If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Wasteful Sower: a meditation on Mark 4:1-9

The Parable of the Sower brings to my mind the musical Godspell, an oddball, hippie version of Matthew's gospel. When I was in seminary in the 70’s some fellow students and church members put on Godspell at a coffee house my wife, Iris, and I started as a ministry to street people in San Francisco. We dressed up like clowns and acted out, or should I say ad libbed, the parts of the different seeds in the parable of sower. The seed that fell along the pathway was eaten up by a bunch of clucking and arm flapping chickens. The seed that fell on the rocky soil leaped up to life with a smile, but then went limp and withered by dropping to the floor under the sun's heat. The seed that fell among the thorns was grabbed by the neck and choked by a devilish character and a lot of overacting. The seed that fell on good soil bounced up, flexed her muscles, and beamed with joy at the applause of everyone. In this goofy view of the parable the focus was placed on the different responses of the seeds.

There are different angles from which we can view the parable of the sower. Like a camera scanning the parable, we can zoom in close on the seeds lying scattered on the ground. Or we can pull back our shot and capture a view of the different types of soil. Or with time lapsed photography we could watch the different reactions of the seeds. If we were to focus our lens on the different kinds of soil, which is the way Mark's gospel interprets the parable, we might think this parable is about us. As the parable unfolds we might begin to ask ourselves: What kind of soil am I? Am I rocky ground? Do I need to smooth out some rough places in my life? What are the weeds in my soul? What chokes the life out of me? Am I a shallow person? Do I get all worked up and enthusiastic only to give up when the excitement of the new is gone or things get tough? How can I be weedless, fertile soil? If we focus on the different kinds of soil, we would probably end up either feeling guilty or determined to see how we can beat the three-to-one odds of being poor soil for God's word. By focusing on the soils we may try to cultivate our own lives and become fertile fields for God, which is not a bad thing to do.

But….what if the parable of the sower isn't about us at all? What if this parable is not about birds and rocks and thorns, or about our own personal successes and failures, our flaws of character, or the receptiveness of our souls to God’s word? What if, instead of focusing upon the soil, we zoomed in on the sower. What if, by chance, it is a parable about a sower? It is called the parable of the sower, isn't it? The parable would look a bit different from how we have traditionally viewed it. If the sower is the main character of the parable, what might it say about life and God?

If we focused our lens on the sower, one thing we would immediately notice is that the sower flings his seed around rather wastefully. It falls on good and bad soil alike. According to the ancient practice of the peasant farmer, the sower's method is not so unusual. Most often seed was first scattered, then it was plowed under. It seems wasteful of the sower to scatter the seeds willy nilly across the land so it falls along the road, on rocky ground, among the weeds and thorns, as well as on the fertile soil. What might seem wasteful to us was the typical method of sowing for the peasant farmer, who scratched out a living from the dry, rocky Palestinian soil. In order to produce a harvest a lot of seed had to be recklessly, or should I say, graciously wasted. In the parable 75% of the seed was wasted in order to produce an adequate harvest. In that case, the odds of failure with that kind of sowing are three-to-one. There should have been a more efficient and productive way of sowing, don't you think?

If I were sowing the seeds, I would want greater odds of success. I would want to make sure the seed landed on fertile soil. This wasteful scattering of seeds hither and thither would have to stop. With this kind of wasteful sowing the odds of crop failure would be far greater than a fruitful harvest. In my estimation this is bad farming. Don't we all want to be thrifty and productive? We have all been told as children, "Don't be wasteful." Our bosses have encouraged us to be efficient. Those in business try to concentrate their efforts on what is most productive. Don't we all want to decrease the odds of failure in whatever we do? This is not only sound business advice, but good policy for living. Isn't it?

This is the kind of business advice churches are being given from the marketing world. According to marketing strategy, if we want to be a growing, productive church, then being efficient, concentrating on what is productive, and decreasing the odds of failure will keep the church from being wasteful of God's resources. And how does the church increase its growth and productivity? First, by being "market-driven" rather than "product-driven." That is, our focus should be on the needs of the customers, more than upon the product we offer. The soil takes priority over the seed. Second, marketing techniques can help the church be more efficient and productive. Don't spend a lot of time and energy on ministries or activities that do not produce. Increase your odds of success through efficient marketing techniques. One of those marketing techniques would be to focus our outreach on a target group, a certain kind of people, who would be most likely to join our church---what about targeting white, middle-class families with 1.5 children!

