Sunday 18 August 2019

Decluttering our Spiritual Life

The Parable of the Treasure in the Field

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
18th August 2019

Matthew 13.34-5, 44, 51-53

Here’s a question arising from our gospel reading this morning:
            What is it that sparks joy in your life?

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
            which someone found and hid;
then *in his joy* he goes and sells all that he has
            and buys that field.”

And if you think you’ve heard this idea before:
            of giving things up or away,
            to increase the joy you have in your life,
maybe you’ve been watching or reading Marie Kondo?

Konmarie is known as an ‘organising’ consultant,
            and in addition to demonstrating nifty new ways to fold your underwear,
she is probably best known for helping people
            to declutter their houses and lives.

Her mantra is very simple, it is that we should learn to:
            “Discard everything in life that does not spark joy.”

In her book, ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’,
            she offers some words of wisdom for those of us who are possession-obsessives,
and I think these carry strong echoes
            of what Jesus might be saying to us this morning
            through his little parable of the treasure in the field.

In many ways, each of these quotes is a mini-parable in itself
            helping us understand the one told by Jesus.

She says,

“The question of what you want to own
            is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

“No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past.
            The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.”

“Keep only those things that speak to your heart.
            Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”

“There are two reasons we can’t let go:  an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

I’m going to leave these quotes up on the screens for a while,
            so we can have them in our minds,
as we think further about what Jesus was getting at in his parable
            of the treasure hidden in the field.

And the first thing I want to address is the tension between sacrifice and joy.

Christians often talk about sacrifice,
            and when we do it’s usually couched in terms
which seem to suggest that giving something up
            has to hurt in some way, for it to be sacrificial.

You’ll get this sometimes, for example, when we talk about money,
            and people might suggest that for our giving to be sacrificial
                        it has to involve going without something.
            We have to notice the loss:
                        Simply giving out of our surplus or our loose change
                        is not, generally, regarded as ‘sacrificial’.

And whilst there is something in this:
            I do agree that a sacrifice ought to make a noticeable difference,
I think Jesus’ parable offers us a way of looking at things
            where sacrifice is joyful rather than painful.

I’m not sure that it’s true to say, as far as sacrifice is concerned,
            that ‘if it ain’t hurting, it ain’t working’.

What if giving it all up for the kingdom of heaven,
            is not a self-flagellating, hair-shirt experience,
but is rather a shedding of those things in life that sap our joy,
            that keep us from the greater joy of the coming kingdom?

What if sacrificing to achieve the kingdom
            is a joy-full experience, rather than joy-less one?

Think for a moment of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler,
            which we find a few chapters later in Matthew’s gospel (19.16-22).

The young man wants to know what he must to do inherit the kingdom of heaven,
            and Jesus first tells him to keep the commandments,
            which the young man says he has done since childhood.

Jesus then says to him,
"If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Matt. 19:21-22 NRS)

This young man had become so addicted to his things,
            that he could not let go of them
            to experience the greater joy of following Jesus.

And the tragedy of this is that for all his wealth,
            he remained desperately sad, and went away grieving.

He couldn’t bear the loss of his possessions,
            and so he lost the joy of the kingdom
            that he had been striving for since childhood.

And it is worth us taking a moment here for some personal reflection,
            about the relationship we have to our things, to our possessions.

Some of us have many things,
            which we have accumulated over a lifetime,
some of us are hoarders,
            and grieve at the very thought of letting some of it go,
some of us worry all the time about money, and possessions,
            because we don’t have enough, and we are scared of poverty,
and some of us have practically nothing to call our own,
            and don’t know where our security for the future will ever be found.

And I wonder what would it mean for us,
            wherever we sit on the spectrum of ownership,
to hear Jesus saying that there is always a greater treasure
            to be found in the kingdom of heaven,
than any that we might strive for in other ways through our lives?

We carry the burden of belonging with us,
            whether it’s the burden of too much, or the burden of too little,
we carry burdens of guilt and fear,
            burdens of inadequacy and low self esteem,
and these burdens weigh us down,
            they sap the joy of our lives,
            and weary us with their heavy load.

And I wonder what joy there may be to experience
            in the letting go of the burdens we carry?

What would it be like for us to let go, to declutter,
            to shed our physical, financial, and emotional burdens?

