Archive for the Homilies Category

Grumpy Raisins

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

John 15:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet we still try.

Just like those grumpy Pharisees!

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

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

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There Will Be One Flock?

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

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John 10:11-18

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

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

Sheep aren’t the same as cattle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One flock; one shepherd.

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

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

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

At this point, the shepherd has some options.

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

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

So what does the shepherd do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, yet another shepherd believes in tough love.

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

I call this the “Medieval Catholic” shepherd.

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

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

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

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

There will be one flock, one shepherd.

Do you believe this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But unity in the wider Church around the world?

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

But how?

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

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

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

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

And we do this because:

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

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

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

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

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

Gracing Belief

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2018 by timtrue

Burning_match

John 3:14-22

1.

I’m sure we’ve all heard this saying before: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

To give us some context, this saying comes from I John 4:18, which reads in full: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

So, show of hands: Who out there has reached perfection in love? No one?

A week ago Friday night we played with this contrast between love and fear in my Lenten Class, Love 101. The relationship between love and fear is analogous to the relationship between light and darkness.

I threw out three images from the natural world to illustrate:

  1. The closest thing to absolute darkness I’ve ever experienced: turning off headlamps while spelunking; and the effect of a solitary match lit in that darkest of settings.
  2. A still very dark setting: stargazing on a moonless night; and the amount of light transferred only from planets stars light years away—amazing!
  3. And the brightest natural light I’ve experienced: hiking at noon on the summer Solstice, with the sun as high in the sky as it could be in the thin air of the Sierra Nevadas above treeline; and still I could see shadows—darkness hiding in corners.

Light and darkness exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

In that near-absolute dark setting in the cave, it was only dark because of the absence of light, dramatically demonstrated by a solitary match. You can’t have light without darkness—one defines the other.

Yet even in the brightest light I’ve experienced, the high, warm light of the noonday sun, there was shadow: even the brightest light could not chase all the darkness away.

It’s a great illustration for the relationship shared by love and fear:

Fear grips us. It sometimes overwhelms us to the point of despair. But one little flicker of love and fear disperses.

As we grow and mature in our love, we come closer to that perfect love that casts out fear. But we are human, and thus we can never attain to that perfect love that is God. Thus, as good as our love can ever be—as brightly as it can ever shine—fear is never chased completely away, always at least lurking in the shadows.

So, towards the end of our Love 101 hour together, I asked if there was anything from our day’s discussion that we might want to explore further; and someone raised his hand. “This picture of love and fear is very helpful,” he said; “but how does it relate to faith?”

Well, I gave the answer that all good teachers give when someone asks a question that hasn’t occurred to me before: “That’s a very good question.”

2.

In today’s Gospel, I’m happy to say, we find an answer to that question.

Notice, first, how the passage ends:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Jesus is the light; God is perfect love.

Some people come into the light; and as a result their good deeds, which are done in God, are seen.

Other people, however, would rather not have their deeds exposed. To their detriment, they avoid the light and hide in the darkness. They would rather live in fear than come out into the light of Christ and the love of God.

And do you see how John is playing with the same analogy? Light is to darkness as love is to fear. Symbiosis is at work: one doesn’t exist without the other.

But John brings an additional variable into the equation, one I did not bring into last Friday night’s discussion. This additional variable is seen in the beginning of the passage, summarized in the verse that perhaps above all others in our lifetime has enjoyed rockstar fame, John 3:16.

And we all groan and roll our eyes! For this is an old rockstar; one, we all know, who should have retired long ago; and, dignity suggests, ought to retire now before he hurts himself.

Still, let’s try to see this verse anew; to hear his song afresh, in the context of love and fear we’ve just been discussing:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And do you hear it? Faith is a part of this song.

John doesn’t say the word itself—faith. But John’s Gospel is about action; and what is the activity—the verb—associated with faith? To believe.

John brings active belief—otherwise known as faith—into our equation.

For John, the people who practice active belief are those who come into the light of Christ and love of God; the people who do not practice faith would rather remain in the shadows of darkness and fear.

But we’re not quite done: faith is only half the variable. Light lives in relationship with darkness. Love lives in relationship with fear. With what, then, does faith live in relationship?

Let’s listen to that old rockstar one more time:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—

Okay, okay, that’s enough! Retire already.

But, really, my point here is that we like the second half of the song, the part that tells me that all I have to do is practice active belief—that all I have to do is have faith—and I will be saved. But there is an important symbiotic relationship here; and if all we hear is the second half we’ll miss it.

God so loved the world. God gave his only Son. God is actively participating.

As an individual, I like to think that it’s all about me. It’s my faith. I chose to believe. Or, just as readily, I might say, “It’s my atheism; I chose to reject God.”

But we cannot skirt around the matter. In our individual practices of belief or disbelief, God actively participates.

So then, what is this divine participation called?

Grace.

And now our variable is complete.

3.

But grace and faith together? Oh, the tension!

Grace tells me it’s all about God and nothing about me.

But when we tease this logic out to its theological end, the result is called predestination; and predestination is a difficult pill to swallow.

For, while God may have predestined my soul to eternal bliss and salvation, does that mean that God also predestined my unbelieving friend to eternal torment and damnation?

And, since we’re here, what about Adam and Eve? If it’s all about God’s activity, then God must have predestined Adam and Eve to sin; and the time of probation in the Garden of Eden was all a kind of moot, not to mention sadistic, stage play.

The same goes for Judas Iscariot. If he were only a puppet in God’s hands, then he actually betrayed Jesus under no volition of his own—and is therefore to be pitied above all other human beings.

But it’s no good, on the other hand, to say it’s all faith; for all faith places salvation in my hands. Whether or not I go to heaven at the last day depends on my personal steadfastness and self-control.

But my heart and my head wage war against one another. In my head, I know the disciplines I have set for myself to keep. But my heart tells me it’s okay to give in. And when I’m weary or fatigued—you know the drill—my heart always seems to win out.

Moreover, if my faith is all up to me, then God is removed to some far-off place and has little to nothing to do with me. And, really, who wants that!

Like light and darkness and fear and love, faith exists in symbiosis with grace.

4.

But there’s a key difference.

Love and fear exist together in tension, as do faith and grace. But we strive towards the goal of perfect love; and concurrently of casting out fear. Perfect love is our destination.

When it comes to faith and grace, however, our goal is not one over the other, but balance.

I came across a question this week[i] that sums it up well: “Put more personally, is my salvation dependent upon the steadfastness of my faith, or will I be graced by God whether or not I am faithful?”

The answer, according to that old rockstar, is yes.

Your faith and God’s grace go hand in hand.

Over in the Gospel of Mark, it sounds like this:

Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” (Mark 9:23-25).

“All things can be done”—God’s grace—“for the one who believes”—your faith.

“I believe”—semi-colon: same breath—“help my unbelief!”

This is the mysterious tension we find when grace and faith work harmoniously together.

May God be gracious to us all in our belief and unbelief.

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 120; Joseph D. Small.

Crucifying Egos

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

Mark 8:31-38

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cross is central to our story.

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covenants like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

But today’s Gospel paints a very different picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Is Lent

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

220px-TheMagiciansNephew(1stEd)

Mark 1:9-15

1.

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

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

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

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

Yes, we were just here.

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

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

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

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

Which is certainly appropriate for the first Sunday in Lent.

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

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

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

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

In Mark, this is all we get.

And it’s not a lot to go with.

2.

Next, are you familiar with the term liminality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

Jesus crosses the threshold where all others have fallen.

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

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

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

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

Not much to go on?

Think again.

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thus, today we see: Lent is life.

Keeping It on the Move

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

VJ

Mark 1:29-39

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does Simon do? He hunts for Jesus.

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

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

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

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

The Gospel is meant to be kept on the move.

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

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

3.

What impresses me most about today’s Gospel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

It’s not a rhetorical question.

I wrestle with it all the time.

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

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

Showing Up with Authority

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on January 27, 2018 by timtrue

The_Scream

Mark 1:21-28

1.

Let’s begin with a character study this week, shall we?

There are many characters in today’s Gospel. With whom do you most closely identify?

I bet many of you, after hearing what was just read, would say the disciples. The disciples followed Jesus; we follow Jesus. It seems a safe bet.

But these guys, remember, had only just responded to Jesus’ call. We don’t know why they dropped everything on that beach along the shore of the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus, leaving behind safety and security for risk, uncertainty, and danger. But they did.

Everything was new and fresh and exciting for them. Adventure was upon them!

However, most of us responded to Jesus’ call long ago. We’re not leaving everything we know behind to follow Jesus into the unknown. Instead, on the Sundays we can manage it, we stop what we’re doing for a couple of hours to come to church and worship; then pick up right where we left off when we get home.

And as for the newness part of it, the adventure? By now our faith is mostly old hat.

So, come to think of it, maybe we don’t identify so closely with the disciples. Maybe for you and for me, we identify more closely with Jesus.

He walks into this local synagogue and teaches with authority. And, after all, isn’t that what we want? To teach the good news of Jesus to the community around us with authority?

What must his sermons have been like?

We hear a little bit about what they were not like: the sermons of the scribes.

And here you might be tempted to remember the absolute worst and the absolute best sermons you’ve ever heard—or, in my case, the absolute worst and best sermons I’ve ever delivered—and say, “That worst example was like the scribes; the best like Jesus.”

Or you might remember that movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; and that scene where the economics teacher is calling roll. “Bueller? Bueller?” he calls repeatedly. He’s also the teacher who says, “Anyone? Anyone?”

