Archive for the Homilies Category

Wealth Intervention

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on October 14, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 10:17-31

1.

Americans are wealthy.

Even if we don’t meet the Economic Policy Institute’s measure of the top 1% of America’s wealth—about $422K per year of household income in 2018 (minimum)[i]—we’re still wealthy.

We live in a wealthy country—one of the wealthiest in the modern world; and as for the history of humanity . . . well, most of us, even if we’re nowhere near that top 1%, live better than most royalty have lived in all of recorded history.

We hear about a widening gap between the rich and poor in the United States. While it may be true that the rich are getting richer, according to a Forbes article from June 1, 2013, the poorest people in our country are still richer than almost 70% of the world.[ii]

Eighteen countries were highlighted in this article. A bar graph shows a spectrum for each country: a red dot to the right on the bar indicates the top 10% wage mark; and a blue dot to the left indicates the lowest 10%. Everyone else—from 10% to 90%—falls somewhere on this spectrum.

When these 18 countries are compared, the U. S.’s red dot is the farthest to the right—but only just barely beating out Canada, Sweden, and Australia. Interestingly, the blue dots for these other three countries are to the right of our blue dot, meaning their poorest are better off than our poorest.

But that’s it! The poorest of the other fourteen countries are significantly poorer than our poorest; and—remarkably—the richest of seven of these countries are actually poorer than our poorest.

You heard me right: 90% of wage earners in Italy, Israel, Russia, Portugal, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico earn less than our bottom 10% mark.

This gives us some perspective. We are wealthy.

Wealth is something like a drug, isn’t it? The more we have, the more we think we need it; and the more we take for granted what we already have.

Our social, emotional, and even spiritual lives become chemically dependent on our wealth.

It fundamentally alters us.

We are a nation of addicts.

2.

So, a question: how does this wealth affect our church?

It’s a difficult question to answer.

We know, on the one hand, that the Episcopal Church thinks a lot about money. We are required canonically to have an annual pledge drive—which, by the way, is coming up shortly. We encourage tithing, though we don’t require it. Most dioceses have schools and camp and conference centers—big budget items. We have the Church Pension Group, begun by J. P. Morgan himself (so I’ve heard), one of the strongest in the nation (also, so I’ve heard). There’s even an organization called the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.

All this points to wealth.

But, on the other hand, it’s no secret that the Episcopal Church—along with mainline Christianity in the U. S.—is in decline. Membership is waning. We can’t make our budgets. Properties have been sold. Parishes have closed.

How do these factor into the church’s wealth?

Pew Research offers one answer. A survey they conducted looks not at churches per se, but at the individuals who attend churches: at average household incomes and religious identification in the U. S.

And their results, published on Oct. 11, 2016, are telling.[iii]

44% of those who identify as Jews in the U. S. make more than $100K per year of household income.

In second place, those who identify as Hindus; with 36% making more than $100K.

And guess who comes in third: Episcopalians, with 35% making more than $100K.

To give some perspective, Presbyterians come in at 25%; Mormons at 20%; Catholics at 19%; and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 4%.

The American average comes in at 19%, same as Catholics.

So, Episcopalians place third out of 26 groups; first of all Christian groups.

What does this indicate?

We are a wealthy church.

In fact, as far as churches go, we’re in the top 10%.

And that can generate all kinds of attitudes to watch out for—attitudes Jesus cautions us against—attitudes like privilege, entitlement, superiority, and anxiety.

3.

Now, with this in mind, today we come to Jesus, kneeling before him, eager; and we ask him a question:

“Good Teacher, you’ve blessed us with so much—this building, beautiful liturgy and music, a vicar, friends, hospitality, a community! And we’re trying really hard.

“We’ve got a Stephen Ministries team together and LEVs to get Communion out to our shut-ins.

“We watch what we say about other people, trying to build them up and not to tear them down.

“All the leadership is fulfilling the diocesan Safeguarding requirements.

“We work as a team and give credit where it’s due, paying our bills and working towards becoming a full-fledged parish.

“And we try to be honest in all our dealings with each other.

“Good Teacher, what more can we do?”

I find it interesting that this story comes right on the heels of last week’s story.

Jesus just finished teaching his disciples that unless we receive the kingdom of God as a little child, we shall not enter it.

When a little child receives something life-giving—food, maybe, or clothing—what does that little child do? Nothing—except say, Thank you!

And now we come to Jesus with this rich man and ask, What must we do?

Don’t you find Jesus’ answer curious?

I mean, Jesus just finished telling his disciples—through a difficult discussion about divorce and remarriage—that the kingdom of God is about what’s possible more than about what’s permissible.

Jesus just finished demonstrating that we shouldn’t rankle over lists—this is how to get a Christian divorce and still be in good graces with the church, etc.

And still the rich man asks, What must I do? Tell me. Give me a list.

And Jesus does not say, “Don’t you get it? Receive it, that’s all, like a little child receives a parent’s love!”

Instead, Jesus says, “You know the commandments”; and he names them.

Well, the rich man says, “I’ve done all these things since my youth.”

And so have we.

And we have a darn good church to show for it!

But there’s still this, Jesus says: let go of your addiction to wealth.

4.

But how? It’s easy to say; difficult to do.

Well, as I mentioned earlier, we’re about to launch our annual pledge drive. . . .

More seriously, Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher, professor, and Christian layperson whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. He published 58 books, many of them exploring the intersection of technology and religion—still very relevant for today. He is credited for the slogan, “Think globally; act locally.”

So, in his book entitled Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, he has this to say:

How [do we] overcome the spiritual “power” of money? Not by accumulating more money, not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings. The law of money is the law of accumulation, of buying and selling. That is why the only way to overcome the spiritual “power” of money is to give our money away, thus desacralizing it and freeing ourselves from its control. . . . To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.[iv]

How do we let go of our addiction to wealth? We give it away.

