Approaching COVID-19 Theologically

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , , , , on March 13, 2020 by timtrue

This brief post deals much more with questions than any attempts at answers.

I’m wondering, as a teacher, preacher, pastor, chaplain, and priest, what to make of my work and the omnipresent fear over the Coronavirus.

I get the medical rationale. We are seeing a pandemic. Looks like the president is about to declare a state of national emergency. Major league sports are shutting down. The County of San Diego just banned all gatherings over 250 people. Public gatherings smaller than that have been given a mandate that individuals are to stay at least six feet apart. I’ve heard the mayor of Tucson issued a statement, but I haven’t read it yet. Point is, this is a big deal.

And yet . . .

Last week’s Gospel considered Nicodemus. He eventually came to the conviction that he should throw caution to the wind regarding his own life and reputation for the sake of a larger mission.

And this week we look at the Samaritan woman at the well, who similarly threw caution to the wind after encountering Jesus.

I have a larger mission than myself, my own personal well being. That mission is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to free captives, and so on.

So, what, am I just supposed to put this mission on hold and hole up somewhere until this pandemic blows over?

I mean, I could. I know wilderness survival. I don’t even need toilet paper.

But why would I want to do that?

The world has enough brokenness even without this pandemic. So, now, why should we pull back at all? Instead, shouldn’t we throw more caution to the wind than ever?

In the Full Light of Day

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered at St. John’s, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas on March 8, 2020.

John 3:1-17

1.

We’re in Year A this year. Year A is 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, “Christ the King Sunday,” the passages of scripture we 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 take us back to Year A.

So, if you’re sitting in this church on the 2nd Sunday in Lent in 2023, you’ll hear the same scripture passages that were read today.

Anyway, I for one am glad to be 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.

Listen, I said.

Which 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, briefly, before we take a longer look at today’s saint, who are these people?

Today, John introduces us to Nicodemus, who (first) 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 will bring us to an unnamed man blind from birth, whom Jesus heals, and who then confounds the very teachers of Israel.

And finally, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, we’ll encounter Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus 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, my hope is that we will encounter Jesus too.

I hope Jesus will 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.

2.

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.”

So, Nicodemus is a Pharisee; and a community leader.

Yet, at the same time, he seeks Jesus out; Jesus, who by this time has been singled out by the Pharisees 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 they’re right: maybe there is something not quite right about this man Jesus. Still, despite what his world is telling him, Nicodemus finds himself drawn to Jesus.

So he goes to him. At night. Under the cover of darkness. In secret. Maybe wearing sunglasses . . . and a hat . . . to avoid the local Paparazzi.

I wonder, is Nicodemus someone we, today, would call 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 seems skeptical that Jesus will provide the answers he seeks.

He’s surprisingly modern, like he could be my next door neighbor.

3.

Now, as glad as I am to be back in Year A, I must admit I’m also a little disappointed. Specifically, I’m disappointed with today’s lectionary selection from the Gospel of John—because of where it ends:

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.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Why am I disappointed with this? A couple of reasons.

First, our world has made too much of this conversation; and by ending here, we make too much of this conversation too. It becomes our focal point.

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 the club? 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.

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 as much as it is about all of creation.

So, can we just put this phrase away, on the list of banned Christian lingo, at least for a while, until it loses its polarizing quality?

But I said there are a couple of reasons I’m disappointed.

Secondly, our lectionary cuts short the conversation; in ends too early!

And by doing so, we the listeners focus too much on what it means to be born again and are further distracted from the main point. For—well, just listen. Here’s how the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus concludes—here’s where today’s Gospel should end. Jesus says:

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.

This image—light and darkness—not the image of rebirth, is in fact the overarching image by which we can understand Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus.

It begins with this image: Nicodemus comes to Jesus by cover of darkness. And it ends with this image: Jesus says light exposes people’s deeds—whether good or bad.

Light and darkness, not rebirth, is our governing image.

4.

So, here’s what happens when we look at Nicodemus through this lens of light and darkness.

Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, first comes to Jesus in darkness. He is seeking; and he is curious. But, also, he is concerned about what his community will think of him if they see him going to Jesus.

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 confusing? Aren’t we seeing our reflections in the mirror only dimly? Aren’t our lives mere shadowlands? And don’t we worry about what our community will think of us—about our reputations—if they see us doing something unusual?

Now for the bigger picture: this isn’t all we see of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. He shows up again, later, near the end, with another so-called secret disciple, a certain man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, who owns a tomb hewn of out rock, 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 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.

In today’s encounter, Jesus encourages Nicodemus—and us—to come out of the darkness and into the light. And Nicodemus does it! Will we do it too?

Despite the church’s failings, despite our failings, we have been called to throw caution to the wind, to carry on Jesus’ work in the full light of day.

A Bitter Pill

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered today, the First Sunday in Lent, as part of my ongoing supply work in Bisbee and Douglas.

Matthew 4:1-11

1.

So, Lent has begun.

In one corner of the ring, hailing from the darkest realms of darkness, stinking of millennia of unwashed destruction and gore, with lies ready on his festering lips, that fallen angel of old, the world champion, the devil.

In the opposite corner, a relative newcomer to the world, born about thirty years ago, hailing from a backwater town of Judea, the son of a carpenter, freshly baptized and famished after a forty-day fast, the contender, Jesus.

And we think, “Ha! The devil versus the Son of God? This ought to be good! Go get him, Jesus, once and for all! Show that supernatural serpent who’s boss!”

And we cheer: “Jesus, Jesus, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can. Yay Jesus!”

Jesus will do it, forever. We just know it, feel it in our bones! He’s going to beat the devil up and give him what’s coming to him. Evil will be forever snuffed out. We’ll all fly away!

But, sadly, already . . . we’ve only just heard the Gospel and already we’ve revealed ourselves as unable to withstand one of the very temptations Jesus himself withstood during those forty days.

For, the second temptation is all about spectacle.

The devil took Jesus and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said, “If you’re the Son of God, throw yourself down. God will protect you.”

But Jesus said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Life is difficult. Life is full of trials and tribulations. Life, we are reminded during Lent, is but dust—and to dust we shall return.

But aren’t we supposed to ask Jesus to heal us from cancer? Aren’t we supposed to expect supernatural miracles? Aren’t our health and wealth measures of our faith? Isn’t part of our calling to look for the spectacular?

Jesus reminds us today that we are not to put the Lord our God to the test.

2.

And we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.

For, what are today’s temptations getting at?

The first one’s about turning stones to bread.

It seems to me that here the devil is suggesting to Jesus that he doesn’t really have to trust in the world God has created.

Jesus, he seems to be saying, you have the power to subvert the natural order of things. You don’t have to go through the proper, time-consuming channels of planting, tending, harvesting, grinding, preparing, and cooking. Just say the word, Jesus, and these stones will become bread.

Just the word, the devil tempts, and Jesus can skirt around God’s established order.

Then there’s the second temptation, the one where the devil tempts Jesus to the spectacular—again, power to skirt around God’s established order of things: like gravity; and the fragility and sanctity of human life.

And what about the third temptation?

Worship me, the devil says, and you will have power over all the kingdoms of the world.

Authority! Dominion! Domination! Without even acknowledging God’s place!

So, skirting around God; ignoring God’s created order; elevating oneself to the position of God—really, aren’t these temptations all the same, just three variations on the theme of power?

