All That We Can Be...Proper 14C
Proper 14C, the readings for which can be found here
There is a story from the early church, that resonates quite well with today’s Gospel. Written down by Jacob of Voragine in the 13th century, it is one of the many stories of saints and martyrs that have emerged in our tradition. Entitled, simply, “the church’s treasure” it is meant to both tell the story of a martyr of the church and to give a teaching about what it is to live a Christian life. It is written as follows:
“As Sixtus was led away to be jailed and tortured, he gave all the treasures of the church into Laurence's care to be dispensed to the poor. Blessed Laurence then sought out Christians by day and by night, and ministered to all according to their needs.... The soldiers, hearing of money, took Laurence and presented him to the general Decius. Decius said to him, "Where is the church's money, which we know is hidden with you?" Laurence requested a delay of three days. During the three days Laurence brought together the poor, the lame, and the blind, and then presented them before Decius in the palace, saying, "See here the eternal treasure, which never diminishes but increases. It is divided among these people and is found in all of them, for their hands have carried the treasure off to heaven." -Jacob of Voragine ca.1230-1298 The Golden Legend (quoted from Gail Ramshaw's Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary)
Our Orthodox kin celebrate the feast of Laurence, called the Fool for Christ, on August 10th. Laurence was martyred in the year 258, during the reign of the Roman emperor Valerian, Laurence served as archdeacon to Pope Sixtus—who was martyred only days prior to Laurence.
Prior to Laurence’s martyrdom he saves the church’s treasury from Rome by distributing it amongst the poor. Then, when he is questioned about where the church’s treasure is, he presents the poor and claims them as the true treasure of the church.
In placing the church’s treasure in the hands of the poor, Laurence demonstrates that the church’s priority is not it’s own security, but rather the well being of those the world has left behind. Laurence is clearly ascribing to the mandate set forth in Isaiah. The mandate, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
When Isaiah proclaimed these words, he was speaking to a wealthy and complacent Israel. An Israel, that was comfortable and whose worship life did not translate into care for others and justice for the world. Isaiah is calling out those who make offerings to God while continuing to exploit others. An Israel that was behaving, perhaps a bit like the empire—
In Isaiah’s castigation and in Laurence’s proclamation, the powers that be are being reminded that one cannot serve God while simultaneously desecrating God’s creation or God’s people.
The empire is not impressed and deeming the treasure of the church worthless, they have Laurence killed.
Yet, while Rome may have destroyed the body of Laurence, the true treasure of the Church lives on and the joke is on the empire.
Joke, you might ask?
In the Orthodox tradition, Laurence is called a fool for Christ—a holy fool in this tradition is someone who casts aside respectability in a radical act of humility. The holy fool is so humble as to no longer give care to the expectations of society. The holy fool critiques society by standing outside of our expectations about what is right, and good and proper. The holy fool is one who confronts the powers of the world and overturns their casual assumptions. The holy fool, is the clown, tweaking the nose of the powerful in order to point out their abuses. The holy fool, lets go of the trappings of respectability and embraces humiliation as a means of salvation.
The holy fool doesn’t care if we’re comfortable, the holy fool doesn’t mind embarrassing us, the holy fool holds up a mirror and makes us confront the image we see therein. The holy fools indict us, anger us, challenge us, and transform us. The holy fool embraces shame in order to offer a way out of our collective shame. The holy fool doesn’t care if the church service is any good because the holy fool is far more interested in how we might do good.
Holy fools don’t have a particularly long life expectancy…
Now, I don’t tell you this to encourage martyrdom, but to invite us to consider the costs born by members of the early church and what it meant to be a Christian within the context of the Roman empire. I share this because I am nothing short of stunned whenever I reflect upon the radical, discomforting, disruptive and counter cultural origins of our faith.
Meanwhile…in the year 2016…
I jest, and isn’t that the point?
The holy fool can see unfulfilled potential and calls us to be more than what we are.
And, in this, I find myself overwhelmed--thinking solely of all that is asked of me.
And there is my error, and my comfort--nowhere in this am I asked, or are any of us asked to serve God and all of God's people alone. We are asked to do so in community, as is made clear in Laurence’s own words in response to Decius, the servant of Rome,
"See here the eternal treasure, which never diminishes but increases. It is divided among these people and is found in all of them"
Seek and serve Christ in all persons. God's gift is divided amongst all of us, and we all hold part of the treasure that has been given. So it is in our ministry together that the full impact of this treasure can be felt.
So where will we put this shared treasure? Will we put it where our heart is?