The feast as a way into Christ's character...

NOTE: Here are my weekly sermon notes for worship on Sunday, September 26, 2010. They are rooted in both our unfolding series re: the Feast of God's love and the lectionary texts including I Timothy 6 and Luke 16. Please join us for worship if you are in town at 10:30 am.

Today we’re going to talk about God’s feast and how it can help us grow into women and men who make Christ visible to our world. That is, we’re going to consider how the Lord’s feast nourishes Christian character in practical ways. St. Paul told young Timothy:

Brother, run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life—a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses… The time has come to show the world what it means to quit being so full of ourselves and obsessed with money… so that we can build a treasury that will last and gain what is truly life while we still have time.

And what was true 2000 years ago for a young man is NO less true for you and me in 2010: if we truly want to take off spiritual distractions, social distortions and the disease of consumerism that plagues our culture and soul, then God has given us an alternative in Christ Jesus. But here’s the rub: it takes practice allying ourselves with the way of Christ – it takes a life of nurturing and nourishing his radical alternative – because the old ways are so deeply engrained within us.

• Do you hear what I’m trying to say? Are you with me on this?

• If you want your core – your heart and essence – to be like Christ, it is not enough to intellectually or emotionally embrace Jesus as Lord: you have to cultivate a Christian character.

And somewhere over time this notion of cultivating the content of character in Christ – what we used to call it discipleship – has been lost or at least obscured. We don’t talk anymore about “fighting the good fight” or “picking up our Cross to follow.” Now we speak of our rights or building self-esteem.

• At other times we speak of the bottom line – effectiveness and efficiency – or else its television and the realm of popular culture and entertainment: in the 21st century it is rare for even people of faith to speak about discipleship.

• Our language reeks of the dominant culture – almost never expressing what it might mean to consider the common good – rather than what’s in it for me?

Theologian and liturgical scholar, Marva Dawn, speaks to this truth and why it matters for Christ’s people in our era with unusual passion and clarity. Drawing upon Neil Postman’s “horrifying expose” of what an entertainment-obsessed culture means in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, she writes that today we are flooded with information that is meaningless, infatuated with ideas that are disembodied from context and constantly craving more from our distractions so that our entertainment has become almost addictive in its intensity.

US society in the age of the tube has not degenerated according to George Orwell’s 1984 – though Orwell’s prophetic visions have been fulfilled in some modern totalitarian states. Rather, television has taken over in the way presaged by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As Postman summarizes it, ‘no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history… instead we have come to love and adore the technologies that undo our capacity to think… so much so that we now are accustomed to learning good ideas and then doing nothing about them…(we find ourselves) saturated with information that requires no meaningful action. (Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, pp. 19-21)

I think sister Dawn is on to something that we need to consider: to my way of thinking she hits the nail RIGHT on the head when she states that our fixation with the marketplace and entertainment has led many of us away from depth into the realm of trivial selfishness. Call it impotence and irrelevancy – or whining and disappointment – she is spot on with these concluding words about the contemporary church:

(Without true intimacy and relevance) the Church is affected, too… living far apart from each other, members of a congregation do not hold each other as their primary community. Consequently, churches often do not experience the deep intimacy that could characterize our times together. We might know some facts about each other, but we do not actually know who a fellow congregant really is, so we talk about the trivia that fills our culture when we gather. We do not know how to share what genuinely matters or how to speak about the truth. And lacking in sincere intimacy in congregational fellowship, we often then put false pressure on worship – or the pastor – to produce feelings of intimacy for us. (p. 28)

No wonder St. Paul told his young protégé, Timothy, to run like hell away from all of this! “Instead of the dominant culture, man, put on a life of wonder and faith – steadiness and courtesy – depth and integrity and then you will find yourself growing in the wisdom and blessing of Christ our Lord.” Paul understood that if you want to cultivate an alternative to the chaos, emptiness and death you had to cultivate sacred and godly habits and practices.
Theologian Marcus Borg says much the same thing as St. Paul only using contemporary expressions:

No matter how good our parenting was, we all grow up wounded. Our socialization and life in this culture confer conflicting and conflicted identities.” Not only are we not whole, but many of us have a low, sometimes desperately low, sense of self worth… so the formation of Christian identity, therefore, always involves a transformation… a moving – or conversion - from the broken and wounded identity given to us by the world to our more authentic selves created in the image of God. Christian character is about nourishment and practice and compassion and justice… (Marcus Borg, The Heart of God, p. 190-192)

Whether you favor Marcus Borg or St. Paul – post-modern biblical exegesis or time-tested orthodox theology – what we’re talking about is cultivating a Christian character by consciously challenging the status quo. I love St. Paul’s words in Colossians:

Chosen by God for this new life of love, dress yourselves in the wardrobe God has picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it... (Colossians 3: 12-14)

Now, would you agree with me, that Paul is talking about how important it is for a person of faith to learn a clearly defined set of practices that help us grow into the love and faith of Jesus? Is it clear that living into the way of Jesus is NOT automatic? It takes practice? Well, then, it seems to me that Paul wants us to know about a few key practices, yes? And from I Timothy he offers six – righteousness, wonder, faith, love, steadiness and courtesy – each of which deserve a comment:

+Righteousness: this has nothing to do with self-righteousness, ok? This practice is springs from the word dikaiosyne meaning the way of integrity and justice; so we’re talking about cultivating a way of being in right relations with people, ok?

