Archive for February, 2018

Crucifying Egos

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 8:31-38

1.

The cross is central to our story: it is central to Jesus’ ministry and mission; it is central to Christianity; and it is central to the overall story of humanity.

a. At least from his early ministry anyway, and probably since before his baptism in the Jordan River, apparently Jesus knew that this was where he was headed: execution at the hands of the state for being an insurrectionist; for protesting established political and religious institutions.

Never mind that these institutions were unjust! Never mind that Jesus always protested without resorting to violence!

Crucifixion on a Roman cross was the extreme measure to which Jesus would go in order to grab the world’s attention.

b. Walk into any church today and what do you see? A cross.

It might have Jesus on it, hanging crucified as a reminder of his suffering on our behalf.

Or he might be dressed in kingly raiment, risen and glorified—as our cross conveys—in an attempt to tell the fuller story of his death, resurrection, and ascension.

Or, as in many Protestant and non-denominational churches around the world, it might be only a cross—plain, ornate, simple, rough, smooth—it doesn’t really matter—it’s an enduring sign that Jesus is not here but risen.

Nevertheless, whatever its appearance, the cross reminds us that Jesus had to suffer and die on this instrument of torture and execution in order to accomplish his mission.

The cross is our symbol of discipleship; our brand, if you will.

c. In fact, in a way, the entire history of humanity revolves around the cross.

Imagine a long timeline. On the left-hand end is the beginning: an image of a globe or of a garden with a man, a woman, and a snake in it. On the right-hand end is the end: an angelic image; people with wings frolicking among the clouds and playing harps or whatever. And smack dab in the middle of it all is a cross!

In the beginning, God created humanity; but humanity fell. In the middle, the focal point of human history, God sent Jesus; who came and set things right by means of death on the cross. And in the end humanity will be redeemed; and dwell with God forever.

The cross is central to our story.

2.

But, since our human story revolves around the cross, why, then, is the cross not so central to our popular theology?

What do I mean? An illustration from my own story:

When I was a young man and still new to discipleship, I spent several summers on the staff of a large, non-denominational Christian camp in the Sierras, near Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

And when I say large I mean it: at that time—1987 through 1992—some 1,200 campers a week were bussed in from all over California!

So, picture this: a 400-acre property fronting National Forest land, nestled a mile high in a valley filled with great, tall Ponderosa pines and Cedars, with dragonfly-graced meadows; on the shore of a lake, with ample waterfront activities available; acres for hiking and exploring; a first-class high ropes course; excellent meals, always with more than enough food; Olympic-sized swimming pools to play in or tan beside; and on and on. “Club Med” for young people.

And every morning and evening there was a gifted speaker to deliver a Billy-Graham-style message (may he rest in peace), imploring young people to make decisions for Christ, for he was the answer to all their difficulties; in him was all happiness.

To be sure, the place ran (and still runs) as a well-oiled machine. How else are you going to host more than a thousand campers a week, delivering a quality experience consistently?

And a big part of delivering this quality experience, summer after summer, was to unify the staff, to get all of them—more than 200 people—on board, to make sure they were aligned with the camp’s mission.

And one of the chief means of getting the staff of one mind was the Summer Staff Handbook—which we all had to read, cover to cover; and sign our names to, stating that we’d read it and would abide by the camp’s covenants as long as we were in its employment.

Covenants like:

  • Male staff shall be clean-shaven with hair trimmed above the collar
  • Any and all tattoos shall be kept concealed from the public at all times
  • No alcohol or tobacco of any kind shall be allowed on the camp property; this applies to all staff, whether over twenty-one years of age or not, and cabin owners
  • Profanity in any form shall not be tolerated
  • Summer staff shall show no public displays of affection with each other
  • Staff shall not fraternize with campers
  • All staff shall maintain a professional demeanor at all times, whether on the clock or not

Of course, I didn’t mind these strictures—I was young and on my own and just happy to be in the mountains surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation and the programmatic fun—and get paid for it. I could deal with these mandates for twelve weeks (about twice as long as Lent).

