By Pastor Allen Schoonover
My sisters and brothers in Christ: Grace be to you and peace from the God who is, who was, and who is still yet to come. Amen.
Today’s an important day in the life of our Lutheran Church. Way back in 1517 a monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a piece of parchment onto a church door. With that simple act Luther opened the floodgates on a movement that would become known as “The Reformation.” It’s a movement that forever changed the way people think of the church and of faith.
Today is a special day for another reason. We’re celebrating an important day in the life of Kelly, as he is brought into God’s family — and ours here at Resurrection — through his baptism. Today Kelly is set free from sin. Through his baptismal washing he receives eternal life — a permanent relationship with God that nothing on this earth will ever break.
There are many things in life that would offer us freedom and security. Our country was founded on the principles of religious and political freedom. Madison Avenue advertisers offer us products galore that would promise us freedom — if only we would purchase them.
And then, there’s this Jesus character. He, too, offers us a freedom of sorts. If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free (John 8.31-32). The folks following Jesus then didn’t quite get it, and we have trouble with it even today.
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John Steinbeck has written a story called “The Pearl.” It points out vividly how the very things that are meant to free us are sometimes the very things that bind us. It’s a story that also reminds us of the cost associated with defeating evil and sin in the world.
It is the story of a poor couple named Kino and Juana and their infant son, Coyotito. Kino is a pearl diver. One day, Coyotito is stung by a scorpion; they take him to the doctor, but because they are poor the doctor cannot be bothered to treat him. So Juana treats him with family remedies, and Coyotito survives.
While diving for pearls that day, Kino finds an old oyster which yields a pearl the size of an extra, extra large chicken egg. All the other divers and their families are happy that Kino found what they call the “pearl of the world.” His success is their success.
There is much hope and promise for Juana and Kino in such a pearl! Looking into it Kino can see all the basic things he wants to provide for his family but can not because of their poverty: new clothes, a church wedding for him and Juana, schooling for Coyotito; a harpoon to make fishing easier, a rifle.
The pearl meant a whole new life for them. A life free from many of the hardships they had known. How ironic, then, that their means to the freedom they wanted is the very thing that attacks them. Rather than hope and joy the pearl brings them nothing but misery.
When they try to sell it to the pearl buyers in town, the buyers work it out among themselves to offer only a ridiculously low price — one-fiftieth of its true value. Kino refuses sell and decides to go to the city where they might get a fairer price.
From there, evil multiplies around them. The village priest and the doctor try to ingratiate themselves into the family, so that they might share in the profit. Twice people try to steal the pearl. Kino is beaten severely during one attempt, and stabbed during the second. He and Juana fight because of the pearl. She believes the pearl has brought evil on their family and that Kino should throw it back. Their home is ransacked and burned down because the searchers could not find the pearl. They are forced to flee into the mountains for their life. Three men track them down and in the ensuing confrontation the infant son, Coyotito, is shot and killed by one of the trackers.
Now, when Kino looks in the pearl he sees only pain and death, not hope and promise. The story ends with him and Juana returning to their village and throwing the pearl back into the sea.
Steinbeck’s story points out an important biblical truth: our security in life does not rest on our possessions or our efforts. In Jesus’ day, some were relying on their ancestry as Jews to be in a right relationship with God. Jesus called them on it. He reminded them that anyone and everyone who sins is responsible for their actions. Anyone who sins cannot be freed from their sin through their own efforts or arrangements. That freedom comes from God alone.
In a nutshell, Luther held up this same truth to the church in his day. The issue wasn’t ancestry, but money. Specifically, it was whether people could purchase their way into heaven through a practice called indulgences. Supposedly, a family member could purchase an indulgence for a dead loved-one. They were sold by a representative of the pope, and this indulgence would lessen the amount of time the loved one would spend in purgatory before going to heaven. It was quite a money making scheme; however, it had no basis in Scripture, and it was really bad theology.
But there is something seductively attractive about being able to fix our relationship with God. It’s something we can do; something over which I have control. And as society tells us, we’re supposed to be masters and mistresses of our own destinies. That’s why many of our ancestors came to this great country — to get out from under another country’s thumb and make a life for themselves. And now, we’re left with that Puritan work ethic which says if we work hard enough, we can be anything we want to be. But as Jesus points out, this outlook doesn’t have a very good basis in Scripture, and it’s really bad theology.
No, the Apostle Paul puts it better in his letter to the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2.8-10). Our restored relationship with God is God’s gift to us; our life-long response is saying “thank you” to God by sharing with others the love we have first received.
Something else important about the story from Steinbeck. In “The Pearl” evil so surrounds the family that it catches up with them and it kills their firstborn son, Coyotito. That’s quite a cost — the life of the child. Yet we must also realize that wiping out sin has a cost. It cost the life of another first born son — God’s only son Jesus — in order to wipe clean our slates. However, that power of love and divine grace is stronger than anything we humans might throw in it’s path.
It’s a power of love and grace that will hold Kelly throughout his life. It’ s a power that will guide and strengthen us in our faith, no matter where our lives take us. It’s a power which will inspire and nurture us as a congregation as we move ahead into this next chapter of ministry together.
And for this we can say, Thanks be to God!
— Copyright 2004, Allen Schoonover, used by permission.