Archive for July, 2016

Between Clarity and Muddle

Posted in Background, Homilies with tags , , , , on July 24, 2016 by timtrue


Luke 11:1-13

Many of you know the story of my spiritual journey:

  • How I grew up in a home where church was not a part of family life;
  • How I placed a lot of stock in my family;
  • How this stock was entirely upended when my parents divorced;
  • How through this divorce I began to question what things really mattered;
  • How I began to find answers first through Bible study and later through church;
  • How I sensed a call to ordained ministry during college;
  • And how more than twenty years passed before this call materialized.

Many of you know this.  But do you know the story of my spiritual pendulum swings?

When I was a little boy and life was good—when I was growing up in semi-rural southern California on an avocado orchard, with chickens and a donkey and a dog and three cats and a swimming pool with a rope swing and large lawns and hillsides nearby for hiking and bicycling and racing homemade go-karts and neighbor kids my own age and grapevines and citrus trees and afternoon Pacific breezes and delightfully cool summer evenings—when I was a boy experiencing all these things, let me tell you, life largely fell into two clearly defined categories: good and bad.

I have a vivid, lucid memory, in fact, of lying on my lawn on a lazy summer afternoon, mesmerized by the several hues of green the sunlight was making as it danced upon the avocado leaves playing in the breeze.  “This is what life is all about,” I told myself.  “This is where I will grow old.  I’ll grow up, get married, have a family, and my kids will grow up and have their families, and this is right where I’ll be, a grandpa, still living in this house, still lazing away my summer afternoons right here on this lawn.”

Here was absolute truth without even the faintest breath of falsehood.  Here was everything beautiful without any discernible scent of ugliness.  Here was all good and nothing bad.

My spiritual pendulum, in other words, had not yet swung; it was entirely over here, on this side, as far up the arc of clarity as it possibly could be.

But then, abruptly, with the divorce, it dropped.  And it swung.

Now all those avocado trees and lazy summer afternoon swims and philosophical musings in the breeze suddenly didn’t seem so important.  Now, instead, Mom and Dad, who’d so recently seemed so certain and sure of themselves, were unstable, emotional, and confused.

The truth, beauty, and goodness of my life—now there was something rancid in the smell.  Now discerning the good from the bad was—well, now I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other began.  Now life was all mixed up.

And it all had happened overnight!

Just like that, my spiritual pendulum had swung from its highest point of clarity to its opposite extreme.  All that had seemed so constant and stable was now uncertain and confused, just like my parents.

But there’s something about pendulums: they swing back.

The backswing came, very noticeably, a few years later, when I was in high school, when I’d gone away on a youth retreat and—in the words of the youth leaders—given my life to Christ.

“Have you ever felt uncertain and confused?” the speaker asked.  “Jesus knows how you feel.  And, in fact, Jesus has all the answers.  Do you want to stop feeling uncertain and confused?  Then just give your life to Him: give your life to Christ.”

Well, yeah!  I wanted the answers.  I wanted clarity and stability in my uncertain and confused life.  I wanted my spiritual pendulum to swing back to the high point of clarity again.

So I did what the speaker said.  I stayed behind, after the emotional meeting was over.  I met with a so-called spiritual counselor.  And I prayed a formulaic prayer to receive Christ, repeating the prompts given to me by this spiritual counselor.  And thus I “gave my life to Christ.”

Now all would be clear again, I told myself.  Now all would be black and white.  Now I would be able with certainty to discern truth from falsehood, beauty from ugliness, and good from evil.

So I changed my ways.  I stopped swearing.  I started doing my homework.  I said no whenever my friends invited me to parties.  And I tried to sort everything—and I mean everything—into two neatly defined, binary categories of right and wrong.

And you know what happened?  I lost a lot of friends.

Oh, sure, that’s not the only thing that happened!  A lot of good came out of this newly repentant life, sure.  Clarity in a season of uncertainty and confusion is always a good thing.  So, for instance, I developed serious spiritual disciplines during these years.  I also learned to value very highly a life characterized by integrity—a life I strive to live to this day.

But I also became intolerant of anyone who thought differently than I did.  What worked for me was good enough—I’d developed my system, my formula for life.  And whenever I met another person who tried to practice a similar system, well, we’d become fast friends.  But whenever I met a person who did not, which was more often the case, well, I’d tell myself, my time and energies would be better spent elsewhere.

