Thursday, October 02, 2008

Tending Garden
Genesis 3:1-8, 22-24[1]
The Horse Whisperer is a film about what it takes to heal someone who has been deeply wounded—listening with the heart, being present with a person who is hurting in a way that shows we are paying attention, and above all, spending whatever time it takes. We find those qualities in the person of Tom Booker, a man who has a reputation for healing horses who’ve been injured. When fourteen-year-old Grace and her horse Pilgrim are hit by a truck, Grace loses her right leg and Pilgrim is so traumatized that no one can get near him. Grace’s mother refuses to have the horse put down, and she decides to drive Grace and Pilgrim to Montana in hopes of convincing Tom to help them. In perhaps one of the most profound scenes of the film, Tom sits in a field and waits patiently all day until Pilgrim gives up his fear and walks over to him. As one review puts it, the film “tutors us in the art of slowing down, being present, and quieting the heart.”[2]
We who live in the urban part of our society have a hard time with the concepts of being present, paying attention, and spending time. In our technology-filled world we’re all spinning our wheels faster and faster every year. When I was a boy, futurists predicted that technology would do away with the 40-hour work week. Yep, it did that alright. Now to keep your job you often have to work a minimum of 60 hours a week—if not more! And rather than making our jobs easier, our technology has made life even more stressful. Now we do 3 or 4 things at the same time—talk on the phone, send an email, check the news, schedule the coming week—a phenomenon some hair-brain called “time-deepening.” There’s nothing deeper about the way we spend our time! We’re skimming the surface, just getting through as many tasks as we can.
But I’m not really sure what it is that we are rushing so madly toward—we don’t do any better at being present or paying attention when we’re “off” than we do when we’re working. We are driven by dissatisfaction, impatience, hurry, and pressure. Can anyone in this mad, mad world really stop and smell the roses?
The story of Adam and Eve has something to say to us in this respect. Here are two people who have the privilege of actually living in paradise. How many times have you gone to a beautiful spot on vacation and wished you could move there? Well, Adam and Eve were “born and raised” in paradise, so to speak! More than that, they have the joy of getting to take part in actually shaping paradise because the Gardener who planted it gave them the task of taking care of it.[3]
If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “Wow! What I wouldn’t give to trade places with them!” But the tragic reality is that they were thinking the same thing! They have the incredible prospect of spending their lives caring for and shaping the Garden of Eden, and they trade it away for a pipe dream—the promise of becoming “like God!” As a result, they must scratch out a living from the dirt “East of Eden” and perpetuate the species through painful childbirth.[4] It doesn’t take any divine “curse” to accomplish that, because their own dissatisfaction is curse enough. But perhaps more importantly, the dissatisfaction of our original parents manifests itself in their entire family tree—from Cain who kills his brother to Lamech who boasts of murder to the generation of the Flood who scoff at Noah to the builders of the Tower of Babel who think they can reach heaven.[5] And it continues to this very day! We live among a whole race of people who spend their whole lives looking for something “else,” desperately seeking something “more,” but never quite able to find it.
As Adam and Eve found out, none of us can ever find happiness by trying to “escape” who we are and where we are.[6] Rather, our circumstances become the very means by which we can find a life that is more joyful, peaceful, and fulfilled. The way to find happiness is to do as the Gardener told our first parents—to tend the Garden of our lives!
In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore shows us in many ways that the best way to find true happiness in life is to embrace life as it is. We cannot do this if we’re always in a hurry. To embrace life we have to pause, we have to take time so that we can enjoy the garden as well as the work of tending it. Living this way means paying attention—even to the mundane routines.[7] It means taking the time to pay attention to the details of our lives—our work and living spaces, what we’re actually thinking about as we go about our day, even our dreams and fantasies.[8]
Like a garden, life is something that takes cultivating if we’re going to find joy and fulfillment.[9] If we give ourselves to the work of tending the garden of life, it will “blossom forth according to its own designs and with its own predictable beauty.”[10] Something as simple as tending a garden may seem impossible in our “rat race” world. So how can we do it? We tend the garden of our lives by paying attention and taking time.
To change the metaphor, we tend the garden when we practice the ordinary routines of our lives “artfully”; in other words, when we do it as a work of art, even if it is “only” the everyday art of keeping house or maintaining a yard or tuning a car or preparing a meal.[11] That means taking the time and paying enough attention to do it consciously and intentionally—“soulfully”— as opposed to “mindlessly.”
To change the metaphor again, living this way means integrating our lives—work, home, play, faith. It means embracing the presence of the Lord God “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (Gen. 3:8)—or at dawn, or in the heat of the day, or at midnight, whenever it is that we are tending our gardens.[12] As we embrace our lives and tend our gardens, we discover that we truly can live in the joy of our Creator.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/28/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat, Review of “The Horse Whisperer,” accessed at .
[3] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 48; cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.1.235, 254.
[4] Cf. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 89; cf. also William E. Phipps, “Eve and Pandora Contrasted,” Theology Today 45(April 1988):36. He does a thorough job of tracing the origins of Christian misogyny in an interpretation of Genesis that reads the story of Pandora as the one who is the source of evil in the world into the story of Eve, contrary to the Genesis text which lays the shameful deed at the feet of both Adam and Eve.
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.4:310-11.
[6] Cf. Brueggemann, Genesis, 53-54.
[7] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 3-4.
[8] Moore, Care of the Soul, 285.
[9] Moore, Care of the Soul, xvii.
[10] Moore, Care of the Soul, xix.
[11] Moore, Care of the Soul, 289, 300.
[12] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 51-54; cf. esp. 53: “The nearness of God which we perceive in the Spirit make us wholly living from within, and wakens all our vitality”; and 54: “When we are near the living God, everything else becomes ‘green’ and fertile, as it does in spring, said Hildegard of Bingen.”

