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Southern Bread

July 31, 2017

“Southern Bread” Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 © 7.30.17 Ordinary 17A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was growing up in south Georgia, there was a popular TV commercial for a particular brand of white sandwich bread. It featured an animated character—a Confederate colonel complete with white goatee and gold braid. He would say in an exaggerated accent: “I’d even go North for Southern Bread.” (“Ah’d even go Nawth for Suth’n Bread.”)

The advertisers, of course, wanted us to believe that their product was of such superior quality that a gentleman born and bred on Tara or some other plantation would leave the red clay and beautiful hoop-skirted belles of Georgia (“Jawja”) or the distinctive delights of any of the other states in our part of the country and go to New York or Chicago or Boston if those Yankee cities were the only places to get his beloved bread. The cost in energy, time, money, homesickness, and culture shock might be great, even prohibitive. But the taste of just a morsel of Southern Bread on the palate was worth any sacrifice.

No doubt each of us could identify something we possess that cost us as dearly as a trip north (“nawth”) by a Confederate officer. But the meaning it gives us, the pleasure it brings, the mere joy of having it, the memory of the adventure and surprise of finding it—all this and more make the investment of our resources seem paltry by comparison.

I felt that way when I bought my first Ovation guitar. I discovered those wonderful instruments when I was working on my Master of Divinity in the mid-1970s. One of my housemates, Ernie, owned one, and I wanted it badly. My cheap Yamaha became an embarrassment, but it was all I had, and at least it was better than the awful Alvarez nylon string I had learned on. Ernie wouldn’t let me borrow his Ovation, and being a student with no job, I couldn’t afford to buy my own.

Soon after I moved to my first call in Mobile, AL, though, my Yamaha was stolen from my car, where I had carelessly left it after a youth meeting. Now was the moment! The basic acoustic Ovation with a case cost $500 in 1977. That would be the equivalent of over $2000 today. I would have to take out a loan to pay for it, but even though I was 25, I had no credit except a Gulf Oil gasoline card Daddy had gotten for me. So one of the prominent men in the church—“Mr. Bob” he was called—co-signed the note. It took me awhile to pay off what I borrowed, and I was also paying insurance on the instrument, so that nice suit or a dinner out with a girlfriend had to wait. But I got what I wanted, and the instrument is still with me 40 years later. Because it has a solid spruce top, it sounds better today than in 1977.

Any harm done by my large expenditure was only to myself. But sometimes, in getting what we believe we must have at whatever the cost, we hurt others and undermine our own future. The addict, whether to drugs or gambling or a favorite sport or hobby, will spend any amount, concoct any strategy, tell any lie, neglect his or her family and friends, to buy the next snort of cocaine or purchase the next collectible object or bag the prize turkey or deer half a continent away. All of life is given over to owning what is considered a treasure or a “must-have” for survival, competing with friends or keeping up appearances. But what is so highly prized doesn’t really have value sufficient to justify what it took to get it.

A cartoon I once saw pictured two corporate executives in suits talking in an opulent office. One is seated behind a desk, on which is a bell jar with a baby’s teething ring inside. The man tells his colleague that the object belonged to a famous infant, the son of a celebrity. “I had to lay off most of the employees of the company to afford it,” he says matter-of-factly. “But it was worth it to own a piece of history.”

The man in the funny papers was willing to take food and housing and medical care and financial security from people to have a silly teething ring in a jar. Others who throw away their money feeding their addiction to getting and having this or that could have spent their thousands on gifts to a charity or at least their relatives at Christmas. Single-minded determination to possess something whatever the human cost is immoral. It harms others in the promotion of a self-centered agenda.

We may wonder if the two people in Jesus’ story were so oblivious to others. But if that’s what we want to know, we’re going to be disappointed. Our Lord tells us next to nothing about his characters.

In the first story, the lucky guy is a hired hand who’s out plowing or digging. He doesn’t tell the owner of the property what he’s found and reburied. Instead, he keeps his good fortune to himself until he can possess what has become for him a field of dreams.

The second man is a merchant. We don’t know anything about his ethics, like whether he treats his customers fairly or not. We have no idea if he’s in good standing with the Better Business Bureau and the local Chamber of Commerce. All we’re told is that he sells everything he has to possess something of surpassing value, a pearl. He and the other man give their livelihood to know the joy of the thing of beauty, the treasure beyond compare.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like that. It’s worth everything we have and are to know God, to have him at the center of our lives as Sovereign and Provider. Nothing else can come close to the joy of it. No one else can satisfy our longing like the One who created, redeemed, and sustains us.