3.

Well, we know, Jesus effectively resisted the devil’s temptations.

But what about us? What about the church? How well have we, the Christian church, resisted the temptations of power—authority, dominion, domination—control—throughout our history?

Two years ago, I read a book by Brain McLaren called The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian.

Now, I’ve known about the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Crusades for most of my Christian life. And I’m not especially happy to be associated with them.

But McLaren brought new light to this question for me. And his laser cut deep; I almost couldn’t bear the pain.

He called my attention to the 16th and 17th centuries—that time when explorations were being made into the new world.

Missionaries and military regiments joined the explorers; with a goal to Christianize the heathen lands of the new world.

Flags were planted. Claims were made. Missions were established. And natives were baptized—praise God!

But . . . if not baptized, they were engaged in battle!

And what happened to the indigenous peoples who lived through these battles and still did not comply?

Incarceration. Enslavement. And, more often than I want to admit, execution.

We grieve that six million Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust—and well we should! But McLaren documents that over the course of a century of exploration more than 15 million indigenous peoples had their lives stolen from them for the advancement of Christianity in the new world.

Genocide on a massive scale so that the Christian religion could exercise dominion and control!

Anyway, that was two years ago—in Lent, 2018—when I read McLaren’s book.

Last year—in Lent, 2019—I visited Mission San Juan Capistrano in California with my son’s fourth grade class: a stellar example of an early mission, founded by Franciscans in 1776, the stone church completed a short 30 years later, in 1806.

Now, I don’t know if I was extra sensitized because of McLaren’s book or what, but what stood out glaringly to me was that, in order for the structure to be completed in so short a time, labor was conscripted from the local, indigenous people—not the ones who had been incarcerated, but those who had converted to Christianity.

Six days a week, from sunup to sundown, conscripted native laborers constructed this Christian mission in exchange for three meals a day and lodging.

And on the seventh day, the day of rest, they attended mass and prepared for baptism and confessed. In other words, they were (expected to be) good Catholics.

Gone, mostly, were their former lives. Gone, mostly, were their foods, their customs, their songs, their culture.

“Beneath your feet,” our tour guide explained, “more than four thousand people are buried in this cemetery; all of them conscripted laborers.”

So, two years ago this knowledge was new for me; and one year ago, I experienced it tangibly: 15 million indigenous people killed for the advancement of Christendom in the new world.

And, of course, we all know it’s not just the Spanish explorers, missionaries, and military who took dominion of the new world. For, while the Catholics from Spain were engaged in South America and the western parts of our continent, Anglicans and Protestants from Europe and North America were crossing the Atlantic westward with cargoes of African natives.

Indeed, our history is a bitter pill.

4.

Fellow followers of Christ, Jesus stood fast for forty days in the wilderness; but we have not. Again and again, we the church have eaten the tempting fruit of power.

What are we to do?

What can we do?

Lent calls us to remember our failures.

And when we remember our failures, Lent calls us to lament them.

And when we lament our failures, Lent calls us to repent from them.

And when we have repented from our failures, Lent redirects us to hope.

Forty day and forty nights Jesus wandered in the wilderness, beaten down by temptation.

Forty days and forty nights Moses stood on Mount Sinai while the Israelites below forgot God.

Forty days and forty nights the rain pounded the earth nonstop while Moses and his family despaired inside the ark.

Yet, a common beam of light shines through all of these cloudy episodes: hope.

New and better things are on the horizon.

We fail; but hope pulls us forward.

5.

Now, you probably know, I was away last Sunday because I was touring several missions in southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

Back in November, I was awarded this trip as an educator. I accepted it gladly because I wanted to learn more about this region I now call home.

Anyway, as the tour progressed I found myself becoming increasingly impressed with one of the missionaries, Father Francisco Kino. He played no small part in founding the community of Tumacácori.

I am impressed with him, a Jesuit, because, unlike in California, the farmers and settlers in this region actually invited Father Kino to establish the mission;

And, his approach to administration was much more humane.

Those who wanted to convert to Christianity were able.

Three days a week, they helped to build the mission; and three days a week, they worked their own farms. And on Sundays, yes, they attended church and were catechized.

On the other hand, those who did not want to convert were left to themselves.

Now, one could argue there was a downside to Father Kino’s approach. For, unlike San Juan Capistrano, the Tumacácori mission never reached completion. Plans include a cruciform structure that was never fully realized, for instance.

But is this in fact a downside? Because of Father Kino, at Tumacácori people were treated humanely. Genuine needs were responded to. Dominion and control were not the focus.

Which—I don’t know about you—strikes me as much more like Christ’s approach to his own mission and ministry.

And it sounds to me much more like the Gospel passage we heard today.

Jesus faced temptation and resisted. He did not subvert God’s path. He did not take control or exert dominance—even over the devil!

It wasn’t easy, but Jesus waited on God.

As we continue to do Jesus’ mission today, we do well to remember our past failures, to lament them, to repent, and to move forward in hope.

And, though we fail again and again, that is the only way Jesus will defeat the devil once and for all!

Overwhelming the Way of Domination

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2020 by timtrue

I delivered this sermon on Feb. 16 at St. John’s, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas. On Feb. 23, I was away doing some continuing education work in Mexico and thus was not able to offer a sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. This sermon ends one liturgical season during my ongoing supply work; think of it as a kind of wrap-up. From here we move into Lent.

Matthew 5:21-37

1.

This is it! This year in church, today’s passage is the last we hear from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Next week—what our church calendar calls the Last Sunday after the Epiphany—we skip ahead to Matthew 17 and the Transfiguration.

And the week after that is Lent—which is wonderful in Year A, btw: stay tuned—most of which places us in John’s Gospel.

But, because in this particular year the Season after the Epiphany ends next Sunday, this is all we get from the Sermon on the Mount.

So, we’ve heard it said, “Do not murder”; and Jesus tells us today that the realm with which we are accustomed, the world, defines murder as the unlawful, premeditated taking of one person’s literal life by another person.

But, Jesus tells us, in his realm, murder is much more heartfelt: simply to harbor resentment towards another person constitutes murder in his book.

And, he continues, the same can be said for adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and any other commandment we care to name. These are all matters of the heart.

But, except for some of Matthew 6 that shows up on Ash Wednesday, this is all we get from the Sermon on the Mount this year—just a tease!

Leaving me to wonder—maybe you too—just where else does this sermon go? What else does Jesus have to say?

Well, here are some samplings of what we won’t hear this year:

  • Turn the other cheek.
  • Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
  • Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.
  • Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.
  • Do not worry about your life. Look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field.
  • Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. First take the log out of your own eye.
  • Ask. Seek. Knock.
  • In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.
  • Build your house not on sand but on rock.

It’s too bad, really. I mean, there’s a lot of good stuff in here—like enough for a semester-length course in Christian ethics.

But we’ll just have to put that idea on hold. Today, instead, we’re left with the task of summarizing.

And so, on the whole, in the Sermon on the Mount, isn’t Jesus offering us a picture of what life in his realm looks like?

Murder, we’ve heard, is the unlawful, premeditated taking of another person’s literal life.

But that’s this realm’s—this world’s—definition of murder.

In Jesus’ new realm, murder is more like unreasonable anger in the heart.

And, really, of these two, in which realm would you rather live?

