Well, vacation is over and the work of the parish beckons. I was in the office at the latter part of last week, and most of that time was given over to catching up with leadership on the state of the parish. The good news is that people are happy to see us return, and at this point the church is stable and we are starting to look with hope to the new program year. As I sit here in a quiet office-the administrator is out on her well earned vacation break, herself-I find myself musing on the nature and reality of parish work and the unique sort of call and response clergy and lay leadership alike need to see manifest in order for the life of the Church to be both fulfilling and effective in the world.
Getting back to the pulpit after a two-week break reminds me how precious a gift it is to have the honor to preach the interpretation of God's Word to the people of God. The other gift is the opportunity to serve the people who come to the church seeking assistance and support from the assembly. Sometimes that is successful, when I know the answer to the question (or the person to refer the guest to in order to obtain help). Sometimes that is a frustration, when I don't know the answer or can't make an effective referral. Always, it is humbling.
So, back to the title of the post, and today's reflection: the pearl of great price. From this coming Sunday's readings, we are in the midst of a teaching spurt that Jesus is offering up to his disciples and the crowds that cluster around him in the middle chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Particularly, there are a series of similitudes that Jesus offers up with regard to the nature of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is like a sower who goes out to sow. It is like a sower's field that is planted with both good seed and bad. It is like a mustard seed, like yeast used in small measure to raise a large volume of flour, like the above-mentioned pearl of great price. It is like a treasure discovered buried in a field. It is like a large yield of fish in a net, needing to be sorted-even as we will be sorted at the end of the age.
The kingdom of God is like many things...and yet even if we could, with a poet's heart, absorb all those images and hold them simultaneously in our imagination we would fail to compass the impending reality of God's kingdom breaking in, through and around us. Jesus is trying hard to illustrate his knowledge of what God intends for and through us, the Church; and yet even he is reduced to struggling ways to articulate reality by pointing to it with metaphors. For one who speaks metaphorically a bit too often, I can tell you that though it might work poetically, it fails in the end to accurately and cogently describe reality (even the inbreaking reality of the kingdom of God).
Try it yourself. Tell me what "red" is.
Now, tell me what joy is....or sadness.
Both perception, and state of being, are impossible to communicate other than us saying to one another what they are "like."
So, in the end, even Jesus relates truth through similes, metaphors and in wide parabolic arcs of poetic imagery. You know, perhaps that is the only way to get people to a place of not only understanding the idea of salvation in God's love for us... By alluding to some common experience, by pointing to something that we can touch, smell, feel or in some other way experience, we can take a foretaste of what that anticipated reality will actually feel like.
This brings me back to that pearl of great price. Mind you, I have never been a collector...but I do remember having a serious one as a member of one of my congregations in years past. He was someone who had a great many things, collections of miniatures, fine silks, furniture. Chief among his passions was a love of historic pewter vessels, particularly 16th and 17th century pieces. For decades, he collected, sought out and attempted to collect and retain these objects...and even within that passion were particular loves. One of those was sacred vessels. Ewers, patens, chalices and goblets, pitchers and baptismal bowls....when one rare one came on the market his ears, eyes and spirit would perk up, and he would be on the hunt.
I got to know him at the end of his life. He had developed a terminal disease and I would visit him often while he was in hospice care. One day, when I arrived to bring him communion, I found him in an animated conversation with an agent/friend of his. It seemed that a particular pewter ewer, one made by a well-respected smith in the early 17th century in what would one day be Greenwich Village, was being put up for sale. It had been owned by a family for decades...and it was a piece that was at the same time both incredibly expensive...and incredibly rare. Only two of that ilk were known to exist, one private and the other owned by a museum in the Midwest.
My parishioner was dying. He knew it, and he knew his time on earth and in this life was drawing to a close...and yet, that one piece he had been waiting for his whole life was available. He could have it. It could be his, if only in name before it became part of his estate. Why buy some thing, when you wouldn't be needing things much longer?
I learned from him that it wasn't the object so much as the search. It wasn't the possession of something to the exclusion of other's access to it, but the opportunity to keep something precious from being lost. It was the opportunity to seek, to find, to have and then to bequeath.
He really did brighten up when the sale was pending...while the object was brought to him...when it joined his collection. And yet, he was the first to acknowledge that having something wasn't really ever truly possessing it. He was just borrowing it for a time from time itself.
As the weeks unfolded, I prayed with him as he set his affairs in order. Nieces received his collection of silks. Nephews portions of his many collections. Finally his estate, at his passing, went to his nephew, a museum curator.
Private of public, those pearls of great price are worth riding out in quest for...not in the having, but in the seeking...and then realizing that all other material wealth is merely the resource needed to first obtain that piece, and then find ourselves at the end of days needing to continue to pass it on along to the next seeker.
You can seek the pearl, even give up all you have to purchase it....but it can never truly be possessed. I stand in awe of that collector and the lesson he taught me about material possessing....and I struggle to keep learning how to seek, to find, and then to share those treasures like that pearl of great price.
Sometimes, I have ears that do listen......