November 11, 2018
Micah 4:1-5 Psalm 85:7-13 1 Timothy 6:7-10, 17-19 Matthew 6:19-24
I have an alarm set on my phone for 11:00. If I’m still preaching at that point, we’re going to stop and observe a minute of silence in remembrance of those who gave their lives in war – World War I, World War II, Korea, and all the conflicts and peacekeeping missions since then in which Canadian service men and women have been engaged, and in which some have died. My daughters have childhood memories of me making them watch the ceremonies from Ottawa, and one year, driving back from the clinic because one of them needed to see the after-hours pediatrician, the clock struck 11 and I pulled the car over and stopped. For me, the most meaningful part of Remembrance Day observances is that minute of silence, which in my mind is a time, not only to remember, but to repent of the sinfulness that brings us to the point of war in the first place.
And now to our readings for today.
A new meme has entered our lexicon: “first world problem”. The phrase was added to the Oxford online dictionary in 2012. It’s a shorthand way of describing issues that residents of first world countries complain about in the absence of more pressing concerns, “problems” that arise from living in a wealthy industrialized nation, problems that third world inhabitants would probably be only too glad to have to deal with. Should I get a regular latte or pumpkin spice? Which brand of designer jeans should I buy? Cue the eye rolls.
Jesus knew the problem of possessions for his first-century audience – and for us, because people are not all that different from one age to another. He challenges people to take a position on wealth, possessions, and the anxiety they can foster. Our gospel reading for today is part of the Sermon on the Mount. In this collection of teachings, Jesus sounds the keynote of the new era of God’s reign of justice and peace that he has come to announce. That keynote, I think, can be summed up in one word: righteousness. Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Today, we hear him address one of the areas of life that is closely connected with righteousness: material wealth.
Jesus contrasts “treasures on earth” with “treasures in heaven”. The natural human tendency is to accumulate material possessions as a kind of insurance against hardship and want. Earthly treasures are corruptible, vulnerable, and temporary. In the ancient world, a large part of a person’s riches often consisted of costly garments and precious metal ware that could be destroyed by moths and rust. Earthly treasures are corruptible. They are vulnerable to theft. And riches are temporary. “You can’t take it with you”.
“Treasures in heaven”, on the other hand, are incorruptible, secure, and eternal. Jesus did not invent the expression “treasures in heaven”. Other Jewish writings also speak about living in such a way that you store up heavenly treasure, that is, a good standing before God. Nothing can destroy this treasure. And where we put our treasure reveals where our heart is. In our culture, money talks. It is a powerful symbol of our priorities. It is not the wealth itself that is the problem, but what we do with it and how we use it. Our use of wealth displays where our hearts really reside.
The Jesus says this curious thing about the eye. In Jesus’ day, the eye was thought of as a window that brings light into the body. An eye could be “single,” or it could be “evil”. One way of reading this is to contrast health and lack of health, and that is the way our text understands this contrast. “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” If the only light a person has is darkness, how intense must that darkness be! However, there is another way of understanding this saying. We’ve all heard the expression “the evil eye”. In Jesus’ day, the “evil eye” was understood to be stingy and envious, as opposed to a generous eye. What Jesus is saying is that a generous heart and spirit brings moral and spiritual health, while a mean spirit prevents a person from seeing what is really important.
And Jesus goes on to say, “No one can serve two masters.” Slavery requires complete devotion to one owner. It is impossible to serve both God and wealth. You have to make a choice. Jesus used the Aramaic word Mamon for wealth. In Aramaic translations of the Scriptures, it meant possessions acquired dishonestly, by selfishly exploiting another person. Devoting one’s life to the dishonest accumulation of wealth is in direct contrast to devoting one’s life to God, to accumulating the heavenly treasure that Jesus urges us to seek.
“You cannot serve both God and wealth.” “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The true value of wealth is not in the accumulation of possessions in pursuit of power and comfort. The true value of wealth is that it enables generosity, and a generous heart is set on God. The way we use our money reveals where our hearts are. The uses to which we put our money identify what we care for most deeply. But it goes the other way, too. Our hearts are not fixed in stone. They can be changed. They can be made to follow where our treasure goes. Giving out of our wealth to advance God’s mission in the world can and does turn our hearts more and more toward that mission and the God who calls us to share in it. Putting our money toward uses that promote God’s vision of righteousness may help our hearts get a taste of what God desires for the world.
So, here’s a question: why are we talking about money on Peace Sunday, Remembrance Day? Peacemaking is about more than silent remembering. It is about conversion of the heart, and that conversion shows itself in actions of love and justice.
