Archive for April, 2018

Grumpy Raisins

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by timtrue

John 15:1-8

In today’s Gospel, like last week, we encounter one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he said last week; and today, “I am the true vine.”

So, last week I offered an exploration into the image itself. If Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are disciples of Jesus, then it follows logically that we are sheep.

And thus we imagined together what it means to follow a good shepherd and not a hired hand; what it feels like for Jesus to know each of us by name; and, particularly, what the other sheep might look like about whom Jesus says we know nothing.

Admittedly, my homily was playful and enlightening, in part because it’s easy to personify sheep. They’re living, active creatures with a kind of collective personality.

Today, however, not so much. I mean, how do you personify branches; or grapes; or raisins?

So, instead of putting ourselves into the skins of grapes this week, I want to look at the bigger picture, the historical and cultural contexts in which Jesus speaks.

To begin, do you remember the story from the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel about a man born blind?

Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples. They see a man blind from birth; and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus says, no, you’ve got it all wrong. And to show them, he stoops down, spits on the ground, makes a little mud, spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. Once he does, he comes back seeing. Incredible!

That’s the part of the story we usually remember anyway. But there’s a lot more to it.

Next, some of the man’s neighbors see him walking around with his sight restored. So, naturally enough, they ask him, “What happened? How is it that you now see?”

He explains that this man named Jesus put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before a group of Pharisees.

Now—a brief aside; I want to offer a word of caution—when we hear the word Pharisees, we should not automatically think “bad guys.” Pharisees were (and are to this day) something like an order in the Jewish religion—Benedictine, Franciscan, etc. Pharisees are generally devout people and highly respected in their community.

So, when the Bible mentions Pharisees, this is the image that should come to mind first and foremost: influential community leaders; and not (automatically) the opposition.

Returning to the story then, the healed man is led before a group of Pharisees—i. e., influential community leaders—and he tells them his story. And, curiously, the group is divided.

It happened on the Sabbath. So some of them say, “This man Jesus cannot be of God, for he healed on the Sabbath.” Yet others say, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

Some of the Pharisees—presumably those who feel that Jesus cannot be of God—only some of them—then confront the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they ask. Yes. “Was he born blind?” they ask. Yes. “Do you know that he now sees?” they ask. Really? Incredible!

“Well, yes,” they admit, reluctantly, “I guess it is actually kind of incredible. But that’s beside the point! How is it that he can now see?”

And the parents answer, “We don’t know. But he is of age. Why don’t you ask him?”

And what comes next really is incredible. But it comes fast and furious and is gone before we know it; and thus is a detail we all too often miss or forget about: the reason why the parents answered as they did.

“His parents said this,” the Gospel narrates, “because they were afraid of the Pharisees; for the Pharisees had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

The healed man’s parents were afraid! They did not want to be put out of the synagogue. They feared excommunication.

Another way to say this: they were afraid of being cut off from the vine of Israel—a point to which I will return shortly.

But, first, to finish the story, the Pharisees—or, to clarify, that part of the group of Pharisees who did not like Jesus—again call forward the healed man, now charging him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth! “We know this man Jesus is a sinner!” they exclaim.

“Whether he’s a sinner or not,” the healed man replies, “I don’t know. But one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see.”

And at last the story concludes with these chilling words: “And they drove him out.”

Those influential community leaders drive the healed man out of the synagogue because he trusts in Jesus. He is effectively excommunicated, cut off, in their minds, from the vine Israel.

Yeah—so to return to that point—the vine Israel!

Jesus is not the first person to use this vine-and-branches metaphor. Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.

Psalm 80 says: “O LORD God of hosts . . . you brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”

Isaiah 5 sings of God’s relationship with Israel, beginning with these words: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard.”

And Ezekiel 19 says: “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard . . . fruitful and full of branches from abundant water.”

No doubt this metaphor was quite familiar to John’s audience.

And John’s audience—those to whom John had initially written his Gospel—like the man born blind, had been cut off from the vine Israel. And the reason they had been cut off was because, like the healed man, they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah.

Even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself; or, to tell it from John’s point of view, Israel cut itself off from Jesus.

Do you see what John is doing here? Jesus is the true vine, John proclaims to his audience; Jesus is their true source of life.

Contrary to what those grumpy community leaders intended—to cut off Jesus’ followers from their source of life—they had instead cut themselves off from Christ, the true source of life. Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; it is those who have rejected Jesus who are cut off from the true vine, left to languish, wither, dry up, and become raisins.

