Tuesday, July 26, 2011

the Mustard Seed

Sometimes Jesus' parables are answers to questions whether they are asked out loud or not. The parable of the mustard seed appears to be such a parable. Jesus' had been performing miracles and saying things that made the faithful wonder about God's coming kingdom. When would it come in fullness? By what means would God establish his kingdom? What would God's power look like. Jesus was healing and forgiving sins but at the same time people were still sick and dying, Rome was still in power, and Israel was still under foreign rule. In the midst of all of this Jesus likens the coming of God's kingdom to the size and growth of the mustard seed: a small beginning will yield huge results!

I wonder if Paul thought about this parable as he wrote to the Corinthians about the foolishness of the cross. God's power appeared weak in the cross of Christ but the argument of the gospel is that, through the cross, will come the healing of the nations.

In our cultural setting we are constantly bombarded with images of what counts most for strength. Eros and material riches are often presented in advertising and other cultural mediums as versions of power to be celebrated in a way that invites the celebrant to perform acts of de facto worship, as he fantasizes about having more of that sort of power and what it might yield in his life. Also, as Westerners, political power and military might can become idols as well, tempting us to sideline and domesticate the meaning of Jesus' cross. Or, to think in terms of our ordinary, daily life: winning and argument or being right can many times be more important to us than loving others.

The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that God's ways are foreign to the ways of this world and that we must discipline ourselves to recognize God's ways as holding the ultimate and only true hope for our lives and the life of the world. But what does it look like to learn to recognize and put into practice God's ways in the midst of our mundane lives. Think about the last time you were really mad at someone in the midst of an ongoing argument or conflict. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that sometimes in those situations we come to a place where our love for the person and our hope for their overall well-being has been put into the background of our concerns, while anger and perhaps loathing have taken over the foreground of our passions and concerns. In these settings we need to start with how God is building his kingdom in the world and work backwards to our mundane situation. We must learn to ask ourselves questions like this: is God really building his kingdom through Christ's work on the cross? If so, what does this mean to us in the middle of our conflict where our rage and self-righteousness have taken the driver's seat with regard to our concern for the one with whom we are angry? We must learn to look at each other through the cross of Christ, recognizing that the power of the gospel is God's power to redeem the world; the mustard seed will prevail.

Questions for discussion:

1. If someone were to ask you how God is at work in the world how would you answer them? Do you think that you might be able to work the parable of the mustard seed into the conversation?

2. We have suggested that the story of the mustard confronts our expectations and redefines the way we think about how God is at work in the world. Can you give an example of how you have changed your expectations of how God is at work in your life and/or the world based on a growing and deeper understanding of the gospel? What do you need more of in your life in order to think more rightly about how God is at work in the world?

3. How can you demonstrate your genuine love for someone while still being in disagreement with them? What sorts of things could you say or do to illustrate that your love for them remains more important to you than your disagreement?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Sower - Part 1

We are beginning today a series on the parables of Jesus. One Pastor has put it this way regarding one reason that Jesus spoke in parables: “Jesus tells stories to break up the worldviews of his hearers and open them to a new way of life.”

Let’s stop and think about that for a second. I think all of us can relate to the idea that when we are left just to our own way of thinking about life that we can get pretty wrapped up in ourselves and can tend to imagine that our own way of thinking about things is the best way of thinking about things. But perhaps we meet someone or hear a story about something and get jolted. Then, for at least a period of time after hearing the story, we are challenged about how we think about the most important things in life. We stop, think, and become willing to challenge some long held assumptions and convictions; and we become open to the possibility that we may be wrong about some things.

Let me give you an example:
I can recall a friend of mine who held a certain set of convictions about politics and economics. He was very certain of how public policy should be made with regard to the poor. He basically thought that if someone did not have a job - like someone living in an economically challenged neighborhood like Austin or Lawndale in Chicago - he thought it was simply because they did not want one or had not looked hard enough. For a period of time we worked alongside each other in the Austin neighborhood. During this time he heard story after story from one unemployed person after another, stories of how hard it was for some people to extract themselves from multi-generational poverty. He heard the stories from the lips of those caught in the cycle of poverty. One day, my friend said to me, I am going to have to rethink how I approach policy issues that touch on these issues. I now see that things are not as simple as I thought they were. Now, if any number of people had tried to make a straight-forward argument to this person, trying to get him to at least be willing to call into question some of his most cherished assumptions about the chronically unemployed, not to mention some of his assumptions that undergirded his political and economic views relating to the poor, he would have not been very open to listening. But witnessing a story, an indirect form of communication, well this caught his attention.

