Archive for the Homilies Category

Canaanite Confrontation

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

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Matthew 15:10-28

1.

What’s going on in today’s Gospel? Was Jesus a racist?

I mean, he comes across as fairly harsh, doesn’t he?

A Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting for him to have mercy on her and her daughter. And at first he doesn’t answer her at all.

Why not? Why doesn’t he at least turn and acknowledge her? If he can’t help her, why doesn’t he at least let her know?

Instead, nothing.

But she doesn’t leave.

We know this because the disciples start to pester Jesus. “Send her away,” they say, “for she keeps shouting after us.” She’s embarrassing us, they say. Do something to make her stop, they plead.

So Jesus responds—not to the woman but to his disciples—“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Only to Israel? But I thought God sent his Son to be the savior of the world. At least that’s what it says over in the Gospel of John! Why does Jesus focus on the exclusive race of Israel here in Matthew?

And if this isn’t already bad enough, after this woman has been calling after him for some time; after she has embarrassed the disciples; after Jesus says he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel; and after she comes and kneels before him and pleads, “Lord, help me”—after all this, Jesus calls her and her daughter dogs.

It is not fair, he says, to take the children’s food—the food that rightfully belongs to Israel—and throw it to those outside of Israel—to those less than Israel—to the dogs, he says.

And if you’re like me, you’re left to wonder: what in the world is going on here?

Was the man Jesus a racist?

2.

Some folks want us to think so.

Jesus was a Hebrew, after all, God’s chosen race; and this woman was not. She was a Canaanite.

And if you know your Old Testament history, then you know that the Canaanites were one of the people groups that God said to destroy totally.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-2, for instance, God, through Moses, says:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.”

Men. Women. Children. Animals. Totally destroy. In a word, Genocide.

I’m not talking here about terrorists, cults, or hate groups like Neo-Nazis or Skinheads. This is the people of God’s Old Covenant.

What are we supposed to do with scripture passages like this? What are we to do with today’s Gospel?

Was Jesus a racist? Is God racist?

Some folks want us to think so.

I’ve just named a few groups who twist religious beliefs into the fabric of their wicked ideologies—terrorists; Neo-Nazis; Skinheads; religious cults.

And, sadly, just this week the news has shown us crimes related to these ideologies—and even some serious political fallout!

But—this may surprise you—I’m not talking just hate groups. I’m talking Christians too, some of them mainstream Christians, maybe even Christians living right next door to you.

People you and I know—people we may even study the Bible with—believe that God prefers one group of people over another; or, to speak more bluntly, believe that God is racist.

3.

Now, can I just stop here for a moment and interrupt?

I want to make something clear.

Absolutely and unequivocally: I believe racism is wrong.

Is this not a self-evident, absolute, unequivocal truth?

In the beginning, God created humanity in God’s own image. Whatever else this means, here is dignity.

Dignity: being worthy of honor and respect.

Everyone!

Mutually!

Does this remind you at all of the Trinity? It should. For that perfect, divine dance is what God is calling each of us into; into that perfect image of God.

And how can there be any such thing as racism there, in the co-equal Trinity?

Whatever else you may think about God or Jesus; whatever you feel about those men who used cars as lethal weapons in Charlottesville and Barcelona; whatever grudges you might hold against individuals who in your mind represent an entire race of people; whatever bitterness and resentment you still harbor towards the 9/11 aggressors—hear this truth today: God has created all humanity in God’s image.

God’s image, every single individual human being—regardless of race, skin color, creed, sexual orientation, physical capabilities, attractiveness, intelligence, political ideologies, socioeconomic status, or any other distinguishing category you wish to name.

Is this not a self-evident, absolute, unequivocal truth? Racism is wrong.

And thus, no, God is not racist. God cannot be racist. God’s nature will not allow it.

Yet people make god into their image, don’t they? They fashion for themselves idols after their own likeness.

But that’s another sermon for another day. . . .

4.

To return then, what is happening in this episode with Jesus, the Canaanite woman, and her daughter? What do we make of Jesus’ apparent harshness towards them? Why does Jesus refer to them as “dogs”?

Here’s what I think is going on—I’ll just name it; and then I’ll attempt to explain it:

I don’t think Jesus is being harsh with the woman and her daughter at all—or racist, or prejudiced, or bigoted, or arrogant, or whatever.

I think, instead, Jesus is demonstrating just how harsh the Jewish leaders had made their own religion.

Now, my attempt to explain: from the broader context.

This episode in Matthew is the third time Jesus has had some kind of confrontation with the Jewish leaders.

In the first two episodes—both times—Jesus answers his opponents by referring to Hosea 6:6; which says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Two times before, Jewish religious leaders confronted Jesus because he had violated their traditions in some way. And two times before, Jesus had responded with words. It is not your traditions that matter, he said, as much as a heart for God.

Today’s passage follows a third confrontation.

His opponents just asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

Why do your disciples break our religious traditions, Jesus?

Jesus has already answered this question—in the past; twice already, as a matter of fact. God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

So this time he doesn’t answer—not with words, anyway.

Instead, the first thing Jesus does is explain that it is not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out.

To overlook a human tradition—not to wash one’s hands before eating—is not going to defile or corrupt someone. But to overlook God’s true law of love and mercy—that defiles and corrupts.

Thus, when the Canaanite woman confronts Jesus, he does not answer his opponents a third time verbally. Instead, he shows them that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

When the Canaanite woman first approaches Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me,” his silent response shows the Jewish leaders and his disciples how they themselves would have responded.

When he says that he has come only for the lost sheep of Israel, he is espousing well-established Jewish traditions, which maintained that the coming Messiah would save Israel alone.

And when he says the word dogs, he is saying exactly what the Jewish leaders would have said if they were in Jesus’ shoes.

Yet this is not where the story ends. Jesus shows the Jewish leaders and his disciples their folly by demonstrating where their traditions take them.

This is not where the story ends: Jesus then goes on to praise the Canaanite woman beyond anyone’s expectations.

“Great is your faith!” he exclaims. And in an act of divine mercy, he heals her daughter then and there.

Then and there he shows his opponents, those lovers of tradition: God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

God’s infinite and unbounded mercy extends to all peoples. God’s love cannot be bound by race or any other human invention.

5.

So, let’s get practical.

Racism is wrong; we’re agreed on that.

Yet throughout history, people—even in our own day; even some of our very neighbors; maybe even some of us—have utilized religious beliefs and traditions to support their heinous racist practices.

