Christ the Foundation

Easter Sermon, 2017, Matthew 7:24-27

When our youngest child was younger, we used to say to him—cute wore off two and a half kids ago.  It usually happened when he had done something just to see if he could get away with it.  And he would smile at us with that look that said, “Yes, but I’m cute and so I get away with it.”  And we’d say, “Cute wore off two and a half kids ago.”    Knowing that siblings often seek ammunition to use against their brothers and sisters, I’m guessing he blamed the older ones for overplaying the cute card and ruining it for him.  We started using that phrase before he could really do math.  If he had done the subtraction he would have realized that two and a half kids ago wasn’t after the first two kids, but at the beginning of our raising our first child. We realized that if we allowed Children’s cuteness to guide us, we would squander our role as parents. Lori and I never verbalized it to each other.  We didn’t read it in a book.  We didn’t hear it in a seminar.  And I’m sure there were some negative consequences with our choice.  But somehow intuitively we decided, cute wasn’t going to be the criteria we used to assess our children’s behaviors.  There is a lot of cuteness with Easter.  Cute Easter dresses and cut little boy outfits.  Cute Easter bunnies and cute Easter chickens.  Cute little flowers and cute Easter bows.  And cute little Easter eggs.  Even a grumpy man like me, I have a cute new tie for today.  But more and more I sense that people looking for something else.

Jesus anticipated a time when he would say—cuteness wore out two and a half Disciples ago.  The parable Jesus told of the wise and foolish builders concludes the great Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5-7.  It comes close to the beginning of the Gospel in the narrative sequence.  It is the first of five major sections of teachings in the structure of the Gospel of Matthew.  Most biblical scholars agree that the sermon was not something Jesus delivered from beginning to end at one time.  Rather, it was a composition of Matthew—the Gospel writer—who pulled together these teachings and organized them into a comprehensive whole.  Jesus was at the beginning edge of his popularity in terms of the story Matthew was telling. And if Jesus wanted to make his movement work, he could have benefitted from better marketing.  Because early on—Jesus seemed to suggest that cuteness wasn’t really his thing.

Which, by the way, is a lousy thing to do if you’re out to start a religion.  In 2005, Bob Henderson crafted a satirical response to a Kansas Board of Education decision to allow the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in Public school biology classes.  Henderson proposed a new religion the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  It became an internet sensation.  There are books like the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and adherents who call themselves Pastafarians.  There are pictures and t-shirts and lots of cute paraphernalia.  It’s taken off.  If you’re going to start a religion—start cute. Here’s the thing– Jesus really never intended to start a religion.  I know that’s the most ironic thing to say on THE MOST RELIGIOUS SUNDAY of the YEAR for Christ’s followers.  But if you look at what Jesus came to do according to his own words, he came to usher in the Kingdom of God.

Matthew included Jesus’s teaching—many will come in that day and say, “Lord, Lord,” but Jesus will say—it’s not  the ones who parrot the right words but the one who does the will of God.  And others will say—but look at all the cute things we did—signs, wonders, casting out demons, Jesus will say, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” Jesus anticipated a time when the throng of followers would—one by one—need to make a choice to either take him seriously or go and find a new fad to follow.  Jesus ruled out being cute as the basis for evaluating his Disciples’ lives.

He declared the rule and reign of God over and above the rule and reign of any other.  He declared that God’s way of governing the world was to use power for             building people up rather than keeping people down.  And the moral legislation to which Jesus subscribed points to something bigger than religion.  There’s a part of all religions that’s just about the cuteness—about the differentiation of one’s self from the culture in which one lives. Religions teach people to Dress a certain way, modify eating habits, set the calendar for Holy Days and provide guidance for liturgies and rituals.  Jesus practiced a religion—it’s called Judaism.  He observed the days, maintained kosher—to a point, he certain embraced the narrative of God at work in Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Hannah and Samuel, David and Isaiah.  And he accepted that the religion would be a part of his followers’ lives but he wanted depth of sincere belief.  He wanted something other than cuteness.

