August 15, 2016

The Trouble of Treasure


Text: Luke 12:34: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also..”

You may have seen the news item this past week about a plane that crashed on landing in Dubai. In case you didn’t, let me start right off by saying that everyone on the plane actually managed to survive, although, very sadly, one of the firefighters who came out to battle the flames around the aircraft died.

What seems to have happened was that the landing gear on the aircraft did not deploy properly, with the result that the airplane landed right on its belly and skidded down the runway. The crew knew that something was amiss, and had warned all the passengers, and immediately after the aircraft came to a stop they quickly opened the doors and deployed the escape slides, and that’s why everyone on the airplane survived without so much as a single injury.

The charred hull of Emirates Flight 521 rests on the tarmac at Dubai International Airport. Image source:

The charred hull of Emirates Flight 521 rests on the tarmac at Dubai International Airport. Image source:

Of course, because this happened this past week, and not ten years ago, sure enough there were people on the airplane who documented the experience by taking videos of what was happening and posting them up to social media. That by itself is enough to get you thinking. What you see in the very jerky videos is a lot of chaos, and you can hear over the very loud and clear voices of the flight crew directing people to get out, get out, get out of the aircraft. And you can see smoke, unmistakable smoke, filing the cabin as all of this is happening.

What really struck me about watching this video is that as people are getting out of their seats on the airplane they do what we all do whenever its our turn to get to the aisle when we land; they open the overhead luggage compartment and start poking around for their stuff.

And that gets the flight crew to really start yelling at them to move, move, move. They start telling the folks, “Don’t worry about it—we’ll come back for your belongings. Please just get to the exits now.

Of course they couldn’t have known that they wouldn’t be coming back. And if you’ve seen any of the photographs of the plane after the fire was extinguished, you know there was no baggage, and no baggage compartments, to come back to. All that was left was a charred hull of what used to be a wide-body airliner.

We sort of laugh at this, but to be very honest I think I have no right to laugh; I am not at all sure that I wouldn’t have done the very same thing in the very same circumstances. It’s easy to sit at my laptop and watch the video on YouTube and make fun of the people who are putting their clean underwear and socks and polo shirts and toiletries in a place of higher importance than getting out of a burning airplane with their life; but then again I wasn’t there, and by God’s grace I’ve never been in that fix, and I’m not sure what I would do if I were.

As you might expect, that is the point that Jesus is trying to make in what he has to has to say to his disciples, and therefore to us, this morning. The suddenness of the master returning from being away at a wedding, or of the thief coming in the night—or maybe right now, while you’re sitting at church—that suddenly brings you right up short with realizing what  your priorities are.

It’s the oldest preacher’s trope in the book to preach this story by challenging the congregation to reflect on the actual location of their treasure. There’s of course the thing we know we’re supposed to say in answer to that question, and there’s the reality of where we actually have invested the things that matter to us—our reputation, our identity, our sense of safety and security, our ideas about how the world should be ordered and what justice means.

I can preach that, and I can invite you to reflect on that, but the fact is that even if I were a good preacher and could move you to some depth of reflection on that question it wouldn’t really amount to much until a moment like you, strapped in your seat on a plane about crash land on a runway in Dubai, and suddenly being reduced to the reflexes that reveal where, exactly where, your treasure is buried.

For the people of Jesus’s day that idea was pretty effectively communicated by conjuring up the images of the master returning to the house after being away for days at a great banquet. And that’s because most of the people listening to Jesus, and who first created the church that we have inherited, were poor people—people who were a lot more likely to see the world from the perspective of slaves, and not masters.

The emergency of your master returning, suddenly, to the house you’ve been left in charge of—what’s your parallel for that emergency? It might be that moment of being on the airplane. It might be the phone call that tells you something terrible has happened to your child, or your spouse, or your parent.

Whatever it is for you, it is that moment when both your priorities and your preparation are absolutely, completely, defenselessly revealed. You might say, it’s the moment when the rest of the world can watch where you head when you have to protect your most precious treasure.

If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, you may remember the story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” In that story Holmes discovers where a woman is hiding a piece of evidence that incriminates his client by entering her home in disguise and creating a false alarm of fire. Of course it’s a ruse, and it does exactly what Holmes thinks it will; she runs immediately to the place where she has hidden that incriminating document, and reveals her secret to the detective.

So the question is, when that moment comes—and at some point it will come—where will you run? Where and what is the treasure you will race to protect?

Of course there is one more example from these past days that hands us a dramatic example of that moment of decision. And it is one with a much more tragic ending; it is the murder of the elderly Fr. Jacques Hamel as he celebrated a weekday mass in his church.

A lot has already been written and said about that terrible and frightening event, and no words of mine can extract any meaning from it or make any more sense out of something that is, simply put, senseless.

But seen through the lens of Jesus’s teaching this morning, we have to see something pretty profound about that man. And it simply is that in the moment of absolute emergency, in that moment of running to wherever it was his treasure was kept, he ran nowhere at all. He stood his ground. He went nowhere.

Because he already was where he had invested his treasure. He was at the place where faithful people recall the ultimate love of Christ’s sacrifice for us. He was among the people with whom he shared that faith. And he knew that in the end that love would triumph even over the hatred he faced in that moment that would have sent most of the rest of us running for our treasures.

Jesus lived among us and knew the full depths of the darkness and hatred of which we are capable. And yet in his moment of decision, we were his treasure; and he made himself ultimately vulnerable, vulnerable even to the horror of the cross, and from that perspective could see the whole broken and sorrowing world that only he could save.

That will be the ultimate victory. Even though it is hard to see now, it already is. And if we put our treasure there, it will be our victory, too. Amen.