Updated Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010
Often when I start a sermon I confront a paradox which I find hard to reconcile. Monday morning I was looking at the main theme in Luke’s gospel lesson, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus counsels us to not be like the rich fool in last week’s parable, who wanted to store all the harvest for himself. Instead, give to others and you will store a treasure in heaven, which no thief can steal, no moth can consume it. Then Jesus tells a series of parables about watchful slaves who are good stewards of the possessions and responsibilities God has given us. Be watchful at all times for the Master’s return, even in the dark night hours. Jesus makes it clear to Peter. If you have been given much, then much will be required of you, much will be demanded.
I was scanning the Times before I started writing and this article caught my eye. “Evidence Grows of Problem of Clergy Burnout.”
The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.
What is going on with this clergy health crisis? As a
I think you can see the paradox I’m confronting. Jesus said be watchful and faithful at all times, and remember; those to whom much has been given, much will be required. But does that include destroying our health in the process? I want to build “treasure” in heaven, but does this take me in the direction of a spirituality of self-denial, ignoring my own needs and picking up my cross to follow Jesus? What exactly is my treasure in heaven? And are clergy like me getting health problems because we are being too greedy for a heavenly treasure, just as some are too greedy for material possessions?
The idea of building treasure in heaven can be corrupted, just ask Lutherans. One of Martin Luther’s core complaints was against selling indulgences out of the Treasure House of Merit.
The sixth-century Council of Epaon witnesses to the rise of the practice of replacing severe canonical penances with something new and milder. It became customary to commute penances to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms, fasts and even the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the various kinds of offences (tariff penances).
Theologians looked to God's mercy, the value of the Church's prayers, and the merits of the saints as the basis on which indulgences could be granted. Around 1230 the Dominican Hugh of St-Cher proposed the idea of a Treasure House of Merit at the Church's disposal, consisting of the infinite merits of Christ and the immeasurable abundance of the saints' merits, a thesis that was demonstrated by scholastics such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas and remains the basis for the theological explanation of indulgences.
Martin Luther did not disagree that the Treasure House existed. His complaint was that the church did not own it and could not sell it. The merit of Christ and the saints was already distributed equally among all the people.
I’m sure we would all unite against the idea of selling indulgences. However, I’m not sure we have all given up on the idea of earning God’s favor and a pass to heaven. I want to speak confessionally here so I’m not mistaken for being judgmental. I think there can a strong connection here between clergy health problems and seeking to build treasures in heaven. I am a recovering co-dependent, over-functioning helper who has too often tried to save the world because I am anxious about the state of my own soul. I am prone to thinking that too much depends on me, so I don’t relax and let things take a more fruitful course. I push myself to do many good works, not always out of great love, but out of anxiety about my own unworthiness. At times I have exhausted my congregation and myself with frenetic activity that didn’t always serve reign of God, and I participated in the ruin of my first marriage with someone as over-functioning as myself. I ruined my health too and have numerous scars from surgery to prove it. I am a poster child for the NY Times article, so when I say beware of trying too hard to build treasures in heaven, I know much about what I speak. This can be a form of spiritual greed.
I think we should go one step further than
Martin Luther and discard the whole idea of a Treasure House of Merit. I’m bothered by what Christians have done to
heaven. Heaven is often reduced to the
great country club Christians we will become members of if we believe in the
right things and do enough good works.
At death, we get lucky during the Greek’s week rush and get into the
right fraternity/sorority. Excessive
sentimentality about heaven misses Jesus’ point. Especially here in Luke’s Gospel, the
This week’s lessons opens by saying it is God’s
pleasure to give us the Kingdom. It
isn’t something we earn, it is a gift.
It is a gift that keeps on giving and is fulfilled in the next life, but
it is already here to be experienced.
Our treasure that God offers us is that we can participate in the
Kingdom now. We participate in the
growing and building of the
I am aware that I have been given much. I have been given a second chance in life-a second life after near death in the ICU, a second marriage, and a second career. Much is therefore required of me and I should be watchful. But what is required of me is not to be a frenetic do-gooder, but to live fully into the gift of the reign of God that is already present all around me. The Kingdom is also present in the quality of my relationships and not just in the works that I do. For that, I am watchful and hopeful.