“Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy,” we prayed together in the beginning of the service. Pour upon us . . . abundance . . . mercy. Good words, good themes for a difficult week.
As we gather today to worship God, we’re deeply aware of our need for God’s mercy. We’re mindful of those whose lives were cruelly taken last Sunday night during the concert in Las Vegas and those who are re-building their lives after hurricanes. Many of us come here today exhausted by the political storms that divide our nation.
Today, I want you to open up—body, mind and spirit—to God’s healing power. I pray that you will meet Jesus in God’s Word, Sacrament and in the faces and lives of each other. I hope you will breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit, the Divine Comforter who is as close to us as our next breath.
In the parable that Jesus tells us today—a story as haunted by violence as our own world—we hear the good news that God seeks to pour out the abundance of God’s mercy on us. In a world so often stunted by scarcity, our God shares with us an abundant harvest.
Another name for this abundance is spiritual treasure. These are the moments of our lives when we know that God is with us. When we recall them, they strengthen our faith, fill us with hope, build up our resilience and propel us to act and witness in the world to our faith.
Every person has a reserve of spiritual treasure from which to draw, and in the coming week, my hope is that you will spend some time thinking about your treasure. When have you been on holy ground? When have you sensed that God was especially close to you? Where have you glimpsed the abundant harvest of God in the vineyard of ordinary life?
Here’s a personal example. It involves my very first sermon, which I offered to 30 souls at the Church of St. Luke-in-the-Fields in New York City, my internship parish during seminary. As I prepared for that sermon, I was terrified. Who was I, in my twenties with just a year of seminary under my belt, to be preaching to anyone?
I spent the better part of the week leading up to the sermon doubting myself and my ability to preach. But then, out of the blue, I remembered a moment from childhood. This is what I mean by spiritual treasure.
When I was in middle school, I was asked by my parents to read Scripture at a memorial service for my grandfather. I don’t remember the Scripture. I was asked spur of the moment, so I didn’t have any time to prepare. I just got up and read from the Bible as best as I could. As I read the Scripture publicly, God poured out abundant mercy on me. It was overwhelming but not scary.
I felt like God was using me as an instrument to communicate a message to comfort my family. I could see it in their eyes after I finished reading. God’s Word had given them real hope.
I couldn’t describe it then with words, but what I realized that day was the power and authority of the Gospel message, a message that is communicated through individuals for the building up of the whole community.
Some of the finest readings of Scripture I’ve ever heard have been right here in this church, many of them by our youth lectors. As our young people read with skill, conviction and understanding, God’s Word comes alive. We’ve all felt it.
“You can be twelve-years-old and bring God’s Word alive just by reading it well. What matters most is the Gospel itself.” That’s what I told myself as I prepared for the sermon.
But I still was a nervous wreck. After the opening procession, I looked out over the congregation and couldn’t believe my eyes. I literally did a double-take. One of the 30 souls in attendance, sitting in the back of the church, happened to be Frank Griswold, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
My first response was something like this: “This is going to be a disaster. You’re going to make a fool of yourself in front of the Presiding Bishop.” But then I heard a different voice: “This is about the Gospel, not you. Just preach and trust in me.”
And so that’s what I did. At the door, Bishop Griswold poured out the abundance of God’s mercy on me. He encouraged me, shook my hand and went on his way.
Spiritual treasure: that’s what these moments are. Occasions when God has poured out the abundance of God’s mercy on us, when we’ve experienced God’s goodness first-hand. When we recall this abundant treasure, our faith is strengthened, we’re filled with joy, our resilience is built up and we’re called by God to act.
Every one of you has spiritual treasure to share. Moments, experiences, occasions when God has come close, when Jesus has walked by your side, when the Holy Spirit has warmed your heart. Every child of God made in God’s image is a royal treasury. Sometimes that spiritual treasure is buried by doubt, pain, greed, pride, or just plain forgetfulness . . . but it’s still there.
That’s the thing to remember. No one or nothing can rob us of that treasure even if it’s buried. In the church, we can help each other recover buried treasure as we worship, study God’s Word and apply it to our lives, enjoy each other’s company and serve others in the name of Christ.
