Skeptical of Self

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

John 20:19-31

1

The culture we live in is a lot like the air we breathe, isn’t it? We inhale and exhale all the time, whether or not we’re intentional about doing so; so too we take in and express our surrounding culture without even realizing it.

So, what if the predominant culture we live in is smog?

When I was a child, I lived in Ventura County, California, a coastal county just north of Los Angeles County. I heard a lot about smog growing up, experienced it less frequently.

While I didn’t have to deal with it as much as my neighbors to the south, it was nonetheless a real threat to my health. Especially during the Santa Ana wind season.

Each year, sometimes several times in a single season, these dry, hot winds would blow in from the east, making our otherwise temperate climate desert-like for a few days. And on the days when the weather would return to normal—the days when the wind shifted back to its prevailing westward course, from the ocean—a good chunk of L. A.’s smog would return with it.

On these pollution-infused days, each time I inhaled I would feel a pain deep in my chest. The deeper I inhaled the more pain I felt.

So, doesn’t our culture tell us a lot of things we don’t really think about too much? “It’s all about you.” “You deserve a new car.” “If you go on this diet for two months, you too can look like a celebrity.” “Don’t listen to it; it’s fake news.” “Ah, that’s a conspiracy theory.” And so on.

Well, what happens when the surrounding cultural air we breathe is smog?

We inhale and exhale the surrounding culture without thinking about it—until we feel an ache deep in our chest. The pain tells us something is wrong. But what? And how do we avoid this unhealthy practice in the future?

Well, first, we’ve got to identify the pollutant. Where is this cultural smog coming from?

Maybe somewhat surprisingly, we find an answer in Doubting Thomas. Yeah! That skeptical disciple from today’s Gospel.

So, let’s see what Thomas has to teach us. Then, well, then we can come back to this question.

2

To begin, I ask: Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

To this day—some 2,000 years later—he’s still the butt of our jokes.

Like this one:

Peter asks, “Hey, Thomas, do you think Christians will ever appreciate the fact that you were a person of great faith?”

To which Thomas replies, “I doubt it.”

Or this one:

John announces, “Jesus is risen.”

Thomas replies, “Sounds like fake news to me.”

He’s not known by the name Didymus, the Twin, or simply St. Thomas; but by the unflattering moniker Doubting.

I used to be a vicar of a church, in fact, that called itself St. Thomas of Canterbury, as if it didn’t want anyone to confuse its name with that other Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

Can’t you just hear it now?

“Welcome to the Episcopal Church of Doubting Thomas. Maybe I’m Father Tim, maybe I’m not”—

But, really, was his doubting anything more than the doubting we saw from Peter last week, who ran to the tomb, peeked in, and doubted Mary Magdalene’s testimony?

Peter! Oh, now there’s a piece of work! Rash, thick-headed, and impulsive, he denied Jesus three times.

Yet we don’t nickname him Denying Peter. Rather, we remember him as the Rock upon whom Christ built his Church!

But with Thomas the pejorative adjective has stuck. He is and forever will be known as doubting.

Still, why is this so bad? Isn’t a little doubt, a little skepticism, actually a good thing? Don’t we as human beings in fact value a certain level of skepticism?

In our science labs, for example, we posit a hypothesis and then test it over and over. And if our tests prove us wrong, why, we don’t conclude that the test results must be off but instead that we must rethink the hypothesis.

3

In line with science, then, let me posit a hypothesis of my own.

Doubting Thomas gets such a bad rap not for being skeptical but because he takes his skepticism too far.

Turning to today’s Gospel, here’s what I mean:

Thomas wasn’t there with everybody else on that day when Jesus first appeared to the others.

So, some time later, after Jesus left, the other disciples see Thomas and tell him what happened. “We have seen the Lord,” they say; “Jesus is alive, risen from the grave!”

And, naturally enough, this is where Thomas’s skepticism kicks in.

You know how it can be with the guys, right? They like to act out jokes on each other, tell fibs, play pranks. That’s all they’re doing now, isn’t it?

Well, Thomas, um, no, it’s not. A moment’s reflection tells you so.

It’s not just one or two of the disciples we’re talking about here, but the ten—plus some others: at least Cleopas, Mary, and some other women. No, there’s a whole group here saying the same thing. Not to mention the grief is too recent! This is no prank.

Yet still Thomas’s skepticism prevails. And this is where I think he takes it too far.

He says, “Look, friends, I don’t know what you’re playing at. But, whatever it is, unless I see the marks in his hands and feet and side—no, unless I touch these marks—I will not believe.”

What is Thomas doing here? Despite what everyone else is saying, he trusts in himself more. Despite their authority being so much more reliable than his own, he is not willing to trust his community.

It’s okay to be skeptical, as we’ve already discussed. But only to a point. Thomas takes it too far in that he trusts self over community.

We value skepticism in our culture; and there’s good reason to do so. But, like Thomas, we take our skepticism too far whenever we compromise the authority of our trusted community.

4

Now, I’ve mentioned it before: mainstream Christianity has seen a steady decline over the last four decades. This decline is easy to demonstrate: statistics prove it.

But a more difficult question to answer is why: Why has the mainstream church been in decline?

Perhaps it’s just this reason. Perhaps it’s because we take our valued skepticism too far; we place a higher value on the skepticism of the individual than we do on the collective wisdom of the community.

Episcopal author Dwight Zscheile says:

So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion. Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations.

Zscheile argues that we no longer connect with people through community, but

because we think they will meet our needs for intimacy or otherwise help us advance our own interests. Of course, the reverse also becomes possible—when we feel like relationships are not meeting our needs, we switch out of them. This applies to everything from friendships to jobs to marriage—and to church.[i]

This is Zscheile’s answer to the question why, and I have to say I agree. Individual choice—valuing the individual more than the community, taking our skepticism too far—is at the root of church decline.

Christ and his church are about the common good; yet culture tells us it’s about me, the individual.

The former is clean air, the latter smog.

5

Back to that question now about the cultural air we breathe. If it values skepticism and doubt to such an extent that the common good is compromised, what can we do about it?

Well, what have we done with real smog?

In the early 1980s, whenever my family made a car trip into L. A., we’d take the 101 south over a grade into the San Fernando Valley. And that’s where the smog was thickest and brownest.

There were 10,000’ mountain peaks over there, on the other side of the valley, the San Gabriel Mountains. I knew it! I’d hiked them! But on almost any day of the year, thick brown smog prevented us from seeing them.

And I remember thinking, “I’m breathing this air?”

Today, however, some forty years hence, I drive that same road and every time—even on the smoggiest days—I can see the mountains on the other side.

What’s the difference?

The air has improved—despite the fact that today there are more freeways, more people, and more cars.

So, how?

It’s been a long, difficult journey, admittedly; but we’ve trusted the authoritative community, in this case, the scientists and researchers who’ve been observing the air.

In the case of culture—with all the cries of fake news and alleged conspiracy theories and social media influencers—who are you going to trust?

This is where the story of Doubting Thomas informs us most clearly.

For Thomas, his community was more knowledgeable about Jesus’ resurrection, and thus more authoritative, than he was. He should have trusted community over self.

For us, the question is, Who are you going to trust? The voice that says it’s all about you? The voice that stirs up fear in society? The voice within? Or the voice that proclaims the message and mission of good news for all—love for the sake of the common good?

Please, let’s not take our skepticism too far.


[i] Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church (2014), 16.

Unique Stories, Common Theme

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on April 4, 2021 by timtrue

John 20:1-18

1

Conversion is not a one-time experience.

You have likely heard parts of my conversion story—how I grew up in a family that meant everything to me, how we didn’t go to church, and how all my boyhood questions about the meaning of life were answered in my family.

That is, until my parents split up.

Which sent me outward, looking for answers to questions about the meaning of life beyond my little circle.

Which led me to Bible studies, and youth group, and a Billy-Graham-Crusade like experience at a ski-trip retreat where I went forward to pray and receive Christ as my Lord and Savior.

I remember the day, in fact, April 1st, 1985—36 years and three days ago today! I even remember the hour: about 7 o’clock in the evening.

Something significant in my life happened at that moment.

We like to call life-changing moments like this conversion.

Can you relate? Do you have your own conversion story to tell?