One proponent of such methods of church growth has read the parables as marketing strategies and tactics. He sees the parable of the sower as portraying a marketing process "in which there are hot prospects and not-so-hot prospects." In other words, there are certain kinds of people our church should target for the best results. Plant your seeds only in the most productive soil. Finally, according to the market-driven approach to church growth, success is measured primarily in numerical growth. A hundredfold harvest is better than a thirty-fold harvest. According to this scheme, megachurches are on the right track. Maybe that’s why the Mennonite conference I once attended in Kansas held up an 18,000 member congregation in Southern California as a model church. If we read Jesus’ parable of the sower as marketing strategy for the church, then we should follow marketing principles: Don’t be wasteful, seek greater efficiency, concentrate on what is most productive, and whatever else you do, do what you have to do in order to increase the odds of success.

The problem is we end up with a racially, socially, and economically homogeneous church, which is conformed to our affluent-bigger-is-better-culture. The church becomes more concerned about growth than faithfulness to the gospel. Contrary to what Henry Ford once said, what is good for business is not always good for religion. Success may not be the name of the church's game.

Come to think about it, in real life it seems like there are more failures than successes, more waste than growth. Doesn't life reflect the odds of this parable. The odds are against us. Odds are against all those people who grew up in angry, abusive, distant, or neglectful families of ever being whole persons and having healthy relationships. My wife and I should never have adopted our two children and invested so much time and energy in their lives when odds were against them. And why should anyone waste time and energy on people with a lot of personal problems? There are some people out there who are just not worth our efforts, right? Haven't you heard we shouldn't cast our pearls before swine? How many people have you seen who really changed their lives in a positive way from something you said or did compared to those who went on producing the same old negative garbage in their lives? Don't waste good seed on unproductive soil.

A lot of good seed gets wasted on unproductive soil, even in our own lives. We all throw away more time than we spend on nourishing personal and spiritual growth. We waste more energy on trivial pursuits than on productive, meaningful activities. There is a lot of unproductive ground in our lives. Someone right now is probably thinking, "Yeah, you're right. A lot of my life seems to have been wasted. After all these years, what have I really accomplished?" Another listener could be thinking, "I know what you mean. I've been a Christian for a number of years, but my life is still rocky and full of weeds." What a waste!

Consider our society. It’s bad soil. It produces more problems than solutions. Racism, sexism, classism, consumerism, and violence choke the life out of our communities. These are perennial problems that never seem to go away. What can be accomplished by throwing a bunch of tiny seeds around? The problems in society are just too big and bad. Politicians don’t seem to change their mind. People don’t change their ways. Isn’t it just a waste of time and energy trying to produce good fruit from the bad soil of our society. Too many weeds and so much unproductive soil. This seems to be the way life is. Odds are more seeds will land on rocky, thorny, weed-infested soil than on fertile ground. The odds are against us. So, why waste good seeds by tossing them to the wind?

But, you know what, waste seems to be sewn into the fabric of life. Just look out in space through the lens of the Hubble telescope. Can’t you see all that waste out there? The universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, but there’s only one of those stars, at least that we know of, which is suitable for human life. Looks like an awful waste of space to me! Take a look through the lens of a microscope at the seeds of human life. Seems like a lot of waste there. I remember watching on the Learning Channel a study of human reproduction. The narrator said, "In the reproductive process millions of human sperm, literally "seeds," die as they touch the acidic walls of the uterus." Each of those human seeds bears the potential of becoming an individual human life. Thousands more seeds die along the journey to the female egg. In the end only one sperm out of millions of seeds penetrates the egg to become a unique human being. It takes millions of wasted human seeds for one to finally be productive! In terms of per-unit productivity, it seems like an awful waste of seed. Now, don’t you think that whoever created this universe should have been more efficient when flinging the stars. And whoever thought up this hair-brained method of reproduction should be considered wasteful! From where we stand it sure looks like it takes a lot of wasted seed in order to be productive.