Still, my curiosity got the better of me. And thus in a rare shooting-the-breeze conversation with the camp’s Executive Director, I mentioned how well the camp is run; and asked where the ideas came from for the Summer Staff Handbook.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “Disneyland.”

“What?” I asked. “Did you just say Disneyland?”

“Yes,” he explained. “You go to Disneyland and its image is as close to perfect as anything you will find anywhere: the staff are friendly and courteous, always smiling and happy to help; the gardens are wonderfully manicured and entirely free of weeds; trash cans are everywhere, which translates to no litter. No wonder it’s called ‘the happiest place on earth.’

“So the camp board got hold of Disneyland’s Staff Handbook and we adapted it to our purposes. If Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, then Christianland should be happier still, for we are not of this world.”

I bought this popular theology at the time. But today I ask, Really? “Christianland”? Is this what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ?

3.

But today’s Gospel paints a very different picture.

Recall, just before we enter this scene of rebuke, where Jesus famously calls Peter Satan, Peter said, “You, Jesus, are the Messiah!”

Over in Matthew, Jesus praises Peter for this declaration, calling him “Rock” and even bestowing on him the keys to the kingdom.

But here in Mark—and in Luke too—the response is rather different. There’s nothing about a rock or keys; just an immediate twofold admonition.

First, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.

If word were to get out, people would assume his call to messiahship fits the popular theology of the day: a revolutionary leader whose agenda, when the time is right, is to take action. But this is not Jesus’ theology. So, for now, better keep quiet.

And second, Jesus tells both what he means by Messiah and what it means to be a disciple of the Messiah.

The Son of Man must suffer. He must face the unjust institutions of his world head-on, which will lead to execution on a cross.

Anyone who wishes to follow the Son of Man—well, discipleship is not about happiness or strength or popularity or any other kind of self-focused glory. Discipleship is about the cross! Those who want to follow the Son of Man must deny themselves and take up their cross.

By the way, Matthew goes here too—after Jesus’ appraisal of Peter as Rock. The whole bit about calling Peter Rock and bestowing on him the keys to the kingdom—it’s really just a parenthetical insertion, as if Matthew is trying to be diplomatic; trying to soften the hard truth of Mark (and Luke).

It’s a parenthetical insertion; and yet it’s what we tend to remember. “The Rock”: sounds like a good name for an attraction at an amusement park; or maybe even a good name for a feel-good Hollywood actor. . . .

But, even in Matthew, it’s just an aside: it’s not the main point.

All the Gospels agree: Discipleship is not mainly about a kind of personal, unearthly happiness that is happier than the happiest place on earth.

I don’t know about you, but I trust the Gospels far more than Christianland.

4.

And thus I want to ask us all a question: As we seek to live out Jesus’ mission, are we keeping the cross central—or, the flipside, is personal comfort and happiness more important to us than bearing our cross?

We could spend some time imagining what each of our crosses looks like—something I’m sure many preachers are doing with their congregations today. But we’re not going to—not to discourage you from doing it on your own!

Instead, a better use of our time, I feel, is the part where Jesus says, “Those who want to follow the Son of Man must deny themselves.”

More precisely then, I’d like us to ask this question: As we live out lives of discipleship, what does it mean for us each to deny him- or herself?

Of course, we find good examples of what self-denial looks like, both positive and negative, in the scriptures. John the Baptist must decrease in order that Christ may increase; Peter tries to foist his agenda on Jesus both in today’s Gospel and elsewhere. John is self-effacing; Peter is ego-inflating. We should be like John; not Peter.

But is self-denial as simple as that? Or as simple as keeping your hair trimmed above the collar and not using profanity? No!

For instance, should you always say yes to your needy friend, even though you really want to tell her no?

Is this what it means to deny yourself? Maybe not. Maybe saying yes really isn’t self-denial at all, but rather enabling bad behaviors in your friend. Curiously, Jesus said no to Peter (and others) often. Saying yes when you really should say no is not necessarily self-effacing.

