Archive for April, 2014

Doubt; Confusion; Snark

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 27, 2014 by timtrue


John 20:19-31

Why do we call him doubting Thomas?

Yes, I know there’s this passage, here, about him. Jesus appears to the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” And Thomas isn’t in the room.

Soon afterwards Thomas hears about the Lord’s appearing and says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Sometime later Jesus appears again and says, “Peace be with you.” And Thomas is there this time. Jesus says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands”—a curious point to which we’ll come back—and then, “Do not doubt but believe.”

So is this why we call him doubting? Because Jesus himself said, “Do not doubt but believe”?

Just to put it out there, the other disciples were just a doubtful as Thomas. Yet we don’t call them things like skeptical Simon, at-a-loss Andrew, or befuddled Bartholomew.

So, why Thomas?

This question becomes even more absurd when we look more broadly at the man Thomas. In the other three Gospels, he’s barely noticed. His name is merely mentioned—and only one time in each narrative. Other than that he is one of the twelve, we learn nothing. Everything else we know about him comes from John.

With respect to John then, he shows up in two other passages before today’s.

The first is in John 11, you remember, that chapter where Lazarus dies. A messenger comes to Jesus and says, “Lazarus, the one that you love, is very ill, about to die.” Then Jesus waits for a couple more days where he is before going to raise Lazarus. He tells the disciples plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” And Thomas responds, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”

What is behind this response? Was Thomas being sarcastic? Like, “Yeah, right, I ain’t going back there. Last time you were that close to Jerusalem, Jesus, we almost all got killed. Yeah, guys! Hey, great idea! Let’s go also, that we may die with him.”

I don’t know. Maybe we should call him snarky Thomas, not doubting.

The only other time we see Thomas is just before Jesus says some very well-known words. Addressing his disciples, Jesus says something about going to his Father’s house, where “there are many dwelling-places.” He then adds, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Then Thomas says to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In this episode Thomas seems simply not to get it. Perhaps a better moniker would be confused.

Yet we know Thomas as doubting.

So, anyway, I’d like to suggest a new name for Thomas today. Granted, I’m not about to presume it will catch on. We Christians have been calling Thomas doubting for nearly 2,000 years; and one piddly sermon, I know, won’t turn that tide.

Nevertheless, looking at the broader Gospel of John suggests a more accurate name for Thomas; and, by extension, a more accurate name for us. For we are all very much like Thomas. We all have times of doubt, times of confusion, and even times of snark. And thus we have a lot to learn from this character, this doubting disciple.

So for today, I propose we call him unseeing Thomas. And here’s why.

The Gospel of John plays a lot with the verb to see. The word has many different shades of meaning in Greek, just like it does in English. When we say, “I see,” we can mean any number of things: I see something, a physical object; I understand; I feel; I believe; and so on. It’s the same in Greek. In fact, one commentary I read this week claims that there are fully 20 different meanings of the word “see” in the Gospel of John.

So we encounter Thomas, one of the twelve apostles who lived closely with Jesus throughout his ministry—who saw Jesus daily in other words—and yet somehow throughout it all failed truly to see. Or, to put it another way, Thomas failed truly to understand who Jesus was; he failed to believe. And in this sense he was unseeing.

Think back four weeks to that Sunday when Jesus healed the man born blind. Thomas was like so many others in that story. There were religious leaders, remember, who asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They didn’t really see the truth, did they?

Then there were the man’s parents. They feared the religious leaders and said something along the lines of, “We don’t know how our son now sees. Ask him, for he is of age.”

There were others in the story too—neighbors, people in the community who had grown up around the blind man and no doubt knew him; and, arguably, even some of the apostles—for whom it was the same. No one in the story could believe it.

No one could believe that Jesus had performed a miracle, that the man who had been born blind could now see. No one, that is, except Jesus and the healed man himself!

Then the story ends with a sort of twist. All the people who could see physically at the story’s beginning were unable truly to see—or, to believe—at the story’s end.

This seeing-yet-blindness—this unseeing—then, is what characterizes Thomas (and many others) throughout the Gospel. It is at the root of his doubt, of his confusion, of his snark.

And—I think you know this already—this unseeing is at the root of your spiritual struggles, and at the root of mine.

We are like Thomas; we are unseeing.

In society we hear about changing economies, wars over oil, and duplicitous world rulers; and we want to give up on humanity.

In our corporate life as a church we get caught up in our individual concerns and causes and lose sight of the great and marvelous calling Jesus has given us together, to reconcile a tweaked universe to God.

In our families we can lose sight of what we’re about—siblings angering one another and holding lengthy grudges, for instance, instead of rejoicing in all the stunning variety found in the closeness of blood relationships.

