Sunday, August 12, 2007

Treasures on Trial

Proper 14—Year C (RCL)
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 Luke 12:32-40


Lord Jesus, stay with us; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and
awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the
breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.
I hate to admit it, but I'm a fan of some of those TV shows that feature crime-detecting sleuths with dramatic court scenes—shows like Law & Order and CSI. Even though much of story and action takes place outside the courtroom, often the most significant moments are when some piece of evidence gets revealed in court to seal the fate of some alleged perpetrator. Those are very dramatic moments indeed. Our first reading this morning is actually a courtroom transcript, recorded by a court stenographer named Isaiah. There's a portion of the transcript that I think has been edited out over the centuries; I like to think that it reads something like this:

Hear ye, hear ye! The Supreme Court of the Holy One of Israel is now in session,
the Honorable Judge Lord God Almighty presiding. All rise. Docket number 3N1:
the Heavenly Host vs. Humanity, charged with crimes of intentional
injustice—oppression of the poor, neglect of the needy, exploitation of the
widowed, and abandonment of orphans.
Isaiah has written his vision as a courtroom scene with God sitting on the bench as a holy Judge, pronouncing sentence over a guilty people who have gone astray from God's will and commandments. The crime has been that God's people have been doing the prescribed rituals of worship, all the while perpetrating injustices against the poor, the oppressed, the widowed and the orphaned. The most helpless people of society have been trampled on by people who—you could say—are regular in Church attendance. I rather like the way that Eugene Peterson relays this passage in his translation called The Message:

"Why this frenzy of sacrifices?" God's asking.
"Don't you think I've had my
fill of burnt sacrifices,
rams and plump grain-fed calves?
Don't you
think I've had my fill of blood
from bulls, lambs, and goats?
When you
come before me,
who ever gave you the idea of acting like this,
Running
here and there, doing this and that—
All this sheer commotion in the place
provided for worship?
"Quit your worship charades.
I can't stand your
trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special
meetings—
meetings, meetings, meetings—I can't stand one more!
Meetings
for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
You've worn me out!
I'm sick
of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I'll be looking the other
way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I'll not be
listening.
And do you know why? Because you've been tearing
people to
pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
Clean up your
act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
so I don't have to look
at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good.
Work for
justice.
Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
Go to bat
for the defenseless."

In my youth, I was once struck by a question I heard posed in a sermon that was similar to this kind of courtroom scene: "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" It was a disturbing question to me because I know that we live in a society where religious belief and practice aren't the kinds of things we consider to be criminal activity. Nor do we tend to think of neglect of religious belief and practice as being criminal activity. But here we have Isaiah's vision of the Divine Courtroom, with charges being brought against humanity for failure to treat others the way that we would like to be treated. So if we were to turn that around, and imagine that doing God's will were illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict us? And if so, what would that evidence look like?

Change of scene…

Moving from Isaiah to Luke, in our Gospel reading today, we find Jesus giving some helpful hints to his disciples on how to make sure that they are "found guilty" of being faithful to God. He suggests that we sell our possessions and give the money to the poor. He asserts that we need to make purses that last eternally by putting our treasures in heaven, rather than on earth. He warns that wherever our treasure is, that is where our heart truly is—so it would be best for us to make sure that our treasure is where God wants us to have our hearts.

So, what is our treasure? In the early years of Christianity there was a man who we now know as being St. Laurence, whose Feast Day was just celebrated on the 10th. Laurence was a Deacon of the Church, and was arrested, accused and tried for being a Christian. Because the Deacons were responsible for giving money from the Church to assist the poor, Laurence's persecutors demanded to know where the Church's treasury was kept. Laurence said that he would bring them the true treasures of the Church; and as legend has it, he brought in the sick, the poor, the orphans and the widows. Laurence was found "guilty" and became a martyr—that is, a witness—to the Christian faith.

Laurence isn't alone in his theology of what the Church's treasures really are. Jesus himself said that by doing anything kind for "the least of these" who are hungry, thirsty, sick, naked or in prison, it is as though it has been done for him. Even Isaiah's vision of the Divine Courtroom asserts that the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, and the orphans are nearest and dearest to the heart of God.

No how do we go about taking care of these treasures? How do we keep them safe, from moth, rust, or burglary? We all understand the concept of stewardship—that everything we have is a gift from God, and that we are to take care of those gifts on God's behalf. Proper stewardship of these treasures requires us to live into what we Episcopalians call our Baptismal Covenant. In that Covenant we are called to: "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves" and to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" (The Book of Common Prayer, page 305).

These words from the Baptismal Covenant—which are also found in scripture—are powerful words if we truly take them to heart. If we respond to these Vows by saying, "I will, with God's help" we are taking our first steps toward becoming stewards of God's greatest treasures. And if we continually work to make God's treasures become increasingly more and more our own treasures, we will have begun to do the work that Jesus has called us to do today, and we will avoid being on the receiving end of the courtroom scene described by Isaiah. Let us work and let us pray that when the time comes for our homes to be broken into by the Son of Man, posing as an unannounced thief in the night, our treasures will be found in our hearts, and not in our houses. Amen.

David Grant Smith
12 August 2007

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