So, yeah, I lost a lot of friends.  And I made very few new ones.  My spiritual counselor at that youth retreat never told me that would happen.

So, one thing about pendulums is they swing back.  Which, in time, I’m happy to say, mine did again.  But then, yes, I’m not so happy to say, after a while it swung forth again.  And then it swung back again.  And forth again.  And back.  And forth.  And so on.  And so forth.

But there’s something else: swinging isn’t the only thing pendulums do.  After time—and for some of us this may mean a long time, like the pendulum in the Griffith Park Observatory in L. A.—after time the swinging motion starts to slow down.  The large, violent swings that once went up so high from one side to the other now don’t go up so high anymore.  Now they become softer, gentler, more manageable.  Now we begin to see details and colors we never knew were there before.

For me, these softening swings were the twenty-some years of watching my call to the ordained ministry materialize, as I navigated the waters of life together with Holly and our growing family, through various churches and denominations, gaining vocational experience as a teacher and school administrator, learning, learning, always learning, that life isn’t so clear, certain, and stable as I’d like it to be; that Jesus isn’t so much a god with all the answers as he is a God to guide.

He never promised his disciples clarity on that Day of Pentecost.  Instead, he promised an Advocate, Comforter, and Guide: the Holy Spirit.

So, somewhere in there, after several years of swinging back and forth, of vacillating between clarity and muddle, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit my spiritual pendulum swings began to soften, to become gentler, more colorful, and more manageable.

Somewhere in there I learned that life isn’t just about discipline, rationality, and the head overcoming the heart.  Life is also human.  It’s full of emotion.  It’s unstable.  It’s confusing.  It’s messy.

Somewhere in there I learned that Jesus is not just some lofty ideal, out there somewhere, fully God but not quite fully human—or maybe more than fully human, maybe superhuman—who decided to wear humanity for a while, as if dressing up for a dinner party; and all I have to do is go find him and learn from him.

Rather, somewhere in there I learned that in Christ Jesus God actually became like me!  God met me where I already was.  God became human—and all that that means: all its emotion, instability, confusion, and mess!

Anyway, that’s the story of my spiritual pendulum swings.

What’s your story?  I’m sure you’ve been guided in this way too, vacillating back and forth throughout your Christian life; but that over time experiencing a sort of settling too—a softening that has produced a more colorful and manageable life.

So: in light of today’s Gospel, what is this settling?  Is it not prayer?

“Lord,” that disciple said to Jesus, “teach us to pray.”

Is this not our constant question?  Is this not what we ask again and again, over and over as we swing from one side of our human perspectives to the next?

Back and forth we go on our spiritual pendulums, setting personal standards that are humanly impossible and then failing to live up to them, vacillating between clarity and muddle.

But what softens our swinging?  What aligns us?  What draws us in?

Is it not prayer?  Is not prayer the gravity that orients and grounds us?

Lord Jesus, indeed, teach us to pray.

Partnering with Pokémon

Posted in Doing Church, Musings with tags , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2016 by timtrue


“Dad, St. Paul’s is a Pokéstop!”

This was the statement that really caught my attention.

My daughter, Hannah, had been making comments for a few days about a new app she’d downloaded, something called Pokémon Go.  I’d listened to her explain how it works a time or two, half-interested, like I am with most things technological.  You know how it is: a new app comes out, it’s hot for a few days, then the fad passes and something else catches the attention of those who stay up with these things.

I don’t, though.  I’m not one of them.  My phone, for instance, doesn’t even have a camera.  I can text and call.  And I like it that way.

But I keep up with my kids.  And so what my kids are into, by extension I’m interested too, or at least half-interested.

But when she ran into my office on Sunday morning, wide-eyed and grinning, and expressed her excitement in the words at the start of this blog, my half-interest turned into full interest.

Here was an app that had caught her attention.  Moreover, a few days had passed and not only was her attention still caught, it was increasing.

And the out-the-box idea of a game to get people outside, off their backsides and into the highways and byways!

“So,” I replied, “explain.  What is a Pokéstop?”

Which she did, showing me on her iTouch just how this app worked, utilizing something called Augmented Reality (a term which, admittedly, before Sunday I thought referred to cosmetic surgery); something like a scavenger hunt all over the neighborhood, the town, the county, the state, or anywhere else a person determined to catch them all is willing and able to go, except what you’re hunting for are Pokémon, which can be seen only through a screen.  (Think of it as ghost hunting, where the ghosts can be detected only through paranormal cameras.  The Pokémon are the ghosts; the paranormal cameras your smart devices.  The more you catch, the more your rewards.)

