SLIDE 3: INVITE EVERYONE TO DINNER & TO CHURCH
John Dominic Crossan states that the two undeniable marks of the ministry of Jesus were free healing and open commensality, everyone invited to eat at the table. In First Century Israel eating was highly segregated by social standing, income, and religious observance — rich people didn’t eat with poor people, Jews didn’t eat with gentiles, good people wouldn’t eat with tax collectors or other public sinners, and people who rigidly followed the dietary and religious cleanliness laws, would not eat with those who did not. And I don’t know that this should surprise us. We live in a world of gated communities, and eating accommodations that use the prices on the menu to segregate people socio-economically — there is a big difference between Commerce Kitchen, Cotton Row, and Waffle House. Jesus in this passage is suggesting we need to extend ourselves beyond our small social circles by inviting everyone to dinner and to church. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the still most segregated hour of the week.
SLIDE 4: YOUR CHURCH IS JUST SO WHITE
Trying to expand a congregation’s outreach, however, can be difficult. I remember the story of my good friend Tom Drewer, a ministerial colleague in Illinois, who when the neighborhood surrounding his church in North St. Louis began to change racially, he worked with his Church Council to try to reach out to the African Americans moving into the neighborhood. They started a pre-school and day care that was well utilized by African American families who were moving in. Tom went out of his way to invite families from the day care to attend worship. One family who visited church twice Tom went to visit in their home. They had a delightful conversation and Tom got around to asking the couple if they had any questions about the church. At that point the husband laughed and then he said, “Pastor Drewer we like your church just fine. And we are so grateful for the day care center you are providing, and you have gone out of your way to try to make us feel welcome in the church. But Pastor Drewer, your church is just so white!”
SLIDE 5: WHEN ALL OF GOD’S CHILDREN CAN WORSHIP TOGETHER
He wasn’t criticizing Tom’s church, and I don’t think it was a racist statement. We just need to recognize as we try to reach across racial lines that there are some real differences in style in worship, music and culture. The number of congregations who have been able to bridge the racial divide and become inter-racial is only about 5% of congregations in America. We can work toward a day when all of God’s children will worship together, and we can also appreciate the challenges that accompany our efforts to become racially diverse.
In the state of Alabama presently we have sixteen UCC churches. About eight of which are predominantly African American, six are predominantly white and two could be described as inter-racial — although one of those was an LGBT congregation before becoming United Church of Christ. We will continue to open our doors and welcome everyone to our open table.
SLIDE 6: WELCOMING THE LGBT COMMUNITY
Now United Church has become more diverse as we have welcomed the LGBT community. As I watch so many other churches struggling with the acceptance of Gays and Lesbians I am happy and relieved that we have become Open and Affirming, and a truly welcoming congregation. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that all of the United Churches of Christ in Minneapolis are Open and Affirming and we even saw a Methodist church prominently displaying two rainbow flags, although the Methodist in North Alabama are still a little disappointing.
SLIDE 7: SOCIO-ECONOMIC DIVERSITY
Another area in which United Church has successfully become more diverse is socio-economically. When I came to UCH we were almost universally an upper middle class congregation of engineers, scientists and other professionals. Today we have what I see as a healthy mix of professionals, business people, working people, some unemployed and poor people. When I came we saw all of our mission as being directed to poor people outside of our church. Today some of our mission is with people struggling economically inside of our congregation. And often people who are struggling financially bring with them a whole host of problems and issues requiring patience and love. Of course as many of us grow older and become physically more needy, we have important opportunities for ministry within our congregation that require a lot of patience and love.
SLIDE 8: SUPPORT FOR MENTAL HEALTH
As a congregation we are also welcoming of people with mental health issues. Our support for NAMI has been an important factor in letting people in our community know of our interest in and acceptance of mental illness. We are living in a time, when there is a desperate need for advocacy for funding for public mental health. Every time I turn around in Alabama I see another mental health facility closing. And with the open availability of weapons in Alabama to almost anyone who wants to buy them, this is potentially a deadly combination. There is evidence that many of the shootings that have plagued us in this year around the country have involved untreated mental health conditions. An important part of our following the way of Jesus, here at United Church is welcoming people to the Sharing Table regardless of the mental health challenges they bring with them.
