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The Gospel Is Unchained ...

Sermons on the Second Readings
Series II, Cycle C
I went to the store to buy a new pair of blue jeans. The clerk asked if I wanted slim fit, easy fit, or relaxed fit, regular or faded, stone washed or acid washed, button fly or regular fly ... and that's when I started to sputter. Can't I just have a pair of blue jeans, size fourteen? Then I went to the grocery store and found 85 varieties of crackers, 285 kinds of cookies, and thirteen different kinds of raspberry jelly. Can't I just get a cookie and a cracker and a bottle of jelly any more?

I am in chains by the number of choices that I have! They keep me too busy to pray and too busy to praise and too busy to focus. How can I break my chains on behalf of the unchained gospel? By letting less meet more and fewer meet finer.

According to Barry Schwartz in The Paradox Of Choice: Why More Is Less, there are two kinds of people: the satisficers and the maximizers. A satisficer is the one who is willing to live with the good enough rather than insisting on the best. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon developed "satisficers" as a realistic alternative to the notion of the utility maximization presupposed by classical economists. Schwartz argues strong for the satisficers being the ones who have the best lives.

For example, if a supermarket chain attempted to calculate the very best alternative before deciding where to place a new store, the research costs would bankrupt it while more intrepid competitors would move in. Even in the terms of maximum utilization of everything and everybody, satisficers can declare a site good enough and not complete their research. One way to break the chains that keep the unchained gospel from blessing us is to become a satisfied one, not a maximized one.

The organization today that can make decisions the most quickly will win. That is true of personal choices, too. I remember having cancer and my sister-in-law, who is a physician assistant, saying that I had to take control of the treatment and the choices about treatment. I remember saying, "Oh, my. How can I possibly do that?"

Happiness as opposed to profitability is the goal of life, according to Schwartz. In his article in the April issue of Scientific American, "The Tyranny of Choice," he develops a scale by means of which subjects rate their relative maximizer/satisficer proclivities. It is a seven-point scale which has statements like, "When shopping, I have a hard time finding clothing I love" or "Whenever I watch television, I channel surf."

Maximizers feel worse about a given unit of loss than about a corresponding unit of gain. Forgoing alternatives or "Opportunity costs" in economist's terms means that people program themselves to be acutely aware of what we are not getting. "Satisficers" instead program themselves to see how full our glass is rather than how empty it is.

When the writer of second Timothy tells us that the gospel is unchained, he is telling us that it is satisfied. That it is rich because it has few needs. It only needs to be. Jesus did not rush from appointment to appointment or shop to shop to find the best things. He was fully present to where he was, when he was there. He was deeply satisfied by God. He had no chains in blue jeans or jelly, decision trees, or need for more. He didn't take the chains off worldly things so much as he refused to put them on in the first place.

A minister giving a sermon at a wedding, shocked the congregation by saying that the grass is always greener on the other side. There will always be someone prettier, funnier, and smarter ... but marriage is not a matter of comparison-shopping. Considering your decision irrevocable allows you to pour your energy into making things better.

This focused decision-making is how Jesus felt about the one he called Father. He didn't need another Father or a better Father or a different Father. He loved with depth the one had.

In the gospel way of living, more becomes less and most of us are well aware of it.

"Fewer finer" is the slogan every good decorator will tell you. Pruning a bush makes it grow beautifully. Letting it overtake your yard has nothing to do with beauty.

This agricultural parable means only one thing: focus your attention on the gate, on the right way in to life. Stand guard against the invaders. Who are the invaders? They are like advertisers; they are voices that are only using you. Be welcome in the main gate of the house as opposed to some kind of slave who has to use the slave quarters or service entrance. Walk through the finest gate.

The practical way to focus attention on important things is first to understand the matter of attention itself. Biologically, attention consists of four processes that take place in about 1/200 of a second.

• Arousal -- the brain's alertness
• Orientation -- the brain's motor center focuses
• Detection -- is this normal, safe, new, edible...?
• Execution -- the frontal lobe connects everything with memory, irrelevant stimuli are blocked and the motor center begins working toward the goals

Inattention is also a necessary function of a healthy brain. The brain chooses to execute certain messages and to ignore others. The reign of the yawn in daily life should not surprise us at all. Let's be honest. Most of us aren't paying attention to most things most of the time.

That's why my favorite phrase is TMI -- too much information. It's a phrase which I'm sure you have heard. Biologically, the brain directs attention. Spiritually, there is a TMI, too. We get chained by TMI -- and to hear and know the gospel, we have to break free.

Spiritually, I want to suggest a sheep dog. They may be my favorite kind of dog. They act like Jesus. They bark when needed! They keep the sheep safe from intruders. If you are a person who worries about the way life is too full, too overstimulated -- and yet you want abundance, consider being like a sheep dog. You will unchain yourself from things that harm you on behalf of things that satisfy you.

We might call this conclusion "canine theology," in Jim Forbes' great term. Jesus wants us to focus our attention on the main gate to the main community of love and abundance and happiness. He is warning us here that there are many competitions for our attention. If the house is on fire, with too much information, bark! Bark. If the country is on fire with too much greed, bark. If the country is hurting other countries because of greed for oil or whatever, bark louder. If that doesn't work, put your nose right in their faces. If that doesn't work, pull the covers off. Nothing can happen unless you and the nation wake up! So wake up to the firestorm and oppression and chains of too many choices. Don't bark at rampant capitalism if you have not tamed your own heart of desire. Don't bark at others until you have focused your attention yourself.

You are not a slave. You are people who go in through the main door of life. You are satisfied by the unchained gospel. It has set you free. The only thing you are willing to maximize is your freedom from "stuff" for the gospel.
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