What’s in Your Wallet?
TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST August 7th, 2022
The cruise from Westminster Pier to the Tower of London on the River Thames only took half an hour, but the effects on me have lasted a lifetime. I must have been ten at the time of that school field trip. I lived just 30 miles from the capital, but I had never visited the Tower. But I’d listened to my history teachers, I’d heard the stories of traitors and tortures, betrayals and beheadings, mayhem and murder. We arrived at the Tower and naturally I gazed, transfixed at the instruments of slow death, and instruments of fast death, like the chopping block where Ann Boleyn bade farewell to her head, or should that be where she bade farewell to her body? I never know which it is.
Of course, the Tower of London isn’t all gruesome stories and the artefacts but those were the really interesting things. There were less enthralling exhibits, which the teachers were keen to show us. The grown-ups led us through a doorway and into some heavily guarded rooms. At each entrance there stood uniformed men looking serious and intimidating. And in the center of each room there were glass display cases. Boring glass display cases. No iron maidens, thumbscrews, or other torture devices. No graphic drawings of people being hanged, drawn and quartered, or having burning coals placed on their chests, or experiencing their entrails being eaten by rats while still alive. In fact, nothing cool at all. Just glass display cases. Containing stones. Stones and hats. Stones and rods. Stones and crosses. Still, boring though they were to me, these stones and hats got the teachers quite excited. They were not your average, backyard stones, of course. These stones sparkled; they winked at you as you passed. They were transparent and pure; captivating – if you’re into sparkly stones. We weren’t allowed to get too close to them, not that I wanted to. Some lad touched a glass case and one of the uniformed men appeared in an instant and told him that this was the Tower of London and over the centuries untold numbers of boys had been executed for touching the glass cases.
When I returned to the Tower, over thirty years later, the stones and hats were still there. By now, though, my interest in the Crown Jewels had grown, and my time in the Jewel House was far more intriguing to me than it had been in my youth.
I guess as you grow your idea of treasure changes. As a child, my treasure was gory stories and bloody blades. As an adult my treasure had evolved, if that is the right word, into the symbols of sovereignty and the emblems of empire. But as Jesus tells us this morning in the Gospel lesson, there’s a treasure even better than sparkly stones. Diamonds and rubies, emeralds and sapphires are the best this shallow world can offer. They symbolize power, wealth, success. They adorn the heads of monarchs and occupy the safes of aristocrats. Their appeal forces people to wage war. They bring out the worst in humans. They cause conflict and hate, they pander to egos, they justify pride. They speak of mankind’s lust for power, our eternal impulse for greed. Their luster seduces good people into ruin and their brilliance destroys human souls. We lose ourselves in gold, it creeps up on us and gradually, ounce by ounce, carat by carat, steals our identity. We are God’s noble and beloved children, but when we accumulate gold we soon begin to describe our worth in dollars, we brag about how our portfolios are signs of our greatness, our houses proof that we are good people deserving of God’s favor.
Yes, sparkly stones and lumps of gold are the best this earth can give. They lie, they boast, they steal. They destroy, and in time they will be destroyed. Sure, they’re more grown up than the treasure of torture and death that I loved in my childhood, but they are still part of this fallen and decaying creation. They are not immune from rust and moth, and one day they will be swallowed up in God’s perfect kingdom.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” says Jesus. “Your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
At the Tower of London they keep the treasure in glass cases. Scary men in uniforms watch them. The treasure of our lives, says Jesus, is stored in heavenly purses. We put them in our pockets or handbags and carry them with us. They are never far from us. They contain the things we value most dearly, the intangible property that we truly live for. These purses don’t wear out. We will take them with us after we die.
The author Stephen King once gave a commencement speech at Vassar College, during which he said this to the graduates. “A couple of years ago I found out what ‘you can’t take it with you’ means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like the branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard. If you find yourself in the ER with a serious injury, you can’t wave your Diners Club at it and make it go away. On that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s simple backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. Warren Buffet? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going to go out broke. Tom Hanks? Going out broke. … Stephen King? Broke. You guys? Broke. Not a crying dime.”
So, what’s in your wallet? Seriously, what’s inside? Here’s mine. There is some cash and credit cards. I earned those. They are my pay. They represent my hard work and years of training. They stand for my dedication and sacrifices. But who am I kidding? I work no harder than a factory worker in Asia who is paid two or three dollars an hour. I risk less than a farmer in Africa who barely earns enough to keep his family alive. I am not as dedicated as the single mother who tries to raise her children by working 15 hours a day in two jobs. This money and this plastic don’t really speak of my hard work and expertise, but my sheer luck at being born with an able body and an adequate mind, to a comfortable family in the UK, who valued education and hard work. I can’t store my career in my spiritual wallet. No, moth and rust will consume that.
Another card in my wallet is my health insurance card. A statement that I am human. I get sick, and Gelind and I are blessed to have employers who give us insurance. I need to love and care for these wonderful gifts from God. But I can’t hope to sneak this card into my spiritual wallet and hope to take it to heaven. It won’t get past the border. Because I’m more than a mind and body. I’m a soul – a creature made for communion with the creator. This body and mind, in their current form, won’t make it into the presence of God. They will need to be transformed and resurrected. There are many ways to be a hoarder. It‘s not just our physical stuff we hold onto. It’s grudges, dead dreams, unrealistic hopes, guilt, nostalgic memories of times we know will never come again. But whatever it is we hoard, material or emotional, it will weigh us down.
Then there’s my Stop and Shop loyalty card. This would be the most absurd item to try to place in my spiritual wallet. If I were to try, I would be lying about myself, pretending that, at heart, what I truly am is a consumer. I would be agreeing with marketers and advertisers that my basic identity is someone who buys goods and services. That is a powerful message, one that is commonly believed, but is completely false. We are the free and dignified children of God, and we will not let ourselves be reduced to creatures who merely consume. There are creatures who just consume. They’re called caterpillars, and they are not made in the likeness of God.
Finally, in another section of my wallet, is my driver’s license. It is the only item in my wallet that bears my photo. Very useful when trying to prove my identity. But my public image won’t be of much use in my spiritual wallet. What counts there is my character, and the fact that God knows me, loves me, and has hidden me in Christ, safe and secure. It is in God that we find our true identity.
This wallet will pass away. It will be consumed by mold, and its contents by moths. It is earthly treasure and contains earthly treasure. But we will invest in our spiritual wallets, won’t we? You can’t see it, but it holds a full and beautiful record of who you really are. Your acts of love, kindness and service will last for all time. When I compare my two wallets, I confess that the earthly one weighs more. It is stuffed to capacity. My spiritual wallet has a lot of room in it. Jesus says it is when we sell our possessions and give to the poor that we fill our spiritual wallet. In other words, acts of kindness, works of service, gifts of love. That multitude of little gestures and simple words that demonstrate the love of God to those who need it. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys.”
Again, what’s in your wallet? Earthly treasure or spiritual treasure? Money, plastic, objects, false identities, things rooted in this world that is passing away, sparkly stones and gory stories; or things that will last? Because where your treasure is, that is where your heart will be.