One Such Child

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on September 19, 2021 by timtrue

Mark 9:30-37

1

What makes children different than adults?

Now, okay, there are many things, I know. But, say, if I were to go up to some random persons on the street and ask them, “How are children different than adults?” what would their answers be?

I bet one of the top answers would be innocence. Wouldn’t it? Children are innocent, we say; whereas adults have lost that childlike innocence.

In fact, every year on our church calendar, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Do you know this feast? It’s on December 28th, on the third day of Christmas—that day when my true love gave to me three French hens—a day soon after the birth of Christ in our collective imagination.

So, think through the Christmas story—no room at the inn, a baby born in a manger, angels singing, shepherds watching, wise men from the East following a star, and so on. Where in this Christmas story might we remember a group of people that we now refer to as “Holy Innocents”?

And if innocence is connected to childhood . . . it’s the children Herod ordered to be slaughtered, all those under the age of two in and around Bethlehem—because he felt he’d been tricked by the wise men, because he was “infuriated” (according to Matthew), and because he was afraid.

Herod exercised needless violence upon nonviolent children, children who had done nothing wrong; and inconsolable weeping followed.

Because they were innocent!

2

Okay, so that’s one difference between children and adults. What’s another? What else do you think a random person on the street might say?

What about a sense of wonder? Don’t children possess a kind of inherent wonder that isn’t really there so much in us adults?

You know I used to teach second grade. I taught it only for two years. But I remember a lot about these two years partly because of how much the classroom was filled on a daily basis with a sense of wonder.

I played off this wonder, hoping that if I could teach a concept that engaged the creative, wonder-oriented part of a child’s imagination, then the lesson would stick.

So, for instance, the students were learning their multiplication tables up through 10 x 10. That was a standard part of the curriculum. What wasn’t in the published curriculum, however, but something I hoped would instill this sense of wonder, was how mathematical patterns work.

So, I made a conscious effort to point some of these patterns out.

“1 x 1 = 1, right?” I asked. The class nodded. “So, no need to raise your hand, just tell me, what’s 2 x 2?”

“Four,” came the reply.

“Good,” I said. “Then what’s 3 x 3?”

“Nine.”

“And 4 x 4?”

“Sixteen.”

“Awesome. So, I want to show you something.”

And I pointed out how the differences in squares were always odd numbers; and that the difference in each succeeding square was always the next successive odd number.

What do I mean?

0 x 0 = 0 and 1 x 1 = 1. The difference between the products, 1 – 0, is 1: the first odd number. Now, do it again. 1 x 1 = 1; 2 x 2 = 4; the difference between the two products is 3 (4 – 1 = 3). If you do this again—2 x 2 = 4; 3 x 3 = 9—the difference between to two is the next odd number (9 – 4 = 5).

Then I said that this pattern works forever.

And their response was, “Nuh uh!”

And I said, “Yuh huh! In fact, try it. You know 9 x 9 = 81 and 10 x 10 = 100. So, what should 11 x 11 and 12 x 12 be? See if you can figure it out according to this pattern.”

And, except for the sound of pencils rapidly scribbling on scratch paper, I could have heard a pin drop.

And about ten minutes later, with a little help from me on the chalkboard from time to time—you know, a few hints here and there—every kid in the class had come up with the right answers.

The whole classroom engaged. It was enough to say a collective Wow!

And the next day, one of the brighter boys proudly showed me a piece of scratch paper on which, yesterday after school, following this pattern, he had figured out on his own every square up to 100 x 100. And now I had to say, “Wow!”

Wonder! Through something as mundane as number patterns! When do we grownups lose this sense?

3

In today’s Gospel, as they journey through Galilee towards Capernaum, the disciples are arguing with one another about who among them is the greatest. And when they reach their destination, Jesus, in response to their arguing, calls a child over and takes her or him in his arms.

Something about this child is different than a grownup. Something about this child stands in contrast to what the disciples were doing.

Well, children argue among themselves too about who is the greatest. Just ask any kindergarten teacher.

So, what is it that Jesus is pointing out? Innocence? Wonder?

There’s another way children are different than adults. But I don’t think—if I were to approach random persons on the street—I don’t think anyone would give this answer. Because it’s kind of embarrassing. Because none of us adults wants to admit it: to admit that we struggle with humility.

But we do struggle with humility.

Like the disciples, we ask ourselves, all the time, who is the greatest among us?

Seriously, we ask ourselves questions like, How can I be most successful? What kind of person should I be if I want to come out ahead? How can I fill the top leadership position in my organization? How can I win?

Here’s an observation: In our modern culture, it’s most often the pushiest, most self-promoting people who “get ahead” in the world. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, the sharpest lawyers, the shrewdest politicians—aren’t they the same people we might call in other contexts bullies?

In our individualistic and highly independent society, people don’t rise to positions of leadership by being meek and mild—by following the beatitudes. Rather, we get there by fighting our way to the top.

Vying for the top job means we’ve got to compete against others; to make ourselves look better than the competition.

Like it or not, it’s how we rise through the ranks in our world. We figure out who the most important people are, we catch their attention, and we make ourselves look good in their eyes—so, hopefully, we can become one of the greatest too.

The issue, I think, is that somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten the virtue of humility.

4

By definition, however, children are humble. They have to be. They have no other choice.

Think about how dependent children are on their parents or guardians. From birth even on up through college—in today’s culture almost as much as in Jesus’ day—children can’t fend for themselves.

They can’t make money. I mean, they can mow lawns and babysit and that kind of thing, for some spending cash. But they can’t go work a full-time job. For one thing, there are laws against it. For another, education for all is a priority in this country.

This dependency is especially obvious in newborns. They come into the world with nothing, literally naked. They can’t talk, they can’t feed themselves, they can’t put those cute little knitted beanies on their own heads or wrap themselves up in blankets or change their own diapers.

But this dependency doesn’t go away after they learn to talk; and to feed and clothe themselves. If a kid needs or wants something—say a new toothbrush because hers is getting nasty—she has to ask Mom or Dad.

You know, that’s a lot like prayer.

And if a child doesn’t get his way, well, he can’t very well muster a militia to exert violence or the threat of violence or an insurrection over his parents—well, maybe in Utah; but I’m picturing the common, middle-class, suburban child. Point is, for children, nonviolent protests are often the only means of recourse.

And, you know, Jesus practiced nonviolence.

Of course, a child can earn herself or himself a seat at the table with Mom and Dad—winsomeness is how this happens at our house, not through sullenness or by brooding.

And, again, you know, winsomeness sure feels to me like the right way for a church to go about earning a seat at the larger community’s table.

Anyway, children have no power, no authority, and little to no control over their environments—if parents decide to move, the children are uprooted beyond their control; they can’t make money; and so on.

By definition, children are humble.

But somewhere in our adolescent or young-adult lives we learn or are conditioned to throw off humility like a cloak for new garments of power, authority, and control.

Because we want to be the greatest. Because we want to be a person others respect. Because we want to make decisions others will follow. Because we want to be in positions of authority so that we can control and micromanage everyone within/under our sphere of influence.

Assertiveness, confidence, leadership, control, greatness—these are grownup virtues.

But humility? Pah! That’s for weak-willed, spineless people—and children.

But Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” like this little child.

5

Now, I know, today’s Gospel presents just one picture of what we, the Body of Christ, ought to look like.

As with any analogy, we should not become fixated, as if this is the only picture out there: today Jesus likens his body to a child and a servant; a few weeks ago he likened his body to bread. No single metaphor can ever adequately convey the divine.

That said, understanding that we live in a world that is largely out of our control is a good place for us to be. Being childlike in this sense—this is what Jesus is getting at today.

And it’s a timely message. For after 18 months of enduring a global pandemic, the end of which is not yet in sight, we have a keener sense than ever that the world is out of our control.

But it’s not just our health. Don’t you sense, with me, that in recent years and months society has become increasingly aware of systemic challenges at work everywhere in the world around us, challenges that we simply cannot bring under our control, challenges like deep-seated, subconscious racism, a seemingly unbridgeable socioeconomic divide, and a Western quality of life that isn’t sustainable for future generations?

We should not assert ourselves as the leaders and shapers of culture—like the Western Church did in the Middle Ages, dictating to the masses what they were allowed and not allowed to believe about God, the Bible, and whether or not the sun revolved around the earth. That is not our calling: to be the greatest; to steer the direction culture takes and take control over it and micromanage it and the people we care about.

Instead, we are called to respond to the ever-shifting culture around us—to the racism, poverty, and abuse of resources we experience—much like a humble child responds to his or her world:

Through prayer.

Through nonviolence.

Through winsomeness that earns him a seat at the table.

Through acts of love that bring her friends and family members to tears for her thoughtfulness.

Humility is a virtue.

For that matter, so are innocence and wonder.

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus the Scandalizing

Posted in Homilies with tags on September 12, 2021 by timtrue

Mark 8:27-38

1

Do you ever wonder if Peter felt like he’d walked into a trap, like he’d been set up to fail?

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks.

Peter responds: “You are the Messiah.”

And here, in the Gospel of Mark, there’s none of that glowing affirmation we read over in Matthew. There’s nothing about Peter being a rock, a solid foundation upon which Jesus will build his church. No keys to the kingdom are handed over.

Instead, after Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, Jesus orders his disciples to tell no one. He explains “quite openly” to them that he, this Messiah, the Son of Man, must endure unbelievable trials in the days ahead. But then Peter says no, Jesus, you’ve got it all wrong. And immediately Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him Satan!

I mean, why’d he have to be so harsh? Jesus could have said, “No, Peter, you don’t seem to understand. You say I’m the Messiah. But your understanding of the Messiah is not my understanding.”

Jesus could have reasoned with Peter.

Instead, he calls him Satan.

I wonder, does Peter feel like he’s just been baited into a trap, one with a spring mechanism that snaps shut tight with no way out?

It seems almost scandalous.

2

So, a story:

Once upon a time, something was killing our chickens; our neighbor’s chickens too.

A couple of nights a week we’d hear it, that horrendous cackle alerting us that the mysterious perpetrator had once again found its way into the chicken coop and murdered and carried off another victim.

Whatever this beast was, it was elusive. We’d wait up late at night, listening and stargazing around the backyard fire pit, flashlights at the ready. Or we’d sleep out on the balcony, where we could hear better. A few times, my dad even set his alarm for 3 o’clock in the morning to play sentinel.

But always it was the same. By the time the chickens first began to cackle, the culprit had already come and gone. We never so much as saw its hind quarters running away into the avocado orchard.

For me, a ten-year-old boy, I wondered if chupacabras might in fact be real.

My dad’s remedy was to lock up the coop each night, watertight—close off every hole in the chicken wire, the doorways, the walls, and the roof.

But the chicken-stealing continued—not in our coop now but still in our neighbor’s, who apparently had not sealed his off as effectively.

My neighbor’s remedy was to rig a trap.

He used what looked to me like a wire crate for a medium-sized dog; except he added a spring mechanism to the door—from a rat trap if I remember correctly—so that when the chicken-stealing beast took the bait, a weight underneath would rise and trigger the spring and the door would snap shut, latching itself, leaving the perpetrator no way out.

It worked flawlessly in the testing phase. Still, I wondered, would it capture this beast, whatever it was?

The trap was big enough for a fox or a medium-size dog. But what if it were a coyote; or that mischievous huge hunting hound Jake who lived a quarter mile down the street; or a chupacabra?

For the next few nights, around dusk, I watched with rapt attention while Don, my neighbor, routinely set his trap, placing a generous amount of ground beef and raw bacon in the baiting area and sliding the trap strategically in front of the chicken coop doorway.

And each morning, at the crack of dawn, eager, I’d race outside and peek through the fence to check, hoping that something was in it.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. For, after only a few days, it happened. There was no need for me to run to the fence and peek through, hoping to see something: it was obvious.

Long before the sun was up, before even the crack of dawn, the repetitive cries, hisses, and wailings of the chicken-stealing beast, not to mention the cacophony of cackling hens and confused roosters, woke us all up—the neighbors and my household. Don saw us exiting our front door and noiselessly motioned us to come on over.

Groggy but super curious, we gathered in our pajamas and bathrobes and slippers around Don’s chicken coop, flashlights in hand, excited at last to see what mysterious creature was the cause of all this “fowl” play.

There, in the cage, frightened and growling but certainly trapped beyond any hope of escape, was not a chupacabra but a real live bobcat.

Spotted, short-tailed, tufted ears drawn back, howling and hissing and spitting—I’d never seen a bobcat before!

Anyway, the jig was up; the trap had worked.

Caught beyond hope of escape, the bobcat seemed to know that its chicken-stealing days were over. Scandalized, it wailed pathetically.

Don called animal control, who showed up by 9am and hauled the beast away, to release it later that day in the upper Sespe, they told us, far from any human contact.

And all our chickens lived happily ever after.

3

So, I wonder today if Peter feels at all like that bobcat: baited, caught, and trapped; no chance of escape; scandalized.

Well, today, the term scandal most often has a moral connection: something morally wrong is called scandalous—like when I was in college and a professor left his wife for a grad student.

But scandal can also mean something that feels somehow wrong to the general public that isn’t necessarily immoral: something that causes a public outcry, when general expectations aren’t met—like, maybe, when Jeff Bezos built a rocket for billions of dollars when that money could have been used to pay Amazon employees more livable wages. Nothing immoral about building a rocket, right?

This second meaning is more along the lines of what happens here with Peter today. He declares Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel; but then his expectations are not met. Jesus is neither who the people think he is nor even who Peter thinks he is.

It’s not immoral; but it is somewhat scandalizing.

So, here’s an interesting caveat about the etymology of the word scandal:

It comes from way back, from ancient Greek, skandalon; and it originally meant, literally, a trap with a spring mechanism—like Don’s trap for the bobcat.

But by the time the term reaches the New Testament, it has evolved and taken on the additional metaphorical meaning of a stumbling block; or an offense.[i]

In his first epistle, Peter calls Jesus a stumbling stone and a rock of offense (cf. 2:8)—a scandal; and Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus is a stumbling block (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23)—again, a scandal.

Jesus is a scandal for those who don’t believe. And, as Peter shows us today, Jesus is a scandal for those who do believe, but somehow in the wrong way.

Peter has walked right into this scandal; and the door has snapped shut behind him; and he is left with no way out and nothing to do but rethink his understanding of who Jesus really is.

And, by the way, aren’t we a lot like Peter? Isn’t Jesus something of a scandal for us too? For is anyone of us, human beings that we are, capable of completely grasping God? Indeed, we see through a glass dimly.

Nevertheless, Jesus draws a distinction here. Even though we will never fully grasp God, there is a remedy to this scandal, a way out of the trap. And it goes something like this.

4

If we are like that bobcat, then we have discovered a way to live an abundant life. The great, benevolent Farmer, or so we think, provides us with all the chickens we should ever need, just sitting there, for us, whenever we like.

Oh, God is good!

It all makes perfect sense, from our perspective anyway. God is meeting our expectations, providing for us, ministering to our needs, supporting our wants, and valuing what we value.

We’ve built this church, this organization; and now it suits us, it meets our needs.

But the bobcat’s not thinking about the bigger picture.

From the Great Farmer’s point of view, the chickens are not there for the bobcat’s desires and whims, but for the common good.

The bobcat was really created to be free, after all; not to be dependent on the Great Farmer in ways that result in chaos for everyone else around—chaos to which the bobcat in fact remains largely unaware.

The church is not intended to be an organization that meets our felt needs and desires. Rather, Jesus left his church the mission to carry the good news outward.

So, do you see what happens when we, like Peter, set our mind on human expectations? Or, to ask this another way, do you see what happens when we don’t deny our egos?

Things are going our way. We’ve developed and are now sustaining a church that suits us, that meets our felt needs, that leaves us fat and happy with an unlimited supply of chicken from heaven.

But the bobcats in our midst, those who make the church into something that suits them rather than what the Great Farmer intends—well, then the bobcats are happy, no doubt. But what about the rest of us?

What about the chickens? What about all that chaos? What about all the trauma the bobcats have induced?

And then a new farmhand comes to town and says, “Uh uh, nope, this ain’t how the Great farmer wants it”; and he builds a trap with a spring mechanism and the bobcats end up scandalized, frustrated, feeling like they’ve been baited and trapped.

But the problem is with the bobcats, not with the farmhand; and certainly not with the Great Farmer.

Anyhow, I hope this picture helps.

If it does, then, maybe, in today’s Gospel, Peter is like the bobcat; but Jesus tells him to be more like a chicken.

How? What’s the remedy?

Set your mind not on human things, Jesus says—not on human expectations, human ideologies, or human structures; not on personal wants and desires, on getting your way; not on seeing yourself as better than someone else, on a sense of entitlement—but on divine things. Set your mind on God’s will.

The Gospel of Jesus can be scandalous, like a trap with a spring mechanism. We find Jesus to be scandalizing—until we set our mind on divine things.


[i] Cf. https://www.etymonline.com/word/scandal

On the Fly

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on September 11, 2021 by timtrue

From last Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021

Mark 7:24-37

1

Today presents us with some challenging questions about Jesus—and, consequently, about us. What do we really believe about the fully human and fully divine Jesus? And what does this belief mean for the mission he left for us?

So, for starters, we believe the Creed; or we imply that we do anyway, every Sunday, when we say it together:

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”

And, a few lines later:

“By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

According to the Creed, the man Jesus, when he was walking on the earth with his disciples two thousand years ago, was fully human; yet also fully God.

Fully human and fully God. In theological terms: the hypostatic union.

But, then, does this mean that, as a man, Jesus was aware that he was God? The Gospel of Mark is unclear on this point.

If we were to assume so, to assume that today, as he heals the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from afar; and as he heals the deaf and mute man—if Jesus the man is aware that he is fully God, then, well, when did he become aware of it?

Was he aware of it last week when he called his opponents hypocrites?

Was he aware of it when Herod beheaded John the Baptist?

Was he aware of it when he went to his hometown and wasn’t well received, when he said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house”?

What about when he was in the wilderness, fasting for forty days, tempted by Satan?

Or what about when he was baptized by John in the Jordan River?

That was his ministry as a man. So . . . let’s keep backing up.

As an adolescent, presumably learning on-the-job carpentry skills from his father, was Jesus aware of his divinity then?

We don’t have much on Jesus’ childhood. Except once, when he was twelve, over in Luke we read that Jesus’ parents were on a journey home from Jerusalem and realized that Jesus was not with them.

Frantic, they retraced their steps only to find him three days later hanging out with the teachers at the Temple. And Jesus asks, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Was Jesus aware as a twelve-year-old boy that he was fully human and fully divine?

I mentioned last week that I spent a couple of years teaching second grade. We worked on multiplication tables in second grade. Well, what if Jesus were in my classroom? Would he have learned his multiplication tables faster than the other students?

If he was fully God as a boy, doesn’t that mean that he knew everything already? Why would he need to go to school at all?

But he did. Because he was also fully human.

Or . . . what about as a baby? We can’t reasonably assume that Jesus was born walking and talking and otherwise planning out his human life.

So . . . back in Luke, just after his parents found him, we read that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

No doubt he had to learn his multiplication tables, just as every other child his age did. No doubt he made some mistakes along the way. No doubt his first exercises in carpentry were crude and rough, just as every other apprentice begins crudely and roughly.

