The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge on November 16, 2015

The following homily was preached by The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Dean and President of Seminary of the Southwest, on Monday, November 16, 2015.

“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.”
Matthew 13:44

“Treasure” is an Old School word for wealth – wealth, but without the negative associations. Treasure is antiquated – sparkling, valuable, heavy, and precious. Seeking after it is almost part of the word, built into it. Think: “hidden treasure” “treasure island” “treasure hunter.”

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Image in the public domain. Available on https://pixabay.com/

When my sister Jennifer was young, she had a “Rust Club.” She looked for and collected old metal things that had rusted and she arranged them in a secret place in the woods away from our house. As the months went by she collected more and more items: rusty nails, lots of those, what we used to call “tin” cans, a couple of skeleton keys, and many, many license plates.

Because it was a “club” you had to be admitted as a member. Then you would be taken to the hidden place and you could enjoy the wonder of the collection of rust. It was a very small club – she and a friend and I think, eventually, me too. Her rust collection was her treasure.

Margaret of Scotland 1093, married to Malcolm, possessed treasure. And she used it for good works, founding schools, orphanages, hospitals, and monasteries. She rebuilt the monastery at Iona. She was a devout person, who cared about things liturgical – Lent, Roman Mass, the Lord’s Day on Sunday, regular communion. We remember her, and the Scots do, for her devotion to God, her care for her eight children, and her care for the people of her country.

She had treasure and spent it to heal, to educate, to care for, and to pray.

In the parables of the kingdom of heaven, treasure is something you seek, something you don’t already have. It’s “good fortune,” “accident,” “bonus,” “unclaimed prize.” In Monopoly, the card: “bank error in your favor.”

The parable is from the point of view of the have-not – a peasant or a child.

The Kingdom is lost by someone, Found, then hidden, then discovered, then kept secret while enough money can be amassed to make an offer on that ordinary field of dirt, so that you could own it, and under the dirt, you would dig up and rediscover the treasure.

“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.”

Today the scripture directs our attention to the kingdom of heaven — an old school, quaint, beautiful, world.

Not the world of terrorist bombs and retaliatory attacks.

Not the world of devastated lives and families, of straightforward narratives of good and evil, success and failure.

The kingdom of heaven is elusive and not obvious. It is lost and found and hidden and bought and likely lost again. The kingdom of heaven is what we long to glimpse and to linger in and to trust. The kingdom of heaven is what Jesus preached is very near. Even today, even in Paris, even in these particular challenging circumstances, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure; it has seeking built right into it.

Let us seek it.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, Margaret’s, that became places to pray and live and learn. The kingdom of heaven is like rusty stuff that other people threw away that you seek and find and arrange with love and with joy invite your friends to join.

Amen.

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge (@cbkittredge) is the Dean & President of Seminary of the Southwest.  She believes that historical and literary study of scripture in its ancient context can inform and nourish the imagination for faithful preaching and teaching. Professor Kittredge, a contributor to The New Oxford Annotated Bible and the Women’s Bible Commentary, is the author of Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John and Community and Authority: The Rhetoric of Obedience in the Pauline Tradition. She co-edited The Bible in the Public Square: Reading the Signs of the Times and Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.

Dr. Scott Bader-Saye on October 27, 2015


When I pause to attend to the cadences of the culture—the messages of movies and music, media and the marketplace, I find myself pulled toward two edges. One edge is characterized by optimism peppered with denial. The logic here seems to be, if we can corporately deny our problematic past, we can embrace an optimistic future. This is Disney and beer commercials and politicians who are committed to, in the copyrighted words of Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again.” The other edge is characterized by despair, the post-apocalyptic obsession with coming catastrophe and the disempowerment that such visions foster. This is Hunger Games and Doomsday Preppers and all things zombie.

Somewhere between optimism and despair lies hope. But hope is a tricky posture to maintain. It’s not a simple middle ground. It’s complicated and ambiguous. Augustine (1) says that all virtues have a kindred vice and a contrary vice. Despair is certainly the contrary vice to hope, and one would be hard pressed to confuse the two. But optimism is a kindred vice—it looks close enough to hope that we sometimes mistake them.