We saw this play out recently in Charlottesville and Barcelona.

Yet if racism is wrong—and it is—then utilizing our religion to support our racism is doubly wrong.

So what can we do about it?

It begins with us as individuals. Each of us must examine his or her own heart. Where do you find yourself expressing subtle prejudicial tendencies? In your words? In your actions? In both?

Look for them. And where you find them, repent.

Next, we must examine ourselves as a corporate body. Do we—and here I mean St. Thomas of Canterbury, and more broadly TEC—do we unconsciously practice favoritism toward one group of people over another?

Again, where we find these tendencies, we must repent.

And a third suggestion is to look around the community—your family, your workplace, your church, local organizations—and confront racism where you see it.

Ugh! Did he say confrontation? But some of us don’t like confrontation.

Yes, I did. And, yes, I know: I’m one of them.

My counsel to those who fear confrontation, including me, comes from last week’s message: Who Needs a Board when your Eyes are on the Lord?

Jesus has left us with a mission. It’s not beyond our capabilities. But sometimes storms arise.

Individual and societal racism is one of those storms. Confronting it is frightening. So frightening, even, that it can wreak havoc on our faith!

Yet what does Jesus say to his disciples?

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Beloved, through Jesus, we shall overcome our fears; through Jesus, we shall overcome racism.

Transfiguring Decline

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2017 by timtrue

My inaugural sermon at St. Thomas of Canterbury, last week, Transfiguration Day, August 6. just so happens I was able to touch on a lot of themes that characterize my ministry.

Luke 9:28-36

1.

Today is Transfiguration Day.

Imagine what it must have been like on that actual Day of Transfiguration for Peter, James, and John.

Who was this man, Jesus, exactly?

Yes, he’d called them away from their routine lives, offering a message of hope, redemption, and salvation. His was a good message. And convincing! So they’d left their routine lives and followed him.

And they’d witnessed him teaching, proclaiming good news to the oppressed and marginalized. They’d seen him perform miracles. Why, they’d even seen him raise a person from the dead!

But, really, was Jesus any different than the string of other messianic figures who’d popped up from time to time in the ancient world? Surely he wasn’t really God himself! He was a great teacher, a profound spiritual leader, and a healer. No doubt about it! So, godly, yeah! But God himself?

He leads these three disciples up a mountainside. And near the top, something spectacular, amazing, wonderful, and terrifying happens. Jesus, this great, godly, spiritual friend and leader, actually lights up!

What? How does a person light up? How does a person, shrouded in the darkness of a cloud, suddenly become illuminated brighter than the noonday sun?

And then, that voice! “This is my Son,” it booms, “my Chosen; listen to him!”

So, the disciples are left with few options. Either, one, they’re going insane; two, they’re dreaming; or, three, this man Jesus, their spiritual leader, teacher, friend, and healer, is actually who he says he is; and he is actually doing what he says he’s doing.

If we go with option three, Jesus is not merely a man, not merely another messianic figure to rile up an oppressed world; but he is actually God incarnate.

And that means—if we go with option three—that means he is accomplishing what he said he would. Namely, he is ushering in an entirely new age. The old is passing and the new has come. The kingdom of the old world, of humanity, is fading into darkness; whereas the kingdom of the new world, God’s world, is becoming more and more apparent, all around us!

What an exciting day for me to begin my tenure at STC! Transfiguration Day!

2.

One of the last sermons I preached was on Trinity Sunday, June 11. So, naturally, in preparation for today’s sermon, I’ve been drawing connections between the two, between the Trinity and the Transfiguration.

An important connection stems from the relationship within the Trinity.

Consider this: if God is Trinity—one-in-three and three-in-one, as our theology maintains—then God has always been this way. Always! As in, before the cosmos was ever created; as in, after the cosmos is fully transfigured into the new heavens and earth. God has always been three-in-one and one-in-three—outside of time and space, inside of time and space, always!

That means God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has always and will always be in relationship!

Well, what do you imagine this relationship to be like?

Do you imagine that it is characterized by one boss and two subjects? Does the Father employ the Son and the Holy Spirit to do his bidding?

If so, I imagine there would be disagreements, arguments, fights, and other kinds of divine drama taking place continuously. I imagine the Christian Trinity would then begin to look more like the Greco-Roman pantheon, where, for example, the lesser god Hermes deceives and manipulates the greater god Zeus in order to get his way.

But that just won’t do. For that understanding of the triune God—hierarchy—actually contradicts the definition of three-in-one and one-in-three.

Instead, the Trinity lives and dwells together in perfect unity, in perfect harmony, co-equally, and co-eternally. God, the Trinity, is love.

Huh. Sounds like something some ancient guy named Jesus once said, eh?

And that—that perfect harmony, unity, and co-equality—is what Jesus said he was doing. The Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus in his incarnation was ushering in, invites us to be a part of the very Trinity.

3.

Now, the early church seemed to catch on to Jesus’ message—right up until the turn of the fifth century or so.

The early church called together ecumenical councils—meetings of bishops all over the world, as far as Christianity had spread—to hammer out theological differences.

You know what the chief focal point of these councils was? The Trinity.

And from these councils a statement of faith has descended to us, largely unchanged; a statement of faith whose primary theme is the Trinity; a statement of faith we still confess together weekly.

We call it the Nicene Creed.

But around the turn of the fifth century, things began to change in the church. One bishop began to feel more important than another. And so he became the archbishop. Another responded by calling himself another fancy term: metropolitan.

One Christian city—or center—called itself more important than another. Oh, they were all important, to be sure. But one had to be in charge, after all. I mean, come on! It’s simple common sense. For all that Trinity, Pie-in-the-Sky idealism, we can’t really function in co-equal relationships after all, can we? One archbishop must be in preeminent authority over all other archbishops and metropolitans. One archbishop must be the, shall we say, Papa, aka Pope?

And so, around the turn of the fifth century, church government became hierarchical.

Just like ancient Roman government.

And thus, then, the church looked more like ancient Rome—with its emperor and senators and equestrians—than it did the Trinity.

But I thought Jesus was ushering in a new era, an era of harmony, unity, and co-equality.

I thought his followers would no more be subject to the oppression of the secular establishment, like the hierarchical structures of the Roman government.

I thought, too, they would no more be subject to a religious establishment which capitalized on fear to dominate its subjects.

I thought the Transfiguration was not simply about an individual man being transformed before the eyes of a few other individuals.

