a pearl and a merchant: get excited

( A pearl I like to wear as it sits on the table this evening)

Hello all. Tonight I preached at St. Andrews Lutheran Church in the suburbs for a Lenten service. It was a great experience. It's always lovely to meet new people and share some gospel. I'm going to share the sermon here, but do not feel obligated to read it! Truly! I'll be back tomorrow with a non-sermon entry.

The text I chose for this evening (I was supposed to pick a favorite parable) was: Matthew 13:45-46 which reads:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

My name is Emily, and I am in my final few months of seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. As my time in the city comes to a close and I prepare to head off to Minnesota for a first pastoral call, I’ve been thinking a lot about the highlights of the last 4 years of seminary.

If I were to pick my very favorite part of these years in Chicago, it would be the way that my experiences at seminary have truly challenged my beliefs about life and faith all the way to my very core. I’ve never had a time in my life that brought about so many big questions. The different encounters I have had in classes, in worship, and with people from around the world have inspired me to be ever-expanding my perceptions of how big God's love is for all creation.

The gospel parable that I chose to focus on tonight is one of my favorites for the very same reason that I have appreciated seminary so much. It's challenging and it pushes me outside my comfort zone! Jesus’ words about the merchant and the pearl lead his audience to rethink all sorts of preconceptions about value and rational thinking. Even though this parable is only 2 verses long, Jesus uses the story of the merchant in a way that invites his listeners to think critically about their lifestyles and attitudes.

In preparing for this evening's service, I encountered another surprise within Jesus’ words. In previous readings of the text, I’d always thought Jesus was comparing the kingdom of heaven to the pearl. Because in other parables in Matthew, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to all sorts of different objects: a net, some yeast, a hidden treasure, and a mustard seed. But unlike these other instances, in this particular parable, Jesus is comparing the kingdom of heaven to the merchant.

And my what a character we have here in our merchant! It’s one of those times in the Bible where I really wish Jesus had done a bit more character development! All we know is that he’s a merchant looking for some pearls - which at the time and place were even more valuable than gold. The next thing we know, the merchant found one fabulous pearl, sold everything else he owned, and bought it. End of story.

In Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven is something we humans are invited to participate in both now and throughout eternity. The kingdom of heaven describes God’s grace-filled activities throughout creation.

In this parable, the merchant is compared to the kingdom of heaven, which invites us to imagine what sorts of qualities this merchant has that Jesus wants us to embrace today. I’m certainly captivated by this merchant. When it comes to fancy pearls, he’s so spontaneous and adventurous. His passion for this one-of-a-kind pearl is so profound, he gives up everything just to hold it in his own hands.

I imagine the merchant has all sorts of great qualities. But most of all, I believe Jesus wants his followers to take special note of this merchant’s attitude from the moment he comes across this special pearl. He must have been filled with enthusiasm and excitement beyond words. He sold everything! And he had this enthusiasm regardless of how irrational it probably seemed to his family, co-workers on the ship, and the rest of the world. And when it comes to responding to the kingdom of heaven, this is the sort of attitude the Holy Spirit wants to breathe into us as well. Passionate excitement about the opportunity to participate in what God is doing in the world. We are part of the kingdom of heaven, and that is something we can really rejoice about.

But as we know from experience, this sort of excitement doesn’t always come so naturally. Turn on the television, open the paper, check your email, eavesdrop in the break-room: all these environments have lots of tell us about the truly difficult and tragic things happening in the country and the world these days. Stress levels and worry levels are through the roof. And sometimes the kingdom of heaven feels as far away as Neptune or as imaginary as the Land of Oz. So getting all excited about it is extra difficult when we feel like it might not even exist.

But thankfully for us, we don’t have to get on a ship to find the kingdom of heaven, the way the merchant did when he went in search of pearls. We know from Jesus’ own words and promises that the kingdom of heaven doesn’t need to be found because it is already breaking into our midst all the time. The challenge for us is to notice it when it’s being crowded out by all sorts of bad news and bad attitudes the world places in front of us.

We experience the kingdom of heaven every time someone takes an extra moment to have a genuine conversation and ask us how we’re REALLY doing. We know the kingdom of heaven is near whenever we feel that amazing joy that happens when we give to others out of that generosity we’ve already received from our Creator. And we experience Christ’s love breaking into this world every single time we come up to communion and receive Jesus’ body and blood in our hands as the precious pearl-like gifts that they are.

The kingdom of heaven is here friends, and it is with us always. This is something we are called to be excited about every season of the church year!

I would’ve loved to meet the merchant moments after selling everything he had. I would’ve loved to see him holding that tiny pearl so filled with joy. We have that life-giving pearl in our lives all the time in the form of Jesus Christ. May our passion and enthusiasm for His life, death, and resurrection be ever-present and truly contagious.


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