Archive for August, 2015

Unless you become like a Second Grader

Posted in Homilies with tags , on August 30, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Some of you know that I used to teach second grade.

Immanuel Christian School is a small, private school in northeastern Pennsylvania.  It is in a small city, Hazleton—spelled H-A-Z-L-E.  The word on the street is that when the city was founded, its name—which comes from the hazel tree—was misspelled on the founding documents; and that, when they discovered the misspelling, those in power decided it wasn’t worth going through the hassle to correct it.

Yeah!  Hazleton!  An old coal mining town whose heyday had long since passed!  This is where God called me to be a teacher for two years; to teach second graders.

Oh, the stories I could tell you!  Northeastern Pennsylvania was extreme culture shock for this thirty year-old and his twenty-six year-old wife, two born-and-bred Californians.  Especially the winter!

Anyway, as you know, second graders are curious folk to work with.  (Especially when from northeastern Pennsylvania!)

They’re like little grown-ups in a lot of ways.  They each have their own, unique desires, personalities, mannerisms, and traits.  They tend to gravitate towards one group of classmates and avoid another.  They lose their tempers; they become impatient with each other; they judge others and point out their faults; they gossip.  And so on.

But they’re different from most grown-ups in this: they haven’t yet learned discretion.

One day, in the middle of the school year, a second-grade boy ran up to me, panting, red in the face with urgency, obviously upset; grabbed my shirtsleeve; then pointed in another boy’s direction and shouted, “He hit me.”

We grown-ups do the same thing.  Only we use discretion.  We don’t run, for one thing.  And we’re usually not red in the face with urgency.  (We might be urgent, sure; but we know how to hide our redness).  And we aren’t so bold as to grab an authority by the shirtsleeve.  We us other, subtler means to get someone’s attention.

But we do seek someone who will listen to our cause, who will take our side.  And, yes, whether it’s gossip in the parking lot or a courtroom battle, just like second graders, we grown-ups point in someone else’s direction and shout out judgments against them.

So: what I wanted to say in this situation—when the second-grade boy grabbed my shirtsleeve and shouted that another had hit him—was, “Well, you probably deserved it.”

I wanted to say this (and I may or may not have actually done so once or twice in similar situations) because I knew I wasn’t hearing the whole side of the story.  There was another side, surely.  What would the second boy say if I were to ask him?  I knew: the first boy was telling me only what he wanted me to hear and hiding the rest from me.

It’s very easy for us—maybe even inherent in our nature—in our humanity—to think of ourselves more highly than we ought.  It’s very easy for us to put ourselves first, even when we tell ourselves we’re putting others first.  It’s very easy to see the speck in someone else’s eye without even noticing the two-by-four sticking out of our own eye.

We’re especially good critics of everyone else; and especially bad critics of ourselves.

“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel.

The word hypocrite has an interesting etymology.

It comes from the Greek noun hupokrisis, which means: the acting of a theatrical part.  We have the English word actor.  An actor acts a theatrical part, sure.  But before you want to start calling Chris Pratt a hypocrite, the meaning here is more like the character an actor plays and not the actor himself.  If anything, then, Chris Pratt is not a hypocrite; but Owen, the character he plays in Jurassic World, is.

The Greek verb hupokrinesthai gives us a little more insight.  It means: to play a part; to pretend.  This is the action that the actor does.  In Jurassic World, the actor Chris Pratt pretends to be Owen, the park’s game warden.

One more facet: hupokrisis, the Greek noun, can be broken into two constituent parts: hupo and krisisHupo is where we get our English prefix hypo-, which means below, or beneath.  (Example: hypothyroidism.)  And krisis, giving us our English word crisis, means decision, or judgment.  Put it together and you have a judging below—one person deciding that another person is beneath him.  (Just like Chris Pratt thinks he’s better than everyone else just because he’s a famous Hollywood actor!  Okay, for the record, I’m just kidding.)

Rightly, then (and now I’m not kidding), does Jesus call the judgment-casters in today’s Gospel hypocrites!  For they judge Christ’s disciples as being beneath them, since they don’t wash their hands before a meal.

Also, there is an element of pretension here: in that the judgment-casters are merely acting, putting on a show.

They’re disingenuous.

They’re inauthentic.

And that’s what I want to focus on: Hypocrisy is inauthentic.  Or, to say it a little differently, hypocrisy is the negation of authenticity.

So we’ve arrived at a contrast. On the one hand is hypocrisy: a pretend life.  And on the other hand is authenticity: an honest life.

Now, we certainly don’t want to be hypocrites!  Yet hypocrisy is something we all struggle with—whether you want to admit it or not—and if you don’t want to admit it, well, that’s proof enough.

Which leads to the question: What would it look like for us to live authentic lives, to live lives free of hypocrisy?

For the answer, I return to my second graders.

I wanted to say to the boy with the red face who’d pulled my shirtsleeve, “Well, you probably deserved it!”  But what I did instead was to capitalize on this incident by turning it into a teaching moment.

“All right,” I called out, not to him but to the entire class, “recess is over.  It’s time to line up and return to the classroom.”

Some minutes later, when everyone was seated and quiet—perhaps it was several minutes later—I continued.  “Get your Bibles out,” I said, “and turn to Matthew 18:15.  Raise your hand when you find it; first one there gets to read it aloud.”

And of course this was a sort of game for them.  But I had grander plans.

Predictably, the same red-faced boy who’d pulled on my shirtsleeve raised his hand first—or maybe he was second or third; but I was hoping to call on him anyway, so I used it to my advantage.

“Brent,” I said, “I see you’re there.  Begin reading, please.”

Which he did—from the New International Reader’s Version (the NIRV): “If your brother or sister sins against you, go to them.  Keep it between the two of you—”

And I interrupted.  “Wait,” I said.  “What did that just say?  Please, read it again, Brent.  And slow down a little bit, so that everyone can understand you.”

And he did.  But this time, now that everyone was really listening, I let him keep reading: “If they listen to you, you have won them back.  But what if they won’t listen to you?  Then take one or two others with you.”

“Thank you, Brent,” I said.

I then went on to explain that this is the Bible’s remedy for tattle-tales.  “Don’t you all think it would be a good idea,” I asked, “if, instead of running to a teacher right away to tell on someone, you just went to that person and tried to work it out between the two of you?”

Of course, there was a lot of nervous shuffling of feet and something of a murmur of incredulity.  But in the end we agreed to try it.  If a student brought a tattle to tell me, I wouldn’t listen until that person had spoken first with the offender.  And at first it wasn’t very easy; but we stuck at it.  And before the year was over, I’m happy to report, the students came a long way.  They increased in their authenticity and decreased in their hypocrisy.

More specifically, the students became more honest with each other.  They learned to let things go that weren’t really that important after all.  They gave each other the benefit of the doubt.  They became less quick at passing judgment on each other, and in thinking themselves better than everyone around them.  They didn’t tell on each other so frequently.  They didn’t lose their tempers as quickly.  They stopped cutting in the line to the drinking fountain.  They even began to transgress their imagined group walls, their social boundaries.  Boys hung out with girls; girls hung out with boys.  A girl of Italian descent began eating lunch with the Puerto Rican girls (and in northeastern Pennsylvania, that’s a big deal)!

But isn’t this what authenticity is all about?

Honesty.

Giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Not judging ourselves to be better than everyone around us.

I don’t know about you, but I want to live more like these second graders.

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Enigma Ingesting and Imbibing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on August 16, 2015 by timtrue

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John 6:51-58

Q: What do you get when a psychic midget escapes from prison?

A: A small medium at large.

I have my daughter to thank for that one.  But my point for the moment is that riddles are fun.  Or at least they can be.

So, what about this one?

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

A: Man.

Morning here is infancy; noon is the prime of life; and the evening represents the sunset years, when man walks with the assistance of a cane.

Kind of fun, eh?

But does anyone know where it comes from?

In Greek mythology, this was the riddle posed by the sphinx.  She was a monster who spent her time terrorizing the city of Thebes and devouring anyone who couldn’t answer this riddle.

