Made for Humanity

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2018 by timtrue

moses

Mark 2:23—3:6

1.

Let’s do some Bible study. What is going on in today’s Gospel?

The passage begins with the words, “One sabbath”; an important detail.

The sabbath day was there in the beginning, a part of the creation story: God rested from creating on the seventh day; and thus humanity was to follow in God’s footsteps, et in saecula, saeculorum, amen.

Again, the sabbath day played an important role in the time of the exodus. The people were to gather only enough manna for each day; except on Fridays, when they were to gather twice as much so that they could rest on Saturdays, the sabbath.

And when Moses spent all that time up on Mount Sinai talking directly with God—well, one of the Ten Commandments was to remember the sabbath day and to keep it holy—you and your whole household, it commanded: dads, moms, brothers, sisters, servants, dogs, cats, livestock, aliens, strangers, and anyone else I forgot to mention!

So, “One sabbath” is a detail not to be glossed over.

Well, what happened on this particular sabbath? Two main events—and their fallout.

First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain. And the disciples are hungry. So, casually, and quite naturally, they do what you or I might do when out on a Sunday walk: they reach out and grab a small snack and nibble on it. I mean, have you ever tasted a sunflower seed directly from the flower? Delicious!

And second, Jesus enters the synagogue and a man with a withered hand is healed! How awesome is that!

But there were some present who didn’t agree: Pharisees, the Bible calls them.

And we boo and hiss, for, really, even with the importance of the sabbath being a day of rest and all that, why should anyone oppose our man Jesus?

I mean—sheesh!—reading the text closely, I’m not even sure Jesus did anything! It wasn’t Jesus picking the grains and nibbling, after all, but his disciples. And as for the man with the withered hand, all the text tells us is that he was healed; it does not say that Jesus did the actual healing!

Kind of makes you feel like the Pharisees already had their minds made up against Jesus, doesn’t it?

Ooh, ooh!—and don’t you just want to call them out for this! The very end of the passage says that they left the synagogue and went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians (whoever they are), about how they might destroy Jesus.

Destroy? As in kill? Huh. To me that sounds a lot more like a violation of permissible sabbath day activities than healing a man with a withered hand!

But I’ve skipped right over Jesus’ main point, which is, as translated in our version of today’s Gospel: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

—though an equivalently faithful translation is this: “The sabbath day was created for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath day; so the son of humanity is lord even of the sabbath.”

We’ll come back to this point. For now, notice, Jesus never discounts the importance of observing the sabbath day; what he does say, however, is that sabbath observance is for our benefit and not the other way around.

2.

Next, before we move on to consider what this passage means for us today, I want to point something out: a prejudice that Christianity has been guilty of for most if not all of the last two thousand years; a prejudice that arose out of Bible studies like we just did. Did you catch it?

Jesus’ opponents here are Pharisees; what image comes to your mind’s eye when you hear the word Pharisees?

Probably a self-righteous guy who likes to wear flowing robes and stand on street corners saying loud and long prayers to be heard by passersby.

Probably a guy who tries to keep all 613 commandments of the Halakah, even if that means walking by a person in terrible need lying in a ditch on the side of the road; even if that means paying his tithe to the Temple rather than paying for services for his aging parents.

Probably a guy who conspires with other like-minded guys to figure out a way to murder a radical teacher before he influences the community too much.

Well, if one of these is the image that enters your mind’s eye, don’t be too hard on yourself. For these images come to us straight out of the New Testament, our Christian scriptures.

However, to be clear, there are other images of Pharisees in the New Testament, some neutral, some even positive—like when the apostle Paul boasts of being a Pharisee among Pharisees (a good credential, in his thinking!).

But, for whatever reason, we Christians have gravitated and hung on to the negative caricatures of Pharisees, and formed stereotypes, which have become telltale prejudices.

But—what if I was to tell you?—we do in fact have a modern counterpart to the Pharisee in the Episcopal Church. Do you know who I mean?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the priest. The Christian priest in charge of a congregation is more like a Jewish rabbi, in charge of a local synagogue.

Instead, it’s someone who has committed his life to serving God, someone who has taken vows, someone recognized by the community as being called by God to the office, someone who doesn’t get paid for what she does. Any guesses?

The vocational deacon.

That’s right! We don’t have a deacon here at St. Thomas. But if we did, that person would help at our Eucharists, preach from time to time, probably be in charge of all our pastoral care needs, maybe outreach too, and act as a liaison between the church and the bishop—all as a volunteer.

Do you know any deacons personally? The deacons I know are extremely committed to loving the Lord with their heart, soul, and mind; and to loving their neighbors as themselves. They give of themselves far and away above the call of duty, acting selflessly for the sake of the common good.

Now, if you have a clear image in your mind of a modern-day deacon, the next step is to replace your image of a Pharisee with this new image!

In other words, this ought to be the image that comes to mind of the people Jesus squares off with today: upstanding, well-respected, pious persons.

Changes things up a bit, eh?

3.

Anyway, what does all of this mean for us today?

Isn’t really the same old story?

Jesus and the Pharisees were all members within the organized religious establishment of their day. The Pharisees in the story wanted to refine and hone the system to the point of greatest efficiency—a lot like deacons, and many others of us, do in the church today.

We have our constitution, our canons, our bylaws, and our mission statements. We create customaries for our liturgies and propose resolutions at our annual conventions. We plan, scheduling our worship services to take place at specific times in buildings we build at specific locations. We say “Blessed be God” at some times of the year and “Alleluia, Christ is risen” at others. We train our acolytes to know the secret code.

Jews have 613 laws in their Halakah, sure. But we have our laws too, lots of them, written and unwritten, because we’re doggone good Episcopalians.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that! In fact, I don’t think Jesus is saying there’s anything wrong with that either!

The rub comes, however, when Jesus, in their midst, points to another, and maybe even a better, way of seeing things.

The sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath. The son of all humanity, Jesus, is therefore lord of the sabbath—and not the other way around!

Jesus is in their midst and shows them another way, a better way.

But the upstanding, well-respected, pious people oppose it.

4.

So, what happens when Jesus comes into our midst and tries to show us another, maybe even a better, way? Do our upstanding, well-respected, pious people—do we—oppose it? Have we, like the Pharisees in today’s passage, become too institutionalized to see it?

In his most recent book, Christian activist and thinker Brian McLaren writes:

Each generation faces some great work, some heroic challenge that summons its children to courage and creativity. The great work of this generation will be to respond to the quadruple threat inherited from previous generations: an ecological crisis that, left unchecked, will lead to catastrophic environmental collapse; an economic crisis of obscenely increasing inequality that exploits or excludes the world’s poor while dehumanizing the rich as well; a sociopolitical crisis of racial, ethnic, class, religious, and political conflict that could lead to catastrophic war; and a spiritual and religious crisis in which the religious institutions that should be helping us deal with the first three crises either waste our time or make matters worse.[I]

Four serious crises, according to McLaren, we are passing on to the next generation. Hmm. Quite a legacy!

Which concerns me: I want a better world for my children and grandchildren than I have known, not a worse one; but I’m not sure we’re any closer to realizing the realm of God here on earth than we were twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years ago.

Not only do McLaren’s words ring with the sound of truth in my ears, which on its own is cause enough for concern, but also when my kids and I have discussions about the bigger things—meaning-of-life discussions—their anxieties about the future vividly reflect what McLaren says here.

Now, it’s no secret that today’s young people are leaving mainline Christianity in droves. We church leaders spend a lot of energy around the question why; and around the question of how to welcome them back in.

But I think McLaren spells it out clearly here. Young people see these crises we’ve left for them, and they’re saying, collectively, “Thanks a lot!” Young people see the church and other religious institutions and say together, “You’re not helping. And, um, actually, you might be making matters worse.”

What if this is Jesus in our midst? Through the collective voice of young people, is Jesus telling us a very important message today: that there is another way, maybe even a better way, to do church?

This time around, however, no one is conspiring to destroy Jesus. This time around, he’s simply leaving us without too much fuss. Jesus in our midst—young people—leaving the church in droves, feeling that organized Christianity is a waste of time—or, um, maybe worse.

And we just stand there, hands in our pockets, leaning up against the doorway, with a sad look on our face; and say, “Sorry to see you go; but when you’re ready to come back, we’ll welcome you with open arms.”

We’re missing the point. Jesus is trying to show us another, maybe even a better, way.

The church was made for humanity; not humanity for the church. The son of humanity, Jesus, is therefore lord of the church—and not the other way around.

___________________________________________________________________________

[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York. 2016.

Advertisements

Quality of Life, Trinity Style

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2018 by timtrue

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

John 3:1-17

1.

What do we mean when we talk about “quality of life”?

It’s not just how wealthy you are, though financial well-being is a part of it.

Nor is it just about your health, though physical well-being fits into the picture too.

And it’s not just about social status, though relationships play a part.

Quality of life, we know, is a combination of all these things—and some others—how they work together in an integrated way to make your individual situation, whatever it is, most enjoyable for you.

Some people have serious health concerns. If this is you, then you know you don’t just give up and say, “Oh, well, guess it’s just a thorn in my flesh.” Rather, you seek the best remedies available. Maybe you will never experience full health again. Nevertheless, by keeping other areas of life in balance you can experience daily a high overall quality of life.

Or . . . how many stay-at-home moms have never daydreamed about dropping the kids off at daycare in order to land a job and bring in some extra income—income that you know will both make ends meet and give your family some extra “play” money?

Yet the stay-at-home moms I know also willingly make the extra-income sacrifice precisely because they want their children to experience greater stability in home life.

Quality-of-life questions are tricky. But achieving that sweet-spot quality of life is just that: sweet!

2.

Well, thus far I’ve deliberately avoided the subject. But let’s bring it in now: religion. Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?

For Nicodemus, his faith was a crucial factor.

Today, Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus comes to Jesus confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks.

His confusion indicates, among other things, just how important to him his faith is.

Nico—can I call him Nico?—is a part of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership that, according to John, is so vehemently opposed to Jesus in the first place. That Nico comes to Jesus at night, under cover of darkness, suggests how risky it is for him to seek Jesus out; and how much of a risk he was willing to take on account of his faith. His health, his wealth, his social status—he lays his quality of life on the line for his faith.

And the conversation isn’t easy. Jesus talks about being born from above and Nico only understands what it means to be born from below. Jesus talks of the Spirit; Nico of the flesh.

Jesus teaches the teacher of Israel that for those born from on high, the highest quality of life is initiated by God the Father, available through the redemption of the Son, and continues through the ongoing, everyday presence of the Spirit.

Jesus teaches the teacher that God is not as he has always thought, but is instead Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit.

The conversation ends with Nico fading into the darkness, seemingly as confused as ever.

3.

We’ll come back to Nico. But first an excursus. I want to tell you about a book I’ve just read and found to be utterly and simultaneously fantastic and profound. It’s called Circe.

Any fans here of Greek mythology? If so, you probably recall the adventures experienced by the Greek hero Odysseus after the fall of the city Troy. One of these involved the witch Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs and back again; and at whose island home he stayed for a year as a guest.

