Treasure in heaven or earth ?
Luke 12, 32-40
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
Now the news over the past week has been dominated for me by one story - the dreaded return of foot and mouth to UK farms - a truly shocking development when we discover that the source of the infection was the very research facility that is working on vaccines for treating the disease. Farmers have every right to feel anger and disgust that all their efforts to keep this disease at bay have been undermined at a stroke.
But that is not the story that I wanted to talk about this morning. This story was much lower profile and you may have missed it but the government this week announced that it was awarding the contract to run the National Lottery, once again to Camelot. This, for those of you who don't know, is the company that has run the National lottery since its inception in November 1994 and this is the third time that they have been awarded the franchise.
Last time, they had to fight off the unwelcome attentions of Richard Branson who fancied his chances and this time, apparently, the competition came from an Indian company who currently run the Indian lottery. I found that quite amusing in a perverse way, the thought of people in Britain being handed millions by a company in India - sort of turns the established order on its head a bit.
Anyway, we won't have that satisfaction because Camelot beat off the competition and will continue to run the lottery for the next 5 or so years.
There were some interesting facts quoted about the lottery and I thought I would share a few with you. Maybe you will find them helpful at the next village quiz night. Did you know, for instance that 70% of all adults in this country play on a regular basis? Or that the average spend is £2.66. This added up last year to a total spend on lottery tickets of £4.9 billion. Apparently 96% of the population live within 2 miles of a National Lottery terminal and one in 26,842 adults is a millionaire thanks to the lottery.
Now lotteries are nothing new. Apparently the first lottery was developed in China during the Han dynasty and the Chinese used lotteries to fund major government projects - including the Great Wall. The first UK lottery was started during the reign of Elizabeth I and even George Washington organised a lottery in the fledgling USA to fund a new road in Virginia.
The biggest lottery prize of all time was won on 18th February 2006 by 8 co workers at a meat processing plant in Nebraska and totalled £210 million. But even that was not the biggest lottery in the world. That distinction goes to the Spanish Christmas lottery which goes by the name of El Gordo - The Fat One. There are no huge prizes but there are a huge number of smaller winners which encourages a massive take up of tickets. The TV programme where they make the draw on December 22nd each year lasts for 3 hours!
This all got me thinking about the mindset that underpins the concept of a national lottery. Its existence and, certainly, its success depends totally on dissatisfaction. People buy a lottery ticket in the hope of creating a step change in their lives and that step change revolves around money. There is a fundamental belief that having more money will improve people's lives and the quoted statistics would seem to bear this out.
The National Lottery publish a fascinating but ambiguous statistic on this. They say, and I quote, that 98% of winners are as happy or happier after winning a National lottery jackpot. I found this a frustratingly limited statement. What's the split between the 'as happy's' and the 'happiers'? When were they asked the question - the day after they won, or a year later? I'd love to know.
It's fascinating, wondering what sort of change all that money would have on your life isn't it? I don't know any National Lottery jackpot winners but I do know one or two very wealthy people and I remember asking someone who has money on a vast scale, what difference it made to his life and I found his answer intriguing.
He told me that when he first came into great wealth, he went out and ordered a Ferrari because he'd always wanted one. He said that ordering it was a great thrill. Waiting for it to arrive was great fun as was the day of its delivery. The next day, it wasn't quite so exciting and the day after, less so again. Over the next few months, he found it was getting significantly less exciting. He couldn't leave it parked unattended for too long because if he did, someone would deliberately scratch it.
The final straw came when he took it to Old Trafford to watch Man Utd. He returned to find three very large and very tough looking characters by his car. Two sitting on the bonnet and the third taking his photograph. Unfortunately for him, he had pressed the unlock button on his remote control before noticing these three characters and the blip made them look up and notice him immediately. Fortunately for him, the three gave him a thumbs up, told him it was nice car and loped off but that decided the fate of the increasingly underused Ferrari which was sold the following week.
