Archive for November, 2017

Needy Goats, Needy Sheep

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2017 by timtrue

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic

Matthew 25:31-46

1.

I went to Mexico this past summer with my oldest daughter for a Spanish-language immersion experience. For four weeks we lived in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town some 180 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Everyday we’d leave our villa at about 8am and walk the mile and a half or so to the language school, where we’d study for six hours then acquaint ourselves with the sights, sounds, smells, foods, history, and culture of interior Mexico. We’d return to our villa in the early evening to study and prepare for the next day, and maybe to blog about the experience.

Occasionally—if it was raining hard—we’d catch a bus or cab. But mostly we walked. We averaged a little more than five miles a day.

It is common, walking in Mexico, to encounter persons in need. Sometimes it’s a mother with small children just sitting there, on the sidewalk, in the shade, open coffee can in front of her with a few pesos in the bottom. Other times it’s a person offering small, hand-made curios for sale. On occasion we’d encounter a musician, singing passionately to an imagined audience in hopes of real money materializing on the cobblestones at his feet.

These were genuinely needy people.

And, of course, we wanted to help each and every person we saw. We were wealthy Americans, after all, and knew a daily quality of life they would likely never experience, even for a short time.

And, of course, we felt inward pangs of guilt every time we passed by a needy person without emptying our pockets of spare change—or because we had just emptied our pockets for the last needy person.

I’m sure you have experienced this struggle.

2.

Today is the final Sunday of the church calendar, the feast of Christ the King.

Today’s collect puts it this way: “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”

This is that day: the day when we anticipate what it will be like to have all things restored in Christ, God’s well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose message above all else was, “God is love.”

What will this restoration of all things look like?

Our collective imaginations have played with this question. Will it be this world renewed? Will it look somewhat the same as it does now, but a richer, fuller, more vibrant world; a world without poverty, hunger, or need? Will we recognize mountain peaks? Each other? That blind musician I once helped? Buildings?

Or, will this world be destroyed and burned up? Will Christians be raptured away and all non-Christians left to face a new-world dictator? Will there be an evil man called Antichrist who is really under the control of a great and terrible beast? Will there be a terrible Apocalypse? Will zombies factor in?

Today we encounter the only detailed description in the New Testament of what this restoration of all things will look like.

And, in case we’re tempted to try and solve this riddle, today’s passage is meant to be evocative, not literal.

I mean, really, if it were meant to be interpreted literally, then we’d all have to be transformed into sheep and goats before facing Christ! And when in the eschatological sequence does that happen?

So, just what are we to do with today’s Gospel?

3.

I’m afraid that most of us, when we read or listen to this passage, identify with the sheep.

There are two teams, the sheep versus the goats. The sheep are Jesus’ team. They on his right and are welcomed to join him in that place where he will be their eternal captain. The goats, however, are on his left; they will be ushered to that place of eternal perdition—and we all know who their captain will be. . . .

So, show of hands, who wants to be a goat?

But—to reflect a moment—what about the goats?

Did you notice? They’re just as surprised as the sheep when Jesus addresses them.

To the sheep Jesus says, “Whenever you did these things to the needy, you did them to me”; but to the goats Jesus says, “Whenever you did not do these things to the needy, you did not do them to me.”

And both sheep and goats are surprised. Both ask, “Lord, when did this happen?”

It seems, then, that both sheep and goats did in fact welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and incarcerated; and both sheep and goats let opportunities pass them by.

Hasn’t each one of us done this? Hasn’t each of us acted on opportunities to help someone in need; yet also let opportunities to help the needy pass by?

I mean, if I’d given money in Mexico to every needy person I passed in the street, I would have busted my budget on the first day!

So then is this last-day scenario really fair? The sheep are remembered for the few opportunities they acted on; but the goats are remembered for the opportunities they passed by.

What about all the opportunities the sheep let pass by?

And there’s this: both the sheep and the goats are in the position of being able to help. Both sheep and goats are approached in life by the needy; both find themselves in the position of being able to do something about it when approached. Both are able to offer food or clothing; or to visit the sick.

But what about the needy themselves? What about those who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, the stranger, the sick, and the incarcerated?

They are not in a position of helping others simply because they are themselves in need. With respect to today’s passage, they are neither sheep nor goats. So what are they? Where do the needy fit in?

