Unexpected Treasures

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 17
July 30, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The kingdom of heaven can be small but valuable. Unattractive at times, but important. Old, but still alive and well, and able to guide us and inspire us today.

The kingdom of heaven "is like treasure hidden in a field," says Jesus. Like "a merchant in search of fine pearls." Like "a net that was thrown into the sea," with the goal of catching fish beneath the waves. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a variety of valuable items, including pearls and fish. Some are unexpected treasures.

Many people today go on eBay in a search for precious items, and sometimes they are surprised by the value of their finds. A man named Morace Park, a British antiques dealer, paid $5 for an old film container. When he opened it, he found a never-released Charlie Chaplain moved called "Zepped," worth $60,000. An insect specialist named Richard Harrington paid $30 for an insect encased in amber. But this was no ordinary bug. It turned out to be a previously unknown and now extinct species of aphid, one that lived 40 to 50 million years ago.

Then there was Philip Gura, an American literature professor. He paid $481 for a photograph of poet Emily Dickinson. No big deal, you might say. Well, in fact it is a big deal. His photograph of Dickinson is only the second photo known to exist. If authentic, it will be priceless. Paying far less money was Maria Ariz, a community nurse from New Jersey. She went on eBay and paid $16 for a pair of jeans. But this was not the end of the story. When she wrote the seller to ask about other sizes, the two fell in love. And then they got married.1

Unexpected treasures. Buy an old film container and find a Charlie Chaplain film. Buy a pair of jeans and find a husband. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is small, and seemingly insignificant, like a mustard seed. But once planted, it grows into the greatest of shrubs and provides a hospitable home for the birds of the air.2 Or it is almost invisible, like yeast. But when added to flour it has a powerful effect, causing a loaf of bread to rise.3

Choose the right prize

Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as a set of unexpected finds: A treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great value, and a net that catches fish of every kind. He wanted his disciples to see a relationship between these parables, and to grasp that the kingdom is an unexpected treasure, hidden in everyday life. He challenged them to pick their prize well, and to pursue it with passion and single-minded purpose. He wanted them each to see themselves as the master "who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" - to see the kingdom of God in both the new parables of Jesus and the old teachings of the Hebrew lawgivers and prophets. This acknowledgment of value in the new and the old fits the agenda of Matthew, who wanted to connect the ministry of Jesus to the history of Israel. Throughout his gospel, he seems to be presenting Jesus as a second Moses, giving new laws and teachings to Israel and to the world.

Choosing the right prize is important because there will be a final reckoning. The parable of the net speaks of a separation of good fish and bad fish. "So it will be at the end of the age," says Jesus. "The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous." The decision to pursue the treasure of the kingdom of heaven has eternal consequences, according to Jesus. The kingdom is a prize that changes a person's life for all time. You have to pick your prize well, warns Jesus, and pursue it with sacrifice, passion and purpose.

So, what are your treasures? Are they small but valuable? Unattractive but important? Old or new? Are they hidden in a field ... or on eBay? Our treasures say a lot about ourselves and what we value, and Jesus says elsewhere that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."4 The treasures that we pursue in this life give the clearest indication of what resides in our hearts.

The new and the old

Jesus invites us to be on the lookout for the kingdom of heaven, because it will probably be small, unattractive, hidden from view, old and dusty. But when we find it, we will be like the people in the parables who will pay anything to have it, because it is priceless. Our challenge is to be on the lookout for where the kingdom is hidden, and to train our eyes to see its value.

We spend a lot of time looking for what is new these days, whether we are scrolling our phones for fresh information or shopping for the latest in fashion or electronics. But often the kingdom is found in what is old. Signs of the kingdom are sometimes best seen as we look back through our history, as both Christians and Americans. History can teach us where the kingdom has been allowed to emerge, and where it has been suppressed.

An author and pastor named Brian McLaren finds it interesting that it is primarily the Jews who say "Never forget" when they recall the Holocaust. "Shouldn't the Germans also be saying it, even more?" he asks. "And shouldn't white Americans be saying it about their atrocities against slaves and Native Americans?" As Christians, he says, we should all "look back on our first 2,000 years of Christian history and face our failure, our atrocities, our abdications, our cowardice, our complicity, our betrayal of Jesus, and say to ourselves, 'Never forget.'"5 Sometimes, the kingdom of heaven begins to emerge when look honestly at the past and change our ways. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we will discover that the kingdom of heaven is still trying to appear among us.

Small but valuable

History teaches us that the kingdom of heaven can be small but valuable, like an especially fine pearl. About 1,500 years ago, the kingdom began to emerge in Ireland and Scotland through the Celtic Christian tradition. This movement was very Christ-centered, but it also saw the glory of God in the natural world. Saint Patrick of Ireland was part of this tradition, and he believed that God "makes the light of the sun to shine, he surrounds the moon and the stars. ... He has a Son co-eternal with himself ... And the Holy Spirit breathes in them."6

The words of Saint Patrick make clear that Celtic Christianity was very earthy, connected to the sun and moon and the land and the sea. It saw God at work in day-to-day human life - in the eating, drinking, working and playing that fill our days. In a traditional Celtic house blessing, there was a prayer for "plenty of food, plenty of drink, plenty of beds, and plenty of ale."7 Human life was always seen as part of God's very good creation, and the Celtic people did not hesitate to look for God in times of festivity and fun.

This approach to Christianity was pushed aside by Rome, but it never completely disappeared. It remained a small but powerful part of the Christian tradition, and it had an influence on both the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. One symbol of this tradition is the Celtic cross, which contains the cross of Christ and a circle connecting the arms. The arms of the cross remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus. But the circle in the center represents the sun - the life-giving center of God's good creation. Celtic Christianity is focused on both Jesus and the natural world, an approach we need today as Christians show increasing concern for the environment. It is a small but valuable sign of the kingdom of heaven. An unexpected treasure.

Unattractive but important

The kingdom of heaven can also be unattractive but important, like a treasure hidden in a field or a net full of fish. When a Virginia pastor was leading a trip through Wales, Ireland and Scotland, one of the members of the group slipped on a set of stairs in a castle and broke his leg. The pastor's wife got the man to the local hospital where his leg was put in a cast. Then they began the process of seeking out wheelchairs at each of their stops. A week or so later, another member of the group became ill. Once again, the group rallied to get the sick woman to a hospital. She recovered and completed the trip along with the rest of the group.

Such accidents and illnesses are certainly unattractive and undesirable. They were painful to the individuals and challenging for the group. But the difficulties brought the group together in a way that good times never would have. In particular, the assistance that was given to the man with the broken leg really bonded the group, and turned them into a caring and supportive community. They did not know, at the time of the accident, if he would be able to finish the trip. But when he made it to the end, they all felt a great deal of pride in that accomplishment.

Hardships in life can be unattractive but important. They can inspire us to become better people and serve Christ in new ways. In a very real way, hardships can be signs of the kingdom of heaven. They reveal the presence of God in both joy and sorrow, comfort and pain, success and failure, darkness and light.

Struggle can be a treasure ... an unexpected treasure. We miss it when we expect all of life to be joyful, comfortable, successful and full of light. Truly, there are some lessons that can only be learned when we suffer and are challenged. Through such experiences, we learn that the kingdom of heaven is small, but valuable. Unattractive at times, but important. Old, but still alive and well today, and able to guide us and inspire us.