Archive for March, 2019

Stop Sulking Already!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on March 31, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

1.

With whom are we supposed to identify in this very familiar parable?

Are we supposed to be the prodigal?

How many of you have ever gone against your father’s wishes?

Well, maybe not to the extent that this young man went; maybe you’ve never journeyed so far from home.

There, in that distant country, after living riotously until he had nothing left, and after a famine swept over the land so that most everyone was in need, what’d he do but hire himself out to feed pigs?

Pigs! Swine! Unclean beasts! Not kosher!

Effectively, the prodigal son became no longer a son of Israel or even of his own father.

Maybe you’ve never journeyed this far from home.

Literally, anyway.

But what about figuratively? Have you ever journeyed so far from your heavenly Father that you effectively cut yourself off from him?

So, is this the character with whom we are supposed to identify most closely in today’s parable, the prodigal son?

2.

Or, maybe, are we supposed to identify with the merciful, benevolent, gracious father?

Yeah, this guy, the prodigal’s father, breaks with all convention.

He’s a Palestinian Jewish man. Convention says ancestral land is something you must hold on to with all tenacity, like a bulldog with a lamb shank bone.

When your son whines and wheedles his share of the ancestral lands out of you and then goes off and sells it in order to live selfishly, against all you’ve ever taught him—well, that’s got to be the end of it! Convention, not to mention common sense, demands that you disown such a profligate, rebellious, riotous son!

Besides, have you heard what the neighbors are saying?

But what does this father do instead? He watches for his son, keeps vigil, like Aegeus straining day after day to see Theseus’s white sails crossing the sea.

And when finally he does see his prodigal son still far off—who cares what the neighbors are saying!—he runs to greet him, embraces him, and weeps for joy over him.

Faugh on convention! His son was dead but is alive again; he was lost but now is found.

So, are we supposed to be like the father—merciful, benevolent, and gracious beyond all convention?

3.

But there’s a third character, an often overlooked, or maybe ignored character, in this parable: the older brother.

He’s the one, remember, that has obeyed all the rules. He’s the one who did not ask for his share of the inheritance, but instead kept to convention. He’s the one who remained faithful and loyal to his father throughout his younger brother’s selfish time of foolishness.

And yet what thanks does he get?

Has his dad ever thrown him a feast for all his years of fidelity? Has he ever gotten so much as a barbequed chicken dinner for him and a few friends?

Yet when his profligate partier of a younger brother returns home without a penny to his name—all the inheritance, for crying out loud!—he receives no punishment at all but a full prime-rib feast! What the heck!

So, I wonder, are we supposed to identify most closely with him, the older brother?

4.

Prodigal, Father, Older Brother: with which character are we supposed to identify?

We find our answer at the beginning of today’s Gospel. We might not like it, but the answer is there nonetheless; at the beginning of the passage, in the first few sentences, which frame the context.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable.

Two distinct categories of people are gathered around Jesus, his supporters and his opposers.

Who are the supporters? Tax collectors and sinners.

Well, here are the people, surely, who represent the prodigal son.

And I’m a sinner too. I have no problem wearing that label. And so I identify with the prodigal son. How about you?

But, really, am I a social outcast?

Tax collectors, in Jesus’ day, were nothing short of extortionists. Normal John-and-Jane taxpayers hated them. Tax collectors, plain and simple, were social outcasts.

For that matter, so were the demon-possessed, the lepers, the blind, the prostitutes, and the other sinners Jesus welcomed and ate with.

So, to be honest, this really isn’t me. Is it you?

For most of us, the answer is no. We’re not social outcasts in the sense that sinners is meant here. And so, as much as we might like to think so, we’re actually not all that much like the prodigal son.

And, in case you’re wondering, as for the father—the kind, watchful, benevolent, merciful, gracious father who breaks with all convention? That’s a picture of Jesus, not us.

That leaves only the opposers. By default, for most of us anyway, we are the older brother.

5.

But we don’t want to identify with the older brother! We don’t want to identify with the opposers, the grumblers, the scribes and Pharisees.

Well, like it or not, that’s us. After all, the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus addressed were members of the established “church” in their day.

Which leaves us at a crossroads. This is where the parable goes; this why we need to identify with the older brother.

For one thing, the church is called to be inclusive.

This theme comes up over and over in the Gospels; and we see it again today, loud and clear. Jesus is dining with tax collectors and sinners; the prodigal son is welcomed home with open arms.

Jesus loves the hated and the marginalized. We, his church, are called to love them too, to invite, welcome, and connect them into this living organism we call St. Thomas.

For another thing, the church is called to be adaptable.

Where do I see this? In the older brother’s reaction to the father throwing off convention. The older brother gives us an example of what not to do.

Jesus is doing a new thing in his church. Mainline Christianity is experiencing changes unlike anything it has ever faced in our nation’s history. We can no longer have an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. For, the fact of the matter is, people just don’t view church the way they did a generation ago: to be affiliated with a church is no longer a social obligation.

This has its pros and cons, sure. But the point for the moment is that in the last four decades both attendance and donations are in decline, yielding unprecedented change. All convention has been cast aside.

Will we be able to adapt? Or will we brood and sulk like Jesus’ opposers?

So, here’s the thing: Back to the parable, what the older brother decides to do in the end is left open. Will he celebrate with his father and younger brother, because his little brother was dead but is alive again; lost but now found? Or will he continue to brood and sulk, outside and alone?

We don’t know: the answer isn’t given; Jesus doesn’t tell us. We’re left at a crossroads.

We do know from history, however, that Jesus’ opposers chose the latter: to brood and sulk over the changes Jesus brought. And their brooding and sulking led to hatred, bigotry, and death.

But our history has not yet been completely written.

We are part of a church—mainline Christianity—that has tried to serve our heavenly Father faithfully and obediently, not nearly perfect yet repentant—a lot like the older son. So how will we respond to convention being thrown off—to Jesus doing things in an unexpected way?

Will we brood and sulk over it, guarding and protecting the institution we have created? Or will we rejoice with Jesus, going out into the highways and byways and inviting, welcoming, and connecting the hated and marginalized into our heavenly Father’s home?

Those who opposed Jesus in his day no longer have a choice.

We still do!

Fertilizing Repentance

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 13:1-9

1.

Why do bad things happen to innocent people?

Why were fifty Muslim worshipers killed on March 15 in a senseless act of violence and hatred?

Now, I’m not curious about the gunman’s motives; I’m not trying to understand why he did it. That’s not what I mean by “why.” Rather, it’s bigger. I’m asking why there’s evil in our world at all.

God is good, right? And we like to say, too, that God is all-powerful, omnipotent.

So then, why doesn’t God just put a stop to it? Eradicate every last trace of evil in our world?

God is good; but evil continues.

So, I wonder if this was the question those people have in mind when they approach Jesus at the beginning of today’s Gospel.

Some Galilean pilgrims were in Jerusalem, they say, offering sacrifices at the altar of the Temple itself, when Pontius Pilate cut them down in cold blood.

Why, Jesus? These were good, pious, innocent people. Why is there such evil in the world?

But Jesus doesn’t answer this question. Instead, he answers another question that was probably on their minds too.

“Do you think,” he asks, “that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And the answer is: “No.”

And thus we learn, at least, that evil is not a manifestation of God’s judgment—a message that, sadly, still makes its way around some Christian circles.

And in case it doesn’t stick, Jesus makes this point again, referring to a tragedy, a tower that fell and crushed eighteen unsuspecting passersby. Were they “worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus asks. And again, the answer is no.

Jesus makes one thing clear: Evil is not a display of God’s judgment.

2.

Jesus also makes a statement about repentance. And he also makes this statement twice, which emphasizes it: there’s another important truth here. But this one isn’t so clear.

“Unless you repent,” he says, “you will all perish just as they did.”

What does Jesus mean?

He can’t mean death. For they died; and we will all die too, whether we repent or not.

But if we repent, Jesus says, we will not die in the same way they died.

Well, does that mean that, if we repent, then we will be immune to evil or disaster?

Surely not! Surely there were repentant people on board Flight 11 on that fateful day in September, 2001!

Repentance is not some magic protection against evil—a forcefield or whatever.

Nor is it some simplistic message about moral uprightness or belief, as if to say that all those people mentioned—the Galileans cut down by Pilate and the Jerusalemites crushed by the tower—all went to hell because they never had a chance to believe in Jesus; and you too will go to hell unless you repent.