Listening to each other is crucial. Last Sunday, fifteen new members joined St. John’s. During the New Member’s Class, each person shared their story. It’s amazing what spiritual treasure we recovered in that brief time.
We experienced God as we ministered with the sick in a hospital or with the dying in hospice care. We met Jesus through church music or by walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in Spain. We discovered the treasure of finally finding a church where we’re truly welcome, where we could prepare for the birth of our first child, where we could put our faith into action, where we could grow spiritually during retirement.
Here’s a refrain that we heard often: “When I got to St. John’s, I felt at home.”
In the news, sometimes you see listings of the world’s wealthiest people, billionaires many times over. Don’t pay any attention to those lists. They don’t measure what’s most important. The wealthiest person in the world is sitting right next to you in the pew. They’re a royal treasury. God has poured the abundance of God’s mercy upon them and upon us all, and we’re called by God today to pour out that treasure upon others.
That’s the message of our readings, especially Jesus’ parable about a vineyard entrusted to violent tenants. The key to this story is that it’s harvest time. We can’t lose sight of God’s abundance in the vineyard. But as Jesus proclaims elsewhere in Scripture, the harvest may be plentiful, but the laborers are few.
They’re few because the tenants―meaning the religious leaders listening to Jesus’ story―consider the vineyard their possession rather than God’s creation. And even though it’s harvest time and the grapes are abundant, they insist on seeing the vineyard as a place of scarcity.
Forgiveness is rationed to the worthy. Mercy is doled out to those who’ve earned it. Grace is spared for those who’ve followed all the rules. There just isn’t enough of God’s love to go around in this vineyard. But Jesus shows us that this vineyard is a place of abundance, not scarcity. In God’s harvest, there’s enough for everyone.
As fellow workers in the vineyard, we’re called to stewardship, not possession. We come into this world with nothing, and we will leave this world with absolutely nothing except the spiritual treasure that God has poured upon us.
I was reminded of this idea of spiritual treasure by one of the living saints of the church, Claude Payne. He’s the retired Bishop of Texas and at age 85, he’s just getting started. We spoke on the phone this week.
During our conversation, he shared with me some of his spiritual treasure. When he was in middle school, his rector invited him to join the flower delivery ministry at his church just like we have here at St. John’s. Volunteers take the altar flowers and, after worship, arrange them and then deliver flowers to sick and homebound members.
One Easter Day, Payne knocked on the door of an elderly woman who lived by herself. When she found out that he was delivering flowers on behalf of the church, her face changed. It was like she was suddenly filled with God’s light. In her expression, Payne could glimpse God’s abundant mercy.
If you think about it, he didn’t do much. He drove over to the woman’s house with his parents. He knocked on her door and smiled. He told her through his very presence that her church loved and valued her. Yet, the change in her expression when she received the flowers stayed with Bishop Payne for life; that moment became part of his spiritual treasure.
He had forgotten about this memory until recently. It was buried treasure. He had never realized how important it was to his life and ministry, but it was there all along. How many moments like this have you had in your own life?
You and I can help each other discover that treasure. In prayer and worship, in sharing and listening to each other’s stories, in simple acts of service like delivering flowers, in our financial stewardship, we can pour out the abundance of God’s mercy on each other.
Carol and I tithe to St. John’s. It’s the first gift we make each month. We made a capital campaign pledge that stretched us. We’ve included a planned gift in our wills for the St. John’s Foundation, a gift that we hope will not be realized anytime soon.
We’ve made those commitments not out of duty or obligation, but of joy and gratitude for God’s abundant mercy in our lives. It truly is a joy to give when you see the impact of this church on our lives and the lives of our children.
When our sons are serving at Grace Mission or in Cuba, or bringing home sharp tools from the Man Cave at the St. John’s Market, or carrying the cross as acolytes in worship services, I know that they, in their own way, are building up spiritual treasure.
Treasure like this is what matters most. Moments of God’s abundance in our lives strengthen our faith, fill us with hope, build up our resilience and propel us to share God’s abundance with others.
As you leave here today and go out into the world, remember that the harvest is indeed plentiful. May God bless us and give us courage as we continue to work side-by-side in the vineyard.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, Florida, on October 8, 2017