Finders Keepers
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By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 19, 2003


Readings

Psalm 119:65-72
The law of the Lord is more precious than gold

You have dealt well with your servant,
     O Lord, according to your word.
Teach me good judgment and knowledge,
     For I believe in your commandments.
Before I was humbled I went astray,
     But now I keep your word.
You are good and do good;
     Teach me your statutes.

The arrogant smear me with lies,
     But with my whole heart I keep your precepts.
Their hearts are callous and unfeeling,
     But I delight in your law.
It is good for me that I was humbled,
     So that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
     Than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

Matthew 13:44-46
The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When someone found it, he hid it again. Then in his joy he went and sold all he had and bought that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one pearl of great value, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.

Heaven and Hell #365 Rich and poor in heaven

Rich people go to heaven just as much as poor people do, one as easily as the other. The reason people believe that it is easy for the poor and hard for the rich is that the Bible is misunderstood when it talks about the rich and the poor. In the spiritual meaning of the Bible, "the rich" means people who have a very full understanding of what is true and good--that is, people in the church, where the Bible is. "The poor" means people who lack this understanding, but who long for it--or people outside the church, where the Bible is not found.

Sermon

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When someone found it, he hid it again. Then in his joy he went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one pearl of great value, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-46)

In the past two weeks, as we have explored the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast, we encountered the surprising teaching that evil can actually accomplish some good in us. More specifically, we looked at how the motives of self-preservation and gaining happiness for ourselves can drive us forward toward a state of greater spiritual goodness, in which we are less concerned with making ourselves happy, and more concerned with giving happiness to others. But we also considered the fact that this change in us doesn't happen without struggles, trials, and temptations--pictured by the clashing of chemical reactions in the fermentation of bread, as it rises under the influence of the yeast.

Today, with the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great value, we move on from those times of spiritual struggle to the great joy of spiritual discovery that awaits us on the other side. And yet, these discoveries also cause us to go through great changes, giving up many things we have held dear. And that can be a challenge in itself!

As we move from the struggles of the parable of the yeast, we find that at the start of the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, we are still laboring. Yes, I know, the verse doesn't actually say that. But the Greek word used for "field" is a word that means a cultivated field--in other words, a farm. And who would be out digging around in a field, who is not the owner of the field? It is fairly clear that the person who found the treasure was a hired agricultural laborer, out working the fields. And this means it was a poor person. Who but poor people would be out tilling fields they don't own?

This is the same state we are in when we have just gone through the great spiritual struggles symbolized by yeast, fermentation, and the rising and baking of the bread. We have cleared away some of the most obvious selfish desires and wrong thoughts, and have turned our lives away from living purely for our own pleasure and gain. The satisfaction this gives us, like bread, is nourishing to our souls.

Still, we find that when we have turned away from our old motives of pleasure and gain for ourselves, there is often a certain emptiness inside. Yes, we feel cleaner in our soul than we ever have before. But like a house that has been cleared of all its old, broken down furnishings and swept clean, the rooms and hallways are empty, and in need of new furniture and new life. We feel a poverty of having turned our lives around, but having no idea what to do next. In our old life, we knew what we wanted, and how to get it. But this business of living spiritually is all new to us. So we labor at it, like that hired hand out in the field, digging and scratching for our spiritual "living," wondering what it's really all about.

It is as if we had spent years in prison, after more years of living a life of crime, and during our time behind bars had decided to go straight and make an honest living once we got out. This decision would have come through hard experience on our part. But as good as we would feel about ourselves in our new commitment to straightening up our act, it would still leave us with a problem. We have never made an honest living before! So we no experience to tell us how to go about it. From having seen a great deal of easy money going through our hands, we find ourselves at the bottom of the employment ladder, doing hard work for meager wages, and sorely tempted to go back to our life of crime.

This is how the beginning of our new and hard-won spiritual life can feel. It is like that laborer out in the fields, toiling away in the dirt and sweat. Yet perhaps through frugal living we have metaphorically managed to acquire a few things for ourselves: a very modest house, some furniture, kitchen utensils, and a few of the pleasures of life. Even the early beginning of spiritual life has its rewards: a new sense of self-respect; a new feeling of satisfaction in life; friendships based, not on what advantage each can get out of the other, but on genuine thoughtfulness for one another. Being a laborer has its own rewards, even if they are fairly modest.

It is precisely when we are engaged in this labor of spiritual growth that we come across a treasure we had never expected or dreamed of before. You see, when we have spent all our lives engaged mostly in taking care of our own wants and needs, without much thought of a higher purpose in life, we don't have much idea of what spiritual life is all about, nor any conception of how rich and deep its rewards can be. We think that without the old physical and material pleasures that we have gone after all along, our life would be a real drudge. We think we will be laboring away forever, toiling in that field, and never getting anything like the pleasures and thrills that used to keep us going. Swedenborg expresses it this way:

When selfishness and materialism are our reasons for doing things, we cannot possibly be kind people. We do not even know what kindness is. We have no concept at all that wanting and doing good things for other people--and not just to get something out of it--is heaven in us. We cannot comprehend that there could be as much happiness in the desire to do good things as the angels in heaven have--and the happiness of the angels cannot even be described! We think that if the enjoyment from the prestige of status and wealth were taken away from us, there would be nothing left to enjoy. Actually, that is where heavenly enjoyment first begins--and it is infinitely greater. (The Heavenly City #105)

If we are sincere and hard-working in our new life of honesty, integrity, and actively loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, we will, indeed, discover a hidden treasure that we had known nothing about. Right there in the fields of our new commitment to a religious way of life, the shovel of our seeking mind will strike upon something solid hidden in the deeper levels of our mind--something that will bring us great joy.

