Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Oscars and the ordinary

Watching the Oscars slowly, bit by bit, throughout the week, I was struck by the powerful acceptance speech by Viola Davis who won the supporting actress oscar for her performance in Fences. She said the best stories are found in graveyards, the stories of ordinary people who no one knows. Her story, Fences, which I have not seen yet is such a story about ordinary people. Davis plays the long- suffering wife to Denzel Washington's role as her trash collector husband. In her acceptance speech Davis emotionally thanked the ordinary people in her life and God who allowed her to play the ordinary roles she has played so well. In this week when Lent begins we need this emphasis on the ordinary. As we look toward the cross we remind ourselves of its foolishness. God chose the weak things to reveal his power and love. He chose the simple to show his wisdom. He chose a violent act to demonstrate his love. It looks for all the world like it made no sense. Paul says, God chose ordinary people to do some things ordinary people do when they are infused by God's Spirit.

When ordinary people enthuse about God rather than themselves, with their insights, powers, positions and prestige, people respond extraordinarily, John Goldingay says. These days we are more reminded of the so-called need for power, money, security and the need to keep those who threaten these things out. Spend our nations's wealth on walls and military weapons not ordinary people. The gospel is counter - intuitive, the powerful people have a hard time getting to it. "Right at the heart of God's revelation is a man being executed", Goldingay writes. Something so simple, it seems silly, unnecessary, trivial. Especially to people for whom greatness is the goal.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Sermon

I enjoy the Sermon on the Mount. The one by Jesus Matthew put down in his gospel. It is endlessly puzzling and interesting to me. Maybe enjoyment is not the right word for what I feel about it. I find it challenging and way too relevant. It was easier when I was a kid and the churches I went to categorized it as future. It was obviously unrealistic for us now so it must be speaking of life in heaven when we will be perfect! That was called dispensationalism but I didn't know that term for a long time. I simply thought it was the way all Christians thought about it.

Then I went for awhile not thinking about the Sermon much at all. Life intervened and I missed the point that that was the Sermon was about. I lived life preaching my own sermon and it was not nearly as good.

Then I met some Christians for whom the Sermon was the greatest, most central reality of the Christian life. They and I figured most Christians didn't follow it in the here and now because it was too hard. And so far from the way most of us lived. Who fasted? Who prayed like that? Who did not worry about money and stuff? Can we really expect to eat like a bird? Well, this group of Christians surely tried hard enough. Trouble was it felt like we were failing. The bar was set too high yet we gave it a good effort. I have to say that.

Then I discovered the gospel in the Sermon. It was not given to us to talk about a time in the future when we will be perfect nor was it meant to be a standard we could never reach. The Sermon begins with Blessed are you....These words are a blessing; they are an invitation to a life in community that is shaped by their words. Sam Wells says that the Sermon is about abundance not scarcity. God has given us too much not just enough. Our imaginations, he says, are simply not large enough to take it all in. It is possible to live in joyful recognition that God has given us more than we need (Hauerwas in Matthew).

Now when I read the Sermon, I read it more slowly, enjoyably. Prayerfully, because it is a Sermon of Disruption, the disruption of the Kingdom of God (Hauerwas's words).  It is meant to be read and prayed in the community that wants to live it out day to day. I read it with a  mindfulness made possible by "the compelling reality and beauty of participation in his time, a time that cannot be lost (or wasted I might add) because it is God's time" (Hauerwas, Matthew).

Beggin at Dunkin

She was standing near the Walmart parking lot at the entrance to Dunkin Donuts. It was a perfect spot  because there was a stop sign. You had to stop and look at her and she was looking straight into your eyes. Some drivers stared ahead while others sped through the stop sign as fast as they could. I looked at her and a small child seated next to her. Holding a sign that said, I LOST MY JOB I HAVE TWO KIDS I NEED HELP PLEASE GOD BLESS, she looked desperate. Was she? I thought about her as I went in for coffee. Maybe she was scamming us using her son as bait. Or perhaps someone else set her up for this and he or she will pocket the money. My wife does this, imagining the possible back stories of people we encounter. I was doing it now. Could be she was just who she presented herself to be. Down on her luck with no one to watch her son as she begged. Her job was gone and she had no one to look out for her. Why else would she be out at Walmart looking for help? And that poor kid - I thought of him telling his story years later about how Mom dragged him to entrance ramps trying to get some money for food. With coffee in hand I drove back to the stop sign. She looked right at me while her son looked down at the ground. When I rolled down my window she sprang forward hopeful. I handed her some money. Oh thank you sir, God bless you; she spoke with a foreign accent I couldn't quite place. I mumbled God bless you too wondering at the same time what that meant. I drove off so I didn't hold up traffic. Others crept up to the sign.  She was looking straight at them. Would any one stop? What back story did they come up with?