It seems that Many Christians have decided the cuteness has worn off.  Religious observance is down.  Religious devotion is down.  A few weeks ago, Family Christian Stores—the largest retailer of Christian Merchandise—announced that it would be closing all of its 240 locations.  After 85 years in business, Christian merchandise has been set aside.  This means a job loss for 3000 employees.  Last year, Lifeway Christian stores—which is the rebranded Baptist Bookstores from decades past—announced that it would close the three locations it operated on Baptist Seminary Campuses.  Imagine that, the Baptist Bookstore can’t keep its doors open on Baptist Seminary campuses.  And I’m not knocking on Baptist.  Disciples never tried opening bookstores.  The struggles of Christian merchandising doesn’t signal the end of Christianity.   People can still shop for Christian books online. And that’s what’s caused the closing of a number of retail bookselling stores.  But, along with selling Christian devotional and educational literature these places sold the cute things that go with religion—like Testamints—the breathe mints meant to evoke the Old and New Testament.

Cute Christianity was all the rage in the 1980s.  Often called attractional evangelism, seeker sensitive churches like Willow Creek in Chicago and Saddleback in California emerged as a cultural force.  These churches grew exponential by eschewing things like church buildings, traditional programming, too many religious symbols drained of meaning, archaic language, inaccessible music, etc. etc.  It’s hard to believe that the church growth movement has been with us so long that over a decade ago one of the founders of the Church growth movement—Bill Hybels was getting ready to retire.  He decided that in order to assess the fruits of his labors, Willow Creek would commission a study of how they had actually done in creating true followers of Jesus Christ.  He commissioned a study.  His study included comparison respondents from other churches around the Chicago area where Hybels and Willow Creek are located.  They hired a professional research company to conduct the survey.  They set up the matrices of what to look at—faithful prayer life, Christian service, financial support of congregation.  When the results came in, Hybels was shocked to discover that far from being the revolutionary movement that produced real Christians by the droves, pound for pound, the medium sized Lutheran Church down the road was measuring up to his own measures better than he was.  To his credit Hybels did not sweep these findings under the rug.  Quite the contrary he was incredibly open and public about sharing these results in 2005.

The loss of Chrstianity’s cuteness frightens a number of us.  It’s certainly scary to people like me who make our living on people buying into and contributing to the ministries of the established church.  But, I’m not sure that Jesus cared so much.   Jesus’s concluding parable does not say the Wise Man built his house with cute trim and pretty furnishings and nice curb appeal.  But the foolish man built his house with drab paint and discount furnishings and unattractive curb appeal.  The wise and foolish builders differ in the material they use for their foundation.

I’ve been there when people poured foundation.  I was a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and got a call—we need help.  I put on the knee high boots, they gave me a long pole spreader and the big truck came and started pouring concrete into the form and my roles was to take the spreader and help spread the concrete around.  Simple right?  I was in my twenties.  I thought it would be a piece of cake.  They started pouring and I started spreading.  Within about 45 minutes my back was hurting, my hands had blisters, and my legs ached.  It’s not what Jesus meant.  What he did mean is that foundation work is hard.  It is messy.  And it can be painful.  It’s not cute.  In a little bit we will sing the chorus from a hymn I love, “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand.”  But it’s important to say that a generic and ascent to believing things about Jesus are true is not the same thing as putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ.  Jesus said, “Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.  It involves working—doing the work of daily training your mind and heart to follow in the way of Christ through prayer and study.  Doing the work of faithfully serving in meaningful ways.  Progressively allowing Christ to influence every part of your life.  It’s not easy work.  The authority for Jesus to say that putting into action the things that he commands comes from the resurrection.  The surest evidence of Christ’s resurrection is the continued presence of people who faithfully live according to the teaching of Christ.

