Archive for Christianity

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

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Forward into Exile

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by timtrue

This sermon was delivered on November 12, 2017.

MANO-5

Matthew 25:1-13

1.

Once upon a time there was a great city on a hill.

A city which could not be hidden.

A golden city.

God’s city.

Its name was Jerusalem.

Long was it thought to be impenetrable—four hundred years long, in fact—standing there proud, even haughty, glowering at the inferior world below.

During these four centuries—oh, yes!—kings and their eager armies had tried to conquer it. For, especially when the sun was about to set, in that last hour of daylight, its sandstone buildings beckoned, dazzling, appearing as pure gold; especially that highest of all buildings, Solomon’s Temple.

The wealth!

But, alas, here was a prize that refused to be taken, by force or any other way.

For, in addition to having been built on the top of a vast hill, a high wall of hard stone surrounded it.

And, in addition to the high, hard stone wall, a water source bubbled up from the ground in the city’s middle.

Long, then, could this city’s inhabitants enclose themselves inside if need be, carrying on life more or less as they always did, should an enemy army ever encamp outside.

And it had worked.

For four centuries.

“Ah, Jerusalem,” King Jehoiachin boasted as he walked to and fro on his palace balconies, “my impenetrable city.”

Still, supplies such as food, spears, arrows, even stones are not infinite. Perhaps if an enemy army were merely patient enough. . . .

And then it happened.

A harsh and stubborn commander with a foreign name, Nebuchadnezzar, brought his army from far away Babylon. And he set up encampments, determined to starve Jerusalem if necessary. This golden city would be his.

And so—despite King Jehoiachin’s boasts, his certainty, his knowledge—it happened: Jerusalem was caught by surprise.

God can do this, you know: God can catch his people by surprise.

Over these past four hundred years, not just the king but also God’s people, all Israel, had grown confident, certain, and sure. They were God’s chosen people, after all. And God, stalwart and benevolent king that he was, would surely always provide for them and protect them from their enemies, surely, even if the enemy army were, say, tenfold the size of their own.

Armed then with this confident certainty, King Jehoiachin decided to parley.

But Nebuchadnezzar was a cruel enemy.

Jehoiachin was arrested, along with his princes, his mightiest warriors, and the city’s best craftsmen and artisans; and led away into captivity. Only the poor were left behind.

Nebuchadnezzar then established Jehoiachin’s own uncle Zedekiah as vassal king in Jehoiachin’s place: Zedekiah and the remaining people of Jerusalem were to pay an annual tribute to Babylon.

The people of God had been caught by surprise.

Even so, their confidence remained. As glowing embers at first, over the next decade they fed it enough heat, air, and fuel to grow into roaring flames. They were God’s chosen people, after all.

And Zedekiah decided it was high time to stop paying the annual tribute.

Surely, Zedekiah predicted, the Babylonian army would return. But Jerusalem had learned its lesson last time. This time he would not parley; no one would surrender. This time, weapons would be stockpiled ahead of time; the people of God would hole up in the fortified city and simply wait their enemy out.

And return Nebuchadnezzar and his army did.

And, again, God caught his people off guard.

For Nebuchadnezzar was ready to wait out his enemy too.

He established not mere encampments but whole villages at strategic points around the outside of the impenetrable city, complete with gardens and bath houses, as if to say, “Jerusalem may be able to sustain itself with food and water; well, we’ve got food and water too, and the land’s infinite resources for miles and miles around.”

It proved his distinct advantage.

The siege lasted almost two years. Then, as it turns out, Jerusalem’s small army was running out of defensive weapons and ideas. So one night in 586 BCE, under cover of darkness, the entire army sneaked out of the city in search of supplies—and were found out, caught, and captured in short order!

It was easy, then, for the enemy army to enter the city and take it without resistance. Those who tried to resist were killed. The other inhabitants, to a person, were led away in captivity to Babylon.