Jesus’ parables, sometimes called indirect forms of communication, do just that. They create a thought world where certain things happen in a certain way. Sometimes the events of the story occur in such a way as to surprise or even shock the hearer. One thinks of the day laborer who is hired at the end of the day and receives the same amount of money as those who have been working all day. This story is clearly designed to shock and even offend a certain way of thinking. Sometimes the events of the parable occur in such a way as to simply cause the listener to question what they think they know to be true. One thinks here about the parable at hand, the parable of the sower. Only some seeds grow out of all the ones sown? The story is told to get a person to stop, think and question. How does growth happen? Jesus is ready to tell them how and more on this in a minute.

What seems common to a lot of the parables and to the one at hand today is Jesus’ intent to get the listener to stop thinking about God in his or her own wisdom and preconceived notions and to learn about God and God’s ways FROM HIM, through a discipleship relationship with him.

In this way Jesus is presenting himself in the vein of the OT prophet, confronting God’s people with their lack of sensitivity to God’s ways, their complacency towards his pursuit of relationship with them, their arrogance in assuming they know all they need to know about God because they fancy themselves to have already done and believed what is necessary - the card has been punched, so to speak. Jesus calls such people to repentance and renewal; and it seems that one of his preferred ways of taking up the mantle of prophet was through the telling of parables. Jesus, like the OT prophets, was pronouncing judgment on those who had become oblivious and hardened to God’s ways, while simultaneously calling forth a faithful remnant - even from among the hardened - of those who, in their response to God’s initiative, become the ones through whom God will make his appeal to all people.

Now, back to the sower. This parable asks us to reconsider our way of thinking about how God desires for us to relate to him. There is much to be said about this parable but I want to consider a couple of different applications from it in the time we have left today.

Jesus says that some seeds are choked out when suffering comes. Many of us, whether we would admit it or not, move away from God when suffering comes. Whether the suffering is because of being persecuted for our association with Jesus or whether it comes simply from the harshness of living in a fallen and sinful world, we often focus on the suffering and allow our frustration with suffering to distract us from God’s love for us and the way he wishes to be present with us and through us in the suffering we are experiencing. Sometimes when we suffer, we turn to the literal or metaphorical drug of our choice to drown out the pain; in so doing we not only block the opportunity for God to meet us at the point of our deepest ache and fear, but we also lose the opportunity to bring God’s love to others through our mutual share in the cross of Christ. Suffering is bad enough but allowing it to keep us from seeking God and bringing his love to each other in the midst of our suffering, well, that is certainly worse. Don’t get me wrong, when I visit someone in the hospital I struggle with doubt, cynicism, and a lack of faith. But I go to bring the love of the wounded healer (Nouwen’s phrase not mine) - the same love that rescues me when I am in the depth of despair.

Jesus says that some seeds don’t grow because the cares of the world are given priority over the priorities of God. What about the cares of the world, the lure of wealth, desire for other things? Well, instead of saying something silly, like trying to offer some formula that will ensure you are never distracted from God’s kingdom (e.g. you should never own a car that costs more than x percent of your income, etc.), I think it is is more to the point to ask of ourselves whether or not we imagine growth in God comes automatically to us as passive recipients, or whether we need to work at it like we need to work at anything that is worthwhile in this life. For example, is our attention to God and to actively serving him through our commitment to serving one another in the context of Christian community something that consumes some time and effort, or do we take care of it at the margins? Do we make regular worship at least as much a priority as recreation is to us? Is our commitment to serving and giving to the poor something that occupies an important place in our lives or is it at the margins? But what about grace, you say!? Well, to be sure the love and grace of God is always there for us, calling us to freely come and freely receive acceptance, embrace and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is, to use the title of Miroslav Volf’s great book: Free of Charge. But the freedom of grace is meant to urge us to be active participants in God’s kingdom - not passive recipients who seem to imagine that what is important about God can be taken care of at the margins of our busy lives where everything else takes pride of place. In this story of the seed that dies because of the cares of this world, Jesus says that life would look different and infinitely better if we called into question and repented of the ways we marginalise our relationship with God. But now, on the other side of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead we also know Jesus as the one who meets us in the margins, and gently but firmly calls us back to himself so that we might have life and life in abundance! May we respond to his call.

