Archive for December, 2017

Identity Eclipsing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by timtrue

John_the_Baptist_by_Prokopiy_Chirin_(1620s,_GTG)

So, what does it look like in our day to be John the Baptist to the culture? Delivered on December 17, Advent 3.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

1.

Are there any Mark Twain fans in the house?

In 1889 Twain published the book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It tells the story of a certain Hank Morgan, who wakes up after a blow to the head to find himself transported from present-day New England, where he was an engineer, to sixth-century England.

Of course, Hank doesn’t know right away that he’s been transported through time and space. But after a knight calling himself Sir Kay finds and captures him, Hank puts two and two together.

Good thing too! For, because of his industrialized appearance and funny accent, he is out of place in Camelot. The people are frightened of him, even threatened by him, especially a certain man named Merlin, who fashions himself as some kind of wizard. In an effort led by Merlin, Hank is thrown into a dungeon to await his execution.

There, in his prison cell, educated as he has been, in the east-coast liberal arts system of his day; and as a well-established engineer with some 2,000 subordinates, Hank concludes that he is by far the smartest person in this world of chivalry. And thus, he reasons, he ought to figure out a way not only to get out of jail but also to rise to the top of the political system, becoming second in command only to King Arthur himself.

Really a political satire on the USA, Hank gets out of his scrape in a very comical way. He deduces the present date: June 21st, 528. And, by coincidence, from his New England, liberal arts education, he remembers that on this date in history there was a total solar eclipse.

So, sitting in jail awaiting his appointed execution, he sends a message to the king that he is a greater wizard than even the mighty and revered Merlin; and that if the plans for his execution continue, he will in fact blot out the sun.

Merlin, wanting to maintain his reputation as the only true wizard (who we find out later is really more a scam artist than anything else), calls Hank’s bluff, giving him 24 hours to make good on his by now highly publicized threat.

Of course, the eclipse comes. Everyone is frightened. The world is thrown into disarray. And Hank is released from jail.

He then, taking more advantage of his situation, bestows feigned mercy and forgiveness on the fearful people. Just before the sunlight begins to return he commands the sun to come back, which it does; and, yes, he is suddenly promoted to the second-most powerful political position in the land, just below King Arthur; and, most deliciously for him, above Merlin; and given a new title, “The Boss.”

* * * * *

Throughout the history of humanity, solar eclipses have thrown the world into disarray. People fear them—and other astronomical phenomena—as portents or omens of coming disaster.

And Twain, a modern man with eyes opened by science, pokes fun at this.

Somewhat surprisingly, in our more-modern world than Twain’s, we are still thrown into mild disarray at eclipses. Do you remember all the hullabaloo around August 21st of this year? Indeed, some evangelical leaders went so far as to pronounce divine judgment!

2.

Now, last week’s message led us to the conclusion that—like it or not; and whether we realize it or not—we are John the Baptist to our world today. Advent is a time of preparation. Two millennia ago, John prepared the world for Jesus. Likewise, we are called to prepare our world for Jesus.

Today’s Gospel tells us more about John the Baptist (JB); and thus, since we are JB to our world today, more about us.

“There was a man sent from God,” it declares, “whose name was John.”

So, for one thing, today’s Gospel tells us that John stood on the threshold between the cosmic and the concrete. We stand there too. We have been sent from God, who dwells outside of time and space, into our unique time and place. The church is at once both a divine and a human institution.

The Gospel continues, “He came as a witness.”

So, for another thing, like JB, we offer testimony. We are witnesses, like it or not. Evangelism is a dangerous word today. But—like it or not—evangelism is part and parcel of who we are.

It’s a funny thing about evangelism: it works in both active and passive ways. We can get out there and share the good news of Jesus Christ to the culture like Mormon missionaries; we can go out and share the love of Christ through service projects and social outreach; we can retreat into our sanctuaries of Bible study and prayer. Whatever the case—whether we pro-actively bear witness or not—the culture is watching. What is the message we convey?