None who survived would ever see their beloved city again. Babylon had effectively snuffed out the Jewish nation.

But these were God’s chosen people.

But God had led them into this land, the land of promise, more than four hundred years ago.

But God had built their beloved Temple, the very place on earth where God chose to dwell.

How could this happen?

Where had God gone?

Why would God bring such evil upon his people?

2.

Today Jesus calls us to be prepared for surprises.

This is the message that stands out today.

Ten bridesmaids are part of a wedding party. They’re all there, together. They all know the bride personally.

But five are said to be foolish and the other five wise. Why?

This isn’t a parable about following Christ, as if the five foolish are not disciples and the five wise are. If Christ is represented by the bridegroom, then all ten bridesmaids are there, a part of his church as it were, waiting for him.

This isn’t a parable about the virtues of an active life, as if the five bridesmaids are wise because they keep active; whereas the foolish ones are more contemplative. Yes, Jesus does say, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”; but, no, despite what some extroverts would like us to think, this is not a statement about continuous activity for the Lord in this life. All ten of the bridesmaids—the five foolish and the five wise—are sleeping, after all, their lamps snuffed out, when the bridegroom arrives.

And this isn’t a parable about loving our neighbor. If it were, then maybe the five wise bridesmaids would have shared some of their extra oil with the not-so-wise. Surely there was enough to go around!

Instead, this parable is about being ready. And it’s not just being ready for what we think will happen; but for the unexpected, for surprises, for God catching us off guard at an unknown day and hour.

The real issue at hand is thinking we’ve got it all sorted out: thinking that the bridegroom will arrive exactly when we expect him to; thinking that we will be able to outlast the army encamped outside our walls because God cares for us more than other people; thinking that we’ve discovered a sure-fire method of growing the church.

This parable is a call for flexibility, adaptability, and resourcefulness rather than control, predictability, and order.

3.

Once upon a time there was a great city on a hill.

A city which could not be hidden.

A golden city.

God’s city.

Its name was the church.

The church offered a safe haven for long years from the opposing evil forces outside. God looked with favor upon the church. For the church was his chosen people.

But the church was predictable, ordered, even controlled. And thus, over time, many of the chosen people began to feel walled in.

Our world today is much different than the world of two thousand years ago; of two hundred years ago; or even of twenty. The authority structures of the Middle Ages are flatly unacceptable to the democratic world today. Popular church growth methods from the 1990s aren’t working today.

Across the world, there is discussion revolving around the decline of the Christian church. Numbers are down. Resources are scarce. Properties are being sold off at a staggering rate.

And we look around at all this and say:

“It’s not supposed to happen like this!

“Where has God gone?

“Why has God brought such evil upon us?”

Could it be that God has in fact been doing something unexpected both within and without the church? Could it be that God is catching the church off guard? Could it be that our church is in a kind of exile?

4.

Once the people of Jerusalem had been led away by Nebuchadnezzar and his army, there, in Babylon, their captors told them to sing their songs of Zion.

But they couldn’t do it.

There, in exile, they realized their preconceptions and definitions of God had been wrong. Their city was razed; their Temple destroyed. How could they sing their same old songs?

So, what did they do? God hadn’t acted like they thought God would. God had caught them off guard; taken them by surprise. Did they just give up and die?

No! They wrote new songs. They revised their understanding of God the unpredictable. And they forged a new path ahead.

The time has come, too, for us to write new songs, to revise our understanding of our God who surprises us, and to forge a new path ahead.

5.

And, I am happy to report, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is doing just that.

You may know that I, along with four members of our congregation, attended our diocese’s annual convention for the last couple of days. The convention is the corporation’s annual meeting; its main purpose is to elect diocesan leaders and to consider resolutions, etc., in order to adapt and continue the work it does.

Now, I had to leave yesterday before it was over, in order to get back in time for the Saturday evening service. In most years, the convention should have ended by 3:45. But not yesterday.

