Archive for November, 2016

Right Ahead

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was delivered on November 20, 2016.

Luke 23:33-43

One thing our church gets right is eschatology.

A definition I read this week defines eschatology as, “The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”  Eschatology is the study of the eschaton, or of last things.

Our church gets this right.

Consider our church calendar.

Today is the last day of the year in the church calendar, Proper 29, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday.  It’s called Christ the King, for on this day we focus on the culmination of all of history, that day when Christ’s absolute supremacy will be realized.  Did you notice today’s color is not green but white?

Next week we’ll start over, with Advent.  For four weeks we’ll reflect on Christ’s coming.

Then, from Christmas through Easter we focus on the realization of Christ’s incarnation; and from Ascension Day through Pentecost and the following season we focus on the realization of Christ’s supremacy.

All year, then, in some sense anyway, we’re looking forward to today, the one day of the year when as a church we consider “death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”

Our church gets this right.

Also, consider today’s Gospel.

At first reading—and maybe at the second and third—it sounds and feels more like a Good Friday text than anything else: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (v. 23).

In fact, nearly the whole passage focuses on the details of the moment at hand: the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes; the people stand by and watch; leaders scoff and mock; even the criminals on either side join in.

But where does this passage end?  Or, in other words, what is this passage’s culmination?

One of the thieves next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today, though we begin at Good Friday, we focus ultimately on Paradise: the Realm of Christ; the culmination of all history.

Our church gets this right.

But it seems kind of brief, doesn’t it? I mean, only one day of the year?  What if we miss it?  What about all the people who couldn’t make it to church today?  Especially the ones with legitimate excuses?  Do they have to wait until Proper 29 rolls around again next year?  Really, why don’t we spend more time focusing on eschatology?

Other churches do.

Ever hear of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth?  A best-selling book published in 1970, Lindsey compares then-current events to biblical prophecies about the end times.

He speaks of an event called the Rapture, at which time, he says, all believers in Christ will be called by a trumpet blast suddenly home to heaven.

The Rapture will be followed by a Great Tribulation, a seven-year period of a literal hell on earth, he says, where the king of the world will be Satan himself.

Finally, an earthly age called the Millennium will follow the Tribulation, he says, during which time Satan will be locked up and the world’s king will be Christ; and all the world’s leaders will be faithful risen Christians.

By the way, this book was made into a movie in 1976, narrated by none other than Orson Welles, the same voice that generated mass fear in 1938 in a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Well, since the publication of this book, all sorts of modern American evangelical Christian leaders have joined in the fray.  Whole denominations today abide by Statements of Faith that include fundamental beliefs about the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the Millennium.

Individual scholars, seeking to clarify where they stand on the matter, have authored theological tomes on this subject, attempting to argue from literal interpretations of the scriptures just how and when our world will come to an end.

And who of us has not heard about the relatively recent phenomenon called The Left Behind Series—arguably the quintessential eschatological distraction of our day?

So—surprise, surprise!—disagreements have arisen.

Is there such a thing as the Rapture, or not?  The word rapture nowhere appears in the Bible, after all.

What about the so-called Great Tribulation?  The books of Daniel and Revelation mention a seven-year period of great struggle; but will Christians actually escape it, or will they have to endure it—or will they be raptured away mid-way through, before things get really tough?

And the Millennium!  C’mon!  A literal thousand years!  Really?

Those who care about this subject demand to know where others stand.  Are you Pre-trib or Post-, they ask?  Are you Pre-millennial, Post-millennial, or A-millennial?  Do you believe in the Rapture?

To which I say, “I’m pan-millennial: I believe it’ll all ‘pan’ out in the end.”

But it’s all quite pessimistic.

For, no matter how you look at it, the whole cosmos is just gonna burn up.  So, after all, what does it really matter what we do for the common good in our lifetimes?

My seminary professor Rob MacSwain tells of a time he attended a conference at an evangelical University in the Midwest.  After he could not find a recycle bin to throw away a piece of paper, he inquired only to be answered, “There aren’t any: the world’s just going to burn up anyway; we don’t believe recycle bins are necessary.”

For Christians who hold this pessimistic view, faith becomes no more than an individual kind of Gnosticism: we work on our own, internal relationships with Jesus; we are saved by faith alone (and not by works).  In the end, one is either in or out; saved or damned.

And where is God’s love in that?

Anyway, it’s not just modern American evangelical Christianity that’s drunk these waters.  The dominant culture has a preoccupation with eschatology too.  Yeah!  Except it doesn’t call it eschatology; it calls it apocalypse.

There are variations on apocalypse, sure.  Some stories feature zombies; some aliens; some dastardly supervillains, like Lex Luther who bought a bunch of property out here in the desert and planned to send California into the ocean so that he’d suddenly own beachfront property.  And some stories feature just us humans, in over our heads with nuclear weapons.

Either way, whether in the subculture of evangelical Christianity or in the dominant culture, how it’s all gonna end is an American preoccupation.

But not with the Episcopal Church.

And, I maintain, our church gets it right.

Our church acknowledges the culmination of all things.  We understand that Christ has left us with a mission: not to sit around wondering how it’s all gonna end but to transform the world into his kingdom.

The realization of Christ’s incarnation—his birth—was when his kingdom first came; the realization of Christ’s absolute supremacy—his second coming—is when that kingdom will be fully realized.  In the meantime the kingdom of heaven is only partial.  Our mission is no less than the transformation of the cosmos: to increase Christ in the world and decrease the anti-Christ until the second coming.

