March 26, 2017
A Presbyterian pastor friend of mine always has the same answer to the question. No matter when or where you ask him. Regardless of what might be going on in life, in the world, in ministry, his response to the question is always, has always been the same. He’s retired now. I don’t see him much. But if I asked, I am down right sure the answer would still be the same. The question is “Rob, how are you doing?” The answer, every single time, Rob’s answer is “grateful.” I used to think he was just being a bit quirky, maybe trying to be funny like the person who says, “well, I woke up and took nourishment today.” Rob’s answer doesn’t even really fit, grammatically, semantically. “How you doing?… I am doing grateful today.” I thought for a while he was enjoying playing with words, “How are you doing today, Rob?… I am doing GREAT-ful.” Everyone falls into that routine of answering the question sort of mindlessly.“I’m doing great.” Maybe when the truth is you are far from it. Far from feeling great. But Rob never gives up on his answer. There is nothing mindless about it. “How are you, Rob?” … “I am grateful!” I have come to understand that for Rob that’s a faith statement.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And where your heart is, the rest of you, body, mind, soul, the rest of you is soon to come. Following your heart. “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind,” Jesus says later in Matthew. Following your heart. Up there on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples about how the world can destroy treasures. Moths. Rust. Thieves. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Store up. In his work on this passage, New Testament scholar Dale Allison emphasizes the connotation of accumulation here. Store up. Not just set aside your treasures. Not just save your treasures. More than put your treasures in a safe place. Accumulate. Collect. Add to your treasures in heaven. Dr. Allison suggest a better translation of the Greek may be “treasure up.” “Do not treasure up for yourselves treasures on earth… but treasure up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Treasure up! Treasure up treasures in heaven. Treasure up!
About ten years ago I was preaching at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton. It was week-long celebration for the pastor’s anniversary. During that worship service, the liturgical dance group danced to a recording of a gospel song by Hezekiah Walker called “Grateful.” The refrain of the song simply repeats these words, “Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful, gratefulness is flowing from my heart.” At a certain point, then, only the refrain repeats. No more verses. Just refrain. And it goes on and on. With each repeat of the refrain, voices are added in the choir (more parts I mean), and it gets louder and louder. Near the end, in that gospel music kind of way, it’s pretty much a shout that overwhelms the room. Grateful.
Because of those worship leaders who were dancing that evening, to this day when I listen to the song it is so much more than mere repetition, more than an endless loop. When I experienced the dance, the song together with the dance, I learned something about gratefulness. Each time the refrain came early in the song, the movement was the same. And then as it continued and repeated, the movement was the same, just more intense, more exaggerated. It was nothing like a fevered pitch or a frenzy, rather it was determined, almost defiant. The dancers were working harder and harder. The movements grew stronger and stronger every time. The worship leaders, they were embodying a gratefulness that only grew deeper and stronger with every movement and tone. With their dance they were proclaiming, embodying a gratefulness that grows deeper and stronger with each movement and tone of life itself. Being grateful is hard work.
Jesus’ teaching about money, wealth, mammon, it’s usually pretty uncomfortably obvious. Except when it comes to “treasuring up.” “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” It’s just not all clear what it means. Remember the conversation Matthew’s Jesus had with the rich young man. The one that started with “what good deed must I do to have eternal life.” After acknowledging he thought he was doing pretty well with the commandments, the man pushes further, asking what he still lacked. Jesus answered, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.” Sell what you have, give to the poor, treasure in heaven. Treasure in heaven through transactions of generosity and service to others. Makes sense. That is very Sermon on the Mount-like. But you and I better hope for something more than a transaction-based gospel, a race to see who can fill the jewels in his or her crown the fastest. Because that won’t end so well for most of us.
More than ten years ago in his book entitled God and Mammon in America, Princeton University professor Robert Wuthnow wrote that “work and money are too central to our lives to be divorced from the values and assumptions of our faith.” Wuthnow issued a challenge in the book to faith leaders and preachers like me to talk more about it, not less, and to call the faithful to engage and reflect and study and discuss. He offered a call for a spirituality of “critical and collective resistance” when it comes to faith communities and our money, our work, our treasure. “We may not be able to effect sweeping changes in our society, but we can do more than simply affirm the way things are,” Wuthnow concluded. That’s the sociologist’s way of saying “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” You and I, we live in a day when a critical and collective resistance begins with just being grateful. The first move of treasuring up is being grateful.
A while back I represented the Princeton Clergy Association at a special Sunday afternoon worship celebration over at the First Baptist Church of Princeton. At one point in the service, Pastor Carlton Branscomb called the ushers forward for the offering. But nothing happened, and he waited and he looked. He tried to communicate from front to back like pastors often try. Then one usher came forward and whispered in his ear. “I’ve been told we’re going to march today,” the pastor announced. And a pleasant murmur went through the church. And then the music started. And a few ushers went for the offering basket and it was placed up front and center. Then a few other ushers started to lead the march, from the last pew up the aisle passed the basket and back down the aisle. It wasn’t so much a march, as it was a dance. Dancing toward that offering basket like the basket itself was the king and queen of the ball. The music never stopped. Some movement more graceful than others. When it was the choir’s turn to march out of the loft and around the church and back to the baskets, they all marched in time together. The offering must have gone on for twenty minutes, and there weren’t that many people.
As a Presbyterian born and raised with decency and order and the secrecy of money and the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing and almost apologizing when I have to preach a stewardship sermon, I have never seen an offering like that. It was an act of praise, an overwhelming act of thanksgiving that filled the room, filled the church, filled me. It was a bodily act of praise. It was an all-in kind of gratitude. It was being grateful from head to toe.
I’m going to keep thinking about what it means, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” What it means in the Sermon on the Mount. What it means in the gospel. What it means for you and me to treasure up. On a morning when we get to splash together in the river of God’s grace, when we are celebrating God’s mercy and salvation, which abundantly flows even and especially when we can do nothing to earn it, ask for it, deserve it, when we once again gather around this fount to proclaim to all who will listen that we love because God in Jesus Christ first loves. That God’s love comes first, I am going to keep thinking about what it means, but I know it all begins with being grateful. That being grateful every day is a faith statement. And that being grateful every day is hard work. You can’t take it for granted. Being grateful is a first act of resistance in a world that wants you to believe you can never have too much, and wants you to worry that there’s always someone who wants to take your money, and wants you to buy into the myth of your own bootstraps, and wants you to tell others you work harder, work longer, deserve more, and it’s all mine. Mine. Mine. When you are grateful from head to toe, there’s not much room left for worry.
We celebrated the memorial service for Lindsey Christiansen yesterday. Lindsey died five months after diagnosis. Her brother shared something yesterday in his homily that Lindsey said after her diagnosis. It was something she told me in one of our visits. Lindsey told one of her doctors that she had just celebrated a big birthday and that she had lived a long and full life. Anything after that, anything now, she said, is all gravy. “But doctor,” Lindsey said, “I really like gravy.” Or in other words, Lindsey was grateful.
Treasure up! It starts with being grateful. I don’t know about you but there’s something about being around grateful people. Like it’s contagious, or more joyful, or less miserable. It’s something. How about this? Somewhere out there, the buzz, the chatter, the reputation… over there at Nassau Presbyterian Church, “They’re so grateful.”
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