Sermons from St Faith's

The Pearl of Great Price

FrNeil Kelley, July 24th, 2011

Ten million people across the region, in particular Kenya and Ethiopia, are facing severe food shortages.  For some time now the combined effect of drought, irregular harvests and high food prices has been causing hunger and forcing families to migrate in search of food – and the situation is continuing to escalate across the region

So says recent publicity from Christian Aid enlisting the help of churches and religious groups in their current appeal. The response from those of us who live comfortably, to a particular crisis in the world facing those who live uncomfortably, is always mixed. A recent headline in the Daily Telegraph claimed that, regarding the East Africa drought, that Africa must do more to help itself.

Some claim that charity begins at home and there may be some here who think that if there is spare money it should go on reducing our parish debt rather than sent elsewhere.

We can’t begin to take the Gospel of Jesus seriously unless we are prepared to face the cost of discipleship. Some of the stories of Jesus tell us exactly how much his wisdom is worth and what it costs, what it costs us. Jesus tells (in today’s Gospel) of a merchant looking for fine pearls. The meaning of the pearl might have been obvious even to Jesus' disciples, who often got things wrong. This parable is about the discovery of the most precious wisdom of all, the wisdom of Jesus that leads us to God; or, perhaps, the way of life which leads us to eternal happiness.
Now the merchant's reaction might not be at all what a real merchant would have done: selling everything he owned to obtain this one pearl. Would a sound business plan suggest that behaviour? Does it make sense financially? That seems a little ridiculous, but it's the ridiculous detail in Jesus' story that drives the point home: Christ's wisdom is beyond the price of pearls and it is worth more than everything you have. The merchant may seem foolish - but the wisdom of God does appear foolish in the eyes of the world, and it demands the greatest commitment - everything we have once and for all for our whole lives.
But can we be comfortable with that? Such a commitment of a whole life now – of an unknown future, leaving nothing back - complete self-giving - is that even possible for us? A lot of life today is short-term, not long-term, or at least that's how we have come to find our world. We know that commitments in general no longer seem to be the lifelong commitments they once were – people make a commitment but then move on for one reason or another to something else. That applies to jobs, to relationships, to voluntary work and even, sadly, to church membership. Commitments are not for the faint-hearted. We can easily give up when a more comfortable way of life beckons. This attitude affects the way we see the whole of life and indeed the life of faith suffers too from this approach. The apathy so present in the church today puts a great big smile on the devil’s face!

But broader than the church, our lives simply no longer seem to have the unity and stability they perhaps once had. Even when economic times were better than they are today, just envisioning one career for the whole of working life had become more difficult for young people. People seem less able to grasp their whole lives ahead of them as having a kind of unity, as being a single continuing story of a single life. Their perceptions can also sometimes be shaped by an idea of the endless possibilities of continually reinventing yourself.

At the bottom of much of this lies the modern obsession with choice, the idea that choice somehow guarantees freedom and quality of life. But while career changes and new directions are often liberating, to make having choices so central to our idea of the good life is surely a mixed blessing. Along with making freedom of choice so central, there often goes unease about commitment, because if you make a commitment you limit your options. Making a committed choice seems to lessen your freedom, and sometimes people experience a tendency to put off the key decisions and commitments that somehow make our identities. We sometimes just like to keep our options open.

But think of the financial commitments we make: mortgages, rent, school fees, nursing home fees..... where does our financial commitment to God come on the scale? Near the top or near the bottom. I’m not talking about a specific amount, but a definite commitment.  Part of the reason that so many churches struggle financially isn’t necessarily that people have less money than they once did, but they often have the choice of more things to spend it on! Surprise, surprise, churches where congregations tithe – give 10% of - what they have do not have our financial problems – nor are they people from another planet. They just simply make a particular choice.

So here's the crucial question: is it possible in a world like this, even to commit oneself to following Christ as a baptised Christian? Do we think of this commitment as opening us up to the fulfilment of our lives, or as just another way of limiting our options? People can be surprised at the idea that you might commit yourself once and for all just to being in Church every Sunday for the rest of your life. It might seem the more obvious thing to make a separate decision whether to go to church each Sunday instead, keeping your options open. There might be car racing or tennis on the TV or a nice early lunch to have. It might be too cold. Or it’s raining. Being in Church each Sunday was drummed into me during my Confirmation Classes in the 1970’s – it was nothing to do with being High Church – it was everything to do with being a Christian!

“Remember the Lord’s Day and keep it holy”. Has that Commandment now dropped out of use or expired?

Giving to charity, helping your local church maintain its witness, being at the Lord’s Table on the Lord’s Day. So many choices. So many things to do, or not to do.

So does obsession with choice and keeping options open prevent us from selling everything we have and obtaining the pearl? Does the pearl cost us more in today's world than it did in the past? Though it may be difficult, God’s strength and divine grace means commitment is never impossible, and our human nature still makes us need it. In reality, only Christian commitment –sacrificial commitment - can give our lives the unity and stability they need by making them part of God's one story. Only Christian commitment can fully open up for us the fulfilment that truly makes us happy and free, a heavenly happiness and freedom that last forever and can never be lost.

But recognizing the pearl of great price is never easy, it requires perseverance, it requires humility, and the only way to make a start with all of that is by prayer.

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