I thought, instead, the Transfiguration was about fundamentally altering all of the cosmos: about transforming the world from darkness to light, from death to life, from oppression to liberation; about eradicating hierarchy so that all humanity—no, all creation!—should dwell together in unity, harmony, and perfect love; in that divine dance that is the Trinity!

4.

At one point in my Trinity Sunday sermon I asked my audience to imagine what church might look like today if that turn-of-the-fifth-century change had never happened.

What if the church had continued to develop its theology and understanding of a co-equal, co-eternal Trinity? What would it mean for our liturgy? What would our music sound like? What would our art look like? What would our architecture feel like?

These are good questions for us to consider too. For today, as in the day of Jesus, a transfiguration is taking place. And it’s affecting you and me, STC, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, mainline Christian denominations in the US, even Christianity all over the world.

Church isn’t what it was forty years ago. Attendance is down. People who do attend aren’t attending for the same reasons they used to. Church no longer satisfies the social longing it once did. Missing church is no longer the social taboo it once was. On the pragmatic side, people aren’t giving as much as they used to.

All this leaves church leaders (like me) scratching our collective head. What about rents? What about missions? What about our dues to the diocese? Is our way of doing church still sustainable?

It’s a kind of transfiguration. Around the world on this Transfiguration Day the church is experiencing a profound change.

Very interesting that my first Sunday celebrating at STC is Transfiguration Day, eh?

So: Transfiguration Day is about much more than the transfiguration of an individual man—a good teacher, spiritual leader, and healer. Jesus’ Transfiguration destroyed all ideas of him being anything less than God incarnate.

Transfiguration Day is also about the church’s transfiguration.

It’s time to destroy all ideas that we are anything less than a divine institution. It’s time to leave behind the old models—the old hierarchies, the top-down leadership, the idea that “Father knows best,” and so on—and return to the even older models of Trinitarian relationship, of divine dance, of harmony, unity, and love.

From Spigot to Rivers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2017 by timtrue

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John 7:37-39

“‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit.

1.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, like living water, will flow out of the believer’s heart.

It won’t just be the trickle of a low-flow spigot, he says; but rivers.

However!

Is this what we see in churches today? When we look around, do we see rivers of living water flowing forth from Christians, quenching the spiritual thirst of this parched land?

Yes, our land is parched. Yes, we’re thirsty.

We see spiritual thirst, for instance, in our individualism.

Culture tells me to be independent, self-sufficient, and confident in my own abilities. It’s a tempting message, especially when society is so accommodating to my independence.

I get in my car. I drive to the Starbucks I choose. And I order a café mocha, my favorite drink, except not as it appears on the menu but as I prefer it, with half the sweetener and twice the chocolate! Then I return to my home to watch my TV programs that I’ve pre-recorded to suit my schedule—after I run through my favorite apps that I’ve customized to my iPhone.

Ever wonder why it’s called the “i” Phone?

But, notice. This message is not all it’s cracked up to be. The “i” on the iPhone is lower case. You are actually quite dependent on others, whether you care to admit it or not.

And have you seen what this message does to relationships—or, should I say, to individuals trying to have relationships with other individuals?

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said. And yet that’s all most people seem to want anymore: to be left alone.

In the end, the water that independence sells us leaves us thirsty.

Likewise, there’s spiritual thirst in society.

Perhaps our societal spiritual thirst is seen best in the decline in mainline church attendance over the last four decades. Other spiritual are waters out there—spiritual waters that today seem more attractive than church. Their sellers have done a good job at marketing them, at making them more attractive.

I think we Christians are more to blame for this decline than those sellers though. For, if the unchurched or de-churched could actually see our living water, like the woman at the well, they would want it.

But they don’t see it. Which is our fault. Because—my thinking anyway—it’s not flowing out of us.

Oh, it’s there all right—living water. It’s just not flowing out of us. Instead, it’s bottled up inside our independent selves.

Thus we see spiritual thirst all around us; thirst that can only be quenched by the living waters of the Holy Spirit, by the living waters that we possess. So, let’s get it out there already!

2.

Speaking of the Holy Spirit, today is Pentecost Sunday. It is the day in the Church when we recall the Holy Spirit descending from heaven and entering all peoples.

This is a big day on the Church calendar, right up there with Christmas and Easter!

Now, God sent his Son to be Incarnate from the Virgin Mary. And we definitely see this remembered and celebrated in our churches today—also in the world around us. Christmas and Easter festivities abound!

But God sent the Holy Spirit too. And the Holy Spirit is a lot like Jesus: another Advocate; God dwelling with us.

So, when’s the last time you walked into CVS and heard Pentecost carols playing from the speakers overhead? (For that matter, just between us, Pentecost hymns in our own hymnal are few and far between–and not very catchy!)

When’s the last time you walked down the greeting card aisle to buy some Pentecost greeting cards to give to your beloved friends and family members?

And why don’t we practice longstanding cultural traditions that involve a big, cuddly dove? A dove to descend our chimneys, maybe, and give us gifts? Doves fly better than reindeer, after all. Or red plastic dove egg hunts in our church courtyards? Doves actually lay eggs, after all, unlike bunnies.

No, by and large, we forget about Pentecost.

Maybe we should just get rid of it then, eh? Time to move on already—get with the times! Maybe we should just give up trying to figure out who or what the Holy Spirit is and just eliminate him, her, or it from our theology, liturgy, and practice.

3.

Who is the Holy Spirit anyway? Or, to frame it another way, what if we were just to get rid of the Holy Spirit altogether?

The Creed tells us who the Holy Spirit is. We say the Creed together most Sundays, including that section about the Holy Spirit: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” and so on.

But what do these words really mean? They all seems rather nondescript.

There’s this line: “He has spoken through the Prophets.” I get that one. Sort of. I mean, there were these fringy people in the Old Testament stories who stood their ground against dictators and despots; and how could anyone have done that unless they were empowered by something divine—or at least something supernatural, or unnatural?

But how do we make sense of the lines that follow?

“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. / We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. / We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

What in the world do these words have to do with the Holy Spirit?

Maybe nothing. Maybe they’re just some important bullet points that the Creed compilers felt compelled to include somewhere—like a kind of faith appendix statement.

Anyway, why couldn’t the Creed compilers have been more concrete, like they were with respect to Jesus?

Jesus! He was born of the Virgin Mary, tried before Pilate, crucified, died, and rose again on the third day. Also, he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Yes, Jesus is easy to believe in. It’s all right there in the Creed, concrete, before our eyes.

So why do the words about the Holy Spirit have to be so abstract?