The field we are laboring in is the field of spiritual goodness in our hearts, minds, and lives, which is the true church of the Lord. We have made a commitment to live as Christians, according to the teachings of the Lord given to us in the Bible. And we labor in our minds and hearts to figure out just what the Lord would have us do in each of the situations we face. We work the fields of religious life, planting the seeds of truth that the Lord has given us, and cultivating those fields so that we may bring forth crops of goodness and love.

There in our labor we discover that completely unknown to us, the Lord has hidden far deeper knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. We thought that the spiritual life would be hard work . . . and for quite a long time, it is! What we didn't expect was that a whole new level of our mind and heart would be opened up, containing greater treasure than we ever imagined.

What is this treasure hidden in the field? One way to look at it is to consider that as we do our work in the spiritual fields of life, what is guiding us is the Lord's Word. For Christians, that Word of the Lord is contained especially in the Bible. And when we become Christians, we are eager to know what the Bible teaches about how to live in God's way.

Yet when we first encounter the Bible, it may look like a fairly dry document full of a lot of rather rough history and primitive rituals, and as a stern document full of many "Thou shalt nots." When we first start out, the Bible is a book that tells us that we can't do all the things that we always used to do and enjoy! Or at least, that's how it feels to us.

But as the kingdom of heaven is opened to us, we discover that this is only the external crust of the Bible. Within those outer stories and stern laws lies the treasure of the spiritual meaning, which is all about the infinite love and wisdom of God, and how we can bring our lives into harmony and relationship with that love and wisdom. Especially today, now that we are living in a new Christian era, the treasure for us is the great discovery that within all the history, law, poetry, prophecy, and parable there are deeper and deeper levels that open up to us the kingdom of heaven, and our own souls along with them. The treasure hidden in the field is the deeper truth and wisdom we gain as we persist in living from spiritual motives and principles. This is expressed well in the book of Proverbs:

My child, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:1-6)

You see, the treasure spoken of in the Bible has nothing to do with earthly treasure--with becoming materially wealthy. As Swedenborg explained in our reading from Heaven and Hell, when the Bible speaks of rich people, it is really talking about people who have gained a wealth of knowledge and understanding of what is true and good. Wisdom is the true wealth that is most worthy of our seeking and finding. If we become wealthy in money and material goods, we will leave it all behind when we die. But if we become wealthy in understanding of the ways of God and spirit, and use that wealth well, it will remain with us to all eternity.

If we are truly seeking this kind of treasure, we can find it here in the church, and in our own reading of the Bible and of spiritual literature. We can also find it as we take what we learn and put it to use in our lives. Because the truth does not become ours until we have made it a part of our lives. In the language of the parable, we must buy the field in which the treasure is hidden in order for it to become our own.

As the parable says, in order to do that, we must "sell everything we have." This does not mean giving up all our worldly possessions, as many have believed from a literal and materialistic reading of the Scriptures. Rather, it means that we must give over to the Lord, who is the owner of the fields in which we labor, all of our previous misconceptions and misguided desires. Before we turn our lives over to the Lord, "everything we have" is the self-centered and materialistic desires that have been our primary motivation, and all the false and deceptive ways of thinking that we have used to justify those desires. We cannot gain the field of spirituality in which we have found the treasures of deeper wisdom until we "sell off" all those old desires and attitudes. Then we will have the spiritual "capital" to buy the field, and make those spiritual treasures our own.

And notice that in the very next verse, we have become, not a laborer, but a merchant in search of fine pearls. With our newfound treasures of understanding and wisdom, we have set ourselves up as a comfortably well-off merchant trading, not in material goods, but in the knowledge of God's ways. Like a trader buying and selling merchandise, we seek spiritual wealth not merely for our own use, but to pass it on to others, while having our own spirit and life enriched in the process.

Though we have already hit upon the treasure of deeper wisdom and understanding of the ways and the joys of spiritual living, we still have a greater treasure to discover. We are in search of fine pearls--beautiful gem-like spheres of insight built up through applying spiritual principles to all the gritty realities of life.

As we search for that spiritual beauty, we find the greatest beauty of all. The one pearl of great value--the greatest treasure in the Christian religion--is the knowledge and experience of the Lord God Jesus Christ as our master and our friend. When we have found the Lord Jesus in our hearts and lives, we will once again be ready to sell everything we have, and inwardly buy that precious pearl, which will supply all of our spiritual needs forever. Amen.

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Music: Dusk and Dawn on Skye
1999 Bruce DeBoer


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