Maybe yours was the day you were baptized, you felt renewed the moment the water first touched your scalp.

Or maybe, like with my wife’s conversion story, you don’t recall a specific time and place where the Holy Spirit grabbed hold of your heart in an obvious way.

Nevertheless, you reflect on your own life and you see Christ at work in you.

You were baptized: you have a certificate at home in a filing cabinet in the garage that says so. And you know and trust the theology of the church well enough to know that this, too, was a bona fide conversion experience.

Is it okay if someone can’t point to a specific time and place?

Well, of course it is!

You and I both know we can’t bank on a one-time conversion experience, as if we’ve checked off a box on our spiritual to-do list, depending on it to carry us through the rest of our lives into heaven.

Conversion is not really a one-time experience. Conversion takes place over a lifetime.

2

Each of us experiences conversion differently, don’t we?

Just look at the three main characters in today’s story: an unnamed disciple—probably John; Peter; and Mary Magdalene.

The unnamed disciple hears Mary’s news and runs—races, in fact—to reach the tomb first. But there, at the entryway, he lingers. He doesn’t enter the tomb, but just looks in, staring at the linen wrappings there on the ledge.

Peter then shows up and enters the tomb without reservation or hesitation. He just barrels through!

But that unnamed disciple—why didn’t he enter? Was he too amazed, too awestruck, too afraid?

Then something in him triggers. He enters the tomb after Peter; and, the scriptures tell us, he believes. He believes, but he doesn’t yet understand.

It’s a kind of conversion.

As for Peter, he hears Mary’s words and runs to see if what she says is true. He races against the other disciple, and—interesting detail—loses.

But when he reaches the tomb he doesn’t slow. Instead, he bowls over the unnamed disciple like an impetuous bull; then looks at the linen wrappings and notices another interesting detail: the head wrapping is folded up neatly by itself.

Would a grave robber have taken the time to fold up the head wrapping so neatly? No way! Something else is happening here. But what?

Like the unnamed disciple, Peter doesn’t understand either. And, since the scriptures say the other disciple believes, I’m left thinking Peter isn’t really there yet.

There’s something of a conversion experience here for both disciples. But, whatever it is, it hasn’t yet stuck. They leave this scene—this come-to-Jesus moment; this altar call—still confused, still not understanding. For these two, something more still needs to happen.

Connecting this passage of scripture to my own story, I realize it’s not unlike my own conversion experience—believing in some sense but not yet understanding. Perhaps yours too.

3

But now we recall Mary’s story. She reaches the tomb—and stands outside weeping.

She’s obviously not believing or understanding yet either—at this point.

In her remorse, she eventually peeks in the tomb, and—incredible!—there are two angels inside. And they ask Mary a question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

And even here, Mary doesn’t understand or believe. She responds, simply, “They’ve taken my Lord away.”

What? The question here shouldn’t be, “Woman, why are you weeping?” but, “Woman, why are you sleeping?” I mean, c’mon, Mary. Can’t you see these are angels you’re talking to?

Whatever the case, then a voice calls from behind Mary, from outside the tomb; and this voice asks the question again: “Woman, why are you weeping?” And supposing it’s the gardener, Mary turns.

It’s really Jesus, we know. But, like with the angels, she doesn’t recognize him either.

And again I want to ask, “Woman, why are you sleeping?”

But then what happens?

Jesus, the supposed gardener, calls her by name.

“Mary!”

And her eyes are opened.

In that divine moment, unlike with the unnamed disciple and Peter, Mary both believes and understands.

And look at what follows! Jesus commissions her, a woman, to go and tell the disciples that he lives.

And thus Mary Magdalene becomes the very apostle to the apostles.

I’m left marveling.

Wow!

Mary Magdalene: the first truly converted person; the person commissioned by Jesus himself to go and tell the Good News to the very apostles; to Peter—the Rock upon whom Jesus Christ would build his Church—and the others.

Where would the Church be today without the conversion of Mary Magdalene?

4

Every conversion story is different. Mary’s is different than Peter’s is different than the unnamed disciple’s; mine is different than yours.

And conversion is not just a one-time experience. Peter and the unnamed disciple experienced something at the tomb; I experienced something on that ski trip; you experienced something, maybe at your baptism. But more was needed. More is needed.

Conversion is ongoing, throughout our lives.

Well, there’s a biblical word for this experience I’ve been calling conversion: repentance.

Wait a minute! Did I just say repentance? On Resurrection Day, Easter Sunday?

Lent was the season for us to think about repentance; and Lent’s over. Hallelujah! Now is the day of resurrection. In fact, we won’t even say the confession and absolution in our liturgy for the next 50 days. So why even bring up repentance?

Just this: repentance, the biblical word for conversion, is resurrection.

Repentance means turning away from the old nature of sin and death to the new nature of risen life.

And this—new life—doesn’t happen just once, at some altar call, baptism, or mountaintop experience. Rather, it is ongoing, daily, hourly, even minute by minute.

Repentance—and resurrection—is continuous and lifelong.

So, to wrap this all up, think back to your own conversion stories. Think about your own, ongoing conversion experience.

When in your life have you experienced hope overcoming despair?

For me, it happened in my youth when I attended those Bible studies after my parents’ divorce. It’s happening now, too, as we get back to “normal” life.

Where have you witnessed truth defeating falsehood? When have you seen beauty conquering ugliness? When has your charity given selflessly? Where have you known equity to dismantle supremacy?

Every time you witness goodness prevail over evil is an example of resurrection: new life rising out of death. Each is a display of repentance and resurrection, each proof of ongoing conversion in your life.

Mary’s story is different than Peter’s is different than the unnamed disciple’s. Yours is different than mine.

But that’s just it: our stories are different; but resurrection shines brightly through them all. It is our common theme.

Thank you, Jesus, for giving us all a hope so strong that even death cannot overcome it; through your resurrection, for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.

Carrying the Day

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 2, 2021 by timtrue

John 18:1—19:42

1

Our Lenten journey ends here—bare nave, stripped altar, no Eucharist. Jesus has given up his spirit.

We know what’s coming, of course: resurrection.

But the first disciples did not.

What must it have been like for them?

They’d just witnessed their leader so anguished in prayer that he sweat blood.

They’d just watched, powerless, when Roman police came and arrested him, betrayed by one of their own.

One of them didn’t like that feeling of powerlessness, that impulsive one, Peter; so he tried to do something about it. He took out his sword and—Take that, he cried!—cut off someone’s ear.

But Jesus stayed Peter’s hand. Rather than allowing Peter to lead a charge in his defense, Jesus said Peace and reached out to the injured man and healed him then and there.

They were powerless! Jesus wouldn’t even allow them to defend him!

And powerless they watched as he was tried, stricken, sentenced, condemned, and crucified.

What must have been going through their minds?

What would have been going through your mind? Would you have wondered if Jesus, this fringe leader in whom you’d placed all your hope—would you have wondered if, perhaps, maybe, his claims had been too idealistic?

He turned tables upside down! He changed water into wine! He healed a man blind from birth! You saw it all first-hand.

Still, the reality is: now he’s there before you, raised up on a wicked device of torture, an example of what becomes of rebels and revolutionaries who dare to defy the Pax Romana.

And he’s dead.

Powerless.

Will his mission, his cause, all come crumbling down? Has it all been for nothing? Will his ideals die with him?

Our Lenten journey ends here, at the foot of the cross.

2

But even here—even when our leader of leaders hangs dead before our eyes; even when his mission seems to have been vanquished; even when the forces of inhumanity and sin are the only things we can see—even here there is hope.

For now a certain disciple shows up. And he demonstrates incredible loyalty and faithfulness to Jesus, loyalty and faithfulness that can only stem from profound belief in him—in his idealism, in his cause, in his humanity, and in his divinity.

Here, at the end of our Lenten journey, Nicodemus shows up; and he shows us hope.

Do you remember Nicodemus, that “secret” disciple, who came to Jesus at night and had a confusing conversation with him about what it means to be born again?

The governing metaphor there is light and darkness. Nicodemus had left that conversation still confused, just as secretly as he’d come, fading back into the darkness. We readers are left to wonder if darkness has prevailed.