Jesus was fully human. He therefore went through the normal human processes of increasing in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor—or, to say it another way, he grew mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially, just as other children do.

Maybe Jesus was aware of his divinity. Or, as St. Mark seems to suggest, maybe he wasn’t—not as a baby, not as an adolescent, not even as a baptized, tempted, ministering, and crucified man.

Maybe, just as we grow and evolve in these ways throughout our human lives, Jesus grew and evolved too.

Whatever the case, though, without a doubt, Jesus made mistakes. Human mistakes. He increased in wisdom, meaning he had to learn carpentry through trial and error—stress error.

2

Okay, so Jesus made mistakes. But the more challenging question might be: did Jesus ever sin?

For the record, mistakes are not to be confused with sins. Writing “3×3=6” on a test is a mistake; looking at your neighbor’s test for the answer is a sin.

Coming into my office and confessing, “Pastor, I made a mistake: I just robbed a bank at gunpoint.” Well, yeah, that’s a mistake, technically. But more importantly, it’s a sin because it’s morally wrong.

Point is, I ask this question—did Jesus ever sin?—because something unsettling happens in today’s Gospel. It is so unsettling, in fact, that it has caused some people to conclude that Jesus actually did sin.

He was fully human, they argue. And sin is a part of human nature. So why not? Why shouldn’t Jesus have sinned?

And here’s the proof! He calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog. He insults a person and shows exclusive attitudes towards gender, race, and class. In a moment of weakness, they conclude, St. Mark has captured Jesus sinning.

On top of all this, they rightly point out, the Creed does not deny it. Yeah! Pay close attention to the Creed when we say it together in a few minutes. Nowhere does it state that Jesus never sinned. And this is true of both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.

But the Bible, not the Creed, is from where we get this theological idea.

To quote just a few verses:

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22).

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

“You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).

The Bible is clear: Jesus never sinned. In fact, let me suggest that the Bible is so clear on this matter that the writers of the Creeds felt no need to put it in: it was already a foundational truth upon which the Creeds were built.

3

But if this wasn’t a sin, why does Jesus respond to this woman the way he does? Why does he call her a dog? What is going on here?

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus is in the region of Tyre—outside of the boundaries of Israel. The “children” here are the Jewish people; the “dogs” are Gentiles; and the Syrophoenician woman is a Gentile.

There’s no way around it, Jesus is calling her a dog.

And we can’t soften it. I tried. I looked up the Greek for dog, hoping to find some sort of idiom or colloquialism to help me out. And you know what I found? The Greek word for dog means dog.

It’s an insulting term, demeaning, and exclusive. She is a woman; she is not a Jew; and she is probably upper class (Jesus is lower). We might easily read biases into Jesus’ canine statement—morally wrong biases; biases against another gender, another race, and another class.

But our theology won’t allow us to believe that Jesus would sin. So, what do we make of this exchange?

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Our theology won’t allow us to believe that Jesus would sin. But it does allow room for human mistakes; and room for human growth.

Jesus calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog, no way around it.

She boldly replies, however, that she wants what he has to offer, that she trusts him, that she believes in him. St. Matthew relates the story adding these words: “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish’” (Mt. 15:28).

Whatever else we want to make of this story, Jesus clearly turns. He doesn’t seem to want to help the woman; then he does.

Far from being evidence that Jesus is sinning, I find a strong case here for Jesus experiencing growth and maturity in his adult life—on the fly.

Certainly, as a man, he was influenced by his culture—just as we all are. We buy into ideologies without even realizing it. Music, media, family, friends, foes—they all influence us in ways seen and unseen. So, why should it be any different for the fully human Jesus?

Jesus, fully human, was tired. He’d been working hard. He’d entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know. He was needing some alone time.

Nevertheless, his reputation preceded him. People—non-Jewish people—knew of him and of his capabilities.

Why shouldn’t he have been a little annoyed, then, when this unknown woman approached him? What if she were merely wanting to see him perform some magic trick? It wasn’t a sin to respond the way he did.

But then—since our theology allows for human growth and maturity—why shouldn’t Jesus experience a sort of “aha!” moment, on the fly? When the woman responds in a way that demonstrates faith, why shouldn’t Jesus be able to realize his mistake, to have sudden sympathy for the woman, and to abandon his human biases?

4

And if all this still isn’t enough, there’s one more bit that compels me: the context.

What was Jesus’ point last week? Hypocrisy. We shouldn’t live pretend, hypocritical lives; but lives that are honest, authentic.

What made Jesus’ opponents hypocrites was their preconceived ideas, their biases: biases from which they were unwilling to turn; biases that, in their eyes, made them superior to those who didn’t abide by them.

Isn’t it curious that today’s episode with the Syrophoenician woman occurs just after this lesson about hypocrisy?

It’s as if Jesus is remembering his lesson as his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman is unfolding. It’s as if he checks himself, mid-sequence, realizing he’d better put his very words into practice.

He’d better not be operating by biases, even if those biases are commonly accepted social norms. Wrong is wrong, after all. Better to nip a mistake in the bud than allow it to blossom into sin.

But also, next, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man. Jesus goes to the man, sticks his fingers in his ears, spits, touches the man’s tongue, and looks to heaven and says this strange word: Ephphatha. And the man’s ears are opened; and he is able to speak clearly.

With the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus had an aha moment. Just so, this man, who could not speak or hear before, has an Ephphatha moment.

Could it be that Jesus, who at first had not seen the Syrophoenician woman’s intentions clearly—has Jesus also just experienced an Ephphatha moment?

5

So, that’s a lot of information about Jesus. What about us?

Racism is a big topic these days. Just saying the word has you shuffling your feet, adjusting your posture in the pews, and so on.

And it’s not just racism. I could just as easily have said vaccine.

These are hot topics today, some pressing issues of our time.

And today’s Gospel shows us that it’s okay to be products of our time, products of our culture.

Yes, socially acceptable ideas—for instance, about racism and the vaccine— affect and even govern our sense of right and wrong. We grow up unconscious of the biases all around us, the biases we are taught, biases about gender, race, socioeconomic class, political ideologies.

And, naturally, we adopt these biases ourselves. Our society—family, friends, social organizations—influences us, just as Jesus’ society influenced him. It’s part of being human.

The real issue is, how do we respond when we recognize superior thinking or otherwise harmful biases at work within us?

Up to this point of self-realization, it’s just been a mistake.

But now if we are so stubborn in our biases that we refuse to change, looking down our noses at those who disagree with us, then our mistake becomes sin. We become hypocrites.

As a Christian church, we follow Jesus. He was cognizant enough even on the fly to discern a mistake from sin, to discern what was truly right from what was truly wrong, to have an Ephphatha moment—and then act on it.

When Jesus opens your ears, be ready and willing to act on the fly.

From Hypocrisy to Authenticity

Posted in Homilies with tags , on August 29, 2021 by timtrue

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

1

Once upon a time, a lifetime ago it seems now, I taught second grade.

Immanuel Christian School is a small, private school in northeastern Pennsylvania, in the city of Hazleton.

It’s an old coal mining town whose heyday has long since passed. And God called me to be a teacher there; to teach second graders.

Oh, the stories I could tell! Northeastern Pennsylvania was extreme culture shock for this thirty-year-old and his twenty-six-year-old bride, two born-and-raised Californians. Especially winter!

Well, as you may know, second graders are curious folk to work with—especially second graders from northeastern Pennsylvania.

They’re like little grown-ups in a lot of ways. They each have their own, unique desires, personalities, mannerisms, and traits. They tend to gravitate toward one group of classmates and avoid another. They lose their tempers; they become impatient with each other; they judge others and point out their faults; they gossip.

But they’re different from most grown-ups in this key way: they haven’t yet learned discretion. No filter, we might say.

So, one day, in the middle of the school year, a second-grade boy ran up to me, panting, red in the face with urgency, obviously upset; grabbed my shirtsleeve; then pointed in another boy’s direction and shouted, “He hit me!”

We grown-ups do the same thing, really. Only we use discretion.

We don’t run, for one thing. For another, we’re usually not red in the face with urgency. And we aren’t so bold as to grab an authority figure by the shirtsleeve.

Not literally, anyway.

Because . . . we know better. Because . . . we use other, subtler means to get someone’s attention.

Like second graders, we do seek someone who will listen to our cause, who will take our side. And, yes, whether it’s gossip in the parking lot or a courtroom battle, just like second graders, we grown-ups point in someone else’s direction and shout out judgments against them.

Now, what I wanted to say in this situation—when the second-grade boy pointed that another had hit him—was, “Well, you probably deserved it!”

I wanted to say this; but I didn’t. For I knew I wasn’t hearing the whole side of the story. What would the other boy say if I were to ask him? I knew: the first boy was telling me only what he wanted me to hear and hiding the rest. That’s how personal narrative works.

It’s very easy for us—it’s hardwired into our humanity—to think of ourselves before we think of others. It’s very easy for us to put ourselves first, even when we tell ourselves we’re putting others first. It’s very easy for us to see the speck in someone else’s eye without even noticing the two-by-four sticking out of our own eye.

We’re especially good critics of everyone else; and especially bad critics of ourselves.

Why is this? Why is it so easy to notice clutter in someone else’s home but not notice our own mess? Why is it so common for people who try to live a pious, morally upright life to cast judgment on others?

2

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says an interesting word: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites.” Jesus actually calls his opponents hypocrites. This is not a compliment.

So, the word hypocrite has an interesting etymology. Did you know Jesus may even have coined the term?

It comes from the Greek noun hupokrisis, which means: the acting of a theatrical part.

Now, we have the English word actor; and an actor acts a theatrical part. But, hold on, before you jump to any conclusions, actor and hypocrite are not synonymous.