No, that can’t be it! Indeed, the Galileans were cut down as they engaged in a pious act of belief!

There is something about repentance Jesus is getting at here. He brings it up twice! But just what is it? Thus far, it’s not clear.

3.

Maybe there’s a clue in the parable that makes up the second half of today’s Gospel. Let’s turn our attention to that; maybe there we will learn what Jesus means today by repentance.

So, a man had a fig tree that bore no fruit for three years. He told his gardener to cut it down. For, “Why should it be wasting the soil?” he asked.

And right away I’m remembering John the Baptist’s words about repentance back in chapter 3: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And, aha, here is one clue. The repentance about which Jesus speaks is likened to a fruit-bearing tree.

The barren fig tree in today’s parable thus represents persons living yet in an unrepentant state, like those Galileans who were cut down at the altar; or like those eighteen unsuspecting Jerusalemites upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell.

But then the gardener speaks up. “Sir,” he says, “let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Is this another clue?

The tree has been sitting in the same soil for the past three years; and it has borne no fruit. The gardener asks for one more year, one more chance to bear fruit, one more year to repent.

So just what, exactly, will be different about the year ahead?

As far as I can see, just this: the gardener will dig around the tree’s roots and mix manure into the soil.

Manure! That’s what will be different in the year ahead.

Now, what do we associate with manure? Fertilizer, yes. But otherwise isn’t it just waste? Sewage? Excrement? And a whole slough of other words I won’t say from the pulpit?

Our understanding of manure today isn’t very different than it was two thousand years ago!

In other words, I am fairly certain the manure in this parable represents the evil that is everywhere around us.

Yes, we have another clue!

Put it all together: manure is connected to fruitfulness; or, alternatively, evil in the world is connected to our repentance.

Why is there evil in the world? We don’t know. But there is.

What Jesus tells us today is that we’ve got to look at evil differently, not as a power over which we have no control, not as useless waste; but as a power that can be redeemed just as manure finds redemption as fertilizer.

4.

What does Jesus mean in today’s Gospel by repentance?

We can keep looking at the world the way we always have. Evil is here. We throw our hands up and do nothing about it, just live with that knowledge and try to avoid it—and bear no fruit.

And we will perish just the same as everyone else.

Or, as followers of Christ, we can see the evil in our world as he saw it: redeemable. Then we confront it, bury ourselves up to our knees in it, and even transform it by means of love.

Evil can be redeemed, at least to some extent, through love.

So, fine and well. It’s a nice idea. But what does this look like in real life? What does this look like, say, in our relationships with one another?

Well, what results when evil is at work in our relationships? Isn’t it various forms of domination?

One person becomes superior to another. One class becomes better than another. Entitlements and privilege abound for one group, but not for other groups.

Domination!

When evil is at work in our relationships, whether individual or corporate, we rank ourselves and others; we establish hierarchies; things like slavery, classism, and racism are the soil in which we dwell; our mentality becomes partisan, us vs. them; and rigidity characterizes our world.

So, do we simply throw up our hands and live with it?

Or, what if we repent—change our worldview and seek to redeem the manure in the world?

Then, instead of ranking, we link, one person to another, one organization with another, for the common good.

Then, instead of hierarchies—instead of leading from the top—we lead with others, hand in hand.

Then, social injustices like slavery, classism, and racism are topics on the table for all to discuss, no matter how uncomfortable these discussions may be; reparations are made and we move forward together.

Then, we move beyond our competitive partisanships towards a mentality of us and us.

Then, we become flexible, navigating our way into the future together in ways that humanity has rarely if ever seen.

Then, the result is not domination but equality!

And then, reports of mass shootings and other senseless acts of violence and hatred will dissipate, and maybe even disappear altogether.

And maybe, just maybe, when wide-scale repentance is established and maintained, evil will be redeemed, transformed into good through love.

Willing Brood

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 13:31-35

1.

Today, Jesus calls Herod a fox. I wonder what picture Jesus had in mind.

Aesop tells of a fox wandering through a vineyard on a hot day. This fox looked up and, lo, just there, he spied a voluptuous bunch of delicious-looking, juicy, perfectly ripe grapes.