Odysseus’ adventure enters this book; but only briefly. For he was a mortal; but Circe is immortal. She is a witch-goddess, to be more precise. And this is her story, covering some 10,000 years of ancient history.

She was born daughter of the Titan-god Helios. And thus, through her eyes as a bystander—for daughters didn’t dare interfere with their fathers’ schemes—the reader comes to know the Greek and Roman pantheon in an enlightening way: from a lesser goddess’s—that is to say a female’s—perspective.

These gods lived outside the moral universe of humanity. And thus they cared little for human beings. Truth be known, they cared little for anything but themselves, especially the most powerful among them, like Zeus and Poseidon and Helios.

At the same time, they loved to be worshiped—through the groveling prayers of humans and their sacrifices. And so, quite sadistically, as Circe relays, the gods of the pantheon inflicted pain and suffering on humanity in order that humans would grovel and sacrifice for their pity.

Point for the moment is the pantheon had no love—for divinity or humanity!—within it.

Circe, on the other hand, cared deeply for mortals. She thought it unfair and unjust for the gods to treat mortals with such contempt.

So, one of the things Circe does is find clever ways to rebel against the dysfunctional deities through favoring mortals, especially the weak and marginalized. Another thing Circe finds herself doing—and this runs much deeper to the heart of her story—is increasingly to desire mortality for herself; for only through mortality, she feels, will she be able to love as deeply and genuinely as possible.

In other words, she desires to be transformed through love.

It’s a brilliant book. I couldn’t put it down—I read 119 pages at my first sitting! The author’s name is Madeline Miller; and it’s only her second book. Her first—equally as brilliant—is The Song of Achilles.

Both are excellent reads for understanding the Hellenistic mindset so prevalent in Jesus’ world.

4.

And that is why I bring this book up.

This book captures the religious mindset of the broader world in Jesus’ day; which was of a pantheon of gods who cared little for humanity—other than their groveling prayers and sacrifices.

The Hellenistic world feared its gods—whether a pantheon or just one god over all. And such a mindset—fear!—does little to improve quality of life.

Now, Nicodemus was a part of this Hellenistic world!

As you know, Nicodemus didn’t worship the Greek and Roman pantheon. He worshiped the god of the Hebrews—the same God, he thought, that he saw in the man Jesus.

But there’s a crucial connection to draw here.

The gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were incapable of human love. So, too, in the minds of most people in the Hellenistic world, including most Jews—so, too, was a god who created the world and forever since watched over his creation as an aloof and distant king.

Thus was Nicodemus’s god to him.

Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, feared his god. Nicodemus—Nico—offered prayers and sacrifices to his god. Nico may have even loved his god in some way—in the way that we love a movement to which we belong—that is, with a kind of human love.

But, for Nico and most everyone else in the Hellenistic world, could his god actually love him? It was an entirely foreign thought. How was it possible that a god could love humanity? How could it be that a human being could be born from on high?

And yet, Jesus teaches Nico, today (my emphases, obviously):

  • “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
  • “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Father.

Son.

Spirit.

Love.

Today, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that God is not a pantheon of dysfunction. Neither is God absolutely monotheistic, unable to love co-equally and co-eternally. Rather, God is three-in-one, from eternity past, before there ever were heaven and earth and time and space, always loving and including the other, co-equally, co-eternally—forever and ever, God is love.

And the mind of Nico, the teacher of Israel, is blown.

5.

Fortunately, this is not the only place Nicodemus shows up in the Bible, fading back into the darkness whence he came, apparently confused. In fact, he shows up two more times, both in this Gospel.

In chapter 7, members of the Sanhedrin command the Temple police to arrest Jesus without probable cause. Nicodemus is there; and he calls the Sanhedrin out for their injustice—only to be ridiculed by them. He sympathizes with Jesus, not in the dark now but in the light, before his peers.

His social status, wealth, and even his health don’t seem so important to him now.

And he shows up again in chapter 19, in the full light of the sinking afternoon sun, to carry the body of Jesus with another formerly secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, to a tomb.

Through God’s love, Nico has been transformed. His quality of life is on a new plane. He has gone from a life of flesh to a life of the Spirit; from thinking God is distant and aloof to experiencing, first-hand, relationship with and even within the Trinity.

For God is love.

So then, to answer my earlier question, “Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?” it transforms it beyond anything you could ask or imagine.

Grumpy Raisins

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by timtrue

John 15:1-8

In today’s Gospel, like last week, we encounter one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he said last week; and today, “I am the true vine.”

So, last week I offered an exploration into the image itself. If Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are disciples of Jesus, then it follows logically that we are sheep.

And thus we imagined together what it means to follow a good shepherd and not a hired hand; what it feels like for Jesus to know each of us by name; and, particularly, what the other sheep might look like about whom Jesus says we know nothing.

Admittedly, my homily was playful and enlightening, in part because it’s easy to personify sheep. They’re living, active creatures with a kind of collective personality.

Today, however, not so much. I mean, how do you personify branches; or grapes; or raisins?

So, instead of putting ourselves into the skins of grapes this week, I want to look at the bigger picture, the historical and cultural contexts in which Jesus speaks.

To begin, do you remember the story from the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel about a man born blind?

Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples. They see a man blind from birth; and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus says, no, you’ve got it all wrong. And to show them, he stoops down, spits on the ground, makes a little mud, spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. Once he does, he comes back seeing. Incredible!

That’s the part of the story we usually remember anyway. But there’s a lot more to it.

