim indeed as he becomes emotional and is swept up into despair. He is vulnerable, and Mr. Potter, the voice of the worst of capitalism in the story, looks at George’s life insurance policy in which he has a small amount of equity, and declares viciously, “Why, George, you’re worth more dead than alive!” George, already frantic and ashamed of himself because he took his anxiety out on his family and his daughter’s teacher, is gutted by that remark—he starts to believe it. He equates his personal value with the value of his worldly assets, and his outlook—more accurately, his “inlook”—becomes dark enough for him to consider suicide as a viable option. “If the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” [Matthew 6:23]
George needs his guardian angel to arrange a view of the world that reminds him of what is really worth treasuring in this life: loving relationships and generous service to one’s community. He gets the gift of seeing what an impact he has made on his town by seeing an alternate reality without him in it. He is reminded, then, of his own value in the eyes of those who love him, and remembers clearly how much he values his loved ones. The money problems that were temporarily casting a shadow over his inlook and outlook are cleared away and his eye is restored to health. I love the bit in the movie when George’s hero brother toasts him as “the richest man in town!” The relationships he has nurtured represent what Matthew refers to as “treasures in heaven.” They are the treasures that cannot be consumed by moth and rust and fire and flood, that cannot be stolen by thieves.
George is himself treasured in heaven; God takes a lively interest in restoring his inner light before he can harm himself. That’s true for each of us, though we might not have Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody show up to rescue us from our desperation. We are treasured by God regardless of whether we have become hometown heroes. We are treasured by God regardless of whether we have won the world’s admiration by treasuring up ample treasures here on earth. Most of us squishy, emotional humans are vulnerable to losing our sense of value any given day when things don’t go our way. What we have or what we lack materially might get into our spiritual/metaphorical eyes to sully our vision, both our inlook and our outlook. What a gift it is to have the gospel to remind us we are loved without measure, and that the treasures we treasure up here on earth are our servants, not our masters. A clear-eyed view of money and other treasures keeps them in perspective as tools, temporary instruments that can be put to use building a better world as God’s servants, rather than as gauges of our value as persons.
Here’s another fable to add to the parable of George Bailey’s wonderful life: “A wise person stood before an assembly of people and presented to them this parable. ‘A teacher and an artist were once involved in a mighty dispute over who had greater influence in the world. In order to settle the issue, they decided that they would each put the full weight of their talent to bear upon a child. It was agreed that the teacher would teach the child the essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic so that he might be able to carry on commerce and become a success in the world. The artist would teach the child to recognize and appreciate beauty. At last the time came for the child to enter the world on his own.
“To prove who had the greater influence on the child, both the teacher and the artist were allowed to offer one final suggestion for the child to remember them by. ‘I have taught you what you need to be a success in life,’ the teacher said, ‘so every time you deal with money, think of me.’
“‘I have taught you the beauty there is in life,’ said the artist, ‘so every time you see a rainbow, think of me.’
“‘Whom do you suppose the child will think of more?’ the wise one asked the crowd. Without hesitation, they exclaimed, ‘The teacher!’
“‘The child learned better than you,” said the wise one, ‘for he saw that money was just one color of the rainbow.’”
Here’s hoping, Beloved, that we are able to keep worldly treasures in their proper perspective—that neither abundance of earthly treasures nor the lack thereof will sully our view of the wonders of this wonder-full life as we look inward and look outward. May our hearts and our treasures both be committed to serving the God who is Love.