Our eschatology is not pessimistic; it’s optimistic.

Our church gets it right.

So, we’re caught up in this in-between time: in between the realization of Christ’s incarnation and supremacy.

We work at Christ’s mission: trying to bring his realm into the world.

But there’s a tension.

For we know the importance of doing Christ’s mission.  And we feel the need to do it—keenly!

But it’s overwhelming.

It’s overwhelming because we can’t accomplish much on our own, as individuals.  And it’s overwhelming because bringing Christ’s kingdom to our world will take much longer than the time we have in our lifetimes.

And these things go against our American grain.  We love our individualism; and we want to solve the world’s problems yesterday.

So, we end up failing Christ and his mission—or at least we feel we do.

And when this final Sunday of the year comes along—Proper 29, Christ the King Sunday—we’re so distracted by bad eschatology; or we’re so preoccupied with doing the mission of Christ; or we’re so overwhelmed and caught up in our own failures that we end up missing the optimistic culmination we’ve so been looking forward to all year.

Just like we end up missing the point when we read today’s Gospel.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him.

And today our church gets it right.

Today it doesn’t matter whether you’re distracted.  Today it doesn’t matter if you’re preoccupied.  Today it doesn’t matter if you feel overwhelmed; or if you’ve failed Jesus; or if you’ve given up on your faith; or even if you’ve committed crimes worthy of crucifixion.

Today, none of this matters!

For today, we know that we will be with him in Paradise.

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Systems Failing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was delivered on November 13, 2016.

Luke 21:5-19

I begin today’s homily with a riddle:

This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats high mountain down.

It comes from a famous riddle dual in English literature; more specifically, from the fifth chapter of J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins and Gollum meet for the first time, and square off.

They pose riddles to each other, in turn, until one of them gets the wrong answer.  If Bilbo wins, why, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave in which he is now lost.  But if Gollum wins, he will eat Bilbo—or so he threatens.

Now it’s Gollum’s turn; and he poses this riddle.  (Repeat.)

What is this thing?

Is it an army?  I suppose an army slays kings, ruins towns, and even beats high mountains down.  The Roman army, for sure, was a force to be reckoned with.  Still, can you say that armies devour birds, beasts, trees, and flowers?  What about gnawing iron, or grinding stones to sand?

Maybe it’s a natural disaster.  Yeah.  Disasters have been known to turn stones to sand, especially tsunamis and hurricanes.  And a hurricane certainly ruins towns and devours birds and beasts.  But gnawing iron?  Ruining kings?

Hmm.

Well, why don’t we set that aside for the time being? We’ll come back to it later, I promise.  But for now I want to engage in a different kind of mental exercise.  Now, let’s imagine ourselves taking a tour of Washington, DC; and let’s imagine that our tour guide is Bishop Mathes.

And there we are, taking it all in.  The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument—all in its intimidating beauty.  This is stability.  This is security.  Just looking at all this solid, changeless architecture is enough to tell us our country is solid and unchanging.  It’s built to endure, to stand the test of time.  This visit is enough to say, “Our country and especially the freedom for which it stands is permanent.”

But then the bishop says something like this: “Do you see all this beauty, all these magnificent buildings?  What if I were to tell you that they would all be destroyed within a generation?  I had a vision last night.  Within a generation, leaders of our own army will come in, take over, and destroy everything you see right here before our eyes.  All will be razed.  Nothing will be left standing.”

What would you think?

Now, admittedly, this isn’t so hard to imagine.  Prophets of doom stand on street corners all the time, holding or shouting out messages of death, doom, and destruction.  In fact, I am willing to wager that this very morning just such prophets were standing on street corners preaching their doom and gloom in DC.

But the bishop?  He’s a little more sensible, isn’t he?

So, to tax our brains a little more, now let’s imagine that it’s several years later and it actually happens.  Just as the bishop said, our own army comes in, takes over, and destroys everything.  All the buildings are razed.  And we realize that it’s just as the bishop said, down to the last, fine detail.

Would this be at all disconcerting?

When some people were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The Temple Mount in Jesus’ day was a lot like Washington, DC in our day.

It wasn’t just a Jewish thing, you know, for them, those people, to worship as they do with all their animal sacrifices and other peculiarities.  No!  The temple, the Temple, Herod’s Temple, was a building of incredible significance, sanctioned by the Emperor, an architectural wonder of the ancient world, a source of Roman pride, as well as Jewish.

Herod began its construction in 19 BCE.  During his building campaign, he more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount.

The temple itself was wonderful, completed in about eighteen months, and, yes, was the principal place of worship for the Jews.  But Herod’s building plan included colonnades around the temple, a lot like an outdoor mall, where activities like buying, selling, teaching, and speech-making occurred daily.

In fact, so extensive was this project that it was not completed until the reign of Nero, some thirty years after Jesus’ death, some eighty years after construction had begun.

The Temple Mount was solid, immovable, built to endure, to stand the test of time.  It represented the Roman and Hellenistic ideology of solidarity in diversity.

And like a prophet of doom and gloom on a street corner, Jesus looks at it and says, “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Was this at all disconcerting?

How about a few years later?  Was it disconcerting in 70 CE, less than a decade after Nero completed Herod’s magnificent building project, when the Temple Mount was completely destroyed?  Was it disconcerting that, in some serendipitous fit of cosmic irony, it was in fact destroyed by the Roman army, the army of the same empire that had just completed building it?  Was it disconcerting that it happened just as Jesus had said?

