How Much More Humility?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by timtrue


Luke 18:9-14

This past Thursday I attended Fresh Start: a monthly gathering of clergy new to the diocese, or to a new position in the diocese. Father Paul was there, as he has just started a position as Priest-in-Charge in El Centro and Brawley.  Some newly ordained priests and transitional deacons were there too.  It’s a collegial group, whose purpose is to gather and discuss issues pertinent to our unique calling to the ordained ministry.

On the docket this month was a somewhat provocative question: How should we preach about politics, especially in light of the upcoming election and recent feelings of increased polarization?

It’s a good question to consider.  The election is less than three weeks away.  Which leaves me only today and two more Sundays to address it.  Should I name the political elephant in the room?  Or, on the other hand, should the church be the one haven in our world where we can still find a vestige of refuge from the political circus all around us?

Of course, different preachers take different approaches.

You may or may not know that in 2004 the Rev. George Regas preached a sermon in All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, which led to an investigation by the IRS.  Regas explicitly stated he was not endorsing one candidate over another.  Yet in his sermon—an imagined conversation between Jesus, John Kerry, and George W. Bush—he very much advocated for issues supported by Kerry and opposed by Bush.  And thus, yes, despite him saying he did not endorse one candidate over another, it sure seemed otherwise—to the IRS anyway!

And the IRS matters!

For, according to IRS code, if a preacher tells his congregation how to vote, that preacher’s church can lose tax-exempt status.  To be sure, if I were to stand up here this morning and tell you why you should or shouldn’t for one candidate or another, the IRS would consider St. Paul’s in violation of church and state laws: we could lose our tax-exempt status.

In fact, in recent months our own bishop raised some eyebrows in a diocesan letter in which he named Donald Trump and argued why we shouldn’t vote for him.  Concern was raised over whether the entire Episcopal Diocese of San Diego might fall under the IRS’s scrutiny, and what that would mean for congregations in the diocese (including St. Paul’s).

Preachers in favor of naming names in letters or sermons, including the bishop, rightly argue that as ministers of the Gospel we need the liberty to preach the full Gospel of Christ.

To which other preachers, including me, say, yes, we do need such liberty; but can’t we have it without naming names? Without endorsing or opposing a specific candidate?

To muddle the waters just a little more, during his earthly ministry even Jesus himself named a political figure, Herod; and called him a fox!

Anyway, such was our clergy discussion on Thursday. And thus we come to today’s Gospel: a thoroughly political text.

For, in the first place, I can’t help but associate at least one of the major candidates of this presidential race with the Pharisee.

Two men went up to the temple to pray.  One, a Pharisee, said (essentially), “Dear God, thank you that I’m better than everyone else.”

I mean, doesn’t this sound similar to the political debates?

Just for fun, what if the moderator of the final debate, Chris Wallace, would have asked, “Candidates, as this debate begins, I’d like you each to offer an opening prayer.”  What would that prayer have been?

It’s not hard to imagine the words of the Pharisee: “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that [other candidate], right over there.”

It doesn’t matter which candidate you happen to favor.  It’s the same for both sides.  One prays, “Thanks that I’m not a thief, like her”; whereas the other prays, “Thanks that I’m not an adulterer, like him.”

And, if you’re like me, you’re left scratching your head wondering when anyone’s going to give a reasonable answer to any of the issues at hand.

But we don’t really identify too closely with the Pharisee anyway.  Or at least we don’t want to.  Isn’t he the real reason the system is so messed up in the first place?

He’s a leader in society, in the established system.  But what is his position of leadership but to enforce the rules and regulations established by the system in the first place!

The Roman Empire’s really messed up when you sit down and think about it.  There are masses of people led by smaller and smaller groups of leaders until finally you reach the top of the pyramid: the emperor.  The Jewish leaders are really just one layer, about halfway up the strata, orchestrated ultimately by the system in order to keep the masses in check.

The Pharisee’s in a position to do something about it.  So why doesn’t he?  He’s a community leader.  Why doesn’t he then lead his community out of the oppressive system that enslaves them?  Why does he instead keep the system in place, perpetuating the bondage?

At any rate, that’s not us.  We really can’t identify with him.

Instead, we really just want to associate with the tax collector. After all, he’s the one who said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and beat his breast and repented and went home justified by God.

So can’t we just focus on him today?  Can’t we just come to church and forget about the political circus?  Can’t we just gather with others, pray and sing together, listen to a normal sermon (for once!), gather at the Lord’s Table, and just go home justified by God?  Can’t we?  Please?

Oh, I wish it were so simple!

But here’s what happens when we come to church and focus just on the tax collector.  We meet, pray, sing, and commune; and we go home justified by God; and we turn on the news or open our computers or look at our phones; and all of a sudden we’re thinking, “Dear God, thank you that I am not like these ridiculous presidential candidates.  Thank you that at least I have the discipline to go to church.  Thank you that I pray and give.  Thank you that. . . .”

And we end up proud.  We end up justifying ourselves.  We become the Pharisee.  And we forget the point of this parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

And yet, even so—even if we focus just on the tax collector—I’m sorry to say, here too, in the second place, we can’t avoid politics.  For the tax collector is part of this oppressive Roman system too: tax collectors were employed by the powers-that-be to control people economically.

Think of the modern credit card economy we live with.

Do you ever feel enslaved to it?  Do you ever feel as if the powers-that-be calculate interest rates to be just the right amount—just enough to keep you in debt but not so much to bankrupt you?

That’s how the masses felt towards the tax collector.  Except it wasn’t a big company to be mad at, like Chase or Capital One or the Emperor’s 1st Bank, but at an individual person.

So this made the tax collector wealthy, sure; but also very alone, a kind of middle-manager outcast.  You can almost imagine him waking up one day and asking himself, “How did I get here?  Back when I was going to college and decided to major in finance, I never dreamed I’d end up here.  Yeah, college!  Those were the days!  Back then I lived on $600 a month.  Now, what with two kids in college and ever-increasing medical costs, I can’t even make ends meet with six figures!  I’m trapped forever in middle management!”

No wonder he leaves the temple humbled instead of proud!

The Pharisee is more like an executive, a more active player in perpetuating the system that’s in place, a system of rules and regulations; a system of boundaries which keep people in their place.

Either way, though, the present system has both the Pharisee and the tax collector in a kind of bondage!

Maybe you relate more to the tax collector.  How did you get here?  Now that you’re here, what can you do about it, if anything?  You feel trapped.

Or maybe you find yourself more able to relate to the Pharisee.  You’re a leader of society, a public figure.  Everywhere you go you’ve got to mind your Ps and Qs—lest some sort of Yuma scandal break out!  From time to time you wonder about issues of social justice and whether you can do anything to change injustice or maybe if in fact you’re part of the injustice.  You feel trapped too.

Either way it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t really matter who we are or what we do—whether we’re presidential candidates or parishioners in a pew; whether we identify more with the Pharisee or the tax collector.

God is after a broken spirit and a contrite heart.

God justifies the humble Pharisee just as much as the humble tax collector.  On the other hand, God humbles both the proud presidential candidate and the proud parishioner in the pew.

God calls us to be humble. We learn this from the tax collector who teaches us to focus on individual humility: he beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”; and went home justified by God as an individual.

But there’s more to it than just individual humility.  This we learn from the Pharisee.  He turns our thoughts outward, to society.  He’s not just an individual working within an oppressive system (like the tax collector), but a representative of the system.

And thus, turning our thoughts outward, a question confronts us: What about our systems?  Is God humbling us not just as individuals but also as a society?

Think about our immediate system, the Church.

We lament over the Church’s decline of the last four decades.  Attendance has been steadily falling.  Budgets have been continuously shrinking.  Many congregations around the country and the world are finding that they can no longer sustain their programs and buildings.

Is this decline God’s doing?  Is God humbling the Church’s pride?


Whatever the case, this so-called decline, which so many people see as negative, has a positive side: the Church is asking important questions that have needed to be asked for a very long time—questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.

In essence, the Church is looking around and saying, “How did we end up here?  Back in the early days we lived on $600 a month.  Now we can’t even seem to make ends meet on six figures!  God, be merciful to us sinners!”

We see a corporate humility.

Nevertheless—I don’t have to tell you—much pride remains in the Church.  All too often, the word bishop is interchangeable with ego.

How much more humbling needs to take place?

Now, let’s look at the bigger system: What about our nation?

With this election cycle, American democracy seems to have changed fundamentally.

Is this God’s doing?  Is God humbling our nation?


As a nation, we’ve begun to ask the right questions; questions that have needed to be asked for a long time; questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.  Attempts are made at righting past wrongs.  Strategies are developed to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.  Thoughts are turning toward the common good.  These are all signs of national humility.

Nevertheless, there’s quite a lot of ego floating around.  And I don’t just mean in the presidential race!  Our whole country is wound tight around pride and self-justification—around ego!

How much more humbling needs to take place?

I won’t tell you how to vote.  But, when you vote, please, consider this very important question.

Prayer: Hope or Action?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by timtrue


Luke 18:1-8

There’s a certain tension that comes to the surface in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

On the one hand, there’s a God-fearing widow.  And widows in the ancient world, as we know, had it rough.  There was no social security system.  There was no Medicare.  And unless she had a son to take care of her or some other unlikely benefactor, she was largely on her own to make ends meet.  Widows in the ancient world were easy targets for bullies.

On the other hand, there’s a self-serving judge, who cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of other persons.  In short, he is a key player in the system which is already stacked against the marginalized and oppressed.

We followers of Christ are meant, of course, to identify with the widow.

Early Christians were marginalized and oppressed.  Out of necessity, they had to work within the extant Roman system to make a way forward—within a system that cared nothing about God and even less about the dignity of the marginalized; within a system that was stacked against them.

But what does this mean for us today?  What should our identification with the widow look like?

Are we to spend our time in prayer, as Luke’s own commentary states—“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (v.1, emphasis added)?  Or are we to engage in persistent work, like the widow did, who kept coming, over and over, to the unjust judge until he gave in?

More simply, is this a parable about praying or doing?  As Christians, are we called to hope or to act?

And thus the tension of which I speak.

The Bible is full of examples of people—at both the individual and the community levels—who couldn’t do anything about their present situation; who were left with no other option but to hope.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  God then promised redemption and reconciliation.  But when would it come?  Adam and Eve couldn’t do anything about said redemption and reconciliation: they were left just to hope.

A similar scenario plays out with the death of Abel and banishment of Cain.  How would God redeem the cosmos now?  They could only wait—and hope.

And do you remember the story of Joseph?  He was sold into slavery—by his own jealous, ungrateful, entitled brothers.  What could he do but cry out to God in hope?

Indeed, throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear story after story of individual widows, orphans, and slaves who are powerless to do anything about their respective situations; who can only hope through prayer.

And it’s the same at the community level.  Famines hit whole nations; war comes upon communities suddenly and unexpectedly; the nation of Israel becomes enslaved to Egypt.  What else can they do but cry out to God?

And, as you know, it’s not just the Bible.  People throughout history have been left with nothing they can do about their present situation—with nothing in their power but hope through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, I can also think of numerous examples where people actually can do something about it.

“Be strong and courageous; enter the land of promise,” Joshua commanded the people of Israel.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commanded.  And, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Moses led.  David protected.  Peter founded.  Paul preached.

In more modern times, Martin Luther King, Junior stood fast against systemic injustice.

Often times we are in fact called to act.  And, it seems reasonable to me, if we do not act it is to commit the sin of omission (as we name it in one of our prayers).

So, then, which is it? Hope or action?

To which I answer, yes.

The examples I’ve given are specific situations.  Of course there are times when individuals and communities will have no choice at all but to hope through prayer!  Likewise, of course there are specific times when individuals and communities will be called to act so that it feels as if hardly any prayer is taking place at all!

But our theology of prayer must not be formed from these polar extremes.  Informed by them, yes.  But not formed from them.

There are churches whose theology of prayer is formed only by hope.  You know what their message is?  Jesus will soon return and he’s not going to like what he finds.  A great battle will ensue culminating in the destruction of the entire cosmos.  All humanity, all the fauna and flora, all the sun moon and stars—all will be blotted out at the final trumpet blast!

There’s not a lot these churches can do.  Leaders from such churches encourage their parishioners to go out into the world and make disciples, for the souls of people are all that will pass into the afterlife.  But as for going out and fighting against social injustice, there’s really not much of a need.  Christianity’s place, they say, is only to hope in a future kingdom through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, there are churches whose theology of prayer comes only from good works.  Their message is: Christ has already brought his kingdom to earth; he has therefore called us to do as much as is in our power to bring this kingdom about.

The logical consequence is that we really have little time for sitting around in contemplative prayer.  Really, we shouldn’t take time out of our schedules at all for individual or corporate prayer, or even for worship.  In fact, we should spend as little money as possible on the church.  Instead we should use all our funds to feed and clothe the poor and to fight other social injustices we see in our local world.

Do you see the two polar extremes here?  A theology of prayer focused only on hope is infrared; and a theology of prayer focused only on action is ultraviolet.  To get the white light of the Gospel in its full splendor, we must have a proper theology of prayer: hope and action together, with all their gradients.

“Roy G. Biv” is how I learned the colors of the rainbow—like a man’s name: Roy as a first name, G as his middle initial, and Biv as his last name. And then I knew the colors of the rainbow in order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  Was it the same with you?

But we all know there are many more colors in the rainbow than seven.  For when we get to that liminal area between one color and the next—between red and orange, for instance—we see combinations of the two—reddish-orange and orangeish-red and a million other gradients—so that we can’t really see where one color stops and the other starts.

A full theology of prayer includes not just the infrared and the ultraviolet but also the ROYGBIV in between—and the millions upon millions of gradients therein.

Or, more simply, prayer is both hope and action—and all the millions upon millions of ways we can combine the two.

So, to return to the main point, Jesus says you need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Do you know how to do this?  It’s not easy.  But a church with a sound theology of prayer can help.

Here are just some of the traditions that have emerged from our church’s theology of prayer: lectio divina, the Ignatian method, praying our own Anglican rosary, centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, the Daily Office, meditation, intercession, giving gifts, the examen, journaling, walking, working, singing, chanting, reading, and simply sitting in silence.

This list is not exhaustive—please inquire later if you’d like to know more.  But I mention it because it shows how prayer is both hope and action, and all the various combinations of the two.

Take advantage of these traditions.  They will help you to pray always.  They will help you not to lose heart.

Pirates, Pompey, and the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2016 by timtrue



Bust of Pompey

Luke 17:5-10

How about a story? It comes to us from Roman engineering history; from that great military general Pompey, who was for many years a friend of Julius Caesar; and then an enemy.

So, in 66 BCE, about a hundred years before Jesus Christ was ministering in and around Judea, Pompey was given a charge: rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates; and, especially, protect the eastern borders of the Empire—not far from Judea.

Pirates had been a terrible nuisance in the ancient world since at least the fourteenth century.  They preyed upon coastal towns, often exacting tribute from fearful town leaders or kidnapping residents and selling them into slavery.  Many Greek cities were founded inland, as a matter of fact, to be out of reach of pirates.

It didn’t help their cause at all—if one could say they had a cause—that in the year 75 Cilician pirates ended up kidnapping Julius Caesar himself.  The early historian Plutarch says that Caesar’s kidnappers initially held him ransom for a price of twenty talents of gold; but then raised it to fifty at Caesar’s own request: he was worth at least that much, he said, if not more.

And now, a few years hence, Caesar charged Pompey with the task of ridding the Mediterranean of this menace.

During his campaign to end piracy, Pompey determined to build new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  There his engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall cliffs, whole mountainsides, often lined with the durable and hardy mulberry tree.

Soon, one of Pompey’s chief engineers discovered a way to accomplish this challenging task—in relatively short order too!—by spreading mustard seeds wherever the digging was to occur.  The mustard seed planted easily, grew quickly, and spread invasively, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.

So effective was this annual plant’s invasiveness that after only a few months an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, could be dug away and shaped into the harbors Pompey envisioned.  On occasion, digging wasn’t even necessary: records tell (so I’ve heard) that a few hillsides infested with the mustard plant simply crumbled and fell into the water.

Now, why do I tell this story about Pompey?  Because all this happened a century or so before Jesus tells today’s parable about the mustard seed.

Pompey was a very famous Roman military general.  He had spent time in the Palestinian region.  His engineering crews had discovered a way to make fast work of erosion to their great advantage using the mustard plant, so invasive that it could uproot the hardy mulberry tree; or command a mountain to be cast into the sea.

So: do you think anyone who heard Jesus that day might have remembered Pompey?  Pompey’s challenge was how to make new harbors when hardy trees and even mountainsides stood in the way.  For most people, this would have seemed an impossible task.  Yet Pompey believed he could bring it about; and he did.

And his belief—his faith—was about the size of a mustard seed.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The apostles heard this and—I’m certain!—immediately thought of Pompey and his amazing accomplishment.  We hear this and—I’d be willing to wager—we don’t.  Show of hands: how many of you thought of Pompey’s pirate-ridding accomplishments the moment Pat read today’s Gospel?

Instead, don’t we tend to think of our faith in terms of quantification?  “Lord,” we say with the apostles, “increase our faith!”  We then think that surely our faith must be small, smaller than even the itsy-bitsy mustard seed, for life is difficult and we rarely get what we feel should be coming to us; but, as we see in today’s passage, even if I had a little faith I could do incredible things.

Now, in fact, there’s a whole branch of modern-day American evangelical Christianity that promotes this message.  If you are sick, they say, pray and ask Jesus to heal you; then just believe.  If you stay sick, they say, then it’s only because you don’t have enough faith: you must pray for more.

The argument is just the same with money: if you’re poor, they say, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  Pray and believe; name it and claim it; and if your faith is large enough, why, anything you can dream of will be yours.

Faith is quantifiable, they want us to believe.  And the more money you send to them, they tell you, the more faith you will possess.

When the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” and Jesus answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—what we hear Jesus saying is, “Oh, if only you had even a little bit of faith; but as it is, you really don’t have any.”  The result is that we hear this parable in a modern, American, evangelical, prosperity-gospel, consumer sort of way: faith becomes an individual possession, a kind of talent or skillset that makes me an expert when I find out how to obtain it, to be envied by those who haven’t yet figured it out.

But, instead, when the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus’ response is really more along these lines: “Oh, don’t you know?  You already have faith.  Don’t you remember Pompey?  He believed he could move mulberry trees and indeed whole mountainsides in order to make his harbors.  And he did!  If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and indeed you do!—you can throw this mulberry tree into the sea too!”

With the apostles, we cry to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  And the Lord replies, “Oh, but you already have faith.  And with it you can move mountains!”

So why don’t we?

