Archive for the Homilies Category

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

Light from Nicodemus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by timtrue

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

John 3:1-17

We’re in Year A this year. Year A’s pretty cool.

Year A is the first of three years in our Revised Common Lectionary.  That is, starting with Advent and continuing through the 29th Proper, aka “Christ the King Sunday,” the passages of scripture we hear read on Sunday mornings all year follow Year A’s outline.

Next year will be Year B.  The following year will be Year C.  And the year after that will be back to Year A.

So, if you’re sitting in this church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2020, you’ll hear the same scripture passages that were read today.

And I for one am glad to be back in Year A.

That’s because in Year A we encounter four very special people, all from the Gospel of John, four weeks in a row, during Lent, who appear nowhere else in the Bible.

Over the next four Sundays, we’ll hear the stories of four wonderful, surprisingly modern saints of God, from whom we can learn much—if we’re willing to take the time and listen to them.

To listen, I said.  This means we’ll have to figure out not what the world has told us we need to learn from them—not what the world tells us John 3:16 means, for instance—but what each has to teach us from his or her own story.

So, who are these people?

Today, John introduces us to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus secretly, by night; and has an image-laden conversation with him about what it means to be born from above, or born again.

Next week it’s the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman—confronting us simultaneously with culturally sensitive issues of race and gender!—who encounters Jesus and quickly runs off to share the good news with her friends and family.

The week after that brings us to an unnamed man blind from birth, whom Jesus heals, and who then confounds the very teachers of Israel.

Finally, in Lent 5, we encounter Lazarus, not to be confused with the blind beggar in the parable from Matthew.  This Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus first weeps over and then raises from the dead.

All four of these characters are found only in John’s Gospel; all four are surprisingly modern; all four encounter Jesus.

And through all four encounters, over the next four weeks, we will encounter Jesus ourselves.

He might even confront us, even challenge us, to think about our place in the world in new ways, an appropriate heart-and-soul exercise for Lent.

So, yeah, Year A’s pretty cool.

Who, then, is this guy, Nicodemus?

The passage begins: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night.”

What can we surmise?

Nicodemus is a Pharisee; and a community leader.  Yet at the same time he seeks Jesus out.

He seeks Jesus, who by this time has already been singled out by both the Pharisees and the Jewish community leaders as someone to steer clear of.

Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers, after all!  Why, he’s uneducated, the son of a carpenter!  Maybe he’s not all there, if you catch my meaning.

Yet Nicodemus doesn’t want to steer clear of him.  Maybe his community is on the right track: maybe there is something not quite right about this man Jesus.  Still, despite what the world around him—his world—is telling him, Nicodemus finds himself actually drawn to Jesus.

So he goes to him.  At night.  Under the cover of darkness.  In secret.

Wearing sunglasses.  And a hat.  To avoid the local Paparazzi.

I wonder, is Nicodemus spiritual but not religious?

It’s as if he wants to know Jesus, to know God through Jesus; but he’s not sure.  On the one hand, his way of approaching God, his religion, hasn’t been entirely satisfactory for him; while at the same time, on the other hand, he’s apparently skeptical that Jesus will be the answer he seeks.

We get locked into our own methods pretty easily, don’t we—our own ways of doing things, our own ways of approaching Jesus?

Mine’s through prayer.  What’s yours?

Oh, well mine’s through nature.  What about you?

Mine’s through praying the sinner’s prayer.  How about you?

Me?  Ah, I find Jesus in the liturgy.

And so on it goes.

But what if we find ourselves becoming spiritually curious?  What if we begin to look over denominational fences?  What then?

Some of you know my own story of how I came to the Episcopal Church from Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

I was a part-time staff member of a small church of a different denomination, working as a worship leader.

Yet I found myself drawn especially to two things about the Episcopal Church: its liturgy and music; and its sacramental theology.  I found myself wanting to attend the local Episcopal parish.  But I couldn’t, since I had obligations at the other place.

Well, what to do?

As it turns out, Holy Week was approaching.  So my family and I decided to attend the local Episcopal parish, St. John’s, for the Triduum, that three-day drama that comes at the end of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil.

By the end of these three days, we were convinced: The Episcopal Church would have to become our new home.

But that first time we donned the doors, on that Maundy Thursday—I couldn’t help but feel a lot like I was playing hooky; like I was doing something very wrong; like I was dishonoring the tradition to which I belonged; like I was somehow being unfaithful or disloyal.

How surprisingly modern Nicodemus’s story is!

So, what is the main lesson we learn from him?

Our world has made a lot of the conversation that takes place in today’s Gospel.

What does it mean to be “born from above” (as the version we heard today puts it; or, to put it in a more popularized outfit, what does it mean to be born again)?

The imagery of rebirth has captured the modern American evangelical imagination.

We’ve all heard the question, or some variation of it: Are you a born-again Christian?

I don’t know about you, but I feel this question has been overused; that the phrase born-again Christian ought to be put on a list of banned Christian lingo.

It’s a polarizing phrase.

To one group of Christians, it’s an identifier, as much as to say, “Yeah, you say you’re a Christian.  But are you really in?  Are you born again?”

Whereas to another group, it’s derogatory or pejorative, as much as to say, “Are you actually one of those fringe wackos: are you born again?”

And because it’s polarizing, we’ve been distracted from the main point here.  The main point is not about individual souls being born again.  John 3:16, that favorite verse of countless people, says that God so loved the world.  It’s not about individual souls here so much as it is about all of creation.

So, let’s put this phrase away, on the list of banned Christian lingo, at least for a while, until it loses its polarizing quality.

Fortunately for us, there’s another image that comes out of this passage.  And I’m convinced that this other image, not the image of rebirth, is in fact the overarching image by which we can understand Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

What is this image?  Light and darkness.

