“The Pursuit of Greatness”

July 27, 2014
Jonathan Rumburg
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

It’s a dish that is a little more than 18 inches in diameter, made of sterling silver.  Around the rim appears the goddess Minerva.

There’s nothing on the dish about tennis, which is strange, given the fact that it’s the trophy awarded to the ladies’ singles champion at Wimbledon—the tennis tournament that ended just a few weeks ago, this year won by Petra Kvitová. (Ka-vit-a-va)

It’s called the Venus Rosewater Dish, and the “Venus” part was there long before Venus Williams won it five times.

Now if you were to run across this dish you might say that it looks like something that should be propped up in your grandmother’s china cabinet.

But if you’re a tennis player, the Dish is a precious treasure, a holy grail, a pearl of great value.

Players from around the world push themselves to their physical and mental limits— training, practicing, focusing, competing— hoping to be able to play at Wimbledon, and achieve greatness by winning the Venus Rosewater Dish.

Of course, this is just tennis.  There’s no lack of prizes that people pursue with passion and determination.  Consider for instance:

The Borg-Warner Trophy awarded to the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

On this giant cup of a trophy are the sculpted faces of each winner, and the cup’s hollow body is reportedly able to hold 48 twelve ounce beers.

Golfers all know about the Green Jacket, given to the winner of the Masters Golf Tournament.

Winners are thrilled to wear the coveted Green Jacket, even though it’s really not the kind of jacket you’d wear unless you had just won the Masters.

For the winners of the Boston marathon an Olive Wreath is placed on their heads.

These olive branches are cut from groves in Marathon, Greece, the scene of the battle from which the original marathoner, a man named Pheidippides (FI-dip-a-dees),  ran to announce the Athenian victory in 490 B.C.  Of course after making his grand announcement, he dropped over dead.

Then of course, for the four major North American sports, there’s Hockey’s “Stanley Cup”, Baseball’s abysmally named “Commissioner’s Trophy”, football’s “Lombardi Trophy” and basketball’s “Larry O’Brien Trophy”  all of which have never graced the presence of Northeast Ohio—But that’s all going to change now that the King has returned, right?  I certainly hope so, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

If you are an athlete, then it’s prizes like these that you long to achieve.

If you are a fan of these sports, then it’s these prizes you hope and pray your team or favorite player will win.

If you’re an actor, then an Oscar or Tony is your dream.

If you’re a singer, a Grammy.

If you’re a scientist, economist, or philanthropist then you strive for a Noble Prize.

Writers strive for Pulitzers.  (Pastor’s pray for sabbaticals!)

All of these prizes and achievements are pursed with passion and purpose, using every ounce of a person’s mind, heart, soul, and strength.

It is often called the pursuit of greatness, which is a concept that has been around for centuries.

Even when we read our passage for today, Matthew 13, we discover another set of prizes that people pursue with passion and purpose, using every ounce of their heart, soul, mind and strength.

For one it is a field with a hidden treasure.

For another it is a pearl of great price.

For yet others it is a robust catch.

And though they are different parables, Jesus has the same unifying theme.  These treasures are all illustrations of, metaphors for, the kingdom of God.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

“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.”

Today, if we were sharing these parables we might say to tennis players, The kingdom of heaven is like the Venus Rosewater Dish.  To rabid baseball fans, like a World Series Ring.

Pick your metaphor and it all means that the Kingdom of God is something great that ought to be pursued—striven for at all costs, even if it means giving up all we have.

That’s what athlete’s and actor’s do when it comes to their pursuits.

The question becomes then, as those who call themselves Christians, how do we pursue the kingdom of God?

Are we pursuing the kingdom of God with the passion of Wimbledon tennis players, America’s Cup sailors, and World Series sluggers?

Do we have attitudes of determination and desire?

Do we have the sense that we are on a mission?

How are we, as Christians, in pursuit of greatness?

The person who finds treasure in a field “goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

The merchant who found a pearl of great value “went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

That’s focus.  That’s sacrifice.  That’s passion and purpose.