We identify with the sheep, not the goats. But I’m not so sure this is what Jesus wants us to do. For when we identify with one team over another, we end up drawing distinctions. We end up saying things like, “We go to church and they don’t”; we end up thinking ourselves better than they in some way—which is exclusive.

But Jesus calls us to love, to inclusivity; not exclusivity.

4.

Maybe the question we ought to be asking today is not whether I am a sheep or a goat; but, “With whom does Christ identify?”

Is it not with the needy?

Yes, Christ is the Son of Man, the King of kings and Lord of lords, sitting on his throne in glory. But, at the same time, Christ is the person in need.

“Whenever you welcomed, fed, clothed, or visited those in need,” he says, “you did it to me.”

“I am the one in need,” he says.

And are we not, likewise, those in need?

Why do we follow Christ in the first place? Why do we commune at his table week after week? Is it not because we are in need?

Call it the fall, call it marred human nature, call it sin. Whatever you call it, however it is described, we stand in need of salvation, redemption, and reconciliation to God. And that is the greatest need of all.

Thus today’s passage confronts us with a great mystery. It does not have a simple, either/or answer. Rather, it is both/and:

Christ is both the divine King of all creation and the needy. He is both God and humanity. He is both transcendent and immanent. He is both distant foreigner and next-door neighbor. He is both sheep and goat. He is both in need and helper. He is both Savior and the one being saved.

We meet Christ on this final Sunday of the church calendar as King.

We also meet Christ every day of the year: whenever we pass a person in need on the street; whenever we greet our neighbor; whenever we see our own needy reflection in the mirror.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Imaging Love

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 25:14-30

1.

It’s not lost on me that today’s Gospel falls on our Ingathering Sunday.

This parable involves talents. Talents are money. Lots of money!

And it’s Ingathering Sunday, the day where we collect all our pledge cards and offer them up to God in hopes that we will be blessed in the coming year. And by “we will be blessed,” you and I both know what I mean: that the church will make ends meet and then some!

Oh, the temptation!

“Don’t be like that third slave,” I could preach, “for he took his talent and suppressed it. He buried it in the dirt; and ended up in that dark place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. We don’t want to be like him, do we? Well, here’s your chance. Pledge!”

Or, I could exhort, “Be like the first and second slaves. They took huge economic risks with their master’s money. And these risks paid off! Don’t you see? God wants you to take huge economic risks in what you pledge this year. Do it! And God will reward you.”

I could preach these kinds of things, sure. And, sad to say, many preachers will in fact expound along these lines today.

But—at the risk of losing a sales-pitch opportunity—my conscience steers me in another direction. I don’t think that this parable is telling you and me to empty our pockets for Jesus (though, if you want to interpret it this way, I won’t stand in the way!).

2.

Rather, the point of today’s parable is about how we understand—how we image—God.

We touched on this a few weeks back. The religious leaders that Jesus confronted had imaged God as a king, largely removed from the lives of his people. God is often likened to a king in the scriptures, after all.

But there are many other words, other images, associated with God in the Bible: father; mother hen; fire; wind; word; lover; friend; etc.

Do you image God as king? as father? as fire?

Or how about harsh taskmaster? For you, does God reap where he doesn’t sow? Does God gather where he did not spread seed? Are you afraid of God?

That’s how the third slave saw his master.

And, after all, he’s the focal point of today’s parable.

The first and second slaves do what is right: they’re the ones who take their master’s resources and double them, riskily living out their calling, as Jesus teaches his disciples to do.

But the first and second slaves are nearly identical. Other than the difference in amounts of resources, both go out and double what they were given; both do it in the same way; and both are welcomed and received by their master with the same words.

These first two slaves, much as they might teach us about stewardship, are merely setting the stage for what is to follow.

And what does follow is a sharp contrast:

in the way the third slave stewards;

and, especially, in the way he views, or images, his master.

“I knew you were a harsh man,” he says, “reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

Unlike the first and second slaves, who feel absolute liberty in using their master’s resources, and are themselves received with similar liberty, the third slave is afraid, constrained by his image of his master.

It’s not that the master is harsh at all. Rather, everything about his actions demonstrates generosity. It’s all in how the third slave views his master.

