The Treasures of the Church
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Morocco. Near the end of my time there, I found myself traveling through countryside that bore a striking resemblance to the California wine country: the same tawny hills, dotted with olive groves; the same parched grasses; the same clear skies. The most obvious difference was that every few miles, a slash of bright blue would cut across the landscape; unlike Californians, the Moroccans had build reservoirs all over their valleys, seeking to ensure that every drop of water that fell from heaven would be available to sustain the community. In California, there were pipelines rather than reservoirs: the assumption was that water was not grace, but a commodity, and they could always buy it from poorer communities further up the pipeline.
The prophet Jeremiah calls God’s people to task, alleging that they have changed their gods: “they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer 2:13) The contrast is clear: God pours out upon us living water, which means running water, water that comes in an endless supply and is always clean and clear. But we try to hoard God’s goodness, storing it up in cisterns, and compound our error by failing to see that cisterns always leak, because the good things of God are meant to be given freely.
In the days after the Hebrews first escaped from Egypt, God sent manna from heaven so that they would not be hungry. Moses instructed the people, “Gather only what you need for one day,” but some people gathered more. (Ex 16:4) It was a natural impulse; they were tired and frightened; they were in a barren desert without food; empty sand stretched out around them as far as the horizon; they feared being hungry for a long time. But when they woke the next morning, the stored manna had rotted and bred worms. When we pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” that is the echo we should hear; God gives us what we need each day, and we can only wait for it in trust.
What, then, are the riches of God? If we are not meant to store up piles of food, water, or gold, is there anything that endures? There is, and I want to get there by taking you back to the third century, to the precarious early days of the church. In the year 257, the Roman Emperor Valerian began a new wave of persecution against Christians, and one year later he arrested the Pope and his seven deacons. The Roman officer executed the pope and six of the deacons, sparing only the life of a man named Laurence, whom he ordered to turn over to him the church’s treasures. (After all, what good is a persecution without the opportunity for loot?) Laurence went out into the town and rounded up the sick, the lame, the blind, the poor, the lepers — all those whom he had assisted with funds —, and assembled them on the steps of the church. When the Roman prefect arrived, expecting to be given cups and plates and bags of gold and silver, Laurence pointed to the people on the steps, saying, “These are the treasures of the church.”
These are the treasures of the church — these people whom no one else wanted. The people who were broken, the people who were believed to have been cursed, the people who could not find work and had to beg: these are the people whom the church treasures, because they are the people God treasures. Jesus says as much in today’s Gospel: “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:13-14)
This is a challenging teaching. The easiest way to deal with it is to retreat into a gauzy sentimentality, one which imagines that those in need are automatically good, kind, and generous, and so God loves them and we must be like them. Well, I have been distributing the resources of the church to people in need for more than fourteen years, and I have to tell you: the poor are not necessarily the sweet. In dealing with the poor, I have met some extraordinarily lovely people, men and women whose courage and resilience put me to shame, but I have also been lied to, manipulated, and scammed. I have been forced to confront the truth that when we allow people to live in desperate circumstances, all too often they will do whatever they have to in order to survive. So we can’t just take the easy route and say that Jesus loves the poor and the broken because they deserve it more than we do. None of us deserves the love that God pours upon us with such abandon, every single day of our lives.
No, what Jesus is saying is far more subversive than that. Let’s look at that teaching again: “You will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” In that one sentence, Jesus cuts us free from the economy of compulsion and lifts us into an economy of grace. In our daily lives, in our work, our shopping, we operate on a basis of even exchange. I want a bar of soap and you have one, so I pay you two dollars and you give it to me. I want to advance in my work, so I stay late to help you get your project in before the deadline, knowing that the next deadline is mine, and I will need you to be there for me. Too often, this barter mentality carries on even into our relationships; I cannot count the number of people who have come to me, numb, when they’ve left an important position and suddenly their friends would not return their phone calls.
It’s as if all our lives were one of those potlatches that take place in certain native cultures. For me, the nearest association I have with “potlatch” is a seasoning mix that I put on salmon, but an anthropologist will tell you that a potlatch is a feast at which the host gives gifts to his guests in order to gain influence. The problem is that, once one leader has given a potlatch, he challenges the other leaders to reciprocate, and to gain status they have to offer more food and give more gifts than the last host. The whole tribe ends up trapped in an escalating spiral that was meant to be a system of generosity, but which has become an inexorable process of bankrupting oneself in order to gain prestige. These mercenary relationships are the stuff of our every day, but they are cracked cisterns; if we put our trust in them, they will leave us empty.
