Archive for belief

Gracing Belief

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

Burning_match

John 3:14-22

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light and darkness exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

Notice, first, how the passage ends:

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

Jesus is the light; God is perfect love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So then, what is this divine participation called?

Grace.

And now our variable is complete.

3.

But grace and faith together? Oh, the tension!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

But there’s a key difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Faith and Beliefs Collide

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2018 by timtrue

Verkehrsunfall1

Mark 1:14-20

1.

Jumping right into today’s Gospel:

  • John the Baptist has been arrested
  • Jesus has carried John’s message of repentance to Galilee
  • Four fisherman hear this message
  • And immediately they leave the lives they have always known to follow Jesus.

Consider: theirs were lives of safety, security, predictability, stability, and confidence; left behind for risk, danger, insecurity, uncertainty, and self-denial.

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

Did they know Jesus already? Had they seen him somewhere before? Was it his charismatic personality?

Or, maybe, was it his connection with JB? There’s some scholarly speculation, after all, that JB was an Essene, possibly even of the Qumran community. Prior to his public ministry, Jesus might even have been one of JB’s disciples. We don’t know for sure. But did Jesus perhaps dress like JB? Would the four fisherman have recognized Jesus at sight—by the clothes he wore (similar to people recognizing me as a priest when I wear my collar in public)?

Or, was there something about the authenticity of Jesus? Here was a man who not only proclaimed a message of repentance but also lived out the way of love. I like to think so: that the message and messenger were authentically one.

Whatever the case, the truth is we don’t know why these four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus. This detail has been left out of the story.

But we know that they did.

No speculation here! On that day long ago on that beach, four fishermen left behind stability, certainty, and predictability for a life of risky faith as disciples of Jesus.

2.

And we know the result: through their faith they were transformed. Jesus called these disciples as fishermen and transformed them into fishers of people.

Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

He was called on the beach, the sand; and later called rock.

Jesus called him rock; and then, in the next breath, Satan.

Peter said he’d never deny Jesus; and yet denied him the next morning.

Peter became a stalwart spokesman for the church; yet disagreed and disputed openly and publicly with the apostle Paul.

Peter even waffled, tradition tells us, in the days leading up to his execution, one moment escaping from Rome and fleeing for his life, sure of his freedom; the next deciding martyrdom was the better way and returning of his own volition to face Nero for Christ’s glory.

Transformation for Peter—and for the others—was not a one-time experience, like repeating a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call.

Faith in Christ meant continuous conversion throughout his life, being conformed increasingly—more and more—from Adam’s fallen image into Jesus’ perfect image.

Transformation takes a lifetime!

And if it works this way for Peter, Andrew, James, John, and you and me, as individuals; then transformation also works this way for the corporate body of Christ, the Christian church around the globe.

3.

Which brings up a good point.

Here is the beginning of the church—the earliest community to gather around the person and mission of Jesus Christ. And this earliest body of believers lived a life of faith.

This life was risky, even dangerous.

It was insecure.

It was unstable.

And—not a point to gloss over—it required them to let of their egos.

And their faith resulted in their transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

Is the church, the collective body of Christ around the globe, still transforming? Is it still living a life of risky faith, following Jesus into unknown, even dangerous realms as it tries to fulfill his mission?

Take financial risk as an example. Certainly these four fisherman followed Jesus at great financial risk to themselves and their families. Yet, obviously, they didn’t sit down beforehand and plan out a budget subject to board approval.

The contrasting picture today is one of sweaty hands wrung together, knuckles popping and fingernails being bitten off, frantic phone calls, bitter arguments—in fear of insolvency.

We’ve come a long way in some ways; though I’m not sure we can say transformation is one of them.

And what of stability? We talk an awful lot about having buildings to worship in, in geographic locations. We are the presence of Christ to our community, after all. Better make sure we look like we’re built on a rock then and not on shifting sand!