This was primarily because of two resolutions that were on the table. These two alone produced about ninety minutes of discussion and debate—often heated discussion and debate.

One has to do with calling ourselves a sanctuary diocese: from this terminology alone you can probably guess why it was heated. The gist is that we want to provide a safe and holy place for immigrants, a resource to which they can turn for help. I should mention, it does not mean that we will hide people in any way from the authorities; rather that we will not “rat them out,” as it were.

The other resolution has to do with providing a safe place for victims of sexual misconduct. This resolution wasn’t so much debated as it was discussed; and it wasn’t so heated as emotional. Several people shared difficult stories from their past. Others simply approached the mic and said, “Me too.”

One priest, a female, shared the heartbreaking story that in her first year of ordination she was a victim. The perpetrator was a male priest. When she brought this matter to the attention of her bishop, she was encouraged to leave her diocese and the matter was dropped: it never went to the disciplinary levels it should have.

Now, both of these resolutions involved difficult conversations. But, to take a step back, could either of these conversations have taken place in the church of twenty years ago?

Not only do we feel safe enough to have these conversations today, but also these resolutions passed, meaning work is being done for God’s glory and the common good.

Jesus calls us to be ready for the unexpected. I’m glad to say I see that happening in our exiled church. I’m glad that we are writing and singing new songs. May this good work continue!

Not the Prim, Proper, and Perfumed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2016 by timtrue

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-23-_-_Baptism_of_Christ

The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Have you ever considered that the notion of the term churchgoer is wrongheaded?

What picture comes to mind when you hear churchgoer?  I’ll tell you what comes to my mind.  It’s a picture that has been with me since the late 1980s, since I first began attending church regularly.

Now, you’ve got to understand the context.  I was 18 or 19 years old, never been in church more than a few times, and my eyes had recently been opened to the saving knowledge of the 1980s soCal conservative evangelical image of Jesus Christ, with all his gentleness and blue eyes and flowing blond hair.

Like a few surfers I knew.

But these guys weren’t like some surfers, the ones who lived out of their beat-up Volkswagen vans and somehow managed to eke out a living repairing surfboards and painting fences for a friend of a friend.

No, these surfers were good guys, who managed In-N-Out Burgers, which was a good job to come by, especially since you could find “John 3:16” on the bottoms of their drink cups.  And they drove respectable vehicles.

The families these gentle surfers came from too—well, now, there’s a picture to behold!  The dads wore ties that matched their socks and the moms wore perfectly coordinated ensembles with three or four little siblings in tow, just as prim- and proper-looking as their parents, hair braided or gelled, always on time.

They behaved perfectly too, in church and out.

And their smell!  To have such a family pass me by on the steps leading to the narthex—just one whiff was enough for me to know, yes, here was the perfume, aftershave, and deodorant of the Promised Land.  Here were churchgoers par excellence!

But isn’t this vision wrongheaded?  The people I’ve just described seem to have it all together.  And maybe they really do!  If so, they probably can manage just fine on their own, without coming to church, without making the rest of us feel inferior, thank you very much.

But more likely, they don’t have it all together.  I mean, really, does any of us have a life free of stress, worry, fear, and interpersonal conflict?  Is any of us free from the drama of everyday life?

The notion of churchgoer—at least, my notion of it—is wrongheaded.  The people who turn to Jesus are very often not the prim, proper, perfumed people we envision.  In the Bible—and in our own day—the people who turn to Jesus most often are the poor, the sick, and the destitute.

And isn’t that us?

Why do you turn to Jesus?  Why do I?  There are times, sure, when everything seems to be going our way.  Then we feel like Midas, right?  It seems like everything we touch turns to gold.  And during these times—rare times for most of us—we rightly offer God prayers of thanksgiving.

But, much more often, don’t we turn to God out of need?