Once there was a home builder who made the best homes.  She paid careful attention to every detail.  She measured twice, She cut once.  She used the strongest, most durable materials. She studied the plans.  The nails and screws were put in at the appropriate angles.  She had a daughter.  The daughter was her apprentice.  Her daughter knew the demands her mother placed on building to exact specifications and following plans to the letter.  Using the best materials.  The Mother called Her daughter to her one day and explained—I have to leave for a few months, but there is a very nice house I need you to build.  I want you to build it like you have been taught.  Use the highest-grade material.  Cut to exact specifications.  She left the daughter a large sum of money to complete the project and then she left.  With the Mother away, the daughter started taking shortcuts.  She used materials that would look adequate but cost far less.  The home owners, he said, will not know the difference until we are out of sight and out of mind.  She took the money he saved and spent it on herself.  She also cut corners with precision.  She didn’t measure twice and cut once.  If She guessed wrong and came up short, she’d find a way to make things fit.  Sure, she thought, as things settle, or when the storms hit, the home owners would run into problems, but by then they’d be out of sight and out of mind.  This went on until the house was complete.  By all external appearances, the house measured up to the mother’s exacting standards.  But the daughter had learned to mimic good workmanship so that he could pocket the extra money and use the time he saved on herself.  When Her mother came back.  The daughter handed her the keys.  Her mother replied, “Daughter, keep the keys yourself.  This home you have been building is my wedding present to you.  It is yours.”

Whose house are you building?  The wise man built his  house upon the rock and the foolish man built his house.  Jesus was clear—the wise man was building his house.  Whose house are you building.  Living by the teachings of Christ reorients our lives to the Christian hope.  If you are willing to do the hard work to build your life’s house

