THE GREATEST PEARL

December 20, 2017

MT 13.45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

 

My name is Joseph ben-Tachsheet. For generations, my family has been in the jewelry business, travelling around the world finding, buying and selling rare gems and stones. We have seen diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, in settings that would dazzle you and leave you speechless.

Personally, my greatest finds have been in Persia, where I have managed to acquire some of what I remain convinced are some of the jewels left from the kingdom of Solomon, the great King of the Hebrew people. Once Jerusalem was plundered, and the Temple treasures looted, jewels scattered all over Persia. Finding them, convincing the owners to show them to me, and then bartering with them over endless cups of tea until we settled on a price that was acceptable to neither of us, yet agreed upon by both of us, sometimes took days. As much as I loved owning these gems, I must confess that my greatest delight lay in the back-and-forth of the relationship that resulted in the jewels changing hands.

I have made friends (and, I suppose, enemies) all over the land through my business dealings.

Even Egypt proved to be a challenge. That great nation, now supplanted by Greece and the Rome, still held great treasures; many looted from tombs, they still were incredibly valuable. The danger in locating the so-called “owners” of some of these gems was life-threatening at times, but still the exultation I felt in the chase was enough to lead me to risk it all.

But I digress

My family’s home, for many years, lay in Sepphoris, a small village not far from Nazareth. While we travelled far and wide, we always returned to this comfortable, familiar town. Business could be traded there, and with stone-cutters making good wages in the town, we were able to sell to them for fair prices.

All seemed right, until troops of Roman soldiers came to town demanding we return to our family’s historic birthplace to register for a census. As word travelled through the community and I realized what a business opportunity this would be, my frustration turned to thrill as I envisioned myself working the crowds along the roads and in towns and cities selling and perhaps buying more jewels.

Because my family traces its roots back to Jesse, the father of King David, it was determined that I would travel to Bethlehem. My journey took me longer than it could, because I would take additional time in villages, or spend an extra day in the caravan bartering with men travelling with their families.

I had arrived in Bethlehem, and found distant relatives with whom I could stay, who extended gracious hospitality to me when I suggested I may leave a stone or two with them when I departed, as long as I could stay longer than needed. With one of their three daughters betrothed, I think my cousin saw my business and offer as a great benefit.

On some days I would travel to Jerusalem, just a few miles away, and ply my trade with the crowds there. Other days I would simply sit near the gate of Bethlehem and share stories with the people coming there to register.

My cousin’s home, as simple as it was, sat upon the crest of a hill; some evenings I would climb to the roof of the house and look across the valley where I could see the top of the Temple. Every time I went to Jerusalem I would try to visit this holy site and connect with our God.

One evening as I was about to come down, I saw a man leading a donkey, on which sat a poor girl who seemed to be so terribly uncomfortably pregnant that she looked as if she would deliver her baby that very moment. The man led her to the hoe of my cousin; I listened as my cousin suggested other homes, but the man and girl had tried them all. They desperately needed a room for the night, but as my cousin explained, their humble home was overfull. After being admonished by his wife, my cousin said there was room in the cave carved out beneath the home, where they kept their animals at night. It was settled; the man led the moaning girl around to the side of the house, and into the cave.

I showed a few more stones to the family that night before finally retiring. I looked all of my jewels over before rolling them up in a cloth and placing them in the bed with me. Thinking about the opportunities I may find on the road back to Sepphoris, I nodded off to sleep.

Somewhere in the night, I was awakened by a piercing cry; someone was in great pain, letting the world know this! A few moment later, I heard another cry similar to the first; something, I do not know what, urged me from my bed, and outside. I heard yet another cry, but this one different—it was smaller, less painful, almost like that of a child. Trying to understand what it may be, I hear voices—muffled, but excited—from the side of the house. I wandered around in the darkness, until I saw light coming from the cave that was serving as my cousin’s stable. What I saw there made the cries I heard make sense.

It was the young girl’s labor that awakened me. And her baby’s cries that I heard next. The poor girl lay on a bed of hay, looking thoroughly spent, but holding her tiny baby as if it were the most valuable treasure in the world. The father stood there, looking confused and lost, wanting to help but not knowing what to do. He kept mumbling that this was his son, but he was not the father.

What made no sense at all were the shepherds who arrived about the same time, overcoming my revulsion with their scent with their tale of angels appearing and telling them about the birth of this baby. I stood just inside the cave trying to understand what was happening, when the girl looked at me and gestured for me to step closer. I did, then knelt down to see her baby as she turned him toward me.

