Sermon: The Church’s Treasures

Sunday12 August 2018
Commemoration of Lawrence, deacon and martyr Rome

Luke 14:7-14

Golden Legend, Ambrose

imageWe have just four weeks left in our Summer of Saints sermon series. Up until now, we have been learning about biblical saints, that is, people who are actually talked about in the bible. But for these last four weeks, we’re going to talk about some figures who lived after the time of the New Testament. And the first of our post-biblical saints is St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr of Rome.

Lawrence was born on December 31st in the year 225 in the Roman province of Hispania Terraconensis, now Spain. In modern Zaragoza, then called Caesaraugusta, he meets a clergyman named Sixtus, whom he follows and serves. The two men travel to Rome. In the year 257, Sixtus is made Bishop of Rome, the same office we now refer to as Pope. At that time, Sixtus ordains Lawrence a deacon, an assistant who, among other things, is responsible for the property of the church.

Now, shortly before Sixtus and Lawrence came into leadership in Rome, the church had come under official persecution. Emperor Valerian issued an edict against Christians. Christians were required to participate in state-sponsored religious acts and they were forbidden from gathering together in cemeteries and catacombs.

The Romans don’t mind so much that Christians worship the Hebrew God or Jesus. What they hate is that Christians refuse to perform sacrifices to the other gods, including the emperor, who was often styled as a Son of God. Making sacrifices to gods and emperors is a normal part of civic life. They do it as part of oaths, part of contracts, and as general acts for the welfare of the city and the people. Citizens can worship whichever gods they choose, so long as they also make the necessary sacrifices to the gods of Rome and to the emperor. The refusal of Christians to do so is thought of as treasonous. Forbidding Christians to gather in cemeteries and catacombs is a means of disrupting their underground religious practice. Christians often met among the dead, both to honor the faithful lives of those who had died and in order to worship without drawing unneeded attention from non-Christians.

After Sixtus becomes pope and Lawrence becomes deacon, Emperor Valerian issues another proclamation against Christians. This one orders that all bishops, priests, and deacons be summarily put to death. On August 6th, 258, Pope Sixtus II is presiding at communion in the Cemetery of St. Callixtus, in Rome. He is apprehended by Roman authorities, along with six of his deacons. They are put to death by beheading, but Lawrence is not among those who is killed.

Ambrose of Milan records a conversation between Lawrence and Sixtus, after Sixtus has been captured but before he has been killed. Lawrence says to his teacher and bishop, “Where, father, are you going without your son? Where, holy priest, are you hastening without your deacon? Never were you wont to offer sacrifice without an attendant. What are you displeased at in me, my father? Have you found me unworthy? Prove, then, whether you have chosen a fitting servant. To him to whom you have entrusted the consecration of the Saviour’s blood, to whom you have granted fellowship in partaking of the Sacraments, to him do you refuse a part in your death?” That may be a little hard to follow. Lawrence is lamenting that his bishop and his fellow deacons are being killed for their faith, but Lawrence himself is being left behind. If you could trust me hold the cup of Jesus’s blood during communion, you should be able to trust me to be martyred with you, Lawrence says.

Sixtus encourages Lawrence, saying that he still has important work to do, and that his time will come soon enough. Lawrence is now the ranking clergyperson left in Rome. Just like Elisha had to take over for Elijah, so Lawrence needs to take over Sixtus’s mission.

Part of Lawrence’s job as deacon is to oversee the property of the church. The Roman official, Decius, demands that Lawrence hand over all of the treasures of the church. Lawrence says that it will take time to assemble them, and Decius gives him three days.

The church isn’t rich, but whatever money and material possessions the church has, Lawrence gives them to the poor. He even has the sacred vessels that are used for communion melted down and the money given to the poor.

After three days, Lawrence returns to Decius to make an accounting of the treasures of the church. The Emperor Valerian is there as well. Lawrence has gathered all of the poor of the church to come with him. When he is asked to hand over the treasures of the church, he gestures to the poor and says, “These are the treasures of the church.”

Lawrence is immediately taken into custody, where he is tortured. Decius tries to force him worship other gods, but even after severe beatings and other torture, Lawrence refuses. He remains faithful. His witness is so inspiring that one of the guards is convinced of the power of Christ, and Lawrence baptizes him right there in prison.

It comes time for Lawrence to be executed, but the authorities are so  frustrated with his impudence, that they don’t have him beheaded like the others. The bring out an iron grill, attach him to it with metal braces, and start a fire underneath. Lawrence is quoted as saying, “Your coals feel refreshingly cool to me, but they will bring you unending torment. God knows that when I was accused, I didn’t renounce God. When asked, I remained faithful to Christ. In being roasted, I give thanks to God.” Just before he dies, he calls out to the emperor, “I’m done on this side. Turn me over, and eat.” Words of defiance in the face of death. Not only does he not scream in torment, but he ridicules is executioners, saying that their actions are just as immoral as the diets of cannibals.