Tom Cruise is an actor. In the Mission: Impossible enterprise, Tom Cruise plays the character Ethan Hunt. Tom even does all his own stunts, apparently because he feels it will make Ethan’s character more genuine, more authentic, dare I say, less hypocritical.

But when he sits down for an interview on late-night Television with Jimmy Fallon, the man being interviewed is not Ethan Hunt but the actor Tom Cruise. Tom is the genuine article here, Ethan the pretender.

Instead, it’s more like the story of Eli Cohen, the real-life spy from Cold-War-era Israel who spent his days living in Damascus under the alias Kamel Thaabet.

You can learn Eli’s story in detail by watching a six-part Netflix miniseries called, simply, The Spy. But for today’s purposes I want to highlight just one scene.

Eli, or Kamel rather, a few months into his first mission, understandably, desperately misses his wife Nadia. The job, of course, is highly classified; Eli/Kamel is not allowed to contact Nadia even through hand-written letters.

So profound is his longing to see her again that he begins to hallucinate, catching glimpses of her in his peripheral vision, imagining he sees her reflection in shop windows, and so on.

Eventually, he confides in a colleague, who reacts passionately, adamantly demanding that he cannot, must not, shall not ever mention or even think his or his wife’s name while on assignment.

“There is no Eli Cohen,” his colleague exclaims. “There is no Nadia. There is only Kamel.”

So, this image of a spy—playing a role to such an extent that it becomes a new persona, to such an extent that the old persona becomes just a shadow, just a whisper in the background—this image is much closer to what Jesus means by the term hypocrite.

And there’s a little more to it.

To break down the Greek word hupokrisis into its two constituent parts, we see hupo, the prefix, where we get our English prefix hypo-, meaning below, or beneath, as in hypothyroidism; and krisis, which gives us our English word crisis, which in the Greek means decision or judgment.

Put all this together, then, and we get a kind of person who judges below—one person deciding that another person is beneath her; except the person making this judgment about her own superiority is the actual fake.

Kamel Thaabet becomes the reality whereas Eli Cohen becomes just a shadow, just a whisper in the background, hardly worth Kamel’s time.

Reality has been turned on its head; inauthenticity has overshadowed authenticity; somehow, when no one noticed, the genuine Picasso was replaced with a fake.

Jesus calls his opponents hypocrites. While no one else noticed, the genuine articles, the followers of God, transformed into pretenders. Jesus’ opponents were fakes. They judged themselves above others. They valued their own inauthenticity above the authenticity of Jesus’ disciples.

We might say, then, that hypocrisy is the negation of authenticity.

3

What would it look like for our congregation if we were to live lives free of hypocrisy, if our life together were truly authentic?

Let’s return to my second graders.

Recall, I wanted to say to the boy with the red face who’d pulled my shirtsleeve, “Well, you probably deserved it!” But what I did instead was to capitalize on this incident by turning it into a teaching moment.

“All right,” I called out, not to him but to the entire class, “line up! Recess is over.”

Some minutes later, back in the classroom with everyone seated and quiet, I continued, “Get out your Bibles.” I could say this: this was a private, Christian school. “And turn to Matthew 18:15. Raise your hand when you find it; first one there gets to read it aloud.”

Predictably, the same red-faced, urgent boy who’d pulled my shirtsleeve raised his hand first. Trying not to smirk noticeably, I called on him:

“Brent, I see you’re there. Begin reading, please.”

Which he did—from the New International Reader’s Version (which I like to call “the NIRV”):

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go to them. Keep it between the two of you—”

“Wait!” I interrupted, “What did that just say? Please, Brent, read it again. And slow down a bit, so that everyone can understand you.”

Which he did. But this time, now that everyone was really listening, I let him keep reading:

“If they listen to you, you have won them back. But what if they won’t listen to you? Then take one or two others with you.”

“Thank you, Brent,” I said. And I addressed the whole class, “Do you know what this is? This is the Bible’s remedy for tattle-tales.”

After a pause, for effect, I explained to my bewildered students:

“Don’t you all think it would be a good idea if, instead of running to a teacher right away to tell on someone, you just went to that person and tried to work it out between the two of you?”

And all at once there was a lot of nervous shuffling of feet and something of a murmur, then a kind of explosion of accusations, finger-pointing, and even some name-calling. No one was bewildered now.

So I circled us up on the floor where we sat cross-legged for a kind of venting pow-wow.

And, before long, I’m happy to report, we agreed to try. If a student brought a tattle to tell me, I wouldn’t listen until that person had spoken first with the offender.

And at first it wasn’t very easy; but we stuck at it.

And before the year was over, the students came a long way.

They learned to let things go that weren’t really that important after all.

They gave each other the benefit of the doubt.

They became less quick at passing judgment on each other, and in thinking themselves better than everyone around them.

They didn’t tell on each other as frequently.

They didn’t lose their tempers as quickly.

They stopped cutting in the line to the drinking fountain.

They even began to transgress their imagined group walls, their social boundaries. Boys hung out with girls; girls hung out with boys. A girl of Italian descent began eating lunch regularly with the Puerto Rican girls—and that’s a big deal in northeastern Pennsylvania!

But isn’t this what transformation from hypocrisy to authenticity is all about?

Honesty.

Giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Not judging ourselves to be better than everyone around us.

I don’t know about you, but I want our congregational life together to be more like that second-grade classroom.

The Air in our Tires

Posted in Homilies with tags , on August 27, 2021 by timtrue

From Sunday, August 22, 2021, delivered to Grace Episcopal Church in St. George, Utah

John 6:56-69

1

I begin today with an image-filled story, to frame my sermon:

So, my first car was a 1968 Dodge A100 Sportsman van—3 on the tree, manual everything.

With lots of windows all around, it kind of looked like an old VW. But this van was so much better, with a 318 C. I. V8, 210 horsepower—not a piddly 60 horses, like those VWs.

Oh, how I loved that van!

I put some indoor-outdoor carpet down, replaced the factory seating with a loveseat and chair, facing each other, with an ottoman in between—this was before seatbelt laws went into effect.

And many were the days I loaded friends up and went to the beach or mountains or wherever, for yet another adventure.

As happens, I began to be associated with this van. People would see it coming and say, “Here comes Tim.”

So, one night a friend of mine and I decided to play a prank on another friend, Bobby. We TP’d his house, you know, snuck over, late at night, and threw a bunch of toilet paper rolls all over the place.

Well, Bobby woke up as we were up to our shenanigans; and, as I learned later, looked out his window. He didn’t recognize the culprits; but he did recognize a certain van parked across the street.

And thus Bobby hatched his plan to avenge himself, which happened a few weeks later.

I went with a friend to see a movie. And when we came out of the theater, there was my van all right, right where I’d parked it; but three of the tires were flat. Bobby had let the air out of them while I was inside.

Well, I had only one spare. What was I to do? I couldn’t drive home.

My van, with three flat tires, was effectively useless.

So, here’s what I did. I got in and started it up, dropped in into 1st gear, and crept as slowly as I could across three parking lots to—some seven minutes later—a service station with an air hose.

Only then, finally, with air again in the tires, was I able to drive the van home. And even then I was cautious, for I knew the short distance across the parking lots was enough potentially to cause real damage.

Driving on tires without sufficient air, as we all know, is dangerous.

And . . . that’s where I’ll leave my image-filled story of an adolescent memory, for now.

2

So then, next, thirteen weeks ago, in our liturgical calendar, we made a significant turn.

Up till that time, the church year had been focused on the person Jesus.

Starting with Advent—the coming of the Christ—each liturgical year continues with Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter—all various manifestations of the Incarnation, God with us, in the person and work of Jesus—until finally, fifty days after Easter, when Christ sends his Spirit to be with his disciples, the church, until his promised return.

This is the turning point to which I refer: Pentecost. Thirteen weeks ago.

Here, as a church, every year we turn our attention from thinking about who Jesus is to the work he has left for us to do. At Pentecost, having spent half the year pondering his identity, we shift our focus to the question, “How are we to be the incarnate Christ to the world?”

This is the question that frames every Sunday from the Day of Pentecost to Christ the King Sunday, about half of the liturgical year.

Now, in this particular year, Lectionary Year B, we spend most of these six months exploring the question of Jesus’ mission through the lens of the Gospel of Mark. But for five weeks in the middle—concluding today—we find ourselves instead in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.

Why? Why does the Gospel of John interrupt the Gospel of Mark? More specifically, why does the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel interrupt Mark?

Or, to reframe the question: What is it that we are supposed to be learning from these five weeks in John that will shape us as a local body of Christ, to carry out Jesus’ mission, to be the Incarnation to the world around us?

3

Well, here’s what we know about the Gospel of John as a whole: John was writing, probably in the early second century, to a new community defined by their being ousted from the local synagogue.

This context is very different from the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four, not to mention the shortest and sparsest wrt detail. Mark’s purpose, more than anything else, seems to be biographical, to tell Jesus’ story, who he is and what he did; and that he is a man worth following, maybe even a divine man.

John’s Gospel is far more complex, multi-layered, written at least a generation later than Mark to tell a story within a story. Jesus is God, no question. But John’s purpose is to guide an ancient community—an early church—into its new life together as it follows this divine human.

That’s the big picture. Narrowing our focus, in Chapter 6 Jesus teaches incarnation and love—two profound ideologies—through metaphor; and predominantly, through the metaphor of bread.

Two weeks ago I walked us through the bread-making process, from harvesting rye to separating the grains from the stalks to sifting and cleaning to grinding the grains into flour to finally baking.

Jesus said his flesh was bread for the life of the world. Harvested, separated, sifted, ground; arrested, mocked, spat upon, crucified—for the life of the world.

