Again, 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.
In my experience sermons are often very one sided. Someone like me, will stand in a place like this, and tell people like you, what God is saying. But sermons are meant to be more than a monologue, they need to be more than a lecture, they must be more than what I come up with in isolation.
So, I would like some of you to describe heaven for me. What do you think it will look like? Who will be there? What’s on the daily agenda?
There was once a man who lived a devout life and toward the end of his days God spoke to him and said, “I am so proud of the way you’ve lived that I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: I’m going to allow you to bring something with you to heaven. You may fill a briefcase with whatever you like and it shall be with you for eternity. Now remember I don’t often make this deal, so make sure you give it some thought.”
So the man did. For weeks and months he wrestled with what he would bring with him to heaven. He made pros and cons lists, he consulted his pastor (who was utterly bewildered by his question) and finally he decided on what to put in the briefcase.
Eventually the time came for the man to die and upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter was patiently waiting to greet the man. St. Peter looked him up and down and said, “Hey man, look I’ve gotta ask: what’s in the briefcase? God never lets people bring something inside and he made an exception for you. So, can I see it?”
The man proudly opened his case and showed off 6 gold bars.
St. Peter stood there for a moment and then beckoned for the nearby angels, “Hey everybody, you’ll never believe it. God told this guy he could bring anything he wanted into heaven and he brought asphalt!”
In heaven the streets are paved with gold… Have you ever heard this before? Or maybe the image of heaven inside your mind is a cloud-like place filled with little fat cherubs floating around the air. Or maybe you think heaven is like a never-ending buffet with all of your favorite food.
I get asked a lot of questions as a pastor. “How am I supposed to pray?” “Where is God in all of this?” “Should I tell my husband what happened?” But the question I’m asked the most, by far, is “What is heaven like?”
Today, when most of us think about heaven, the images conjured in our minds have far more to do with Hallmark than with scripture. Our hopes and dreams about our heavenly reward often reflect what movies and books describe than what the Lord describes.
I wonder if the crowds around Jesus were disappointed when he started talking about the kingdom of heaven. His parables, his long list of comparisons, contain nothing about pearly gates, or endless buffets, or even reuniting with long lost relatives.
The stories Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven are down to earth, literally. At times he talks about the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed. People disregard it and toss it away, but when it takes root it grows greater than any plant and won’t stop growing.
At other times he talks about the kingdom of heaven like yeast being mixed in with three measures of flour. When mixed and baked properly it would’ve been enough bread to feed hundreds of people.
At other times Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven as a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sounds less like heaven and more like hell.
And more often than not, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven he compares it to a wedding feast. I like the wedding feast connection because weddings are fun and full of joy and celebration. And, perhaps most importantly, there are always a couple people at the wedding who we never would’ve invited if it was our own, but God’s invitation is not like our invitation.
In today’s short passage, Jesus tells the crowds (and us) that 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.
More than a year ago I was down in Roanoke for the start of Annual Conference. Annual Conference is the once a year opportunity for United Methodist from all over Virginia to get together for prayer, worship, renewal, and church business. I arrived early last year to meet with some of my friends for breakfast, and half of us were about to be ordained in full connection. Though we had all served as pastors for a number of years, we had finally made it through the journey to kneel before the Annual Conference and would now serve the Lord as ordained elders.
And though the time at breakfast was filled with great joy and anticipation, there was also a dark cloud hovering over the gathering. The church is not what it once was and it’s hard to ignore how much it has changed. Gone are the days when one could assume that a church would grow simply by being in a neighborhood. Gone are the days when young couples and families show up on Sunday morning without an invitation. Gone are the days when the church is regarded with high esteem by the surrounding culture.
Last year, as it is now, the church is in a place where just having the doors open is not enough. The church is disproportionately skewing to an older age demographic. And the church is forever suffering under the weight of controversies like the Book of Discipline’s language about homosexuality.
So there we were at breakfast, sharing our excitement about joining the ship of Methodism in full connection, while the ship appears to flooding and without direction. We lamented the church’s current state of affairs, we offered opinions about how we might fix certain items, or how to change certain opinions, and then my friend Morgan interrupted everything.