Questions for discussion:

1. Can you think of the last time you felt jarred out of what you later would realize was a period in your life characterized by complacency with regard to your relationship with God? What jarred you?

2. How can we guard against falling into complacency with regard to our relationship with God or other important relationships for that matter?

3. Does suffering cause you to distance yourself from God? What could help you, instead, to move towards God in the midst of trials or suffering?

4. So, we’re assuming there is no one-size-fits-all formula for making sure God and the affairs of his kingdom take their rightful place in our life. How then, can you and I gauge whether the cares of this world are taking too much of our time, energy and resources?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

more reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity

As we prepared to receive communion this past Sunday I shared the following quote:
Rowan Williams: “if salvation is for any, it is for all…. The ‘return’ to the lost, the excluded, the failed or destroyed, is not an option for the saint, but the very heart of saintliness. And we might think not only of Jesus’s parable of the shepherd, but of the great theological myth of the Descent into Hell, in which God’s presence in the world in Jesus is seen as his journey into the furthest deserts of despair and alienation. It is the supreme image of his freedom, to go where he is denied and forgotten…. He comes to his new and risen life, his universal kingship, by searching out all the forgotten and failed members of the human family.”

Someone asked me after the service what Williams meant by the word, myth. Here is Webster’s definition of myth: “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon”. I think what Williams means when he talks about the great theological myth of Jesus’ Descent into Hell is that Jesus’ descent into hell, referred to in the New Testament and attested by the earliest of the creeds of the church, gives us a glimpse of what it is like to be God and so it should should shape our practice of “returning to the lost”.

I offered that quote before communion as a follow-up to some of our meditations on the doctrine of the Trinity. At the heart of God’s being is love given and received between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What God desires is to draw others, the lost, the failed, the destroyed, and the excluded, into that very love. This must always be our lead story about God when we represent him to the world in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Everything else that we know about God must be subordinated to our passion to express and live in his love as best we can to all people.

In the homily I addressed the question of how we are to share in God’s self-giving love in a way that helps us draw others into discipleship relationships with Jesus in the name of the Triune God? I offered a couple of suggestions that were by no means meant to make it seem that they were the only or the best - but a couple of good ones none-the-less.

By being a community that says to the world by how we relate to each other that we do not worship a God of monolithic force who at his core is one who wishes to wipe out his enemies. Rather, we must communicate by how we relate to each other that we worship a God who is a community of self-giving love, who calls forth a new humanity, a new community of people who are learning to live in this very love.

As the church, we are a community of people who are very different from each other but who have come to love each other not because of naturally occurring affinity but because of our common experience of God’s love. Many times, churches, over the years, develop what I will call, “heart trouble”. The community’s arteries clog because of years of unresolved frustrations, bitterness and judgmental attitudes that characterize the relationships of many within the church. The caution for us, and for every church that is called forth to live in and represent God’s self-giving love in this fallen world, is that we must first make sure that we are living in God’s love with each other. We must strive in the Spirit’s power to ensure that we are being forgiving of one another, kind to one another, seeking the best for each other, and not simply for those with whom we share a natural affinity. Our basis for this sort of affection is not more or less than our common friendship with Jesus. Profoundly, our model for this sort of commitment to unity is drawn from God’s triune life, his unity of persons. Let’s note well that many visions of community in this world are based on monolithic expressions of power. For some you have to have certain clothes or a certain style to be accepted; for others you have to be a certain class or ethnic group; for others you have to be morally acceptable on their terms before you are welcomed at their version of Jesus’ table. But the new humanity who experiences the power of self-giving love will welcome all, will welcome the other, and will seek relationships based on God’s love of all people. This new community will draw its life from the love given and received between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and consists of people who are patient with each other and open to dialogue with each other when they disagree; moreover, this community will be a place where people value being in community with each other as much, if not more, than any one individual values being regarded as absolutely in the right.