Embrace Life

Genesis 1:1-2:3[1]

Some of you know that I planned on starting a sermon series today on the topic “Embrace Your Life.” In light of the events of the last 10 days, I must confess that I wondered whether I should go ahead with my plan. What I realized is that, just as the force of a hurricane dredge up all kinds of debris from the Gulf, so the stress of displacement and disruption uncovers what we have buried within ourselves because it is too hard to face. I decided that I would go ahead with my plan—what better time to try to learn to embrace the life we have than when we’re all struggling with the residue of our lives in the wake of disaster.

The idea for this series came to me from reading what I consider to be one of the great self-help books of all time. I’m referring to Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, a Christian Psychologist. His message is that instead of the obsessive pursuit of “Your Best Life Now,” or a “Better You,” the best way to find true happiness in life is to embrace life as it is, with all its wonderful complexity: good and bad, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, fulfillment and disappointment.[2]

Moore uses ancient myths to make the point that we don’t find fulfillment in life by trying to “make” it better. Stories like the “Odyssey” or “Tristan and Isolde” remind us that we don’t find happiness by trying to get rid of whatever is causing us pain or frustration or discouragement. Rather, our “problems” become the means of motivating us in the very ways that make life more joyful, peaceful, and fulfilled. [3]

The ancient stories help us remember that life is wonderfully complex. There is a bewildering diversity about it. There is a frightening unpredictability about it. Behind every cloud is a silver lining, but behind every “silver lining” is also a cloud of darkness that we would rather not have to face.[4] Love includes the joy of being intimate with another human being as well as the pain of distance and the sadness of bereavement.[5] Work can be incredibly stimulating and it can also be numbing in its boredom.[6] Then there are families—many of us are positively frantic to escape the influence of our families, only to discover that we might as well try to escape from our own shadow![7]

Moore argues that the ancient wisdom about life depicts life as a tapestry that includes both light and darkness, both joy and pain, both happiness and sadness.[8] Trying to remove those threads that don’t fit our schemes only unravels our lives. A different approach is to step back and learn to recognize the beauty of the whole fabric of life—all of life, life just as it is. Those threads and colors and patterns that we initially want to remove or change may in fact lead us to a deeper appreciation of life in all it’s complexity—and therefore become the source of joy and fulfillment in life that is more complete and lasting.

