Archive for Advent

Beyond the Prison Cell

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

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Matthew 11:2-11

Spoiler alert!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secret, did he say?  I’m in!

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

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

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

No response.

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

I ascended the ladder and entered the attic.

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

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

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

But my head was rooted in the world of ideals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or are you merely a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

Hope from Hindsight

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by timtrue

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Matt. 24:36-44

Today we find ourselves in an awkward place.

On the one hand, we find ourselves remembering last week, Christ the King Sunday.  On that final Sunday of the church year we focus on the culmination of all things, that day when Christ’s realm will be fully and completely inaugurated, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And so, on the one hand, we find ourselves still lingering on thoughts about Jesus’ second coming.

But, on the other hand, just look around.  Christmas, the birth of the baby Jesus, Christ’s first coming, is all round us.  Shopping malls remind us of this; commercials remind us of this; our neighborhoods remind us of this!

Today, we’re in an awkward place.

Why, just last night in fact, my wife told me of a kind of tension she is seeing on Facebook these days.  On the one hand, a good portion of her friends are posting things like, “Thanksgiving is over; time for the Christmas decorations!”  But, on the other hand, she’s got a significant number of friends saying things like, “Advent is here; gonna light a candle!”

So, what is Advent?

The word itself, advent, means “arrival.”  But, to press the issue, which arrival?  Are we looking ahead, to the future, to Christ’s second coming?  Or, are we looking behind, to the past, to Christ’s first coming?

And then we come to today’s Gospel.  Its main point seems to be that we should be ready.

But what are we to be ready for?

If we look ahead, to be ready for Christ’s return, well, after all, no one knows the day or the hour, not even the Son himself, but only the Father.  So how in the world are we to be ready?  I mean, if a thief might one day strike my house, there are some certain things I can do to be ready, like install an alarm system, buy a fireproof safe, whatever.  But in the end I’m just going to get back to my day-to-day life of eating, drinking, carrying on business, and relaxing with my family.

But, on the other hand, if we look back, at Jesus’ birth, his first coming, how are we to get ready for that?  Buy a tree in anticipation of this new life?  Plan on family visiting from afar, bearing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh?  Prepare my own home for hospitality, to receive Joseph and Mary and Emmanuel?  Give gifts of my own?

The celebration is sure a lot of fun—even if it’s a lot of work.  But here too, in the end, after we clean up and put things into storage for the next eleven months, we just get on back to our daily routines—of eating, drinking, exercising, working, relaxing.

So, which is it?  Jesus’ first coming, or his second?

The answer, of course, is yes.

During Advent, yes, we look ahead, to the future, the unknown, the scary—to Christ’s second coming.  And, yes, we simultaneously look back, to the past, to what we know, to the stuff of history books—to Christ’s first coming.  During Advent, yes, we prepare for Christ’s return; and, yes, we prepare for his birth.

It’s a sort of in-between time.

And, thus, today we find ourselves in an awkward place.

But is it really all that awkward?

I’ve told the story of my childhood before: raised in southern California in an idyllic setting for a boy—an outdoor playground, really: an avocado orchard, a swimming pool with a rope swing, grapevines, gardens, fruit trees, chickens, even a donkey for a while; with hiking trails a short walk away; and so on.

Man, I miss that place!

Anyway, reminiscing with my brother and mom this week over a Thanksgiving meal, I recalled how bored I used to get in elementary school, often wiling away my hours of classroom confinement daydreaming about what I would do when I got home from school that afternoon!

Life on Alosta Drive was certain for me, sure, predictable, and—when I wasn’t in the classroom—generally awesome.

Then, at 12 years old, my brother and I were completely blindsided when our parents announced that Mom would be moving out and they’d soon be divorced.

Now, divorce happens often.  I knew that even then.  Several of my school friends had already experienced it.  But it was one of those things I just assumed would never come to my life.

When it did, all that certainty and predictability and general awesomeness I just mentioned, well, now it flew out the window.  Suddenly, in the matter of just a few days really, my life became terribly uncertain; and terribly frightening.

No longer was it predictable.  No longer did it seem to provide all the answers I’d ever need or want.  No longer did I daydream about what I’d do that afternoon once I’d left my studies behind in my junior high locker.

Instead, I worried.  I became anxious about the future, the unknown, and the uncertain.

From there, my story gets better.  For my anxiety over life’s uncertainty drove me to Bible study and, in time, a personal relationship with Jesus.

But even here, I came to Jesus with some unrealistic hopes.  I wanted answers to questions that really can never be answered.  I wanted stability again.  I wanted my anxiety to disappear.  And I wanted the same mom and dad I’d always known—or at least the ones I imagined.

The mom and dad of my boyhood imagination were perfect, you see.  They knew all things.  They didn’t grope their way through life, worrying over silly things like how the bills were going to get paid; whether their kids would turn out okay; or if God existed.  The parents of my imagination were certain, sure, stable, and predictable.

