Posts Tagged ‘This American Life’

Sermon 10-06-13: “Back to School, Part 8: Jesus’ Toughest Command”

October 10, 2013

lilies_of_the_field

This week’s scripture deals in part with what I believe is Jesus’ most difficult—or at least most easily ignored—command: “Do not worry.” If we’re going to live it out, we need to trust that God will really take care of us. We also have to trust that Jesus knows what he’s talking about when tells us that his way is best: that obeying the Sermon on the Mount leads to “treasure in heaven.” This treasure isn’t merely a reward in the sweet by-and-by but is available to us now. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:19-34

No video this week, but you can click below for sermon audio or click here to download as a podcast.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

A recent episode of the public radio show This American Life featured Michael Lewis, the author of the The Blind Side, the book on which the Sandra Bullock movie was based. On this radio program, Lewis narrates the story of Emir Kamenica, a Harvard-educated economist at the University of Chicago.

When Emir was a child, his family emigrated from their home in war-torn Bosnia to the Atlanta area—specifically, to the very diverse international community of Clarkston, Georgia. Emir’s family was poor when they got here, and Lewis describes the unlikely path that Emir’s life took, from getting a scholarship to an elite private high school in Atlanta, to a Harvard Ph.D., to the top of his field in economics.

When he was still in Bosnia, packing to come to America, Emir slipped into his luggage a novel that he had checked out of a library near his Bosnian home. So, basically, he brought to America what amounted to a stolen library book.

One day, for a writing assignment at the public high school he attended, Emir plagiarized a passage from this stolen book. His English teacher, Ms. Ames, was so impressed with his paper that she took Emir for an interview at the very elite and exclusive Paideia School in Atlanta. She showed the admissions officer the essay that she thought Emir wrote. They were so impressed that they offered him a scholarship.

So Emir changed schools and, as a result, dramatically changed the course of his life. And it was all because of this plagiarized essay from a stolen library book and one idealistic teacher who went out of her way to help him. Emir got an incredibly lucky break.

Or at least that’s how Emir remembers it. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-15-13: “Back to School, Part 6: Love & Marriage”

September 20, 2013
Marriage is not a romantic comedy.

Marriage is not a romantic comedy.

We Christians understand the nature of self-denying, cross-carrying Christ-like love when we choose to love our neighbor “out there”—in the mission field, suffering and sacrificing for the Lord. When we marry, however, we now have a neighbor who lives under our roof, sleeps beside us, and makes a life with us. Are the demands and expectations of this kind of love any different?

As I explain in this sermon, the answer is a resounding no.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:31-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

[Ask congregation to snap along. Begin by singing:] “Love and marriage, love and marriage/ They go together like a horse and carriage/ This I tell you, brother, you can’t have one without the other… Try, try, and separate them/ It’s an illusion/ Try, try, try and you only come/ To this conclusion.”

Today’s sermon is about, yes, love and marriage. In so many words, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that you can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable. Last week’s scripture touched on that theme. But Jesus goes a step further in this week’s scripture to say that not only are they inseparable, they are also permanent. Or at least they ought to be.

Obviously, when we consider the divorce rate, even among Christians, it’s clear that we are failing to take Jesus’ tough, uncompromising words as seriously as we should. There’s no way to read these words of Jesus and come to some conclusion other than divorce, in most cases, is wrong. It’s a sin. Listen: I made this point in last week’s sermon, and I need to make it again and again. We are all sinners. Church is a sinner’s club to which everyone is invited. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. And even if we haven’t sinned in one particular way, we have sinned in so many other ways. When it comes to sin, none of us has any moral high ground on which to stand. O.K.? The good news is that there’s always, always, always forgiveness for us sinners who repent, and our gracious God always gives us an opportunity to start again. If you hear me say nothing else, please hear me say that. Remember God’s grace! Read the rest of this entry »

The story you hear from “every miserable bond-trader at Goldman Sachs”

September 10, 2013

I love the most recent episode of This American Life, first because it name-checks my alma mater in Ira Glass’s funny interview with Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admissions. Glass concludes the interview, appropriately enough, with the cheer, “Go Jackets!”