Two Tales of a City

Tale 1–In the 1980’s, Jerry Harvey made the label “Abilene Paradox” popular within management circles. Stated simply, the Abilene paradox is a group or organizational phenomenon where the members of a decision making body perceive consensus where no real consensus actually exists. Group members conform to this false perception of group consensus without actually testing it or expressing their concerns. The definition, of course, doesn’t do much to explain why it is called the Abilene paradox. For that, you need the story.
Jerry Harvey had the good sense to marry a woman from West Texas–Coleman to be precise. He and his wife traveled home to be with his in-laws. The temperature was over a hundred degrees. The wind had whipped up a mild sand storm. The visit was going well as they played dominoes, drank lemonade, and enjoyed the relaxed comfort of a small west Texas town. As it came to pass, one of his in-laws suggested that they load up the unairconditioned Buick, circa 1958, drive to Abilene, and eat at Furr’s cafeteria. Everyone said that it was a good idea. The family loaded up, took US Hwy 84 north 52 miles and reached Abilene. There they ate at Furr’s cafeteria. People go to cafeterias because everyone can get what they want. Unfortunately, it all tastes the same and it never tastes like what people really want. After eating, they drove back through the heat and dust in the late model Buick in need of air conditioning.
Once back at the house, the family members began one at a time disclosing that they did not really want to go. They had only acquiesced to the journey because they felt that the other family members had wanted to go. The conversation quickly dissolved into terse responses and accusations. As Harvey relates, “After the outburst of recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wale cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do.”
Now, that’s a much better definition of the Abilene Paradox than the one I tried to construct before. It is memorable. So memorable, people who have been exposed to the concept will sometimes be known to speak up in the midst of decision-make meetings, “Are we on a trip to Abilene?” The Abilene Paradox as a principle of management has been reproduced in a book, a .pdf available on-line, and videos. It is Jerry Harvey’s calling card as a management consultant weaving the principles of social psychology together with leadership decision-making.
Tale 2–Twenty-two years after the Abilene Paradox showed up in print, another writer for a very different field narrated a very different trip to Abilene. In 2010 Lee Gutkind edited a series of essays entitled Becoming a Doctor: From Students to Specialists, Doctor-Writers Share Their Experiences. In this compelling set of reflections, psychiatrist Elissa Ely has an entry entitled “Going to Abilene.”
She explains that she once treated a paranoid schizophrenic who twice jumped off of a building obeying the voices in his head. The act left the man restricted to a wheel chair and in need of constant care. Unfortunately, the man’s paranoia made care-giving exceedingly difficult. He would become violent when nurses tried to provide the basic wound care and catheter maintenance that he needed to avoid infection. The man lived in virtual isolation for many years. The man’s mother faithfully visited even though he frequently directed his angry outbursts at her. She would sit with the team of clinicians assigned to his care and ask questions and discuss possible options.
In some desperation, the “Team” decided to make the patient an actual member of their meetings when their meetings involved his case. “Every Monday afternoon at 2 p.m., we would bring him in for consultation” she explained. The sessions lasted about fifteen minutes. At first, the man’s delusions dominated the conversations–his pathological fear poured out in a torrent heartbreaking narratives–experiences that were vivid in his mind but not in the actual confines of the hospital.
One afternoon the Team meeting witnessed a break through. The man declared with a clear and authoritative voice that he was headed to Abilene with 10,000 head of cattle. He wanted to know if the Team members intended to accompany him. One by one, the Team Members–the social worker, the physical therapist, head nurse, and psychiatrist agreed. If he was going to Abilene, they were going with him.
From that point forward, the man’s delusions took a turn. Rather than being the grim and destructive delusions of the past, they became heroic. He saved the earth from a meteor shower. He made huge donations to important charities. He owned sports teams. He produced Hollywood films. As his delusions became more heroic, he became more receptive to the care he needed.
Then one day it happened, the man acknowledged what psychiatrists need their patients to acknowledge, “I know you think I’m nuts.” He said. “You think I’m nuts but here’s the thing: there are ten of me in the world–the politician, screenwriter, superhero. I can’t wait until they come together in one man.” The shift in the man’s condition finally gave his mother permission to age, as she should. With tears in her eyes, she rejoiced that she could finally grow weaker as he grew strong.
Dr. Ely concludes her essay saying, “If a man is ready to leave for Abilene, you must gather whatever pots and pans and horses and tack and supplies you can lay hands on at a moment’s notice and saddle up. The weak have grown strong; there is a miracle in the midst of sickness. Sometimes, we are lead by our patients. Humbly. we follow.”
People who take either of these tales seriously might use “going to Abilene” as short-hand ways of referencing either story. For those influenced by Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox” taking a trip to Abilene is a bad thing. If a group or company or nation takes a trip to Abilene they will have failed to do what they wanted to do and the very thing they have hated they will have done. For people influence by Ely’s Abilene tale, “Going to Abilene” is a good thing. It is a reminder to those in the healing profession that sometimes they need to participate with their patients’ own healing impulses and “humbly follow” the path that their own healing takes. So, are you going to Abilene?
The easy way around this question is to say, “It depends on which trip you mean.” We all want to avoid acting foolishly, but we do want to act altruistically. Most of us could find our way to justify either not taking the trip to Abilene or taking the trip to Abilene. The two trips to Abilene each reveal something we hold true. By coincidence they refer to the same place. I would suggest, though, that it is not as easy for us to alternate between the two meanings of a trip to Abilene at will. This has to do with the way figurative language works.