The greatest commandment of all is love; and love is the key to living a new-realm life in the here-and-now.

2.

So, there’s the summary. Now, here’s a follow-up question: Why?

Why does Jesus call us to live this way? What is the goal of living according to the Golden Rule?

We’ve just been reminded that harboring unreasonable anger in our hearts is akin to murder.

But what, I ask, is our natural tendency? Where does human nature direct us?

To illustrate:

Long ago, in another life, I taught second grade. One year, two of my students, both boys, were especially competitive. Their names were Paul and Aaron.

So, we were enjoying some PE together. I had taught my students a game I remembered fondly from my own elementary school days, called German Dodgeball. And on this day, Paul and Aaron were on opposing teams.

Well, Aaron got the ball and threw it hard at Paul. Paul, who was quite athletic, caught the ball; and one of the rules is that if you catch the ball, the person who threw it is out.

In other words, Aaron was out. And he and his now deflated ego knew it.

To make matters worse, Paul and his now inflated ego knew it too. And Paul laughed. Loud and hard and rather scornfully, I thought.

As teacher and referee, I decided to keep my eye on these two.

Soon enough, Aaron was back in the game. And, predictably, Paul targeted him. And continued to target him.

Paul threw the ball at Aaron whenever he had the chance, successfully sending an increasingly red-faced Aaron to the sidelines again and again.

At last, however, Aaron got his revenge. Somehow, he managed to gain possession of the ball and throw it straight at Paul when his attention was diverted.

Now, whether Aaron intended to do so or not—my guess: not—the ball hurtled through space at second-grader-head level. And as fate would have it, just as the ball entered point-blank range, Paul turned his head in the direction of the ball and saw his demise, only too late, giving him just enough time to take on a frightened facial expression but not enough time to duck.

The result? The ball smacked Paul squarely on his nose. Which immediately began to bleed. Profusely!

And now Aaron laughed. Louder and harder and rather more scornfully than Paul had earlier, I thought.

And that proved too much! Heedless of his now crimson shirt, Paul charged Aaron, fists clenched; and Aaron, suddenly panicked, ran straight for me.

“All right,” I directed, “game’s over. Class, line up!”

Fast forward a few minutes. Now, Paul’s bloody nose having been attended to, we were back in our classroom, students in their seats and I standing at the front of the class. The mood was somber.

Well, this was a Christian school, meaning I had certain liberties. So, “Take out your Bibles,” I said sternly, “and open to Matthew 5:21. Raise your hand when you get there.”

The sound of shuffling pages followed. One by one hands began to go up.

“Camila,” I directed, “please read the verse.”

The translation we used says it this way: “You have heard that it was said to our people long ago, ‘You must not murder anyone. Anyone who murders another will be judged.’”

“Thank you, Camila,” I continued. “Now, class, do you know why I asked Camila to read that verse? I’ll tell you. It’s because, just now, over in the gym, I witnessed a murder!”

Second-grade incredulity, shock, and awe filled the air.

So, I said, “Here’s how. Camila, please read the verse again. But this time, keep going. The rest of you, listen up!”

Which led to a great discussion about anger, to be sure –not to mention a couple of follow-up phone calls from parents (but that’s another story for another day).

Now, my point for the moment is, call it survival of the fittest, natural selection, instinct, whatever; but isn’t our human tendency to take revenge? Can’t you relate to Paul? Or maybe Aaron? Or both?

And I don’t know about you, but my experience suggests it’s never really eye-for-eye or tooth-for-tooth, exact-repayment revenge we want; but revenge with interest—exorbitant interest.

You threw a rock at me? Well, I’m gonna throw a boulder on you!

But . . .

What happens when we follow Jesus’ Way? What happens if Paul decides to laugh along with Aaron instead of chase him down? What happens if someone throws a rock at me and I let it go? What happens if we genuinely forgive?

I think we know the answer. We’ve seen it in history! MLKJ turned the other cheek—like Jesus, to the point of death! And because of his actions, humanity has taken great steps forward since then; steps toward—we even use a theological word here—racial reconciliation.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

That’s our goal! That’s what Jesus is after! That’s why Jesus calls us to live by the Golden Rule today, in this world!

Reconciliation.

3.

So, we’ve had the summary; and we’ve filled out Jesus’ message: We are to live our lives in fulfillment of the greatest law, love; with reconciliation as our goal.

But reconciliation is difficult. Our natural tendencies fight against it. I wish it were easier!

And so, there’s one more point I’d like to make: we have each other.

It’s a point that often gets overlooked by us today, some 2,000 years removed from Jesus and his context. After all, we live in a me-culture: a culture that is very oriented around the individual. But it’s there—community—in Jesus’ life and ministry; and we would do well to take heed.

This new-realm life Jesus calls us to live and that he himself modeled for us is aimed not at individuals but at communities; we are called to live out the Golden Rule corporately.

And it’s actually easier to do this—to live by the Golden Rule—together than to do so individually.

Think it through with me.

Whenever you, as an individual, harbor unnecessary anger in your heart toward another individual, that anger is akin to murder.

So, likewise, it stands to reason, whenever we, together, harbor unnecessary anger in our corporate heart toward another corporate entity, that too is akin to murder.

Well, where does unnecessary anger take us? Resentment! Hatred!

To be more concrete, let’s think of something that we can be angry about together—something like . . . systemic racism: ways in which the broader culture enables white people to dominate people of color. It’s a kind of societal murder, isn’t it?

So, this makes you angry; this makes me angry; this makes all of us angry. What are our options?

One thing we could do is sit around and brood. We agree that systemic racism wrong; but, after all, we tell ourselves: It’s such a big problem, what can we do about it?

As individuals, I’m not sure we do have any other options but to brood.

And in our individual brooding, instead of taking any kind of action, we would just sit around and become unnecessarily angry. Resentment and hatred would grow within us—attitudes that steer us away from Jesus’ Way of Love.

But, on the other hand, when we come together corporately, there is another option. We are a group, meaning we can hold one another accountable; and our righteous anger motivates us to take action together, as a church, toward reconciliation.

Instead of resentment and hatred, love grows within us.

Corporate action toward corporate reconciliation!

You know what this is?

It’s the new realm—Jesus’ Way of Love—turning over the tables of the old realm—the world’s Way of Domination.

Together, we are called to turn over tables. Together, we don’t abolish; we fulfill. Together, we don’t dominate; we love.

In the case of racial reconciliation, together, we take the evil of systemic racism and turn it on its head by calling attention to the beauty of ethnic diversity, rejoicing in all the various reflections of God we see in the races, cultures, and faces of all persons: together, we seek and find the divine image in everyone.

Don’t you see? This world—in which both the old and new realms are at work—is God’s creation. Thus, even the systemic evils at work in the world can be redeemed and reconciled to God; and thereby become the good that God intended them to be in the first place.

Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, is our corporate calling: to overwhelm the Way of Domination with the Way of Love.

Mindful of Matthew’s Metonymy

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered yesterday at St. John’s, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas.

Matthew 5:13-20

1.

Have you ever been in on a “ground floor opportunity”? If so, then you realize that these opportunities are always filled with both excitement and anxiety.

I wasn’t around fourteen years ago when the idea of my school, Imago Dei Middle School, became a reality. But I’ve heard enough of the stories to know the bipolar atmosphere of which I speak.

I mean, a tuition-free Episcopal School, funded privately one hundred percent? You know it was exciting—and filled with anxiety! Fear too!

Oh, the stories I’ve heard—of faculty being asked if they wouldn’t mind waiting a week or two for a paycheck; of writing a rent check on faith that a donation would come in before the property manager deposited the check with the bank; of enrolling students who had no documentation of any kind! . . .

In a way, I’m actually glad I wasn’t around to see it. Too much of a rollercoaster! And, besides, there’s enough anxiety for me just in today, when we must raise, somehow, $1.75 million a year just to cover our operating costs.

No, if you ask me, a synonym for ground floor opportunities is stress.

2.

Anyway, with this ground-floor-opportunity framework in mind, let’s imagine ourselves today in the shoes of the Matthean Community.

That’s the original, the ground-floor congregation to which St. Matthew the Evangelist wrote his Gospel; the community that was the very first group of people to hear this good news proclaimed.

So, what do we know about the Matthean Community? A few characteristics from the Gospel stand out:

First, the Matthean Community believed in Jesus’ message and mission. That’s the impetus behind why they had gathered in the first place—a Christian assembly.

Second, it was a community seeking to understand whether Jesus was truly divine. We infer this from the larger context of the Gospel, which never actually asserts Jesus’ divinity—even after his resurrection—but suggests its possibility, as in the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

And a third characteristic: the Matthean Community was mostly Jewish.

This is a fact that is often easily overlooked by Christians today, 2,000 years removed from the context of the first Christian communities. Early Christianity was simply a Jewish sect—left-wing whackos maybe, but a sect nonetheless.

The larger Jewish world was reidentifying itself in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Most of the Diaspora congregated into local synagogues.

With the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees, the Jewish party that had functioned as the political and religious leaders in Jerusalem, were effectively snuffed out. The Pharisees, another Jewish party, now held sway over popular opinion.

Ideologically speaking, the Pharisees were right-wingers. And thus, in general, the left-wing Christian offshoots were not favorably welcomed by the broader, reconstituting Jewish community.

Surely, excitement and anxiety—and, also, fear—characterized the Matthean Community.

3.

So, now, imagine that the Matthean Community is hearing this Gospel proclaimed for the first time.

Leading up to today’s passage, this community has heard the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, facing temptation in the wilderness for forty days, and the calling the first disciples; and that those who follow Jesus, despite being reviled, are instead truly blessed.

And at this point, in this context, for the first time ever, the people of this community hear two metaphors from Jesus himself: you are salt and light.

Salt and light. Curious metaphors: both have two sides to them.

Salt flavors in a delightful way.

But salt also has an edge to it. Too much salt is hard to take. To rub it on meat is to preserve; and yet too much rubbing is abrasive. We salt our roads to cut through ice and snow. Salt stings our wounds.

Similarly, light has a delightful side to it: it illuminates the things we need to see. But it also exposes things we sometimes don’t want to see, things we sometimes don’t want others to see.

In our world today, we now know, too much light produces light pollution.

So, we, Jesus says, are salt and light. We, the Church, have a pastoral call to the world around us. This pastoral call has a good side to it—we flavor our world; we illuminate it. But it also has a harsh side.

We flavor our world. We also preserve it—with abrasiveness when we must, cutting through the ice and snow of dark, cold evil. Too, we illuminate our world, which shows the world Jesus; but which also brings evil to light.

Our mission is two-sided.

We affirm—we welcome and include.

But, simultaneously, we criticize where necessary—calling the world around us to repent from the Way of Domination, from lives in conflict with God.

There’s something of mercy and judgment in the mission Jesus left to us.

4.

Now, at this point I want to return to something I mentioned above. Let’s back up and have a look together at the Matthean Community’s so-called opponents: Who were these Pharisees? Who were these caricatures criticized by the Matthean Community?

We hear Matthew mention Pharisees in today’s Gospel—“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”—and we think, “Villains! Boo! Hiss!”

And, certainly, elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel our suspicions are confirmed.

Pharisees pray long prayers on street corners in order to be heard by others. Pharisees tie up heavy burdens and lay them on the shoulders of other people. Pharisees love to have the best seats in banquets and synagogues.

And over in chapter 23, Matthew portrays Jesus as vilifying Pharisees with not one or two but eight woes:

  • Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.
  • Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
  • Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.”

And on it goes!

To the Matthean Community, Pharisees were the villains.

But the reality in the ancient world was just not so.

In the ancient, spiritually confused world, Pharisees piously sought God’s will.

In the desperate time of Jewish rebuilding following the destruction of the Temple, Pharisees led pastorally the communities of the Diaspora.

In that day as well as today, Pharisees were and are Jewish role models of what it means to live an upright life.

So, why does Matthew vilify them so? Why are they criticized?

It is because they represented a larger system that was very much opposed to the Matthean Community’s ideals and all that it was trying to establish—that ground floor opportunity, full of excitement and worry and fear.

It became all too easy for the early Christians to look at their opponents and blame them for the oppressiveness they felt from the real opposition: a much larger, abstract, faceless, person-less system; the Way of Domination.

5.

Of course, we today are not that early community. Nevertheless, we are still carrying out Jesus’ mission.

There’s a tale of caution here. Carrying out Jesus’ mission today, it remains all too easy for us to look around and ask, “Who are our opponents?”

We want to vilify too. This want is in our nature.

So, for instance, in light of my sermons over the past several weeks, we might answer that those who support the idea of the border wall are our opponents.

More specifically, we might even say that US Border Patrol agents are our opponents.

But this is the wrong answer!

Matthew was using a figure of speech called metonymy. The Pharisees themselves were not the opponents. Rather, the Pharisees represented the larger religious system—that faceless, person-less system—the Way of Domination—that worked against them.

Just so, we might be tempted to vilify Border Patrol agents today; because, as we see it, they represent the Way of Domination.

But are they really our opponents?

No! Of course not!

Here is a tale of caution for us. Where the Church took Matthew’s metonymy is truly shameful—terrible prejudice towards Jews resounds throughout the halls of Church history.

Well, do you know any Border Patrol agents personally today? I hope we’ve learned our lesson.

We are not called to vilify, villainize, or otherwise demonize individual persons—whether Border Patrol agents, Democrats, Republicans, white supremacists, Black Panthers, terrorists, or anyone else we perceive as the enemy.

Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

And what does it mean to fulfill the law in the deepest sense possible?

As we oppose the faceless, person-less, abstract system I’ve been calling the Way of Domination, we are to love God and our neighbor—even when we perceive that neighbor to be an enemy.

Love! The greatest commandment! Love!

We are salt and light—two-sided metaphors. We are called to exercise both mercy and judgment.

But in our judgment, we shall not vilify, villainize, or demonize any person.

Instead, we criticize the Way of Domination at work seemingly everywhere in the world around us; and, simultaneously, we uphold the dignity of every human being, proclaiming boldly the Way of Love.

Hope for the Meek

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2020 by timtrue

To be delivered tomorrow at St. John’s Church, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas. Both churches are near the Mexican border; one within eyeshot (a mere 10 blocks from the port of entry into Agua Prieta). Because of my twelve weeks with them and my intention to preach one, overarching story over these twelve weeks, I am using the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany rather than for the Feast of the Presentation.

Matthew 5:1-12

1.

