Through the gift of the Holy Spirit
God’s love is poured into our hearts.
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world
through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son.
Help us to hear your word and obey it,
that we may become instruments of your saving love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
*CONFESSION AND PARDON
In the name of Christ, I urge you: be reconciled to God.
For our anger at our own frustration
and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
have mercy on us, O God.
For our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts,
and our dishonesty in daily life and work, have mercy on us, O God.
For our negligence in prayer and worship,
and our failure to commend the faith that is in us, have mercy on us, O God.
This is the proof of God’s great love: that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! Thanks be to God!
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Gracious God, our way in the wilderness, guide us, by your Word, through these forty days, and minister to us with your Holy Spirit, so that we may reformed, restored, and renewed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS Matthew 13:45-46, NCV
the kingdom of heaven is like a man looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found a very valuable pearl, he went and sold everything he had and bought it.
As last week, Levine connects today’s parable to the teaching in the following story.
Matthew 19:16-30, NCV
16 A man came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have life forever?”
17 Jesus answered, “Why do you ask me about what is good? Only God is good. But if you want to have life forever, obey the commands.”
18 The man asked, “Which commands?”
Jesus answered, “‘You must not murder anyone; you must not be guilty of adultery; you must not steal; you must not tell lies about your neighbor; 19 honor your father and mother; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.’”
20 The young man said, “I have obeyed all these things. What else do I need to do?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, then go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. If you do this, you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
22 But when the young man heard this, he left sorrowfully, because he was rich.
23 Then Jesus said to his followers, “I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Yes, I tell you that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When Jesus’ followers heard this, they were very surprised and asked, “Then who can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “For people this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
27 Peter said to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. So, what will we have?”
28 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, when the age to come has arrived, the Son of Man will sit on his great throne. All of you who followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And all those who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms to follow me will get much more than they left, and they will have life forever. 30 Many who are first now will be last in the future. And many who are last now will be first in the future.
SERMON A Pricey Pearl
The more I read, the more I struggled with this parable. But that seems to be the case with many things this week. The more we read the news of COVID-19, the more we struggle as well. By Friday evening, I couldn’t help relating the two.
First, the parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Many of Jesus’ parables begin in this or a similar fashion. A traditional interpretation of this parable would focus on the pearl. There is still value in asking ourselves, what would be as precious to us as that pearl became to the man in the story. But if we look at the way the brief simile is worded, the subject is the man. Actually there is a double naming of the subject that most English translations ignore, but is clearly present in the original Greek. “The kingdom of heaven is like a man (anthropos), a merchant (emporos).” (Matthew 13:45) But what about the man is significant? As the verse continues, he is actively seeking or searching for fine pearls.
In the second verse, there is a surprising twist to the story. Instead of fine pearls with resale value, he finds one exquisite pearl of the highest value and he gives up everything to obtain it. Don’t overlook, as I have in the past, what this means. He sold everything – not only his inventory of merchandise, but his own belongings and property. He is no longer a merchant, then, because he has nothing to sell. He doesn’t even have a home now. All he has is this one pearl. Levine quotes R. T. France, the man “is apparently impoverishing himself to acquire something extremely valuable which he could admire and display but could not live off unless he sold it again.” (quoted on pp. 150-151)
Another aspect I did not realize previously is that a merchant was not necessarily approved in first century Israel. The Greek emporos is behind the English work Emporium. Now I think of that as a fantastical place where items of quality or mystery could be purchased. Amy-Jill Levine writes, “The Greek term has the connotation of a wholesaler, and perhaps one who markets through agents items consumers do not need at prices they cannot afford.” (Levine, Short Stories By Jesus, p. 142) This and related words have a negative use in the New Testament, and the same is true when it is used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament; think clearing merchants out of the Temple or selling Joseph into slavery. Merchants (emporos) are involved in these stories.
So, now we come to this question again. What is the parable telling us exactly that the kingdom of heaven is like? Is it like the man who is a merchant? Is it like the pearl he purchased? Is it like his active seeking and searching for something fine as part of his daily business? Or is it like the surprising twist that prompts him to give up everything else to obtain it? What do each of these things represent to you?
I wrestled with my own response to these questions. In my marginal notes I wrote, “So the kingdom is like we humans seeking good things in life, but when we find the one thing that holds ultimate value beyond our worldly expectations, we would give up everything to have it.” That was Thursday, March 12, 2020. I think at that point for each of us, and even now, there could be multiple responses to what has ultimate value for us personally, as families, as communities, in businesses, in faith communities, in education, in governments, etc. Only you can answer what has ultimate value for you in your life at any given time.