Like some fire-breathing beast of legend, a stressor rears its ugly head and threatens some part of our life.  And so we turn to Jesus for help.  “Save us,” we cry out, just as the ancient Britons cried out to St. George to save his kingdom from the dragon!  (Humor me.  I’m an Episcopalian, after all.)

Point is, it’s the needy who turn to Jesus—the sick, the destitute—not the people who’ve got it all together.  And that’s us: the needy.

And what about Jesus himself?

Jesus is fully human; but he’s also fully God.  And being fully God, wasn’t his human life free of stress, worry, fear, and interpersonal conflict?  Wasn’t Jesus free from the drama of everyday life?  Wasn’t Jesus, in fact, gentle and mild, with blue eyes and flowing blond hair?

Well, um, if that’s what you think, er, I’ve got some news for you!  (He was in fact crucified, remember.)

So, today, in Luke’s Gospel (this is wonderful, isn’t it?  I mean, this really should fill us with wonder!), Jesus is being baptized along with all the other people (v. 21)—all these people who came to John out of repentance—all these needy, sick, destitute, drama-affected people—all these people quite unlike our modern notion of churchgoers with their I’ve-got-it-all-together personas.

And then what does Jesus do?

The other Gospels go straight from this point—straight from Jesus’ baptism—into his ministry, or at least into his temptation in the wilderness and then into his ministry.  But not in Luke.

Instead, here, in Luke, before entering into his ministry, Jesus prays.  In Luke, prayer is the focal point of this whole scenario—even more central than the baptism of Jesus; even more central than the voice that speaks from heaven and the bodily form, like a dove, that descends!  It’s prayer!

Jesus, in identifying with all the needy, sick, and destitute people—in identifying with us—Jesus prays!

Well, I hope you see it as I do.  We should not be like the stereotypical churchgoer.  Moreover, we should not expect all the people around us to be stereotypical churchgoers.  Rather, like Jesus, we should be people of prayer.

We should be people of prayer because we are grateful.  But we should be people of prayer, too, because we are needy, sick, and destitute.  We pray because: we need to; we want to; and we have to.

And the best part about this passage for me is that I’ve been baptized with Christ.  That means I’m with him and he’s with me regardless of how good, bad, or ugly my life may be.  And since I’m with him and he’s with me, those words that came from above; and that bodily form that descended from heaven, like a dove, well, they apply to me too.

That’s right!  When God’s voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” God’s voice is not just speaking to Jesus.  It’s speaking to me; and it’s speaking to all who have followed Jesus Christ.

Have you been baptized with Christ?  It doesn’t matter how perfect or imperfect your life is.  It doesn’t matter that your life doesn’t look like that churchgoer stereotype.  It doesn’t matter how good, bad, or ugly you’ve been.  If you’ve been baptized with Christ, God’s voice is speaking these words to you too.  “You are my child,” God says, “my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

These words are yours.  They belong to you.  Take them.  Own them.  Live them.  You are God’s beloved.

(And so: on this Day of the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, instead of saying the Creed let us renew our Baptismal Vows together, found on BCP 292.)

Tired of Spinning?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2015 by timtrue

TECshield

Mark 6:1-13

Spin.

That’s what we do to the truth, don’t we?  We spin it.

Next time you’re at a park, just sit back and observe a couple of kids for a while.  Not so long ago I saw two little boys playing on a slide.  It was a parallel slide: two slides running parallel to each other.  And so you’d think that here was the perfect opportunity for a race.  Instead, however, one of the boys was attempting to go down the slide correctly, to slide down from the top to the bottom feet first; but the other boy was standing on the slide, attempting to block the first boy’s way.

A sort of cruel game developed where the boy attempting to go down the slide would pretend to begin a descent; and the second boy would predictably jump over to that slide and block his way.  The first boy would then quickly scurry to the other slide, the parallel one, trying to beat the other boy’s attempts at blocking him.  This pretend-jump-switch-jump dance carried on for a bit until, at last, probably frustrated, the top boy let go for a bona fide descent.  On the way down, as fate would have it, the sliding boy collided with the blocking boy, who, probably off balance, promptly fell flat on his face, connecting his lower lip squarely with the surface of the slide.