He told me that, increasingly, he found that the main benefit that wealth brought, was not the material possessions but the fact that it bought him time - that he could use to do the things that he really wanted to do and to be with the people that he wanted to be with, primarily his sons and to travel wherever and whenever he wanted.
The get rich quick mentality that drives the National lottery is based on an assumption that we will always be happier with more money but, of course, that is not necessarily so. The papers are full of stories of multi millionaires going through marriage breakdowns or struggling with drug or alcohol abuse. Money can't buy happiness and it can't buy health.
And yet, this belief persists that money equates to happiness. Increasingly, our society shows itself to be fascinated and fixated by wealth. Just look at the celebrity magazines and celebrity TV shows - giving all us normal people a glimpse into the inside lives of the rich and famous. If you lie awake wondering what the inside of Victoria Beckham's marble coated en suite bathroom really looks like - then wonder no more - just buy a copy of Hello or watch some mindless programme on MTV and find out.
We seem to have created an aspiration for unattainable wealth amongst society. No one can be happy with normal living because the media keeps trumpeting the lives of the rich and famous as being so much better than ours. We are fixated on possessions and the amassing of them. George Carlin, the American stand up comedian summed this up rather well I think. He said:
"That's all your house is, a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it, and when you leave your house you've got to lock it up. You wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Sometimes you've got to move, go to get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff any more.
Our reading today is all about stuff. It's about the relationship between all we disciples of Jesus Christ and stuff. It's a tough message this one - particularly for someone like me who loves stuff. I particularly like stuff with lots of knobs and flashing lights - stuff that is full of clever electronics. Maybe you're different, maybe you like antique stuff, or gardening stuff or soft furnishing stuff. Whatever it is, it's pretty difficult to take in a message that is as clear as the one we received in today's gospel.
Let me remind you what Jesus said to his disciples. He said, "Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Oh dear, what does this mean for we lovers of stuff. Are we required to sell up and take a vow of poverty? Is it impossible to be a good Christian and still own a nice car or an iPod? No, of course it isn't. What Jesus is interested in is our mindset, not our bank balance or our household inventory. The clue is in that last verse that I read, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
If our focus is on worldly wealth then we can never hope to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Why should we, the Kingdom, which Jesus offers so readily to us is of no value, so why would we want it. If our new TV is more important then, fine - stick with the TV and take the consequences. We all know the parable of the rich man whose harvest exceeded his wildest dreams and he had nowhere to store all the excess. So he built even bigger barns and then sat back and congratulated himself on how successful he was. That night, he died and all his wealth was worth nothing.
Jesus offers us wealth beyond measure that no moth destroys and no thief can steal. A purse of treasure that will never wear out, the gift of the Kingdom of heaven is ours for the taking. But just like the longing that drives us to strive to increase our earthly stuff, we should be filled with a longing for this Godly wealth. That longing should outweigh all other desires.
The longing for earthly stuff is what pulls people into newsagents and grocer shops each Saturday and Wednesday to spend that £4 billion each year on lottery tickets. A longing that is driven by a belief that a winning lottery ticket will change our lives forever. A longing that we will have all the money we ever need to buy all the things that we don't really need and that will make us happy for ever (well at least until we die).
Imagine what our churches would be like each Sunday is the same longing existed for the wealth that Jesus promises us. This is a lottery with a guaranteed win - mot a one in 26,000 chance. It's a lottery with no entry cost - you won't need to spend your £2.61 (albeit you should not feel constrained when the plate comes round). If the same longing drove people to desire God's treasure the way they desire earthly treasures then it would be standing room only in here and they'd be queuing around the block.
Clearly, we are not as good as Camelot in persuading people to join our lottery - even though we have no gamble. The good news for all of you though, is that you've got the message and the treasure's there waiting with your name on it. The big question is, do you want it badly enough? Is your focus on the treasure in heaven or on the stuff on earth? That's the $64,000 question.
Let us pray.