Yes!  Especially if your faith was in government.

So: I think now’s a good time to return to Gollum’s riddle.

The answer is time.  Time is the thing that devours all other things, whether birds, beasts, trees, flowers, steel, iron, hard stones, kings, cities, high mountains, or even Temple Mounts and White Houses.

Look, we live in a tremendous country.  We experience wonderful freedoms.  We have a government that is vitally concerned about protecting these freedoms.  We have a military that is unlike any other in the world.  I for one am extremely grateful to be an American citizen.

But I don’t have to remind you that every great civilization in the history of the world rises and falls.  In our history books we read about the Medes and Persians; the Greeks; the Romans; the Ottomans; the Turks; the Plantagenets; the Tudors; the Huns; even the so-called Holy Roman Empire.  Yet all of these are no more.  Time has a way of putting an end to all things.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, our great nation will one day cease to be great too, just like all the others.

Is this disconcerting?

Are you frightened as you look around?  Do the changing world events terrify you?  Do wars and rumors of wars; reports of ISIS; another headline of another senseless shooting; nuclear tests in North Korea—do these kinds of things send jolts of fear down your spine?  Do you ever wonder if we might actually witness something as significant as the destruction of the Temple Mount in our own lifetimes?

We have good reason to fear.  Just like the disciples in the time of Jesus, we have a lot to be afraid of.   There will be wars, insurrections, natural disasters, and false leaders.  Nation will rise up against nation—in other words, race against race.  There will be earthquakes and other destructive natural disasters; and maybe even dreadful portents in the heavens.  These things will happen.  Jesus doesn’t try to skirt around it.  And this is scary stuff!

But there’s another side to it.

It’s all disconcerting, yes, if we place our faith in government.  We know this.  Luke knew it too.

And we can add to the picture a little bit: it’s not just government.  We can talk about any established system—the church, the company you work for, relationships.  Regardless of how solid and stable any system appears, there’s always the possibility of instability, erosion, and failure.

And this is disconcerting!

But here’s maybe something we don’t know, something maybe we can learn from Luke today.

Luke wrote his biography of the life of Jesus looking backwards.  That is, when we hear today’s account of Jesus foretelling the future—looking at all the parts of the Temple that will be destroyed—by the time Luke actually wrote it all down, the Temple already was destroyed—the future Jesus was foretelling was actually already in the past.

You know why he did this?  He did this in order to tell his readers—in order to tell us—yes, it is all disconcerting; but there is something in which we can put our faith—someone—who is stable where everything else is not; someone who endures, who stands the test of time; who is the one thing Gollum’s wicked riddle cannot destroy.

And that someone is Jesus.

Entitled or Grateful?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was preached on October 9, 2016.

Luke 17:11-19

Two students come to mind from my time in Sewanee.

One was entitled.  She cheated.  But she beat the system.  Curiously, her parents are alumni and supporters.  I cannot help but wonder if she in fact expected to be the system.  She was forever angry at me afterward, for I was the professor who called her out.  Her attitude said, “What can Sewanee do for me?”

The other student was thankful.  He was a refugee from Sierra Leone, for all intents and purposes an orphan, for his parents remained in SL.  He came to Sewanee on a full scholarship.  He was a joy to be around; he loved each day.  And he offered to the Sewanee community what he knew: dance.  Many children and students benefited from his knowledge and love of this art form.  His attitude said, “What can I do for Sewanee?”

Now, in last week’s sermon we learned a couple of things that faith is not.

Faith cannot be quantified.

In our consumer, materialistic culture, we hear Jesus say, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”; and we think in terms of amount.

The mustard seed is a tiny seed; and from it grows a shrub so large that sizable birds come and roost in its branches.  If only we could have faith like that!  Then we could say to a mulberry tree or even a mountain, “Be cast into the sea!” and it would obey us.

But then we try it.  And it doesn’t work.

Neither is faith cause-and-effect.

You receive terrible news: say, a family member has cancer.  So, as many modern-day Christian voices have taught, you reason that all you need to do is believe hard enough and God will heal your family member.

And if healing happens, well and good.  But if it doesn’t, you’re left thinking that you didn’t pray hard enough and believe deeply enough: you simply had too little faith, less than a mustard seed’s worth.

Faith hasn’t worked.

You’ve spent hours upon hours in personal prayer.  You’ve attended seminars on increasing your personal faith.  You may even have sent tax-deductible contributions to that man on the TV who promised that doing so would increase your faith.  But still the answer hasn’t gone the way you wanted it to.  Surely, you conclude, my faith lacks.

Last week, then, the Gospel of Luke offered a picture of what faith is not: it’s not quantifiable; it’s not cause-and-effect.

By contrast, this week the Gospel of Luke (in the very next passage/pericope) offers us a picture of what faith is.

There are ten lepers.  They see Jesus and shout out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Do these lepers have faith?

Here’s an interesting thing about lepers in the ancient world—at least in the region of Palestine where this story takes place.  A leper had to be declared clean not by a physician but by a priest.

If a person had leprosy—a term used to describe any number of skin infections—the normal protocol was to go and live in a colony, away from society.

A leper couldn’t go to synagogue to worship with his or her community.  A leper couldn’t go to the local market to buy, sell, or barter.  A leper couldn’t carry on whatever trade or skill he knew.  Lepers had to move out, away from the life and people they’d always known.

To come out as a leper was thoroughly disruptive, upsetting the equilibrium of not just one life but entire households, even communities.

