Posts Tagged ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’

Sermon 08-18-19: “Esther and Mordecai”

September 4, 2019

Sermon Text: Esther 4:10-17

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A pastor friend and I were talking about today’s scripture. He said, “You might not want to say this in your sermon, but…” Now whenever someone says, “You might not want to say this in your sermon, but,” I take that as a cue that I ought to say it. So here goes: He said that I could compare the story of Esther to that “reality show” The Bachelor. Because, after all, in chapter 2 of this book, the hero of the story, Esther, is chosen to be the wife of the recently divorced Persian king—Ahasuerus—by a process that’s a little bit like the one by which the bachelor chooses his future wife on the hit TV show.

So, in a competition with many other beautiful young women, Esther keeps getting handed the proverbial “rose” until finally she becomes wife and queen. To do so, however, she keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her new husband.

Meanwhile, the king’s prime minister—a man named Haman—belongs to a people who have an ancient hatred of Jews. He manipulates the king into signing a decree to have all Jews living in Persia annihilated several months in the future. Esther’s adoptive father, Mordecai, finds out about the plan and warns Esther to use her power as queen to change the king’s mind and overrule the decree that Haman put into effect.

Mordecai and Esther can’t speak to one another directly. They’re speaking through one of the king’s eunuchs, whose name is Hathach. And that’s where we pick up in today’s scripture. If you have your Bible—and you should—turn with me to Esther 4:9-17, which I’ll read now. Read the rest of this entry »

“What punishments of God are not gifts?”

August 24, 2015

Bart Ehrman and Stephen Colbert

As a longtime Letterman fan, I was pleased with CBS’s selection of Stephen Colbert to succeed him. First, Colbert has been one of the sharpest wits on TV—original and fearless. He’s also proven to be a first-rate interviewer. Colbert will ensure that in the area of interviews, at least, there will be continuity between his show and Letterman’s old show—at a time when other late-night comedy shows, such as Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, seemingly deemphasize them.

Second, I’ve appreciated that Colbert, a Catholic, has never hidden or downplayed his Christian faith. What other TV personality, on Ash Wednesday, appears on air with ashes on his forehead? I also appreciate that he makes skeptics like Bart Ehrman squirm.

Sgt. Calhoun is "programmed with the most tragic backstory ever."

Sgt. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

In yesterday morning’s sermon, I used clips from the Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph to illustrate biblical truths. In one clip, for example, we learn that video game character Sgt. Calhoun was “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

I then described Colbert’s recent interview in GQ magazine, in which he talked about his own “tragic backstory”: losing his father and his two closest brothers in a plane crash when he was only 10.

In the interview, Colbert described the time that J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from a priest complaining that his novels and short stories weren’t theologically correct because they treated death as a gift, rather than a punishment for sin after the Fall:

“Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”

While we may prefer to speak of the “disciplines of God,” rather than the “punishments,” the fact remains—and scripture loudly affirms—that God uses our tragic backstories for good, to mold us and shape us into the people that he wants us to be.

If this weren’t the case, how do we make sense of Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Recently, however, I analyzed a sermon by a fellow United Methodist pastor who obviously would disagree.

What do you think? Do you agree with Stephen Colbert? Does God turn our “tragic backstories” into gifts?

Sermon 02-10-13: “Your Work Is Calling, Part 2”

February 14, 2013

Your Work is Calling_VB_SermonSeries_2-3-13

Last week, my main point was that doing good work—no matter what that work may be—is an important part of discipleship. We love our neighbor—and God loves our neighbor—through our good work. In today’s sermon, I say more about our jobs as a “calling”: No matter who our boss is, we work for the Lord. No matter who our customer or client is, we serve the Lord. The Lord has a purpose in our having the jobs we have. If our work is motivated by anything other than pleasing the Lord, then we’re bound to be disappointed and unsatisfied.

Sermon Text: Colossians 3:23-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.


The infamous receipt that went viral. At least this pastor tithes!

