Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Eureka!

[A sermon based on Matthew 13:44-46 for July 21, 2013)

Are we aware enough of what we have found and are finding in Christ? Are we aware enough of what we have in him?

While it is most likely a legend, it is a legend that has endured for over two thousand years, so it is at least an enduring legend. The story goes that the third century BCE mathematician Archimedes was challenged by his king to solve a problem. It seems that an artisan who made golden wreaths for the gods was suspected of diluting the gold with silver but the suspicions could not be confirmed; Archimedes was commissioned to figure out a way to determine the truth.

While struggling with the problem, Archimedes went to the public baths. Noticing that the deeper he went in the tub the more water was displaced, he realized that the amount of water he displaced was equal to the volume of his body. It occurred to him that, since gold weighs more than silver, it would take more silver to give the wreath the desired bulk and so, he could solve his problem by comparing the displacement of a known pure gold wreath with a suspected silvered-down one. He leapt out of the bath and went running home naked shouting “I found it! I found it!” which in Greek is “Eureka! Eureka!”

So even now we talk about having a “eureka moment” when we find something vital or realize something important.

It’s a legend that reminds us of a truth: discovering something that is valuable because it is life-changing is exciting!

In the two parables of Jesus that we read today, he talks about people finding a treasure. The first person is likely a peasant who, while plowing someone else’s field, finds a treasure—perhaps a jar of coins buried there by a previous owner unbeknownst to the present owner—and goes and sells everything he has to buy the field. The second person is likely a merchant who would know the value of pearls and would have some means who, when he found a pearl of great value, goes and sells all he has to purchase that one pearl. [cf. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 391-392.]

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like that.

But what is the kingdom of heaven? Simply put, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is the reign of God; so the kingdom of God is where God rules. That raises the question of where God rules, the answer to which is “everywhere.” So where does God not rule? The answer is “nowhere.” Still, these two parables as well as other parables and teachings of Jesus make the points that in some way the kingdom of heaven is hidden from view and that there are few that find it.

God will not force God’s rule upon you.

How then do you come upon the kingdom? There’s no one way. After all, in the first parable the man came upon the treasure accidentally, probably just in the course of minding his own business; the treasure he found was something he didn’t expect and probably something for which he wasn’t even looking. On the other hand, the merchant in the second parable was looking for fine pearls when he found the finest pearl of all. One person was looking while one was not—but they both found the treasure.

In the film “Pretty Woman,” Edward (played by Richard Gere) takes Vivian (Julia Roberts)to the opera. He is a man of the world—educated, privileged, and refined—who frequents, understands, and appreciates opera. She is a woman of the world—but in a very different sense; she is not educated, privileged, or refined and she has never even seen an opera. By the end of the performance, though, Vivian is mesmerized and moved to tears; she liked it even more than “The Pirates of Penzance”! He enjoyed the opera because he knew what he was looking for; she enjoyed it because she stumbled across something unexpected and beautiful.

The kingdom is like that.

So you might find the kingdom if you’re not looking for it and you might find it if you are. It is, either way, a gift of God.

To find the kingdom, you see, is to find God; it is to find God who is quite obviously there but is also quite obviously sometimes hard for us to detect. To find the kingdom is to find your life caught up in the life of God and to have God’s life poured into your life. Over time, you will grow more and more in being with God and having God be with you—and it will be a wonderful, challenging, and adventurous life.

When you find it—or when you realize you have found it—or when you realize you have been finding it all along—“Eureka” is an appropriate response.

And when you realize the value of what you have found, you will go all in. The two men in the two parables sold everything they had in order to buy the valuable treasure they had found; we will give everything up and everything over in order to acquire the kingdom that we have found—and we will find great joy in doing so because we know that there is nothing greater than what we have found.

I do wonder what the two men in the two parables did with their treasure once they had acquired. Chances are that they handled it less than perfectly because that’s what people do; for some reason we tend to break and soil even wonderful and valuable things. Recently, a man renovating an old house was pulling out the newspaper that a long-ago owner had used to insulate the walls. As he pulled out the newspapers he found a comic book, but not just any comic book—he found a DC #1, which is the issue that introduced Superman to the world. It sold at auction for $175,000, but it would have sold for even more had the owner and his mother-in-law not gotten into an argument during which the back cover was ripped!

Still, being aware of and alert to and involved in what God is doing is worth anything and everything because to find the kingdom is to find God and to find God is to discover your own life. And even though we will handle the treasure imperfectly, it’s amazing what God will do with us even when we drop it and tear it …

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Going Under

(A Baptism Sermon for Sunday, July 14, 2013)

Romans 6:1-11


Do you ever feel like you’re going under? Do you ever feel like your mistakes and your missteps are about to catch up with you? Do you ever feel like the temptations you face are going to overwhelm you?

