Friday, September 26, 2008

Incredibly Generous

Rom 10:5-15[1]

If you’ve made it this far with me you know that I’m a movie fan. You’ve probably gathered by now that my family shares that hobby with me. But what you may not know—and may find shocking—is that my family sometimes disagrees with me about movies. I know it’s simply shocking! Perhaps the most glaring example of this shocking disagreement has to do with Willy Wonka. Yes, we disagree about who the “real” Willy Wonka is. Now, I know you’ll probably need to take this sitting down, but my family actually thinks Gene Wilder is the “real” Willy Wonka! I, of course, prefer Johnny Depp. But perhaps that story is best left for another day.

One of the things I liked best about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the recent version of the story with Mr. Depp as “Willy Wonka, is the way the story revolves around Charlie. As you probably know, the plot concerns the reclusive Mr. Wonka, who launches a contest that gives 5 children a chance to tour his magical chocolate factory. And, of course, the mere hint of a competition brings out the absolute worst in people. In fact, of the 5 finalists, the only likeable one in the bunch is Charlie, a truly wonderful child with an incredibly generous spirit. Unlike the other kids, Charlie doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body! Predictably, Charlie “wins” the contest. Mr. Depp, as a truly dark version of Willy Wonka, offers to give Charlie his entire candy empire on one condition—Charlie will have to leave his family and live with Mr. Wonka, cut off from the rest of the world, devoted to the quest for ever more perfect chocolate.

Well, Charlie won’t hear of it. In fact, one of the prime reasons why Charlie is so keen on winning the contest is his family. You see, his grandfather had worked at the factory before Mr. Wonka fired all the employees. Despite the abrupt termination, Charlie’s Grandpa loved and respected Mr. Wonka, and instilled Charlie with that same feeling. But unfortunately, the family’s fortunes had suffered since that day. There is simply no way Charlie could possibly abandon his family—for any prize. Sharing is essential to Charlie’s very being—especially with his family, but in fact, Charlie is so generous that he’s willing to share with just about anyone.

As you can imagine, the imperious Mr. Wonka is not at all accustomed to being denied. At first he pitches a fit over Charlie’s refusal to meet his conditions. But then he comes around, and agrees to let Charlie’s whole family live with them. Charlie’s incredibly generous spirit transforms even the eccentric [creepy?] Willy Wonka, who had excluded himself from his family and indeed from the whole world.

What does all this have to do with St. Paul and his letter to the Romans? Well—let me tell you. I think Charlie, that incredibly generous child who chooses his family over an incalculable fortune, serves as a great illustration of what Paul has to say about God in Romans—not to mention Jesus’ saying that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these! I particularly like verses 11 and 12: “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (Rom. 10:11-12).

I like it even better in Gene Peterson’s The Message translation: “Scripture reassures us, ‘No one who trusts God like this - heart and soul - will ever regret it.’ It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s … background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help.”[2]

“Incredibly generous.” I think that’s got to be one of the best phrases to describe God I’ve ever heard. I think that’s the heart of Paul’s message in this passage. God is incredibly generous to us all.[3] God loves us all unconditionally. God offers new life to us all, without any exceptions or exclusions. And all this is something that God does—completely!

Now, that’s the good news. What it requires of us might come to some of us as “bad news.” The incredibly generous gift that God has for all of us requires nothing less of us than to “turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10). I think that’s what Paul’s getting at when quotes from Moses to the effect that the incredibly generous gift God offers us all requires “no precarious climb up to heaven to recruit the Messiah, no dangerous descent into hell to rescue the Messiah.” Rather “The word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as close as the heart in your chest” (Rom. 10:6-7, Message).

The point is that God doesn’t ask us to cross land and sea in order to discover the secret of new life, or even to deserve the incredible generosity God offers us all. What God asks of us is that we open our hearts and trust that our incredibly generous God loves us and wants us to thrive. But that kind of trust is not easy. In fact, an outwardly active response often masks the fact that a person is unwilling to trust God’s generosity.[4] Many of us would rather cross land and sea in some heroic venture—or perhaps even space and time—than to open our hearts and trust anyone, let alone God! But what our incredibly generous God asks of us is this—that we embrace God’s incredibly generous love completely, with open hearts, or as Paul puts it: “body and soul” (Rom. 10:9-10, Message).

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/10/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Rom. 3:22; cf. Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 100, Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:217: “The God of Jacob is also the God of Esau.”

[3] Barth, Romans, 102-3, 326-27; cf. Barth, Dogmatics, 2.2:219, 221.

[4] See Barth, Dogmatics, 2.2:246-47, calls it a form of “active unbelief”!

No comments: