Friday, November 15, 2013

Swap Meet Treasure

“On the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. 
-Malachi 3:17 (NIV)

Matthew Carlson couldn’t believe his eyes. But there it was, mixed in with a bunch of costume jewelry on a table at the Glendale, Arizona swap meet he was checking out. He knew it immediately: the gold and purple, heart-shaped medal with the portrait of George Washington was unmistakable. When he turned it over, the inscription removed all doubt: “For Military Merit, Clarence M. Merriott.”
     Matthew had found a Purple Heart, the medal the United States armed forces award to those killed or wounded in action.
     The vendor wanted $40 for the medal. Matthew Carlson talked him down to $20, then took the medal home to keep it safe while he figured out what to do next. Who was Clarence Merriott? the Vietnam War veteran kept asking himself. What did he do to win the medal? And the question that maybe bugged him the most: How did his Purple Heart end up at  the Glendale Park ’N Swap?
     Matthew found the medal certificate folded in the bottom of the medal’s presentation box. The certificate said the PFC Clarence Merriott had been killed in action on June 19th, 1944. Because of privacy concerns, the Pentagon doesn’t release any information about the recipients of military awards or their families, so Matthew wouldn’t be able to track down any more information on Clarence Merriott’s family that way. A couple of months later, Matthew - who calls himself a “computer illiterate” - asked his son if he knew how to find things on the internet. 
     It just so happened that his son did, indeed, know how to do that.
     A quick Google search sent them to a website honoring the men of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion, and told them that PFC Merriott was one of 90 men killed when their landing craft hit a mine just off Utah Beach at Normandy. They also found out that Merriott was from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Through connection after connection, including the couple who ran the website on the 300th Engineers, a US Congressman and his grandfather, and the Adair County Historical Society in Stillwater, they were finally able to track down a scrapbook of clippings about men from Stillwater who had gone to serve in World War II put together between 1943 and 1945 by a teenaged girl. It was fragile, and had been sealed in an archive box. In the scrapbook they found a yellowed newspaper photo of a smiling young man in a dress uniform, his hat cocked to the side of his head. The article reported that Clarence Merriott had been missing since June 19th, 1944.
     A few pages later, they found his death notice.
     With a genealogical search and few phone calls, the Historical Society staff were able to locate Clarence Merriott’s sister’s grandson. The medal had been given to Clarence’s sister, and then passed down to her son, but had been lost in a move.
     Last Monday, Veteran’s Day, it moved one more time to Stillwater, where it will reside in a case in the Historical Society’s museum.
     Matthew Carlson was there for the transfer ceremony.
     Strange, isn’t it, how over times treasures can be lost? One generation’s prized possession becomes in a subsequent generation one more thing to be moved. Valuable memories get lost. Works of art forgotten. Medals misplaced. It’s not that anyone means for something important to be lost. It just happens. People forget, and then they forget that what they forgot ever mattered. 
     Over and over again, the Bible calls Israel God’s “treasured possession.” Sometimes the world has forgotten that, even Christians, who of all people ought to know better. Sometimes Israel themselves forgot. They lost themselves, some of them - lost their special relationship to God, lost it in corruption and idolatry and eventually exile. But always there were people who remembered, who God raised up to remind them of who they were. They were God’s treasure, and even if they forgot God wouldn’t. A day would come when he would act to spare them and save them and make them again what they always were to him. He would restore them to the place of honor and glory that he always intended for them to have. 
     And then Jesus came, talking about a kingdom that was like treasure hidden in a field, something so valuable that you’d joyfully sell everything you have to own it. He talked about organizing life in a way that gained treasure in heaven instead of material wealth. He warned that we should seek God’s kingdom above anything else, and that whatever we value has a gravity that pulls our hearts to it. Jesus said that seeking this kingdom - God’s kingdom - would make all of us, Jew and non-Jew, the people who God intended always intended for us to be. And to open that kingdom to us, he went so far as to sacrifice his own life - an act God vindicated by raising him from the dead. One of those Jews who came to have faith in Jesus later wrote that the riches and mystery of God are hidden in him.
     Too easily, though, we get lost. We wind up in the swap meets of our world, mixed up with worthless things and selling ourselves for a fraction of our worth. We forget who we are and what we’re worth - God’s treasured possession, and of infinite value to him.
     Thankfully, God doesn’t forget. The price paid to redeem us speaks eloquently of how much we mean to him. And even though we sometimes forget even that, God isn’t content to leave us in the world’s bargain bins, sold out, cast aside, and forgotten. He has redeemed us in Jesus and won’t rest until we’re safe with him in the place of honor he’s arranged for us.
     This is God’s work. It’s because of his initiative, carried out by his grace, and motivated by his love. Our work is to receive it with joy and to remember it in the choices we make, the things we do and say, and the way we live our lives. Its to live like the valued, treasured people that we are, in gratitude for the One who made us his.
     One day, who we are will finally be made clear. We’ll come home, to the place God has prepared for us, and we’ll finally get to see for ourselves just how much we mean to him. 

     Until then, may we live like we’ve already seen it. 

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