Last week, we heard about Jesus calling his first disciples and explored just how radical that calling was; and how our call to follow Jesus today is similarly radical.

Last week, also, we contemplated the meaning of evangelism—that part of our call known as the good news.

How are we supposed to proclaim it? What actions are we called to take?

I argued for context: the good news we proclaim and the actions we take are defined, at least in part, by our social and historical contexts.

As I drew my sermon to a close, I stated that our context here in southeast Arizona is defined by a geographic border.

This border is one of the many things that defines each of our lives—ourselves; and our neighbors. That means, when we look outwardly, thinking about the mission Jesus has left for us, the good news we proclaim and the good deeds we do are defined by this border too.

What, then, is our good news? In our particular, border-defined context, what message should we proclaim and what actions should we take to tell this part of the world that Jesus’ Way of Love is alive and well; and that it will prevail?

Just how do we demonstrate God through Christ to the world around us?

Anyway, that was last week.

Today, I want—and the Gospel compels us—to dive deeper.

2.

So, I’ve been reading an eye-opening book over the past couple of weeks by an Arizona man named Todd Miller. It’s called Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. And, in good journalistic fashion, this book outlines just what the subtitle says.

Climate change is affecting our world. Sea levels are rising. Massive storms, unlike any in recorded history, are predicted. Of the first 16 years of the 21st century, 15 were the hottest on record.

An important corollary to climate change is migration. Because of rising sea levels and the advent of superstorms, people are being displaced from their homes on a massive scale: climate refugees, Miller calls them.

And this massive-scale displacement is not going to diminish any time soon. Rather, given the anticipated rise in sea levels globally, we can expect migration—the numbers of displaced people all over the world—to increase significantly throughout our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children and even our grandchildren.

At the same time, Miller observes, many of the wealthiest countries around the world—countries with the resources to make them best able to help climate refugees—the U. S., Australia, Iceland, Poland, and several others—are clamping down on their borders.

Do you know that our country’s annual operating budget for border security is over $20 billion? This is in addition to the construction of the wall, with a recently updated price tag of $11 billion.

That’s a lot of money–$20 billion a year!

I wonder how many refugees our country could accommodate with that kind of money, or how much work towards environmental sustainability we could accomplish. . . .

So, anyway, this is where the “Homeland Security” part of Miller’s subtitle comes in.

And this is where his book resonates most keenly with us.

3a.

For, I’m sure we’ve all experienced Border Patrol checkpoints.

For me, it’s never been an issue; maybe for you too.

I drive towards the armed agent in the familiar forest-green uniform slowly, only somewhat conscious of the staggered, decreasing speed limits confronting me every few feet; and, arriving at the booth, I roll down my window and nod when the agent makes eye contact.

At this point the agent usually waves me through with a statement along the lines of, “Have a good day, sir.”

Occasionally it has been a little more involved—like one time on Imperial County Highway S2, the old stagecoach route between Interstate 8 and Warner Springs, California, when an agent engaged me in a more detailed inquiry.

“Where are you coming from,” he asked; “and where are you going?”

After a fairly brief conversation in which I explained I was traveling from Yuma to Temecula, I got the familiar, “Thanks. You have a good day, sir.”

Point being, to a stop, from my perspective it’s always been a polite exchange with never much else; I hardly notice the guns and Billy clubs they carry.

But I’m white—as in Caucasian. And I drive a late model vehicle. And, like it or not, the Department of Homeland Security is allowed to profile people according to race and perceived wealth.

My Border Patrol checkpoint experiences have always been benign.

3b.

However, to a person of color, the Border Patrol checkpoint experience can be downright intimidating, frightening, and even traumatic.

In his book, Miller tells the story of Joshua Garcia, whose “pulse quickens every time he approaches a U. S. Border Patrol checkpoint” (p. 145). Miller explains:

Garcia has done nothing wrong. He is also a U. S. citizen. But he feels that sense of dread . . . Maybe this time, as on many occasions, they would just wave him through. Perhaps he’d be able to continue on his way back to Tucson as the harsh afternoon light softens into dusk. He hopes that is the case, because he has two kids from the youth council with him (146).

As Miller narrates, Garcia and the two youths were returning to Tucson after spending the day in the Tohono O’odham Nation. There are Border Patrol checkpoints on every paved road out of the sovereign nation.

To cut to the chase, that day did not go well for Garcia and the children. Miller continues:

When Garcia lurches ahead and finally reaches the authorities, they just wave him over to a secondary inspection. . . . Garcia slowly drives into the secondary inspection site. He drives to where the armed agents are standing. . . . [when] he hears a forceful, a commanding voice yelling: “Get out of the vehicle!” The voice is urgent, as if there are explosives somewhere, as if there were a bomb, as if someone were in danger (150-51).

So, Garcia and the kids complied; only to be commanded, once they were out of the car, “Get back!”

Then, seeing an agent begin to search through one of the kid’s backpacks, Garcia said, “We don’t consent to a search”;

To which the agent, armed with his Billy club and pistol, briskly walked toward Garcia and shouted in his face, “Get the <expletive> back!”

Eventually, Garcia and the kids were allowed to go on their way. But Miller cannot help but wonder—me too—if the verbal assault traumatized the kids.

And there’s this: I cannot help but wonder if Joshua Garcia is feeling displaced from the land that he and his family for generations have called home—in effect, a domestic refugee.

Fear and violence (or the threat of it) are the means often used by Border Patrol agents to police our borders today.

And if Miller’s predictions about climate change’s effects on migration come true, fear and violence will only increase in the generations to come.

Does this police-state scenario sadden you? Does it leave you feeling—I don’t know—maybe kind of hopeless?

4.

On that note, let’s check back in with Jesus.

Last week he called his first four disciples and set off with them on a mission to proclaim the good news and heal the sick.

And now, here, today, he offers us an example of what it is to proclaim the good news: today Jesus begins to deliver his Sermon on the Mount. And he says:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

And so on.

There’s hope here. And it’s not just some pie-in-the-sky hope, idealistic or imagined. It’s real. As real as the geographic border that defines our southeast-Arizona context!

In fact, we’ve seen hope already, today, in the things I’ve said. You may not have noticed it, but it’s there—if you just look in the right places.

So, to point these out, in the first place, remember that Jesus’ original audience was full of people who were oppressed politically—people like Joshua Garcia. Many of them lived desperate lives, struggling continually to find hope.

In the second place, notice that these beatitudes are in the indicative mood, not the imperative. What do I mean? They’re statements, about the way things are, in the present—not commands; not attributes to which followers of Jesus should aspire (which is how they’re usually interpreted).

In other words, there is hope for those who are presently being displaced by the political machine.

In the third place, recall the ground we’ve covered with Jesus over the last few weeks. There are two conflicting powers at work in the world. One, the Way of Domination, is the way by which the world by and large operates. The other, the Way of Love, is the mission Jesus has left for his followers to do.

Putting these “right places” together then: The Way of Domination may very well be holding us or our neighbors in a position where, like Joshua Garcia, we are poor in spirit, mourning, and meek.

But(!), the Way of Love, a. k. a. the kingdom of heaven, is gradually overcoming the old Way; and thereby, simultaneously, the meek are being comforted: the meek presently are inheriting the earth!

Do you see? When the Way of Domination is at work, people are reviled, made meek, downtrodden, etc.