I would suggest this is also the wisdom of the Bible regarding our lives. Our fundamental Bible stories also encourage us to embrace life in all its imperfection. The stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah and their family help us to appreciate the beauty of life—which includes both “good” and “bad.” The story of Creation is where it all begins in the Bible. Though it is doubtful that it is the first story to have been written in the Bible, the Creation story serves as a basis for much of the way we view our world and our lives.

Other creation stories of that time portrayed the deities as capricious and malicious. Creation was intended only to serve their every whim. Human existence was an afterthought or even a nuisance to the gods.[9] In stark contrast, Genesis reveals a God who broods over creation like an artist over a great painting or sculpture.[10] The idea here is that what comes from this intense creative work is something that is beautiful and of immense value to the artist.[11]

And the result of this creative brooding is not only a world that is ordered according to the Creator’s design, but also an incredible diversity of life in all colors and shapes and sizes! The waters of the deep are instructed to “swarm with an abundance of living beings” (Gen. 1:20, Inclusive Bible)! The earth is to bring forth “plants that scatter their own seeds and every kind of fruit tree that bears fruit with its own seed in it,” along with “all kinds of wild animals, and cattle, and everything that crawls on the ground” (Gen. 1:24). And at the end of it all, “God looked at all of this creation, and proclaimed that this was good—very good” (Gen. 1:31, Inclusive Bible).

When we look at the world of nature today what do we see? Do we see a thing that can be used to benefit us? Or a beautiful web of life that includes us along with all nature? Many look at the world of nature and ask why God would have created so many different kinds of living creatures—there are over a million identified species of insects! A scientific answer might point to the way the great “circle of life” is deeply connected. A more biblical answer might simply suggest that God created such diversity because it was necessary to make creation “very good”!

One of the most important lessons from the story of Creation is that our obsessive compulsion to change everything, to “make” everything into something else (more appealing, more attractive, more profitable, etc.) fails to recognize the inherent beauty in all of creation.[12] The biblical view of creation is that God has filled everything with life and beauty. An outlook that is consistent with this not only views all of creation with reverence, but also sees beauty in everything and everyone.[13] The Bible’s story of creation encourages us to say, “Everything is beautiful, in its own way!”[14] It encourages us to embrace our life just as it is, with all its wonderful complexity.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/21/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, xii, xvi-xvii, 4, 14.f

[3] Moore, Care of the Soul, xv, 9-10, 16, 18-21.

[4] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 16-17.

[5] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 89.

[6] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 180-89.

[7] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 26-27, 31-32.

[8] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, xix, 19.

[9] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 12-13, 24-25; G. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary, xlv-liii; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 72-73; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.1.89-90, 243-44.

[10] cf. Gen. 1:2, The Inclusive Bible: “the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters.” Some scholars would interpret “Spirit” here as a great wind! Jürgen Moltmann argues that in a very real sense the Spirit of God still broods over creation—“Everything that is, exists and lives in the unceasing inflow of the energies and potentialities of the cosmic Spirit. … Through the energies and potentialities of the Spirit, the Creator is himself present in his creation.” Cf. Moltmann, God in Creation, 9; cf. also ibid., 10-16, 96, 99-100, 258. Contrast Barth, Dogmatics, 3.1.56-59, 106-110, who insists that it is the “Word” that brings creation out of the “formless and void” chaos of the primeval world, whereas the Spirit “hovers and broods over it impotently because wordlessly” (p. 108)!

[11] Cf. Brueggemann, Genesis, 36-37; cf. also Moltmann, God in Creation, 75-76, where he presents creation as the communication of God’s love, and therefore the communication of God’s goodness to his creation.