Jesus sets us free from all that, saying, “you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” By removing the issue of reciprocity from our acts of generosity, Jesus frees us to give simply because we want to. Giving gifts becomes, not an act of self-advancement, but an act of love, giving to the other because we wish her well, not because we wish ourselves well. When our volunteers go to the Tubman School, or cook for Grate Patrol or Christ House, or when our Stephen Ministers sit up late with a person in distress, they are not doing these things to advance their careers or burnish their images. They are giving to help people, to show people that God loves them. It is that simple. And yet, Jesus implies that this, too, is of ultimate benefit. In showing the tenderness of God to those who know too little of tenderness, we are emulating the love that Christ gives to each of us, to those whose weaknesses are self-evident and to those of us whose weaknesses are better concealed. If we spend enough time with that tenderness, we may even learn to trust that it is there for us as well.
Last week, the New York Times ran an Op Ed piece calling for the formation of a Disabled Pride movement, much like Gay Pride or Black is Beautiful. I have to admit, I had a hard time imagining what Disabled Pride would look like, partly because the disabled people I know tend to focus on their ability, not their disability. But tucked away inside that article was a surprising statistic: one American in five will be disabled for part of his or her life.
My stepmother tasted that experience a few years ago. A hard-charging businesswoman, she was running down a flight of stairs with her laptop when a sudden fall broke enough bones in her foot that she was in a wheelchair for months. She, who had not previously paid attention to whether stores had ramps or whether restaurant bathrooms were located down a flight of stairs, suddenly found that these were matters of pressing importance as she tried to navigate the demands of every day. She and my father even had to rent an apartment that was all on one level; their own home would no longer work for her. They were literally displaced from their life. Suddenly, she saw anew how her prized independence really relied upon the care that other people — people she might never meet — had taken to prepare for her.
The truth, of course, is that we are all, at times, the poor, the lame, the blind. That’s why this teaching is good news. If we had to depend primarily on our own strength, if our salvation or even our happiness depended upon getting the highest seat at the table, we would be living in a world without mercy. But this is God’s world, and God is mercy. We live in a world whose ruler wants to lift us up, who shakes us out of our self-reliance only so that he can come to each one of us and raise us up, saying: “Friend, move up higher.”
That simple phrase is the touchstone of the Christian life. If we are living faithfully, we are raising one another up, one word, one gesture, one act at time. When we comfort a weeping child or hold the hand of a person who is frightened to die, when we march against racism or work to improve legislation that benefits those who are out of work, we are living into our Christian vocation.
But Jesus is after something more radical still. First, he weans us from our cracked cisterns; then, he lifts us into an economy of grace. Lastly, he makes our very weakness the means of our salvation. Just as Jesus set aside his power, his glory, and the beauty of heaven in order to come among us, take on human flesh with all its appalling vulnerability, and perish on a cross, so God turns our most appalling setbacks into instruments of grace.
When I was in college, I had a friend named Elizabeth, who was in her eighties. Elizabeth suffered from a serious medical condition; years before I met her, the doctors had told her she would never walk again. That night, she went home in her wheelchair and dreamed that God spoke to her and said, “You may not walk again, but you will dance.”
Several years later, a group of my friends and I planned a dinner for a couple hundred people. After dessert, music came on, and people were talking and laughing, when a sudden hush fell upon the room. I looked out from the kitchen, and saw to my astonishment that a man had approached Elizabeth in her wheelchair, picked her up and gently stood her on her feet. The two of them were standing face-to-face in the middle of the dance floor, and they were waltzing.
That’s what the love of God is like. It takes us as we are, with all our weaknesses, and it leads us into a future we could not even imagine. It may not be the future we would have chosen; I suspect that if anyone had asked Elizabeth, she might have preferred to be able to walk. But God uses our very failings to lift us from ourselves. God uses our very brokenness to be the means of our healing. God seeks us out and raises us up and frees us from the shackles of our limited imagination, takes us by the hand and says, “Friend, come up higher.”
Proper 17C; 28 August, 2016
Rev. Deborah Meister
Jer 2:4-13; Ps 81:1, 10-16
Heb 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
 Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, “Becoming Disabled,” August 19, 2016.