And, yes, the church is a wonderful organization to which you can give your money. Pledge according to your conscience.

But even more than I care about the church, I care about you.

Wealth is an addiction. The more you acquire, the more you want to acquire more; and the more you take on attitudes like privilege, entitlement, superiority, and anxiety.

Think of today’s Gospel as an intervention.

Do you want to be free from the love of money? Give away all that you possibly can. And when you’ve done that, give away even more.

Does this sound impossible? But for God, all things are possible.

[i] See https://www.epi.org/.

[ii] Cf. https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/06/01/astonishing-numbers-americas-poor-still-live-better-than-most-of-the-rest-of-humanity/#29eee57e54ef

[iii] Cf. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/11/how-income-varies-among-u-s-religious-groups/

[iv] As quoted in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4, p. 169 (WJK, 2009).

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The Kingdom of God and MeToo

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 10:2-16

1.

Today’s Gospel has it all, right? Marriage, divorce, remarriage, adultery, and little children! Sounds scandalous! We might say this passage is pregnant—tee he he—just waiting to give birth to all sorts of conflicting opinions and hasty judgments.

Not unlike modern politics!

So, to get us going today, here are some interesting recent statistics I looked up about divorce in the U. S. from the Pew Research Center:[I]

  • Every 13 seconds, someone files for a divorce.
  • 8 years is the average length of a first marriage.
  • The likelihood of a first marriage to end in divorce is 41%; of a second marriage, 60%; and of a third marriage, 73%.
  • 66% of divorces are filed by women.
  • 50% of children see their parents go through divorce.
  • 43% of children are living without their father’s involvement.
  • The number of divorces filed per year has decreased more or less steadily since 1995: about 1.2 million divorces were filed in 1995; in 2015, the number was about 800,000.
  • You’re more likely to get divorced if you:
    • Married before age 25;
    • Did not graduate high school;
    • Fight about money with your spouse;
    • Have a friend going through a divorce.
  • You’re less likely to get divorced if you:
    • Have a college degree;
    • Had happily married parents;
    • Are very religious;
    • Live in a blue state.

Divorce is Jesus’ starting point in today’s Gospel. Moses allowed divorce, Jesus says, because of humanity’s hardness of heart.

But from this springboard, Jesus moves on through the topics of remarriage, adultery, and children and comes around ultimately to the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God there will be no separating of what God has joined together; no divorce, remarriage, or adultery; no hardness of heart.

2.

Anyway, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and adultery are all related. But why does Jesus then bring little children into it? Why this juxtaposition? Is this some sort of mistake? Is the lectionary giving us too much: two separate and distinct topics?

It’s no mistake. Reading the text carefully, Jesus most definitely picks up the little children and blesses them in response to his disciples’ confusion about the kingdom of God; and the kingdom of God was where he took his divorce discussion.

These topics are definitely connected.

But how?

One thought has to do with children of divorce: in calling the little children to himself, maybe Jesus was saying that they are the real victims of divorce and remarriage, having no say in the matter and few if any rights.

Another thought, though, has to do with the connections between today’s Gospel and the one from two weeks ago. Just like in today’s Gospel, two weeks ago Jesus and his disciples entered a house where he then engaged them in discussion. And just like in today’s passage, two weeks ago Jesus welcomed a little child. These are some attention-grabbing connections.

So, do you recall what the discussion was about two weeks ago? The disciples had been arguing along the way about who among them was the greatest. Ego undergirded this discussion.

Today, the discussion revolves around divorce. Does ego play a part in divorce? (Does the bishop wear a funny hat?)

Yet, in both cases, the egos of little children—not to mention everything else about them—are often not factored into the equation at all.

So then, is Jesus giving us instructions here about how to live? Divorce may be a legal option, sure. But is it the most ethical option? What does a divorce—and, for that matter, remarriage and adultery—mean for children?

Maybe that’s it: instructions about how to live. Certainly, many churches want to go there. When is divorce acceptable, they ask; when is it not?

But we do ourselves a disservice if we stop here—if we think that today Jesus is merely offering wise counsel about divorce and remarriage.

Besides, in the end, when we make up rules and regulations about divorce and remarriage, aren’t we really just doing what Jesus’ opponents did? Aren’t we just asking what’s permissible?

Jesus’ response has little to do with what’s permissible. Instead, he turns the whole divorce discussion over on its head and tells his opponents and disciples—and his followers today—not what’s permissible but what’s possible.

Moses allowed divorce, he says, because of hard hearts. But in the kingdom of God, whatever God has joined together will not be separated. That beautiful, harmonious kingdom is possible in the here and now.

No, it’s not simply helpful instructions for living together that we see here today. This divorce discussion runs much deeper.

3.

How much deeper? Over the last year we’ve heard a lot about the so-called MeToo Movement. The discussion around this movement has become especially heated in the past few weeks surrounding the election of our newest Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

And I know, the pulpit is not an appropriate time or place to engage in the myriad details and opinions and emotions involved in current events.

Nevertheless, in the context of MeToo and SCOTUS, I exhort us to ponder, in the spirit of Jesus, not what is permissible but what is possible.

More specifically, let’s look at today’s Gospel again. Where does Jesus take us? What are his stopping points on his journey from divorce to little children?

Jesus’ opponents come to him to test him with a question. It is worded very specifically:

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Stop. Man? His wife?

Is it just me, or does this question sound patriarchal?

Jewish law—what Moses permitted—made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband. According to Jewish law, if a woman was unhappy or if her husband was abusive or unfaithful or whatever, she had no recourse except to hope and pray. In modern vernacular, she was trapped.

But am I being maybe a little anachronistic? Weren’t all laws of that day written only for “man”? And, if so, couldn’t that term be interpreted in a generic way, as in, “Is it lawful for a man or woman to divorce his wife or her husband?”

Well, that’s a nice thought. But the answer is, simply and clearly, no: Jewish law made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband.

