If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Finding is the First Act: A Meditation on Matthew 13:44-46

I love to watch the Antiques Road Show on TV. Someone stumbles across an old dusty painting or piece of furniture in their grandparents' attic. They bring it to the appraisers at the road show. The appraiser points out a signature, a stamp, or a claw leg which makes the item unique. "This painting is the work of F.M. Evans from 1880’s in England," reports the appraiser rather matter-of-factly. The person who brought in the item says, "Hmmm. That's interesting." Then, I can't wait for the moment when the crucial question is asked; "Do you know how much it's worth?" The befuddled owner says, "No, not really." The appraiser says something like, "This painting would probably bring around fifteen thousand dollars at an auction!" And with eyes bugging out and jaw banging on the table the owner gasps, "O my Goodness, I had no idea it was worth that much!"

We’re fascinated with stories of people coming across unexpected or hidden treasures. These stories can be found in the folklore of every culture. For centuries people have told and listened to trove tales, stories of finding treasures. We’re no different today. We love tales of finding treasures or coming across unexpected riches. A man picks up a lottery ticket in the parking lot of a mini-market, takes it home, turns on the TV, sees the numbers fall in place one by one, and wham!~~~~ an instant millionaire! Someone is digging a pool in their back yard and the shovel hits something hard. It's a box. The lid is pried open and…. Ahoy, me hardies…. a buried treasure! A knock on the door. Knock. Knock. Knock. Still in hair curlers and bath robe the woman slowly turns the knob. Surprise! Publisher's Clearinghouse!

Part of the thrill of these stories is imagining what we would do if we came across hidden treasure or unexpected riches. It's like the game some of us used to play when we were kids, and some of us still play as adults. It's called What-would-I-do-if-I-had-a-million-dollars. Some of us, with guilty pleasure watch Deal or No Deal or Who Wants Want to Be a Millionaire? and imagine ourselves as the winner. We think to ourselves: What would it feel like to win a million smackeroos? How would I spend all that money? Would I give any away to charity or keep it all for myself? Would I quit my job? Would my life change? Would I be the same person I've always been? Maybe filthy rich, but still a humble, everyday kind of person? Stories of finding hidden treasure or coming upon unexpected riches cause us not only to imagine wondrous possibilities, but also cause us to examine our values.

Jesus' parable of the hidden treasure is one such story. Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a treasure hidden in a field. It had probably been buried there long ago. In ancient times there were no First National Banks or safety deposit boxes. Valuables were often stored in pottery jars and buried in the ground for safekeeping from bandits or invading enemies. Archaeologists jump for joy when in their digging they come across jars filled with ancient coins or valuables. In 1947 two Bedouin shepherd boys were searching for a lost sheep at Qumran near the hills alongside the Dead Sea. One of the boys threw a rock into a cave and heard a sound like the shattering of pottery. The two boys went inside the cave and saw some elongated jars with ancient scrolls inside. The scrolls were put in the cave to protect them from the invading Romans. The scrolls turned out to be one of the most valuable archaeological finds of the century.

I once watched a story of finding hidden treasure on National Geographic's Explorer. A man was riding his donkey in the desert near the town of Bawiti in Bahria. The donkey's foot broke through a hole in the dirt. Archaeological excavations uncovered 105 mummies, many gilded in gold, along with pottery, jewelry, coins, and artifacts. There may be two miles of treasures and possibly 10,000 mummies buried at this site! Someone just happened to stumble upon hidden treasure.

The hidden treasure in Jesus' parable lies beneath the surface of a common field. Maybe the peasant farmer is tilling the soil with an ox-drawn plow. He meanders down crooked rows when all of a sudden the iron plow blade hits something hard. The farmer wipes the sweat from his brow with his forearm and walks over to see what he’s dug up. Probably another rock. The Palestinian soil was filled with rocks. Someone once said that the angel carrying all the rocks of the world was flying over Palestine when the bag broke. A third of the rocks meant for the world fell on Palestine. The farmer bends over and brushes the dirt off the rock, or what he thinks is a rock. It turns out to be a pottery jar. Slowly he removes the broken pieces. His heart quickens and palms perspire. He works the jar loose from the soil to better see what’s inside. Standing in the open field his jaw drops and he swallows air. What's inside? A treasure! By God, it's a treasure!