Or how about this one? You agree to do something but then act the martyr.

It might be a chore for a family member; or a ministry at church—uh oh, now I’m meddling! Whatever the case, you agree to take something on and then call attention to yourself in whatever way—moaning, complaining, whining; singing your own praises, asking for public thanks; whatever—so that everyone around you knows how great a person you are to have stepped up.

And, by the way, I’m not meddling here—I’m not thinking of a particular person or persons. No one specific comes to mind—except the person sitting next to you. Really, it’s something we humans commonly do. We say it’s our cross to bear; but to play the martyr is hardly self-effacing; but rather ego-inflating.

One more: we talk a lot about outreach in the church; but outreach can all too easily become a patronizing action that allows us to pat ourselves on the back: we saw a need; we came up with an agenda; we helped someone in need; and so we feel really good about ourselves.

When I was a Boy Scout, our scout leaders told us to do a good deed daily, like help an old lady across the street. But what if that old lady doesn’t want to cross the street?—a good question for us to consider in our outreach efforts.

Anyway, we modern-day North American Christians tend to like a popular theology of self-glorification. Many and manifold are the ways we demonstrate this like.

However, the season of Lent and especially today’s Gospel remind us that Jesus calls his disciples to deny themselves and take up their cross.

In other words, it’s time to crucify our egos.

Advertisements

Life Is Lent

Posted in Homilies, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2018 by timtrue

220px-TheMagiciansNephew(1stEd)

Mark 1:9-15

1.

Today I offer more a reflection than an exhortation—appropriate for the first Sunday in Lent. So, let’s begin with a question: Weren’t we just here?

The Gospel for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, just six weeks ago, was Mark 1:4-11, the baptism of Jesus.

And the third Sunday after the Epiphany, just four weeks ago, if you recall, was Mark 1:14-20, the calling of the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

Here, today, we straddle the two with Mark 1:9-15. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and end with the message he brought to the first disciples.

Yes, we were just here.

But—did you catch it?—during the season after Epiphany, we actually skipped right over two verses, 12 and 13, the two verses right in the middle of today’s text.

With everything else so fresh in our memories, this omission begs the question: Just what does the Gospel say, then, in vv. 12 and 13?

And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

This is what we skipped over in Epiphany: the temptation in the wilderness.

Which is certainly appropriate for the first Sunday in Lent.

For Jesus was tempted by Satan for forty days in the wilderness; and thus for forty days in Lent we acknowledge Jesus’ trials by adding some kind of spiritual discipline to our own lives, in his memory and honor.

But for the Gospel of Mark, this is it, just 2 verses!

There’s no mention here (as told in both Matthew and Luke) of fasting, of specific temptations, or of conversations with the devil; or (as in Luke) of the devil leaving Jesus until “an opportune time.”

Just the sparsest details: he was tempted for forty days; he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.

In Mark, this is all we get.

And it’s not a lot to go with.

2.

Next, are you familiar with the term liminality?

It comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold; and its idea is illustrated especially well in the Gospel according to C. S. Lewis—otherwise known as The Chronicles of Narnia.

The first book of this famous children’s series, The Magician’s Nephew, tells the creation story—the beginnings of Narnia—through the eyes of a boy named Digory; and his next door neighbor, Polly.

It begins in London, set in the earliest decade of the twentieth century. Digory’s mother is dying of cancer. They are living in a family home; where his old, eccentric, and maybe treacherous Uncle Andrew also lives.

Digory’s uncle, we soon learn, is delving into stuff he shouldn’t be, a mixture of science and the occult, stuff he doesn’t really understand. Somehow, he has managed to isolate and harness some ancient, magical powers in green and yellow rings.

This old conniver then tricks Polly into trying on a green ring; who immediately disappears into thin air. Of course, Digory is shocked.