The passage begins with this image (Nicodemus comes to Jesus by cover of darkness); and with this image the passage ends (light exposes people’s deeds, Jesus says).

Light and darkness here, not rebirth, is the governing image: it’s only after one has been reborn that one comes out of darkness into light.

So, what happens when we look at Nicodemus through this lens of light and darkness?

Nicodemus first comes to Jesus in darkness.  He is seeking.  He is curious.  He is probably concerned about what his community will think of him.  He may even be confused.

And isn’t this a lot like us?  Don’t we know a lot about darkness?  Isn’t our faith hard to understand?  Isn’t being a Christian often confusing?  Aren’t we seeing the looking glass only dimly?  Aren’t these all mere shadowlands?

By the way, we face darkness at both the individual and corporate levels.  The corporate Church, throughout its history, has made many errors.  I only have to mention the Crusades to prove that point.

But, this coming to Jesus in darkness isn’t all that we see of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.  He shows up again, later, near the end, with another heretofore secret disciple, a certain man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, who owns a tomb hewn of out rock on his property, the very tomb into which Jesus’ body will be laid.

Do you remember this part of the Easter story?

Nicodemus and Joseph come and carry Jesus’ body away and lay it in the tomb.

And they do this deed in the full light of day!

Despite his convoluted faith, fully aware that his religious and community colleagues would see him, fully aware that his deeds and faith would be exposed in the full light of day, Nicodemus throws caution to the wind and carries Jesus’ body away.

Despite the Church’s mistakes, whether in the Middle Ages or in the modern day; despite how confusing and convoluted our theology can be, the Church has been called to keep throwing caution to the wind, to keep carrying on Jesus’ work in the full light of today.

And what is this work?

Only to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick.

Only to care for orphans and widows.

Only to walk across town with food in our backpacks to donate to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Only to love all creation in such a way that it might be born anew.

Divine Human Touch

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2017 by timtrue

hands_of_god

Matthew 17:1-9

What do you fear?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.

Does anyone remember my fist sermon here?  I entitled it, “Making Peace with Ghosts”; and it was all about dealing with a fear I had as a boy of an imagined visitor that lived under my spiral staircase, the Seven-foot Man.  As a boy, I, along with my older brother Andy and especially my neighbor Donny, possessed a great fear of the Seven-foot Man.  We had to learn, as boys, to deal with it.

As I grew from boyhood into manhood, the clothes fear wore became increasingly less fantastic and more realistic.  Questions went from, “What if there’s a zombie living in my basement?” to, “Will I get into the right college?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” and, “How are we going to pay for diapers and baby food?”

More into adulthood now, the fears have increased in scope, becoming more outward in focus: “Why is there such hatred in the world?” “How much more abuse and mismanagement of resources can the earth take?” and, “What if there’s a global nuclear holocaust?”

What are your fears?

Is “Big Brother” watching you?  Are you in jeopardy of financial ruin, or feeling forever enslaved to that harsh taskmaster otherwise known as credit card debt?  Are—or (depending on how you look at it) were—your fundamental human rights of dignity and democracy in danger of being compromised?

What is it you fear?

Today’s Gospel rounds out Jesus’ epiphany. Here, along with Peter, James, and John, we see Jesus in his full glory; that though he is fully human he is somehow, gloriously, also fully God.

Now, that would be something to fear, don’t you think?

Imagine.  You’re walking up a mountain path, following your leader and trail guide, who suddenly is transfigured.  His face is shining like the sun.  His clothes become dazzlingly white.  Two ghost-like figures appear next to him.  And to top it all off a booming voice sounds from the clouds overhead!

These words that tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration are familiar to most of us.  But a danger here is that their power can get lost in their familiarity.

So, let’s change the scenario up a bit.

Let’s say we meet in the church parking lot one Saturday morning.  Our plan is to hike up Telegraph Pass.  So, since I know the way, it is agreed that I will lead you.

An overcast day, sometime later we pass that last bend in the road near the top, and find ourselves entering and soon enveloped by a cloud.  Then, at the top now—we know we’re there because through the fog we can see the registry box and the bench next to it—all at once you see me with shining white clothes, so bright they even seem to shine through the mist.  And you think, “Man, I’m sure he wasn’t wearing that when we set out!”

And then my face lights up too, illuminating the registry box, the bench next to it, an ocotillo plant, the road, the two other people there with us, even your very arms and legs.  And—whoa!—now there are two more people—Where did they come from?—who by all accounts look just like Thomas Cranmer and Queen Elizabeth—the first!

And then—ah, music to my ears—that voice from above, booming through the clouds, declares to you all, “This is your pastor; listen to him!”

And you think, “Wow, my heart’s beating fast and I’m sweating like crazy and I’m out of breath.  Surely, I must be hallucinating.  This is it!  I’m done for!  Call out the SAR bird!”

Anyway, point being, wouldn’t you be afraid?  At least a little?  For your own health and sanity if for no other reason?

The disciples are so afraid, the Bible says, that they fall down, “overcome by fear” (“sore afraid” in the KJV), with their faces to the ground.

Yet Jesus reaches out and—don’t fail to notice this detail—touches them; and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.  Yet Jesus touches his disciples and tells them, Do not be afraid.

*****

Jesus could have been like Moses.

Along with the Transfiguration narrative in Matthew today, we also heard a passage from Exodus.  In it, Moses went up on a mountain; the mountain was covered by a cloud; the people from below could see illumination on the top of the mountain, where Moses was; and we all know that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face shone with such radiance that he kept it covered with a veil.

This Exodus passage is a clear parallel to Jesus’ Transfiguration.  Which led me, in my preparation for this sermon, to read up on Moses, the larger context; and to compare and contrast this story of Moses with Jesus.