The farmer bounces around the field as if on a pogo stick, shouting and laughing and holding the jar above his head. He acts like a madman gone bonkers from the heat of the sun. He yelps some choice Hebrew words that sound like, "Finders keepers..." Then, he catches himself and stops. He quickly pulls the jar under his cloak glancing from side to side. "Hold on, now. Calm down. Someone might see me and figure out what I have found," he murmurs to himself. One raised eyebrow is the only hint of a scheme. Strangely enough, he places the jar back into the hole and covers it with dirt. Grabbing the plow handle the farmer snaps the reins of the ox. A whistle from his puckered lips greets the oxen's ears. The lumbering oxen moves forward cutting another crooked furrow in the field. The farmer sings a joyful tune to the sky in Hebrew, which sounds something like, "If I were a rich man, deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle, dum."

That's not the end of the story. I could tell you about the plot twist. Being a tenant farmer, the land on which he found the treasure was not his. So, legally neither was the treasure. The farmer isn't about to tell the owner he found a treasure on his land. But then, you might begin to wonder about the questionable and sneaky character of this farmer. He's a rogue, a rascal! I could tell you how the farmer ran home at the end of the day. While his wife and children watch dumfounded, the man grabs everything they own----chickens and geese, pots and pans, savings and security, everything, including the kitchen sink. He sells it all to buy that dusty ol' patch of earth with weeds, beetles, mice and all. This farmer was an ignoramus. According to Jewish law, if you find treasure in a field you’ve bought, it reverts to the original owner. I could tell you about all that. Instead, I would like to rewind the tape and freeze frame that moment when the farmer bumped into the hidden treasure. It's like...like stumbling upon the realm of God.

This time you’re the poor farmer with hands clutching the plow handle. But, the scene is a bit different. You’re going about your business working at the office, taking a coffee break, paying bills, raising kids, studying for your class, watching TV, sitting in the pew, plowing one more crooked furrow through your life. It's another ordinary day, just like the last one. The same old story. Then....wham! Your plow hits a rock---- a painful moment of truth, a snag in a relationship, a major loss, an unexpected visitor. It wakes you from your mindless plowing. It stops you in your tracks. Maybe it's a rock or a hard place in your life. Maybe not. Maybe you've come upon a treasure, a gift, hidden beneath the dusty surface of your life. The realm of God is like that, you know.

You go through the routine of your daily life without noticing much of anything, taking everything for granted. Yesterday was like today is like tomorrow. Ho, hum. Then...wham! Something comes unto your path and you have to stop and take a closer look. You come across a letter from an old friend, a word of comfort in a time of distress, a talent you've allowed to collect dust on the shelf.

On the surface it may look like just a plain old rock. You dig deeper...and find... a hidden treasure. The common becomes uncommon. Something hidden beneath the dust of your days turns out to be a priceless treasure. And your heart breaks out in joy. It's as if something deeper, a hidden realm of life pokes through to the surface. There are treasures hidden in common clay jars, and sometimes we stumble upon them.

The realm of God is like treasures hidden beneath the crust of life. Often we don't see them until we run into them unexpectedly and they break through the surface. We stumble upon God's priceless gifts and a rock becomes a treasure. A sudden song takes you back to forgotten days of your youth, when life pulsed hot through your veins. An interruption in your hectic schedule turns into a new adventure. A gaze into the face of your child, that can sometimes be a pain in the… turns into a realization of the treasure that you have been given. You stumble upon the rock of Christ and find riches untold. Or an old clay sermon suddenly cracks open and inside are gems just for you.

These gifts intrude into the moments of our humdrum and ho-hum lives like a treasure from heaven. You dive beneath the surface of things or open the shell of your life and discover the realm of God like a priceless pearl. And nothing's quite the same afterwards. There comes this tantalizing twist in the plot of your life.
Frederick Buechner has come to a rich realization through his writing of novels. He has come to sense that perhaps life itself has a plot, “that the events of our lives, random and witless as they generally seem, have a shape and direction of their own, are seeking to show us something, lead us somewhere...” Buechner says, "I choose to believe that...a saving mystery breaks into our time at odd and unforeseeable moments." The realm of God is like that. It’s like a saving mystery that changes our lives, re-plots our story, again and again. It's like a treasure hidden beneath the dusty surface of life. It's like finding a pearl of great price. At unforeseeable moments we run into these treasures, not made of the stuff of gold or silver, but made of heavenly stuff. They break through the surface of our lives and we are the richer. The realm of God is like that, you know.