Then last week we explored what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to ingest him so completely that Christ becomes a part of us and we become more him.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you . . . But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

The Incarnation doesn’t mean that God is with us as a warrior might be with us in battle or as a guide might lead us on an expedition. Rather, the Incarnation is within each one of us; and intends to permeate every corner of the world in just the same way.

This is a profoundly difficult concept to grasp, ineffable I called it last week.

And now, today, we come to this final portion of John 6, where we read that many disciples turn away from Jesus, for this is a difficult teaching.

So, in this context of trying to wrap our heads around the ineffable Incarnation, Jesus’ message that God is love, and not turning away from Jesus but living into our life together, as a unified body—in this context, what are we supposed to learn about the mission Jesus left for us? What is our takeaway?

4

“It is the spirit that gives life,” Jesus says; “the flesh is useless.”

The mission Jesus has left for us is effectively useless without the spirit—like my van tires without any air in them.

But, wait, didn’t Jesus just say that his very flesh was the true bread from heaven, the bread given for the life of the world?

Yes, he did.

So what can he mean now by saying the flesh is useless? Certainly, his flesh wasn’t useless!

Ah, but it is useless—even his flesh—without the spirit.

Jesus’ flesh, smitten, broken, and lifted up on the cross for the life of the world—if it remains there, dead on the cross, why then it’s just a corpse.

Taken down, carried away, and laid to rest in the tomb—if Jesus’ flesh remains there, lifeless, without a spirit to animate it, why, again, it’s still just a corpse.

Originally, the Gospel of Mark probably didn’t include the resurrection: the final twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel, the only mention of resurrection in that Gospel, were likely added later.

In other words, it’s a good thing we have John’s Gospel in the middle of Year B. Without it, we might be left to wonder if Jesus’ body remained in the tomb as just a corpse.

What about Jesus’ flesh set on the altar, consecrated, given, and received?

Without the spirit, it, too, is lifeless; or, to use Jesus’ word, “useless.”

Likewise, we are Jesus’ flesh, the body of Christ, today.

When we, Grace Episcopal Church, don’t act as one, then we are like my van hobbling along at a mile per hour because we have no air—no spirit—at work in us. Our attempts to carry out Jesus’ mission are effectively useless.

When three of its tires were flat, my van was still a van, right? I could unlock the door, sit in the driver’s seat, start the engine, turn on the headlights, roll down the windows, drop it into gear, and even drive a little. For all intents and purposes, it was still a van.

But without air in the tires, it was effectively useless. And here I mean all four tires, together. Even if Bobby had let the air out of only one tire, that would have been enough to render the van effectively useless.

The analogy, of course, is spirit. The work of the church—the mission Jesus left to us—is the vehicle. We are the tires to carry the vehicle from Point A to Point B. And Christ’s spirit is the air in us, the air that animates us, the air that brings life.

More concretely, there are many ways to carry out Christ’s mission today; but it goes back to the purpose of John’s Gospel: we’ve got to work together.

If you have an idea for outreach, an idea that you think is really good, then bring it to the Bishop’s Committee—the leadership board that you elected. If the BC considers your idea and decides to move forward, then great! The spirit it present; the van has air in all its tires.

But if the BC considers your idea and is like meh, then it’s a bad idea to move forward with your idea anyway in the name of the church—like trying to drive on Interstate 15 with air in only one tire.

Of course, that’s only one example. My point is that doing the work Jesus has left us to do requires not just the flesh—not just being Jesus’ hands and feet in our community—but Christ’s spirit.

One body. One bread. Together.

Atop the Nipple

Posted in hiking with tags , , on August 20, 2021 by timtrue

For those who don’t know, I recently moved into a sometime home. Sometime because it’s 500 miles away from my permanent home, where my family lives, time there which I am able to spend for about four days at a time, once or twice a month. Not the most ideal arrangement, but, as they say, it’s a living.

But the home–which we purchased because it sure beats renting these days–is in southern Utah, in a town called Hurricane, just outside of St. George. And–I’m giddy about this–it’s two blocks from a trailhead which leads up a steep ridge to the top of a butte called Mollie’s Nipple.

Oh, the temptation! But, instead of turning this into a post not suitable for adolescent boys; or a post to do my new grandson proud, I simply want to give something of a photo essay and leave the rest to your imagination.

So then, the photo below is the view from my front door. If you look carefully, you will see the trail ascending the ridge on the left. It is only a mile or so to the top, but with an elevation gain of some 1,500 feet. That’s something like ascending a 150-story staircase without a break–except that staircases don’t vary in pitch, which this trail does constantly; and they aren’t shaley and slippery, meaning they’re a lot less dangerous. Anyway, Mollie’s is the butte on the right, in the background under my roof line.

Photo 1: Planning the Ascent.

Photo 2: Trailhead Gate. I brought my hiking poles on a hunch. As it turns out, I was very glad I did for the descent.

Photo 3: First Look Back. By the way, I’m at an elevation of roughly 3,300′. The mountain in the background is Signal Peak, at an elevation of over 10,000′.

Photo 4: Sunrise over Frog Hollow. I noticed a trail heading back into this canyon–another hike for another day.

Photo 5: Halfway up the First Ascent. My sometime home, by the way, is the middle house on the middle street.

Photo 6: Another Look Back.

Photo 7: Atop the First Ascent. This is the first real resting spot, meaning the first spot that levels out enough to sit on a rock, take a drink, and catch a breath.

Photo 8: Toward Zion. This photo was an attempt to capture the entryway into Zion National Park. It’s there, a gap in the middle of the photo, if you know where to look.

Photo 9: The Second Ascent.

Photo 10: Nearing the Nipple. Just about at the top of the second ascent, a much shorter one than the first, Mollie’s comes back into view, the first view since leaving the neighborhood.

Photo 11: Admiring the View. Now, ah, bliss, the trail levels off for a few hundred yards, a breather before the final ascent.

Photo 12: Final Ascent.

Photo 13: The Areola.

Photo 14: North to Hurricane. My neighborhood is a little south of Hurricane proper. This photo gives a good view into the small town. Other than an LDS church on seemingly every corner, it feels like it’s right out of the old west. By the way, the haze is smoke mostly from the Dixie fire in California.

Photo 15: North. Now atop the butte, these final four photos were taken in each of the cardinal directions.

Photo 16: East.

Photo 17: South.

Photo 18: West.

So, that’s my recent hike up Mollie’s Nipple in photos. I’m hoping to make this a regular part of my time spent at my sometime home. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Incarnation Rebooted

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2021 by timtrue

John 6:51-58

1

I want to begin my sermon today with a description of a monster. Just humor me.

I strained my eyes upwards, and she came.

She was gray as the air, as the cliff itself. I had always imagined she would look like something: a snake or an octopus, a shark. But the truth of her was overwhelming, an immensity that my mind fought to take in. Her necks were longer than ship masts. Her six heads gaped, hideously lumpen, like melted lava stone. Black tongues licked her sword-length teeth. . . .

She crept closer, slipping over the rocks. A reptilian stench struck me, foul as squirming nests underground. Her necks wove a little in the air, and from one of her mouths I saw a gleaming strand of saliva stretch and fall. Her body was not visible. It was hidden back in the mist with her legs, those hideous, boneless things that Selene had spoken of so long ago. Hermes had told me how they clung inside her cave like the curled ends of hermit crabs when she lowered herself to feed. . . .

She screamed. The sound was a piercing chaos, like a thousand dogs howling at once.[i]

So, that monstrous description comes from Madeline Miller’s recent book Circe.

Any guesses as to who, or what, Ms. Miller is describing?

If you know Homer’s Odyssey, this was one of the two monsters Odysseus had to sail between on his harrowing journey homeward, Scylla and Charybdis.

Odysseus chose the pass nearer to Scylla. So does the heroine in Madeline Miller’s tale, hence this description of the monster here. But if you’re familiar with the Percy Jackson series, in The Sea of Monsters Clarisse chooses Charybdis.

Anyway, I bring this up because Madeline Miller’s description offers a good answer to questions about how to describe the ineffable.

Scylla is a one-of-a-kind monster, her own, exclusive category. None of us has ever seen her (to my knowledge anyway). How, then, is the author supposed to describe the unknown—the ineffable—to us?

Ineffable, according to merriam-webster.com, means—and I quote—“incapable of being expressed in words.”

And Madeline Miller offers us a good example of how to express something in words that is “incapable of being expressed in words.”

Do you see? To describe a monster we have never seen, Ms. Miller builds on what we already know: “gray as a cliff,” “necks as long as ship masts,” “heads like lava stone,” “sword-length teeth,” “the cacophony of a thousand dogs howling at once,” and so on.

To attempt to describe the ineffable, Ms. Miller uses lots of metaphor. To attempt to describe the ineffable, metaphor—based on what we already know—is essential.

2

Now, for the people in Jesus’ day, the concept of incarnation, God enfleshed, was just that: ineffable. Yet Jesus wanted to teach his hearers about this ineffable incarnation. How should he do it?

The common understanding in Jesus’ day was not that God becomes flesh and dwells among us but that God rules and reigns from on high, far away, aloof, distant.

It was so with the pantheon of Hellenism, and it was so with the High God of Judaism.

But this image was easy to understand. For this image—God as king—was their political world.

Right? I mean, even today, when our political world is a democracy, we have no trouble picturing a monarchy.

Caesar had his pyramid of political hierarchy. At the bottom were the slaves. The next layer up was freemen—those who were once slaves but now eked out a subsistence on their own. And so it went on, up the pyramid, to the highest classes of equites, senators, and finally, at the top, Caesar himself.

To the people of Palestine—the people among whom Jesus lived and ministered—Caesar was easy to picture. After all, they had to live each day in a world under his tangible control.

But also, Caesar was far away, distant, aloof. None of the people Jesus interacted with ever would have dreamed of meeting Caesar in person.

