Archive for April, 2016

Why I Believe

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 10:22-30

Do you know the story of Hanukkah?

Scrape off your history rust for a minute with me here.  Go back to that period of time that falls in between when the Old Testament was complete and when Jesus lived; to that period of time after Persia was in charge and before Rome was the chief player on the world stage; to that period of time between Darius and Caesar Augustus.

Wedged right between our Old and New Testaments is some pretty important history, right?  Only something called Hellenism!  Only a whole civilization called Greek!  Only the whole Greco half of the Greco-Roman world!

When Alexander the Great conquered the entire known world, the Jews were a part of that world.  Alexander’s program of Hellenism included conquering a people, so that they would pay him tribute; but then to allow that people to continue living their lives much as they always had—to keep their particular religious practices, for instance.

Which is what the Jews did, agreeably enough.

Until a hundred years or so went by and one of Alexander’s successors came to the throne that ruled over Israel.  This successor is known to us today as Antiochus IV.  He didn’t allow the Jews to continue their religion without interference.  And one of his interferences was, you probably know, to sacrifice pigs on the Temple altar.

This practice—the sacrifice of unclean swine—was grievous to the Jews, so grievous, in fact, that a couple Hasmonean Jews rose up in revolt against Antiochus IV’s forces.  Judas Maccabeus was one of these Jews, a man whom the nation would call Messiah: this son of David, many hoped, would usher in a new era.

Well, Judas died without ushering in a new era, and thus proved not to be Israel’s savior; and thus Israel’s hope continued (and still continues to this day).  Nevertheless, Maccabeus was a savior in a temporary way.  For he rid the Temple of the abominable practice; he cleansed the Temple; and he rededicated the Temple.

Hanukkah is sometimes referred to as this rededication—or dedication—of the Temple.

And so we come to today’s Gospel passage, which begins: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.”  Today’s passage takes place during the Jewish festival Hanukkah.

But a good Jew will tell you that the revolution against Antiochus IV is not the real reason for the festival of Hanukkah; for Jewish festivals never honor acts of war.  Rather, the story goes that, at the rededication of the Temple, a miracle took place.

The Sabbath was approaching, meaning that lamps had to be lit at least eighteen minutes before sundown.  But after Antiochus’s abomination, alas, there was hardly any undefiled oil to be found anywhere in the Temple, certainly less than enough to last one day.  And the process to make new, kosher oil would take eight days!  How would the priests of the rededicated Temple keep the lamps lit perpetually, as was the custom?

In faith, they went ahead and lit the lamps with what clean oil they had on hand.  Lo and behold, the lamps burned through the Sabbath and continued burning through the following Sabbath, through the eight days needed to make new, kosher oil.  And thus God miraculously provided for the rededicated Temple.

This miracle, then, is what Jews remember today when they celebrate Hanukkah.  The menorah—the candelabrum Jews use over the eight days of Hanukkah—represents these eight days.  Also, latkes, or potato pancakes, are traditional Hanukkah food—food fried in oil, remembering God’s abundance of oil given to Israel in the miracle.

But Hanukkah has become largely secularized in the modern world, losing much of its religious significance.  It falls near the Christian holiday of Christmas.  According to one Jewish writer I read this week, Jews have resorted to lavish gift-giving during Hanukkah in order to prevent their kids from becoming jealous of their Christian friends.

Perhaps lamenting, this writer continues: “It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.”

Perhaps John the Evangelist was being bitterly ironic, too, when he pointed out that this episode between Jesus and his questioners took place during Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.  During this very festival, Jesus’ questioners failed to acknowledge that here before them stood the very Light of the world.

“Tell us plainly,” Jesus’ questioners say; “are you the Messiah?  Are you another Judas Maccabeus, someone to deliver us from the oppressive hand of Caesar?  Are you the Son of David, the Savior of Israel?  Are you the Sun of Righteousness, the light of the world who shines so brightly we will never need our menorahs again?  Tell us plainly!”