As if that weren’t good enough, I was blown away by the episode’s main story, “My Ames Is True,” narrated by Blind Side author Michael Lewis. In it, Lewis talks to Emir Kamenica, an economist from the University of Chicago, who describes his unlikely path from a childhood in war-torn Bosnia to Harvard. The way Emir remembers the story, he was one of a small handful of white students in a dangerous inner-city high school in Clarkston, Georgia (not far from where I grew up, by the way, in Tucker), after his family emigrated to the U.S.

One day, for a writing assignment, Emir translated and then plagiarized a passage from a favorite Bosnian novel that he had stolen from a library before he came to America. His teacher, Ms. Ames, was so impressed with his paper—not suspecting the plagiarism—that she persuaded an elite private high school in Atlanta to offer Emir a scholarship. Emir changed schools and, as a result, drastically changed the course of his life—all because of a plagiarized passage from a stolen book and one idealistic teacher.

Or at least that’s how Emir remembers it.

With the help of a private investigator, the show’s producers tracked down Ms. Ames (who had long since left teaching and moved to another state) to get her side of the story. She remembered Emir as her most gifted student. In fact, she said she checked the names of Nobel Prize winners each year, half-expecting to see Emir’s name on the list.

But she didn’t remember the plagiarized essay and said it would have played little role in her effort to get him into private school. She said that Emir had distinguished himself in her class in many ways over the course of months. It was hardly any one thing that he had done to inspire her to help him.

Moreover, the school she taught at was hardly a dangerous “ghetto school.” It had a sizable white minority (which statistics proved) and a large international population. Even if he hadn’t changed high schools, she said Emir would have gotten a good education. And from there he would have gotten into either the University of Georgia’s honors program or Georgia Tech (my alma mater, again!), after which he could have easily gone on to Harvard.

In other words, even without her intervention, Ms. Ames believes that Emir’s own talent and hard work would have enabled him to achieve the same level of success—if only by a different path.

If Ms. Ames is right, however, then the story that Emir had been telling himself and everyone else his entire adult life was wrong. He hadn’t simply been the beneficiary of some dumb luck that altered his destiny. As it turns out, he was just a bright, conscientious, hard-working kid who was responsible for his own success, just as everyone thought.

For his part, however, Emir wasn’t quite ready to let go of his story: about the stolen library book, the plagiarized essay, and the angelic teacher who comes to his rescue after mistaking his plagiarism for a mark of genius.

Why? Michael Lewis offers a possible answer:

Why does a man who makes his career as a scientist cling to his story in spite of evidence that it isn’t true? And that’s when it dawns on me: Emir Kamenica is just an unusually happy human being. He exudes the emotion from every pore. [Lewis asks Emir] “Have you always been happy?” [Emir answers] “I think I’ve been happy for a pretty long time now.” 

There was no obvious connection between a person’s happiness and the way he tells stories about himself. But I think there’s a not-so-obvious one: When you insist as Emir does that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well, you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you?

It’s just very different if you tell yourself that you simply deserve all the good stuff that happens to you: Because you happen to be born a genius, or suffered so much, or worked so hard.

That way of telling the story is what you hear from every miserable bond-trader at Goldman Sachs. Or for that matter, every other A-hole that ever walked the earth.

Did you catch that? Lewis is suggesting that gratitude is the secret to Emir’s happiness. Emir’s version of events, more than Ms. Ames’s, conforms to his outlook on life: He doesn’t deserve all these good things. Therefore, he can afford to feel grateful rather than entitled. And the difference between those two states is nearly as great as the difference between heaven and hell.

Like “every miserable bond-trader at Goldman Sachs,” my own life is at its most hellish when I think I’m not getting what I deserve.

By contrast, when I realize that I deserve nothing and instead receive every moment of life as pure gift from a loving God, well… not that I achieve this outlook as often as I should, but when I do, I’m truly happy.

Sermon 04-28-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 3″

May 2, 2013
paul_and_linda

Paul and Linda McCartney, circa 1970. Paul’s decision to include Linda—not previously a musician—in his new band Wings was deeply unpopular with both fans and music press. On the other hand, the two never spent a night apart (except for the nine days he spent in a Japanese prison in 1980).