This term, man—we know it refers to the male in a marriage precisely because of the contrast we find between Jewish law and contemporaneous Roman law; which did make provision for women wishing to divorce their husbands. A woman couldn’t vote in ancient Rome—or hold office or serve in the military—but she could divorce her husband.

So, look at what Jesus does! After he says that in God’s kingdom it’s not about what’s permissible but what’s possible, he targets this patriarchal mindset.

He says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her”—no surprise there.

But then—most surprising!—he continues, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (emphasis added).

Wait! Did Jesus really just go there? The law of Moses does not make provision for a woman to file a divorce; but the law of Rome does. Who does he think he is to come along and suggest that women ought to have equal rights? Has he sold out to Rome?

Jesus usurps the law of Moses. This surprises his disciples; and it should surprise us too, for in usurping the law of Moses he calls us out from what is permissible into what is possible.

A patriarchal mindset is permissible; true equality is possible.

It’s not just about what a man wants, or about a man’s career; it’s about MeToo.

4.

And as if right on cue, the disciples don’t get it: suddenly little children are all around; and the disciples shoo them away. Jesus, the text says, is indignant.

What does he have to do to get it through their thick skulls?

So, he calls the little children to himself, and says, Now do you understand? “For it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.”

And I do hope at this point the disciples said, “Aha!” It’s not in the text, so I can’t be sure; but I can hope. For here, everything Jesus has been getting at comes together.

Why this juxtaposition? Why do we find little children included in a tough passage about marriage, divorce, remarriage, and adultery?

In the ancient world, the only way a person could have all the rights was by being male. A female might get some rights, but she could never have all of them. And a little child—well, children were for shooing away and little else.

But the kingdom of God turns this patriarchal mentality on its head. The kingdom of God is about true equality—true liberty and justice for all.

So, whatever else we make of the MeToo Movement and SCOTUS, we cannot deny that a patriarchal mindset remains at work in our world. It may be only a shadow of what it once was, as some people argue; but a mere shadow contains far more darkness than the pure light of the kingdom of God.

Too often our debates revolve around what is permissible. But Jesus calls us to live into what is possible.

And what is possible, as the kingdom of God continues to break upon our shores, is true liberty and justice for all.

[i] As cited on https://www.divorcelawyersformen.com/blog/divorce-rate-us-2018/.

Called to Do Welcoming and Inclusive

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church on September 30, 2018.

Mark 9:38-50

1.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.” What a welcoming and inclusive phrase!

It reminds me, actually, of a story from Alexander the Great’s conquests. Maybe Jesus had this in mind too.

The year was 331 BCE. In his campaign against Darius III of Persia, Alexander’s army was making significant headway. Strategist that he was, Alexander reasoned he would divert his focus for a time to conquering Egypt. Conquest of Egypt would be advantageous for many reasons, not the least being the establishment of a strong coastal base from which he could communicate across the Mediterranean.

When he reached the town of Pelusium (in Egypt), he was met by a man named Mazaces, the governor who had been left in charge by Darius himself; but only Mazaces—no army, no navy, no kind of resistance whatsoever—for Darius had recently commanded all military forces to return to Persia.

So, Mazaces did the only thing he could think of: he handed over the treasury, 800 talents; and the royal furniture. Alexander installed a new governor, Cleomenes, but warmly received Mazaces, even appointing him to an administrative position overseeing finance and the royal mint.

News of this meeting spread. Later, having sailed up the Nile, Alexander and his navy reached the capitol Memphis. There they were received with a red-carpet reception. Alexander was hailed across the land as Savior and Liberator. As if to say, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” no battle of even the smallest scale took place. In fact, awed as he was by Egyptian culture, Alexander largely returned life to what it had been before Darius.

But this saying also reminds me of St. John’s Episcopal Church, in New Braunfels, Texas: the first Episcopal Church I ever attended, on Maundy Thursday of 2006. Soon after that, the bishop visited and confirmed Holly and me. At last, my family and I had found our spiritual home.

But about a year later, on a Sunday morning, from the pulpit, the rector announced, “After much prayer and discussion, the vestry and I have decided to leave the Episcopal Church. Next Sunday will be my last. In fact, we will march in procession out of these doors and down Guenther Ave. two blocks to where we have rented a new facility. Who’s with us?”

Is this the same thing as to say, “Whoever is not against us is for us”?

Now, the bishop was against him, surely. As for me, I didn’t really care what he, as a person, decided to do; but I was concerned about the parish, the community. I suppose, then, I was against him, in a way.

But what about all the other people, people like my dad, who was far removed from this drama and didn’t really care one way or another. He wasn’t against the rector; did that then mean he was for him?

Well, no.

So, I wonder, what about all those people in and around Galilee and beyond who were ambivalent toward Jesus? Was Jesus saying that, well, they weren’t against him so therefore they must be for him?

Um, Jesus, I’m not so sure it works that way.

We like to say things like, “Whoever is not against us if for us”; and “We’re welcoming and inclusive.” But in reality it doesn’t always flesh out like we think it’s supposed to.

2.

Whatever we make of Jesus’ words, today’s Gospel puts these ideologies to the test.

A man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name; and the disciples want to stop him, “because,” they say, “he was not following us.”

Jesus then says something unexpected: “Do not stop him”; and, “Whoever is not against us is for us”; and we think, rightly, that Jesus wants us to be similarly welcoming and inclusive.

However, did you catch what happens a little farther down? Jesus says it would be better to maim the body than to enter hell whole. Entering hell complete is still complete hell.

But here’s the thing: by body Jesus probably means the common metaphor for church; then what Jesus is now saying is that there is a time and place to be exclusive. Specifically, it is better to cut off a bad body part—better to exclude a present member of the community—than not to include an outsider seeking to come in.

Include the outsider yet exclude the insider? Is this a paradox? What gives?