I wanted these things again!  And I looked for them in Jesus.

So my early experience as a Christian was filled with wanting to know.  Jesus was sure, certain, stable, and predictable, I’d tell myself.  So, surely, all the answers to all of life’s perplexing questions were there in the Bible.  I just needed to hunt for them, to find them, and to apply them to my life.  Then I would know certainty, surety, stability, and predictability again.

And, best of all, I’d have no worries or anxieties about the future!

So: I did.  I read the Bible.  Cover to cover.  Several times!

And every time I did today’s Gospel would confront me.  Other passages too.  Like those about the dysfunctional lives of the patriarchs, losing their hope and trust in God when they ought to know better!  Like those about Moses leading a whole nation through the wilderness, groping his way through life and leadership.  Like those about David, trusting in his own “wisdom,” which resulted in adultery and murder.  And like those about Jesus, God himself, being led away like a lamb to the slaughter.

The future is unknown.  It is uncertain.  It is even scary.

On the other hand, the past, what we’ve already lived through, is just that: the past.  It’s out of sight and out of mind in a sense.  Sure, we’ve made mistakes; we’ve lived through difficult times, as well as times of immense joy.  But there’s nothing scary about the past.  Well, scary, maybe, in hindsight.  But there’s nothing about the past to make us anxious.  For there it is: in the past; where we can just forget about it.

No, this in-between time called Advent is not really all that awkward at all.

So, what does this mean for us today?

Just this:

We live in a time characterized by fear.

The housing bubble burst in 2008.  6 million people lost their homes.  Our nation’s economy entered a Great Recession.  And, because our nation’s economy is so large, economies around the world were affected.  And we’re still not totally out of it.  What’s going to happen?

And we all remember September 11, 2001.  Since that time, ugly, desperate acts of terrorism and hatred have risen to unprecedented levels in the world—unprecedented at least for my lifetime.  Will it keep getting worse before it gets better?

And even if these things get better, what about all the hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes?  Every time I turn on the news it’s something terrible!  Is there no hope?

We fear the future.

Yet, at the same time, we are apathetic towards the past.

The history books were written by a bunch of European males, after all, who have put their misogynistic, Caucasian, patriarchal spin on things.

Also, we tell ourselves, our technological advances prove that we know more in our generation than all other generations combined.

So, we put these two premises together and conclude that we really don’t need history at all.

Ah, but don’t you see the fallacy?

We are anxious about the future; yet we are apathetic towards the past.  Maybe we are anxious because we are apathetic.

Advent comes along and names it.  On the one hand, it says, “Look at the future.  It is uncertain.  It is unpredictable.  No one knows the day or the hour.  The end will come when people are simply going about their day-to-day routines.”

But, on the other hand, Advent also says, “Look at the past.  We know, from history, that God has come into the world as a Baby; and that this Baby is a tremendous source of comfort for an anxious world.”

Advent teaches us not to be apathetic about the past, about history; for in it we see God working to set this world to rights.

And at the same time, Advent teaches us not to be anxious about the future.  Yes, it is uncertain, unsure, and unpredictable.  But it was just the same for God’s people of old—and history shows us that it turned out okay for them.  So with us!

Here it is, then: this is what Advent means for us today:  By looking back, to the past, Advent teaches us to have faith and hope when we look ahead, to the future.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

Preparing for Christmas Company

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on December 7, 2015 by timtrue

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Luke 3:1-6

Last week I pointed out an odd contrast we face during Advent. We walk down the aisles of local stores, maybe sipping on hot chocolates, shopping for gifts, listening to happy music, enjoying a sort of idealistic cheer as we remember Christ’s first coming, the Christmas season that’s everywhere around us.

Yet the Gospel was apocalyptic.  We heard about portents in the skies announcing Christ’s second coming and unknown distresses and fears for people: the end of the world as we know it.  Throughout Christian history, people have interpreted these portents in excessively gloomy ways.

On the one hand, then, we experienced idealistic cheer; yet on the other, excessive gloom.

The key to maintaining balance between these two attitudes, I said, is hope.  As we simultaneously look back in time at Christ’s birth and forward in time to his second coming, we maintain an attitude of hope.  The advents of Jesus give us reason to hope even though our world is falling apart.

This week we find a similarly odd contrast. Except now it’s not so much about attitude as it is about action; not so much about what we’re thinking as what we’re doing.  This week’s contrast deals with preparation.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. / Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

It’s that time of year again.  In just nineteen days you’ll be exchanging gifts, and, my, oh my, the house is a wreck.  Extended family is coming and why is that pile of clutter on the counter suddenly so big?

And so you clean; you decorate; you string lights up—on the tree and on the house.  You bake; you host; you attend Christmas parties.  And, if you’re like some people I know, you fix things—that broken doorknob; that burned out lightbulb; that loose handle on the chest of drawers; that leaky faucet in the guest bathroom.

