Archive for May, 2015

Escaping to a Fuller Reality

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by timtrue

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

John 17:6-19

C. S. Lewis—Clive Staples, or, to his friends, Jack—is the author of the beloved children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia.

We say children’s series.  But have you ever read them: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; and so on?  These seven books are profound.  And while they do indeed tell stories that children enjoy—for their telling is simple enough—their content can be contemplated for a lifetime.

We might call Lewis an accidental theologian.  For, though a scholar of medieval literature by vocation, his heart, soul, mind, and strength bubbled a love for Christ that cannot but be noticed in everything he wrote, whether scholarly article or so-called children’s series.  He’s a man definitely worth getting to know.

I want to spend some time today focusing on the seventh (and final) book in the Chronicles, called The Last Battle; for a major theme from this story is also a major theme in the words we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel.  This section of the Gospel of John, by the way, is a prayer.  Jesus is praying for his followers; Jesus is praying for us.  Theologians refer to this prayer of Jesus as the High Priestly Prayer.

There’s that age-old question: What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?  Well, if you will, my question today is: What does the High Priestly Prayer have to do with The Last Battle?

So then, to set the stage, The Chronicles of Narnia largely follow the lives of four children, siblings, the Pevensies: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

In the second book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children enter a land, Narnia, through a magical wardrobe.  Narnia is entirely unknown to anyone on earth.  Some of the animals there talk.  There are mythological creatures come to life too: Fauns, dryads, naiads, centaurs, and so on.  Ultimately, the ruler of all of that foreign world—including Narnia and its other lands: Calormen, Archenland, the Seven Isles—is a lion named Aslan.  Aslan—spoiler alert!—is analogously Jesus Christ.

So I’ve mentioned the wardrobe and the lion; if you want to know how and where the witch fits in, read the book!—or talk to me later.

In the seventh book, The Last Battle, three of the Pevensie children—who are quite a bit older now—find themselves in Narnia once more.  This time, apparently, they have been summoned to help the present king, Tirian, fight what at first appears to be a routine battle.  Yet, as the story continues, Aslan appears and all characters realize that this battle is not routine at all, but will be the final battle between Narnia and Calormen.

But not all is lost.  Aslan appears and establishes two doorways.  All the world’s subjects will pass through one or the other.

When Peter, Edmund, and Lucy pass through the doorway on the right, they have no idea what they will find on the other side.  But when they get there, they find themselves in familiar surroundings!

Presently they see familiar Narnian sights.  There’s the castle, Cair Paravel!  There’s the lamppost, the very first object they’d ever noticed when they’d first entered Narnia so long ago.

But then, focusing far away, like standing on one mountain peak and looking to another, they see familiar sights from London.  St, Paul’s Cathedral.  Westminster Abbey.  Even some buildings that had been lost in the war to German bombings.

Somehow—it now dawns on them—this world beyond the door is everything the old world was but better, richer, fuller.  The old world—the world in which we live—is a mere shadowland compared to what the new heavens and the new earth will be.

Now we see only in part; but then we shall see much more fully!

Have you ever heard the accusation that Christianity is an escape from reality? Or, if the person saying it is feeling especially harsh, that reality is an escape from Christianity?  Have you ever heard this?

But—to reflect for a moment—is escape always wrong?

On the one hand, we know escape can be wrong.  We all know people who have turned to drugs or alcohol as a means of temporary escape from reality.  Perhaps you’ve done it yourself.

Without going into the dangers and damaging effects of such a practice, we all can agree that this is not an effective means of escape from reality.  For drugs or alcohol merely suppresses the pain for a moment; they do nothing to produce hope.

But, on the other hand, consider this:

A long-time gospel favorite is the song “I’ll Fly Away.”  Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away; to that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away. . . .

The focus here is escape.  Life now, as we know it, is hard.  We have bills to pay, obligations to meet, and often burdensome responsibilities to maintain.  The constancy of these realities can wear us down.  We might justifiably daydream about life in the new heavens and earth.

