Archive for action

From our Armchairs

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2019 by timtrue

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Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on May 12, 2019, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

John 10:22-30

1.

Today, John the Evangelist offers us deep irony.

The historical context is Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration of lights.

A couple centuries before, a Hellenistic political leader named Antiochus IV took over the Jewish Temple and decimated it by sacrificing pigs on the altar. Then the Temple was returned to the Jews; so they rededicated it.

So, the story goes, the Sabbath was approaching and the Temple lamps had to be lit. But, because of Antiochus’ abomination, hardly any clean oil could be found, certainly less than enough to last one day; and the process to make new, kosher oil would take eight days!

In faith, the Temple priests went ahead and lit the lamps, praying and hoping for the best. And, lo and behold, the lamps burned through the Sabbath; and continued burning through the following Sabbath, through the eight days needed to make new oil.

God miraculously provided for the rededicated Temple, hence the term we hear today, “the Festival of the Dedication”; a. k. a. Hanukkah. The miracle of the lamps is the focal point of the celebration. The menorah—that Jewish candelabrum with eight holders—represents the eight days.

So, today Jesus is walking in the Temple during the time of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights; when his questioners fail to acknowledge that here before them stands the very Light of the world.

“Tell us plainly,” they demand; “are you the Messiah?”

Deep irony!

2.

Now, for the record, Jesus does answer their question plainly. But, interestingly, he does not use words to explain.

I mean, really, how can you explain the unexplainable? Words are limiting.

Ever seen a sunset? You quietly sit there atop a summit watching the sun sink towards the western horizon, the Pacific Ocean. It happens to be a partly cloudy day: billowy, cottony cumulus clouds float lazily across the sky.

The colors are spectacular. And the reflection on the water, the rays of sunlight!

You take out your camera, thinking, “I’ve just got to capture this moment to share with my friends on Facebook!” But one shutter snap later and a glance at your smart phone screen and you think, “Anemic! Pathetic!”

And you put your phone away deciding that the best use of your time is simply to sit back and take it all in. Be present.

Still, how will you describe this to your friends later? How can you? Mere words only go so far.

And that’s just a sunset! How do you explain God—so much more than a sunset!—to your friends? How can you explain the unexplainable?

3.

The Bible describes God as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, King, Creator, Redeemer, Savior, Messiah, Friend, Shepherd, Vinedresser, Vine, Wind, Fire, Mother Hen . . . and that’s just beginning to scratch the surface!

Each of these descriptors is a metaphor. God is not really, truly wind. But God is like wind; God is in the wind. So God is called wind.

But the Church was not content to leave it there. The Church wanted to make things clearer: plain and simple, black and white, easy to understand.

And so the Church got its armchairs out and sat around and studied the Bible, God’s word; and over time made its own set of rules and regulations, ex cathedra—rough translation, from the biggest armchair—to guard its interpretation of God.

God is three persons and one substance, the Church declared. And if you don’t believe/agree, you cannot be a part of the Church/Club.

So, present day, good churchgoers that we are, we sit around in our armchairs and study our Bibles too. We seek to understand God, the ineffable—or, at least, to understand the Church’s interpretation of God.

So we ask questions like, “What does God want for us?” “What does the Bible teach us about evangelism?” “What does God’s word say about managing our debts?” “How do I make a difference in my community?” and, “What should my faith look like in the workplace?”

Don’t get me wrong, these are great questions to consider. But the effect of our armchair studies is often stultifying: we lose our enthusiasm and initiative regarding what Christ has called us to do.

In other words, we’ll just stay put in our armchairs, thank you very much.

But, challenging all of us right here today, whatever your personal beliefs, Jesus does not use armchair words and plain-and-simple, black-and-white explanations.

And if Jesus is not making it plain and simple with his words, why do we try to make our beliefs about God plain and simple?

Like Jesus’ questioners in today’s Gospel, are we failing to see Jesus for who he truly is? Are we failing to bring his light to the world?