And they did it to themselves! God didn’t cut them off; God can’t be blamed here. They pruned themselves. They cut themselves off from Jesus, the true source of life.

Today Jesus tells us that the vinegrower should be the one who removes fruitless and withered branches; the vinegrower should be the one to prune.

But remove and prune—these words suggest pain. And we don’t like the idea of someone else inflicting pain on us, even if that someone else is God. So, instead, like those grumpy Pharisees, we try to prune ourselves.

The trouble is we’re not very good at it.

Maybe this is where personifying the metaphor could be helpful. For how adept could a branch ever become at pruning itself? Branches, certainly, have very limited manual dexterity. And the older a branch grows, we all know, the more hardened and gnarled it becomes. Really, how could a branch, young or old, ever prune itself?

And yet we still try.

Just like those grumpy Pharisees!

And we know what happened to them: they cut themselves off from Jesus, their source of life, leaving themselves to become raisins.

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Let God be the vinegrower. Your job is to bear rich, plump, abundant fruit; not raisins.

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There Will Be One Flock?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 22, 2018 by timtrue

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John 10:11-18

Many, many images of God come to us from the Bible: God as King; God as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God as friend, brother, lover; God as wind, dove, fire; and so on. Today we see Jesus, the second person of the triune God, as Good Shepherd. What can we understand about God and us through this image?

Now I don’t know about you, but shepherds—good or otherwise—are not people I come in contact with on a daily basis. As I drive around southern California, I don’t see too many sheep—maybe some cattle, from time to time; but never sheep!

Sheep aren’t the same as cattle.

Ever heard anyone say that sheep are dumb animals, good for little more than shearing and slaughtering—maybe another preacher in another sermon?

Well, how does that make you feel? I mean, if Jesus is supposed to be our Good Shepherd, then that makes us sheep. And when someone stands before me and proclaims that sheep are stupid and witless beasts, well, I’m not feeling like I want to be a part of that flock. Are you?

Three of the sources I referred to this week as I prepared for this sermon—not just one, but three!—say otherwise. Sheep are not dumb.

In fact, all three sources say, that rumor was started by cowboys. Yeah, you know, those guys who ride their horses and swing their ropes and whoop and holler behind the cattle to drive them where they want them to go!

Well, what happens when you try to get behind sheep and push them? Why, they don’t move forward at all but instead try to run around to get behind the driver.

That’s right! Sheep don’t want to be pushed. Instead, sheep want to be led.

And cowboys call them dumb and witless—because sheep don’t behave like cows.

And that make me feel a little better. That makes me feel more like here is something I want to be a part of: a community that is not pushed and prodded to get us to go where the shepherd wants us to go—a good shepherd doesn’t manipulate.

But we are instead led by the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus; who shows us by example that we are to put others first, that we are maybe even, in the extreme, to lay down our lives for others.

And that piece in there about sheep knowing their shepherd—it’s not just some comfortable platitude.

I read stories this week about how at night, while the flock is tucked in its cozy sheepfold, safe and warm, their beloved and trusted shepherd will walk in and among them without a single sheep stirring.

But if you or I or anyone else other than their shepherd tries to walk among them—even the stealthiest of spies; or some cowboy!—the sheep wake up and begin to bleat nervously.

Sheep aren’t dumb; they know the difference between their shepherd and a cowboy.

And in Palestine, to this day, shepherds will lead their flocks to the same waterhole at the same time, allowing their flocks to drink together, not caring that their sheep get all mixed up with one another;

for all the shepherd has to do is whistle or call; and his or her sheep come out of the convoluted mass flocking together to their own shepherd, organized. Not one sheep is missing; not one extra has joined.

One flock; one shepherd.

They know their shepherd’s voice—his smell, his footfalls, his manner. His rod and staff—even his lumbering gait—comfort them.

So sheep aren’t dumb—which makes me feel better. They just don’t want to be pushed around; and, unlike cows, they know their shepherd.

Nevertheless, sheep are temperamental, needy, smelly, and now and then they butt heads apparently for no reason at all—which is to say they need shepherding.

At this point, the shepherd has some options.

The flock has been together for many years; generations, in fact—baby, parent, and grandparent sheep all living together in community, trying to get along comfortably enough.

But you know how it is. The heat of summer comes around again and the waterhole dries up and the pastures turn brown and dust coats your throat. Some of the sheep, the alphas, are grumpy and begin to argue with one another, to butt heads.

So what does the shepherd do?

One option is to drive the biggest alpha out into the wilderness.

Notice, I said drive. For if the shepherd tries to lead the alpha out, the rest of the flock will follow. To preserve the flock, then, the individual, rogue alpha must be driven out.