Not so fun now!

This particular story ends when a hero named Oedipus successfully answers the sphinx’s riddle; she casts herself off a cliff in despair; and the people of Thebes go on to live happily ever after—or, actually, not so much, if you know your Greek mythology.

To expand on my earlier point, then, riddles can be fun, but this isn’t always the case; riddles come in all shapes and sizes.

We often think of them as fun—enjoyable: they’re clever; they play on words and logic, often surprising us in some way.

But what about when there’s more at stake than just a trick of mind?  What if a riddle is more a matter of life or death?  What if, like Oedipus, we will in fact die if we give the wrong answer?

Then the riddle’s not so much fun.

Then it doesn’t feel like a riddle at all.

Now we aren’t able to look at it dispassionately, detached from it as if it were a lizard in an aquarium.  No longer do we have the luxury to puzzle over it on our terms, like some Sudoku puzzle we wrestle with until we solve it or something better comes along.

Instead, now we have no choice but to wrestle with it.  Now it makes us uncomfortable.  We might not find the answer right away.  Or ever!  And so we resign ourselves that we’ll just have to end up living with the conundrum indefinitely.  It’s not fun.  Nor does it feel like a riddle.  At all.

Still, that’s just what it is.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says; “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

What does Jesus mean here?

It’s a riddle, isn’t it?

But it’s hard.  There’s no easy answer.  It makes me uncomfortable.  It brings an element of unresolved tension to my faith.  It’s a conundrum.

And so it’s not fun.  It doesn’t feel like a riddle.  At all.

Now, on the one hand, there’s some really good stuff here.  Jesus came down from heaven, for instance.  That’s good.  Jesus, who is fully God, left a place beyond time and entered into our earthly dimensions of time and space in order to give life to the world.  I get that.

And then, also, he says we can live forever with him.  We who love him will dwell with him forever in that very place that is beyond space and time.  I get that too.  At least, I sort of get it.

But on the other hand—and here’s what I don’t get—at all!—he says that in order to do this—in order to dwell with him in that place beyond the space and time we know—we must eat his flesh.

What?!  He’s fully God, yes.  But he’s fully human too.  So, eat his flesh?  What?!

Which is exactly how the people around him responded when he said these things:

“The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us flesh to eat?’”

To which Jesus said, C’mon, guys, it’s a riddle!  Don’t you understand?

Or, that’s effectively what he said anyway.

What he actually said was, Yeah, you’ve got to eat my flesh.  And, what’s more, you’ve got to drink my blood (!), because my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Jesus is using figurative language.  If that weren’t clear enough already when he said the things he did about eating his flesh—if cannibalism weren’t already repugnant enough—he adds this variation about drinking his blood too!  Jews found the practice of drinking the blood of any animal (aside from the suggested cannibalism) repugnant.

Now—obviously!—Jesus is not talking literally.  Rather, he’s saying, effectively, C’mon, guys!  Don’t you understand?  It’s a riddle!

But it’s a hard one.  It’s one we’re not comfortable with.  It brings an element of unresolved tension to our faith.  And so it’s not fun.  At all!

And that’s what Jesus’ followers thought.  Peeking ahead to next week’s Gospel (which picks up where this week’s leaves off), we find these words:

“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66).

Jesus has posed a hard riddle to his disciples—and to us.  We might rather toy with it like a Sudoku puzzle than live with it.  We might want rather to be a faithful spectator, watching Jesus from the sidelines, than to live into all that he calls us to.

But there is a problem with this kind of sideline faith: when we come to the hard riddles—the conundrums—we’d rather turn back and no longer walk with him.

This riddle is not meant to be fun.  Rather, this riddle is a matter of life and death.

So then, what does Jesus’ riddle mean?

(Oh, wouldn’t you like to know!)

We can learn something from those who have gone before us.  For there has been considerable debate about this riddle in Christian history, especially since the Reformation in the 16th century; focused on the Eucharist, or the Mass.

