A sermon preached by Bishop Geoffrey Rowell at the Conventual Mass at Alton Abbey on the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 7 August 2016
“Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see.” (Hebrews 11.1)
“Where your treasure is there will your heart be also”. (Luke 12. 34)
We all love treasure hunts. Certainly I did as a young boy, looking for things hidden around the house or garden. And later on when I took Oxford students camping with boys from a Northern Borstal, I enjoyed setting up complicated routes with hidden messages along tracks and paths in the Yorkshire dales, which had to be discovered by the competing mixed groups of students and Borstal lads, in order to find at last the treasure.
Pokémon GO, which is of course essentially a treasure hunt, has caught the imagination (Wikipedia tells me it has been downloaded by 100 million people), and all kinds of places have been inundated by people seeking the hidden treasure – perhaps the Abbey will be next. Not being an addict of these things – though I am addicted to other things like books, and maps, and travel, for none of us is free from pet addictions – I thought I had better find out more about it. Wikipedia tells me it is ‘a free-to-play, location based augmented reality game’ – I thought that might not be a bad description of the Benedictine life lived here at Alton! As I read on, I thought there are other echoes. You have to find an ‘avatar’ – a Hindu word for ‘incarnation’ – and how fascinating it is that in the computer world religious words like ‘icon’ and ‘avatar’ have found a place. There are ‘lure modules’ which attract wild Pokémon (like the temptations of the spiritual life). ‘As players move within their real world surroundings, their avatar moves within the game’s map’ – they are living in two worlds, the everyday, and the world of hidden meaning, and the reality of the hidden world is what gives true meaning to the world of the everyday. ‘Factors in the success rate of the capture (of the wild Pokémon – defeating the demons) include the right force (grace?), the right time (God’s providential moment) and the type of Poke Ball used (the right words of prayer). I could go on – but, of course, as I have hinted, Christians were there before, and the Divine game, the Divine dance, that catches us up, and which is the meaning of our lives, has a tried and tested wisdom, not least in such things as the Rule of Benedict which shapes the living together of this community.
Jesus said, as we heard in our Gospel reading, that ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ Our human lives are indeed about searching for and finding that treasure. The poet-priest, R.S. Thomas, has a poem, “The Bright Field”, about it:
I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field
For a while, and gone my way
And forgotten it. But that was the pearl
Of great price, the one field that had
The treasure in it. I realize now
That I must give all that I have
To possess it. Life is not hurrying
On to a receding future, nor hankering after
An imagined past. It is the turning
Aside like Moses to the miracle
Of the lit bush, to a brightness
That seemed as transitory as your youth
Once, but that is the eternity that awaits you.
‘I realize that I must give all that I have to possess it’. This place is a place where that treasure is hidden, a treasure which is at the heart of the life of community, and because it is there, it is a place for many others to discover this treasure. ‘Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.’
In the Bible, the heart is not the place of feeling; it is not what we send on cards on St. Valentine’s day. For the Bible, the place of feeling is the stomach, the gut, the bowels – and we still speak of a ‘gut feeling’. John Wesley has a hymn which picks this up (totally unsingable now) – ‘How blest the man whose bowels move, with thoughts of mercy and of love . . . . ‘ The heart is the place of willing and choosing. The psalmist says – ‘My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed’ – My will, my purpose, my choosing are sure, steadfast, fixed on God. Where your treasure is, there will your heart, your willing, your choices – be also. If in the treasure, then your choices, your willing, will be shaped by that. What your treasure is depends on what it is that you put your faith in.
Our epistle, from the Letter to the Hebrews, spoke much about faith. About Abraham leaving his home in Ur in the hot Mesopotamian plain, to go out to seek the land God had promised him; about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living in tents in their pilgrimage of faith, for what they were seeking for was ‘a city with firm foundations, whose builder and maker is God.’ Abraham’s journey and pilgrimage is seen as a journey of faith, they are ‘longing for a better country, a heavenly one – that is why God is not ashamed to be called their God for he has a city ready for them.’ That heavenly city, that community centred on God is their treasure, it is where they truly belong, and because of that they are prepared to live in tents, to share in what is a pilgrimage of faith. That faith is kindled by something they have seen and known, which gives them hope, hope to keep going for what is there at the end of the journey. Their journey of faith is because God has already touched their hearts. Even if their faith is, as Jesus says elsewhere, ‘like a grain of mustard-seed’ – a tiny dot of potential life, it is enough to set out on the journey, and enough to keep going on the journey. ‘Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see.’
Governments like to talk of ‘faith communities’, as though faith was some peculiar kind of vaccination that some people have but others do not. But that is not true. John Henry Newman rightly said, ‘To act you must assume and that assumption is faith.’ If you waited to prove anything and everything you would never get anywhere, never do anything. We all live by faith everyday, faith that grows out of the things we have learnt, faith that is kindled by the treasure that possesses our hearts. The scientist testing a hypothesis has to do the experiment in the belief that the hypothesis he wants to prove is true. The scientist acts in faith. When we put our faith in the God we have seen and known in Jesus Christ, and in his saints whose lives reflect his glory; in the God we know and encounter in this place, and in this breaking of bread; we say here is the treasure, here is where we belong, here is what we are looking for, here is, as the poet says, ‘the eternity that awaits you.’