But that was only Chapter 3. Nicodemus is not mentioned again until here, near the end of Chapter 19. Perhaps by now we readers have forgotten about him altogether, have let him fade away into the darkness of our own memories.

But now our eyes are opened. For now, today, Nicodemus, with another formerly “secret” disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, takes Jesus’ body down from the cross and lays it in a tomb.

And he does this before the sun sets and the Sabbath begins—in other words, in the clear light of day; and not secretly but before an audience of Roman and Jewish leaders!

Today! At the end of our Lenten journey! At the foot of the cross! When we are left wondering if Jesus’ mission will come to nothing! Nicodemus, that formerly secret disciple, says,

“Yes: I know he’s dead. His cause and mission appear to be snuffed out; his idealism appears to have been vanquished; the rulers of this world appear to have proven themselves lords over him; and no doubt people will think less of me for following him! I know all this!

“But I also know this—my heart compels me: it’s not the whole story! Crucify me with him if you like! But there’s more to come! I believe! And in this I hope!”

Nicodemus does not know what the rest of the story will be. All he really knows is that Jesus is now dead.

But he hopes anyway.

As our Lenten journey comes to an end, we don’t know what the rest of the story will be either.

But, unlike Nicodemus, we do know that Jesus rose again on that Sunday so long ago, yes.

Still, don’t we continue to fear and doubt?

What will the future bring? Will Jesus’ mission and message be snuffed out? Will this global pandemic hit our little church so hard we won’t be able to recover? Will the evils of inhumanity and sin defeat us? Will good really prevail in the end?

Do not despair. Nicodemus is our example. Hope carries this day.

And that is why it is called Good Friday.

How to Grow the Church (beyond the Pandemic)

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on March 22, 2021 by timtrue

John 12:20-33

1

The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church.

“People naturally gravitate toward cultural trends,” proponents reason; “so churches should offer the products and ideologies that people want. People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels. That’s how we bring ’em to church!”

Out of this movement arose so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]

Arguably, the church growth movement has done great work. Just look at these results!

But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-and-early-30-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches—and any other kind of church, for that matter? (It wasn’t working in 2013; it’s still not working today.)

Now, some would say, 20-and-early-30-somethings are a very me-oriented group. We’re probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they’re not talking or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in their own world, a world in the shape of a smart phone.

According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-and-early-30-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology.

Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract young people? How can we go viral? To tweet or not to tweet? (That is the question!)

Mega-churches are in fact asking these questions; and they are trying to reach this subculture. Us too. But their efforts and ours just don’t seem to be working.

According to Barna Group statistics in an article I read recently from Christianity Today—statistics also from 2013—more than 8 million 20-and-early-30-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.

Where are they going?

The answer may surprise you. By and large, this age group is turning away from Christianity to atheism.[ii]

And why?

This answer may surprise you even more. Authenticity, they say.

Churches are trying to imitate popular culture; and this imitation strikes 20-and-early-30-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely hypocritical. Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.

Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic in its outlook, is genuine. Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-and-early-30-somethings seem to crave. Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies want to touch—including today’s version of Christianity.

2

So, it’s a good question: church growth. We Episcopalians call it “congregational development,” but it’s really the same thing.

Except now, today, the debate has become even more complicated; for now it has taken on the additional question of how to grow—or re-grow—the Church, beyond the pandemic.

I wonder: Does Jesus have anything to say about it?

I’m glad you asked, because today’s Gospel, in fact, does have something to say. Recall, it begins with this verse:

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Greeks, the Bible says. Non-Jews! Who went up to worship at the distinctively Jewish festival of the Passover! What were these Greeks but 20-and-early-30-somethings: seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?

So, here’s a tremendous opportunity for church growth, a. k. a. congregational development. Both Philip and Andrew recognize it. Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus. Some seekers have come to church! What an awesome opportunity!

“But what do we do now?” they ask.

And all of us interested in congregational development ought to sit up straight and take note here: this is the very response of Jesus! I mean, Bill Hybels and Rick Warren have great ideas when it comes to growing the church. But this is even better, right? This is Jesus!

And what does he say?

Well, he summarizes his mission, the good news, in a short and rather unsavory parable about agriculture:

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Huh.

Jesus’ response to these seekers is to summarize his mission and ministry. His disciples must:

  1. Welcome death,
  2. Hate life,
  3. And follow him through death to new life.

Well, that’s an attractive message! C’mon, Jesus, these are Greeks you’re talking to. They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—pop culture! Why don’t you meet them where they are?

But Jesus doesn’t. He doesn’t suggest building a comfortably Greek building, where Greeks can come and worship in cushy Greek armchairs sipping Greek lattes. He doesn’t recommend establishing attractive Greek-friendly programs or incorporating recognizably Greek music into the festival.

Jesus does not try to attract seekers to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object. In fact, Jesus’ message to these seekers is death; and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution!

Granted, Jesus’ message is also new life; but the immediate focal point is death—to self and the world! Resurrection will come, yes; but death’s got to come first.

So, can’t you just see it now? Welcome death, hate life, and follow Jesus into new life. Seekers will be lining up to fill our pews when we’re once again open for business.

3

But here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life.

This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels. This is the message for seekers. This is authentic Christianity.

But how? Especially now, as we’re thinking long and hard about what church will look like beyond the pandemic, how do we proclaim Jesus’ message of crucifixion and resurrection to seekers—and make it attractive enough so they won’t run away?

Allow me to offer a couple suggestions.

First, Jesus is speaking metaphorically. His followers must die and rise again, just as a grain of wheat must be buried and shed its old life before rising to new life.

But a grain of wheat doesn’t literally die. Rather, it sheds itself of a protective coat. It has to, in order to sprout, grow, mature, and bear fruit.

In the same way, we Jesus-followers aren’t called to die literally; but there is some kind of protective coat to shed before we can sprout, grow, mature, and bear fruit.

What is this protective coat?

There’s a lot to unpack, too much to get into here, but suffice to call it the way of the world: ideologies that exalt dominance, hierarchy, violence, and self.

Anyone who truly desires to follow Christ is called to die to this way of the world and rise again to a new way of thinking, Christ’s way of love.

4

And my second suggestion: Don’t worry about making this message attractive to seekers.

Many of the 20-and-early-30-somethings I mentioned earlier readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed. They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them. Their generation both breeds and nurtures a kind of soft narcissism.

But they have their reasons. They’ve grown up in the context of global pessimism, witnessing an increasing awareness seemingly everywhere of bigotry, hatred, and the possibly insurmountable challenge of climate change.

The result is what my daughter calls cognitive dissonance; and their soft narcissism affords them a kind of escape from today’s complex challenges.

It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when they judge churches that foster a similar soft narcissism to be second-rate or hypocritical. But in interviews, they said:

  • The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
  • We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center. We don’t need the church to echo the world.
  • We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches. So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]

When church leaders appeal to this cultural trend of soft narcissism by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who most engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires.

Worse, it negates the message of Jesus Christ. And perceptive 20-and-early-30-somethings see right through it. They would rather see churches practicing authentic Christianity; they would rather learn how to die to self.

Incidentally, we heard this message said another way today from the Prophet Jeremiah: There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on their heart.

And what is this law of God? Love! Love the Lord your God with all your being; and love your neighbor as yourself.

Well, imagine with me for a moment what this should look like. What would it look like if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?

Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, terrorism, or border security? Instead of hindering migrants as they flee their sinking villages, wouldn’t we welcome them? Indeed, would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?

Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love? Sounds like heaven!

But it’s also Jesus’ vision of new life here on earth, now, a life gotten to only by passing through death to self.

This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live here, in this culture, in this world. This is authentic Christianity. And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-and-early-30-somethings, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.

There really is no recipe for successful congregational development other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.


[i]               Cf. http://www.onlinechristiancolleges.com/megachurches/.

[ii]              Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/august/how-seeker-sensitive-consumer-church-is-failing-generation.html?paging=off.

[iii]             Ibid.

Dispersing with Nico

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on March 14, 2021 by timtrue

John 3:14-22

1

Today I’d like to focus on the part of this very familiar Gospel passage that talks about light and darkness.

It’s the part that begins with Jesus saying, “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.”

Jesus is talking to a man named Nicodemus about light and darkness. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night for this conversation; which follows on the heels of the last episode in John’s narrative, when Jesus turned over some tables in the full light of day. Darkness; and light.

So, channeling the genuinely questioning Nico, let’s wonder together for a moment: How are darkness and light related?

Well, have you ever sat out in the dark desert under the stars on a moonless night? What happens?

As you sit there, lie there, whatever, staring up into the night sky, your eyes begin to see more and more, right? Especially around August, when the Milky Way appears so clearly it almost looks like a cloud, and shooting star activity is at its peak!

It’s amazing, really: all that light transferred from only planets’ reflections and stars light years away!

On the other hand, what is the brightest, purest natural light you’ve ever experienced?

I remember hiking at noon, as a young man, on the summer solstice, with the sun as high in the sky as possible in the thin air of the Sierra Nevadas.

And still I could see shadows—darkness hiding in corners!

Thinking about it this way, light cannot really exist without darkness; and vice versa. They dwell together in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

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

Jesus overturned the Temple tables in the full light of day. This was a good deed, Jesus seems to be saying.

Other people, however—many more people, the way John tells it—would rather not have their deeds exposed. To their detriment, they avoid the light and hide in the darkness. They would rather live in fearsome shadows than come out into the light of Christ and the love of God.

Is Jesus suggesting that this characterization fits Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus under night’s cloak of darkness?

2

Whatever the case, God so loved the world that he sent his son; and Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world and all that. But I’m not sure I like this darkness-and-light metaphor all that much.

I mean, really? Am I supposed to believe that some people want their good deeds exposed, so they seek out the limelight? Whereas other people, many more people, don’t want their evil deeds exposed, so they try to hide in life’s shadows?

Show of hands: How many of you actively try to live your life hiding in the dark corners of the world?

Oh, but of course! You’re all at church this morning, dwelling in the light already.

Maybe the better question is, do you know anyone like this? How many of your friends and family members who don’t attend church regularly—in other words, who don’t actively seek the light of Christ—how many of them would you say proactively seek out dark and hidden places?

Wouldn’t a better analogy be that each of us as individuals has both light and darkness in us, living in symbiotic relationship?

Some of the things I do I’m proud of. Like that time I saw a $20-bill fall out of a guy’s pocket and I rushed over, picked it up, and handed it back to him. I’d love for other people to know about that.

Other things, however, like that time in high school when a friend of mine was making fun of a mentally challenged kid and I didn’t stop him . . . well, not so much.

This light-and-darkness metaphor works better for me when thinking about the inner individual rather than society. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I tend to think that, deep down, humanity is fundamentally good: individuals—most of us anyway—don’t gravitate toward darkness; rather, divine light is dispersing the darkness within us.

The picture of most people evilly plotting the destruction of everyone and everything around them, rubbing their knuckles together in back alleys, while the few good people who remain make themselves easy targets because they stand exposed in the light—this leads to an “us versus them” mentality, exclusion, cults, and conspiracy theories.

Whoa, conspiracy theories? Does that sound a little familiar?

Maybe the early Christians, the first hearers of John’s Gospel, had reason to be nervous, protective, and secretive. But not us; not Christians today.

But even throughout the Gospels—even throughout the Gospel of John—Jesus wasn’t about us against them, exclusion, cults, or conspiracies.

Can we just set aside some of the popular interpretations of John 3:16 then—the ones that tell me Jesus wants to save me and who cares about anyone else?

If only just for this sermon, let’s try to understand the bigger picture here. What is the larger message Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus through this metaphor?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not that the media and Bill Gates and the CDC are feeding us a big lie!

3

So, taking a step back now, do you remember last week’s Gospel reading? Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple.

The way John tells it, the Temple leaders approached Jesus after he’d overturned all the tables and asked him by what sign he was doing these things.

And do you remember Jesus’ response?

“Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up.”

It was a riddle.

Well, as I mentioned last week, I like to think that Nicodemus was among the Temple leaders who confronted Jesus; or at least that Nicodemus heard about the goings on at the Temple. In fact, the way John tells it, today’s (or, rather, tonight’s) episode with Nicodemus is the very next part of the story.

Nico comes to Jesus at night, secretly—maybe because he hadn’t been able to figure out Jesus’ riddle; maybe because he doesn’t want the Temple leaders to see him—and calls him a teacher from God.

To be clear, Nicodemus is not hiding in the darkness of night because he’s evilly plotting to destroy Jesus. It’s not Nico versus Jesus here. He’s actually trying to learn something from Jesus.

Instead, it’s fear that keeps Nicodemus in darkness—fear of this good deed being exposed.

So, to review briefly: Jesus had just cleared out the vendors from the Gentiles’ Court, the only place in the entire Temple precinct that gave non-Jews access to God; Nicodemus was a Jewish leader who heard about—maybe even witnessed—this act; and now he comes to Jesus for instruction.

Put this all together, and here’s where I believe it goes.

Just as light and darkness must exist together in symbiotic relationship—one cannot exist without the other—so Jesus’ followers—their culture, tradition, and religion—must exist in symbiotic relationship with the world around them.

But notice: I didn’t say “Jews” or “Christians”; I said “Jesus’ followers.”

John wrote his Gospel well after the razing of the Temple in 70 CE. So he couldn’t have been writing to the Jews, as a kind of warning or something through the eyes of their fellow Nicodemus. The Jews were already dispersed; the Temple was no more.

And Christianity wasn’t really a thing yet; the early church was understood to be a sect of the Jewish diaspora.

John’s story of Jesus was a call to his followers as keepers of God’s light not to exclude, not to hide away, not to be secretive, not to conspire; but to live in symbiotic harmony with the world around them, to make room for all.

God sent his Son into the world to save the world through a kind of light-and-darkness symbiotic relationship.

It’s up to the those who have been enlightened to disperse darkness through divine light and thereby bring salvation to all.

4

Okay, so, did you see President Biden’s address on COVID the other night? Interestingly, in his speech he used a light-and-darkness metaphor.

For him, this past year—because of COVID—has been one of darkness; the vaccines, and the widescale efforts to vaccinate a large majority of the population, is the light that is dispersing this darkness at long last.

That’s a lot like what’s going on here in this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.

When Jesus was alive, there was no church yet. Nor was there even a religion called Christianity.

Jesus was telling Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, a keeper of the light of God during Jesus’ lifetime, that keeping God from the Gentiles by filling the Gentile Court with tables was the same as to place divine light under a bushel; or to hide a city on a hill.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether a person is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or anything else.

Why would anyone ever keep access to the divine from the people around them most in need of divine help?

Why would anyone keep a light source all to themselves when those within earshot are unable to find their way through the darkness?

Why would anyone keep a vaccine from those who most need it?

But that’s exactly what the Temple leaders were doing—whether they knew it or not.

And it’s exactly what we do today when we make Christianity into a religion that’s exclusive: that makes it about us versus them, the saved versus the lost, the chosen versus the damned, Christians versus Muslims, Jesus versus the Temple leaders, or me versus the world.

Just don’t go there . . . lest you’re prepared to find Jesus wielding a whip against you!

Rather, bring God’s light to your neighbors by loving them, by welcoming and including them, by seeking justice and equity for all.

This is the bigger message Jesus conveyed to Nicodemus by night.

This is why Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.

This is why Jesus was lifted on the cross.

And this is the message Jesus calls his followers to convey today.

Goodness disperses evil.

Love disperses fear.

Light disperses darkness.

“In this way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

An Unexpected Jesus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2021 by timtrue

John 2:13-22

1

Let’s begin today with two riddles.

The first is an ancient one:

What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?

Anyone know the answer?

Anyone know the history, where this riddle comes from?

In Greek mythology, the Sphinx guarded the road to the pyramids and other treasures of Egypt. She would ask this riddle to travelers wanting to pass by; and if a traveler couldn’t answer, she would devour them.

Finally, after many travelers had come to a tragic end, a man named Oedipus—yes, that Oedipus—answered this riddle successfully; and the Sphinx met her tragic end, turning into sandstone and eventually crumbling—which is why she has no nose today.

What is the answer to this riddle?

Man. In the morning of life, a man is a baby and thus crawls on all fours. At life’s midday, a man walks upright, on two legs. In the evening of life, when a man is old, he uses a cane and thus has three legs.