What Jesus meant, the Roman Catholic Church claimed, was that the bread we eat at the Mass is Jesus’ actual, physical body; and the wine we drink his actual blood.  And so, when the priest consecrates the elements, somehow, mysteriously, even though it still tastes and feels and smells like bread and wine, they have become the very flesh and blood of Jesus.

To which the Protestants said, Pshaw!  (This was the 1500s; people still said things like “pshaw.”)  How can the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus?  That makes no sense!  I mean, he’s seated right now at the right hand of the Father in heaven.  So how can his literal body and blood appear on Sunday mornings in every Christian church around the world simultaneously?  No way!

But, you see, this protest put Protestants in a sort of quandary, because they liked literal.  They wanted to interpret everything Jesus said—yea, even everything in the Bible—literally.  But this one—that Jesus’ followers are to eat his flesh and drink his blood—oh, this one was too much.

So some good Protestants said, No, we can’t take this conundrum literally.  At all.  Of course not!  So let’s look at what Jesus said elsewhere.  Ah!  “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said.  Remembrance.  In fact he said this about baptism too.  So, yeah, that’s the literal path to tread.  Baptism and Communion aren’t sacraments at all, but to be done only in remembrance, out of obedience to Jesus.

And so went the debate—a debate that continues in some circles to this day, in fact.

Incidentally—just going to follow a little rabbit trail here—from this debate is probably where the term hocus pocus originated.  Yeah!

When you hear the words hocus pocus, what do you think of?  Some kind of spell, right?  It’s an incantation; or, more simply, magic.

This phrase we associate with a magic spell most likely comes from the Latin setting of the Mass used in the days of the Reformation.

You know the part of the Eucharistic Prayer when the celebrant says, “This is my body . . . Do this for the remembrance of me”?  Well, the Latin for this is my body is hoc est corpus meum.

Now, if we shorten it to hoc est corpus, and I’m a Protestant who doesn’t much care for Latin and am otherwise looking for something to criticize, it’s pretty easy to see how hoc est corpus became hocus pocus

And to see how the Protestant synopsis of the Catholic Mass became nothing more than magic: “Behold, the bread.  Hocus pocus!  Behold, the body.”

For the record—just so you know—the Episcopal Church is somewhere in the middle.  The Eucharistic elements are Christ’s body and blood; and we do this for the remembrance of Jesus.  But how the elements get that way is not magic: it’s mystery.  And we’re content to leave it there: in the realm of mystery.

Anyway, all this wrangling over what Jesus’ riddle means has missed much of the point.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It is good for us to wrestle with Jesus’ words.  We should puzzle intellectually over this riddle throughout our lives.

But this riddle is not merely intellectual.  Eating and drinking are physical, material acts.  Ingesting and imbibing involve all five senses.

Following Jesus is not a Gnostic act.  It is not only about observing him, considering his words, contemplating his deeds, wrestling through his riddles and paradoxes at our leisure—as we might work through Sudoku puzzles.

Rather, following Jesus requires the engagement of our full being.  We not only admire him as a great teacher, preacher, healer, and wise man; we also are crucified with him and die to ourselves.  We ingest him; we imbibe him; and thereby we live in and through him.

And we say, with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Following the living bread, Jesus Christ, is a flesh-and-blood riddle; not something merely to observe, but to ingest and imbibe over a lifetime.

Fellowship

Posted in Books, Education, Rationale with tags , , , , , , on August 8, 2015 by timtrue

Sewanee fall

Elated to be returning to my alma mater for two weeks this fall!

If you know me half-well, you might wonder if I’m headed to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee to see my two daughters who are presently students there.

Or you might be wondering if I’m returning to spend more time playing Sewanee’s 54-bell carillon, a one-of-a-kind instrument I performed on from time to time during my tenure as a graduate student; the tower in which it is housed stands tall in the photo above.

Or you might be wondering if I’ve got some pressing business with the School of Theology–to attend the Daily Office in COTA (Chapel Of The Apostles) or to sit in on some especially riveting lecture or other or to press a former professor or three on some vexing theological question.

Or maybe I want to spend time with my good friends in the classics department.