In our personal lives, too, we fail at prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

We seek to control others, or to control circumstances, to manipulate our environment, so that things will go well for us and those we love. But in doing these things, it is so easy to lose sight of Jesus, that he is giving sight to the blind despite our unbelief, that he is in control of our lives and the cause-and-effect circumstances that take place continually all around us. In doing these things we forget to trust Jesus; we knock him off his throne as King of kings and Lord of lords and we put ourselves there instead, in his place. In our own doubt, like Thomas, not only do we fail to trust; more significantly, we fail to see.

But notice how today’s passage ends. Jesus appears among the disciples a second time. And this time Thomas is here. Jesus looks at him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands . . . Do not doubt but believe.”

Does Thomas actually touch the resurrected Jesus? We don’t know! The scriptures merely say that Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” not that he touched Jesus.

But—whether he touched him or not, that’s beside the point!—in his answer there is no doubt, no confusion, and no snark; only belief, only true seeing.

Thomas is our example this morning, for we are very much like him: doubting. But Jesus is right here in the midst of us, right now. Our only right response is to answer, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Blessed are those who truly see; blessed are those who believe.

Vanquished Fear

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on April 20, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 28:1-10

Matthew’s Gospel offers some vivid details about Christ’s resurrection.

The first day of the week was dawning. The sun was just about to crest over the horizon. And, suddenly, there was a great earthquake!

Have you ever been in an earthquake? I remember a few from my childhood. The worst one struck in 1989.

By this time I was a young man, twenty-one years old, living in Davis, California as a college student. I was upstairs in an apartment I was renting with four other guys, doing homework. And, suddenly—to use the word of the Gospeller—suddenly the whole room started rocking back and forth, wildly. The two doors started rocking in their hinges, first this way and then that, slamming into the wall on their way back; books fell off shelves; I heard something crash in the bathroom.

By this time I was thinking, “Uh, maybe I should stand up and brace myself in a doorway.” Which I did. On the way over to the doorway I glanced out the window. The waves on the community swimming pool were small breakers. Seriously, you could have ridden them with a longboard!

There I stood till the tremor stopped, at last. I caught my breath. Then it occurred to me that Davis isn’t really near any known earthquake fault. If this quake was this strong here, what was it like near the epicenter?

So I ran downstairs to turn on the TV—and right away discovered that the kitchen floor was flooded. That community pool I mentioned, well, it was right next to the apartment; and the water from those small breakers had found its way through the wall! While mopping up I heard a special news report say that some bridges had collapsed in San Francisco, numerous fires were burning, and many people were feared dead.

My wife has her own version of this same earthquake to tell. At the time, she was a senior in high school in Mountain View, California; much closer to the epicenter than Davis. She was at school, in fact, practicing with the marching band outdoors, on the school football field. The way she tells it she could see the ground actually moving. That’s right! Waves of sod rolled toward her and under her so that she had to sit down for fear of falling.

So, now to return to the Gospel account, imagine the drama, the emotion, the seeming chaos! There was suddenly a great earthquake. An angel, whose appearance was like lightning and whose clothes were dazzlingly white, rolled the stone away from the grave. The Roman guards saw this and shook with fear, becoming, the Gospel says, like dead men!


Then, with all this craziness going on all around them, the angel looks at the women and speaks.

Right at this point—just as the angel looks at the women but before he says anything to them—what do you think was going through their minds?

Do you think they were afraid?

What do you think they were afraid of?

What are you afraid of?

But the angel speaks, and he tells them, “Do not be afraid.” Nevertheless, they leave the tomb quickly, we hear, with fear and great joy. And just a little later the resurrected Jesus reiterates, “Do not be afraid.”

Could this be Matthew’s take-home lesson? Does Christ’s resurrection mean that we, Christ’s disciples, have nothing to fear?

Over the past few days, especially since the Last Supper, but even since Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we’ve seen a lot of fear expressed by the people in these stories. Let’s trace it out. Let’s follow this thread of fear back through the last few days, back through the Passion story, and see what fear has to do with the resurrection.

The first thing that comes to mind is actually a little ahead of where we are: the disciples huddling in a locked house. Do you remember this picture from the book of John? The disciples don’t yet know that Jesus is risen. And they’ve locked the door out of fear.

Also from John, we hear that a disciple named Joseph of Arimathea and a man named Nicodemus—remember him?—came to remove the body of Jesus from the cross by night. Why did they remove his body at night? It is because fear was involved, John says.

Back in Matthew, do you remember Peter’s denial? He denied three times, with oaths, that he knew Jesus—out of fear! Then he heard a cock crow; and he went outside and wept bitterly.

There was even some mild fear—or anxiety at least—over who was to betray Jesus at the Last Supper. “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “one of you will betray me.” And we hear that those with him became greatly distressed and began to say, “Surely not I, Lord?”