To which I say, yes, they are abstract. The Holy Spirit is a bit confusing—and has been for the entire history of the Church.

But notice this: everything about the Holy Spirit in the Creed has a communal focus.

The Holy Spirit spoke through individual prophets, yes. But why? It was to rouse a collective people, a nation: to pray as a people; to convict a nation of its societal sin; to rouse the nation to justice—which is just the profile of corporate love’s face.

And as for those other statements?

One holy catholic and apostolic Church means our communal faith with all the saints of all the ages.

Our baptism is our entrance rite into the one fold of God.

And as for the resurrection of the dead? Every single person who walks this earth will die. You cannot get more communal than that!

So, what happens if we just get rid of the Holy Spirit altogether?

We lose our prophets, our teachings, our conviction, our prayers, our communion, our baptism, our justice, our love.

You see, a god without the Person of the Holy Spirit is like a swimming pool without water. What’s the point? It has form and function but fails to serve its purpose.

If the Holy Spirit is not flowing from us like rivers of living water, what’s the point? We might testify of God’s form and function; yet what good are our testimonies when we fail to accomplish Christ’s mission?

4.

So, how do we get the living water of the Holy Spirit to flow out of us?

Well, it looks like the stuff I just mentioned—Spirit stuff, I call it: corporate belief, prayer, communion, baptism, justice, and love. Or, to use the words of our patron, it looks like “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”—the things St. Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”

And that starts with each of us, as individual followers of Christ.

What? Did I just say individuals?

Yes!

I know many of my messages talk about our salvation, faith, belief, and so on in a corporate way. I’m not waffling on this theme! The Bible is clear throughout: Jesus’ mission is not to save individual souls from a world that is hellbound; but to save the world, the cosmos, all of it, by redeeming and restoring it to its rightful state. He’s already redeemed it, by the way; and now it’s up to us, his corporate church, to restore it.

But here’s the thing.

Do you remember what I said about that spigot? Jesus did not say, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow a trickling spigot of living water.” He said rivers.

But an individual, trickling spigot is better for a dry and parched land than nothing at all.

The living water of the Holy Spirit starts with each one of us. Each one of us would do well to live a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit. See what this looks like in Galatians 5. And to help us, St. Paul also includes a contrasting list, “the works of the flesh,” he calls them, the things that shouldn’t flow from us.

And when this living water begins to trickle from you, even if you are a low-flow spigot, well, hey, at least it’s something! And when a second low-flow spigot opens up nearby, why, its trickle joins yours and the two become a bigger flow.

And a third trickle combines to make the flow bigger still.

And so on, each one of us intentionally committing to live a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, until our individual, low-flow trickles become a brook; our brooks a stream; our streams a creek; and our creeks, eventually, mighty rivers of living water, to renew and revitalize a parched and dry land.

Come, Holy Spirit!

Adopting a Classical Cosmology

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by timtrue

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Ascension Day

1.

Since coming to St. Paul’s and the Diocese of San Diego, I’ve become keenly aware of the mainline American church’s decline over the past four decades.

Many parishes, including ours, have endured splits. Attendance and pledges have dropped significantly. Thousands of churches have closed their doors, given up, and walked away from their mission.

Here are just a few startling statistics from episcopalchurch.org demonstrating the decline in our denomination from 2005-2015:

2005                    2015

Total number of congregations:     7,635                    6,996

Active baptized members:              2.37 million         1.92 million

Average Sunday attendance:           830,706               614,241

These statistics yield an unnerving observation. Over the past decade the Episcopal Church’s average Sunday attendance has dropped by 26% and the active baptized membership has dropped by 19%; yet the total number of congregations has dropped by less than 9%. So: membership is dropping twice as fast as congregations are closing, a trend that is not sustainable.

And, thus, at the risk of sounding like a prophet of doom, I offer this prediction: the Episcopal Church will have to close many more congregations and sell off many more properties in order to reach a point of sustainability once more—even if the decline in membership plateaus!

Sad, I know. And worrisome! I mean, what if we—St. Paul’s—ever reach a point where we just can’t afford to keep the lights on anymore? Will the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in Yuma be forever cut off? And, is there anything we can do about it?

2.

Well, yes, there is something we can do about it. But before I tell you what, permit me to digress for a bit into the realm of ancient Greek cosmology. It is Ascension Day, after all; so why not hear what Plato had to say about the ascended bodies in the heavens—the sun, moon, and stars?

To begin with then, the ancient Greeks viewed our world as very unstable: our world—where we walk, talk, and otherwise live our lives—is subject to constant change.

This continual instability is readily apparent in the four elements of which our world is comprised: earth, water, air, and fire.

The order of these elements is intentional.

Earth is the heaviest. Take a handful of soil or a stone and throw it into a pond. What happens? It sinks.

Water, next, rises from the depths only as high as the air above it will allow. Or, on the flipside, rain falls; and rivers flow downward, to the sea.

Air is the element where we humans dwell—we humans, ourselves a complicated mixture of earth, water, air, and fire.

And fire, as we all know, rises through the air: it tries to escape the dominion of the air to reach its source, the sun.

Earth, water, air, fire. This is our world. And it’s constantly changing.

Earth seeks to go into the sea and sink to the bottom, where it can join the deepest pillars of the universe.

The sea itself—the water to which all waters flow—is at constant war with itself, rising and falling daily in what we call the tides. And have you ever tried to sail across it? It can be fiercer than the greatest navy; or smooth as glass. Talk about bi-polar!

Air is similarly unpredictable. It varies its temperature daily, up and down; and fluctuates vastly more broadly with the seasons—not to mention the rains, thunderings, lightnings, and tempests that so often infect it.

And as for fire, just light one and watch what happens! Anyone can see that it is trying to escape upward, back to where it belongs, back to its rightful home.

The world we inhabit is in a state of constant flux, change, even chaos.

Yet something curious happens when we gaze into the heavens: the flux, change, and chaos seem to diminish and even disappear.

Now, the planets are admittedly tricky. Take Venus. Sometimes she’s the morning star; other times she’s the evening star; and still other times she’s nowhere to be found. She can be unpredictable—which is why she’s a she and the other planets are all hes. Still, the same can be said, though to a lesser extent, about the others—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Nevertheless, there seems to be some rhyme and reason to the planets, even Venus, much more so than the chaos that surrounds us in our daily world; we just haven’t figured it out yet.

But as for the sun and the moon, well, we know what they’re all about. We can predict when the sun will rise and set; and his exact path across the sky on any given day. And, though she seems to follow the sun’s lead, we can say the same about the moon.

And beyond them? Ah, yes, the stars; the most certain, fixed, and stable things we know.

— For the ancient Greeks, all generation and corruption happened in the sub-solar region of the universe; whereas, on the other hand, the celestial region was uncorrupted, unchanging and perfect.

3.

Next, consider today’s lectionary. It tells the story of Jesus’ ascension: that day, forty days after he rose from the grave, when he commissioned his disciples to carry on his mission, instructed them to wait for the coming Holy Spirit, blessed them, and rose from their sight into the heavens.

I died and rose again, he told them.

And now I am rising to the Father, he said.

He will send the Holy Spirit soon, he said, to carry on the work I started.

In other words, he said, the Father and the Holy Spirit are in on it too: my mission, that is.

And they dwell in the heaven of heavens, he said.

Where I soon will dwell with them, he said.

We three are uncorrupted, unchanging, and perfect, he said.

My mission therefore cannot fail, he said.

Even when people reject me, he said.

Even when mainline American church membership declines, he said.

Even when congregations must close and properties must be sold, he said.

My mission cannot fail.

The Church—with an upper-case C—will prevail. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. His Church—his mission—will persevere to the end.

4.

Ancient Greek cosmology teaches us a lot about our faith.

Though things might seem to be falling apart right in front of our nose—though membership is declining and we find ourselves lamenting the “good old days,” whatever those were—we follow a Leader who is uncorrupted, unchanging, and perfect. Our ultimate mission is one that will not fail.

At the same time, however—on the other hand—ancient Greek cosmology reminds us that everyday life is in fact full of change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos.

Our mission is to share the Good News in such a way that yields transformation: transformation of individual lives into the perfect image of Christ; transformation of communities into the corporate Body of Christ; transformation of the realm of the world into the realm of God.

Indeed, just in its definition, the word transformation implies change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos.

But the Episcopal Church has largely become an established church: with established buildings and established properties and established vestments and established liturgies and established music and established traditions—

Ever wonder if our message to the world is that we’re already transformed, nothing more needed, thank you very much?

If transformation is indeed our mission, why should we ever expect those we’re hoping to reach to meet us on our terms—to adapt to our traditions?

If the Church’s decline over the past four decades confronts us with anything, it is with our need to change. The way we’ve always done church, in all its deep richness, is no longer sustainable. As ancient Greek cosmology shows us, our world is just too unstable.

5.

So, is there anything we can do about it?

While it is true that the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations have been in steady decline for the past four decades, it doesn’t have to be so for us, here, in this particular parish called St. Paul’s.

You see, here’s how decline happens.

Change makes us uncomfortable. So we try to avoid it, to control our world so that we are confronted by the least amount of change possible.

But change will happen. Long-time parishioners grow old and pass away. People get mad over a matter of theology and leave—along with their pledges. New people come—hopefully! Volunteers come and go. Staff members come and go. Rectors and bishops come and go. Change is inevitable.

When we try to avoid or ignore change; or when we try to control our environments so that we are confronted by as little change as possible, since we can’t avoid it altogether we effectively put change in the driver’s seat.

And change is a bad driver! When we let change drive us around, decline is inevitable.

On the other hand, what if we accept the truth that change will come? Or, better yet, what if we are intentional about making changes ourselves? What if we are proactive—if we actively plan for and make changes and prepare for their effects?

Then we put St. Paul’s in the driver’s seat.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a driver than a passenger.

Anyway, putting it all together, in order to combat decline in the church—in order to continue with Jesus’ mission of transformation—we must adopt an ancient Greek cosmology.

That is, we must embrace the uncomfortable idea that everyday life is full of change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos; and, at the same time, we must fix our vision on the uncorrupted, unchanging, perfect Trinity and Christ’s mission to transform the world.

Common Focus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2017 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 10:1-10

Today’s Gospel offers us an image of sheep, shepherds, a gatekeeper, and a gate. It evokes the care and concern Jesus expresses for each of us.

He is our good shepherd, we like to say.

And so Psalm 23 comes to mind, where, yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Jesus’ rod and staff comfort me.

Or I recall that popular poem Footprints, in which, as I look back on my life’s journey, I see a pair of footprints on the beach; only during the hardest times I realize now there was only one set of footprints, not a pair. Why did you leave me alone then, Jesus, I ask? Only to hear the answer that I wasn’t alone at all; that, instead, these one-set-of-footprints times were when Jesus was in fact carrying me.

Or I bring to my mind’s eye that kitschy piece of visual art in which a blond-haired, blue-eyed shepherd Jesus is tenderly carrying a lamb across his shoulders. He is my shepherd, I think, and I am his little lamb.

Aww. How precious!

And thus today’s Christian culture has developed a whole theology of self. It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus, we say. Jesus meets me where I am, we say. What else matters, we ask, as long as I love Jesus?

Common good? Community? Church? Bah! Who needs ’em?

I’m fine on my own, thank you very much. I’ve got my Bible and my cross and my Jesus; and I’ll be fine just packing them all in my car and driving out to the beach this Sunday where I can find a spot to do church all by myself.

That’s my sheepfold. That’s my shepherd. That’s my gate.

As for the corporate church, it’s just a fallible human institution established and maintained by people who just want to perpetuate their version of reality. Where’s the corporate church—where’s that manmade institution—in the Bible? That’s what I would like to know!

Why should only priests get to consecrate the Eucharist? Why are only bishops authorized to ordain? I’ll tell you. It’s because priests and bishops made all the rules!

No, as far as I can see, nothing else matters except that I love Jesus!

We love modern Christianity, because so much of modern Christianity is all about me!

We—you and I—are the sheep, yes.

Yet Jesus is the gate.

And the gate, not the sheep, is the focus of today’s lesson.

These are Jesus’ very words, by the way. Elsewhere he says, “I am the good shepherd.” But not here; not today. Today, Jesus is the gate.

Now, a sheepfold in the ancient world was an area closed off by a tall rock wall; completely enclosed except for one opening, the gate. The top surface of the wall would be lined with thorns and sharp sticks, to discourage climbing, a sort of razor wire of the ancient world. Other than climbing over or dismantling the wall, then, there was only one way in and out of the sheepfold: through the gate.

By way of the one gate, the sheep were led out to pasture every day, to rich, green, nutritive grass—when the sun was up; when the shepherd could easily see predators and thieves by the clear light day.