This third slave is like the religious leaders Jesus has been confronting since he arrived in Jerusalem some days ago. Long had they imaged God as a distant, aloof king who rules by law and judgment, a deity to be feared. And thus, in accordance with their image of God, they had established a religious system that held its people under a cloud of fear.

3.

Which brings up a good point: a good way to discern how we image God is to examine our own behavior. Whether we realize it or not, we act like the God we image.

So, for instance, how do we address God in prayer?

As a church, we say the Lord’s Prayer together weekly: here we address God, “Our Father in heaven.”

Also, I thumbed through fifty-one pages of collects in our BCP (pp. 211-61) and found these addresses:

Almighty God; Merciful God; Lord; God; Eternal Father; Father in heaven; Almighty and everlasting God; Most loving Father; Gracious Father; Almighty and everliving God; Lord God; Almighty Father; King of glory; Almighty and merciful God; Lord of all power and might; Blessed Lord; Everliving God; Lord of glory; Lord God Almighty; Gracious God; Almighty and gracious Father; Eternal Lord God; and Merciful Creator.

Rich and varied as these addresses are, most of them suggest distance, as if God is away from us, in heaven, ruling and reigning from on high—from somewhere else. A few, like “God” and “Gracious God,” are ambiguous: distance is neither suggested nor not suggested. But none of them addresses a God who is already present.

These are our collects. These are the prayers we say as the liturgy begins. The implication is that God is far off in a heavenly throne room somewhere until I, the ordained celebrant, summon God to be present with all of us.

Frankly, this is bad theology, a hangover from the medieval image of God as powerful and aloof king. If we say as a church we don’t view God this way—and we do say this: that God is always present with each of us and all of us—perhaps it’s time to revise some, maybe even a lot, of our liturgy.

Or maybe the reality is that we actually image God this way after all without realizing it.

Well, that’s an example from us as a church. What about you personally?

How do you address God in your personal prayers? Is it always, “Almighty God,” or, “Father in heaven”? Have you ever tried addressing God as “Caregiver,” “Friend,” or even “Lover”? What about something like, “Nurturing Mother”?

I’m not saying you should; I’m not saying you shouldn’t. You have liberty. I’m simply trying to make the point that we understand God largely in terms of how we image God; and we subconsciously live out our faith in accordance with this image.

A good dose of self-examination here can do us a lot of good. It might even motivate us to rethink our image of God.

4.

Of course, Jesus gives us an image: Jesus tells us that God is love.

But how do we image love? Love is an action; an ideology. How do we form an image of action or ideology in our mind’s eye?

I don’t know that we can. Love may be simply too abstract.

But what we can do is recall how it looks when played out. What does love look like? It’s a meal given to a hungry person. It’s a quilt received by someone in need of healing. It’s a kind word spoken at the right time.

Really? Is a hot meal an image of God? Is a quilt? What about a word? Jesus himself is called the Word of God.

Perhaps this is what Jesus has been pointing to all along:

  • Seeing God in the smile on your daughter’s face at the dinner table as you crack a silly joke
  • Realizing that God is everywhere around you as you wait in the checkout line at the grocery store
  • Hearing God in a piece of music
  • Observing God’s hand in nature
  • Sensing God’s very presence in the middle of a heated discussion at diocesan convention

Is this what Jesus means when he says, “God is love”?

5.

I am reminded here of a story about Socrates, that great Greek thinker.

His is arguably the second most tragic death in the history of human civilization.

He walked the earth long before Christ, executed in 399 BCE.

Like Christ, he never wrote a word—that we know of anyway. He is remembered through the testimony of others, especially his disciple Plato.

So, the Greek world of Socrates’s day, as you know, imaged God as a pantheon.

Zeus was the father god of the earthly realm; while his brothers Poseidon and Hades ruled the sea and the underworld, respectively.

Of course, there were also Hera, Zeus’s wife; Aphrodite, Zeus’s daughter (born out of his head, by the way); Apollo, Zeus’s son from an adulterous relationship; Ares, Zeus and Hera’s son, whom (according to Homer) they hated; and so on and so forth.

But, as you can surmise already from the little I’ve told you, the popular image of God in Socrates’s day was nothing short of divine dysfunction!

And Socrates knew it!

