Sermon on the Mount - Sermon #9 - Treasures in Heaven
Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb, Given on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013
You have heard that is was said, “You are what you eat.”
You’ve heard that before? It’s actually true! It’s more than just a saying. Our bodies regenerate our skin every 35 days. In just over a month, we have a whole new shell. Which that takes energy right? And what do we do to give our bodies energy? We eat! The things that we eat are the building blocks for our new cells. We digest, absorb, and transfer that food into our cells. We literally manufacture our new skin from the food that we take in.
That means that right now I’m working on a skin made of fried egg and toast, a jimmy john’s sub, a whole lotta kale and cherry tomatoes from my garden, oh and that mint ice cream I had last weekend at the baby shower.
Do you notice how you feel or how things change when you eat differently? What we take into our bodies matters and changes us. You feel different when you eat greasy things than when you eat a bowl of lettuce. [Whether you like one or the other, I’m not here to judge! The point is – you can tell the difference].
Our scripture today challenges us to think about what we take up and what we hold onto. Our minds and hearts and spirits are influenced by what we eat, what we take in through our eyes and ears. And by what we own, by what we hold, what we keep around us.
We are impacted by our stuff, from the outside in.
The passage we read today is a combination of three separate ideas. If you were to pick an image for each you might label them as three teachings on: treasure, light, and masters.
Most scholars would say this sermon was never actually preached as a whole by Jesus, but that Matthew compiled many of Jesus’ core teachings into one sermon as he was writing the gospel. This is one of the easier sections of the sermon to get a feel for that, each of the three parts could stand alone in some ways. But put together, as we are reading them this week, we make some connections that we might not otherwise.
The first piece challenges us to consider our treasure. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
What do we collect and for what benefit? Why do you hold, store, buy what you do? What you have is what you value, your heart and your treasure reflect each other.
The second piece talks about the eye as the lamp of the body. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!"
You are what you eat. If we take in light, we will be full of light. If we take in darkness, how very dark we will be. The sermon on the mount small group created this image as they reflected on the passage this week:
And finally, the third section talks about our inability to serve two masters. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."
We cannot prioritize or value both God and Wealth at the same. In fact, loving one actually makes you like the other less, because they are in tension.
So when you take all three of these, treasures, light and masters – you begin to think about how your possessions, how your stuff affects you.
It is interesting that this chapter has turned toward our treasures and our wealth at this point. Up until this these verses, Jesus has been teaching about very common spiritual practices prayer, fasting and giving alms. These are so primary they are not even exclusively Christian, but found as central to most faith traditions. And what is the final piece thrown into that grouping? Our stuff. Our treasures, our possessions. They too are a spiritual matter.
So what is the impact? How does our stuff change us? What is the spiritual impact on ourselves, how are our livelihoods changed? How do we see ourselves based on our stuff, and how does that affect our behavior?
The way that we see ourselves and the way we see others is weighed down by the very things we call treasure because we let our stuff give us identity and cause us worry.
First, our stuff gives us identity. We know something about each other by our stuff. Or at least we think we know something about each other. We often assume people make a certain income based on the size of their house, they have a certain kind of job based on their clothing, we may even judge their character as fun and laid back, or prudish and snobby, or irresponsible and messy, artistic and creative, all based on the stuff on their back and the stuff that fills their lives. Just as we see others by their stuff, we also are aware how we are seen. We understand people see us based on our things. And often, we hang around people who have stuff like us. Someone who has the same kind of stuff as us, we assume is the same kind of person. It gives us identity.
Our stuff is also a source of worry for us. Which is our scripture for next week! We worry about protecting it, and our attention and behavior is shaped by conserving that stuff. It’s a trivial example, but this is indicative of how our stuff demands our attention. I did football parking yesterday, and we would have made another $200 if we charged double for those who made comments about worrying about their car getting dinged! Our worry about our stuff pulls our attention away from God, from treasures of heaven and so then shapes our behavior.
But the impact of our stuff reaches far beyond even us, it has impact on the global scale. Our stuff, especially the stuff we don’t even think about much (the waste that is thrown away), is literally reaching across the ocean and impacting all of creation, not just humanity.
The story of the albatross is one example. The albatross the biggest bird still alive on our planet today, with that largest species having a wingspan of 12 feet long! It is a beautiful bird that can fly over 600 miles a day to feed itself and its baby chicks. They’re an ocean bird that live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere.
One species of the Albatross, called the Laysan Albatross lives on an island called Midway Island, located in the Pacific half way between the west coast of North America and the eastern coastlines of Asia. The Laysan Albatross tells the story about how what we take in impacts us. I had heard of its story before, but I had not yet seen a picture of it until this week (after the sermon on the mount group had already drawn this image on the wall).
