Sunday, June 13, 2010

Where Your Treasure Is...

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today’s gospel lesson [Matthew 6:22-33] is a short excerpt from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, containing three segments which combine to form one of our Lord’s most pointed messages on the subject of sacrificial Christian giving.

Most of us understand--at least in theory--that Christians are supposed to be givers, and not givers only, but generous and cheerful givers. The first in order of importance is our giving to God in the form of a tithe or first-fruits offering. Normally this is given to the church for use in the construction and maintenance of our place of worship, for support of the clergy, and for caring for many families and funding the many works of mercy the parish performs on your behalf. This offering, taken from the very top of our income, is our personal acknowledgment that all things come to us from God, and is thus a very concrete act of worship on our part. If you do not happen to believe that God is your provider, but rather that every dollar in your wallet is there by your own sweat and blood, then you will see no need to worship God by offering back a gift of thanks to Him. Similarly, if you see your Christianity as primarily individualistic in nature, rather than as something tied to a holy community, you will be less likely to invest in that community and share with it the resources that God has entrusted to you. Almsgiving is another form of Christian giving, also tied to the idea of humanity itself as the larger community for which we are also responsible before God.

The New Testament scriptures are filled with references to Christian giving, as is indeed all church history down through the ages. With all this giving, we might suppose that Christians have always been rich, but this is hardly the case. Quite often churches have been built and furnished, and the poor, sick, and needy cared for by sacrificial giving on the part of the faithful. If we remember the example of the God-praised widow who put all she had to live on in the Temple treasury, we realize that even poverty is no excuse for not giving at least in some measure, for all are expected to worship God, to contribute to the Church, and to care for the poor as they are able.

In the verses just prior to this morning’s section of the gospel, our Lord instructed us to not lay up for ourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in to steal, but to lay up treasures in heaven where their value is everlasting. As always, Jesus is after something much more important than our money by telling us this; He is after our hearts. “For where your treasure is,” He said, “there your heart will be also.”

Your heart lives where your money does. This is the teaching of Christ and there is no clever, human way around the truth of it. If every cent of our hard-earned money goes back into the things of this world--no matter how vital or important those things might be--our hearts will always be attached to them, our hopes will always be that we have enough of them, and our minds will never rise above concern for them. If however we invest first and even sacrificially in the kingdom of heaven, our hearts and minds will gradually be freed from their enslavement to the things of this world to set themselves on the things above. This basic Christian teaching sets the stage for what follows next in the Sermon.

Immediately, Christ began to speak of the eye as the lamp of the body. The eye is of course the organ of seeing through which, by means of light, we perceive the world around us. Jesus is using the eye to symbolize our overall perception of reality, telling us that if our perception is darkened--or in other words, not illumined and informed by the light of Christian revelation--then our whole body, all of our thoughts and our entire manner of living, will be full of darkness.

Why did He say this right after telling us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth? Most likely because He understood that people would not grasp the importance of laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. In effect, He is telling us, “I know you don’t understand; I know you think I am wrong. But you need to have your eye enlightened by the Holy Spirit to see that what I am telling you is truth and life.”

This is important to bear in mind because what Jesus has to say next is even more difficult. He tells us that we cannot serve two masters; we cannot serve God and mammon.

Mammon does not refer to money, but rather to greed. Here, Christ personifies greed as if it were a false and idolatrous god at whose altar people willingly sacrifice even the well-being of others for the sake of their own financial gain. Clearly no Christian could live this way, for the gospel commands us to put the needs of others ahead of our own, and to be givers, not hoarders. Yet--humbly asking your forgiveness--I must point out a very serious fact concerning this. If we do not tithe or pledge or otherwise give sacrificially to support the very real financial needs of our holy community and the poor in our midst, we are exactly guilty of putting our own needs first at the cost of others. In such a case, Christ--who never shies away from revealing the truth that can save us--boldly tells us that our eyes are dark, our hearts are set on earth instead of in heaven, and we are worshiping the wrong god.

These are tough things to consider, and uncomfortable. Few things make people more defensive than the subject of money. Yet considering the unequivocal language and powerful imagery that Christ uses here, we would do well to take very seriously what He has to say and search to see to what degree it might apply to us.

