Be Extravagant

Recently I heard a fine sermon by Sarah Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham Alabama.  She referred to Jesus’ parable of the sower. In the parable, the sower strews seed over various kinds of soil, e.g. hard trodden down soil, rocky soil, weed-infested soil, and rich soil.

I confess that for years I struggled with those different types of soil. Assuming that ‘soil’ referred to human hearts, I kept asking the question of how do soils or hearts become characterized as in the parable. What makes them, hard or rocky or weedy or rich? Detesting the answers of either Calvinism or Gnosticism, I always ended up shaking my head in sad confusion.

However, the quagmire into which I had waded did not lead to the meaning of the parable. It was, as Sarah pointed out, all about the extravagance of the sower. He or she did not pick and choose just certain places to strew his seed. No, the seed was cast far and wide with no concern about any so-called worthiness of the soil.

What a wonderful reminder to us not to be stingy or discriminating with our acts of love, compassion, and care. Toss them out here, there, and everywhere! Trust that some will bear good fruit. And it may even be in ‘soil’ we might have thought unworthy or unproductive. Extravagance in love is never bad.

Jesus Was Not a Strict Constructionist

Jesus had regular run-ins with people who affirmed the importance of the letter of the law. They were legalistic literalists. One of the more frequent disagreements revolved around the Law of the Sabbath. Jesus set this law aside time after time after time. The law was pretty clear: “Remember the sabbath day , and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all  your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any  work. . . ” (Exodus 20:8-10, emphasis mine)

One sabbath, Jesus allowed his disciples to pluck heads of grain to eat. They weren’t starving. They could have fasted. Also, Jesus occasionally worked healings on the sabbath day. Generally, these people were not in crisis. He could have waited a day.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke clearly as one who would not be a literalist. In Matthew 5 he rejected three laws: 1) the specific law concerning divorce that had been handed down in the Mosaic code; 2) the law giving permission to make vows; 3) the law of retribution, i.e. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Jesus was not a literalist. He was an essentialist. He was interested not in the letter of the law, but the essence of the law. He declared both in word and deed that the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s ‘neighbor’. No law could be used to override or ignore the absolute law of love.

Feeling the Spirit

I recently attended a concert with my wife Pat and our daughter Kari. It may have been my favorite concert of all time. It was Amos Lee and an amazing six piece, multi-talented band. The extended version of Lee’s songs allowed the different musicians to highlight their skills. Amos Lee, himself, was engaging. His singing was moving. My daughter compared him to Otis Redding. I think perhaps a male version of Norah Jones. Though I swear on one song he was channeling a clear-voiced Bob Dylan!

Spirit by Amos Lee

The song that moved me most is entitled Spirit off the cd by the same name. He explained that the song was written in New Orleans. (It begins on Royal Street in the French Quarter.) The repeated chorus is “I just wanna feel the spirit washin’ over me.” The ‘spirit’ in the song is the spirit of singing and music.

I too am a music lover. I know what it means for the spirit to wash over me as I listen to Amos Lee and many others. Music is powerful. Augustine is credited with saying, “To sing is to pray twice.” Of course, he was talking about singing the Psalms with mouth and heart. But all kinds of music, whether strictly religious or not, is powerful to move us.

The spirit of music can move our spirits. And whenever that move generates love, peace or joy, the Spirit of God is also in the mix.

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An Advent Meditation

John dreamed of the coming of the Messiah. He looked forward to it.
He proclaimed it every chance he got. He loved the Messiah of his dreams. His
Messiah would come with axe in hand to chop down every tree that did not
bear good fruit (Matthew 3:10). With his winnowing fork, the Messiah would
clear the threshing floor and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (Luke
3:17). John looked for a Messiah who would come in fiery judgement on the
world-saving the few and scorching the many. And he loved that Messiah.
It was this vision of the Messiah that caused him to question in Luke 7:18-23
whether Jesus was the one of his dreams or not. He had heard what Jesus was
doing while John himself languished in prison. So, he sent some disciples to
ask Jesus point-blank if he were the expected one or not.
Jesus’ reply can be summed up this way: 1) Those in need, like the blind and
the leper, are being cared for and healed. 2) The poor, i.e., those looked down
upon as the unwashed masses who do not follow the dictates of “the Law,”
receive from the lips of Jesus the good news of God’s Kingdom. 3) Those who
are not offended by the acts and words of Jesus are called blessed.
Jesus distrusted the title Messiah because so many had such wrong ideas about
the mission of God’s Messiah. Certainly John the Baptist was such a one. Jesus
answered neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ to the inquiry. Instead he said, “This is what I
am doing, and if it does not offend you (and your dreams) then you can be
blessed.”
In this third week of the Advent Season we focus on love. But that single
word raises the question, who do we love?
John loved the image of a Messiah who would save on the one hand and
utterly destroy on the other. At times it almost sounded as if he was more
interested in the latter than the former. Even today, perhaps all of us have
heard preachers proclaim the coming judgement at the return of Christ almost
as if they welcomed it.
During Advent we reimagine waiting for the coming of Christ and we also
carry it over into our waiting for the return of Christ. I leave you with a question:
Who would you love to come? What kind of Christ is the Christ of your dreams?