Passage: Matthew 6:19-21
Date: October 8, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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I’ve been thinking about Mr. Rogers this week. From time to time, when events overwhelm and the world feels like a dark and scary place, I remember these words he once said. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
They are treasures, the helpers – the people who yell “grab my hand” and run for cover with a complete stranger; the paramedics and fire fighters and police officers; the politicians who lift laws so that aid ships can go to Puerto Rico; the people who forego something so they can write a check for disaster relief; the parent with the wise word; the foster parent who takes in the child who has already been through too much; the friend who comes over to do laundry when you’re flat on your bed, sick; the teacher who buys school supplies for the child who can’t afford them.
My friend Chris Chakoian, who served as associate pastor here a while back, calls all those good deeds “stars in your crown.” You would do something kind or good or generous or brave, you would do something good for God, and she would look you straight in the eye and say “stars in your crown.” I think she meant that your act, your good deed, might not get much notice in the here and now, but that crown that awaits us in heaven just got another jewel.
In these words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is encouraging us to get our priorities straight, to be mindful of the things we do that have impact in this life and the things we do that impact the life that is to come. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
And so, this week, I’ve also been thinking about what we treasure. If any of us were to walk into each other’s homes, or look at a checkbook or a credit-card statement, or look at each other’s calendars or résumés, what would we learn? Would we have a picture about what we treasure here on earth?
If any of us were to read the newspaper, or watch the news, or scroll through the Internet, would we get a picture of what our society values? Do we treasure professional athletes? Do we treasure freedom, or our rights, or free speech? Do we treasure violence – because we have a lot of it.
And what about all those people who are part of our larger community who have no home, no bank account or credit card, no calendar or résumé – what do they treasure? Sometimes the things you don’t have are most precious – safety, a roof over your head, friendship, good health.
Ever since I became a pastor, and more recently as a parent, I’ve thought about how we teach values, how we walk alongside each other to determine what is important, and what isn’t, and how we know the difference. We people of faith have an advantage in all of that, because we have this big book with lots of stories and songs and teachings about what is important and what isn’t. If we study this big book, this Bible, and we learn about it with each other, and if we come to a heart-and-mind understanding of God and Jesus, then we get some clarity about what is important and what isn’t, about what is of value and what isn’t, about what is treasure and what is simply clutter.
Recently as fires raged through the Columbia Gorge and made their way to Troutdale, and as we learned of people who were told to evacuate and had little time to do that, I woke up one morning a bit too early and started thinking. I asked myself, if I had fifteen minutes to gather up what was precious and then leave my home, what would I take? Assuming that the people and the dog were safe, what would I take?
I would take my wallet, my phone, my passport, and my computer. And I would take my computer not because it has great documents on it and not because I can’t live without the Internet, but because that’s where my photographs are. The photos themselves don’t matter, but their subjects do – the friends and family and memories in those photos are my treasures here on earth.
Some of them are now my treasures in heaven where their bodies can no longer break down from disease or old age or violence done to them. My Aunt Leslie died last year, and she left me her cat figurine collection. Sixty porcelain, wood, plastic, china, glass, or metal cats, spread sporadically throughout the house. I appreciate the gesture but I do not treasure these cats. I do, though, treasure the photo I have of Aunt Leslie and Uncle Jerry at our wedding, the last time I saw her.
But in these words Jesus is urging us to go deeper. There are people who are treasures to us, and we are treasured by others. It is important to acknowledge that. But Jesus is also asking us to think about doing things that build up the riches in heaven, those things that have nothing to do with wealth or prestige or power.
Last Thursday I went to a prayer meeting at Bethel AME. People who wanted to pray together after the shootings in Las Vegas were invited, and I felt the need to go. There were maybe two dozen people there – it was a small gathering, but the church was warm and inviting. Because there were so few of us there, we were invited to introduce ourselves and say why we were there.
The first two people who spoke were women, both part of organizations that are looking for different gun laws. The first woman said she took up the cause of gun control after Sandy Hook, and the second woman got involved after the Mother Emmanuel shootings. We haven’t gotten very far since those events. It’s not popular to talk about gun control – if it were popular, we would have changed things. But I thought about the treasures in heaven those women are storing up, taking on what seems to be an impossible task, saying unpopular things, because of what they sense is right and moral and life-giving.
When it was my turn to speak, I introduced myself and said that I was there because I was getting sick with a cold, and I was tired, and sad, and angry, and I needed to be with people of faith in prayer, to be reminded of God’s love, because I was still searching for a word to say on Sunday. I didn’t say much more, but in my heart I knew that I’d been thinking all week about treasure, and the treasure that those 58 people who were gunned down were to those who knew them and loved them, wondering what treasures in heaven they had stored up by the words and actions in their lives.
Many of us – maybe most of us – have been feeling overwhelmed lately. The destruction from hurricanes and fires, politics that continue to divide us further and further from each other, bad turns in health, and this week, the shootings in Las Vegas: it is a lot. It is a lot.
It seems that there is no one big solution that will solve anything. So I watch people who, every day, do something good. Every day, they give of themselves in some way to make the world better or easier for someone else or for a community or for a nation or for the world.
Last week people showed up to advocate for new middle schools that will affect many in our northeast community. Last week there was a breakfast that honored the vendors of Street Roots newspaper, providing not only meaningful work and community but important journalism as well. Last week Presbyterian Disaster Assistance had staff deployed in the Caribbean and Mexico, in the U.S. Gulf and the Caribbean, in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, in Colombia and Peru and Burundi and South Sudan and Flint. Last week someone became an advocate in child court. Last week someone stood up to bullying. Last week someone won a big prize advocating for no more nuclear weapons. Last week someone wrote a poem. Last week someone saved a stranger’s life.
The one good thing you do today, or the one good thing I do today, won’t feel like much. Little things, by themselves, seem, well, little. Some of you know that I’ve been making paper mosaics. I take a half inch square piece of paper, and I glue it down, and then I take another half inch square piece of paper in the same color, and glue it down next to the first piece, and I do that over and over again, until finally, a picture emerges.
The good we do accumulates. We help the stranger, and we feed a hungry person, and we advocate for justice, and we’re kind to an unlikeable person, and we say something that’s unpopular but right, and we do all those things again and again and finally, a picture emerges of a treasure house we’re helping to build, not only in heaven for some future life, but in this world, in this life, for each other.