His red-splotched face all scrunched up like an olive left in the sun—as traumatized by birth, also showed something else. I couldn’t understand it, until he yawned and barely opened one eye as if he were looking at me. That’s when it happened.

In that slit of an eye, as unfocused as it was, I realized I was gazing at the greatest treasure I could ever find. This little baby was a pearl of great price, worth all of the precious stones I had in my room.

I never went back to my room, I never collected my gems and gold. I stayed the rest of that night with the little family, and when they left the next day, I left with them. I did what I could to help out, to take care of them, and whatever I could to be near that child.

We journeyed to Egypt some time later with the help of gold that some wise men from the east gave the family. Then we returned later to Nazareth, where I joined the baby’s father in his carpenter’s shop.

And I watched that boy grow into a man, and tell everyone about the love of God. I never questioned my choice to give everything up for him that night, especially the day I saw him give his life for me.

I gave him my life that clear night; maybe you have heard of him; his father named him Jesus.

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When I lived in Pascagoula, MS, and served the First Presbyterian Church as their Pastor, I was privileged to get to know, and be friends with, a number of Navy officers who served on ships that were based at the Naval Station in Pascagoula. There is a shipyard in Pascagoula which builds ships for the Navy, and I suppose that is what justified the base that has since been closed.

          One of the remarkable joys of the privilege I had was getting to be close friends with several of the Captains for the ships based there, and as a result, having access and entrée to the ships. I even was asked to participate in a change of command ceremony one year.

          One day I was on the USS Ticonderoga, which happens to be the first Aegis-class ship that was built. I don’t recall the particulars of the visit, but I do remember that I was reading about leadership and change theory at the time. As I walked the ship that day, I asked the Captain how long it would take him to turn the ship around if he was moving at maximum speed.DN-ST-86-02427

          “Suppose you’re heading east under a full head of steam, and you get an order directing you to turn around and head west; how long would it take you to turn around?”

          “Thirty seconds,” came the immediate reply, with a smile.

          “What?!” I asked; “That fast?!”

          “Yeah,” he said. “I sound general alarm, and everyone grabs something and holds on, and we turn the ship around. It creates a real mess, and it takes a lot of time to clean up the mess, but we can do it in thirty seconds.”

          I thought about what I had been reading about leadership and change theory, and how to lead change in the life of a church and congregation. A lot of change, fast, creates a lot of mess, and it takes a long time to clean up and establish trust.

          Contrast that with another story about the Tico. My family had been invited to go on a “Friends and Family Cruise,” when the Navy allows the ship to leave port for a half day cruise with civilians on board. They let family and friends of the sailors see the ship, what it is like, what it takes to operate, etc. Fun and games are planned for the kids, everyone gets a meal on board, and it generally builds good will for everyone.

          This particular day there was a complication. There was a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico that was whipping the water up enough that the ship could not go out. We got a phone call advising us of this, but telling us that we should come on out, that everything was going to be done on board the ship, simply docked at the base.

          We showed up, the ship was positioned bow out, as if she were about to head to sea. We stepped across onto the ship on the starboard side, and enjoyed a fun day. (For the record, our daughter Kathryn won the basketball free-throw contest that day!)

          At the end of the day, we thanked the Captain and other officers, and were walking to leave. I turned to starboard to leave, and was advised by a sailor, “No, sir, it’s this way (pointing to port.)”

          Confused, I said, “No, its starboard.”

          “No, sir, port.”

          “How can that be?” I asked.

          And then I learned that while we were all on board the Tico, the ship had moved away from the dock, into the Mississippi Sound, turned around, and re-docked. And I never knew the ship had even moved.

          A complete and total change, and I never knew it.

 

          Mark Twain is alleged to have once said, “The only person who wants change is a wet baby.”

          I thought that was a great quote about human resistance to change, and I used it for several years until I added to it, “And the baby that wants change often cries through the entire process!”

          There are two things in life I have learned that are constant, always present. One is change—it’s always going to be a part of life.

          The other is Christ. As the writer of Hebrews puts it in the New Testament, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13.8)

          Sometimes the change that comes into my life is sudden, disruptive, and messy—like the unexpected news of my father’s death in 2003—and takes a long time to clean up.

          Sometimes the change is slow and unnoticed, like the pine tree in the corner of our yard that was just a few feet tall when we moved into our home in 2005, and now is tall and strong.

          Change is always going to be present. And so is Jesus.