Thursday, July 28, 2011

How Do We Find the Pearl?

Our texts this week are actually the texts from last week, which we missed due to our fantastic Music and Arts Presentation. So, we'll be looking at Genesis 29:15-28, Romans 8:26-39, and most particularly Matthew 13:31-33 and 44-53. They can be read here.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
-Matthew 13:45-46

And now I had discovered the good pearl. To buy it I had to sell all that I had; and I hesitated. -Augustine, Confessions (8.1.2)

The parable of the pearl has long fascinated me, which is part of the reason I could not let this week of lectionary scriptures pass me by. When I have faced brutal decisions in life, times that you know you have to make difficult choices, this parable has more than once come to my mind: what is my pearl of great price? And what am I willing to give up in order to pursue it?

These are scary questions--and difficult ones to answer. Let's just be literal about the parable for a minute, shall we? I just checked my bank account, and in the month of July I have made 38 different purchases using my checking account. This doesn't count cash, which is harder to keep track of--a few dollars here, a few there. I looked at where the money had gone, and maybe there were a few frivolous purchases, but most were needful (well, fairly needful) things--rent, gas, insurance, food, phone, car repair, charitable giving, gifts for people with birthdays or birthing children, medicine--things it would be awfully hard not to be able to pay for.

So I wonder what the merchant did once he had his pearl. A pearl won't feed you, or house you, or get you from place to may be amazing and awesome and the coolest thing you've ever seen, but really, now that you have what? Was it all he'd hoped it would be or did he find, as that great progressive Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney once pointed out, that there is "no agony in life more acute than those moments when you realize you've paid too much" (which, though a bit of an exaggeration--I can think of many things more agonizing--does touch on the depths of regret such a choice can trigger)?

I realize that this is a parable, and hence not meant to be taken literally. But it troubles and challenges me: what is worth giving everything for--what is so great that we can give even the good up? What is so important that all other things of importance fall away? There are a lot of pearls in our lives that are incredibly can we choose one, and how can something so great ask so much of us?

What is our pearl of great price, and what will we give up to hold it--and it alone--in the palm of our hand?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Kids Can!

This week, as a group of our kids from our Music and Arts Camp (see the pictures throughout this post!) will be presenting music and drama as the core of our worship time, we will not be following the lectionary. Instead, some of the 55 amazing kids who have been with us the last five days will be telling us the stories of great kids from the Bible--kids who help us learn that they can do amazing things when they realize that they are not just children, but the children of GOD! I would encourage you to read the amazing stories we read this week in advance of Sunday--the story of Samuel learning to listen to God's voice; the story of David being chosen to be king; the story of a little girl whose willingness to forgive brought healing; the story of friends who were willing to stand up for what was right even at great cost; and the story of one little boy whose willingness to give his tiny lunch to Jesus let 5,000 people be fed. They are all stories WELL worth our time (and, since it is approximately 10,000 degrees outside, the fiery furnace story may be particularly apt to read right about now!).

As we began to plan for Music and Arts Camp, I was amazed by the number of stories there were to choose from in the Bible featuring kids! Honestly, it was a hard list to narrow down; besides the five stories we chose, there were dozens of other amazing tales that I so wanted our kids to hear. There was Miriam, protecting her brother Moses as he floated in the bushes so that he could live to lead God's people. There was Gideon, being chosen by God as an unimportant child to lead his people out of oppression. There was Esther, probably not far into her teen years when she realized God had made her queen "for such a time as this" to save the Jewish people from extinction. There was Jeremiah, chosen by God before he was born to be a prophet to the nations. And let us not forget dear Mary, probably not much more than 13 or 14 when she was asked to bring God's son into the world. It seems like we could have EASILY done two weeks focusing on biblical kids who can!

I think what this slew of biblical kids called by God can teach us--among other things--is how low we often set the bar for what we can do, at all stages of life. "I can't do it!" is one of the most frequent and frustrated cries we hear from any child attempting a new task who wants to get it right immediately--to be able to do it just like grownups. As adults, we think we're too old to be called to something new, to do something important, to change--we don't want to risk the failure, the discomfort, making fools of ourselves or being hurt. God's continued invitation to the Samuels and Slave Girls among us reminds us that if we can manage to do things like listening, forgiving, giving what little we have--that God can do some remarkable things with whatever we offer freely. It sounds cliched, but it is really beyond true--God believes that we can, with God's unconditional love and help supporting us.

I wonder, if we started kids off earlier (and us grownups, too!) learning about people in the Bible who, though as ordinary as they are--forgotten youngest brothers, people whose names did not even get recorded, boys and girls from all countries and classes--were called by God to do extraordinary things...I wonder if then we could see the Bible not just as a book of crazy things that happened long ago and could never happen today, but as our story, the great adventure into which God invites all of us who have been called children of God (and that is what we are!) to live.

May we be challenged by our children and these kids from long ago on Sunday morning to believe that when God calls us God's children and invites us into God's ongoing story in this world....we, too, can do anything!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What...or, rather, this all about?

Our lectionary texts this week are Genesis 25:19-34, Romans 8:1-11, and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, which can be read as always here.

As I will be traveling to a writing conference in Minnesota on Sunday, our good friend Stephen Price will be sharing with us in worship at Broadneck this week, and he has a very interesting batch of scriptures to work with! It's a week I'm sad to be gone, both because I am eager to hear Stephen's insights into these passages and because the Parable of the Sower has long been one of the teachings of Jesus that fascinates me most.

Here's what fascinates me about it: so often in this parable, we focus on the different types of soil--rocky, thorny, shallow, dry, gravel. I have no idea how many times in my life I have heard the question posed, "Which kind of soil are you?" with the central point of the parable being to find ourselves in it. I've also spent a great deal of time thinking about and listening to sermons that focus on the seeds in this parable and their harvest--"Are you bearing fruit? Is the word of God growing in you?"

These are all valid questions--and the seed and the soil are crucial to the parable. But I have become convicted that the most important verse in the parable (if we can call one verse more important--maybe, I should say rather, the key to the parable?) might be one of its shortest, and one that mentions neither seed nor soil: perhaps it is verse 18, where Jesus says, "Hear then the parable of the sower" (emphasis added). Though Jesus nowhere here goes into great detail about the sower in the way he did with the soil and the seeds, it is the sower he wants his hearers to pay attention to, to focus in on in this story.

So this is the question that confronts me every time I sit with this parable: what kind of Sower is this? What kind of crazy farmer throws seeds on rocks, weeds, thorns, and paths, wasting time planting in regions that are obviously not ripe for growth? This is obviously not the brightest Sower on the farm...why be so wasteful? Why so nondiscriminatory in sowing in places seeds have little chance to grow? Is what we're reading here a parable of immense grace--is this a picture of God along the line of the parable of the Prodigal Son, another example of the extravagance and almost recklessness of God's love?

What kind of Sower is this? What--or rather, who--is this parable really talking about?