So, understandably, that was the predominant image of God: far away, aloof, ruling and reigning from his throne on high, not really aware of the details of day-to-day life.

Transcendence, we call it.

Then Jesus came along, proclaiming that it was time to understand God anew. No more should the predominant image of God be an aloof, distant king. Instead, God is Incarnation, Jesus said, God is enfleshed and dwells among us—an ineffable concept.

3

And we’ll see in a moment how Jesus used metaphor to express the ineffable in his day. But first, I want to clarify something: The concept of incarnation was not totally new to Jesus’ hearers.

Another popular image of Israel’s God was that of a warrior: a God who gets right in the midst of the army and fights their battles with them. That’s a glimpse of incarnation, an idea theologians call immanence.

And there are other incarnational glimpses that appear throughout the OT.

Incarnate God spoke to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. Isaac listened and watched as God provided a ram in his place. Jacob physically wrestled all night long with God. And God appeared to Moses enfleshed as a burning bush.

God was a pillar of cloud by day and a column of smoke by night as the nation of Israel wandered the wilderness. God’s spirit possessed the artisans who built and furnished the Tabernacle and Temple. And God fought with Israel’s army as the chosen nation took possession of the Promised Land.

The concept of incarnation was already there, at least in seed form: Immanence.

And now I’ve made my clarification.

But here’s the thing. Jesus chose not to build on this knowledge. Instead, he wiped the incarnation slate clean and started afresh.

“I am the bread of life,” he said:

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life . . . for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

To communicate this up-close, new idea—the ineffable Incarnation—Jesus decided to use an altogether new metaphor, not God as warrior fighting their battles or God as captain leading their expedition but God as bread and wine, the common experience we all share of eating and drinking.

Altogether new.

Why?

The previous metaphors—especially God as warrior—took the concept of incarnation in the wrong direction. The old metaphor didn’t work; it was time for a new one.

But, still, if the people of God already had experience of incarnational theology, immanence, why not build on it? Why reinvent the wheel?

Well, I think it has to do with the victims.

4

God may very well have been with the army of Israel, fighting their battles as they overtook the Promised Land. But, at the same time, is that to say God wasn’t there with the victims too, as they were overcome, stricken down, and, as the Bible reports, slaughtered?

As he builds his new metaphor, the concept of incarnation from bread and wine, Jesus knows his audience. He is teaching the common people of his day, people subject to the Romans, people effectively conquered by the dominant culture, people who identified more with the victim than the victor, people on the margins.

Was God with them too? And if so, at the same time, was God—could God be—with their Roman oppressors?

If the ineffable Incarnation is for all people; if God is caught up in the intricate details of each of our lives, then, yes.

God is with you and in you whether you’re an Israelite or a Gentile, whether you’re captive or captor, whether you’re rich or poor, male or female or nonbinary, black, white, or brown. God is with you. God is in you.

The old understanding of incarnation couldn’t go there. The old understanding of incarnation saw God as warrior.

For the person who lives by this mindset, the logical conclusion is that God is on my side, fighting my battles, against whoever opposes me.

So, for instance, if I’m a Republican and I have this mindset, then God fights my battles, my Republican battles, for me and against anyone who doesn’t see it my way—especially any Democrat who doesn’t see it my way.

It also works vice-versa.

Or, to provide a non-partisan example, if I’m a straight white male—which I am—and I view God as an incarnate warrior—which I don’t—then the incarnate God fights my straight-white-male battles with me and for me, making life more difficult than it has to be for the people who are not like me—not straight, not white, or not male.

Do you see what happens? This older understanding of incarnation—an understanding Jesus seeks to correct—leads to all kinds of wrongheaded conclusions about us versus them, about me and God against the world!

I’ve been calling it an older understanding of incarnation, but it persists nonetheless today. We see it at work in wicked ideologies all around us: wicked ideologies like white supremacy, misogyny, and homophobia—to name just a few. It leads to actions like the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6th.

Wrongheaded views of God are dangerous.

Jesus, on the other hand—whose good news boils down to three words: God is love—Jesus had to start over. Clean slate! The Incarnation rebooted!

So, today, Jesus talks about the ineffable Incarnation in a new way.

God is with us to such an extent that the Incarnation actually becomes part of who we are.

To eat his flesh and drink his blood is to ingest God. In this process, the nutrients of Christ become part of our very flesh and blood. Christ becomes part of who we are just as we become more of him and less of ourselves.

So, the metaphor Jesus uses for this new concept of incarnation, God enfleshed, is commonly experienced by every human being. All of us. One community. One bread.

It is never about us versus them. It is always about us and us, the dignity of every human being.

This concept of incarnation, not that older one, is the core of true Christianity.

5

Okay, so, let’s bring it home. What does this mean for us, a church called to carry out Jesus’ message and mission to our surrounding community?

As a starting point, keep in mind that God is easily misunderstood.

Many people, probably the majority of Christians around the world despite what Jesus taught, still view God today as a far-away king, aloof and distant, ruling by sovereign might from his throne on high.

For these people, it’s not much of a stretch to view God as a despot, a supreme being to be feared. And for some of these, a little stretch more and God becomes like that monster I opened the sermon with.

But God is misunderstood because God is ineffable. No matter how much we say, ultimately God cannot be expressed in words.

So, next, as the church, the body of Christ in the world today, we need somehow to express the ineffable.

But this is a challenge; for, to remind you, ineffable means “incapable of being expressed in words.” Well, just how are we, as a church, supposed to express the ineffable Incarnation?

Not through words, I answer, but in our actions. We let our actions be the main metaphor for God; and God is love.

Actions, we know, often express truth more precisely than words. But, to clarify—God is love—we don’t just throw ourselves into whatever action strikes our fancy. Rather, we do works that demonstrate love.

This is where it all comes together for me. The metaphor Jesus uses to express the ineffable is simple and common: bread and wine. Everybody connects to food; we all have to eat.

Our actions as a church should be simple and common, small demonstrations of love that promote the dignity of every human being.

We don’t have to be flashy, like a strong warrior or a charismatic king. Rather, we offer simple sustenance for those in need, food, clothing, and shelter—mostly behind the scenes. We involve ourselves in the important details of life.

And thereby we become the flesh and blood of Jesus, a eucharistic transformation so unique that it cannot be expressed in words.


[i] Madeline Miller, Circe, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2018, p. 114.

Eucharist to Go?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on August 8, 2021 by timtrue

John 6:35, 41-51

1

What does it mean for Jesus to identify himself as the true bread of heaven?

Bread is something we can all relate to, sure: “Give us this day, our daily bread,” we pray.

After all, we eat bread; and—perhaps some of us anyway—eat it every day.

But—I don’t know about you—when I go to the grocery store, I’m not spending the bulk of my time in the bread aisle; just grab a loaf and get out.

And have you noticed? Dieting fads in recent years—the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, the Flexitarian diet, Keto—suggest we ought to steer clear of bread, or at least from too many carbs.

What’s all this got to do with Jesus, the bread of life?

Okay, now I’m a little distracted. Bread seems so mundane, so commonplace, so—I don’t know—boring? If Jesus is trying to use a memorable metaphor here, something to explain the ineffability of God in a way that makes an abstract point concrete, why use bread? Isn’t there something better?

Why not say something like, “I am the Seven-Layer Dip of life,” or, “I am the Chicken Marsala of life: once you taste my goodness, you’ll never want anything else”?

But no. Instead, Jesus says, simply, mundanely, boringly, “I am the bread of life.”

And so . . . we don’t think much about it. Just grab and go. Eucharist to go.

2

Like so many other metaphors Jesus uses, this one largely has been lost in translation.

Like when he says, “I am the good shepherd.” How many of us really know all that much about life as a shepherd, let alone what distinguishes a good shepherd from a bad one? I’m afraid that much of this old-world metaphor is lost on us moderns.

Same with bread. We just walk into the bakery or grocery store, maybe look at a few labels, take a sniff or two, think about what might interest our palate in the moment, and then buy a loaf. Easy peasy.

But what had to happen to get that bread onto the bakery shelf in the first place?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to serve for a week as the summer camp Chaplain at Camp Stevens, the Episcopal Camp in the mountains east of San Diego.

Now, Camp Stevens is something of a throwback. A good portion of its program, still in use today, was created in the 1960s and 1970s. Campers gather for a week of no cell phones or other screen-related gadgetry to engage with one another in low-tech, team-building activities.

A highlight of Camp Stevens is its agricultural focus. Several acres of the property include orchards and gardens—which the campers, depending on the time of the year, help to plant, tend, and harvest.

At the end of the week, the whole camp gathers for a kind of Eucharist. The week I was there, our “wine” was fresh mulberry juice, picked and pressed by campers from a tree on the camp property.

As for the bread, it was made from rye, from the Camp Stevens Garden.

All week long, different groups of campers worked to make this bread.

Early in the morning—rising early because of the excessive heat that week—one group harvested the rye by hand. They used scythes—no tractors, no automated equipment. Their goal was simple: harvest enough to make several small loaves of communion bread, enough for about 120 people.

After the rye was cut and bundled, another group hauled it to the kitchen, walking half a mile in the heat with the bundles on their backs or shoulders, where then they did the more finely tuned work of picking out the grains from the stalks by hand: separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Next—the grains placed in bowls and the stalks in compost bins—another group of campers went through the grains again, searching for small pebbles mostly, for the soil in Julian is loamy; but also for anything other than the grains—pieces of stalk, weeds, dirt, bugs.

Then they washed the grains and spread them out on towels in the sun to dry.

And only after the grains had dried thoroughly was yet another group able to grind them into flour—by hand, using mortar and pestle—until, finally, there was the main ingredient needed for the bread: rye flour.