But when the Way of Love is at work, blessings prevail, hope overcomes despair, the meek—the Joshua Garcias of the world—inherit the earth.

***

The Way of Domination controls our borders through fear and intimidation and violence.

And we are called to respond to this Way of Domination with the Way of Love.

What does our response look like?

Offering meals to asylum seekers camped on the Mexico side of the border?

Yes, no question! And, please, keep up the good work!

But to push back a little, what about offering sanctuary to an undocumented person?

Now it becomes a little more difficult, eh?

Our southeast-Arizona context confronts us with difficult questions. My exhortation to you as a community of Jesus-followers; and especially to the Bishop’s Committee and wardens as you consider leading this congregation through these questions, is this:

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.

Where we see the Way of Love at work—where we proclaim it and demonstrate it through our actions—there hope overcomes despair.

Radical Contextualizing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2020 by timtrue

I will deliver this homily on Sunday, January 26, 2020–the Third Sunday after the Epiphany–to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee and St. Stephen’s in Douglas. It is the fourth of twelve homilies planned in my time with these congregations as a supply priest.

Matthew 4:12-23

1.

Radical.

My middle school peers and I used this word overly much. But, even if overused, I cannot think of a better word to describe the call Jesus issued to his first disciples: radical.

As Matthew relates, Jesus began his public 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 Jesus says to all four of them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Now, here is an excellent opportunity for me to talk about evangelism: evangelism is foundational to everything else we do together as a church community; we, too, need to fish for people.

And if that’s what you’re hoping for—just waiting on the edge of your seat for a sermon about evangelism—well, hang tight: we’ll get there.

First, however, I want to point out just how radical this call is that Jesus makes to his first disciples.

2.

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 passed on to them by their fathers. 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.

And when their boats needed repairs, 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 even make it to shore) was almost an afterthought.

Everything about their vocation was second nature.

Moreover, we can surmise—along with biblical scholars—that these men had fairly lucrative businesses.

Yes! Fish were in demand as a food throughout the region. The public paid relatively high prices for fish, an excellent source of protein. And, as is often the case with established businesses, overhead costs were low. These men enjoyed high productivity and low overhead, a recipe for a comfortable life.

Another 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.

Now, surely, 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’d be a certain amount of adventure and excitement around that.

At least initially.

But what happens when the sense of adventure turns into a sense of obligation? When you realize Mr. Curry wasn’t calling you to join him just for a few days but for the rest of your life?

And 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.”

There’s another verse. Right at the end of the passage, Jesus and his new followers then set out traveling, teaching, preaching, and healing—with no foreseeable end in sight.

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.

And they weren’t following Jesus into a kind of weekend-warrior life of adventure, to return to their comfortable, ordinary lives after two or three days; or a week. No! These guys left their established, comfortable lives on an indefinite leave of absence; to follow Jesus into the highly risky unknown.

Radical!

3.

So, that’s what it meant for them to follow Jesus. What does it mean for us?

Those who manipulate the good news—the evangelism—of the Bible for their own ends—who make a gospel out of prosperity or family values; or out of a weekend-warrior adventure—would do well to consider what we hear from St. Matthew today.

But also, if your understanding of evangelism is more authentic, more aligned with Jesus’ approach, you would do well too.

And we’ll get there, I promise.

But first—or second now, as it were—I’d like briefly to review where we’ve come on our Epiphany journey.

So, if you recall, three weeks ago, on my first Sunday with you—January 5, the last Sunday of the Christmas season—I reasoned from the Gospel that the image of God as a baby challenges us to see God anew. God loves us unconditionally in the messy details of our lives.

Next, on January 12, we saw that Jesus’ baptism is the commencement of the transformation of the world. Jesus came as the Incarnation to turn the world around, to establish and maintain a new era.

And last week, on January 19, I argued that the Incarnation and Epiphany call all of humanity to repent from the Way of Domination in favor of the Way of Love.

Do you see what’s going on here? There’s a trajectory.

God began a new thing in Jesus; and, like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we are called to continue and build upon this new thing.

4.

Now, at last, we can turn our attention to the moment you’ve all been waiting for.

Drumroll, please!

Evangelism.

We’ve all heard the word. But what does it mean?

As you probably know, our English word comes from the Greek euangelion, which is translated good news in today’s Gospel.

So, I was baptized in college, at a Baptist Church. I was unchurched growing up; all this Jesus stuff was new to me. I ate it up!

The college leader at this church then invited me to participate in an evangelism campaign—crusade, I think he called it. Our work was simple. We were to walk around the UC Davis campus handing out tracts to students.

Well, I took a tract home, sat on the couch, and began to read through it. And, aside from the comic-strip graphics striking me as silly, I didn’t like its message.

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” it began. And it continued to outline a method for achieving personal salvation.

The title of this pamphlet was Four Spiritual Laws, as if to say this method was immovable and unshakable—like God himself.

“Well,” I told the leader the next day, explaining why I did not want to engage in this evangelism crusade, “if God is sovereign; and if I pass this pamphlet out to someone struggling with addiction, alcoholism, promiscuity, whatever—then the message I’m really telling them is that their struggle is God’s immovable and unshakable plan for their life. And that’s supposed to be a wonderful plan? That’s supposed to be good news?”

Incidentally, we college students were encouraged to wear loud t-shirts with confrontational Jesus messages on them; and to attend week-long mission trips to far corners of the world where we could paint houses or lead a Vacation Bible School program for the less fortunate.

Really? Is that what it looks like to proclaim the good news? Is that what Jesus had in mind when he radically called those four men on that day on the beach so long ago?

Of course not!

5.

So then, what does evangelism look like?

We find the answer in today’s Gospel, in the final verse:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Evangelism, the good news, is contextual.

For Jesus and his first disciples, it meant proclaiming that God is not an aloof king but very human, tied up in our messy lives and loving us unconditionally.

And, it also involved curing disease and sickness—because these acts afforded the most hands-on demonstration of the good news, a hands-on demonstration of God’s presence in the messy details, loving us unconditionally.

The old kingdom’s way is the Way of Domination; but the new kingdom is the Way of Love. That’s the good news Jesus and his first disciples proclaimed; and their actions were consistent with their message.

What should evangelism look like for us today? Weekend trips to help the homeless in Los Angeles? Week-long trips to paint houses in Jamaica; or to run a Vacation Bible School in Kenya?

Short-term missionaries from a highly privileged nation flying in and telling the less fortunate about God’s prosperous blessings; or painting cinder-block houses so they can feel good about themselves while simultaneously putting local artisans out of work—

To me, that sounds far more aligned with the Way of Domination than with the Way of Love.

Instead, evangelism looks around at the local community and asks, “What is our context? What is it going to take for our community—our neighbors and ourselves—to see the Way of Love at work?”

Our context, here, in southeast Arizona—

To be just a little more specific: to me, a border wall looks a lot like the Way of Domination. . . .

People of St. John’s/St. Stephen’s, this is our context.

Within this context, Christ’s call to radical evangelism compels us to proclaim the Way of Love; and to act in accordance with it.

The Way of a New Era

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2020 by timtrue

The following sermon is the third of twelve that I will preach to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee and St. Stephen’s in Douglas as part of a three-month stint doing pulpit-supply work. I will deliver it tomorrow.

John 1:29-42

1.