+Wonder: literally the Bible speaks of godliness from the Greek eusebia – which is all about discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary – or the holy within the human. It’s the practice of finding God’s voice in rock and roll or high culture – at the movies or even in the harsh realities of real life – its learning to see the Word being made Flesh in our context.

+Faith: A constant spiritual practice from the Greek pistis having to do with trusting that God is God and we’re not. Faith is living like the world doesn’t revolve around me. Another way of saying this is that this practice asks us to live like Good Friday is not the end of the story because we trust that the darkness will become the light of Easter in God’s time – but not ours.

+Love: better rendered here as compassion – agape – because there is nothing erotic or ordinary about this commitment; it has to do with sharing both the suffering and joy of sisters and brothers equally in good times and bad. It is neither moody nor trite.

+Steadiness: is a critical practice in our self-centered and fickle times and means patient endurance from the Greek hypomone. It is the antidote to our mania about the bottom-line or self-absorbed fears and anxieties.

+Courtesy: literally meekness – as in the meek shall inherit the earth – from praotes. But courtesy cuts to the chase in our ear for it is the practice of sharing authentic tenderness rather than always demanding your own way - or complaining - or whining – or even calling attention to yourself.

These six practices show us how to move from impotent busyness and fear towards tender patience and compassion. When we do this, you see, Christ becomes visible and real to a broken world through us. Now, let’s be honest: these practices neither heal nor transform us over night and they take a lifetime to strengthen and mature. But without them, we remain trapped in the emptiness of our dominant culture and do nothing to challenge its cruelty – which is where the feast comes in.

Jesus spoke of a feast in his parable today, didn’t he? A feast in which one soul remained aloof and indifferent to the suffering of another; a feast where one person is clothed in the finest purple linen possible while the other is covered in ulcers and sores; a feast in which one eats the finest foods available without thought while the other scrambles with the dogs under the table in the dirt for crumbs.

And after a life time of such feasting – and neglect – both souls die and go to their eternal reward. And what happens – how does Jesus describe what takes place next? The self-centered soul – in this case a rich man but there are a lot of ways of being self-centered – finds himself cut off from God and in agony, while the beggar is embraced into the bosom of Abraham for eternity. And what does the rich man ask for after his life is complete – and let’s try to be specific?

First he cried for mercy – for compassion – right? He wanted to have in death what he had never practiced in life: mercy and God’s compassion. And what does Father Abraham say? Remember how you lived without mercy while you were alive? Well, what you reap now is what you sowed then and mercy is not in your cards.

So another cry goes up – this time for a messenger from the dead to warn his family about the need to start practicing the mercies of God – and what does old Abraham say to that? Forget it, man: for 2,000 years you’ve had Moses and the prophets and if THEY aren’t good enough then, NOTHING is going to help now.

The way I see this story, this feast is a nightmare – intended to awaken us from either our enslavement to a selfish, empty and cruel culture – or else challenge us to get over our whining and go deeper into Christ’s character. It is one of the stories that Jesus told when he was cranky, I think: it is right and true but just a little frightening.

• No wonder St. Paul said start running – and put the practices of Christian character into action. No wonder Marcus Borg said conversion is for both liberals and conservatives – so get to it.

• Jesus gave us a wakeup call about the practice of grace because we only have one life to live – and we could blow it.

Once, in another moment of frustration, the Lord was asked by the religious scholars of his day for a sign from heaven and said: Look, when evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A self-absorbed and distracted generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah."

As my musical buddies come up to help me, we’re going to share with you a sign of the times as a call to practice. The pumpkin has NOTHING to do with Jesus or Christian discipleship – it is just a sign of these autumn times – but if you put it on your desk or someplace you are likely to see it every day… it could encourage to start putting on the character of Christ.

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea
I was under the waves Before love rescued me
I was a fighter, I could turn on a thread
Now I stand accused of the things I've said

Love comes to town I'm gonna jump on that train
When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I've seen love conquer the great divide

If you know ANYTHING about God’s love – if just one part of Christ’s life rings true to your heart – if you have just the slightest sense that the world is in chaos and filled with cruelty: then the call from God is to join the alternative. Practicing the way of wonder and integrity, trust and compassion, steadiness and courtesy is what that alternative looks like in the way of Christ.

So… let those who have ears to hear: hear.



Black Pete said…
You've put your finger on a serious problem within the liberal Christian realm, and that is the question of what a Christian life looks like, how is it accomplished. And the "simple" answer is: practice. We have lost or never had the practice that the life involves, whether we call ourselves Christians or not. So many of us have felt that we had to go elsewhere to find them (and yes, we found them), when a perfectly workable set of practices is right there in front of us.

Great thoughts, James!
RJ said…
Thanks, Peter, there is still so much more to say but... it is a start. I am glad it resonated with you.

Popular Posts