And, for whatever reason, the creators of Pokémon Go decided to designate many churches (and gyms, by the way) as Pokéstops, places Pokémon could go to catch a breath, rejuvenate, whatever: a virtual Pokémon nest.

Now, we people in the church business think we’ve got something valuable to offer, namely, the calming presence of Christ to a chaotic world.  There’s salvation in this; it’s why we do the “business”—or it should be.  And thus we’re always concerning ourselves with the question of how to offer more of this message to the world around us, how to exude even more of Christ’s peace.  This question seems especially important now: politics, arguments over the second amendment, tensions over racial and religious differences—these matters are at a fever pitch.

So, my alarm woke me a 3:30am on Monday morning.  With another daughter, I was rising early to hike to the top of Telegraph Pass in order to catch the 5:40am sunrise.  I do some of my best thinking when I have a few hours of quietude, the heat would be unbearable by 8am, and besides it was a workday—so, yeah, a sunrise hike.

We enjoyed a brilliant sunrise in fact, summited just ten minutes before the eastern sky was pierced by fire; and returned home for breakfast just after 7am.


Unusual morning as it was, it turned even more unusual some ten minutes later when we suddenly realized that all five of us—my wife, both daughters, my seven year-old son, and I—were sitting casually around the breakfast table—all on summer break (except me)!

So, put it all together—concentrated time freshly spent with the younger set; recent more-than-half-interest in this new app; fever-pitched large-scale angst over politics, religion, and race; and a personal constant concern to offer Christ to the world—and a sudden brainstorm came.

“Girls,” I announced, “what if I put a message up on the church marquis about it being a Pokéstop?”

Almost instant and definitely loud yesses erupted.

The marquis, by the way, is a sign with changeable letters.  See top photo.  The church makes an effort to change it out weekly, offering a sort of calendar or inspirational or humorous message to passersby.  And there are many passersby, for it overshadows a main thoroughfare in town.  Between you and me, when I first started as pastor I thought, really?  So I’ve tried to see it as potentially useful, maybe somehow, possibly, to offer Christ to the world around us, etc., etc.  Still, many a Monday you’ll find me agonizing in my office over coming up with something worthwhile to say.

In any event, my girls and I deliberated over the exact message during breakfast, concluding something short and to the point.

And when I arrived at the office, instead of agonizing indoors I took matters into my own hands outside, set up the ladder, removed last week’s message (“Good judgment comes from experience that often comes from bad judgment”), and put up, simply, “Pokéstop!!”  (I would have used more exclamation points if we had them.)

So, that was at 9am.

At 3pm a TV reporter stopped by and interviewed me, with the sign in the background.

At 5pm a 20-second clip of this interview aired on the news.

At 6pm the news showed again, but this time the local police told the dark side of the Pokémon Go story: some bad people might use Pokémon Go to lure good people into secluded areas and mug them; and (oh the horror!) in fact teenagers were out hunting for Pokémon last night past curfew!

And at 10pm, the whole minute-forty-nine story aired—both sides of it—giving me a full thirty seconds of air time:

Then today a radio show from Phoenix called me and interviewed me over the phone—supposed to be broadcast on a morning talk show tomorrow—supposed to be emailed a transcript.

All from that silly marquis!

All from wanting to bring Christ’s peace to a chaotic world, and seeing how Pokémon Go is helping to do just that—a fun, community-oriented activity to distract us in a healthy way from the fear and anxiety over recent national and international tragedies.

Who knew?

On behalf of St. Paul’s, thank you for partnering with us, Pokémon Go!

The Parable of the Half-dead Wretch

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2016 by timtrue


Luke 10:25-37

Ah, yes, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  This is comfort food for the soul.  We’ve heard it hundreds of times, sure, just like so many other parables of Jesus; but this one never gets old.  It’s the perfect picture of the love God calls us to believe in and act on.  It’s memorable.

And so it works on us like this—true story:

One night I was driving home from a class I was taking at Moorpark College.  I was nineteen years old, still living with my parents, still trying to decide what to major in, still trying to figure out a lot of things.

I was new to the Christian faith.  I hadn’t yet been baptized; hadn’t yet really even begun attending church regularly.

But even by then I’d heard this parable.  And it stuck with me.