Again, the Gospel continues, “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

So, a third observation from the text, like JB, we testify to the light; and yet we are not the light. We reflect the light of Christ—whether we want to or not—much as the moon reflects the sun. The light we shine is always secondary to and dependent on the light of Christ.

But this leads to a fourth observation—or a kind of anti-observation, for the text doesn’t say so directly, it only implies: Today’s Gospel brings to light (pun intended!) a way in which we are not like JB: he never eclipsed Jesus; but, as JB to our world today, we do end up eclipsing Jesus. All the time! Without even realizing it!

And eclipses, as Mark Twain reminds us, tend to throw the world into disarray.

3.

How do we eclipse Jesus? The ways are manifold and many, no doubt! But today’s passage focuses on one way in particular: identity.

When delegates of the religious establishment asked him, “Who are you?” John replied with who he was not: “I am not the Messiah,” he said.

Again, asked if he was Elijah or a prophet, he said, “No.”

Finally, when asked, “Well, who are you then? We need an answer for those who sent us”; he quoted the scriptures—“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”—thus saying nothing about his own identity but nevertheless identifying himself with Christ and God.

John’s identity was in Christ, not in himself.

Likewise, since we are JB to our world today; and since we bear witness (whether we realize it or not), our identity is in Christ.

Yet, unlike JB, our identity is also very much wrapped up in self.

Now, I know, everywhere I look, I’m told it is all about me. The clothes I choose to wear, the car I decide to buy and drive, how I choose to spend my free time, the foods I like (or don’t), the music I listen to (or won’t), the art that decorates my walls—good, bad, ugly, tacky, kitschy, it doesn’t matter!—it’s me. It all defines who I am, my unique, individual identity.

And that’s a good thing: to be an individual. Or, at least, that’s what my culture wants me to think.

But there’s a sort of irony here. For JB was more of an individual probably than any of us in this room. I mean, he walked around the region, unkempt, wearing a simple patchwork robe and eating whatever protein he could find.

I’m sure he had health issues related to his eccentricities—bad breath, probably malnourished, undoubtedly barefoot.

(You know what John’s unique identity was? I’ve got it! He was a super calloused fragile mystic plagued with halitosis!)

Anyway, here’s the irony. We value individuality as a culture; yet if you or I were to walk around Temecula like JB—as an eccentric, unique individual—we’d be stigmatized precisely because of our failure to conform to societal norms; or, in other words, precisely because of our unique individuality!

That’s because there’s a key difference between John’s individuality and ours: he was an individual by coincidence; whereas we are individuals by intention.

In all his camel-hair wearing and insect eating, John wasn’t focused on, preoccupied, or absorbed with himself.

Yet with us present-day Christians, it’s all self-focus, self-preoccupation, and self-absorption.

We want to convey an image of confidence and togetherness to everyone around us; and for us, our identity is all about this image: how we come across to our world in our own, unique, individual way—which is why none of us wants to walk around town looking and smelling like JB.

By the way, I’ve been discussing identity largely in terms of us as individual persons. Everything I’ve said applies to us as a corporate church body too. Our identity as a church body is partly in Christ; but it is also defined by our human preferences—our brand (STC/EDSD/TEC), our theology, our politics, our liturgy, our defining focuses of outreach, our shield. . . .

It’s something to think about.

John didn’t care a lick about his image; his identity was defined only in and through the image of Christ.

We, on the other hand, define our identity mostly in self—in the cars we drive or in the clothes we wear or in how much we pay for a haircut or in how we decorate our walls or in a political party or even in what church we attend—and only very little in Christ.

We should be reflecting Christ’s light. But in our attempts to establish and maintain our own unique identity—in our attempts to be seen—instead we end up blocking the light of Christ.

And that’s called an eclipse.

And eclipses, as Mark Twain reminds us, tend to throw the world into disarray.

