Seth E. Weeldreyer – First Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo

July 30, 2023, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 3:5-12; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-53

He had sweet fruits of good life. Royal luxury and privilege—wealth, power, a palace, fine food and clothes, married to a princess, first child on the way. Then one day, riding in a royal park he saw a feeble old man, next day a sick man, next day a rotting corpse … suffering, tragic realities of humanity. Back in the park on the day his son was born, he met a monk, and felt compelled to renounce it all and quest for enlightenment. Several years after leaving his wife and son, Siddhartha sat still at the foot of a fig tree, meditating for weeks, when he received the insight: craving magnifies suffering. 2500 years later his teaching on humility continues to shape Buddhists and countless others who find value in his way of life.

Simon lived an ordinary life—small house, small town, on a small lake, at an unimportant edge of large empire. Stable work, family, community, faith—not flashy, but respectable. Until two words turned it all upside down: “follow me.” Crazy. Who walks up to strangers at work, says drop everything to hang with him? Jesus’ words carried power, rang true, by his authority amazing things happened. For three years, Simon listened, watched, called him “teacher” and “Lord.” And didn’t quite get it—often overzealous but denied knowing him when it counted most, watched him suffer crucified, dead. Three days later Peter experienced his Lord risen. And from then on, he lived spreading good news of love and hope to distant shores in Greece, even Rome, eventually ending also in his crucified death.

Born into Mississippi slavery, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, yellow fever took her parents and baby brother when she was sixteen. To support herself and siblings, she taught school and saved enough to buy a 1/3 share in a newspaper. Life looking up.

Until three men were lynched, including the father of her goddaughter. She knew the charge of rape inflaming the mob was a false “excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.” She spoke truth in print. When “leading citizens” destroyed her office and threatened death, Ida B. Wells lost her paper, but she never lost purpose. She researched. She spoke across North America and Britain. She helped inspire founding the NAACP and women’s rights among many other causes, benefiting so many millions.

Three very different people, different lives, times, places, circumstances, write Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McInnally-Linz. They join countless other ways we ask: What matters most? What’s a good, flourishing life, worthy of our truest humanity? The Question can show up, they warn, when we least expect it, lurking in ordinary moments, ready to challenge perceptions and change our path.[i]

I wonder when the Question has shown up for each of us? Where we’ve been in big city bustle or backcountry beauty. What we’ve faced trying to achieve personal high points or accept hard low points. What we’ve felt in times of vulnerability or loss, gratitude or joy. Who’s been with us in those moments. Maybe it’s a book, movie, song that touched the heart, kindled hope, hunger for purpose. It’s Julian of Norwich’s vision of a hazelnut. It’s Les Miserables and David Brooks’ Second Mountain. It’s Mary Oliver’s poetry, Spielberg’s movies, and spirituals passed down over generations.

My grandma read me John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie as I drove her to Florida when I was 18. Books on tape / podcast old style. We braved a foot of snow in Charlotte, treacherous ice, hours of her extending a hand, “ooh.” Somewhere on the way I asked: Grandma, what’s the meaning of life? She looked at me a bit stunned, pause, slight nod. Don’t know what she said. I still feel the letdown from her answer. No Divine bright light or booming voice. Her honest, faithful response didn’t tie up everything neatly in a manageable box with bow on top. More than having all answers, I still cherish the yearning to share the journey, live questions, face hardship, receive gifts of beauty and wonder, often unplanned, unexpected. Maybe that journey with her long ago helped kindle a pilgrim spirit as I share that journey of living faith—Travels with You—everyday. I wonder when the Question, inspiration has come alive for each of us.

Probably fleeting, yet still formative so much later in life, further down the road. I want to know how we can keep opening our hearts to pass through a divine portal in the kingdom of heaven here and now.

The disciples and crowds did “travels with Jesus.” What’s extraordinary is how ordinary it all is. Facets can seem exotic to us. For people listening to Matthew tell the story, they’d get familiar details and normal routines. Jesus tries to get them and us to see in regular bits of life Holy Grace and Love radiant. He tries to broaden horizons, open hearts, hunt for treasure, affirming all who ponder the Question, maybe pushing a bit those who aren’t yet seeking the kingdom of heaven. Mustard seeds, yeast, fish, buried treasure and pearl of greatest price. We could parse each parable at length, of course that’s the point. And we’ll get a few insights in a moment. As Matthew layers quick hit sound bytes of wisdom, he wants us to get what Solomon said, at least. The quest, the hunger, the beauty, power, inspiration of life worth living—true, full, heavenly. And to believe—to give our heart to the promise that better than magic spells or Marvel movie special effects, a gate to a secret garden, a cupboard into Narnia, a portal into that life always exists so near, so now. Possible despite all that seems best or worst—palace luxury or vicious lynching, often defying accepted norms and realities, even death, if we have eyes of the heart to see.

You see, mustard isn’t really the smallest seed. And no way is it the grandest bush—more like a spindly shrub shorter than me. Matthew’s people got the holy parody of other grand visions of ancient kingdoms as huge strong trees—think majestic cedars of Lebanon Solomon laid waste to build his kingdom and ego. Even plain, simple ordinary seeds can grow heavenly life—like you and me. And in Jesus’ day, yeast meant corruption that spoils or sickens like bad fruit in the bushel, a potent virus causing a pandemic. No little packet or teaspoon from a jar, it’s a sourdough starter the woman hides, sneaks secretly, kneads into enough flour to feed everyone here today and more. That’s potent! That’s so unexpected for Jesus to turn what’s so mundane or bad into good. That’s grace. That’s God’s promise of resurrection.