Or maybe I’ll be stopping by some of the area congregations in which I served as an organist, deacon, or preacher.

Or maybe I just miss the burgers at Shenanigans.

Truth be told, that’s all part of it, sure.  No doubt I will be trying to see as many people and enjoy as many meals as I can with them, especially the two favorite people mentioned in the first paragraph–not to mention visiting the tavern a time or two too with the older one since she’s turning twenty-one tomorrow.

But none of this is actually why I’m going.  Not technically anyway.  Unless, arguably, it all is.

The truth is I’ve been awarded a fellowship to research and otherwise work on a book.

The book’s subject matter is quintessential Sewanee history–albeit with a splash of lore.  Or, on second thought, it’s quintessential Sewanee lore with a splash of history.  Ghost lore, to be specific; which is indeed a significant part of Sewanee’s history (as is angel lore).

So you know, my fellowship proposal stemmed from a desire that went unfulfilled all my while as a student.  For, as a student (who also happened to be a father struggling to make ends meet–and thus all the carillon performing, Latin teaching, and organ accompanying), I never had adequate time to explore all the ghost lore that captivated my imagination while in the old town (by American standards).  It simply would have been too difficult to write all those theology and church history papers with ghost stories on my mind.  So, while a student, I set the captivation aside, calling it too distracting or whatever, trying to ignore it and hoping it would go away.

But it didn’t.

So now, I’d like to return to Sewanee, I said on my fellowship application, to explore this ghost lore in a focused way.  I want to eat meals and drink pints in the tavern with those who have a story to tell–with those who have lived and breathed long enough in the community to have heard a tale or two enough times to have most of the details worked out.  I want to climb the stairs in the bell tower again to the carillon cabin–a bell tower with a tale or two of its own–and maybe even play a piece.  I might even want to explore one of the graveyards or any other haunt with anyone willing to explore with me–might want to go on a bona fide ghost hunt or two!

And so, yes, technically, I’m returning to Sewanee for none of the reasons listed above.  But, on the other hand, it’s kind of for all the reasons above–and many more.

So if you are a Sewaneean with a ghost story to tell and will be around Oct. 26-Nov. 6, please let me know when and where we can meet for a conversation.

And–oh yeah–Halloween, conveniently, falls right in the middle of my time there.  I’m hoping to share some of my findings in Hamilton Hall during my stay.  Who knows, maybe it will be on Halloween itself–right before a midnight graveyard ghost hunt?

Seeking Fulfillment

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on August 2, 2015 by timtrue

John 6:24-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

Where do you seek Jesus?

Perhaps your faith is utilitarian.

A few weeks ago I mentioned a friend of mine who serves as a sort of missionary in Mexico: a consultant mainly to rural pastors and their congregations.  He tells of a curious problem confronting many of these rural pastors; a problem posed by—of all places—Muslim mosques.

Money is scarce in rural Mexico, as you know.  But kids there like gadgets just as much as kids here do.  And there’s also Wal-Mart.  So, the mosques know all this, and they put this all together; and since they can afford it they buy lots of kids’ bicycles from Wal-Mart.  And then they advertise: Come to our mosque and we’ll give your kid a bicycle.

And you know what?  It’s working.  Families are coming to mosques in remarkable numbers.  And they’re not filling the pews of the local churches; leaving the rural pastors to ask my missionary friend, “What’s to be done?”

Now, my point for today is that this is a picture of a very utilitarian approach to faith.  Whether you attend a mosque, a synagogue, a church, or any other house of worship, is your main question, “What’s in it for me?”

Where do you seek Jesus?

Perhaps yours is an expedient faith.

To illustrate what I mean by an expedient faith, recall with me the toppling of the Iron Curtain; or, more specifically, the events leading up to the toppling of the Wall.  Christian churches in the Eastern Block were growing in courage, speaking out against the evils of the Marxist regime that had reigned over them far too long.  And, like a wave, the Christian voice grew and gained momentum until finally it crested and whole nations suddenly found themselves free.