So he took a running leap, but they were just out of reach. He tried again—and failed again. And again. And again! Until, finally, he gave up the idea altogether, saying, “Ah, well, they’re sure to be sour anyway.”

Another time, Mr. Fox was just sauntering along when he saw a crow swoop down and grab something out of a kitchen window. Acting nonchalant, as foxes do, but nonetheless deeply curious, he sidled up close to the crow’s perch and discovered that what Miss Crow had grabbed was a beautiful and good-smelling chunk of cheese.

So he shouted up to the crow, “Ahoy there, beautiful Miss Crow, is it true what I hear: that you have the most melodious voice of all the birds in the aviary kingdom? Why, just yesterday my neighbor Pig went on and on about the glories of your euphonious and lyrical abilities. Can’t I hear just one little smidgen? Maybe a few bars of Adele?”

And with such fine and flattering words the crow became more and more puffed up, stood taller and taller, until finally she opened her mouth to answer Fox’s request.

But she didn’t even finish singing out one word before Mr. Fox interrupted her saying, with a mouth full of delicious cheese, “I’ve heard quite enough, thank you”; and was on his way.

And yet another time Mr. Fox accidentally fell into a well.

But Mr. Fox is wily. He’s clever. He’s cunning.

So, along comes Old Man Billy Goat. Mr. Fox puts on his game face and calls up out of the well, “Billy, Billy, is that you I hear?”

And a moment later, yes, Old Billy peers into the well and says, “Why, Fox, whatever are you doing in that well?”

“Oh,” Fox replies, “this well is known far and wide as having the best, wettest, and most thirst-quenching water in all of the known world. Don’t you know? In fact, why don’t you come down and join me for a drink?”

“I should like that very much, thank you,” Goat answers. And lickety-split he jumps in to join Fox.

A few minutes later Fox looks at Old Billy and says, with his most nonplussed expression, “Um, I just thought of something. How are we supposed to get out of here?”

And just as Goat processes their dilemma but not a moment longer, Fox suggests, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you stand with your front legs against the wall and I’ll climb up your back. Then, once, I’ve reached the top, I’ll reach in and pull you out by the horns.”

“Um, yeah,” Billy agrees.

And just like that, Fox is out and free. But before he leaves he looks back in the well at Old Billy and says, “Come to think of it, I’m not really strong enough to pull you up and out. Guess you should have looked before you leapt!”

So, I wonder: is this the picture Jesus has in mind today when he calls Herod a fox? Wily? Cunning? Shrewd? And also untrustworthy? Duplicitous? To use a modern buzzword, Narcissistic?

2.

But then Jesus likens himself to a mother hen.

Which leads me to enlarge my image; for what happens when a fox breaks into a henhouse?

Isn’t it mayhem? A sudden explosion of fowl fear! Of avian anxiety! Of poultry panic!

But, now, enlarging still, what if a mother hen is hovering over her brood when that fox breaks into the henhouse?

There’s still mayhem all right! A cackling cacophony! But the difference here is that the mother hen is making none of it.

She’s not in it for the moment. Unlike the fox, she’s not concerned only for herself, shrewdly strategizing what she can get out of the deal for herself. Rather, her concern is for her children.

If the fox wanted to, he could simply step in and make a kill without resistance. She’s resolute. She’s calm, quiet, unflinching in the face of fear, for the sake of her children . . . kind of like Jesus during his trial, sentencing, and execution: Resolute; Calm; Quiet; Unflinching; For our sakes.

But here’s the part I find most incredible. When a fox breaks into a henhouse, it’s most often not the quiet, resolute mother hen that the fox kills. The fox instinctively pursues movement and noise.

Was Herod really after Jesus? Surely there were other, noisier hens in the henhouse!

You know, I don’t think this image is about Jesus’ trial, sentencing, and execution. After all, Herod, that fox, was not the one who tried Jesus. That was Pilate.

3.

So just what do we make of today’s Gospel?

Some Pharisees come to Jesus, saying, “You better get away from here. Herod wants to kill you.”

Really? Throughout the Gospels, Pharisees are mentioned as Jesus’ opponents. Does Herod really want to kill Jesus? And if so, would Jesus’ opponents really suddenly care for him enough to warn him of this? Or, maybe, are they just making it up, colluding, to scare Jesus away?

On the other hand, Jesus is in fact a political threat to Herod.

This isn’t Herod the Great we’re talking about, the one the Wise Men from the East visited on their way to the Christ child. No, this is Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, called the Tetrarch because he was granted Roman authority to rule over just one-fourth of his father’s domain—a puppet of Rome.

He was a ruler of sorts, but weak, something like a County Supervisor of a county bordering Washington, D. C.—and what is a County Supervisor compared to someone with federal jurisdiction?

And now people are talking a lot about this man Jesus. In fact, Jesus has gained quite a following throughout Galilee, Herod’s domain.

Roman appointment is one thing; popular acclamation is quite another!

So, yes, the political threat is real. Maybe Herod, that fox, was after Jesus’ life.

Or maybe at least he wants to push Jesus out of his domain and into Jerusalem, the federal domain, Pilate’s jurisdiction. Yeah, let Pilate deal with him!

Whatever the case, this is a politically charged passage!

And it’s kind of playful—something I tried to communicate above through fables and henhouses.

And best of all, Jesus calls a leading politician a name: Fox! So this gives us the green light to call politicians we don’t like names, right?

4.

But so far we still haven’t arrived at the main point.

What is today’s Gospel all about? Jesus’ crucifixion? His ministry? God’s care for us, his disciples? Our political liberties? What’s the main point?

Well, let’s step back and look at all the pieces.

It’s a politically charged passage. Herod is a fox. Jesus is a mother hen. Opponents threaten Jesus. And Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem—outside of Herod’s jurisdiction—where he knows already that he will be killed.

And in this context Jesus launches into a lament about Jerusalem. He, the mother hen, longs to gather his chicks under his protection and care; but he cannot because they are unwilling!

Just who, then, are these unwilling chicks?

This is the key that opens the main-point door!

Jesus does not say they are the children of Israel. Jesus does not say the Gentiles. Jesus does not say the Romans. Jesus does not say the Samaritans.

Neither does Jesus say the patrons, clients, tax gatherers, prostitutes, cynics, stoics, wealthy, poor, sick, or healthy.

He says, simply, the children of Jerusalem.

This includes the children of Israel, the Gentiles, the Romans, and the Samaritans; the rich, poor, sick, and healthy; the Pharisees, Herodians, Pontius Pilate, and everyone in between. This includes his friends, yes; but much more importantly, his political enemies! This includes everyone who lived in this politically charged, federal city in 30 CE.

“O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together . . . and you were unwilling!”

What’s the main point of today’s Gospel? Today we call it inclusivity.

The way of the world is domination, like a fox breaking into a henhouse.

The way of Jesus, by contrast, is love for the whole brood of humanity. Every one of us, no matter who we are!

Jesus’ love—which is self-sacrificing and other-serving;

Jesus’ love—which was enacted ultimately on the cross in Jerusalem;

Jesus’ loves—which extends to all races, creeds, genders, sexualities, political party affiliations, factions;

Jesus’ love—which beckons us continually, though we remain unwilling;

This is the love we are called to live; the love we are called to receive!

Run to it. Flock to it. Gather under it.

Be willing.

The Way of Subtlety and Comfort

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 4:1-13

1.

Jesus has just been baptized.

That was quite an amazing event, wasn’t it?

For one thing, the Holy Spirit showed up. Up until this point in the story, we didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Holy Spirit.

And then, to boggle our minds even more, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus bodily, like a dove.

For another thing, a voice from above spoke. “You are my Son,” it declared, “the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

This voice called Jesus “Son.” By simple inference, the voice belonged to a parent, a heavenly parent, God.

So, okay, let me get this straight. The Son was there; the Holy Spirit too; and also, by inference, the Father?

Why, that’s classic Trinity!

And thus from his baptism we’ve just learned something amazing and mind-boggling about Jesus’ identity!

And that’s just the first phrase of today’s Gospel!

What comes next is even more mind-boggling.

Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit; and Jesus is led by that Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted for forty days by the devil.

If we clean up the sentence a little, it really says: The Holy Spirit leads God the Son to the devil.

Wait a minute!

Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the devil? It almost sounds like they’re working together.

But I thought the devil was God’s enemy! Just what kind of collusion is going on here?

2.

