Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Hebrews 11:1-16, Luke 12:32-34
This morning’s sermon title contains three words that I have never actually said in a sentence before: “Where’s my purse?”
Saying those three words in a sentence would be, for me, like saying these three words in a sentence: “Where’s my husband?” “Where’s my dress?” “Where’s my chainsaw?” “Where’s my make up?”
These are just words that have never occurred to me to be put together in that particular order.
I do say things like:
“Where are my keys?” “Where are my glasses?” “Where’s my supper?” “Where’s my car?” “Where are my pants?”
Never, though, have I uttered, “Where’s my purse?” I have never carried a purse. Not a proper one, anyway. I’ve certainly carried backpacks and briefcases, but never a purse. The very idea of a purse has always been repulsive to me. They are far too girly, far too feminine, and frankly, I would lose one. I can’t keep up with a purse. If I had one, I could imagine that the three most used words in my vocabulary would be, “Where’s my purse?”
That’s not to say I don’t have a soft spot for purses. I especially loved my mother’s purse. It was a treasure trove of goodies. I always imagined my mom would do well on “Let’s Make a Deal” because she would have whatever odd item they were looking for that week. Monty Hall would say, “Our next contestant has a piano in her purse,” and sure enough, my mom would whip one out. Along with the tissues she magically produced from the purse whenever I sneezed, she also had mints, gum, and oddly enough, Band Aids. Which, of course, isn’t odd once you realize she had five children. Her purse always smelled of mints and if you dug hard enough you might find an ancient one stuck to the bottom of the purse.
The practice of carrying a purse is actually quite ancient in itself. To understand the origin of the purse, you simply need to follow the money. Purses were really just small pouches that men would wear to keep their money. This practice goes back to the time of Jesus who mentions purses several times in the New Testament. Men would hang their purse by a rope around their waist. Thieves found this practice convenient and would often cut the purses right off another person’s waist. These outside pouches eventually came to be known as “cut purses.”
To avoid being the victim of theft, people began putting their purses on the inside of the garments and cutting a slit in their clothes to reach into the pouch. These eventually turned into pockets and in 1670 pants with built in pockets led men to dispense with their purses. Women’s clothing however, became more restrictive and it was impossible to put a pocket in them. Purses have flourished ever since.
For women, the purse is more than just a way of making a statement. It is also a bag of mystery and intrigue. In 1945, an article in the New York Times began:
“A woman without her handbag feels as lost as a wanderer in the desert. And she wants it large. If she cannot get it in leather-now growing scarce-she will take it in fabric, fur, or even plastic. The handbag is the movable base of her supplies-the depot of her expected needs. These eventual needs may reach out to a degree far beyond any man’s power of imagination. A woman’s handbag is a mysterious dungeon. It’s the key to her real self; the prosaic answer to many poetic conceptions. [ ] The typical handbag of a typical woman contains a certain number of fundamental things – plus her own individual touch.”
What are those fundamental things inside a purse in 1945? The Times story has a handy list:
One or two lipsticks, acompact (that won’t close), 1 fresh handkerchief, 2 or 3 crumpled handkerchiefs, apackage of letters, the laundry bill, 3 tickets from the cleaner, 1 nylon stocking to be repaired, 1 address book, 1 pack of cigarettes, 3 packs of matches, 1 leather picture folde,r 2 scraps of paper with telephone numbers and no names, 1 hairnet, 1 fountain pen, 2 pencils.
Compare that with what we would find in a purse today:
Banking card, breath mints, cell phone, change purse checkbook, crumpled tissues, electronic organizer, hand cream, hair brush, keys, Chapstick, makeup case filled to capacity, pens, wallet filled with cash and credit cards.
The function of the purse has always been to carry our treasure and that comparison shows us how our idea of treasure has changed over the years. These days, we need to feel connected, not just to others with our cell phone, but to our money as well, with checkbooks, bankcards and cold hard cash. About the only thing in common between 1945 and now is a tissue and pen.
The contents of our purses – and for people like me, our pockets – can be a marker of where our treasure lies. I can’t tell you how often I pat my left pocket, just to double check that my wallet is still there. When I pat an empty pocket, I get a pain in the pit of my stomach. “Where’s my wallet?” I think in a panic. I feel like that woman without her handbag, “as lost as a wanderer in the desert.” My whole life is in that wallet – my bankcards, credit cards, my insurance card, cash – all the things I can’t live without. Patting an empty pocket reminds me that this earthly treasure can easily be taken away. It can be stolen or since it’s made of cloth and paper, it can rot away with age.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to make new purses, one that neither thieves nor moth can destroy. In short, we need to do as our ancestors did and move our purses from the outside to the inside. Jesus is telling us to stop checking our purses for money and other worldly goods. Instead, we need a purse that is indestructible and eternal. The only way we can get a purse like that is go within – to that place where God dwells within each of us.
Money, cars, houses, jobs, relationships, all these things can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye. If this is what we treasure, we’ll be anxious all the time, trying to protect our purses, panicked when we pat an empty pocket. If our treasure is turned inward, however, we will never feel anxious about anything outside of ourselves. If we have carefully cultivated a relationship with God, we will always have the assurance that no matter how many things change outside of us, we are always secure. When we cultivate a relationship with God, we understand, at the core of our being that there will always be enough. Our needs will always be met. Perhaps not in ways that we expect, but we will always have what we need. We may still want worldly treasures, but we will never be in need of them – as long as we make a new purse.