There are numerous similarities:

  • Both Moses and Jesus go up on mountains.
  • Both have companions with them.
  • Both are enshrouded by a cloud.
  • Both hear God’s voice.
  • Both are described as radiant in one form or another.
  • And, in both accounts, other people hear God’s voice and are afraid.

But there is a key difference between the two accounts.

And here, in this key difference, Jesus could have been like Moses.

But he wasn’t.

And I’m glad he wasn’t.

And because he wasn’t, this key difference is what stands out above all for me from today’s passages, our take-home lesson.

So then, what is it?  What is this key difference between Moses and Jesus?

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw that the people were afraid—well, let me just read the account:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:18-20).

Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and sees all the Israelites cowering in fear before the might and glory of God and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Fine and well.

But he doesn’t stop there.  No, Moses has to seize the moment, to capitalize on the opportunity; and thus goes on to say, in effect:

But, well, yes, since you are afraid, it’s for good reason!  God is testing you.  In fact, this is the reason God has come: to put fear in you “so that you do not sin.”

Now, Jesus could have been like Moses.  Jesus could have done this too.

But he isn’t.  And he doesn’t.

And I’m glad for that.

Instead, when his disciples see fearsome, wonderful, and awesome visions and hear the very voice of God, Jesus reaches out and touches them; and says, simply, “Do not be afraid.”

No lecture.  No admonition.  No teaching moment.  Just words of comfort and human touch.

What, then, is the key difference between Moses’ transfiguration and Jesus’?  One offers chastisement; the other, positive reinforcement through human touch.

Which approach do you respond to better?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world: “Big Brother”; financial ruin; the collapse of democracy; ISIS; terrorism; our own sin.  Why would I ever want to add to all of this an irrational fear of God?

In Jesus, God touches us gently, reassuringly, and humanly.

*****

So, from our starting point of Jesus’ Transfiguration, we looked back to Moses and have learned a valuable lesson. Now I want to look forward, to us, the church, today.

What is it we are doing here?

In ancient times—both in the time of Moses and in the time of Jesus—mountaintops were considered a kind of liminal space, a threshold of sorts, between earth and heaven.  They were seen this way topographically—a mountain peak is physically higher than any other place around it—as well as figuratively—places to encounter God.

Moses encountered God on top of Mount Sinai.  Jesus was transfigured on top of a mountain.

We see this concept in other traditions too: the Greek and Roman pantheon dwelled on high, above the peaks of Mount Olympus; and the Delphic Oracle was delivered high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In fact, even in our own day we refer to personal divine encounters as “mountaintop experiences.”

Mountain peaks were understood to be liminal spaces.

Today, here is our liminal space: church.  Here we come, setting aside for a time our cares, concerns, and preoccupations in the world; to meet God.

Now, take it a step further.  In a few minutes we’ll have opportunity to commune together.  Well, what happens when I stand up at the altar and lead us through the Eucharistic Prayer?  Somehow, mysteriously, the bread and wine become Jesus’ own body and blood.

And then, best of all, when we partake here at this liminal space, just like on that Day of Transfiguration when Jesus reached out and touched Peter, James, and John; so Jesus touches us.

God touches humanity in Jesus; God touches us in the bread and wine.

He picks us up from our knees, puts his arm around us, leads us back to our pews, prays with us, and, last of all, best of all, he blesses us and says, “Alleluia, alleluia.  Go in peace, without fear, back into the world, to love and serve the Lord.”

On Being Christmas-and-Easter Warriors

Posted in Doing Church, Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 4:12-23

Before we get into today’s Gospel, let’s gain our liturgical bearings. Where are we in the liturgical year?

Think of a pie graph.  Starting at the top, we have a purple section, Advent, which lasts between four and five weeks.  Next is white for a few weeks, Christmas, up to the Epiphany.

Then for some weeks we find ourselves here, in a green section of the year, the season after the Epiphany, or as my Roman Catholic friends call it, “ordinary time.”

Ordinary.  Ho-hum.  Not much of a ring to it, eh?

This year’s season after Epiphany is eight weeks.  Then we go to purple again for the season of Lent, for five Sundays.

We then have a narrow sliver of red on Palm Sunday; followed by seven Sundays of white—for Easter the resurrection, and the Ascension; another narrow sliver of red for Pentecost, and one more of white on Trinity Sunday.

And now we’re only halfway around our pie graph.

Do you know what color the rest of this graph is?  For the remaining 26 Sundays this year—with only two exceptions (Transfiguration and Christ the King Sundays, both white)—it is all green.

Yeah, green time.  Ordinary time.  Ho-hum time.

Which brings up a concern for me.

My concern is that as a church we love Christmas and Easter.  We focus our liturgical calendar around the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.  And well we should!

But do we focus too much on Christmas and Easter—to the exclusion of all the other times in the year—that green section after Christmas; that long spell after Pentecost; all that ordinary, ho-hum time?

Christmas and Easter aren’t enough to sustain us through our ordinary, ho-hum times.

I remember my freshman year of high school.  My parents had recently divorced; I wasn’t in a very good place.  But it was an El Niño year, meaning lots of snow was coming to the Sierras.  Maybe Dad understood I wasn’t in a very good place, I don’t know.  But he knew my brother and I loved to snow ski.  And so that year we planned three three- or four-day trips to Mammoth Lakes, as well as some a one-day trips to the local soCal mountains—Mountain High, Mount Waterman, and Mount Baldy—promising at least one ski trip a month through the winter.

Well, I remember how much I looked forward to those trips in the months, weeks, and days leading up to them.  I also remember how much I relished the recent memory of those trips after returning home from them.

But what I remember most keenly was the dread I felt when I got out of bed each morning realizing that I had to plod through another day of the prison sentence I called high school.

That year, my freshman year, I tried to live for my skiing adventures, with the resolve that the anticipation and memory of them would sustain me until the next one.

