July 30, 2017: "Nonchalant at the Real Estate Office"
“Nonchalant in the Real Estate Office”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
with notes from The Rev. Dr. Norman Potts
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Have you ever been punched in the stomach by the handle of a plow? That must have been the experience of the man in Jesus’ parable. Let’s just call him Jake. Jake was plowing down a row, humming right along behind his ox, when all of a sudden everything stopped and he hurtled forward into the handle of his plow. After a few choice words, Jake bends down and sees that it is not a rock that has stopped his plow, but rather a box. Dusting the dirt away, Jake opens the box. His eyes bulge and his jaw drops—the box is full of precious gems and more money than he has seen in his entire life.
“What to do? What to do? What to do” Jake mutters to himself. He wants the box…he wants the box real bad! But there is a major obstacle. He works this field but he does not own it. So he goes to the real estate office and begins to make inquiries. It is as formidable a psychological challenge as you can image; how do you act nonchalant in the real estate office, when you must have that field? “Tell me, Jake, why all these questions?’ the real estate agent asks, “Why are you so interested in that piece of property all of a sudden?” What do you suppose Jake said? Probably something devious like, “Well, I always enjoyed the view from up there.” Or, even better, maybe he told a carefully camouflaged truth: “It has this unusually rich soil.” Rich soil? Yeah, right, the agent thinks to himself.
What in the world is Jesus trying to tell us here? Jesus spent so much time and energy warning his followers against worldly goods and material wealth—is this Jesus’ way of encouraging his followers to gain the world’s wealth by any means necessary? Jesus is at least encouraging his followers to be wheelers and dealers, ethnically foggy like those who sat the helms of companies like Enron and WorldCom. Isn’t Jake ethically obligated to tell the real estate agent what he has found in the field? Shouldn’t Jake be concerned about his family and their financial health, too? Wouldn’t Jesus want Jake to break open that box and share its contents with his community?
These things don't concern Jesus. Jesus says: risk, connive, get that field, grab the treasure, because the realm of God is more valuable than your mortal minds can comprehend. Jesus urges his followers to go for it with the same guile, the same gusto, the same abandon, because the kingdom of God is so precious. Sell it all and buy that field, Jesus says, because there is nothing you or I could ever possess that offers more.
This is a really great parable. It is exciting to talk about and contemplate. I think all of us at one point have fantasized about winning the lottery. Jake won a lottery of sorts and his life was never the same. But Jesus isn’t talking about winning the lottery. The treasure isn’t money or rich or jewels. The treasure of Jesus’ parable is the presence of God in the world, and you me and all the other followers of Jesus who are called to display God’s presence to the world. The presence of God in the world, the Church, you and me following Jesus, God’s love and mercy and grace blanketing the world…Jesus says that these things are so valuable, people should be selling everything and breaking down the doors to get in and buy.
But if we are honest with ourselves, the metaphor does not quite fit. Since at least 1965, mainline churches—Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists—have seen a decrease in membership between 50 and 65 percent. The trends in these churches seems to be virtually identically, so you can’t blame it on what this bishop said or what that Presbyterian church did or what some activist may have done. According to the research most folks don’t leave the church in a huff over social or political issues—the large majority simply drift away, phase themselves out of the community, slip away quietly to private places. These are places where the church, where Christian community, and even where God’s presence is not a necessary component of life. They found that they can get along just fine without all that religious stuff.
In the meantime, the treasure has lost its shine; this thing that Jesus wants people to clamor to get, to buy at any cost, has been covered by a pretty thick layer of dust. We—and by we I mean the majority of Christian world—have become a “take it or leave it” type of people, with a growing number of folks who are inclined to leave it. We are not longer perceived to be “with it.” We are no longer the social center of the communities that we serve. We are no longer the catalyst for education, medical care, or social safety that we once were. Others would say that our liturgy is out of date, that our music is archaic, that pastors shouldn’t wear robes or stand behind pulpits, and that we have ceased to be a place where the presence of God is tangibly felt. This is the judgment that has been leveled against the church for at least 60 years now, and it is no wonder that so many find greener pastures elsewhere.
