“Jesus, give my mom a million dollars”
Sam Goodman didn’t buy his mother’s devotion to the Christian faith and so one day in the context of a theological discussion they were having he simply threw out the facetious request, “Jesus, give my mom a million dollars”.
The next day she wins a scratch off lottery tickets at a Lutheran church and wins a million dollars.
The news media picks up the story and has fun with it with headlines like “Atheist Converts”.
Lots of atheists online naturally object to many elements of the story. The guy went to church for years. His profession on Fox News is a pretty tentative one. He went to church the next week with him mom to say “thanks”. Where’s the line between atheist, agnostic and merely apathetic or doubtful.
Comedy Amid Cynicism
It’s a fun story because it’s common (who doesn’t ask God for a pile of cash) and good in a simple, unreal way (who gets their prayer answered this directly?)
Deep down inside, however, normal, rational, serious people don’t believe it could happen to them.
There was a TV series in the 90s called “Early Edition” where a guy (somehow via his cat) would regularly get a newspaper from the future. The guy used what he learned to help people, and make money.
Based on the Fox News interview of the God ordained lottery ticket I have no plans of going down to Lichenes . If I had reason to believe tomorrow’s paper showed up, I’d probably buy a ticket.
Even though I’ve lived my whole life within the church, there are deep levels of doubt and unbelief within me. I get inspired by spooky, random things sometimes, but I also get discouraged just as easily.
Big Promises + Unfulfilled Expectations = Doubt
The church without invitation often takes up the unrequested appointment of being God’s expectations manager. Sam Goodman’s mom explained to her son how Jesus doesn’t just give out lottery tickets because we ask for them. She was parroting what she had learned from her priest.
Sam’s facetious quip ironically reveals something of the naked, bold, temerity we find in statements like Jesus’ “ask and it shall be given” offered without apology or qualification. Repeated cycles of asking and not receiving have given way to lowered expectations we label as “reasonable”.
Abraham and Sarah were like reasonable churched people. For 24 years they had waited for God’s promise to come true and they had quietly resolved themselves to nice religious lowered expectations.
And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?”
And he said, “There, in the tent.” And he said, “I will surely return to you at this very season and, look, a son shall Sarah your wife have,”
and Sarah was listening at the tent flap, which was behind him. And Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, Sarah no longer had her woman’s flow.
And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying, “After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old?”
And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying, ‘Shall I really give birth, old as I am?’ Is anything beyond the LORD? In due time I will return to you, at this very season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
And Sarah dissembled, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid.
And He said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Alter, Robert (2008-10-17). The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (Kindle Locations 2279-2287). Norton. Kindle Edition.
God knows our unbelief.
And the Skies Parted…
And the LORD singled out Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the set time that God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised Isaac his son when he was eight days old, as God had charged him. And Abraham was a hundred years old when Isaac his son was born to him.
And Sarah said, “Laughter has God made me, Whoever hears will laugh at me.” And she said, “Who would have uttered to Abraham— ‘Sarah is suckling sons!’ For I have borne a son in his old age.”
Alter, Robert (2008-10-17). The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (Kindle Locations 2629-2638). Norton. Kindle Edition.
There are A LOT of people who can tell you stories of miracles, or other unexplainable things that have happened in their lives. Things like the lottery ticket story, or a vision, or a message from the dead, or something “other” that has happened in their life.
I know many Christians that can testify to amazing answers to prayer. Things as dramatic as Sam Goodman’s story with his mother I also know that these Christians often show no more faith in prayer or in God than Christians without these fantastic stories. When it comes to correlating faith with amazing stories of seeming clear validation, I find the correlation to be close to zero.
Not Long After the Miracle…
That story of Sam Goodman is about a year old. Do you think Sam is going to church regularly with his mom now? Maybe he is. My guess is that he probably isn’t.
Why would I say such a thing? Because I see it all the time. People in church or outside of church have “life changing” experiences that are anything but life changing.
Take a look at the next verse with Sarah.
And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. And she said to Abraham, “Drive out this slavegirl and her son, for the slave girl’s son shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” And the thing seemed evil in Abraham’s eyes because of his son.
Alter, Robert (2008-10-17). The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (Kindle Locations 2639-2643). Norton. Kindle Edition.
Shouldn’t Sarah’s experience of receiving Isaac change her? Should the flat out miracle, the pure giftness of what she had been given change her into someone generous, thoughtful, fearless, faithful? It doesn’t.
Begging God To Give Us Our Idols
Last week we saw how having a child was idolatrous for Sarai. Her entire identity was consumed with having a child. Despite beauty, wealth, power, and the electing promise of God, all she could see was her own self in the light of having a child. She at once disbelieved it could happen, and at the same time only imagined life could be lived with it. We human beings are capable of this kind of delusion and inconsistency. We do it all the time.