So, there I was, driving home from a class that had ended at 10pm, down the two-lane backroad between Moorpark and Camarillo—it was late, I was tired, eyes a little blurry; it was black outside, no moon, no streetlights, only stars—when up ahead a sudden glare illuminated the tops of the trees.

I couldn’t see where the glare had come from, for there were railroad tracks between me and it, and the tracks were elevated a little, on a levee, meaning the source of the glare was below my line of sight.

In any event, now my attention was riveted; now I was wide awake.  So I drove on, crossing over the railroad tracks, slowing down a little as I approached, and rounding a blind turn.  And then and there, all at once, I saw the cause.

To the right of the road, in a turnout, was an upside down car; a human body lay some thirty feet from it, unmoving; and, some fifty feet from both, illuminating the scene, a fire burned at the base of a telephone pole.

Now, I wish I could say I stopped and rushed to the aid of the victim.  But I didn’t—kind of like the priest and the Levite from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Instead, as I drove by, looking out my passenger window in shock and awe, all at once a million thoughts began to collide in my head, you know, a kind of inner dialog, or inner argument rather.  It went something like this:

Dang!  Poor guy.  I wonder if he’s okay.  How could he not have seen the telephone pole anyway?  I wonder if he’s drunk.  Yeah, that’s probably it.  Ah, serves him right then.  Oh, but that’s harsh, Tim.  What if he’s badly hurt?  What if he dies because of you, because you didn’t stop and help him?  I don’t want to read that in tomorrow’s paper.  Ugh, guilt forever!  What should I do?  Well, I’m already well beyond him.  Maybe I should just keep driving to the nearest police station and let them know what happened.  No, too far.  Maybe I should drive to the ER.  Yeah, that’s closer.  Oh, but even that’s still a few miles away.  Really, I should just turn around.  But I don’t know this guy.  It was his own fault, after all.  Oh, but this is exactly what that Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about!  Dang you, Jesus.  Now I’ve got to turn around!  If I’m a Christian at all, now I’ve just got to go help this poor soul.  Lord, you’re testing me, aren’t you?

And so that’s what I did: turn around.  All the way back to the scene of the accident I worried about what in the world I would do alone on the side of the road with a corpse, or, perhaps worse, a mangled, half-dead person.

But, as providence would have it, in the few minutes it had taken for this inner dialog to take place and for me to turn around and return to the scene, two police cars and an ambulance had arrived.

So I turned around again.  And I drove home.

By the way, there was nothing in the paper about it the next day, or the day after, at least as far as I saw.  I never did find out who the person was, or what happened.

But, more to my point, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is memorable.  It comes up every three years in our lectionary.  And it comes up every time, at least in my mind, I don’t love my neighbor as I ought to.

And so, because this is such a memorable parable, my work is done here.  We are to love our neighbor just like the Good Samaritan loved his neighbor.  Sermon over.  Time for me to take my seat and get on with the rest of the service.  Right?

Um, well, actually, no.  While it is true that we are called as Christians to love our neighbor as the Samaritan loved the man who’d been beaten and left by the side of the road half-dead, that’s actually not the point of this parable.

You see, whenever we hear this parable we tend to put ourselves in the shoes of the Samaritan.  And I’m not just talking about me here.  We do this as humans, as a culture.  We name some of our churches after the Good Samaritan; we even name automobile clubs after Good Sam.

But Jesus’ original hearers would not have identified most closely with the Samaritan.  And for that reason, I don’t think we should identify most closely with him either.

Well then, with which character would Jesus’ hearers have identified most closely?  With whom should we identify most closely?

Just prior to Jesus telling this parable, recall, the scriptures tell us that a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

A lawyer.  Other versions read expert in the law, which is perhaps a better translation.  Others say scribe.  Better still is the German schriftgelehrter, which translates, roughly, scholar of literature, or, in this context, scholar of the scriptures.  So, here was a bona fide Old Testament Professor standing up to test Jesus.

And he asks a question to which he already knows the answer: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I wonder, what kind of mockery was in this lawyer’s tone of voice when he addressed Jesus as teacher.  Really, if I were in a seminary classroom with my Old Testament professor and she stood up and looked at me and said, “Okay, Tim, teacher, you tell me what the Old Testament teaches us,” I’m sure her address to me as teacher would be dripping with sarcasm.  Was it the same when this schriftgelehrter stood up and addressed Jesus?