Let’s talk about the devil today, shall we?

Just who or what is the devil? Can we make any sense of him at all?[i]

Is the devil a spirit?

If so, then I guess we don’t need to take him very seriously. After all, science has taught us that our world is material. We don’t talk about or even believe in spirits anymore—ghost stories of a bygone era.

Well, then, is the devil a personification of evil? Because evil, after all, is real.

Ah, but there again we see a breakdown. For evil is a misguided understanding of our world. Rather, things fall apart; systems collapse; people suffer maladies of the mind. It is our task to repair the brokenness. Science is pointing the way. With enough tinkering, we can fix anything.

So, then, is the devil just some kind of abstract idea?

Maybe. But, if so, it’s a silly idea. Our reason and experience are enough to show us that!

Do you see the difficulty? The devil has been so misunderstood and otherwise battered back and forth from age to age, from culture to culture, that we simply don’t believe in the devil at all anymore—or if we do it’s some lame caricature, a personal being sent to tempt me into something scandalous—sexual misconduct or embezzlement.

“The devil made me do it,” we say.

But I don’t read anything anywhere about the devil being involved in any way when the Prodigal Son ran off and blew his inheritance on a wild life. If the devil didn’t make him do it, why should it be any different for me?

3.

I wonder: Maybe our world doesn’t believe in evil anymore precisely because we have cheapened the devil to a comic-book villain.

But what if we do take the devil seriously? What if, instead of seeing the devil as a red-skinned man with an athletic physique, a rather fashionable handlebar mustache, and a scary laugh—what if we consider him more as the Evil One, or maybe as the archetype of evil? Would we then also take evil more seriously too?

Whatever else you think of the devil—of Satan—whatever material and spiritual notions form your worldview—I’m asking you to set these aside for a while.

Okay?

Now, think about organizations you know, collective bodies with which you are familiar: churches, schools, companies, corporations, cities, nations.

Doesn’t each of these entities possess a kind of corporate personality?

We talk about school spirit. Don’t we mean by this a kind of overall feel of the place, some intangible sense that makes the school different and unique from another, similar school?

So, we can also speak in the same way about larger entities. For instance: Google has a corporate personality; and Google’s corporate personality is very different than Yahoo’s.

So then, what about for nations? Doesn’t the United States have a corporate personality—the spirit of our nation? And it’s much different than the spirit of, say, Mexico or Canada.

Corporate personalities are a thing. But how do you qualify them? They’re bigger than any one person or policy. They transcend changes from one administration to the next. The cast changes but the story stays the same.

Have you ever noticed? Over in the book of Revelation, John addresses letters like this: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus”; “To the angel of the church in Laodicea”; “To the angel of the church in Smyrna.”

I think this is what John is getting at: corporate personalities. He personifies these corporate personalities by calling them angels.

So, what if we wanted to write a letter to the corporate personality of our fallen world? To whom would we address our letter? An angel, perhaps? A fallen angel?

1 John 5:19 says it this way: “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.”

Our fallen world has a corporate personality. And this corporate personality has a name: Satan, a. k. a. the devil.

And the Spirit led Jesus to this devil in the wilderness, where he was tempted for forty days.

4.

So then, what about these temptations?

First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread. The fast was over; Jesus is famished. So why not? Looking ahead, wouldn’t Jesus do just this anyway—command bread into existence—when he feeds the 5,000? Doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me.

Second, the devil tells Jesus that all the kingdoms will be his in an instant, if he will just worship him. But this was something the Jews were hoping for and expecting anyway, that a messiah would come and sit on the throne of David. And, anyway, Jesus is already King of kings and Lord of lords. So, again, what’s the big deal? Is this even a temptation for Jesus?

And third, Jesus is tempted to cast himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. He knows he’s going to die for the sins of the world. What is Satan’s ploy? Trying to scare Jesus away from the cross? Does Satan maybe not understand that Jesus will in fact truly and surely die when he is crucified?

Not quite sure what’s happening here; but, yet again, it doesn’t seem like that big of a temptation for someone who understands the profound mission before him.

If nothing else, the devil is subtle.

You know what I think is happening here? The Jewish world has long been expecting a messiah who would come and deliver his people from hunger, oppression, and ultimately death.

And that is in fact what Jesus did!

