Pop quiz… What do all of the following items have in common? Ready?
The microwave oven. X-Rays. Velcro. Radioactivity. Sweet N Low. The pacemaker. LSD. Playdoh. Penicillin. Viagra. Insulin. Vulcanized rubber. Corn Flakes. Teflon. Super Glue. Safety glass. Vaseline. And, finally, the Slinky.
The thing these items all have in common is that each one was discovered by accident. They are all “serendipitous discoveries.”
Serendipitous, or serendipity, is one of my favorite words—and not just because of the 2001 rom-com movie starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsdale—but because it means a fortunate development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. It means the phenomenon of finding valuable items or people or moments not sought for.
Serendipity is, as the great artist Bob Ross would say, a happy little accident.
It is something good that comes out of nowhere, unexpectedly.
Maybe it’s like an item I just rattled off, or maybe it’s a long lost item you thought was gone forever, but one day find.
Maybe you are burying your pet hamster, but when digging the hole you unearth a treasure chest.
Or maybe it’s going to a friend’s birthday party, and with no inkling or expectations you end up meeting the love of your life, who you marry and have two amazing children with.
All of them are examples of serendipitous discoveries. We’ve all have had them, and we can recall how joyful they were. Which is why a serendipitous discovery can be so important to our life—because it can change our lives.
These kind of discoveries can bring joy and hope. They can bring new perspectives and passion. They can bring just what we need, precisely when we need them.
Our Scripture reading is a serendipitous discovery that no doubt leads to a life changing event.
As we heard, the sons of Jacob have come to Egypt seeking food for their families during a time of famine, only to learn the person in charge of all the food was none other than their brother Joseph whom they had sold to traders years before.
Now at first read, this would not seem like a serendipitous discovery. Unless you’re Joseph who can now get back at his brothers for what they did so long ago.
But Joseph doesn’t do that.
And because he doesn’t the brothers have this serendipitous discovery on their quest for food, but thanks to Joseph the fortunate development, the phenomenal finding, the happy little accident doesn’t simply end with being fed. This serendipitous discovery brings to these brothers—who did a terrible thing years earlier—mercy and reconciliation—it brings them life changing, life sustaining grace.
This serendipitous discovery led Joseph and all of his brothers to find new life.
Jesus often invoked stories of serendipitous discovery to paint a picture of the kingdom of God.
In Matthew Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
Jesus is teaching that discovery plays a role in the life of faith. The kingdom of heaven can be discovered now— even accidentally.
The man in the parable is just passing through a field, and quite by happenstance, finds a treasure. Then, spurred by this serendipitous discovery, he goes to extreme efforts to secure of the field so he can keep the treasure. He makes a great investment to get it: He sells all he has.
Jesus is telling us the kingdom of heaven has that kind of value for our lives. It is worth the investment of all we possess.
Some of us, in our search for meaning, may be like the people of these stories. We are actively looking for something of value and suddenly it’s discovered—but still quite unexpectedly, and not in any manner thought possible.
The brothers of Joseph and the man of Jesus’ parable all had a choice—how would they respond? They brothers could have said, “It’s who?! Our brother we sold?! Might as well go back home and die.” The man in the parable could have said, “How much?! I’d have to sell everything. Pass.” Fortunately, all of them embraced the serendipitous discovery and didn’t let it slip away.
Discovery plays an immense role in the life of faith because God operates in this world in such a way that a primary means of connecting with God is through the seeking-discovery process.
But you might be surprised to learn that it’s not always us who make the discovery happen.
The prophet Jeremiah tells us God said, “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me …” (29:13-14).
This concept reminds me of the game hide-and-seek, which Violet and A.J. love to play. Only they play their own, revamped, version of this classic childhood game.
Imagine the scene, “Dad, let’s play hide and go seek.”
Me half asleep on the couch, an abysmal Cavs game on TV. “Ok, go hide. Daddy will count to a million.”
“No Daddy, you have to look for us.”
“Fine. 1…2…3…” all the way to 10 when I say, begrudgingly, “Ready of not here I come.”
By now the excitement is palpable—which actually makes the finding rather easy. Because you see, Violet and A.J. can’t stay hidden. In fact, they don’t want to stay hidden. Just moments into the search I can hear A.J. squeal with delight, while Violet exclaims in a not so hushed voice, “He’s coming!”
I of course employ some dramatic effect, “Now where could they be?” And it always ends with A.J. calling out, “Bet you can’t find me!” followed by an eruption of laughter and joy when I scoop them up and proclaim Hide-and-Seek victory!
That’s how God is.
God may seem hidden from us sometimes, but God can’t stay hidden. God wants to be found! When we seek God, when we are even just open to a different way, God says, “I will let you find me.”
It’s like God is exclaiming in a not so hushed voice: “I’m here! I’m here!”
Which means, like Joseph’s brothers and the man in Jesus’ parable, we have a choice when this serendipitous discovery presents itself.
How will we respond?
For the brothers and for the man, they chose to turn toward God who was saying, “I’m here! I’m here!”
What will we do?
The late M. Scott Peck, psychologist and author of The Road Less Traveled, tells a story about a serendipitous experience.
Peck had identified a force of goodness in the world, by using the word “serendipity,” which he defined as “the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for or expected.”
Peck also realized the word “grace” fit that definition, too—“the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for or expected.”
So he wrote about this force, using both words—serendipity and grace—terms that had never been used interchangeably before, both being used to support, explain, and teach life changing encounters.
It was several years later when Peck had a rather serendipitous encounter with serendipity—a word he revolutionized in his book that has since sold over five million copies.
Peck was on a flight to Minneapolis. He wanted to use the flight to do some writing, so when a man took the seat next to him, Peck stayed buried in his work and the man beside him opened a novel. Thus, they flew side by side without speaking. During an hour-long layover they also passed the time without speaking.
After sitting side by side for the first 45 minutes of the final leg of their flight, the man looked up from his novel and said, “I hate to bother you, but do you happen to know the meaning of the word ‘serendipity’?”
Remember—Peck was now a foremost authority of the meaning of the world serendipity. Talk about serendipitous. Needless to say, a conversation ensued.
Peck not only defined the word serendipity, but also talked about his book explaining that it was a kind of integration of psychology and religion.
Peck recalled the man saying, “Well, I don’t know about religion anymore,” from which the man went on to tell Peck how he was thinking of leaving the church.
In response, Peck told him that asking questions, and seeking discoveries helps individuals move from the hand-me-down religion of childhood to a deeper, mature, personal faith.
When the two landed in Minneapolis, the man said, “I don’t have the foggiest idea what all of this means, but I’m starting to think maybe I don’t have to leave the church after all.”
It was a serendipitous discovery for that man. He started to hear God saying, “I’m here! I’m here!”
In about ten days we are going to begin the season of Lent.
Lent is a time intentionally designed for discovery. It is a time for us to deepen our faith by asking questions and seeking discoveries. It is a time for serendipity—for fortunate developments, for chance beneficial events, for happy little accidents.
Lent is a time for us to hear again God saying, “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here with all the grace and love you need.”
How will we respond? Amen.