So, one of his more brilliant ideas was that, yes, there must be some kind of deity, for everyday life has all kinds of pointers shouting out so; but, no, this deity simply could not be—to borrow from The Kinks—a mixed up, funked up, shook up pantheon (except for Lola—or Hera, as it were).

In other words, for Socrates there was in fact a deity, but not as the popular image portrayed it.

Socrates realized that the world around him, wanting to approach the divine, had fashioned for itself concrete images of the divine. These images were the pantheon, a kind of high court of deities, gods that looked, for all intents and purposes, a lot like regular people, with all their warts and weaknesses—not unlike DC Comics’ Justice League.

Still, Socrates knew, there was something of God in each of these images; yet all of God could not be contained by any of them. Concrete images cannot capture the ineffable. By definition, it’s impossible!

Anyway, Socrates’s downfall was teaching the youth to see through—or beyond—these popular images of deity. “God is not a pantheon,” he declared, “but One. God cannot be contained by images.”

And for this—for leading Athens’ youth astray into what his opponents called atheism(!)—Socrates was tried, found guilty, and made to drink the poisonous hemlock.

Tragedy came upon the world because one man dared to challenge its popular images of God.

Jesus challenged a popular image of God in his day too—the image of God as king; and again tragedy came upon the world.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be like the third slave in today’s parable. I don’t want to view God as a harsh taskmaster, which simply perpetuates the fear, shame, and guilt that already runs rampant in our society.

Rather, I want to be like the first and second slaves. These guys took risks! These guys understood and lived into their freedoms! And in the end they were elevated to a kind of equality with their master.

Yet even more than that, I want to be like Jesus, who imaged God as love. For in imaging God as love, we become love.

Forward into Exile

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by timtrue

This sermon was delivered on November 12, 2017.

MANO-5

Matthew 25:1-13

1.

Once upon a time there was a great city on a hill.

A city which could not be hidden.

A golden city.

God’s city.

Its name was Jerusalem.

Long was it thought to be impenetrable—four hundred years long, in fact—standing there proud, even haughty, glowering at the inferior world below.

During these four centuries—oh, yes!—kings and their eager armies had tried to conquer it. For, especially when the sun was about to set, in that last hour of daylight, its sandstone buildings beckoned, dazzling, appearing as pure gold; especially that highest of all buildings, Solomon’s Temple.

The wealth!

But, alas, here was a prize that refused to be taken, by force or any other way.

For, in addition to having been built on the top of a vast hill, a high wall of hard stone surrounded it.

And, in addition to the high, hard stone wall, a water source bubbled up from the ground in the city’s middle.

Long, then, could this city’s inhabitants enclose themselves inside if need be, carrying on life more or less as they always did, should an enemy army ever encamp outside.

And it had worked.

For four centuries.

“Ah, Jerusalem,” King Jehoiachin boasted as he walked to and fro on his palace balconies, “my impenetrable city.”

Still, supplies such as food, spears, arrows, even stones are not infinite. Perhaps if an enemy army were merely patient enough. . . .

And then it happened.

A harsh and stubborn commander with a foreign name, Nebuchadnezzar, brought his army from far away Babylon. And he set up encampments, determined to starve Jerusalem if necessary. This golden city would be his.

And so—despite King Jehoiachin’s boasts, his certainty, his knowledge—it happened: Jerusalem was caught by surprise.

God can do this, you know: God can catch his people by surprise.

Over these past four hundred years, not just the king but also God’s people, all Israel, had grown confident, certain, and sure. They were God’s chosen people, after all. And God, stalwart and benevolent king that he was, would surely always provide for them and protect them from their enemies, surely, even if the enemy army were, say, tenfold the size of their own.

Armed then with this confident certainty, King Jehoiachin decided to parley.

But Nebuchadnezzar was a cruel enemy.

Jehoiachin was arrested, along with his princes, his mightiest warriors, and the city’s best craftsmen and artisans; and led away into captivity. Only the poor were left behind.

Nebuchadnezzar then established Jehoiachin’s own uncle Zedekiah as vassal king in Jehoiachin’s place: Zedekiah and the remaining people of Jerusalem were to pay an annual tribute to Babylon.

The people of God had been caught by surprise.

Even so, their confidence remained. As glowing embers at first, over the next decade they fed it enough heat, air, and fuel to grow into roaring flames. They were God’s chosen people, after all.

