Ecclesiastes, Job, and Theodicy
2007-08-02 by Russ Pregeant
I second David von Schlichten's comments on the relevance of Ecclesiastes to the Minnesota bridge tragedy; for similar reasons, I also find Job 42:19 to be an important text in this regard.
One one level, this text encourages us to accept a vital relationship with God as more important than an intellectual answer to the question of "why bad things happen to good people"--or, indeed, to anyone at all. In vv. 5-6, Job finally repents. However, this is not because he has been convinced by the arguments of his friends or even because God has explained the reasons for his misfortunes--the point is that he has been transformed by the living presence of God. And one way to read v. 7, in which God reprimands Job's friends because they have not spoken rightly of God AS JOB HAS, is to see God's approval as based upon the fact that Job speaks TO God, not ABOUT God. Thus, "It's the relationship, stupid."
On another level, though, I think this passage can lead us into some creative theological reflection. Job's friends represent the standard theology that pervades the Deuteronomistic History (Deut-II Kings): God rewards the good and punishes the evil in material terms in this life. The book of Job, however, is a major dissenting voice within the canon, rejecting this doctrine not only through Job's own statements throughout the book but also through God's rejection of the friends' words in 42:7. Although the book never proposes a specific alternative to this standard theology, it opens the way for a reconsideration of the notion of God as micromanager, controlling human events unilaterally. For some contemporary theologians, one "solution" to the age-old problem of theodicy (the justice of God) is to understand God's action in the world as persuasion rather than coercion. Something like this way of thiking, I believe, is in the background of William Sloane Coffin's comment following the tragic death of his son: "God's heart was the first to break." Those who have a relationship with God should be able to say the same thing in the face of the Minnesota bridge tragedy or Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. And once we get past asking why God allows, or even causes, such tragedy, we are free to ask what we as human beings can do by way of prevention and healing.
Sermon Outline for Luke 12 and Ecclesiastes 1 and 2 (for Aug 5; response to bridge disaster)
2007-08-02 by David von Schlichten
Title: Love, Not Vanity; God, Not Barns
Thesis: While life may seem pointless and God absent, the reality is that Christ has died and risen to give us eternal life and forgiveness. We respond to this Good News by loving God and others, not by accumulating material wealth for selfish reasons.
I. Introduction: The Bridge in Minnesota Collapses
A. Reminds us of how fragile life is
B. We wonder why things like this happen
C. Does God care? How could God allow this?
II. Ecclesiastes Deals with Similar Issues: The inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the Bible implies that God considers such questioning acceptable; we can ask why
III. The Bible as a Whole Gives a Response to the Questions: God's Saving Acts of Love, Especially through Christ
A. Christ died and rose to give us life in the face of death
B. Christ also gives us purpose by teaching us to love God and others; Love is our reason for being
IV. Our Purpose Is NOT to Hoard Wealth for Selfish Reasons
A. Luke 12: The Parable of the Rich Fool
B. "Citizen Kane": Charles Foster Kane is wealthy but dies lonely in his mansion
C. We can save up and can have possessions, but not at the expense of being rich toward God (is the junk in our garages and attics expressing love for God and others?)
V. We May Not Be Able to Make Sense of the Bridge-Collapse, But We Know that Christ Has Given Us Life and Calls Us to Respond with Love for God and Others
A. We can use our resources, including money, to help the bridge-collapse victims
B. God is with us through Scripture, Sacrament, and each other; as we help each other deal with crisis, God's love is apparent
Praying for the Bridge-Collapse Victims, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, poet and pastor
Preaching on self-deception to the self-deceived
2007-08-01 by Rick Steele
I received the following post from a reader: "I was struck by the last sentence in your theological article this week on Luke 12:13-21. 'This sense of redemption is precisely the preacher’s goal: to tell hard truth to hardened hearts healingly, to help a congregation take up the moral challenge of learning how their view of reality is colored by narrow-minded self-interest.' Could you flesh out some ways that we preachers might do this in a sermon this week?"
Thanks for this probing inquiry. First, a word of clarification: The sentence you quote from my article—and quote correctly—is not quite the sentence that I originally wrote. The phrase, “This sense of redemption…” was added by the LH editors, and seems to me to subtly change what I was trying to say. (Which is not to say that my original version was clear: presumably the editors thought it was not clear, and tried their best to fix it. And that is what editors are for.) What I meant to say is that the preacher’s task is to undeceive people, to tell them the truth about themselves, and in such a way that, much as it may “hurt” them to hear it, they will know that they have not been harmed, but rather healed by it. Let me expand on this point.
I contend that self-deception (or at least some kinds of it) is not simply a psychological trick that I play on myself. It is a sin that I commit against myself, and that often leads me to commit sins against God and my neighbors, too. Suppose, for instance, I tell myself that having a swanky theological education and an impressive-sounding job title make my off-the-cuff pontifications on moral and spiritual matters absolutely infallible. Well, I am just lying to myself—not only by grossly magnifying the intrinsic worth of my own professional accomplishments, but also by assuming that my past accomplishments somehow guarantee that I will speak with perfect wisdom in new cases. Such arrogance is surely an offense against God, and it will very likely lead me to say stupid and hurtful things to my colleagues and students.