4.

The late Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello tells a modern-day parable called “The Explorer”:

The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forests; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids?

He said, “Go and find out for yourselves.” To guide them he drew a map of the river. They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their town hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?

De Mello then offers this moral:

It is said that Buddha obdurately refused to be drawn into talking about God.

He was probably familiar with the dangers of drawing maps for armchair explorers.

Do we think ourselves experts on God because we study our maps, our Bibles? Do we pride ourselves on reading this author or listening to that radio program or following some preacher or other?

I wonder if we are experiencing a similarly deep irony today. I wonder if we, the church, have become armchair explorers.

5.

Near the beginning of my sermon I said that Jesus does answer their question.

“Tell us plainly,” his adversaries demanded, “are you the Messiah?”

The answer, plainly, is a resounding yes. But the answer is not given in words, from an armchair. Rather, it is given in works.

The works I do are of the Father, Jesus says; I and the Father are one.

Jesus isn’t giving a Trinitarian formula here: he’s not saying, “God the Father and God the Son are two persons of one substance.” Rather, Jesus is saying, plainly, the works he does and the works of the Father are one and the same.

And that is answer enough!

Which leads me to ask of myself, am I doing God’s work? I’d like to think so; but am I doing it so obviously that it is plain to the world around me?

That’s just not gonna happen from my armchair.

And it leads me to ask this question not just of myself but also of the St. Thomas community: are we doing God’s work; so much so that it is plain to the world around us?

The word of God is doing what Christ calls us to do. This is the Good News: when our deeds are God’s deeds.

*****

Bible study has its place, sure. We seek to understand God because we strive to conform to Christ, the perfect image of God.

And, yes, probably the best place to study and discuss God is from our armchairs.

But when our goal is to be right, to better someone else through our knowledge of the Bible, well, that really benefits no one but ourselves; and what kind of benefit is ego-stroking anyway?

Moreover, it’s not our calling to sit around and figure out how we can better explain Christ to the world around us. And, anyway, the world around us really isn’t all that interested anymore in what we have to say.

Deep irony!

But when we go out into the neighborhood doing what Christ calls us to do—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the captives, overturning the tables of domination, bringing about equality to all—sharing the Good News regardless of how well or poorly we can explain it—well, that’s when we actually speak the Good News plainly.

It’s time for us to get out of our armchairs.

Crude as Cold, Hard Cash

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 22:15-22

1.

I once knew a man who felt strongly that it was his constitutional right to avoid paying taxes intentionally. Let’s call him Greg.

Greg was one of these guys who, commendably, studied his Bible all the time. Whenever any sort of question about life came up—what to do on weekends, how to divide up family chores, even what kind of car he ought to buy—he consulted his Bible, searching for some kind of answer or at least guidance.

Somewhere along the way he determined from his personal study of the Bible that federal and local governments extend their authority far more than they should.

The government’s purpose, Greg reasoned, is to protect its citizenship; so for a government to provide military, police, and fire departments, for instance, is its bounden duty.

But to offer services and agencies to look out for the welfare of its citizenship—for Greg this was an absolute no-no. Public schools are out, he reasoned; anyone using them, in Greg’s mind, commits grievous sin. And, of course, all of welfare’s variations—like Fannie Mae, Medicare, and Social Security—simply cannot be an option for Christians.

One of our country’s chief founding principles is separation of church and state. As a consequence, Greg felt deeply that the church, not the state, should establish and maintain all organizations concerned with the well-being and welfare of its members.

And so Greg’s logic led him to the conviction that he, and every US citizen, therefore possessed the constitutional right not to pay taxes.

He refused to get social security numbers for his kids. He ran a business completely “under the table,” paying his (always temporary) workers in kind. And while he was off conducting business during the day, his wife homeschooled the kids.

For Greg, to avoid paying taxes was to exercise his freedom of religion. Not sure the IRS would see it this way, but there it is.

