By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Matthew 13:44 "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
There is something I have noticed in recent weeks: the COVID pandemic was an inflection point for many of us. Who knows why? Perhaps because it reminded us of the fragility of life; perhaps because many of us had “down time” that provided space for deep reflection; perhaps because what we had to go without forced us to think about what we value most. Whatever the root of our introspection, many people seem now to be emerging from this global pandemic ready to make bold, sweeping change to their lives. As I dialogue with people, I hear this theme of a renewed focus on relationships and a refusal to continue to hold our deepest hopes and dreams at bay. We recognize the need to seize the moment and not kick the can of emotional fulfillment perpetually down the road, so to speak.
Perhaps you are familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix with its four quadrants encouraging careful evaluation of the important versus the unimportant, the urgent versus the non-urgent. It is often used as a life-coaching tool, inviting careful evaluation of the way we utilize our time, talents and treasure. It challenges us with the question: are we living our lives with awareness and purpose or are we simply succumbing to the tyranny of the urgent? Are we dedicating our time, our talents, and our treasure to that which we value most? Are we “all in” for the right things?
This morning we continue this sermon series fusing the sacred stories of Scripture with the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. This week’s Andersen story is The Snow Queen. It is a rather lengthy short story and so Lisa Nielsen, our discussion leader, has divided it across two weeks. The story introduces us to two childhood friends, Kay and Gerda. Through a series of events, Kay is whisked away and taken captive by the Snow Queen. Having no clear explanation for his disappearance or his whereabouts, fearful that he is dead yet not wanting to give up hope, Gerda cannot bear to be without her friend, Kay. She sets off to find him and faces difficult circumstances and struggles along the way. Yet, no matter what occurs, Gerda’s mind is fixed on only one thing: finding Kay. Nothing she endures, nothing she encounters, can end her quest for Kay. Gerda has single-minded, utter devotion to her friend.
This morning’s gospel parables are also about characters with singular focus and utter devotion. They are two, very brief, parables Jesus tells his disciples. They are intended to be metaphors for the kingdom of God. In the first a man stumbles across buried treasure. He estimates the treasure to be of such immense value that he sells everything else that he owns in order to purchase this one field with its buried treasure. In the second parable, the merchant, more like Gerda in Andersen’s story, is laser-focused on finding the most precious pearl of them all. In ancient Palestine, pearls were thought of more like we think of diamonds today. They were the ultimate in fine gems. So, he is on a quest to find the perfect pearl and, upon finding this one pearl that is of such great value, he sells all that he has in order to purchase the pearl.
Now all of these stories, Andersen’s Snow Queen and Jesus’ two parables, raise practical questions like how does Gerda, just a little girl, plan to survive out there in the big world on her own, and once the merchant sells everything he has to buy one pearl, how will he survive on a day to day basis? But, while these questions may provoke curiosity on the part of the audience, the storyteller has something more important to communicate: there is a love so strong that it fuels an all-consuming desire and devotion. There is a love that is so strong it fuels an all-consuming desire and devotion.
This morning’s parables are parables of the kingdom. But, what is the kingdom of heaven anyway? Throughout the gospel of Matthew, Jesus repeatedly speaks of it and is fond of telling these kingdom parables. Now, “kingdom” seems, in many ways, to be an archaic concept. Kings and queens have no real bearing on our lives, although they do make for great NetFlix series. Still we all understand that, back in the day, kings reigned over their kingdoms with absolute authority, holding the power to say things like “off with their heads.” Today, many Christian theologians find the word “kingdom” troubling. Some prefer to speak of the reign of God in order to avoid gender-specific language. Others prefer to speak of the kin-dom of God to communicate a more nurturing and familial image. Whatever label we choose to use, it is important for us to acknowledge the authority behind that label. A sovereign by any other name is still a sovereign.
And so, defining Christ as our King and describing ourselves as citizens within that kingdom simply means we welcome Christ’s absolute authority over our lives. Christ, unlike the kings and Caesars of history, always places the well-being of his subjects ahead of his own. Christ, the one seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, does not subject the citizens of his kingdom to capital punishment. Rather, he secured his reign, revealed his authority, through the sacrifice of his own life. The rules of Christ’s kingdom are nothing at all like the rules that govern the kingdoms of this world.
So, what is the kingdom of heaven? Well, it is that space within which God always has God’s way. The reign of our king, our sovereign, is not a reign of terror, but a reign of mercy and because of that very fact, our loyalty, our devotion, springs from a place of love, not fear. There is a love that is so strong it fuels an all-consuming desire and devotion.
Friends: the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is and always has been an inflection point and one far stronger than our COVID pandemic. What is it that we need the most? What is it that we value the most? What do we most hope for? What is truly most urgent? What is our purpose? And, to whom will we dedicate the very best of our time, our talents, and our treasure? Who, if not the one who is our sovereign? Are we fully invested in Christ and his kingdom purposes? Our parable characters and Gerda in Andersen’s story do not hold back. They’re all in. They invest all that they have and all that they are in their quest… because there is a love that is so strong it fuels an all-consuming desire and devotion.
Years ago I heard the story of a missionary couple. They were assigned to a country with a very precarious government and desperately poor people. They stayed there several years, birthing two young children during their time there. Eventually, a brutal dictator came to power and the missionaries were threatened. They had only 48 hours to flee the country and would only be allowed to leave with a certain amount of their belongings which would be weighed by the soldiers before they boarded the train to leave. The couple worked round the clock. They did not own much of monetary value. But they had received many humble gifts from the people in the village over the years and it was difficult to determine what to leave behind. After 48 hours, the armed soldiers arrived at their home to weigh their belongings and escort them to the station. As the soldiers picked up their boxes and trunks, they inquired, “Did you weigh everything?” “Yes,” the couple confirmed. “What about the children? Did you weigh the children?” asked the soldier. Suddenly, all the belongings they had felt they could not bear to part with became suddenly meaningless when weighed against the lives of their children. The weight of the children was the only thing that mattered.
Friends: “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.” There is a love that is so strong it fuels an all-consuming desire and devotion.
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