At the very least, today’s passage brings up some difficult questions about communities that are formed in Christ’s name: churches.

Questions like:

Who is in the community; and who is not?

And:

Once a person is in the community, what are acceptable behaviors; and what are not?

3.

We, the Christian church, like to say we’re welcoming and inclusive. It’s a good thing to say. Nevertheless, what we do often demonstrates otherwise.

What do I mean?

Well, for starters, a church can become like a museum.

A museum is beautiful—and sacrosanct and awe-inspiring and all that—but at the end of the day it is mostly a place for artifacts, things that maybe once upon a time made the world a better place but have lost their relevance for today.

Chanting Rite I, facing east, wearing holy vestments from Roman times, burning incense, singing masses—these sorts of things are spectacularly and aurally beautiful, and no one wants to see or hear them fade out entirely; but when they become a church’s main focus, that church largely loses its relevance to the outside world.

A church can also become like a country club.

Now, don’t get me wrong, country clubs are nice places—the food, the recreational activities, the hospitality, the friends. But the reality is they are there to serve the insiders, the members, those who pay the annual fees. Apart from a modicum of marketing efforts, country clubs do very little for the outside world; and likewise the outside world is little concerned about what happens inside the country club—or the country club church.

A third analogy: I’ve heard statements made on many occasions like this: “That church is in hospice.”

The idea is that the church body in question is on its last leg, doing all it can to keep going another year or month or week or day before it is forced to close its doors. The focus is no longer on its life in connection with the outside world, but on life support: on how much longer it can be kept going.

Hospice facilities are good and necessary; and a very real part of the church’s responsibility is to focus on end-of-life issues. But death is just that: only part of the story. New life—resurrection—is the other part. And if you ask me, new life actually takes precedence over everything else. It’s the focal point in all our liturgies, even funerals. The goal of a “church in hospice” shouldn’t be to keep it going.

On the other hand, a fourth analogy, a church can just as easily become hipster.

But, regardless of how much a church tries to keep up with the times—technology, fashion, music, how cool the pastor is, whatever—trends toss and turn like the waves of the sea; yet the deeper realities and needs of humanity, the outside world, continue.

One more: a church can become a school of theology, where doctrine becomes the brand. What matters to a church like this is where you stand or don’t stand on hot topics—abortion or home-schooling or global warming, for instance.

I could go on, there are more analogies; but the point has been made. In each of these cases—no matter how welcoming and inclusive they say they are—these churches end up excluding those who are not like them.

And this is Jesus’ point today: even as communities of Christians, we humans naturally establish unwritten rules—shibboleths, invisible boundaries, walls—to keep out those who don’t see things the way we do.

But when these are stumbling blocks . . . it would be better to tie a millstone around our necks and plunge into the sea, Jesus says, than to put them in the way of those outside of our community who seek to come in.

I cannot stress it enough: Jesus calls us not just to be but to do welcoming and inclusive.

Greatness and Awkward Silences

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by timtrue

Delivered to St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on September 23, 2018.

Mark 9:30-37

1.

Who’s the greatest among us?

No, seriously, look around our world. What kind of person more often than not comes out ahead? Who fills the top leadership positions? Who wins?

Isn’t it all too often the pushiest, most self-promoting people? People in other contexts we might call bullies?

It happens on school playgrounds all the world over. It also happens in corporate America. In our individualistic and highly independent society, people don’t rise to positions of leadership by being meek and mild. Rather, they get there by fighting their way to the top.

After all, vying for the top job means you’ve got to compete against others; to make yourself look better than the competition.

I’ve said it before; the beatitudes is not a list of attributes anyone would want to include on a résumé. Vying for that top job requires a certain amount of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and relentlessness.

Even my former seminary dean—one of the meekest, mildest, and humblest men I’ve ever known—admitted to having to fight his way in order to get there.

Like it or not, it’s how we rise through the ranks. We figure out who the most important people are, we catch their attention, and we make ourselves look good in their eyes.

And it wasn’t much different in Jesus’ day.

A common Roman citizen could become a member of the equites, or even a senator—with enough hard work, networking, catching the attention of important onlookers, and a good dose of shameless self-promotion—to come out looking better than everyone else he was competing against.

Except . . . Jesus was a great man, perhaps the greatest man of all—no argument there—but he didn’t fit this definition! At all! Jesus didn’t compete with those who were in line to be the next synagogue leader. Jesus didn’t vie for social or popular position, hoping to catch the eye of the important persons in his community.

What do we do with Jesus?

2.

Which leads me to think about another way we sometimes argue about greatness. And I think this other way is what we find in today’s Gospel. Here’s what I mean:

So, today’s Gospel is structured around two awkward silences.

The first happens because, the text says, the disciples were afraid to respond to Jesus.

Jesus had been telling them some hard things; and they don’t understand what he was talking about.

But they don’t ask him to clarify. Instead, they remain silent. And it’s awkward; because, the text states, “they were afraid to ask him.”

I wonder if this has anything to do with last week’s Gospel. Last week, remember, Jesus started out by asking the questions, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

And after Peter answered, “You are the Messiah of Israel,” Jesus said then almost exactly the same things he says now:

The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.

But last week, when Peter tried to clarify, Jesus called him Satan!

So this week, apparently—I’m guessing—the disciples are afraid to say anything because no one wants to be called Satan again.

And thus: Awkward Silence Number One.

The second occurs some time later, when Jesus and his disciples have arrived at their destination, a house in Capernaum; and Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about along the way?”

Well, no one says anything because they were arguing about who was the greatest. That would be an embarrassing admission.

And thus: Awkward Silence Number Two.

And here’s how we want to interpret it. We hear about this second awkward silence and we, from our modern-day point of view, assume that the disciples must have been bragging, spouting off their credentials to one another, vying for position, competing, justifying why Jesus loves me more than he loves you.

3.