2.

Anyway, I tell you about Greg because he sounds a bit like the Pharisees of today’s Gospel.

They come to Jesus with their minds already made up, with cold, hard cash in hand, in order to trap Jesus.

The coin they hold, a denarius, has an image of Tiberius Caesar on it; as well as an inscription, which reads, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.”

Good Jews find this coin simultaneously oppressive and blasphemous: oppressive because it reminds them that they are subject to an ungodly people, the Romans; and blasphemous because of its graven image and supremely arrogant message.

This highly offensive currency—whose minting and circulation is an ongoing violation of the first two commandments!—is required for the tax to the Romans: no other currency is acceptable.

So, what would Jesus do? What could he do?

If he says, “Pay the tax,” why, he’s guilty of collaboration with pagans!

And if he says, “Don’t pay the tax,” well, that’s sedition!

Either way, the Pharisees think, they have him trapped.

3.

My old friend Greg, like the Pharisees of today’s Gospel, separates church and state to an extreme. On the other hand, I also have friends who convolute their religion with their politics; friends who commingle religion and politics to such an extent that their religion becomes their politics; and vice-versa.

Do you know anyone like this? It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Democrat or Republican. Their tendency is truly bi-partisan.

I was in seminary during the 2012 presidential election. Discussion in one of my classes turned to politics, and more specifically to the church’s role in modern America. One of my classmates commented, “I don’t know how someone could ever vote Republican and call themselves Christian.”

That same night—no joke!—a family member who was visiting expressed his similar sentiment, “I don’t know how someone could vote Democrat and call himself a Christian.”

Exact same comment—except the parties were switched!

Well, I have news for people like this. For every Conservative who claims Jesus as his champion, there is likewise a Progressive claiming Jesus for her cause.

Anyway, these folks—those who essentially equate religion to politics and vice-versa—sound a lot like the Herodians mentioned in today’s Gospel.

Did you hear it?

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians.

Perhaps the most amazing thing here is that both the Pharisees and the Herodians have come together!

That would be like my old friend Greg and my seminary classmate going out for coffee—a meeting I simply cannot envision!

But the Pharisees and the Herodians from today’s Gospel share a common enemy: Jesus.

And so they come to him together, saying, “Teacher, we know that you . . . show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

Jesus, they say, you are neither Pharisee nor Herodian; neither Conservative nor Progressive; neither Republican nor Democrat. Or that’s what you say, at least. But we’re forcing you into a corner. And we’re doing so with this coin. Where do you land? Pick a side already!

And we know the story: both the Pharisees and the Herodians seek to trap Jesus, to incriminate him with either sedition or collaboration; but Jesus is so brilliant he takes their question out of the political realm and into the realm of theology; and thus blows their minds.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, he says; and to God what is God’s.

It is not an either-or but a both-and proposition.

Jesus gives us liberty to be loyal to the state; yet subordinates this loyalty to the lordship of God.

4.

Which brings up a great question: just what is the church’s place in the world?

The Jewish community of Jesus’ day included both those who believed in complete separation of church and state (the Pharisees) and those who believed that salvation came through the state (the Herodians).

Little has changed in two millennia.

On the one hand, there is a message spread far and wide through today’s church that says we Christians have been called out; we are separate from this world.

And thus, this teaching tells us, we shouldn’t care too much about what happens in our world—about ecology and the threat of nuclear war and so on—for the Bible is clear that we Christians are all going to be raptured away and the world will burn up in some kind of end-times apocalypse.

Let’s call this the sanctuary view: while we Christians have to endure the trials and hardships of this bluesy world we live in, the church provides us a temporary sanctuary from the storm.

On the other hand, there is another message that says we Christians can’t know about any of that end-times stuff, whether we’re all going to be raptured away or whatever, or whether there even is a heaven or a hell.