Now the second riddle:

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,

Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.

It lies behind stars and under hills,

And empty holes it fills.

It comes out first and follows after,

Ends life, kills laughter.

Anyone know where I found this riddle?

It’s from Gollum, of The Lord of the Rings fame; posed to Bilbo when they first meet in the book version of The Hobbit.

Bilbo is lost in a cave deep within a mountain, the cave where he finds the notorious ring. Here he encounters Gollum and strikes up a deal. They’ll play a riddle game. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave. But if Gollum wins, Bilbo becomes his dinner!

So, anyone know the answer?

Darkness. Darkness cannot be seen, cannot be felt, and so on.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I like riddles. They’re a kind of puzzle for me.

When someone poses a good riddle to me—a clever one with only one possible answer, like the ones just discussed—it sticks with me. I wrestle with it. I struggle over it. I think about it in my sleep.

Until, at last, I either figure out the answer or return frustrated and defeated to the person who asked it, begging for a hint.

2

So, today’s Gospel tells a doozy of a riddle. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says; “and in three days I will raise it up.”

Of course, we know the answer to this riddle today. Jesus was talking not about the literal Temple in Jerusalem. Rather, he was talking about a figurative temple, his physical body.

We know the answer to this riddle; his opponents, however, did not. How could they have?

The religious leaders whom Jesus addressed were like all those people on the road to Giza before Oedipus—all those people who didn’t know the answer to the sphinx’s riddle. Or like Bilbo, who stood before Gollum scratching his head before the answer came to him.

So, can you put yourself in their shoes? I wonder how the religious leaders in this Gospel story responded in their minds to Jesus’ riddle.

Did they simply shrug it off as nonsense, as if it had no real application to them?

Or, maybe, did they ponder Jesus’ words, puzzle over them, lose sleep over them, and perhaps even grow frustrated as they sought unsuccessfully to understand what Jesus meant?

Did they secretly want to go to Jesus and ask him for a hint?

Hmm. Secretly.

That reminds me of the man named Nicodemus. He came to Jesus by night, secretly, asking for clues and declaring Jesus to be a teacher from God. And he was a religious leader: from that class of people who are Jesus’ main opponents in the Gospel of John.

Well, do you know where Nicodemus shows up? Only in this Gospel. And to be more precise, in the very next paragraph of this Gospel!

Was Nicodemus one of those religious leaders present on that day when Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple? I don’t know for sure, but I like to think so.

Maybe it’s a little too easy for us today, since we already know the answer to this riddle, to lose sight of the truth of the narrative.

We see Jesus standing there, armed with a whip, confronting the very people who oppose him most markedly throughout this Gospel, determined to set things right; and we think, “Jesus is my kind of hero! He’s the kind of leader I want to follow!”

And we form a picture in our minds of a vigilante Hollywood hero, muscular and handsome; and we stand in the background, pump our fists into the air, and shout, “Yes! Go, Jesus!”

But this just isn’t what’s happening here.

Jesus is in the Temple: a beautiful worship space, well-designed; the spiritual center of the holy city Jerusalem.

And the things taking place here don’t seem all that wrong.

People need a place to exchange their common currency—with images of Caesar on it—for drachmae, the image-less coins required for the Temple tax.

Spiritual pilgrims need to buy sacrificial animals, meaning animals without blemish. It would be very difficult to carry a turtledove, for example, from a long distance away and keep it unblemished.

Aren’t all these tables that Jesus is now overturning actually necessary for the Temple to function properly?

How is this scenario any different, really, from us renting out our facility to a preschool or having some kind of fundraiser?

3

Today’s passage, I’m thinking, isn’t really about our team and their team; about good guys vs. bad guys, about us vs. them; about some other, oppressive institution that’s nothing like ours, thank you very much—it’s not so much about us and them as it is about us and us.

We are the religious machine today. And, like the religious leaders of his day, maybe Jesus is coming along and catching us by surprise.

So, we can shrug off Jesus’ riddles as if they have no real application to us; or, like Nicodemus, we can ponder them.

On that day long ago when Jesus showed up, the Temple leaders were simply doing what they knew how to do. They were taking their jobs seriously. And they did their jobs well.

Pilgrims needed to exchange money and obtain unblemished animals for sacrificial purposes. The Temple leaders had attended even to these very particular details. They were meeting the people where they were! They were making Temple worship user-friendly! They were doing God’s will—as far as they understood it.

And yet, unexpectedly, Jesus was clearly upset.

Why?

This, in my thinking, is today’s real riddle.

So, I’ve landed on an answer. But before I give it, I’d like to qualify. It’s my answer, what I think makes the most sense; though it’s probably not the answer. And, besides, it’s not the main point I’d like to make today—a point I will get to in a moment.

That said, the qualified answer I’ve landed on is this:

I think it had to do with location. The money changers and animal vendors were conducting business in the part of the Temple called the Gentiles’ Court. By making this court into a crowded marketplace—the only place in the Temple precincts non-Jews were allowed—the Temple leaders effectively kept God from the Gentiles.

Their established practice was exclusive and hierarchical; whereas Jesus’ Way of Love is inclusive and equitable, the exact opposite.

Anyway, that’s my belief. But at the end of the day we don’t really know.

4

Now my bigger point.

We’ve had a pretty good run, this fairly well-oiled machine we call TEC.

Over the course of our history, we’ve strategized and troubleshot and brainstormed as necessary until, by and large, we were able to settle into a good and workable routine, methods for maintaining our spiritual home across this land of the free and home of the brave.

We arrived at our methods, of course, after much trial, error, and prayer. It didn’t happen overnight. But, eventually, we were able to say, “It works for us.” And so we published our canons, policies, and best practices manuals.

And, naturally, today we’re caught up in the workings of this machine. Like with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, it’s hard to change!

But . . .

For some time now we’ve been aware of decline in the Church. Pledge and plate amounts, ASAs, and membership numbers are decreasing. We’ve discussed what to do about it, but—my impression here—we haven’t been intentional about change except for specific instances: having to end the life of a certain congregation, whether to sell off a property, and the like.

In other words, our well-oiled machine has been in need of updating for some decades now; but we’ve largely deferred these updates because our business methods are so firmly established.

For the sake of clarity, I’m not talking about our theology and ideology. Of all Christian denominations, TEC has been on the cutting edge here. Our theology and ideology are as aligned with Jesus’ ideas of inclusivity and equity as you will find anywhere.

Rather, it’s our established ways of doing business. What are we supposed to do with all our properties and wealth as our membership declines in nearly all our congregations across the country?

Well, COVID-19 seems to me to be our wakeup call. Around the country, as an outcome of social distancing—which has resulted in rapid and sudden decline in Plates, Pledges, and Attendance—now TEC is becoming increasingly intentional about updating. Our tables have been overturned by a whip-wielding pandemic.

What will the Church look like beyond the pandemic?

This riddle is real; and no one knows the answer. Yet.

Nevertheless, we can put our heads together and try—just as Jesus and his ragged band of disciples put their heads together and tried to move the outmoded and outdated religious machine of their day into a new era.

This new era in our Church’s history—this overturning of tables—this riddle—calls for innovation, collaboration, and collegiality.

Are you with me?

But—fair warning—as we seek answers, we just might see a side of Jesus we aren’t expecting.

That our Egos might Decrease

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on February 28, 2021 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.

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.

So, 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, 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.

What matters is the sign itself: Jesus is not here but risen; and 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.

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 (and southern Oregon)!

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.

It was “Club Med” for young people.

And every morning and evening there was an engaging speaker to deliver a Billy-Graham-style message, imploring young people to make decisions for Christ, for he was the answer to all their difficulties; in him one could discover all manner of 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?

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

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 or off the clock . . .

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

3

Today’s Gospel paints a very different picture from Christianland.

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.

And 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).

But 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 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.

And I trust the Gospels far more than Christianland’s employee handbook.

4

So, now, a question: As we seek to live out Jesus’ mission together, are we keeping the cross central? Or, the flipside question: Is manufacturing “an unearthly happiness that is happier than the happiest place on earth” more important to us than bearing our cross?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Those who want to follow the Son of Man must deny themselves.”

