Sunday, August 7, 2016

Heart and Home

The scriptures referred to are Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40.

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what is close to some people's hearts. It used to be that you would see cars or trucks plastered with bumper stickers that spelled out the person's political or religious viewpoint. Today it's their Facebook page and the stuff they post and repost. We now know which people in our life are supporting which issue, which party, which sports team, which fandom, and which religion. Pet owners post numerous pictures of their dogs or cats or goats. New parents and grandparents flood your newsfeed with videos and stills of babies and toddlers. (Guilty!) You can even tell Facebook what kind of posts you want to or don't want to see. More and more our social media pages are like a hall of mirrors, infinitely reflecting where our hearts really are.

Most people have a number of interests. Others have just one thing they go on and on about. We've all met them. Eventually you learn to avoid them unless you want to spend all your available time talking about the Miami Heat or their awful ex or the latest superhero movie or the candidate they like or the candidate they hate. They can come to fit Winston Churchill's definition of a fanatic: someone who can't change their mind and won't change the subject. And, yes, there are religious people like that, who can turn any conversation, be it astrophysics or car maintenance into a discussion of their religion. Certain militant atheists are just as bad, bending every subject into a reason why God doesn't exist or why religion is the root of all evil.

In some cases, such single-mindedness is a strength. It leads some scientists to make breakthroughs, or some reformers to change society. The problem comes when the object of this intense focus supplants everything else in one's life. FBI agent John Douglas confesses that his job interviewing and classifying and hunting down serial killers destroyed his marriage. Catching these monsters seemed much more important than time spent with his family. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis' obsession with getting doctors to wash their hands in the 1850s saved patients' lives but ruined his career and may have even led to his death in an asylum. (This was before germs were discovered to cause disease.) And I saw an episode of a show about toys where a woman's obsession with collecting every Barbie ever manufactured had her family living in a very small portion of the house. Her teenage boys could not use the closet in their room because it was crammed with Malibu Barbie's house and car and other accessories. The same situation was mirrored in a different household where a man's collection of Hot Wheels cars literally covered every flat surface in their home.

Most of us are not that bad. But it behooves all of us to examine ourselves and see that no one area of our lives is crowding out other vital areas. In today's gospel Jesus observes that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And he is specifically warning us about getting too attached to our possessions. We like to think that this is not a problem. A good test of that is to take Luke 12:33, drop the word “possessions” and replace it with something specific that you treasure. Like “Sell your season tickets to the Marlins and give to the poor.” Or “Sell your books and give to the poor.” Or “Sell your smartphone and give to the poor.” If you find something that would be just too painful to part with, even though it would benefit someone who is hungry or homeless, then perhaps you are too emotionally invested in it.

Hetty Green was the richest woman in America during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. She was a shrewd investor who was worth between 2 to 4 billion dollars in today's money. She was also the most miserly person you will probably ever hear of. She mostly ate 15 cent pies and rarely washed her one dress to save money on soap. She did her business in the offices of the Seaboard National Bank, surrounded by suitcases and trunks of her papers, so she would not have to rent an office of her own. When her son Ned broke his leg, she tried to get him admitted to a free clinic for the poor. His leg never did heal properly and later was amputated. Where was her heart—with her son or with her fortune?

Jesus rightly sees that greed is a form of idolatry. People will make the accumulation of wealth or being richer than other people the center of their lives. For others their idol may be fame, seeing their face or their name on everything. For still others it may be power, being able to tell folks what to do or how to run things, that is their true heart's desire. Often those three go together for money gives one power and having money and power makes one famous.

But all of those things are temporary. Money can be stolen or squandered. Or just evaporate. Companies and investments estimated as worth billions became worthless overnight when the value of their stocks and the mortgage-backed securities they were invested in plummeted in 2008.

Fame is fleeting. Remember when Ross Perot was huge? He founded EDS, a multinational company that made IT equipment, and he even ran for president. He's still alive but when was the last time you thought about him?

Power may be the most slippery of the three. Eliot Spitzer was the crusading Attorney General of New York and then its governor. A little over a year into his governorship he resigned because he was implicated in a prostitution scandal. He was host of a number of short-lived TV shows and tried to run for Comptroller of New York City in 2013 and lost in the primary. Today he's under investigation for assaulting a woman in a hotel.