Do you see it? Fear permeates the Passion Week. In fact, it permeates much of the disciples’ lives; it permeates much of our lives.

But both the angel and Jesus tell us, “Do not be afraid!”

What’s going on here? Are we really to believe that the resurrection means we don’t need to fear? Can new life in Christ equal a life without fear?

Yes! That’s exactly what’s going on here.

So, I left off with the Last Supper. The disciples were in distress.

But there’s something else that happens at that Last Supper, something else we learn most demonstrably from the Gospel of John: through washing dirty, smelly feet.

We call it Maundy Thursday now, in our tradition. And I hope you were here to experience it just a few days ago; or at least that you’ve experienced it sometime in your faith pilgrimage. At the Maundy Thursday service we actually wash one another’s feet.

Anyway, this word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, related to the English word mandate and its variations, like demand or commandment. That’s because the focus here is not really on the washing of feet, but rather extends beyond foot-washing to a commandment Christ gave us on that night.

“A new commandment I give you,” he says; “love one another.” The focus of the Maundy Thursday service is on loving each other with God’s love, a perfect love, a love that is directed outward, towards the other. And we see this perfect love demonstrated through the washing of feet.

Now, there’s a connection to be drawn from this perfect love we see demonstrated at the Last Supper and the fear that permeates our lives. And I can think of no better way to express it than to quote this Bible verse, 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

Perfect love comes from our triune God, who has possessed and demonstrated this love for all eternity—each person of the Trinity towards the other two. And—here’s what amazes me most about all of this—we can actually possess this perfect love too. It is one of God’s so-called communicable attributes.

This is what it means, then, to live a resurrected life, to live new life in Christ Jesus: perfect love. Strive to possess it! Strive to live it out! Live out perfect love, a love that is Godward; a love that is others-focused; a love that doesn’t hesitate to wash someone else’s dirty, smelly feet.

And when you live out such a life of perfect love, without even realizing it you’ve cast out fear. It’s gone, just like that! You are no longer afraid of anything.

As the angel says, and as Christ reiterates: Do not be afraid! As Christ’s disciples, we have no reason to fear. Christ has already conquered death! We too have already conquered death; we are resurrected beings already! Death is already vanquished! Indeed, there is nothing more to fear.

2014 Lent 40

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , on April 19, 2014 by timtrue


Hebrews 4:1-16

The writer of Hebrews tells us that the promise of entering Jesus’s rest is still open to us.

It’s hard for a priest to feel anything like rest at this time of the year.

For many people, Christmas is the busiest time of the year.  In America anyway, even if you don’t regularly go to church the Christmas season is super busy.  The whole country seems to take on a festive air–filled with deals and a certain chocolatey cheer.  It’s a good thing the kids have time off school too, what with all the traveling relatives and New Year’s around the corner and all.  It’s busy!

But for a priest the most important part of the faith is the resurrection (though, don’t get me wrong, the birth of the incarnate Jesus is quite important too–for without it there could be no resurrection!); and thus the most important part of the year is Easter.

Tonight we priest-types will finish the three-day drama traditionally called the triduum.

It began on Thursday, Maundy Thursday, with a foot-washing Eucharist.  Here we remember demonstrably Jesus’s new command to love one another–demonstrably because it’s through the washing of another’s feet.

Yesterday, Good Friday, we recalled his actual crucifixion with a noon service.  Here the altar had been stripped bare (at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service); and we placed a rough wooden cross at the front of the nave, listened to the crucifixion story read (John 18-19–no homily at all, just let the scriptures speak for themselves), and recited anthems said only on this day of the year.

And tonight it’s the Easter Vigil, a service that goes from dark to light, from death to resurrection, including baptisms–themselves a picture of resurrection–a service that in ages past was the chief Easter service (and still should be, as far as I’m concerned).

Add to this that every evening leading up to the triduum we celebrated a communion service and that last Sunday, Palm Sunday, was also a special day, and, whew, I’m tired.  Between last Sunday and tomorrow I will have been involved in thirteen worship services, some of which I celebrated, others in which I preached, and even a few (four in fact) wherein I did both.

So, yeah, I’m tired.

And here, today, I read words in Hebrews about a promise of rest.

Bring it on, I say!

So I don’t know.  During Lent we try to take on a spiritual discipline–whether we fast, write rambling blog posts, pray more frequently, whatever.  We also talk a lot about slowing down, becoming more introspective, reflecting, centering, and all that.  But I don’t know: maybe being a little busier during Lent and becoming increasingly busier during Holy Week, as we priests must do, and as many a parishioner has done over the past forty days–maybe being a little busier is actually more biblical.  For that is more like life.

