The Bright Field
What’s the point of it all? Why come Sunday by Sunday. To sing the old hymns-to hear the old words and sit on hard pews. Many other things that one could be doing-cooking the lunch-cleaning the car, watching the Test match and taking the family out and most people are doing these things. Some might say that it was your duty to come and indeed I would say so myself but it would take more time than I have to justify such an unpopular line.
The parables in to-days gospel were not taught in order to raise the flagging morale of elderly Methodists. Nevertheless the first hearers of this gospel were like us in these respects. They too had been raised in an old religion and were now being called to embrace something new. For them and for us the new thing is faith in Jesus. The old thing for them was the synagogue and the old thing for us is the religion of consumerism which is so powerful and all embracing that we don’t notice how it determines all our thoughts and feelings. Sadly for us the old thing is also the old form of Christianity-the old bottle that seems increasingly unable to contain the new wine. Yet inside the old form is the seed of something new, a tiny seed perhaps like the mustard seed, the hidden treasure-the good fish amongst the stinking fish and the priceless pearl amongst the dross.
And these parables teach their hearers to be hopeful. Your hopes will be fulfilled-the Kingdom of Heaven is there. But its hidden-and you’ll need judgement in order to find it-and finding it will cost you something. Now that is the message we all need to hear. There’s a hymn which begins:- Give to me Lord a thankful heart and a discerning mind. And a discerning mind. Yes indeed! Judgement. That’s what we need. We need to be able to discriminate between the false pearls and the priceless ones-the good fish from the stinking fish. We need to be able to find the hidden treasure. We belong to the church in order to learn how to recognise the treasure. Such skills are not easily acquired. I remember once walking around a church in Portugal with a friend of mine. I can’t remember why we had gone in. Perhaps it was hot and the bar was closed. My friend is a complete atheist. As we walked around the church I appreciated the statuary, the furnishings and the peace of the place. This was the place where the treasure was hidden. Not for him though-to him it was a monument to ignorance and superstition. Both of us were committed to our particular ways of seeing and I don’t suppose that either of us had come easily to our commitment.
These parables each stress the cost of commitment. “He went and sold all that he had and bought that field.” He sold all that he had to buy the pearl of great price. The net had to take in all manner of fish. Only by focussing heart, mind and spirit will you find the treasure. You know you won’t find the secret of the treasure without commitment. Following Christ is not like watching breakfast television. Listening to the word of God is not like watching a chat show. It demands something of you. And it’s hidden. Why is it hidden? Why can’t the gospel be as accessible as the Big Breakfast. Answer because the struggle to find the treasure is part of the treasure. It’s the quest for the Holy Grail that makes it holy.
Concealment: The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. It’s like the one pearl that’s of great price amongst all the others such that one should sell all that one has to possess it. It’s like the yeast, the leaven-hidden in the measures of wheat till one sees its effect when the bread rises. As Isaiah says of God himself: Truly thou art a God who hides himself.
That hidden quality so difficult to discern and to describe yet it gives life and beauty to everything else.
Perhaps at this stage of the history of your chapel you feel discouraged-so many hymns sung, so many sermons preached, so many meetings attended and for what! Hope denied. Apparently yes. Hope is in a way always being denied by experience but hope abandoned I think not. For amidst the fake pearls and the stinking fish there is always the promise of real treasure. Yes that was worthwhile, that person, that visit, that insight-yes that was it-the real thing-amidst all the religious claptrap and the sentimental dross-it was there-perhaps when we least expected to find it. Yes the struggle and the quest is worthwhile. Hope that is grounded on human aspirations and schemes will always disappoint. Hope needs to be grounded on sterner stuff. On the promise of the resurrection-on the assurances of God’s mercy upon fallible-hopeless creatures like us. So in the end the point of being here is to be reminded. There is treasure hidden here-there is the pearl of great price here-plenty of fakes-Oh yes!-but there’s the real thing as well. Do you know where to look for it? I hope so. And don’t tell anyone else about it. Keep it to yourself. It’s your thing-your bit of the truth-perhaps the only real thing you’ll ever have-don’t let anyone knock it because it’s yours-the bit that was just for you. And you bought it with a price. But if it’s just for me what about the rest of them. Well aren’t they a means to find the treasure-some of them are treasures themselves. Would you really wish to deny them the struggle? Strange how the gospel can seem to be a secret vouchsafed just for me and at the same time a message for the whole world.
Well that’s how the Kingdom is-the one special thing and at the same time everything.
A poem by R S Thomas:
The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had the treasure in it.
I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it.
Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.