What we do know is that Christ has called us to care for widows, orphans, the sick, the lame, the poor, and the homeless. Our call as Christians is to make this world a better place, and thus, using the present political means at our disposal, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

Let’s call this the social-gospel view: we Christians spread salvation to the ends of the earth through present society and its political systems.

There are many people in today’s church that hold to the sanctuary view; and, at the same time, there are others who hold to the social-gospel view.

Both Pharisees and Herodians fill today’s pews!

But Jesus comes along and tells us we’re not focusing on the right things: it’s not an either-or proposition; though we may feel trapped by one worldview or another, it doesn’t have to be that way.

To focus on sanctuary makes our faith all about hope: life is fairly miserable but we have the hope that some glad morning, when this life is over, we will all fly away and be with Jesus in paradise.

To focus on the social gospel makes our faith all about action: what we will do in the here-and-now for the betterment of society.

But—please hear me here—our faith is not either hope or action. Rather, our faith is both hope and action!

Our future hope motivates us to present action—action towards the common good yielding salvation to the ends of the earth.

The world’s political systems simply are not able to operate from such a place.

5.

By the way, it’s not lost on me that Jesus is dealing with money at the same time that we are launching our pledge drive.

When Jesus says to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, money is the immediate and specific application. (I don’t know how my old friend Greg skirts around today’s passage.)

And, yes, we depend on money for almost everything necessary to function in modern society. This dependence applies to us both as individuals and as a church. So, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—pay your taxes—and to God what belongs to God—make your pledge, so that as a church we can continue to accomplish Christ’s ministry in the world.

But, as we launch this year’s pledge drive, here’s a closing thought to consider.

Jesus looks at the coin’s crude image of Caesar and recognizes it for what it is: simply cold, hard cash.

All the state can ever be is a crude, cold, hard image of its human leaders. At best, it is two-dimensional, something neither to separate ourselves from nor to view as our salvation.

With the church, however, we do not see a crude, two-dimensional image but the perfect image of Christ. This image is not always easy to see; but it is there—on the faces and in the hearts of every living, thinking, feeling, image-bearing person. Even at our very worst, then, the church is nevertheless three-dimensional.

Jesus reminds us today: the church is something the state is not; the church is much more; it fills the voids society cannot.

And thus: Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High.

Prayer: Hope or Action?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 18:1-8

There’s a certain tension that comes to the surface in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

On the one hand, there’s a God-fearing widow.  And widows in the ancient world, as we know, had it rough.  There was no social security system.  There was no Medicare.  And unless she had a son to take care of her or some other unlikely benefactor, she was largely on her own to make ends meet.  Widows in the ancient world were easy targets for bullies.

On the other hand, there’s a self-serving judge, who cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of other persons.  In short, he is a key player in the system which is already stacked against the marginalized and oppressed.

We followers of Christ are meant, of course, to identify with the widow.

Early Christians were marginalized and oppressed.  Out of necessity, they had to work within the extant Roman system to make a way forward—within a system that cared nothing about God and even less about the dignity of the marginalized; within a system that was stacked against them.

But what does this mean for us today?  What should our identification with the widow look like?

Are we to spend our time in prayer, as Luke’s own commentary states—“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (v.1, emphasis added)?  Or are we to engage in persistent work, like the widow did, who kept coming, over and over, to the unjust judge until he gave in?

More simply, is this a parable about praying or doing?  As Christians, are we called to hope or to act?

And thus the tension of which I speak.

The Bible is full of examples of people—at both the individual and the community levels—who couldn’t do anything about their present situation; who were left with no other option but to hope.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  God then promised redemption and reconciliation.  But when would it come?  Adam and Eve couldn’t do anything about said redemption and reconciliation: they were left just to hope.

A similar scenario plays out with the death of Abel and banishment of Cain.  How would God redeem the cosmos now?  They could only wait—and hope.

And do you remember the story of Joseph?  He was sold into slavery—by his own jealous, ungrateful, entitled brothers.  What could he do but cry out to God in hope?

Indeed, throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear story after story of individual widows, orphans, and slaves who are powerless to do anything about their respective situations; who can only hope through prayer.

And it’s the same at the community level.  Famines hit whole nations; war comes upon communities suddenly and unexpectedly; the nation of Israel becomes enslaved to Egypt.  What else can they do but cry out to God?

And, as you know, it’s not just the Bible.  People throughout history have been left with nothing they can do about their present situation—with nothing in their power but hope through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, I can also think of numerous examples where people actually can do something about it.

“Be strong and courageous; enter the land of promise,” Joshua commanded the people of Israel.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commanded.  And, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Moses led.  David protected.  Peter founded.  Paul preached.

In more modern times, Martin Luther King, Junior stood fast against systemic injustice.

Often times we are in fact called to act.  And, it seems reasonable to me, if we do not act it is to commit the sin of omission (as we name it in one of our prayers).

So, then, which is it? Hope or action?

To which I answer, yes.

The examples I’ve given are specific situations.  Of course there are times when individuals and communities will have no choice at all but to hope through prayer!  Likewise, of course there are specific times when individuals and communities will be called to act so that it feels as if hardly any prayer is taking place at all!

But our theology of prayer must not be formed from these polar extremes.  Informed by them, yes.  But not formed from them.

There are churches whose theology of prayer is formed only by hope.  You know what their message is?  Jesus will soon return and he’s not going to like what he finds.  A great battle will ensue culminating in the destruction of the entire cosmos.  All humanity, all the fauna and flora, all the sun moon and stars—all will be blotted out at the final trumpet blast!

There’s not a lot these churches can do.  Leaders from such churches encourage their parishioners to go out into the world and make disciples, for the souls of people are all that will pass into the afterlife.  But as for going out and fighting against social injustice, there’s really not much of a need.  Christianity’s place, they say, is only to hope in a future kingdom through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, there are churches whose theology of prayer comes only from good works.  Their message is: Christ has already brought his kingdom to earth; he has therefore called us to do as much as is in our power to bring this kingdom about.

The logical consequence is that we really have little time for sitting around in contemplative prayer.  Really, we shouldn’t take time out of our schedules at all for individual or corporate prayer, or even for worship.  In fact, we should spend as little money as possible on the church.  Instead we should use all our funds to feed and clothe the poor and to fight other social injustices we see in our local world.

Do you see the two polar extremes here?  A theology of prayer focused only on hope is infrared; and a theology of prayer focused only on action is ultraviolet.  To get the white light of the Gospel in its full splendor, we must have a proper theology of prayer: hope and action together, with all their gradients.

“Roy G. Biv” is how I learned the colors of the rainbow—like a man’s name: Roy as a first name, G as his middle initial, and Biv as his last name. And then I knew the colors of the rainbow in order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  Was it the same with you?

But we all know there are many more colors in the rainbow than seven.  For when we get to that liminal area between one color and the next—between red and orange, for instance—we see combinations of the two—reddish-orange and orangeish-red and a million other gradients—so that we can’t really see where one color stops and the other starts.

A full theology of prayer includes not just the infrared and the ultraviolet but also the ROYGBIV in between—and the millions upon millions of gradients therein.

Or, more simply, prayer is both hope and action—and all the millions upon millions of ways we can combine the two.

So, to return to the main point, Jesus says you need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Do you know how to do this?  It’s not easy.  But a church with a sound theology of prayer can help.

Here are just some of the traditions that have emerged from our church’s theology of prayer: lectio divina, the Ignatian method, praying our own Anglican rosary, centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, the Daily Office, meditation, intercession, giving gifts, the examen, journaling, walking, working, singing, chanting, reading, and simply sitting in silence.

This list is not exhaustive—please inquire later if you’d like to know more.  But I mention it because it shows how prayer is both hope and action, and all the various combinations of the two.

Take advantage of these traditions.  They will help you to pray always.  They will help you not to lose heart.