A person who worships money or fame or power is really worshiping himself, because all of those things magnify him. A person with any or all of those things can do stuff most of us can't and after a while they feel entitled to do anything. They can bend rules or get them bent for them and eventually come to think the rules don't apply to them. There are scientific studies that show that people who are much better off in status or wealth tend to cheat more often and be less empathetic to others. Mind you, in experiments in which they had people grade their own math tests and supposedly shred them and then get paid a dollar for each right answer they said they had, 70% of people cheated a little. About 20% cheated a lot. And it wasn't confined to people who really needed the money. When everyone tells you you are special, you start to think you deserve special treatment and you should get breaks others don't get.

In some cases, people worship sex. They want as much as they can get with anyone they can get it from. And like money, power, or fame, sex is not in and of itself evil. In fact sex is a gift from God. But it is powerful which means it can do a lot of good or a lot of damage, depending how you use it. In my marriage classes I like to compare sex to fire. Fire can be very good. It cooks your food; it gives you warmth; it gives light. But that's if the fire is where it's supposed to be: in a stove, in a furnace, in a fireplace or on a candle. Fire outside the proper place, like on your curtains or on your roof or on your clothes is very bad. Fire needs to be controlled if we are to benefit from it. People who like fire for fire's sake, who worship fire, are called pyromaniacs or arsonists.

Sex can be a great good when it is used to express real committed selfless love for one's spouse. It literally chemically binds people together. It can bring new people into the world born of that love. Money can be a great good when it is used to feed or educate or care for others who through misfortune would have to do without those things. Fame can be a great good when a celebrity uses it to throw a spotlight on a problem or a disease and rallies people to become part of the solution. Power can be a great good if it is used to make society and the world a better place for all.

God gave us many good gifts. We created evil when we used them to harm rather than to help. And one of the most harmful things we can do is put them in place of God, to worship the gift and not the giver. God is not a celestial ATM or a genie. He is our creator and the one who loves us more than anyone else can. But if we put any of the gifts in his place it would be like trying to replace the hub of a bicycle wheel with a spoke or a tire. The hub must be in the center. The spokes radiate out from it. You can do without a spoke or two. Spokes sometimes have to be replaced. A tire must be replaced from time to time. But you cannot do without the hub.

If we invest our whole existence in the things of this world, our lives will be as out of balance as a wheel whose hub has been displaced. You will find it harder to navigate this world. You will not be able to avoid the potholes. You'll get thrown off a lot.

You need to invest in what is essential. You need to recognize that only what is eternal will outlast this life and this world. You need to be grounded in what Paul Tillich called the Ground of all being: God.

In our passage from Hebrews 11, the author speaks of how our ancestors in the faith put their trust in God, who cannot be seen. Some people think they have trouble trusting what can't be seen. Except for the air they can't see but trust to keep them breathing. And the electromagnetic waves they can't see but which they trust to let them listen to the radio or watch TV or use their smartphones. Or the gut bacteria they can't see with the naked eye but which they trust to keep them healthy.

Our ancestors had less metaphors of unseen things with which to compare God but, like the wind, they could see the effects of his power in their lives. And they trusted in his promises, including that of a better world. After we used God's good gifts to do evil to ourselves and others, God promised his people a better world, a new creation. And as Abraham traveled to a promised land, and as Moses led the Hebrews back to the promised land, and as the exiled Jews left Babylon to return to their homeland, so we find ourselves traveling through this world to the next, our true home. This world is transient. We, like those before us, desire a better country: one that is just and compassionate and peaceful and filled with an abundance of good things for all. This is not that world. Not yet. Just as Jesus died and was resurrected in a body that no longer had human limitations, so we will die and be resurrected to be like him and this world will die and be resurrected as a new creation.

That doesn't mean we don't need to worry about what we do to and in this world anymore than looking forward to our resurrection body means we can abuse our present one. Nobody will get you a pony if you can't feed and take proper care of your goldfish. Nobody is going to buy you a Lexis if you can't be bothered to get regular oil changes for the Chevy Grandpa gave you. And God definitely is interested in what we do with this life before he upgrades us to the next.

We take care of this world and the people in it in joyful anticipation for the better world God will give us. We trust him and we want to show ourselves to be trustworthy stewards of what we have now. And part of being a good steward is knowing whom we serve. It's not money or fame or power or sex or food or any other fleeting thing. We serve the God who is love. If that's whom we treasure, that's where our heart will be. And that's where we will live forever. 

No comments:

Post a Comment