If we focus on the seed or the soil in Jesus’ parable, things do look pretty grim. Productivity has a slim chance. The odds seem to be against us. But, before things start to look too hopeless, let's turn our lens back on the sower in our parable. The sower pays little attention to the condition of soil, or the pathway with human footprints. He seems to ignore the weeds, the thorns, and the hungry birds. He doesn’t seem worry about the odds of success or failure. The sower simply tosses the seeds everywhere on good soil and bad soil alike. He appears to be oblivious to the types of soil on which the seeds land. And the sower isn't stingy with the seed. With wild abandon he throws handfuls of seed across the field like stars flung across the sky. To us the sower appears to be recklessly inefficient and extravagantly wasteful.

God is the sower. God is reckless with goodness and wondrously wasteful with grace. God tosses the lifegiving Word upon the fields of our lives, landing on saint and sinner alike. God wildly sows the seeds of the kingdom without an eye to the nature of the soil. God is recklessly, extravagantly, graciously wasteful with good news, scattering it upon productive and unproductive soil. And odds are God can turn the odds around. God isn't worried about success or failure. God sows the seeds knowing that even though the patches of good earth may be small the harvest will be plentiful. The sowing will bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold!

Once upon a time a certain farmer went out into his field to sow seeds. A servant had previously plowed neat rows in which to plant the seeds. As he tossed the seeds into the furrows, some of the seeds fell outside the lines. This didn't seem to bother the farmer. As a matter of fact, the farmer rather enjoyed throwing the seeds willy nilly across the straight furrows. The farmer got so caught up in the sheer joy of tossing the seeds hither and yon he hadn't noticed that he had walked right off the boundaries of the field. That crazy fool of a farmer walked out onto the roadway leading to the city, grabbing handfuls of seeds from his burlap sack, flinging them here and there and everywhere, laughing and singing as he walked along. Some of the seeds landed on the asphalt and were run over by passing cars or were eaten by crows. Other seeds fell among the weeds or onto the chip bags, cans, and other garbage strewn along the roadside. But, the farmer paid no mind to where the seeds landed. He just kept on tossing his seeds across the wide landscape.

Even when the farmer entered the city streets, it didn't stop him from sowing his seeds. Cars late for work honked at him. Drivers with their ear to cell phones yelled out their windows, "Get outta the street you crazy old fool!" But, the farmer kept on gleefully sowing his seeds. Some seeds fell on the drug dealers in the ‘hood and they tried to smoke ‘em. Others fell on the steps of the church and the minister came out….and swept them off. A few seeds fell on a homeless man sleeping on a park bench and he picked them off his worn clothes and ate them for lunch. Still other seeds fell between the thin cracks in the sidewalk and they sprouted into flowers. Others fell in a community garden and sprang up a hundredfold. The farmer sowed his seeds wherever his feet took him until the sun finally set behind the rolling hills. Throughout the season the farmer's bag was never empty of seeds right up until the time of the harvest.

Whoever has two ears on their head, listen to the parable.

This sermon was shared by Rani Wood with her ecumenical community in Perth, Western Australia on Sunday, March 7, 2010. I have posted responses in "comments."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Idealogical Criticism: The Politics of Reading

The following is an excerpt from a seminary class I taught on preaching peace and justice. It is my conviction that preaching peace and justice requires more than using peace and justice as a topic for the sermon. Rather it is a comprehensive practice that includes how we approach worship, liturgy, prayer, hermeneutics, ethics, ecclesiology, and practical ministry. Idealogical criticism is a tool for the preacher of peace and justice.


