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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Go for the Gold

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

10th Sunday After Pentecost

July 24, 2005

"The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes sells all that he has and buys that field." (Matt. 13:44-46)

The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like a man who, while plowing a field, hears his plow hit something, so he bends down, scoops away the dirt, and there finds buried treasure. He quickly covers up the treasure, leaves his plowing, runs to the bankers, sells everything he's got, and then goes back to the owner of the field and asks, "Ummm, how much would you like for that rocky, worthless, barren field out there? Call me crazy, but I'd like to buy it."

Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to people like that.

Now some of you, because you are so very good, are concerned about the business ethics behind this wheeling and dealing. It's business like this that led to Enron and WorldCom shenanigans. Isn't the man who runs out and buys this field under some ethical obligation to full disclosure, simple honesty?

Well, such petty, bourgeoisie moral concerns seem not to interest Jesus. Go for the gold! Jesus says: Risk, connive, get that field, grab the treasure!

Maybe this is why, as a kid, my favorite book was Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." I read "Treasure Island" a dozen times. Of course, I identified with Jim, the kid in the story. But thinking back, I really loved the adults in "Treasure Island" because I didn't know any adults like the ones who peopled Treasure Island, grownups who staked all, risked everything, for nothing more than some map scrawled on a piece of paper.

The adults I knew stayed home, kept their heads down, went to work in the morning and then they came back again in the evening. But in "Treasure Island," they risked, they lied if needed, and they had great lives and exciting deaths.

When I was a junior in college, I was thinking about a lot of things, none of which included the Christian ministry. A friend talked me into going with him to a conference, "Exploring Ministry."

Well, I drifted through most of the weekend until late Saturday night when a group of South Carolina pastors sat in a hotel room talking about their lives. These were the days of the civil rights movement in the South. One had been a victim of the Ku Klux Klan. He'd had a cross burned in his front yard. Another had a concrete block thrown through the back windshield of his car after a meeting. The wife and the children of another had been snubbed and persecuted in a small, Southern town.

And I, in my lowly undergraduate imagination, thought to myself, "Wow! This sounds great! I didn't know that being a Methodist was this much fun!"

Back then, anybody with a bus leaving to find buried treasure, well, count me in!

Oh, but then I got a degree, I got a job, I got tenure, I got reserved parking, and I bedded down. Now, if Jesus were to come up and say, "Hey, there's buried treasure around the next bend in the road," I would likely have responded, "Now, does this include health insurance? Do you guarantee that my sacrifice will be worth it? Do we have seat belts?"

A friend of mine, who's an Episcopal priest, was looking to buy a motorcycle. A salesman, looking over a motorcycle, said, "Now, this baby can go from zero to 80 in 40 seconds. Nothing can touch you when you are on this baby."

Then the salesman asked, "And what do you do for a living?"

My friend answered that he was clergy. The salesman said, "Uh, this is a very, very safe motorcycle you got here."

I am haunted at what somebody said at my graduation. "Remember one thing as you go forth from school into life: Even if you win the rat race, remember, you're still a rat."

He was telling the truth. There is this relentless, virtually irresistible tendency of life to transmute from adventure into tame predictability. One day you're an angry, young thing, ready to grab the world by the tail and twist, dying to set the woods on fire. And the next day you're some old guy, slouched in an easy chair, complaining about how the kids are ruining the world. One day you're a kid, excited about the prospect of leaving home, abandoning your parents, and going to college where you can drink and you can think as you like, and they can't do anything about it. And then the next day you're just a college student, going through the motions, trying to accumulate enough hours to graduate.

Jesus says a kingdom belongs to those with the guts to stake it all on the treasure.

I spent 20 years in academia. And that's where you step back, you reflect, you consider, you reconsider. Don't get too emotionally involved; don't step out too far.

I wonder, not simply would I be able to risk everything for the treasure hidden in the field, but would I even know the treasure worth risking for, if I came upon it?

Life is short. If there is anything worse than not reaching your goals, it's setting goals too low and reaching them.

We can get life, oh, but adventure, treasure, the life worth living? God help us. We sell out too quickly, we settle for too little, we make nothing more important than money, and thereby we miss the treasure.

Jesus walks along a road one day, talking to people about discipleship, explaining the cost of following him. Jesus tells them that, if they follow him, they could be rejected by their own family. Everybody could turn against them. There might be jail time, beatings, worse. He tells them there's no way to follow him without a cross.
And guess what? Some-not nine out of 10 average Americans but enough to keep the administration nervous-some, just at Jesus' warning word, dropped everything they were doing, deserted their parents, let the fishing business go down the drain, turned over the tables at the accounting firm, and followed him.

That's what the kingdom of God does to those who stumble upon it, says Jesus.

Renowned preacher, theology professor and storyteller Fred Craddock swears this happened to him: He was visiting in a home of one of his former students after graduation, and after a great dinner, the young parents excused themselves and hustled the kids off to bed, leaving Fred in the living room with the family pet-a large, sleek greyhound. Earlier in the evening Fred had watched the kids roll on the floor playing with the family dog.

"That's a full-blooded greyhound there," the father of the kids had told Fred. "He once raced professionally down in Florida. Then we got him. Great dog with the kids, that greyhound."

Well, sitting there with the dog, the dog turned to Fred and asked, "This your first visit to Connecticut?"

"No," Fred answered. "I went to school up here a long time ago."

"Well, I guess you heard. I came up here from Miami," said the greyhound.

"Oh, yeah, you retired?" Fred said.

"No, is that what they told you? No, no, I didn't retire. I tell you, I spent 10 years as a professional, racing greyhound. That means 10 years of running around that track day after day, seven days a week with others chasing that rabbit. Well, one day, I got up close; I got a good look at that rabbit. It was a fake! I had spent my whole life chasing a fake rabbit! Hey, I didn't retire; I quit!"

Let us pray.

O Lord, give us the wisdom to discern the difference between the treasure and the trash; and then, O Lord, give us the guts to go for the gold that we might partake of the joy of your kingdom. Amen.


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