The Albatross on Midway , have been doing their mating dances for years, giving birth on the island to their young. But in recent years, they have found new sources of food. Plastic. You see very near the island is something researchers have dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They are still not quite sure how far it extends or which are all the sources of the trash, but the way the currents converge they pull trash from coastlines and it gets trapped in a concentrated area of the ocean. The word for it is: gyre, which means a spiral or vortex.
The Albatross, flying hundreds of miles a day, go out to sea to feed on squid and crustations, and mistakes the bright colored pieces of plastic stuff for food. The bottle caps, cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, children’s toys are all swallowed whole.
Of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatross on Midway island, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system. What they take in is literally killing them by the thousands. Approximately one third of their young die.
It is heartbreaking. And it is one of those stories that is easier to choose not to see than to face the reality of grief and loss, and utter waste, and waste of life that it reveals.
But if we can face it. If we can choose to look. The story of the Albatross bears wisdom.
This gyre, the vortex of trash, the spiral of stuff is one place to start. How are we trapped in our own whirlwind of treasures, unable to move, imprisoned by the things that surround us? What are the things in your life that hold you captive? That occupy your mind and change your behavior because you want them so badly or you want what they will bring to your life? How are we caught in the gyre?
The Albatross also has lessons for us. This majestic bird is so confused! She sees the beautiful shiny red bottle cap and scoops it up enthusiastically to take back to Midway where she will then regurgitate it to feed to her baby chick. She not only takes in the darkness into her own body, but feeds it to her young. She unable to discern what is food and what is not, what will nourish and what will kill her chick from the inside out.
We are confused. Confused about our identity, about what will bring us life. Sometimes I think it is because we are swirling so fast in our vortex of stuff that we can’t see straight what it is that we even have. We are moving to fast and are so dizzy from the spiral that we reach out to protect our stuff, do everything to get more stuff thinking it will help calm the dizziness. If I can just complete the collection, if I can just get my house finally, decorated the way I want it, if I can just get that nice bike I’d be in better shape, if I can just…. And the whirlwind continues. The Albatross is confused.
The Albatross has also developed a legend about it. It was first made famous in a poem call the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was considered a good omen, good luck, by the sailors, to have an Albatross that start to follow your ship. But in the poem, one of the sailors kills the bird with his crossbow. To kill the Albatross was an act that would curse you. It then became a bad omen for all aboard the ship. As punishment for the sailor, the others took the dead Albatross and hung it around his neck.
The poetry goes:
Ah! Well a day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
Today we see this word used as a metaphor, when referring to a burden to be carried, a penance to be paid.
An omen of good luck or bad. And what made the difference?
The choice of the sailor to harm the bird.
The death of the Albatross is a curse upon us. It is a kind of omen of the global impact we have. The reaches of our bow and arrow are further than ever before, and we carry the burden, and have penance to pay.
The bird from Midway now hangs around our neck as a symbol of our stuff, our treasures that weigh us down.
And so here is where we ask. Now what? What then? How do I respond? What do we do with our stuff?
I think there are two things to think about as we begin. As you live this week, think about these questions.
- Notice how you think about your stuff. When does your stuff occupy your attention? What do you fear losing most?
- Secondly, when does it not? What stuff do you use day in and day out but never give thought to. How does that have impact?
Our attention alone to these things will begin to set us on the right path. Last week, Pastor April talked about how prayer both orients us, but also prepares us to act in the world. These questions will help orient you.
If you feel ready for action. You may think about how to “unstuff youself”. What are the things getting in the way? What is the current sucking you into that spinning vortex? But before you clean out the junk drawer and your closet, think too about where you put the stuff. Even giving it away to another, may only cast the burden, the albatross, upon someone else.
If you want to talk more about how to “unstuff” yourself, please feel free to come talk with me. I do not have all the answers, in fact, of the four spiritual matters in this chapter, prayer, fasting, giving and stuff. It is the hardest for me. And I think it is one of the hardest struggles I think we face today. I would be grateful to have some company as we discern our way forward.
This feels heavy. Even talking about our stuff feels as though we are weighed down even more by it. It is hard to stand up and preach what doesn’t sometimes feel like good news. My preaching professor used to say there are “no” sermons and “yes” sermons. This feels like a “no” sermon right? Don’t do this. Here is our sin laid out on the table.
But to understand it that way is to continue to let ourselves get caught in the gyre of stuff. Jesus is preaching about light entering the body, and how full of light we will be. It feels as though there is sacrifice when we think about letting go of our stuff. But the radical message of Jesus is not to sacrifice and live in a vow of poverty as the monks simply because it is somehow right thing to do. The message of Jesus is about liberation. Freeing ourselves from the gyre, and awakening ourselves to the gifts of grace and the Spirit of God. For these no moth or rust will consume, no thief can steal, for these are treasures in heaven.