Preaching peace and justice calls for a hermeneutic (1), an interpretive methodology, which correlates with its prophetic and ethical agenda. A homiletic shaped by peace and justice requires an emancipatory hermeneutic that supports the liberation of oppressed and marginalized peoples. Correlated with the tendency to make peace and justice simply themes for special occasions, preachers have been inclined to preach on peace and justice using the Bible primarily with a thematic approach. By that I mean that they have preached on peace and justice by looking for texts that have peace and justice as their subject, while using interpretive methodologies that are not themselves emancipatory. This is not to say that using the Bible in a topical or thematic mode does not have its place. But, I am proposing that how the preacher reads and interprets texts is critical for preaching peace and justice. Preachers of peace and justice need to move beyond literal, devotional, and traditional historical critical methods in biblical interpretation and to learn to use emancipatory hermeneutical methods (2).

The dominant hermeneutical methodologies for reading the Bible have been Western, white, European hermeneutical approaches (e.g., textual, historical, source, form, redaction criticism). They are rooted in Enlightenment assumptions (e.g., 1) knowledge is rational; 2) truth is universal; 3) individual is central; 4) progress is inevitable). Enlightenment ideology has served to reinforce unjust social, gender, political, economic, and cultural constructions of power by assuming a superiority of Western civilization and its perspective as being neutral and universal. Enlightenment reading methodologies fail to recognize that the formation of texts, the production of meaning, and reading strategies are socially and ideologically constructed. They are historically contingent and reflect their own racial, gender, economic, cultural, and political biases.

Postmodern thought has revealed that meaning is not stable and universal, but is contextual, that is, meaning is shaped by worldview, tradition, history, culture, social and economic location, and ideology. Ideology has to do with a body of ideas, beliefs, values reflecting the social needs, power, and aspirations of a group, class, or culture (e.g., capitalism, democracy, fundamentalism, liberalism). Ideology is inscribed in signifying practices, such as myths, representations, language, and texts. Terry Eagleton, Marxist literary critic, says of the ideological nature of texts: “Ideology pre-exists the text; but the ideology of the text defines, operates and constitutes that ideology in ways unpremeditated, so to speak, by ideology itself.” Texts are implicated in representation and reproduction of ideology. Further, readers, texts, and contexts are all embedded in particular ideologies.

Emancipatory hermeneutics recognizes that there is no neutrality in interpretation or life. Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will no appreciate your neutrality.” In the same way, there is no disinterested , value-free, or neutral reading of texts. Ched Myers, in his political commentary on the gospel of Mark, says, “I also hasten to affirm, with the Marxist tradition, that the study of ideology is for purposes of determining not only how symbolic discourse functions socially, but also on whose behalf.”

Interpretive methodology has served to re-inscribe or resist the dominant social constructions of power. Thus, the act of reading texts is an ethical practice. Texts operate either to justify and fortify existing systems of power and privilege, or they function to dismantle and transform them. There is no neutral production of meaning or reading strategy for texts. Ideological reading, as defined by the Bible and Culture Collective, is “a deliberate effort to read against the grain---of texts, of disciplinary norms, of traditions, of cultures. It is a disturbing way to read because ideological criticism demands a high level of self-consciousness and makes an explicit, unabashed appeal to justice. It challenges readers to accept political responsibility for themselves and for the world in which they live.”

Ideological criticism is a form of resistance reading. This mode of reading has an acknowledged agenda. So, when it comes to reading and proclaiming the meaning of biblical texts, the preacher must be aware the ideologies of the readers, within the text, and various reading strategies. For the preacher there is both the need to acknowledge ideology and to be critically aware and expose our own ideological agendas, while recognizing we are not able to do this completely.

Forms of Ideological Criticism

Socio-political hermeneutics

First, this form of biblical interpretation takes into account the social and political contexts in which biblical texts were written. Second, it seeks to read the biblical texts with a liberative lens. A good example of this type of reading is Ched Myer’s book Binding the Strong Man.

Social location hermeneutics

A postmodern observation is that all texts are read from particular social locations, which color their reading. The dominant social location for reading the Bible has been from the location of the dominant Western, European culture. This approach takes into consideration the very specific social locations of other cultural, gender, economic lenses in reading the Bible.

Feminist hermeneutics

Feminist hermeneutics has been around for a long time, going back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Women’s Bible from the 1800’s. Various hermeneutical strategies are utilized to read the biblical texts, which have been shaped by a patriarchal agenda.