But the real temptation is to do these things according to the corporate personality of the world—the old way—not according to Christ—the new way.

5.

As Christ’s disciples, let us take heed.

The old way is tried and true; the new way, on the other hand, requires creative energy and innovation, an exploration into the unknown. The old way has been proven effective over time; the new way poses risks. The old way brings comfort; the new way, Jesus’ way, brings uncertainty.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to stick with the old way? The path of least resistance? Especially if it works?

The devil does not come to us as a fiend or bogeyman, standing on our shoulder and whispering in our ear, tempting us toward this or that scandalous sin.

Okay, maybe now and again.

But much more often, evil—and evil’s archetype, the devil—tempts us with subtlety and comfort.

But, if evil is as subtle as I say, how do we know the difference between temptation and blessing?

The answer is where I began: with Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” that voice from heaven spoke; and the Holy Spirit descended upon him bodily, like a dove.

The answer is with Jesus’ identity. When we know who Jesus truly is, then we can discern between the old way and the new, between the way of subtlety and comfort and the way of love.

[i] In the discussion that follows I rely on Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence, Chapter 1. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986.

Hats Off for Trying!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered Sunday, March 3, 2019 at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California

Luke 9:28-43

1.

Today marks the Sunday we call, liturgically, the last Sunday after the Epiphany. For the last several weeks, during this Epiphany season, we’ve been considering passages in the Gospels that show us who Jesus is, his identity; and what we are to do about it, our response.

Let’s review briefly.

So, first, on Epiphany, January 6, we followed the wise men from the East on their journey and experienced the Incarnate God as a small child.

Next, we visited John the Baptist in the wilderness and re-lived Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit descended on Jesus bodily, like a dove; and a voice from heaven spoke. And the way Luke tells it, Jesus was praying, right along with everyone else.

We then attended a wedding where Jesus performed his first miracle: turning water into good wine. Jesus, God Incarnate, cares about the details of people’s lives; and here Mary showed us that we can and should prod God in our prayers.

Next, on January 27, the day of our Annual Meeting, Jesus came to his hometown synagogue and proclaimed before everyone there his mission statement. We’ve seen who he is. Now he says what he’s come to do: bring good news to the poor, release captives, recover sight for the blind, free the oppressed, and proclaim jubilee!

The following week Jesus explained what his mission statement meant, to go outward, beyond our tribal walls. And, if you recall, his hometown religious community was incensed—and I’m not talking about the good-smelling smoky stuff we use at solemn masses. They were angry! Enough to lead Jesus to the brow of a cliff in order to hurl him off!

Well, this segued nicely into the next week, where we considered with Peter what it means to be a disciple—or at least part of what it means. “Put out into the deep water,” Jesus told Peter, “and let down your nets on the other side of the boat.” Tired as Peter was, he obeyed; and do you remember the huge catch of fish?

We’re to take on Jesus’ mission of evangelism—of carrying the good news outward!

Then, two weeks ago, Jesus appeared to the crowds and delivered the Sermon on the Plain. In Luke’s version Jesus delivered a grittier, earthier version of the beatitudes than what we hear in Matthew.

Life is full of blessings and woes. In our evangelism, we are to stand in solidarity with those experiencing things differently than we experience them, just like Jesus did.

And finally, last week, Father David reminded us that, above all, Jesus’ mission is love. No matter how much another person is like me or different from me, no matter how much she is my friend or enemy, I am to love her in Christ.

That is Christ’s identity. That is his mission.

Which brings us to today; which marks the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the culmination of this Epiphany season.

And today Jesus is transfigured.

What does the transfiguration mean for us? How are we to respond today to Jesus’ mission and identity?

2.

So, the shortest distance between Points A and B is a straight line—or so I’ve heard.

This holds true if you’re a civil engineer and Point A is a flooding problem and Point B is the installation of a culvert to carry the water away from the problem area.

Once upon a time, I worked for a civil engineering firm. And this is in fact the kind of work we did at this firm: flood-control work.

You can be sure that when a problem came our way we would plan as precisely as we could to go from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, taking the straightest line possible, with the fewest oversights and contingencies.

And thus putting together a proposal required planning. Lots of planning—analyzing drawings and flood records, making site visits ad infinitum, and drafting, drafting, drafting—in order to go from Point A to Point B with the fewest surprises possible!