But I don’t think this is the right way to interpret today’s Gospel. Rather, I’m pretty sure this argument about who is the greatest directly relates to the first awkward silence.

The disciples were afraid to ask him to explain himself because no one wanted to be singled out.

Still, they must have been concerned. Jesus would be betrayed, killed, and resurrected? These are disconcerting statements. What in the world did he mean by them?

So, you know how it is when there’s a task that no one wants to do; one person says something like, “I’m not gonna ask him; you ask him!”

And a second disciple retorts, “Why should I ask him? I’m not even a part of his inner circle. That’s Peter, James, Philip, and Andrew. Why doesn’t one of them ask him? Why, all four of them are greater than me.”

And so the first disciple answers, “Good idea! Yeah, they’re greater than us. One of them should ask. I’ll go talk to Philip.”

But when Philip is asked, he feels in no greater position than anyone else—never mind that he was the first disciple ever called—what does that have to do with anything anyway?—and so he protests.

And so on.

Until most if not all of the disciples are in an all-out argument along the way about which of them is the greatest and therefore obligated, as the appointed spokesperson, to approach Jesus.

Which, when it all pans out, is really kind of embarrassing; and awkward silences result.

4.

Arguing about greatness can go both ways.

When it works to our advantage to be greater than the next person—competing for a prestigious position or whatever—we tend to promote ourselves, to tell everyone around us how great we are and why.

Or, when it works to our advantage to step out of the limelight—because there’s a hard task ahead that no one really wants to do or whatever—we tend to shirk it off, to tell everyone around us that we’re nobody special, really, and would therefore rather not be bothered.

Either way, however, after we boil down all the arguments for why we are or are not the greatest, the one substance remaining in the petri dish is ego. At the end of the day, we humans are wired to look out for number one.

And so Jesus calls over a small child.

Small children in Jesus’ day were thought of as sub-human, technically the property of their fathers.

Small children, in Jesus’ day, were insignificant shadows in their world.

In our day, thankfully, we pay a lot more attention to small children—in some ways. In public education, foster care, sports leagues, and many other ways we value our small children.

Still, in our arguments about greatness, have things changed all that much?

The relentless pursuit to become something or somebody greater, to amass more wealth, to acquire more clients, to increase in status, to become more well-known and respected—is a small child concerned with these things? Is a small child impressed by how much money you make, or how socially connected you are, or how beautiful you are? Is a small child the person we call on to do the hard tasks no one else wants to do?

Well, no, no, and no.

And so, sadly, for many people in our day, small children are just insignificant shadows.

But to welcome a small child in Christ’s name—to take the time to say hello to, read to, play with, spend time with; to welcome a small child not for any kind of personal recognition but for the simple joy of sharing Christ’s love—this is true greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In short, to welcome a small child; to put a small child ahead of oneself—there is no ego in that.

The Kingdom of Heaven turns our world upside down.

Today we want to recognize some in our midst: commission the preschool teachers and staff. . . .

Crying “Fowl”

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2018 by timtrue

Rotluchs2

Mark 8:27-38

1.

Something was killing our chickens; our neighbor’s chickens too.

A couple of nights a week we’d hear it, that horrendous cackle alerting us that the mysterious perpetrator had once again found its way into the chicken coop and murdered and carried off another victim.

Whatever this beast was, it was elusive. We’d wait up late at night, listening and stargazing around the fire pit, flashlights at the ready. We’d sleep out on the balcony, where we could hear better. My dad even set his alarm for 3 o’clock in the morning and played sentinel a few times.

But always it was the same. By the time the chickens first cackled it seemed the culprit had already come and gone. We never so much as saw its hind quarters running away into the avocado orchard.

For me, a ten year-old boy, I wondered if chupacabras might in fact be real.

My dad’s remedy was to lock up the coop each night, watertight—close off every hole in the chicken wire, the doorways, the walls, and the roof.

But the chicken-stealing continued—not in our coop but in our neighbor’s, who apparently had not sealed his off as effectively.

So my neighbor’s remedy was to rig a trap.

He used what looked to me like a wire crate for a medium-sized dog; except he added a spring mechanism to the door—from a rat trap if I remember correctly—so that when the chicken-stealing beast took the bait, a weight underneath would rise and trigger the spring and the door would snap shut, latching itself.

It worked flawlessly in the testing phase. Still, would it capture this beast, whatever it was? The trap was big enough for a fox. But what if it was a coyote; or that mischievous hunting hound Jake who lived a quarter mile down the street; or a chupacabra?

For the next few nights, around dusk, I watched with rapt attention while Don, my neighbor, routinely set his trap, placing a generous amount of ground beef and raw bacon in the baiting area and sliding the trap strategically in front of the chicken coop doorway.

And each morning, at the crack of dawn, eager, I’d race outside and peek through the fence to check, hoping that something was in it.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. After only a few days it happened. There was no need for me to run to the fence and peek through, hoping to see something: it was obvious.

Long before the sun was up, before even the crack of dawn, the repetitive cries, hisses, and wailings of the chicken-stealing beast, not to mention the cacophony of cackling, woke us all up—the neighbors and my household. Don saw us exiting our front door and beckoned us to come on over.

Groggily, super curious, we all gathered in our pajamas and bathrobes and slippers around Don’s chicken coop, flashlights in hand, excited at last to see what mysterious creature was the cause of all the “fowl” play.

And there it was: in the cage, frightened and growling but certainly trapped beyond any hope of escape, not a chupacabra but a real live bobcat.

I’d never seen a bobcat before!

Anyway, the jig was up. Caught and trapped, its chicken-stealing days were over. And from the sound of its pathetic wails, it seemed to know it.

Don called animal control, who showed up by 9am and hauled the beast away, to release it later that day in the upper Sespe, they told us, far from any human dwellings.

And our chickens lived happily ever after.

2.

So, I wonder today if Peter feels at all like that bobcat.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks.

