Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Kingdom is Like...

Prefatory Remarks

--this sermon was first preached to the congregation ofFirst United Methodist Church, Lexington, NC.I was a visiting preacher filling in for Rev. Jamie Armstrong, pastor, who was recovering from a serious illness.

I suspect the last number of weeks must have felt a little like fish out of water for you good folks, with your pastor not being here.  At our churches we have been praying for him and for you.  And I bring you greetings from your sister churches, Mt Zion and Pleasant Hill.
In case you need to know, instead of Jamie the elder, dynamic pastor and preacher, today you have Russell the retired local pastor, retreaded to pastor a two-point charge in the southern tip of Randolph County. 
In the interest of full-disclosure, I was raised in a highly non-liturgical denomination, with a Calvinist-leaning theology.  I later became a Baptist.  And, if that isn’t enough to make the big tent of the United Methodist Church start swaying in the wind, I was also born in New York. 
And, while I do thank you and your Staff-Parrish Relations Committee for inviting me to share this time with you, I sincerely apologize that your committee could not find anyone better for today! 
I do hope I have not put my daughter and son-in-law’s membership at this church in peril simply by being here, but I consider it a huge honor to be invited.

so what is the kingdom like?

On a more serious note, let’s take a closer look at what the LORD told his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven being like a great prize and pearl.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field.  In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.  “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.  When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!  Matthew 13:44-46(NLT)
Jesus told a lot of stories to help us understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  Most of us have discovered something we would consider “treasure”.
When I was seven or eight, Bobby Kalfur had the neatest bike ever!  It was a Schwinn-Bell-American-Plymouth hybrid (or something equally impressive).  Honestly, it was a monstrosity; it was yellow (very bright yellow) with black stripes all over.  I’m sure it was assembled from parts Bobby may have scavenged from the local junkyard.  The handle-bars had been replaced with a genuine steering wheel from some long-forgotten heap.  It had no real pedals, and it made very strange noises when you moved.  And this legendary bike was FOR SALE! 
Because Bobby and I were friends he was willing to sell this prize to me for ten bucks.  This was a huge amount of money for a seven year-old who only got a quarter for allowance.  But this, THIS was SPECIAL!  This bike was a treasure you would sell everything you own to buy.  I had never seen such a wonderful bike, but apparently my Mom had!  She advised against it strongly, but I had to have it. 
So, I think I rode that treasured pearl of great price for less than a week before it fell apart.  Somehow Mom or Dad arranged for Bobby's mother to convince him he needed to give me a full refund.  In the years since, I have been much more discerning about what constitutes a treasure, and what is better off left in the recycle bin!
Which is the whole point of Jesus’ story; when you find authentic treasure, or a jewel of immeasurable worth such as the Kingdom of Heaven, there is nothing more worthy of your life’s best. 

Two stories jesus told…

Jesus was teaching about the incomparable WORTH of the Kingdom of Heaven. 
In the first story a servant is digging in the master's field, and locates a treasure by chance; he immediately covers it back up.  He then makes arrangements to buy the field.  This is a shrewd fellow! 
But his business aptitude is not the point; it’s his joy over finding the treasure and doing whatever is necessary to secure it for himself. 
Jesus was using a very familiar illustration.  Palestine, even today, has much treasure buried in the ground.  In ancient days, the ground served as the bank; especially during the times when enemies would arrive with conquest on their minds; you hide what’s precious to you!
In the second story a man finds the pearl of great price.  Using the definite article, we are led to understand that this is a one-of-a-kind, greatest find possible.  Again, the man moves every part of heaven and earth he must in order to possess that pearl.
Those are Jesus’ stories; what do we make of them? 
In order to answer that question we have to ask exactly what the pearl, or the treasure represents.
Right off the bat you would have to say that it is not monetary or material; that kind of stuff held little interest for a carpenter turned rabbi.  Jesus hardly owned more than one set of clothes, and no property or permanent house.  On top of that, most of what Jesus had to say about riches was not exactly positive.
So we need to find a connection between those things which we discover in this life in the course of ordinary, everyday activities (like the people in Jesus’ stories) and that which is worthy according to Heaven’s standards. 
And there are many fine things in life to pursue; science, art, music, literature, humanitarianism, and a host of worthy means to serve others and bring glory to God. 
However, the pearl of GREAT price is the TREASURE, THE best!
So…what does it mean to you?  What does the great prize mean in our culture?
A great prize or accomplishment always makes headlines.  Consider these three news tidbits from just this week:
1.     FoxConn announced it will build a $10-billion factory in Wisconsin.[ii]  That’s great economic news, but is it the kind of pearl Jesus meant?
2.     The President announced no transgender persons will be allowed to serve in the military.  Some people will be appalled; some will be ecstatic.  That’s big-time news, but is it the treasure upon which we should build a life?[iii]
3.     National Basketball Association player for the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James is being paid to bounce a ball and throw it through a hoop at the rate of just under $34-million a year.[iv] 
Are any of these the great treasure of which Jesus spoke?
I will tell you what I see; with all the hot press on money, power and prestige, we perhaps may be missing the true and greatest pearl, the hidden treasure God wants us to find.
What if the authentic treasure or pearl of great price was something as simple, ordinary and profoundly wonderful as parenting?
To re-cast Jesus parable, forty-six years ago I was a man going about the business of just making a living for Elizabeth and myself.  Then a physician put a 7-pound, wrinkled and wailing little person with a full head of hair in my arms.  Suddenly I was a father, holding a pearl of greater price than I’d ever imagined.  Elizabeth was a mother and now responsible for one of the world’s greatest treasures – a new life that held promise, gifts, and bearing the image of her Creator. 
We were all at once more than two become one; we were a family with the responsibility to write responsibility, honor, respect and kindness on a newly-arrived clean slate!
This, my friends, is the type of a pearl of great price, an inestimable worthy treasure, placed in the hands of earthly stewards by God.  This is God entrusting God to His own treasured creatures.
And whether you are biologically the parent, or a surrogate parent, by “aunt-ing”, “uncle-ing” or “valued friend-ing” the Kingdom of Heaven is yours when you do the hard work of modeling respect and kindness…when you handle responsibility with honor and excellence, so that those little people, who see you do such counter-cultural goodness, will have a hunger to be just like their heroes!
To be a witness in the world for Christ may not include for you standing on a street corner with a huge sign for the passing cars that says, Jesus, One Way…or REPENT, SINNERS
But your call to be Christ’s witness most certainly includes BEING a SIGN for little ones in you know…a sign of the greatest treasure…the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

[i] Title image: Andreas F. Borchert, via Wikimedia Commons

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