Well, I continued watching, feeling a kind of tacit vindication, as the second boy, the one who’d been blocking the slide, rose to his feet, rubbed his lip, saw a spot of his own blood on the back of his hand, began hollering, and then ran straight for his mother—who was on her phone and had witnessed nothing of the event!  Finally, grabbing his mother’s arm and pointing, he cried, “That boy pushed me!”

Spin.

Some people, as a matter of fact, put their spin on things really well—so well that we end up paying them full-time to do so!  We’ve given these people a name.  Media professionals who are really good at doing this—at putting their own spin on the truth (usually to favor one political party over another, by the way)—are called spin doctors.

(Not to be confused with the band formed in 1989!)

Anyway, this is how spin often works.  Someone, or some group of someones, wants to communicate an opinion.  But they don’t start there—with their opinion.  Rather, they start with a truth, a premise; and they build up to their opinion, their conclusion, not through logic but through spin: the manipulation of that truth.

So, spin is the backdrop to what’s going on in today’s Gospel.

Jesus has set out from his home town and begun his ministry.  He’s called his disciples, he’s been teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.  And word about him has spread.

Imagine the excitement some of his hometown friends and family must have felt when word of his successful ministry first reached their ears.

Yes!  One of our own has made a success of himself!  Jesus has put Nazareth on the map!

Nevertheless, by the time today’s story takes place, whatever excitement was once felt has now dissipated.  For spin has taken effect.

How could Jesus, the carpenter, the son of Mary, become a success?  Why, I remember when he was just a little boy, playing hide-and-seek with the other kids at dusk.  He once made a few chairs and a table for me, sure; and they’re good enough quality in their own right.  I still have them in my house in fact.  But he’s a carpenter, for crying out loud!  He’s not a synagogue leader, a teacher, or a miracle worker.  Pshaw!  How could he be?  How could anything good come out of Nazareth?

By this time, spin has taken effect and dissipated whatever excitement a minority of hometown fans may once have felt.  Spin has produced unbelief:

“And he could do no deed of power there . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

We see another example of spin’s negative effects—a much more significant example—in the Gospel of John, a story we’re all familiar with, when Jesus is standing trial before Pontius Pilate:

An angry mob brings Jesus forward.  Their opinion—their spin—is that Jesus is an enemy of the state and thus a threat to Caesar.  So Pilate asks him directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Here Jesus has the opportunity to tell his side of the story—for there are always two sides to any story.  And he says: “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Then, as if he hasn’t been clear enough, he says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

And there it is!  Jesus has told Pilate his side of the story.  And it’s nothing at all like the crowd’s spin.  Jesus is not an enemy of the state; he is not a threat to Caesar.

But, sadly, Pilate’s mind is already made up.  He’s already chosen a side—the side of the angry crowd.  He’s a politician, after all, whose goal is not the truth but to get the people to embrace a certain worldview.  Perhaps this is why he answers Jesus with the haunting question, “What is truth?”

Here’s the trouble, then, with spin.  The spinner’s mind is already made up before he ever begins spinning!  Regardless of the initial truth upon which the spin is based—the premise—the spinner knows where he wants his story to go—his conclusion—ahead of time.  This is, simply stated, bias.  Or, another word for it, prejudice: pre-judging; making a judgment ahead of time.

And this is how Pilate picks his side.  He’s biased.  He’s prejudiced.  Despite asking Jesus for his take, Pilate hears only the crowd:

  • The crowd, who is caught up in their own spin;
  • The crowd, who has twisted the truth;
  • The crowd, who refuses to honor justice;
  • The crowd, who lets a condemned criminal, Barabbas, go instead of the innocent man Jesus;
  • The crowd, who shouts, Crucify him! Crucify him!