In figurative language we have a subject–in Harvey’s case the subject is organizational ineffectiveness; in Ely’s case the subject is healing. And in figurative language we use symbols or objects or figures to portray the subject–in both cases they use the trip to Abilene. Figurative language does more than describe the subject. Most figurative language is also evaluative and prescriptive. Figurative language generally implies a value judgment. Both Harvey and Ely offer their interpretations as to the significance of the story. The stories by themselves may be amusing, touching, or boring. But Harvey and Ely offer them to be persuasive. Harvey wants to convince his audience not to go to Abilene–not to acquiesce to perceived group consensus but to actually challenge it. Ely wants to persuade her audience to go to Abilene–to participate with a patient’s own moves toward wholeness. They offer an interpretation along with the story and ask us to respond in particular ways. Figurative language points toward a preferred direction of movement–Going to Abilene is Bad! Don’t Go! Going to Abilene is Good! Go without delay! A lot is going one whenever figurative language is used: description, evaluation, and prescription.
The impact is not just on the subject, the process also changes the way people see the figure or object. In the 1960’s Philosopher of language and thought, Max Black suggested that when we craft compelling figurative language, specifically metaphors, the value judgments made about the subjects also interact with the value judgments we make about the objects used to portray them (footnote the Interaction Theory of Metaphor). Take pigs as an example. Pigs are not literally more stupid, smelly, or sloppy than any other farm animal. And to some of us, pig-based food products like ham, pork and bacon are quite simply divine. But it’s practically impossible to use “Pig” as a figure to describe anyone in a positive way. “You’re a pig!” is going to come off as an insult no matter how you slice it. Why
Well, when a figure is used to describe a subject, our minds conjure up ideas associated with the figure–mammal, domesticated, fat, slop eating, grunting, rooting, smart, trainable. We use the context of the figurative language to understand which of the figure’s characteristics we are meant to apply to subject and which we are to ignore. When that happens, we tend to stress the qualities we used in making the figurative meaning whenever we encounter the object. Our minds are disinclined to discard this work just because the immediate metaphor is passed. This is what Max Black called “metaphoric interaction.”
The broader point to be stressed here is that we do not assess every use of figurative language as a new experience. We carry these interpretations (the evaluation and prescription) from conversation to conversation, speech to speech, story to story. After all, we have done some mental work in interpreting the metaphor the first time. In some caes, this sort of over-arching interpretation of certain symbols occurs not just within an individual’s mind or in the language patterns of a community but throughout the entire culture. Certain figures become “archetypal” figures. I doubt that either Abilene or Pigs function in our culture as archetypes. But, the interpretation given to Abilene in either of these stories can affect the way we encounter Abilene as a figure in future conversations, speeches, or stories.
This sort of traveling interpretation does not just attach itself to animals like pigs or cities like Abilene. It also gets attached to familiar stories. The story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree stands for many as a story of honesty in the face of consequences. The story of the Alamo stands for many a story of perseverance against the odds. Lost on most people is the irony that the “honesty” story was in all probability completely made up. And the freedom fighters of the Alamo were fighting for, among other things, the right of Texans to continue slavery against a Mexican government that had outlawed slavery. These “other side of the story” realities fight in our minds–individually and collectively–against the interpretations we have heard about them since we were children. Some stories just have interpretations that stick and have for centuries. The Parables of Jesus Christ are certainly among the corpus of stories that carry evaluative and prescriptive interpretations with them.
This does not mean that once figurative meaning has been made and taken hold of a person’s imagination, the ideas are set in stone. We can learn to think about the in different terms. Trips to Abilene can be taken for the healing of another person even after they have been taken out of foolish conformity. But it takes work. It takes work to intentionally think about the figurative language in new ways. This small volume–Parables of the Unexpected–is an attempt to do just that with some of the parables recorded in the Gospel of Luke. In these four stories, Luke himself has given an interpretation of what the story means. Added to that are years of sermons, Sunday school lessons, and for some significant exigesis to reinforcing the “traditional interpretation” of the stories. It is an experiment of sorts to see if we can read these familiar stories and see the unexpected, surprising quality. And in that sense, these are my trip to Abilene.
In truth, all parables have an unexpected quality to them. That’s embedded in the name. The name parable and the word parabola come from the same root. A parable is something of a narrative curve ball. But, that’s not generally how we treat them—nor is it how some of the earliest Christians treated them. We tend to treat them as morality stories—the sorts of stories that have a moral at the end of them. We tell the parable, we say “and the moral of this story is . . .” and then we move on. The problem with that approach is that it misses something. Respected philosopher of religion and language, Paul Riceour, coined the phrase “surplus of meaning.” By that he meant that good stories have more than a single “correct” interpretation. Stories can be approached from a variety of angles and reveal that they have more meaning than we often give them credit for. And so in our focus over the next four weeks, I’d like to encourage all of us to look for the unexpected qualities of the stories—the things that often go overlooked.