We understand that Christ-like love is self-giving and self-sacrificial when it applies to loving our neighbor “out there”—in the mission field. But when we marry, we now have a neighbor who lives under our roof and sleeps beside us. We have a neighbor who manages the household with us, raises kids with us, and makes a life with us.

So now that we’re married to our neighbor, it suddenly matters a great deal how we feel? It matters what we’re getting out of the relationship? Isn’t this a double-standard?

As I discuss in this sermon on love and marriage, happiness in marriage is important, but there is no path to happiness in any part of life that doesn’t lead us up a mountain called Calvary.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:21-33

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

I’m a fan of the public radio show This American Life with Ira Glass. Each week the show features a theme, and they have a series of real-life stories related to the theme. Last Valentine’s Day their theme was “people going to extremes to find and pursue their one true love.” One of the stories featured a 30-year-old man named Kurt.

Kurt had been with his girlfriend for 13 years—they started dating as high school sweethearts. And they had lived together for their entire adult lives so far. But they never tied the knot. And Kurt started to wonder why. “Maybe the reason I haven’t married this person that I’ve been with for 13 years is that she isn’t ‘the one.’ And since we’ve never dated anyone else, maybe we should take some time off—a month or two—and just play the field. See what else is out there first, and then decide whether or not to get married.” So that’s what this couple did. They took a break from each other. And after several months, they decided to break up once and for all. Read the rest of this entry »

The comfort of marriage’s “no escape” clause

April 24, 2013

In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller puts his finger on one of the fatal modern myths of marriage: that marriage shouldn’t be based at all on “a piece of paper”—the law, the contract. Law stifles true love. Marriage should always be voluntary, never coerced—or else it cheapens love. As Joni Mitchell sang back in 1971, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall/ Keeping us tied and true.”

One guest on the most recent Valentine’s Day episode of This American Life, Kurt Braunohler, certainly endorsed this viewpoint. He and his girlfriend, his high school sweetheart, had been together for 13 years, but they had never gotten married. One thing was holding them back, they came to believe: they had never been with anyone else romantically or sexually. What if there was someone better out there for them?

So they decided that they would take a month-long break from their relationship—the secular New York City equivalent of the Amish Rumspringa. And during that month, they would allow themselves to sleep with other people—which they did. One month turned into many months. The couple finally decided to break up entirely.

Read what Kurt took away from this experience. Then read what Ira Glass, the married host of the show, says in response.

KURT: I do have a theory now that if I do get married in the future, what I think I would want to do is have an agreement that at the end of seven years we have to get remarried in order for the marriage to continue. But at the end of seven years it ends, and we can agree to get remarried or not get remarried.

IRA: Why?

KURT: Because you get to choose, and I think it would make the relationship stronger.

IRA: I don’t know what I think of that, because I think that one of the things that’s a comfort in marriage is that there isn’t a door at seven years. And if something is messed up in the short-term, there’s the comfort of knowing, like, we made this commitment, and so we’re going to work this out. And, like, even tonight if we’re not getting along, or there’s something between us that doesn’t feel right, you have the comfort of knowing, like, you’ve got time to figure this out. And that makes it so much easier! Because you do go through times when you hate each other’s guts. And the “no escape” clause is a bigger comfort to being married than I ever would have thought before I got married.

Guess whose side I’m on?

Keller contrasts the stick-to-itiveness of marriage that Glass describes (not to mention the Bible) with the consumer mentality that Kurt describes. If Kurt had his way (and I suspect he’ll outgrow this particular conviction), he and his future wife would have to keep selling themselves. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

There is another way in which the legality of marriage augments its personal nature. When dating or living together, you have to prove your value daily by impressing and enticing. You have to show that the chemistry is there and the relationship is fun and fulfilling or it will be over. We are still basically in a consumer relationship, and that means constant promotion and marketing. The legal bond of marriage, however, creates a space of security where we can open up and reveal our true selves. We can be vulnerable, no longer having to keep up facades. We don’t have to keep selling ourselves. We can lay the last layer of our defenses down and be completely naked, both physically and in every other way.[†]

While I’m not endorsing the singer’s viewpoint, here’s the beautiful young Joni Mitchell singing what will become the second track on one of my favorite albums, Blue.

Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 85.

Sermon 03-24-13: “Journey to Jerusalem, Part 4: Commitment”

March 28, 2013

Fading Footprints in the Sand

When we read Jesus’ Parable of the Pounds in Luke 19:11-27, we easily identify with the third servant and feel guilty: “Why can’t I be a more faithful disciple? I guess I need to try harder!” As I argue in this sermon, however, the third servant’s problem isn’t about “trying harder”; it’s about trusting more. This sermon encourages us to trust more in our King Jesus, who is always loving us, always taking care of us, always working for our good. He proved his love for us by suffering and dying on the cross.

Sermon Text: Luke 19:11-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Many of you have seen the movie Argo, which recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie begins at the American embassy in Iran in 1979. A large crowd of Iranian demonstrators are gathered outside the gates of the embassy, protesting that the U.S. has given asylum to their deposed leader, the Shah. The Iranians want the Americans to return the Shah to Iran, where he can be tried, convicted, and probably executed for his many crimes against humanity. The U.S. refuses. From our country’s perspective, the Shah may be a bad man, but he’s our bad man; at least he’s been a loyal ally. We reward loyalty.

The American embassy in Iran in 1979.

The American embassy in Iran in 1979.

In fact, loyalty is one theme in the movie. When the angry mob finally breaches the wall of the embassy, the diplomats inside continue to do their duty: without panicking, knowing they only had a matter of minutes before the Iranians captured or killed them, they began shredding and incinerating all the confidential embassy files. They were loyal to the end. In fact, one of the six diplomats who, at the last moment, escaped the embassy and took refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house was angry at himself for remaining at his post for the past several months, while the situation got out of control. He wonders why he didn’t take his wife and go home to safety. Instead, he remained faithful and kept serving his country. He was loyal, even in the face of great danger. Read the rest of this entry »

“There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done”

June 18, 2012

This American Life came through last week with another winning episode, this one entitled “Blackjack”—about the casino game that seems easiest to win. Of course, like all casino games, players won’t win—at least not in the long run.

Unless…

Unless they master a technique known as “counting cards.” If you saw the movie Rain Main, you’ll recall that Tom Cruise takes Dustin Hoffman, his autistic brother who’s a whiz at math and memorization, to a casino to a win a lot of money counting cards. As the show host, Ira Glass, explains, you don’t actually have to be a math whiz or have a photographic memory to master the technique—all it takes is practice and a great deal of concentration.

Contrary to popular belief, counting cards isn’t even illegal or against casino rules. Casino officials will ask you to leave or find another game if they suspect that you’re doing it—but you have to win a lot before you attract anyone’s attention.

I was most intrigued by the story in Act One: “Render Unto Caesar’s Palace What Is Due to Caesar’s Palace.” It tells the story of a young man named Ben, a waiter who scraped by on minimum wage and tips before learning how to count cards. The narrator, Jack Hitt, continues:

Ben formed a small crew of card-counters to hit the casinos together. And they did O.K. for a while. But after three years, that team fell apart. Ben said they just had different values. So Ben and another player, his good friend Colin, decided that if they were going to create a great team, then they had to find a group of players they could trust completely. And that’s when it hit them: the perfect source of blackjack players. It was right in front of them—at least on Sundays. Church.

Ben and Colin, it turns out, are Christians. They formed a team of Christian card-counters, who convinced their fellow churchgoers to cash out their retirement savings and “invest” with them. In return for paying each card-counter a modest annual salary of $40,000 a year for about 20 hours of work per week, the investors received a substantial return on their investment.