Sometimes like the pearl merchant scouring the markets looking for perfection, we’re on a quest for meaning. We long for something that makes life worthwhile, and like the merchant with his pearl, we keep looking until we find it.

Our search usually leads us to ask a number of questions. Ken Burns, the well-known producer of documentaries about the American experience, once summarized our queries in an interview about his movies. “Each film asks the same deceptively simple question: Who am I?” he said. “This is the resounding question that has animated all the great religions. Why am I here? What is my purpose? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is bigger than me?” (The Christian Century, 7/15/08: 33).

Those are phrased in different ways as we move through life, but they’re always the same questions. From around 13 to about 35, we pose them pretty much as stated, and that’s what adolescence, emerging adulthood, and young adulthood are about. Then the man or woman in middle age might ask “what have I accomplished?” or if there has been great achievement “What’s next?” That’s the question of generativity. The older person may wonder “What can I do now that my health is going or gone?” “With more years behind than ahead, what can I hope for?” We could imagine other ways of wondering about issues of career and work, sexuality and marriage and parenting, discipleship and faith.

I think that whatever our stage of life, at the root of our being we want to be noticed and valued, to make a difference, to love and be loved. Day by day we’re gifted with and afforded such meaning and fulfillment, since every experience of joy, gladness, exhilaration, giddiness or glee; every relationship that enriches, challenges, enlivens and/or satisfies us are foretastes of the glory of the kingdom, where joy and love have no bounds.

Sadly, we and our neighbors also fill our lives with poor substitutes or temporary fixes for the longing that’s deep in our hearts. We acquire and consume. We seek and exercise power. We pursue pleasure and profit. And all this sometimes with little or no thought for how our actions affect the welfare of others. As the famous spiritual writer Thomas Merton once put it, we may spend our whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find that it was placed against the wrong wall.

St. Augustine centuries ago told us or reminded us what’s really going on. He said that God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The hole inside us is God-shaped, so only God can fill it. Our seeking will not end until we discover the special treasure called “the kingdom of God,” until our lives are centered in and defined by the joy and the glory of the One who made us and calls us, and we have learned what will bring lasting meaning and what will not, what will promote wholeness and what will not. The goal is for our lives to be what the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls “constant communion,” “constant intentional prayer,” so that our “conscious and loving existence gives glory to God” (Falling Upward: xxviii-xxix).

But if some folk are actively looking for what makes life worthwhile, others happen upon it, like the man plowing in a field. And it may be that at one time we look, at another time we are surprised. We experience serendipity, an unexpected and unsought, but welcome, discovery.

Treasure is found in the oddest places. One of the classic comedy films of the past 30 years is City Slickers. In the movie, Billy Crystal, now 69, is Mitch, a 38 year-old ad executive with a radio station. He used to be a go-getter, but he’s lost his drive, his imagination, his confidence. His son is ashamed of him. His wife is tired of his perpetual sadness. Mitch has lost his smile.

So, with two old and good friends, he goes to a dude ranch in Colorado for a cattle drive. There he meets a tough-as-nails real cowboy named Curly. They end up riding the trail alone together, and somehow become friends. Curly reminds Mitch that the secret of life is one thing, unique to each person. I doubt Curly ever read the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, but their thoughts are similar. It seems that for both the cowboy and the scholar, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

Mitch takes the advice to heart, and in the end, rediscovers his smile through his adventure. He says to his wife in amazement: “You know where it was? In Colorado!” There it was, in the middle of a vacation. Maybe Mitch was looking for meaning, but he had no idea where to find it. But in the conversation with Curly, a fresh outlook, a new joy found him. Frederick Buechner put it this way: “There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak—even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys…. Listen for him” (The Sacred Journey: 77).

Indeed, in the midst of our lives, as we work, play, study, grow, whatever we do, wherever we are, we encounter the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. The God who made us plants surprises all over the place, just waiting to be dug up and discovered. With Buechner again: “Joy…is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it” (Wishful Thinking: 47). And another comment by Richard Rohr: “[G]reat love is always a discovery, a revelation, a wonderful surprise, a falling into ‘something’ much bigger and deeper that is literally beyond us and larger than us” (Falling Upward: xxvii). Our Creator invites us to experience the joy of the kingdom, the priceless treasure that’s worth everything we have and are.

The Southern gentleman was willing even to go north for Southern Bread, which for him was life’s greatest treasure, an essential for survival. We belong to a God whose Son, as the hymn put it, left his throne and his kingly crown when he came to Earth for us (“Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” by Emily Elliott, 1864). He took the form of a servant, becoming obedient even at the cost of his life. He gave his all, because for him, we are the treasure worth everything.

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