What I mean is this.  We live our lives doing our thing.  And life is full of ups, downs, levels, highs, lows, middles, twisties, and straights.  We get to the end of it and (though I cannot speak from personal experience) we’re tired out, ready for that promised rest–just as I (and you) are tired out now at this end of Lent, 2014.  Then comes the reminder that we are loved with a perfect love, death strikes, and then comes resurrection.  Not just Jesus’s resurrection but ours too.  And, ah, at long last, we enter into that blessed, promised rest.  Amen.

The trick now, of course, is figuring out how to experience a sort of small resurrection in my own life as I face life after Lent.  I need to find some time to rest now, to be rejuvenated, so that I can begin the cycle of advent, birth, life, ministry, death, and new life all over again.

Time for a vacation, anyone?

2014 Lent 39

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , on April 18, 2014 by timtrue

Good Friday

John 19:38-42

You know, since beginning this self-imposed Lenten discipline of writing something everyday based on a lectionary reading, a lot of numbers have been going though my head.  Numbers like 50, 62.5, 77.5, 85, and, today, 97.5.  These are percentages, if you care to know, based on how much of my Lenten discipline has been accomplished thus far.  (Tomorrow will be Day 40: 100%.)

These numbers started occurring to me before 50–probably something more like 35–about the time, that is, when I began losing momentum.  This post-a-day business has been a difficult discipline to keep!

What started out as a quaint idea–to write a short devotion, and by short I was envisioning something like 250 words–quickly raised the bar.  I don’t know if I thought it was fun in the beginning or what, but if you were to go back and look at the first few Lenten posts, they each contain far more than 250 words.  (“2014 Lent 1,”, for example, is 787 words, and I believe it’s one of the shorter ones.)  Anyway, before I knew it, I felt like my personal bar was more like 800 words.  In the end, I think only two posts came out to fewer than 300 words (unless today’s or tomorrow’s does too–but today’s is already near 200); and my average (though I haven’t verified) has got to be above 800.  (Let’s see: that’s 800 x 40 = 32,000 words, or a fourth of a book.  Dang!)

So you see how numbers bully me?

Also, do you have any idea how much time it takes to write 800 words a day on average?  And something that’s quasi-suitable for publishing?

Needless to say, mine has been a tiring Lenten discipline this year.

But today I will have completed 97.5% of it.  Yes!  One day to go!

Now, to tie this in with today’s lectionary selection, I’m going to tell you why I didn’t just quit, just bail out on my self-imposed extra discipline during the busiest season of the year for a priest.  And it’s simply this: because Jesus didn’t bail out 97.5% of the way through.

I mean, try to imagine Christianity if Jesus had been in the Garden on the fateful night and said, “Not your cup, Father, but mine.  I ain’t gonna go through with it!”  Or, worse still, if after he had been executed and laid in the tomb–the thing we remember most acutely today, Good Friday–what if he had just stayed there?  What if he had gone 97.5% of the way?

I’ll tell you: there would have been no resurrection.  That’s means no Christianity, no concept of the Trinity, no new commandment of love, no Church.

Now some of you readers might want to argue that that’s not such a bad scenario.  But I disagree.

Yeah, without the Church there may not have been any Crusades; yeah there may not have been the medieval Church, an institution that held controlling sway over most European peoples for a thousand years.  Yeah, the Church has made mistakes.

But wars, battles, controlling and liberty-killing governments–these things cannot be blamed on the Church.  You should know better!  (Just look at 20th-century Russian history!)  These things happened long before Christianity ever came about; and they will continue to happen throughout human history–though we can hope and strive for less so as time marches on.

Rather, what the Church can be blamed for is the hope of resurrection in Christ; and his love being poured out to the ends of the earth.  Hope and love?  These are fuel for acts of charity–or, to put fashionable clothes on it, progress.  How can anyone fault the Church for that?

Anyway, I for one am grateful that Jesus went 100% of the way through with the work he came to do.  The least I can do is show it by sticking to this little commitment I made in his name, to write a little everyday during Lent, to complete something I started–even if it inconveniences me a little bit.

But I’ll say this: after Lent is over I plan to take a few days off from this blogging business.

2014 Lent 38

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , on April 17, 2014 by timtrue


Mark 14:12-25

Today is Maundy Thursday on the Christian calendar.  It’s the day when we remember the last supper Jesus enjoyed with his disciples; and the meal where he called Judas out.  Both of these events are recorded in today’s reading.

Tradition attaches foot washing to Maundy Thursday.  The Gospel of John is the only account to narrate the foot washing.  But, curiously, the supper in John does not fall on Passover–on Thursday–as it does in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Nevertheless, the Maundy part of Maundy Thursday comes from John’s story.

Maundy derives from the Latin mandatum, from which we get mandate and variations like commandment.

Over in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives a new commandment: to love one another.  He then demonstrates what he means by taking on the role of a servant and washing feet.

