The Locked Box
Once upon a time, there was a little girl, and the little girl had a magic box, and inside the magic box lay a great treasure, though the box was small. The box had been passed on to the girl from her grandfather when he died, who had received it from his grandfather, who received it from his great uncle, and so on. It had been in the family for generations, so long in fact, that no one quite remembered what precisely the treasure inside the box was, for it had not been opened in a very long time.
Throughout the family history, many feuds had erupted over who got the box next, as it passed without much rhyme or reason from one generation to the next. Sometimes to the first-born, sometimes to the last-born, sometimes to the son, sometimes to the daughter—the box was passed along to whomever the box so desired, but there was always much dissent among the children of the next generation as to whether the box had chosen wisely. It was even rumored that many years ago, blood had been shed in a duel for the box, but no matter what, the box always ended up where the box wanted. The fights continued, despite their futility.
When the little girl got the box, she was very much surprised as no one expected the box to choose her. She was very small and young and unaccomplished, and yet still the box bypassed all the more worthy members of the family and came to be in her possession. She treasured this box very, very much for it was the only precious thing she’d ever owned. She set it high on a shelf in her room, and she admired it at length every night before she fell asleep.
One evening, while gazing at her box, she had an idea, and this idea was so moving, she did not sleep a wink the rest of the night. In the morning, she ran to her father right away. “Papa,” she inquired, “I’d like to know: Where’s the key to my box?” Her father started and raised his eyebrows. “The key? Why would you want the key?”
“Well, I was just thinking, I’d really like to open my box.”
“Open your box? My dear, why would you need to open it? Isn’t it enough that you have the box? Just having the box in your possession, why, that is so much more than most people in our family have been honored to do!”
The girl furrowed her brow. “Well, yes, I suppose so. But I just keep thinking, maybe the box chose me for a reason, and maybe I would better understand that reason if I could peak inside and know what I have?”
Her father frowned. “The reason you have the box is to keep it safe until it is your turn to pass it on. That is how it has always been in our family, and you wouldn’t want to mess with tradition now would you?”
“No. No, I don’t suppose I would want that . . . but still . . .” the girl sighed and retreated to her room. She took the box off the shelf and held it in her lap. She turned it round and round, examined the lock, shook it gently to see if she could hear anything inside. She was meant to open it; she just knew it. But how? She didn’t even know where to find a key, and if her father knew where the key was, he wasn’t about to tell her where it was.
“I know where the key is.” The girl jumped at the sound of her mother’s voice. Her mother was standing at the doorway edge, peering in at her.
“You do?” she never expected her mother to know, seeing as how she had married into this family and its strange traditions. “How do you know and where is it and how could I get it?” she gushed all at once.
Her mother smiled. “I have always felt I was meant to help you open it, and so I’ve been doing some digging to find out about the key—it was the only way I am able to help you, being an outsider.” Then her mother’s face became grave. “But what I learned makes a mother’s heart grow cold. The key is hidden far away and you will have to embark on a long and dangerous journey to retrieve it.”
“But I must go!” said the girl decidedly.
Her mother sighed. “I knew you would say that, if I told you. I am afraid for you, but I cannot go with you. It is a journey only the box-bearer can make. Are you sure you want to?”
The girl hesitated, but she already knew her answer. “Yes, I’m sure. This is why I was chosen.”
“Yes, I believe you’re right.”
“Mother? I have another question. When was the last time the box-bearer tried to open the box?”
“I do not know. Many, many, many generations ago.”
“Why has no one tried to open it since?”
“I do not know that either. I think perhaps your grandfather thought having the box on his shelf was nicer than facing the dangers of hunting down the key.”
“Well, I disagree.”
“Me too, my child. Me too.”
And that was the beginning of the box-bearer’s journey to find the key . . .
You know that drawer in your home, where random stuff accumulates? The place where, among other things, you collect keys? Keys to old locks, keys that you can’t remember what they go to, keys that you don’t need very often, but might just need again. Eventually you’ve got so many keys it is too daunting to ever pull them out because it would take hours to sort through and find out what goes where, but you’re too afraid to throw them away just in case there’s something that needs to be unlocked.
Well, imagine that the spiritual life is like sorting through a box of keys. It is slow and tedious work. But this is your Spiritual Work—not the shifting through keys per se, but the Unlocking of Locked Things. Spiritual life is this: unlocking your gratitude, unlocking your joy, unlocking your freedom, your talent, your capacity for love, unlocking your call, unlocking your inner spring, your true wisdom, your vivacious spirit. Unlock, unlock, unlock.
It’s like this: God planted so many good things inside us when we were first formed by his hands, and yet evil came along and twisted things shut and added padlocks, and though by the grace of God we’ve been forgiven, it is a life long process to open back up. Sometimes we give up on the spiritual process of healing and opening because it feels as fruitless and time consuming as sorting through the junk drawer, looking for old keys to unlock lost treasures, but there’s a nagging curiosity that eventually draws us back to the work of sorting, unlocking, sorting, unlocking.
It’s the vice of greed that shuts this operation down. Greed is shutting the doors that were meant to swing open. Greed is tightening and closing and grasping and shutting and locking and hoarding and clutching—that is, taking the stuff that was meant to be gift and breath to us and fearfully squeezing the life out of it.