But they were few and far between compared to the everyday, ordinary, ho-hum experience of high school, my daily grind.

That year, the only moments I lived in were when I was skiing, escaping from the daily grind.  While enduring the daily grind itself, I never lived in the moment, but rather always in the future or the past.

I had become a bona fide weekend warrior.

When we in the church live for Christmas and Easter, we risk not living in the moment of the ordinary, ho-hum times that, frankly, comprise most of our corporate life together.  We instead become bona fide Christmas-and-Easter warriors.

Now we’re ready to turn to today’s Gospel.

In it, Jesus begins his ministry by calling four disciples: Simon Peter; his brother Andrew; and two other brothers, James and John, the sons of a certain Zebedee.  All four of these men were fishermen.  And, because Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” we usually focus on the evangelism theme here: we, too, need to fish for people.

But I want to look at another theme, having to do with—you guessed it—the ordinary, ho-hum life Jesus called these men to live.

So, track with me.  These men, all four of them fishermen, were living a comfortable life.  They were settled, doing what they knew how to do, continuing the vocation their fathers had passed on to them.  So routine were their lives that they knew what to do without thinking.

They knew the sea—where to find the most fish, when the best times of the day were to find fish, what seasons of the year were better or worse for a kind of fish they’d like to catch, and so on.  When boat repairs were needed, they knew what to do.  If a boat sprung a leak while out on the surface of the sea, how to get to shore (or whether they could make it to shore) was almost an afterthought.  Their vocation was second-nature.

Moreover, we can surmise—along with biblical scholars—that these men had fairly lucrative businesses.  Fish were in demand as a food throughout the region.  People paid relatively high prices for them.  And, as with many established routines, overhead costs were low.  These men enjoyed high productivity and low overhead, a recipe for a comfortable life.

One more consideration: these men more than likely were married with families.  In fact, we know that Simon Peter was married: Jesus cures Peter’s mother in-law in Matthew 8.

Point is, Jesus called these four men to follow him; and following Jesus for them meant sacrificing a lot!  Comfort.  Stability.  Established homes.  Financial security.  Predictability.  Routine.  Plans.  Nest eggs.  Family.

What does it mean for us to follow Jesus?  Those who manipulate the good news of the Bible for their own ends—who make a gospel out of prosperity or family values—would do well to consider today’s Gospel!  So would we, as in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—which we’ll get to shortly!

Now, sure, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had heard of Jesus by the time he came calling.  He was probably something like a celebrity by now, a household name.

Do we all know the name of our presiding bishop, Michael Curry?  So, imagine if he sought you out personally and said, “Jane, John, Insert-Your-Name-Here, I have a job for you.  Come with me now, and see.”

Well, yeah, there’s a certain amount of adventure and excitement around this.  At least initially.

But today’s Gospel doesn’t end there: with the celebrity Jesus coming to these four men and saying, “Follow me on the adventure ahead, and I will make you fish for people.”  In today’s reading, there’s another verse.  Jesus and his new followers then set out traveling, teaching, preaching, and healing.

These four men followed Jesus, sure.  But they weren’t following him into a kind of weekend-warrior life of adventure.  They followed him into a kind of ho-hum, ordinary life.  And they left their established, comfortable lives to do so.

These apostles weren’t Christmas-and-Easter warriors—by any stretch of the imagination!  The feast of the Epiphany and the Last Supper could not have sustained these men for the three years ahead of them—and not just for the three years with Jesus but for the lifetime beyond that, for they all went on to build the church of Jesus Christ.

So, we’ve looked at the liturgical calendar; and we’ve looked at the Gospel. Now it’s time to do some harder work: to look at us, St. Paul’s.  Loosen your collars: it might get a little warm in here.

I’m concerned that we are a church of Christmas-and-Easter warriors: that we think these principal feasts are enough to sustain us through all the ordinary, ho-hum times of the year.

On page 15, the BCP says there are seven Principal Feasts in the liturgical year, which all point (at least loosely) to Christmas or Easter: Easter Day; Ascension Day; The Day of Pentecost; Trinity Sunday; All Saints’ Day; Christmas Day; and the Epiphany.

The word “feasts” suggests that we should break bread together, which is another way to say celebrate Communion together, on these seven days.

But when I got here, we weren’t doing this: we weren’t coming together for all these feasts—which is one indication that maybe, over a long time of doing church together, we have become Christmas-and-Easter warriors.

In addition to these seven Principal Feasts, on p. 16 of the BCP, we read, “All Sundays of the year are feasts of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

All Sundays are feasts.  Thus, we should celebrate Communion together on all Sundays of the year.

Which is why our Constitution and Canons make it clear that, unless we are unable to obtain a supply priest, we should celebrate Communion on any given Sunday.  Otherwise we demonstrate a lack of respect for the Eucharist.

Now—to turn up the heat a little more—our operating budget for 2017 is just north of $200K.  To date, pledges for 2017 are south of $140K—about $70K shy of our operating expenses.  In an ideal world, our operating expenses and pledges would be equal.  But they’re not.  Leaving the vestry with some difficult challenges and questions.

Their chief question of late has been where to cut costs.

It’s a question faced by a lot of organizations.  Public schools, for instance.  Long has it been a complaint among my friends and family members that the first budget corners to be cut in education are in the arts.

So, here’s my main concern.  As a way of cutting costs for the year, the vestry has proposed allotting only $1000 for supply clergy in this year’s budget.

Now, I anticipate being away for seven Sundays this year—a normal amount.  Father Paul is not here anymore; we can’t ask him.  Which means we need to fund supply clergy; or go without the Eucharist on the Sundays when we cannot obtain a supply priest.

With travel, accommodations, and a supply fee, it costs St. Paul’s approximately $500 per week of supply.  In other words, the budget should be at $3500 ($500 x 7 Sundays) for supply clergy, not $1000.  $1000 covers only two Sundays.