Black hermeneutics

Although forms of resistant reading (reading against the dominant white interpretation) was evident since the days of slavery, black hermeneutics emerged as a disciplined form of biblical interpretation during the 60’s and 70’s. The Bible is read through the lens of the black experience.

Postcolonial hermeneutics

One of the newer forms of ideological criticism is shaped by the global context of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the domination and oppression of indigenous peoples. There are some radical implications for reading texts with this methodology, for example, how one reads the conquest story of the Old Testament.

Girardian hermeneutics

This interpretive approach draws from the cultural and literary theory of Rene Girard. It is a complex, and yet revealing, theory which seeks to understand the nature of human violence and is being used in biblical studies. Michael Harding, who is now a Mennonite, has a website on preaching peace from a Girardian perspective (www.preachingpeace.org).


(1) The term hermeneutic is derived from the name of the Graeco-Roman god Hermes, the messenger of the gods.

(2) Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza outlines these hermeneutical “schools” or traditions as :1) The Doctrinal-Revelatory Paradigm- The Bible is understood as divine revelation, the Word of God. This ancient and medieval method seeks to establish the fourfold sense of Scripture: literal (historical), tropological (moral), allegorical (spiritual/symbolic), and anagogical (future oriented); 2) The Scientific-Positivist Paradigm- The Bible is approached through scientific and rational methodology seeking the one, true, objective, value-neutral, historical meaning of the text. It denies any socio-political, patriarchal, or Eurocentric Enlightenment perspective; 3) The Hermeneutical-Cultural Paradigm- The Bible is understood as a rhetorical text with multidimensional meanings and is read like classics of Western literature. It’s postmodern perspective tends to lead to a relativism of multiple textual meanings; 4) The Rhetorical-Emancipatory Paradigm- The Bible is understood as a rhetorical and political document that is read with an understanding that biblical texts influence structures of power and domination. Ideology shapes both the text and its reading. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), 37-49.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Finding is the First Act: A Meditation on Matthew 13:44-46

I love to watch the Antiques Road Show on TV. Someone stumbles across an old dusty painting or piece of furniture in their grandparents' attic. They bring it to the appraisers at the road show. The appraiser points out a signature, a stamp, or a claw leg which makes the item unique. "This painting is the work of F.M. Evans from 1880’s in England," reports the appraiser rather matter-of-factly. The person who brought in the item says, "Hmmm. That's interesting." Then, I can't wait for the moment when the crucial question is asked; "Do you know how much it's worth?" The befuddled owner says, "No, not really." The appraiser says something like, "This painting would probably bring around fifteen thousand dollars at an auction!" And with eyes bugging out and jaw banging on the table the owner gasps, "O my Goodness, I had no idea it was worth that much!"

We’re fascinated with stories of people coming across unexpected or hidden treasures. These stories can be found in the folklore of every culture. For centuries people have told and listened to trove tales, stories of finding treasures. We’re no different today. We love tales of finding treasures or coming across unexpected riches. A man picks up a lottery ticket in the parking lot of a mini-market, takes it home, turns on the TV, sees the numbers fall in place one by one, and wham!~~~~ an instant millionaire! Someone is digging a pool in their back yard and the shovel hits something hard. It's a box. The lid is pried open and…. Ahoy, me hardies…. a buried treasure! A knock on the door. Knock. Knock. Knock. Still in hair curlers and bath robe the woman slowly turns the knob. Surprise! Publisher's Clearinghouse!

Part of the thrill of these stories is imagining what we would do if we came across hidden treasure or unexpected riches. It's like the game some of us used to play when we were kids, and some of us still play as adults. It's called What-would-I-do-if-I-had-a-million-dollars. Some of us, with guilty pleasure watch Deal or No Deal or Who Wants Want to Be a Millionaire? and imagine ourselves as the winner. We think to ourselves: What would it feel like to win a million smackeroos? How would I spend all that money? Would I give any away to charity or keep it all for myself? Would I quit my job? Would my life change? Would I be the same person I've always been? Maybe filthy rich, but still a humble, everyday kind of person? Stories of finding hidden treasure or coming upon unexpected riches cause us not only to imagine wondrous possibilities, but also cause us to examine our values.