So, planted, tended in the soil, harvested, carried away, separated, picked through, cleaned, dried, and broken up with mortar and pestle, all so that a few loaves of bread could be baked for our end-of-week Camp Eucharist.

What about that metaphor now? Mundane? Commonplace? Boring? What about bread broken and distributed to 5,000 hungry people?

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus’ flesh—planted, tended in the soil, harvested, carried away, separated, picked through, cleaned, dried, and broken—for the life of the world.

3

But there’s another image that comes to my mind when I think about bread in the grocery store aisle, an image that might inform us as to why a metaphor like this gets lost in translation.

This image comes from Wendell Berry.

Berry, who turned 87 on Thursday of last week, is a gifted, eloquent writer, who began his adult career in 1964 as a university professor but gave it up in 1977 in order to devote his time and attention to his family farm—and has been writing about it ever since.

The reason? Farming in the United States, he felt, had become too industrialized. Families that had farmed for generations were now being told to “get big or get out.” The son of a farmer, Berry determined to dig in his heels, stubbornly refusing either to get big or to get out.

More to the point of my sermon, Berry noticed that big, industrial farming—and ranching, I should add—was displacing whole communities. The small-time, family farmers who didn’t—or couldn’t—“get big” were, more often than not, forced out of their livelihoods.

With his own eyes, Berry witnessed small towns whose infrastructures depended on small farms becoming ghost towns.

Overall food productivity increased; but at the cost of many people’s livelihoods—sometimes their lives as well.

Is it worth it, Berry asks in his book The Unsettling of America, when a good quality of life is compromised for the sake of productivity?

Well, we know it’s not just with agriculture. Our industrialized nation’s history is replete with examples of boom-bust communities, whether because of silver or gold rushes, coal mining, automobile manufacturing, cattle ranching, tobacco farming, or any other scenario where a big corporation moves in, providing lots of jobs, then later moves out.

Livelihoods, jobs, and indeed whole communities, come and go.

Gone forever, it seems, are the days when communities were shaped by generations of the same family inhabiting place.

Does our culture today even know what community means anymore? Do we even know what community is?

4

So, pondering the process it takes to make bread; and hearing Wendell Berry’s observations on the dissolution of community—this brings us to the mission Jesus left for his church, for us.

We who follow Christ are called to share the true bread of heaven with the hungry world all around us.

Likewise, we who follow Christ are called to be the true bread of heaven for the world.

It’s not a mundane, commonplace, boring metaphor.

When the greater world around us looks at our church, maybe to them it looks like just one more loaf of bread in an already overstocked grocery store aisle.

But we know there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that has to go into making a church healthy and flavorful. We know, the mission Jesus left with us requires community.

But is community even possible anymore in our culture today?

In our industrialized nation, in our self-focused culture—and we’ve got to ask, in our city of St. George, which is filled with people seemingly from everywhere but here, myself included—is a community of Christians even possible—not a gathering of individual Christians, but true community?

Well, I believe it is. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.

And the reason I believe it is possible comes, in part, from Camp Stevens.

There, the campers would gather together for the first time on Sunday afternoon, as their parents or guardians dropped them off, totally out of their comfort zones, surrounded mostly by strangers.

You could say it was a kind of intentional displacement, a conspiracy of parents, priests, and camp counselors, to force kids to put down their cell phones, engage in retro team-building activities, and provide some free farm labor.

But . . . by Friday afternoon’s Camp Eucharist, all of Camp Stevens became one. For all week long, this had been their focus: to gather together around the bread they had made from the earth and the juice they had squeezed from the tree; to share thanksgivings for what they had learned and who they were becoming; to sing and to pray together; to hear from God’s word; and to offer this work of life-transformation to others.

On Sunday, the campers had gathered as a collection of individuals. By Friday, however, they’d set aside their individual likes and dislikes, agreements and disagreements, for the sake of the whole. In only five days, they became one body around one bread, sharing together from and in the common good.

Becoming a beloved community, fulfilling Jesus’ mission, takes us out of our comfort zones.

But, as those campers learned, community in Christ is true bread from heaven. Community in Christ transforms us as rye is transformed from the field into flour into bread.

When we learn truly to be one body, sharing together from and in the common good, we shall never hunger again.

Satisfying, Quenching

Posted in Homilies on August 2, 2021 by timtrue

John 6:24-35

1

Today we learn a little bit more about the crowd.

After Jesus fed the five thousand—last week’s Gospel—many continued to follow him. However, they seem to be seeking him for all the wrong reasons.

What do I mean?

Well, first, some members of the crowd are seeking Jesus for utilitarian purposes.

They’re hungry; and Jesus fed them quite satisfactorily yesterday. So, they reason, maybe he will feed them again today.

They’re asking, “What can Jesus do for me?”

Not the right question!

Second, others from the crowd are seeking Jesus for purposes of expediency.

Jesus was the organizer of yesterday’s big event; and he showed no small amount of competence. He’d gathered and fed them all; and he had some really good things to say. So, “I know!” some of them declare; “let’s make him our king!”

Overnight (literally), Jesus became not only their religious but also their political champion. Jesus is a societal mover and shaker. Jesus (or so they imagine) will promote their political agenda . . .

. . . not that unlike what’s happening in our political world today.

But again, to seek Jesus for expediency is self-focused rather than God-focused; asking, “What can Jesus do for me?” rather than, “What can I do for Jesus?” Again, it’s not the right question.

Third, some other members of the crowd seek Jesus for the miraculous.

“What sign are you going to give us then,” some of them ask, “so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?”

Really! “What sign are you going to give us?” Didn’t Jesus just feed about 5,000 of you people yesterday; and today you want a sign? A miracle took place right in front of your noses. How did you miss it?

The irony thickens when they say that Moses gave them a sign: manna from heaven. They know about manna, that famous narrative from their nation’s history; yet they fail to see the miracle of the true bread of heaven, not to mention the loaves and fishes, right in their midst.

But miracles are like that. Wonder, as I observed last week, is like that. When it happens right in our midst, we often miss it.

Especially when our question is, “What can Jesus do for me?” instead of the other way around.

And, fourth, still others from the crowd seek Jesus as a kind of intellectual pursuit.

“When they found him on the other side of the sea,” the text reads, “they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’”

They got to know Jesus some yesterday—they sat at his very feet in Bible study—and figured now they could label him, as if to say, “Oh, he’s a Rabbi, a teacher of the Torah . . . and we know what that means—where he stands morally and philosophically.”

Trouble is, how can we finite humans ever comprehend the infinite?

But again, it comes down to the question, “What can Jesus do for me?”

Anyway, whether for utility, expediency, the miraculous, intellectual satisfaction, or for anything else, the crowd in today’s Gospel seems to seek Jesus for all the wrong reasons.

2

So, today’s story begs the question, why do you seek Jesus?

It’s not just what we see in today’s Gospel—utility, expediency, and so on; for, of course, there are as many wrongheaded approaches to following Jesus as there are followers of Jesus.

For me, the key is the question I’ve already asked several times:

Do you follow Jesus because of what he can do for you; or is your faith characterized by what you can do for him?

This is a difficult question for our modern ears . . . because we are taught from infancy, seemingly from every angle, to ask, “What’s in it for me?”

This is the case, of course, with businesses trying to sell you something. A new pair of shoes, a new car, food, whatever—the plug is always about how this certain product will benefit you; how it will make you smarter, happier, healthier, etc.

And we all know that rarely, if ever, is the plug true. But never mind. It sells.

It’s not just businesses either. Nonprofits say it too.

I heard an ad on public radio recently asking listeners to donate vehicles.

The local radio station would get money from the sale of the vehicle, sure; but the real benefit was that the donor, by giving away the “unwanted” vehicle, would receive a tax write off and free up much needed space in their garage.

Never mind that public radio has a vision and mission. This wasn’t about that. Instead, this was an appeal to generosity of a kind: a self-focused generosity; what the donor would get out of it.

It doesn’t matter if it’s public media, an organization whose mission is to fight cancer, to feed the hungry, or to house the homeless. At the end of the day, it’s about how, when you give your money, in the end it will benefit you most of all.

Have you heard this?

So, this mindset has made its way into faith-based organizations too, including synagogues, mosques, and churches. In fact, I recently attended a continuing education course that presented this question to the attendees, in all seriousness: What is your church’s “product,” and how can you best sell it?

There’s a problem here. Do you see it? It goes back to today’s Gospel.

That question—wrt the church, what’s in it for me?—leaves the person who asks it hungering and thirsting for more—just like the crowd that followed Jesus kept hungering and thirsting for more. “How else can the church serve me?” this person ponders.

But Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Hunger sated? Thirst assuaged? True satisfaction in Christ? But how can the church offer this?

I think you know where I’m going. The question we ought to be asking ourselves on the regular is not how the church might benefit us, as individuals who say we follow Christ; but, rather, how might we, together, benefit the church?

Coming together as a body, in community, and accomplishing Jesus’ mission in the world around us: that is where Jesus will feed us to satisfaction; that is when Jesus will quench our spiritual thirst.

3

Okay, so, now, let’s get real.

As you know, Grace Episcopal Church depends on our donations in order to operate.

This building, maintenance, repairs, property upkeep, personnel costs, cleaning, bread, wine, vestments, candles, furnishings, flowers, decorations, coffee hour, Sunday morning liturgy, Wednesday services in the chapel, special liturgies like baptisms, weddings, and funerals, pastoral visitations, office hours—these take place only through our donations—our good and necessary donations. Thank you!

But do you see what I’ve just done? So far, I’ve really only answered the question, “What’s in it for me?” Everything I just listed is for our benefit and not for the benefit of the world around us.

If this were a public radio ad, now is the time I’d say, “Your donations to Grace Episcopal Church will get you a tax write off and free up much needed space in your spiritual garage.” Grace is for you.

