Sermon at the Neighbourhood Church, Montgomery, Illinois - Church of the Brethren
Text: Luke 12: 32-40
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I am coming to you as a brother, and your church has really given the proper significance to this title. In my work for the World Council of Churches, visiting many different churches, I have to learn to address many audiences and their leaders properly according to their traditions and their roles. However, because I am representing a fellowship of churches, I find that it is appropriate to always say that the highest title I can offer to those I visit is this: sisters and brothers in Christ. I thank you for being what you are in the World Council of Churches, with your identity and your name. You are always reminding us on the equality given to us through our relationship to Jesus Christ, and making us proud and humble to be the sisters and brothers of Christ, called to follow Christ even if it is contrary to other mainstreams of the time, and to share the peace of Jesus Christ with the world. Your witness and your commitment is a significant inspiration to all of us.
The title of this sermon is actually a question: Where is your treasure? Even if it might sound like that, you understand very well that I am not coming to you as an economist to discuss your investments or treasures in that sense--at least not initially.
I am coming to you as an ecumenist, an ecumenical leader, asking you where your treasure is, asking from the perspective of the wider fellowship of churches around the world.
The question, as we heard, concerns where our heart is. Do we share with our brothers and sisters around the world the values of the kingdom of God? Do we strive for the kingdom of God together?
This leads me to share with you the theme for our upcoming 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Busan, Republic of Korea: "God of life, lead us to justice and peace." Dear brothers and sisters, what are we actually praying for, what are we praying to the God of life for, what are we dreaming of, together?
When I have preached on this text previously, it has always been read together with the wonderful images of nature that Jesus offers in the preceding verses. Learn from the lilies, from the birds, they do not worry, according to Jesus, and still they are cared for by the God of life.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading the question about our treasure and our heart is connected to what is coming after, namely the call to be watchful servants, to be disciples being aware of what is going on, at any time to be ready for the breaking in of the kingdom of God through the coming of the Son of Man.
Let us try to ponder the deep question of where our heart is from these perspectives. What matters for us; where is our heart; where is our treasure, or, rather, what is our treasure?
These questions can only be given the best answer if we see ourselves as created and cared for by the God of life. We can only direct our deepest longings in the right direction, towards what are real treasures, lasting and secured, where they will not be destroyed by any moth or stolen by any thief, if we seek them as what is given to us by the God of life in the relations to life, to nature, to our family and friends, colleagues and neighbours, to the gifts we have received, then we also will find our treasures. What we have not paid for is what has the highest value.
This is a lesson we have to learn and repeat every day. Jesus very clearly reminds us that where they are, our heart will be as well. Do not deceive yourselves. The call to not trust in the values that pass away, that actually have less real value, is a call to have a proper mental distance to our material needs and things, to not let our life perspective be hanging on the fulfilment of our material desires and belongings.
Therefore, I have to admit that it is quite paradoxical that each dollar bill of this country has printed on it, “In God we trust.” Jesus says that trusting in God is not trusting in the dollar or what the dollar can bring us. The dollar has been and is like a god for many people, here and elsewhere in the world. And this is not to ignore the fact that so much has been possible, including real improvements and advances, by the use of dollars. We might even say that the issue of our hearts is not whether we have the dollars, but how we steward them.
The expression "God of life" is a very rich one. It is an open, thankful, and affirming expression. Remember: you are in God. We are in God. Our life is given and possible only in the God of life. Life is always a gift; none of us can take it upon ourselves. And none of us should take it for granted to be here. With all the health systems and all the expertise, with all the financial resources and all the means of defense, life is given and life is vulnerable, and it has to be seen in that perspective. The God of Life that has created us and all creatures, everything that is, continues to create every day our lives and the lives of every human being.
The images Jesus is using are from basic natural examples, birds, flowers, fishes. Take some time to ponder on those the next time you can, they are living without the economy we have. But take also some time to ponder on the fact that they are threatened; 30 percent of all species might disappear in the next decades due to climate change. Human beings are carrying an enormous responsibility for the fate of other species, as they are created by God as well as we are; how do we have the right to eliminate them forever? To pray to the God of Life becomes also quite challenging.
The challenge in this biblical text and in the expression "God of Life" is also how can God be seen as the creator of all, even those who do not believe in a creator? But rather it becomes more of a moral challenge, how can we see the God of Life when not everybody has what they need to live, to survive, for a decent life. How can we proclaim our faith in a God of Life when so many are not cared for in the way Jesus describes it?
The answer to this is not to ignore the creator, or the prayer to the God of Life. The answer to this is not to say that we better trust in the care for money so that we and others can survive, and just do our best. The answer is connected to what comes after, included what we have read this morning, namely the call to watchful stewardship, to faithful discipleship.
The theme is illuminated by the context of this passage in the Gospel reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning. And there, the first words were, “Do not be afraid, little flock!” The focus in this is the church, on the fellowship of disciples. Even if it finds itself as a minority, it has a significant task of watching, of being aware of what is happening.
And maybe more than ever, it is the role of the church to be aware of how our treasures as human beings can be, and maybe are, in the wrong places. It is such a temptation to let our hearts stick to what are not real values, and consequently, the gifts of God given to all of us are not fairly shared, but suppressed by mechanisms driven by human greed to always have more and more; more than we need. When the resources we human beings have in this world are not used to build a fellowship of economic justice for all, to build a sustainable society where peace prevails, but rather to let those who have get more and those who have little, have less, then there is a need for the servants of the God of Life that are watching, longing, striving, praying for justice and peace.
To have the treasure and our heart in the value of the kingdom of God is not a way to be the little flock that does not care for the development of the world, that cares only for itself and its survival and wellbeing. Rather to the opposite: The call to strive for the values of the kingdom of God is actually to strive for what brings justice and peace, even in this world! The radical call to sell your possessions can be seen from the perspective of an expectation of the kingdom of God coming soon, and therefore there is no need for them. However it can also be seen as something else, a call to share, to release our attention from what we have to what others need.
The challenge of finding the connection between what could be seen as unrealistic idealism and a necessary realism and use even of the dollars as long as we have them, is actually to find the proper perspective of fellowship. The values we have are first of all given to us in a fellowship. Life is given in our family but must be nurtured and developed in wider and new circles. The deeper meaning of titles as sisters and brothers helps us to remember that we are given our life in fellowship, as children are given life by their parents.
The global ecumenical fellowship as a worldwide relationship of sisters and brothers empowers the churches to be a little, or sometimes even big, flock of faith and trust. We benefit from the faith of others, and the faith we are able to share together in unity, carrying the cross of Christ together in this world. But we also need the global ecumenical fellowship to strengthen our ability for being watchful servants for the needs of others.
In the global ecumenical fellowship we learn how these are two sides of the same coin. The trust we have in God is also a trust in the fellowship. The life that God gives us is nurtured by what the human fellowship and nature provide for us. The faith we have in God and the striving for the kingdom of God is therefore always also a call to share, to live, to work and pray for the values of the kingdom to become real among us and unite us. The fellowship we have as sisters and brothers in Christ is always here to be watchful of those who need the church, not being preoccupied with ourselves. To be one, not in ourselves, but in Christ. So that the world may believe that in Jesus Christ there is hope and salvation, that in Jesus Christ there is a reason, a very good reason, to not be afraid.
WCC general secretary
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit