Fun fact: on the first Tuesday of every month the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas offers free admission to San Diego County residents. So this past Tuesday, our family enjoyed the afternoon at the Garden. As is my custom on family outings, I wear my sandals in the car, and I pack shoes and socks for the ensuing adventure. When we arrived I did my little “Mr. Roger’s’ thing in the parking lot. But when I unfolded my socks, I was disappointed to find that one of them was filled with little holes!
I have noticed in recent weeks similar little holes appearing, indiscriminately in various t-shirts. Now, it would appear, whatever is damaging my shirts has moved over to the sock drawer. Having read through the today’s gospel reading, when I held up my “holy” sock, I could only smile and thank God for his generosity in providing yet another, timely and tangible sermon illustration.
Our Lord continues his teaching today on the dangers of earthly treasures, and the blessing of heavenly ones, saying, “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”
Earthly possessions are impermanent by nature. Moths can destroy them. Thieves can steal them.
Many of you will remember when St. Michael’s was broken into several years ago, and a thief stole all of the sacred vessels from the sacristy (and smashed the tabernacle). It happened on the evening of Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). When we discovered the break-in on Ash Wednesday, God also comforted us with these similar words from St. Matthew’s Gospel, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6.19-20).
We were blessed as a parish family with this timely and tangible lenten meditation. God in his goodness restored the sacred vessels (just in time for Easter), and gave us an opportunity to witness to his love and faithfulness both to the thief, and the wider community. It was an immeasurable blessing to experience the truth of this teaching in such a corporate way.
Not only are earthly possessions impermanent — always susceptible to corruption and loss — but so, in a manner of speaking, are we! That is to say, the time will come when our bodies, this earthly tent we inhabit, will die. We cannot even take our own bodies with us in death, let alone our worldly goods and possessions. (I am reminded of that ride at Disneyland, the Pirates of the Caribbean, and that scene with the skeleton pirate sitting atop his mound of gold).
It is one of the greatest struggles of the Christian life, and yet so central, so essential to it, that we do not become distracted by the desires and delights of this world, but rather set our hearts upon the Kingdom of God and the wealth of its riches.
The delights of the world, and those of the Kingdom of God are, by their very nature, diametrically opposed. Our worldly desires, the ones that bind us to the earth, and prevent us from enjoying our heavenly inheritance; these are rooted in the impulse to possess and to take for our selves. Money, possessions, and even people can all become objects which entice with a fierce magnetism the sinful passions of greed, envy, and lust.
The opposite of these worldly desires, indeed their only antidote, is the self dispossession — the giving away — of our time, talent, and treasure for the sake of God and our neighbor. It is the giving of the self for the sake of the other. It is, in a word, love.
Love alone transforms money, possessions and people from objects of sinful passion, into instruments of heavenly salvation. The same treasure brings about drastically different results in the human heart. St. Peter Chrysologus writes, “Either through almsgiving it raises the heart of a man into heaven, or though greed it buries it in the earth … O man, send your treasure on, send it ahead into heaven, or else your God-given soul will be buried in the earth. Gold comes from the depth of the earth — the soul, from the highest heaven.” [i]
There is nothing wrong with possessions or worldly goods in and of themselves. It is rather the disordered desire for them that is created within us, this is the problem, the way in which they tether our hearts to the earth and keep us away from God. So Our Lord says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms;” untether your desire from them that your hearts might be free to ascend to God. “Sell your possessions and give alms, provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria writes, “ … no one can do damage to the wealth that is laid up above in heaven. God is its keeper, and he does not sleep.” [ii]
What is it that prevents us from living into this, our calling, as Christians. Why is it such a constant struggle for us? God knows. Do we? Underneath all of the passions of greed, envy, and lust, if we strip them all away. Underneath them we find that great spiritual impediment which, if not addressed, will always frustrate our path forward into the Kingdom of God … that impediment is fear.
Fear that God is not real, or that He is now who He says He is. Fear that God cannot be trusted. Fear that He will not uphold his end of the bargain; or fulfill His promise. Fear that if we actually give ourselves away as He instructs, we will have nothing to show for it. Fear that when we give we will lose, and that only when we take for ourselves will we be able to receive.
But God knows this. He knows our fear, and the weakness that it causes in our spiritual lives.
Which is why Our Lord says to us, “Fear not, little flock … fear not. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That is, the Father has freely and gladly chosen … to give you everything that belongs to Him. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
In the verses immediately preceding this gospel, Our Lord says to his disciples:
“ … do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 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! … Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”
It is here that he says, “Fear not, little flock. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
The only way to maneuver beyond the impediment of fear, is by exercising faith. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We can become so busy and distracted storing up the things that we can see, that are here today and gone tomorrow — that we fail to store up those things which we cannot see, but that God promises will last for eternity.
The economy of God is so strange, upside down even. To take is to lose. But to give is to receive. To love is to live, and to give life. We follow a crucified and risen Lord who not only taught this, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16.25), but also demonstrated it through his own death and resurrection.
I sometimes imagine that our obsession with our possessions and the delights of this world is like a little kid fiddling around with sand castles on the beach, when the gates of heaven and the Kingdom of God are towering all around us, to inhabit here and now, in this life, which is merely a foretaste of that which is to come.
Why not get up, fear not, trust God, love others, and enter in?
[i] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, St. Luke p. 211.
[ii] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures, St. Luke, p. 211.