What will we do for the other five?

We could have a Morning Prayer service, yes.  But, unless we cannot obtain a supply priest—and supply priests are available!—we should celebrate the Feast.

So, anyway, that’s the what part of my concern.

The why part, however, concerns me even more.  Why would we cut corners here?  Sundays are feast days.  It’s when we gather as a corporate community.  And gathering for Communion—the Eucharist—is our chief corporate act of worship: not singing; not preaching; not praying; but Communion.

As your rector I’ve been called to be the spiritual leader of this community.  I don’t want us to be Christmas-and-Easter warriors.  That attitude will never sustain us spiritually.

Thus, I leave you with a few questions to contemplate in this week leading up to our annual meeting:

  • Have we become Christmas-and-Easter warriors?
  • Like the apostles, is St. Paul’s ready to follow Jesus wherever he calls?
  • Where have we become too comfortable in the way we do church? In our routines?  In our spiritual disciplines?
  • Where and how do we need to change? Along these lines, when we say we want to change, do we actually mean that we want to return to the way it was twenty years ago?  Are we really desiring to move forward?
  • Is our present way of doing church sustainable? The budget suggests that the answer to this question is no.  So, where do we need to cut corners?  Really?
  • Is cutting supply clergy costs a sufficient excuse to neglect the Sacrament?
  • Do we respect the Sacraments as we should?

Beyond the Prison Cell

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2016 by timtrue

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Matthew 11:2-11

Spoiler alert!

Does anyone in this room believe in an actual, literal Santa Claus—you know, the jolly rotund guy in a red suit with fuzzy white fringe who somehow manages to deliver presents to several billion people all over the world in the mere space of twenty-four hours via a magical sleigh and some flying reindeer?  Anyone?

Well, if so, you might not want to be here for the next few minutes.  I mean, I don’t want to be the one who puts an end to this innocent dream of yours.  Far be it from me to point out that people have been lying to you—your brothers and sisters, your parents, maybe even the whole world.

Okay, maybe not the whole world; that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But it might feel that way.

I can remember the day clearly—almost exactly forty-two years ago today.  Mom was out playing tennis.  Dad was tinkering in the garage, probably working on one of the cars.  Point is, both parents were preoccupied.

Technically, I suppose, my brother Andy and I were being supervised.  He was seven; I was six.  But, hey, this was the seventies: technically speaking, supervision meant Dad was home, sure; but in reality his two young boys might escape his watchful eye for an hour or two—or several.

Andy realized this.  He was the firstborn and therefore already quite savvy to Mom and Dad’s ways.  I, however, was the second-born and still the baby of the family, quite content to let everyone else fuss over the details of day-to-day life so that I could focus on what really mattered: not on how things really were but on how things ought to be.

Anyway, Andy, realizing that we boys were out from under Mom and Dad’s watchful eye for a while, stood up and walked across the avocado green shag carpet of the family room and turned off the TV and said, “Tim, I want to show you a secret.”

Secret, did he say?  I’m in!

So I followed him upstairs to the entryway closet.  We entered.  He pulled the string that turned on the single 40-watt bulb that dangled at the end of a cord from the ceiling.  And he shut the door.

Then, inside this secret space, he said, “Follow me,” and he ascended the built-in ladder, pushed open the attic door, and disappeared overhead.

“We’re not supposed to go up there,” I reminded from below.

No response.

Well, what was I to do?  What would you do?

I ascended the ladder and entered the attic.

And to my great surprise there were several beautifully wrapped presents, apparently ready to be set out under the Christmas tree.

Andy had a pocketknife and a roll of scotch tape with him.  How they got there, I didn’t ask.  But by now I was thinking this all was premeditated.

His plan, I learned, was to unwrap the presents carefully enough to find out what our gifts were.  He was savvy, remember.  And his head was rooted in pragmatic reality.

But my head was rooted in the world of ideals.

As such, that morning my world caved in.  For I read a few labels.  One said, “To, Timmy; with love, Santa.”  Another said, “For, Andy; love, Mr. and Mrs. Claus.”  And the gig was up.

“Um, I’m leaving now,” I told my big brother.  And without waiting for his approval I left that attic, exited the entryway closet, and went to my bedroom, where I closed the door, fell despondently onto my bed, and cried forlornly into my pillow.

My brother had lied to me.  My parents also, I realized, had lied to me.  Good grief, the whole world had lied to me!

I remember this story from my childhood about this time every year. What triggered it this year was John the Baptist’s question in today’s Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now, John the Baptist was an idealist.  His head usually was not caught up with the way things are.  Rather, his concern was with the way things ought to be.

We know nothing about his early life, except that he leapt in the womb when he met his cousin Jesus, also in utero.  But we can pretty easily surmise that he spent a lot of his early life in study, trying to discern the signs of the times.  For, as an adult he assumed the role of a prophet.  He knew a lot of theology.  He connected his current, pragmatic world to God’s ideal world—the way the world ought to be, when the kingdom of God becomes reality.

All this was fine during his formative years, when he was able to study.  All this was fine as he began his prophetic ministry, as an adult.  All this was fine when the multitudes came to him to be baptized in the Jordan.  All this was fine when Jesus came to him too; and he publicly proclaimed that here is the very Messiah himself.  All this was fine when his message of the way things ought to be was well received.

But then reality interfered and interrupted.  Herod arrested John and threw him in jail.

Wait a minute!  This isn’t how things are supposed to go.  If Jesus truly is the Messiah, then he should be righting wrongs.  He should be increasing while the powers of this world are decreasing.  Yet Herod has thrown John in jail.  The powers of this world are yet triumphing.  Reality is not allowing Jesus to gain a foothold.  All is not fine now!