Next, some of the man’s neighbors see him walking around with his sight restored. So, naturally enough, they ask him, “What happened? How is it that you now see?”

He explains that this man named Jesus put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before a group of Pharisees.

Now—a brief aside; I want to offer a word of caution—when we hear the word Pharisees, we should not automatically think “bad guys.” Pharisees were (and are to this day) something like an order in the Jewish religion—Benedictine, Franciscan, etc. Pharisees are generally devout people and highly respected in their community.

So, when the Bible mentions Pharisees, this is the image that should come to mind first and foremost: influential community leaders; and not (automatically) the opposition.

Returning to the story then, the healed man is led before a group of Pharisees—i. e., influential community leaders—and he tells them his story. And, curiously, the group is divided.

It happened on the Sabbath. So some of them say, “This man Jesus cannot be of God, for he healed on the Sabbath.” Yet others say, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

Some of the Pharisees—presumably those who feel that Jesus cannot be of God—only some of them—then confront the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they ask. Yes. “Was he born blind?” they ask. Yes. “Do you know that he now sees?” they ask. Really? Incredible!

“Well, yes,” they admit, reluctantly, “I guess it is actually kind of incredible. But that’s beside the point! How is it that he can now see?”

And the parents answer, “We don’t know. But he is of age. Why don’t you ask him?”

And what comes next really is incredible. But it comes fast and furious and is gone before we know it; and thus is a detail we all too often miss or forget about: the reason why the parents answered as they did.

“His parents said this,” the Gospel narrates, “because they were afraid of the Pharisees; for the Pharisees had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

The healed man’s parents were afraid! They did not want to be put out of the synagogue. They feared excommunication.

Another way to say this: they were afraid of being cut off from the vine of Israel—a point to which I will return shortly.

But, first, to finish the story, the Pharisees—or, to clarify, that part of the group of Pharisees who did not like Jesus—again call forward the healed man, now charging him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth! “We know this man Jesus is a sinner!” they exclaim.

“Whether he’s a sinner or not,” the healed man replies, “I don’t know. But one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see.”

And at last the story concludes with these chilling words: “And they drove him out.”

Those influential community leaders drive the healed man out of the synagogue because he trusts in Jesus. He is effectively excommunicated, cut off, in their minds, from the vine Israel.

Yeah—so to return to that point—the vine Israel!

Jesus is not the first person to use this vine-and-branches metaphor. Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.

Psalm 80 says: “O LORD God of hosts . . . you brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”

Isaiah 5 sings of God’s relationship with Israel, beginning with these words: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard.”

And Ezekiel 19 says: “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard . . . fruitful and full of branches from abundant water.”

No doubt this metaphor was quite familiar to John’s audience.

And John’s audience—those to whom John had initially written his Gospel—like the man born blind, had been cut off from the vine Israel. And the reason they had been cut off was because, like the healed man, they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah.

Even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself; or, to tell it from John’s point of view, Israel cut itself off from Jesus.

Do you see what John is doing here? Jesus is the true vine, John proclaims to his audience; Jesus is their true source of life.

Contrary to what those grumpy community leaders intended—to cut off Jesus’ followers from their source of life—they had instead cut themselves off from Christ, the true source of life. Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; it is those who have rejected Jesus who are cut off from the true vine, left to languish, wither, dry up, and become raisins.

And they did it to themselves! God didn’t cut them off; God can’t be blamed here. They pruned themselves. They cut themselves off from Jesus, the true source of life.

Today Jesus tells us that the vinegrower should be the one who removes fruitless and withered branches; the vinegrower should be the one to prune.

But remove and prune—these words suggest pain. And we don’t like the idea of someone else inflicting pain on us, even if that someone else is God. So, instead, like those grumpy Pharisees, we try to prune ourselves.

The trouble is we’re not very good at it.

Maybe this is where personifying the metaphor could be helpful. For how adept could a branch ever become at pruning itself? Branches, certainly, have very limited manual dexterity. And the older a branch grows, we all know, the more hardened and gnarled it becomes. Really, how could a branch, young or old, ever prune itself?

And yet we still try.

Just like those grumpy Pharisees!

And we know what happened to them: they cut themselves off from Jesus, their source of life, leaving themselves to become raisins.

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Let God be the vinegrower. Your job is to bear rich, plump, abundant fruit; not raisins.

There Will Be One Flock?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 22, 2018 by timtrue

1200px-HerdQuit

John 10:11-18

Many, many images of God come to us from the Bible: God as King; God as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God as friend, brother, lover; God as wind, dove, fire; and so on. Today we see Jesus, the second person of the triune God, as Good Shepherd. What can we understand about God and us through this image?

Now I don’t know about you, but shepherds—good or otherwise—are not people I come in contact with on a daily basis. As I drive around southern California, I don’t see too many sheep—maybe some cattle, from time to time; but never sheep!

Sheep aren’t the same as cattle.

Ever heard anyone say that sheep are dumb animals, good for little more than shearing and slaughtering—maybe another preacher in another sermon?

Well, how does that make you feel? I mean, if Jesus is supposed to be our Good Shepherd, then that makes us sheep. And when someone stands before me and proclaims that sheep are stupid and witless beasts, well, I’m not feeling like I want to be a part of that flock. Are you?

Three of the sources I referred to this week as I prepared for this sermon—not just one, but three!—say otherwise. Sheep are not dumb.

In fact, all three sources say, that rumor was started by cowboys. Yeah, you know, those guys who ride their horses and swing their ropes and whoop and holler behind the cattle to drive them where they want them to go!

Well, what happens when you try to get behind sheep and push them? Why, they don’t move forward at all but instead try to run around to get behind the driver.