SLIDE 9: INTENTIONALLY EXPANDING SOCIAL CIRCLES
As Jesus noted in our scripture, sometimes we have to be intentional about expanding our social circles. “The next time you put on a dinner,” he said, “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing.” I would point to the Tri-faith Initiative in Omaha, where Countryside United Church of Christ has joined with Temple Israel and the American Muslim Institute have intentionally joined together to build worship and fellowship facilities on the same site. They are radically expanding their social circles to become interfaith fellowship.
SLIDE 10: DINNERS FOR EIGHT
Gina Eckenrode has made a proposal to the Diaconate that may help us enlarge our circles of caring at United Church. She is calling the plan “Dinners for Eight.” Eight people, singles, couples, other multiples adding up to eight people would commit to having dinner or some other social occasion together four times during the year. The purpose is to get to know one another better, to expand our fellowship circles within the congregation, and create new connections for integrating new people into the life of the church. The plan is simple but in a congregation, where the majority of our members may be introverts, we may experience some challenges in trying to implement the plan.
SLIDE 11: GIVE IT A TRY
So allow me to encourage everyone to at least “give it a try.” Sitting down together to eat won’t kill any of us and most of us don’t bite anything that isn’t on our fork or our spoon. As we join one another at the Fellowship Table we will become a blessing for one another. And this reminds me of a devotion by Richard Floyd entitled: “Finding the Perfect Church.”
After I retired from active pastoral ministry my wife and I were ecclesiastically homeless for a few years. We went to church, but we couldn’t commit to one. We sometimes felt like Goldilocks at the Bears’ residence. One congregation had good preaching, but not so great music. Another had terrific music, but the sermons were on the light side.
SLIDE 12: UTOPIA — NOT A PLACE This period was an unhappy time in our lives, for we are serious “church nerds” and needed a church home. We knew there was something unfaithful about “church shopping” and being, to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase, “tourists and not pilgrims.” The problem was there was no perfect church. Thomas More coined the word Utopia in 1516 to describe a perfect society on a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. Utopia in Latin means “not a place.” There has never been and there never will be Utopia. There is no perfect congregation, just the ones we’ve got, full of imperfect people that God loves and calls to be the church. And we knew ourselves well enough to realize that if we ever found the perfect church, as soon as we joined it, it wouldn’t be perfect anymore.
SLIDE 13: BECOMING THE SHARING TABLE OF JESUS So allow me to suggest that we work with Gina to see if we can make this imperfect congregation a little more loving, accepting and inclusive. Remember there is no perfect church, and that’s why all of us difficult as we are, are welcome here. Let us reach out in faith that the love of Christ can transform a motley crew of imperfect people into the Sharing Table of Jesus.
SLIDE 3: WHAT ARE OUR PRIORITIES
On August 7th we discussed the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price. And Jesus prompted us to ask ourselves the question, “What do we really want? What are our priorities?” Our scripture this morning also talks about priorities, but today we are focusing on the priorities of faith.
SLIDE 4: WE HAVE LOST SABBATH OBSERVANCE
In our story this morning Jesus was being criticized by a leader of a synagogue for healing a woman on the Sabbath. And let me begin by acknowledging that in 21st century American we have completely lost Sabbath observance. We are constantly on the go, hardly ever stopping for rest. We live in a culture of 24 hour Wal-Marts, and factories and convenience stores that never close.
SLIDE 5: SABBATH AND STRESS
Workers in the past fought for a 40 hour work week, and now by manipulating employment practices we have “contract” workers who are supposedly salaried and who are expected to work 50 and 60 hours a week with no overtime. Having lost the blessing of Sabbath we abuse ourselves by pushing and pushing and never resting. No wonder we suffer from stress related illnesses — high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, obesity, migraines, depression and anxiety, gastroenteritis, arthritis, several forms of cancer and dementia. Becoming more conscious of Sabbath observance would be a good corrective in our society.
SLIDE 6: WHAT IS REALLY IMPORTANT?
So let me be clear this morning, our purpose is not to denigrate Sabbath observance, rather the point of our story is to help us focus on the issue of spiritual priorities. What is important in our faith? Jesus also confronted this issue in the gospel of Matthew chapter 23: “23 “Woe to you, scribes and teachers of the law, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin to the Temple, but you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” So don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, but learn to prioritize and focus on what is important.
SLIDE 7: PRESERVE LIFE ACT COMPASSIONATELY
Now to be fair, first century Judaism taught that the first priority of faith was to preserve life and to act compassionately. In verse 15 of our scripture, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Jesus was citing a provision of the law, where acts of compassion took precedence over Sabbath observance. If your donkey falls into the well on the Sabbath, you are permitted to pull the poor animal out of the water, rather than allowing it to drown.