I know that there are people in our community who are suffering financially and cannot make a regular tithe. Some have even received help from the parish as we are able to give it. But at the same time, we have many more families and individuals who are in a position to make more generous and regular offerings, but simply do not. Typically our parish finances are contributed by a small minority of families who give sacrificially from their own limited means to provide a place of worship for the rest of us. Many of these families are no better off than the rest of us, but their priorities are different, and they have learned that tithing is not simply a matter of personal piety, but of corporate responsibility in the household of God.

I realize that no one thinks they can afford to tithe. Many quite sensibly fear that they will not have enough for themselves if they tithe to God. Jesus also addressed this fear in the last part of our gospel lesson when He said, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” After showing how God cares abundantly even for the flowers and the birds, Jesus concluded, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [i.e. your material needs] shall be added to you”.

Some of us frankly doubt the truth of this. Though we seldom see our fellow parishioners walking around hungry, thirsty, and naked because they gave their tithe and God forgot them, we still want more proof, in black-and-white, that God is going to meet our needs if we tithe. Perhaps we might even admit that we lack enough faith to believe it can be done. But isn’t that the same as saying that our hope for well-being really is tied to our money, and that mammon is the only god that we can truly and deeply trust?

I won’t say to you that tithing is easy. Often it does involve some level of personal sacrifice and perhaps even struggle. But what makes us think that we can be Christians in this fallen world without sacrifice and without struggle? What an insult to the holy saints and martyrs! Sacrifice and struggle are often required of us by God in order to form a greater faith and enlightenment and a more heavenly direction in our lives.

Have you ever considered that the tithe offering is meant to be a bit of a sacrifice? It’s intended to change our whole perspective about money and lead us toward trust in God. Does that sound like an easy operation? If we put tithing off until some time that we imagine it will be more affordable and painless, aren’t we rather missing the whole point? As I mentioned at the beginning, Jesus is not after our money, but after that which is of much greater value to Him: our hearts. He knows well what we so often fail to grasp, that our hearts live where our money does. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We cannot undo this truth. If we wait to tithe, we are only extending the time that our hearts are wedded to this world rather than to heaven. If we begin to tithe, even at a tiny level with our father-confessor’s blessing to eventually work up to a full tithe, then we are investing our hearts into our parish and into the kingdom of God, which is exactly what Christ tells us we need to do.

Sacrificial giving has always been the foundation of Christian spirituality. Before the early Christians became saints and martyrs, they first became givers, laying their goods at the Apostles’ feet. I know of no better way for us to free our own hearts from bondage to this world and to set them firmly on the path leading to the kingdom of heaven.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Fallen Thoughts, Fallen Feelings

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From today’s gospel lesson [Matthew 4:18-23], we heard the account of our Lord calling four fishermen from Galilee to become His disciples. The men eagerly responded to His call, leaving their nets behind to become followers of Jesus. At the end of that period, on the day of His ascension into heaven, Jesus gathered His closest disciples and charged them to carry His call around the world, saying to them: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you”. Ten days later, on that great feast of Pentecost that saw the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, Peter exhorted the crowd to repent and be baptized to receive the promise of the kingdom of heaven. “For the promise,” he declared, “is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call”.

From these few examples we can see that Christianity begins for each of us as a call from Jesus Christ to become His disciple. Notice that the call is not to become believers, but to become disciples. By definition, a disciple is one who follows, who obeys, who submits to the master’s teaching and way of life and imitates it. There are many who claim to believe in Jesus, but do not follow Him. To them, Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” [Matthew 7:21]. It is the will of the Father that we become true followers of Jesus Christ, observing all that He commanded.

To that end, a Christian disciple must lay aside and forsake all personal obstacles to obedience. The fishermen gave us a spiritual symbol of this when they abandoned their nets at Christ’s call to follow Him. In their case they clearly could not have followed Jesus all about the Holy Land to become witnesses of all that He said and did unless they left their occupations, their families, and all else behind during that time. Christ does not usually ask the exact same thing of us, but He does ask of us something rather more difficult. He asks us to abandon our love and devotion to all that stands in opposition to God and which hinders us from following Him.

