(This is a sermon delivered at St. John’s this Sunday. The good people of the Ascension will have heard the stories before…)
There is a story of a woman who had been used to enjoying every luxury, and all respect. When she died, the angels bore her up to heaven. An angel was sent to conduct her to her heavenly house. As they walked through one of heaven’s more pleasant suburbs they passed many an imposing mansion, and as the woman passed each one she thought it must be hers, only to be ushered on down the road by the angel. They passed through the main streets, and the houses started to get much smaller… and smaller… and smaller. Until they came to the very fringe and stopped at a house that was little more than a hut. “This is your house,” said the conducting angel. “What?” cried the woman in disbelief, “That? I can’t live in that!” “I’m sorry,” said the angel, “but it the best we could do with the materials you sent up.”
It’s a silly joke, but actually it’s based on Scripture: St Paul describes the way of gaining treasure in heaven as: “doing good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” He is echoing the words of Jesus who warns us against “storing up treasures” for ourselves on earth, but rather, by giving to the poor, to “provide… a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Our reading this morning ends with the chilling saying of Jesus: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Our story of the rich lady may raise a smile, but I feel that it does not really do justice to the glory of heaven, or the uselessness of earthy wealth:
There is another story, the tale of a rich man, who worked hard for success. He started off on the shop floor, stacking shelves, and rose to be the director of a large chain of stores. He was religious too, and nightly he prayed for the stock market to be kind, and his workforce to be blessed and productive.
His time came to die, and he looked pleadingly into the eyes of the angel of death: “Please, let me pack just one suitcase to take with me to my fate.” The angel looked puzzled, and replied, “but you are going to heaven…” The man replied that he had worked all his life, travelled from rags to riches, and he wished to have a reminder of all that he had achieved in his earthly life while enjoying the peace of heaven.
The angel agreed, and watched the man open his safe, and pack his bag with huge, gleaming gold bars.
The angel brought the man to the gates of heaven, where St. Peter greeted them and asked “What’s in the suitcase?” The man glowed with pride as he opened his heavy case, but his smile faltered when he heard Peter say “Oh good, that’s just what we need! – Paving stones!”
In the end, in the very end, gold is worthless. Or, at least, it has no more worth than a beautiful pebble. St Paul again:
But those who want to be rich fall into temptation
and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires
that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
To be seduced by money is to fall for the Emperor’s new clothes. I’m sure you all know the story of the Emperor’s new clothes – the Emperor is told his new clothes are only visible to the wise, and he parades around naked, afraid that his tailors will think him stupid if he says he can’t see the clothes. All the adults on the land gaze at the naked king, afraid to admit that they can’t see his clothes either. Until, eventually a child sees the King and cries out “the King is in the altogether!” and the King realised that his vanity has left him (literally) exposed.
We are told by our culture, by the TV, most of all by all manner of advertising that more money or more possessions will make us happy. The entire multi-billion pound advertising industry is based on this premise – ‘your life will be better if you buy our product…’
Because often people have to work hard for their money, because all their possessions need careful maintenance and insurance and effort to keep, we assume that are truly valuable, truly important. Because of all the effort we put into our possessions we assume that any one in their right mind would see how magnificent they are. Like the emperor’s new clothes it takes child-like simplicity to ask why do we assume this way is best.
People slave away for the sake of money, working so hard they never see their families, thinking that the money they earn is ‘support’ for they family, that it will be the best thing for their family. Whereas the most precious thing we can give is our time. Time is the most precious thing we have. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it is the only thing we have. Time is the only thing we have. All we “own” is only around us for a brief time – we bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out of it with us. The only thing that is ours is our time. All we have will eventually belong to someone else, only our short amount of time on this earth can never belong to anyone else, it is the only thing that is truly ours. What we do with it is the real measure of who we are.
This should not lead us to want to use our time to work harder, but to love harder, and play more. Jackie Onassis once said “if you bungle bring up your children, it really doesn’t matter what else you do well.” While not all of us have children the principle holds true, our success as human beings is measured in our relationships, how we help people to grow, and the love and joy we bring. Our success is not measured by the size of our house or car or paycheck.
One of my favourite quotations was from a back bench MP I can’t remember who or which party, who said “no one ever lay on their deathbed looking back on their life and said I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” This deathbed perspective that reveals the emperor’s new clothes for what they are, and it is this death bed perspective that we are called as Christians to have. As we face death we have to ask the big questions of meaning and purpose, and these are the questions Jesus confronts us with every time we read the Gospels.
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Jesus’ attitude to money would have shocked and astounded his disciples. Riches were seen as a reward from God, as was good health. The healthy and wealthy were obviously favoured by God. Jesus turns this assumption upside down, and says that the poor and the sick are more likely to be closer to God “the first shall be last and the last first.” He said it is impossible to serve God and money, and it is as hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Difficult words, especially when you consider that taking a global perspective, compared the majority of people in the world, everyone is this room is fabulously rich.
St Paul said: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, [or “the root of all evil” in some translations] and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Money and possessions do not bring the smiling happy faces you see on the TV adverts, as St Paul said the people seduced by them have “pierced themselves with many pains.”
Jesus tells us that ‘one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’, If we carried on reading in Luke’s Gospel we come across the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Again, Jesus’ disciples would have been shocked. If they heard about a rich man they would assume he was enjoying God’s blessing, they would also assume that the poor man must have sinned in order to end up begging on the street.
I guess some people today believe that the rich deserve their wealth because they work hard and the poor must be poor because they are lazy.
But Jesus does not allow us to judge people like that, Jesus is clear that wealth is not a sign of godliness – it is a dangerous thing for our souls.
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus the rich man is a fool because he does not know what is important in life. He ignored the poor man at his gate and valued status, wealth, power, but these are all addictive drugs that after the brief high of achievement leave us unsatisfied and thirsting for more. The Romans had a saying that money was like sea-water: the more of it you drank the thirstier you became.
When we are born we bring nothing into the world, when we die we can take nothing with us. God lends us what we seem to own so that we can use it for our own fulfilment and the fulfilment of others.
Our Christian faith teaches us that all our possessions and money and position, do not bring fulfilment. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in the twelfth century, said that ‘It is stupidity and madness to want always that which can neither satisfy nor even diminish your desire. While enjoying those riches, you strive for what is missing, longing for what you lack. Thus the restless mind, running to and fro among the pleasures of life, is tired out but never satisfied; like a starving man who thinks whatever he stuffs down his throat is not enough, for his eyes see [only] what remains to be eaten.’
‘It is stupidity and madness to want always that which can neither satisfy nor even diminish your desire…’
Bernard recognised that possessions and money and position are never enough to satisfy us, no matter how much we gain. The more we have, the more we want.
We are to build our lives on what does not perish; on the Kingdom of God; on love; on that which is eternal and will never fail us.
Our example is Jesus. A penniless wanderer, who was executed for treason. A failure by all worldly estimations. Yet he built a Kingdom that shall never end.
To build our lives around anything less …. Spiritual riches, that come through prayer, meditating on God’s word, meeting God in the Sacraments, and sharing the love that we receive with the world, these are the only riches that have the power to satisfy, the only riches that last, everything else is like dust and ashes.
As St Paul:
[You] are to do good,
to be rich in good works,
generous, and ready to share,
thus storing up for [yourselves]
the treasure of a good foundation for the future,
so that [you] may take hold of the life that really is life.