I know, I know… It sounds bad. Christians aren’t supposed to gamble. And I agree. I’m the biggest fuddy-duddy on the topic. I’m opposed to state-sponsored lotteries—much less pari-mutuel betting, horse-racing, or casinos. My answer is no. And many of the Christians who participated in the card-counting system, either as players or investors, shared my sentiment. Ben and Colin’s sales pitch, however—delivered via PowerPoint at well-organized meetings—was that card-counting wasn’t gambling. It was simple math. If the players counted cards properly, everyone would win in the long run.

If their investment scheme was going to work, however, the card-counters had to be honest and trustworthy. Stealing, after all, was enticingly easy: No one other than the player could account for his winnings or losings on a particular day. It was a pure honor system. A team member could easily lie about what they won or lost and then skim the difference off the top. Who would know?

This was why, according to the story, Ben and Colin’s fellow Christians made the best card-counters. They were honest!

Isn’t that remarkable? This isn’t Focus on the Family, after all. This is a secular public radio show whose host, Ira Glass, is a congenial atheist!

Not that the show’s producers intended to paint these Christians in such a flattering light. But that was the effect. After all, from the perspective of the casinos, these Christians were Vegas high-rollers, with access to all the sordid perks that came with that status. To their credit, they seemed oblivious. One player, a woman, described being put up for free in a casino hotel’s best suite—complete with a stripper’s pole in the bathroom! What was she going to do with that?

Of course, it’s not completely positive. The players lost trust in each other at times. They experienced loneliness and isolation. And I don’t think they ever quite convinced themselves that playing blackjack for a living was the Lord’s work. But when the team finally broke up, they did so for reasons the listener hardly expects. As the narrator says:

In the end, the church team split up—in 2011. And not because any of them succumbed to gambling or any other temptation. They believed in God and his glorious gift of math. But apparently God gave none of them the patience of Job needed to endure the mind-numbing work of card-counting. So they all went their separate ways…

God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he enlightens you, like Paul on the road to Damascus—a blinding epiphany convincing you to quit your old ways. Other times God gets you to virtue by boring you to death.

The full story of this Christian card-counting team is told in a documentary called Holy Rollers.

“Mine to avenge”

March 20, 2012

This hasn’t been a good week for my favorite contemporary radio show, This American Life. On Sunday, they ran an episode-length retraction of a recent story about Foxconn, Apple Computer’s Chinese manufacturing partner.

Good for them, I say, and no hard feelings here: Ira Glass and Co. still rule the airwaves when it comes to exploiting radio’s unique strengths to tell a good story. One story from last week’s episode, “Slow to React,” (re-broadcast from 2011) was one of the best I’ve heard in a long time.

The story, “When I Grow Up,” is a journalist’s unflinching, first-person account of a murder he planned to commit. The journalist, David Holthouse, begins: “This time last year I was plotting to kill a man. This time last year I had a gun and a silencer and a plan.” The prospective murder victim, it turns out, raped Holthouse 25 years earlier, when Holthouse was seven and the rapist was 15. (“Molester,” Holthouse believes, is too gentle a term for what this person did.) His parents were good friends and neighbors of the teenager’s parents.

Holthouse never told anyone about the rape—naturally, the rapist threatened to kill him if he did. So he grew up feeling both ashamed and guilty. Did his silence enable his rapist to claim more victims? Holthouse knew the research: he likely wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. Meanwhile, the man, Holthouse learned, was never arrested for other crimes. He was now a husband with children and stepchildren of his own.

Holthouse wanted to do something to right the wrong, but not at the expense of having other people find out what happened to him. He didn’t want to be perceived as “damaged goods”—someone who couldn’t be trusted around kids. (He had made a blood oath with himself, he said, to commit suicide if he ever felt the impulse to molest children.) And he didn’t want his parents to blame themselves.

For whatever reason, he decided that murder was his best option. He formulated a plan, and he believed he would get away with it. He was only saved from carrying it out when his mother found his childhood diary. She read an entry, a few years after the fact, in which he described the incident. Now the news was out. After being confronted by Holthouse’s parents, the man confessed that he had done what Holthouse described in his diary. Obviously, the statute of limitations had run out a long time ago.

Eventually, Holthouse arranged a meeting, in public, with the man, who begged forgiveness. He told him he had wanted to apologize for years; that the incident had weighed on his conscience; and that he hoped—best case—that Holthouse had somehow forgotten about it. He assured Holthouse, repeatedly, that he was the only victim.

