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Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What are your treasures? Mine include my son, my voice, the photographs I cherish. Mine are family and friends, money in the bank, and my health. We all have treasures. We all have things we love that are of the earth, that are created. And that is fine. It is not bad to love something that is a blessing from God. It is not a sin to love our friends and family, to use our gifts to give joy to us and others, to give generously of our resources to make other people’s lives better.  That is the way things are supposed to work in God’s kingdom.

But there is a very fine line to be drawn between loving and craving. We all have said we crave some chocolate, or we crave more rest or we crave a glass of wine. Using the word “crave” in that way is just an expression. We all know the difference between using the word crave and really meaning it. We mean it when we feel like we must have something to make it through the day. We have all had a gnawing hunger within us that we want to fill with an object or an experience. When we step over that line between treasuring something and thinking we need it to survive, we step into dangerous territory.

One of the things many of us need is the regard of other people. Of course we want to give pleasure to others, but we can cross that fine line to become people pleasers. We are afraid of the unpleasant experience we might have if we do something someone does not like. I have been screamed at in the past by people who think I have wronged them in some way by not doing what they want. I have been criticized for not being perfect, and I used to try to do everything just right for everyone – an impossible task. Now, thank God, I am a recovering perfectionist whose slogan is that “perfect is the enemy of good”.

Sometimes our self-esteem lies in the power of other people. We all begin life needing our self-esteem built by others. We are raised to please God if our parents and godparents have lived up to their baptismal promises. Ideally, our parents praise us for things we do well and for trying new things, even if we do them badly at first. They teach us about whether to quit the team, how to be helpful to people, how to make friends. As we grow we eschew the regard of our parents (or pretend we do) for the regard of our friends. That can be a very dicey proposition, depending on who our friends are. We can absorb bad lessons or good lessons, depending on who we hang around with.

As we become adults, more and more of our self-esteem should come from within us. We still value other people’s opinions, but not to the extent of limiting our own voice. We need to have internalized a set of values to live by. Sometimes that natural process goes awry. We may become anxious about our own ability to make decisions and ask so many people for their opinions that we are paralyzed about making any move at all because the people we ask will give different advice. If we put our view of ourselves totally in the hands of others, we are putting our faith in breakable clay jars. But God’s opinion of us does not waver. We are loved unconditionally. That is a treasure in heaven.

If we live on this earth, most of us at least, have things – things that we want to protect. We lock our cars, we lock our houses; we lock our offices and password protect our computers. We buy insurance to protect the things we hold dear. There is nothing wrong with this either. It is a prudent move to guard valuable resources. But again, there is a fine line between protecting what we have and craving things to survive.

We may be house proud. We may spend so much time cleaning and decorating our house that we take time away from our families and God. Even if we eventually want to hold parties in it for others, we are constantly worrying about someone putting a glass down on a wooden table or spilling something on the rug.

We may be misers. In order to save all the money we can, we may buy inferior products that pose dangers to our family, we may deprive others of the pleasure we could give with a gift, we may cut ourselves off from people to revel in the treasures we purchase for ourselves.

Suppose we crave experiences. Our bucket list might include travel to exotic places, hang gliding, meeting famous people, or climbing Mount Everest. If we cannot afford it, we may steal or gamble to get the money to do it. Or we may become depressed and uninviting to be around. Miss Piggy of the Muppets is a craver of experience. She wants two things in life. First she craves being the center of attention. She wants everyone to notice her and how beautiful she is. She wants everyone to work to please her. She manipulates situations to get what she wants. Miss Piggy is always a talker and never a listener. She hears what others say only insofar as it gives her an opening to praise herself.

Miss Piggy also wants to possess Kermit the Frog. She loves him, and she doesn’t want to share him with anyone else. Piggy and Kermit are Muppets, so their story is funny, but the stories of real people who want to possess others are not. Spouse beaters are often very possessive, and beaten spouses end up defending them and becoming doormats, totally neglecting the people God meant them to be.

Many of us crave our independence. We want to do everything by ourselves, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We want to say, “I did it. I made myself the success I am today”. We never ask for help, so we never connect to others. But no one pulls themselves up by their bootstraps – God and others are always in the mix.

All of our treasures on earth might be taken from us, not just by thieves, but by the vagaries of life. Someone dear to us dies, we lose our possessions to a bad economy or a lawsuit, we lose the people we think we possess because they run from our smothering attention, we lose the attention we seek when people get bored, and we might lose our so-called independence when we get old or sick.

But we don’t lose treasures in heaven. We don’t lose a right relationship with God. God is always with us. Our spiritual disciplines – fasting, prayer, almsgiving, gratitude for our blessings – bring us closer to God and direct our hearts toward heaven. Our relationships with our neighbors store up treasure in heaven. We can serve others, no matter what situation we are in.

Lent is about repentance, and starting with the first commandment is a good place. We all have idols. Somewhere we have crossed the line between appreciating God’s blessings and loving things of earth. Somewhere we have missed the mark and forgotten we are not the creators of the universe. Somewhere we have let God down and viewed earthly treasure as more important than heavenly treasure. God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to die for our sins. We have a general confession almost every Sunday, but now is a good time to think about the patterns of our lives and the specific deeds we have done that indicate we are storing up treasure on earth and not in heaven. The good news is that if we are penitent, we will be forgiven because Jesus has reconciled us to God. Treasures in heaven last forever. If we seek them, our hearts will be in the right place – the place of eternal life with God.

AMEN

     - The Rev. Ann Barker