That’s right! Sheep don’t want to be pushed. Instead, sheep want to be led.

And cowboys call them dumb and witless—because sheep don’t behave like cows.

And that make me feel a little better. That makes me feel more like here is something I want to be a part of: a community that is not pushed and prodded to get us to go where the shepherd wants us to go—a good shepherd doesn’t manipulate.

But we are instead led by the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus; who shows us by example that we are to put others first, that we are maybe even, in the extreme, to lay down our lives for others.

And that piece in there about sheep knowing their shepherd—it’s not just some comfortable platitude.

I read stories this week about how at night, while the flock is tucked in its cozy sheepfold, safe and warm, their beloved and trusted shepherd will walk in and among them without a single sheep stirring.

But if you or I or anyone else other than their shepherd tries to walk among them—even the stealthiest of spies; or some cowboy!—the sheep wake up and begin to bleat nervously.

Sheep aren’t dumb; they know the difference between their shepherd and a cowboy.

And in Palestine, to this day, shepherds will lead their flocks to the same waterhole at the same time, allowing their flocks to drink together, not caring that their sheep get all mixed up with one another;

for all the shepherd has to do is whistle or call; and his or her sheep come out of the convoluted mass flocking together to their own shepherd, organized. Not one sheep is missing; not one extra has joined.

One flock; one shepherd.

They know their shepherd’s voice—his smell, his footfalls, his manner. His rod and staff—even his lumbering gait—comfort them.

So sheep aren’t dumb—which makes me feel better. They just don’t want to be pushed around; and, unlike cows, they know their shepherd.

Nevertheless, sheep are temperamental, needy, smelly, and now and then they butt heads apparently for no reason at all—which is to say they need shepherding.

At this point, the shepherd has some options.

The flock has been together for many years; generations, in fact—baby, parent, and grandparent sheep all living together in community, trying to get along comfortably enough.

But you know how it is. The heat of summer comes around again and the waterhole dries up and the pastures turn brown and dust coats your throat. Some of the sheep, the alphas, are grumpy and begin to argue with one another, to butt heads.

So what does the shepherd do?

One option is to drive the biggest alpha out into the wilderness.

Notice, I said drive. For if the shepherd tries to lead the alpha out, the rest of the flock will follow. To preserve the flock, then, the individual, rogue alpha must be driven out.

What happens to this lone sheep out in the wilderness doesn’t really matter, the shepherd reasons; for the flock will be better off with this alpha’s absence.

Let’s call this method of shepherding the “Independent Cowboy.”

A second option, however, is to divide the flock up.

One alpha is unhappy with another, obviously. The one alpha believes that he was predestined to be a part of this flock and has convinced many other sheep of his opinion; whereas the other alpha believes it is her choice, her free will, to be a part of this flock, and has likewise convinced several others of her opinion.

The shepherd understands this head-butting and decides that the best way to keep the peace is to divide the flock up, according to doctrinal differences.

This method is what I like to call the “Judging Protestant” shepherd.

Of course, yet another shepherd believes in tough love.

He has a rod and staff. These comfort his sheep, he believes, by giving them what they deserve, by keeping them in a state of submission so that they don’t run off to the wolves. He knows what his sheep need much more than they do, after all. Discipline!

I call this the “Medieval Catholic” shepherd.

But Jesus is different than all these other shepherds. Jesus is a good shepherd. And he has lots and lots of sheep, many, in fact, about which we know nothing:

  • Independent, non-denominational sheep;
  • Opinionated, fundamentalist, Protestant sheep;
  • Conservative evangelical sheep;
  • Liberal mainline sheep;
  • Republican sheep;
  • Democrat sheep;
  • Unaffiliated sheep;
  • Dogmatic, Sarum-rite Catholic sheep;
  • Unchurched sheep;
  • Muslim sheep;
  • Atheist sheep.

Talk about head-butting! Yet all these sheep, he says, are part of the same flock.

Jesus is their Good Shepherd just as much as he is ours—whether they know it or not; whether we know it or not.

There will be one flock, one shepherd.

Do you believe this?

Many of you know that I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies in my youth to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after about twenty years!—becoming an Episcopalian.

Lots of dominoes had to fall to get me here, for I believed for a long time that there was only one flock; but that it was small and rather exclusive.

One day, at long last, there I was, with my family, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its theological confidence.

Truth had been debated long and hard through the ages, but we chosen ones had a handle on it better than anyone else. We were enlightened; we understood. Too bad, so sad for you!

But, like Episcopalians, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess its faith weekly in the words of the Nicene Creed.

And so, coming to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” something in my mind clicked. I looked around; and I saw twenty-five or so other people saying the same thing; and I almost laughed out loud.

“No we don’t!” I said to myself. “We don’t believe in a universal church. We’re a tiny sect that has splintered off another tiny sect. We believe in only our church! ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church,’ my foot!”

You see, what clicked that day was this: Christ calls us to be unified, not divided; to community, not isolation.

But unity in the wider Church around the world?

“There will be one flock,” Jesus says, “one shepherd.”

But how?

Like so many other answers to difficult, spiritual questions, it begins here, with us; with what we are already doing: living in community with one another.

When we butt heads, we don’t drive the alphas out from our midst; but work through our differences, knowing that we will be a stronger body for it.

We study and pray together, working through the paradoxes of the Bible with reason; but at the end of the day we set aside our doctrinal disagreements and commune at the same table.

And we don’t coerce by threat of judgment or manipulate each other through fear and guilt; but rather practice the greatest commandment, love, in inviting, welcoming, and including all.

