A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost • July 26,6 2020
Allie Allie In free. Do you remember those words ringing out on a hot summer evening as the mosquitos gave way to lightning bugs? Hide and seek was the game we played after the street lights came on, when roaming was limited to a couple of adjacent yards. It’s an endless sequence of hiding away and then the thrill of someone finding, followed by a race back to the home base. So much play revolves around this experience doesn’t it? I still remember one day when Jacquelyn and I went hiking in Thatcher Park and lost the trail. One moment we were walking from marker to marker along a clear path the next the path had disappeared and so had the markers. We weren’t lost in a threatening way, of course, still, when we finally found our way back to a groomed, park area, we celebrated: we were found. Today we’ve heard some of Jesus’ parables that revolve around losing and finding and the joy of finding. Listen to them with me.
The first has a kind of amoral quality, doesn’t it? Someone goes out to look at some property, a field. He digs around in it; knowing farmers, I imagine him tasting the dirt. He probably knows the history of this field, what it has produced, and he imagines it full of a crop ready for harvest. As he kicks around he makes a discovery: treasure! Much of Israel has been fought over for centuries. There must have been thousands of treasures buried at various times. In our own time, to this day, northern France and Belgium has crews removing unexploded bombs from wars a century ago and there are whole Youtube channels devoted to finding bits and pieces of left equipment, silent reminders of forgotten desperate struggles. So it’s not surprising that he finds a treasure. What’s surprising is what happens next. He hides the treasure: he conceals it! He buys the field. There’s a kind of dishonesty here, isn’t there? Yet Jesus tells the story. I suppose because he can’t wait to get to the end where the person sells all that he has—risks everything!—buys the field in his joy. What’s being compared here? What’s the point, what’s Jesus saying? Surely it is the joy of finding the most important, the best, something that makes you give everything. What made you give everything?
Let’s try another. Imagine a merchant spends his career buying and selling jewelry, chiefly pearls. He acquires over years a special expertise. You and I just see a couple of white orbs, he instantly sees value, notes differences we can hardly see even when they’re pointed out. Birders are like this, people who watch birds for a living. Have you ever encountered one? They watch and watch and then suddenly get excited, grab field glasses, make notes when you just barely saw another dot in the sky if you saw anything at all. They can describe the color, the beak, the shape; it’s amazing. The pearl merchant is like that about pearls and then one day, he finds something he can hardly believe. It’s a pearl so beautiful, so wonderful he has never seen its equal. What does he do? He sells all that he has—risks everything—buys the pearl.
What seems to be the point here isn’t a lesson in real estate or the jewelry business but rather the experience of joy. We haven’t talked much about joy lately, we’ve been too busy arguing about masks and whether singing is safe. We’ve been locked up alone thinking about how things used to be. I wonder if the people Jesus is teaching are any different? Peasants in every era had hard, grinding l ives. Never far from hunger, always on the edge of survival, they look more like homeless people today. I’m talking about the guy at the grocery store with an elephant sized bag of bottles and cans depending on getting the deposits to eat that day.
We haven’t talked a lot about joy but perhaps we should—we would if we listened to Jesus. Here’s the mystery of the Kingdom of God: it’s an overwhelming joy, like following in love, like seeing your baby for the first time. The people in these parables have their lives changed and we can too if we pay attention.
The key is finding. That’s what happens with the farmer and the field, that’s what happens with the pearl merchant and in another way it’s what happens in the third parable we read this morning. Jesus pictures fisherfolk doing what they do every day. They fish with nets and nets just scoop up everything so you have to have a sharp eye and quick fingers to go through and find the fish you want. Annie Dillard is a poet and writer who years ago spent a year at Tinker Creek just looking around, paying attention, trying to find what was going on. She says at one point about the creek,
I am prying into secrets again and taking my chances. i might see anything happen; i might see nothing but light on the water. I wail home exhilarated or becalmed, but always changed, alive. [Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p.1]
Are you paying attention? Perhaps that’s what set the farmer apart. The owner of the field could have fond the treasure at any time but he didn’t. He didn’t see the field as a place of treasure so he missed it. The owner of the pearl of great price could have retired with it at any time but he didn’t, he sold it. He didn’t see it’s unique value. The fishing folk have to pay attention to their nets to get the good fish and cast out the throwaways. In fact, just going on the water requires attention.
Jesus is teaching us to pay attention. Perhaps this is the reason he teaches in parables. Parables are riddles, you have to think about them to get them. You have to turn them around, look at them over and over to get them. You have to dig around in them to get the treasure.
There are two parts to these parables. One I the joy of finding; the other is what to do with what you’ve found. The farmer and the pearl merchant give everything; that’s a key part of both stories, perhaps less so in the story of the fish. And what are they giving themselves to? Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God, Matthew the Kingdom of heaven, today it’s often translate the reign of God. What it means has to do with giving yourself to a life that revolves around one thing alone. When you find you are living in the kingdom of God, that changes your life. That is the one thing worth giving everything to and for. If we give ourselves this way, we can’t help looking forward instead of backward. We can’t help giving thank for what we’ve found.
This way of life is one of the theme in many of Ursula Le Guin’s novels. She calls it giving yourself or giving your love to what is worthy of love. Are you doing this? Are we? I leave you with that question today: are you giving yourself to what is worthy of love..
In a little more than month, God willing, I’ll see you again here on September 13. I mean that seriously: God willing. Our lives are like the electrons physicists study, whose future is always unsure, always a guess. But the one true, certain, predictable thing are the forces that move them and that’s true of us as well. Today we began with a passage from Paul’s letter to the Roman church in which he says that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. That is indeed a treasure worth finding. That is indeed something worthy of giving your life to. May you find that love and feel it every day. May you share it and the joy it gives..