The advent of guests has caused you to look at your home a little differently.  With a higher degree of scrutiny than normal, a kind of self-examination, you prepare for your guests’ arrival.

Then you come to church and hear today’s Gospel about a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t even begin to picture John the Baptist running around frenetically, trying to get his home ready for visitors.  I mean, the wilderness!  Locusts and wild honey!  Garment of camel’s hair (that likely hasn’t been laundered in months)!  Unkempt appearance!  He just doesn’t strike me as the type who’d be concerned about a leaky faucet.

Yet here is his message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

And you want to answer, “I am preparing already!”

But something about this contrast suggests that this yours not exactly the kind of preparation John has in mind.

Or is it?

John’s way of preparation can be summarized in one word: repentance.  It’s what he called the people of his day to do as they prepared a way for the Lord, as they made straight crooked paths.  It’s what the prophets of the OT called Israel to do as well.  And it’s what Jesus calls us, his disciples, to do.  It’s an important word and concept.

So, what does repentance have to do with our Christmas preparations?

A popular teaching likens repentance to a U-turn.  A person who has repented from sin, for instance, is said to have turned away from it completely, as if he was headed in one direction and then made a U-turn and now is heading in an entirely different direction.

We see this picture of repentance in the Bible, when Jesus has a conversation with a certain rich young leader.  “Teacher,” the young man says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answers, “Keep the commandments.”  The young man says, “All these I have kept since my youth”; to which Jesus replies, “Go and give all you have to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”  The young man, we read, goes away sad; he is unable to part with his things.

The lesson is, so I’ve heard anyway, this young man didn’t fully repent.  He didn’t make the U-turn Jesus required of him.

But this picture of a U-turn is a bit too simplistic, don’t you think?  We’ve got our modern lives.  We have work and family obligations.  Surely Jesus doesn’t want us to walk away from our responsibilities, does he?

Well, like I said already, it’s not that simple.

Some people may in fact need to make a U-turn.  The rich young leader needed to, we assume.  A clearer example, if crasser, comes from prostitution.  We all know Jesus spent time with prostitutes.  But undoubtedly he did not approve of their profession.  For them, following Jesus meant making a definite U-turn.

Perhaps you need to make such a U-turn too.  If you are involved in a profession that doesn’t bring glory to God—such as prostitution—repentance for you means making an abrupt U-turn.

But I don’t know of anyone here who fits this category.  Instead, for all of us—I’m pretty sure—it’s not so easy as this.  When we come to Advent each year, Jesus is not asking us to make a complete U-turn, to run in an entirely opposite direction from what our life is currently all about.

Rather, for all of us, it’s more of a re-orientation.

For all of us, it’s more like Zacchaeus.

Remember him?

Jesus hung out with prostitutes.  He also hung out with tax collectors.  Jesus expected prostitutes to leave their professions.  But he didn’t expect this of tax collectors.

Later that day—after Jesus spotted him up in the sycamore tree, commanded him to come down, and spent the afternoon at his house—what does Zacchaeus do?

I’ll tell you what he doesn’t do.  He doesn’t leave his job.  He doesn’t abandon his wife and kids.  He doesn’t give everything he has to the poor.  He doesn’t change very much of his outward life at all.

What he does do is have a change of heart.  No longer will he cheat anyone of their money.  And if anyone has any just cause against him, he vows to repay them four times what he owes.

Repentance is less a U-turn than it is a re-orientation.

So: here we are, in Advent, preparing our homes and lives for the first advent of Jesus, Christmas; but also preparing daily to meet our Lord at his return, his second advent. What does repentance look like for us?

Our preparations give the answer.

Right now, we’re looking around with an eye we don’t always use.  We’ve been going about our daily routines for months: waking up when the alarm clock goes off, cooking breakfast, getting the kids to school, going through our work days, coming back together at the end of the day, going through our evening routines—dishes, laundry, bills—our normal mode of life.

But now, what with Christmas around the corner and presents to buy and lights to hang and trees to decorate and Christmas cards to get out in the mail and family coming to visit and—  You get the picture.  Right now, we’re looking at things a little differently than we normally do.  That clutter on the counter that’s been accumulating for months so that we hardly even notice it anymore—now, all of a sudden, it’s a huge eyesore and (doggone it!) I need to do something about it before the company arrives.

We’ve re-oriented.  During this time of preparation, we’re looking at our homes with a higher level of self-scrutiny.  We’re seeing things we don’t normally see.  All of a sudden the pictures on the walls are tilted and there are cobwebs on the ceiling fans.  All of a sudden, some things are amiss.

And so, with this new perspective, we do something about them.

And why?  Why have we re-oriented?  Why do we scrutinize ourselves more carefully at this time of year?  Why do we clean and repair and decorate?  Why do we bother with all these preparations?

It’s for love.  We love our guests.  And we love Jesus.

