For centuries the river Thames was the garbage dump for London. Much of the area’s refuse and cast-offs would find its way to the river. As the tide went out, the muddy banks of the river would reveal their treasures- objects that were able to be recycled, up-purposed, or resold. During the 18th and 19th century, poor children of London would comb the riverbanks during low-tide searching for objects that could be useful. These children were called Mudlarks, and as you can imagine, were looked down upon by the wealthier in the city. It was a dirty and somewhat dangerous job. Traversing sticky mud full of glass and rodents to pick through the river’s trashy wares was hardly glamorous. Mudlarks were considered just a step above thieves. Most Mudlarks made barely enough to survive. They would collect reusable bits of rope, nails that could be reshaped, cast off pieces of coal and rags. A lucky Mudlark may stumble upon something of value- coins, valuable artifacts, in-tact bottles and earthenware, and more.
In time, of course, the detestable grew to be popular. Most mudlarking finds these days are beads, glass or clay bottles and pots, and pipe stems and bowls. But also found are bits of “Victorian jewelry, Roman coins, Tudor buttons” and other items of legitimate value. Ancient finds like a Bronze Age skull revealed the “earliest evidence of surgery in London.” Other monumental finds include Neolithic pottery, ancient weapons, and the Battersea Shield, a bronze shield that is “one of the most significant pieces of ancient Celtic art” that exists.
Mudlarking is now a delightful hobby activity and tourist attraction in London. People buy permits for 96 pounds, and after learning a strict set of guidelines and learning the risks of rat-born illnesses and the fast current, they don their rubber gloves and start picking through the mud. The permit allows mudlarking in only specific areas although illegal Mudlarks flourish and sell their finds abroad. The permit forbids certain activities like digging and requires that any significant finds be turned over to the British Museum to evaluate. The mud of the riverbanks works as an excellent preservative and each day, the water reveals more of the secrets buried below. It is actually one of the most active archeological sites in the world. Some hobbyist Mudlarks have become famous on YouTube for the videos of their adventures. You see, treasure becomes trash which becomes treasure once again.
Our text this morning from the Gospel of Luke challenges us to ask what it is we value, what we seek after, what matters in the end. You may not spend your time rooting among rocks and mud for treasure (and let’s be honest- around here you’d be more likely to find litter and bullet casings than anything of value), but you do spend your life striving for something, working for something. Will that which you seek after one day be someone else’s trash? Or will your story, your legacy be a remarkable find that ripples out beyond your life?
Luke 12:31 reminds us that our call, our purpose is to strive for God’s kingdom. Jesus tells us this in the context of an exchange with a man. “Teacher,” the man says, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus refuses to do so, and instead he tells the assembled crowd to “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus continues on, telling a parable to make his point. A rich man once had a very profitable year with abundant crops. He decides to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones to store his grain and goods. The man reflects on his wealth, saying to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” And God says to the man that he will die that very night, leaving behind stores of excess that are useless to the man. Jesus, in response to the man who wants his brother to share the inheritance, reminds the crowd that what really matters is being “rich toward God.”
These ideas of being “rich toward God” and striving for God’s kingdom are the foundations of a life with God. It isn’t about perfect piety, but about cultivating a genuine connection with God, living a life that flows with grace and love from the headwaters of God’s own self. Romans 14:17 says, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The kingdom of God is wholeness, connection, all things in right relationship. I’ve heard it said that the Kingdom of God is like the 7th Inning Stretch at a baseball game- in that moment, regardless of whose team you prefer, regardless of the score, or the weather, or if you’re ready for some snacks- everyone stands together and sings for one perfect moment of unity.
So then, when Jesus says to stop striving for so many other things- for so many things that will one day be trash buried by centuries of dirt, he is telling us that our drive should be towards co-laboring for that kind of life for everyone, for all of creation. Jesus is not suggesting here that we should give up all work and function and just sit around with happy smiles on our faces. Jesus is telling us that the point of our lives, the purpose of our creation, is not to work towards having stuff; it is to believe what we mean when we pray that we want God’s will to be done here on earth. That, Jesus says, is a gift God wants to give us.
Jesus also calls us be generous! Generosity, of course, is one of the fruits of the Spirit and money is one of the themes Jesus most often taught about. The care we show to the poor among us is a direct measure of what we believe about God and about our lives. This church has made it a priority to be generous. About 20% of the church’s annual budget is designated to flow back out into the world to support helping agencies and missionaries on behalf of this community. When you support the church’s budget, you aren’t just paying salaries and keeping the lights on, you’re participating in the almsgiving that Jesus commands of us.
This past spring, a fire destroyed a historic elementary school in Richmond, VA. William Fox Elementary School was a special place to many children and their families, so when the school burned down, many churches immediately offered their space to the schoolboard. Due to its location and resources, one church building was selected in particular, a church that friends of mine happen to work at. It was a delight to watch the way this congregation supported the children, families, and teachers who found themselves making a new school home in their church building. More than 120 volunteers from the church and community worked to prepare the space, make name tags, create signs and posters welcoming the kids, and more. They even thought to create “teacher wish lists” to help replace some of what had been lost for the teaching staff. It took a lot of time, energy, and work, but most importantly it took a lot of generosity. It took a lot of realizing what matters most. Jesus says that we should make “unfailing treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys;” generosity is also a treasure that no fire can touch.
If we trust God to be who we say God is, then we can stop clinging and grasping and striving for stuff that we hope will make our lives better, more beautiful, easier, safer. If we believe that our Father in Heaven knows what we need, then we can be generous enough to give up what we don’t. The reformer Martin Luther said, “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the conversion of the mind, and the conversion of the purse.” I believe for many of us it is the “conversion of the purse” we find most difficult.
This section concludes with the reminder that “where your treasure is, there heart will be also.” Of course, Jesus is challenging us to rethink the way we work towards having material goods and encouraging us to put our hearts towards a life with God. But I think it is equally important to acknowledge the many ways we can make treasures of other things, the ways we may be tempted to make idols of other false gods. For many, that treasure, that idol may be their family. It may be in the ways people perceive you. You may treasure your career, or accolades. You may treasure knowledge and understanding. You may even consider that your treasure, your idol may be this country. It’s even possible to make an idol of the Bible or of church. And yet, as hard as it may be to accept, that is not what God is directing us towards. It is good to love all of those things; they are all worthy of love, respect, and admiration. But one who seeks the Kingdom understands that your heart should be in striving towards knowing and being known by God. One who seeks the Kingdom knows that there is nothing more worthy than seeking the Kingdom. And, as Matthew 6:33 says “all of these things will be given to you as well.”
For a moment I want to invite you to think about where you find peace and joy. In what moments does your heart sing out and your spirit quiet? Is it not true that those moments have nothing to do with earthly treasures? Is it not true that in those moments you see a glimpse of God’s goodness? Why then, do you put so much energy into things that are not in line with God’s goodness?
Think back for a moment to those Mudlarks I described earlier, those people who scavenge for treasure on the banks of the Thames. To some, those people are just trash pickers. Others see them as treasure hunters. Friends, the world may look at one who seeks God’s Kingdom and think them to be off their rocker. They may look at your generosity and think you’re a fool. But one who has eyes to see will notice something else, something holy. One who has eyes to see beyond what is right in front of them will notice that you have an unfailing treasure in heaven, that you are God’s hands and feet, building the Kingdom right here among us. May it be so. Amen.