[12] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 277-280; he defines beauty (p. 279) as “the quality in things that invites absorption and contemplation”; i.e., beauty is a source of imagination that allows us to appreciate the sacred in everything around us.

[13]Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 48-50.

[14] Ray Stevens, “Everything is Beautiful,” Barnaby Records, 1970.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Rule Number One

Rom. 13:8-14[1]

Some of the most memorable lines come from films that are entirely forgettable. In the “Karate Kid” series, a boy named Daniel is “adopted” by a kind Japanese man named Mr. Miyagi, who teaches him Karate as a means of helping Daniel learn to stand on his own two feet and choose the right path in life. At one point, Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to his family dojo, where there are only 2 rules to learn: “Rule number one—Karate is for defense only; rule number two—first learn rule number one.” In some ways our lesson from Romans today reminds me of that line—“Rule number one” is and always has been to love God with all your heart and to love others as you love yourself. After all that Paul has said about God and the Gospel, it seems like where he winds up is “Rule number two: first learn rule number one!”

We've covered a lot of ground over the last few months as we've worked our way through Paul's letter to the Romans.

· We’ve looked at faith as trust in God's love that never gives up on us.

· We’ve seen God’s grace as God's great “Yes!” to all humankind.

· We’ve caught a glimpse of what God is about in this world—to restore us all and the entire created order to our rightful place in relationship to Christ.

· We’ve heard the good news that Jesus the Christ died and rose again to set us free from everything that would bind or oppress or destroy us to enjoy a life that is full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love.

· We’ve heard that when we encounter God’s grace and God’s constant love in the new life we have through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, we are changed in such a thorough way that there is no going back.

And after covering the whole sweep of “salvation history,” in effect Paul comes back to the heart of what God has been about from the very beginning—a “rule number one”: love God and love others. At the conclusion of all our theology and preaching, all our spirituality and worship, we come right back to where it all started:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Although the subtle truths of the Gospel can be deep and complex for us to grasp, this is not hard for us to grasp at all. That's why Paul says the one who loves others fulfills the whole of God's Law, God’s torah, God’s truth.

But the real question, and where the difficulty comes in, is how we actually carry out the commandment to love others. You’ve all heard the saying, “We have to love other people but we don’t have to like them.” I think that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the kind of life that God has asked of us from time immemorial.

What does it mean to love another person in the way the Scriptures have taught us from the earliest days? Paul says it means that love does no harm to others (Rom. 13:10). In a sense, he echoes the famous Rabbi Hillel, who summarized the whole of torah in a kind of “negative golden rule”: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation.” Sounds a bit like “first learn rule number one”!

Jesus echoed the same idea in his version of the “golden rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). In effect he says to treat other people the way you want them to treat you. And Jesus said this “sums up” the whole of the “law and the prophets.” Again, it sounds a bit like “first learn rule number one”!

One of the interesting features of the Reformed tradition is the way in which our Confessions spell out what that looks like in very specific terms.

For example, in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, loving your neighbor as yourself is defined in terms of showing “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness” to all, even your enemies (Heid Cat 4.107)! It means to “work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may” (4.111), and “to defend and promote my neighbor’s good name” (4.112). In the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 it means to have “a right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor” (Shorter Cat 7.080). [2]

So what does it look like in our day and time to go back to “rule number one”? I think, in the most basic sense, loving others means respecting others as human beings and treating them with dignity—the dignity of one who is created in the image of God and made the object of God’s love.[3] In a very real way it means doing what it takes to promote the well-being of another person. But at the end of the day, “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity. It is the very essence of Christian identity. It is the pattern by which every other claim about the spiritual life must be measured if it is to be considered Christian.” [4] When you come down to it, “rule number one” fundamentally means sacrificing ourselves in service to others like Jesus did.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/7/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] For further examples in various aspects of life, see Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 163-189; 282-288 and Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 297-311.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 255: it means combining, “respect for the other person’s freedom” to be an individual “with deep affection for him or her as a person.” See also ibid., 258, where he says, “the basic law of the community of Christ is acceptance of others in their difference, for it is this experience of our neighbours, and only this, which is in line with Christian experience of God.”

