The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, August 12, 2019

“Where Your Treasure Is”: A Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church
August 11, 2019

[Note: This sermon got away from me; I went on a long extemporaneous digression where I commented on the themes expressed here, but not quite as written here. It’s that rare instance where I genuinely can say that the meat is here, but the feeling in the room was very different.]

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be
if it be not now,
yet it will come:
the readiness is all

We’re nearly at the end when Hamlet speaks these lines. The young prince of Denmark, looking for proof that his father was murdered by his uncle Claudius, who has taken the throne that should be Hamlet’s and married Hamlet’s mother, has not been subtle enough. King Claudius knows that he’s given himself away, and that Hamlet must die before he finds proof.

So Claudius makes a bet with Laertes that Hamlet is better with a sword than he is, and has set up a seemingly innocent fencing bout between the two young men. The passions run deep, however; Laertes blames Hamlet for his sister’s suicide after Hamlet has rejected her love, and Hamlet knows this. Still—an innocent fencing bout? A chance to repair his friendship with Laertes. What could go wrong?

Hamlet’s instinct tells him that something will most assuredly go wrong—he knows that this is not the innocent sport it seems, but that, in some way he can’t see, it is a deathtrap.

His friend Horatio tells him to back out, to not take the risk. That the auguries—prophetic circumstances here—don’t feel right. He too fears a trap, though he can’t spot it either. Trust your fear, Horatio says, and let me tell the King you aren’t well enough to fence.

Hamlet refuses, musing on his instinct that tells him death is near.

He says:
Not a whit; We defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow.

And then he continues with the words that have haunted me for decades, let alone in preparing to preach on this Gospel:

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come,
it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all:
since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?

Hamlet means only to acknowledge the inevitability of death and the end of his quest for justice. And his acceptance that it is out of his power to add a second to his life. And so—be ready, he says, and he fights Laertes, who has a poison on his blade, kills Claudius and dies.

The quest is over.

The readiness is all.

And yet these words have rung differently for me ever since I first saw Hamlet onstage in my college days. And they fit this Gospel, despite their gloomy origin.

Because what can we take from a Gospel lesson, recorded fully two thousand years ago, that depicts Jesus telling the disciples that the Father will give them the Kingdom, but reminds them in several ways and analogies that they “must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Over two millennia have passed since those words have spoken, and we still wait for the Kingdom, still wait for the Son of Man. We live in a world that is overcrowded and overheated, in a world teeming with injustice and cruelty, and the world is still all too often divided bother against bother, father against children, children against parents.

Has the promises failed? Will they ever be fulfilled? Or will we just slowly cook ourselves into extinction?

Last week, we heard the story of the Rich Fool, who put his faith in his goods, and said to himself, I will say to my soul, soul: you have may goods laid up for your many years. Eat, drink, and be merry. But that very night, Jesus tells us, his life was required of him, and he died. And so it is, Jesus adds, with those who are not rich toward God.

Today, we are told that the moment is coming so we should sell our goods, and give alms. More we are told to make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

And then the key point: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus in not naïve. He is not promising us that He will return in our lifetime, and magically solve all our problems.

In fact, in the ten verses between last week’s Gospel reading and today’s Jesus expressly tells us that we cannot add an inch to our height, a day to our lives, and that we should Stop. Worrying. About. IT.

Hamlet has a piece of the truth right. The readiness is all. But he is seeking to attain the wrong kind of readiness. He stoically embraces being ready for death, instead of embracing readiness for life. That’s why his story is a tragedy. As a former English major let me remind you that a tragedy is not a sad story, but a story of an otherwise great person, who is brought down by a flaw—technically called the tragic flaw—in her or his own makeup.

Hamlet’s tragic flaw isn’t his hesitation. It isn’t his desire for justice. It is his turning his back on life—rejecting the love of his mother, that of Ophelia, rejecting life itself in order to play the avenging son. The tragedy flowers out of the melodrama, and the brilliant young man throws his life away in the exact wrong way.

Wait—am I saying there’s a right way to throw away your life?

Yes, I think I am. In between last week’s Gospel and this week’s, Jesus urges us to consider the ravens, who eat what is gathered by people, the beauty of the flowers that are more beautiful than the clothes of the greatest Kings or Queens.

And then today he tells us that what we value defines who we are. Where we stand is who we are.

That our treasure is where our heart lies.

That’s the danger of possessions. They can possess us. They can load us down, with the need to take care of them, protect them, insure them. I remember when I was a boy, we never used the good furniture in the living room, unless company was coming. Keeping the furniture fresh and new was more important than enjoying it. My grandmother had her furniture wrapped in heavy transparent plastic, so that the upholstery would stay good-as-new. We’d slip around on it, shifting uncomfortably on it, and making odd noises as we did.

Things are made to be used. And, ideally, shared.

We should carry them lightly, not reverentially. And sharing them is part of what Jesus is talking about here. But it’s far more than that. Every morning that you wake up, you have a choice. You can approach the world outside as filled with opportunities to love and to serve, to help and receive help. Or you can view it through the lens of anxiety and fear.

Now before those of you who are, like me, more pessimistic by nature, start thinking that you are failing, remember what Jonathan Larsen wrote in Rent: “I’m a New Yorker. Fear’s my life.”

I get that.

So I’m not saying your in-built temperament will keep you from walking the Way—which was how the early disciples described the Jesus Movement, not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. But I am saying that the gloomy auguries in your mind are not your friend.

Like Hamlet, push them aside.

Find your equivalent, but here’s mine:

Not a whit, we defy augury:
there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

The readiness for life. Adopt that, and live it.

Laugh hard.

Run fast.

Be kind.

You might just find that the Kingdom has been all around you all the time; that it is in you, and around you.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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