And we do this because:

The Lord is our shepherd—the good shepherd—and thus, we shall not be in want.

He guides his one flock along right pathways and leads us to still, sweet waters and green pastures; where together we eat and drink deeply of his body and blood.

And when one of his flock walks alone, through the valley of the shadow of death, we soon realize that we are not really alone; for he is there with us in and through his community.

In the daily struggles of life, he spreads his table before us.

And, surely, his goodness and mercy, we know, shall follow us, his one flock, all the days of our life; and we shall dwell in his sheepfold forever.

Reflecting on CREDO 335

Posted in Musings with tags , , on April 19, 2018 by timtrue

Experienced my first CREDO conference last week. Hoping to experience a couple more of these in the years ahead.

CREDO is a conference-slash-retreat for Episcopal clergy with a focus on wellness. This was much needed for me now about five years into ordained ministry. As you can see, my focus on wellness included riding my motorcycle there.

Where was “there”? Chapel Rock Conference Center in Prescott, Arizona. Beautiful doesn’t do it justice.

So, met some wonderful colleagues, reflected long and hard on vocation, contemplated core values, delved into issues surrounding financial, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical health–and am a better person for it.

Ready for the next five years!

Gracing Belief

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2018 by timtrue

Burning_match

John 3:14-22

1.

I’m sure we’ve all heard this saying before: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

To give us some context, this saying comes from I John 4:18, which reads in full: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

So, show of hands: Who out there has reached perfection in love? No one?

A week ago Friday night we played with this contrast between love and fear in my Lenten Class, Love 101. The relationship between love and fear is analogous to the relationship between light and darkness.

I threw out three images from the natural world to illustrate:

  1. The closest thing to absolute darkness I’ve ever experienced: turning off headlamps while spelunking; and the effect of a solitary match lit in that darkest of settings.
  2. A still very dark setting: stargazing on a moonless night; and the amount of light transferred only from planets stars light years away—amazing!
  3. And the brightest natural light I’ve experienced: hiking at noon on the summer Solstice, with the sun as high in the sky as it could be in the thin air of the Sierra Nevadas above treeline; and still I could see shadows—darkness hiding in corners.

Light and darkness exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

In that near-absolute dark setting in the cave, it was only dark because of the absence of light, dramatically demonstrated by a solitary match. You can’t have light without darkness—one defines the other.

Yet even in the brightest light I’ve experienced, the high, warm light of the noonday sun, there was shadow: even the brightest light could not chase all the darkness away.

It’s a great illustration for the relationship shared by love and fear:

Fear grips us. It sometimes overwhelms us to the point of despair. But one little flicker of love and fear disperses.

As we grow and mature in our love, we come closer to that perfect love that casts out fear. But we are human, and thus we can never attain to that perfect love that is God. Thus, as good as our love can ever be—as brightly as it can ever shine—fear is never chased completely away, always at least lurking in the shadows.

So, towards the end of our Love 101 hour together, I asked if there was anything from our day’s discussion that we might want to explore further; and someone raised his hand. “This picture of love and fear is very helpful,” he said; “but how does it relate to faith?”

Well, I gave the answer that all good teachers give when someone asks a question that hasn’t occurred to me before: “That’s a very good question.”

2.

In today’s Gospel, I’m happy to say, we find an answer to that question.

Notice, first, how the passage ends:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Jesus is the light; God is perfect love.

Some people come into the light; and as a result their good deeds, which are done in God, are seen.

Other people, however, would rather not have their deeds exposed. To their detriment, they avoid the light and hide in the darkness. They would rather live in fear than come out into the light of Christ and the love of God.

And do you see how John is playing with the same analogy? Light is to darkness as love is to fear. Symbiosis is at work: one doesn’t exist without the other.

But John brings an additional variable into the equation, one I did not bring into last Friday night’s discussion. This additional variable is seen in the beginning of the passage, summarized in the verse that perhaps above all others in our lifetime has enjoyed rockstar fame, John 3:16.

And we all groan and roll our eyes! For this is an old rockstar; one, we all know, who should have retired long ago; and, dignity suggests, ought to retire now before he hurts himself.

Still, let’s try to see this verse anew; to hear his song afresh, in the context of love and fear we’ve just been discussing:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And do you hear it? Faith is a part of this song.

John doesn’t say the word itself—faith. But John’s Gospel is about action; and what is the activity—the verb—associated with faith? To believe.

John brings active belief—otherwise known as faith—into our equation.

For John, the people who practice active belief are those who come into the light of Christ and love of God; the people who do not practice faith would rather remain in the shadows of darkness and fear.

But we’re not quite done: faith is only half the variable. Light lives in relationship with darkness. Love lives in relationship with fear. With what, then, does faith live in relationship?

Let’s listen to that old rockstar one more time:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—

Okay, okay, that’s enough! Retire already.

But, really, my point here is that we like the second half of the song, the part that tells me that all I have to do is practice active belief—that all I have to do is have faith—and I will be saved. But there is an important symbiotic relationship here; and if all we hear is the second half we’ll miss it.

God so loved the world. God gave his only Son. God is actively participating.

As an individual, I like to think that it’s all about me. It’s my faith. I chose to believe. Or, just as readily, I might say, “It’s my atheism; I chose to reject God.”

But we cannot skirt around the matter. In our individual practices of belief or disbelief, God actively participates.

So then, what is this divine participation called?

Grace.

And now our variable is complete.

3.

But grace and faith together? Oh, the tension!

Grace tells me it’s all about God and nothing about me.

But when we tease this logic out to its theological end, the result is called predestination; and predestination is a difficult pill to swallow.