It’s just the same with your self, your soul.

Jesus is coming.  He’s your spiritual company.  You love him.

Don’t you think the right time is right for a re-orientation?

Look at yourself a little differently during this Advent season, with a higher level of self-scrutiny.  Examine yourself, making crooked paths straight as you prepare a way for the Lord.  Re-orient yourself.

Rather Grayer than Black and White

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by timtrue

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John 21:25-36

 

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But the fire is so delightful;

And since we’ve no place to go,

Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow.

 

But it doesn’t snow in Yuma.  Ever.  Except once, in December, 1932.  So, we change the lyrics:

 

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But your lips are so delightful;

And since marriage is such bliss,

Let us kiss, let us kiss, let us kiss.

 

Whatever the case—whether we’re carefree in front of a fire or sharing a blissful moment with a loved one—’tis the season, yeah?

Shiny toys line the aisles of local stores; seasonal specials advertise themselves from flashy, attention-grabbing signs; and catchy tunes piped through unseen speakers get us tapping our feet and daydreaming of sugar plums.

Holiday cheer envelopes us.  We lose ourselves in the carefree, blissful nature of it all.

But then we come to church.  And we hear today’s Gospel.

 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

 

And we scratch our heads.

Why, we wonder, is the holiday cheer all around us so carefree and blissful; yet the Church’s message of Advent is so doomy and gloomy?  I mean—I don’t know about you, but—if I had the choice I think I’d rather be out with the carefree and blissful bunch than in here.

Many of you know that as a boy my parents divorced.

I was on the cusp of thirteen years old, just about to finish seventh grade, when I heard my older brother upstairs crying.  He wasn’t one to cry typically, so I ran up to see what was the matter.  And there he stood with my mom, who had just told him—I was about to learn—that she and my dad were separating.  They got along fine, sure; they just didn’t have much in common anymore.

For the next few years, all became doom and gloom for me.  I stopped running with the track team.  I stopped taking piano lessons.  I started listening to Pink Floyd.  A lot of Pink Floyd!  Life seemed desperate.

Then I learned of a group meeting on my high school campus for Bible study.  Maybe I’d find some answers here, I thought.  So I began attending.  And, yes, here were some answers.  In fact—the leaders encouraged me—here were all the answers I needed.  The Bible, they said, the B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

Now all became clear.  It was all black and white, right here before my eyes.  And whatever questions the Bible didn’t address—well, if they weren’t good enough for Jesus then they weren’t good enough for me.

Life might be messy, but here I’d found my holiday cheer.  I could walk down the aisles of life tapping my feet to piped in music and otherwise telling myself that all was carefree bliss.

But as I grew in my faith I began to understand that the Christian life isn’t all carefree bliss.  Marriage isn’t all about sitting on the couch and losing oneself in the kisses of another.  Relationships aren’t all shiny and catchy and sugar plums and holiday cheer.  Sometimes disagreements surface.  Sometimes disagreements and differences become irreconcilable.  Differences between Christians!  Christians, who both love and serve God and desire to glorify Christ in all they do!

Was it all therefore a sham, I wondered, some sophisticated Santa story to dupe the world into believing an unrealistic ideal; when really, deep down, we all knew—all the grownups knew at any rate—that really there is no such ideal?  Not in this life, anyway?  That the world is all just going to burn up someday?  That it’s all just gloom and doom, so what’s the use?

So: Good grief!  What’s the real Advent story?  Is it carefree bliss or doom and gloom?

The Advent story—especially in this first week of Advent, when Christ the King Sunday is still fresh in our memories—looks to Christ’s comings. Yes, comings, I said: in the plural.  Meaning both of them.  During Advent, we look back to his birth; but also ahead to his second coming.  And thus we live in a tense contrast between cheer and gloom.

Cheer: so we shop and laugh and tap our feet to catchy tunes and sip hot chocolate with friends and decorate our homes.

And gloom: we go to church and hear of apocalyptic portents that will come upon the world and all creation: no one—not a star, planet, person, tree, or insect—will escape.

Advent is a time of tension.

By the way, we see just this contrast in various Christian churches and denominations.

Some churches focus almost exclusively on Christ’s first coming, his birth, his Incarnation.  These churches are generally optimistic in their overall outlook.  They see their calling as making the present world a better place.  And so they go out into the world—whether through outreach or evangelism—with ready answers.  Jesus is all the world really needs, they reason; and so, like Bob the Builder, they ask, “Can we fix it?” and they answer themselves, “Yes, we can!”

Other churches focus excessively on Christ’s second coming, when this age we know will come to an end.  It’s going to end, they say; and there’s not much we can do about it.  What we can do is make sure our individual walks with Christ are up to par.  And so these churches tend to focus more on individual discipleship.  Instead of going out into the world, the church becomes a haven of rest, or shelter, from the world.  These churches are generally pessimistic in their overall outlook.