Whatever the case, Jesus is unfazed.  He turns the question back on the lawyer—“What is written in the law?”—who then eloquently sums up the law: love the Lord your God; and love your neighbor.

But then, seeking to justify himself, this lawyer clarifies: “Yes, teacher, I understand what the law says.  I am an expert in it, after all.  But tell me, good teacher, who, exactly, is my neighbor?”

Now, for perspective, the Jewish law had specifics about this.  Specifically, Jewish scriptural specifics specified that certain sapient species were simply specious; and therefore Jewish scriptural specifics stated that good sons of Shem shouldn’t associate with such specifically specious albeit sapient species.

In other words—in plain, non-lawyer talk—anyone who did not descend directly from Noah’s son Shem was suspect, most definitely not to be considered a neighbor.

Yes, sadly, racism is nothing new.  And racism based on religion is nothing new.

Still unfazed by this prejudiced law-expert before him, Jesus then tells this parable, the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan.  But there’s something in it I think we often miss.

Right at the end of it—after we hear about the poor wretch who is beat up and left for half-dead; after the priest and the Levite avoid the half-dead man; and after a man of a different race, the Samaritan, helps the poor wretch—after all this—Jesus answers the lawyer’s question.

His question, remember, was, Who, exactly, is my neighbor?

And so Jesus comes to the end of his story and says that the Samaritan is the neighbor to the half-dead man.  The Samaritan, good lawyer, is your neighbor.

Do you see?  It’s not the way we usually understand it.  We usually put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan.  We drive down a road, late at night, with darkness everywhere around us; and we see a sudden flash ahead.  We then come upon a scene of a gruesome accident: someone is half-dead on the side of the road.  And we think, “I’ve got to help this person.  I’ve got to be like the Good Samaritan.”

And all this is well and true and good: we should indeed help the poor soul.

But the lawyer asks, Who is my neighbor; and Jesus answers, Your neighbor is the Samaritan.  Good lawyer, you are in fact that half-dead man on the side of the road, in desperate need of aid.

Tradition calls this story the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Instead, maybe we should call it the Parable of the Half-dead Wretch.

To identify with the man in the ditch, then, brings up at least two very good questions for us to consider.

First, am I able to receive help from others?

We live in a culture that gives us many opportunities to help others.  Why, just last week we collected food to distribute to the needy in our community; and we’ll do it again on the first Sunday of next month.  The church and other worthy charities depend on us for survival.  And how many of us like to be available for a friend or family member seeking counsel?  We like to help.  And so we should.

But turn it around.  Do we like to receive help?  Do we like to make ourselves vulnerable to another person, a friend or maybe even a stranger, and ask for their help?  We might have to.  But are we comfortable doing so?

How about if we don’t even ask?  What if someone, a stranger, simply offers help to us?  Is it easy to receive it willingly?  Do we receive it maybe reluctantly?  Do we reject it outright, in principle maybe, or out of pride?

Receiving help from others is difficult, isn’t it?  Our readiness to offer help but reluctance to receive it suggests that this attitude isn’t just personal but cultural.  This attitude was there in the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus; and it’s here in a lot of modern-day evangelical (and not-so-evangelical) Christianity.  It’s called superiority.

When someone asks me for help and I’m quick to offer it, is this because it puts me in a superior position?  Someone needs me.  Someone is dependent on me.  And this makes me feel good about myself.

Now, I’m not saying that someone’s attitude is one of superiority every time he or she offers help to a neighbor.  The Samaritan, surely, wasn’t affected by an attitude of superiority.

But it works the other way too.  The man in the ditch, the half-dead wretch, was utterly dependent on his neighbor to help him.  And who was this but the lawyer to whom Jesus addressed the parable?  He was the one in utter need of help.  Yet his attitude was all about superiority.

There is a way to love a neighbor who is in need; and there’s a way to be loved.  It’s called service, not superiority.

But I said two questions.  The first, whether we’re able to receive help from others, makes us uncomfortable.

The second—well, it’s even more uncomfortable: What if the person helping me is someone I despise?

What if the person helping me disagrees with me on a hot political issue, something like gun control?  What if that person aligns with an opposing political party?  What if that person has embarrassed or even insulted me in front of others?  What if that person hasn’t been to church in a while, or went away with that other group?  What if that person is actually of a different faith, or of no faith at all?  In fact, what if the single person I despise worst of all souls in this world ends up being the very person who saves my life—who pulls my half-dead body out of a ditch and makes sure I receive proper medical attention and even pays for it?  Would I rather have died?