This would include our love of sin and of all uncleanness which drives purity and holiness from our lives. It includes our love of pleasure and comfort which begs us to go easy on ourselves and forsake the bearing of our cross along the difficult way of salvation. And just as importantly--though often overlooked by us--it includes the love of our own fallen thoughts and feelings, which we mostly always obey without question, though they nearly always lead us away from God.

Every human being has thoughts and feelings, but the Christian disciple is called to submit even these to the Lordship of Christ. This is not easy for us. We don’t live in a monastery where we might expect daily life to be structured and shaped by the Holy Tradition of the Church to draw us to God as much as possible. We live in our own lives, in a world that is shaped by many forces that are in opposition to God; a world which has in turn shaped us and influenced far too many of our ideas about life and how it should be lived. This is the universal human problem and part of the reason St. Paul wrote: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God” [Romans 12:2].

Notice that the blessed St. Paul says that our minds are in need of transformation. Until such a holy transformation begins to take place in us, would this not suggest that most of our own thoughts are in error? This certainly means trouble for us because we are deeply conditioned to uncritically listening to our thoughts and to trusting absolutely our inner feelings. No one is more aware of this than the father-confessor, for he not only witnesses his own internal struggle to be transformed to the mind of Christ, but he often sees those he cares for set aside the instruction or penance he prescribes in the holy sacrament of confession, to continue to follow their own thoughts and feelings in all things. In the medical world this would be called “non-compliance” and every doctor has patients who--perhaps out of willfulness, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of denial of their condition--refuse to follow the instructions he gives or take the medicine he prescribes. If we allow our own thoughts and feelings to make us medically non-compliant, nothing worse can happen to us than to die sooner. However, if we are non-compliant to the will of God, the Holy Tradition of our Church, and the penance and counsel of our father-confessor, we may suffer eternal death.

This is why the call of Christ is to set aside all obstacles to following Him, including our own misguided thoughts and feelings. Some might call this mind-control, but my mind is frankly in need of being controlled by the good and perfect and acceptable will of God, isn’t yours? My feelings also need to be controlled by something higher than my own self-love, which always makes lame excuses for not obeying God. If I am told to pray, I am too busy. If I am told to fast, I am too hungry. If I am told to make tithes and offerings, I am too poor. If I am told to come to church, I am too tired. If I am told to forgive, I am too deeply hurt. If I am told to regard others as more important than myself and to place their needs above my own, I am too inconvenienced. If I am told to read the gospels or other holy books to awaken my spirit to God, I am too bored. If I am told to be mindful of God and cautiously watchful over my thoughts and feelings, I am too used to obeying them, and too forgetful of my need to be inwardly transformed.

Ultimately, when we follow our own thoughts and feelings and the path in life they dictate to us, we are still followers, but no longer followers of Christ. Instead we are followers of the prince of darkness who rules over those in bondage to their own flesh. Freedom comes when begin not to trust and rely on ourselves as much, when we even learn to mistrust our thoughts and oppose our feelings and set them aside whenever they conflict with the will and guidance of God.

Let’s be honest; this is not an easy thing for us. Even if we are 100% convinced that this is the teaching of the Church--even if our own hard-won experience has demonstrated to us time and again that our thoughts and feelings are fallen like the rest of us and cannot be trusted--what do we tend to do? We tend to lay all this aside the very instant some thought or feeling suggests that we should follow it instead of Christ, His Church, or our spiritual father.

We need to understand that we have a choice. God has called us to become disciples of Christ, and the call of God is not without power. His call is accompanied by the new birth of baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. By these great spiritual operations, God has granted us the entirely new option of following Christ in obedience. Read Romans 8 and understand that we now have the freedom to walk not according to the flesh--including the fallen thoughts and feelings of the flesh--but according to the Spirit of God who brings light and life and transformation.

The habit of following our own thoughts and feelings--of being led by them instead of by God--is deeply ingrained in us. And breaking any bad habit is undeniably hard. But by the grace of God the choice is ours whether to be led by fallen things, or to be led by Christ. The one will keep us forever confused and ensnared by sin; the Other will grant freedom and the eventual fulfillment of the promise of the kingdom of heaven. It is this Other, Jesus Christ Himself, who we must follow.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.