Yet Christ was transient in his ministry, meeting in an upper room or speaking from a boat or sitting on a hillside.

Since the beginning of the church, a lot about Christianity has changed. But I don’t think this is the kind of transformation Jesus had in mind.

And what about ego? . . .

4.

Considered as a world religion, Christianity is commonly divided into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Each of these divisions can be further subdivided; and there are further subdivisions within these subdivisions; and so on; and so forth—leaving one dizzy.

A Catholic group says there are 33,000 different Christian denominations in the world; Gordon-Conwell Seminary claims there are 47,000.

But, of course, it depends how one defines “denomination.” Is an independent, so-called non-denominational church in effect its own denomination? Many would argue so.

If so, then, yes, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, in the USA alone there are more than 35,000 Protestant denominations.

But if, on the other hand, you lump all independent and non-denominational bodies into one group—a kind of anti-denomination I guess—then the number becomes a much more manageable 200 or so.[i]

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot.

And why is this?

Far and away, because of doctrinal differences: one church leader’s interpretation differs from another. And so, in the spirit of protest, channeling the Protestant Reformation, rather than seeking agreement a new denomination forms and breaks off from the old.

And if that’s not ego at work, I don’t know what is!

But, to be fair, you can hardly blame Martin Luther and the others! For the Roman Catholic doctrines of Papal Infallibility and magisteria (to name but two) are themselves exclusive systems of belief: if you don’t ascribe to them you can’t be in the club; and who wants to be in that kind of club anyway?

God is immutable, they say; and thus the church should reflect God’s unchanging nature.

To which I say, Immutability? Infallibility? (And I might as well add) Inerrancy? These words hardly sound transformational.

On that day long ago, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of them. We, the church, continue to have a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of us.

It seems to me, however, that our belief systems today are far removed from that beach where those four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus in faith.

Our belief systems are impeding our transformation.

5.

You know what I think’s going on here? I think we—the Christian church—have confused our belief systems with faith.

Once upon a time I was a director of youth ministries in a church, overseeing programs for students in middle school, high school, and college.

The college students frequently volunteered to work with younger students and thus were seen role models.

One day, one of the college women who volunteered with the high school program came to the pastor in tears, confessing that she was pregnant. The father-to-be was a young man who didn’t attend church.

Now, this church’s system of beliefs held that believers should not marry unbelievers; that abortion is murder; that sex outside of marriage is a sin; that sins necessitate repentance; that pregnancy is a public sin, for a swollen belly is soon obvious to everyone; and that failure to repent should result in excommunication from the church.

This system of beliefs had come from much prayer and Bible study, to be sure.

But it also led the pastor and elders (who were all men, by the way) to conclude, therefore, that the young woman must either publicly apologize to the congregation during Sunday morning worship or face excommunication. It probably goes without saying that abortion would have resulted in excommunication too; and unless he converted, marrying the unbelieving father-to-be was discouraged.

As you can imagine, this whole scenario put me into an ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, I was a vital part of this church. I ascribed to its belief system. I supported the pastor in his vision for the congregation.

And yet, on the other hand, I had gotten to know this young woman well. She had taught, prayed with, and otherwise provided spiritual leadership to a number of the youth. She demonstrated a life of love to these kids.

And love, after all—wasn’t this Jesus’ main message?

“Lord,” I prayed, “of all the beliefs in my belief system, which one is the greatest?” And he answered, “The greatest of these is love.”

How was this local church loving this young woman now, I wondered? By telling her not to marry her boyfriend because he didn’t ascribe to the church’s belief system? By publicly humiliating her in front of the congregation? By excommunicating her? Really?

The dilemma was real: My belief system collided with my faith.

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

But I’d also developed my ethic of love from Jesus!

As these two worlds collided, I realized I couldn’t hold both without significantly compromising my integrity as a disciple of Christ. I had to pick a side: belief or faith. Which would it be?

Well, what side had the four fishermen picked?