By being a community where we model to each other the truth that sacrificing for others should be more deeply satisfying than being defined by the consumerist mentality of the spirit of our age. David Brooks, NY Times Columnist, recently wrote a piece in the NYT about the phenomenon of Kiki Ostrenga, the teenage girl from Florida who found stimulation, attention and fame on the Internet by posting pictures of herself online and gathering an enormous following. Sadly she did not realize that she was entering into an online world where eros and violence dwell together in an unholy alliance and where people quickly become objectified configurations of pixels that are used in whatever way the consumer wishes to use the objectified persona. Her fame quickly brought her unwelcome advances, threats and violence. In a Rolling Stone article, a traumatized Kiki, who is now living with her bankrupted parents in her grandmother’s home, is quoted as wanting to know how people actually connect in life: "How do you even meet people?" Kiki asks. "Like, how do you connect with people? In person, it's just so weird, no one talks to me." Even online, surrounded by hundreds of fans, Kiki feels alone. "I feel like a butterfly in a jar," she says. "They'll watch me. And they'll take from me. But no one ever connects." In commenting on this sad tragedy, Brooks writes as follows: “some young people seem to be growing up without learning the distinction between respectability and attention. I doubt adults can really shelter young people from the things they will find online, but adults can provide the norms and values that will help them put that world in perspective, so it seems like trashy or amusing make-believe and not anything any decent person would want to be part of themselves. Kiki’s story is not only about what can happen online, but what doesn’t happen off of it.”

Well, I don’t know about Brooks’ assertion that these sorts of terrible interactions don’t happen offline but the question he raises is provocative: how do we teach our children where true value is found, how good and right relationships can be formed? I would suggest that one of the best things we can do for our children is to pattern for them and for each other a way of life wherein we feel and learn, over time, to be deeply pleased and satisfied by loving and serving others. We must cultivate a discipline of living for the sake of others whereby we become trained to feel and sense that this pattern of living is fundamentally true, good, and right - that this pattern of living reflects the life of the Trinity.

As it is, the spirit of our age sends us many siren songs that tell us that we are only happy, or are at our happiest, when we are being entertained, pleased or titillated. I am not recommending some sort of sectarian/ascetic withdrawal from enjoying the pleasures of culture, good food, good wine, good music, theater, TV, etc. What I am saying is that if we only feel our happiest when we are consuming or being entertained then something is wrong. And if we are yet to find deep pleasure in sacrificing for others then we need to beseech God’s spirit to intervene in our lives. Jesus said famously, where your treasure is there will your heart be also. Similarly, if we begin doing things for others born out of our conviction that this way of life is patterned after the very love of God, we will become the sort of people God intends us to be.

We must ask ourselves what is strong enough to capture the imagination of a young teen with the power of the Internet at his or her disposal; what can compete? It will not be an appeal to live decently and modestly based on religious and moral maxims about the virtues. It will be seeing love in action, the self-giving love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit taking shape in our lives as adults, communicating with our lives THAT self-giving and sacrifice are truly life transforming experiences. May what Jesus said of himself be said of us: “I am among you as one who serves.”

Questions for discussion:

1. Does Williams’ quote about God seeking the lost, the failed, the excluded.... help you think about how you might portray God to those who do not know him? If someone were to say to you, I can’t believe in a God who likes to send people to hell, how would you respond?

2. Do you value being in a church community with people who do not agree with you about everything you believe to be true about God and his world? Do you value being in a church community with people who are learning to be patient with you as you are learning be patient with them? Have you thought much about how this sort of church community is an advertisement for God’s love towards humankind?

3. Have you thought much about how learning to live in God’s pattern of self-giving love can benefit your life over-all? In other words, do you see how this pattern, when it takes hold, leads you better and better choices of what you do with your time and resources? Do you buy the idea that a pattern like this is only learned with practice and is necessarily learned in community?