All of God’s interrelationships with humanity over all these millennia come down to this: love.  And it’s a love that’s outward, that serves others.

This is the love of God, a love that we humans are capable of possessing and demonstrating.  And, by the way, it makes the Christian God unique; for outward love can only ever exist in relationship (as the Trinity has for all eternity).

So, make what you will of John not aligning the Last Supper with the Passover meal–not on the same day as Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Whether John’s meal happened on a Thursday or not, that’s not really the point.  Rather, it’s love commanded; a commandment that, if it were obeyed everywhere, would result in a better world.

Attend a Maundy Thursday foot washing service if you’re able; see Jesus Christ’s new commandment illustrated.

2014 Lent 37

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , on April 16, 2014 by timtrue


Mark 12:1-11

Today is my birthday.  Yep, today, this Wednesday of Holy Week, which means that my birthday falls during Lent this year.

My wife’s birthday is in May.  Her birthday never falls in Lent.  Lucky!

But my little brother’s is March 16.  That means that, regardless of where Easter falls in any given year, his birthday will always fall in Lent.  Poor wretch!

But my birthday, April 16, sometimes falls during Lent and sometimes not.  Most of the time not, in fact.  And for that I’m grateful.

But because my birthday happens to fall on Holy Wednesday this year, Mark 12:1-11 is a reading in the lectionary–today, on my birthday.  And it has all the great makings for a birthday reading.

There’s a wealthy man, a father, as we soon learn.  And this wealthy man purchases a vineyard and starts to develop it.  He builds a winepress, puts up a fence, and even builds a watchtower.

So my mind is beginning to race.  My oldest daughter is living the dream right now.  She’s studying for a semester in Florence, Italy: right in the heart of Tuscany, excellent wine country.  Add to this that my dad and stepmom are on their way over there right now.  They’re going to stay for a few days in a villa with my daughter.

So, being my birthday and all, and being a fairly creative guy, my mind begins to construct a complete and utter fantasy.  It’s going furiously; I can’t seem to stop it.  But it’s my birthday, so what the hey.

So here it is: my dad is that (sort of) wealthy guy from the parable.  He’s so smitten with his visit to Tuscany, that he buys a villa complete with a vineyard today, on my birthday, with the idea that it will be a family vacation house for now; but, who knows, he may decide to will it to me someday as an inheritance.

But the particular villa he buys (it was a really good deal, after all, for he is also a frugal man) is in need of some repair.  So he puts up a fence, rebuilds the dilapidated winepress, and, more for added room for guests than for any other reason, builds a tower (with a furnished apartment and incredible view clear down to the sea).

So far, so good.

But then I continue reading the Gospel.

Of course, Dad lives in America, as do I, and my daughter (despite her present Italian escapade), and all family members, extended and immediate.  So, of course, Dad has to hire a manager to take care of the place while we’re all making ends meet over here in our present American lives.

But then my fantasy is suddenly confronted by an offensive intrusion.  For a friend who was travelling over there decided to stop by, you know, to help Dad out by checking in on the place.  And he wound up mysteriously dead!

The Italian police weren’t much of a help either.

So I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it, freak coincidence or something, until a month or so passes and another friend who owed my dad a favor decides to stop by; and, same thing!  Dead!  Those unhelpful Italian police said they found his body floating face-down in the Arno River; but was surely unconnected to the villa.

Well, that got me thinking!

And now–in my fantasy, of course–Dad wants to send me over!

Don’t get me wrong, a couple of months ago I would have loved to go over and live the carefree life of a vineyard owner in my villa-to-be.  But now, what with those two deaths and what with the unhelpful Polizia, I’m a little worried.

That’s when I read on and discover in the parable that the brazen manager is indeed responsible for the first two deaths and is even heedless enough to kill the owner’s own son.


But, hang on a minute!  I remind myself, this is my own daydream.  I need to come back to reality.

Yeah, that’s right.  It’s my birthday, sure.  But beyond and above that, it’s still Lent.

And this is a parable Jesus is teaching.  It’s not really about my birthday at all, but about Christ, and about how people refused to see the gift of God–the man Jesus–right in their midst.

So, okay, I’ve talked myself down from my fantastic cliff.  Still, is there something I can take away from today’s Lenten experience, something in this reading that is of value for me on my birthday?

And then I see it: the people of Christ’s day largely didn’t see the gift of God in their midst; perhaps I’m not seeing enough of God’s gifts in my midst.

On this day then, this Holy Wednesday at the end of Lent, my birthday, I am extremely grateful for my family–both those with me and those abroad; my friends; and the work God has given me to do.  Can’t wait for the softball game and Tex Mex tonight!

