Monthly Archives: July 2011

Death with Interruptions

“The following day, no one died.” That’s the first line of Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago’s novel Death with Interruptions. At least since Gilgamesh people have been fascinated with the idea of immortality. But is it a good idea this side of Paradise? Imagine if no one died but people still grew old, became ill, got in accidents, withered away. What would happen to the funeral industry? How would the government and the church respond? What strategies would people invent to cope? With a fertile imagination and skilful pen, Saramago answers these questions in the first part of his book.  The second and smaller part is a love story between the personification of death (described in one review as a “spiteful female shape-shifter”) and a cellist, who doesn’t die when he’s supposed to. I enjoyed this second part of the book more, probably because I’m a sucker for a love story.

I didn’t care for Saramago’s stream of consciousness writing style. At one point I thought death was the narrator since like the novelist she wrote with “chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter.” But alas the author leaves this possibility unresolved. Thick with irony, the story doesn’t seem to take itself seriously, usually a pet peeve of mine, but Saramago’s playfulness works for some reason, like gallows humor. Despite the artistic success of the book, it’s a philosophical failure for me. It raises deep questions without offering deep answers. It skips along the surface of one of the most profound human issues but hardly mentions what might lie on the other side of the grave. It mocks traditional Christianity without offering anything in its place, not even cynicism. What might have been a profound book settles for being merely a good read.


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Costly Grace

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1609), The parable of the hidden treasure (ca. 1630), oil on panel, 70.5 x 90 cm

If you could have only one wish and it had to be something for yourself, what would you ask for? Your dream house? A perfect body? A 1967 Corvette convertible in mint condition? King Solomon asked for discernment, and because he chose wisely God gave him not only “a wise and understanding heart” but also great wealth and longevity (1 Kings 3:5-15).

Solomon needed discernment to rule a kingdom, we need discernment to understand God’s Word and follow his will. There are five kingdom parables in the Gospel reading for today: the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the net. The first two parables are also in Mark’s Gospel (and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas); the last three are only found in Matthew. You can read them all here.

In the first two parables, the mustard seed and the leaven, we see that the kingdom of heaven is bigger than we could ever imagine. The parables are similar in both their meaning and their exaggeration. Tiny mustard seeds don’t grow into “trees” big enough to shelter birds, and a little bit of leaven wouldn’t be enough to rise “three measures” or about 50 pounds of flour, enough to bake bread for about a hundred people (Jeremias, Parables of Jesus). Miraculous results are produced in both parables. “Their meaning is that out of the most insignificant beginnings, invisible to human eye, God creates his mighty Kingdom, which embraces all the people of the world” (Jeremias).

God’s kingdom is much bigger than its humble beginnings in Palestine. It’s also bigger than what we can see today. It’s bigger than my church, bigger than my denomination, bigger than my theology. When we have eyes to see, we’ll be surprised by just how big God’s kingdom is.

In the next two parables, the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, we learn the cost of discipleship. In both parables, discernment was needed to understand the value of the hidden treasure and the exceptional pearl, and a radical commitment was needed to obtain both. Jesus made the same point to the Rich Young Ruler, when he told the man to sell everything and give it to the poor in order to have riches in heaven (Luke 18:18-23). German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”  Bonhoeffer wrote, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ” (Cost of Discipleship). “Costly grace,” according to Bonhoeffer, “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” One of the most memorable lines of Bonhoeffer’s book is this: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Didn’t Jesus say, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34)? Until we’re willing to give up everything for God, we’re not ready to live for him.

The last of the five parables, the net, is the same as the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), only with different imagery. Instead of useless weeds or “tares” being sorted from the good wheat, fishermen collect good fish and discard the bad. It’s an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world, when the just will be separated from the wicked (49). People who fall into the latter category shall be thrown “into a furnace of fire” where there will be “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (50).

There are some important lessons for us here—some easy, some hard. On the easy side, we see that it’s God’s job to judge people, not ours. Also, we need to be patient and tolerant and not try to pre-empt God’s justice by destroying the ungodly on our own. On the more difficult side, we are confronted with the idea that God’s justice involves torturing people in hell. It’s not a happy thought, but here it is. Jesus said it. Not me.

Liberals tend to reject the idea of hell or turn it into a metaphor (“hell is right here on earth”). Even conservatives seem to be embarrassed by it. I can’t remember the last time I heard an evangelical preach an entire sermon on the topic. Some fundamentalist preachers, on the other hand, are a little too enthusiastic about sorows that await the damned. They describe the horrors of hell in details that would make Dante blush. They salivate for God’s consuming justice to gobble up sinners.

But even fundamentalists should be uncomfortable with Jesus’ parable of the net, because in it the difference between  heaven and hell is not a matter of having the right theology or believing the right thing or saying a “sinner’s prayer.” If we walk down the Roman’s Road with the Apostle Paul it seems that belief is the only ingredient to saving faith, but if we stand with Jesus by the seashore we hear a slightly different message. Jesus said, “the just” will be saved and “the wicked,” damned. Jesus said that. And that’s not all. In Matthew 25:31-46, the sheep and the goats, what the righteous did made them acceptable to God, not merely what they said.