But Jesus doesn’t answer them plainly (not right away anyway).  Instead, he points them to his works.  “My works testify to me,” he tells them.  His works demonstrate that, yes, indeed, he is the Messiah.

Is this frustrating to you?  Why doesn’t Jesus just say yes?  He has his chance.  I mean, they ask him, are you the Messiah?  All he has to do is say the word.  So why doesn’t he?

By the way, Holly took me out to see a movie last night, Eye in the Sky.  It’s very good, though very intense.  Anyway—without spoiling it for you—for most of the movie we the audience are left hanging in just this kind of suspense.  We’re waiting for someone simply to say yes.  But the man in charge doesn’t!  He can’t really; there’s too much at stake.

Is this why Jesus didn’t simply answer his questioners plainly?  Was there too much at stake?

But, on the other hand, even if he were to answer them plainly—even if he were simply to say yes—would his questioners have taken him at his word?  Would they have believed him?

Belief.  This is the more important issue, isn’t it?

If Jesus were to answer them plainly—if Jesus were to say, “Yes, it is as you say, I am the Messiah”—would they have believed him?

To turn the scenario around, if he were to have answered them plainly, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” they would have had grounds according to their law to stone him.

In fact, this is exactly what happened back at the end of John 8, a mere 65 verses ago:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’”  (“I am”: You can’t get more plain than that.)  “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”

Back in today’s passage, pointing here to the chief issue, Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe.  The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe.”

Belief is the main matter at hand.

Now, to make a couple connections:

First: two weeks ago we encountered Doubting Thomas.  Thomas is not there on Easter Sunday when the risen Lord appears to the rest of the disciples.  Later, when Thomas hears the incredible story of the resurrection, he doubts, saying that unless he touches Christ’s very wounds with his own hands he will not believe.

The following Sunday, who should appear to Thomas but the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself?  Well, to be sure, Thomas believes now.  But we are left with these words about belief ringing in our ears: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And we’re left thinking, “Yeah, that’s me!  I believe and yet I’ve never seen.  I’m blessed all right!”

As for the second connection: let’s look again at Hanukkah.

The Jews who confront Jesus in today’s Gospel were not present at the rededication of the Temple for the simple reason that they hadn’t been born yet.  In fact, they were as far removed from that first Hanukkah as we are from the War of 1812.

Do any of you remember that event personally?  Did any of you experience it first-hand?

Similarly, none of the Jews in today’s Gospel experienced first-hand the rededication of the Temple.  At the very best odds, maybe—barely maybe—one of their great-grandfather’s great-grandfathers might have been there.  Maybe.

And yet—nevertheless!—they all believed!

And I’m not talking a belief that’s merely mental assent, like I believe the War of 1812 happened, because the history books say so.  No, their belief in Hanukkah was a part of their national culture, akin to our Thanksgiving, a holiday with cultural and moral significance.

So, here’s the thing.  They weren’t there—they didn’t see it—yet they believed.  And blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Thomas had to see to believe; when he saw Jesus, he believed.

Jesus’ questioners saw him and yet did not believe.

We think we’re blessed because we haven’t seen and yet we believe.

But Jesus’ questioners hadn’t seen the first Hanukkah and yet believed in it.

Leaving me a little confused, wondering why I believe at all.  (After that explanation, are you a little confused too?)  Is my belief in Jesus Christ simply cultural?  Is it merely moral?  Is it both?  Should there be something more to it?

Then I remember Jesus’ answer to his questioners—his not-so-plain answer: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”

What are the works he does in his Father’s name?

He turned water into wine once.  He healed the sick and demon-possessed back when he walked the earth.  Maybe he even kept lamps lit for eight days despite all odds.

But that stuff doesn’t really matter to me so much.

What matters is that Jesus, as our shepherd, has called this unique and special group of people here today together; and we have heard his voice.  That’s a work he does in the Father’s name.

What matters is that he meets us here and now in the bread and wine.

What matters is that he gives me strength to make it through each day; and that he watches over my daughter and me when we canoe the river or hike a canyon; and that he gives me my daily bread; and that he leads me not into temptation; and that he—presently, daily, hourly, continuously—delivers me from evil.

