Monday, June 19, 2006

Buried Treasure

The story of the quest is one of the most basic plots in all of literature. Homer’s Odyssey is a quest, as is Vergil’s Aeneid. In a sense, so is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. One of the forms that the quest narrative often takes is the hunt for buried treasure, and that, I think, partly accounts for the enormous success of The Da Vinci Code.

What accounts for the popularity of quest or buried treasure narratives? The answer, I think, is in the way that God constructed the human heart. St. Augustine famously remarked that in each human heart there is a God-shaped hole. There is a yearning inside each of us that we spend our whole lives trying to satisfy. You might say that God pre-programmed each of us to go on his or her own quest. For some the quest to satisfy that yearning results in lives devoted to public service. These people become presidents and prime ministers. For others the quest takes the form of artistic accomplishment, and these people become great artists or musicians. Still others display heroic sanctity; these are the Mother Teresas and the John Paul II’s. Tragically, some try to satisfy the yearning with alcohol, drugs, or sexual gratification, but the addict’s desperate attempt to get another fix is a twisted form of the quest narrative.

One way to think about the Bible is to see it as an enormous quest narrative. It begins with Adam and Eve who possess the treasure – intimacy with God – but who then lose it. The rest of the Bible is the story of humankind’s quest to regain that perfect relationship with God that the first humans enjoyed.

Two of today’s readings are about hidden treasure. First Samuel tells us of the treasure of kingship or leadership hidden in the unlikely person of Jesse’s youngest and smallest son, David. And the gospel reading also tells us that the seeds of the kingdom that God sowed long ago are quietly and inconspicuously growing.

The two treasure stories have at least two things in common: First, in both cases the treasure is hidden in small packages. David was the youngest, smallest, and least likely of Jesse’s sons to become King of Israel. Jesus’ parables of the sower and mustard seed both tell us of tiny seeds that will yield the rich harvest of the kingdom, even though there is no outward sign that they will yield anything at all.

Second, in both cases the treasure is in plain sight but most people fail to notice it.

There is no doubt that God hides treasure in the most unlikely places and people. God’s greatest gifts are frequently disguised with plain and ordinary packaging. It would be easy to preach a sermon about how God chooses unlikely, overlooked, and unexpected things and people to accomplish his purposes. That is certainly true. Instead of choosing mighty Babylon or eternal Rome to be his people, God chose the tiny kingdom of Israel. God chose to come among us in the person of a first century Palestinian peasant, not a great king. And Jesus did not choose wise rabbis or mighty warriors to be his disciples but simple fishermen.

So far, so good, but I’m left thinking “So what? Where do I fit in the story? Where is the treasure for me to find?”

I think there is another way to read today’s two stories of hidden treasure. They are not just about the treasure out there somewhere in the world; they are also about the treasures hidden within each of our lives and hearts.

The story most applicable to today’s readings is not the Da Vinci Code’s tale of a chase across the great cities of Europe that takes us from St. Peter’s in Rome to the Louvre to Westminster Abbey. The more applicable fable is The Wizard of Oz.

I know we all remember the story of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow. Each was hunting a treasure. Dorothy wanted to find a way to go home; the Tin Man wanted a heart; the Lion wanted courage; and Scarecrow wanted a brain. They were told that the only one who could grant their hearts’ desires was the “great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” And so they went “off to see the Wizard” and “followed the yellow brick road”. They went through at least as many dangers and adventures as the hero and heroine of The Da Vinci Code and at last they found the wizard and forced him to grant their wishes. But the wizard, although he was pure humbug, was wise enough to tell Dorothy and her friends that the treasures they had been seeking had been in their possession all along. The Lion displayed courage, the Tin Man compassion, the Scarecrow wisdom, and Dorothy only needed to click her heels together three times and say “There’s no place like home” to be whisked back to Kansas.

That is the secret of the quest on which God sends all of us. The treasure that we seek is already inside us, in our hearts. But that is often the place that we look last and when we do look there we fail to see what is right in front of our eyes.

When Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, confirms young people, he tells them that God has given each of them a unique gift for the church, a gift that no one else possesses. I believe he is right. Each of us has a unique gift, a unique contribution to make to God’s kingdom. But the trick, the twist in the story, is that the treasure is buried, hidden. We may not even be aware of what it is that God wants us to contribute to the kingdom.

What I mean is this: The person who devotes her whole life to financial achievement and amasses great wealth may believe that her gift is to her talent for making money; her role is to be a donor or benefactor. Make no mistake: the kingdom needs people like this. But what if her real gift is her compassion. What if her greatest contribution to the kingdom is not her financial resources but the kindness with which she treated others?

I was struck this week with the story of Bill Gates’ decision to leave Microsoft and devote himself to his philanthropic work. Up until this point, it would seem that his quest was to amass great wealth, but it may be that his wealth was not his greatest achievement but only the means to an end. In a century or two, will Bill Gates be remembered as the founder of Microsoft or as the person who helped bring an end to the AIDS crisis in Africa?

The final lesson I take away from today’s readings is that our greatest and most important gifts may not be those parts of ourselves that we are proud of and that we display for all the world to see. They may, actually, be the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden and would rather no one saw.

Put your self in the prophet Samuel’s place, but instead of questing for a new king for Israel, go on a quest for the hidden parts of your personality. Invite each of your qualities to come out into the light. Invite your courage, your kindness, your strength, your intelligence. Thank God for each one and honor yourself for having it, but keep going. Look for those darker parts of yourself – your fear, anger, hurt, and paint. Be grateful for your fear, because it may have kept you alive. Give thanks for anger because it helped you stand up for yourself. And thank God for the pain and hurt because they give you empathy with others.

Thornton Wilder in one of his three-minute plays, The Angel that Troubled the Waters, tells of a man who stood on a day by the pool of Bethesda, praying in fierce agony that God would touch his tortured soul into health. But the angel, coming, whispered in his ear saying, "Stand back; healing is not for you. Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. Not the angels themselves in Heaven can persuade the wretched and blundering children of earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love's service only the wounded soldiers can serve". (emph added) And in that moment the angel stepped down into the waters and troubled them. As the lone sufferer drew back, a lame old neighbor, smiling his thanks, made his painful way into the pool and was healed. Joyously, with a song on his lips, he approached the other, still standing there like a statue of grief, thinking of the things which might have been. "Perhaps", said he, "it will be your turn next! But meanwhile come with me to my house. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I do not understand him. Only you have ever lifted his mood. And my daughter, since her child died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us. Come with me but an hour!" (Quoted by Paul Scherer in We Have This Treasure.)

The paradox of the quest is that it takes us full circle. We set out for distant, exotic lands but we end up at home. We look for gold and precious jewels buried deep in the earth but find that the real treasure was in our hands along. For “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."