Do you remember him? The longer version goes like this:

In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the—Anyone? Anyone?—Great Depression, passed the—Anyone? Anyone?—tariff bill, the Holly Smoot Tariff Act, which—Anyone?—raised or lowered?—raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone?

The camera pans around: students are bored to tears; a couple resemble zombies; one is fast asleep, his head on his desk in a puddle of drool. And of course we’re all left thinking Ferris was right: how could anyone be expected to go to high school on such a perfectly glorious day?

Anyway, that econ teacher is what comes to my mind when I hear about the scribes preaching so unlike Jesus.

So, now that I mention it, maybe we identify most closely not with Jesus but with the scribes. For the scribes of ancient Israel were those who interpreted the Torah to their people; and we are those who interpret the Bible to the people of our modern world.

It’s much the same as Jesus was doing, except the scribes taught not with their own authority but with an authority beyond themselves—the authority of the Torah.

And that’s how a lot of us feel. We can teach the Bible, sure, and so we do—to our kids, to our grandkids, to our family members, to our friends, to each other—but, unlike Jesus, without any kind of authority to call our own.

Which brings us to the final character of today’s story: the man possessed with an unclean spirit.

Does any of us identify most closely with him?

The wording in the text says he was “a man with an unclean spirit.” But let’s just tell it like it is: he had demons—his own, personal demons.

And doesn’t each of us deal with his or her own demons? . . .

Maybe we do in fact identify with this man.

2.

Now here’s an interesting thing to me about this man: he was there, in the synagogue, with his demons.

How long had he been there? How long had this been going on? Was he a one-time visitor?

More likely, he was a regular, a long-time member.

Communities were a lot more settled—people were far less transient—in those days. The synagogue wasn’t like church today—or not like we’re trying to make our churches today—in the sense of inviting and welcoming visitors. Visitors weren’t really a thing for synagogues. Synagogues were part of community life—for all the community, not just those who felt like showing up on the Sabbath.

So, point is, this man with his personal demons was probably known well to Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and the other members of the community, including the scribes.

No doubt he knew just how to interact with the community—just how to put on a game face—so that outwardly he looked like he had his act together.

He wore the right clothes.

He tithed the right amount of money.

He attended the synagogue’s annual meetings.

And he voted.

He’d probably served on committees, or as a delegate to convention, or even on the vestry.

So, just how long had he been dealing with his demons? . . .

And yet no one knew!

The scribes, remember, weren’t like Jesus. They did not teach with authority.

But then Jesus showed up. And he taught with authority.

And we know this precisely because the unclean spirit came out!

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

The scribes and the community couldn’t do it. It took Jesus, with his inherent authority, to bring the demons to the surface—demons that this poor man had been dealing with for who knows how long!

And once his demons were confronted, he experienced healing.

3.

Which brings up a probing question.

What demons are you dealing with today?

Like the man in today’s Gospel, do you go to your place of worship and put on your game face, exchange the peace with a smile, commune at the altar, and go to the annual meeting—

But then, when the spirituality and business of the day are over and done with, will you return to your home to continue to do battle with your inner demons—demons no one else knows about: not your parish family; not even your own family?

There is hope. We see that today. With a word, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man; and it does.

Now, I’m not Jesus. Your spiritual friends and leaders—they’re not Jesus either. Try as we might to preach and teach with authority, or to command an unclean spirit to leave you alone, at the end of the day we’re just scribes, interpreting the Bible the best we know how.

But here’s the thing: Jesus often shows up in spite of us.

When we’re doing what we do, living the lives we live, fulfilling our vocations as God gives us strength and ability, suddenly and without warning Jesus is there in our midst.

We know this; we sense it when it happens.

And you know who else knows this?

Our personal demons.

And they shudder!

Those unclean spirits at war within you know Jesus whenever and however they hear him—in church through the bread and wine, on the phone with a friend, or in an argument with an opponent.

Whenever and however Jesus shows up, your inner demons know, and they shout out so that you can almost hear them audibly, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

4.

If the overarching Epiphany message is about anything, it’s about transformation.

Jesus was baptized and the skies between heaven and earth were torn apart. He has ushered in the kingdom of God. He is the ladder forever uniting earth and heaven. He is showing himself, God Incarnate, to the world. The healing of the world has begun.

But, as we know, transformation is not a quick conversion—like praying a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call. Transformation takes a lifetime, an era.

We, the church, have thus been called to carry on the work of transformation, to continue to heal the world, to love outwardly.

Yet transformation reaches inwardly too.

We have our inner demons. Transformation necessitates that we deal with them—that we wrestle with them until they convulse us, let out a scream, and depart. Only then do we begin to experience true healing.

My prayer today is that Jesus shows up and continues his work of transformation—both out there, in the hurting, dark places of the world; and also in here, in the deepest, most secret hiding places of our souls.