But then that’s just Jesus’ point.

What must we do to inherit eternal life?  We allow ourselves to receive it in whatever form it comes.

Point Break: Revisiting an Old Debate

Posted in Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2016 by timtrue

Saw a movie with my daughter this weekend.  She picked it out, rented it from Redbox, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have watched it.  It’s called Point Break, apparently a remake of a 1991 movie by the same name starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, one I really will probably never see.


I remember seeing the trailer several months ago and thinking, “Looks like one big adrenaline rush.”  And that’s about what it was.

Without spoiling much, a villain and hero unite over a common goal.  They’re both poly-extreme-sports practitioners, both very good at all things extreme-sports: surfing 50-foot waves; motorcycling across razor-edged ridges; snowboarding avalanche chutes; free-climbing El-Capitan-like cliffs; etc.

So, yeah, one big adrenaline rush.

It was fun, sure.  But, better, because it kept me interested, it delved some into philosophical motivations for why adrenaline junkies do what they do.  Definitely worth the $1.63 we paid.

Yet it occurred to me some two days later that here was a modern-day take on a debate that has been with us since classical times.  Here was Aeneas versus Odysseus.

Odysseus, recall, was the wily mind that schemed up the whole wooden horse idea.  He was only one of many players in The Iliad; but, arguably, with his gift-horse brainstorm, can be credited with the Greek victory over the Trojans.

What comes next is The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ adventures as he returns from Troy to his beloved Ithaca and his wife Penelope.  He leaves the shores of Troy with a whole crew of companions.  But along the way, what with Polyphemus the Cyclops and the Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis and Circe and ten years, he loses all his crew and arrives home alone.

In this painting, Odysseus passes between the monster and the whirlpool.  Notice the artist’s depiction of Odysseus’ companions, eaten by the monster so that Odysseus can pass through alive.


So, was Odysseus selfish?

Some say so.  Or at least some say Vergil wanted us to think so.

Yeah, Vergil.  You know, the author of The Aeneid, the story that tells of Aeneas’ adventures from the shores of Troy to the shores of Italy.

Aeneas was one of only a few Trojan survivors after Troy’s legendary razing.  Soon after Odysseus set out on his quest, Aeneas sets out on a similar one.  But unlike Odysseus, he arrives at his new destination–after similarly grueling, poly-extreme-sports-like adventures–because he has been called there by the gods, not by his selfish desire to regain his own kingdom; and most of his crew arrives with him, for he, unlike wily Odysseus, would rather have died himself than let his crewmembers perish.

Aeneas’ selflessness is captured well in this painting, where he is carrying his aged father and leading his young son from razed Troy to their escape vessel.  Hardly the every-man-for-himself attitude of Odysseus!


Villain and hero.  Similar goals.  Very different motivations.  Retold in Point Break.

The villain commits crimes; the hero tries to prevent crimes.  Over the course of the movie the audience becomes endeared to both villain and hero.

Both anti- and protagonist are charming, after all.  But the villain–more than the hero–on top of his charismatic charm seems highly educated!  Despite the fact that he’s had to spend countless hours as an extreme athlete, honing his skills in multiple disciplines (not to mention his Greek-like physique)–an extreme sports Renaissance Man, as it were–nevertheless he has found time, somehow, to become well read, especially with respect to metaphysics.

In the end, I found the villain more endearing than the hero; and perhaps even no less realistic.  Maybe that was intentional on the part of the movie makers; or maybe it was just me.  I don’t know.

At any rate, this adrenaline-rush flick was definitely worth the $1.63 (and quality time with my daughter).

But I’m kind of tired of the same old thing.  Maybe you are too.  Can’t we turn the tables?  Can’t we get out of our pragmatic Roman mindsets for a while–at least for ninety minutes!–and sympathize with the more artistic Greeks for once?  Show me a compelling movie with a modern Odysseus as hero and that other guy, that guy who is all things Roman-virtue, as villain!

The Greater Commission

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

At the conclusion of last week’s service, a parishioner asked me a question about my sermon.

To recall, in last week’s Gospel we heard that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  In other words, he was resolute about fulfilling his mission, about completing the task God had called him to do.

With this mindset, he sent some of his disciples ahead of him into a Samaritan village, in search of hospitality.  Foxes have holes, he said, and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to call home.  He and his disciples were dependent upon others for hospitality—for what they would eat and where they would sleep.