“She’s gone into another world,” Uncle Andrew explains; “but you can bring her back—with a yellow ring.”

And so Digory, feeling trapped, puts two yellow rings in his pocket without touching them to his skin; and dons a green ring on his finger, following Polly into this other world, wherever that might be.

Where he finds her—they discover in time—is not another world at all; but a kind of threshold, a place filled with lazy green light and what looks like numerous ponds of water; and trees everywhere.

These “ponds,” turns out, are portals into other worlds. One transports you to and from earth; another to and from a world called Charn; and yet another to and from Narnia.

This wooded area is a liminal space, where nothing really happens; where you don’t know if several days or only a few seconds have passed; where you could lie down and sleep for all time without a care.

It is nowhere, really; a kind of in-between place, simply enabling a traveler to cross over from one world to the next.

And thus they call it, “The Wood between the Worlds.”

3.

So then, isn’t this idea—liminality—what’s happening here in Mark?

Just prior to the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus was baptized. Baptism signifies initiation. Something new has come, something we know from later on in Mark called the kingdom of God.

Following the temptation in the wilderness Jesus will take his newly proclaimed identity as Messiah and his message to the men who become his first disciples.

The period of temptation in the wilderness is the threshold between, enabling Jesus to cross over from his old identity to new, from human peasant to divine king. It is his wood between the worlds.

And what happens while he is there, during this in-between time in the wilderness?

The scriptures give us just three sparse details: he is tempted for forty days; he is with the wild beasts; and angels wait on him.

As I said earlier, it’s not much to go on.

Or is it?

Forty days is a direct reference to Moses’ spending forty years in the wilderness with the Israelites. Moses and the Israelites, as we all know, fell short in their time of temptation, as they crossed their threshold from Egypt to the Promised Land; Jesus does not.

The wild beasts harks directly to Adam. Adam was in the Garden where he was given the responsibility to name all the beasts. Of course, as we know, Adam fell short during his time of liminality in the Garden of Eden; yet Jesus does not fall short.

And angels wait on him refers to the patriarch Jacob, who came to a point of personal brokenness and saw a heavenly ladder upon which the angels were ascending and descending, waiting on him. God changed his name to Israel, who crossed a threshold to become the nation of promise, the nation that above all others would bring blessing to the world. Yet Israel too fell short.

Jesus crosses the threshold where all others have fallen.

And thus today’s Gospel is both a picture of Jesus’ earthly life—of his early identity as a man, his trial, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his newly understood identity as Savior and Messiah—and today’s Gospel is a picture of Christ’s eternal existence.

Before he ever humbled and himself and took on humanity, he dwelled co-equally and co-eternally in heaven as a Person of the Trinity.

After his resurrection, he returned to heaven with a new identity.

Taking on humanity and living and dwelling with us as a human being was liminality, his wood between the worlds.

Not much to go on?

Think again.

Incredibly, these two short verses in today’s passage contain the entire Gospel.

4.

And so here we are, on the first Sunday in Lent.

We find ourselves in a liminal place, crossing a kind of threshold.

Before we got here, last week in fact, our focus was on the Incarnation: God has come to dwell among us, understood especially in his advent, birth, and epiphany.

Our identity was as a host. God came to visit us where we lived; and we gave God a place to stay.

In forty days or so, beginning with and following the Great Vigil, our focus will be new life: God’s kingdom becoming the reality as our world fades, understood especially in the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost.

Our new identity will be as a guest. We will be invited into God’s realm; and we will be given a place to stay.

Now, during Lent, we are crossing the threshold between the two, facing Satan’s temptations and trials; living with wild beasts; with the angels waiting on us. We are learning to let go of our old identity and live into our new.

We are in that in-between place: no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of a new kingdom; no longer hosts to God but guests of God; our permanent residence is no longer in London but in Narnia.

Lent reminds us, we are on a journey from old identity to new; a journey of transformation.

Isn’t this the journey we all take, not just during Lent but through the course of life?

And thus, today we see: Lent is life.