As with the four fishermen, Jesus is calling us to faith: to live out a risky ethic of love rather than to hold tenaciously to some rock-solid, immutable system of beliefs we call our own.

Through faith, not a belief system, we shall be transformed.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] Cf. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/sbeale/just-how-many-protestant-denominations-are-there

Beyond the Prison Cell

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

300px-yuma3-13-04_161

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.

Why I Believe

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 10:22-30

Do you know the story of Hanukkah?

Scrape off your history rust for a minute with me here.  Go back to that period of time that falls in between when the Old Testament was complete and when Jesus lived; to that period of time after Persia was in charge and before Rome was the chief player on the world stage; to that period of time between Darius and Caesar Augustus.

Wedged right between our Old and New Testaments is some pretty important history, right?  Only something called Hellenism!  Only a whole civilization called Greek!  Only the whole Greco half of the Greco-Roman world!

When Alexander the Great conquered the entire known world, the Jews were a part of that world.  Alexander’s program of Hellenism included conquering a people, so that they would pay him tribute; but then to allow that people to continue living their lives much as they always had—to keep their particular religious practices, for instance.

Which is what the Jews did, agreeably enough.

Until a hundred years or so went by and one of Alexander’s successors came to the throne that ruled over Israel.  This successor is known to us today as Antiochus IV.  He didn’t allow the Jews to continue their religion without interference.  And one of his interferences was, you probably know, to sacrifice pigs on the Temple altar.

This practice—the sacrifice of unclean swine—was grievous to the Jews, so grievous, in fact, that a couple Hasmonean Jews rose up in revolt against Antiochus IV’s forces.  Judas Maccabeus was one of these Jews, a man whom the nation would call Messiah: this son of David, many hoped, would usher in a new era.

Well, Judas died without ushering in a new era, and thus proved not to be Israel’s savior; and thus Israel’s hope continued (and still continues to this day).  Nevertheless, Maccabeus was a savior in a temporary way.  For he rid the Temple of the abominable practice; he cleansed the Temple; and he rededicated the Temple.

Hanukkah is sometimes referred to as this rededication—or dedication—of the Temple.

And so we come to today’s Gospel passage, which begins: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.”  Today’s passage takes place during the Jewish festival Hanukkah.

But a good Jew will tell you that the revolution against Antiochus IV is not the real reason for the festival of Hanukkah; for Jewish festivals never honor acts of war.  Rather, the story goes that, at the rededication of the Temple, a miracle took place.

The Sabbath was approaching, meaning that lamps had to be lit at least eighteen minutes before sundown.  But after Antiochus’s abomination, alas, there was hardly any undefiled oil to be found anywhere in the Temple, certainly less than enough to last one day.  And the process to make new, kosher oil would take eight days!  How would the priests of the rededicated Temple keep the lamps lit perpetually, as was the custom?

In faith, they went ahead and lit the lamps with what clean oil they had on hand.  Lo and behold, the lamps burned through the Sabbath and continued burning through the following Sabbath, through the eight days needed to make new, kosher oil.  And thus God miraculously provided for the rededicated Temple.

This miracle, then, is what Jews remember today when they celebrate Hanukkah.  The menorah—the candelabrum Jews use over the eight days of Hanukkah—represents these eight days.  Also, latkes, or potato pancakes, are traditional Hanukkah food—food fried in oil, remembering God’s abundance of oil given to Israel in the miracle.

But Hanukkah has become largely secularized in the modern world, losing much of its religious significance.  It falls near the Christian holiday of Christmas.  According to one Jewish writer I read this week, Jews have resorted to lavish gift-giving during Hanukkah in order to prevent their kids from becoming jealous of their Christian friends.

Perhaps lamenting, this writer continues: “It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.”

Perhaps John the Evangelist was being bitterly ironic, too, when he pointed out that this episode between Jesus and his questioners took place during Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.  During this very festival, Jesus’ questioners failed to acknowledge that here before them stood the very Light of the world.

“Tell us plainly,” Jesus’ questioners say; “are you the Messiah?  Are you another Judas Maccabeus, someone to deliver us from the oppressive hand of Caesar?  Are you the Son of David, the Savior of Israel?  Are you the Sun of Righteousness, the light of the world who shines so brightly we will never need our menorahs again?  Tell us plainly!”

But Jesus doesn’t answer them plainly (not right away anyway).  Instead, he points them to his works.  “My works testify to me,” he tells them.  His works demonstrate that, yes, indeed, he is the Messiah.

Is this frustrating to you?  Why doesn’t Jesus just say yes?  He has his chance.  I mean, they ask him, are you the Messiah?  All he has to do is say the word.  So why doesn’t he?

By the way, Holly took me out to see a movie last night, Eye in the Sky.  It’s very good, though very intense.  Anyway—without spoiling it for you—for most of the movie we the audience are left hanging in just this kind of suspense.  We’re waiting for someone simply to say yes.  But the man in charge doesn’t!  He can’t really; there’s too much at stake.

Is this why Jesus didn’t simply answer his questioners plainly?  Was there too much at stake?

But, on the other hand, even if he were to answer them plainly—even if he were simply to say yes—would his questioners have taken him at his word?  Would they have believed him?

Belief.  This is the more important issue, isn’t it?

If Jesus were to answer them plainly—if Jesus were to say, “Yes, it is as you say, I am the Messiah”—would they have believed him?

To turn the scenario around, if he were to have answered them plainly, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” they would have had grounds according to their law to stone him.

In fact, this is exactly what happened back at the end of John 8, a mere 65 verses ago:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’”  (“I am”: You can’t get more plain than that.)  “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”

Back in today’s passage, pointing here to the chief issue, Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe.  The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe.”

Belief is the main matter at hand.

Now, to make a couple connections:

First: two weeks ago we encountered Doubting Thomas.  Thomas is not there on Easter Sunday when the risen Lord appears to the rest of the disciples.  Later, when Thomas hears the incredible story of the resurrection, he doubts, saying that unless he touches Christ’s very wounds with his own hands he will not believe.

The following Sunday, who should appear to Thomas but the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself?  Well, to be sure, Thomas believes now.  But we are left with these words about belief ringing in our ears: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And we’re left thinking, “Yeah, that’s me!  I believe and yet I’ve never seen.  I’m blessed all right!”

As for the second connection: let’s look again at Hanukkah.

The Jews who confront Jesus in today’s Gospel were not present at the rededication of the Temple for the simple reason that they hadn’t been born yet.  In fact, they were as far removed from that first Hanukkah as we are from the War of 1812.

Do any of you remember that event personally?  Did any of you experience it first-hand?

Similarly, none of the Jews in today’s Gospel experienced first-hand the rededication of the Temple.  At the very best odds, maybe—barely maybe—one of their great-grandfather’s great-grandfathers might have been there.  Maybe.

And yet—nevertheless!—they all believed!

And I’m not talking a belief that’s merely mental assent, like I believe the War of 1812 happened, because the history books say so.  No, their belief in Hanukkah was a part of their national culture, akin to our Thanksgiving, a holiday with cultural and moral significance.

So, here’s the thing.  They weren’t there—they didn’t see it—yet they believed.  And blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Thomas had to see to believe; when he saw Jesus, he believed.

Jesus’ questioners saw him and yet did not believe.

We think we’re blessed because we haven’t seen and yet we believe.

But Jesus’ questioners hadn’t seen the first Hanukkah and yet believed in it.

Leaving me a little confused, wondering why I believe at all.  (After that explanation, are you a little confused too?)  Is my belief in Jesus Christ simply cultural?  Is it merely moral?  Is it both?  Should there be something more to it?

Then I remember Jesus’ answer to his questioners—his not-so-plain answer: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”

What are the works he does in his Father’s name?