And John wonders: Maybe my brothers and sisters have lied to me; maybe my parents and teachers have lied to me; maybe the whole world has lied to me.  Maybe Jesus is not really who I think he is—who I’ve been told he is.

So: John the Baptist, the top kid in the class, the one person about whom the scriptures say no one born of a woman is greater, this John the Baptist asks a question that pesters all of us.

Maybe it only comes around only once or twice in your lifetime.  Maybe it comes around annually with Santa Claus.  Or maybe it pesters continuously.  But here it is: Jesus, are you really the Messiah?  Or are you nothing more than a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

Has my family been lying to me?  Have my teachers been lying to me?  Has the church been lying to me?  Has the whole world been lying to me?

And I’m glad John asks it.  Because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kid to raise my hand and ask a stupid question.

I don’t want everyone else to know that my faith is a struggle; that my faith is weak; that maybe at times my doubt is in fact stronger than my belief, maybe even for long stretches of time; that I often wonder if I even believe at all anymore.

I don’t want to be the one to admit I’ve lost my faith, especially when I’m sitting here in church!

But what about when I’m sitting in my own prison cell, and it sure seems like Jesus isn’t doing anything about it?

We all have them, you know: our own prison cells.

You might feel imprisoned by large events in the world: terrorist acts; supernatural disasters; large-scale events that produce chaos.  You sit there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless to do anything about them.

Or your prison cell might be a past relationship gone bad, and now it’s impossible to seek any kind of reconciliation.  You’re there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless, a cell made for you by another person.

Or your cell might be past mistakes you’ve made as an individual; and now you must face the consequences of your past choices, consequences you’re powerless to change.  Your cell has been made by your own hands.

Whatever your prison cell of brokenness, you are left with no other alternative but to cry out to a savior.

But what if your savior doesn’t deliver?  What if Jesus does not do the things you always thought he would?  What if Jesus does not do the things everyone always told you he would?  What then?

Has your family lied to you?  Has the church?  Has the whole world been lying to you?

I’m glad John the Baptist asks this question from his prison cell today.  Aren’t you?  For he’s the top kid in the class.  And if the top kid in the class struggles with this question, somehow that makes it okay for me and for you—for us—to struggle with this question too.

Jesus, are you the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of this sin-infected world?

Or are you merely a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

So, guess what: Jesus does not answer John’s question directly; which compels me to think, by extension, that neither will Jesus answer our doubts directly. We’re talking about faith, after all; not proof.

Nevertheless, Jesus does give John a kind of answer.  And it is this: look outside your prison cell.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And I imagine John’s response: “Fine and well, Jesus—for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the half-dead, and the poor.  But what about me?”

I know it doesn’t feel like Jesus is saving the world as you sit there in your prison cell with John the Baptist.  But Jesus says to look outside your own prison cell.  And, when you do, if you are able, what do you see?

Despite all the bad news, great strides are being made in the world towards liberation—from oppressive governments, from poverty, from illiteracy, from terrorism, from disease.

And it’s not just global society I’m talking about: great strides are being made right here in Yuma County.  And it’s not just the corporate: we hear an awful lot these days about individual mental health and personal wellness.

All around us, people are being liberated.  Take a look beyond yourself and see and hear it.  Any time we see or hear about liberation for a person, a family, a community, or the globe, this is Jesus at work.  And this gives up hope.

But what about those people who just can’t do it?  What about those who just cannot seem to see beyond their own prison cells, no matter how hard they try?

If this is you, please, I ask, let someone know, someone you trust, someone who might be able to help you in your prison cell.

But know this.  Even there, imprisoned and unable to see beyond the very walls of your cell, Jesus is with you.  You have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.  Whatever dignity you can find within yourself, whatever self-respect, there is comfort: Jesus in you.

Comfort, comfort, ye my people, says the Lord.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

. . .

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Right Ahead

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was delivered on November 20, 2016.

Luke 23:33-43

One thing our church gets right is eschatology.

A definition I read this week defines eschatology as, “The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”  Eschatology is the study of the eschaton, or of last things.

Our church gets this right.

Consider our church calendar.

Today is the last day of the year in the church calendar, Proper 29, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday.  It’s called Christ the King, for on this day we focus on the culmination of all of history, that day when Christ’s absolute supremacy will be realized.  Did you notice today’s color is not green but white?

Next week we’ll start over, with Advent.  For four weeks we’ll reflect on Christ’s coming.

Then, from Christmas through Easter we focus on the realization of Christ’s incarnation; and from Ascension Day through Pentecost and the following season we focus on the realization of Christ’s supremacy.

All year, then, in some sense anyway, we’re looking forward to today, the one day of the year when as a church we consider “death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”

Our church gets this right.

Also, consider today’s Gospel.

At first reading—and maybe at the second and third—it sounds and feels more like a Good Friday text than anything else: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (v. 23).

In fact, nearly the whole passage focuses on the details of the moment at hand: the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes; the people stand by and watch; leaders scoff and mock; even the criminals on either side join in.

But where does this passage end?  Or, in other words, what is this passage’s culmination?

One of the thieves next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today, though we begin at Good Friday, we focus ultimately on Paradise: the Realm of Christ; the culmination of all history.

Our church gets this right.

But it seems kind of brief, doesn’t it? I mean, only one day of the year?  What if we miss it?  What about all the people who couldn’t make it to church today?  Especially the ones with legitimate excuses?  Do they have to wait until Proper 29 rolls around again next year?  Really, why don’t we spend more time focusing on eschatology?

Other churches do.

Ever hear of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth?  A best-selling book published in 1970, Lindsey compares then-current events to biblical prophecies about the end times.

He speaks of an event called the Rapture, at which time, he says, all believers in Christ will be called by a trumpet blast suddenly home to heaven.