So, those disciples soon returned with bad news.  The Samaritans, it turned out, would not host Jesus and his disciples.

Now, these were Samaritans!  That is, they did not worship the same god as the Jews, but some kind of false amalgamation of a god, something kind of like the Jewish god but also kind of not.

This apparently reminded two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, of a story in their scriptures of a certain prophet of the Most High named Elijah; and how he once called fire down from heaven on four hundred priests of a god named Baal, you know, a god kind of like the god of the Jews but kind of not.

So James and John said, “Jesus, how could they?  Just give us the word, and we’ll call fire from heaven down upon these inhospitable Samaritans!”

But Jesus rebuked them.  They were simply to wipe the dust off their sandals and go on to the next village.

And so Jesus, I explained, had brought us a new plow.  This new plow was not like the old plow of Elijah’s era, one that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Jesus’ new plow, rather, was a plow of love.

Love your enemies, Jesus said.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Turn the other cheek.

This is the new plow upon which Jesus has called us to set our hands and not look back.

Anyway, that was my message from last week in a nutshell.  And the question the parishioner brought forth went something like this:

So then, Father Tim, is Jesus saying we should wipe the dust off our feet regarding followers of other religions? that we should have nothing to do with them?

It’s a worthwhile question.  For we know we are called to love others.  This is the plow to which Jesus has called us.  And loving others often results in discomfort for us.  To seek hospitality from others requires a certain vulnerability on our part.  To put another person’s needs and wants ahead of our own requires an uncomfortable level of humility.  And if we’re rejected, it requires a certain amount of self-control merely to wipe the dust off our feet and walk away rather than calling fire or other curses upon them.

But what if we’re certain—or almost certain—ahead of time that it’s a fool’s errand?  What if we just know already that our vulnerability, humility, and self-control—our self-inflicted discomfort—will simply fall flat?  Can’t we just avoid such discomfort altogether?  I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to take Christ’s message of love somewhere else, where its objects are potentially more receptive?

Well, to cut to the chase, the answer is no.  Christ’s mission of love is for all, whether or not their minds are already made up against it—against us.

We infer this answer from last week’s text.  For Jesus in fact sent his disciples into a village he knew ahead of time to be Samaritan.

He knew ahead of time that these villagers worshiped a different god from his.  He knew ahead of time that Samaritans didn’t normally associate with Jews.  He knew ahead of time that racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was commonplace in Palestine.  He knew ahead of time, in other words, that his disciples would almost certainly be rejected.

And yet he sent them ahead anyway.  For his was (and is) a mission of love.

But this answer is made even clearer in today’s Gospel.

For promoting Jesus’ message and ministry required the disciples to allow themselves to become vulnerable; to humble themselves; and, facing almost certain rejection, to exercise seemingly superhuman self-control.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.  The disciples were to go from place to place, preaching the Good News of Jesus, curing the sick, and accepting whatever hospitality they were offered.

And this was in Palestine, a half-forgotten province of the Roman Empire.

The religious context there went something like this: the Jews did their thing, the Samaritans did their thing, and those of a pagan bent did their thing.  Each group was content with its own religious identity, its own religious ideology.  As the woman at the well so eloquently put it, the Jews worship in their way and the Samaritans worship in their way.  One day all the differences will be cleared up.  But in the meantime, never the twain shall meet.

When it came to religion, there were established traditions and ideologies.  And these established ideologies conflicted with each other.

And now, in Jesus, something else, something new was happening.

His message and ministry seemed Jewish.  Mostly Jewish anyway.  Still, over and over Jesus had opposed the Jewish leaders—of both major parties: both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  His was a message of peace.  But, ironically, the peace he proclaimed was highly conflictive.

So Jesus’ message and ministry flew in the face of the established religious ideologies of his day.

It also flew in the face of political ideologies.

Politically, Rome was in charge.  This meant good things for the privileged classes.  If you were in an upper class, you fared well—as long as you were self-focused and pushy enough to keep yourself in your privileged position.

Rome’s way was thoroughly hierarchical.  This meant you could lose a privileged position.  This also meant others could climb social ladders, sure.  But for a place like Palestine, on the fringe of the Empire, most people were simply half-forgotten.  Most were economically challenged, i. e., lower class.  And there was nothing they could do about it.

