Liturgical Reading: From “The Parallel Sayings of Jesus and Lao Tzu” (5th Century B.C.E. Chinese Sage) Edited by Marin Aronson
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” – Jesus
“The sage does not accumulate things. He lives for other people
and grows richer himself. He gives to other people and has greater abundance.” – Lao Tzu
“What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose their souls?” – Jesus
“To be proud with wealth and honor
is to sow the seeds of your own downfall.” – Lao Tzu
“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” – Jesus
“I have three treasures – guard them, keep them safe.
The first is love, the second is moderation and the third is daring not to be ahead of others.”
– Lao Tzu
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” – Jesus
“The sage wears rough clothing and holds the jewel in his heart.” – Lao Tzu
Gospel Link: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=274
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” – Jesus
“When gold and jade fill your hall,
you will not be able to keep them safe.” – Lao Tzu
I need to tell you how this sermon began
because it wasn’t a pretty birth.
I arrived in the office to dig into the readings
and my cell phone rang.
It was the person at the bank
who has been helping us with our mortgage application.
Now that right there should be a tip off:
Man buying house
meets Jesus speaking against materialism.
So the mortgage officer tells me
there is an open collection on my credit report
Uh oh, not good.
Also, I’m pretty sure, it’s not true.
But you never know,
I’ve made mistakes before
this could be one, right?
I call Verizon
who is the one reporting that I had stiffed them.
I begin to think this is sounding familiar
and realize it has appeared on my credit report before.
Only it is not me.
It isn’t my name.
It isn’t my address.
It isn’t my social security number.
Still, it appears on my credit report.
Verizon tells me they sold that bad debt
to a collection agency and I need to call them.
I dutifully call.
the man on the other end of the phone tells me
the outstanding debt isn’t me.
Then he says I need to call Verizon back
because only they can take it off.
Not true, Verizon tells me,
it is not their debt now and only the debt collector
can take it off.
Back and forth I call,
my agitation rising each time.
Meanwhile, why waste all this time
I am spending on ‘hold’?
So I decide to make those pesky software updates
that have been poking at me
every time I turn on my computer.
After two hours on the phone
with my credit problem supposedly resolved –
and I say supposedly because I haven’t seen the evidence – my computer screen is still grey
with a black silhouette of an apple on it,
and a black line
that is supposed to be moving
to show the progress of the updates.
But it is not moving.
It is just a black line.
I turn off my computer, wait,
count one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two…
turn it back on again,
still the black line.
Finally, an hour after I started the software updates,
my computer comes back to life –
ever so slowly at first,
but then fully revived.
At this point I have been in my office chair
for three and half hours
with not a single thought given to Jesus
and the kingdom of God
verses the kingdom of stuff;
even though I have been completely at sea
in the Kingdom of Stuff
buffeted by storming waves.
I prefer to come to a sermon with a degree of serenity
and open mindedness
but I confess to you now
that this sermon began with an existential grimace.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
That is Jesus at his very best.
Of all the great and amazing things Jesus said,
this might be the most spare yet eloquent
statement of truth he gave to us.
I love it
and hate it
and never, ever
do I want to preach on it –
less than ever.
I am mired in the process
of buying a second house
but I live in neither one –
instead we are in an apartment
surrounded by too much stuff –
and more stuff packed away in a storage unit.
Clearly I am not in the right mindset
to enter into conversation with Jesus and Lao Tzu.
“For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also,” Jesus says, and,
“The sage wears rough clothing
and holds the jewel in his heart,” replies Lao Tzu.
“Do not worry about your life,
what you will eat,
or about your body,
what you will wear,” says Jesus;
“The sage does not accumulate things,” Lao Tzu agrees,
“He lives for other people
and grows richer himself.
He gives to other people
and has greater abundance.”
I am in deep, deep do-do. How about you?
There is a centripetal force
that pulls us from the habitations of our better angels
into the orbit of stuff
whenever the treasure in our lives
moves from particular people we know
and the greater good we are to serve
toward the stuff we own or want to own.
Securing a mortgage or loan for example,
intensifies the shift from heart to stuff
simply by the amount of time and energy it takes
to shop, buy, and own.
In the case of a house or car
the intensity is increased
by the shear consumption of thought,
emotion, and labor required to purchase it.
When a house, the intensity is magnified
by the effort and care it takes to transform
someone else’s house into your own home.
We get captured in the gravitational pull
of the things that are not truly our treasure
and the intensity of their presence
competes for our attention and focus.
I don’t know if this has ever happened to you
but sometimes I can even see it happening
as if in slow motion.
Standing outside myself
I can watch as the Kingdom of Stuff
reaches out and grabs me, then
envelopes me in its arms.
The raw power of materialism
and the longing for more and better
is a hazard for us all.
Like any kind of lust, greed, or gluttony,
the desire for more and better
is a perpetual hazard for some,
an occasional slip for others,
and practiced in discrete binges by still more people.
The gravitational pull of the Kingdom of Stuff
is an omnipresent danger in our world because we are always in danger of being drawn in
by the desire for better and more.
In our society it is in the air we breathe.