The Rapture will be followed by a Great Tribulation, a seven-year period of a literal hell on earth, he says, where the king of the world will be Satan himself.

Finally, an earthly age called the Millennium will follow the Tribulation, he says, during which time Satan will be locked up and the world’s king will be Christ; and all the world’s leaders will be faithful risen Christians.

By the way, this book was made into a movie in 1976, narrated by none other than Orson Welles, the same voice that generated mass fear in 1938 in a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Well, since the publication of this book, all sorts of modern American evangelical Christian leaders have joined in the fray.  Whole denominations today abide by Statements of Faith that include fundamental beliefs about the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the Millennium.

Individual scholars, seeking to clarify where they stand on the matter, have authored theological tomes on this subject, attempting to argue from literal interpretations of the scriptures just how and when our world will come to an end.

And who of us has not heard about the relatively recent phenomenon called The Left Behind Series—arguably the quintessential eschatological distraction of our day?

So—surprise, surprise!—disagreements have arisen.

Is there such a thing as the Rapture, or not?  The word rapture nowhere appears in the Bible, after all.

What about the so-called Great Tribulation?  The books of Daniel and Revelation mention a seven-year period of great struggle; but will Christians actually escape it, or will they have to endure it—or will they be raptured away mid-way through, before things get really tough?

And the Millennium!  C’mon!  A literal thousand years!  Really?

Those who care about this subject demand to know where others stand.  Are you Pre-trib or Post-, they ask?  Are you Pre-millennial, Post-millennial, or A-millennial?  Do you believe in the Rapture?

To which I say, “I’m pan-millennial: I believe it’ll all ‘pan’ out in the end.”

But it’s all quite pessimistic.

For, no matter how you look at it, the whole cosmos is just gonna burn up.  So, after all, what does it really matter what we do for the common good in our lifetimes?

My seminary professor Rob MacSwain tells of a time he attended a conference at an evangelical University in the Midwest.  After he could not find a recycle bin to throw away a piece of paper, he inquired only to be answered, “There aren’t any: the world’s just going to burn up anyway; we don’t believe recycle bins are necessary.”

For Christians who hold this pessimistic view, faith becomes no more than an individual kind of Gnosticism: we work on our own, internal relationships with Jesus; we are saved by faith alone (and not by works).  In the end, one is either in or out; saved or damned.

And where is God’s love in that?

Anyway, it’s not just modern American evangelical Christianity that’s drunk these waters.  The dominant culture has a preoccupation with eschatology too.  Yeah!  Except it doesn’t call it eschatology; it calls it apocalypse.

There are variations on apocalypse, sure.  Some stories feature zombies; some aliens; some dastardly supervillains, like Lex Luther who bought a bunch of property out here in the desert and planned to send California into the ocean so that he’d suddenly own beachfront property.  And some stories feature just us humans, in over our heads with nuclear weapons.

Either way, whether in the subculture of evangelical Christianity or in the dominant culture, how it’s all gonna end is an American preoccupation.

But not with the Episcopal Church.

And, I maintain, our church gets it right.

Our church acknowledges the culmination of all things.  We understand that Christ has left us with a mission: not to sit around wondering how it’s all gonna end but to transform the world into his kingdom.

The realization of Christ’s incarnation—his birth—was when his kingdom first came; the realization of Christ’s absolute supremacy—his second coming—is when that kingdom will be fully realized.  In the meantime the kingdom of heaven is only partial.  Our mission is no less than the transformation of the cosmos: to increase Christ in the world and decrease the anti-Christ until the second coming.

Our eschatology is not pessimistic; it’s optimistic.

Our church gets it right.

So, we’re caught up in this in-between time: in between the realization of Christ’s incarnation and supremacy.

We work at Christ’s mission: trying to bring his realm into the world.

But there’s a tension.

For we know the importance of doing Christ’s mission.  And we feel the need to do it—keenly!

But it’s overwhelming.

It’s overwhelming because we can’t accomplish much on our own, as individuals.  And it’s overwhelming because bringing Christ’s kingdom to our world will take much longer than the time we have in our lifetimes.

And these things go against our American grain.  We love our individualism; and we want to solve the world’s problems yesterday.

So, we end up failing Christ and his mission—or at least we feel we do.

And when this final Sunday of the year comes along—Proper 29, Christ the King Sunday—we’re so distracted by bad eschatology; or we’re so preoccupied with doing the mission of Christ; or we’re so overwhelmed and caught up in our own failures that we end up missing the optimistic culmination we’ve so been looking forward to all year.

Just like we end up missing the point when we read today’s Gospel.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him.

And today our church gets it right.

Today it doesn’t matter whether you’re distracted.  Today it doesn’t matter if you’re preoccupied.  Today it doesn’t matter if you feel overwhelmed; or if you’ve failed Jesus; or if you’ve given up on your faith; or even if you’ve committed crimes worthy of crucifixion.

Today, none of this matters!

For today, we know that we will be with him in Paradise.

Systems Failing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was delivered on November 13, 2016.

Luke 21:5-19

I begin today’s homily with a riddle:

This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats high mountain down.

It comes from a famous riddle dual in English literature; more specifically, from the fifth chapter of J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins and Gollum meet for the first time, and square off.

They pose riddles to each other, in turn, until one of them gets the wrong answer.  If Bilbo wins, why, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave in which he is now lost.  But if Gollum wins, he will eat Bilbo—or so he threatens.

Now it’s Gollum’s turn; and he poses this riddle.  (Repeat.)

What is this thing?

Is it an army?  I suppose an army slays kings, ruins towns, and even beats high mountains down.  The Roman army, for sure, was a force to be reckoned with.  Still, can you say that armies devour birds, beasts, trees, and flowers?  What about gnawing iron, or grinding stones to sand?