[4] Luke T. Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, 201; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 278, calls this “a life in accordance with the gospel of Christ.” Cf. also ibid., 283-84.

Redeeming Evil

Rom. 12:9-21[1]

I think a person has to go through life with “eyes wide shut” not to recognize that we live in a world in which evil is very real. All I have to do to demonstrate the reality of evil in this world is to simply mention Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Birmingham, My Lai, Soweto, Tianenmen Square, Beirut, Bosnia, Tibet, Sadr City.

Our tendency is to resist evil; we want to take the side of the victims and rush to their protection. But Jesus said clearly that we are not to resistevil, but to redeem evil. I think his words reflect the wisdom that when you respond to evil with force, you only increase the evil. Resisting evil in this way perpetuates the “vicious circles of death” that continually spin downward in a hopeless spiral of exploitation, violence, hatred, and destruction.[2] It is impossible to avoid the truth that fighting fire with fire leads inevitably to the point where we become what we are fighting.

I think what Jesus and Paul are trying to get across to us is that evil can only be defeated by being absorbed. Only a love that is willing to suffer has the power to overcome evil and redeem it.[3] There is no other way to solve the problem of evil in this world! Only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, can redeem evil. That is precisely the response God has made to evil in Jesus Christ. As Frederick Buechner says, “Christianity … ultimately offers no theoretical solution [to the problem of evil]. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene—not even this—but that God can turn it to good.”[4]

You may remember that we heard something similar from the Apostle Peter just a few weeks ago. You may remember he said, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9). And he said that as we do that we are following in the footsteps Jesus left for us: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Pet. 2:23). There is a clear consensus in the NT about our calling to respond to evil with kindness and gentleness, with love and mercy.

In a very real sense it is the attitude reflected in the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.[5]

I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said those who want to follow him would have to take up their cross. He wasn’t talking about the burdens of life, as in a “cross to bear.” Rather he was calling us all to follow his pattern of responding to evil by not retaliating, with love and mercy and kindness and forgiveness. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” That’s what it means to overcome evil with good!

This may seem too hard a task for us. After all, we ourselves are just as fallen as those around us. I think one thing that can inspire us is the example of Christ—not to mention the many examples of saints throughout the ages. But I think this is where faith becomes essential. I think the only way we can redeem evil with a loving response is if we share the confidence that that “nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not bend finally to the good.”[6] I think we can only take up our crosses if we know that “God’s light is more real than all the darkness, that God’s truth is more powerful than all human lies, that God’s love is stronger than death.”[7] It is not an easy task, but we can overcome evil by redeeming it because we trust that, as Frederick Buechner says, “Though all is far from right with any world you and I know anything about, … all will be right at last.”[8]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/31/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 293, 301-303, 329-335; cf. also Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 39.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, “Love and Sorrow,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 74-75; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 284.

[4] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 24.

[5] See Leonardo Boff, The Prayer of Saint Francis: A Message of Peace for the World Today.

[6] The Study Catechism, 1998; cf. also Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 67: it is “the stubborn faith that there is no evil dark enough that God somehow, someway, sometime cannot redeem.” See further Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Providence,” in The Shaking of the Foundations.

[7] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 32.

[8] Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, 113.

New Life in a Fallen World

Rom. 12:1-8[1]

Almost thirty years ago I went off to college as a very young “ministerial student.” I didn’t really know much of anything about anything, but I wanted to study the Bible. One of the things the college I attended did with young ministerial students like me was to have us undergo pretty extensive testing. And one of the “tests” was to rank the activities of the church in order of importance. At the ripe age of 18, I think I ranked worship pretty close to last!

