(Psalm 78: 1-4; Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52)
It is June – the end of June, to be exact, which means that we are wrapping up yet another wedding season. I’ve learned over the years: May and June, September and October – that’s the prime wedding season. Sure, there are a few outliers here and there, but the bulk of vows and rings, wedding cakes, tossed bouquets and really bad wedding singers tend to take place in those four months.
I like officiating weddings. Now I imagine if I were pastor of some huge church with weddings every weekend, or pastor of a church in a favorite vacation spot where everybody clamors to, I might feel differently. But I enjoy getting to know two people and the forces of the universe that brought them together. And especially how he – or sometimes she – pops the question.
So I’ve heard a lot of engagement stories in my time, and they’re all special and wonderful. But there is one I heard years ago that absolutely ranks right up there in the pantheon of engagement stories. To put it in not-so theological terms, it will blow your mind. So prepare yourself.
The story begins with Brian, we’ll call him, a high school friend who’d been dating Heather for a couple of years. It was near the end of the summer and Brian decided it was time to take the plunge. He knew he wanted to propose at the beach, which is where they first met. But, like any good guy, he wanted to make it meaningful, something they’d always remember for the rest of their married lives.
So Brian came up with a plan. A brilliant plan. He got an oyster shell from a nearby inlet, cleaned it out, put the ring inside, and sealed it shut with a light poxy around the edges. That night, with oyster shell in pocket, Brian and his soon-to-be fiancee go out for a romantic dinner and take a walk on the beach, the dry sands. It is a glorious June evening. It is perfect. Right before they get to a good turning around point, he inconspicuously drops the sealed oyster shell in the sand. They take a few more steps and then turn around.
When they come upon the oyster shell, Brian feigns surprise and picks it up. Look at this, he says as he holds it up to her. That’s kind of strange – you don’t find oyster shells here; they’re over there in the inlet. This must be a very special shell! He shakes the shell gently and it makes an expected rattling sound. And he says, Oh, there’s something inside here too! He hands the shell to Heather, and she looks at it curiously, turns it around in her hand. Brian expects her to open it up and find the ring– that is, after all, the plan. Instead, without warning, Heather shrugs and, with the arm of a major league pitcher, promptly launches the shell into the ocean.
You see the predicament, right?
Without even thinking, Brian would later tell me, he sprints to the water and throws himself head-first into the surf of the Atlantic Ocean – fully clothed. He begins diving up and down in the water, searching desperately for a shell that was far more valuable than his girlfriend realized. Heather, still up on the beach, watches this in stunned silence, wondering what in the world the love of her life is doing. And somehow, in a true miracle, Brian emerges from the water with the oyster shell in hand. Exhausted, he walks up the beach to a most perplexed Heather and, soaking wet, get down on one knee and opens the shell himself. And following what must have been a moment of realization filled with both joy and horror, Heather holds out her left hand and says yes. They still have the ring. And I believe they still have the oyster shell too.
Ever since Brian told me that story some fifteen years ago, I always find myself thinking about that shell and ring when I hear those words Jesus spoke: 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. Or maybe it was, he searched furiously in the ocean when his girlfriend threw it in there, but probably not.
But that’s the kind of thing you do, right? When you find something of “great value?” When you have this incredible symbol of life-long love and devotion, you don’t just say, “Oh well, we’ll get another one.” You run in the ocean – fully clothed, it doesn’t matter – and you don’t stop searching until you find it. And likewise, when you’re looking for the “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus talks about, you don’t end the search before it begins. You sell all you have and search tirelessly until this wonderful “pearl” is in your possession.
This story about the merchant searching for a great pearl is part of a group of shorter parables that Jesus shares with a crowd of people, and then with his disciples. It may seem odd to even call these “parables” – we’re used to the longer stories, like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, with characters and plots and subplots and all that. But parables can be short images, little vignettes, just enough to get a point across.
One imagines that Jesus would tell these parables – long or short – and then sort of sit back and let the story work on people a bit. It wasn’t like Jesus’ parables needed an explanation – that was the whole point. He’d let it work on people from the inside out. Not relaying information, but instigating transformation. That’s what parables are designed to do.
So we find in this chapter a string of short parables about a variety of things that, at first, glance, don’t appear to have much in common. A random assortment of things: a mustard seed. Yeast. A treasure. A pearl. A fishing net. What’s the connection, we wonder?