And Zedekiah decided it was high time to stop paying the annual tribute.

Surely, Zedekiah predicted, the Babylonian army would return. But Jerusalem had learned its lesson last time. This time he would not parley; no one would surrender. This time, weapons would be stockpiled ahead of time; the people of God would hole up in the fortified city and simply wait their enemy out.

And return Nebuchadnezzar and his army did.

And, again, God caught his people off guard.

For Nebuchadnezzar was ready to wait out his enemy too.

He established not mere encampments but whole villages at strategic points around the outside of the impenetrable city, complete with gardens and bath houses, as if to say, “Jerusalem may be able to sustain itself with food and water; well, we’ve got food and water too, and the land’s infinite resources for miles and miles around.”

It proved his distinct advantage.

The siege lasted almost two years. Then, as it turns out, Jerusalem’s small army was running out of defensive weapons and ideas. So one night in 586 BCE, under cover of darkness, the entire army sneaked out of the city in search of supplies—and were found out, caught, and captured in short order!

It was easy, then, for the enemy army to enter the city and take it without resistance. Those who tried to resist were killed. The other inhabitants, to a person, were led away in captivity to Babylon.

None who survived would ever see their beloved city again. Babylon had effectively snuffed out the Jewish nation.

But these were God’s chosen people.

But God had led them into this land, the land of promise, more than four hundred years ago.

But God had built their beloved Temple, the very place on earth where God chose to dwell.

How could this happen?

Where had God gone?

Why would God bring such evil upon his people?

2.

Today Jesus calls us to be prepared for surprises.

This is the message that stands out today.

Ten bridesmaids are part of a wedding party. They’re all there, together. They all know the bride personally.

But five are said to be foolish and the other five wise. Why?

This isn’t a parable about following Christ, as if the five foolish are not disciples and the five wise are. If Christ is represented by the bridegroom, then all ten bridesmaids are there, a part of his church as it were, waiting for him.

This isn’t a parable about the virtues of an active life, as if the five bridesmaids are wise because they keep active; whereas the foolish ones are more contemplative. Yes, Jesus does say, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”; but, no, despite what some extroverts would like us to think, this is not a statement about continuous activity for the Lord in this life. All ten of the bridesmaids—the five foolish and the five wise—are sleeping, after all, their lamps snuffed out, when the bridegroom arrives.

And this isn’t a parable about loving our neighbor. If it were, then maybe the five wise bridesmaids would have shared some of their extra oil with the not-so-wise. Surely there was enough to go around!

Instead, this parable is about being ready. And it’s not just being ready for what we think will happen; but for the unexpected, for surprises, for God catching us off guard at an unknown day and hour.

The real issue at hand is thinking we’ve got it all sorted out: thinking that the bridegroom will arrive exactly when we expect him to; thinking that we will be able to outlast the army encamped outside our walls because God cares for us more than other people; thinking that we’ve discovered a sure-fire method of growing the church.

This parable is a call for flexibility, adaptability, and resourcefulness rather than control, predictability, and order.

3.

Once upon a time there was a great city on a hill.

A city which could not be hidden.

A golden city.

God’s city.

Its name was the church.

The church offered a safe haven for long years from the opposing evil forces outside. God looked with favor upon the church. For the church was his chosen people.

But the church was predictable, ordered, even controlled. And thus, over time, many of the chosen people began to feel walled in.

Our world today is much different than the world of two thousand years ago; of two hundred years ago; or even of twenty. The authority structures of the Middle Ages are flatly unacceptable to the democratic world today. Popular church growth methods from the 1990s aren’t working today.

Across the world, there is discussion revolving around the decline of the Christian church. Numbers are down. Resources are scarce. Properties are being sold off at a staggering rate.

And we look around at all this and say:

“It’s not supposed to happen like this!

“Where has God gone?

“Why has God brought such evil upon us?”

Could it be that God has in fact been doing something unexpected both within and without the church? Could it be that God is catching the church off guard? Could it be that our church is in a kind of exile?

4.

Once the people of Jerusalem had been led away by Nebuchadnezzar and his army, there, in Babylon, their captors told them to sing their songs of Zion.

But they couldn’t do it.

