Getting our priorities right

This is the text of a sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I’m placed this year.  The Scripture texts it references are Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I think it has been common in Christian circles to think of this verse and apply it in a very individualistic way.  Where my treasure is, there my heart will be also.  And it’s another one of those verses which people have taken as encouragement to a life of piety, of renunciation, of simplicity in material things and richness in spiritual things.  Those sorts of ideas are, in and of themselves, not necessarily bad… but I suggest they’re not actually quite what this verse is getting at.

The key to that is the switch between plural and singular, which doesn’t come across into English.  But what Luke wrote is: “Where your treasure is, there your (plural) heart (singular) will be also.”  So “you plural” – youse lot, you mob – have one heart between you.  What I’m getting at is the idea that this saying isn’t first and foremost for the individual believer, but for the community in its corporate identity.

So, with that in mind, let’s hear Jesus’ words again: Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This puts a confronting question in front of us.  What shall we invest in, as a community?  How can we make decisions which store up for us treasure in heaven?  In fact, it’s a text which asks us to be very clear about our sense of mission.  How will we use what we have to further God’s purposes – and that begs the question – to whom are we being directed to “give alms,” and what does that mean?

Let me come at that question by telling you something about my first placement.  I was a brand new theological student, just starting out, and college organised a placement for me – of all places – at the Cathedral.  I went to a couple of services to get a feel for the place before I started properly, and it didn’t inspire me with confidence.  It was big.  And formal.  And complex.  And did I mention, big?  While I was writing this sermon I looked back in my journal entries from that time and found that I felt small, lost, overwhelmed and anxious.  What on earth was I going to do in this place?

And I remember quite clearly that one day I hid away in a side chapel to pray.  Lord, I have nothing to offer in this place; why have you put me here?  And I felt, in that stillness with God, that I was being told that the stuff I was stressing about – the big buildings, the formality, the complexity – those things were temporary.  They would end, one day.  The Cathedral itself would crumble into dust.  But the people; the people were destined for eternity.  If I could only focus on and love them, I would be doing something which would have eternal value.  And that insight helped me focus my time there and cope with the things I found intimidating.  I even learned to appreciate them, as I started to understand how the buildings, the artwork, the liturgy and the whole rich life of the place also contributed to the inner life of the people.

Well.  This isn’t the Cathedral, but it seems to me that the reading this morning is saying much the same thing to us.  It’s the people who are destined for eternity, so focus on and invest in them.  The horizon of our planning and decision making should be as wide as the future life we are promised, and not restricted just to this one.  We who have known something of God’s graciousness in this world can be confident and open-handed to others as we look to the future to come, since we have – as our reading from Hebrews put it – assurance of things hoped for, and conviction of things not seen.  Just as Abraham set out for a place he had been promised, not knowing where he was going, we are asked to do much the same.

Or we can read much the same thing again in Peter’s second epistle, where he says: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be?”

What sort of people ought you to be; where will your treasure be?  Different ways of looking at the same question.  Are we taking eternity into account?

Behind that, though, I think there’s something else to consider.  We’re a diverse group of people, with different gifts, passions, personalities and experiences; and yet it won’t do, if I can extend Jesus’ metaphor just a little bit, for us to have a divided heart.  We all know from personal experience that if we try to do something half-heartedly, our effectiveness can be crippled.  Or, to put it another way, if, as a church, we have different foci and competing priorities, a multiplicity of visions of what we’re about, we’re going to be pulling against one another and undermining what we could achieve.  That’s not to say, of course, that we won’t all be involved in a huge diversity of activities; but that those activities ought to be compatible with one another and oriented towards the same ultimate end.

This text can be read as much as a call for unity of purpose and commitment, as it is about the direction of that focus and commitment.

My brothers and sisters, what the gospel reading this morning says to us is that if we can invest in the people, who have an eternal future, and if we can do so with real wholeheartedness and unity, we will truly be storing up for ourselves unfailing treasure in heaven.  But it is up to each of us to play our part in making sure that it is so.

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