Now, the worst possible thing that could happen to me is that nobody will tell me that I am acting like a fool, that I am offending God, and that I am doing injury to my neighbors. I will be left in my self-deceit—that is, in my folly and sin. I will go on fooling myself and I will go on hurting others. Conversely, the best possible thing that could happen to me is that somebody will tell me the truth about myself, and guide me out of my blindness, arrogance, and hurtfulness.
But here’s the hitch: precisely because I am self-deceived, I don’t want to hear the truth about myself. The spiritual and psychological dynamics of self-deception are such that the very thing I most need to hear is the last thing I am able to hear. Precisely because I am arrogant, I can’t stand to be told that my arrogance is unwarranted and that my sense of superiority is asinine and obnoxious. I am in love with my illusions, and abhor the possibility of disillusionment. Nevertheless, I have no moral right to my illusions, and “redemption” will come to me, if it comes at all, from the mouth of someone bold enough and loving enough to speak the unvarnished truth into my condition.
Still, the problem that this truth-teller must overcome is my unwillingness to hear. I am apt to regard any “frontal assault” on my self-image as a personal attack, rather than an opportunity for salvation. An indirect, parabolic approach is more likely to circumvent my psychic defenses. This is the approach that Nathan took with David (2 Sam. 12) and that Jesus takes here with the guy in the crowd who wants him to take his side in an estate settlement (Luke 12.13-21). They tell stories about “somebody else,” rather than the offending party, in order to get the offending party to think for a moment in an objective and self-detached way about a situation which really pertains to themselves. Interestingly, once the “message” of the parable has sunk in to their hearers, both Nathan and Jesus go for the jugular: “You are the man,” says Nathan. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God,” says Jesus. Ouch! And hallelujah!
Different congregations—and different people within each congregation—will be guilty of different sins, and, accordingly, of different kinds of self-deception. I don’t think there is a simple recipe for exposing all sins, and I don’t think that any single sermon or parable will disabuse all hearers of their self-deception. I do think, however, that preachers need to reckon today with the fact that in a “therapeutic” culture (see Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic and Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism) people are allergic to “guilt feelings” and therefore increasingly desensitized to the moral and spiritual realities of life. Now, I'm certainly not advocating guilt-tripping as a homiletical strategy, and I have no taste for "hellfire and brimstone" sermons. But I do believe that preachers must resist the psychobabble and faddish relativism of our culture, which suggest to people that there is no such thing as sin to feel guilty about. Sins must be named for what they are, and the fact that we don’t like thinking of ourselves as sinners is itself a symptom of our sinful self-deception. Christian congregations must be trained to hear this message by a steady diet of sermons which name sins for what they are and call people to repentance, holiness, and moral sobriety.Thanks for allowing me clarify my point.
Richard B. Steele, Ph.D., Professor of Theology, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA
Response to Reader's Question About Credit Card Question
2007-08-01 by David von Schlichten
In my last blog, I suggested that a helpful homiletical question vis-a-vis the Gospel from Luke 12 is, "What's in your barn, and why is it there?"
A reader suggested that a sermon could ask the Capital One question, "What's in your wallet?" and then segue into the barn-question I derived from the Gospel. This approach could work, as long as it doesn't come across as cute or gimmicky.
However, in my opinion, the Capital One introduction is unnecessary, because the "What's in your barn, and why is it there?" question stands on its own and does not need the credit-card question to clarify or introduce it, provided that the preacher has explicated the Gospel story adequately before introducing the question.
What I mean is, if you explain the text, then you will be ready for the barn-question without any need for the credit-card question. That said, I am sure the credit-card question could be put to effective use in a sermon.
Feel free to ask more questions or provide comments.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, poet and pastor
Luke 12:13-21 and Tuesday Pericope Group
2007-07-31 by David von Schlichten
Each Tuesday morning, several of us pastors get together to study and discuss the lessons for the coming Sunday. We are in the Chestnut Ridge area in Latrobe, PA (an hour east of Pittsburgh), so we call ourselves the Chestnut Ridge Area Pastors Group, or the C.R.A.P. Group for short.
Here's a salient point the Holy Spirit led us to this morning: that it is eisegetical to codify the Lukan text that warns against storing up treasures for the self but not being rich toward God.
In other words, we are not to conclude that we are not to save any of our possesions ever. The man in Jesus' story saves his possessions and ends up in a tragic state, as Rick Brand rightly points out. However, this tragedy does not mean that none of us are ever to store anything.
After all, as one member of our group noted, the wise bridesmaids in Matthew were the ones who had saved extra oil. Sometimes saving is wise stewardship.
The key is that we are to be rich toward God. So what does it mean to be rich toward God? That would be a wise question to ponder during sermon preparation and maybe even during the sermon itself.
Another wise question is, "What is in your barn, and why is it there?"
The passage is not saying that we should never save things in our barn. The passage is saying be rich toward God. Are you rich toward God? What does that mean? What's stored in your barn, and why?
That's what the Holy Spirit revealed to me through CRAP Group this week. We'll see what this understanding produces in terms of serving as fertilizer for a sermon.
Pondering and praying, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten
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