There, in exile, they realized their preconceptions and definitions of God had been wrong. Their city was razed; their Temple destroyed. How could they sing their same old songs?

So, what did they do? God hadn’t acted like they thought God would. God had caught them off guard; taken them by surprise. Did they just give up and die?

No! They wrote new songs. They revised their understanding of God the unpredictable. And they forged a new path ahead.

The time has come, too, for us to write new songs, to revise our understanding of our God who surprises us, and to forge a new path ahead.

5.

And, I am happy to report, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is doing just that.

You may know that I, along with four members of our congregation, attended our diocese’s annual convention for the last couple of days. The convention is the corporation’s annual meeting; its main purpose is to elect diocesan leaders and to consider resolutions, etc., in order to adapt and continue the work it does.

Now, I had to leave yesterday before it was over, in order to get back in time for the Saturday evening service. In most years, the convention should have ended by 3:45. But not yesterday.

This was primarily because of two resolutions that were on the table. These two alone produced about ninety minutes of discussion and debate—often heated discussion and debate.

One has to do with calling ourselves a sanctuary diocese: from this terminology alone you can probably guess why it was heated. The gist is that we want to provide a safe and holy place for immigrants, a resource to which they can turn for help. I should mention, it does not mean that we will hide people in any way from the authorities; rather that we will not “rat them out,” as it were.

The other resolution has to do with providing a safe place for victims of sexual misconduct. This resolution wasn’t so much debated as it was discussed; and it wasn’t so heated as emotional. Several people shared difficult stories from their past. Others simply approached the mic and said, “Me too.”

One priest, a female, shared the heartbreaking story that in her first year of ordination she was a victim. The perpetrator was a male priest. When she brought this matter to the attention of her bishop, she was encouraged to leave her diocese and the matter was dropped: it never went to the disciplinary levels it should have.

Now, both of these resolutions involved difficult conversations. But, to take a step back, could either of these conversations have taken place in the church of twenty years ago?

Not only do we feel safe enough to have these conversations today, but also these resolutions passed, meaning work is being done for God’s glory and the common good.

Jesus calls us to be ready for the unexpected. I’m glad to say I see that happening in our exiled church. I’m glad that we are writing and singing new songs. May this good work continue!

Gazing at the Underside

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 5:1-12

1.

Have you ever gazed at an icon?

One of the panels in St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt contains the oldest known icon of Christus Pantokrator, aka, “Christ, the Lord of Hosts.” I’ve never been there. But I’ve seen photos.

This particular icon first caught my attention because there seemed to be something wrong with Jesus’ face. It seemed somehow asymmetric, kind of like he’d suffered a minor stroke or TIA.

That was the first time I gazed at it.

Somewhat unsettled, certainly puzzled, I returned to it. The second time, yes, indeed, I saw there was something not quite right about his face—it hadn’t been my imagination. I also noticed that, in his left hand, he held a large, thick book; and was making a sign of blessing with his right.

Well, I don’t know how many more times I returned to this icon—how many total minutes I spent gazing at it—before someone spoiled it for me (as I am now, perhaps, going to spoil it for you).

This imposter (a church history teacher, actually) came with a sheet of paper and covered up the right half of Jesus’ face. “What does the exposed half look like?” he asked.

“Judgment,” I said.

He smiled then covered up the left half and asked, “Now what?”

“Wow! That’s compassion!” I replied.

And it clicked! That’s what was wrong with his face. The left half, reflecting the Torah in his left hand, displayed the judgment side of God; whereas the right half displayed mercy, seen in his sign of blessing.

Anyway, good icons are like that: one grows in one’s understanding as one gazes.

2.

Well, today I don’t so much want to gaze at icons as I want to gaze with you at the underside of tabletops.

Last week, if you recall, I framed my sermon with the image of Jesus turning over tables both literal and figurative. Why am I surprised, then, when following Jesus feels like I’m gazing at the underside of tabletops?

For instance:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches us, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

And, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

And so on.

But . . . the poor in spirit? Those who mourn? The meek? These aren’t exactly the bullet points I want to put on my résumé.

Instead, these strike me as kind of upside down.

And why, again, are these people—these disciples of Jesus—called blessed? Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven? Because they will be comforted? Because they will inherit the earth?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this. It all sounds like pie-in-the-sky talk to me!