Holthouse said, “All the experts say he was almost certainly lying. But then, all the experts also say that it was extremely unusual for him to admit his crime to me, let alone his wife and parents. And he did at least make an admission to his parents. I checked.” Listen to the story and decide for yourself—or, like me, remain undecided.

Regardless, the story bears witness to the power of forgiveness—or as close to forgiveness as someone in Holthouse’s position should be expected to come. What’s clear is that this meeting between abuser and victim enabled the victim to let go of the hatred that had enslaved him for 25 years.

Holthouse explains that while he didn’t grow up in a religious home (is he religious now?), he thought of Paul’s words from Romans 12:19 (which Holthouse quotes from the NIV): “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.'”

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture. Can you?

I’ve talked a lot recently on this blog and in sermons about God’s wrath, as well as our modern squeamishness toward the concept. But isn’t it clear in this case that God’s wrath is a good thing? That the kind of forgiveness that someone like Holthouse can extend to his rapist is underwritten by God’s wrath? That only God can ensure that justice is fully and finally done?

I don’t want this kind of sin to go unpunished. Do you? And, of course, I’m well aware that I have my own sins to worry about. All I can say is, “Thank you, Jesus, for forgiving me.” But the forgiveness that comes through the cross isn’t a matter of getting off scot-free. All of us, even those of us who are Christians, will will one day own up to each and every sin. This is the meaning of Final Judgment. Even though it won’t mean hell, I can’t imagine that it won’t be painful.

What do you think?

Sermon for 08-28-11: “Roman Road, Part 11: Great Sadness and Constant Pain”

August 24, 2011

Part 11 of our sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans focuses on evangelism. Who needs it? The answer: everyone! The gospel, which literally means “good news,” is good news for the entire world. If we’ve experienced it as such, why would we not want to share it with others?

Paul felt “great sadness and constant pain” as he thought about how his people—his flesh-and-blood fellow Jews—had rejected the gospel. Do we feel at least a little of that same sadness and pain as we consider “our people”—whoever they may be? 

Who do we know within our own circle of friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students who need to experience the gospel as good news in their life? What is the Holy Spirit calling us to do about it?

Sermon Text: Romans 9:1-5

The following is my original manuscript.

I recently heard an episode of public radio’s This American Life, whose theme for that week’s episode was break-ups. The romantic kind of break-ups—breaking up with someone you love or used to love, and how difficult it is. A young writer named Starlee talked about how she had her heart broken—she was utterly devastated—when her boyfriend—the person she was made for, her soulmate, the person with whom she should be spending the rest of her life—dumped her. She was head-over-heels in love with the guy. Looking back on the relationship, she said, “It was hands down the corniest relationship I’ve ever been in. And by ‘corniest,’ I mean ‘greatest.’”

Among other things, the two of them developed a love for singer Phil Collins. It started as sort of an ironic thing, but after while they were convinced that Phil’s many love ballads were practically written to describe their love. If you like ’80s music, you’ll appreciate that when her boyfriend dumped her, the last words that Starlee spoke to him were, “How can you just let me walk away? I’m the only one who really knew you at all”—paraphrasing lines from his song “Against All Odds.” Read the rest of this entry »

A couple of links for tomorrow’s sermon

August 20, 2011

In tomorrow’s sermon over Romans 9:1-5, our focus is on evangelism. I’m going to be referring to this episode of Seinfeld, in which Elaine discovers that her boyfriend, David Puddy, is a Christian. He’s never mentioned it before. Worse, he believes that Elaine is going to hell, and he hasn’t done anything to try to change that fact.

The theology represented is terrible, of course—filled with caricatures about Christianity. But the episode does capture some truth about contemporary Christians’ failures to witness to their faith. The money line here is Elaine’s protest, “I’m not going to hell, and you think I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell!”

I’ll also be referring to this very funny and entertaining episode of This American Life, in which a writer tells her story about a devastating break-up, and how Phil Collins helped her through it.

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