During Lent, this—self-denial—is the part of the Gospel we especially think about. Maybe a more precise question, then, is not about how we can make ourselves and others happy, but: What does it mean for us to deny ourselves?

We find good examples of what self-denial looks like in the Gospels, both positive and negative.

On the one hand, John the Baptist must decrease in order that Christ may increase; on the other, Peter tries to foist his agenda on Jesus. John is self-effacing; Peter is ego-inflating. We should be like John; not Peter.

But is self-denial as simple as that? As simple as keeping your hair trimmed above the collar and not using profanity, tobacco, or alcohol?

We talk a lot about outreach in the church. But how often are our outreach efforts ego-inflating, or self-serving, rather than self-denying?

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 didn’t need to cross the street in the first place?

I heard about a church that wanted to give their youth a positive outreach experience. So they planned a trip to build and paint a few homes for people in a poor town in Mexico just south of Mexicali. Sounds like a great outreach opportunity, right?

Here’s the thing. The youth leader never consulted with the people on the receiving end—the actual people who would live in the houses. The rich church people from the north just brought their pickup and trailer loads of masonry, lumber, metal, and paint—and eager youth—and got to work.

A week later, after the houses were built and the church group was gone, local tradespeople—masons, painters, and roofers—had to be hired to fix all the mistakes in the construction—tradespeople already resentful because they weren’t hired to do the work in the first place.

And the actual residents themselves?

I only heard one report: from a woman who said the placement of the door and windows made it impossible for her to have an indoor kitchen, something she’d desperately desired.

Long story short: The church was asked never to come back.

Unfortunately, our outreach efforts all too often become patronizing acts: we saw what we thought was a need; we came up with an agenda; we “helped” someone; and we ended up feeling really good about ourselves, though—I add parenthetically—we did little to meet the actual need.

Anyway, today’s point: We modern-day North American Christians tend to like a popular theology of self-glorification more than the cross.

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.

It’s time to crucify our egos.

Picturing the Journey

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on February 21, 2021 by timtrue

Mark 1:9-15

1

Weren’t we just here?

The Gospel for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, just six weeks ago, was Mark 1:4-11, the baptism of Jesus.

And the third Sunday after the Epiphany, just four weeks ago, was Mark 1:14-20, the calling of the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

Here, today, we straddle the two with Mark 1:9-15. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and end with the message he brought to the first disciples.

So, yes, we were just here.

But—did you catch it?—during the season after the Epiphany, we actually skipped right over two verses, 12 and 13, the two verses right in the middle of today’s text.

With everything else so fresh in our memories, this omission begs the question: Just what does the Gospel say in vv. 12 and 13?

Here they are:

And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

This is what we skipped over in the season after the Epiphany: the temptation in the wilderness.

Which is certainly appropriate for the first Sunday in Lent.

For Jesus was tempted by Satan for forty days in the wilderness; and thus for forty days in Lent we acknowledge Jesus’ trials by fasting from something or adding some kind of spiritual discipline to our own lives, in his memory and honor.

But for the Gospel of Mark, this is it, just 2 verses!

There’s no mention here (as there is in both Matthew and Luke) of fasting, of specific temptations, or of conversations with the devil; or (as in Luke only) of the devil leaving Jesus until “an opportune time.”

Mark gives us just the sparsest of details: Jesus was tempted for forty days; he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.

It’s not a lot to go with.

2

So, are you familiar with the term liminality? I think this is what Mark is after today: for Jesus, the wilderness was a liminal space.

This term comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold; and its idea is illustrated especially well in the Gospel according to C. S. Lewis—otherwise known as The Chronicles of Narnia.

The first book of this famous children’s series, The Magician’s Nephew, tells the creation story—the beginnings of Narnia—through the eyes of a boy named Digory and his next-door neighbor, Polly. The children, I’m guessing, are both about ten years old.

The story begins in London, set in the earliest decade of the twentieth century. Digory’s mother is dying of cancer. They are living in a family home; where his old, eccentric, and maybe treacherous Uncle Andrew also lives.

But Digory’s uncle, we soon learn, is delving into stuff he shouldn’t be, a mixture of science and the occult, stuff he doesn’t really understand. Somehow, he has managed to isolate and harness some ancient, magical powers in green and yellow rings.

This old conniver then tricks Polly into trying on a green ring . . . who immediately disappears into thin air! Of course, Digory is shocked.

“She’s gone into another world,” Uncle Andrew explains; “but you can bring her back—with a yellow ring.”

And so Digory, feeling trapped, puts two yellow rings in his pocket without touching them to his skin; and dons a green ring, following Polly into this other world, wherever that might be.

Where he finds her—they soon piece together—is not another world at all; but a kind of threshold, a liminal place filled with lazy green light and numerous ponds of still water; and sleepy trees everywhere.

These “ponds,” the children soon discover, are portals into other worlds. One transports you to and from earth; another to and from a world called Charn; and another to and from Narnia.

Nothing really happens in this wooded area; where you don’t know if several days or only a few seconds have passed; where you could lie down and sleep for all time without a care.

It is nowhere, really; a kind of in-between place, simply enabling a traveler to cross over from one world to the next.

And thus they name this liminal space, “The Wood between the Worlds.”

Well, isn’t this idea—liminality—what’s happening here in Mark?

3

Just prior to the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus was baptized. Baptism signifies initiation. Something new has come, something we know from later on in Mark called the Kingdom of God.

Following the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus will take his newly proclaimed identity as Messiah and his message to the men who become his first disciples.

Now, though, this period of temptation in the wilderness is a threshold, a liminal space, in between, enabling Jesus to cross over from his old identity to new, from human peasant to divine king. It is his wood between the worlds; and thus an important part of Jesus’ overall story.

And Mark, bless his heart, gives us just three sparse details: Jesus is tempted for forty days; he is with the wild beasts; and angels wait on him.

Why doesn’t Mark give us more? I mean, if Mark really is trying to convey liminality—that the temptation in the wilderness is an important part of Jesus’ formation—then why devote only two verses to it?

Well, Mark can be like that: it’s the shortest Gospel, leaving out myriad details found elsewhere. It says nothing of Jesus’ birth or childhood. And it never even mentions Joseph!

With Mark’s narrative, we often have to read between the lines for a fuller understanding. We often have to ask interactive questions, like:

  • What is significant about the location and time frame of Jesus’ temptation: in the wilderness; forty days?
  • Why does Mark mention wild beasts?
  • Are there any connections Mark might want us to make from the picture that “angels waited on him”?

And these questions should lead us to wonder:

Is forty days a direct reference, maybe, to Moses’ spending forty years in the wilderness with the Israelites?

As we all know, Moses and the Israelites fell short in their time of temptation, crossing a threshold from Egypt to the Promised Land.

But Jesus does not fall short.

Again, perhaps, are the wild beasts a direct reference to Adam?

Adam was in the Garden where he was given the responsibility to name all the beasts. But, as we all know, Adam fell short during his time of liminality.

Jesus does not fall short.

And, again, is angels waited on him an allusion, maybe, to the patriarch Jacob, who came to a point of personal brokenness and saw a heavenly ladder upon which angels ascended and descended, waiting on him?

God changed his name to Israel, who crossed a threshold to become the nation of promise, the nation that above all others would bring blessing to the world. Yet Israel fell short too.

Jesus does not fall short.

Well, in just three sparse details, it seems to me anyway, Mark is telling us that Jesus crossed the threshold successfully where all others failed. In just two verses, Mark proclaims that Jesus is nothing short of the Savior of the world.

Not much to go on here?

Ha! Think again.

4

So, anyway, what does this mean for us on this first Sunday in Lent, 2021?

We, like Jesus in the wilderness, find ourselves in a liminal place.

Last week, our focus was on the Incarnation—as it has been since Advent. God has come to dwell among us.

Our identity has been as a host. God came to visit us where we lived; and we gave God a place to stay. (Whether or not we’ve been good hosts is another question for another day.)

And in forty days or so, beginning with and following the Great Vigil, our focus will be new life: God’s kingdom becoming the reality as our world fades, understood especially in and through Jesus’ Resurrection.

Our new identity will be as a guest. We will be invited into God’s realm; and we will be given a place to stay.