Such was the civil engineering world I knew.

But—to change the image—what if Point B is an iPhone and Point A is Apple Inc. in 1984?

1984 was when Apple Inc. announced its revolutionary new computer, the Macintosh 128, via a commercial that first aired on Superbowl Sunday at a cost of approximately $1.5 million.

Computer technology had come of age.

But how did Apple Inc. get from Point A to Point B? Did it follow a straight line? Back in 1984, did some forward-thinking people sit in an R&D lab somewhere and map this all out through drawings, meetings, and analysis, targeting a specific iPhone launch date of June 29, 2007?

No.

You and I both know that Apple Inc. developed the iPhone through what’s called an iterative process: a long journey, full of twists and turns, risks and failures, types and prototypes, trial and error.

Back in 1984, the future for Apple Inc. was unknown. Or, to say it another way, its future was shrouded in a cloud—

Like’s Peter’s future, like the church’s future, on that day when Jesus was transfigured.

3.

So, we have two images.

The first, let’s call establishment.

In the world of flood-control civil engineering, there is an established way of doing things. The City of San Antonio calls on several engineering firms to put forth a proposal on how best to fix a flooding problem. The engineering firms then make their respective proposals based on established, time-tested ways of doing things.

The second image, the 1984 Apple Inc. image, let’s call innovation, for reasons that I hope are self-explanatory.

Now, a question. Which of these two images aligns with Peter on that day when he saw Jesus transfigured? Isn’t it the second image?

Peter was thoroughly confused, overshadowed by a cloud physically and mentally. Still, in his half-asleep-half-awake stupor, comical as it might come across to us today, Peter decided to do something: he offered to make shelters.

I mean, hats off to the guy! Not sure why; but, hey, at least he was getting something started, willing to take a risk, at the beginning of this iterative process we call the church.

That’s a lot like Apple Inc.’s beginnings. Doesn’t the Macintosh 128 seem kind of comical to us all now in hindsight? Surely, many people in 1984 watched and scratched their heads, wondering what in the world Apple was doing at what ended up being the beginning of a long iterative process!

It was risky! Maybe even a little gutsy!

And now, a second question, rhetorical this time. Which of these two images, establishment or innovation, characterizes the mainline church today? . . .

So, returning to today’s Gospel, for whatever reason, it all came to a crashing halt. Peter heard a booming voice from heaven, and I can’t quite grasp why—maybe he didn’t like the iterative process, the risks involved; maybe he didn’t like failure; maybe he just didn’t know Jesus well enough yet—but, whatever the case, we hear, “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

Peter and his companions kept their mouths shut. They told no one about the amazing transfiguration they had just witnessed.

In their confusion over Jesus, they did the exact opposite of Jesus’ mission. Instead of taking the good news outward, they clammed up, kept it to themselves.

Imagine if Apple Inc. back in 1984 decided just to give up, to keep its knowledge to itself.

Well, we know the larger story. Thankfully, Peter didn’t give up either. Later, after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter followed the way of innovation; and today the church is here, the mission of Jesus continues to go outward.

4.

What is our response to the transfiguration of Jesus?

We, the church, are called to reveal it to the world, to show the world who Jesus truly is, his identity; and what he came to do, his mission.

But this isn’t easy.

The world around us is in a constant state of flux. Cultural trends come and go. What was important to the culture in 1984—a computer with a whopping 128k of memory, for instance—may not be so important to the world today.

And thus the ways in which the church reveals Christ’s identity and mission to the world today should be different than how the church responded to the needs of the world in 1984.

Do you see? Christ calls us to the way of innovation, not to the way of establishment; or, to say it another way, Christ calls us to respond to the changing culture around us, not to control it.

But this is hard work! It takes a lot of creative energy to understand the ever-changing culture around us enough to respond to it intelligently. Sometimes, let’s face it, the mystery of it all shrouds us like a cloud; we have no clue how to move forward at all.

So, should we therefore keep our mouths shut?

Or should we try something new, take a risk? And what if we end up looking comical?

Hats off to Peter for trying!

Hats off to us, too, in whatever attempts we make towards revealing Christ’s identity and mission to our ever-changing world!