It is not easy to be confronted with all of this. It’s not easy because its accurate. Jesus says we are a valuable treasure that everyone wants a piece of. We’ve not lived up to Christ’s expectations, even failing willfully at times to be who and what all Christ wants. Let me suggest two ways that we might right the ship and put a little shine on the great treasure we have.
First, it is not healthy or helpful to live with a sense of failure. We can’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves for what was or what might have been. If we are a dying church, a loser institution, what are you and I still doing here? Are we not the church of Jesus Christ? Isn’t Christ alive and going before us? Didn’t Christ promise to be with us even until the end? Surely this gives value to you and me and the church that no statistics, positive or negative, can diminish. Regardless of the current trends in religion and society, regardless of what the critics say, we serve a risen Savior and he’s in the world today—he lives and that means we will live also.
We might not always be able to see Christ in the world, or how he is working, but that’s not a problem. Jesus said that it will be like a mustard seed and yeast. You may not be able to see the mustard seed or the yeast, and you may not be able to see the work they do, but in the end, something will be radically different! The same is true of God’s kingdom and the church as we know it. We may not be able to see how the Spirit is working, we may brush off small churches, we may think that a few people can’t do a great thing, but this is the kingdom of God. Just a small seed will grow into a tree so large that the birds of the air will come and make nests in its branches. This is the kingdom of God. Just a touch of yeast in three measures of flour will leaven and make the whole thing rise. In God’s kingdom you can be small, written off, beaten down, called insignificant and unimportant, but that stuff doesn’t matter to God. This is the stuff God works with…this is the stuff God uses to turn Good Friday into Easter Sunday.
Second, though we may be confronted with a loss of members and dollars in the worldwide church, this is no excuse for a loss of vitality. God is still present in the world. The good news of Jesus Christ is still good news. The Holy Spirit is still moving in unexpected and inexplicable ways. Jesus didn’t call us to be big and showy. He didn’t call us to ride the current trends and tastes. He didn’t calls us to turn the church into some feel-good club that looks like everything else we do with a little God sprinkled in. Jesus called us to be faithful. And that faithfulness, no matter what is happening in and around us demands that we continue to fill as many lives as we can with the love, the mercy, and the grace of God. Our only and most important obligation as people of faith is to share God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy in every way we can, with everyone we can, in every way we can, as long as we can. The other stuff, honestly, is crap.
You hear people say, “It’s too bad we can’t have Christmas all year long.” But if there is a season we need to stretch right now, I vote for Advent. Advent is that month-long period before Christmas that encourages us to have hope that Christ is coming. Advent calls us to hang in there even when things look bad. Advent encourages us to have a very light grip on what has been and cultivate an openness and flexibility to what will be in God’s kingdom. In the Four Quartets, T.S. Elliot writes, “…wait without faith, hope and love, for fear that we will have faith in the wrong things, hope for what is inconsequential, and love for what is trivial. Yet, he concludes by saying, “But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought; so the darkness shall be light, and the stilling the dancing.”
What we will be as children of God is yet to be realized. What the church of Jesus Christ will be is yet to be realized. What the world will be is yet to be realized. This isn’t a reason to sulk in the corner, or hide away until Jesus comes back. We shouldn’t pack everything up and close the whole thing down. No, in fact, it is a kick in the pants to get to work here and now, doing those things that have always been a part of the church. Feeding the hungry; sheltering the homeless; providing books and school supplies for children; accompanying the elderly in their final years; giving a drink of water the thirsty; touching the sick and the diseased; casting out demons; raising the dead. When we get to work doing these things right now, the dust will be swept away, the shine will return, and this jewel, this gem, this precious treasure will shine again. And there will be no end to those who want to be a part of it.
There was a time of declining numbers in the career of Jesus, and he asked his disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” They replied: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of enteral life.” The kingdom of God is a treasure; you are a treasure; the Church of Jesus Christ is a treasure. Let’s go for it! Amen.