Why was the Christian voice able to strengthen at this time?  In large part because of the sheer numbers of people who flocked to churches—in order to be a part of this political movement!  By and large, these people saw an opportunity for political liberation through the church—theirs was a politically expedient faith—as evidenced by the large numbers of people who left these churches shortly after the Wall fell.

Where do you seek Jesus?

Perhaps, like the people of today’s Gospel, yours is a faith that looks for signs and wonders.

This is the approach of the so-called Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.  The message is, if only you have enough faith Jesus will heal you, or grant you special gifts of the Spirit—the ability to heal or speak in tongues, for example.  The so-called Prosperity Gospel is rooted here too: If only you have enough faith, it promises, God will bless you with wealth.

But did you catch Jesus’ response to the crowd in today’s Gospel?  “Show us another sign!” they beckoned; to which Jesus said, “I am the only sign you need; I am the bread of heaven.”  You see, signs and wonders are like the bread we eat.  They fill us, but only for a little while; they don’t fulfill us always.  Only bread from heaven can do that.

Where do you seek Jesus?

Or—one more—perhaps yours is an intellectual faith.

Jesus wants us to love him with our heart, soul, strength, and MIND!  So, the intellectual person reasons, I must know all the ins and outs of doctrine; I must understand God; I must wrestle mentally until I am sure and certain of my faith.  And then I must argue with anyone who disagrees.

Or, if this person can’t come to a mental comprehension of God, he or she claims Atheism as the only reasonable belief system.

Where do you seek Jesus?

Now, with this question in mind, let’s look at today’s passage.

A first observation: the crowd, and arguably the disciples too, seeks Jesus in each of these ways:

  • In utility—they want more food;
  • In political expedience—elsewhere in John the crowd tries to make Jesus king, or political savior; an attempt which he rejects;
  • In signs and wonders—they ask Jesus for another miraculous feeding;
  • And in intellectual logic—they are realizing he’s not what they thought; so who, or what, is he?

But—a second observation—the very beginning of today’s passage betrays the crowd: Jesus was not found where they were seeking him.  They were looking for him where he had fed the five thousand.  But he and his disciples weren’t there, so they got in boats and went looking for him.  In other words, they were seeking Jesus in the wrong places.

So—a third observation—when they do find him, they ask a question with a characteristically Johannine double-meaning: “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

  • On a smaller, more immediate scale, this question betrays that Jesus was there in their midst all along, able to be found easily—if only they would look in the right places;
  • And on a larger, more cosmic scale, it betrays that the Incarnation has been in their midst for an unknown time and only now are they beginning to realize it.

So let’s return to our question: where do you seek Jesus? But let’s change it up a bit.  Instead of asking do, let’s ask should: Where should you seek Jesus?

You see, we’re a lot like the crowd.  We seek Jesus in the wrong places.  Yet all along he is right here in our midst.  But where?

Well, I just gave the answer: in our midst!

He’s here:

  • In the breaking of the bread;
  • In the Word read and preached;
  • And in prayer.

But he’s also right in the midst of our daily lives:

  • In loving and serving others, especially those with whom we interact most closely;
  • In the “aha! moments” of our children and grandchildren;
  • In the movies we watch, the books we read, and the music we listen to;
  • In the stories we tell each other around the dinner table;
  • In the very foods we eat, given to us by Christ himself.

The Incarnation, the bread of life, is always around us and before us.

Are we missing what’s right under our noses, distracted by our felt needs for utility, expediency, signs and wonders, and intellect?

We don’t have to comprehend everything.

This same Gospel, John, tells us that in the beginning was the Word, the full revelation of God.

Yet throughout this Gospel, Jesus, the full revelation of God, is difficult to understand.  Even the disciples are often left scratching their heads!

Far be it from me, then, to say this Gospel’s easy, that all your answers are to be found in three easy steps!

Rather, we don’t have to comprehend everything about Jesus.  Savoring the bread of life, throughout our lives, is a time-consuming process!

So—fine and well!—we seek him.

But let’s not seek him on our terms.  Instead, seek Jesus, the bread of life, on his terms: where he wills to be found.