— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 8th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Jesus spoke of the reign of God this way…
“God’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field for years and then accidently found by a trespasser. The finder is ecstatic – what a find! – and proceeds to sell everything he owns to raise money and buy that field.
“Or, God’s kingdom is like a jewel merchant on the hunt for excellent pearls. Finding one that is flawless, he immediately sells everything and buys it” (Matthew 13:44-46; from The Message by Eugene Peterson).
The color of my first car was blue pearl. That car was a 1968 Pontiac GTO with a 400 four-barrel. It was the year the GTO was rounder with the little, decorative air-flow openings on the hood. It was a cool car! The GTO was called, and I guess still is called, a Goat! “Bobby Prim got a Goat!” – my classmates were saying. “It’s blue and hot!”
Well, that is what I was imagining they were saying. The car and driver were not really a match. I was not a hot-rod type of guy. There is a picture somewhere of me standing next to that car. I am wearing plaid pants and a white La Crosse shirt with hair down over my ears and brown tear-drop classes and wallaby shoes. I was not the guy everyone envied or found mysterious. No, I was just a quiet guy with a few friends who did not make much of an impact on a room full of people when I entered. But then I had this car – blue pearl and hot! I’m sure that is what they were all saying.
I saw the car in the driveway of a neighbor with a “For Sale” sign on it. It was 1975. I had to have it. My image needed a boost and I needed some wheels. The price was $550. I had about three hundred in savings. I talked with dad and mom. Mom was a push-over – she knew I needed a boost. Dad was a little hesitant, but I think my desire inspired him. I think he thought I would be well-served to walk a little closer to the wild side than I had done heretofore. The car was evidence of a manly spark of untamed passion. We struck up a deal – I would pay half and it would be my responsibility to pay for gas. I drove the car, the Goat, to school the next day!
The blue-pearled Goat – it was my pearl of great price! It was my treasure. It was the thing that would bring meaning and purpose and pizzaz to my life. And it was not long before I realized that not only did the thing drink gas like an army tank and I was working to simply put gas in my pearl of great price, but it also did not really do anything for my image. I was still the average guy in plaid pants and tear-drop glasses and wallaby shoes. My pearl was a fake. My treasure a hollow tin can with decorative air-flow holes in the hood.
I would like to report that the experience of purchasing my first car gave me a clear and keen sense of the fake pearls in life. I would like to report that from that early life-lesson I have avoided placing too much emphasis on the things of life that carry with them the false promises of happiness or status or inner peace. I would like to report that I have only invested myself in the things that really do matter, that I have found and clung to the inner pearls and treasures that make for a life of contentment, peace, meaningfulness. I’d like to report to you that I, your pastor, arrived at such a place a long time ago. Instead, I must admit, that I only catch glimpses and experience moments when I lay claim to the treasure and the pearl of great price. I have experienced it and held on to it, but it slips away – it gets buried again in my own selfishness.
There is a strong clue in the few verses we read from Matthew about the process involved in taking possession of the pearl and the treasure that is the reign of God on earth. Notice the trespasser and the jewel merchant both were willing to empty their coffers to attain that which they identify as being of extreme worth. Both the merchant and the accidental treasure hunter practiced an openness to the in-breaking of the reign of God that required them to empty themselves in order to make room for the new and lasting pearl, the new and lasting treasure. The pathway to the dwelling place of God’s reign is an openness to self-emptying.
Years ago now I heard an interview with George Ellis. Dr. Ellis is a Cosmologist, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, activist, Quaker, author of many books including one he co-authored with Stephen Hawking entitled The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. In other words, Dr. Ellis is a very bright man and who has received the Templeton Prize on the intersection of science and religion.
George Ellis has also co-authored a book with theologian Nancy Murphy entitled On the Moral Nature of the Universe. Dr. Ellis and Dr. Murphy propose that just as there are physical and mathematical laws embedded in our universe waiting to be discovered and applied, there is also an ethic embedded in the universe. There is no scientific proof of such an ethic but Dr. Ellis observes that in all the major religions of the world there is a recurring ethic of non-violence and self-sacrifice. The term used in Christian Scriptures is “kenosis” or a kenotic ethic. The Greek word “kenosis” means “self-emptying” or “to empty oneself” on behalf of others. This ethic is discovered, re-discovered and practiced over and over again in all of the great teachers of religious truth. Dr. Ellis mentions Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Steven Bieko, Nelson Mandela, and, in the purest form, Jesus of Nazareth. All embody the truth of the embedded principle of kenosis – self emptying as the pathway to wholeness and meaning as a human being.