And by way of the one gate, the sheep were led back into the sheepfold every night, back into safety, back into a place of protection from predators and thieves.

At a certain time in the morning, and at a certain time in the evening, the gate would open and all the sheep would pass through. Twice a day.

Otherwise, the gate was shut and locked.

The sheep were given abundant life—food, water, protection, community—because of the one gate, the one way in and out of their sheepfold, twice a day, every day.

But sheep are shortsighted.

By day, they go out to pasture. There’s plenty of room for all. They each find a delicious-looking bit of hillside or a shady dale with a year-round water source, stake out their territory, and begin to munch.

And by the clear light of day, their life looks pretty good.

So they call their friends together for a kind of show-and-tell. “He-e-ey,” they say, “look what I’ve found. Look what I’ve done. I’ve got a good job, the neighborhood’s safe, my kids are going to good schools. My life’s pretty good, eh?”

And all their friends say, “Yea-a-ah!”

But by night, all the sheep are gathered together back into the sheepfold. Now things aren’t so comfortable. It’s cramped, noisy, and smelly. Now things aren’t as easy to see. It’s dark and dusty in the sheepfold.

And so now, that same clever-yet-shortsighted sheep who outside was boasting to his friends by day all about the good life he’d made for himself—now, by night, by darkness, his conversation changes. So does his tone.

“He-e-ey,” he calls to his friends, “what’s the deal with this sheepfold anyway? Safety concerns? Wolves? Rustlers? Bah! Ever hear of electric lights? Don’t they know anything around here? If you ask me, I don’t trust the management! Hey, you listening to me? Oy, get your chops out of my fa-a-ace!”

Do you ever wonder if maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things?

Ever wonder if we here in the sheepfold are focusing so much on our own patch of grassy hillside that we lose sight of our life together? Or, even more importantly, of the gate?

Ever wonder if we get so upset at the management of the sheepfold or the discomfort of living in close fellowship with one another that we end up shortchanging ourselves of abundant life?

Ever wonder what good church is at all? Nothing else matters except that I love Jesus. So why church at all?

The goal of today’s Gospel—the trajectory; where we’re going; the end of the rainbow (if you like)—is abundant life.

Jesus is the gate through which we sheep may enjoy abundant life. And sheep don’t pass through this gate solo. All enter together; all exit together.

Let me tell you: if you’re trying to live an abundant life on your own, you will fail.

There are many aphorisms about the Christian life out there floating around, aphorisms you like, for I hear you saying them to each other:

  • Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.
  • You must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • Nothing else matters but me and Jesus.
  • Jesus meets you where you are (or, with careless grammar, where you’re at).

But here’s the straight and skinny. Whatever truth is in these aphorisms, the Christian life is not all about you, as an individual. Rather, the Christian life is about focusing on Jesus, our one gate, together. It’s a common focus.

Abundant life doesn’t happen when we’re solo. Abundant life happens only in community.

So, don’t try to enter through the gate by yourself.

You might not be able to tell so well from the English, because the word sheep in English can be either singular or plural. But in Greek, everywhere we see it today it’s plural! Always and everywhere the sheep enter and exit through the gate together.

Do you know what happens when you try to enter or exit by yourself? The gate is shut and locked!

It’s not about just you and Jesus then. It’s about the community.

We live in a country that values freedom. And for that I am grateful!

But into the third millennium–and the third century of our country’s history–freedom has become less and less about the common good and more and more about the individual. We want our individual freedoms! We want our individual rights! We demand our right to bear arms! We don’t want others to tell us what we can do with our bodies!

And just like our personal, individual freedoms, we want our personal, individual religion!

Ever see Talladega Nights? Very funny movie about NASCAR!

Well, there’s a scene in which the protagonist, Ricky Bobby, says grace before an evening meal. He starts out, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus . . .” and goes through a litany of thanksgiving for food and family and friends and money and Powerade, always addressing God as “Dear Baby Jesus,” until finally his wife can’t stand it any longer and speaks up:

“You keep praying to baby Jesus! Why don’t you pray to the grown-up Jesus?”

To which he answers, “I’m saying grace, so I’ll pray to the Jesus I want to pray to. When it’s your turn to say grace, you can pray to grown-up Jesus!”

When it comes to religion, we want our personal, individual freedoms!

But the Bible’s testimony throughout just doesn’t work that way.

In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

God did not save one person, Moses, from Pharaoh’s hand of oppression; but a whole nation.

God sent his Son, Jesus, not to save you personally, individually from your sins; God so loved the world that he sent his Son to redeem it from sin and death and to restore it to perfection.

At baptism, we are baptized into one body. Godparents are there. The congregation participates. The entrance rite into the sheepfold is a corporate act!

And how did Jesus teach us to pray? “Our Father,” he says, not my Father—and most definitely not, “My Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” According to the Bible, prayer is normally a corporate act.

And what of the Eucharist? We call this sacrament Communion, which means common union. In this sacrament we come together as one.

We have not been called to focus on our own, individual patches of grassy hillside. We have not been called to focus on the petty disagreements we have with each other and “the management.”

But we have been called to a life together, corporately, with one focus: Christ and his mission to save the world.

The sheepfold’s focus is the gate; the church’s focus is Jesus Christ.

I know this sounds counter-cultural. That’s because it is. Many aspects of Christianity are.

But the Christian religion is and always has been about the one Body of Christ and never about me as an individual. TEC is and always has been about the common good above my own, personal comfort.

And thank God it’s so!

Because, do you know what happens when we forget this—when we make it all about my personal relationship with Jesus; when we ask questions like, what else matters as long as I love Jesus?

I’ll tell you what happens. Everything gets inverted.

Instead of being transformed into the image of Christ, we transform Christ into our own image.

Instead of asking, “How can I serve Christ?” we expect him to serve me.

But it’s not about me.

It’s about the gate—and paying attention to it; to when it opens and when it shuts, and passing through when I’m supposed to: along with everyone else. It’s about abundant life, being transformed—together with you and the world—into the perfect Body of Christ.

Calling Light

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2017 by timtrue

Been a while since I’ve posted. Not that I haven’t been writing! Chalk it more up to being too busy, if anything. Out of necessity, really, my blog has dropped to a lower rung on the priority ladder recently. Maybe it’s because Holy Week and Easter make up the busiest time of the year for us pastors. Maybe it’s because a nasty virus decided to make itself at home for a while in my body. Maybe it’s because I recently announced my resignation from St. Paul’s (blog post to follow soon on THAT). Maybe, probably, it’s a combination. Whatever the case, what follows is my sermon from Easter Day, April 16.