I forgot to tell you about my mother’s other purse. She had one of those eternal purses that Jesus talks about. When I was nine, my mom and dad divorced and we could no longer afford our comfortable middle class lifestyle. We were forced to move into a government housing project where I lived until I moved out on my own.
One day, my mother’s purse was stolen right from our living room. The apartment we lived in had no air conditioning so on hot summer days you left your door wide open and the screen door hooked. After my mother discovered her purse was missing, we found a small slit in the screen where the thief had made his way to the latch. He crept into our living room and snatched the purse while mom was in the kitchen. We called the police who later found the purse in some nearby woods, minus mom’s money. Thankfully, we were too poor to have credit cards and this was in the days before cell phones and personal organizers. The moldy old mint was still in the purse when the cops returned it.
If my mother despaired over the missing money, you wouldn’t have known it. She was more worried about her driver’s license and other things of personal value in the purse than the money. My mother knew that whatever money we needed would be provided – and she was always right. We never went without food, clothing or shelter. We often went without some of the things we wanted. I never did get my pony – but I was always well fed, housed and most of all loved. I can’t imagine a purse more overflowing with treasure than my mother’s eternal purse.
If I have to have a purse, I want a purse like that – one that can never be destroyed or stolen. What kind of things would we put in that purse? How about God’s gifts? Joy, peace, love, mercy, grace, beauty, compassion – these are a good start. What else shall we put in there? How about faith? In Hebrews, we’re reminded of the greats of our faith – Abel, Enoch, and Abraham. They lived by faith in God and confessed that they were strangers on the earth. This was not where they found their treasure. They found their treasure with God.
I won’t tell you they found their treasure in heaven because that evokes images of mansions and streets of gold. I don’t think that’s how an eternity with God works. Imagining mansions and streets of gold in heaven merely transfers our earthly wants for such things to heaven. If our treasure on earth isn’t to be about mansions and gold then they can’t be our treasure in heaven either. Instead, our treasure should be our faith. It is through our faith that we understand mansions and streets of gold are empty treasures both here and in heaven.
Faith brings us into relationship with God and in that relationship we find our perspective changes. Our idea about security changes. We not longer invest our idea of security in money, homes, jobs or relationships with other people. We understand our security comes in a solid relationship with God that gets us through all the other earthly losses of money, homes, jobs and relationships – and sustains us in joy during times of a wealth of money, homes, jobs and relationships. Our deep, abiding relationship with God – our faith that God is always with us in both the bad and the good times – is a treasure that can’t be taken from us.
That’s lovely, preacher, but how do we do it? Ah, that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? All that faith talk sounds good, but how do you apply it? As you remember, the sermon title contains the three words I never say in a sentence. But, to start growing our relationship with God, these are three powerful words that we should all say daily. We should constantly be asking ourselves, “Where’s my purse?”
In any situation where you’re getting caught up in worldly wants, these are the words to utter. “Where’s my purse?” Are you wearing it on the outside, collecting earthly treasure that can be taken from you or fade away? Or, are you wearing it inside, collecting God’s treasure that can never be stolen or destroyed? Where are you putting your faith? In the earthly things that fail or in God who never fails?
When you’re shopping and you simply must have the latest fashion, say, “Where’s my purse?” When you’re caught up in a new relationship or a new job, or even obsessed about the outcome of a TV program, ask yourself: “Where’s my purse?” Are you putting your heart on something outside of yourself? Are you valuing something of this world over your relationship with God? Are you putting other things ahead of God in your life? Are you spending all of your money at the mall or Wal-Mart and putting nothing in the offering plate? That’s a sure sign you’re spending on outside treasure and not the inside treasure of God and God’s work in the world.
Don’t think we’re just talking about material possessions when we ask, “Where’s my purse?” We can also check ourselves when we get wrapped up in competition. If we find ourselves trampling others to get to some personal goal, or belittling others, or gossiping about others to make ourselves feel better. Whenever we want to have power over others, instead of cooperative power with others, we need to ask, “Where’s my purse?” Because the worldly idea of power, or the worldly idea of trampling or belittling others, are things that can’t ever go in our eternal purse.
“Where’s my purse?” Try it this week. Say it over and over again until it becomes a reflex whenever a new fashion, job, car, relationship or other trinket floats by you. Are you valuing the things of this world over God? Are you neglecting your relationship with God while you’re chasing relationships out here? Are you competing for worldly admiration and forgetting how much you are adored by your heavenly Parent? Are you pursuing earthly riches while neglecting God’s spiritual riches of joy, peace, love, mercy, grace, beauty and compassion? Are you putting your faith in things outside of you – things that ultimately fail?
Frederick Buechner in his book, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, writes: “By faith, we understand, if we are to understand it at all, that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth. Faith is the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things — by faith we struggle against all odds to be able to see that the world is God’s creation even so. It is he who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of his peace to live in peace, out of his light to dwell in light, out of his love to be above all things loved and loving. That is the last truth about the world.”
That’s the indestructible truth you want in your eternal purse. So, check yourself this week – remind yourself where your treasure is by saying the three words I never say – but will constantly say now, “Where’s my purse?”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.