And what we experience in our daily lives—by and large anyway—is nothing in comparison to the hardships experienced by, say, American slaves a century-and-a-half ago.  Imagine having to live a life as someone else’s property!  And any acts of rebellion such as running away, or even natural processes such as growing too old to be any longer productive, were subject to brutal punishments or even death—without any means of appeal!

Many a great gospel song finds its roots here, in the oppressed American south.

In this case, and others like it, I submit to you that escape isn’t so wrong.  Songs of escape—theologies of deliverance—offer hope.  And hope can produce all manner of goodness in a person, even the ability to love and forgive a harsh slaveowner.

C. S. Lewis was accused by critics and skeptics of escaping from reality in his fantasy books—in his Chronicles of Narnia. These are children’s books, the argument goes; they encourage escaping from reality.  And escaping from reality is not good; not something we want to encourage in children.  Therefore children shouldn’t be allowed to read these books.

(And we see that the controversies surrounding Harry Potter—an example from more recent history—are nothing new.)

Well, I think you know where I stand on this already, from my point about escape not always being bad.  But where did Mr. Lewis stand?

He answers this question in another book, called Surprised by Joy.  This book is really a testimony, how he came to faith in Jesus Christ.  From early on in his childhood, he explains, even from his earliest memories, he would catch glimpses of something—he couldn’t totally explain it—that would suggest a fuller reality.  He felt it once when he viewed the mountains on the Irish horizon.  He felt it another time when reading the Beatrix Potter story Squirrel Nutkin (if I remember correctly).

This sense of a fuller reality compelled him from early life that this material world in which we live—the here and now—is not all there is.  Life can be so much fuller, he was persuaded; life can be so much richer.  But how?

For C. S. Lewis—as for us—the answer is found in faith in Jesus Christ.

And for him the literary genre of fantasy was in fact a means of expressing this fuller, richer reality.

That was his answer to his critics; and he demonstrated this through The Last Battle, in which the heroes of the story enter a richer, fuller reality upon passing through the door on Aslan’s right.

Fantasy for Lewis, then, is not an escape from reality.  If it is an escape at all, it is an escape to a fuller reality.

Now, as promised, we come to today’s Gospel, the Gospel of John.

The community in which John lived, and to which he wrote, was a persecuted community.  It had been excommunicated from the focal point of its larger community, the synagogue.  By the time the Gospel of John was written, this excommunicated group of Christ-believers—of Christians—had banded together, retreating from their larger community, feeling ostracized, excluded, and otherwise rejected.  No doubt they wrestled with feelings of escape—escaping from their world; their reality.

In the Gospel written to this community, then, Jesus prays his high priestly prayer.  He prays on their behalf, to his heavenly Father, for them.  And he states, repeats, and reiterates that they are not of the world, but that they are in the world:

  • I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.
  • But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
  • I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
  • They do not belong to the world.
  • As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

Christ’s disciples are not called to escape from their reality.  If anything, they are called to escape to a new, fuller reality, where they remain in the world but are not of the world.

And Jesus wasn’t just praying for that community—those disciples in that day.  In today’s Gospel Jesus is praying for all disciples in whatever community we find ourselves.  In today’s Gospel Jesus prays for us.

May we dwell now in that fuller reality that is the Kingdom of God.

Chillin’ in Yuma

Posted in Musings with tags , , , on May 13, 2015 by timtrue

Not a title anyone would typically slap on Yuma, Arizona in May.  But it really has been unseasonably cool.  Last week, Friday only got to 76 degrees; and this Friday is forecasted for 79.  Typical this time of year?  96.

So, having come to Yuma ahead of my family, with cool temps and no family (whom I miss terribly), I’ve been hiking.  A lot.

Awesome desert around here.  Awesome arid mountains!  So when I find a few free hours and the thermometer is below 90 (or even 95 when the sun is low), it’s off to explore some canyon or climb some peak.

I’ve enrolled in a new gym, by the way.  It’s got its share of negatives, sure: there’s no air conditioning, for starters; and on any given day you might run into a rattlesnake or a scorpion.  But it’s free!  For me, it’s a fairly consistent 2 hours and 15 minutes of a workout; climbing 200 feet in elevation over the first mile; 1200 feet over the second.  Coming down’s a knee-burner too.  But the view at the top’s to die for.  I call it Club Telegraph Peak.  It’s training, by the way, for a backpacking trip with three of the kids near the end of June.

Anyway, 6 hikes over the last 11 days.  Looking forward to more, while this mild weather lasts.

Too bad I forgot a camera though.  Pics will just have to come with future posts.

Hey, maybe a pilfered one or two (or five, turns out) from some kind of photo share?  (The final one is Club Telegraph Peak.)

McDowell Mountains at Sunset

McDowell Mountains at Sunset




Telegraph Peak

I love being back in the west.

Sloppy Pruning

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by timtrue

John 15:1-8

Let me begin today by saying I’m glad I’m still new here.

I’m glad I’m still new here at St. Paul’s because this means I don’t really know you very well yet.  And that, you see, is a sort of protection for me; because today’s passage is a bit of a doozy.

Today’s passage from the Gospel of John says that we’re all branches; and that some branches have been cut off from the true vine that is Christ; and others will be pruned and cut by the vinegrower—by God the Father—himself.

In other words, there’s an element of judgment attached to today’s passage.  And if I, as your preacher today, bring this judgment to light—if I bring up specific attitudes or actions that might suggest God’s judgment—specific attitudes or actions you might practice—then I run the risk of stepping on your toes.

But I’m new here.  So, if I happen to bring up something that makes you a little squeamish, some attitude or action that you’ve had or done before, or that you might even be practicing now, remember, I’m not singling you out.  I don’t know you well enough yet to single you out.  I’m new here.

In other words, I can get away with saying a few things today I won’t be able to say later on, like a year from now.

Okay, then, now that I’ve got that off my chest, there’s this list of grievances I’ve brought with me today handed to me by the interim rector.  Names have been omitted from the list, he assures me, but. . . .

All right; just kidding!  I know it doesn’t really work that way.

But we do see another rich metaphor today in John’s Gospel, as we did last week; a metaphor pregnant with suggestion.  So there’s a chance that all of us will indeed see some of our own attitudes or actions in this passage.  It just might get a little uncomfortable, like being pruned—just warning you.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower . . . I am the true vine, and you are the branches.”

Do you remember the story from the Gospel of John about the man born blind?

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

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

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

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

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

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before the Jewish synagogue leaders, a. k. a. the Pharisees.  And after he tells them his story, curiously, the Pharisees are divided.

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

The Pharisees go to the man’s parents.  “Is this your son?” they ask.  Yes.  “Was he born blind?” they ask.  Yes.  “Do you know that he can see now?” they ask.  No.

“Well, you should.  How is it that he can now see?” they ask.

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

Do you remember what the Gospel tells us next?  It tells us why the parents say this.  Suddenly we are removed the drama of the moment and get a view from 10,000 feet up.

This should grab our attention.  This is a very important detail we need to consider closely.

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

Followers of Jesus were to be cut off from the synagogue: excommunicated.

By the time the Gospel of John was written, followers of Christ were no longer viewed as a Jewish sect.  This is not the same impression we get from the other three Gospels.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are some unkind Jewish leaders who confront Jesus and his disciples, sure!  But the followers of Jesus are everywhere assumed to be a Jewish sect, something like a denomination.  But by the time John is written—in the early second century—Christianity is no longer a sect but a separate religion, distinct from Judaism.

To finish the story, then, the Pharisees call forward the man born blind a second time.  Now they charge him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth!  “We know this man is a sinner!” they exclaim.

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

The exchange lasts a little longer.  But to cut to the chase, the story ends with these telling words: “And they drove him out.”  The Pharisees drove the healed man out of the synagogue because he trusted in Jesus.  Which is as much as to say the Pharisees cut him off from their community’s source of life, the synagogue, a branch of the vine Israel.