Once publicly known, the leper would move out of her community and into a colony with other known lepers.  There, quarantined away from society, she would depend on others—friends and family—for sustenance.  She couldn’t go to the market after all!  And these others—the friends and family—came to the leper colony at their own risk.

Talk about social outcasts!  Lepers of the ancient world knew what it was to be exiled—perhaps more keenly than anyone else.

And the only way for lepers to enter back into society was through the priests.  If a leper’s skin cleared up—a big if, mind you!—he or she must then go to a priest for inspection and approval—a declaration of cleanliness—before re-entering society.

The whole thing was a cumbersome process, a kind of ancient Jewish red tape.

So then, on this certain day when Jesus and his apostles are going through the region between Samaria and Galilee, they pass near enough to a quarantined leper colony that ten lepers are able to approach them.

And they say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Do they have faith?

Well, here’s what we know.  Jesus answers them, saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

Jesus does not heal them then and there.  The text makes this quite clear: “And as they went,” it says, “they were made clean.”

This is an important detail.  When Jesus tells them to go to the priests, the lepers aren’t yet healed.  This is an important detail because it demonstrates faith—or at least a kind of faith.  If Jesus is truly their Master, as they call him, then it is an act of faith to obey Jesus before they are actually healed.

So, I ask again, do these lepers have faith?

Yes.  Or, at least, they show a kind of faith.

But only one turns back. Only one comes back to Jesus to express gratitude.  And only to this one does Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”

Now, to be sure, a lot of theological discussion of this text revolves around the point that this one is a foreigner, a Samaritan.  For Samaritans were viewed in Jesus’ day with thorough disdain.  They were the racial scapegoats.  Jews especially viewed them as less than human.  They were half-bloods with a cheap and highly compromised religion.  So, this one leper who turns around and comes back to Jesus is doubly an outcast.

Nevertheless, this Samaritan leper was still required to go to the priests in order to return to normal society as he knew it.

In other words, let’s not make too much of this racial sub-point.  The main point here is that this one turns around and the other nine do not.

Where do the other nine go?  Without a doubt, to the priests.  They want to re-integrate with society, after all.

Does this mean that the one who turns around does not go to the priests?  Not at all!  He wants to re-integrate with society just as badly.

But before he goes to the priests—and this is the main point here, above everything else!—this one foreigner turns around in order to express gratitude.

And what happens?

Ten are made clean.

But only to the one does Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”

If the nine show us one kind of faith, the one shows us another.  The nine demonstrate a utilitarian faith; the one demonstrates a grateful faith.  The nine are made clean; the one is made clean and well.

Shouldn’t gratitude be intimately connected to our faith?  According to this week’s Gospel, this is what faith looks like.

Last week we saw that faith is not cause-and-effect. In other words, it’s not utilitarian.  This week we see gratitude.

There’s a great lesson here for us.

Are we merely going through the motions?  Is faith for us merely utilitarian?

Our faith makes us clean.  We see it in the waters of baptism.  We hear it when we renew our baptismal vows together, and indeed whenever we say the Nicene Creed together.  And we feel it whenever we commune together at Christ’s Table.

But we can’t leave it there.  If that’s all our faith is for us, it’s a utilitarian faith.

But what about when our faith involves gratitude?  What if we wake up each day thanking God for our friends, our family members, our pets; or simply for the warmth and light of a new day?  What if, when troubles come our way, instead of focusing on hardships we look for the good?  What if we focus on resurrection instead of death?

Then, not only does our faith make us clean; it also makes us well.

What we see today, then, is really two kinds of faith.  One is utilitarian; the other is grateful.

Or, in other words, one is entitled; the other thankful.  Like those two students from Sewanee.

When our faith is utilitarian, or entitled, the driving question becomes, “What will Jesus do for me?”  Our faith cleanses us, sure; but to what avail?

But when our faith is grateful, the driving question becomes, “What can we do for Jesus?”  Now our faith makes us both clean and well.

Generosity from Abundance

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was preached on September 24, 2016.

Luke 16:19-31

Wealth is not a sin.

Can I just say this at the outset?  I mean, we’ve just heard a parable about a very rich man and a very poor man, polar opposites on the socioeconomic spectrum.

One feasts sumptuously every day; the other sits outside the gates and waits in hopes of a few scraps to stave off his pangs for a few minutes.  One walks around his estate in fine linen, a different outfit for every day of the week, enjoying what he has been able to build up for himself; the other is clothed in the same old rags he’s worn since who knows when, and also in wounds that stray dogs come and lick—though he probably doesn’t mind so much because, hey, at least here’s a modicum of companionship.  One lives in a gated community; the other is homeless.

Then the tables turn.  Both men die.  One—the poor man, Lazarus—finds himself at Abraham’s side, enjoying all the blissfulness that that brings.  The other—the unnamed rich man—finds himself in torment—in Hades, the Greek understanding of the underworld, far from the blessed Jewish understanding of eternity he surely thought would be his.

In the afterlife, fixed between them is a great chasm; in real life, fixed between them was just as great a socioeconomic chasm.  And we hearers of this parable are left with the distinct impression that, surely, wealth must be a bad thing.

For this rich man hadn’t done anything wrong; not that we can tell from the parable anyway!  He didn’t persecute Lazarus in any way: we don’t hear about him marching down to City Hall and lobbying for a ban on panhandling at his gates.

