What’s the story?
Preacher: Fiona Barnard, Honorary Global Chaplain
Readings: John 1:1-18; Matthew 13:44-46
Donald’s invitation came with this challenge: What has been significant in your faith, your ministry and your experience over recent years? How can God be speaking to us now?
Since the summer, I have been facilitating “Faith and Storytelling” evenings with students. And I am excited. We have taken a theme, and told a story around it from our experiences. We have listened/read a Bible story together and reflected on what it says to us. You know, I have come to love stories more and more. They fire my imagination. They throw open windows into different worlds. They let me explore issues in new ways. They connect me with other storytellers. They invite participation. As my mental faculties deteriorate, I remember less facts. But I am more energised by what stories do.
“Why do you tell stories from the Bible?” a student asked on Friday. I gave him an answer, but I thought about it later in the shower, it came to me in a nutshell, “Because the Bible tells the best stories – and I can be part of those stories today.” That is why.
In the first text we read, John 1, the writer paints the big Bible narrative in great majestic brush strokes: “In the beginning was the Word (if you go throu St Mary’s archway, you will see those words in Latin), and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The Word speaks the world into existence. The Word shines brilliant light and life into it. And then amid this cosmic scene – I imagine thunder and lightening and glorious spectacle – a lone man called John appears on the stage. A hush descends. John announces the coming of a light brighter than any star or sun. Everything stops. The cosmos holds its breath in wonder as the Word becomes flesh and blood. The spotlight focuses on one tiny corner of the universe, as the one and only God steps into the world he has made: Jesus, “full of grace and truth”.
In my mind, I see the big story beyond time and space meeting the first century middle-eastern story of this chap called John, like two pieces of a Venn diagram. But more, I am curious, I am captivated by the intersection of these two, by the compelling beauty, by the dynamic person of Jesus who is right in the middle. I discover a hunger in me for Jesus, for all he can show me and tell me about God. I want to find my place in this vaster story.
I love the second story we read. It is one Jesus told. I wonder if it is an imaginative summary of John 1. (Enjoy a picture of it on order of service.) It is so short. I want to ask a thousand questions about it. “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Let me now take the liberty of re-telling it from another angle to you.
Once upon a time, there were two men: one who owned a beautiful rare pearl, and one who wanted it.
Prof McDonald’s pearl was kept safely in a box tucked inside his boots by the back door, where no thief would think of looking. It had been passed down through the generations of his family. Every Sunday, he would take it out of its black box and admire it. He would think of all the people who had possessed it before him, especially his grandmother. (She was the one who told the story of the pearl, a rare white gem from the bottom of the sea. “It was formed to protect the fragile oyster from a parasite which is irritating it”, she explained.) This Sunday ritual, he classed under the title of ‘spirituality’, because it opened his mind to vague mystic thoughts and feelings. It was his one sentimental moment in a week of full of lectures, labs and seminars. As a child, he would puzzle over the question his grandma used to ask him, “Jonny, I wonder what you are going to do with the pearl?” Now all these years later, in his heart of hearts, he decided the pearl was pretty useless. What could he do with it? He did not wear jewellery. That silly wife has long since left him. He had made sure in the divorce settlement that she did not get her grubby hands on it.
As time went on, his life had become increasingly busy. Sometimes he forgot his Sunday habit. His work consumed him as he built up a lab dedicated to research into viruses. Success had bought him a position in the St Andrews community which came with free tickets to Byre Theatre productions and local gatherings of the Who’s Whos. He answered to Mr Chair, Honourable Trustee and Eminent Member of the Council of Reference to four or five charities, alongside his more lucrative Board positions. Most of the time, he enjoyed the challenges, but on Sundays, when he wasn’t on the golf course, or wining and dining a potential funder, he was often flat out on his leather sofa transfixed by his gigantic smart TV which towered like the most sophisticated of cinema screens. It was much preferable to sitting in the North Street Picture House surrounded by kissing couples and the annoying noise of crunching popcorn. Enthroned next to a million gadgets and photos of him shaking hands with distinguished scientists, it was not unknown for him to nod off and awake as the sun was setting, the day gone. His mid-life crisis had developed into middle-age spread, lots of fires to fight and many takeaways to consume.
One Sunday, he was putting on his boots to go out into his landscaped garden, when his hand brushed against that black box. As he opened it, the pearl fell out and rolled under the rustic solid oak dresser in the kitchen. “Why on earth am I so sentimental about this silly little white stone?” he asked himself, as he crawled around to find it. “What good is it doing me?” And before he knew it, he had taken a photo of it in the sunshine. “I’ll put it on eBay,” he decided on a whim. “Let’s see if there is someone who can give me something for it. I wonder what it might fetch?”
The next day, at work, the department administrator called him. “There is someone at reception asking about a pearl you are selling. Do you have it there with you?”
“No, it’s at home. I can bring it another day,” he replied absent-mindedly, scrolling down his emails in readiness for the next meeting. Then he stopped: “Goodness, they must be keen. They’ve come to find me at work.”
“He wonders when exactly. Would tomorrow first thing be OK? He is very eager to view it.”
Tuesday morning as Prof MacDonald arrived at the lab, a very tall young man in a smart coat was waiting for him. MacDonald was struck by the earnestness in the man’s face, the feet that fidgeted. “Can I see it, Prof Macdonald? The pearl. I so want to see it.” Prof MacDonald noticed the student ID on his phone. Bringing him into his office, he took the pearl out of his briefcase and handed it to him. “I almost forgot to bring it,” he thought to himself. “I have so much to do.”