What matters is that he calls my name and I hear his voice.

These are the works Jesus does in his Father’s name that testify to him.  And these are why I believe.

Responding like Thomas

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 20:19-31

Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

To this day—2,000 years later—he’s the butt of our jokes.  He’s not known by the name Didymus, the Twin, or simply St. Thomas; but forever gets the moniker Doubting.

In fact, I was at a church yesterday for a meeting, called St. Thomas of Canterbury, as if the church’s namers didn’t want anyone to confuse the church’s name with another Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

And, really, was his doubting anything more than the doubting we saw from Peter last week, who ran to the tomb, peeked in, and doubted Mary Magdalene’s testimony?

Oh, Peter.  Now there’s a piece of work!  Rash, thick-headed, and impulsive, he denied Jesus three times.  Yet we don’t nickname him Denying Peter.  Rather, we remember him as the Rock upon whom the whole Church was built!

But with Thomas the pejorative adjective has stuck.  He is and forever will be known as doubting.

But why is this so bad?  Isn’t a little doubt, a little skepticism, actually a good thing?  Don’t we as human beings in fact value a certain level of skepticism?

In our science labs we posit a hypothesis and then test it over and over.  And if our tests prove us wrong, why, we don’t conclude that the test results must be off but instead that we must rethink the hypothesis.  A certain level of skepticism is important in the science lab.

It’s no different in our courtrooms.  If one person files suit against another, it’s not automatically assumed that the prosecutor is correct.  Rather, we try—we don’t always succeed, but we try—to operate in our courtrooms by the adage “innocent until proven guilty.”  Gullibility is not valued; skepticism is.

And isn’t it the same in our research?  I can tell you, having endured three years of rigorous academic study in relatively recent personal history, if I were to state a little-known fact as part of an argument in an essay, I’d most definitely need to back that fact up with some kind of outside authority.  And Wikipedia doesn’t count!  We value skepticism.

This contrast between gullibility and skepticism comes to the surface even in some of our cultural traditions, such as April Fool’s Day.

I got on Facebook on Friday morning.  And on my feed was a post from a friend, which asked, simply, “What, is Trump really dropping out of the race?”

Well, by the time I saw this feed, posted by a friend two time zones to the east, there was already a slough of accompanying comments.  The first six or seven of this slough were expressions of amazement, shock, joy, and every other kind of emotion imaginable; until someone—someone skeptical—replied with these words: “I hate this day.”  Thereafter every reply pointed out that, oh yeah, it is April 1st; good one, Chris; I’ll get you back, just you wait; and, I don’t know how I could have been so gullible!

We value skepticism in our culture.

So, why then does Thomas get such a bad rap?

In line with science, then—not to mention our culture’s value placed on skepticism—let me posit a hypothesis.  We can always test it.  If you prove me wrong, I’ll revise it.  But I’ve been wrestling with it for a while now; and, as far as I can tell, it seems right.  Anyway, here it is:

Doubting Thomas gets such a bad rap not for being skeptical but because he takes his skepticism too far.

What do I mean?

In today’s Gospel we learn that Thomas was not there with everybody else when Jesus first appeared to them.  So, after Jesus left, the other disciples see Thomas and tell them what has happened.  “We have seen the Lord,” the say; “Jesus is alive, risen from the grave!”

This is where Thomas’s skepticism kicks in.  And we might think for good reason!  You know how it can be with the guys.  They like to act out jokes on each other, tell fibs, play pranks.  That’s all they’re doing now.

Or is it?

It’s not just one or two of the disciples we’re talking about here, but ten—twelve minus Judas and Thomas—plus some other disciples—at least Cleopas, Mary, and some other women.  There’s a whole group here saying the same thing!  Not to mention the grief is too recent!  No, this is not a prank.

Yet Thomas’s skepticism prevails.  And he says, “Look, friends, I don’t know what you’re playing at.  But, whatever it is, unless I see the marks in his hands and feet and side—no, unless I touch these marks—I will not believe.”