There are a few points to make about the life of Lawrence. The first has to do with his martyrdom. It’s a feature of many of the stories of Christians in the first few centuries. While there were rarely periods where there was empire-wide persecution against Christians, there was frequent regional persecution. One might spend a lifetime as a Christian in relative safety, but one never knew when things would change, when one would be forced out of a job, or arrested, or beaten, or even killed simply for following Christ. As I mentioned before, when things went wrong in the Roman Empire, Christians were often blamed. After all, it was thought, the empire got its prosperity and safety from the traditional gods. And Christians refused to honor the traditional gods. So if the empire had lost favor with the gods, it must be because those Christians were refusing to give due respect.

Besides, those Christians behaved suspiciously. They kept to themselves. They worshiped in a strange way. They refused to integrate into Roman society. They seemed foreign, and they answered to a foreign God. They didn’t need to be subject to state-sponsored violence in order to suffer persecution. It was enough that the state didn’t really protect them from violence.

We don’t have much in the way of religious martyrs in the United States these days, but there are still a scattering religious killings—against black churches, mosques, synagogues, churches that support LGBT inclusion—those who represent a threat or a change from the traditional order of things. Religious persecution doesn’t usually have so much to do with actual differences in doctrine as it does with power, privilege, and position.

In the early church, martyrdom was more common. So much so, in fact that it changed the meaning of the word martyr. Μάρτυρος is a Greek word. It used to just mean witness, someone who testifies. But in the early church, many people who witnessed to their Christian faith ended up dying because of their witness. The word came to us with a new meaning, not simply a witness, but someone who dies for their witness.

It’s important to remember that while it may be laudable to be willing to die for ones faith, that does not mean that one should go out looking to be martyred. Sometimes following Jesus means making sacrifices. Only rarely does it lead to putting one’s life at risk.

The other point to make is about the place of wealth and the place of the poor in God’s sight. In certain eras and places, the church has been a major owner of property. Churches are often filled with vivid decoration, expensive art. At times, the church has been a major landowner, even owning slaves and serfs. If someone demanded today that the church of Rome turn over all of its treasures, it would likely be 10-15 billion dollars—some of the greatest works of art in the world.

In Lawrence’s time, the church in Rome was still a marginal institution. Part of Lawrence’s job was to use the money the church did have to help the poor. When the rest of the church’s wealth was demanded, he took the extraordinary step of distributing absolutely everything to the poor.

Lawrence knows what the officials want from him. They want him to bring in the church’s gold and silver. They want him to bring in the chalices and pattens and candlesticks. They want him to bring in the wealth, the money. That’s what they mean by the church’s treasures.

And Lawrence has a choice to make. If he does what they want, brings in those things of value that the church has, he may escape with his life. Alternatively, he could try to hide the church’s wealth. He himself will be executed, but perhaps the church’s treasure can be retained.

But he doesn’t do either of those things. Instead he has the sacred vessels melted down. He empties the church treasury. He distributes the money to the poor.

But he doesn’t stop there. When he reports back to the Roman officials, he doesn’t show up empty handed. He doesn’t just say that the treasures are lost. No. He identifies the poor as the treasures of the church. “These are the church’s treasures,” he says.

It sounds a bit cheeky, of course. But in a real sense, he’s also right. These are the church’s treasures. “The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” as Luke tells us this morning. These are the ones favored by God. These are the ones who are backed by God.

We tend to be pretty good at pitying the poor. We can see suffering. We can have compassion. We can offer some form of assistance. Sometimes we can even work to change the conditions that produce poverty. But this means that we often dehumanize the poor. They become an object of our assistance.

What is harder to do is to honor the poor. We are told repeatedly by Jesus that in God’s administration, the last are first and the first are last. Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Which is greater, the one at the table or the servant? But I am among you as one who serves.

Sometimes we can summon pity for the poor. But how often do we honor the poor as God does? How often do we esteem the poor? How often do we listen to the poor? How often do we reverse the marks of honor and nobility?

That is what is remarkable about Lawrence’s action. These are the treasures of the church. Yes, it is a way of putting a finger in the eyes of the authorities. But it is also God’s truth.

Jesus came as a child, born to a poor family. Most of his ministry was among the poor. His disciples left everything to follow him. He was known to have no place to lay his head. And we are told that if we want to find Jesus in our day, in our world, he will be found among the poor. I wonder how often we miss seeing Jesus because we don’t look for him there? These are the treasures of the church.

Comments are closed.