Antiveduto_Gramatica_-_Mary_Magdalene_at_the_Tomb_-_WGA10352[1]

John 20:1-18

Today is Easter:

  • the day when Jesus rose from the dead;
  • the day when enslaving sin, darkness, and death have been forever vanquished;
  • the day when more visitors come to church than any other of the year.

And so, on this day when more visitors are likely to attend than any other, we pastors are told, trim the roses, cut the lawn, clean the bathrooms, create an inviting nursery space, provide a fun Easter egg hunt, and, by all means, preach a simple sermon!

Well, I do hope you visitors and regulars alike find our grounds appealing and our facilities clean and our Easter egg hunt fun.

But I’m not so sure about the simple sermon.

I may not be the best gauge, but my impression is that visitors to church in this day and age aren’t really looking for some easy, laid back, elevator homily. If that’s what people are after, in my experience anyway, then in this day and age, why come to church at all—on Easter or any other Sunday?

People aren’t visiting church like they used to, we all know that. The sense of obligation—the social pressure—just isn’t there anymore.

Instead, visitors to churches on this Easter Sunday—as I see it anyway—more often than not are genuinely interested in the Christian story.

So, that’s what I’m going to do today: I’m going to tell the Christian story.

And I’m not going to hold back. I’m going to ask you to put on your thinking caps; to make some connections between the old, old story and our modern lives, connections that maybe haven’t occurred to us before.

So: our starting point is a metaphor.

If you’ve been with me for the last several weeks, during Lent this year, then you’ve heard me refer to this metaphor time and again; for we’ve been hearing the Good News from the Gospel of John this year, and John makes much of this metaphor.

If you haven’t been with me, however, not to fret: the metaphor is easy enough: light and darkness.

In the Gospel of John, darkness especially represents confusion; and light, clarity.

Think back to Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the man born blind, and Lazarus. All experienced a time of confused, muddled darkness. And all came into a light of clarity, of greater understanding about who Jesus really is and how to respond to him. Even Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus in the middle of the night and then disappeared back into the darkness from which he came—even Nicodemus came into the light of the fading day in order to haul Jesus’ corpse from the cross to the tomb.

This association—darkness represents confusion and light clarity—is an easy enough one to make, even in our day and age when light is available 24/7. Things aren’t as easy to see in the darkness. We get lost more easily. We know this from personal experience. Ever been in a blackout?

This metaphor has framed our Lenten journey in the Gospel of John.

Lent is over now, yes. But we’re still in the Gospel of John.

And thus, despite a new liturgical season; despite a shift in focus from repentance to resurrection, today, with Mary Magdalene, this metaphor continues.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Some say she was a prostitute. Ever heard that one? My guess is yes. Artists throughout the centuries have portrayed her that way. It’s a popular idea. There have been several “houses for fallen women” named after her, in Europe, England, and North America.

Or, how about this one: she was the secret wife of Jesus and the mother of his children? Dan Brown popularized this rumor in his books, including The Da Vinci Code. But it’s not just fast-paced literature. This story too, like the prostitute one, has been floating around for more than a millennium.

But the Bible never says either of these things. The prostitute rumor was started by a Pope, Gregory I, in the sixth century.

My personal opinion is that he didn’t like the idea of a woman receiving so much credit; and thus sought to discredit her.

And the secret wife story? It originates, probably, from an apocryphal gospel of the second- or third-century.

So, what does the Bible say?

The answer is, not much.

She is named as having been delivered by Jesus from seven demons. We don’t know more than that—what kinds of sins she committed because of the demons’ influence on her and so on, although this demonic oppression is the connection Gregory made to prostitution.

She may very well have been the Mary of Bethany, who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. If so—which I happen to believe—then she is also the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with that expensive perfume, called nard.

Delivered from seven demons. Maybe Lazarus’s sister. Maybe the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

And then there’s what we see today, this bit in the Gospel of John.

That’s it! That’s Mary Magdalene!

Oh, but what we see today is spectacular!

She comes to the tomb, while it is still dark, and finds it empty. This confuses her—as darkness is so often equated with confusion in the Gospel. So she runs to tell the disciples.

Her confusion is expanded in the narrative that follows. Two of the disciples, Peter and another, an unnamed disciple, race to the tomb and confirm what Mary has said. The body of their friend and leader is gone. Where he was laid, now there are only rags.

One of these two disciples believes, continuing the theme of hope seen in Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea; but the Evangelist is quick to point out that still they do not understand.

They’re still confused. They’re still in darkness. And in this state they return, like Nicodemus had done, into the darkness from which they came, shaking their heads.

But Mary stays.

And she stands there weeping.

And this time it is not the light of the sun that opens Mary’s understanding, but the white light of two angels. They speak to her, and as they do a voice behind her calls and—behold!—it is Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. And in this sense, she is the first real convert to the Christian faith. Ever!

And, even more profound, she’s the first person, the only person thus far, Jesus entrusts with the Good News, the Gospel. She’s the one told by the resurrected Jesus himself to go and share the Good News that he is indeed risen from the dead.

It’s not Peter, into whose hands Jesus placed the keys to the kingdom.

It’s not John, that disciple whom Jesus loved, without whose Gospel we would be left with an incomplete Bible.

It’s not any of his male disciples—which frustrated the dickens out of Pope Gregory.

But it’s Mary Magdalene, a woman, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. It’s Mary Magdalene, who anointed Jesus’ feet with a year’s wages out of simple gratitude. It’s Mary Magdalene, whose brother Lazarus was now raised from the dead to new life.

I wonder, what would have happened to the church if Mary had not gone and done what Jesus told her to do on that day so long ago? What if Mary just threw her hands in the air, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “I’ll just let one of the men handle it”?

Never mind! Mary Magdalene is and ever will be the Apostle to the Apostles.

(And Jesus is and ever will be a feminist!)

Light is connected to clarity in the Gospel of John. But if we’ve seen anything else this year during Lent, it’s that the Light of Christ is also a call to action.

Nicodemus comes by the fading light of day, in full view of a hostile world, to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and lay it in a grave.

The Samaritan Woman drops her water jar in the full light of midday to run and tell her friends and family the Good News.

The man born blind is made to see and immediately follows Jesus.

Lazarus hears Jesus’ voice and comes forth.

And Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, tells the disciples that Jesus is risen, alleluia.

By the new light of the Easter dawn, Mary acts.