What happens to this lone sheep out in the wilderness doesn’t really matter, the shepherd reasons; for the flock will be better off with this alpha’s absence.

Let’s call this method of shepherding the “Independent Cowboy.”

A second option, however, is to divide the flock up.

One alpha is unhappy with another, obviously. The one alpha believes that he was predestined to be a part of this flock and has convinced many other sheep of his opinion; whereas the other alpha believes it is her choice, her free will, to be a part of this flock, and has likewise convinced several others of her opinion.

The shepherd understands this head-butting and decides that the best way to keep the peace is to divide the flock up, according to doctrinal differences.

This method is what I like to call the “Judging Protestant” shepherd.

Of course, yet another shepherd believes in tough love.

He has a rod and staff. These comfort his sheep, he believes, by giving them what they deserve, by keeping them in a state of submission so that they don’t run off to the wolves. He knows what his sheep need much more than they do, after all. Discipline!

I call this the “Medieval Catholic” shepherd.

But Jesus is different than all these other shepherds. Jesus is a good shepherd. And he has lots and lots of sheep, many, in fact, about which we know nothing:

  • Independent, non-denominational sheep;
  • Opinionated, fundamentalist, Protestant sheep;
  • Conservative evangelical sheep;
  • Liberal mainline sheep;
  • Republican sheep;
  • Democrat sheep;
  • Unaffiliated sheep;
  • Dogmatic, Sarum-rite Catholic sheep;
  • Unchurched sheep;
  • Muslim sheep;
  • Atheist sheep.

Talk about head-butting! Yet all these sheep, he says, are part of the same flock.

Jesus is their Good Shepherd just as much as he is ours—whether they know it or not; whether we know it or not.

There will be one flock, one shepherd.

Do you believe this?

Many of you know that I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies in my youth to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after about twenty years!—becoming an Episcopalian.

Lots of dominoes had to fall to get me here, for I believed for a long time that there was only one flock; but that it was small and rather exclusive.

One day, at long last, there I was, with my family, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its theological confidence.

Truth had been debated long and hard through the ages, but we chosen ones had a handle on it better than anyone else. We were enlightened; we understood. Too bad, so sad for you!

But, like Episcopalians, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess its faith weekly in the words of the Nicene Creed.

And so, coming to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” something in my mind clicked. I looked around; and I saw twenty-five or so other people saying the same thing; and I almost laughed out loud.

“No we don’t!” I said to myself. “We don’t believe in a universal church. We’re a tiny sect that has splintered off another tiny sect. We believe in only our church! ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church,’ my foot!”

You see, what clicked that day was this: Christ calls us to be unified, not divided; to community, not isolation.

But unity in the wider Church around the world?

“There will be one flock,” Jesus says, “one shepherd.”

But how?

Like so many other answers to difficult, spiritual questions, it begins here, with us; with what we are already doing: living in community with one another.

When we butt heads, we don’t drive the alphas out from our midst; but work through our differences, knowing that we will be a stronger body for it.

We study and pray together, working through the paradoxes of the Bible with reason; but at the end of the day we set aside our doctrinal disagreements and commune at the same table.

And we don’t coerce by threat of judgment or manipulate each other through fear and guilt; but rather practice the greatest commandment, love, in inviting, welcoming, and including all.

And we do this because:

The Lord is our shepherd—the good shepherd—and thus, we shall not be in want.

He guides his one flock along right pathways and leads us to still, sweet waters and green pastures; where together we eat and drink deeply of his body and blood.

And when one of his flock walks alone, through the valley of the shadow of death, we soon realize that we are not really alone; for he is there with us in and through his community.

In the daily struggles of life, he spreads his table before us.

And, surely, his goodness and mercy, we know, shall follow us, his one flock, all the days of our life; and we shall dwell in his sheepfold forever.

Reflecting on CREDO 335

Posted in Musings with tags , , on April 19, 2018 by timtrue

Experienced my first CREDO conference last week. Hoping to experience a couple more of these in the years ahead.

CREDO is a conference-slash-retreat for Episcopal clergy with a focus on wellness. This was much needed for me now about five years into ordained ministry. As you can see, my focus on wellness included riding my motorcycle there.

Where was “there”? Chapel Rock Conference Center in Prescott, Arizona. Beautiful doesn’t do it justice.

So, met some wonderful colleagues, reflected long and hard on vocation, contemplated core values, delved into issues surrounding financial, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical health–and am a better person for it.

Ready for the next five years!