In our last two weeks together, we have encountered two profound ideas about God: Incarnation and Epiphany.

Incarnation: God becomes a human; empathy in its ultimate form.

Epiphany: God, through the Incarnation, is made known to the world.

Each of these ideas is staggering on its own. Together—well, not just one but both ideas are realized in and through the man named Jesus!

Perhaps even more staggering still is that, when we take a step back and look at him historically, Jesus was no one special.

Jesus was a common person, not born into aristocracy or royalty.

Jesus was an artisan, a carpenter’s son, not a statesman.

And Jesus was poor, a lot like everyone else in his circles.

And yet, common as Jesus was, with no kind of privilege working in his favor, he somehow managed to grab the attention of the world—so much so that he was eventually crucified by the world’s leaders, for rebellion.

And yet, too, Jesus has managed to keep the attention of the world down to this day.

Who was this man Jesus? Who is this Incarnation? This Epiphany?

Today I want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture—these profound ideas—with you.

Why did God become human—why the Incarnation?

And, why was Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” made known to the world—why the Epiphany?

And the answer—what I hope to demonstrate to you today—is that, through Jesus the Incarnation and Epiphany, God is calling all humanity to a radical change of mind; so radical, in fact, that the Incarnation and Epiphany comprise the beginning of an entirely new era.

2.

So then, the major worldview before Jesus’ birth is what I (and Walter Wink and Richard Rohr et al) like to call the Way of Domination.

Have you heard this phrase?

The Way of Domination tells us that in our relationships with one another, one person or group is always superior to another, inferior person or group. Even in our friendships! It’s just the way things are, the Way of Domination tells us, like a law of physics.

What is the result of viewing the world through this lens? Complex hierarchies; and social structures kept in place by violence and fear.

In the ancient world—in Jesus’ world—it looked like patriarchy and classism, among other things.

As for patriarchy, a husband ruled over his wife. A husband had legal liberty to beat his wife if, in his mind, she stepped out of line in some way. His children too.

With respect to classism, slaves answered to masters; freemen answered to equites; equites answered to senators; and, sitting at the top of the hierarchy, senators answered to the Emperor, Caesar.

Put these together, and it meant that a woman was answerable to her husband; yet that same woman was above any member of a lesser class. The wife of the Emperor had authority over all senators; the wife of a senator over equites; the wife of an eques over freemen; and so on down the line.

This hierarchy is the natural order of things, the Way of Domination tells us. For people who agree with the Way of Domination, their minds are made up. It’s just the way things are. To change their minds would be a radical thing indeed.

In our world today, the Way of Domination remains at work. It cries out that a man is superior to a woman; a boss is superior to an employee; an adult is superior to a child; rich are superior to poor; straight is superior to gay; white is superior to black; our nation is better than your nation; etc. It’s the natural order of things; just the way things are.

The Way of Domination tells us that for the Pax Romana to be truly effective, an ordered social hierarchy is absolutely necessary. Some person has got to sit on top, far away from the details of our day-to-day lives, aloof, like God, who sits far off on his throne in heaven.

And how, exactly, is the superior class to keep the inferior group in line? Through violence, whether real or imagined.

History shows us this all over the place. Whether through active aggression or through an underlying fear, like the threat felt during the Cold War, violence is always the means by which the Way of Domination controls.

Fellow followers of Jesus, that is the worldview away from which we and all humanity are called to turn. 180 degrees! The Way of Domination is the worldview from which Jesus calls us radically to repent.

3.

So, that’s what we are to turn from. Fine and well! But, then, what are we to turn towards? When we do make that 180-degree rotation, what are we left staring at?

I touched on this question a couple of weeks ago when I talked about ways in which we see, or image, God. Do you remember?

Prior to Jesus’ birth, the main image of God around the world was an aloof and mighty king.

Yet with Jesus’ birth and life—both the Incarnation and the Epiphany—we see a clear and very human image: God as a person who lives and breathes and eats and sleeps and laughs and makes judgment calls and sings off-key and loves among us—just like you and me!

God is not an aloof king to be feared. Rather, God is intimately and intricately tangled up in the messy details of our lives, loving us unconditionally.

So, recall with me how this very human image of God played out in Jesus’ life.

Two pictures come to mind.

a.

The first is equality.

More than once, what is Jesus’ financial counsel to those who wish to follow him? Isn’t it to sell everything? To remove economic inequality from the scene?

Over in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (6:24).

In Mark, Jesus states, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the realm of God” (10:25).

And Luke doesn’t avoid the issue either. Over there, Jesus exhorts, “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?” (6:34). We’re supposed to give freely, without expectation of repayment. Pretty radical!

Whatever else we make of this, the picture Jesus paints here is one of economic equality.

Why do you think he does this? Maybe—do you think—it’s because economic inequality is rooted in the Way of Domination?

The few rich exploit the many poor through economic superiority. It’s a story as old as history.

But with Jesus it’s not just economics—though that is the topic he addresses most frequently in his teachings. Jesus has a lot to say, also, about equality in relationships between women and men, slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean, the sick and the healthy, outcasts and righteous, and so on.

Everywhere he goes, everything he does, the first picture Jesus paints is one of equality. No hierarchies! No Way of Domination!

b.

And what is the second picture? Nonviolence.

Do you remember that time the disciples wanted to retaliate against some Samaritans who had been inhospitable to them (Luke 9:51-56)? Jesus rebuked them.

And what about the time Jesus’ disciple cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave? “No more of this!” Jesus declared (Luke 22:51); and, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

Or, do you remember when Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to do some mission work? They were not to take staffs (for self-defense); they were to bless those who reviled them; they were to pray for those who cursed them; and when they moved on from an inhospitable place, they were to wipe off the dust from their sandals—and nothing more. No violence!

According to Jesus, humanity’s way forward is the opposite of social systems established and maintained through violence. Humanity’s way forward is through equality and nonviolence.

God with us—Emmanuel—intimately and intricately tangled up in our messy lives—is not just a nice-sounding idea, just another divine angle, just one more way to approach God. It’s so much bigger than that!

The Incarnation and Epiphany challenge all of humanity to make a 180-degree change of mind, to turn its back on the Way of Domination and face squarely Jesus’ way, the Way of Love.

4.

What does this, the Way of Love, look like for us today? Is it even possible to establish and maintain equality through nonviolence? I mean, Jesus’ day was one thing. But that was two thousand years ago! What about our world today?

Take heart! We have a modern example: MLKJ, whom we remember and celebrate today. He lived according to Jesus’ Way of Love. He believed in equality; and he practiced nonviolence. And through living according to Jesus’ Way of Love, he has shown us and the whole world not only that it is possible, but also that it is the best way forward.

We’ve got a long way to go—no argument there—but it is possible. The Way of Love. And it starts with us, the people who have committed themselves to follow Jesus today.

Commit with me wholeheartedly and resolutely to live by Jesus’ Way of Love.

Chaos Baptized

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2020 by timtrue

The following sermon was delivered to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee, Arizona and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Douglas, Arizona on Sunday, January 12, 2020. I am engaged in pulpit-supply work with these two congregations through March. My approach, through these sermons, is to offer a 12-week survey of who the historical Jesus really was; and our reasonable response to him today as his followers–a response (spoiler alert) that looks hardly anything like modern evangelicalism. (Sorry to all my friends who think so, but Jesus would never have advocated for a border wall or a president who is hell-bent on building one. And that’s just one of many examples!) So, the sermon below is number 2 of 12. If you missed number 1, see “A Baby’s Dependence.” As always, feel free to let me know your thoughts. All best!

