Archive for September, 2014

Remembering Edward Pusey

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on September 28, 2014 by timtrue

Dear Reader,

Each Thursday my church celebrates a Eucharist at 12:15pm.  It is simple.  There is no music and the sermon is short, something like five minutes.  The whole thing takes about a half hour, intentionally designed for people to participate during their lunch break, including (but not limited to) the teachers at our day school.

For subject matter we turn to an Episcopal publication called Holy Women, Holy Men, which acknowledges (as the title implies) saints to remember throughout the year.  Last time this service fell to me it was a day to remember Edward Pusey, a nineteenth-century Brit (1800-82).

I don’t usually publish my sermons for this service.  Since they are only five minutes (roughly) and usually more historical in nature than theological, I always preach without notes; and usually from memory, meaning I don’t write anything down by way of notes.  Last week, however, I did write something down.  I wasn’t as familiar with Pusey as I usually am with these Thursday saints and I was impressed by his story.  I didn’t want to leave anything important out, in other words.

Anyway, since I spent the time to write it down (in bulleted outline), I’m now publishing it to my blog–for posterity if for no other reason.  But if you do happen upon this post, I hope you find it helpful.

-Tim

Pusey

I Peter 2:19-23

Today’s passage from I Peter very much encapsulates the life and works of Edward Pusey, the acknowledged leader of the Oxford Movement of the 19th century.

  • He endured unjust suffering, of a sort, for the sake of honoring God;
  • Christ suffered too, for our sake;
  • When abused, he did not return abuse; when suffering, he did not threaten; but entrusted himself to God;
  • Pusey followed this example, as should we.

Specifically targeted was Pusey’s preaching:

  • A scholar, he typically delivered his sermons at Christ Church, Oxford, often to a university audience;
  • An excellent preacher: catholic in resonance; evangelical in winsomeness;
  • The preaching his sermon, “The Entire Absolution of the Penitent,” is now understood to be the chief catalyst in the revival of private confession in the Anglican Communion.
  • But upon hearing another one of his sermons, “The Holy Eucharist, a Comfort to the Penitent,” his more influential superiors condemned the work and suspended him from preaching for two years:
  • It suggested Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist;
  • It seemed “dangerously innovative.”

But, like Christ, he bore his unjust suffering patiently; and, as I mentioned already, is understood today to be the leader of the Oxford Movement.

May we have similar resolve: to accomplish with integrity the tasks God gives us; and to endure with patience whatever suffering might come.

A Lesson from a Baptist

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on September 28, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 21:23-32

Why did Jesus pick John? In response to their question about his authority, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it came from the people or from God.  But why did Jesus pick John?

He could have picked the emperor as an example.  This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God?  Some, including the emperors themselves, maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, we call it.  Others, probably most of the common people of the empire, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.  But the point here is that Jesus could have said, “Answer me this, O Jewish leaders: the emperor’s authority, does it come from God or people?”  Yet he chose John the Baptist as his example, not the emperor.

Of course, there were differences of religion between John and the emperor.  John was a Jew; and thus he worshiped the Jewish God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Whereas the emperor was a pagan; and thus he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of gods in fact.  So this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people.  He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance or something—wasn’t it?  And didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?  In short, most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird.  Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus?  Yeah!  Maccabeus!  Here was a true Jewish hero.  He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses.  He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people alike.  He was certainly viewed as having authority.  So why didn’t Jesus use him as his example?  Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Answer me this, then I will answer you: tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from people?”

But he didn’t.  Jesus didn’t use Judas Maccabeus or an emperor or anyone else as his example.  Instead, he used John the Baptist.  He could have used many other, better known examples to make his point—that you shouldn’t be too quick to judge.  But he used John.  Obscure, eccentric, weird John.  Why?

Now, I cannot help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent. They’ve been Jews for a long time.  They’re leaders in their religion.  They know how to direct spiritually a congregation of people.  For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out.  They’ve got their policy manuals, their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons.  Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.  There’s a lot of value in this.  I can relate.

But they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.  Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something.  Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

“By what authority did you turn those tables over in the Temple yesterday?” they ask.  It’s a trap, because if Jesus says it was by the people’s authority then he is guilty of rebellion; and if he says it was by divine authority then he is guilty of blasphemy.  Either way, he’s guilty.  And either way, the Jewish leaders aren’t really looking for an answer.  They have him cornered.

But Jesus turns the tables on them—mental tables this time.  He doesn’t provide an answer.  Instead, he asks a question.  And it gets them thinking.  Despite the fact that their minds are already made up, he breaks through and does in fact get them thinking, pointing out their prejudices, their judgments presupposed since before the conversation began.  And now—I’d like to believe—there’s even some soul searching on their part.

Still, this turning of the mental tables doesn’t answer my earlier question.  If Jesus simply wanted to get us to question our own prejudices, our own already-made-up minds, our own presupposed judgments, he could have used many cultural examples, better than John the Baptist.  And well we should question our own prejudices!  But there must be something in particular Jesus wants us to associate with John the Baptist.  But what?

Without allowing the religious leaders to catch their breath—they’d been knocked off kilter by Jesus’s brilliant turning of the mental tables; so, while they were still off kilter, Jesus immediately tells a parable.

A father has two sons.  He tells them both to do some chores.  One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.”  Later we find out that the one who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.  And I think, “Sounds an awful lot like me and my brother when we were growing up!”

Of course we get that the first son’s actions are more genuine and the second’s are more hypocritical.  But the interesting thing for me here is that they both change their minds.  In other words, to use a biblical word we’ve all heard before, both sons repent.  For that’s what repent means: to change one’s mind.

We happen to associate repentance with changing one’s mind from pursuing something bad to pursuing something good, like going down the wrong road and making a u-turn and backtracking till we find the right road.  But the word equally means changing one’s mind from good to bad, or simply from pursuing one thing to pursuing another, whether good, bad, or indifferent.  To repent is to change direction; that’s all.

And now—aha!—we’ve stumbled upon the answer to “Why John?”  For that was John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Repent!  It was his message to everyone, regardless of whatever road a person might be heading down.  Repent!  Change!  For the kingdom of heaven is near!

This wasn’t the message of the emperors.  This wasn’t the message of Judas Maccabeus.  But this was the message of John.

And the amazing thing about all this is that it doesn’t matter which son you identify with—whether you are the one that is more genuine or the one that is more hypocritical; or whether you identify more closely with the religious leaders or with the sinners in this passage.  The point is to repent.  Everyone.  For we all sin.

And more specifically, we are to repent of our prejudices.

Someone like Jesus comes into your life, turning over the tables of the Temple in your mind.  You know what I’m talking about.  This is your table, one that you’ve set up in your imagination over which you are the chief authority.  This is a table you know more about than anyone else.

Maybe it’s a ministry at church into which you’ve invested a lot of time, effort, even money.  And over time you’ve come to feel ownership.  Or maybe it’s a relationship you’re in, a certain ownership you’ve come to feel over a friend or a relative.  But someone comes into your life and interferes and otherwise meddles with this table.  Like Jesus in the Temple, this new person is turning over the tables in your mind and you form some judgments, some prejudices against him or her.

Well, here’s the message today: repent from these prejudices.

But the worst prejudice of all is against Jesus.  Maybe you’ve been a Christian a long time.  Maybe you’ve tried hard to follow Jesus for years and years.  You study the Bible and pray regularly, you serve in various ministries, when you hear people engaging in gossip you avoid it—you’re trying to live a life that brings glory to Christ in all you do.

But then you get comfortable.  And, like those religious leaders in Jesus’s day who knew a thing or two about religious life, you become self-righteous.  This attitude has been growing in you so subtly, though, and for so long that you haven’t even noticed it.  Now you tend to view everyone by how spiritual they are.  And—your mind is already made up—the truth is if another person is not spiritual enough for you—if another person is too obscure, too eccentric, or too weird—well, that’s just too bad for them: they’re not worth your time.

It’s time for Jesus to turn these tables over—and all tables like them—that are standing in the Temples of our minds and hearts!  We all need to examine our hearts, examine our prejudices, and repent.