That was Thursday morning, but also that morning and throughout that day and Friday, I became increasingly aware that values around the world were rapidly shifting as COVID-19 (Novel coronavirus) demands our attention and response. I was aware of how it was affecting other nations and other states, but it didn’t feel close to home yet here in Midwest USA until I realized things were closing down that had never closed, canceled or delayed in my lifetime. Today is Saturday, March 14, and I spent the morning facilitating a Session meeting by email that voted to close the church for two weeks to protect the vulnerable members of our church family and make our contribution toward slowing the spread of this or any other virus right now. I’ve been making contacts and announcements to communicate that decision.
As more and more of the world responds to this pandemic, I couldn’t help but notice that globally many are placing health as a top priority. We are giving up many things from concerts to public worship, from attending school to going to the office, all to fight this virus. I’m aware of celebrities donating money, landlords reducing rent, and companies offering assistance such as two months free internet or aid if you can’t pay utilities because of income loss. There is already much loss, and there will be more. The strict measures we take are not only for ourselves but for our “neighbors” at home and around the world. The encouragement and help we can offer are surely needed. We are in this fight together, and we must care for one another.
This takes us back to our second gospel story, The Rich Young Ruler. In seeking eternal life, this young man has already done his best to live according to God’s laws. Yet Jesus encouraged him to find ultimate value taking it further, to give everything he had to help others in need. Sadly, he walked away, not ready to change, not ready to share, not ready to surrender present valuables to meet broader needs and ultimate value.
With that in mind, the parable challenges us to continually evaluate our priorities. What is most important for myself and the well being of others may not be what I held dear yesterday. Life often has surprising twists and turns. COVID-19 is such a twist challenging us in 2020. Some of you have lived through other twists of varying magnitude – the Great Depression, World War 2, the polio epidemic, and many more on personal, national, or global scales. In the midst of such we must be willing to learn, to share, to change. We must care for one another and, as I said, continually evaluate our priorities in a shifting environment.
Priorities can be identified by what is often on your mind, how you spend your time, your money, your efforts. This time at home may be an opportunity for you to reflect on your priorities, past and present. Levine writes, “Jesus, the historical Jesus, cared about prioritizing. … We are forced to act. We are forced to determine what we must do to prepare for this new reality. … [She suggests] Once we know that material goods will only collect rust or dust, and once we know that the only thing that counts is treasure in heaven, surely we must find a new way to live.” (p. 164) These are things to consider with each new challenge as well as ultimately regarding life in God’s kingdom which is both present and future.
I like the following questions she goes on to ask. “What do we keep and what do we divest? How would we live if we knew ultimate judgement was coming on Tuesday? What are our neighbor’s ultimate concerns and what are ours?” (p. 164) I invite you take up the challenge of this parable and current world events by asking yourselves these questions in the days to come.
As we move forward, and we will move forward, let us continue to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength by caring for ourselves and for creation. Let us worship through devotionals, online worship, journals, music, etc. Let us continue to read our Bibles and ponder the message. Let us pray continually! May we also continue to love our neighbor as ourselves, not only through our prayers, but by reaching out with a phone call, a text message, email or card. Let’s encourage one another, cheer one another, and keep each other going. Is there someone you should check on – a neighbor, a family member, or friend – who might need help with food or supplies or in some other way?
Perhaps in response to the current needs we can make this verse one of our priorities. 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already.”
*AFFIRMATION Apostle’s Creed, Ecumenical Version
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
PRAYERS FOR THE WORLD
Gracious God, in the midst of anxious times, we seek your peace as we put our trust in you.
We seek your healing touch for a world overcome by disease, not only COVID-19 but all else that ails us.
We seek your calm as we do our best to care for our neighbor and for ourselves.
We seek your strength for those in the medical profession and others working hard to meet the needs of many.
We seek your wisdom for those making decisions to close or stay open from business & houses of worship to borders.
We seek your guidance for those searching diligently for a cure.
We seek your discernment for those teaching us measures to prevent the spread of disease
and understanding for those resisting those measures.
We ask that other concerns not be overlooked, but all to be put in whatever perspective is most appropriate for now.
We pray that those who cannot work will be sustained financially,
that children home from closed schools will be okay,
and that those most at risk will be protected.
PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
God of all mercies, we give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all living things. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your boundless love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. Amen.
CHARGE & BLESSING
May the Spirit of the triune God strengthen and sustain you,
all throughout these forty days of Lent and into the life that is to come. Amen.
**Some of the prayers come from The Book of Common Worship.
For the Sundays in Lent, our messages will focus on Jesus' parables using primarily a resource from Amy Jill Levine Short Stories by Jesus. Toward the end of each service we turn to the cross, extinguish one candle, hear a reading about the disciples and sing a hymn of the cross.