But—hold the phone!—it’s not so clear as all that.  It’s not so black and white.  It’s not either holiday cheer or doom and gloom.  Advent reminds us of this.  In Advent, we are living in a very real tension between the two.

When we look at the Advent story closely, we see that Jesus’ comings are not so much about either cheer or gloom as they are, collectively, about hope.

As followers of Jesus Christ, hope is our reason to rejoice despite the truth that we live in a world that’s falling apart.

No one said the Christian life would be easy.

That was my mistake.  As a recent convert, I thought everything was crystal clear.  Jesus gave me all the answers I needed, right?  The other questions weren’t worth asking.  I had the Bible.  What else did I need?

And so I set out with my church to change the world.  We had all the answers we needed; so should the world.  We were determined to fix everything.

But as time went on this thinking discouraged the dickens out of me.  I was confronted by some of life’s messy realities.  Answers weren’t easy to come by.  Sometimes, no answers were available at all.

So I flip-flopped: I lost all idealism in the present and placed it only in the future and joined a church which believed and taught the same.  This world would all burn someday and Jesus would return to rapture all his faithful followers away with a trumpet blast.  And the sooner the better, as far as we were concerned!  We were walking with Jesus.  That was all that mattered.

But there is a middle way—a way between the first and second advents of Jesus Christ, a way between idealistic cheer and excessive gloom.  That middle way is hope.

Hope is about addressing fears and ideals in context, without focusing too much on one or the other.  Hope looks both ways—both going out into the world to share the good news and deeds of Jesus Christ; and engaging in personal spiritual disciplines, in growth as disciples.  Unlike idealistic cheer and excessive gloom, hope is authentic.

But it is all rather grayer than black and white.

Life is messy.  Following Christ doesn’t give us all the answers.  But we do have hope.

That’s what Advent shows us.

The Coming Weirdness

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2014 by timtrue

Nicolas_Poussin

Mark 1:1-8

The Gospel of Mark begins differently, weirdly even.

Here we sit in Advent, waiting for the coming Christ.

The last couple of weeks we’ve been considering the end of the ages, when Christ shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

But now we’ve begun to change direction.  No longer are we preoccupied with the end of all things.  Instead, we are anticipating a new beginning: a particular advent: the birth of a baby boy named Jesus.  Now we are looking ahead to Christmas.

And so our lectionary turns to the beginnings of the Gospels—to something new, something fresh: birth; new life.

Matthew and Luke tell the stories of an angel coming to a peasant girl and telling her that she is highly favored, that she shall bear the child of God most high, and that he shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.

John’s account varies a bit.  He still focuses on Jesus as the incarnation of God.  But instead of beginning with a baby, John begins with the beginning.  “In the beginning,” he writes—harking back to the very first words of the Bible.  And so John tells of Jesus’s theological purpose, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

In this sense, then, John is explaining what takes place in Matthew and Luke.

But not Mark.  Mark is altogether different.

His first words state: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”

And we might think, “The beginning.  Ah, that sounds like the Gospel of John.”

But rather than continue to offer some kind of explanation for who Jesus is, Mark’s focus shifts abruptly to someone else: to some sort of retro figure called John the baptizer.

You all know John the baptizer, don’t you?  He’s the one Isaiah wrote about—long ago.  You know, Isaiah, that well-known albeit archaic prophet.  Anyway, Isaiah writes about a messenger in the wilderness who is not the Lord himself but will prepare a way for the Lord.

Well, that messenger—John the baptizer—he’s here, camped out by the river Jordan, preaching good news about the coming Messiah and baptizing the crowds of people coming to him for repentance.  And get this!  He eats locusts and wild honey; and he wears clothes right out of the ancient past.  If you ask me, I’d say he’s Elijah come down in his whirlwind.

Are you getting the point?  The beginning of Mark is different.  The beginning of Mark is weird.

But we’re not weird. No way!  We’re normal.  We fit the mold.

As individuals, we try to be like everyone else—or at least to be like the group we most closely identify with.

Okay, granted, some of us try to be different.  But ultimately we still fit in.  Have you ever noticed this?

The Goth movement began during my high school days.  The first kid to show up to school in all black, with black fingernail polish and heavy black make-up, well, I’ve got to hand it to her.  That took a lot of guts!  She made a statement.  She was identifying with a musical movement and wanted to tell the world about it in her own, individual way.  She was being different, in a sense.

The second student to do this was a guy—which took a lot of guts too, especially when he showed up with pierced ears and black fingernail polish.  But then it was like a new student began to express his or her individuality everyday—through the Goth look—until the Goths were one of the bigger groups on campus.  In the end, Goth wasn’t different at all; instead, it had become a sort of norm!

(Anyway if they really want to wear all black, they should just become priests!)

There’s always a group—those with whom we most closely identify—which fits within our definition of normalcy.  As much as we value individualism and independence in our culture, at our core we still desire community.  It’s part of our human nature.