There’s no shortage of mountains in our world.  You all know this.  Right on our doorstep, for instance—right here in Yuma County—we have one of the lowest percentages in the country of high-school graduates who go on to college.  We also have one of the highest rates of unemployment.  Trader Joe’s won’t even open up a store here.  These are big problems.  They can feel like mountains.

But Pompey moved mountains and cast mulberry trees into the sea and thus built his harbors with a faith the size of a mustard seed.

How so?  He didn’t rely on himself—his own knowledge and talents and expertise or whatever.  Instead, he called on his chief engineers—to think creatively, to experiment.  And also he relied on his army—his employees, if you will.  This was his community.

And why did he do it?  To rid the Mediterranean from the pirates that controlled it, for the sake of the common good!  This was his mission: the common good.

And so, Plutarch writes, “Thus was this war ended, and the whole power of the pirates at sea dissolved everywhere in the space of three months” (Dryden’s translation).

But—and I think here is where we find our answer—Pompey’s faith was not our modern-day, American, evangelical, consumer understanding of faith.  For Pompey—and, more importantly, for Jesus—faith was not understood as something to be individually possessed; a thing to be stocked up, hoarded, and stored away as some kind of commodity; so that if we’re ever sick or suddenly encounter financial ruin we can somehow pull it out as a spiritual antibiotic or divine debit card.

Rather, Pompey understood the mission set before him; and he knew he couldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus Christ understood the mission before him; and he knew he wouldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus came to earth as God incarnate; and lived and died and rose again.  But he didn’t ascend to the right hand of the Father until after his disciples understood their mission.

And their mission is our mission.  We have been called to transform this troubled, confused, mixed-up, bewildered world into the very Kingdom of God, for the sake of the common good.

And how is this mission ever going to go forward if our focus is on our individual selves and how much of a consumer-faith we can acquire?  Or not!

Instead, we must bind together, put our heads together, call on our chief engineers to think creatively, to experiment with new ways of thinking; in order to rid our seas from the pirates that now control them.  For the sake of the common good!

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do; you do!—you can move mountains.

Our Great Scapegoat

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2016 by timtrue

champaigne_shepherd1Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus thought about telling them this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And, on the sixth day, as you all know, God created Adam and Eve.  After a time, they had a son.  His name was Cain.  And a short time later, they had another son, named Abel.

Now, as you Pharisees and scribes no doubt know—because, after all, you are good Jews; you were brought up on the scriptures by your parents and the Temple—as you know, Cain and Abel grew up.  And one day they were out in the fields, offering sacrifices to God.  And, curiously, Abel’s sacrifice pleased the Most High God; but, for whatever reason, Cain’s did not.

An overwhelming jealousy came over Cain; and what did he do but rise up against his brother Abel and strike him down, dead as anything?  You know all this.

But what did God do next?  Did he strike Cain down, saying something like, “Vengeance is mine?”

No!  Rather, God put a mark on Cain and exiled him off to another place.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: God put a mark on Cain so that everyone who came in contact with him would avoid him; so that everyone who came in contact with him would know he was a monster and thus steer clear.  For this is what you’ve been taught.

But it’s not like that at all!  Rather than putting a mark on Cain to identify him as a murderer, isn’t Cain’s mark rather a grace from God?  Read your scriptures!  According to them, Cain’s mark is so that others will not be able to take vengeance on him.

And then, with this mark of God’s protection and grace upon him, what does Cain do?  He settles in the land of Nod, east of Eden, where he establishes a new civilization, replete with culture, laws, morals, ethics, politics, and so on.

Cain’s son Enoch founded a whole city bearing his name.  Cain’s descendant Jubal (according to Genesis 4:21), “was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and the pipe”; and his descendant Tubal-cain “made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.”  That’s what the scriptures say!

Cain grumbled about his brother.  All of his problems, he told himself, were because of him.  Thus, Abel became Cain’s scapegoat.  So Cain killed Abel.  And then—interestingly enough—he went off to found a civilization.


All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus thought about telling them this:

In the beginning of the history of Rome, after the great Aeneas had landed on the shores of Italy at Latium, as you all know, twin brothers were born by the names of Romulus and Remus.

As young men these twins were astounded to hear a prophecy about themselves: one of the two was destined to establish a great city that should one day become an empire to rule the entire known world.  One of these two, the prophecy said; not both!

And thus the audacious Romulus began to build a sort of wall, establishing boundaries for his new city.  But Remus caught wind of Romulus’s plan and, in a display of defiance, jumped over Romulus’s wall, in full sight of Romulus, to say in effect that his boundary meant nothing.  The city is mine to establish, Remus said, not yours.

And, as you all know, Romulus rose up against his brother in a fit a jealousy and struck him down, dead as anything.  He then went on to establish the great city Rome, with all its civilization, culture, laws, morals, ethics, politics, and so on.

Now, O Pharisees and scribes, does this story remind you of anything?  Doesn’t it sound a lot like the rivalry between Cain and Abel?

Except now there’s a major difference.  In Cain and Abel’s story, Cain was wrong to spill his brother’s blood upon the ground.  And thus he was exiled in punishment.

But here, in Romulus and Remus’s story, the gods in fact approve of the killing; for the killing of Remus was, according to the pantheon, not a murder but a necessary sacrifice.  If Remus had continued to live, according to the gods, then the city would never have been founded.

So: Cain is guilty but nevertheless forgiven; Romulus isn’t even guilty.

Abel and Remus were both scapegoats.  In the Jewish story, Abel was a scapegoat for his human brother.  In the Roman story, Remus was a scapegoat both for the human and the divine.


What is it about us and scapegoats?

There’s something in all of us that gravitates towards rivalry.  It’s nothing new, nothing unique to our generation.  The Olympic Games date back almost three millennia, to 776 BCE (according to the IOC).

Even in Eden, rivalry was part of the serpent’s strategy in tempting Eve.  “You will be like God,” the serpent claimed.  God was made Eve’s rival.

Now, there are individual rivalries—Cain versus Abel, Romulus versus Remus, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier.  And there are group rivalries—the Trojans versus the Greeks, the Patriots versus the Colts, Republicans versus Democrats.

Evolutionary biologists point to natural selection: this innate competitive instinct is in our species for our own survival, they say.

Whatever the case, it’s there.  Competition is part of our human make-up.

And a very real part of rivalry is the scapegoat.

I want to get ahead, to be first.  And one way to do that (among others) is to place all my problems, faults, inadequacies, and weaknesses on someone else: a scapegoat.  Then I feel better about myself.

Eve told God, “The devil made me do it.”  Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Romulus said the gods needed Remus as a sacrifice.  The Romans captured and enslaved the Greeks because, they said, the Greeks had conquered the Trojans: they got what was coming to them.  Tom Brady deflated footballs.  The reason the economy is so bad today is because of Obama; or, if you’re a Democrat, because of Bush.

What is it about us and scapegoats?

I’ll tell you what it is: they unify us.

If it were only and ever up to individual rivalries, we humans would never unify over anything.  Cain would kill Abel and Romulus would kill Remus; then, in some dark alley of mythology, Cain and Romulus would meet and fight until only one was left standing.

But, strangely, curiously, scapegoats unify us as a group against our rivals.  In the scapegoat we find a common enemy.

Suppose there’s a divisive issue at your place of work.  The boss thinks she’s found the source of the problem: a grumpy co-worker no one seems too sorry to see let go.  Then, curiously, after the co-worker is fired, the issue clears up—at least for the time being.  And then you all say, “Well, I guess the grumpy co-worker was the reason we couldn’t accomplish our agenda after all.”  For now that he—your rival—is out of the picture, why, you have some peace.  As a group, you are unified.

This peace may last only for a moment, sure.  Nevertheless, now there is unification amongst the ninety-nine because the one at fault has been discovered, identified, and cast out.

We humans are kind of a nasty species, yeah?  We tend to think in dichotomies.  It’s either we or they; the good guys or the bad guys; Democrat or Republican; the ninety-nine or the one.

We form our own rivalries in our minds, pick sides, establish loyalties, and fight against our common enemy, our scapegoat.  We establish unwritten rules about who’s in and who’s out; who’s saved and who’s not; who’s worthy of inviting to church and who’s not; who are the tax collectors and sinners and who’s not.

Yet, by God’s grace and forgiveness, even Cain went on to found an entire civilization.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus told them this parable:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? . . .  Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”

You know what Jesus is talking about here?  This is the new civilization Jesus has founded, the City of God.

Jesus includes the lost sheep in his city.  Like an old woman who values every single coin she possesses, Jesus searches far and wide until he finds them all.

In his new civilization, the City of God:

  • Jesus includes the Cains.
  • He includes the Romuluses.
  • He includes tax collectors.
  • He includes sinners.
  • He includes Pharisees.
  • He includes scribes.
  • And he includes scapegoats.

By the way, who is the greatest scapegoat of all?  Isn’t it Jesus Christ himself, our great Scapegoat, upon whom we have placed all our sin and misery?

And finally, when all the lost sheep and coins, Cains and Romuluses, tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes—when all the forsaken scapegoats have been found and welcomed into Jesus’ new civilization, the City of God, there will be great rejoicing!

When Bonds Are Severed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on September 4, 2016 by timtrue

800px-Anton_Van_Dyck_-_Christ_carrying_the_Cross_-_Google_Art_Project[1]Luke 14:25-33

Today we hear some difficult words from Jesus.  “Whoever comes to me,” he says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  And a little later, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

This is a hard saying.

Now, much has been made in scholarship over the word hate.  Does Jesus mean hate in the way we say “I hate terrorism” or some other evil, humanity-opposed ideology; or does he mean it more like when a young child says, “Ugh!  I hate spinach”?

So, after all the scholarship is said and done, here’s what scholars tell us.  When Jesus says hate here in the Greek, in English it means—are you ready?—hate!  The Greek is just like the English: there are many different ways to define this word.

Which isn’t really all that helpful.

So, we look at the context.

After Jesus says this hard saying about hating mother, father, wife, children, brother, sister, and even life itself, he goes on to offer a couple illustrations about anticipating the cost of some kind of endeavor or another.  Who among you would build a tower without first sitting down and figuring out how much it will cost?  Or what kind of king would run pell-mell into battle without first strategizing?

From the context, then, we see the gist: discipleship comes with a cost.  Faithfully following Jesus isn’t easy!

The Old Testament passage, from Deuteronomy, highlights this idea.  “If you obey my commandments,” God tells the people of Israel through Moses, “life will go well for you.  But if you don’t—well, not so much.”  There is a cost to being a part of the family of God.

Same goes for Psalm 1 and the book of Philemon.

Oh, Philemon!  In this beautiful letter, St. Paul writes to Philemon about his runaway slave, a guy named Onesimus.  Under Roman law, Philemon has every right to execute Onesimus.  But Paul beseeches Philemon to overlook the law and instead to take Onesimus back into his household.  Moreover, Onesimus himself has converted to the Christian faith and will be faithful, for he has counted the cost of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

That’s the gist.  Discipleship comes at a cost.  Therefore, as disciples of Jesus, we must count that cost.

But what does this cost look like?

I once had a good friend; let’s call him Ron.  Ron was my principal; I was a second-grade teacher.  From the moment we met we got on like two peas in a pod.

To illustrate our friendship: one November morning I left for school on foot, as was my custom.  Now, this was in northeastern Pennsylvania.  It was 25 degrees when I left the house for my two-mile walk to work: cold, but not cold enough for long johns, I figured.

But by the halfway point a stiff wind had come up and, with it, a sudden drop in temperature.  When I reached the school parking lot, I wasn’t all that surprised to find it empty and the front doors locked.

This was before the advent of cell phones or any other form of instant communication at our disposal today.  I would find out later that I’d left my house just moments before someone at the school had called me to say it was cancelled for the day.

Anyway, there I stood, locked out of the school building, shivering, already chilled deeply, regretting my choice not to wear long johns, when I remembered that Ron lived just around the corner.  So I walked to his house and knocked on his door.  The thermometer on the porch read 10 degrees.

A few seconds later Ron opened his door, with an expression of dismay on his face.  He was in his bathrobe.  “What are you doing out there?” he asked.  “Come in, before you catch your death!”

So I did.  Gladly!  And he proceeded to make a pot of coffee while I called my wife to explain I might not be home for a little while but I’m okay, just gonna warm up for a bit at Ron’s.

Then, of all things, on the old VHS together Ron and I watched The Muppet Movie while we sipped our coffees and allowed our conversation to meander like that great river in ancient Greece.

Such was our friendship!

Until some years later, when I called Ron on the phone to hash out some inner theological battle I was having over the sacraments.