I want to tell you about St. Martin. The Church honours him on November 11, so his feast kind of gets lost in the focus on Remembrance Day. Martin was the bishop of Tours in France, who died in the year 397. Before that, though, he was a soldier. In those days, people who wanted to be baptized had to give up certain occupations, including military service, that were seen as incompatible with the Christian life because they involved an oath of loyalty to the (pagan) emperor, and because a soldier was part of the apparatus of empire that oppressed Christians. When Martin became a catechumen, or candidate for baptism, he renounced his profession. Even at this early point in his growth in faith, he seemed to understand what his new life required of him. He was riding into the city of Amiens when he met a beggar who was almost naked. Martin took his sword, cut his soldier’s cloak in half, and gave half to the man as a covering. The following night he had a dream in which he saw Christ himself wrapped in half a soldier’s cloak and saying, “Martin, a mere catechumen, covered me with his garment.” He became a popular figure in Christian devotion, and you can see statues and sculptures all over western Europe illustrating this story.
After his baptism, Martin settled near Poitiers and lived as a monk. Others in search of holiness gathered around him, and he eventually organized the first monastic community in France. After he was elected bishop of Tours, he continued to live a monastic life, holding no personal property and caring for the people of his diocese. He was actually fairly unpopular with his brother bishops, who were mostly members of the ruling class and prided themselves on their Latin culture. I think they viewed Martin as kind of a hick. And they despised him for his former rough and tumble occupation as a soldier. But it was mostly his monastic life that irritated them. By the end of the 4th century, the Church was well on the way to becoming the Roman empire at prayer. This was a time of sorting out the Church’s official doctrines amid great controversies and conflict. When the emperor offered his troops to suppress a heresy in Spain, the other bishops had no hesitation in accepting. Only Martin disagreed. Although he abhorred the heresy, he believed that using the violent apparatus of the state did even greater violence to the spirit of the Gospel. Since the Church’s warfare was spiritual, he argued, so should its weapons be spiritual. The controversy grew so bitter that some of the other bishops never forgave Martin. It was only through the work of his biographer that his reputation for prayer, study, humility and graciousness spread. He is an example of the conversion of heart that pursues the things of God above all others.
When we first moved to our house, we used to see soldiers drilling at the Kapyong Barracks as we drove up and down Kenaston. Catherine was about six years old when the first Gulf War broke out. She heard bits about the war on the television news. One day, shortly after the war began, we were driving past the barracks, and Catherine asked me if soldiers were bad people. I said no, that Canadian soldiers were peacekeepers. Then she wanted to know why there was war. I told her that I thought war was always about two things: land and power. People and nations go to war to protect their land and power, or to acquire more land and thus power over other people. Today, I would add that people go to war because of fear – fear that someone is going to take away your land (i.e. your wealth) and your power. Wealth and power can lead to anxiety over keeping what you have safe.
The first letter to Timothy also talks about money. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” It is not money itself that is evil. Money is neutral, simply a tool or instrument, a means of fulfilling our needs. The letter says, “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” In the Roman empire, though, riches were mostly acquired by cooperating with the Roman administration. Those who were rich got that way by supporting a system that oppressed the great majority of the population for the benefit of the powerful few. Being a counter-cultural movement, the early Church believed there was a different way of living together, one that focused on equal distribution of material resources. At the same time, the early Church regarded as benefactors those who used their wealth to advance its work. Jesus himself was supported by several women who accompanied him and his disciples “and provided for them out of their resources”. Paul drew on the support of benefactors for his travels and missionary activities and made the collection of money for the relief of poor Christians in Jerusalem a central part of his mission.
So, it is not money that is the problem. The problem is the love of money, the desire to be rich. It is a root of evil – not the only one, but in our culture a significant one. Material wealth can get in the way of putting our trust in God, and it can hinder us from following Jesus at all, as we heard in the story of the rich young man a few weeks ago. Yet the Church’s ministries depend on the financial resources of those who are willing to share them. And so, the letter to Timothy urges those who are rich, first of all, to put their hope in God, “who richly gives us everything for our enjoyment”, and secondly, to be “rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation”, in other words, treasure in heaven.
On this Peace Sunday, this Remembrance Day, it is not enough to stop and remember. If the sacrifices of those who served in times of war are to mean anything, it will be when we commit ourselves to the righteousness of God’s reign, to the justice without which there can be no true peace, and to using the resources at our disposal to bring the vision of Micah to birth, when the instruments of death and destruction are transformed into implements that nurture life. Then and only then will this earth know peace and prosperity. I think this is something of which the dead and injured would heartily approve.