Peter responds: “You are the Messiah.”

And here, in the Gospel of Mark, there’s none of that glowing affirmation we read over in Matthew; Jesus says nothing to Peter about him being a rock, a solid foundation upon which he will build his church.

Instead—

Well, it plays out like this:

  • Peter calls Jesus the Messiah.
  • Jesus orders his disciples to tell no one.
  • Jesus then explains “quite openly” that this Messiah, the Son of Man, must endure unbelievable trials in the days ahead.
  • But Peter says no, Jesus, you’ve got it all wrong.
  • And immediately Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him Satan!

I wonder, does Peter feel like he’s just been baited and led into a trap, one with a spring mechanism that snaps shut tight with no way out?

It seems almost scandalous.

3.

Scandal. Now there’s a word with an interesting etymology!

Of course, today the term has at least a few different meanings. One has a moral connection; something morally wrong is often called scandalous.

But scandal can also mean something that feels somehow wrong to the general public: something that causes a public outcry, when general expectations aren’t being met.

This second meaning is more along the lines of what happens here with Peter today. He declares Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel; and, we infer from his following rebuke, his expectations are not met. Jesus is neither who the people think he is nor even who Peter thinks he is.

It’s scandalous.

So, here’s an interesting caveat about the etymology of scandal: The word comes from way back; from ancient Greek, skandalon. And it originally meant, literally, a trap with a spring mechanism—like Don’s trap for the bobcat.

By the time the term reaches the New Testament, it possesses the additional metaphorical meaning of a stumbling block; or an offense.[I]

Sound familiar? In his first epistle, Peter calls Jesus a stumbling stone and a rock of offense (cf. 2:8); and Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus is a stumbling block (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23).

Jesus is a scandal for those who don’t believe.

And Peter walks right into this scandal; and the door snaps shut behind him; and he’s left with no way out and nothing to do but rethink his understanding of who Jesus really is.

4.

Today, like Peter, the Gospel challenges us to rethink the scandal of Jesus.

Do we expect Jesus to be something he is not? Do we understand the mission he has left us with? Is true Christian discipleship really what we think it is? What is the Gospel calling us to do? Who is the Gospel calling us to be, really?

After Jesus called Peter Satan—a word that can be interpreted as adversary or opposer as readily as the devil—“Get behind me, Opposer!”—Jesus explained:

“For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter understood the Messiah in human terms. For Peter, Israel’s Messiah would set things straight. He would provide political and spiritual leadership for an oppressed and marginalized people. He would liberate them, save them, meet their needs.

But, no! These—and more—were all human, egotistical expectations of the Messiah.

Divine expectations were quite different. Divine expectations necessitated that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed.

This interplay between human and divine hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years.

Naturally, our humanity plays a large role in our relationship with Jesus. He was fully human, after all.

He therefore supports our human wants and desires, right? He therefore values the political and ethical ideologies we value, right? He therefore will meet our needs, whatever we perceive them to be, right?

Like Peter, we tend to focus not on divine but human things.

But it’s not about us! I cannot stress this enough—it is imperative—we must set our egos aside! Our relationship with Christ is not about human expectations as much as it is about divine expectations.

In other words, it’s about commitment. To what are you more committed, divine expectations or human expectations? Are you more committed to God or yourself? You can’t have it both ways.

5.

To return, then, to the story with which I began, we are the bobcat.

We have discovered a way to live an abundant life. The Farmer, we think, is providing us with all the chickens we should ever need, just sitting there, for us, whenever we like. God is good!

It all makes perfect sense, from our perspective anyway. God is meeting our expectations, providing for us, ministering to our needs, supporting our wants, and valuing what we value.

But the bobcat’s not thinking about the bigger picture. The chickens are not there for the bobcat’s desires and whims, but for the common good.

The bobcat was really created to be free, after all; not to be dependent on the Farmer in ways that result in chaos—chaos to which the bobcat in fact remains largely ignorant.

Do you see what happens when we set our mind on human expectations—when we don’t deny our egos? We end up frustrated, for one thing, scandalized by Jesus; and also we remain largely in ignorance to the chaos we generate all around us.

The Gospel is scandalous—until we set our mind on divine things.

[i] Cf. https://www.etymonline.com/word/scandal

Increasing PSI

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2018 by timtrue

flat-tyre

John 6:56-69

1.

I begin with a framing image:

My first car was a 1968 Dodge A100 Sportsman van—3 on the tree, manual everything. With lots of windows all around, it kind of looked like an old VW. But this van was so much better, with a 318 V8, 210 horsepower—not a piddley 60 horses, like the VWs!

How I loved that van! I replaced the factory seating with a loveseat, chair, and ottoman—this was before seatbelt laws went into effect. Many were the days I loaded friends up and went to the beach or mountains or wherever, for yet another adventure!

As happens, I began to be associated with this van. People would see it coming and say, “Here comes Tim.”

So, one night a friend of mine and I decided to play a prank on another friend, Bobby. We TP’d his house, you know, snuck over, late at night, and threw a bunch of toilet paper rolls all over the place.

Well, Bobby woke up when we were up to our shenanigans; and, as I learned later, looked out his window but did not recognize the culprits. However, he did recognize a certain van parked across the street: my van.

And Bobby hatched his plan to avenge himself; which happened a few weeks later.

I’d gone to see a movie. And when I came out of the theater, there was my van all right, right where I’d parked it; but three of the tires were flat! Bobby had let the air out of them.

Well, I had only one spare. What was I to do? I couldn’t drive home. My van was effectively useless.

So I got in and started it up, dropped in into gear, and crept slowly as I could across three parking lots to a service station with an air hose. And then, finally, with air again in the tires, I was able to drive the van home, to use the van as it was intended.

Anyway, this is the framing image I want us to consider as I continue with my sermon: a van without air in tires is effectively useless.

2.

Now, fourteen weeks ago I mentioned that we were making a turn.