Matthew 3:13-17

1.

Why was Jesus baptized?

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance; and yet Jesus was God made man—perfect, sinless! John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance; yet Jesus had no need of repentance.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it?

Hence my question: why was Jesus baptized?

Jesus, the creeds tell us, is fully God and fully human. So, does his full humanness mean that he does in fact have some sort of pre-baptismal sin attached to him, some part of his humanity that needs to be washed away?

Is that it? Does Jesus need to repent from original sin?

But John’s reaction to Jesus is suggestive. Incredulous, John asks, “You want me to baptize you?”

I wonder, does Jesus’ baptism end up compromising his full godliness?

Ugh! I’m so confused! Why was Jesus baptized?

One commentator suggests that Jesus is demonstrating a new, purer kind of righteousness. He gets this from Jesus’ words to John, “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

According to this commentator, there is an old righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, a kind of forensic, legal righteousness; plus—now, with Jesus—a new kind of righteousness, a pure righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

So, wait, are you saying Jesus needed to repent of the old righteousness in order to usher in the new righteousness? I’m still so confused!

2.

Truth is, the scriptures aren’t clear. Truth is, too, theologians have been debating this question for two millennia; and still there’s no consensus.

Well, then, where does this leave us? I mean, that’s no fun: a paradox with no answer; and then, “See you next week!”

No, I’m not going to leave us hanging. Instead, in good Episcopal fashion, I want to bring some tradition and reason into the mix.

Looking to tradition, then, our Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer calls Holy Baptism a sacrament.

Well, what’s a sacrament? Our Catechism answers that too: “Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.”

Baptism, a sacrament, is an outward sign of God’s grace at work in us.

Now, connecting this to what we heard in today’s Gospel, repentance is part of the equation too. The Catechism asks, “What is required of us at Baptism?” And the answer: “It is required that we renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.”

Repentance! Did you hear it?

But—did you hear this too?—repentance is only part of what takes place during this mysterious work of God.

Here is a clue to the answer we seek. Repentance is only part of the picture.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is baptized by John, whose baptism is called a baptism of repentance.

But, also:

Jesus comes up out of the water and a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”;

Jesus is demonstrating to the world around him that God is at work—that God’s transforming grace is at hand; and that he will be the agent of this transforming grace.

I’ll say it again, there’s a lot more going on here than simply repentance.

3.

Now let’s bring reason into the mix.

Reflect with me for a moment on what water symbolizes. Two things:

First, water cleanses.

We shower to cleanse our bodies from the grime of the day.

And we all know the story of Jesus washing Peter’s feet. Peter said, “Well, then, why just my feet? Why not my whole body?” To which Jesus answered, “Only your feet are dirty.”

Water cleanses. Which fits with the idea of repentance, washing sins away.

But, second, water is symbolic of something else, seen throughout the scriptures: chaos.

In the beginning, when everything was formless and void, when all was chaos, God was there; and the breath, or wind, or spirit of God (any translation is acceptable) hovered over the chaos—the waters.

In Genesis 6, a chaotic flood transformed the world. Chaos–and yet, God is there.

In Exodus we read of a people passing through the Red Sea and its closing up. Through this transformation the Israelites were delivered from slavery, oppression, and chaos into something new.

And over in Job we hear of a marvelous creature named Leviathan, the epitome of chaos itself, dwelling in the oceans; and yet God treats this monster as a tame pet.

Do you see? Chaos is baptized.

Put these symbols together—cleansing and chaos; cleansing in chaos; cleansing through chaos—and the most important aspect of baptism rises buoyantly to the surface: transformation.

Our baptism is the outward sign of God transforming us from the chaos of this fallen world into the perfect image of Jesus Christ.

4.

Rodger, a Presbyterian pastor, tells the story of a young man named Kyle:

Kyle was nowhere to be found, and I missed him. In the weeks following his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday, he was noticeably missing. Several other members of the confirmation class asked about him too, as did his confirmation mentor. Kyle and his family had come to the congregation when he was in the fifth grade. They attended sporadically, so I was more than a little surprised when I asked him and his parents if he was interested in joining the confirmation class and they responded positively. In this congregation, the confirmation class happened during the ninth-grade school year. . . . Kyle and his parents came for the orientation meeting and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly classes for study and exploration. Kyle was serious in attending and missed a class or event rarely. He quickly became a significant part of the group and developed some wonderful friendships with the other ninth-graders who had barely known him. Since Kyle had not yet been baptized, he was not only confirmed but also baptized on Pentecost Sunday. It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, and their mentors.

That is pretty much where it ended. That is when I knew I had done something wrong. When I checked in with Kyle and his folks, they all seemed a little surprised that I was calling and checking up on them. I distinctly remember his mother saying, “Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Isn’t he done?”[i]

Isn’t he done?

Rodger’s story strikes a dissonant chord; and it’s a chord that’s all too common in our day. We like to accomplish things, sure; we like to be productive. And so when it comes to church, a lot of people seem to think that baptism is a sort of culmination. Whether it’s an infant, a child, a youth, or an adult, all too often baptism has the effect of a box to check off our spiritual list.

But it wasn’t this way with Jesus.

Jesus’ baptism is not the end of his ministry but rather just the beginning.

Why should it be any different for us?

Our baptism marks just the beginning of an entire transformation process—an ongoing, life-long process.

Now, look around. Is this transformation process done? Do we see the promises of scripture being realized all around us?

Is there worldwide peace in our day? Has disease and death been conquered once and for all? Is St. John’s/St. Stephen’s doing its part to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, liberate the captives, and otherwise spread the Good News of Christ?

By no means are we done! Don’t you dare check off that box!

Your baptism was no such thing as a culmination; rather it was a beginning, a commissioning: the outward expression of the start of an incredible, life-long transformation into the perfect image of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wherever you are in this transformation process, it’s not too late. If you’ve set your shoes aside, put them on again, lace them up, and run the race with perseverance once more!

So, now, I ask again: Why was Jesus baptized?

Because, maybe:

In Jesus’ baptism, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit demonstrate to the world incontrovertibly that the Trinity has begun a new thing, a mysterious thing, a thing that somehow combines and mixes up grace and repentance and water and chaos in order to yield transformation.

In Jesus’ baptism—and in ours—God is transforming the world into what God created it to be.

[i] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox: 2010). 236, 238.

Goings On

Posted in Background, Doing Church, Reflection with tags , , , , on January 18, 2020 by timtrue

In an effort to help the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona out, I’ve agreed to do some pulpit-supply work on Sundays through March.

On the one hand, it’s great to be able to do this without interrupting my responsibilities as a school chaplain. But on the other, I’m finding that I don’t have as much energy as I used to in order to put in an extra 15 or so works hours a week.

Did I say fifteen hours? Yes, often more even.

It’s two different congregations with a round-trip of 240 miles. I leave on Sundays at 6:45am and return around 4:45pm. That’s ten hours right there.

But, also, I’ve found I really miss preaching to adults; so, admittedly, I’m putting in more hours that I need to on my sermons.

Check out the last two, to be posted shortly.

Peace!