Walk though Weak

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on April 15, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36

Today’s Gospel passage begins with these words: “Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Just three hundred years before this time, Alexander the Great, a Greek, had conquered the entire known world. But now—now!—they were mostly slaves and freedmen under the authoritarian hand of the ruling Romans. The Greeks, the insiders, had become outsiders and outcasts. They lost the lives that they had once loved. They once were strong; now they were weak.

So some Greeks, who had gone up to worship at the festival—which festival? the Passover!—wanted to meet Jesus. They saw Philip, one of Jesus’s followers, and told him, who then told Andrew; and Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus about it.

Jesus then responds with some very telling words.

For these weak Greeks, who had died to their old lives, were really very much like many of the Jews. Like the Greeks, the common Jewish multitudes had an extremely rich heritage. But, like the Greeks, they now had to live under the authoritarian hand of the Roman rulers. They were outsiders and outcasts. Like the Greeks, they had lost the lives they once loved. They were now weak.

And Jesus responds to this with some words about resurrection:

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.

So that’s from today’s Gospel. Now let’s turn to the epistle, today’s other reading; for it offers something of an explanation to the Gospel passage:

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The crucified Christ is something of a paradox.

Christ, God incarnate in the man Jesus, was actually executed in a brutal, bloody, base manner.  Yet Christ as God is the creator of all the universe, the creator and sustainer of the very human instruments that tortured and executed him.  How can this be?

Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”  Nevertheless, this apparent paradox is the wisdom of God.

But this is not the only paradox in God.  Paul talks of God’s foolishness—as if such a concept could even be possible!  Yet even if there were such a thing it would be wiser than the highest human wisdom.  Also, there’s God’s weakness.  Is such a thing even possible?  Well, if it is, even it is stronger than any and all human strength!

In fact—and here’s Paul’s main point—God has chosen the weak in the world to shame the strong; and the foolish to shame the wise.

In God’s economy–not the world’s; not Rome’s–the weak shall prevail over the strong. There will be no slave or free, male or female, wealthy or poor; the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

This is what new life in Christ looks like!

Now put it together.

Weakness is all around us. Do you know that today marks the one-year anniversary of the bombing at the Boston Marathon? This year also marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the standoff at Tiananmen Square. And we all know what happened to the man Jesus nearly two thousand years ago! At times we want to cry out, “Why is there so much evil in the world?”

But it is in just such times of weakness that the light of Christ shines brightest. It never fails to amaze me how a tragedy always becomes the bugle call to raise an army of mercy and grace. Heroes emerge from the rubble. Humanity is roused to do good once again. Hope in Christ prevails.

Isn’t this a paradox?

Let’s bring it to a personal level. We all experience times of weakness. These could be internal, matters of conscience; these could be interpersonal, matters of relationship; or these could be external, like a social issue. It doesn’t really matter. Point is, these are times of struggle for all of us. We stumble under the weight of it all with a heavy heart.

But we live in a new age, an age of paradox, an age when great strength is to be found in our weakness.

The trouble, I know, is how to access this strength. How do we find it, especially when we feel so weak?

I think you know the answer: we walk.

We’re tired, yes. But we must keep walking! It’s already Holy Tuesday: Lent is almost over! Keep walking. We keep going on the journey; we keep praying; we keep reading the Bible; we keep studying; we keep worshiping; we keep going with Christ. Yes, we may not always feel it. But it’s right here: the light of Christ, our strength in weakness, is right here!

2014 Lent 36

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , on April 15, 2014 by timtrue


Mark 11:27-33

Does the Pope wear a funny hat?

This question was introduced to me by one of the most significant women in my life, my stepmom.  I was probably something like fourteen years old at the time.  And she answered a question I had just asked with this question.  My question obviously had a “yes” answer, something like, “Are we going out for dinner tonight?”  Obviously yes to her, anyway, which is why she asked about the Pope’s choice of headwear.

But to me, naïve as I was then about matters of religion (and most other things, truth be told), the answer wasn’t obvious.  I’m not even sure I could have given the Pope’s name–John Paul II–let alone commented on his fashion sense.  Oh, I knew he was some important person in Europe, sure.  But what part of Europe, and as to why he was perceived by so many people as important, I did not.

So I saw my stepmom’s question, which answered my question, to be in fact a trick question.  Was she trying to trap me?  She was born and raised Catholic, I knew.  She’d even gone to Catholic University.  And now she was bringing her religion into my home!  So was she trying to trap me, trying to see if I would somehow dis her main holy man?

“Um,” I offered, “I don’t think it’s funny.”

“What?” she asked.

“His hat,” I explained after a moment’s reflection; “I don’t think his hat is funny.”

To which she responded with a great deal of laughter!  For she hadn’t been trying to trap me at all.  Rather, she thought I’d asked a rhetorical question; so she herself, in reply, asked what she thought was another rhetorical question.  But all this was lost on my yet-too-concrete mind.