I’m not saying that we are saved by good works. Not at all. We are saved by God’s grace alone. But the proof is in the pudding. James 2:17-18 puts it like this: “Faith without works is dead. . . . Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Costly grace.

Jesus asked his disciples if they understood his teaching, and surprisingly they said, “Yes, Lord” (Matt. 13:51). I’m not sure I get it, at least not all of it. One thing I do get is that we all need God-given discernment to understand the parables of Jesus.

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Tar Baby

Uncle Remus telling a story (ca. 1920) by Norman Rockwll (1894-1978), oil and charcol on board, 20” x 21”

When I was little my daddy would read me stories from Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris. One of my favorite tales was the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. You can read the story here.

Sly ol’ Brer Fox made a doll out of tar and put clothes on it and set it by the road to trap Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit comes down the road. He sees Tar Baby and greets him.

“Mawnin’!”sez Brer Rabbit, sezee –“nice wedder dis mawnin’,” sezee.

When Tar Baby doesn’t reply, Brer Rabbit takes its silence for insolence and decides to teach him some manners. Brer Rabbit hits Tar Baby upside his head and his fist gets stuck. This makes Brer Rabbit even madder, so he hits him with the other hand, which also gets stuck. Soon Brer Rabbit is stuck all over Tar Baby and can’t get loose. He’s caught. Brer Fox can get rid of Brer Rabbit once and for all.

The story continues but I’ll stop there to make a spiritual connection. The world is full of Tar Babies. If we try to make them do what we think they should, we’re bound to come out the worse for it.

What is the Christian response to evil people in the world? Off with their heads? No. Jesus said leave them alone. Let God take care of them. That’s what the Gospel Lesson for today is about. You can read it here.

In Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43, Jesus tells a parable about wheat and weeds to teach us it’s not our job to judge who are children of God and who are offspring of the devil. They’re hard to tell apart, just like the wheat and darnel weeds or “tares” when both are small.

Toleration is what Jesus prescribed, not crusading. Try to punish sinners and you’ll get stuck, like Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby. It’s best to leave criminal justice to the state and divine justice to God.

Our job as Christians is not to be the world’s moral police force. We’re called to be wheat. That’s hard enough. Weather the storms. Compete with the weeds. Grow. Bear fruit.

The best thing we can do for God is to be what he’s called us to be.

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The Sower

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), The Sower (1850), oil on canvas, 105 x 86 cm, Carnegie Museum of Art

The Gospel text for yesterday was Matthew 13:1-23, which you can read here. It’s also found in Mark 4:3-9 and Luke 8:5-8. Matthew calls it the Parable of the Sower, but it’s more a parable about different types of soil: the wayside, rocky, thorny, and good soil. There are three distinct sections in the passage. First, Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower (1-9). Next, he explains the purpose of parables (10-17). Finally, he interprets the parable so his disciples can understand it’s meaning (18-23).

In the original language of the New Testament, the word “parable” means something “thrown along side.” In other words, a comparison. It’s a symbolic story whose earthly elements point to a heavenly truth. We tend to think of parables as a form of divine condescension—Jesus making his teaching accessible to everyone, dumbing it down so even a humble peasant or child could understand, like a children’s sermon with an object lesson. Only that’s not what Jesus said.

Jesus said the reason he spoke to the crowds in parables was twofold: to reveal truth to responsive listeners and to hide truth from the unresponsive (11). Mark’s Gospel is even harsher. Mark adds, “lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins be forgiven them” (4:12). So Jesus wants some people to be forgiven and others not? Sounds like that, but I think his point is that those who don’t “get” his teaching had already hardened their hearts. Jesus’ rejection of them was the result, not the cause of their unresponsiveness.

Even though Jesus told his disciples they were included among those who had eyes to see and ears to hear (16), he still had to explain the parable to them. His explanation shows that the parable was really an allegory. (An allegory is a symbolic story in which various elements represent something else.) The seed is the “word of the kingdom . . . sown in his heart” (19). What is the “word of the kingdom”?

The “word of the kingdom” means something less than the whole Word of God and something more than the Gospel in the narrow sense of what Christ did to save us from sin. It’s Jesus’ teaching about how we should act toward God and others—how we should live in the kingdom. It’s the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). It’s turn the other cheek. It’s go the extra mile. It’s love God with all your heart. It’s love your enemies. Many people ask Jesus to forgive their sins. Many call themselves Christians. But not many actually do what Jesus said.

Not many, but some do. Clarence Jordan did when he founded an interracial farming co-op called Koinonia Farm in the rural South. Millard and Linda Fuller did when they started Habitat for Humanity to provide adequate housing for those who couldn’t afford it. Mother Teresa did when she cared for the poor, sick, and dying of Calcutta. Frank Laubach did when he began the “Each One Teach One” literacy project, which taught thousands to teach illiterate people how to read. These were ordinary people like you and me who did extraordinary things by caring for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). What would radical obedience to Jesus look like in your life?  What would it look like in mine?

