Here I Find My Greatest Treasure
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Guffey
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 103:8-18 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In the Name of One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + AMEN.
For those of you who know your hymns you might have noticed that the opening lyrics to the second verse of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” have been modified in our Hymnal. The original words were these: “Here I raise my Ebenezer / hither by thy help I’ve come.” It’s a reference to 1 Samuel 7. All the people have taken up idols: Baals and Ashtoreths, various and sundry deities to rule over the various aspects of their lives. The prophet Samuel gives a great speech, which I encourage you to go read today as you prepare your hearts for the Lenten journey (1 Samuel 7), in which he says, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourself to the LORD and serve only him” (1 Sam 7.3). They do, just as they are surrounded by the Philistine army. But as they undergo their conversion, their acts of repentance, God confounds the Philistines and the Israelites defeat them. As a memorial of what God has done, Samuel sets up a stone, and he calls it, in Hebrew, “Stone of Help”; that is, “Ebenezer.” Here I raise my Ebenezer; here I raise the memorial of how God has helped me when all hope seemed lost, when I turned back from following my idols: of wealth, of property, even of security! Here I raise my memorial to what God did for me when I turned back to God.
Now, in our Hymnal (good ole’ number 686), that line has been changed to “Here I find my greatest treasure,” presumably because the editors of our hymnal assumed no one would know the story from 1 Samuel 7 or remember well enough what Ebenezer meant. And to be honest, for most of my young life, I just knew it was the name of Mr. Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Perhaps you, too? And isn’t the foreshadowing of Ebenezer’s name even more pointed when you know the meaning—Stone of Help—just as Scrooge became a Stone of Help for Tiny Tim and countless others with his wealth by the end of the story? Scrooge, who had defrauded and connived to acquire his wealth, who served at the altar of the Baal of wealth and the Ashtoreths of personal security over a common wealth, a common welfare, a common good; Scrooge, who made his money legally—notice that!—legally, but without any scruples for how it damaged the lives of others; even this Scrooge could turn, could turn from his idols and live into the destiny of his name: Ebenezer, Stone of Help. Scrooge is a fitting figure for us to consider on Ash Wednesday. What is “A Christmas Carol,” if not a conversion story, a story of the scales falling from one person’s eyes, a story of one person turning from idols to something far more just and merciful. Dickens didn’t say it, but we might very well suppose it: turning from idols to God.
Well, I said the line in our hymnals has been changed. In these hymnals the second verse begins, “Here I find my greatest treasure.” There is a part of me that recoils at these new lyrics, because it destroys the connection to 1 Samuel 7, which binds together the opening lyrics and the next phrase: “hither by Thy help I’ve come.” But the sentiment is not entirely false. The Ebenezer Samuel set up in Mizpah signifies not just a battle memorial, but a memorial of treasure. Scrooge’s greatest treasure had been his wealth—his literal treasure. But he came to cherish something else—love and goodness and humanity—these became his greatest treasure. And in that sense, the new words are fitting (even if I still prefer the original lyrics, thank you very much.)
The Gospel lesson today ends with a phrase you can snatch out of the air and put in your pocket to carry around and to bring out and reflect on in an idle moment of the day and throughout these forty days: “For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” In Lent, we make the same journey as Ebenezer Scrooge, just without all the ghosts and without the Christmas dressing. We, too, are on a journey of conversion, away from our idols and toward the living God. Lent is an invitation to ponder the question, What are my idols? We all have them. And absolutely anything CAN become an idol. Certainly, greed, as with Scrooge—though, to Scrooge that was just sensible business and a means to security. I wonder, do we also justify our wealth by its “sensibleness,” our acquisitiveness because it is legal, no matter what it means for others. Something I ponder often is to what extent my family can become and idol. If I am focused on only providing for my family’s security, am I just as invested in the security of immigrant family down the block, or the disenfranchised black family around the corner? If not, has my family’s security become an idol that holds me back from my greatest treasure. Because, where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.
And where should our hearts be? You will, I trust, remember the words of the prophet Micah: “For what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8). Justice, mercy, and humble devotion to God. Against these there is no law, and in these we find our greatest treasure; in them, God asks us to place our whole heart. As Paul says in today’s Epistle: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Maybe you know that “righteousness” is the same in the original Greek as “justice.” God has become sin for us so that we might become God’s own justice in the world. Now that is a very high calling.
And when should we begin to examine our idols, to turn over the phrase “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” in our daily prayers and intentions, or, as I said, in any idle moment of the day? Paul advises us on that, too: “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.” There is no better time to draw near to the God who listens to us at an acceptable time, whose compassion toward us knows no limit, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”; there is no better time to me to examine my life, for you to examine your life, for us to examine our lives together and ask: where are our hearts? Where is our greatest treasure? Is it with the God who created each of us uniquely, and nudges us out into the world to be the person only we can be, with the God of whom we sing, “Hither by thy help I’ve come”?
What will it mean for us to shed our idols this Holy Season of Lent? What disciplines might we take up? What vices might we shed? How might clear some room in our idolatrous hearts to allow the Holy Spirit to awaken us to love, to justice, to mercy, to mercy, to mercy—don’t we long to be shown mercy and to show it to others?—and to a humble, strong devotion to the One Who never stops seeking after us in love, Who never fails at calling us to return, Who is slow to anger—hear that: God is slow to anger—and abounding—hear that: abounding—in steadfast love? How might we open ourselves in prayer, just sitting or standing or walking with our attention directed toward what God might be wanting to show us this new day, or toward someone we might help, or even toward how we might make this damaged world a little less broken?
People of God, Ash Wednesday is our invitation to ponder our hearts, to ponder our treasure, to prune what needs pruning, to encourage new growth where our limbs are strong. Let us return to God with all our hearts, set our sights on our greatest treasure, and raise our Ebenezers, that we may become Stones of Help, a people whose lives say: Justice, mercy, love, adoration—these are where we find our greatest treasure.