Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Treasure of the Church

Sermon on Proverbs 14:31; Mark 10:17-21; and 2 Corinthians 8:9-12.  Delivered 10 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  

It was the middle of the third century.  Those were the days of persecution under Valerian, the emperor of Rome.  The church in Rome, although they had accumulated some wealth, lived in fear – and with good reason.  When Valerian came to power in the year 253, the emperor Decius, who oversaw one of the most ruthless persecutions of Christians in all of history up until then, had been dead only two years.

This was a powerful age of Christian charity.  Church leaders could count on wealthy Christian families to work together where it was needed.  When people were taken captive in a massive raid, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, was able to put together a large amount of money – the equivalent of thousands of dollars – to ransom them back.  And in Rome alone, the church provided charity to over fifteen hundred people in poverty due to disabilities or illness.  Valerian's advisors convinced him that the church's wealth made it a powerful danger.  They thought that maybe the economy was so weak because Christians were hoarding all the money to themselves.  

So in the year 257, Valerian suddenly gave orders to the Senate that all Christian bishops, pastors, and deacons had only two options: to worship the Roman gods in addition to Jesus, or to be sent away into exile.  The orders also tried to ban Christians from meeting in their usual places.  Some Christian leaders suffered greatly, being whipped, chained, and forced to work long hours in the mines in bad conditions.  But still the Christians praised Jesus.  Still the Christians committed themselves to helping others.  Still the Christians prayed for the leaders who persecuted them.

A year later, in the summer of the year 258, Valerian gave a harsher set of orders.  Bishops, pastors, and deacons were to be immediately executed.  High-class Roman Christians would lose their rank and have all their wealth taken away – and if they continued to be loyal to Christ, they too would be put to death.  The emperor and his minions meant business.  In Rome, bishop Sixtus and some other church leaders were seized during a worship service and put to death on August 6, just over a month before Cyprian was beheaded in Carthage, with his only answer at trial being, "Thanks be to God!"

Before Sixtus died, he gave instructions to one of his surviving deacons, a man named Lawrence.  Lawrence, as the last living deacon, was a steward of the church.  He was the church treasurer, and his task was to ensure that the church funds were handled well and put to godly use.  He took every last bit of it and traveled through the city of Rome, finding the people who depended most on the church's charity.  And he gave them alms until nothing was left.

No more than a day after his mentor Sixtus had died, Lawrence received a visit from Rome's prefect, the city administrator.  This prefect demanded that Lawrence turn over everything valuable that the church had.  The prefect tried to manipulate Lawrence, pointing out that gold didn't bear the image of God and so wasn't essential to what Lawrence believed.  Lawrence assured the prefect that the church was far richer than he had ever imagined – even richer than the emperor himself.  All he asked was for three days to get everything in order.  And the greedy prefect, eagerly imagining a horde of loot, waited.

When the three days were up, Lawrence and the prefect walked together to the church building.  I imagine that the prefect's anticipation rose with every step - and dropped as soon as Lawrence gave the order for the doors to be opened and shouted, "Behold, the treasure of the church!"  There in the sanctuary stood the most vulnerable of the Roman poor.  The disabled, the blind, the deaf, the amputees, the lepers – all the people, over fifteen hundred of them, who had depended on the church to live, as the church lived out what Jesus taught.

"Look," said Lawrence, "here they are.  This is the treasure of the church."  This was a kingdom investment, worth far more than gold.  The prefect had been right: Gold coins bore the image of Caesar, not the image of God.  But the image of God is a far, far better treasure than the image of Caesar.  The truth of the gospel, made flesh in human lives, is vastly more valuable than the contents of any bank account.  As one Christian poet put it, "Indeed the gold that brighter shines / is light enlightening all mankind".  Any coins that Lawrence might have turned over would one day rust away or depreciate.  But these lives, these precious lives, had a significance that would outlive empires.  They were the real treasure.

The prefect was not amused, and Lawrence paid with his mortal life.  Today, I don't know that prefect's name.  But I do know the name of Lawrence, a martyr for Christ's poor.  I do know that the rightful treasure of the church cannot be measured by the digits behind a dollar sign, or by the beautiful stained glass in our windows, or by the furnishings of our buildings; but the treasure of the church can be measured by where our dollar signs go.  The treasure of the church can be measured by the beauty of the feet on the mountains of they who bring good news that our God reigns and the hands that bring healing to the broken.  The treasure of the church can be measured by the way we furnish our lives with love made real in action.

The prefect was wrong.  He cared about economic domination.  Lawrence had no interest in serving Mammon.  The church of Lawrence's time knew the best financial advice that John Wesley ever gave: "Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can"!  That wasn't just Lawrence's personal philosophy.  It was the heart of the church.  The church didn't demonize money or the rich – so long as they stayed where they belong: in the service of God's will, in the service of "the least of these".

What and where is our treasure?  Is it in our wallets and in our houses and in our TVs and cars?  Or is it in food on the table of the hungry, and assurance in the hearts of those in debt, and open skies of freedom over the heads of prisoners?  Is our treasure stored in the bank, or the food bank?  I know that this church has its eye on its true treasure.  It's why we eagerly look for ways to serve our community.  It's why we take advantage of opportunities like Operation Christmas Child: to make a kingdom-investment in the happiness and education of children in need around the world.  Through giving, through prayer, through relationships, they become our treasure, and the poor right here in Salisbury Township also become our treasure.

Jesus Christ left heaven's treasury for our world of poverty.  Because we were "sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore", Jesus ready stood to save us, "full of pity, love and power".  He emptied himself, he humbled himself, he became poor to make us rich with the blessings of God.  This goes beyond the Ten Commandments.  Like Jesus told the rich young ruler, this gets to the heart of "Love the Lord thy God" – enough to take up a cross and follow him even into the jaws of death – and of "Love thy neighbor" – enough to give up everything, if Jesus asks, to serve the poor.  He may not ask us to give up everything, but I'm seldom surprised when he asks me to give up more than I'm comfortable with.  But we can trust Jesus when he assures us that, when we look back from a heavenly point-of-view on every loving act of surrender for the poor, it will be worth it.

The prefect couldn't see that.  His heart was too full of greed to catch a glimpse of the joy of the Lord.  And so he cursed Lawrence, whose heart was too full of joy to leave space for greed.  And through many agonies, handling each of them with grace, Lawrence, lover of the poor, passed into the joyous reward of the God who walked this earth as a poor, wayfaring stranger like us.  Lawrence traded time for eternity in the year 258, on the tenth day of August – 1756 years ago today.  Kingdoms have come and kingdoms have gone, but the kingdom of our God abides forever, served by a great cloud of witnesses – St. Lawrence included.  We share in his faith – the faith of our fathers.  Do we share in his heart?  We know what was the treasure of his church.  What is the treasure of this church?

No comments:

Post a Comment