In today’s reading from Mark, something similar occurs.  Except in this case people really are trying to trap someone: the religious leaders try to trap Jesus with the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?” i. e., these miracles on the Sabbath.  It was a trap because if Jesus answered, “By God’s,” he could be accused of blasphemy, for (to the religious leaders) God could not contradict his own law by healing on the day of rest.  But it was also a trap because if Jesus said, “By mine,” then he’d be equating himself with God–also blasphemy.  It must have seemed a double whammy to the religious leaders, for no matter how he answered, they had him!

But, does the Pope wear a funny hat?

Jesus answered his opponents’ question with a question.  “Was John’s baptism from heaven,” he asks, “or from human origin?”

Well, they couldn’t say from heaven, for they didn’t believe it themselves; doing so would be an obvious lie.  But neither could they say that it was of human origin, for the multitude believed it had been from heaven, and they were largely outnumbered by this multitude; they feared the crowd, in other words.  So they answered, “We don’t know,” which is really just another way of saying, “We’re not going to tell you.”

This was Jesus’s answer all along.  “I’m not gonna tell you,” he says–just not in so many words.

So, end of discussion, end of trap.  The religious leaders had no choice but to leave, dejected, like dogs walking away, ashamed, with their tails between their legs.

Turns out, answering a question with a question can be a good tactic.

In the end, then, I look back on my conversation with my stepmom as a time when she modeled Jesus to me.  I’m sure, though, she has no idea.  Thanks anyway.

2014 Lent 35

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , on April 14, 2014 by timtrue


II Corinthians 1:1-7


There is a wonderful picture of consolation that comes from today’s reading in II Corinthians.

But first, I offer some background.

The word is related to solace, which is a kind of comfort in a time of affliction.  The prefix con- means with, or alongside; so putting them together we see a sort of empathetic comfort.  There’s community here: others are involved in comforting the one in affliction.

Think of a consolation prize.  It is given by one person, a judge, to another, a contestant, who didn’t place, but still to acknowledge the contestant’s hard work and participation.  The contestant supposedly draws some empathetic comfort from the prize (the judge, at least, knows how much work went into it) despite it not being a trophy.

(I think this is the idea behind a consolation prize anyway.  But it hardly played out that way for me when as a boy I came in fourth place in a piano competition.  Here the so-called consolation prize served more as a reminder that I wasn’t quite good enough!)

But here’s the thing: consolation goes both ways.  That is, when we’re in a time of affliction (as I was as a boy pianist), we want consolation, something from which we can derive comfort.  This can come from an object, such as a prize, or a person who offers consolation to us through words, a hug, whatever.

Yet on the other hand, when we’re in times of comfort, we can offer consolation to others who are experiencing some affliction or other.

Both sides of consolation are thus active: the afflicted reaches for it; the comfortable offers it.

Consolation, then, is a bridge between comfort and affliction.

Now here’s where my creative mind begins to take over.  For I picture a bridge that crosses a deep and swift river.  And on either side of the bridge sits a town.  One town, let’s say the one on the north side, is relaxed and easy going, characterized by kindness, goodness, and beauty.  The other, South Town, is stress-filled, perhaps overly dramatic, characterized by anxiety and hardship.

The people who live in this region really inhabit both towns.  That is, each resident has a house in North Town and another in South Town.  Everybody really wants to live and spend all their time in North Town, but certain obligations and responsibilities require them to travel back and forth daily over the bridge between the two towns.

Sometimes the obligations in South Town are many, so many, in fact, that a resident ends up having to spend the night there.  It happens to everyone, sometimes frequently, which is why all the inhabitants have residences in both towns.

Occasionally the obligations become so great, so burdensome, that a resident ends up spending a week or more in South Town, sometimes even losing hope that he will ever be able to get back across the bridge and do what he really wants to do–spend time with his family, tinker in the garage, read some books, maybe even write one, play a few musical instruments, play catch in the yard with his son, laze away a summer afternoon in the pool, and so on.  (Of course, this is my version of North Town.  You have every right to make up your own version.)

When this happens–when someone is overly burdened by the obligations of South Town–intervention becomes necessary; a team of volunteers, usually comprised of friends and family, but often of pastoral types too, must cross the bridge into South Town and rescue said obligation-buried resident by carrying him (or her) back over the bridge into North Town.

But it’s risky work.  For most times one of the intervention team falls away, turns aside, or otherwise suddenly remembers an obligation she (or he) must now tend to in South Town; and she ends up stuck there for a week or more until another intervention team must make a rescue.

And the cycle repeats itself.

Anyway, these two towns’ real names are Comfort and Affliction, and the bridge between them is Consolation.  May we console and be consoled by others.