Jesus' parable of the hidden treasure is one such story. Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a treasure hidden in a field. It had probably been buried there long ago. In ancient times there were no First National Banks or safety deposit boxes. Valuables were often stored in pottery jars and buried in the ground for safekeeping from bandits or invading enemies. Archaeologists jump for joy when in their digging they come across jars filled with ancient coins or valuables. In 1947 two Bedouin shepherd boys were searching for a lost sheep at Qumran near the hills alongside the Dead Sea. One of the boys threw a rock into a cave and heard a sound like the shattering of pottery. The two boys went inside the cave and saw some elongated jars with ancient scrolls inside. The scrolls were put in the cave to protect them from the invading Romans. The scrolls turned out to be one of the most valuable archaeological finds of the century.

I once watched a story of finding hidden treasure on National Geographic's Explorer. A man was riding his donkey in the desert near the town of Bawiti in Bahria. The donkey's foot broke through a hole in the dirt. Archaeological excavations uncovered 105 mummies, many gilded in gold, along with pottery, jewelry, coins, and artifacts. There may be two miles of treasures and possibly 10,000 mummies buried at this site! Someone just happened to stumble upon hidden treasure.

The hidden treasure in Jesus' parable lies beneath the surface of a common field. Maybe the peasant farmer is tilling the soil with an ox-drawn plow. He meanders down crooked rows when all of a sudden the iron plow blade hits something hard. The farmer wipes the sweat from his brow with his forearm and walks over to see what he’s dug up. Probably another rock. The Palestinian soil was filled with rocks. Someone once said that the angel carrying all the rocks of the world was flying over Palestine when the bag broke. A third of the rocks meant for the world fell on Palestine. The farmer bends over and brushes the dirt off the rock, or what he thinks is a rock. It turns out to be a pottery jar. Slowly he removes the broken pieces. His heart quickens and palms perspire. He works the jar loose from the soil to better see what’s inside. Standing in the open field his jaw drops and he swallows air. What's inside? A treasure! By God, it's a treasure!

The farmer bounces around the field as if on a pogo stick, shouting and laughing and holding the jar above his head. He acts like a madman gone bonkers from the heat of the sun. He yelps some choice Hebrew words that sound like, "Finders keepers..." Then, he catches himself and stops. He quickly pulls the jar under his cloak glancing from side to side. "Hold on, now. Calm down. Someone might see me and figure out what I have found," he murmurs to himself. One raised eyebrow is the only hint of a scheme. Strangely enough, he places the jar back into the hole and covers it with dirt. Grabbing the plow handle the farmer snaps the reins of the ox. A whistle from his puckered lips greets the oxen's ears. The lumbering oxen moves forward cutting another crooked furrow in the field. The farmer sings a joyful tune to the sky in Hebrew, which sounds something like, "If I were a rich man, deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle, deedle, dum."

That's not the end of the story. I could tell you about the plot twist. Being a tenant farmer, the land on which he found the treasure was not his. So, legally neither was the treasure. The farmer isn't about to tell the owner he found a treasure on his land. But then, you might begin to wonder about the questionable and sneaky character of this farmer. He's a rogue, a rascal! I could tell you how the farmer ran home at the end of the day. While his wife and children watch dumfounded, the man grabs everything they own----chickens and geese, pots and pans, savings and security, everything, including the kitchen sink. He sells it all to buy that dusty ol' patch of earth with weeds, beetles, mice and all. This farmer was an ignoramus. According to Jewish law, if you find treasure in a field you’ve bought, it reverts to the original owner. I could tell you about all that. Instead, I would like to rewind the tape and freeze frame that moment when the farmer bumped into the hidden treasure. It's like...like stumbling upon the realm of God.

This time you’re the poor farmer with hands clutching the plow handle. But, the scene is a bit different. You’re going about your business working at the office, taking a coffee break, paying bills, raising kids, studying for your class, watching TV, sitting in the pew, plowing one more crooked furrow through your life. It's another ordinary day, just like the last one. The same old story. Then....wham! Your plow hits a rock---- a painful moment of truth, a snag in a relationship, a major loss, an unexpected visitor. It wakes you from your mindless plowing. It stops you in your tracks. Maybe it's a rock or a hard place in your life. Maybe not. Maybe you've come upon a treasure, a gift, hidden beneath the dusty surface of your life. The realm of God is like that, you know.