He turned water into wine once.  He healed the sick and demon-possessed back when he walked the earth.  Maybe he even kept lamps lit for eight days despite all odds.

But that stuff doesn’t really matter to me so much.

What matters is that Jesus, as our shepherd, has called this unique and special group of people here today together; and we have heard his voice.  That’s a work he does in the Father’s name.

What matters is that he meets us here and now in the bread and wine.

What matters is that he gives me strength to make it through each day; and that he watches over my daughter and me when we canoe the river or hike a canyon; and that he gives me my daily bread; and that he leads me not into temptation; and that he—presently, daily, hourly, continuously—delivers me from evil.

What matters is that he calls my name and I hear his voice.

These are the works Jesus does in his Father’s name that testify to him.  And these are why I believe.

Making Peace with Ghosts

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2015 by timtrue

Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Do you believe in ghosts?  What about zombies?

Donny was my next door neighbor.  He was my hero; my role model.

I have an older brother, Andy, about a year and a half older than I—just this side of a year and a half, actually: fifteen months and sixteen days.

Andy wasn’t my role model.  Not so much anyway.  He was my older brother; and you know how that goes.

But Donny!  He was the one I looked up to!

My family had moved to Camarillo in January of 1972.  I was almost four; Andy was five.  And I can still remember that first day, pulling in with a moving truck, into the driveway that would be mine for the next twelve and a half years—the driveway; and the old ranch house; and the seventy or eighty avocado trees that came along with it!  Here was my boyhood home.

Donny lived next door.  He was two months older than Andy; and, to a boy of three, that made Donny so much wiser—and just plain better, any way you looked at it!

So, in time, Donny learned to come on over any time of the day and peek in the back door, the sliding glass door; and if Andy or I was there, he’d just let himself in.

We’d do the same, too, Andy or I, at Donny’s house.  We didn’t know any different.  This was life.

Happy doesn’t even begin to describe the emotion I felt, then, when—finally!—the day came: Donny was invited to spend the night.

Ah, my first sleepover!  Donny was my hero; my role model.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

Now, Andy and I shared a built-in bunk bed.  He got the top bunk—he was older, remember.  And I got the bottom.  (I’m still sore about this, by the way.)  But tonight it was to pay off!  For beneath my bunk laid a trundle bed; and tonight it would be rolled out and occupied by Donny, my hero, my role model.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

Also, we had this foreboding, creaky, and frankly spooky spiral staircase—made of cold, hard wrought iron—leading from a rather dark corner of the kitchen down, down, down into the basement.  The steps on this staircase were open at the back; meaning there was a perfect space underneath, to hide in and reach my hands through and scare the heebie-jeebies out of anyone who happened to be descending.

Mom never liked this staircase much.  But we boys did.  Most of the time!

And then I already mentioned the avocado orchard, right?

So: there was a squatter who lived in the orchard.  Like most squatters, he remained elusive, hidden away in corners where we wouldn’t happen upon him easily.  But he wasn’t what you might call a typical squatter; for he wasn’t exactly human.

Some time ago he’d been in a terrible accident: a pedestrian crossing the street, if I remember correctly, when a Mack Truck plowed into him, catapulting him onto the ice-plant some forty feet away.

Witnesses saw it.  The truck driver screeched to a halt.  A small crowd ran over to help the tall man, the seven-foot man.  One person checked his pulse; another called 911; someone else performed CPR.  But, alas, he lay crumpled and lifeless in a heap.  It was too late.  The seven-foot man was dead.

Well, you know how it is.  When something like this happens and everyone realizes it’s too late to do anything about it, things kind of slow down a bit.  The commotion settles.

The cops showed up and started taking witnesses’ reports.  The ambulance wasn’t yet on the scene.  And somehow or other everyone’s attention was diverted: no one was looking any longer at the seven-foot man.