We are JB today. We must decrease in order that Christ may increase.

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Getting out of Our own Way

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by timtrue

FatherTim

Been a few weeks since I’ve posted–my computer has been down. Fixed now. Planning to post two today. The first, below, was delivered on December 10, Advent 2. The next post is really Part 2, up in a few minutes.

Mark 1:1-8

1.

Let’s begin today by putting ourselves in the shoes of a Jewish person living in year 69 of the Common Era.

Two schools of political thought constantly vie for your attention.

The first says to live into the Pax Romana, for that is your present reality. God is ultimately in charge even of tyrants, and thus God will not let you endure any more than you are able. Though no one can really point to a scripture that says it, everyone knows that God wants you to bloom where you’re planted. And you’ve been planted in a time and place where and when Rome is in charge.

The second school of thought summons you to protest Rome, resorting to violence and even guerilla military tactics if necessary. This school of thought has been the predominant call throughout Jewish history. So why should it be any different now? Judas Maccabeus almost succeeded a couple centuries ago. And today the secret sicarii are nevertheless widely known as assassins against Rome. Thus, like Esther, you reason that maybe God is calling you to such a time as this.

In addition to these schools of thought, the empire’s leadership is a mess. In the year since Nero’s suicide, four—count ’em!—new emperors have come to the throne: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and now Vespasian. It’s civil war, for crying out loud; something Rome has not experienced for a century, since Mark Antony’s death. And it’s a mess!

Ah, Vespasian. Nero commissioned him to lead an army against Jerusalem and flatten the Jewish rebels. His particular focus was the Temple, the very place on earth where God dwells.

Recently, however, after more than two years of besieging Jerusalem, Vespasian was called back to Rome as Imperator himself. And now, Titus, Vespasian’s right-hand man, who according to rumor is even more ruthless than Vespasian, is in charge of the Roman army.

What will happen in the coming months, you wonder? Food supplies have got to be running low! And Jerusalem’s army, so says the word on the street, is running out of weapons and supplies. Things looks bleak, apocalyptic even.

Fortunately, you live quite a ways away from Jerusalem, north of the Sea of Galilee a bit, outside Damascus, in Syria.

Here you’ve heard a lot about a certain Jewish man who seemed to call for a third political school of thought. He opposed the authoritarian oversight of the Romans; but at the same time opposed the idea of rebellion through violence. He was a teacher and healer, whose message and mission was love. His name was Jesus, from Nazareth.

You wouldn’t think much of him, probably—much more of him, anyway, than of the numerous other teachers, healers, mystics, and cynics of the day—except that this Jesus, in particular, has since gained a substantial following. In fact, a certain prominent Jew, Saul of Tarsus, now going by Paul, experienced a drastic conversion; from persecuting and even killing followers of this Jesus to becoming the most influential leader and thinker among all of Jesus’ followers, eventually dying for his faith at Nero’s hand.

Today there are even a few assemblies of Jesus-believers nearby, convinced that he was and is the Christ!

So, you wonder, is there something to it? Is Jesus’ third way the mean between the polarized extremes? Is Jesus’ way the genuine way forward for the Jewish people—and maybe for all people?

And then, in this context, it happens. A new manuscript about this Jesus has been circulating throughout Syria; and it comes to your synagogue.

Dropping everything, you run to see it; and, pushing your way to the front of the gathered crowd, there it is; and you read these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Good news, you question? In our day and age? But how?

2.

Of course, we know this manuscript today as the Gospel of Mark. And we’ve read these words of proclamation again and again. It’s quite familiar to us . . . and it’s quite removed from its original context.

Still, I wonder, is its original, highly polarized political context all that far removed from ours today?

Our nation, the United States of America, is hardly united. Rather, it’s polarized. One can hardly enter into a political discussion today without emotion gaining the upper hand. Did any of you experience tension over politics during the family Thanksgiving get-together this year?