That’s NOT not Fair!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2014 by timtrue

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

Chris McDonough, the chair of the classics department at the University of the South, addressed last year’s graduating seniors with these words:[i]

“[T]here was a time in our country, once, when our schools had programs of free and reduced meals that were predicated on the idea of hunger. Children couldn’t get enough to eat. In the past few years, that program has had to be re-structured to account for a different sort of problem. It is not that children cannot get enough food to eat, but rather that they cannot get enough nutritious food to eat.

“We are no longer dealing with want, in other words, but with obesity. And in a similar fashion, those of us in education are learning likewise to provide an education that does not presuppose a lack of access to information but rather too much. We are needing to think about an education, in other words, that confronts mental obesity. All of which is to say that you who are about to graduate have grown up amidst tremendous technological sophistication, yet what has ultimately been rendered is a universe of information absurdly arranged, a sumptuous banquet of mentally empty carbohydrates.”

McDonough’s right.  We know abundance.  And we feel as if we’ve earned it.  But we are glutting ourselves on it.

It’s not a question anymore of whether we can give hungry children food, but whether we are willing to give them healthy food.  It’s not a question anymore of whether or not we can afford a TV, but whether we ought to limit somehow the thousands of channels available at the push of some buttons.  It’s not a question anymore of whether today’s generation is receiving an education—indeed, there is more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before in the world’s history!—; but how to focus all this information into some cohesive structure.

In our food, in our entertainment, in our education we have become unhealthy, even obese.  We are not viewing our manna, our day’s wages, our daily bread as sufficient.  We want more.  We hoard.  And we think it’s unfair when someone less talented or less driven has more or seemingly better stuff than we have.

Over in Exodus today we hear the story of manna from heaven. God has raised up a new leader, Moses, for a new day in Israel’s history.  Through Moses, God has freed Israel from the oppressive hand of Egypt, dramatically, with the parting of the Red Sea.  Now the chosen people are out in the wilderness—and what are they doing?—complaining!

Complaining?  Didn’t God just deliver them from the hand of slavery?  Didn’t God just answer their collective prayers in undeniable ways?  Didn’t God just promise to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey?  And they’re complaining?  Already?

Well, um, yes, they are, already, complaining.  “We don’t have enough to eat out here,” they say; “but back in Egypt we had plenty of meat and bread.  We’re hungry!”  The whole congregation, in fact!  Despite God’s demonstrated generosity!  And despite God’s promise to continue in this generosity!

So what does God do?  Does God say: “Fine!  Forget it!  I’m walking away.  I’ll just go find some other people to make promises to.  I’ll just go find some other people who appreciate me, who won’t complain”?

No, that’s not what God does at all.  Instead, God provides them with manna, bread from heaven.

But there’s a catch.  The people of Israel are to collect just enough for the day—and no more.  Sure, the healthy persons can collect more than they need for themselves, in order to share with those too young or too weak to collect manna; and everyone can collect two days’ worth on Friday.  But the point here is that God wants them to trust him for their daily bread.  They are not to hoard.

Even so, a few pages later we read about some people who hoard anyway.  They go out in the morning to collect their manna for the day, just like everyone else; but they don’t stop with their one day’s ration.  Instead, they collect two days’, three days’, maybe even a week’s worth of the stuff.

What’s going on here?

These hoarders are not trusting God; they’re not wanting to follow the new rules of the new nation.  Instead, they’re operating by the old rules of Egypt.

But what happens?

When they wake up the next morning and walk on over to their storage containers, the ones with the extra manna in it, it’s full of worms; it’s mealy; it’s, as we say, not suitable for human consumption.

And instead of seeing God’s generosity in their daily bread falling from heaven, they complain once more.  “What?” they say; “that’s not fair!”

In today’s parable, over in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s really the same thing.

Some workers are hired by a landowner at the beginning of the work day.  And they’re hired at an agreed upon pay rate: a denarius; a day’s wage, enough to buy one’s daily bread.

Later, at the third hour of the day, the landowner returns to the market and hires other workers, telling them, “I will pay you whatever is right.”

Later still, both at the sixth and ninth hours of the day, the landowner does it again.

And once more, even at the eleventh hour, he hires yet more workers.

Finally the twelfth hour comes and it’s payday.  But the landowner pays everyone the same thing, starting with those who were hired last and working his way down to the first.