Keeping It on the Move

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2018 by timtrue

VJ

Mark 1:29-39

1.

Vida Joven de Mexico is an orphanage I like to visit in Tijuana.

Okay, to be honest, I don’t really like to visit the home. I don’t necessarily enjoy visiting it in the same way I enjoy visiting a good restaurant. Nevertheless, there is something profoundly enjoyable—as in it fills me with life-giving joy—each time I go.

My most recent visit was last Saturday. My wife and son went with me. We sponsor an 8yo boy there named Daniel. One of his front teeth is still growing in; and, though the two of them don’t speak the same language, he and my son will pass a soccer ball to each other or play checkers or wage dinosaur wars.

It does my heart tremendous good when, after enduring the hassles of remembering our passports and long drives and waits, we arrive to the smiling, well-fed and cared for, and comfortably dressed children of Vida Joven.

But I said they were orphans. This is not entirely true. For the parents of all the children who live at Vida Joven are probably all still alive. The children have been abandoned, fortunately found by the state’s meager social services network.

Daniel’s story paints the picture as well as any. He’s the third of four siblings, the only boy. Social services found them all when Daniel was only three years old because his older sister, still a small child herself, had ventured outside to forage for food in an effort to keep herself and her little siblings from starving. The children, dirty and disheveled, were living in a shanty, trash strewn throughout, no sign of parents anywhere.

Of course, along with the life-giving joy I experience when I visit Daniel, his sisters, and the other children of Vida Joven, I also experience a kind of righteous indignation.

No child ought to have to experience the inhumane conditions faced for a time by Daniel! And yet it continues to happen: only a fraction of Mexico’s large street-children population ever become wards of the state.

God is love, we know. And love sees dignity in every human being. Mexico is our neighbor; and demonstrating love to our neighbor is a key part of what “God is love” means. Moreover, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is in a formal partner-relationship with the Anglican Diocese of Western Mexico; and Tijuana is geographically within this diocese.

Shouldn’t we privileged neighbors to the north be doing more about it?

By the way, if you ever want to join me on a trip, let’s talk. A vanpool typically visits on the third and fourth Saturdays of every month, leaving the parking lot of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chula Vista at 9am, returning between 2pm and 3pm.

2.

So: joy, compassion, indignation—and we come to today’s Gospel.

Jesus and the two sets of brothers with him leave the local synagogue, where Jesus has just healed a man of an unclean spirit; and now enters the house of Simon, one of the disciples.

Jesus carries the Good News from a public place to a private place. And, after all, isn’t that what the incarnate God is all about? God with us?

And Jesus doesn’t just enter Simon’s house as a normal guest would enter, to lounge in the triclinium, in the front part of the house, and enjoy a meal. No! Jesus, instead, goes into the most private part of the house, to the house’s inner recesses, where Simon’s mother-in-law is convalescing.

The Incarnation is everywhere—from the most public to the most private places of our lives.

And there Jesus takes this dear woman by the hand, lifts her up, and her fever leaves her immediately.

The Incarnation, we see, heals both spiritually and physically.

And she responds to Jesus’ healing by serving others! In fact, Simon’s mother-in-law is the first human in all the Bible to be called diakonos; in other words, she’s the church’s very first deacon.

Simon has been called disciple. But here’s a picture of true discipleship: someone who responds to Jesus’ love by loving others outwardly.

Well, word gets out. All the villagers needing spiritual and physical healing are brought to Jesus; who heals them, presumably, late into the night.

And very early in the morning, probably very tired, Jesus withdraws to a lonely place so that he can pray.

And what does Simon do? He hunts for Jesus.

This word, hunts, is a verb of purpose in the Greek. Simon hunts for Jesus with an agenda, with an intervention in mind.

Why in the world has Jesus gone off to pray, Simon wonders? Doesn’t he know there’s more work to do?

And so Simon—unlike his mother-in-law—gets it all wrong. He asks, “Don’t you understand how badly the people here need you, Jesus? What are you doing praying? It’s time to get back to your ministry and mission!”