Up till that time, the church year had been focused on the person Jesus. Starting with Advent—the coming of the Christ—it then continued with Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter—all various manifestations of the Incarnation, God with us, in the person and work of Jesus—until finally, fifty days after Easter, Christ sent his Spirit to be with his disciples, the Church, until his promised return.

This was the turning point: Pentecost. Here, as a church, every year we turn our attention from thinking about who Jesus is to the work he has left for us to do. At Pentecost, we shift our focus to the question, “How are we to be the incarnate Christ to the world?”

This is the question that frames every Sunday from the Day of Pentecost to what we call Christ the King Sunday, about half of every year.

Now, this year, Lectionary Year B, we will spend most of these six months exploring this question through the lens of the Gospel of Mark. But for five weeks in the middle—concluding today, as a matter of fact—we have found ourselves instead in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Which leaves me wondering why. Why does the Gospel of John interrupt the Gospel of Mark? More particularly, why do we find ourselves in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John?

Or, to reframe the question: What is it that we are supposed to be learning from these five weeks that will shape us as a local body of Christ, to carry out his mission, to be the Incarnation to the world around us?

Today’s our last chance for quite a while: we won’t encounter John 6 again until three years from now, the next time it comes around. I’m not suggesting we’ll find the absolute, once-for-all answer. Still, we can get somewhere.

3.

So then, here’s what we know about the Gospel of John as a whole: John was writing, probably in the early second century, to a new community defined by their being ousted from the local synagogue.

But John was not written merely to guide an ancient community in its new life together. It was also written for all Christian communities, which includes us, today, with our unique set of challenges in our particular cultural context.

Narrowing our focus then, from chapter 6 Jesus teaches crucifixion and resurrection, incarnation and love—profound ideologies—through metaphor; and predominantly the metaphor of bread.

Two weeks ago I walked us through the bread-making process, from harvesting rye to separating the grains from the stalks to sifting and cleaning to grinding the grains into flour to finally baking.

Jesus said that his flesh was bread for the life of the world. Harvested, separated, sifted, ground; arrested, mocked, spat upon, crucified—for the life of the world.

Last week we explored what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to ingest him so completely that Christ becomes a part of us and we become more him.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. . . . But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

The Incarnation doesn’t mean that God is with us as a person sitting among our community. Rather, the Incarnation is within each one of us; and intends to permeate every corner of the world in just the same way.

And now, we come to today, this final portion of John 6, where we read that many disciples turn away from Jesus, for this is a difficult teaching.

What are we supposed to learn? What is our takeaway?

4.

Maybe something to do with spirit.

“It is the spirit that gives life,” Jesus says; “the flesh is useless.”

But didn’t Jesus just say that his very flesh was the true bread from heaven, the bread given for the life of the world?

Yes, he did.

So what can he mean now by saying the flesh is useless? Certainly, his flesh wasn’t useless!

Ah, but it is useless without the spirit.

Jesus’ flesh, smitten, broken, and lifted up on the cross for the life of the world—if it remains there, dead on the cross, why then it’s just a corpse.

Taken down, carried away, and laid to rest in the tomb—if Jesus’ flesh remains there, lifeless, without a spirit to animate it, why, again, it’s still just a corpse.

What about Jesus’ flesh set on the altar, consecrated, given, and received? It seems an appropriate parallel, drawn from our guiding bread metaphor: without the spirit, it, too, is lifeless; or, to use Jesus’ word, “useless.”

The people to whom John originally wrote this Gospel—the Johannine Community—experienced this lifelessness first hand.

They had been formerly a part of a synagogue—maybe even the synagogue at Capernaum, mentioned in today’s Gospel. But the synagogue’s leaders had excommunicated any and all who followed the teachings of Jesus—including a man born blind! (Read chapter 9.)

So, consider: local synagogues were a lot like modern local churches. People gathered as spiritual communities in buildings created for that purpose. Their worship services followed a liturgy very much like our own Morning Prayer liturgy. In addition to Sabbath worship services, synagogue congregations would gather, much like today’s church congregations, for times of communal celebration and grief—like bar mitzvahs and funerals.

And yet, as John writes to the ousted and re-organizing Johannine Community, he has Jesus say, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”

Without Jesus, that local body of the synagogue was lifeless, a corpse.

5.

What is our takeaway?

We are smack dab in the middle of the season after Pentecost. It’s a six-month season, primarily focused on the question of Jesus’ mission: How are we to be the incarnate Christ to the world around us?
For the last five weeks we’ve encountered Jesus presenting a particularly difficult teaching. He presents the crucifixion and resurrection, the Incarnation and love in an altogether new way—through a metaphor involving the very common, everyday practice of eating and drinking.

It’s a difficult teaching because it involves a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice from Jesus’ followers.

As we learned from the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, we often want to follow Jesus for the wrong reasons, self-focused reasons, like utility, political expediency, seeking the miraculous, or as a mere intellectual exercise.

Following Jesus requires from us so much more: to let go of our egos; to let Christ fill each of us as air fills a tire—air without which the van tires are effectively useless.

The same can be said for us as a corporate body.

We gather weekly as a spiritual community. In our gatherings, we pray, worship, hear the word of God together, respond, and commune around Christ’s Table.

But if we do this for the wrong reasons—utility, political expediency, and so on; any reason, really, that strokes our own egos—we do not allow the air that is the spirit of Christ to fill us—air without which we are effectively useless.

This is a difficult teaching; who can accept it?

But—and here at last is our takeaway—when we do accept it, when we abide in Christ and take him out to those who truly hunger, he is life-giving both to us and to the world all around us.

Outward. It sounds so simple.

Why, then, are we interrupted in the middle of the season after Pentecost in Year B? Why are we told so often to go in peace to love and serve the Lord?

Maybe because it’s so difficult actually to do.

God give us grace to go outward!

