I have been told that I am a non-linear thinker. Some would suggest this means that I am highly distractible by shiny objects and interesting things. I prefer to think of it as an openness to the complexity of life. For example, the other day I was walking my dog, Emma. She – also being ever driven by impulses – attempted to engage the attention of a cat, and may very well have eaten it if given the chance. This reminded me of a recent commercial with an alien posing as an exchange student that attempted to eat the family cat. That reminded me of the late ‘80s sitcom, Alf, whose lead character came from a planet where eating cats was a delicacy that took on near religious significance. Stay with me, I’ll get to the Gospel – I promise.
Anyway, I was reminded that during one particular episode Alf denied his instinct, going so far as to risk his own life in order to save the family cat. [This is the episode. Turns out it was a little different than remembered - but he does risk his life for the cat.] Preservation of his new life required denial of his old life. Being who he had now become (a member of an earthly family) required a denial of who he was. It required a denial of self. Suddenly it struck me that my dog’s inability to keep from chasing that cat is just like my inability to stop doing those things that please only me. It is just like my intolerance of views that differ from mine. It is just like my expectation that others should think and act they way that I do.
Today’s reading from Hosea reflects the character of God, who suffers our selfishness like a parent whose love is never appreciated or understood. Of course children, as they grow, push away from their parents. But this is not just the lament over the angst of adolescence or an empty nest. Nor is it the wrath and judgement of a vindictive God. Instead, Hosea speaks tenderly of the sorrow of God over the reversal of the exodus. “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me”, says the Lord. This isn’t a judgement. It’s a statement of cause and effect. God seems to say, “I can’t help those that won’t help themselves.”
Yet God seems to follow that with something like, “Who am I kidding? They’re my children. Each one of them. I love them.” Not only that, but God expects the bond of love to be so strong that they will be drawn back to God – when God calls to them in their place of need.
All of us, in our own way, come to God more readily when we feel needy. Suddenly that strikes me as a terribly selfish way to approach faith, but let’s be honest – when we feel confident and self assured we are less likely to seek out the God of the universe.
I think that is where our checklist of moral failings from Colossians can help us. We had a bear of a time with Colossians last Sunday in Sunday School! We talked about the idea that this letter affirms the belief that we do not have to wait until we die to inherit the kingdom, and that eternal life starts right now. That statement was met with the wisdom of age when someone said, “You mean to tell me that it doesn’t get any better than this?!”
We resolved to say both yes and no. Through Jesus Christ we become open to a new way of living in the here and now. This new way of living is not just a technical change, like putting a fish on the back of your car. This new way of living is an adaptive change, like changing your entire attitude toward how you drive. It’s like changing from defensive driving to driving as a ministry of hospitality and peacemaking.
The checklist, that list of moral failings, is not a way to achieve salvation. It is the result of knowing that you have been saved. A friend of mine recently put it this way. She said, “I finally realized that I am not all that special. That doesn’t mean that I am not unique or that I am unimportant. It means that I don’t have to try so hard to become something that I am not.” It was her way of saying that God saved her from herself. I asked her how that connected with the idea of being made in the image of God, and we resolved to believe that what it comes down to is the difference between what you manufacture and what you manifest.
We spend lives building bigger barns and arguing over who deserves to have their basic needs met and how. Sometimes it seems that we are tearing our society apart in order to say who can have what, in whose barn, and how we can protect our own stuff. Yet Jesus tells us that all that stuff is just plain silly, for life is short – and you can’t take it with you. “So it is for those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.”
Can you have it both ways? Can you be frugal and generous and comfortable at the same time? Perhaps, but I think there is some aspect of the gospel that should always keep us from being too comfortable. The key to it all is orientation. What is your true North? What guides you? Is it a personal passion that gratifies you, or is your passion found in the hope that you might participate in something larger than your own comfort? Am I manufacturing valuable things, or am I manifesting – making known, demonstrating – the active presence of God?
In some ways, I think that our comfort (as the church) in correct doctrine and practice has become a distraction. It has become something shiny that we prize. There might be another way to think about shiny things, though. In the late 90’s there was a science fiction show called Firefly about a band of ethical space smugglers. Every potential payoff was described as “shiny.” As the show progressed, they routinely double crossed the powerful in order to care for the weak. “Shiny” became less about goods and more about the “good”. Shiny became the ideal that held them together and moved them toward truth – somewhat of a Holy Grail – that was always sought, sometimes glimpsed, , maybe sipped from, but never held.
So it is with us, a people who place our hope and trust in the cup of Christ. The cup and loaf become for us an experience of the ideal, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and the very real presence of God as we receive them with one another. In the past I have described our experience as one of common union. But, maybe it is something more. Maybe it is an un-common union, unlike any you find. In a life full of shiny distractions, this common loaf and common cup turn the world upside down.
Then the things that used to glitter seem dull and taxing, and the treasures of heaven – love, faith, acceptance, and redemption – all of these command our full attention. That is the fullness of the Gospel and the invitation of the table that stands before us. As we seek to adapt our lives and community to the ever changing call of Christ, let us be clothed with the new self and never distracted, unless it is by the chance to demonstrate the love we have received through Christ Jesus. Amen.