In fact, he might even have been doing good.  The text tells us that Lazarus lay at his gates because he longed for the scraps that fell from his table: Lazarus was probably receiving scraps regularly, which is why he was there in the first place.  It’s possible, then, that the rich man was even delivering food scraps to Lazarus, that after every meal he’d pull aside one of his slaves and say, “Hey, Agricolus, I want you to wheel these leftovers down to the poor man who sits outside my gates, you know, that guy with the dogs.”

But in the afterlife the tables are turned.  And we’re left with the question, “Is Jesus suggesting that wealth is inherently evil?”

But here’s the thing. From the very beginning, abundance is seen as a blessing.  And what is wealth, but abundance?

Consider creation.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The heavens shone with the sun and moon and vast abundance of stars, far too numerous to count.  And the Bible says it was good.

When God created the fauna and flora, God didn’t just create a few plants, just the bare necessities to give us a healthy diet—tomatoes and avocadoes and apples and onions, and (of course) grapes for wine and grain for bread; but a vast array, so vast that even in our day we have not yet catalogued them all.  God created an abundance of fauna and flora, and it was good.

More than once the creation account speaks of the oceans filled with “swarms of living creatures.”  And it was good.

God did the same with the land and sky—an abundance of animals and birds—insects, mammals, reptiles—and it was good.

And God said to them all, “Be fruitful.  Multiply.”  Abundance!  Abundance!  Abundance!

And, finally, after all this abundant outpouring of creative energy and generosity, after creating Adam and Eve as stewards to manage faithfully all this abundance, what does God do but take a day off?

It’s as if God says, “Whew!  I’ve poured myself out over and above what I needed to—exceedingly abundantly!  I need a rest!”

And at last—the scriptures say—all this abundance was very good.

Is it any different with God’s people Israel?  All those people—scholars estimate it was more than a million!—were wandering in the wilderness with Moses.  And, logically enough, they were hungry.  So what does God do but pour out an abundance of manna from heaven for a million people?

The life of Jesus demonstrates this theme too.  Do you remember his first miracle?  He turned water into wine—about a hundred fifty gallons of it!—and probably the best vintage in the history of the world!

And do you remember the woman who poured out the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet—when Judas asked, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  Three hundred denarii!  That’s the modern-day American-dollar equivalent of something like $50,000.  Poured out on Jesus’ feet!  Talk about abundance!

Throughout the scriptures, abundance is connected to blessing.

So, to return to my opening statement: Wealth is not a sin.

So what’s the problem? Why does Jesus make such a negative example out of the rich man in this parable?

Just this: Somewhere along the line, someone decided to extract generosity from abundance.  And whenever you extract one thing from another, like squeezing the juice from an orange, you’re left with a fairly mangled original product.

God created an abundance; and it was good.  God blessed Abraham with an abundance; and it was good.  God gave to Moses and the Israelites an abundance of manna; and it was good.  Jesus turned an abundant amount of water into wine; and it was very good.

But, we read, sometimes abundance becomes too much for us.  What then?  Will we give it away?  Can we give it away?  Or do we simply (selfishly) hold on to it?

Abraham and Lot parted ways because their abundance had become too great: the resources at hand could not sustain both of them.

Later, in the time of Joseph, Pharaoh hoarded grain and stored it away so that when a drought came upon the land he would sell it for great profit to those who most needed it.

Great profit at the expense of the needy!

This is the fundamental principle of economics: supply and demand.

And, by the way, this is in fact how the people of Israel became slaves: from Pharaoh capitalizing on this fundamental economic principle; or, to say it another way, from an abundance devoid of generosity.

When I was a boy one of my favorite pranks to play on my friends involved a stick of gum.  I’d take one stick out of a pack of 25 or whatever it was.  Then, very carefully, I’d unwrap the wrapper and foil and pop the stick of gum into my mouth.  Next, while chewing, I’d very carefully put the foil and wrapper back together and slip it back into the pack.  Finally, still chewing, I’d make sure to be around when the unsuspecting victim grabbed that false stick of gum—and I’d laugh and giggle and gloat and otherwise congratulate myself on my awesome display of cleverness.

I tell you about this prank to illustrate abundance devoid of generosity: it’s no more than a disguised gift, an empty piece of trash.

Abundance devoid of generosity amasses wealth only for itself.  Abundance devoid of generosity hoards.  Abundance devoid of generosity turns a blind eye to others, especially those in need, those who cannot benefit me.  Abundance devoid of generosity is the rich man of this parable.

My thinking is that we are much more like him than Lazarus.

Sure, we don’t all live in gated communities; or wear fine linen clothing, purple or any other color; or feast sumptuously every day—though, I dare say, most of us in this room are able to eat as much food as we want.

But we do hoard.  We do store up things for ourselves, probably motivated by a fear of scarcity, like Pharaoh.  We do turn a blind eye to the poor people sitting, begging at our very gates, even when we tell ourselves we’re doing good to offer them our leftovers.  For this is the American way.

From the abundance God has given us, we have extracted generosity.  We enjoy a tall, cold glass of orange juice by and for ourselves leaving only a heap of fibrous rinds to those in need.  Or we take out that stick of gum and enjoy it alone while we carefully fold up the wrapper and give only trash to someone else, giggling under our breath at our own cleverness.  In our abundance, we are generous actually only to ourselves.

Which leaves us with a challenge: How do we recover the generosity we have extracted from our abundance?

Well, first, why not share the orange juice we’ve already extracted?  I mean, we can’t put the juice back into the orange now that it’s been separated.  But we can share from the abundant store already in our possession.

There’s a term for this, by the way; a term we throw out every year during the pledging season: faithful stewardship.

But there’s also a second way to recover the generosity missing from our abundance—and this is a more important way: Why not share the whole orange in the first place?  Why not share what God has given us as is, without fashioning it into the orange juice we think we want?

And here, yes, I’m talking about church.  We are in God’s house.  God has given us an abundance.  As a church, shouldn’t we then lavish this abundance on the world around us, on the community of Yuma?

So: why don’t we hire a musician, and pay him what he’s worth, to build our music program—one of the most important forms of outreach for any church in any place at any time?

Or, why don’t we do something with our baptismal font?  We’re a people oriented around our baptismal vows, after all.  Why then do we have a little, roll-away baptismal font tucked away in the corner over there in front of the lectern?  Instead, let’s hire a local artist to sculpt an original font and place it smack dab in the middle of the narthex, permanently.  That way, any time a baptized person passes it by, every time she enters this sanctuary, she is reminded visibly, physically, and concretely of her vows.

These are just a couple ideas.  Of course, to realize them would take resources—an abundance of resources.  But isn’t this where faith comes in?

Listen.  Vestry, listen.  I get it.  We, as a corporation, have a budget.  And, for good reason, we plan and try to make our budget every year.

But we, as a church, have a much nobler and greater purpose than simply to make our budget.  As a church, we should be transforming lives in Jesus Christ.  And sometimes this purpose of transformation requires us to step out in faith, to be a little risky, to trust in God’s abundance even when we can’t see where it will come from in the budget.

Otherwise, how will we ever share God’s abundance with the world around us?

Hope from Hindsight

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by timtrue

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Matt. 24:36-44

Today we find ourselves in an awkward place.

On the one hand, we find ourselves remembering last week, Christ the King Sunday.  On that final Sunday of the church year we focus on the culmination of all things, that day when Christ’s realm will be fully and completely inaugurated, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And so, on the one hand, we find ourselves still lingering on thoughts about Jesus’ second coming.

But, on the other hand, just look around.  Christmas, the birth of the baby Jesus, Christ’s first coming, is all round us.  Shopping malls remind us of this; commercials remind us of this; our neighborhoods remind us of this!

Today, we’re in an awkward place.

Why, just last night in fact, my wife told me of a kind of tension she is seeing on Facebook these days.  On the one hand, a good portion of her friends are posting things like, “Thanksgiving is over; time for the Christmas decorations!”  But, on the other hand, she’s got a significant number of friends saying things like, “Advent is here; gonna light a candle!”

So, what is Advent?

The word itself, advent, means “arrival.”  But, to press the issue, which arrival?  Are we looking ahead, to the future, to Christ’s second coming?  Or, are we looking behind, to the past, to Christ’s first coming?

And then we come to today’s Gospel.  Its main point seems to be that we should be ready.

But what are we to be ready for?

If we look ahead, to be ready for Christ’s return, well, after all, no one knows the day or the hour, not even the Son himself, but only the Father.  So how in the world are we to be ready?  I mean, if a thief might one day strike my house, there are some certain things I can do to be ready, like install an alarm system, buy a fireproof safe, whatever.  But in the end I’m just going to get back to my day-to-day life of eating, drinking, carrying on business, and relaxing with my family.

But, on the other hand, if we look back, at Jesus’ birth, his first coming, how are we to get ready for that?  Buy a tree in anticipation of this new life?  Plan on family visiting from afar, bearing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh?  Prepare my own home for hospitality, to receive Joseph and Mary and Emmanuel?  Give gifts of my own?

The celebration is sure a lot of fun—even if it’s a lot of work.  But here too, in the end, after we clean up and put things into storage for the next eleven months, we just get on back to our daily routines—of eating, drinking, exercising, working, relaxing.

So, which is it?  Jesus’ first coming, or his second?

The answer, of course, is yes.

During Advent, yes, we look ahead, to the future, the unknown, the scary—to Christ’s second coming.  And, yes, we simultaneously look back, to the past, to what we know, to the stuff of history books—to Christ’s first coming.  During Advent, yes, we prepare for Christ’s return; and, yes, we prepare for his birth.

It’s a sort of in-between time.

And, thus, today we find ourselves in an awkward place.

But is it really all that awkward?

I’ve told the story of my childhood before: raised in southern California in an idyllic setting for a boy—an outdoor playground, really: an avocado orchard, a swimming pool with a rope swing, grapevines, gardens, fruit trees, chickens, even a donkey for a while; with hiking trails a short walk away; and so on.

Man, I miss that place!

Anyway, reminiscing with my brother and mom this week over a Thanksgiving meal, I recalled how bored I used to get in elementary school, often wiling away my hours of classroom confinement daydreaming about what I would do when I got home from school that afternoon!

Life on Alosta Drive was certain for me, sure, predictable, and—when I wasn’t in the classroom—generally awesome.

Then, at 12 years old, my brother and I were completely blindsided when our parents announced that Mom would be moving out and they’d soon be divorced.

Now, divorce happens often.  I knew that even then.  Several of my school friends had already experienced it.  But it was one of those things I just assumed would never come to my life.

When it did, all that certainty and predictability and general awesomeness I just mentioned, well, now it flew out the window.  Suddenly, in the matter of just a few days really, my life became terribly uncertain; and terribly frightening.

No longer was it predictable.  No longer did it seem to provide all the answers I’d ever need or want.  No longer did I daydream about what I’d do that afternoon once I’d left my studies behind in my junior high locker.