But what do we do with those who don’t seem to fit in anywhere—people who are such individuals that they don’t fit into any group—people like John the baptizer?  Don’t we tend to exclude, collude, ostracize, or medicate them?

The River Normalcy is wide.  There’s a lot of room in it for us swimmers—as long as we swim in the right direction.  But anyone who tries to swim against the current, or all those people who are gasping on the riverbank because they can’t keep up with the swiftness, well, then we tell ourselves there’s no room for them in the river anyway.

For those who don’t go with the flow, what to do with them we do not know.

But we have our reasons—good reasons.  We’re normal, because we want the culture to take us seriously.  We’re normal, because we want people to respect us.  We’re normal, because we want people to come to us, to hear our message, and to partake in our waters of baptism.

It was the same with John the baptizer.  His culture took him seriously.  The people of his day respected him.  They came to him, they listened to his message, and they partook in his waters of baptism.

But he wasn’t normal.  He was weird.

I wonder, what would it look like if some John-type person walked into our midst this morning? What would happen if some wild-looking, smelly, bedraggled, undernourished man walked onto our church steps this morning—and started preaching repentance?  Would you be uncomfortable?  Would you say something to him?  Would you let your kids talk to him?

Joshua Bell is a world-class violinist.  He tours all over the world, performing with the greatest symphony orchestras.

One day in 2007, Bell, then 39 years old, decided to put on a pair of blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a ball cap, backwards; and he took his Stradivarius—a $4 million-violin—to a Metro station in Washington, D. C.  He laid his violin case open at his feet and began to play during the morning commute.  He wasn’t playing simple ditties either, those you might hear from an amateur; but six Bach partitas for solo violin: a genuine recital.

You know what happened?  During this forty-five minute recital, only a few people stopped to listen—mostly small children who were quickly whisked away by their guardians.  Most people avoided making eye contact with Bell altogether; the ones who did quickly looked away.  A few passersby threw change in Bell’s open case.

At last Bell finished.  As he put his violin away, no one clapped; no one stopped to talk.  Bell counted the money in his violin case: $32.17.  By the way, just two nights before, Bell had played to a sold out crowd in Boston whose seats had averaged more than $100 each.

I tell this story because it is suggestive.  Joshua Bell is an internationally renowned violinist.  And yet, with the exception of a few children, the people of D. C. were so preoccupied with their daily commutes that they pretended not to notice him.  A world-class musician was in their midst and they avoided eye contact; a violinist for whom patrons routinely pay hundreds of dollars, and the people of D. C. walked right on by!  He seemed weird, out of place.

Wouldn’t it be weird if an out-of-place, wild-looking, smelly, bedraggled, undernourished man walked into our midst this morning?  Wouldn’t it be only natural for us to pretend not to notice him—or worse, to avoid him?

Well, guess what: he has walked into our midst.  Today.  Right out of Mark’s Gospel.  And I hope his appearance does indeed strike you as a little weird.

But that’s the nature of this thing we call the Kingdom of God. God has come to earth as a human.  God has lived and died as one of us.  God has risen from the dead.  And God will come again in power and great glory.  Does any of this strike you as at least a little weird?

And here’s the thing about weird: you can’t ignore it.  Sure, you can pretend not to notice it.  Or you can consciously avoid making eye contact with it.  But it’s right here in our midst, preaching repentance, playing a violin recital, eating locusts and wild honey.  You can’t ignore it.

And the particular weirdness we encounter this morning, on this second Sunday of Advent, is pointing to an even greater weirdness: a weird coming Messiah ushering in a weird Kingdom.

What are we going to do with all this weirdness?  Are we going to pretend it’s not here?  Are we going to act like it’s all perfectly normal?  Are we going to avoid it?

Whatever we do, it is impossible to ignore it.

Taking Adventine Inventory

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on December 8, 2013 by timtrue

English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vin...

Matthew 3:1-12

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly.

You brood of vipers.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

’Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Frosty the snowman was a jolly, happy soul.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Jingle bells?

 

You see the conflict, don’t you?  We come to church on Sundays during this season of Advent and we hear tough passages, stern passages, hard passages of scripture.  Last week it was about the coming Day of the Lord.  “Then two will be in the field,” it says; “one will be taken and one will be left.”  Then there’s this week: “You brood of vipers”!  We hear these passages and, if you’re like me anyway, we think, “Huh.  I guess Advent’s kind of a solemn time, maybe even introspective.”

But after church we go shopping.  The weather outside is frightful, so we bundle up in the comfort of our warm homes, donning now our gayest winter apparel, and we brave the elements—in the comfort of our heated vehicles, maybe even equipped with heated seats.  And we go to the malls where, well, frankly, we end up feeling pretty good about ourselves.