Jesus is telling us today it takes focus and passion to pursue a heavenly prize.  It takes faith, risk, sacrifice, and trust to pursue the kingdom of God.

Do we have such?  Do we live such?

If we don’t, then it’s time we learn and do such.

Author, A.J. Jacobs modeled focus, passion faith, risk, sacrifice, and trust when he decided to spend an entire year living the Bible— literally.

After spending months meticulously compiling the rules, laws, and ways of life outlined in the Bible, Jacobs began to live a life that reflected what he interpreted as a faithful way of life.

He packed away any of his clothes that were made of mixed fibers, since this is prohibited in Leviticus 19:19.

He made a commitment to stop lying, speaking evil, gossiping, complaining and despising his neighbor— which was exceptionally difficult while living in New York City.

He let his beard grow, he even sought out an adulterer who would let Jacobs stone him—which if you read his book is among the funnier stories.

Jacobs, Jewish born but turned agnostic, did this because he was impressed by the power of religion as “an enduring force.”

He chronicles his efforts in his book, “A Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.”

While his yearlong efforts created fun and humors stories, the end result had the most lasting impact.  What amazed Jacobs most was how this focus, passion faith, risk, sacrifice, and trust changed him.

For instance, one day at lunch, in an effort to practice prayer, before taking a bite of hummus and pita bread, he stood up, closed his eyes and said, “I’d like to thank God for the land that He provided so that this food might be grown.”

Jacob admits that this prayer was enough to satisfy the law, especially for a beginner, but he tells how his practices had revealed that his gratitude went further, and so should his prayer.

So he continued praying, “I’d like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus.  And the workers who picked the chickpeas.  And the truckers who drove them to the store.  And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone’s deli and told me, ‘Lots of love.  Amen.’”

Jacobs concludes this account writing, “Now that I type it, it sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle Easter spread.  But saying it feels good.”

A.J. Jacobs discovered that giving thanks to God feels good.  It makes him feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of his place in the world.

His prayer of gratitude reminded him that food doesn’t spontaneously appear in his refrigerator, and that he’s lucky to have food at all.

Such insights and epiphanies have changed Jacobs and they have made him a better person.

But more so, his pursuit to live biblically showed: the relevance of biblical living, religions call for critical self-reflection, and the powerful results of authentic faith.

Jacob’s had no idea what would come from his year of living biblically, but the stakes are always high when you pick a prize and pursue it.

Earthly prizes are fairly easy to identify—whether they be winning championships, achieving sales goals, losing weight, or gaining an advanced degree.  But heavenly prizes?  Those are a bit more difficult to visualize.

Nonetheless though, we should still pursue them because by pursuing heavenly prizes, by pursuing the kingdom of God, we are pursuing greatness.

When it comes to the pursuit of greatness as Christians we know what our Venus Rosewater Dish is.  We know what our Lombardi trophy, our Commissioner’s Trophy, our Larry O’Brien trophy, our Stanley Cup, our Green Jacket, is.

For Christian’s the pursuit of greatness is the kingdom of God—which is far, far greater than all those trophies and prizes combined.

But it will require our focus, passion, faith, risk, sacrifice, and trust—which, yes, is tough news to hear, but the good news is that we don’t have to win any world championships to live a life that is pleasing to God.  (That is especially good news for us Cleveland fans.)

Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that grows into “the greatest of shrubs.”

And he says that the kingdom “is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

What Jesus was saying, is that small acts can lead to great results.  Small acts of love and faithfulness can transform the world around us, changing both ourselves and our communities for the better.

And what all of this means then is that our efforts of focus, passion, faith, risk, sacrifice, and trust don’t have to be so monumental that this world awards us a trophy.

Rather  our efforts only need to be faithful to the call God has given us, because in the end, the Venus Rosewater Dish is just a silver plate, the Stanley Cup is just a bowl, the green jacket is just a jacket—they are earthly prizes.

Sure, such earthly prizes can be reminders of the importance of pursuing greatness, but may we, in our Christian lives, strive to bring these qualities to life, in pursuit of the greatest greatness there is—the kingdom of God.  Amen.

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