When the ambulance finally did arrive and the people remembered the poor crumpled soul on the ice-plant, they turned and—oh, gasp!—he wasn’t there.  “So, where’s the victim?” the medics asked; to which everyone, including the cops, just shrugged their shoulders and scratched their heads.  He’d upped and vanished!

Except he hadn’t really vanished, I knew!  Because he was living in my avocado orchard!

If you can call it living!

Because I also knew that in the accident his body and spirit had been separated from one another; and for whatever reason they couldn’t be joined back together.  And now both were haunting my home and avocado orchard: both the disembodied spirit of the seven-foot man—his ghost; and his spiritless body—his zombie!

The seven-foot man was a double whammy!

And, late at night, after everyone lay in bed asleep, I knew that both zombie and ghost would sneak into that gaping maw, that space beneath the creaky spiral staircase, in order to try to reunite.

Donny knew it too.  So did Andy.  But we’d learned to live with it.

So then, after a long day of boyhood adventures, we enjoyed a delicious dinner of Mac ’n’ Cheese, donned our pajamas, and brushed our teeth.  Now it was time to climb in bed.

We boys had crossed the line a time or two that day, sure, daring each other to tempt fate.  We’d hunted for the seven-foot man, provoked each other to poke around in all the scariest corners of the orchard—the junk pile, the woodpile, the corner sectioned off by barbed wire—attempting to outdo each other in eight and nine year-old feats of manliness.

But, after all, the seven-foot man was just an invention of our own creativity, wasn’t he?  There really wasn’t some ghost-zombie man who would sneak into the basement after dark desperately seeking peace in the afterlife, was there?  Surely no!

Still, what if there were?

This question haunted me.  I mean, we’d just spent our day tormenting him, angering him . . .

Oh, well, it didn’t matter.  What did I care?  Donny, my hero, my role model, was at my side.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

That’s when I heard the noise next to me.  Maybe a sniffle?

Oh, sure, Donny probably just had allergies or a little sleep apnea or something.

But then—it wasn’t just sniffing anymore—now I was hearing snuffles!  And now some throat-clearing!  And now, positively, sobbing!

“Donny,” I called out, “are you okay?”

A pause; then, “I wanna call my dad,” he replied (sniff, sniff).

Which he did.  And within five minutes he was packed up and heading home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man—and our fears—without him.

But he was my hero; my role model!

Whatever the case—whether you believe in ghosts or not (that’s not the point!)—today’s Gospel teaches us something about belief.

Jesus appears amongst the disciples and they are “startled and terrified.”  The disciples think they’re seeing a ghost.  They’re frightened.  Doubts arise in their hearts.

Then Jesus persuades them.  “Look at my hands and my feet,” he says; “touch me.”  And they do.  And their beliefs begin to change.  They are filled with joy; but there is still disbelief and wonder.

Finally, Jesus takes some food and eats it; and he teaches the disciples, opening their minds so that they understand the scriptures.  Now, no longer are they disbelieving.  No longer are they skeptical.  Their faith is now certain.

This Gospel story shows us three characteristics of belief:

a. Complete Disbelief—Jesus appears and they think he’s a ghost;

b. Skeptical Wonderment—their disbelief is mixed with joy;

c. Certain Faith—they hear the scriptures and understand.

I’m not saying that these characteristics of belief are progressive stages: that you have to go through one to get to another; that everyone needs to go through a time of complete disbelief and then a time of skepticism before he or she can truly believe.

Instead, you might find yourself in a state of sure and certain belief today—you can’t remember a time when your faith was stronger—; and yet tomorrow you experience a complete crisis of faith.  Belief is complicated.

Also, I’m not saying that these characteristics are comprehensive: that they cover the whole spectrum of belief possibilities.  Belief is not so simple as to mark it out in three easy steps.

But I think we can all relate.  We’ve all been here, right?

Have you ever thought something like, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my child’s tuition this year”; or, “I don’t know how my marriage is going to last”; or, “I’m not even sure I believe in Jesus anymore”?