SLIDE 8: FORMS OF FAITH RATHER THAN SUBSTANCE OF THE SPIRIT
I think the synagogue leader in this story was a kind of religious detail person, who allowed himself to be distracted by the forms of faith rather than the substance of the spirit. Religious folks who focus on the minutia of pious observance often become caught up in memorizing the scriptures and finding obscure passages and rules they elevate to primary importance, like the tithing of their spices, in their faith observance. William Sloan Coffin had a name for this — irrelevant righteousness. Jesus kept encouraging people to focus their faith on love. Love is of first importance, love of God, love of neighbor, love yourself, and all the rest is secondary.
SLIDE 9: LOVE IS FIRST IMPORTANCE
Religious groups who have used the Bible to justify the oppression of gays and lesbians, go right ahead and eat shell fish and pork, and the hind quarter of the beef, that are also prohibited in the law of Moses. So, we also encounter the problem cherry picking among different forms of religious observance according to our own particular likes and dislikes. Love is of first importance, love of God, love of neighbor, love of self all of the rest is secondary.
“But,” asked the lawyer, “who is my neighbor?” And so Jesus told the story of the “good Samaritan,” a parable that established our enemies as our neighbors. So love God, love yourself, love your neighbor and love your enemy, and all the rest is secondary.
SLIDE 10: AUGUSTINE’S HIERARCHY OF LOVE
So are we ever confronted with situations, where we have to prioritize love? Good question! And here I would begin by putting forward St. Augustine’s theory of disordered love. Augustine suggested that all sin is the result of disordered love.
According to St. Augustine the greatest commandment is to love God, and so the first priority is love of God. Although I John 4:20-21 might dispute placing love of God before other people: I John 420-21 If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both. Love for God is principally manifest in how we treat other people.
SLIDE 11: HEALTHY LOVE OF SELF
Now Augustine offers us another insight when he then claims, that because Jesus said, love your neighbor as yourself, the second priority is love of self. We cannot really love others, unless we love ourselves. So much of the evil that is done to others, in the name of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, actually arises out of self-hate and loathing. There is some evidence that perhaps the murderer at the pulse night club harbored deeply repressed homosexual feelings that may have driven him to commit those terrible murders. He committed a crime of great evil against others in part out of his own self-hate. So Augustine maintained that the second priority is love of self. If we have a healthy love of self, love for the other, even the other who is different from us will follow.
SLIDE 12: LOVE OF NEIGHBOR — WE ARE ONE
The third priority of Augustine is love of neighbor, that also extends to love of enemy. Love God, love yourself, love your neighbor and your enemy. We are all one. The God I can see in you is also the God in me. Embrace ourselves and each other and we have found God.
SLIDE 13: LOVE GOD’S CREATION
Now Augustine goes even further in this hierarchy of love by claiming that it is O.K. to love God’s creation and the material things of the world. Augustine’s spirituality was world embracing, rather than world denying. It’s O.K. to love the fresh produce from the garden, the taste of peaches and cream, the beauty of a rose and a good glass of wine. It is even O.K. to love your new car. The only problem with loving the material things of the world is when our love for them becomes more important than our love for God, or our love for ourselves, or our love for other people.
SLIDE 14: IT’S ALL GOOD, BUT KEEP YOUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT
For instance, if we have to exploit other people in order earn the money to purchase our new car, that would be a case of disordered love. If we are sitting down to a table full of food that is more than we can eat, while our neighbor doesn’t have enough to eat, again we have a case of disordered love. Eating so much food that I become obese, develop diabetes and heart disease, again is disordered love, because my love of food has taken precedence over my love for my own good health. Another interesting example of disordered love is burn out. When we go around taking care of others to the exclusion of self-care, we burn out, we get sick, sometimes fall into depression — disordered love. So Augustine’s hierarchy of love even helps us keep the importance of self-care in perspective. Love of God, love of self, love of neighbor, love of creation. They are all good, so long as we keep our priorities straight.
SLIDE 15: SPECIAL CONCERN FOR FAMILY
This idea of prioritizing love, helps me in addressing another issue in loving other people, and that is family. Now I’m not sure Jesus would approve of what I am about to say. After all when his family asked him to come outside and talk to them he said, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters, but those who do the will of God.” In context we can acknowledge that Jesus’ family was seeking to pull him away from his ministry, because they thought he had lost his mind. I think first century Israel was a culture in which extended family in a tribal village context provided much more communal care for people, than we experience in our world today.