“Ron,” I said finally, coming to my point, “so I’ve left the Baptist church and joined the Presbyterian.  Our girls will be baptized on Pentecost Sunday.  I’d love if you could be there.”

There was only silence on the other end.  Uncomfortable, awkward silence.

“Ron,” I finally addressed, “what is it?”

And then he said the last thing I wanted to hear.  “Tim,” he said, “I don’t see how our friendship can ever be the same again.”

Turns out the vital bond holding our friendship together was our shared Baptist perspective.  Now that bond was severed.

Ron and I have exchanged some emails and Christmas cards since.  But that’s the last time I heard his voice.

A friend lost.  Over something as petty as a denominational difference.  Did I count the cost of this when I signed up to be a disciple?

Perhaps a better question to ask: Did I even have a choice?

This scenario brings up an interesting nuance in counting the cost of discipleship.  Ron and I no longer share the friendship we once did.  Our bond of friendship was severed over our ideological differences.  But it wasn’t my fault.  If it were solely up to me, Ron and I would still be bosom buddies today.  I was the passive party in the severing; Ron the active.

These things happen when we follow Jesus.  Our faith interferes with our friendships and family relationships.  Our faith interferes with the bonds we form with our things, our material possessions.  We need to understand that.  We need to count that cost.

But how active should we be in severing these bonds?

Let’s explore this nuance.

Jesus says that unless we hate family members, friends, and possessions we cannot be his disciple.  Does that mean, then, that I actively cut off ties with family members and friends because they don’t share the same perspectives as I do?

I’m an Episcopalian.  So, what if I have family members who are Roman Catholic?  If they visit me on a Sunday, they’re more than welcome to come to this Table and participate in Communion with me; but if it’s the other way around—if I go to visit them on a Sunday—I can’t take Communion, at least according to Catholic canon.  Thus, what does this mean for me?  Do I never attend church with them again?  Do I stop visiting them at religious holidays?  Do we agree never to talk about religion when we’re together?

So, change up the scenario a little bit.  I’m an Episcopalian.  What if the friends or family members go to one of those fundamentalist churches, one of those churches that says only born again Christians are going to heaven; and they drop continual hints that they really don’t think I’m born again?  What kinds of bonds and to what extent do I actively sever then?

Or what if a friend or family member wants to make politics a moral issue—that it is a moral imperative for me, he says, as a Christian to vote for one candidate or the other?  (The name doesn’t matter.  I’ve heard moral-imperative arguments for both sides!)

Now take it a step further.  What if my friends or family members are Mormon?  What if they’re Atheist?

It’s going to happen: I will experience differences and divisions because of my faith.  But should I be active in severing the ties that bind?

Ron thought he had to cut ties with me over a different Protestant perspective—two denominations within the same vein!

On a much larger scale, recall the ugly history of the Christian church.  In 16th– and 17th-century England, for instance, Roman Catholics burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake; and there was a lengthy civil war started and perpetuated by Protestant Puritans.

And what’s been happening in recent times?  One group doesn’t like another; so they actively break away and form their own, new denomination.

Is this what Jesus wants us to do as his disciples?  Is this what he means by hating father, mother, brother, sister, and so on?  Is this what it means to bear his cross and count the cost?

The Christian way, it seems, has been antithesis.  We see something we don’t like or that we don’t agree with and we say, well, Christ called us to hate sister and brother, so we should actively wipe the dust off our feet and move on.  We’ll start our own thing, a thing we like better, a thing more aligned with our perspective.  This has been the Christian way.

But is this Jesus Christ’s way?

Not too long ago we heard that Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him out into Samaritan villages.  Jesus knew ahead of time that his disciples would be opposed ideologically, that the mission would most likely fail.  If Jesus had wanted actively to sever bonds with these Samaritans, he most surely would not have sent his disciples on this mission.  But he did.

Christian history is replete with active division, discord, even hatred.  But Jesus Christ’s way is about reconciliation, forgiveness, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and loving our enemies.

Jesus Christ’s way is active love.

This, then, strikes me as the cost of discipleship, the cross that we are called to bear:

Be passive in hate; active in love.

Not a Table Manners Manifesto

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by timtrue


Luke 14:1, 7-14

What’s the purpose of preaching?  Why do I stand before you, Sunday after Sunday, offering my reflections on and interpretation of the Word of God?  Is it simply to instruct?

So, here’s what happens when the purpose of preaching is simply to instruct.  The preacher generally gets to a point in the sermon where he or she says something like, “People, we’ve got problems.”

And our problems are whatever happens to have risen to the surface in the text.  We sin.  We despair.  We fear.  We don’t love our neighbor as we ought.  We don’t love God as we ought.  We hold grudges.  We aren’t as good in our discipleship as we should be.  We over-consume.  We ignore God’s mystery in our lives.  We condone injustice by allowing it to happen.  We whatever.  Are you with me?

And you sit there listening to the preacher go on and on about it all, and you think, “Yep, he’s nailed it.  That’s exactly what I do.”  And because we’ve read out of the Old Testament earlier in the service, you’re thinking, “And it’s exactly what people like me have been doing for thousands of years.”

And so the preacher goes on to explain how doing (or not doing) these ungodly actions harms you and all those around you and reinforces certain social conditions that end up harming all humanity.

And then, finally, the preacher provides answers, methods, or marching orders, telling you how then to live.  We preachers want to solve all the world’s problems and wrap up our solutions in nice, neat packages.

But here’s the problem.

You hear a preacher offer didactic instruction like this and you end up thinking, “Yep, she’s nailed it.  That’s what I do all right.  But, hey, I’m not Mother Theresa.  I’m just a guy like everyone else around me, kind of dysfunctional, just trying to live my life and have a little fun along the way.”

And your response to the preacher’s nice, neat package is something along the lines of, “Well, that sounds noble and all, but, c’mon, I can’t really do that”; or, “Hey, now, preacher, you’re taking it a little too far”; or, my favorite, “What in the world is he talking about?”

Now, have you noticed that Jesus very seldom offers instruction; that he rarely teaches didactically?  Instead, he tells parables, a kind of story laden with rich imagery; and he demonstrates life lessons through healings and miracles.

Rather than instruct, then, doesn’t Jesus instead disrupt?  He provokes his hearers to see things in new ways through imagery; and he evokes emotional responses.  He teaches not by instruction; but by disruption.