Yeah, the vine Israel.

Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.  For instance:

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

Isaiah 5 begins: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”

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

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

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

But even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself.  Or, maybe a better way to put it, Israel had cut itself off from Jesus.

Do you see what John does here?  Jesus is the true vine, John says.  He, not Israel, is the true source of life.

Contrary to what the synagogue leaders had intended—to cut off Jesus’s followers from their source of life, the vine Israel—they had actually cut themselves off from Christ, the true source of life.  Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; whereas the members of the synagogue are the ones cut off from the vine, left to languish, wither, dry up, and die apart from the true vine.

And—here’s the gut-wrencher for me—they did it to themselves!  God didn’t cut them off.  God can’t be blamed here.  They did it to themselves.  They cut themselves off from Jesus.

Leading me to wonder: do we cut ourselves off from Jesus?

The Pharisees were divided, remember.  They were praying, reading, and otherwise seeking to interpret their scriptures; but it wasn’t altogether clear to them whether Jesus was the true Messiah or not.  They had to use their heads.  Eventually they made a decision—the wrong decision, we know today—to cut off Jesus.

But, at the time, they didn’t think they were wrong.

Do we do the same thing today?  As a community of Christians, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our authority.  But they’re not always cut and dry.  We wrestle over how best to interpret them for today’s context.  And when we reach conclusions, we don’t always agree with each other—or with others who are a part of the wider church.  We think we’re right—oh yeah!  But, like those Pharisees, what if we’re not?

From today’s discussion, three ways surface in which we Christians can do just this: we can actually cut ourselves off from Christ without knowing it.

The first seems obvious to me; I hope it seems so to you as well.  It’s what the Pharisees did to the man born blind and to all the others in their community who trusted in Jesus.  They excluded them.  They ostracized them.  They colluded against them.  They formed an “in” group—a clique—and wouldn’t let the Christians be a part of it.

God help us when we do the same!  When we exclude others we cut ourselves off from Christ.

Second, we value independence highly in our culture.  And rightly so!  The self-sufficient person is not needy; does not take from others, from society.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone were self-sufficient?

But this vine metaphor is not about self-sufficiency.  In fact, the person who wants to live a life alone—alone from others, alone from Christ—will languish, dry up, and wither away.

Instead, it’s about community.  We are many branches emanating from the same vine, the true vine.  And our purpose is singular: to produce the richest and most abundant fruit for God, our vinegrower.  We strive together in Christ for the same goal.

But when we value our independence so much that community is compromised, we cut ourselves off from Jesus, our true source of life.

And third, we don’t want to be pruned.  God comes at us with his knife.  The vinegrower carefully examines each and every branch.  When he spots an unproductive shoot or a mediocre baby bunch of grapes growing from a branch, he cuts it off.  And it hurts!

“Ouch!” we say; “I don’t want God inflicting pain on me!”

We don’t like pruning—trials, tribulations, hardships; big pruning like facing cancer; but small pruning too like annoying coworkers, whining family members, etc.  So we’d rather cut ourselves off from the vine entirely than endure the vinegrower’s knife.

Yet the vinegrower’s intention is to make us better, more productive, and more mature followers of Christ through his pruning.

And remember this: the vinegrower is never closer to the individual branch than when he is pruning it with his knife.

But we’d rather be in control—that independence again!  We don’t want to let God prune us; we don’t want to rest in the unresolved tension of cancer or an annoying coworker.  We would rather prune ourselves.

So we do!  All too often anyway!  We take matters into our own hands.

But we’re sloppy.  Our cuts are crude and harsh; and—what happens?—we don’t mean to but we end up cutting ourselves too deeply, cutting ourselves off completely, to languish, dry up, and wither away apart from Jesus.

Do you see?  The message here is really quite simple: Don’t try to do the pruning yourself.

You’ll cut others off; you’ll cut yourself off from others; and you’ll cut yourself off from Jesus Christ, the true vine.

Spiritual pruning is best left to the vinegrower.