He said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ parables recently, and one in particular. He tells the disciples that the kingdom 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.” He had been looking down at the table up to this point, but then he raised his head and looked us in the eyes and said, “Do we still feel that way about the kingdom? I mean, are we willing to risk it all, to throw ourselves completely in? Or, at the very least, have we found a pearl in our churches?”
Today the church feels afraid. Few are willing to takes risks, we hold up frightening statistics as a way to guilt people into doing more, and we ask so many questions about the viability of the church going forward. But Jesus doesn’t transform life by scaring the hell out of people. No, Jesus transforms life by helping people like us see how heaven is close at hand.
Morgan’s question has haunted me for more than a year. With all the talk of negativity in the church, with all the fear and frustrations, Morgan turned it all upside down. Where is the pearl of great price in this place? What would I give up everything to possess in the kingdom?
When my son was one month old we brought him to church for the first time. I had taken 4 Sundays off to be at home with Lindsey as we adjusted to life with a newborn, but the time had come to return to the pulpit. I can’t tell you much about the service because I was so sleep deprived that most of it is a blur. But I will never forget the moment Lindsey brought him up to the front to receive communion. Without talking about it ahead of time I took the tiniest piece of bread, dipped it in the cup, and placed it in his mouth.
He has no idea what communion means or even what it is. But for the majority of his little life he has been in church every single week, learning the habits of God in worship, and receiving the body and blood of the one we call Lord. My son knows of no life outside the church. His life has been one defined by the movements not of the world, but by the liturgy.
And seeing him in church, watching him receive communion, hearing him say “amen” without even knowing what it means… I think I would sell everything to keep that.
On Thursday morning I got to church early after working on the sermon a little bit and I discovered a great crowd of people in our parking lot. There were volunteers from Cokesbury, Old Bridge UMC, and from the Salvation Army, and they were all working together to distribute food to those in need. There was no cash box at the front for community members to pay for the food, there was no expectation that they would ever repay us, and (perhaps most importantly) there was no judgment about the fact that they needed food.
I stayed toward the sides of our lot and took it all in for the first time, though I introduced myself to a handful of families patiently waiting for the food. There was one woman who kept her eyes on me while I was moving about and I eventually went up to introduce myself. As I got close she took my hand all she said was, “Thank you. This has saved my life.”
Experiencing her salvation in our parking lot, seeing the wonder and joy in her eyes, feeling her hope… I think I would sell everything to keep that.
Tomorrow morning we are going to open our doors to all sorts of kids from the community for Vacation Bible School. Some will come from privileged families and will have been here before. Some will come from situations they won’t talk about though it will be clear that the food we offer them will be the first food they taste that day. And a few will come from somewhere in between.
Our volunteers will fill the halls with joy and hope and laughter as we do arts and crafts, as we sing and dance, and as we all learn more about the bible.
Seeing the children and volunteers working together, hearing children excited to learn more about God, seeing individuals interact with one another in a place like this… I think I would sell everything to keep that.
And all of them, from my son in worship, to the woman in the parking lot, to the children in our building will experience the grace of God and they will leave transformed without cost.
In the parable the man sells everything he has for the pearl of great value – the pearl of God’s kingdom is of such importance that merchant gives away his very livelihood to hold on to a little slice of heaven. More important than the money he uses to purchase the pearl is his willingness to trust that the gift of God’s kingdom is more important than any earthly thing.
Friends, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is not just some place waiting for us in the by and by, it is also something that we can experience here and now. Because the kingdom is something that God is doing, and it is to be received as a gift; a gift like the bread and the cup, a gift like food in a parking lot, a gift like vacation bible school.
The kingdom of heaven is not something that can be acquired, or earn, or purchased; it is a way of being into which we can enter.
This beautiful and brief parable from the lips of Jesus is not about the cost of heaven. It is, instead, a testament to the fact that our response to the kingdom is total, it is everything we have. To be joined up in to this kingdom of heaven on earth, the kingdom that is both here and not yet, means committing our whole beings, without reserve, and with totality.
The kingdom of heaven is a gift that transforms every bit of our lives here and now.
There is no amount of money on earth that can purchase salvation. As the old hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all.” But the parable begs us to ask ourselves the same questions that Morgan asked me, “Do we feel like the merchant? Are we willing to risk it all, and throw ourselves completely in? Or, at the very least, have we found a pearl in this place?” Amen.