I once responded to a friend going through a difficult time by giving her a Bible verse to read. This is not my usual M.O., though after spending my teenage and college years deeply entrenched in American evangelicalism, one might forgive my reflex to grab a memory verse and throw it at the problem. I suggested that my friend take comfort in Jeremiah 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Good verse, right?

The verse had meant something to me when I was walking through my own period of darkness in my 29th year. But my friend was unimpressed. Somehow an isolated Bible verse lobbed into her grief did not feel comforting. I think had come across as peddling optimism rather than offering hope. “God doesn’t have a plan,” she told me. It wasn’t my finest moment of pastoral care. (In my defense, we were texting at the time and there is a limit to what can be done in that medium.)

The thing is this. Hope does sometimes seem cheap and unbelievable, especially when it is pressed upon you by someone telling you “you should be hopeful” even when everything around you says, “this is hopeless.” We sometimes make hope do the work of providing sure and certain good news, when such assurances can only appear to be elaborate stratagems of denial.

In fact, our psalm this morning leans toward a kind of easy, aphoristic hope that evades the ambiguity most of us live with. “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves” (Psalm 126:6, BCP). As my colleague, Steve Bishop, notes, there is a “force of certainty that is central to [this] psalm.” Although the psalm begins deep in the depths of Israel’s particular history of struggle, it ends with a generalized adage that seems a bit too easy when faced with, say, the suffering of Job or the passion of Jesus, the loss of a job or the death of a parent.

There is a kind of hope that relies on the heroic god, the righteous king, the all-powerful parent who will clean up the mess and put things right. Hope, then, becomes a heroic gesture, sure and solid, relying on the guaranteed good outcome. But real hope is what is left when our heroes are gone and we realize that we are the only grown-ups around and we can’t fix what’s gone wrong. Hope is what is left when we come face to face with a problem that does not have a solution, a story that will not have a good ending.

Paul seems to be wrestling with this kind of complicated and obscure hope in the passage we read from Romans. He writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption” (Rom 8:22-23). By invoking the metaphor of labor pains, Paul turns the groans of creation from hopeless suffering to productive exertion. But then, when he focuses in on our suffering, human suffering, he shifts the metaphor. Our groaning is not imaged as the fruitful suffering of labor, but as the powerless suffering of the orphan—we groan, he says, “while we wait for adoption.” By shifting the metaphor, Paul leaves us with a groaning that does not contain its own resolution but which waits for an event that may or may not come. Perhaps this is why Paul tells us that hope, by definition, does not see that which is hoped for. There is no guarantee that this is going to work out. That’s why it’s hope.

If I were to try again with the friend who received my uplifting-bible-verse-as-pastoral-care moment, I might say something more like this: Hope is not an answer to suffering, but a way of suffering. A way of waiting. Not exactly waiting with expectation—that presumes too much—but waiting without blocking, waiting for a glimpse of something beyond the groaning, a spark of light, a moment of grace. It is a waiting without seeing. In times of grief we can’t see what a future would look like; suffering atrophies our imagination. And so, lacking sight, we rely on others—a friend or two who can walk alongside, help navigate the darkness, and remind us that what is now invisible may one day become visible.

Poet and essayist, Christian Wiman, has written about his own rebirth of faith after his diagnosis with cancer. He observes, “Christ comes alive in the communion between people,” but, he adds, “I’m not sure you can have communion with other people without … moments in which sorrow has opened in you, and for you.” (2)

Maybe that’s what we hope for in this groaning that Paul describes. Not the superhero, not the saving parent, not the fix. Just the carving out of space in the self within which some sharing of life can bloom.

That, I think, is what I wish I had said to my friend.


1 Augustine cited in Thomas Aquinas, Summa II-II, q. 21, a. 3.

2 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 20.