It’s like a farmer plowing a field when the blade strikes a huge, buried clay pot … and realizes enough to invest everything to buy that field. The Question can show up when we least expect it, Volf warns, lurking in ordinary moments, ready to challenge perceptions and change our path. If we find life to treasure, mark it, shield it, excavate it, lest wind and sands of life blow and swallow it up again. Sometimes more than accidental it becomes more an intentional hunt. Like the merchant who’d seen enough to know what’s of greatest value … friends, what do we value in life enough to give everything we have and are?

Amy-Jill Levine writes: often what we keep seeking—fine pearls, a new job, another degree, or spiritual fulfillment—proves ephemeral. Always a new necklace, career, study program, nagging sense we should do more. We can flit from desire to desire always discontent. Will we know what we want when we see it? Should we, can we be, like the merchant, willing to go all in for some ultimate concern?

Levine talked about these parables with pastors and prisoners. One student earned an MDiv, married, had kids, and lived as minister’s wife. She kept learning as she could—books from Amazon, History Channel, online courses. Her husband discouraged another degree but she persisted. Applied, accepted, awarded funding … for various reasons, entering the PhD program coincided with ending her marriage. She explained, I never expected to be here, but when the offer came, I did what was necessary to find this pearl. Gave up my home, status, took out loans and took back my former name. I don’t know what will happen at the end, but I trust I’m doing what’s truly right.

A prisoner said his pearl was freedom. He’d do whatever it takes—confess a crime, anger management, psychological tests, and so on, to increase his chances. Life changing when he realized he didn’t have what most of us take for granted. Another sought safety—to not be knifed in the chow line or attacked in the shower. Another explained that in losing everything—property, clothing, identity, dignity—as he built it all again, every hard stride, every tear, he came to truly value what was really most important.[ii]

I went on a treasure hunt for some connection with our texts in this space we share. Didn’t find carvings of mustard seeds in wood or stone. No yeast—Shawn, Randy and Logan keep things far too clean around here for that. No pearl of great price glinting in stained glass. We do often walk from the Gathering Place or office past the bathroom through the doorway into the Narthex. Above the red door arcs a carved stone pattern of leaves—life flourishing—and right in the pearl-shaped center, in a teardrop / womb-like form … what is it? I surveyed our staff members. Not exactly a pineapple, I said. Looks like a flower or seed, she said—what’s the right answer? I don’t know, I laughed, that’s why I’m asking you! Several more votes for a flower, others for a fleur de lis (to be exact), and at least two or three for a holy corn cob.

Seems to me Jesus tries to say the doorway, the portal into heavenly life God desires is all around us, all the time. The key to unlocking it is how we orient our heart. Maybe if with us today, Jesus would tell parables of a corn kernel, a coronavirus, walking in the woods or our neighborhood, investing as much of who we are seeking Holy Love as it takes energy to mine for bitcoin. Ordinary life become extraordinary through a treasure hunt of the heart.

This week I passed through the restaurant door to meet for lunch. We chatted about our life journey, experiences, family endings and new births, church. Teaching math and coaching basketball in high school and college—numbers on a page or dots on a board … and so much more. All about learning, maturing, touching human hearts far beyond grades on a paper or points on a scoreboard. That’s why the smile beamed across the table recalling former students coming up around town, our state, even on a Caribbean island to apologize for past behavior or say thanks for an especially poignant moment. Do you remember when …? Oh, yes.

That’s what I felt when through another restaurant door this week for dinner, where the smiles came alive talking about cycling, Alaska, moving from an engineering desk to be hospital doc … and processing all the priorities we see and choose. That’s what we felt when we traveled from our classrooms and living rooms and work places to open the doors of our vehicles in the hills of West Virginia to go build and stain and bring life.

Life worth living. Friends, I’m working on it all as much as anyone else. A few weeks ago, a few of you joked concern about what would happen after I read Do I Stay Christian? Good news: We’re still here! What is life worth living? Seems potentially an even more potent maybe risky question. What’s the right answer? Every one of us must resolve it for ourselves. Confucius: Our lives inevitably follow what we love and what brings us joy.[iii] And so, I heard her affirm: at best, we leverage what we love. It becomes electric. Here’s insight I’ve held like a pearl in recent months. Howard Thurman: Don’t just ask what the world needs, find what makes you fully alive. Because what God and the world really need are people who are fully alive. And so, we believe, we trust that all flourishing is mutual. And at best that arises from being grateful for all life as a Divine gift and living generously in return. As we tend what’s really important and practice holy indifference to what’s not.

For Siddhartha the treasure hunt began unexpectedly in a royal garden and led to suffering people everywhere. For Simon, the treasure hunt began at home by the sea and led him through a whole new identity to bear witness on distant shores, in the cruciform shape of his savior. For Ida B. Wells the treasure hunt began in slavery, led through lynching, losing a newspaper but never her purpose. An 18-year-old asks the Question driving along with his stunned grandmother. And so, do we all from toddlers to wheelchairs and walkers. All Jesus asks, all God desires, dear friends, is that we keep seeking together that portal, the pearly gates of Heaven. And walking through it to ordinary life become extraordinary—all the stone-cold pains and ecstatic joys, as God’s Spirit ever opens us and guides us on the heart’s treasure hunt.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Quoted and abridged from Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McInnally-Linz, Life Worth Living, (Viking / Penguin Random House, 2023), xi-xv, xvii.

[ii] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 147-149.

[iii] See Volf, et al.