Instead, I worried.  I became anxious about the future, the unknown, and the uncertain.

From there, my story gets better.  For my anxiety over life’s uncertainty drove me to Bible study and, in time, a personal relationship with Jesus.

But even here, I came to Jesus with some unrealistic hopes.  I wanted answers to questions that really can never be answered.  I wanted stability again.  I wanted my anxiety to disappear.  And I wanted the same mom and dad I’d always known—or at least the ones I imagined.

The mom and dad of my boyhood imagination were perfect, you see.  They knew all things.  They didn’t grope their way through life, worrying over silly things like how the bills were going to get paid; whether their kids would turn out okay; or if God existed.  The parents of my imagination were certain, sure, stable, and predictable.

I wanted these things again!  And I looked for them in Jesus.

So my early experience as a Christian was filled with wanting to know.  Jesus was sure, certain, stable, and predictable, I’d tell myself.  So, surely, all the answers to all of life’s perplexing questions were there in the Bible.  I just needed to hunt for them, to find them, and to apply them to my life.  Then I would know certainty, surety, stability, and predictability again.

And, best of all, I’d have no worries or anxieties about the future!

So: I did.  I read the Bible.  Cover to cover.  Several times!

And every time I did today’s Gospel would confront me.  Other passages too.  Like those about the dysfunctional lives of the patriarchs, losing their hope and trust in God when they ought to know better!  Like those about Moses leading a whole nation through the wilderness, groping his way through life and leadership.  Like those about David, trusting in his own “wisdom,” which resulted in adultery and murder.  And like those about Jesus, God himself, being led away like a lamb to the slaughter.

The future is unknown.  It is uncertain.  It is even scary.

On the other hand, the past, what we’ve already lived through, is just that: the past.  It’s out of sight and out of mind in a sense.  Sure, we’ve made mistakes; we’ve lived through difficult times, as well as times of immense joy.  But there’s nothing scary about the past.  Well, scary, maybe, in hindsight.  But there’s nothing about the past to make us anxious.  For there it is: in the past; where we can just forget about it.

No, this in-between time called Advent is not really all that awkward at all.

So, what does this mean for us today?

Just this:

We live in a time characterized by fear.

The housing bubble burst in 2008.  6 million people lost their homes.  Our nation’s economy entered a Great Recession.  And, because our nation’s economy is so large, economies around the world were affected.  And we’re still not totally out of it.  What’s going to happen?

And we all remember September 11, 2001.  Since that time, ugly, desperate acts of terrorism and hatred have risen to unprecedented levels in the world—unprecedented at least for my lifetime.  Will it keep getting worse before it gets better?

And even if these things get better, what about all the hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes?  Every time I turn on the news it’s something terrible!  Is there no hope?

We fear the future.

Yet, at the same time, we are apathetic towards the past.

The history books were written by a bunch of European males, after all, who have put their misogynistic, Caucasian, patriarchal spin on things.

Also, we tell ourselves, our technological advances prove that we know more in our generation than all other generations combined.

So, we put these two premises together and conclude that we really don’t need history at all.

Ah, but don’t you see the fallacy?

We are anxious about the future; yet we are apathetic towards the past.  Maybe we are anxious because we are apathetic.

Advent comes along and names it.  On the one hand, it says, “Look at the future.  It is uncertain.  It is unpredictable.  No one knows the day or the hour.  The end will come when people are simply going about their day-to-day routines.”

But, on the other hand, Advent also says, “Look at the past.  We know, from history, that God has come into the world as a Baby; and that this Baby is a tremendous source of comfort for an anxious world.”

Advent teaches us not to be apathetic about the past, about history; for in it we see God working to set this world to rights.

And at the same time, Advent teaches us not to be anxious about the future.  Yes, it is uncertain, unsure, and unpredictable.  But it was just the same for God’s people of old—and history shows us that it turned out okay for them.  So with us!

Here it is, then: this is what Advent means for us today:  By looking back, to the past, Advent teaches us to have faith and hope when we look ahead, to the future.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

Hope from Pessimism

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 20:27-38

I don’t know about you, but over the course of the last week I’ve caught myself thinking a lot about death.

On Monday we celebrated Halloween.  This is a funny tradition we have, isn’t it?  What, are we trying to scare people into giving us candy?  Princesses and superheroes aside, why all the grisly, death-focused getups?

Then, on Tuesday it was All Saints’ Day.  If you happened to come to the service here on Tuesday night, the music was from Faure’s Requiem—a mass for the dead.  During the prayers a necrology—a list of names of loved ones who died over the past twelve months—was read.

Again, a chief theme was death.

Next, on Wednesday it was All Souls’ Day.  This is the day on the church’s calendar in which we remember specifically all those unnamed people who simply went about their lives day in and day out until they passed away, but never ended up in any history books.  God knows the names of every one; we do not.

Also on Wednesday, death entered my thinking as we witnessed what many thought impossible: the Cubs won the World Series.  The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908.  None of the players on that team was alive to see this team do it.  How sad!

Then on Friday I hiked by myself up Flag Mountain, variously called Jester’s Peak.  It started out pleasantly enough, with a well-marked trail ascending at a good clip.  But near the top the trail gave way to what I call an avalanche chute—a very steep depression down through which rocks falling from above would funnel if there were a rockslide.  Up this chute was my way.  But which way—to the right or to the left?—was up to me to guess.

So I scrambled left, climbing with both my hands and feet, until I came to a final rock face.  Too steep, I thought!  Still, I could see the temptation, for there, just through that crack, it seemed the trail should continue.