And the world is a better place for it.

By the light of this Easter Day, you too have acted; for you are here.

Now let’s go out and continue to act; and make the world a better place for the sake of the risen Christ.

Alleluia. Alleluia.

Yield to the Elephant

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2017 by timtrue

elephabt and rider

John 4:5-42

At the beginning of last week’s sermon, I observed that for the next four Sundays during Lent in Year A we will encounter four special people from the Gospel of John.

Last week, then, was a man named Nicodemus.  He and Jesus meet and have a difficult conversation about the nature and scope of salvation.

In this week’s passage, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well—and through him we too encounter her.  They have a difficult conversation about social norms and religious expectations.

Last week, also, I observed that there is an overarching theme of light and darkness governing this Gospel, a kind of lens through which we should interpret Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus and this Samaritan Woman.

But just about there the similarities stop: other than we encounter both of these characters in the Gospel of John and nowhere else in our scriptures; that they have conversations with Jesus about complicated matters; and that the theme of light and darkness should be our lens through which we interpret our encounters with these characters—other than these similarities there’s not much else these two have in common.

Consider:

  • N comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness. On the other hand, Jesus encounters the SW at about noon, in the full light of day.
  • N is a Pharisee, a member of a devout Jewish sect. For him, worship follows a finely tuned liturgy.  He comes from a proud lineage, from a people who see themselves as God’s chosen. On the other hand, the SW is a Samaritan, a half-blood people largely despised by the full-blooded Jews.  The Samaritans look to Jacob as their spiritual ancestor but figure it is acceptable to worship in their own way: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” she says, “but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Moreover, the Samaritans are largely forgotten by the Romans, the political rulers of the day.  Together, their despised and forgotten status makes Samaritans the lowest rung on the racial ladder.
  • On the one hand, N is a Teacher of Israel. This title signifies position, authority, and respect.  His people know him and he knows his people. On the other hand, the SW is just that, a woman.  That makes her already in the background of society.  The fact that she is a Samaritan makes it doubly so.  But to come to a community well at about noon says even more: she’s not there with the other women, who came earlier in the day, to gather water for their daily chores before the day grew too warm.  Perhaps her aloneness has to do with her present, somewhat scandalous living arrangement.  Perhaps it’s for some other reason.  Whatever the case, this poor woman is as much a social outcast as N is in the limelight.
  • Also, there’s this, whatever we want to make of it: N seeks Jesus; whereas the SW was found by Jesus.

In this comparison, it’s not just darkness and light: another theme rises to the surface; a theme I want to explore with you today. It’s a theme with which we are all very familiar: head vs. heart.

We think with our heads, our rationality.

We feel from our hearts, our seat of emotion.

These two—head and heart—can work together in beautiful harmony; for instance, in matters of social justice.

My friend Debby, from Texas, works as an adoption lawyer.  Early in her career she found herself confronted by a cumbersome adoption process, difficult to navigate for both the child and the parents-to-be: her heart was moved.  So, she took what she knew, adoption law—her head—and combined it with her new passion, a just adoption process—her heart—and now fights for this cause.

But, also, as we all know from our annual attempts at New Year’s Resolutions—in matters, shall we say, of personal justice—head and heart can work against each other.

January 1st rolls around and you vow to yourself, “Okay, here goes: all year long, you’re allowed only one glass of wine with dinner.”  And—you know the story—the first few days you do brilliantly.  But a week or so into it, your heart begins to tell your head things like, “Why not treat yourself to a bigger glass tonight.  You deserve it.  After all, a bigger glass is still only one glass.”  Or, you’re at some sort of celebration; and your heart tells your head, “Ah, just go ahead and have two tonight.  You can always have zero tomorrow night, to make up for it”—which, you know, may or may not actually happen.

Two brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, have written a book about this very struggle.  It’s called, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard.

They have a very helpful metaphor for the heart-versus-head struggle we all face: it is an elephant and its rider.

Your head is the rider, knowing where it wants the elephant to go and what it wants the elephant to do.  But your heart is the actual elephant, who may or may not want to follow the rider’s instructions.

The rider tries to steer the elephant.  But what if the elephant gets hungry? or decides it wants to cool itself off in the adjacent coursing waterbrook? or suddenly remembers it left something important back at the house?—an elephant never forgets, after all.

You see?  The rational rider will try to direct the emotional elephant; but it’s going to take a lot of patience and discipline to get the elephant to do what the rider wants.

Moreover, the elephant is a heck of a lot stronger than the rider; so, in a battle of strength, who’s going to win?

Keeping our hearts in check can be exhausting.

So, in looking at these two characters from the Gospel of John, one, Nicodemus, is much more like the rider from the metaphor; whereas the other, the Samaritan Woman, is much more like the elephant.

Nicodemus is a Teacher of Israel, a Pharisee, and a community leader.  All his theological and societal ducks are in a row.

Or at least they should be.

But his internal thoughts are in conflict.  Who is this man Jesus?  He stands in contrast to what I represent.  Could he be right?  Could his way actually be the way of truth?

And so, wrestling in his soul, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, under the cover of darkness, in secret.  And, after their confusing conversation, Nicodemus simply fades away, back into the darkness from which he came, just as confused as ever, still wrestling with his convoluted thoughts just as much.

The Samaritan Woman, too, has conflicting thoughts.  We see them in her conversation with Jesus.

We worship on this mountain, she tells Jesus, but you Jews worship in Jerusalem; one day the true Messiah will come and make it clear to us all.

Yet, in the clear light of mid-day, she hears what Jesus says and drops her water jar and runs off in haste to tell her friends and family to come and see the Messiah.  He has come!  In fact, he is here!  And . . .

No doubt she still had questions!  No doubt she still wrestled with conflicting internal thoughts!  No doubt she was aware of the injustices all around her!  No doubt she would still feel the deep injustices done to her personally!

Yet, despite it all, her heart, her seat of emotion, tells her in this moment, in the full light of day, that here is the very Messiah of God.

And she acts on her heart!

***

Beloved, the Gospel of John is clear.  When it comes to matters of faith, don’t overthink it.  When it comes to matters of faith, act on your heart.  When it comes to matters of faith, yield to the elephant.

Jesus is not looking for biblical experts; Nicodemus shows you that.

Jesus is not looking for perfect piety; the Samaritan Woman shows you that.

Jesus is calling you, now, to act only on what you know.

Yield to the elephant.

By the way, here’s a friend of mine learning (with a friend of hers) to yield to her elephant:

elephants