Many of you have seen this picture of an Applebee’s receipt that went viral on Facebook and other social media last week. A customer, who is a pastor, was eating with a group of people. She disagreed that the service she received was worth the automatic 18 percent gratuity that the restaurant charged, so she crossed through it and wrote these words: “I give God 10 percent. Why do you get 18?” The waitress showed the receipt to another waitress, who took a picture of it and posted it on the internet. When this pastor got wind of it, she called Applebee’s to complain about this violation of her privacy, and the waitress who posted the picture was fired.

I know… It was an ugly, ugly episode. All I will say in this pastor’s defense is that at least she tithes! A lot of pastors I known don’t do that! More importantly, maybe she was having a really bad day. I’ve certainly done many worse things in my life—and, fortunately, my sins weren’t paraded on the internet for all the world to see.

The tone of much of the commentary surrounding this receipt sounded something like this: “Doesn’t this pastor know what a horrible, thankless job waiting tables is—that waiters and waitresses have to stand on their feet for hours on end, serving a bunch of stingy, ungrateful people like this pastor, working for a small hourly wage and tips that they then have to divide between bussers, bartenders, and hosts.” Much of this commentary suggested that there was something undignified and demeaning about serving the public like this. Read the rest of this entry »

Tolkien’s Niggle: “In the Lord, you know that your labor is not in vain”

February 7, 2013


I just read “A Leaf by Niggle,” a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien.[1] I think it must have been anthologized in a high school literature text, because I’m sure I’ve read it before. Regardless, a teenage boy can’t comprehend its significance. A grown man of 43 (next week), however, is in tears.

The story is a parable about a rather average painter named Niggle. Niggle feels unappreciated. His neighbors and acquaintances believe he should stop wasting time on canvases that few will ever see, and fewer still will appreciate, and get on with something useful—they believe his overgrown garden, for example, needs his more urgent attention. Even Niggle himself doubts his calling. He’s been working with passion for a long time on one wall-sized landscape of a tree with birds nesting in it, with a forest and mountains in the background. One problem is that he’s a better painter of leaves than the tree that he imagines, not to mention the other things with which he dreams of populating his picture.

Another problem is that his time is running out. He’ll have to leave on a long journey soon (Tolkien’s metaphor for death), which he’s dreading and for which he’s unprepared, and after which he’ll be unable to work on his painting. Worse, he can’t make much progress on the painting because people are constantly making demands on his time, especially an infirm neighbor, Mr. Parish, who frequently needs him to run errands for him and his wife. (The word “niggle” means to annoy in a slight but persistent way, which other people do to him.)

Niggle resents these interruptions and his own kind heart. “‘I wish I was more strong-minded!’ he sometimes said to himself, meaning that he wished other people’s troubles did not make him feel uncomfortable”[2]—in which case he might be able to finish his painting. As it is, he finally has to leave on his journey. His painting remains unfinished, just as he feared it would be.

On the other side of the journey, however, after spending time in a hospital (against his will), Niggle is released to take a short journey by train to a new place. When he arrives at his stop, he finds his bicycle waiting for him. It’s a sunny spring day, and he rides his bike down a path through a meadow.

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful—and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle-style—were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.[3]

You get the idea: This is heaven. Is it possible that, in ways we can’t imagine, the good work that we do now will somehow be preserved for eternity? I hope so—and I believe so.

The work that we do on this side of resurrection—which can often seem fruitless, insignificant, and unappreciated now—will come to fruition on the other side. Like Niggle, we will behold the Tree that we dreamed about and started but could never finish. And even those niggling interruptions will be redeemed.

Paul offers a tantalizing clue to this reality at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. At the conclusion of his lengthiest discussion of resurrection—both Christ’s and our own—he writes: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

I’ve said before that I have a sinful need to be someone important. I want my work to matter. want to matter. Like Niggle, I want people to notice, appreciate, and praise me. I’m often frustrated because they can never do so to my satisfaction.

If I could take Paul’s words to heart, however, I would be set free from this desire for significance: only let me be faithful in my work and let God take care of the rest. He will make sure that what I do matters—whether it matters to anyone now or not.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, “A Leaf by Niggle” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1966), 100-120.

2. Ibid., 101.

3. Ibid., 113-4.