For, while God may have predestined my soul to eternal bliss and salvation, does that mean that God also predestined my unbelieving friend to eternal torment and damnation?

And, since we’re here, what about Adam and Eve? If it’s all about God’s activity, then God must have predestined Adam and Eve to sin; and the time of probation in the Garden of Eden was all a kind of moot, not to mention sadistic, stage play.

The same goes for Judas Iscariot. If he were only a puppet in God’s hands, then he actually betrayed Jesus under no volition of his own—and is therefore to be pitied above all other human beings.

But it’s no good, on the other hand, to say it’s all faith; for all faith places salvation in my hands. Whether or not I go to heaven at the last day depends on my personal steadfastness and self-control.

But my heart and my head wage war against one another. In my head, I know the disciplines I have set for myself to keep. But my heart tells me it’s okay to give in. And when I’m weary or fatigued—you know the drill—my heart always seems to win out.

Moreover, if my faith is all up to me, then God is removed to some far-off place and has little to nothing to do with me. And, really, who wants that!

Like light and darkness and fear and love, faith exists in symbiosis with grace.

4.

But there’s a key difference.

Love and fear exist together in tension, as do faith and grace. But we strive towards the goal of perfect love; and concurrently of casting out fear. Perfect love is our destination.

When it comes to faith and grace, however, our goal is not one over the other, but balance.

I came across a question this week[i] that sums it up well: “Put more personally, is my salvation dependent upon the steadfastness of my faith, or will I be graced by God whether or not I am faithful?”

The answer, according to that old rockstar, is yes.

Your faith and God’s grace go hand in hand.

Over in the Gospel of Mark, it sounds like this:

Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” (Mark 9:23-25).

“All things can be done”—God’s grace—“for the one who believes”—your faith.

“I believe”—semi-colon: same breath—“help my unbelief!”

This is the mysterious tension we find when grace and faith work harmoniously together.

May God be gracious to us all in our belief and unbelief.

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 120; Joseph D. Small.

Crucifying Egos

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 8:31-38

1.

The cross is central to our story: it is central to Jesus’ ministry and mission; it is central to Christianity; and it is central to the overall story of humanity.

a. At least from his early ministry anyway, and probably since before his baptism in the Jordan River, apparently Jesus knew that this was where he was headed: execution at the hands of the state for being an insurrectionist; for protesting established political and religious institutions.

Never mind that these institutions were unjust! Never mind that Jesus always protested without resorting to violence!

Crucifixion on a Roman cross was the extreme measure to which Jesus would go in order to grab the world’s attention.

b. Walk into any church today and what do you see? A cross.

It might have Jesus on it, hanging crucified as a reminder of his suffering on our behalf.

Or he might be dressed in kingly raiment, risen and glorified—as our cross conveys—in an attempt to tell the fuller story of his death, resurrection, and ascension.

Or, as in many Protestant and non-denominational churches around the world, it might be only a cross—plain, ornate, simple, rough, smooth—it doesn’t really matter—it’s an enduring sign that Jesus is not here but risen.

Nevertheless, whatever its appearance, the cross reminds us that Jesus had to suffer and die on this instrument of torture and execution in order to accomplish his mission.

The cross is our symbol of discipleship; our brand, if you will.

c. In fact, in a way, the entire history of humanity revolves around the cross.

Imagine a long timeline. On the left-hand end is the beginning: an image of a globe or of a garden with a man, a woman, and a snake in it. On the right-hand end is the end: an angelic image; people with wings frolicking among the clouds and playing harps or whatever. And smack dab in the middle of it all is a cross!

In the beginning, God created humanity; but humanity fell. In the middle, the focal point of human history, God sent Jesus; who came and set things right by means of death on the cross. And in the end humanity will be redeemed; and dwell with God forever.

The cross is central to our story.

2.

But, since our human story revolves around the cross, why, then, is the cross not so central to our popular theology?

What do I mean? An illustration from my own story:

When I was a young man and still new to discipleship, I spent several summers on the staff of a large, non-denominational Christian camp in the Sierras, near Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

And when I say large I mean it: at that time—1987 through 1992—some 1,200 campers a week were bussed in from all over California!

So, picture this: a 400-acre property fronting National Forest land, nestled a mile high in a valley filled with great, tall Ponderosa pines and Cedars, with dragonfly-graced meadows; on the shore of a lake, with ample waterfront activities available; acres for hiking and exploring; a first-class high ropes course; excellent meals, always with more than enough food; Olympic-sized swimming pools to play in or tan beside; and on and on. “Club Med” for young people.

And every morning and evening there was a gifted speaker to deliver a Billy-Graham-style message (may he rest in peace), imploring young people to make decisions for Christ, for he was the answer to all their difficulties; in him was all happiness.

To be sure, the place ran (and still runs) as a well-oiled machine. How else are you going to host more than a thousand campers a week, delivering a quality experience consistently?

And a big part of delivering this quality experience, summer after summer, was to unify the staff, to get all of them—more than 200 people—on board, to make sure they were aligned with the camp’s mission.

And one of the chief means of getting the staff of one mind was the Summer Staff Handbook—which we all had to read, cover to cover; and sign our names to, stating that we’d read it and would abide by the camp’s covenants as long as we were in its employment.

Covenants like:

  • Male staff shall be clean-shaven with hair trimmed above the collar
  • Any and all tattoos shall be kept concealed from the public at all times
  • No alcohol or tobacco of any kind shall be allowed on the camp property; this applies to all staff, whether over twenty-one years of age or not, and cabin owners
  • Profanity in any form shall not be tolerated
  • Summer staff shall show no public displays of affection with each other
  • Staff shall not fraternize with campers
  • All staff shall maintain a professional demeanor at all times, whether on the clock or not

Of course, I didn’t mind these strictures—I was young and on my own and just happy to be in the mountains surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation and the programmatic fun—and get paid for it. I could deal with these mandates for twelve weeks (about twice as long as Lent).

