Saturday, July 26, 2014

Proper 17, Year A

Is Three Dollars’ Worth Enough?

Readings: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

So many of the parables that Jesus tells begin, "the kingdom of Heaven is like…". What is the kingdom? What is it like? Isn't it something we all wonder about? It is one of the deep questions about existence. We look around us at the world and see hunger and poverty. We see violence and tragedy. We wonder if God is in control, if God cares at all about creation. We may even question the existence of God. We all ask those burning questions about what lies beyond this life.

Jesus told parables about the kingdom to the crowds who followed him everywhere. He is speaking to the poor and the helpless, to the weak and the downtrodden. They bring with them all the cares of daily life. They bring also their hope for a better life. And Jesus shares with them a vision of God’s realm. "The kingdom of Heaven," Jesus tells them, "is like a treasure hidden in a field." They can picture what they would do in a similar situation. It was possible. It really could happen. Hiding valuables in the ground was normal in Palestine. During an invasion the invader would dig a hole in the ground and bury the booty. If he were killed or died before recovering the spoil, it would remain in the ground until someone discovered it by chance. Everyone listening to Jesus could imagine the joy of finding the treasure.

Yet it is a rather strange story. It makes us feel uneasy. When a story makes us feel uneasy, like there is something there for us to consider, when it 'niggles' away at us, then we need to ask ourselves what the Spirit is saying to us. It is a disturbing story. It stirs up feelings inside of us, feelings of longing. Wouldn't we all love to find buried treasure? Feelings of guilt! What would we be willing to give up? Feelings of excitement! Could it really happen?

Buried treasure is a dream that many have had. I remember, as a child, the excitement I felt at visiting Oak Island in Nova Scotia. It is thought to be the site of a great treasure. No one knows exactly who buried treasure there. Over the years it has been conjectured that it might be the hiding place of some famous pirate like Captain Kidd. Perhaps the most intriguing explanation is that, centuries ago, the Knights Templar used it as a storage place. Maybe the Holy Grail is stored there. At any rate, millions of dollars have been spent fruitlessly trying to find the treasure that everyone is certain is there. All efforts have met with failure, but it doesn't stop one from feeling a great excitement and anticipation that perhaps this time the treasure will be found – that the great puzzle of how to get at a treasure so carefully and deviously hidden will suddenly be clear.

But that is a very different message from that of the parable. The message there is that we are in search of a great treasure. It will cost us everything we have to find it. But it is attainable, and not only attainable, but assured.

The man buries the treasure again. Then he sells everything in order to make it his own. What is the treasure? What are we willing to give up in order to attain it? What is it worth to us to attain the kingdom of Heaven?

Then there is the merchant who goes searching for one perfect pearl. Once he has found it he sells everything he has to buy it. It is the same story, except this time the merchant went searching until he found exactly what he was looking for.

What are you looking for? Where do you find it? What do you do with it? There are no easy answers, are there. We are searching for a great treasure. It will cost us everything we have to find it. But it is attainable; in fact, it is a sure thing. It is also costly. It will cost us everything we have. But it is within our reach.

The parable is intended as a message to Jesus' disciples. "The cost of discipleship," he tells them over and over again, "is very great. It costs everything." They have found a great treasure in Jesus. At the moment it is hidden from the world. It is their secret. They must leave everything to follow him. They must look to God, not humanity, for their reward. The claims of the kingdom are total. They leave no room for self-interest. Discipleship demands total response, total commitment.

As Christians we are searching for a great treasure. We are children of the kingdom, living in a kind of exile from it, discovering glimpses of it from time to time. It is worth the search, for it is a great treasure. But the search is costly. It will cost everything we have. But the transformation in our lives will make it a treasure worth having.

Most of us would like our faith to make a difference – but perhaps not too much. We may have had a wonderful mountain top experience in our lives, a Conference, a retreat weekend, or a moment in our lives when everything came together for us. We perceived God in a different light. But over time the experience fades. We think about it once in a while. But there are problems in our lives. We have to earn a living and raise our family. There are the stresses and conflicts of life to deal with. There is sickness. We go to church on Sunday. But to make a commitment to the faith, to work at it, to read our Bibles, to pray – those things we put aside. We want to be committed Christians, but on our own terms.

Wilbur Rees, a pastor in the States wrote the following poem that sums it up for me beautifully.

“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.”

Why buy three dollars worth when you can seek a great treasure, enough to share with a hungry world? What a treasure it is to know what it means to be loved by God, to be totally accepted by God. The tragedies and conflicts of life can discourage us but they do not change God's love for us. Failures and defeats may bother us, but they do not affect our relationship with God. God's love and reconciling grace are forever. God's will is carried out through us. We are children of God.

How much is our Christian life worth to us? Of what value is a sense of the presence of God, of the love of Christ, of the peace and meaning that such realities can bring into one's life? How much are these things worth? The ultimate truth is that these realities are worth everything. The Christian story is one of miracles. It is the story of lives turned around, of hope reborn, and of amazement at how, when we seek to live in concert with God's will, great things can happen. May we find that great treasure!

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