Now, it’s okay to be skeptical, to an extent.  But isn’t Thomas taking this too far?

Thomas is not trusting himself here to his community.  He refuses to listen to those who are actually in a certain position of authority over him: they have seen the risen Lord, he hasn’t; they are telling their story.  Shouldn’t he listen to and trust them?  Yet he refuses to believe.

Moreover, the disciples here are not far removed from Thomas in their authority, like some theologian who has written a book in a far off place whom the seminarian will never actually meet.  No!  These are the very people Thomas has been living with and among for the past three years, maybe more.  These are people he knows and respects, his community.  Yet in his skepticism he refuses to trust their testimony.

Hasn’t he taken his skepticism too far?

We value skepticism in our culture.  And there’s good reason to do so.  But, like Thomas, we often take our skepticism too far.

When?

Whenever we compromise community.  Whenever we don’t trust tradition.  Whenever we idolize individuality.

Now, I’ve mentioned it before: mainstream Christianity has seen a steady decline over the last four decades.  Decline is happening in the Church: the evidence proves it.

But a more difficult question to answer is why: Why has the mainstream church been in decline?

Perhaps it’s just this reason.  Perhaps it’s because we take our valued skepticism too far; we place a higher value on the skepticism of the individual than we do on the collective wisdom of the community.

A book I’ve been reading a lot lately says it this way—it’s an assessment, not a judgment:

“So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion.  Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations.”

It used to be that people were shaped by societal factors largely outside of their own choosing, their own control.  But now, whether in where we go to college, where we work, or even where we choose to live, the author continues:

“we connect with people because we think they will meet our needs for intimacy or otherwise help us advance our own interests.  Of course, the reverse also becomes possible—when we feel like relationships are not meeting our needs, we switch out of them.  This applies to everything from friendships to jobs to marriage—and to church.”[i]

Individual choice—valuing the individual more than the community—is at the root of all this.  Yet Jesus Christ and his church are about the common good above the individual.

We value skepticism.  But when Thomas’s skepticism went too far and he compromised the common good of the early Christian community, he was branded forever with the moniker doubting.  Whenever we compromise the common good for whatever reason—whether it’s skepticism, distrust, prejudice, or plain old pride and arrogance—we go too far.

So what do we do about it?  I mean, if the predominant culture values skepticism and doubt to such an extent that we regularly and routinely compromise the common good and even idolize individuality, where can we go?  We are all products of our culture, whether we realize it or not.

Well, first, let me suggest where not to go.

Let’s not try to tackle this cultural problem as a church, standing on the corners and proclaiming to every passerby who might care enough to listen that you’re all a bunch of Narcissists.  That would make St. Paul’s look like we don’t really love this fallen world the way we say we do, the way Christ says we ought to.  So let’s not go there.

But, second, let me suggest where I think we ought to go: to ourselves.

We are products of our culture.  And that means all parts of our culture—the good parts and the bad.  It’s the air we breathe.  This means that we reflect the culture without even realizing it.  So, with respect to what we’ve been discussing today, yes, without even being aware of it we value skepticism too much.

If something comes up in our community we don’t like, more often than not it’s easier in our culture just to walk away from the community and find or create another one that suits our needs better.  Or, if there is some problem to be solved, isn’t it often the most critical, skeptical, independent minds that get noticed?  And don’t we want to get noticed?

So, the first step is to become aware of this cultural tendency—in the world around us, yes; but even more importantly in ourselves.

And, then, whenever we catch ourselves compromising the common good; whenever we catch ourselves not trusting tradition; whenever we catch ourselves idolizing the individuality of self—that’s when Jesus meets us.

Just like he met Thomas, one week after Easter Sunday; and he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

In that moment, all Thomas’s skepticism and doubt fell by the wayside—all his compromising attitude towards the early Christian community; all his distrust of tradition; all his idolatry of self.

And he responded, simply, “My Lord and my God!”

Whenever we catch ourselves valuing our skepticism too much—whenever Jesus meets us in our individual arrogance—may we respond as Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

[i] Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church (2014), 16.