Then we hear that those who were first hired, the all-day workers, grumble.  “Hey,” they say, “these last ones hired didn’t have to stand in the scorching heat.  They didn’t have to bear the burden of the entire day.  Yet you paid them the same as us.  What is this?  That’s not fair!”

And we relate to these all-day workers, don’t we?  “Yeah,” we say.  “You know, those grumblers have a point.  That isn’t fair, really, when you think about it.  What’s Jesus playing at?”

But, remember, we live in America.  We have an abundance of food, an abundance of entertainment, an abundance of information.  We hoard unhealthily, even to the point of obesity.  This is not a judgment; it’s a statement about the way things are, a statement about our collective lifestyle.

But, remember too, we are citizens of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, with new rules and new ways of seeing and doing things.

Should abundance, then, be the lens through which we interpret today’s parable?  Should hoarding be the lens through which we understand fairness, justice, and equity?

I have my daily bread. That is what God gives me.  And with this I ought to be content; I should trust in God’s demonstrated generosity towards me—whether or not my neighbor has fifty times more.

But I see my neighbor and find myself wanting so desperately what he has.  And I shout out to God, “That’s not fair!”  I want that sumptuous feast, even if it’s only empty carbohydrates.

Or I’m like the workers in the parable.  “Why should my neighbor have as much as I have?” I ask.  “That’s not fair!  I work so much harder than she does!”  I don’t want to share God’s generosity with her.

But either way: when it gets to this point—when we think it’s unfair that someone else has it easier, or more than we do—it’s no longer a matter of fairness, justice, or equity.  We say, “That’s not fair!  That’s not fair!” feeling that we deserve more than the next person.  But the instant we point a finger at someone else and claim our just desserts, we cross a boundary: from the land of fairness, justice, and equity into the land of envy.

Today’s parable ends with the landowner asking those all-day workers a telling question: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

This question is what Jesus is playing at.

These all-day workers grumble against the landowner, accusing him that he’s being unfair.  After reminding them that he is in fact doing nothing unfair, that he is in fact paying them what they agreed upon beforehand, the landowner rightly turns the tables and asks the all-day workers to search their own consciences.  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

God is asking us the same.  We see our world through the eyes of our times.  Despite our Christian identity, it’s only natural that our views of fairness are going to align with our culture.  And God has been generous to our culture.  But when does our desire for fairness become envy?

We are citizens of a new kingdom.  It’s time to search our consciences.  Consider whether we need to reorder our views of fairness, justice, and equity to align with the view of the kingdom of heaven; to align with Jesus Christ’s views.  And it’s time to ask ourselves: is what we see as fair and just actually masking our own envy?

__________________________________________

[i]               Actually, Chris McDonough intended to address the graduating seniors; but a tornado warning interfered with his plans and the address never took place.  Cf. http://uncomelyandbroken.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/in-the-form-of-a-question/

Christian Community’s Distinct Nature

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 18:15-20

We hear a lot these days about community. Why?  Why is community—and in particular, why is Christian community—so important?

In the beginning, the Bible tells us, God created Adam.  Adam was given stewardship over all creation.  He named the animals, he worked the land, and he dwelled with God.  But it was not good for him to be alone.  It was not good, in other words, for the man to live by himself, in solidarity, as a ruggedly independent individual.  He needed community.  So God, we read, created Eve.

The first man and woman dwelled together in community.  Much drama accompanied their life together, granted.  They shared the forbidden fruit; their once enjoyable work became toil and labor; their children argued and fought, even to the point of murder.  And yet, the story continues, God began to work his good will through them in their community.

God wants community, we infer; even with all the drama that comes along with it.

But can we take community too far?  In the sixth chapter of Genesis we read about the whole human population working in community against God.  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually, the Scriptures tell us (Gen. 6:5).  And it happens again only a few chapters later, when the people conspire to build a tower to subdue God, as if that were possible; and God confounds their language and scatters them abroad.

Community is good.  Community is necessary.  But community can go too far: community can go against God.

So how do we keep our Christian community, this church, in check?

The church is different from other communities.  Let’s think this statement through for a few minutes.

