E is for Excessive

This is the fifth in a series on the Divine Alphabet.

    God is excessive.
    There was a film long ago called “O God” in which George Burns played the title role. I remember one line from it. God is asked if he ever made any mistakes. There was one, he says. “The avocado—the pit’s too big.”
    We laugh. But my, isn’t the truth about creation that it is just too much? that it is superfluous? that there is more of everything than there needs to be? Dandelion seeds blowing in a slight breeze, a single oak tree making thousands of acorns over decades of its life, on and on and on: creation teems with excess, with fecundity, fertility. Even the universe as a whole, it now appears, is expanding! What a strange indeed impossible notion that is, that “all that is” continues to “take over” or “encroach” on “nothingness” that is beyond it. It doesn’t make any sense for the universe (which includes all the space that exists) to have more space. And yet it does just that.
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    In a class recently, we were trying to understand the traditional claim that knowing God is the creator doesn’t tell us anything about God in himself. Creation doesn’t yield any information about God’s nature or character. But (we wondered), doesn’t it tell us that God creates? It does tell us, yes, that God can accomplish things. But God would still be God even if there were no creation. There is nothing in God that makes it necessary for him to create anything.
    There is nothing necessary in God. That’s why we can call God excessive.
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    Literally, to be excessive is to “exceed,” which is to go (that’s the “ceed” part) beyond or out (that’s the “ex”). God goes beyond anything necessary or required or in any other way fixed or determined. God keeps going beyond himself. The avocado pit, although it may look like a mistake, is actually a great picture of how God is always doing more.
    And yet, to be fair, any time you do something loving or creative you are being excessive yourself—and that’s above all the best picture of God.
    Friends, let us be excessive!
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    Readers write. I received a number of suggested “E” adjectives for God—with one friend sending me a list of 20 or 30. Without calling that list excessive (!), I will say it was exceedingly evocative! Among the other suggestions were “elegant,” which is good to remember, and “enervating,” which shows commendable honesty. With regard to “D” last week I forgot to report that we heard from the canine contingent. They support the claim that God is “dogmatic” (emphasis on the first syllable). I love this. Now to F.
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    Out & About. Wednesday, March 4, I’m to preach at St. John’s in Montgomery, Alabama, at the 12:05 service (on Job 2:7-13), and to speak at the 6:30 Lenten program. My evening talk will be on suffering and the question of God’s love. If you’re in Montgomery, it would be great to see you.
    Sunday, March 8, I get to return to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas to teach the “Unheard Words” adult class. Our topic will be Genesis 15, parts of which are avoided by the lectionary.
    The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will be on Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. If you read it, you’re welcome to the conversation: Sunday, March 15, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Incarnation in Dallas.
    June 8-10 in Baltimore. This year’s Pro Ecclesia conference will be on the Sermon on the Mount. I am responsible for this, and hope that, if you are able to come, you will! We have excellent speakers lined up who will explore this fundamental text in terms ranging from the biblical and theological to such things as the sermon in the arts and its economic feasibility. More information is here, and you can register now at the Early Bird rate: https://www.pro-ecclesia.org/

 

The Persistent Widow

Luke 18:1-8 

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" 

When I was a child about age twelve, I wanted a new bicycle. I had outgrown my first bike with training wheels, though it left me with a few scars, and had grown tired of my ten-speed, and its skinny tires. I wanted a new bike with wider tires that I could ride through the neighborhood and do some riding in the dirt with my friends. I asked for a new bike and was told no; we didn’t have the money. I asked for the bike as a gift and was told no, it was too expensive. Finally, I asked if I could buy the bicycle myself, and because of my persistence was allowed to earn the money and pay myself for a new bicycle, which I proudly rode home and enjoyed for many years. 

We are taught from an early age that persistence is an admirable quality and one to be rewarded. If you are persistent in your studies, you can enter into any profession that you want, if you just work hard enough. If you are persistent with offering friendship to another, even if they resistant at first, you are usually rewarded with a new friend. If you are persistent in your application and follow up for a job, you might be rewarded with new employment. But what about our faith? Do we carry this same persistence with us when we approach the throne of grace? 

Today we encounter the parable of the persistent widow. So determined was she to obtain justice that she figuratively beat the unjust judge into submission and received the justice she was seeking. But this parable is not an allegory. The judge deciding in the widow’s favor because of her persistence is not the way that God works. We all know, or have personally experienced praying with persistence and not receiving the desired outcome. We are not going to win divine favor and get what we want from God because we are obnoxious. At the same time, persistence in our prayers to God is the parable’s theme, and it brings to our thoughts what God desires of us in our own prayers. 

We cannot separate who God is and what God does from who we are and what we are called to do. The parable speaks about God’s persistent, unshakable, everlasting love for us, for all of God’s creation. And in that knowledge of God’s persistent love, we are called to persistent prayer. And as Fred Craddock puts it, “All we know in the life of prayer is asking, seeing, knocking and waiting, trust sometimes fainting, sometimes growing angry.” Praying is and has always been hard work in the interim – between God’s promise and the fulfillment of God’s promise. The widow kept coming to the judge, hoping against all odds, persistent, determined, and relentless. True believers keep praying, hoping against all odds, persistent, determined, and relentless. 

The Gospel assures us that God is listening. We know that God knows our needs before we pray. In fact, prayer itself is a response to God’s calling us to pray. 

Luke even tells us what the purpose of the parable is: the disciples’ need “to pray always and not to lose heart.” From the start, Jesus sets out, not to resolve the mystery of answered and unanswered prayer, but to teach his disciples persistence. 

We are reminded, once again, that the life of faith is not only about telling God what is on our wish list but constantly lifting up every joy and concern, every fear and doubt, every plea and lament to the One who hears and answers. The answers may not come when we think they should or even be the answers we are hoping for. The parable teaches that continuing to pray, regardless of what happens, builds faith. Faith in turn instills in us the assurance that God’s plan is underway. 

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