Right now, though, during Lent, we are crossing the threshold between the two, facing Satan’s temptations and trials; living with wild beasts (like COVID-19); with angels waiting on us, helping us to endure. We are learning to let go of our old identity and live into our new.

But this is bigger than just the forty days of Lent, isn’t it?

We live our entire Christian lives in a kind of in-between place: no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of a new kingdom; no longer hosts to God but guests of God; no longer in London but in Narnia.

Lent reminds us, we are on a journey from old identity to new; a journey of transformation; a journey of faith; a journey of life.

When Pastoral Care and Outreach Collide

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on February 7, 2021 by timtrue

Mark 1:29-39

1

Vida Joven de Mexico is an orphanage I used to visit regularly in Tijuana—when I was canonically resident in the Diocese of San Diego.

I didn’t necessarily enjoy visiting this orphanage—not in the same way I enjoy visiting, say, a good restaurant. Nevertheless, there was something profoundly enjoyable—as in it filled me with life-giving joy—each time I went.

My favorite visits were when my wife and son could go with me. One such visit from about three years ago comes to mind.

My son was eight years old; and we sponsored an 8yo boy at the orphanage named Daniel. Like my son, one of Daniel’s front teeth was still growing in. The two boys didn’t speak the same language; nevertheless, in passing a soccer ball, playing checkers, and waging an epic dinosaur battle, they developed a friendship.

The experience was so worth it!—even after all the hassles of obtaining and then remembering our passports, the long drives, the longer waits. We arrived at Vida Joven to find smiling, well-fed and cared for, comfortably dressed children.

But I said they were orphans. This isn’t entirely true. The parents of the children who live at Vida Joven are still alive. Rather, the children have been abandoned—and, unlike countless other street children of Mexico, fortunately found by the state’s inadequate social services network.

Daniel’s story paints the picture well. He’s the third of four siblings, the only boy.

When he was three years old, a social services worker found his older sister, still only six years old herself, because she had ventured outside to forage for food in an effort to keep herself and her little siblings from starving.

The worker first noticed the little girl rummaging through trash cans then followed her to discover the four children, dirty and disheveled, living in a shanty, trash strewn throughout, no sign of parents anywhere.

Of course, along with the life-giving joy and soul-consuming compassion I experienced whenever I visited Daniel, his sisters, and the other children of Vida Joven, I also experienced a kind of righteous indignation.

No child ought to have to experience the inhumane conditions faced by Daniel! And yet, it continues to happen: only a fraction of Mexico’s large street children population ever become wards of the state.

God is love, we know. And love sees dignity in every human being.

And Mexico is our neighbor: demonstrating love to our neighbor is a key part of what “God is love” means.

Moreover, the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona is in a formal partner-relationship with the Anglican Diocese of Western Mexico; Tijuana—not to mention Nogales, Naco, and Agua Prieta—is geographically within that diocese.

It makes me angry. Isn’t there more we neighbors to the north can do?

2

So, with this frame in mind—a frame of joy, compassion, and indignation—let’s turn to today’s Gospel.

Jesus and the two sets of brothers with him leave the local synagogue, where Jesus has just healed a man of unclean spirits; and now enter the house of Simon.

In other words, Jesus has just carried the good news from a public place—the synagogue—to a private place—a house.

Mark is pointing out the Incarnation here: Emmanuel, God with us.

But Jesus doesn’t just enter Simon’s house as a normal guest would enter, to lounge in the triclinium, in the front part of the house, and enjoy a meal with his host. No! Instead, Jesus goes into the most private part of the house, to the house’s inner recesses, where Simon’s mother-in-law is convalescing.

Mark’s showing us that the Incarnation is found everywhere—from the most public to the most private places of our lives.

And there Jesus takes this dear woman by the hand, lifts her up, and her fever leaves her immediately.

The Incarnation, Mark narrates, heals both spiritually and physically.

And she responds to Jesus’ healing by . . . serving others!

(Fun fact: Simon’s mother-in-law is the first human in all the Bible to be called diakonos; in other words, she’s the church’s very first deacon.)

This point about Simon’s mother in-law is interesting, one I would love to discuss with you at length some other time. But today I want us to keep our eyes on Jesus.

The story has taken a turn, from inward to outward, from self-care to serving others. What is Mark teaching us about the Incarnation now?

Well, word gets out. All the villagers needing spiritual and physical healing are brought to Jesus; who heals many of them, presumably, late into the night.

And now very early in the morning, probably very tired, Jesus withdraws to a lonely place so that he can pray.

And what does Simon do? Does he give Jesus some space? Does he allow Jesus to spend some quality time with his Father, maybe to rest and recharge?

No! According to Mark, Peter hunts for Jesus.

This word, hunts, is a verb of purpose in the Greek. Simon hunts for Jesus with an agenda, like he has some kind of intervention in mind.

Why in the world has Jesus gone off to pray, Simon is wondering? Not everyone has been healed yet in my community. There’s more work to do!

But Simon misunderstands. He asks, Don’t you know how badly the people here need you, Jesus? What are you doing praying? It’s time to get back to your ministry and mission!

Jesus merely says, My mission, Peter? “Let us go on,” let us go outward, “for that is what I came out to do.”

3

A couple of things about the Incarnation stand out to me from this story.

First—something I’ve mentioned in former sermons—is the change in divine imagery.

God in Jesus is not a king, ruling and reigning over our lives from far away, aloof, protecting us from foreign threats, charging us taxes, and so on.

Instead, Jesus is a common person, born into a poor family, baptized at the River Jordan, and now interacting with all manner of people closely, in the nitty-gritty details of life.

God in Jesus cares about us, demonstrated in and through his healing of Peter’s mother in-law and many of the sick and demon possessed in Capernaum.

God in Jesus is bound up in our lives’ details.

And yet the Christian church—through its liturgy, corporate prayers, art, vestments, music, architecture, and outreach—still conveys the predominant image of God as king to the broader world.

Jesus the Incarnation changed the predominant image of God two thousand years ago. It’s time for the church to realize that.

The second thing I notice here flows out of the first.

When we the church carry on this relational image, message, and mission of Jesus, there’s something we need to understand: even Jesus couldn’t do it all.

Peter thought Jesus could do it all. That’s why he hunted him down and said, What are you doing praying? There’s more work to be done.

Yet even Jesus, the very Incarnation of God, had to rest and recharge.

The text says that as evening began, they brought to Jesus all who were sick; and the whole city gathered around the door. But then it reports that he healed many.

Not all but many.

And, without everyone yet healed, freed of personal demons, or otherwise rescued, Jesus moved on.

For that, he tells Peter, is what he came to do.

4

Do you feel the tension here?

The good news calls us to take care of the community to which we belong in a side-by-side, arm-in-arm relational way.

Peter cared about his community; we likewise care about our own. God is with us.

In church speak we call this Pastoral Care: visiting members of the congregation who are sick; bringing the Eucharist to those who can’t attend worship; baptizing, marrying, and burying those who ask for it; and so on.

And I think we do a pretty good job at this.

But, at the same time, as Peter’s mother in-law understood, the good news demands to go outward.

The hungry need food. The naked need clothes. The poor need financial assistance. The oppressed need justice. Orphans need a home. For God is with them too.

In church speak we call this—carrying the good news outward—Outreach. Like Pastoral Care, Outreach is an important aspect of our mission.

So, what happens when Pastoral Care and Outreach collide—as they do in today’s Gospel?

Well, what did Jesus tell Peter when not everyone in Capernaum had yet been healed?

Let us carry the good news outward, Jesus said, “for that is what I came out to do.”

I don’t know about you, but to me it looks like Jesus’ mission focuses more outward than inward.

5

But to back up a little, the image of God in Jesus is side-by-side, arm-in-arm relationship, not an aloof and detached king.

And, as we have just seen, this image applies inwardly and outwardly, to our efforts in both Pastoral Care and Outreach.

So, here’s the rub for me: I offer it up for our mutual consideration.

We care for our own—the Pastoral Care part of the picture—in an arm-in-arm, relational manner. It’s our natural tendency.

But when it comes to Outreach–this is where I feel the story has taken a turn.

For, in my experience anyway, Outreach takes the form of a committee that sits inside a church building—behind closed doors; far away from the action—and decides where to send funds.