As a starting point, consider marriage.  It is a small community, consisting of two persons (like Adam and Eve).  When two people get married, there are many hopes and dreams that come into play.  Through the relationship prior to marriage, these two persons have discovered many things they share in common; they formulate goals that include one another; and they agree that together they harmonize better as a unit than they do on their own.  In time, if the couple has children, this community grows, sure.  But my point here is that this community has been founded upon human ideals.  Even if the marriage is intentionally Christ-centered, it is founded upon the human ideal intentionally to look to Jesus Christ for leadership.

Now, isn’t marriage a picture of other communities?

A community forms because of some ideal.  Whether a school, an organization focused on diminishing poverty in San Antonio, a civil engineering firm, whatever—a community forms with an ideal to be realized, or to die trying.

But the church, unlike all other communities, is not focused on human ideals.  Rather, the church is a present divine reality.  We follow Christ, the incarnation of God who lived and died as one of us then rose again and now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  But now, in between his resurrection and his second coming, his disciples have been scattered to the far regions of the world.  It is a privilege to be part of a Christian community—a church—at all.

Christian community is a gift from God we cannot claim, like sanctification.  It is a reality in which we participate, not an ideal we attempt to realize.  In the church, there is no place for fashioning a visionary ideal of community.

Now we come to today’s passage. We are the church, a community established and maintained by Jesus Christ.  But the church is a community unlike any other: a reality in which we participate rather than an ideal we try to realize.  As such, in this reality there will be disagreement; there will be dysfunction; there will be conflict.  Jesus knows this.  And Jesus tells us very plainly here how to deal with it.  But if I can nub and tag today’s passage in a simple sentence, it is this:

As the church, we must be reconciled to one another.

Reconciliation comes when we realize the nature of Christian community.  We enter into the church not as demanders, not attempting to realize our own ideals, but as thankful recipients.  Think about your own baptism.  Or maybe you’re too young to remember it, so think about baptisms you’ve witnessed.  These are times of gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  We enter the Christian community as thankful recipients.  We participate in this already extant reality called the church.  This is the nature of community we should always experience in the church.

But our mindsets don’t always stay that way, do they?  We don’t always remain grateful recipients.  We begin to think we have a lot to offer; maybe even more to offer Christ than he has to offer us.  This is a danger zone.

What is your understanding of the church?  What is your agenda?  Do you see the church as an organization to influence local politics?  Do you see the Christian community as a wholesome place to raise the kids?  To you, should the church follow a slick business model to market the good news of Jesus Christ to the consumer-oriented world around us?

Now, any time your own agenda disagrees with someone else’s, conflict results.  In a church this size, such agenda-clashing conflicts can happen a lot.  Sometimes the nature of these conflicts rises to a high enough level that feelings get hurt.  Sometimes we feel that people may have even sinned against us.  Sometimes people do in fact sin against us.  Reconciliation becomes necessary.

But reconciliation can be difficult—especially when we’ve taken ownership of our own agendas, our “babies”; and we become demanders rather than thankful recipients. “I’m gonna live or die on this one,” we tell ourselves, “and no one—not the vestry, not the rector, not even the bishop!—no one’s gonna stop me!”

If someone in the church has offended you, go to that person.  But go not as a demander.  Go instead with the willingness to hear him or her out.  Maybe there’s a side to this thing you’re not seeing.  Maybe your offense is unfounded.  Or maybe not.  But don’t go with your mind made up beforehand to get your way, that no one will change your mind, that no one’s gonna stop you.

Then, if you’ve truly gone with the right attitude, that Christ’s agenda is ahead of your own; and you still feel offended or sinned against, that’s when you bring someone else into it.

Do you see?  It’s a system of checks and balances given to us by Jesus Christ.  Perhaps you have been sinned against.  Or perhaps you haven’t.  Either way, in going humbly to the one who has offended you, the goal is to be reconciled to one another; the goal is to live in harmony with each other—whether the other is a regular churchgoer, a vestry member, a priest, the rector, or even the bishop.

This is the church.  It exists not so that we can accomplish our human ideals, our individual agendas.  Rather, it exists for the glory of Christ.  Christ’s glory is why it existed before we ever got here; and Christ’s glory is why it will continue to exist long after we pass on.

Disunity, disharmony, and dysfunction do little to glorify Christ.  Reconciliation does much.  Let us therefore be reconciled to one another.