8th Sunday after Pentecost
- Pentecost 8.20 “Joy” Matt. 13:44-52
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
This is for me the beating heart of Christianity. If this was all we had of Christ, the Scriptures, His teaching, His Word and Kingdom, if we had no other psalms, miracles, stories—even of the cross and resurrection—I would still be all in. He had me at “treasure, hidden.” (Heaven, too!). The first time I heard these words, my heart lurched, my head spun. Wherever the Guy speaking IT’s going, I’m following! Whatever losses, crosses, disasters, I must suffer, however many friends, prospects, I must lose—I’m in!
Joy is a word that has been just about ruined for most of us today by brightly colored rainbow felt banners garishly displayed in the churches of our youth (well, the churches of my youth, at least), and the soft rock sounds of the 70’s. But IT is what we seek. C.S. Lewis redeemed the word (a little bit) with his autobiography “Surprised By Joy”. But the damage was and is severe. Lewis reminds us that “joy” in the sense Christ uses the word here in the Gospel is not happiness or pleasure. It is longing. Lewis prefers the German sehnsucht which is a such a tough and gritty and guttural word, that I usually just substitute sehnsucht for “joy” as Lewis does. Sehnsucht is a delight that is at the same time destructive; it’s pleasure with a good deal of pain in it.
As Lewis said in “The Weight of Glory”: “in speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret that hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell… the desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience… we call it “beauty” and behave as if that had settled the matter. But that is a cheat. The books or the music [people or places] in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember… spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for more than a century…”
And who doesn’t feel the weight of that evil enchantment especially today? It seems as if all the beauty and joy and longing and mystery and magic has been sucked out of the world the last few months, doesn’t it? Where did it go? How do we get it back?
Well, we start with the ones who know something about IT. This Lewis fellow knows, and clearly got his knowledge (as he happily admits) from this Jesus Person we meet here in the Gospel this morning—Who is clearly the Greatest Authority on IT, able to awaken that longing in our hearts with a word: “the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field”. And images of desert islands, pirate ships, ancient maps and mountains and quests and adventures and mystery and magic and glory and danger all come rushing in. He knows that when we bump into that treasure, we’ll bury it again, and for sheer sehnsucht run wild in us, we sell everything we have and buy that field and die happy.
The problem with joy is that it hits out of nowhere and fills us with such longing for the treasure, but doesn’t itself give us the treasure! It just makes us aware of how much we’re missing the treasure—and with that realization, the sehnsucht, the longing, vanishes; and hurting more without it than we did with it, we long for the delicious pain to pierce us again, yet we can’t conjure it. So, it sets us searching, high and low. It drives us a little mad. It makes our hearts burn with something that is not entirely healthy.
IT “leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster…” And what does one do when the Siren’s Song sounds in your ear, heart? “Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or… is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
I’ll take holy rage for 500, Alex. “A grandeur in the world but not of the world, a grandeur the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out…”
I first glimpsed the treasure, the grandeur, in church of all places. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 because I can see my shorts and black leather dress shoes a foot or so away from the end of the pew. And the light coming through the stained glass windows like blue fire, as we did the old liturgy, lit something in me, drew me after something in not of this world. Something to do with Jesus…
Later, the longing, the sehnsucht came through pirate/aviator stories; St. Ex, in small planes buffeted by storms, skateboarding down steep hills; speed—fast anything: cars, girls, sports. I mistook those things for the Treasure ITSELF. I lost the plot. I worshipped idols. My heart broke and not in a good way.
And in Paul Holmer’s Wittgenstein class, in the dusk of a New Haven winter evening, as he spoke of the secret, of Christ, I had a vision—of darkness, just at dawn. A rocky hillside, an old Palestinian town, an empty cross 30 yards away on top of the hill and a dark figure passing through the stone sealed tomb, just a glimpse of His back as He walked away. My heart lurched, again. I knew where the treasure might be…
I finally visited the place two years ago, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was much changed from my vision at age 22. But it was the place, alright. And touching the slab where His Body lay, I could feel the Presence still—mixed up with all the crusader-hobo-pirates who’d been there before me. The Body of Jesus is the Treasure. Until we secure IT (or He secures us?) we’re searching high and low.
He gives us a glimpse, again, now, by Word, Sacrament. So the sehnsucht will hit real hard; till we’re throwing ourselves head first and laughing, into the holy rage calling our name, the darkness of the cross, hiding the Body, keeping the secret, giving away everything for that field where Peace, surpassing understanding, guards our heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.