July 24, 2011
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 12
When I was in college I read a little book titled, Through Gates of Splendor. Written by Elizabeth Elliott, it was the story of her husband Jim and their life together as missionaries deep in a jungle in South America. In it she tells how her husband and several other men from their mission were martyred while ministering to a tribe in the jungle. After his death she found an entry in his journal, which she included in her book. His words, written shortly before his death in the 1950’s, have stayed with me.
Those words come back to me whenever I read the parables in our Gospel lesson for today. As if contemplating the possibility of his death, he wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” As a young man I thought those words were a good way of looking at what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I still do. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
That seems to have been the thoughts of the two men Jesus speaks of in our gospel lesson today. One of the men happened upon a treasure in a field. Recognizing the great value of what he had stumbled upon he immediately went and sold everything he owned so he could purchase the field. The other parable is different, but the second man’s actions are the same. While the first man stumbled upon the treasure in the field, the man in the second parable was searching for his treasure. When he found a beautiful and perfect pearl, he too sold everything he had and bought it. There is a third treasure too, but I am not quite ready to speak of that one. Be patient with me. It will show up later.
We don’t have to dig very deep in this story to realize the treasure and the pearl represent the Kingdom of God. The two men in the parables could be just about anybody, who over the centuries experienced the reality of God’s Kingdom. It is a kingdom, which like the treasure and the pearl, not everyone sees. How did these two men come to see and appreciate what others had missed? For that matter, how did you come to see it? What led you to say “yes” to God’s Kingdom? What caused you to pay the same price these two men paid? I wonder what it means to live out the implications of this gospel lesson in the 21st century? What does it mean to give up everything to possess and be possessed by the Kingdom of God?
Without a doubt, there are many layers to these parables. But, when we peel back the layers, at their core they are about living one’s life in such a way that everything in one’s life is filtered through the lens of the Kingdom of God. It’s something that few, if any of us, especially your preacher today, does perfectly. For all of us it is a process. It takes a lifetime, but that is ok, because a lifetime is precisely what we give when we give “everything.”
The guys in the parable sell everything all at once and use the proceeds to purchase their treasures. In our lives this “giving” all is not necessarily a one-time exchange. Rather, it is a journey…a journey that lasts a lifetime. It is a journey in a “God-ward” direction…a journey in which our words, attitudes and actions are put through a Kingdom filter. We see this filter at work in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he escaped from Germany to America in 1939 and was given a teaching post at Union Seminary in New York City, only to decide after a few months that, for him the gospel compelled him to return to Germany and stand with his people as Hitler ramped up his murderous reign of terror….a decision that would lead to his eventual execution at a concentration camp.
We see this filter at work in Martin Luther taking his hammer and nails to post his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg. It is seen too, in Martin Luther King, Jr., going to Memphis in April 1968 even though he knew his life was on the line. These are well known figures, but ordinary men and women…people just like you…do the same thing every day. I have seen this “God-ward” direction in the business man in the church I served in Louisiana who refused to look the other way when his superiors were breaking the law because of unbridled greed. He stood up, blew the whistle and it cost him his job. I’ve seen it in ministers who have sacrificed their own ecclesiastical advancement to stand up for those marginalized, even in the church.
I’ve seen it in the school teacher, who out of her own small salary bought clothes and school supplies for students who were too poor to buy for themselves. I’ve seen it in a brilliant young man in the church I served in Michigan. He had one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered and an IQ that was off the charts. Although he was offered scholarships at Ivy League schools, instead he went to the police academy and became a street cop in a tough Detroit neighborhood. When asked “why?”, he said it was because he felt like that was where God wanted him.
All examples of people “selling” whatever is theirs in order to be part of what God is doing in this broken world. None of the people I’ve mentioned, the famous ones or the ordinary ones, would for one moment think of their decisions as a sacrifice. In most cases they would see their actions as signs of the joy they have found in Jesus Christ. They have realized the joy that St. Paul surely knew when he wrote those words we read earlier in Romans “…For we know that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose…”
They would also surely point to the incredible good news that St. Paul so beautifully captured in our Epistle lesson.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
When I read those words I wonder, “why does God stick with His people like moss sticks to a tree?” I believe part of the answer is that God has found a treasure, too. And that treasure is you! God has paid the same price for His treasure that He bids us pay for ours. He, too, has paid everything. If you doubt that for even a moment, I call your attention to an old rugged cross set between two thieves. As best as I can tell, when Jesus breathed his last and gave up His spirit, He had given absolutely everything He had to give.
A few minutes ago when I started I said there were three treasures, all bought at great price. The first was the treasure in the field…the second was the pearl of great price…and the third is you. You are God’s treasure.