Well, welcome to life in the real world.

Recently, a woman was commenting on how she had been helped by joining the adult choir of her church when she was only thirteen. She spoke of how it taught her discipline; she learned, she said, that if she wanted to be treated like an adult she had to act like an adult (Lorienne Schwenk, Letter to the Editor, Christian Century, July 10, 2013, p. 6.) I hear that.

It’s funny, though; we talk a lot about how growing up and being an adult means learning to take care of yourself—and there’s a lot of truth to that—but growing up as a child of God means learning to let someone else take care of you and taking advantage of the ways that someone else provides for your care and well-being. That someone else is God.

We have baptized four young ladies this morning and I want them to hear something important about growing up in faith. Really, though, I want all of us to hear it because it will be beneficial to all of us who are baptized or who will be baptized.

Being baptized—being a child of God and a follower of Jesus—makes a difference in our lives. Over time, we become different; we might even say that we become “better” so long as by “better” we mean more loving, more grace-filled, more forgiving, and more generous. But it can be a struggle because there is so much inside us and outside of us pulling us in other directions and threatening to pull us under.

We need to know that the God who raised Jesus from the dead can hold our heads above what threatens to engulf us. A heart-warming story came out of Australia last year. A woman named Nicole Graham was riding her horse on the beach when the animal became mired in the mud. Finally, after sedating the horse, rescuers were able to pull him out with a tractor. During the three hours that the rescuers labored to extract the horse from the mud, the woman stayed with him, holding his head above water as the tide began to come in.

God will hold our heads above the rising tide, too. Sometimes that’s what we need; sometimes we get ourselves mired so deeply and the tide is coming in so rapidly that letting God hold our head above water is all we can manage. Being baptized doesn’t exempt us from getting ourselves into such a fix. And if just having our head held above water is what we need, God will do it.

That has been my experience and I suspect it’s been yours, too. Thanks be to God for the grace that leads God to lift us up from sin when we have gotten ourselves stuck in it.

This might be a good time to say something to our newly baptized ones and to all of us about what sin is. Sin is much more than doing things we ought not to do. Sin is living in ways that betray a lack of trust in God; the particular nuance of sin for a follower of Jesus is being motivated by less than love and grace in what we do—after all, love and grace are the ways of Jesus whom we follow. Yes, it is possible that we will give ourselves over to behaviors that are destructive to us personally but it is much more likely that we will give ourselves over to attitudes and prejudices that are motivated by fear of the possibilities rather than by trust in God.

As most of you know, the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down last night. Perhaps I will say more about it at a later time, but in the context of this sermon I want to observe that a case could be made that the entire episode that led to Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin was motivated by fear: each of them feared the other. When we fear each other, we give in to generalizations and characterizations and it is possible that we will finally try to destroy each other.

We are called not to fear but to trust.

Such attitudes and prejudices are the realities out of which we spend a lifetime trying to grow; such trust and love are the ways of being and living into which we spend a lifetime trying to grow.

That kind of growth and change is truly possible!

Paul points out that we are in reality—a reality symbolized by our baptism—“baptized into Christ Jesus” and therefore “baptized into his death” (v. 3); “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6) so that we can consider ourselves “dead to sin” (v. 11). In the baptized life we can “walk in newness of life” (v. 3); we “believe that we will also live with him” (v. 8) and that we can consider ourselves “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).

Yes, one way to live is to just barely hang on and let God hold our heads above water until we die and the resurrection comes and the heavenly tractor comes and pulls us out of the mud.

Or we can take ongoing advantage of what is always there: the new life in Christ in which we can freely and fully walk.

Debra and I are watching “Lost” this summer; we’re about half-way through so don’t tell us how it turns out. For those of you who don’t know, the series is about a group of survivors of a plane crash on an isolated Pacific island. At least that’s what I think it’s about. So far as I can tell, the island really is isolated.

But I remember a made-for-television movie of many years ago about a couple who were stranded on an island; they struggled to make it in their dual isolation. At the end of the film, though, they discovered that there was a thriving resort on the other side of the island to and from which people traveled all the time. They were not really alone; had they just looked around a bit more they would have found help.

We have access to the new life in Christ right here and right now. Yes, sometimes it is all we can to let God hold our heads above water; but most of the time we can be becoming more and more who God has made us to be and who Jesus died to enable us to be. That new life is available to us in our dying with Christ and in our being raised to new life in him that are symbolized by our baptism.

It’s funny, but going under is how we are delivered both from the threat of going under and from just living from one near-drowning to the next…