I decided to retrace my steps, however, down and then scramble up to the right.  Which turned out to be a better choice.

But, at the top of the chute now, I observed a crude memorial set up right where I would have come through that crack in the rock (if I hadn’t changed my mind).  And I realized: someone died right here, hiking this very trail.

So, yeah, death has been on my mind this past week.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tuesday’s election.  Will this be the death of our nation?  Probably not, in all seriousness.  But the death focus of my week has left me pessimistic.  Or, in other words, I’m “sad, you see.”

Which brings us to today’s Gospel: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.” The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death, so they were “sad, you see.”

Focusing just on death can leave us pessimistic.

But what happens after, or beyond, death?

The Torah—the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible—says very little about the afterlife.

We do in fact learn a lot about death in the Torah.  Adam and Eve are tempted by the wily serpent, who lies to them saying, “You will not die”; but, as we all know, they succumb; and we all learn what death is.

Lots of people die in these early stories.  Jacob lived a hundred and forty-seven years, the Torah says, a rich, full life; and then went to sheol, the place of the dead, whatever that means.

But as to what happens to us after death—what sheol is, what happens there, and so on—the Torah is silent.

And so the Sadducees developed a theology of death, angels, and the afterlife.  Namely, they said, since the Torah is silent, these must not be: there must not be an afterlife; and there is no such thing as angels.

For them, there was no resurrection.

But another Jewish tradition, that of the Pharisees, included more in its canon of sacred scriptures.  Specifically, it included the book of the prophet Daniel, who talks both about angels and the afterlife.

And don’t you find it interesting—just a brief observation—that Jesus here opposes the Sadducees but favors the Pharisees?  How often do we think of the Pharisees as the bad guys of the New Testament, the opponents of Jesus!  But here Jesus aligns with them.  We need to give the Pharisees more credit!

Anyway, we do it too, you know.  Like the Pharisees, we Christians formulate our own, traditional, inferential views about death and the afterlife.

We talk about body and soul being conjoined in the human person; and death being the separation of body and soul.  But this understanding of the human person is nowhere plainly stated in our Bible.  We’ve developed this doctrine over the centuries—a doctrine that in fact is being reconsidered by theologians today.

And we talk about eternal rest.  That’s what a requiem mass is—a prayer that those souls who have been separated from their bodies will find eternal rest: dona eis requiem aeternam, Domine; Lord, give them eternal rest.

But what does this term eternal rest mean?  Are we to picture souls just sleeping the eons away in peaceful slumber?  Or, is it more like leisure, more like what we do in our free time?  Or, do we sit around in an everlasting worship service, in continual praise of God?  Or, do we engage in relationships similar to what we know as humans, maybe around a giant banquet table with beloved friends and relatives, bringing out food and wine and the old family stories that have somehow gotten even better over the eons?

And then, what happens when we put them all together—body, soul, and rest?  What are we to make of souls who’ve been separated from their bodies and yet are unable or unwilling to go to that place of everlasting rest?

Hmm.  A soul without a body?  That sounds like a ghost.  And body without soul?  Sounds like a zombie.

And we’re back to Halloween!

Well, for crying out loud, what is it—Sadducees, Pharisees, the Faure’s Requiem, or Halloween?

But Jesus says, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

And isn’t this a masterful approach?  Jesus knows the Sadducees look only to the Torah as their sacred scriptures, from which they form all their theology; from which they derive all their ethics.  So this is where he goes:

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, [from Exodus, at the very heart of your sacred Torah,] where he speaks of the Lord as the [present] God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Life does not end, Jesus says; but it does change.  This much we know!  And thus we have confidence in our great hope, the resurrection!

And doesn’t this, our hope simply in the resurrection, change the way we look at things?

Some historians link Halloween to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, in which the dead and evil spirits are celebrated through dressing up and pulling pranks.  The church, these historians say, decided to “clean up” the festival by linking it to All Saints’ Day—Halloween means “all hallowed’s eve.”

However, other historians say no way!  All Saints’ Eve was never connected to Samhain.  Instead, yes, it is a part of All Saints’ Day, an extension of it, during which we Christians dress up as evil spirits and witches and so on in order to say, “Ha, we’re not scared!”—of Satan, his demons, or of any other power of darkness in the unseen realms—“for we follow Christ, and he holds the very keys to Death and Hades.  Our hope is in his resurrection and ours.”

Then, on All Saints’ Day we remember not just the dead but the church: followers of Christ who have lived throughout the ages, us who live now, and those who will live in the future.

And on All Souls’ Day, another extension of All Saints’ Day, we remember specifically the faithful departed—all those unnamed people who never ended up in any history books.  We can and should remember and honor them.

Do you see how our hope in the resurrection changes our perspective?  No longer are we pessimistic, but hopeful.

Two last thoughts:

First, think about the World Series Game.  1908 was the last time the Cubs won.  All the players on the team the last time they won are now dead and gone.  But, channeling hopeful thoughts of the resurrection, I wonder, were these former players, now passed on, sitting in some spiritual bleachers on Wednesday night, doing some kind of ghostly victory dance when that third out of the tenth inning finally materialized?

And the second thought: What about our nation?  Even if you are pessimistic about the possible outcome of Tuesday’s election, God is in the business of resurrection, of breathing in new life, of doing a new thing.  There’s tremendous hope in this!

Life does not end; it is changed.  We are not pessimistic, but hopeful.