While we shop in the bleak midwinter, whether we realize it or not, we are continuously reminded just how clever we are.  Baby, it’s cold outside; but no matter!  We heat our shops—“the fire is so delightful”—, we de-ice our sidewalks, we fill our dark spaces with artificial light.  And we marvel at the cleverness of the seasonal decorations and even at ourselves reflected in so many windows and double-glass doors as we sip our steaming peppermint lattes.  It’s kind of like a big party.  And there’s that ubiquitous music, telling us over and over that Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, so please put a penny in the old man’s hat.  And we think, “I guess this really is the most wonderful time of the year.”

Next Sunday, however, we’re back in church and we hear: “See, the Judge is standing at the doors!”

I don’t know about you, but I kind of prefer the malls.

Nevertheless, as today’s collect reminds us, God has sent prophets as messengers to preach repentance and to prepare the way for our salvation.

Are the prophets of the malls doing these things?  They remind me just how clever I am.  They sing to me of red-nosed reindeer and jingling bells and imaginary snowmen-priests in meadows.  I smile and feel good about myself and laugh and enjoy a festive atmosphere with hundreds of other clever, smiling people.  The messages of these prophets are delightful!

But they’re not preaching much repentance or preparing a way for my salvation—unless it’s salvation for the afternoon from visiting family.

On the other hand, the Church’s prophets—prophets like John the Baptist—are.  Today’s Gospel preaches repentance.  Today’s Gospel prepares the way for our salvation.

Keep in mind that the commercialization of the holiday season is a relatively recent invention in the larger scheme of history.  It’s very prominent today, as I’ve illustrated.  It was quite prominent when I was a boy too, as I remember from personal experience.  It was around too, I’m sure, during my parents’ childhoods, though maybe to a lesser extent.  It’s even there a little bit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.

Yet long before this the Church established Advent as a time of introspection, where we Christians ought to think long and hard about Christ’s return; or, to say it in the words of John the Baptist, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

That’s the main idea of today’s passage, by the way.  John the Baptist uses pictures from agriculture.  “The ax is lying at the root,” he says.  The bad trees, those that do not bear good fruit, these ought to be pruned away so that room will be made for good trees.

He says too, “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Chaff is the unwanted stuff, like the skin of an onion or on a clove of garlic.  You peel this stuff off and throw it away, or burn it, in order to get to the good stuff.

That’s like us.  We need to get rid of the unproductive, dried up, tangled, superfluous stuff of our lives and bear good fruit, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This idea of bearing fruit worthy of repentance aligns with today’s New Year custom of making resolutions.  We spend time reflecting over the past year—how we’ve lived our lives, the mistakes we’ve made, the successes we’ve experienced—and we resolve to do some things differently in the year ahead, to abandon some old not-so-good ways and to better ourselves.

What else is this custom but to do exactly what John the Baptist is saying?  Repent—meaning abandon or turn aside from your old ways—and bear fruit worthy of your new ways.

So then, this is all I’m asking of you today: take spiritual inventory.  Do it now, during Advent.  Don’t wait until that lethargic week after Christmas, when most people are too tired to ponder anything requiring much effort.  That sort of introspection just leads to anemic New Year’s resolutions.  Rather, as the Church has wisely allocated, take spiritual inventory throughout this four-week season of Advent.

And don’t just take personal inventory.  That’s where it begins, sure.  What do you need to let go of that gets in the way of your walk with Christ?  How can you serve Christ better in the year ahead?  What do you need to do to bear richer, fuller, plumper spiritual fruit?

These are all good and necessary questions.  So ask them!  But don’t stop with these.  Take spiritual inventory of your relationships.  Who is important to you?  Your husband? wife? son? daughter? parent? partner? coworker? sibling? friend?  And what about things?  I once heard a young person describe her i-Touch in terms of relationship.  Are you so dialed in to a screen that it hinders your maturity in Christ?

But go even one step further and take spiritual inventory of this church body.  Do you know our mission statement?  St. Luke’s is called to do one thing in three ways: according to our mission statement, we are called to illuminate San Antonio with the light of Christ; and the three ways we do this are through: transformative education; compassionate care; and inspiring worship (including music).

Think through this mission statement during Advent.  What are we doing well?  Where should we improve?  Then, please, share your thoughts.  Before the annual meeting!

So, take spiritual inventory this Advent.  Take it with respect to your individual self, take it with respect to your relationships, and take it with respect to this corporate body, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  This is the time of the year for it—the most wonderful time of the year, during which we forsake our sins and greet Christ’s coming with joy.

Finding Comfort in Apocalypse

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by timtrue

Matthew 24:36-44

“When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls; whenever candle lights flicker where the air is deathly still—that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight!”

So begins one of my favorite attractions at Disneyland: The Haunted Mansion.

We’ve entered a room through a doorway akin to a mouth, gaping, where we now are packed in tightly with loved ones and strangers—I don’t know, maybe something like fifty of us.  The closed doorway has recently shut all manner of sunlight out; our eyes are still adjusting to the dimness.