I remember years ago, posing that very question to a group of middle schoolers. They were silent at first, until one finally piped up: You know, all these things are hidden things, things we don’t see, things we don’t recognize. And then something happens and suddenly, we see them. They’re made known to us. And that got this great conversation started. Mustard seeds are tiny, but the plant that comes from them grow like wildfire. Without yeast, bread is flat and lifeless; with yeast it grows into a large full loaf. The point of hidden treasures is to find them, the point of nets is to bring fish to the surface. And the oyster shell contains something of great value but it’s got to be opened – and not tossed into the ocean, as Brian would attest to – in order for that value to be known.
Hidden things revealed. That’s the essence of Jesus’ parables, isn’t it? They show us things we don’t readily see, especially when our lives are chugging along at full speed. These parables encourage us to read between the lines and pay attention to the subtleties of a God who does some of God’s greatest work not just through burning bushes or parted waters, but even and especially through a barren woman, a shepherd boy, a farmer prophet, a Pharisaic Jew, a carpenter from Nazareth. In other words, where you’d least expect it.
So what is it exactly that Jesus is revealing here? What is this thing of great value that takes a cadre of short parables to unpack? At the beginning of each vignette, Jesus begins with the phrase: the kingdom of heaven is like… The kingdom of heaven. You know, it’s interesting, because when we hear that phrase, we’re inclined to think of heaven itself – the afterlife, the place we go when we die, that sort of thing. Which makes sense, of course, since none of us have seen heaven, since it’s still hidden from us, since it’s something that’ll be revealed at some later time.
Except that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. Because when Jesus says “kingdom of heaven,” the people there listening to him would’ve known: it’s not heaven he’s talking about, it’s this life here and now. God’s kingdom of heaven on earth. What is it we say in our Lord’s Prayer – Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Where God’s plan, God’s way, God’s dream becomes a living, breathing reality here. And not just the “chosen” or for a select few, but for all people. Everyone. And in a wonderful sort of way, this “kingdom” is not only coming soon, not only in our very near future. It’s already here! It is with us every day of our lives. We just can’t see it most of the time. But it is still here.
Do you see what this means to us? Do you see what it means that we are surrounded by God’s kingdom of heaven, living and breathing and acting in it? We walk through the course of our day and rarely have a clue. We go to school, take our calculus test – and we’re in God’s kingdom. We go to work, type words in a computer, cross things off the “to-do” list – and we’re in God’s kingdom. We run our errands, pick up milk at the grocery store, feed the dogs, take the kids to swim practice – and all the while we are full-fledged residents of a kingdom that very few people, including ourselves, truly take time to see.
Why is that, do you think? Is it because we’re distracted? Is it because we look around us in our cities, in our country, in our world, and what we see looks to us to be the furthest thing from the kingdom of heaven? I mean, in a very real sense we’re like Heather on that beach, are we not? We’ve been handed this most amazing gift, a treasure of great value hidden in a rather ordinary encasing. We hold it in our hands for a second or two, surveying it with an undiscerning eye. And then we make the snap decision that it just isn’t worth that much. So we chuck it into the ocean. And without realizing it, we throw away God’s most precious gift : the gift of time, talent and treasure. The gift of the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. The gift of it all. The gift that is the hardest gift to see.
Which is why I totally understand where Heather’s coming from here. I mean, we’re all Heathers in a way, don’t you think? How many gems of life, kingdom of heaven instances on earth, do we fail to see, fail to act on, fail to grab hold of?
Perhaps as many as the crowd of people Jesus found himself speaking to in our scripture today. Which is why, I figure, he said what he said in the 13th chapter of Matthew. To remind Jesus’ followers, to remind us, that the kingdom of heaven is here. Really here! And it may not be flashy or attractive or obvious to us, which is precisely the point. God’s kingdom is not about the big, the powerful, the strong. It’s about the subtleness of things like love and faith and grace and hope. It’s where a tiny mustard seed can become an enormous vine; where a single pearl becomes the sole focus of the one searching for it; where a simple twine is fashioned into the tool by which the catch of the day is secured.
It’s just hard to see it, isn’t it? We have to be on the lookout; we have to view the world through “Jesus eyes” so we can see God’s kingdom where others do not. Which is why I’m grafeful for people like Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador. Romero was one who persisted in telling people about the kingdom of heaven he saw, even though it upset those in power and eventually cost him his life. In a land fraught with corrupt politics and senseless killing, this is what he said he saw:
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work and God’s kingdom.
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and yet this enables us to do something.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
We are surrounded, embraced, embellished in God’s kingdom of heaven on earth. May we see it and recognize it, and act on it. Always in love, always in service, always to help others join with us in the seeing. Let’s open the oyster shell together, shall we? Let’s reveal God’s goodness to all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.
 from The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything by Brian McLaren (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 205-206.