You go through the routine of your daily life without noticing much of anything, taking everything for granted. Yesterday was like today is like tomorrow. Ho, hum. Then...wham! Something comes unto your path and you have to stop and take a closer look. You come across a letter from an old friend, a word of comfort in a time of distress, a talent you've allowed to collect dust on the shelf.

On the surface it may look like just a plain old rock. You dig deeper...and find... a hidden treasure. The common becomes uncommon. Something hidden beneath the dust of your days turns out to be a priceless treasure. And your heart breaks out in joy. It's as if something deeper, a hidden realm of life pokes through to the surface. There are treasures hidden in common clay jars, and sometimes we stumble upon them.

The realm of God is like treasures hidden beneath the crust of life. Often we don't see them until we run into them unexpectedly and they break through the surface. We stumble upon God's priceless gifts and a rock becomes a treasure. A sudden song takes you back to forgotten days of your youth, when life pulsed hot through your veins. An interruption in your hectic schedule turns into a new adventure. A gaze into the face of your child, that can sometimes be a pain in the… turns into a realization of the treasure that you have been given. You stumble upon the rock of Christ and find riches untold. Or an old clay sermon suddenly cracks open and inside are gems just for you.

These gifts intrude into the moments of our humdrum and ho-hum lives like a treasure from heaven. You dive beneath the surface of things or open the shell of your life and discover the realm of God like a priceless pearl. And nothing's quite the same afterwards. There comes this tantalizing twist in the plot of your life.
Frederick Buechner has come to a rich realization through his writing of novels. He has come to sense that perhaps life itself has a plot, “that the events of our lives, random and witless as they generally seem, have a shape and direction of their own, are seeking to show us something, lead us somewhere...” Buechner says, "I choose to believe that...a saving mystery breaks into our time at odd and unforeseeable moments." The realm of God is like that. It’s like a saving mystery that changes our lives, re-plots our story, again and again. It's like a treasure hidden beneath the dusty surface of life. It's like finding a pearl of great price. At unforeseeable moments we run into these treasures, not made of the stuff of gold or silver, but made of heavenly stuff. They break through the surface of our lives and we are the richer. The realm of God is like that, you know.

The kingdom of heaven is like a peasant who still believed in dreams, a place where you can touch the stuff of another realm. The peasant went by the name of Isaac, son of Aaron. He lived in the Polish city of Krakow. Isaac spent long strenuous hours working to support his family. At night he flopped down on his bed exhausted. One night Isaac dreamed he was walking over a bridge in the far off city of Prague, when a voice told him to look in the water for a valuable treasure. The dream was so realistic he could see the treasure box in the crystal clear water. Night after night he dreamed the same dream.

After two weeks and weary from lack of sleep, Isaac walked the three days journey to Prague. He easily located the bridge in his dreams and had begun to look underneath the bridge, when suddenly…. a policeman grabbed him by the arm and hauled him off to the city jail for questioning. In the interrogation room three large men demanded, "What is a Jew doing under a bridge in a Gentile section of the city?" In desperation he blurted out the truth, telling his interrogators he was trying to find a treasure he had seen in his dreams. "You stupid imbecile," the arresting officer shouted, “do you believe in dreams? I am too smart for such nonsense. Why, for the last two weeks I myself have dreamed that in the city of Krakow, in the house of a peasant named Isaac, son of Aaron, there is a treasure hidden under the floor in his kitchen. Yet, you do not see me wasting time looking for something and someone who does not exist!"

Roaring with laughter, the other two policemen grabbed the peasant by the coat and threw him out into the street. “Go home, foolish dreamer," they laughed. Isaac, son of Aaron, dusted himself off. With heart wildly pounding he ran back to his home in Krakow. Board by board he removed the floor of his kitchen. And there beneath his own home was to his great surprise....