Do you remember the story of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan,
            whose statue is still on the front of the old Baptist House building
            just round the corner from here in Southampton Row?

Bunyan says,

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which CHRISTIAN was to go..
            Up this way, therefore, did burdened CHRISTIAN run;
                        but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.
So I saw in my dream, that just as CHRISTIAN came up to the cross,
            his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back,
                        and began to tumble;
            and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the [tomb],
                        where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was CHRISTIAN glad and lightsome,
            and … with a merry heart…
Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder;
            for it was very surprising to him,
            that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden.
He looked therefore, and looked again,
            even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.

Christian literally cries with joy
            that the burden he has carried through life
            is lifted from him and falls into a grave never to be seen again.

Or you may remember the scene in the film The Mission,
            where the slave-trader Mendoza, played by Jeremy Irons,
takes three days to climb the Iguazu Falls carrying a heavy load
            a sack containing the swords, armour and weapons
            that symbolise his old life.
When he finally makes it to the top,
            the Guarani people who he had previously killed and enslaved
            are waiting for him,
but instead of killing him,
            they cut the load from his back and push it off the cliff towards the river,
releasing him from the guilt and pain
            of his former life.

For Mendoza, joy is found in receiving forgiveness,
            and releasing the burden of a life lived in the selfish pursuit of power and wealth.

So, when Jesus says,

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
            which someone found and hid;
then *in his joy* he goes and sells all that he has
            and buys that field.”

I wonder what it is that you have, that I have,
            that we, I, need to let go of, to get rid of,
            in order to obtain the joy of the kingdom of heaven?

What am I carrying, what are you carrying,
            that saps the joy of life?

And what about us as a church?
            What is it that we are carrying and accommodating in our life together
            that sap our collective joy of the kingdom?

Is it our middle-class guilt?

Is it our concerns about the state of the world,
            and our inability to solve all of the problems before us,
            let alone those in places further afield?

Do the hurts and harms of the years
            intrude on our community life together,
keeping us from loving each other
            and trusting one another with the deep mysteries of our hearts?

Here’s a question:
            How do you feel when you come to church?
Do you feel joyful?

I ask this not to make anyone feel guilty:
            this isn’t a kind of ‘be joyful or else!’ sermon.

But if you don’t feel joyful when you contemplate coming to church,
            it might be worth paying attention to why not?

What are you carrying, what are we carrying,
            that saps the joy of the kingdom?

What do we need to let go of, to release from our lives and our life together,
            to discover the deep joy of the treasure of the kingdom of God?

But there is more to this parable than an invitation to joyful living,
            profound though that may be.

There is something here about the very nature of the kingdom itself,
            which is that it is an activity, not a thing.

The kingdom of heaven is a verb, not a noun,
            and it is discovered through the action of doing,
            not through the state of possessing.

You see, this is not a parable about the treasure:
            The kingdom of heaven is not like a valuable but hidden thing.
Rather, what the kingdom is like is the behaviour of the finder:
            the kingdom is active, not passive.

It is seeking and finding,
            it is asking and receiving,
                        it is knocking and being answered.

The kingdom is about behaviour,
            it is a way of being, a life to be enacted.

And yet too often we reduce the kingdom to a thing,
            we make the kingdom the treasure,
            not the action of discovering the treasure.

Think for a moment of your most precious thing…
            What would you rush back to save from a burning building?
Would it be your photographs?
            Or something of great sentimental value?

I wonder what the equivalent would be for you,
            in terms of your experience of the life of faith?

What do you most struggle to let go of?

For some of us it will be a particular theological or ethical conviction:
            we just cannot imagine faith if we no longer believe that.

For some of us it will be a specific way of encountering God:
            we just cannot see how God can be met unless I can do this.

For some of us it will be a particular style of building,
            or worship, or prayer, or community, or whatever….

Well, however much these things mean to us,
            however valuable they are to us,
we must never make the mistake of thinking
            that they are the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom is not the treasure,
            the kingdom is the finding of the treasure,
and it is the joy that overrides all other passions and desires
            as we relentlessly pursue that which we have discovered.

Have you found yourself wondering yet,
            just what this treasure was doing in the field in the first place?
Whose was it originally?
            Why has it been buried?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t make a habit
            of burying my precious things in the ground.