But if that’s it—if you’re in it only for how the church might benefit you as an individual—then I don’t care how much the church offers: it will never be enough. Your spiritual hunger will return, over and over; your spiritual thirst will never be quenched.

Instead, when we give our monetary donations to Grace Episcopal Church, let’s think in terms of vision: the mission and ministry Jesus left for us to do.

In his day, Jesus looked at the crowd, had compassion for them, and fed them. Elsewhere in the Gospels, we see him healing a woman who had been bleeding continuously for several years, freeing a man who was held captive by demons in a graveyard, discussing truth and politics with a Samaritan woman (race) and a teacher of Israel (class), weeping with Mary and Martha as they grieved their brother’s death, and eating with tax collectors and prostitutes.

Jesus carried the good news of freedom, equality, and peace outward to those who most needed it.

And in our day, this mission continues.

While our stories today might look and sound different, the good news of freedom, equality, and peace is still needed everywhere around us.

What does this look like in our community; and just how are we supposed to help those around us?

Well, that’s what Jesus has left to us to figure out.

We’re smart. We can do it. We can develop and maintain an organization that reaches outward, beyond us.

Getting real, talking about our donations, it’s one thing to have just enough to cover our operating costs: what we as a church need to keep our doors open, to keep the ministries and programs going that benefit just us.

That’s a kind of generosity, remember: a self-focused generosity; what the donor gets out of it.

But that’s a generosity that doesn’t satisfy spiritual hunger or quench spiritual thirst.

Instead, it’s quite another thing to go beyond, to the next level, and meet a need in the surrounding community with such abundance that we gather twelve basketfuls of leftovers when the act of service is complete.

That’s another kind of generosity altogether: other-focused generosity; where not the donor but Jesus and his church benefit.

It is a generosity that satisfies and quenches.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Jesus’ mission needs to be our focus. The donations we give and the work we do in and through Grace Episcopal Church are not for my benefit or yours as much as they’re about accomplishing the work Jesus has left for us to do.

So: Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

Love-formation Superhighway

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on July 27, 2021 by timtrue

John 6:1-21

1

The Information Superhighway was supposed to be this awesome thing: awesome because now, at our fingertips, we have access to more information than ever before in a matter of only a few seconds.

You want to find a good restaurant? Why, just read the Yelp reviews. You need a new pair of shoes? They’re just a few clicks away. You can’t remember the names of the ships that went with Columbus to discover the New World? Just Google it.

But, if you’re like me, at times you might find the IS to be overwhelming, even paralyzing. There’s just too much information out there.

One search leads to another, which leads to another, and before I know it I’ve blown through two hours of my Saturday morning and three cups of coffee and I still don’t know the answer to what I set out looking for—or, worse, I’ve forgotten why I got on the IS in the first place.

Has this ever happened to you?

So, as a church, left with the task of advancing Christ’s mission in the world around us, it goes something like this. We want to do some outreach. How do we approach it?

Well, we grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and blow through a couple hours on the IS; where we find blog posts, web sites, book deals, YouTube videos, podcasts—all offering narratives of how some person or vestry or church succeeded; and how we can succeed too. But at the end of our drive we find ourselves still at a loss about where even to begin.

We end up, from my experience anyway, a lot like Philip in today’s Gospel.

Instead of beginning a new outreach ministry, which is what we set out to do in the first place, we say things like, “Lord, how in the world are we going to do that? We’ve got a church to run; yet six months of our operating budget wouldn’t even begin to be enough for what we’d like to do regarding outreach.”

And instead of empowering us, today’s IS has overwhelmed us. Our outreach vision is paralyzed.

2

But here’s the thing about the IS: it’s a highway of human knowledge; and human knowledge is not the same thing as love’s knowledge.

Human knowledge, however super it is, is finite; but love’s knowledge is infinite. The IS comes to an end; but the highway of love’s knowledge—the Love-formation Superhighway—has only just begun.

Don’t we see this in today’s Gospel too?

Some five thousand people have gathered around Jesus; and they are hungry.

Jesus formulates a vision to feed them.

So Philip and Andrew, and we presume others around Jesus, gather information; but they come up short.

“This is a lot of people, Jesus,” they say. “Six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to feed them. And we’ve looked around; but all we’ve come up with is this boy who has five barley biscuits and couple of sardines. What good will that do?”

It’s an overwhelming, paralyzing problem. It would take a miracle.

So, maybe, Jesus, it’s time to take another tack.

Or, better yet, Jesus, maybe it’s time to let the idea die and move on.

But, as we read today, where their finite highway of human knowledge ends, Jesus’ infinite highway of love has only just begun.

And somehow that miracle does take place. Somehow the 5,000 end up fed and satisfied, with leftovers.

And we who hear the story listen with wonder.

3

Unless, of course, the human highway of information is where we place our faith. If that’s the case, then we are skeptical of this miracle.

Have you heard the explanation that goes something like this?

The great crowd had been gathered for a while. A few, here and there, began to complain that they were hungry.

Jesus, being sensitive to these complaints, had the common sense and ideals to encourage those in the crowd who had brought food with them to share their food with those without.

But Jesus was also a realist. He knew that those who had brought food with them would not want to give of their provisions freely.

And in fact this proved to be the case when Philip began to ask around: “I don’t have any food,” one person said. “Don’t look at me,” said another.

Only a boy fessed up that he had brought anything with him—an innocent child, a person not yet jaded and otherwise made suspicious by the world’s values of selfishness.

So, what does Jesus do? He holds up the child’s example for all to see.

And, thereby, Jesus manipulates those who had brought food with them into fessing up and sharing as well, just as the boy did.

And, lo, five thousand men—not to mention the women and children—were fed to satisfaction, with twelve basketfuls of leftovers to boot!

Have you heard this interpretation? It’s quite popular.

But I have a few hang-ups.

First, I can’t believe, with everything else that has been written about him, that Jesus would ever manipulate a crowd through guilt, shame, or fear. That’s the way of the world, not the way of love.

Second, this is a post-Enlightenment interpretation, meaning it was never suggested in the history of Christianity until after Sigmund Freud. That’s still recent history.

And third—and the most pertinent to my sermon today—is that this interpretation leaves us no room to wonder. The miracle was merely an illusion that can be explained away according to the highway of human knowledge.

In other words, this interpretation tells us that the highway of human knowledge is all that there is.

In other words, this interpretation tells us that there is no such thing as a highway of love.

In other words, this interpretation leaves no room for God.

4

But I want us to leave room for God—and for wonder.

How do we do this in our day?

For me, it’s not an either-or proposition, but a both-and. It’s not either the highway of human knowledge or love’s highway; but both highways together.

I mentioned earlier, the highway of human knowledge is finite; love’s knowledge is infinite. But that doesn’t mean we throw human knowledge out. In fact, to do so would go against what love stands for and thus defeat love’s purpose.

Love includes. It makes room for human discovery, knowledge, and wisdom.

What does this look like for us today?

About fifteen years ago, a married couple, both Episcopal priests, sat together on a Saturday morning in front of their now “dinosaur” laptops with a pot of coffee between them. They turned to the IS, that great highway of human knowledge at our fingertips, to answer a question that had been bothering them for quite some time:

How many children in Tucson live below the poverty line?

Tucson was their home. And their dream was to start a tuition-free Episcopal school in Tucson to help students and their families break free from cycles of poverty.

So, the IS guided these two priests into starting this school. One became the Head of School and the other its Chaplain.

But this school was unlike any other. It was breaking new ground.

That meant the IS could take them only so far—because human knowledge is finite. For the rest, they had to depend on the divine highway of love.

How would they ever raise enough funding?

Would students and their families be interested in what the school had to offer?

What direction would this school take in the future?

Only God’s infinite highway of love would provide the answers to these questions.

And, I’m happy to report, some fifteen years later, that God’s infinite highway of love did provide the answers to these questions. For I’m talking about Imago Dei Middle School, where I was the chaplain for the last two years. I witnessed personally God’s love answering these questions.

But God’s infinite highway of love didn’t just answer these questions; it also provoked many more questions, questions through which the school continues to navigate—for instance, as it confronts, deals with, and emerges from this pandemic.

Imago Dei Middle School, by the way, is and has always been characterized by wonder. It recognizes human knowledge’s limitations and maintains an openness to love’s infinitude.

5

Jesus once had a vision to feed 5,000 people. So he asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?”

It was an overwhelming vision. So, “I don’t know,” Philip replied, paralyzed; “six months’ wages wouldn’t even be enough to pay for all the food we need.”

It would take a miracle.

Philip found himself at the end of his human knowledge—at the end of his IS—and unable to wonder.

But there, at just the beginning of love’s knowledge, he watched as Andrew approached Jesus with a boy who was willing to offer something: five loaves and two small fish.

And Andrew said, “It’s not enough food for five thousand people, Jesus; probably not even enough for five.”

But it was a start.

And Jesus knew it.

And I like to think the boy knew it too. Even if no one else believed in Jesus’ vision for outreach—neither Philip nor Andrew or anyone else—even if it was just Jesus and the boy, it was a start, enough to spread like yeast through the whole batch of dough.

Wonder.

As far as Jesus cared, that was enough. “Make the people sit down,” he said.

And we know what happened next: a miracle. Love’s knowledge produced so much that the 5,000 were fed and satisfied; and twelve basketfuls of leftovers were gathered up.

Twelve basketfuls. Seemingly impossible funds. A miracle.

A tuition-free education for families in poverty. Seemingly impossible fundraising. A modern-day miracle.

Does your vision for outreach feel overwhelming, maybe even paralyzing?

Wherever two or three are gathered . . . wonder.

Wonder at Christ’s infinite superhighway of love.