Back to the Parable of the Sower. The growth of the seed depends upon the type of soil. The wayside was the hard-packed footpath between the narrow agricultural fields; that’s the person who doesn’t understand the message. They just don’t “get” it. Then like a hungry bird “the wicked one,” the devil, snatches away the seed. The seed sown on rocky ground had too little soil, so that even though there’s initial reception and growth, it’s short lived. Faith quickly dies. The seed on the thorny ground represent those who allow the cares of the world to choke out God’s implanted word. Finally, the good soil receives the message and produces a bumper crop as a result.

I think the point of the parable is not primarily introspection. Jesus wasn’t trying to get us to ask, What kind of soil am I? He assumed his disciples were the good soil type. I think the goal of the parable is encouragement for those whose labor for the Lord is bearing little visible fruit. Fred Craddock writes, “The parable encourages those who have experienced failures in their ministries, reminding them that some seed will yield abundantly.” Understood this way, the Parable of the Sower is not an admonition to get our hearts right but an encouragement to keep us from despair. St. Paul put it this way: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in do season we shall reap if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9).

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

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Who are you?

Face in the mirror (mosaic detail), 5th century, Sidi Ghrib archaeological site in Tunisia.

Who are you?  The first thing that often comes to mind when asked this question is the roles we play: butcher, baker, candlestick-maker. Those labels don’t say anything about who we are, only what we do. We might say things like “husband” or “father.” But such terms only define us in relation to other people.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said, “Know thyself.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare’s character Polonius tells his son Laertes: “To thine own self be true.” But what does that mean and how do we do it? You have to begin with the question, Who are you?

God created everything for a purpose. When He surveyed His handiwork He declared it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Not only is all of creation good, but God’s goodness extends to every part of it. Not only are trees good, but every tree is good.  One of the most famous modern-day mystics, Thomas Merton explained, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 29). It’s not that easy for people.

Trees have no choice but to be trees. People have free will. We can choose to be something other than what God intended. In the book of Jonah, everything in nature obeys God. The wind, the waves, the whale, the gourd, and the worm all do what God says. The only creature that disobeys God is a man, Jonah himself. And it’s no wonder. God made us is in His image. Like God we have a will of our own. By an act of the will we can become something ugly, something other-than-human. Fortunately it works the other way too. We can become truly human . . . with God’s help.

To answer the question Who are you?  requires a Lewis-and-Clark journey of discovery inside yourself. It will be scary at times. There’s sin in there. Remember the movie Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back? Luke Skywalker goes into a cave where he meets his enemy Darth Vader.  And kills him. Only to discover the man in the Darth Vader mask is himself. Who are you?  We may not want to know.

The good news is that once we confront our true selves—the good, the bad, and the ugly—then and only then, we are ready to be saved. “But I’m already saved!” you say. I’m not talking about being saved from the hell that lies beyond the grave (though that’s important too). I’m talking about being saved from the hell that lies within ourselves. Call it “sanctification” if you want a churchy word for it. It means becoming what we’re supposed to be. And what is that exactly?  In a word, God.

Again Thomas Merton: “Whatever is in God is really identical with Him, for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 35). The Bible talks about us becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). The early church fathers put it this way: Jesus became what we are that we might become what he is.  Best. Deal. Ever.


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Why We Don’t Pray

Prayer is important. We all know that intellectually. It’s one of the two main tasks of church leaders along with the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Why is it
then that most of us spend so little time actually praying? Prayer meetings are
typically over 90% talking to each other and less than 10% talking to God. Long
prayers in church are disdainfully called “long-winded” but short ones are
never despised. For people who claim that their relationship with God is supremely important, we spend very little time in dialogue with him.

In an advice book for pastors Eugene Peterson explains why we do this:

Prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious : people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens that without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines.

And so pastors, instead of practicing prayer, which brings people into the presence of God, enter into the practice of messiah: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding the shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now. (The Contemplative Pastor, 43)

There are other reasons we avoid prayer. Sometimes the problem is fear of intimacy. Intimacy is what it sounds like: INTO-ME-SEE. When we pray we open ourselves up to God and others. That can be scary, especially if we’ve built a habit of hiding our true selves. Disappointment is another reason. Anyone who has been a believer for more than a short period of time has experienced this. We’ve prayed fervently for something and not gotten what we wanted. Our faith didn’t move that mountain and like St. Peter we sink in the waves of doubt. But at the heart of our prayer-less-ness is a theological problem: we question the goodness of God. Not in an absolute sense. We know God is good, but we wonder whether he will be good to us. He’s blessed us in the past, but will he bless us this time? Instead of finding out we often avoid the question.

What would our lives look like if we reversed this trend and began talking to God
more? I don’t know, but I want to find out. How about you?

(For more on the topic of prayer, you can read my sermon on the Lord’s Prayer here.)

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