We preachers would do well to take note.

But then we come to today’s Gospel.  At our first hearing—and maybe at our second, third, fourth, and beyond—this reading sounds more like didactic instruction on table etiquette than it does a parable.  “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” Jesus says, “do not sit down at the place of honor.”

Jesus is at a banquet.  People are entering and selfishly grabbing seats of honor.  Jesus seizes the moment and teaches.  “But when you are invited,” he continues, “go and sit down at the lowest place.”

This sure sounds like didactic instruction to me!

Yet, Luke tells us, his readers, that Jesus is telling a parable here—an image-laden story designed to provoke and evoke, not to instruct.

So could something more be going on here?  Is Jesus addressing something other than only the selfish manners he sees in front of him?  Could it be that he is seizing the moment at hand not to teach didactically but, rather, provocatively?

This was a meal on the Sabbath, the text tells us.  Yet Jesus says, “When you are invited to a wedding banquet.”

Hmm.  Not a Sabbath meal; but a wedding banquet.  This is a disconnection.

Does this disconnection provoke us?  Do Jesus’ words, which seem a little detached, evoke some kind of imagery for us?  Do we maybe come across wedding banquets elsewhere in the scriptures?

And so we begin to piece it together.  Jesus almost always teaches by disruption, not instruction.  Striking imagery is taking place right in front of Jesus’ face: at this Sabbath meal, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors are selfishly grabbing for the places of honor.  Noticeably absent from this Sabbath meal are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Also absent from this meal, we should note, as was the custom of the day, are women.

No: this doesn’t look anything like a wedding feast.  And besides, what kind of wedding feast in wealthy Palestine would include the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?  Or, perhaps a better question to ask is, where would we find a wedding feast that includes the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?

Contrary to what some scholars argue, Jesus is not offering here a table manners manifesto.  Rather, like he does seemingly everywhere else in the Gospels, Jesus is seizing the imagery right in front of him not to instruct but to disrupt; not to explain but to provoke.

In this particular case he paints a picture of his kingdom, the realm of God.  Except he uses the imagery in front of him to paint a picture of exactly what God’s realm is not.

There’s a lot of silliness going on before his face just now.  Brothers, relatives, friends, rich neighbors, business associates, maybe some patrons and clients, are all clamoring to grab for themselves a seat of honor.  They’re all clamoring to get ahead, to put themselves first.

And why, exactly?  So they will be noticed?  So they can sit next to someone who will be noticed?

We do this too.  It’s not just that crowd sitting around Jesus at that Sabbath meal.  And it’s not something found just in that day, time, and culture—something that those Romans struggled with but, hey, we’ve evolved.  No: self-centeredness, pushiness, greed, desire to be on top, getting ahead at someone else’s expense—these ambitions are part of the human condition.

We do these things all the time.  Just look around us!

How many CEOs got to their positions by acts of selflessness, or by being humble?

How many politicians can you name that exemplify the personality traits expressed in the beatitudes: blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers?

How many lawsuits, I wonder, are won by the people who actually deserve to win—from an ethical standpoint?

Nice guys finish last, the saying goes—for good reason.  We might as well just say, pushy people get their way.

And we shrug our shoulders and get on with life, saying to ourselves comforting aphorisms: “It is what it is.  It’s just the way things are.”

But why, exactly?  What is it in me that tells me I’m more important than any other person on the face of the planet?

I don’t know.  But it all seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?

Using provocative imagery, then, Jesus disrupts this Sabbath meal to make his point.  His kingdom isn’t anything like this silliness going on in front of his face.  In fact, his kingdom is the opposite.

In his realm, people don’t push and shove to be first, to grab honors for themselves, to get ahead of everyone else in the world.  In his realm it’s the forgotten people, the social outcasts, who sit in the places of honor at wedding banquets.

God’s realm is upside-down from the earthly realm.  Which leads me to wonder: maybe it’s the earthly realm that’s upside-down; and God’s realm is the one that’s right-side up.

So, let’s return now to my opening question: what’s the purpose of preaching?

Many people maintain that the purpose of preaching—why I stand up here before you Sunday after Sunday—is simply to instruct, or at least mostly to instruct.  Well, instruction happens, no doubt about it.  But it’s not the main purpose.  I hope I’ve effectively debunked this idea.

Jesus seldom instructed his hearers in a didactic way.  Rather, he most often disrupted them: their world, their common way of thinking.  We see this in today’s passage—and nearly everywhere else in the Gospels.

But is this the main purpose of preaching?  To disrupt?  Do I stand before you week after week mainly to call into question whatever I’ve seen you do or heard you say in the past week?  I don’t think so.  For that would make me a very contrary preacher.  And in short order I wouldn’t have many friends, let alone parishioners.

No, there’s more to it.  Why does Jesus teach by disruption?

His world wasn’t all too different from ours.  All around us, social conventions and institutions (yes, including religious institutions) prevent us from seeing things the way they really are.  Our earthly realm prevents us from seeing the greater reality of God’s realm.

And we get set in our ways.  We do things over and over the same way.  We get used to it all and say, “It is what it is.  This is just the way things are.”

And so, when you come to church and hear a preacher offer instruction about what’s wrong with your world and how you should fix it, you agree.  But you are also hardwired to go right back to the way you’ve always done things.  The preacher’s instruction doesn’t “stick.”

But disruption is more effective.  Disruption involves provocative imagery.  Disruption provokes you out of your comfort zone, your routine, much more effectively than straightforward didactic instruction.

But then what?  Once Jesus has effectively provoked his hearers; once Jesus has clapped them freshly awake out of their half-asleep stupor and they are suddenly aware of the greater reality of God’s realm, what does he do then?

He doesn’t give them a method or some kind of list for self-improvement.  He doesn’t give marching orders.  He doesn’t give them easy answers to be wrapped up in a nice, neat package.

Instead, Jesus most often leaves his hearers right where he’s taken them: to ponder his parables without any explanation at all.

Do you see?  Through disruption Jesus provokes his hearers out of a lesser reality into a greater reality, where he then leaves them to experience this greater reality; to draw their own conclusions; to wrap up their own not-so-nice, not-so-neat packages.  This is the preacher’s purpose.  Liberation!

Dear Christians, the lesser reality of this world holds you no longer.  You have been set free.  Experience the greater reality that is God’s realm.

