Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
A former teacher and great preacher had an interesting way of bringing emphasis or attention to a point he had just made or was about to make. He would raise his index finger and say, “You see….” He didn’t really want us to see anything. He wanted us to listen, to hear, know, comprehend or feel what he knew to be important.
When you go on a trip, a mystery is about to unfold. It doesn’t matter if you are going to visit friends or family, see the sights, go fishing, play golf or preach at a mission festival. You don’t know what all will happen until it happens. Sometimes, no matter how much we do know about something, we don’t really know it until we see it. That’s also true of knowledge.
A philosophy professor once said that the illustration of a light going on when someone gets an idea is more than just a word picture. He told a story about one of the brightest students he ever had. The student seemed to remember everything he ever read or heard. At the same time, when the student spoke about what he learned, his answers were right, but they were “right out of the book,” or “right out of the professor’s mouth.” “He was a great parrot,” said the professor, “but I wondered if he really was a great thinker.”
One day, the professor and student were sitting in an informal setting and the teacher made a comment about the particular philosophy they had been studying in class. The student replied, “I know.” The teacher went on, and again the young man said, “I know.” After about an hour of comments, followed by the same response, the teacher said something to which the student replied, “I see…” The professor said, “Aha, now we’re getting someplace!” From that time on, the student began to think for himself, to try to put together the pieces of knowledge rather than just remember them in isolation from each other. He also began to apply them to himself and to life. The professor added, “I saw him transformed from a bright philosophy student into a brilliant philosopher.”
There are many illustrations of how people often cannot see the forest for the trees. One story involved the fellow who sold his gold mine in Texas because he kept running into a black ugly sludge in every shaft he dug. He put one over on some city slicker from the east who bought the property: “Yessir, I guess that Rockefeller guy don’t know that there ain’t no gold in this part of Texas!” That story, as far as I know, is just a fabricated fable.
A true story, or so I’m told, concerns the fellow who had to give a dollar per marble to some kids in the Caribbean. He saw them playing one day and offered to buy their marbles. The kids didn’t have any others, so they weren’t anxious to end their game, but they were more than happy to take his money when the price was right. Fortunately, the man had a conscience, and a week or so later, he found them and paid them the going wholesale rate for the pearls.
Another pearl merchant is the subject of one of Jesus’ parables in this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson. He saw, with his trained eye, what others did not see — a pearl of great value. He sold everything he had in order to purchase it, knowing it was worth every bit of that and more. Similarly, in another story, a man found a treasure hidden in a field. He saw what others had not seen, so he sold all he had in order to buy that field with its hidden treasure.
Feddersen’s Fables says that a farmer in the old west purchased a farm from the widow of “Old Mike.” One day, while plowing, he hit something that twisted the plow. He soon learned that it wasn’t the first time that had happened. “Yep,” said the blacksmith, “I’ll just bet you were working the field down to the creek.” “Why, yes, I was,” said the farmer, “but how did you know?” “Well, I did all of Old Mike’s work for about the last twenty years. More than once he came in here with a twisted plow, cursing about some big ol’ hunk of iron in that field.” The farmer decided to find the thing and dig it up, rather than risk hitting it again in years to come. It turned out to be a strong box filled with gold. Old Mike had been a wealthy man but never knew it. Like a lot of people in this world, he cursed his problem, instead of digging around in it to find its treasure.
Commenting on these two parables, Martin Luther wrote: “The hidden treasure is the Gospel, which bestows on us all the riches of free grace, without any merit of our own. Hence also the joy when it is found, and which consists in a good and happy conscience that cannot be obtained by works. This Gospel is likewise the pearl of great price.” If this is so, and who am I to question the great sainted doctor, why was the treasure hidden?
The answer to that question seems to be that it wasn’t really hidden as much as people just didn’t see it. The pearl was there for anyone to see and to buy. The treasure was found with no apparent effort. The two finders recognized what others had already overlooked. It should come as no surprise to us that Jesus’ parables are very accurate! The Gospel is an invaluable treasure hidden right out in the open. For a couple of weeks I have emphasized our need for listening to the Word. With other parables, Jesus said that we should open our ears. This week He says open your eyes. All the while, I suppose, the real problem is stopped-up hearts which no cardiovascular surgeon in the world can bypass.
I have said it before, and I am not the least embarrassed to say it again; sometimes we approach the parables with too much sophistication. We ask a bunch of questions about the peripheral details and fail to see the point of the story. Here are a few of the ones I remember over the years concerning these two tales: What if someone had planted that treasure as a joke, and then dug it up before the poor fool bought the property? Maybe the guy that owned the field did it as a “sting” to get top dollar or better for his property? If the pearl merchant sold everything in order to be able to buy the pearl, wouldn’t he just have to turn around and sell it again at the same going rate in order to have food and a place to live?
You see (lovely phrase, isn’t it), “Gospel” isn’t one more word to put into our dictionaries. Its meaning is not one more idea to add to our minds or our encyclopedias. It is not one more item to be placed on the religious buffet table. The pearl merchant wasn’t adding a dandy to his collection. The Good News of God in Christ is not an additional piece of religious information or another spiritual philosophy to be added to or, worse yet, compared to the others we’ve picked up over the years. It is a drop-everything-at-all-cost, proposition. I’m afraid that we sometimes dabble in the peripherals because they are peripheral. They offer us no challenge, ask for no commitment, and cost us nothing.
Are the Word and Sacrament just one of the many things you can “do” on Sunday morning? “This Sunday, let’s do lunch, next week we’ll do the car wash, next week we’ll do the garden, then we’ll do the windows, then we’ll do church, then we’ll do…” Too many people treat the church like a museum. On occasion, they go and visit, look around at the ancient artifacts, listen to the ancient stories, and then they leave and forget all about it. There are some things we can’t forget about. A fellow in Alaska got tired of walking from the field where he landed his airplane to his house, which was nestled in the hills beside a lake. He had the plane outfitted with pontoons, so that he could land right on the water. One day, he and his wife were busy talking and he absent- mindedly started to land in the field. His wife screamed, “What are you doing?” The warning came just in time, and he throttled back up into the air. With hands still shaking, he set the plane down on the water and said, “I can’t imagine where my head was.” Apparently, it was still there, because with that he opened the door and stepped right into the water.
The Good News is that God knows what we need — whether we do or not — and He does something about it. The big deal in America today seems to be “finding yourself.” Did you hear about the guy who spent 40 years trying to find himself? His suicide note read: “I finally found myself, and didn’t like what I found.” He didn’t find the treasure, and it was right there in front of his eyes. The Good News tells us that God knows us and doesn’t like what He knows, but He loves us so much that He is willing to die to help us.
The message of God’s love in Christ cannot be separated from the cross. It is at a great price that God’s grace comes to us. God forgives, renews and refreshes us in the power of the Spirit, so that everything in life is different. You can’t fit Christ into your old values and ideas. You can do like the Pharisees and try to kill Him off to keep Him out of your misery, but you can’t let Him just part way in. He won’t fit; something will have to go. In the long run, if your eyes are open and you see, everything else will go. Nothing will be the same, and you’ll never want it to be.