Dr. Ellis mentions that this principle is not just important for discovering spiritual truths but that all forms of education are based on the notion that one gives up pre-conceived notions in order to be taught new information, new patterns, new ways of being and seeing a particular subject or endeavor.
(Speaking of Faith, “Science and Hope,” NPR)
The finder is ecstatic – what a find! – and proceeds to sell everything he owns to raise the money and buy that field.
Finding one that is flawless, she immediately sells everything and buys the pearl of great price.
O.K. so the pathway to the reign of God on earth, to purposeful and meaningful life, is self-emptying, kenosis. The pathway to learning the eternal truths of God’s universe is a practiced openness, but just where does it lead? What is the pearl? What is the treasure?
I think this story from John Lewis gets at the answer…I’ve told portions of this story before – a story that became a memoir. It is entitled “Walking with the Wind.” In honor of the passing of this great man, leader, citizen of our nation, I will tell it all just as it is written… it’s not long, but it is revelatory…and I think it leads us into the field where the treasure is buried, into the place where the pearl of great price can be found. John Lewis wrote:
This little story has nothing to do with a national stage, or historic figures, or monumental events. It’s a simple story, a true story, about a group of young children, a wood-frame house, and windstorm.
The children were my cousins – about a dozen of them, all told – along with three siblings. And me. I was four years old at the time, too young to understand there was a war going on over in Europe and out in the Pacific as well. The grown-ups called it a world war, but I had no idea what that meant. The only world I knew was the one I stepped out into each morning, a place of thick pine forests and white cotton fields and red clay roads winding around my family’s house in our little corner of Pike County, Alabama.
We had just moved that spring onto some land my father had bought, the first land anyone in his family had ever owned – 110 acres of cotton and corn and peanut fields, along with an old but sturdy three-bedroom house, a large house for that part of the county, the biggest place for miles around. It had a well in the front yard, and pecan trees out back, and muscadine grape-vines growing wild in the woods all around us – our woods.
My father bought the property from a local white businessman who lived in the nearby town of Troy. The total payment was $300. Cash. That was every penny my father had to his name, money he had earned the way almost everyone we knew made what money they could in those days – by tenant farming. My father was a sharecropper, planting, raising, and picking the same crops that had been grown in that soil for hundreds of years by tribes like the Choctaws and the Chickasaws and the Creeks, Native Americans who were working this land long before the place was called Alabama, long before black or white men were anywhere to be seen in those parts.
Almost every neighbor we had in those woods was a share-cropper, and most of them were our relatives. Nearly every adult I knew was an aunt or an uncle, every child my first or second cousin. That included my Uncle Rabbit and Aunt Seneva and their children, who lived about a half mile or so up the road from us.
On this particular afternoon – it was a Saturday, I’m almost certain – about fifteen of us children were outside my Aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified. I had already seen what lightning could do. I’d seen fields catch on fire after a hit to a haystack. I’d watched trees actually explode when a bolt of lightning struck them, the sap inside rising to an instal boil, the trunk swelling until it burst its bark. The sight of those strips of pine bark snaking through the air like ribbons was both fascinating and horrifying.
Lightning terrified me, and so did thunder. My mother used to gather us around her whenever we heard thunder and she’d tell us to hush, be still now, because God was doing his work. That was what thunder was, my mother said. It was the sound of God doing his work.
But my mother wasn’t with us on this particular afternoon. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All of the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared.
And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it. That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.
And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
More than half a century has passed since that day – John Lewis wrote back in 1998 – and it has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.
It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams – so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.
And then another corner would lift, and we would go there.
And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand.
But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again. And we did. And we still do, all of us. You and I. Children holding hands, walking with the wind. That is America to me – not just the movement for civil rights but the endless struggle to respond with decency, dignity, and sense of brotherhood to all the challenges that face us as a nation, as a whole.
That is the story, in essence, of my life, of the path to which I’ve been committed since I turned from a boy to a man, and to which I remain committed today. It is a path that extends beyond the issue of race alone, and beyond class as well. And gender. And age. And every other distinction that tends to separate us as human beings rather than bring us together.
That path involves nothing less than the pursuit of the most precious and pure concept I have that has guided me like a beacon ever since, a concept called the Beloved Community. That concept ushered me into the heart of the most meaningful and monumental movement of this past American century. We need it to steer us all where we deserve to go in the next. So said the late, and great, John Lewis.
(“Walking with the Wind” by John Lewis; from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: a citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear; edited by Paul Rogat Loeb).