Simon misses the point. The Good News is not to be cloistered up in a house somewhere so that people can make a pilgrimage to it and be healed. Rather, the Good News is to go out, to heal the people wherever there is brokenness, in places public, private, and anywhere in between.

The Gospel is meant to be kept on the move.

And so Jesus says, “Let us move on, for that is what I came out to do.”

And that is exactly what he and his disciples do. They go throughout Galilee, proclaiming the Good News in synagogues and casting out demons.

3.

What impresses me most about today’s Gospel?

It’s not that Jesus meets me where I am.

Sure, this is an important truth, one with which we are all familiar. The Incarnation is with us. We have our personal demons. He helps us confront them and overcome them. And he does this right where we are, in our present state of life, without having to make a pilgrimage to an English cathedral or the Holy Land. Jesus meets and loves me right where I am.

But that’s not the truth hitting me squarely between my discipleship eyes today.

Nor is it that here the Bible gives us a strong and important argument for women in ministry. Simon’s mother-in-law is the very first human called a deacon in the Bible. Angels have been called deacons before this point, but not humans. Later on other humans are called deacons—Stephen and Philip in the Acts of the Apostles, for instance—and it even becomes an office of the church!

That all starts here today, with Simon’s mother-in-law, a woman. Why then has it been a struggle in the modern church’s life to ordain women? Why is it still a struggle for two congregations within our own diocese?

Anyway, yes, the ordination of women, too, is an important point. But I don’t think it’s the main point.

Rather, what impresses me today is that Jesus determines to move on, to keep the Gospel on the move, to bring the Good News out to those who need it. He doesn’t want us to keep it to ourselves.

Now, don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying that our buildings are unimportant.

A key part of Israel’s history was to establish a building for the king—a palace—and even more importantly, a building for God—the Temple.

Indeed, today’s passage touches on buildings and their importance. A large part of Jesus’ ministry occurs inside buildings—in synagogues; in houses; in the Temple courtyard.

The buildings we build are necessary and good. They give us a place to gather as a community and engage in the important rituals that unify us as a body of Christ. Things like architecture, furniture, and placement of windows matter. Facilities serve a valuable purpose.

Even the word!—it comes from the Latin facilis, which transliterates almost directly into English as facile, meaning easy: our facilities make Christ’s mission to heal the world easier than it would be otherwise.

But, human nature being what it is, we can tend to want our buildings to exceed their purpose—just as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had exceeded the Temple’s purpose by locking God inside and making it well-nigh impossible for the common person to approach the divine.

Whenever we convey the message that Jesus is to be found only in here; whenever we stop bringing the Good News out to the broken world around us, we end up doing the same thing Jesus so vehemently opposed throughout his earthly ministry.

Despite whatever our facilities might tempt us to think, the church’s purpose is not a social club, not a place for refuge, not a museum to house historical and cultural artifacts, and not a community chapel.

The local church, according to Jesus, our founder, is a force for transformation if it is anything at all, going outward, outward, ever outward, healing the world around us from its brokenness.

4.

In light, then, of this discussion, how can we—St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church—keep the Gospel on the move?

That’s an admittedly broad question. So, let me be more specific.

How can we, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, bring the Good News to the abandoned children of Mexico?

These children are our neighbors. These children live within the geographical boundaries of our partner diocese. And these children are growing up impoverished and illiterate—broken and in need of Christ’s healing. How can we go out to them with Christ’s Good News?

It’s not a rhetorical question.

I wrestle with it all the time.

  • I am a member of the diocesan multicultural taskforce.
  • I am continuously alerting others to the plight of Mexico’s street children.
  • And I am seriously considering joining Vida Joven’s Board of Directors.

But I am also a priest of Christ’s church, called to be the spiritual leader of this local body. So today I’m asking you to wrestle with this question too: How can we bring Christ’s Good News to children like Daniel and his sisters?