Every strand of electronic data swirling around
and through us,
and along every optic cable,
and splashed on billboards, bus benches, cereal boxes,
and filling every visual void;
all of it
charged with highly sophisticated images
meant to excite our greed
and seduce us into a thoughtless yearning
We are invited,
and by everything around us,
to be perpetually dissatisfied.
We are taught by the music of capitalism
to be chronically hungry.
Our weaknesses and vulnerabilities
are taunted and teased.
We are titillated constantly by the hawkers
of More! and Better!
and they are very good at their job.
“Watch Out!” Jesus warned us in last week’s Gospel,
which was a precursor to the one today,
“guard against greed,” he said.
On the surface of it
it would be easy to imagine
that subsistence farmers in first century Judea
would be more susceptible to greed and lust than we are,
given how much we have
and how easily many, if not most of us here,
can eat what we want
whenever we want it;
and enter into air conditioning,
or take a shower,
or listen to the best symphony orchestra in the world
with the brush of a finger
on the screen of our latest device.
But I am guessing the hunger and lust for
better and more between them and us is a draw.
We may even be worse
since we have the taste for so much more.
To ALL of us, then and now,
Jesus says, “Watch out, guard against greed.”
Now it is worth noting,
he does not give us a rule
or drop a plumb line by which to measure our greed.
He simply says, “Hey, this is real so pay attention.”
Beyond his metaphors,
poetic imagery and sharp stingers,
the summation of his argument we heard today
says everything we need to hear:
“Where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also.”
So exquisitely truthful:
Where we plant our treasure
is where we will find our heart.
We know it is true.
We know it
without having to verify it in the laboratory.
We know it
even if the words were never actually spoken.
We know it
in the marrow of our bones.
We also know where we want our treasure to be
even though that is not always what and where
our treasure actually is.
when forced to acknowledge
the difference between what we want our treasure to be
and what is actually buried in our hearts.
For many of us
it is not a pleasing juxtaposition.
Maybe because I am in the midst of buying a house,
and maybe because I just did battle
with some anonymous voices
from some anonymous credit recovery agency
likely located in some region of the world
I have never stepped foot in,
and “I am mad as hell
and am not going to take it anymore;”
but I do not think Jesus was advocating
or becoming a mendicant sage or itinerant preacher.
Here is what I think Jesus was saying
when he warned us to be on the look out
for the presence of greed in our hearts
and to preserve our hearts
for our true treasure.
When we have become a subject in the Kingdom of Stuff,
we see and touch the Life that surrounds us
as if it is an object for our use
instead of with awe
for how chock-full it is
with God and with beauty and with joy.
The magnificence of an apple,
in the Kingdom of Stuff,
becomes a sweet taste to satisfy our urge.
The sensual beauty of an orange
in the Kingdom of Stuff,
becomes a vehicle for us to absorb Vitamin C.
In the Kingdom of Stuff
a tree becomes a house,
a forest a park,
a person a clerk,
a cow a steak.
This is not to deny the utility of things,
or the absolute certainty of our basic needs,
but our need
and the utility of people and things
need not transform the holiness of life
into an object for our use.
Everything we desire,
everything we seek to own
or to use
or to consume,
is a sacrament of God.
Let me repeat that
because it is a bald-faced proclamation.
Everything we desire,
everything we seek to own
or to use
or to consume,
is a sacrament –
and by that I mean
it is all an outward and visible sign
of God’s universal and eternal presence.
We need to see it,
to feel it,
to live in its presence.
Keeping the presence of God in mind
while surrounded on all sides by messages about
the utility of life
and the objectification of all creatures
will help us guard against greed.
And according to Jesus,
that is all we need to do: guard against it.
We need not become perfectly immune to it
but guard against it.
Recognize its presence;
know its power to drag us into self-orbit;
understand the Kingdom of Stuff is powerful
and alien to the Kingdom of God;
and when we are in the midst of greed
and find ourselves falling into the Kingdom of Stuff,
look for the holiness
and partake of the sacrament.
Touch and be touched by the presence of God
in each moment
and in each thing
and allow it to remind us of what
our true treasure is buried.
It is so much easier said than done
but when it is done,
when we DO bring ourselves back into the presence
of the holy that is always in our midst,
greed is less powerful.
Truly, greed has so much less power
in the presence of God
than in the Kingdom of Stuff.
When we stand in the presence of the holy
we will still feel greedy,
but it will be just one of those little things
that poke at us
instead of something that owns us.
That is the difference.
Indeed, it is impossible to gluttonously inhale
and voraciously gulp down anything
when we stop
to touch and be touched
by the presence of holiness in the very thing itself.
I do not think the gospel is a gauntlet
with a hideous Jabba the Hut
on one side
coiling around those of us with abundant
and a possession-less Lao Tzu sage
on the other side
smiling serenely with a materially unburdened heart.
Rather, the gospel issues a warning
to be on guard against greed,
and whispers to us:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God.”
as Elizabeth Barrett Browning understood,
in the presence of such massive,
even excessive holiness in our midst,
we can either take off our shoes
and gape in awe at the beauty
or sit around and pluck blackberries
as if that bush was placed there for our benefit.
“Where our treasure is,
there will our hearts be also”
is about so much more
than how much or how little stuff we own.
It is about what we see and know
and how we live with it.