If this isn’t an aloof and detached image, like a king’s administration, I don’t know what is.

Instead, Mark reminds us today, we’re called to get to know our neighbors in need through side-by-side, arm-in-arm relationship.

We’re called physically to visit those in prison; personally to hand out food to the hungry and clothes to those without.

We’re called to pass a soccer ball, play checkers, and wage epic dinosaur battles with orphans.

But that’s harder work!

But that brings a complicated mixture of joy, compassion, and righteous indignation into our hearts!

But that makes us look around and feel overwhelmed, wondering what more we can do!

But—

Oh . . . that’s the point, isn’t it?

Hard as the work is, we carry the good news outward through relationship because that’s what Jesus, the Incarnation, came to do.

From Belief to Faith

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2021 by timtrue
FIT58808 The Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew, c.1626-30 (oil on canvas) by Cortona, Pietro da (Berrettini) (1596-1669); 28.7×57.4 cm; Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK; Italian, out of copyright

Mark 1:14-20

1

So:

  • John the Baptist has been arrested
  • Jesus has carried John’s message of repentance to Galilee
  • Four fishermen hear this message
  • And immediately these fishermen leave the lives they have always known to follow Jesus.

Well, consider this: these fishermen had established, sustainable businesses. Theirs were lives of safety, security, predictability, stability, and confidence; and they left it all behind for risk, danger, insecurity, uncertainty, and self-denial.

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

Did they know Jesus already? Did they trust him? Had they seen him somewhere before? Was it his charismatic personality?

Maybe it was his connection to John the Baptist. Did Jesus maybe dress like JB? Would the four fishermen have recognized Jesus at sight—just by the clothes he wore (similar to people recognizing me as a priest when I wear my collar in public)?

Or, perhaps, there was something about the authenticity of Jesus. Here was a man who not only proclaimed a message of repentance but also lived out the way of love. He walked the talk, as it were.

Yes, this! I like to think so anyway: that the message and messenger were authentically one.

What do you think?

Whatever the case, the truth is we don’t know why these four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus. This detail was left out of the story.

But we know that they did.

On that day long ago on that beach, four fishermen left behind stability, certainty, and predictability for a life of risky faith as disciples of Jesus.

And we also know the result: through their faith they were transformed, and with them the church. Jesus called these disciples as fishermen and transformed them into fishers of people.

2

Of the four, Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

He was called on the beach, the sand; and later called rock.

Jesus called him rock; and then, in the next breath, Satan.

Peter said he’d never deny Jesus; and yet denied him the next morning.

Peter became a stalwart spokesman for the church; yet disagreed and disputed openly and publicly with the apostle Paul.

Peter even waffled, tradition tells us, in the days leading up to his execution, one moment escaping from Rome and fleeing for his life, sure of his freedom; the next deciding martyrdom was the better way and returning of his own volition to face Nero for Christ’s glory.

Transformation for Peter—and for the others—was not a one-time experience, like repeating a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call.

Faith in Christ meant continuous conversion throughout his life, being conformed increasingly from Adam’s fallen image into Jesus’ perfect image.

Peter demonstrates to us: transformation takes a lifetime!

And if it works this way for Peter, Andrew, James, John, and you and me, as individuals; then wouldn’t it make sense that transformation should work this way for the corporate body of Christ, the Christian church around the globe?

3

Which brings up a good point.

Here, in today’s Gospel, is the beginning of the church—the earliest community to gather around the person and mission of Jesus Christ.

And this earliest body of believers lived a life of faith.

It was a risky faith, even dangerous.

It was an insecure faith.

It was an unstable faith.

And—not a point to gloss over—it required them to let go of their egos.

And the result? Transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

Is the church, the collective body of Christ around the globe, still transforming? Is it still living a life of risky faith, following Jesus into unknown, even dangerous realms as it tries to fulfill his mission?

Consider financial risk. Certainly, these four fishermen followed Jesus at great financial risk to themselves and their families. They didn’t sit down beforehand and plan out a budget subject to board approval.

Today, however, the picture that comes to my mind is often of sweaty hands wrung together in Finance Committee meetings, knuckles popping and fingernails being bitten off, frantic phone calls, bitter arguments—in fear of insolvency.

Are we still transforming the world around us through our faith? Or have we become so preoccupied with our own internal affairs that we’ve neglected our mission to the community around us?

What about stability? We talk an awful lot about having buildings to worship in, in geographic locations. We are the presence of Christ to our community: Better make sure we look like we’re built on a rock then and not on shifting sand!

Yet Christ and his first disciples were transient in their ministry, meeting in an upper room or speaking from a boat or sitting on a hillside.

And as for ego . . .

4

Considered as a world religion, Christianity is commonly divided into three main divisions: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Each of these divisions can be further subdivided; and there are further subdivisions within these subdivisions; and so on; and so forth—leaving one dizzy.

A Catholic group says there are 33,000 different Christian denominations in the world; Gordon-Conwell Seminary (Protestant) claims there are 47,000.

Of course, it depends how one defines “denomination.” Is an independent, so-called non-denominational church in effect its own denomination? Some would say so.

But even if you lump all independent and non-denominational bodies into one group—a kind of anti-denomination—then the number is about 200.[i]

200 separate and distinct Christian denominations!

That’s a lot.

Why is this?

Far and away, because of doctrinal differences.

One church leader’s interpretation differs from another. So, channeling the Protestant Reformation, rather than seeking agreement a new denomination forms and breaks off from the old.

If that’s not ego at work, I don’t know what is!

But on that day long ago, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of them—through mission, not doctrine.

It seems to me that our belief systems today are far removed from that beach.

Have our belief systems impeded our transformation?

5

You know what’s going on here? I think we—the Christian church around the globe—have confused our belief systems with our faith.

Once upon a time I was a director of youth ministries in a church, overseeing programs for students in middle school, high school, and college.

The college students frequently volunteered to work with younger students and thus were seen as role models.

One day, one of the college women who volunteered with the high school program came to the pastor in tears, confessing that she was pregnant. The father-to-be was a young man who didn’t attend church.

Now, this church’s system of beliefs held that believers should not marry unbelievers; that abortion is murder; that sex outside of marriage is a sin; that sins necessitate repentance; that pregnancy is a public sin, for a swollen belly is soon obvious to everyone; and that failure to repent should result in excommunication from the church.

This system of beliefs had come from much prayer and Bible study, to be sure.

But this system of beliefs also led the pastor and elders (who were all men, by the way) to conclude, therefore, that the young woman must either publicly apologize to the congregation during Sunday morning worship or face excommunication.

It probably goes without saying that abortion would have resulted in excommunication too; and unless he converted, marrying the unbelieving father-to-be was discouraged.

Well, as you might imagine, this whole scenario put me into an ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, I was a vital part of this church. By association, I ascribed to its belief system; I supported the pastor in his vision.

And yet, on the other hand, I had gotten to know this young woman well. She had taught, prayed with, and otherwise provided spiritual leadership to a number of the youth. She demonstrated a life of love to these kids.

And love, after all . . . wasn’t this Jesus’ main message?

“Lord,” I prayed, “of all the beliefs in my belief system, which one is the greatest?”

And he answered, “Well, it’s certainly not all the rules and regulations you misguided humans make up. No, Tim! The greatest of these is love.”

How was this local church loving this young woman now, I wondered? By telling her not to marry her boyfriend because he didn’t ascribe to the church’s belief system? By publicly humiliating her in front of the congregation? By excommunicating her? Really? Love?

The dilemma was real: My belief system collided with my faith.

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

But I’d also developed my ethic of love from Jesus!

My two worlds collided.

Two distinct worlds I was trying to live in at the same time.

The same two worlds the church has always tried to live in at the same time.

But I couldn’t live in these two worlds simultaneously without significantly compromising my integrity as a disciple of Christ. I had to pick one: belief or faith. Which would it be?

Well, which world had the four fishermen picked?

Jesus is calling us to faith—a risky faith, not a stable belief system: to live out a risky ethic of love rather than to hold tenaciously to some rock-solid, immutable system of beliefs we’ve invented to help us comprehend our faith.

Through faith, not a belief system, we shall be transformed.


[i] Cf. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/sbeale/just-how-many-protestant-denominations-are-there