Now Sarah had been given that promised child, and it changed her not a bit. Her idolatry simply shifted but it kept her just as fearful and selfish as it had made her before.
We read this story on an important feast day in the Christian calendar. Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday is the most ironic holiday in the Christian calendar. Throughout the gospel story Jesus’ followers had been wishing, hoping, begging Jesus to take on the kind of messiahship they had imagined would resolve all of their problems. They imagined that ethnic political self-expression would finally resolve the curse of the Roman occupation and Jesus was just the kind of man to lead them out of it. Pharisees and close religious observers had their doubts, because he failed to adequately fulfill the culture war they had been carefully waging, but common people motivated by the amazing miracles he did imagined that there would be nothing that could stop him from seizing power in Jerusalem and restoring an Old Testament theocracy.
Events on Palm Sunday seemed to go well. He cleansed the temple and cursed a fig tree thus giving performance art expression to the kinds of reform everyone imagine their religion and politics needed. Jesus would save the day. What Jesus did that Palm Sunday in riding an untamed animal through a joyful crowd to the shows of Davidic praises was off the hook outstanding to those who wished Jerusalem freed from the imperial Romans and the corrupt religious and political leaders who had power.
Palm Sunday, like Sarah’s motherhood experience failed to fulfill. Gloria Bentivegna’s lottery ticket likely failed to turn her son into the kind of Christian she had been hoping for.
Miracle Stories in an Age of Irony
This past week Samsung, the enormous Korean electronics corporation announced their newest flagship smart phone, the Galaxy S4. They did so with a bizarre show at Radio City Music Hall that has been panned by some in the press as sexist. Nilah Patel in an insightful moment of cultural exegesis noted that Samsung didn’t understand American cultural irony. You can’t in America call your phone “a life companion” and be taken seriously. Influence has to fly below the filters by using irony. Americans will secretly believe that a phone can be a “life companion” but cannot admit it to themselves or their neighbor.
Stanley Fish in reacting to the negative views that the newest movie version of Les Miserable has received noted that the movie failed to bend its knee to the culture of irony.
The key to what is intended by these technical choices was provided for me by Hooper himself when he remarked in an interview (also printed in USA Today) that while “we live in a postmodern age where a certain amount of irony is expected, [t]his film is made without irony.” Irony is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions. NY Times
Jesus’ triumphal entry is taken at face value by both the crowds who hope, and the religious leaders who despise. Today we look at it with cynicism “lot of good that donkey did him a few days later.”
Our rescue requires an interventionist miracle, but that miracle is insufficient to break the grip our idols have on us. We must come to the point of recognizing that our idols too must go, including our idol of self-sufficient distance.
Christie Wampole makes this observation,
Where can we find other examples of nonironic living? What does it look like? Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”
Palm Sunday Needs Good Friday, Trees of Mamre Need Mt. Moria
The gift of laughter in Isaac, the gift of Jesus on Palm Sunday alone will not hit home. The intervention must become personal for the idols to shatter and for our complacency to yield.
When we imagine that life would be resolved it situation X was resolved, or if God finally would yield and give into our requests/demands and even facetious or cynical comments we are fooling ourselves. Our imaginations that all that is standing in the way of blissful permanence is more money, the right child, the right spouse, the right job, the right look are simply expressions of idolatrous hearts. Even when God rends the sky and miraculously provides even good things our hearts demand the deepest problem of our heart is not resolved. Abraham must take Isaac up the mountain. The shouts of the crowd will turn from “Hosanna” to “Crucify!”.
Learning from the Laughter
It is not that God is irresponsible in giving us what we ask for. There is grace enough in the laughter and witness to the source of our deepest hope. The problem with Isaac is not the surprise or audacity of the gift, it is Sarah’s clutching too that gift and turning gift into idol.
Jesus was rightly welcomed into Jerusalem as her king. Jerusalem was simply not ready to embrace all that the kingship of Jesus required.
As we live our short lives the sequence of such narratives repeats and continues to locate us between having received a laughable miracle and recognizing the need for the final resolution. Moriah produced more faith than Laughter’s birth. Golgatha was more productive than Palm Sunday.
The angel’s invitation to faith before final resolution is well meant. This is the space in which we grow.
Are we willing to surrender our ironic defenses and our cynicism to embrace the promise on its word alone? Can we receive the virgin’s child, see the cross and the empty tomb and know that God hears and sometimes surprises even our most cynical doubt? Will we have the courage to actually believe?