SLIDE 16: CHILDREN NEED PARENTS
The point I want to make is that in our modern world, where extended families become separated by geographical distance, we are the only people who can be the parents of our children. Friends and other family can help, but we are the only people who can parent our children. I can still remember a time, when kids went out to play in the summer and there was a network of responsible adults, who functioned as a communal care team. If you skinned your knee, someone else’s Mom would put Bactine or Iodine on it and a band-aid. In a time, when extended families were still geographically close, I remember my father saying, that he got his loving from his grandparents, rather than his dysfunctional parents. But now that we live in a world, where we cannot count on communal care or extended families who live together that can provide back-up, we are often the only source of parental care for our children.
SLIDE 17: PARTNERS & SPOUSES NEED EACH OTHER
We are also the primary source of care for our partners and our spouses. In an economy that moves people for employment maybe multiple times in a life time, long term friendship networks may not be available, and so spouses and partners become especially important for emotional support. And while friends can be helpful, there are some things that only children and family members can do for aging parents, especially when serious illness or death draw near.
SLIDE 18: KEEPING OUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT
When it comes to love and care, we need to give some priority to family. And we have to be very careful that family does not become a closed system, that prevents us from extending love and care outside of the family circle. But just as we need to give some priority to self-care, given the realities of our modern context, we also need to be able to give some priority to family care.
So, let us love God, love ourselves, love our families, love our neighbors and our enemies, also love God’s wonderful and beautiful creation and keep our priorities straight. Amen.
LIKE YEAST & A MUSTARD SEED
SLIDE 3: MUSTARD SEED & YEAST
This morning we examine two very short parables of Jesus, the mustard seed and the yeast. The Parable of the Mustard Seed appears independently in the Gospel of Mark, and the Parable of the Yeast appears independently in the Gospel of Luke, but Matthew couples the two parables suggesting he saw a similar meaning of the two sayings.
So let’s begin with the narrative of the mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes like a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
SLIDE 4: WE ARE PART OF THE ETERNAL MYSTERY
The mustard seed reminds me of part of Robert Fulgum’s poem, “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:”
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Seeds represent the great mystery of life, the very mystery that is at the heart of all of our lives. How and why we germinate and grow nobody really knows why. For we are part of the eternal mystery that is God and the universe.
SLIDE 5: PARABLE OF THE SEEDS
The Mustard Seed image also speaks to the bountiful nature of God. From the smallest of seeds a giant plant grows that is large enough for birds to make a nest. Mark places the Mustard seed right next to the Parable of the Seeds: Mark 4: 26 Jesus also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” All seeds then can be compared to faith, though in the beginning faith may seem small and weak, if allowed to grow the seeds will supply life and health.
SLIDE 6: MEDICINAL MUSTARD
So we might ask, why did Jesus use a mustard seed, is there anything special about the mustard plant? Mustard is a curative, and one available to anyone. While it can be cultivate, it also grew wild in the Middle East. Mustard can be used as an aid to digestion as well as an astringent and an anti- inflammatory somewhat like turmeric. It is part of the good world God gives us; like the sun, which insists on shining, the seed insists on growing, to be used by anyone who finds the plant.
SLIDE 7: FREE HEALING – OPEN COMMENSALITY
The mustard plant may have also been a kind of symbol of the ministry of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan claims that the two trademarks of Jesus’ ministry were free healing and open commensality (everyone welcome at the table to eat.) We will discuss further the symbol of open commensality, when we talk about the story of yeast in dough, but for now let’s consider the possibility that the mustard plant was a symbol of free healing. God had provided a plant of enormous healing properties that grew in abundance for free, and could be used by anyone who chose to harvest and utilize it. We do not have any direct evidence of Jesus using herbal remedies in his healing, but we do have at least two occasions, when Jesus used “spit” as a placebo, and one time, when he used spit mixed with mud as a placebo. So let’s not discount the possibility that the mustard seed was a symbol of herbs and healing.
SLIDE 8: YEAST IN DOUGH
Now let’s turn to the companion story of the Parable of Yeast in Dough. To appreciate this parable, we must attend to the cultural understanding of yeast and the amount of bread that three measures of flour would yield. We need to correct the translation that has the woman “mixing” the yeast into the dough, because that is not what the Greek says. And we do well to see what the combined imagery of women and dough, hiding and ovens would have suggested to people living in the first century.