Still, my curiosity got the better of me. And thus in a rare shooting-the-breeze conversation with the camp’s Executive Director, I mentioned how well the camp is run; and asked where the ideas came from for the Summer Staff Handbook.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “Disneyland.”

“What?” I asked. “Did you just say Disneyland?”

“Yes,” he explained. “You go to Disneyland and its image is as close to perfect as anything you will find anywhere: the staff are friendly and courteous, always smiling and happy to help; the gardens are wonderfully manicured and entirely free of weeds; trash cans are everywhere, which translates to no litter. No wonder it’s called ‘the happiest place on earth.’

“So the camp board got hold of Disneyland’s Staff Handbook and we adapted it to our purposes. If Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, then Christianland should be happier still, for we are not of this world.”

I bought this popular theology at the time. But today I ask, Really? “Christianland”? Is this what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ?

3.

But today’s Gospel paints a very different picture.

Recall, just before we enter this scene of rebuke, where Jesus famously calls Peter Satan, Peter said, “You, Jesus, are the Messiah!”

Over in Matthew, Jesus praises Peter for this declaration, calling him “Rock” and even bestowing on him the keys to the kingdom.

But here in Mark—and in Luke too—the response is rather different. There’s nothing about a rock or keys; just an immediate twofold admonition.

First, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.

If word were to get out, people would assume his call to messiahship fits the popular theology of the day: a revolutionary leader whose agenda, when the time is right, is to take action. But this is not Jesus’ theology. So, for now, better keep quiet.

And second, Jesus tells both what he means by Messiah and what it means to be a disciple of the Messiah.

The Son of Man must suffer. He must face the unjust institutions of his world head-on, which will lead to execution on a cross.

Anyone who wishes to follow the Son of Man—well, discipleship is not about happiness or strength or popularity or any other kind of self-focused glory. Discipleship is about the cross! Those who want to follow the Son of Man must deny themselves and take up their cross.

By the way, Matthew goes here too—after Jesus’ appraisal of Peter as Rock. The whole bit about calling Peter Rock and bestowing on him the keys to the kingdom—it’s really just a parenthetical insertion, as if Matthew is trying to be diplomatic; trying to soften the hard truth of Mark (and Luke).

It’s a parenthetical insertion; and yet it’s what we tend to remember. “The Rock”: sounds like a good name for an attraction at an amusement park; or maybe even a good name for a feel-good Hollywood actor. . . .

But, even in Matthew, it’s just an aside: it’s not the main point.

All the Gospels agree: Discipleship is not mainly about a kind of personal, unearthly happiness that is happier than the happiest place on earth.

I don’t know about you, but I trust the Gospels far more than Christianland.

4.

And thus I want to ask us all a question: As we seek to live out Jesus’ mission, are we keeping the cross central—or, the flipside, is personal comfort and happiness more important to us than bearing our cross?

We could spend some time imagining what each of our crosses looks like—something I’m sure many preachers are doing with their congregations today. But we’re not going to—not to discourage you from doing it on your own!

Instead, a better use of our time, I feel, is the part where Jesus says, “Those who want to follow the Son of Man must deny themselves.”

More precisely then, I’d like us to ask this question: As we live out lives of discipleship, what does it mean for us each to deny him- or herself?

Of course, we find good examples of what self-denial looks like, both positive and negative, in the scriptures. John the Baptist must decrease in order that Christ may increase; Peter tries to foist his agenda on Jesus both in today’s Gospel and elsewhere. John is self-effacing; Peter is ego-inflating. We should be like John; not Peter.

But is self-denial as simple as that? Or as simple as keeping your hair trimmed above the collar and not using profanity? No!

For instance, should you always say yes to your needy friend, even though you really want to tell her no?

Is this what it means to deny yourself? Maybe not. Maybe saying yes really isn’t self-denial at all, but rather enabling bad behaviors in your friend. Curiously, Jesus said no to Peter (and others) often. Saying yes when you really should say no is not necessarily self-effacing.

Or how about this one? You agree to do something but then act the martyr.

It might be a chore for a family member; or a ministry at church—uh oh, now I’m meddling! Whatever the case, you agree to take something on and then call attention to yourself in whatever way—moaning, complaining, whining; singing your own praises, asking for public thanks; whatever—so that everyone around you knows how great a person you are to have stepped up.

And, by the way, I’m not meddling here—I’m not thinking of a particular person or persons. No one specific comes to mind—except the person sitting next to you. Really, it’s something we humans commonly do. We say it’s our cross to bear; but to play the martyr is hardly self-effacing; but rather ego-inflating.

One more: we talk a lot about outreach in the church; but outreach can all too easily become a patronizing action that allows us to pat ourselves on the back: we saw a need; we came up with an agenda; we helped someone in need; and so we feel really good about ourselves.

When I was a Boy Scout, our scout leaders told us to do a good deed daily, like help an old lady across the street. But what if that old lady doesn’t want to cross the street?—a good question for us to consider in our outreach efforts.

Anyway, we modern-day North American Christians tend to like a popular theology of self-glorification. Many and manifold are the ways we demonstrate this like.

However, the season of Lent and especially today’s Gospel remind us that Jesus calls his disciples to deny themselves and take up their cross.

In other words, it’s time to crucify our egos.