Hidden beneath the floorboard of our common lives are treasures. The priceless treasure of new life in Christ. The riches of the Anabaptist peace tradition. Your diamond-in-the-rough church. The rubies of faith, hope, and love. The family and friends that you take for granted. We may not always see these treasures, but on occasion we stumble over them unexpectedly and recognize them as the pricless gifts that they are. The realm of God is like that.

It first comes as a gift. The farmer plowing the field didn't earn nor did he own the treasure he plowed up. It was out of the joy of finding such a treasure that he sold everything he had to buy the field. And since the field wasn't legally his, the gift came outside the law. It was an unearned, lawless gift. Only after stumbling upon this treasure did he make any sacrifice. The finding of the treasure was what came first. Grace before works. The gift of God before our acts of faith. Or as poet Emily Dickinson put it in a poem about treasures: Finding is the first act/second, the loss. First the gift, then the sacrifice. The realm of God is like that, you know.

We stumble upon the treasures of life, like the realm of God. They come to us unearned and unexpected. It's like when Dan Wakefield was going through a year of extreme stress. He lost his parents, his job, his money, and an important relationship. He relied upon alcohol to get him through. Dan says, "One day I just happened to grab an old Bible..., and with a desperate instinct turned to the Twenty~third Psalm." Reading the psalm didn't result in a miraculous breakthrough. It was an isolated moment of solace and calm. It was like the steel edge of a plow smacking up against a rock in the crooked furrow he had been digging through his life.

That experience, a word from a Christmas Eve sermon, and some other unexpected events plowed up the presence of another realm within Dan's life. He found a treasure, which opened up a new future for him, re-ploted his life. He found a priceless community of faith. His thirst for alcohol was replaced with a thirst for God. He just happened to stumble across a treasure that made all things new. Dan said, "The only concept I know to describe such an experience is that of 'grace' and the accompanying adjective of 'amazing' comes to mind with it."

That's the best word to describe the experience of the farmer who unexpectedly struck something while plowing the field. Grace. Before the selling and the sacrifice, there was grace. We cannot buy or possess the riches of God's realm. We gracefully, or sometimes ungracefully, stumble upon these treasures as we go through life. We find the treasure of God's realm, or more often, it finds us. Finding is the first act. That finding is called grace. It's the word that best describes our experience of suddenly tripping upon God's realm hidden in the dust of our days. Grace. Unexpected, unearned grace. The realm of God is like that, you know.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

M.C. Escher's Creation Series

Last week I visited the Portland Art Museum to see the M.C. Escher exhibit Virtual Worlds: M.C. Escher and Paradox. As I entered the exhibit the first woodcut prints I saw were of the Genesis creation story. I was unaware of this series of Escher's drawings. Like most people I was aware of his prints of transforming images from one figure to another using foreground and background, a hand drawing a hand, stairs ascending and descending from different angles and perspectives, and other optical illusions created by this mathemetician turned artist. But, I had never seen these depictions of the various days of creation.

The Days of Creation woodcut series was created in 1926-27 in Rome after his brother was killed in a mountaineering accident. Each of the six days is a unique creation. Pun intended. The artist as creator reflects the Artist as Creator. The First Day of Creation is an intricately drawn bird flying over a patterned circle of the earth. The waves in his Second Day of Creation (above drawing)become a repeating pattern of lines that reflect his later passion for interweaving patterns. The Third Day of Creation is a garden of plants against a wavey lined pattern of sky. The Fourth Day of Creation is a mirrored design of day and night side by side with each half reflecting the other like photo and negative. The Fifth Day of Creation is split in half with the top a sky with dark images of birds against a light sky and the bottom light images of fish swimming in a dark sea. In the Sixth Day of Creation Adam and Eve stand with arms around each other gazing over the goodness of creation next to an overarching palm tree. In Escher's Fall of Man Eve hold out a bitten apple to Adam, who sits on the ground with a hand on his head. The serpent looks like a giant striped lizard climbing down a large tree. It almost has the look of an Aubrey Beardsley print.

The Escher exhibit, which was a collection of works from the Portland Art Museum and other surrounding galleries, was a nice presentation of his traditional print images, but the creation series provided a new set of drawings from Escher I had never seen.