Straightening Up

Posted in Homilies with tags on August 21, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 13:10-17

I don’t know about you, but when I hear this story from today’s Gospel—about a woman so crippled she can’t even stand up straight; about Jesus healing this woman; and about the synagogue leader’s response—whenever I hear this story, I immediately focus on the synagogue leader.  Is it the same for you?

In part, I’m sure, it’s because of my modern American sensitivities.  The synagogue leader is just plain mean.  She’s a crippled woman, for goodness’ sake!  Shouldn’t she be treated with at least the same dignity and respect as any other person—or at least with as much dignity and respect as a donkey?  Go Jesus!  You tell that bully a thing or two!

Also, my kneejerk focus on the synagogue leader probably has something to do with my American independence.  I mean, this guy’s opposing Jesus—Jesus, who is always the good guy, by default.  And Jesus helps the underdog, right?  So there’s that.  And also there’s this constraint the synagogue leader demonstrates: he’s bound by the rules of his tradition.  He’s legalistic.  And what good American wants the rules of some foreign tradition foisted upon him?

Then there’s my personal bias.  I was raised during the musical era that’s known today as “classic rock”; and—what can I say?—I’m a product of my culture.  We all are.  Anyway, the synagogue leader represents the establishment.  And as all good cynical classic rock-and-rollers know, the establishment is designed only to benefit those in charge, its leaders.  So, here’s this leader of the synagogue—the establishment!  Take him down, Jesus!

Are you with me?

But what if instead of focusing just on the synagogue leader we also focus our attention on the bent-over woman?

I have a good reason for asking: the context suggests it.

Immediately before this story Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree.  For three years it bore no fruit.  The owner of the farm tells his gardener to cut the tree down.  But the gardener talks him out of it, saying to give it just one more year; if it bears no fruit by that time, then he will cut it down.

Is today’s story, then, just about an unrepentant synagogue leader; and how God is patient with us when we act like that synagogue leader, giving us more time to repent?  Maybe.  But it feels like there should be more to it.

So we look at what follows.  Here, Jesus tells two more parables, now about the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed.  Though a very small seed, it grows into one of the largest plants in all of the Mediterranean region, so large that even the birds of the air come to roost in its branches.  And again, the kingdom of God is like yeast that spreads throughout a batch of dough until all the batch is leavened.

And so, aha!  Now we begin to see!

On the one hand there’s repentance; and on the other there’s the kingdom of God.  And wedged between these teachings we find today’s story.  Surely, it’s got to be about more than just a kneejerk response to the establishment.

You see, because of our cultural context—we’re independent, rock-and-roll Americans—we immediately turn our focus on the synagogue leader and say Boo! and try to learn lessons about what we shouldn’t do; how we shouldn’t behave.  But the biblical context suggests that we should focus not just on the synagogue leader but also on the bent-over woman.  And perhaps even mostly, or all, on her!  For she is the one in this story who experiences a change in direction—i. e., repentance—and is transformed into a citizen of the kingdom of God.

So, setting aside our desire to heckle and jeer the bad guy in this story, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?

First, here are a few observations:

  • She’s been crippled for eighteen years.  Where were you eighteen years ago?  What were you doing?  That’s a long time!
  • Her ailment—for the last eighteen years!—is being bent over.  So severe is her ailment that she is unable to straighten up.
  • In contrast to the earlier miracles in Luke’s Gospel, this crippled woman does not ask for healing.

These observations come from the text.  So, next, what might we infer from them?

Well, what would it mean to be bent over so that you couldn’t straighten up?  You’d be looking at the ground all the time.  Imagine that.  Dust.  Dirt.  Mud.  Rocks.  Feet.  (In cities, sewage.)  All the time!

You hear a bird chirping in a nearby tree and you can’t look up at it—not without a lot of trouble anyway.  You approach a group of people talking and laughing with one another and you can’t look in their faces, you can’t see the laughter in their eyes—at least not without turning sideways and twisting your neck awkwardly and painfully.

The sun, the moon, the stars, the tops of trees and mountains, the distant horizon, the up-close faces of friends and family—all of these are mostly inaccessible to you.  Imagine that!  For eighteen long, frustrating years!

To struggle to see only the path immediately at your feet!  To see only the dirt and dust immediately before you!  Imagine!

And what can we make of her not asking for healing?  Had she resigned herself to her condition?  Had she concluded, “Well, I guess this is simply the way things are and the way things are always gonna be”?

But then!  Ah, then!  Jesus breaks into her life.  He calls her to himself; and he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”; and he lays his hands on her; and immediately she stands up straight—straight!—and she sees the sun and the birds and the faces all around her, without difficulty; and she begins to praise God.

She begins.  That’s an interesting word, isn’t it?  For it suggests that she will continue doing so—that she will continue praising God for her new condition; that she has experienced a changed life (repentance), and that this transformation will continue (into the eternal kingdom of God).

So, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?  Just this: transformation.  This crippled, often overlooked, unnamed woman offers us a picture of transformation, a picture of the ongoing life we should be living in Christ.

Jesus has called each of us to himself—whether we’ve asked him for healing or not!  And he’s said to each of us, “Child, you are set free from your ailment.”

Consequently, have you begun to praise God for your new condition?  If so, are you continuing to praise God?  Or, to rephrase these questions: Have you begun to be transformed in Christ?  And, if so, are you continuing to live into this transformation?

Too often we end up spending our whole lives looking down at the dust and dirt and muck at our feet, unable to take in the larger world around us because of our great ailment—an ailment much greater than this woman’s—called sin.

And don’t think for a moment this ailment only applies to those outside of the church!

Jesus was standing right in front of this woman.  And no doubt she had heard about him already.  No doubt, by this time in his ministry, word had spread far and wide of his teachings and workings of miracles.

And yet, when the opportunity presented itself to her—right before her downward-angled face!—she did not approach him; she did not express her need for healing.

Have we resigned ourselves similarly?  Have we been a part of church—has church been a part of us—for so long now that despite hearing Jesus’ call we merely continue looking down at our own two dirty, dusty feet; at our own treacherous path of life upon which we walk?  Do we fail to look upward at Jesus and praise God?  Do we forget to continue praising God for our ongoing transformation in Christ?

Transformation in Christ is a continuous process.  We are being transformed more and more throughout our lives from our marred, sin-laden, fallen images into the perfect, sinless image of Christ.  Or at least we should be!

This is the Good News.  This is why we follow Christ in the first place.