The kingdom of heaven is like a peasant who still believed in dreams, a place where you can touch the stuff of another realm. The peasant went by the name of Isaac, son of Aaron. He lived in the Polish city of Krakow. Isaac spent long strenuous hours working to support his family. At night he flopped down on his bed exhausted. One night Isaac dreamed he was walking over a bridge in the far off city of Prague, when a voice told him to look in the water for a valuable treasure. The dream was so realistic he could see the treasure box in the crystal clear water. Night after night he dreamed the same dream.

After two weeks and weary from lack of sleep, Isaac walked the three days journey to Prague. He easily located the bridge in his dreams and had begun to look underneath the bridge, when suddenly…. a policeman grabbed him by the arm and hauled him off to the city jail for questioning. In the interrogation room three large men demanded, "What is a Jew doing under a bridge in a Gentile section of the city?" In desperation he blurted out the truth, telling his interrogators he was trying to find a treasure he had seen in his dreams. "You stupid imbecile," the arresting officer shouted, “do you believe in dreams? I am too smart for such nonsense. Why, for the last two weeks I myself have dreamed that in the city of Krakow, in the house of a peasant named Isaac, son of Aaron, there is a treasure hidden under the floor in his kitchen. Yet, you do not see me wasting time looking for something and someone who does not exist!"

Roaring with laughter, the other two policemen grabbed the peasant by the coat and threw him out into the street. “Go home, foolish dreamer," they laughed. Isaac, son of Aaron, dusted himself off. With heart wildly pounding he ran back to his home in Krakow. Board by board he removed the floor of his kitchen. And there beneath his own home was to his great surprise....

Hidden beneath the floorboard of our common lives are treasures. The priceless treasure of new life in Christ. The riches of the Anabaptist peace tradition. Your diamond-in-the-rough church. The rubies of faith, hope, and love. The family and friends that you take for granted. We may not always see these treasures, but on occasion we stumble over them unexpectedly and recognize them as the pricless gifts that they are. The realm of God is like that.

It first comes as a gift. The farmer plowing the field didn't earn nor did he own the treasure he plowed up. It was out of the joy of finding such a treasure that he sold everything he had to buy the field. And since the field wasn't legally his, the gift came outside the law. It was an unearned, lawless gift. Only after stumbling upon this treasure did he make any sacrifice. The finding of the treasure was what came first. Grace before works. The gift of God before our acts of faith. Or as poet Emily Dickinson put it in a poem about treasures: Finding is the first act/second, the loss. First the gift, then the sacrifice. The realm of God is like that, you know.

We stumble upon the treasures of life, like the realm of God. They come to us unearned and unexpected. It's like when Dan Wakefield was going through a year of extreme stress. He lost his parents, his job, his money, and an important relationship. He relied upon alcohol to get him through. Dan says, "One day I just happened to grab an old Bible..., and with a desperate instinct turned to the Twenty~third Psalm." Reading the psalm didn't result in a miraculous breakthrough. It was an isolated moment of solace and calm. It was like the steel edge of a plow smacking up against a rock in the crooked furrow he had been digging through his life.

That experience, a word from a Christmas Eve sermon, and some other unexpected events plowed up the presence of another realm within Dan's life. He found a treasure, which opened up a new future for him, re-ploted his life. He found a priceless community of faith. His thirst for alcohol was replaced with a thirst for God. He just happened to stumble across a treasure that made all things new. Dan said, "The only concept I know to describe such an experience is that of 'grace' and the accompanying adjective of 'amazing' comes to mind with it."

That's the best word to describe the experience of the farmer who unexpectedly struck something while plowing the field. Grace. Before the selling and the sacrifice, there was grace. We cannot buy or possess the riches of God's realm. We gracefully, or sometimes ungracefully, stumble upon these treasures as we go through life. We find the treasure of God's realm, or more often, it finds us. Finding is the first act. That finding is called grace. It's the word that best describes our experience of suddenly tripping upon God's realm hidden in the dust of our days. Grace. Unexpected, unearned grace. The realm of God is like that, you know.

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