Given on Sunday 20th May 2007 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
The news this weekend has carried the sadly familiar catalogue of war and conflict, tragedy and disaster. But there was more than a gleam of silver and gold in the darkness with the report of the discovery of perhaps the largest hoard of treasure ever to be found in a sunken vessel, a pirate ship which went down off the Massachusetts coast in 1717.
People have always been fascinated by rumours of lost or hidden or secret treasure, and great lengths they have gone to in search of it. Perhaps that is why the Bible uses the treasure hunt as an image, a metaphor, for humankind's religious quest. The Old Testament's Book of Proverbs declares My son . if you summon discernment to your aid and invoke understanding, if you seek wisdom like silver and dig for her like buried treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and attain to the knowledge of God. [2:1-5]. And Jesus uses it, you remember, as an image for the Kingdom of Heaven: The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure lying buried in a field. The man who found it buried it again; and for sheer joy went and sold everything he had, and bought the field. [Matt.13:44].
This metaphor of the search for treasure also underlines the truth that the Christian enterprise of exploration into God is a radical enterprise. 'Radical', from radix, meaning 'root': a radical is properly someone who lives from his or her roots, who is not content to live on the surface of things, but always probes and questions, searching for the truth and reality behind and beyond the humdrum and the mundane. Both as Christians and as the Church we have great need of that radical dimension, that dimension of depth. Without it we become shallow and superficial, the shallow and superficial representatives of what E M Forster called 'poor, talkative little Christianity'. Without it our churches, however beautiful they may be and however efficiently run, become museums, art galleries or concert halls, and cease to be houses of God, houses of prayer.
That dimension of depth, the hidden treasure of the Gospel, is this simple, radical truth, that God lives in us. I was reading the other day the words of an Indian Roman Catholic bishop. The whole Christian Church in India, he said, has been a sign of God's love, through educational work and medical aid and community caring. But, he wrote, the Christian Church in India has not been a sign that God lives in us. And he went on to illustrate what he meant from his own experience, in a way both honest and painful. He had for many years taught in a Hindu school for boys with over a thousand pupils. He had special responsibility for the sixty Roman Catholics among them. He tried hard to help these sixty to deepen their faith and to pray. And then one day he discovered that thirteen of them were secretly going to a Hindu guru to learn how to pray. They found the Christian prayer life they had experienced too thin, too superficial.
Or take another instance from another part of the world. An old Hawaiian man was speaking of missionary work he had witnessed. Before the missionaries came, he said, my people used to sit outside their temples for a long time meditating and preparing themselves before entering. Then they would virtually creep to the altar to offer their petition, and afterwards sit for a long time outside, this time to 'breathe life' into their prayers. But the Christians, when they came, just got up, uttered a few sentences, said amens, and were done. For that reason my people call them 'haolis', 'without breath', because they fail to breathe life into their prayers.
For a few days after the Ascension of Christ, the return of Jesus to and into the fullness of God, his followers must have experienced a second bereavement, as it were. They had thought they had lost him on that first Good Friday, but then discovered to their amazement and their joy that he had been raised and returned to them. And now he had gone again. But he had promised that he would not leave them comfortless, and at Pentecost they discovered what he meant. His spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, returned not so much to be with them as to be in them, and now whenever they spoke of Jesus it was of his life living in them. And our belief as Christians is that, if only we will let him, Christ will live and reign in us too, in heart and mind and soul.
So if your heart's desire is to know God and to love God and to be loved by him, then you must be a discoverer and an explorer of what Henry Vaughan called the deep but dazzling darkness which is God. But as you search you will discover this astonishing truth, that the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, is already buried within you, implanted at your baptism, confirmed whenever you have truly repented and turned to God for forgiveness or come to him in humble and honest prayer, and now waiting to be discovered or rediscovered anew. But unless you search you will not find or, to put it another way, unless you make your life a pilgrimage you will never return home.
But the big question about treasure is what you do with it once you have discovered it. I hope you have all read Treasure Island , but can you remember what Robert Louis Stevenson's characters did with the treasure when they had found it? I looked it up, and here is what it says; All of us had an ample share of the treasure, and used it wisely or foolishly according to our natures. That is, Jim Hawkins and Dr Livesey and Long John Silver went on being themselves, and the kind of people they were determined how they spent what they had discovered.
The same will be true of us if we do not let ourselves be changed by the discovery of the God who is a deep and dazzling darkness, who is your soul's treasure and your heart's desire. For you cannot hoard this treasure; always you must use it, spend it, share it - and search for more. That is the enterprise. As the playwright Christopher Fry put it:
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
Is exploration into God.
Or, as the Christian philosopher Boethius put it in the 6 th century,
To see Thee is the end and the beginning;
Thou carriest me and thou goest before:
Thou art the journey and the journey's end.
And for that, thanks be to God.