SLIDE 9: LOVE & JUSTICE UNDERMINES HATE & VIOLENCE
According to most major English translations, the woman “mixed” the yeast with three measures of flour. The problem is that the Greek does not say “mixed.” The term is “enkrypto,” which comes from a root meaning “to hide.” Thus, she is literally doing something secretly almost covertly to undermine the present order of things. Jesus thought of his Commonwealth of God as undermining the present order of things. The community of love and justice undermines the forces of hate and violence — good images for the followers of Jesus in our present time.
SLIDE 10: IMAGE OF THE MESSIANIC AGE
The idea of hiding yeast and of the dough rising on its own can suggest insemination and then pregnancy. The idea that this parable hides an image of pregnancy and birth is not just a feminist fantasy; it is supported as well by the common metaphor that associates pregnancy and childbirth with the messianic age in the time of Jesus. Remember the metaphor Paul used in his Letter to the Romans 8: 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as children of God.
SLIDE 11: THREE MEASURES 40 – 60 POUNDS
Now let’s think about the amount of bread in the Parable. Three measures in first-century terms, is not synonymous with three cups. Three measures of flour is somewhere between forty and sixty pounds. The image is one of extravagance — like extravagant welcome, where everyone who comes to the table is fed. We might be reminded of many other New Testament images of food in abundance, from the wedding at Cana, with its sixty gallons of good wine, to the feeding of the five thousand, in which five loaves and two fish yield twelve basketfuls of leftovers.
SLIDE 12: EXTRAVAGANCE & GENEROSITY
Given the enormous yield that would result from forty to sixty pounds of flour, the parable speaks to the importance of extravagance and generosity. Imagine setting up a food pantry that stocks enough for many families could eat — Foodline. Imagine baking bread for those who have none and who wonder about all those well-fed folks who pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Three measures of flour represented an image of extravagant generosity not lost on Jesus’ audience.
SLIDE 13: SMALL ACTS OF LOVING KINDNESS
So when we couple the yeast and the mustard seed what we see now is the concept of potential, but a potential that needs to be actualized. The yeast has to be placed into the dough; the seed has to be planted. Even small actions or hidden actions of loving kindess have the potential to produce great things.
SLIDE 14: SOME THINGS NEED TO BE LEFT ALONE
In addition, from both plants and dough we learn yet at least three more lessons. First, some things need to be left alone. Keep fiddling with the dough and it will not rise; keep exposing the seed to air and it will not germinate. Not everything or everyone, needs our constant attention. We are part of a larger process, and although we may start an action, once started, it can often do quite well on its own. Are there people or issues in our own lives that need to be left alone? Sometimes, when we rush in to make an intervention we mess things up more than if we just left it alone.
SLIDE 15: WE NEED TO GET OUT OF THE WAY
Second, sometimes we need to get out of the way. We are not always the focus; sometimes we are the facilitator for something bigger than ourselves. As I move toward retirement I realize there are times I need to get out of the way and trust that God is at work in the process. The woman hides the yeast in the dough. The man plants, or even tosses, the seed. Who sowed it is much less important that the tree into which the plant grows. The final image is not a focus on the human actors, but on the results of the actions — plentiful healing herb, and bread enough for all to eat.
SLIDE 16: BREAD ENOUGH FOR ALL TO EAT
Finally, both the yeast and the mustard are about domestic concerns not great political, historic or military events. The seed parable is set in a garden or in field; the yeast parable is set at a village oven. The kingdom of heaven is found in what today we might call “our own backyard” in the generosity of nature and in the daily workings of men and women. The two sayings suggest that the notion for the “lust for big-time success” is misplaced. The challenge of the parable is much homier: don’t ask “when” the kingdom comes or “where” it is. The when is in its own good time — as long as it takes for the seed to sprout and grow and the dough to rise and bake. The where is that the kingdom is already present, in the world. The kingdom is all around us for those who have the eyes to see. The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do — to provide for others, and ourselves as well. At the community oven or at Foodline the kingdom of God is realized as the Sharing Table becomes a reality, when there is bread and justice enough for all to eat.
Some Questions to Consider When Reading
We Have Taken a City
- Do you think sin and evil are purely personal concepts, or do you believe in the possibility of corporate sin and corporate evil?