These belief characteristics don’t just happen on the individual level either.  For example, a question might have been on this congregation’s mind in recent years: “How is St. Paul’s possibly going to regroup after so many have left the congregation?”

And yet God has managed; somehow, we have regrouped.

But belief is like that.  It’s complicated.  It can be unstable.  It’s insecure.

So, Donny called his dad and went home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man on our own. We were completely and totally freaked out by this prospect.

And not five minutes after we’d climbed back into bed, still spooked, now listening intently into the darkness, it happened: over in a dark corner on the other side of the house the spiral staircase let out a loud and telltale creak.

Well, Andy lost it.  He let out a scream to shatter a brandy snifter.  Which triggered a similar scream from me!  And together, like two coyotes under a full moon, we howled and wailed and cried until our real hero, our real role model, Dad, came into the room.

“Boys!” he shouted—mainly to get our attention.  Then, “boys!” he said, much more calmly; “I don’t know what went down with you and Donny today.  But I don’t have to.  I’m here.  I love you.  And if you need anything, just come get me.”

Peace, he’d said; be still.

Isn’t today’s word from God the same for us?  You might be in a sure and certain place today.  And if so, great!  Enjoy it!  You won’t always be in such a desired place.

Some of you, however, perhaps more of you, are not in such a certain and sure place.  You might be experiencing some joy and wonderment; but also some disbelief.  You might even find yourselves skeptical.

Others of you, probably a few, don’t believe at all right now.  You look around at the world and wonder how a god could even exist.

The truth is, we go back and forth between these places.  It’s a natural part of faith.  But we find it unsettling, unstable, insecure.  And, like that guy in the story who meets Jesus, in the very same breath we say, “Lord, I believe!  Help me in my unbelief!”

Peace!  Be still!  Jesus came and stood among his disciples and said, “Peace be with you.”  Peace—not stability, not security, but peace—be with you.

Doubt; Confusion; Snark

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 27, 2014 by timtrue

Serodine_Doubting_Thomas

John 20:19-31

Why do we call him doubting Thomas?

Yes, I know there’s this passage, here, about him. Jesus appears to the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” And Thomas isn’t in the room.

Soon afterwards Thomas hears about the Lord’s appearing and says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Sometime later Jesus appears again and says, “Peace be with you.” And Thomas is there this time. Jesus says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands”—a curious point to which we’ll come back—and then, “Do not doubt but believe.”

So is this why we call him doubting? Because Jesus himself said, “Do not doubt but believe”?

Just to put it out there, the other disciples were just a doubtful as Thomas. Yet we don’t call them things like skeptical Simon, at-a-loss Andrew, or befuddled Bartholomew.

So, why Thomas?

This question becomes even more absurd when we look more broadly at the man Thomas. In the other three Gospels, he’s barely noticed. His name is merely mentioned—and only one time in each narrative. Other than that he is one of the twelve, we learn nothing. Everything else we know about him comes from John.

With respect to John then, he shows up in two other passages before today’s.

The first is in John 11, you remember, that chapter where Lazarus dies. A messenger comes to Jesus and says, “Lazarus, the one that you love, is very ill, about to die.” Then Jesus waits for a couple more days where he is before going to raise Lazarus. He tells the disciples plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” And Thomas responds, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”

What is behind this response? Was Thomas being sarcastic? Like, “Yeah, right, I ain’t going back there. Last time you were that close to Jerusalem, Jesus, we almost all got killed. Yeah, guys! Hey, great idea! Let’s go also, that we may die with him.”

I don’t know. Maybe we should call him snarky Thomas, not doubting.

The only other time we see Thomas is just before Jesus says some very well-known words. Addressing his disciples, Jesus says something about going to his Father’s house, where “there are many dwelling-places.” He then adds, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Then Thomas says to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In this episode Thomas seems simply not to get it. Perhaps a better moniker would be confused.