In fact, one of great principles of the Reformed Faith is that our “chief duty” before God is to worship. Now if by “worship” we mean going to church services, that might sound pretty ridiculous. But I think what I failed to grasp as a young man—and what many still fail to grasp—is that “worship” includes much more than what we do on Sunday! In a very real sense, when we truly understand what God is about in our lives, we cannot escape the realization that all of life is our “worship.”[2]

That’s Paul’s point in our lesson for today from Romans. Paul has covered a lot of ground explaining his gospel—a gospel that consists of the promise that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we all have new life, a life that truly is life.[3] Paul has gone to great lengths to elaborate the good news that God has determined from all eternity to be the God who has mercy on us all.[4] Was all that really just to give us something to talk about in church? Was it all just to inspire great poets to compose beautiful hymns? Don’t get me wrong—I love the beauty of worship. But that’s not all there is to it. In fact, as Paul presents it, that’s not even the primary point!

Paul insists that the wonderful Good News of God’s grace and love carries with it a summons, a call, a claim on our lives—everything about our lives.[5] The primary point of worship, according to St. Paul, is to make all of life worship. Paul says it this way: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”[6] (Rom. 12:1). Again, I like The Message translation: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” I think the point is that when we truly grasp the depth of God’s love and the extent of God’s grace, we will respond in humble and joyful worship—with everything we are and do![7]

Paul goes on to explain what this looks like: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2). On the surface of things, it’s relatively easy to understand what Paul is talking about. We live in a world that is a fallen place, a society that operates based on principles that are not only contrary to God’s grace but in fact positively resist a life defined by God’s grace. It doesn’t take a Ph. D. to recognize that!

But the difficulty comes in the doing of it! So what makes the difference between “conforming” and being “transformed”? I think Karl Barth is right when he suggests that it’s a humble recognition that we are all fallen—and we are fallen in every aspect of our lives. And the word he uses for it is repentance.[8] I think we will have to agree that one of the fruits of a genuine encounter with God is the humble recognition that we share all the same problems that we see in everyone around us. And when we humbly recognize that, it has to make a difference in the way we live.

But I think there’s another factor here. Humble repentance is important, but if that’s the only distinction to the Christian faith it seems a bit gloomy! I think it’s essential to recognize that the message of God’s unconditional love, God’s all-inclusive grace, and God’s irrevocable acceptance inspires in us a deep sense of joy![9] Yes, I said joy. I realize that we may not be used to associating the words “joy” and “worship.” But joy is one of the most important sources of the kind of worship in all of life that Paul is talking about.

Joy comes from recognizing that, already in this fallen world, we experience at least a taste of the new creation that God is working toward.[10] And I think that we are fooling ourselves if we fail to recognize that joy is one of the most important ways in which we can live our faith, we can practice our worship, in this fallen world. While humble repentance is important, the kind of transformation of all of life that Paul has in mind here can only be motivated by joy!

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/24/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 426-36.

[3] See Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being a Christian, 146, 285-86, 312.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: 28-29, 53-54, 218-19, 221, 223, 232, 259; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 53, 151.

[5] Barth, Romans, 207-8: “Grace … is the indicative which carries with it a categorical imperative” that we should live our entire lives to fulfill the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; cf. ibid., 211, 220-22, 234; see further, Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3, 510.

[6] See David Peterson, “Worship and Ethics in Romans 12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993): 271-88; cf. especially 275, where he says that “spiritual worship” should be translated “understanding worship,” meaning “the worship which is consonant with the truth of the gospel.”

[7] Barth, Romans, 431: “The problem of ‘ethics’ is … identical with the problem of ‘dogmatics’: Soli Deo Gloria!”

[8] Barth, Romans, 436-37: he defines repentance as the “affirmation of the full ambiguity of our temporal existence.”

[9] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 109, says that new life in Christ is to be “celebrated as the feast of freedom, as joy in existence and as the ecstasy of bliss.”

[10] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 279.

Random Kindness?