Suddenly, it was though everything froze. A strange calm descended in a room usually brimming with flurry. The student looked mesmerized, riveted. His eyes were open wide, and Prof Macdonald could have sworn they were glowing with a mysterious, oddly familiar light. There was something unsettling about that look. He sensed a stab in his stomach, a pang of regret and wistfulness. At the same time, he felt besieged by his ardent customer, a little annoyed by his persistence: “as if I have time to stand here as he gazes at a stupid pearl”, he thought. And then in the silence, he heard his grandmother’s gentle enquiring voice, “Jonny, I wonder what you are going to do with the pearl?” – and he began to have second thoughts about selling it. “I’ll make it impossible for him,” he decided. “I know he is wearing an expensive jacket, but he’s a student after all. I’ll ask for a price he can never afford.” So he did.
The student gulped at the price. But not for more than a second, as longing and desire flooded back into every cell on his face. “It’s so beautiful. So beautiful. Give me a week,” he pleaded, and with that marched resolutely out of the office. “That’s the last I’ll hear of him,” Prof Macdonald told himself, glancing at his over-populated calendar.
Seven days later, he was in the corridor venting his frustrations at the tricky meeting he’d just chaired. The administrator popped her head out her room, “Oh, that pearl chap came by earlier hoping to see you. He looked all ecstatic.”
“You what?” He’d completely forgotten about that disconcerting encounter.
“He is coming back first thing tomorrow. Funny lad, he is: that burberry tweed blazer has gone. He was wearing quite shabby clothes. Said he’d sold everything – his bike, his car, his skiis, even his ticket to graduation ball. Emptied his savings account. Why on earth would someone with so much, do something like that? You know, I’m sure he was wearing the same emerald socks from last week. Beats me.”
Prof Macdonald paused for a moment. But just a moment. His post docs were waiting for him. “Oh well,” he sighed, “His loss. My gain.”
The next day, there was the student. His shoes looked scuffed, as though he had done a lot of walking. “Prof Macdonald, good morning,” he cried. “And what a wonderful morning it is!” Prof Macdonald sighed. “I’ll just get you the pearl,” he muttered. “It is in my office.” As he put his key in the door, he heard that voice again, sadder this time, “Jonny, what are you doing with that pearl?” He sensed a loss of something deep inside him, but he shook it off: he was not a man to let things get him down.
Later, as he microwaved his M & S dinner, he recalled the early morning scene. He had traded the pearl in the black box for the credit card details of the eccentric student. “It’s exquisite. So perfect!” (“Looks just like an ordinary pearl to me,” thought Prof Macdonald.) “I have been looking for this pearl all my days,” the student now-with-no-jacket declared. “And from today, my life will never ever be the same. It means everything to me. I want to show it to my family. I want to tell my friends about it! I want to share it with everyone from Vancouver to Vietnam! So many people want to see it and touch it!” And with that, he skipped out the office and down the stairs.
Prof Macdonald watched him from the window as he danced along the street, his rucksack bouncing as he leapt. How could a single pearl be worth all that he owned? What could possibly be an attractive exchange for everything: future security, networking potential and social status that comes with a privileged student who wears branded jackets and skiis in Switzerland? It made no sense to Prof Macdonald…
But he couldn’t forget the passion in the chap’s eyes. He realised with a jolt that he saw something of his grandmother’s joy in them. The sheer freedom, the simplicity, the delight left him feeling disappointed and empty. His all too familiar sense of envy, this time, was for something non-material. Surveying his expanding research accolades, the home which was his castle, his demanding to-do list, he sighed, “How I wish I could find something that is worth giving everything I have to get it! But I have no time for that now. Perhaps once I retire.” Suddenly, he wondered why he did what he did, and that unusual longing stabbed him again.
It was only as he was drinking his fourth whisky to help him sleep, that his wondering mind rolled back the years to his grandmother and the family pearl. On one memorable occasion, the story had gone in an unexpected direction. It was about another jewel lover who had embarked on a long journey, “all the way from heaven to earth”, she cried, waving her arms so he got the message. This traveller too had given everything for a pearl of great price. And that bedtime, the ending was a different one. Usually, grandma would ask, “Jonny, what are you going to do with the pearl?”, but that night, she posed another question: “Jonny, who is this pearl?” He recalled it vividly, because the change had surprised him: “WHO is this pearl?” Tucking him into bed, grandma had whispered in his ear, “This pearl is you, Jonny. Let yourself be found.”
He lay in bed trying to sleep. He felt a tear force itself out his eye and roll down to his nose. What had he gained that day? What had he lost? Why was a powerful go-getting academic like him so unhinged by two fairy stories about useless pearls? What was the attraction of the pearl for that crazy student? And why was he feeling that in fact, he had known this student very well several decades ago?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
I wonder: what is the pearl? I find this story so intriguing.
Is it the kingdom of God made visible in the person of Jesus? If so, what does it mean to search for Jesus whole-heartedly?
Or is it the people Jesus, the Word, comes searching for?
How then do you respond to the one who has given everything for you?
I wonder: today, this week, and for the rest of your life, what are you going to do with this pearl?