Lead, Follow, or Get out of the Way?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on April 13, 2014 by timtrue

palm sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

Herd mentality works two ways.

On the one hand, it can have a positive effect, something like positive peer pressure.

Take the stock market. Does it rise and fall based on supply and demand, as your economics professor told you? Or is it really more based on emotion and herd mentality? It’s really more that when the people at large, the “herd,” feel the economy is hunky-dory, that’s when the stock market goes up.

And, for a lot of people anyway, this is seen as a good thing.

But it can also go the other way, can’t it? When there is fear about the economy, especially fear about the near-future of the economy, the stock market plummets. The herd mentality has a negative effect.

Daniel Howard, a marketing professor at SMU, puts it this way: “Stock market bubbles and crashes are caused by herd mentality. It’s scary to me because we make our own heaven, and we make our own hell” (quoted from ).

Other examples of herd mentality worth mentioning are the Salem Witch Trials, the French Revolution, and the Holocaust; or, closer to home, Burning Man, professional sports contests, and the internet.

Some of these examples demonstrate terrible wrongs; others are more positive. But the gist is that in each case there is something about the herd, something about mob mentality, that causes people to do things they would never do on their own, as individuals.

And so we come to today’s Gospel.

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem. Somehow word has leaked out that here is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. Could he be the Messiah?

Word spreads in the gathering crowd. He’s riding on a donkey with her colt. Didn’t the prophet Zechariah say something about this? Could he be the Messiah?

By now the crowd is large. Then the actions start. Somewhere in the midst of all the people someone lays a branch on the ground in front of Jesus. Then someone else does it. Someone else lays a cloak on the ground. And before you know it seemingly everyone is doing it.

And such a clamor! Everyone is making noise, noise that comes together in a din, nothing very defined. Until, ringing out distinctly above it all, a word is heard, a prayer. Others join in. Finally, in unison, like a great choir, all around Jesus the crowd is shouting, “Hosanna!”

Hosanna! Save us, we pray! (for that is its translation).

Save us, son of David, from the oppressive hand of the Roman rulers!

Save us from our sin, Jesus, you who come in the name of the Lord!

Save us to the highest heaven, superlatively, to the greatest possible amount that we can be saved!

Save us as only God himself is able to save!

And so we see the positive effects of herd mentality.

But what’s coming?

We know the story all too well, don’t we? Jesus enters Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna in the highest!” But the religious leaders want him dead.

It’s not just the Roman leaders here who think Jesus is a threat to the establishment. It’s also the Jewish religious leaders.

For many years the Jewish people have been under foreign rule. Uprisings have been attempted—even uprisings that were thought to be messianic. But now, at this time in history, the religious leaders have it pretty well. They are the “who’s who” in the city of Jerusalem. The Roman overlords give these religious leaders quite a lot of liberty. These religious leaders have grown accustomed to the respect shown them. And so on.

But now this upstart, this so-called prophet, this Jesus of Nazareth, is causing a stir. Not good, as far as the religious leaders are concerned. Not good, to the point that they want him out of the way—to the point that they want him dead! Yes, he’s that much of a threat!

And so they’ve convinced one of his close followers to see things their way—with thirty pieces of silver! And we come to the last supper, and to that anxiety-ridden night in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Judas hands Jesus over to the authorities.

Jesus is then tried and found guilty on trumped up charges. Pilate, the Roman leader in charge of the trial, craters to the pressure of the crowd. Instigated by the Jewish religious leaders, the crowd shouts, again and again, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

And so we see the negative effects of herd mentality.

But here’s the worst part: this is by and large the same crowd that was shouting Hosanna just a few days ago. Just a few days ago it was, “Lord, save us!” Now it’s, “Crucify him!”

We humans are fickle.

There are times we feel like nothing can come between me and Jesus. He has redeemed me; he is saving me from all my sin and wickedness; and he will lead me into glory. I know this in the bottom of my heart, down to the core of my being. And nothing’s gonna shake me. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

But you know how it is. Life sneaks in a sucker punch. We don’t see it coming; we might not even feel it when it’s delivered. But all of a sudden the wind is knocked out of us. All of a sudden, we have questions, doubts, quandaries. And we begin to think, Maybe I’m not so sure about my faith after all. Maybe Jesus was just a man, that this story I’ve heard all my life, that this faith I practice, is just a complex Santa Claus story. I don’t know. Maybe the crowd’s right after all. Maybe I should just give up, forget this emotional wave I’ve been surfing. Maybe I should just give in and yell “Crucify him!” with everyone else.

So then, what are you going to do?

Have you heard the phrase, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”? There are times to lead, certainly. And there are times to follow. But when it comes to herd mentality—fashions, trends, hype, hoopla, buzz, fads, anything that persuades you to act in a way that you would not act in your own right mind—sometimes it’s best just to get out of the way.