However, in many places around the world,
            the only way to keep treasure safe is to bury it,
in the hope that thieves and invading armies
            will pass over and leave the wealth that can be retrieved later.

And of course, many of the great treasure hordes
            that have been discovered in this country,
owe their origin to someone burying them to keep them safe,
            but then never returning to retrieve their property.

We even have complex treasure trove laws
            which govern what happens when someone finds treasure in a field,
balancing the claims of the finder, the landowner, and the crown,
            depending on the age of the horde,
            and the intent of the person who buried it in the first place

It seems that in the first century,
            the law was rather more straightforward,
            and it wasn’t a simple case of finders’ keepers.

Rather, treasure in a field belonged to the person who owned the field,
            which is why the person has to buy the field
                        before retrieving the treasure,
            otherwise they could have been accused of theft.

The dubious morality of buying the field without telling the owner what’s in it,
            isn’t part of the story as Jesus tells it,
            and we probably shouldn’t make too much of that.

Rather, Jesus uses the story to make his point about giving things up
            in order to enter into the joy of acquiring the kingdom.

But there is something important here about the hiddenness of the treasure
            that it’s worth reflecting on a bit further.

You may remember hearing me use the term ‘realised eschatology’ before,
            and this is the idea that the future is realised in the present.

What this means is that instead of living for some future time,
            when wrongs are righted and sins are forgiven,
we instead start to live in the present world
            the truth of that which we hope for.

If we apply this way of thinking to the treasure hidden in the field,
            we get a perspective on the kingdom of heaven
                        where it is present already in the world,
                        awaiting recognition of its value,
                        and the radical action that it’s discovery deserves.

The kingdom of heaven is not some future state,
            which we enter into when we die, or in some age to come;
rather it is here and now,
            it is within us and amongst us,
it is hard to see because it is hidden,
            but when we find it, it puts all other treasures in our lives into perspective.

Too often Christianity is negative about the here-and-now,
            and many Christians write off today as unimportant
            compared to the focus on a future of promised glory.

Too often Christianity is about saving people from some imagined hell in the hereafter,
            rather than about saving people from the very real hell
            of the tragedy and trauma of life in the present.

And against this, Jesus told his little story of a treasure hidden in a field,
            to announce the presence of the kingdom in the physical stuff of this present world.

The kingdom is not future, it is there, just there, in the field,
            overlooked by most, but you don’t have to dig very deep to discover it.

Jesus’ parable is told to encourage people
            to seek the kingdom, to experience the joy of discovery,
            and to then take the radical action that such a discovery requires.

Entering with Jesus into the kingdom of heaven
            is a life lived today, here, and now;
and it is a process that releases us from our burdens,
            and gives us great joy.

So how do we do this?
            What does this look like in practice?

For the rich young man it would have meant selling all he had,
            and he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

For some of us it will mean letting go of things that have been precious to us,
            to discover the greater treasure that lies in wait for us.
For some of us it will be receiving release from burdens we have been carrying,
            and the discovery of a life of lightness and joy experienced in forgiveness.
For some of us it will be the renewal of our relationships,
            and the restoration of joy to the community we belong to.

And none of this happens by accident.

The person in the parable took decisive action
            once they had discovered the treasure,
to ensure that it was theirs eternally.

We too may need to take action:
            we may need to take decisions about priorities,
            we may need to decide to give things up,
            we may need to declutter our physical and emotional lives.

Jesus said to his disciples,
            "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven
                        is like the master of a household
            who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

The kingdom of heaven doesn’t happen by accident,
            it happens as we train ourselves for it,
learning from the wisdom of our tradition,
            and creatively bringing that to bear on the here-and-now of our world.

And so we come, at last, to our reading from the book of Proverbs,
            which is always a good field in which to go hunting for treasure.

Proverbs 2
My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you,
 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding;
 3 if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding;
 4 if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures--
 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path;

Listening carefully for wisdom
            and opening our hearts to understanding,
crying out for insight,
            and treasuring the commands of the God,

These are the prescription for a life of joy,
            and through them comes the joyful fruit,
            of righteousness, and justice, and equity, and every good path.

This, truly is treasure beyond price,
            and worth seeking with all our hearts.


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