Sure, you can tell me all you want that if I behave myself in the here-and-now then I will be rewarded in the future. But such moralizing sounds an awful lot like what my second grade teacher used to tell me. I didn’t really buy it then; and I don’t buy it now.

It’s not the future that concerns me; I want to be blessed now! And I’m pretty sure being melancholy and mopey isn’t going to get me there.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in this present life; but the confident, the self-assured, and—dare I say?—the pushy! It’s fine and well to want a nice life in the future, or a nice afterlife; but what about the here-and-now? I want to be blessed now!

I want Jesus to say something like:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money! For they can buy a comfortable home in a low-crime neighborhood; their kids can attend the best schools; and every amenity they could ever need or want is at their fingertips.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this? That’s what the culture around me is telling me! Why does following Christ have to feel so upside down, like I’m staring at the underside of a tabletop?

3.

But to gaze at the underside might not be such a bad thing. Jesus seems to know this—otherwise, why would he turn so many tables over in the first place?

Maybe that’s why he calls you and me and all the saints to do so.

I mean, isn’t that really what we do when we gather week after week, when we come together and engage in corporate spiritual practices—sacred story, sacred rituals, sacred music, sacred seasons? In these upside down practices we contemplate Jesus and the tables he has overturned.

And don’t we continue our underside musings during the week with individual practices like contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, and gazing at icons?

And—you know—the longer we gaze at the underside, the more we realize that this hidden, forgotten side of the table was meant by the Table-builder to be on top all along.

That’s why the beatitudes can feel so upside down. They’re the hidden side of the table; yet the side Jesus really wants us to see!

Remember those wants I listed earlier? When I said I wished Jesus would say that those who make a lot of money are blessed because they can live in a big house and so on?

Now—please hear me—these wants and dreams are not necessarily wrong. But they’re the American dream, not Jesus’ dream.

Jesus proclaims compassion, justice, and a society free from oppression and hatred, fear and guilt.

The beatitudes show us harmonious community.

But the other side of this table—the American dream side of this table—tells us a very different message: to live well, to look good, and to stand out; to be an individual.

4.

So what can we do about it? Is gazing at the underside of tabletops a valuable use of our time? Are the beatitudes reality? Or, is Jesus presenting us with an unrealizable ideal?

Most of us are individuals, after all, who have come together because of our common understanding of Christ—Christians, yes, but nevertheless individuals.

And besides, even if we do manage to break beyond our individualistic values and begin to form a cohesive common good, we’re still just one local body of Christ—and not a very big one at that—in the morass of modern American Christian individualism.

So what can we do?

Well, gazing at the underside of these tables is a lot like gazing at an icon: the more one does so, the more one comes to understand.

Most people today, I’m afraid, look only and ever at the topside (maybe we are partly to blame: maybe we aren’t overturning enough tables); and the topside shows only the individual.

What matters on the topside is that I love Jesus. It tells me to learn and cherish all those precious scriptures about my individual relationship with Jesus, that as long as I believe in him I shall not perish but have everlasting life even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!

Fine and well. But what the topside leaves out is all those Bible passages, many and manifold, about societal injustices, about neglecting the poor and destitute among us, about caring for widows and orphans (and we might add the homeless and mentally ill).

It tells us, instead, that the poor and destitute need to develop a better work ethic and embrace family values; that it’s not society’s fault, and so why should I be forced to pay taxes for the good of those unwilling to work for their food?

By way of contrast, the underside reveals to us (in agreement with Jesus), over time and much gazing, that social structures do in fact play a part.

I was shocked to learn in seminary, for example, that in our own “land of the free” people of color were denied mortgage loans on the basis of their skin color well into the 1980s. In fact, it is argued that in some regions of the country such discrimination continues to this day!

The people affected by this practice are true victims of a grievous social injustice!

Even more shocking to me was the sudden realization that I did not know this had been going on. Unlike so many others, I’d never had to experience this kind of systemic injustice personally. And wasn’t my ignorance, in itself, a kind of injustice?

Gazing at the underside, we begin to ask questions like this. Who are the true victims of the system? How do we care for them when we find them? How do we foster a compassionate social order for the common good?

As small a church as we are, then, we’re not too small to figure out some way of bringing the underside of the tables Jesus overturns into sharper focus, so that others can gaze with us.