Often in unexpected ways, God invites us into the holiness which is God, into that Kingdom of heaven, which is always present to us, but like the treasure in the field or the yeast within the bread, or the mustard seed within the soil, often goes unnoticed or appears hidden, at least for a time. We believe God always invites us into this space, and places within us at our baptism the discerning heart and desire to find God in our sometimes rather mundane lives. Often our holy work is devoting ourselves to seeing the long view, to imagine that this treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven is worth our long laboring, is worthy of our complete and utter dedication to not only seek and find the treasure, but to live it. For of course, the Kingdom of Heaven, the holiness of God, which often lies under the surface of our lives, is not something for us to find and then hoard, or treat like our possession, but rather our call is to make it real in our lives, to share it with others, to generously and abundantly broadcast it into the darkest of places, so others may be in the light, as we are.
In this section of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is definitely in a parable-telling mood, as we receive a burst of parables in the portion of the gospel assigned for today. We could dissect each parable for its particular meaning, but we could also look to them to discern how they fit into the whole series of parables, that string of fine pearls which we are invited to admire, hold, and wear, as a part of our lives. And it is wise for us to note that this string of parables ends differently from the version in the gospel of Mark. In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples understand their meaning and they are likened to a wise scribe who holds the treasure of the old and the new together. This statement is significant for it is Matthew’s attempt at faithfully shepherding the transition between the old way (the Israelite’s belief that the old is always better than the new) and the new way of the Gentile converts, and to invite people to see the treasure in both. Matthew understood that there is a holy exchange happening, that asks his Jewish friends to sell (to release, to let go of) old beliefs and patterns of behavior that no longer serve them. It’s a treasure that is worth everything: the Kingdom of Heaven as ushered in by Jesus, and to buy (or take on, or be transformed) something of great value—the salvation offered to the world by God through Jesus’ resurrection.
This holy exchange of selling or letting go of all that is asked of us so that we may live more fully the treasure offered to us, and the buying or the taking upon ourselves of the gift of salvation is what we are to do as faithful Christians. And we are to do this every day of our lives, for if we develop this spiritual muscle, then we will be able to see the new treasure when it appears. For the holy revelation emerges when we stretch ourselves, when we actively search, seek, and labor to find it—and then once we do, to NOT imagine that our work is ended, for in reality, it has just begun. We need to be ready to exchange everything, our wealth, power, ego, reputation, and even life itself, to enter into this holy realm of the Spirit, for that is the treasure.
When Jesus offers these images in the parables of today, of the baker woman, the field laborer, the rich merchant, he does so to show us that there are things worthy of a long devotion, a commitment to developing skills, of seeing a vision, of devoting our energies toward, of taking the long way round, of settling in with conviction to stay steady in a place, until the treasure is revealed. For we will often find, that it is in the long haul, in the submitting of ourselves to the process of practicing, that brings the secret parts of ourselves to the surface. It draws the holy that dwells within us out into the world. The focus of these parables is that we can never stop with just finding. When we come forward to the altar to receive the Holy Eucharist, it is the climax of our worship service, but it is not the end of the story. It is but the beginning. We are to allow ourselves to become the living sacrament, to let go of our old ways and to embrace the new way of living that grace so freely offered to us.
To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must engage in the full process of finding, selling, and then buying. And of these three movements in the process of entering the Kingdom of Heaven, the middle one, the selling, is probably the most crucial. We have to sell; we have to exchange the parts of us that aren’t of God or are no longer needed; we need to purify ourselves of that which is about and only for us. For when we let go of the habits of mind and behaviors that have preoccupied us, we have more space and freedom to pursue the new find, and we can invest more of ourselves into the Kingdom. And that is what is expected of us as faithful people. We are expected to develop spiritually, and that happens only with this holy exchange. We are expected to live into the demands and the understanding that this Christian life of ours will cost us something, and that may be our hearts and souls, our offerings of the many gifts God has given us, until we find our natural stance is one of loving kindness towards all. We know we are “there”, that we are living into and out of the Kingdom of heaven when we can offer each other a generosity of spirit, for that is when we know our hearts have done the holy exchange we’re called into – when we can be generous to one another, as God is generous to us. This will happen when we labor long at this process, when we gain the wisdom to know what to let go of and what to hold onto.
Now, this may sound very theoretical and perhaps it is, but it does happen in our daily lives, and I’d like to share with you an experience I’ve had recently that really opened this up for me – so you may see from my example how this may be opening up for you somehow, in this season of your life.
You may be like me, as many of us continue to work mostly from home these days. I’m chipping away at my long list of home projects in my “spare” time, some which have been on our “to-do” list since we moved into our home 7 ½ years ago. One such project was refinishing our dining table. The surface was blotchy, scratched, and had the remnants of a previously unsuccessful attempt at stripping the finish. Bill figured out how now we could remove the finish, using a heat gun and a scraper, so off I went on my merry way of woodworking. Now it may not come as a surprise to you, but I had never done any woodworking before in my life. I could see why the image of me in work clothes with a sander in my hand might startle you. In fact, in my other projects, such as repainting the trim around the doors, whenever it came to scraping and sanding, I always called for Bill to help, for that seemed to be out of my league of experience or interest. But here I go—ready to cross another item off my list. And I found I love it. I love the long laboring; I love the feel of the wood when it is smooth and is almost as pleasing to the touch as velvet. I love the investment of heart, soul, and body in the process. For I found this to be a very spiritual experience, almost sensing the energy in the wood from its time as a tree, building a relationship with the wood, learning its intricacies, understanding how different parts of the wood take to stain differently and how I am to adapt. And as our parables suggest, when we invest the time and energy in finding the holy, there is something we need to sell – to release, to let go of. For me (and this probably doesn’t surprise you) it was my desire for perfection. I had to accept there were imperfections that I added to the table by my inexperienced staining. What was most fascinating to me was figuring out, finding the wisdom to tell, what of the “old” was the treasure and how to maintain the history of the table, the story it could tell, while bringing it into something new. I don’t want it to look like a brand-new table at all, for this table has an interesting story and I wanted to maintain that history, but just have it look a little better. My sister acquired the table while living in the Indiana—where it was actually a kitchen table in a jail there in Crown Point, Indiana. I don’t remember who, but I remember her telling me that there was some famous criminal, like John Dillinger, who was housed there in that jail, so with each sweep of the sander, this conjured up all sorts of images of who had come to this table. This table that I am now sanding and re-sanding, and developing a relationship with, I imagine, had some lost souls draw their chairs up to that table, that there were broken people who broke bread where we place our plates and silverware each evening, that there were those who came seeking God’s redemption of their souls who found solace in the smoothness of the wood or the design of the grain. I imagine this table to be where some found a sense of the holiness of community, where people came to relieve themselves of the isolation of their desolate cells. I don’t want to sand that story away. I want to hear their voices, I want to touch their souls, I want them somehow to know that they were the treasure of God, even though they may not have known that at the time, that they, like we, in each moment have an opportunity to sell all that is not of God within us and to buy, to invest in, to become the Kingdom of Heaven.
Holding the old, while making it a new creation, is my challenge with the table. Holding the old, while making it a new creation, is our challenge as Christians as we are called to this ongoing process of developing spiritually, so we can always seek the treasure, but not stop there when we have found it – but to do that holy exchange where we give God the parts of us which are not whole or holy and we receive the grace that makes our life worth living.