Our host’s voice comes to us from somewhere overhead, inviting us to look upward.  There we see eight family portraits lining the upper walls of this octagonal room.  Then, as the voice continues, the room’s floor starts descending; and the portraits extend, revealing that not all things are as they seem.  A nice-looking girl with a parasol, for instance, is now seen to be balancing precariously on a tightrope above a pit filled with hungry alligators!

Finally, as the family scenes reach their full length and after a loud scream, the voice of our ghost-host concludes.  We will take a tour of this haunted mansion via a three-passenger conveyor car.  But watch out, we are warned!  A ghost or a zombie may ride along with us at any moment.

All this, of course, is simply an introduction to the tour itself.  But we don’t necessarily see it that way—as an introduction—especially if it’s our first time.  Rather, it’s a part of the overall experience.  We find it somewhat frightening, sure; but we also take a certain comfort in that, deep down, at the bottom of it all, we know it isn’t actually real.

Today’s Gospel passage is our introduction to the Church year.  And like the introduction to Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion, some things about the passage may actually frighten us—especially if this is your first cognizant experience of it.

Listen to these words again, and let them sink in a bit:

  • For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
  • They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
  • Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
  • Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

This is frightening.  There’s a sense of apocalypse here, isn’t there?  Apocalypse: the end of the world as we know it.  That fires the imagination, doesn’t it?  What if, we ask?  What would things be like if there actually were an apocalypse in our lifetime?

But unlike Disneyland’s attraction, where we draw a certain comfort from knowing that deep down it isn’t actually real, in this case of the Gospel we know it is real.  Christ will come again!  And that will mean the end of the world as we know it.  And that’s frightening!

So let’s pause for a moment and consider this idea of apocalypse.  We humans seem to have a certain fascination with it.  For, at the same time, the idea of apocalypse both fires the imagination and frightens us.

Take popular media.  Ever heard of the TV show The Walking Dead?  It’s all about zombies roaming the earth after an apocalyptic event and the humans who struggle to survive.  Or how about the film Warm Bodies?  It’s a comedy about a zombie boy and a human girl who fall in love in a post-apocalyptic world—based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Now my gut instinct is to laugh at this idea.  A zombie apocalypse?  Pshaw!  Nevertheless, I did a little research, just to see how far back we can actually trace this idea of zombies and their connection to apocalypse.

To qualify, I used the Christian idea that the human person is the union of body and spirit.  When this union is severed, there are unusual results.  A spirit without a body is a ghost.  On the other hand, an animate human body without a spirit—that’s how I define zombie.

And wouldn’t you know?  According to this definition, zombies are there in that oldest of ancient texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh, when the god Anu vows to open the gates of the netherworld and unleash zombies to satisfy his daughter Ishtar’s anger.  They’re also there in the Bible.  Yeah!  In Zechariah 14:12 and Isaiah 26:19-20, the people of Jerusalem are told to hide themselves from a plague of walking corpses.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this idea of apocalypse is nothing new.  It was around in ancient times.  It is around today.  And—guess what?—it was around in Jesus’s day.  Yes, the idea of apocalypse captivated the minds of the ancient Mediterranean peoples too—whether in a Jewish sect like the Qumran community or the Roman aristocracy.

Will there actually be zombies in the Day of the Lord?  We don’t know, truth be told.  But our imagination, our fascination with the idea, and out fright have made room for it.

So, on the one hand, Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel passage are somewhat frightening, for they suggest apocalypse.  But, on the other hand, they are comforting.

They are comforting, not because they are like the Disneyland ride: unreal; but because there is, at the bottom of it all, a greater reality than what we know.  That greater reality is the kingdom of heaven, where we will end up in our liturgical readings fifty-one weeks from today.

The kingdom of heaven is governed by a loving and other-serving King.  Exactly what it will look like and exactly how things will come about—these details are unknown, sure!  And in these uncertain details we might become anxious, perhaps even frightened.  But the big picture is that God is good and loving; we therefore have nothing to fear.  This is real comfort.

But they are comforting words too because they are not just about the end of the world, but about today.  We don’t need to be sweating about the details of what is to come, whether there will be zombies or a rapture or whatever.  Today’s Gospel passage tells us how to live—today!  Whether or not we will experience Jesus’s second coming in our lifetime!

“But understand this,” it says: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”

How do you protect yourself from a thief?  It takes some thought and preparation: a security system, maybe some insurance, locks on doors and windows.  But then what?  You go on living your daily life.  Perhaps a thief will come someday and rob you of your goods.  Or maybe not.  You don’t know!  And you definitely shouldn’t spend your daily life fretting over it.

That’s life in Christ.  Think about that life; and prepare for it.  Trust Jesus as your savior and Lord.  Be baptized.  Reconcile yourself to your brothers and sisters.  Partake at the Lord’s Table with the saints.  But then what?  Carry on with daily life—as people did in the days of Noah.