- Do you think there were people in Nazi Germany who did not support their government, but who suffered the consequences of World War II none the less
- Do you think institutional racism is a reality?
- What do you think might be some examples of institutional racism?
- Before reading this book were you aware of post-civil war racial violence?
- How does the history in this book relate to your knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement?
- How does this history affect how you see current outbreaks of racial violence?
- After reading this history does it surprise you to learn that the City of Ferguson is a majority African American Community that is run by a minority white administration and police department?
- How do you think White Christians should respond to the “Black Lives Matter” movement?
- Is there a way to prevent police from being “targeted” and still hold police accountable for their actions?
- Can you see a way that the current wave of protests might lead to better race relations?
- Do you think the current election cycle is in anyway responsible for racial tensions?
- How do you think churches might contribute to a reconciliation between the races in America?
- Can you think of anyway the United Church of Huntsville might better promote interracial reconciliation?
The Pearl of Great Price
SLIDE 3: TREASURE IN A FIELD
The Gospel of Matthew contains two mini-parables placed right next to one another about things of value. The first story is about a treasure hidden in a field. When a person stumbles across the lost fortune, he covers it up, keeps it secret and then goes and sells his other possessions in order to be able to buy the field and claim the treasure. Some people are uncomfortable with this story, because the treasure hunter seems unscrupulous, for he finds the fortune and does not tell the owner of the field before bidding on the land.
The Gospel of Thomas has a different take on the story of the treasure in the field: “The kingdom is like a man who had in his field a hidden treasure, of which he knew nothing. And after he died he left it to his son. The son also did not know; he took the field and sold it. The man who bought it came and as he was ploughing found the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.”
SLIDE 4: THE COMMONWEALTH OF GOD IS IN YOUR MIDST
In the Gospel of Thomas the previous owners did not know anything about the treasure, and neither does the man who buys the field and then discovers the treasure. The point of the Gospel of Thomas is that the treasure is there all along, but it is worthless to the owners of the field until someone discovers it. The Gospel of Thomas seems to pick up on Jesus’ statement that the Kingdom of God is not here or there, but the Kingdom of God is now in the midst of you, for those of you who can perceive its presence. In both versions of the story the discovery of the treasure is accidental. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that the discovery of God’s presence in our lives is serendipitous. The experience of the Holy is grace. We can’t make it happen.
SLIDE 5: GRACE — SERENDIPITOUS — IT JUST COMES
It is sort of like the story of a business man who was on his first visit to the South, and he ordered breakfast, 2 eggs over easy, some bacon and whole wheat toast. When the waitress delivered his order, he looked down at the plate and saw a glob of white stuff in addition to the eggs, bacon and toast. The man inquired of the server querulously, “What’s that?” pointing to the white stuff.
The waitress replied, “Why them’s grits!”
“But I didn’t order any grits,” replied the businessman.
“Oh, you don’t order grits,” responded the waitress, “They just comes.” We don’t order the experience of God, we can’t make it happen. It just comes, like stumbling across a treasure buried in a field.
SLIDE 6: WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH GRACE?
Of course once we have experienced grace, once we know the treasure is in the field, we have to decide what we are going to do about it. Do we cover it up and leave it buried? Do we steal it? Just knowing where the cache lies does not change our lives. We have to be willing to appropriate the treasure, make it part of who we are in order to benefit. So now we have to begin the discussion of priorities, and here is where the treasure hidden in the field and the Pearl of Great Price come together. So let’s spend a couple of moments with the story of the Pearl.
SLIDE 7: PEARL OF GREAT PRICE
A merchant was seeking fine pearls. We can begin by noting that pearls in the ancient world were among the most precious of gems. In modern times we have learned how to culture pearls, and so they have become relatively cheap in comparison to the ancient world, where pearls were so expensive, most people in First Century Israel had never even seen one. To imagine a merchant who dealt almost exclusively in pearls was to fantasize about fantastic wealth.
According to the narrative, when the merchant discovered one very large and perfect pearl, he sold his entire stock in order to be able to buy that one pearl. Now as Amy Jill Levine points out: “Our merchant has obtained his desire: a beautiful object, but one that cannot nourish, or shelter or clothe. . . . apparently impoverishing himself to acquire something supremely valuable which he could admire and display but could not make a living unless he sold it again.”