Maybe it’s a natural disaster.  Yeah.  Disasters have been known to turn stones to sand, especially tsunamis and hurricanes.  And a hurricane certainly ruins towns and devours birds and beasts.  But gnawing iron?  Ruining kings?

Hmm.

Well, why don’t we set that aside for the time being? We’ll come back to it later, I promise.  But for now I want to engage in a different kind of mental exercise.  Now, let’s imagine ourselves taking a tour of Washington, DC; and let’s imagine that our tour guide is Bishop Mathes.

And there we are, taking it all in.  The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument—all in its intimidating beauty.  This is stability.  This is security.  Just looking at all this solid, changeless architecture is enough to tell us our country is solid and unchanging.  It’s built to endure, to stand the test of time.  This visit is enough to say, “Our country and especially the freedom for which it stands is permanent.”

But then the bishop says something like this: “Do you see all this beauty, all these magnificent buildings?  What if I were to tell you that they would all be destroyed within a generation?  I had a vision last night.  Within a generation, leaders of our own army will come in, take over, and destroy everything you see right here before our eyes.  All will be razed.  Nothing will be left standing.”

What would you think?

Now, admittedly, this isn’t so hard to imagine.  Prophets of doom stand on street corners all the time, holding or shouting out messages of death, doom, and destruction.  In fact, I am willing to wager that this very morning just such prophets were standing on street corners preaching their doom and gloom in DC.

But the bishop?  He’s a little more sensible, isn’t he?

So, to tax our brains a little more, now let’s imagine that it’s several years later and it actually happens.  Just as the bishop said, our own army comes in, takes over, and destroys everything.  All the buildings are razed.  And we realize that it’s just as the bishop said, down to the last, fine detail.

Would this be at all disconcerting?

When some people were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The Temple Mount in Jesus’ day was a lot like Washington, DC in our day.

It wasn’t just a Jewish thing, you know, for them, those people, to worship as they do with all their animal sacrifices and other peculiarities.  No!  The temple, the Temple, Herod’s Temple, was a building of incredible significance, sanctioned by the Emperor, an architectural wonder of the ancient world, a source of Roman pride, as well as Jewish.

Herod began its construction in 19 BCE.  During his building campaign, he more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount.

The temple itself was wonderful, completed in about eighteen months, and, yes, was the principal place of worship for the Jews.  But Herod’s building plan included colonnades around the temple, a lot like an outdoor mall, where activities like buying, selling, teaching, and speech-making occurred daily.

In fact, so extensive was this project that it was not completed until the reign of Nero, some thirty years after Jesus’ death, some eighty years after construction had begun.

The Temple Mount was solid, immovable, built to endure, to stand the test of time.  It represented the Roman and Hellenistic ideology of solidarity in diversity.

And like a prophet of doom and gloom on a street corner, Jesus looks at it and says, “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Was this at all disconcerting?

How about a few years later?  Was it disconcerting in 70 CE, less than a decade after Nero completed Herod’s magnificent building project, when the Temple Mount was completely destroyed?  Was it disconcerting that, in some serendipitous fit of cosmic irony, it was in fact destroyed by the Roman army, the army of the same empire that had just completed building it?  Was it disconcerting that it happened just as Jesus had said?

Yes!  Especially if your faith was in government.

So: I think now’s a good time to return to Gollum’s riddle.

The answer is time.  Time is the thing that devours all other things, whether birds, beasts, trees, flowers, steel, iron, hard stones, kings, cities, high mountains, or even Temple Mounts and White Houses.

Look, we live in a tremendous country.  We experience wonderful freedoms.  We have a government that is vitally concerned about protecting these freedoms.  We have a military that is unlike any other in the world.  I for one am extremely grateful to be an American citizen.

But I don’t have to remind you that every great civilization in the history of the world rises and falls.  In our history books we read about the Medes and Persians; the Greeks; the Romans; the Ottomans; the Turks; the Plantagenets; the Tudors; the Huns; even the so-called Holy Roman Empire.  Yet all of these are no more.  Time has a way of putting an end to all things.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, our great nation will one day cease to be great too, just like all the others.

Is this disconcerting?

Are you frightened as you look around?  Do the changing world events terrify you?  Do wars and rumors of wars; reports of ISIS; another headline of another senseless shooting; nuclear tests in North Korea—do these kinds of things send jolts of fear down your spine?  Do you ever wonder if we might actually witness something as significant as the destruction of the Temple Mount in our own lifetimes?

We have good reason to fear.  Just like the disciples in the time of Jesus, we have a lot to be afraid of.   There will be wars, insurrections, natural disasters, and false leaders.  Nation will rise up against nation—in other words, race against race.  There will be earthquakes and other destructive natural disasters; and maybe even dreadful portents in the heavens.  These things will happen.  Jesus doesn’t try to skirt around it.  And this is scary stuff!

But there’s another side to it.

It’s all disconcerting, yes, if we place our faith in government.  We know this.  Luke knew it too.

And we can add to the picture a little bit: it’s not just government.  We can talk about any established system—the church, the company you work for, relationships.  Regardless of how solid and stable any system appears, there’s always the possibility of instability, erosion, and failure.

And this is disconcerting!

But here’s maybe something we don’t know, something maybe we can learn from Luke today.

Luke wrote his biography of the life of Jesus looking backwards.  That is, when we hear today’s account of Jesus foretelling the future—looking at all the parts of the Temple that will be destroyed—by the time Luke actually wrote it all down, the Temple already was destroyed—the future Jesus was foretelling was actually already in the past.

You know why he did this?  He did this in order to tell his readers—in order to tell us—yes, it is all disconcerting; but there is something in which we can put our faith—someone—who is stable where everything else is not; someone who endures, who stands the test of time; who is the one thing Gollum’s wicked riddle cannot destroy.

And that someone is Jesus.