So this man approaches Jesus and wants Jesus to tell his brother to give him part of the inheritance; Jesus is a man of justice, surely he can arbitrate. You can almost hear Jesus sigh; this is not what the Kingdom is about. But with Jesus, no one’s question is ever dismissed. Every thing you could think to say to Jesus—self-centered or distracted or misplaced as it might be—everything you say, he’s ready to open up an opportunity for you to learn. And so that’s what he did with this man. He looked him in the eye and said, let me tell you a story about a rich man.
Only, it’s a pretty boring story. The man is rich. He gets richer when his crops do well. So he plans to build some big barns to store the grain. And once it is stored, then he’ll know he’s set for life, and he can sit back, relax, and enjoy life. So, basically, it’s as if I were to tell you, Once upon a time, a middle class man was doing fairly well for himself, and one year he did even better than usual, and he thought to himself, “I’m going to open a retirement account, and once I have ample goods laid up for many years, I will finally relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”
See what I mean? This is hardly a story. It’s just a description of, you know, our lives. In essence, retirement planning, against which there are no laws or commandments that I’m aware of. In fact, it’s what the responsible people do; they plan ahead. This is the kind of man who would make my parents proud. Then comes the twist in the story. “You fool!” says God to the man, which is startling for me and for some reason I think of Gandalf right before he goes plummeting off the cliff with the balrog, “Fly you fools!” and that just seems a little dramatic for this ordinary, average, just-like-every-body-else man’s life. Turns out the man’s about to die, so I guess that is a little bit dramatic. But we didn’t see it coming. You’re never thinking about an early death when you’re planning for retirement. You’re planning for a long life, and surely there’s nothing foolish about that, unless of course, you’re about to die and your last day would have been better spent playing with the children rather than balancing the books, but who can predict that?
So what’s Jesus’ point? Never make plans? “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” are Jesus’ exact words and this brings us right back to the whole business of clutching vs. opening, locking versus unlocking. Here’s a man who has been blessed, and he wants to lock his blessings up in a barn, and when his stuff outgrows the barn and threatens to spill over, why, he’ll just tear up that barn and build a bigger one. Can’t have grain peaking out the crevices, now can we? That might start to feel like abundance, if you can see the excess, and that’s the thing greed hates the very most, for you to notice how much you have. Bigger barns, bigger storage units, bigger houses, bigger closets—these help to hide the truth of what you have so you can keep on feeling panicky about what you don’t have or what you might lose if you don’t hold on tight enough.
Greed is not just about money and possessions, by the way, though those things can certainly trip you up. Greed is anytime we hold on too tight. It’s anytime we believe the lie that there isn’t enough. It’s anytime we shut the door on trust. It’s anytime we operate out of fear of the future rather than with a sense of adventure. It’s like we keep passing locked boxes on from one generation to the next and never opening them. We’re too afraid to take a real peak, to enjoy what we’ve been given.
I’ve been reading a book called Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, and she writes about the discomfort of what she calls “foreboding joy,” that is, how joy makes us vulnerable because we grow afraid that the joy means we’re about to face loss. Have you ever felt this way? Often we use the phrase, “too good to be true” because we just know something bad is bound to happen. Maybe we even lower our expectations in life so as to save ourselves the disappointment. She interviewed one man who said he used to think the best way to live life was to expect the worst—that way, if the worst happened, you were prepared; if it didn’t happen, you could be pleasantly surprised. Then his wife died in a car accident, and he realized, expecting the worst didn’t prepare him at all. Now he grieves all the wonderful moments he shared with her but didn’t really enjoy because he was “preparing” . . . his new commitment to her, even now that she’s gone, is to fully enjoy each moment. No one can avoid, or even prepare for, tragedy. In her research, Brene discovered that the way to face the vulnerability of joy and have the courage to embrace the joy anyway, despite its uncertainty, is to practice gratitude. Not to feel grateful, but to have actual concrete practices in your life that help you pause and be grateful. When she interviewed people who had endured horrific tragedies, gratitude was one thing she discovered as a common denominator among them—after facing the worst, they had learned to slow down and appreciate what they had.
It’s amazing how the gifts we’ve been given can make us feel vulnerable—we want to lock our kids, our spouses, our parents, our homes—in a great big barn where nothing and no one can get hurt. We think we’re being safe, but Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard” against such behaviors, because eventually you’ll stop being capable of enjoying what is in front of you.
Where greed is concerned, here’s the key that fits the lock: gratitude. Practicing gratitude is the key that unlocks your box, your barn, and the safety deposit box where you’ve foolishly stowed your joy. Sometimes gratitude feels like the labored first steps of a very long journey towards wholeness. Other times, certain gratitudes are downright powerful enough to smash those greed-locks to bits.
When the little girl embarks on her journey to find the key to unlock her box, we don’t know whether she’s going to make it back. We don’t know what dangers, what obstacles, what setbacks she’ll encounter. All we know is that she decided it was worth it to risk it. To risk the unknown rather than adhere to the tradition of safely preserving the box but never opening it. You’ve been given life, a great gift from God. You can use that life, live it, open it up, share it with the world. Or you can build a big practical barn and save your life for a rainy day. You can set your box on a shelf in the bedroom and admire it. Or you can set out to find the key. No one knows if you will return if you do. No one knows what dangers, what obstacles, what setbacks you may encounter. It’s a story that doesn’t yet have an ending. But you get to choose whether it is worth it to risk. To risk disappointment that you might know delight, risk heartache that you might know a full heart.
I recommend this: Live. Unlock. Let go. Give thanks. Fly you fools. Amen.
(Yesterday’s sermon from Covenant Baptist Church.)