Occasionally a messianic figure would come along and offer an uprising, a violent protest against the powers that be.  Judas Maccabeus is perhaps the most well-known example.

But Jesus came along and said, yes, there is in fact an oppressive hand over us all; but, no, we are not to protest violently.

Do you think that this crazy message of new religion and non-violence would have been received by anyone?  It wasn’t just those of a different religious persuasion who would reject Jesus’ disciples and his message.  The disciples also faced almost certain rejection from those most like them, namely, the poor, half-forgotten Jews of Palestine.

Jesus never said following him would be comfortable, simple, or easy.  If anyone is telling you this, don’t listen.  Rather, Jesus says following him will be uncomfortable, even difficult.

This was true for his disciples in Palestine under Roman rule; and it’s true for his disciples in Yuma today.  For, at its core, Jesus’ message and ministry—a message and ministry we carry on to this day—are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, now you’ve gone too far, Father Tim.  What do you mean that Jesus’ message and ministry “is about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world”?  Jesus’ message and ministry is a personal one, about love, peace, and salvation; it’s about saving my soul from sin and eternal damnation.  No one ever said this life would be easy, true.  But that’s just Jesus’ point.  There’s nothing he could do about it; and there’s nothing I can do about it—except to make sure that my walk with Jesus is on the straight and narrow.  That’s all anyone can ever do!

And then you stick your fingers in your ears and break into song:

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away . . .

To which I say, yes, in the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew Jesus commands his disciples to go out into the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So, yes, there is in fact a very personal element to Jesus’ message and ministry.

But here, in Luke, we see another perspective in another commission.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus sends out twelve; but here, in Luke, he sends out seventy.  So, arguably, the commission here in Luke is an even Greater Commission than the so-called Great Commission of Matthew.

At any rate, here Jesus commands his disciples to accept whatever hospitality (or rejection) they’re shown, cure the sick, and (whether received or rejected) proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Do you see?  Doing works—i. .e, ministry—is first.  Preaching—i. e., message—is second.

And as for the message: what is it to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near but to proclaim that all that is now wrong is being made right?

Jesus’ ministry and message is to make wrongs right presently.  It has a personal element, sure.  But, maybe even more, it has a social element.

Jesus’ ministry and message are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Well then, this begs two questions.  First: Do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in our world today?  This is America, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  And second: If so, are we able even to do anything about them?

As to whether oppressive or exclusive systems exist in our day, hindsight is a good place to begin, for, as they say, it’s 20/20.

In relatively recent history, we see now how wrong slavery was.  But did slave owners see slavery as oppressive or exclusive in their day?

As we know, our country was bitterly divided on this issue.  Did you know the Episcopal Church was divided over it too?  On the one hand, slave-owning Episcopal bishops argued from scripture that slavery was an acceptable institution for society’s greater good.  On the other hand, parishes such as the Church of the Transfiguration—still thriving today in Manhattan—were stations on the Underground Railroad.

So, can we learn anything from hindsight?  Our nation and Church were divided over slavery back in the day.  What divides our nation today?  What divides our Church?  This is our starting point.  Then ask: Are any of these divisions based on oppressive or exclusive systems?

An elephant in the room here is human sexuality and the present debates over issues stemming from it:

Does a county clerk have the religious right to protest a gay marriage?  What bathroom should or shouldn’t a trans-woman be able to use?  Is it contrary to the authority of scripture to ordain a homosexual person in a monogamous relationship?

Another elephant, of course, revolves around the second amendment (no pun intended).

And what of all our technological opiates, the healthcare crisis, and our economy, which is founded on credit—or should I say indebtedness?

So, do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in America today?  Sadly, they seem to be everywhere and inescapable.

Perhaps the most important questions in these debates should be about the dignity of all persons.  In our opinions, in our political and religious ideologies, in our constitution and amendments, in our judicatory proceedings, in our bills and laws—for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—we must fight against systems that enable one group of people to oppress or exclude another.

But, you ask, what can I do about it?  I’m simply one individual in an ocean of humanity.

True.  But so were Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus didn’t call them simply to throw up their hands in a helpless shrug.  Instead, he commissioned them to become vulnerable, to seek out the hospitality of others even though it meant almost certain rejection, to offer healing to others, and to proclaim that the kingdom has come near.

And you know what happened?  These few rag-tag, seemingly insignificant disciples went out and did what Jesus commissioned; and they returned to him with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Beloved, it is the same with you.  Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!