And even now, as I’ve brought the mere topic of politics into the pulpit, I sense a kind of collective feet-shuffling going on.

We are a politically polarized people today—just as in the day of Mark’s proclamation.

Along with this, and maybe in part because of it, fear is everywhere around us. God is omnipresent, we theologians like to say: always with us, in all circumstances and situations. But turn on the news. It’s not God that seems omnipresent to the culture, but fear. North Korea, gun violence, natural disasters—it feels like it’s only a matter of time before each and every one of us will be a victim. And thus, we are told, we should be frightened.

So it was in Mark’s day, especially for the Jewish people.

And what of religious similarities?

Our Jewish protagonist above had been exiled religiously, in a manner of speaking. The Temple was where God was believed to dwell on earth. Yet to live outside of Jerusalem meant to live outside of the regular, expected, normal parameters of worship. Synagogues were merely a temporary solution, a compromise to include those who were otherwise excluded.

Does not broader culture today feel largely excluded from the church?

And yet, broader culture still seeks a spirituality. Excluded people still yearn for God; they still confess, seek forgiveness, and pray.

3.

Curiously, the Gospel of Mark, after stating its intention to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and in the highly polarized political climate of its day—curiously, the Gospel of Mark does not launch into political solutions. Rather, it focuses our attention immediately on a herald named John: you know, that eccentric guy who baptized people, proclaiming repentance for forgiveness of sins, down at the River Jordan.

John’s was a message about the coming leader, a man who was far greater than any earthly, political leader, whose way was not violent but the way of love.

As a herald, then, John was preparing the way for someone greater than himself, the coming Messiah. In this respect, he was determined not to let his ego get in the way.

Have you ever thought about this? John had disciples. In fact, Jesus’ first two disciples were John’s disciples first. And John let them go without a fuss. In fact, John actively encouraged them to quit following him in order to follow this new teacher on the scene.

That just doesn’t happen in our world! I mean, could you imagine in like 1998 Bill Gates calling up Steve Jobs to say, “Hey, Steve, I’ve invested the last few years in a couple of interns who’ve proven to be my best ever; and, well, deep down I believe your product is really better than mine. So, I want to do them and us a favor and send them your way. You cool with that?”

Yet this is exactly what John does with Jesus. No ego, no pride to get in the way; just the statement, “I must decrease so that Christ may increase.”

And what was John’s message?

If I were to take a survey, I’m willing to wager that most (if not all) of you would say, “Repentance.”

And that’s what it is over in Matthew’s Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

But not in Mark. Or, not exactly anyway. Repentance plays a part, sure. But, in Mark, repentance is secondary to forgiveness.

Listen to the text again (emphasis added):

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The people of the surrounding regions came to John and confessed their sins. They were forgiven their sins, John assured them, for God is love. In fact, there was one coming after John who was much greater than he; whose message and mission were love.

John’s baptism, which followed the people’s confession, was simply a response to God’s mercy, grace, and love; an act to demonstrate the confession’s authenticity. It was to say, “I’ve confessed and God has forgiven me; and to show that God’s grace is not cheap I will do something about it, I will be baptized right here and now.”

In other words, the Gospel of Mark portrays John not as a prophet of judgment but as a herald of love.

4.

So then, let’s put all this together:

  • The polarized, political climate of Mark’s day shares parallels with the political climate of our own day.
  • Fear is everywhere around us, seemingly in the air we breathe.
  • People feel exiled from the church but nevertheless continue to seek God.
  • And it’s Advent, a time of preparation.

We, the church, are John the Baptist today, a voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way; a herald to proclaim love to a fearful world.

It’s time to read the Gospel of Mark with fresh eyes!

It’s time to follow John’s lead and proclaim Christ to the hurting, fearful world around us!

It’s time for us to broadcast a message of side-by-side confession and repentance—without judgment!

It’s time for us to respond in love to a confessing, repenting culture!

And it’s time for us to get out of our own way, for us to decrease so that Christ may increase!