SLIDE 8: A TREASURE THAT DOES NOT DECAY
How does this help us in understanding the Commonwealth of God? Here perhaps the version of the Merchant and the Pearl in the Gospel of Thomas can help us: Jesus said, “What the Commonwealth of God resembles is a merchant who owned some merchandise, and then learned about the existence of a certain pearl. That merchant was shrewd, sold the merchandise, and bought the single pearl. You too, then must seek the ceaseless and enduring treasure, where moth does not approach to eat nor worm to destroy.”
SLIDE 9: WHAT IS IT WE REALLY WANT?
The Gospel of Thomas changes the meaning of story. The merchants is shrewd, rather than a stock of pearls, he has an assortment of merchandise some of which may be perishable or at least subject to deterioration and decay. The merchant is clever, for he sells his perishable assets in order to invest in a jewel that does not lose its value. The implication is that following the way of Jesus leads to an eternal reward, thus pointing the listener to think about priorities. Do we become attached to wealth and things of material value, or are we investing ourselves in developing spiritual assets? So Jesus is asking us, “What is it we really want?”
SLIDE 10: WHAT ARE WE WILLING TO GIVE UP?
What are our priorities? What are we willing to give up or lay aside in order to find spiritual happiness — joy? When Jesus invited the rich young ruler, “Come follow me,” he turned went away disappointed, because he would have to part with some of his material wealth in order share with others. Jesus was inviting him into a community of relationship, but his material wealth was more important than the prospect of relationship with others.
SLIDE 11: MISER
I am reminded of a young pastor who was soliciting for the fund for the homeless, and she was assigned to call upon the town miser. After she had made her pitch, the miser said to her: “Young woman did you know that I have a brother who is completely disabled and unable to earn a living?”
“Well no,” replied the pastor, “I did not.”
“And did you know,” continued the miser, “that I have a nephew with no insurance, who needs a very costly operation, or he will die in six months?”
“Oh no,” the pastor commiserated.
“And did you know,” railed the miser, “that I have a niece with eight children whose husband has died and left her penniless?”
“I am sorry,” replied the young pastor, “I was unaware of the extent of your burdens.”
“Well, good replied the miser. Because since I am not giving any of them anything, you’ll understand that I am not giving you any money for any of those other dead beats.”
SLIDE 12: WHEN MONEY COMES BETWEEN US AND OTHERS
When our material wealth prevents us from being able to respond to the needs of others, we have become impoverished spiritually. But even more than money many of us are misers with our time. Relationships are costly. We have to be willing to invest ourselves. We have to be willing to devote time to nurturing a relationship whether that is a relationship with an individual or a community of people. Ninety percent of life is showing up — showing up for work, showing up for church, showing up for the people we love. We invest our time in people and activities that are important to us.
SLIDE 13: INVESTING OURSELVES IN SUCCESS
Especially when we are young, we are often attracted to investing ourselves in the accumulation of material things, or fame, or professional success. We want to be recognized and lauded for having attained “something worthwhile,” some legacy that will result in some kind of immortality — a book published, an endowment bestowed, educational degrees, a picture in the hall of fame, our hand prints and foot prints in cement, a public park, “successful children or grandchildren.”
SLIDE 14: THE JOY OF RELATIONSHIP
As we grow older we learn that life may have regrets. But few people on their death beds regret that they didn’t have a larger house or a better car to drive. In the end no one regrets they didn’t spend more time at the office. Most often as we approach the end of our lives our regrets are about relationships. Gee I wish my relationship with my kids had been better. Or I wish the relationship between my children was healthier. Or I wish I had spent more time caring for others. As our family gathered for Beth’s birthday in Illinois, and I experienced children who were actually getting along and able to talk about meaningful things civilly, even when they disagreed, I had a new appreciation for the joy of relationship.
SLIDE 15: THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY
So often in our rush for immortality we forget about relationships, like the father of the two lost sons. In the quest for individual fame and fortune we can overlook the importance of community — a collection of people who make a difference. My greatest admiration is for Bill and Sara Green, who for almost sixty years now have nurtured and nourished the relationships that have become the dream of a United Church of Christ in the Tennessee Valley — a place where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here! I am proud to have shared in those relationships and that dream.
SLIDE 16: WHERE YOUR TREASURE IS THERE IS YOUR HEART
So, as we come to a close today I ask you what is your Pearl of Great Price, or where is your treasure? Remember the words of Jesus where your treasure is there will your heart be also.