Rom. 11:1-6, 11-12, 25-32[1]

Thirty-five years ago, Karl Menninger, the man whose very name was once synonymous with Psychiatry, wrote a book with a strange title: “Whatever Became of Sin?” In it, Dr. Menninger outlined his thesis that we have gradually eliminated what was once known as “sin”—first by redefining it as a “crime” for which the state was responsible, and then redefining it again as an “illness” for which nobody is responsible![2]

And yet, with all due respect to Dr. Menninger, we do have some notion of sin.[3] We see giant corporations reaping huge profits while the buying power of the average consumer goes down the drain, and we call that “sin.” We see governments forcibly imposing their will on other nations and we call it “sin.” We see people indiscriminately pursuing sexual satisfaction to the destruction of others and even themselves and we call it “sin.” “Sin” is what other people do—whether it’s financial or political or sexual, “sin” inevitably concerns “them.”

I think one reason why we don’t like St. Paul telling us that we’ve all sinned is that we’d much rather focus on someone else’s sin. But there’s that pesky Apostle, telling us yet again that we’ve all sinned. He does it in our lesson from Romans this week right in the middle of making the point that all those who are now seemingly “excluded” God will include in the benefits of salvation! Paul says, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32). That language offends us. What kind of a God “imprisons” people in disobedience? But once again it’s easy to miss the point Paul is trying to make: the reality is that we’ve all imprisoned ourselves in our own disobedience, and God works to include us all in mercy!

Again, I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in.” When you read Paul’s statement in that light, you can see that the emphasis is on all. Yes, Paul wants to remind us that we’ve all fallen into the trap of sin, we’ve all wandered into the prison of disobedience. But we have to understand what Paul means by “disobedience.” “Disobedience” is first and foremost dis-belief, un-faith, the unwillingness to respond to God’s gift and claim with trust. Beyond that, “Disobedience” in this context doesn’t mean standing up for a different point of view (as in civil disobedience), it’s going our own way regardless of the consequences to ourselves or others. “Disobedience” here is not a courageous refusal to be coerced by the powerful, it is indulging in the satisfaction of our own desires at the expense of others. “Disobedience” is not simply accidentally failing to follow the rules, it’s willfully doing what is destructive to oneself and/or others. And Paul insists over and over again, that we have all fallen short, we have all given in to the temptation of indifference toward others, or to the opposite temptation of using others for some form of self-gratification.

But what he insists on with even more conviction is that in response to our disobedience, God works to extend mercy to us all, to include us all in the embrace of salvation. God’s plan is to see to it that we all may enjoy the free gift of new life. And Paul says that this happens because of God’s grace (Rom. 11:6). “Grace” is another word we need to understand.[4] In this context it means “undeserved kindness” (cf. Rom. 11:6, CEV). The fact that it’s undeserved means that God gives it to us as a gift that we have no claim to but God gives it any way because that’s how God relates to people!

God’s kindness may be undeserved—by us all—but it really isn’t a random in any way. In fact, God’s kindness is very intentional: God has determined from all eternity to be the God has mercy on us all! God deliberately chose to include everyone—especially those who seem to have been excluded. That’s what Isaiah the prophet had said long before Paul:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, … these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered (Isa. 56:6-8).

God’s purpose is about inclusion, not exclusion. That’s always been true. God called Abram and Sarah, not just to single out one family, but in order to “bless all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). What God chooses—always has chosen and always will choose—is to extend kindness to us all![5]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/17/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] That this continues to be an issue 35 years later can be seen in Norman L. Keltner, “Whatever became of Sin? Revisiting Menninger’s Question,” Perspectives in Psychiatric Care July-Sept 2005.

[3] Cf. David H. Kelsey, “Whatever Happened to the Doctrine of Sin?” Theology Today 50 (July, 1993): 169-78.

[4] Cf. D. Mark Davis, “The Centrality of Wonder in Paul's Soteriology” Interpretation 60 (October 2006): 415, “when Paul tries to communicate the mystery that, in Christ, God is fulfilling the covenant to both Jew and Gentile, Paul is pointing to a grace which lies beyond both comprehension and language.”

[5] cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: 232, “the end and aim of all God’s ways … is the act of His free mercy”; cf. also 2.2: 259.