And It’s Visceral

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2018 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 6:51-58

1.

How does one describe an altogether new concept, something that has never been described before? Words are limiting.

So, as a starting point, let’s turn to Greek mythology. There are many monsters in Greek mythology that look like nothing else, monsters that the authors of the myths had to describe to their readers who had never seen them before.

Scylla comes to mind: a hideous beast presumably that lived on the side of a cliff in a narrow strait and fed on sailors as they passed beneath. How would the myth’s author describe Scylla?

I strained my eyes upwards, and she came.

She was gray as the air, as the cliff itself. I had always imagined she would look like something: a snake or an octopus, a shark. But the truth of her was overwhelming, an immensity that my mind fought to take in. Her necks were longer than ship masts. Her six heads gaped, hideously lumpen, like melted lava stone. Black tongues licked her sword-length teeth. . . .

She crept closer, slipping over the rocks. A reptilian stench struck me, foul as squirming nests underground. Her necks wove a little in the air, and from one of her mouths I saw a gleaming strand of saliva stretch and fall. Her body was not visible. It was hidden back in the mist with her legs, those hideous, boneless things that Selene had spoken of so long ago. Hermes had told me how they clung inside her cave like the curled ends of hermit crabs when she lowered herself to feed. . . .

She screamed. The sound was a piercing chaos, like a thousand dogs howling at once.[I]

That comes from Madeline Miller’s recent book Circe.

But do you see? To describe a monster her readers have never seen, the author builds on what they already know: gray as a cliff, necks as long as ship masts, heads like lava stone, sword-length teeth, the cacophony of a thousand dogs howling at once, and so on.

To describe a new concept, metaphor is essential—metaphor based on what is already known.

So then, Madeline Miller described a creature—something concrete. What about when the new concept is abstract? How does one describe a new idea?

2.

For the people in Jesus’ day, the incarnation, God with us, was just that: a new idea.

Whether with the pantheon of Hellenism or the High God of Judaism, the common understanding was that God ruled and reigned from on high, far away, aloof and distant.

To communicate this up-close, new idea, then, Jesus used metaphor, building from what his hearers already knew: food and wine, eating and drinking.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Now, to clarify, the concept of the incarnation was not totally new. Israel’s God was seen traditionally as a warrior. A God who gets right in the midst of our army and fights our battles with us—that’s incarnation.

Also, glimpses of the incarnation appear throughout the OT.

God spoke to Abraham. Isaac listened and watched as God provided a ram in his place. Jacob wrestled all night long with God. And God appeared to Moses as a burning bush.

God was a pillar of cloud by day and a column of smoke by night as the nation of Israel wandered the wilderness. God’s spirit possessed the artisans who built and furnished the Tabernacle and Temple. And God fought with Israel’s army as the chosen nation took possession of the Promised Land.

The concept of the incarnation was already there, at least in seed form. But Jesus chose not to build on this traditional knowledge. Why?

Well, a suggestion: What about the victims?

God may very well have been with the army of Israel, fighting their battles as they overtook the Promised Land. But, at the same time, is that to say God wasn’t there with the victims too, as they were overcome, stricken down, and, as the Bible reports, slaughtered?

As he builds the concept of the incarnation from bread and wine, Jesus is teaching the common people of his day, people who likely would have identified more with the victim than the victor. Was God with them? At the same time, was God—could God be—with their Roman oppressors? If so, surely God was with each group of people in a different way!

So, today, Jesus talks about the incarnation in a new way.

And it’s visceral.

To eat his flesh and drink his blood is to ingest God. We bite, break apart, chew, swallow, digest, and expel God. The nutrients of Christ become part of our very flesh and blood. God is so incarnational that the Christ becomes part of who we are just as we become more of him and less ourselves.

3.

This was an altogether new concept, a unique way to view God.

So incarnational that we eat, digest, and expel him? Why, that’s just too earthy, too profane!

But is it?

I remember a scene from a high school Bible study I attended regularly—I’m not trying to be crass here; just to illustrate a point. The topic was prayer; and one of the girls made the mistake of telling the group that she prayed whenever she used the restroom.

Now, to be fair, in her own spiritual life she was trying to practice St. Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing. But, of course, the rest us, and especially the male percentage of the rest of us, giggled and laughed and jabbed each other in the ribs.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” one person said; “or at least you’re not supposed to tell us you do it!”

“Well, why not?” she asked.

“Because you’re not supposed to pray there!”

And yet the Apostle Paul does exhort us to pray without ceasing. Which began a weeks-long debate; and the phrase “praying on the potty” became a part of our Bible Study verbiage for the rest of the year: “How’s your prayer life doing?” someone would ask; “Still praying on the potty,” another would reply.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that the kind of language Jesus uses today to describe the incarnation is earthy, maybe even profane-feeling.

This language made a lot of people squirm in Jesus’ day; and it makes a lot of us squirm still today.

4.

We have no problem with the belief that God is transcendent; it’s our belief in immanence that we have trouble with. Understandably, we want to be reverent; we don’t want to be sacrilegious.

There is weighty precedence for what we do here each Sunday, namely approaching Christ together and communing at his Table. But God is also in every moment of our day and in every molecule of our being.

It’s okay to pray on the potty!

God is in here, in every moment and molecule of our being; and God is outside these walls too, in every moment and molecule of creation—

in the holy and reverent acts that are taking place in this and other houses of worship;

and also in the homeless hovels down in the riverbed, in the dregs of skid row, in rehab centers where people are recovering from addictions, in hospital ICUs where the sanctity of human life by necessity must take priority over matters of decency and modesty, and in anywhere else that might seem somehow too earthy or profane for our comfort levels.

And here’s where it all goes, as the rest of the Gospel of John proclaims: where the incarnation is, there too is God’s love.

Incarnation and love: you can’t have one without the other.

[i] Madeline Miller, Circe, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2018, p. 114.