Yet we know Thomas as doubting.

So, anyway, I’d like to suggest a new name for Thomas today. Granted, I’m not about to presume it will catch on. We Christians have been calling Thomas doubting for nearly 2,000 years; and one piddly sermon, I know, won’t turn that tide.

Nevertheless, looking at the broader Gospel of John suggests a more accurate name for Thomas; and, by extension, a more accurate name for us. For we are all very much like Thomas. We all have times of doubt, times of confusion, and even times of snark. And thus we have a lot to learn from this character, this doubting disciple.

So for today, I propose we call him unseeing Thomas. And here’s why.

The Gospel of John plays a lot with the verb to see. The word has many different shades of meaning in Greek, just like it does in English. When we say, “I see,” we can mean any number of things: I see something, a physical object; I understand; I feel; I believe; and so on. It’s the same in Greek. In fact, one commentary I read this week claims that there are fully 20 different meanings of the word “see” in the Gospel of John.

So we encounter Thomas, one of the twelve apostles who lived closely with Jesus throughout his ministry—who saw Jesus daily in other words—and yet somehow throughout it all failed truly to see. Or, to put it another way, Thomas failed truly to understand who Jesus was; he failed to believe. And in this sense he was unseeing.

Think back four weeks to that Sunday when Jesus healed the man born blind. Thomas was like so many others in that story. There were religious leaders, remember, who asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They didn’t really see the truth, did they?

Then there were the man’s parents. They feared the religious leaders and said something along the lines of, “We don’t know how our son now sees. Ask him, for he is of age.”

There were others in the story too—neighbors, people in the community who had grown up around the blind man and no doubt knew him; and, arguably, even some of the apostles—for whom it was the same. No one in the story could believe it.

No one could believe that Jesus had performed a miracle, that the man who had been born blind could now see. No one, that is, except Jesus and the healed man himself!

Then the story ends with a sort of twist. All the people who could see physically at the story’s beginning were unable truly to see—or, to believe—at the story’s end.

This seeing-yet-blindness—this unseeing—then, is what characterizes Thomas (and many others) throughout the Gospel. It is at the root of his doubt, of his confusion, of his snark.

And—I think you know this already—this unseeing is at the root of your spiritual struggles, and at the root of mine.

We are like Thomas; we are unseeing.

In society we hear about changing economies, wars over oil, and duplicitous world rulers; and we want to give up on humanity.

In our corporate life as a church we get caught up in our individual concerns and causes and lose sight of the great and marvelous calling Jesus has given us together, to reconcile a tweaked universe to God.

In our families we can lose sight of what we’re about—siblings angering one another and holding lengthy grudges, for instance, instead of rejoicing in all the stunning variety found in the closeness of blood relationships.

In our personal lives, too, we fail at prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

We seek to control others, or to control circumstances, to manipulate our environment, so that things will go well for us and those we love. But in doing these things, it is so easy to lose sight of Jesus, that he is giving sight to the blind despite our unbelief, that he is in control of our lives and the cause-and-effect circumstances that take place continually all around us. In doing these things we forget to trust Jesus; we knock him off his throne as King of kings and Lord of lords and we put ourselves there instead, in his place. In our own doubt, like Thomas, not only do we fail to trust; more significantly, we fail to see.

But notice how today’s passage ends. Jesus appears among the disciples a second time. And this time Thomas is here. Jesus looks at him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands . . . Do not doubt but believe.”

Does Thomas actually touch the resurrected Jesus? We don’t know! The scriptures merely say that Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” not that he touched Jesus.

But—whether he touched him or not, that’s beside the point!—in his answer there is no doubt, no confusion, and no snark; only belief, only true seeing.

Thomas is our example this morning, for we are very much like him: doubting. But Jesus is right here in the midst of us, right now. Our only right response is to answer, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Blessed are those who truly see; blessed are those who believe.