For Pilate’s mind is already made up ahead of time.  He’s biased.  He’s prejudiced.

Now, the question for us to consider today—with the patriotic sounds of fireworks still ringing in our ears—is, are we too much like Pilate?

And by us I mean you and me as individuals, sure.  But I also mean the St. Paul’s us, this local body; and the Episcopal Church us, the national church body to which we belong; and the broader Christian and American cultures us.  Are all of us too much like Pilate?  Are our minds already made up?

Now, a lot has happened politically and religiously in our country over the last ten days:

The Supreme Court has made historic rulings on healthcare, marriage, and the way we perform executions.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention has made a significant decision or two as well.

Whatever the issue—whether it be gay marriage, healthcare reform, or issues surrounding human dignity and the sanctity of life—we are hearing a lot of spin right now—more than usual.  We are being persuaded, even challenged, to pick sides.

And with all this buzz clamoring for our loyalties, we should ask ourselves: Are our minds already made up about which way to go?  Like Pilate, is our logical reasoning clouded by an emotional crowd—by partisan loyalties?

Whenever we come to something with our minds already made up—whether a political issue, an individual person, a class of people, whatever; whenever we only give the appearance of listening (and not actually hearing); whenever we embrace an agenda or worldview whose goal is a political ideal; whenever we place loyalties in a political party; whenever we invest in social norms; whenever we believe in our own preferences—we run the risk of a compromised faith—of unbelief—in Christ.

And, as we learned from our Gospel today, unbelief renders Jesus ineffective.

So, again, I ask: Are we too much like Pilate?

And, for the record, I’m asking this question honestly.  In others words, I don’t know the answer.  In the Episcopal Church’s rulings this week, maybe we are being like Pilate, with our minds already made up ahead of time, bent on a certain political agenda.  This is certainly what a lot of conservative Christian groups are saying about the Episcopal Church.

But, on the other hand, maybe we’re not being like Pilate at all but are truly trying to reconcile what a Gospel of love means for our day and age, and how that Gospel should play out.  Maybe it’s actually the groups accusing us of heresy who are being like Pilate here.  Maybe it’s their minds already made up ahead of time.

I don’t know.  This question—are we like Pilate?—is something for us to consider as individuals, as a local church body, as a national church, and as Christians; and as a culture.

But let’s return to the scriptures we looked at today.  Having our minds made up ahead of time stymies the truth and produces unbelief.

The flipside teaches us that not knowing is a good place to be.  Jesus might in fact be calling us to rest in the tension of uncertainty for a while, maybe even a long while.

It also teaches that when we come to a place of surrender, of saying, I don’t know all the answers; I’m not in a position of authority here, but Jesus does and Jesus is—when we come to this point of surrender, our faith is increased.  For here we trust in Jesus—not the spin doctors—to provide a way forward.

Lord, help us rest in the tension of uncertainty.  Amen.

Escaping to a Fuller Reality

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by timtrue

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

John 17:6-19

C. S. Lewis—Clive Staples, or, to his friends, Jack—is the author of the beloved children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia.

We say children’s series.  But have you ever read them: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; and so on?  These seven books are profound.  And while they do indeed tell stories that children enjoy—for their telling is simple enough—their content can be contemplated for a lifetime.

We might call Lewis an accidental theologian.  For, though a scholar of medieval literature by vocation, his heart, soul, mind, and strength bubbled a love for Christ that cannot but be noticed in everything he wrote, whether scholarly article or so-called children’s series.  He’s a man definitely worth getting to know.

I want to spend some time today focusing on the seventh (and final) book in the Chronicles, called The Last Battle; for a major theme from this story is also a major theme in the words we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel.  This section of the Gospel of John, by the way, is a prayer.  Jesus is praying for his followers; Jesus is praying for us.  Theologians refer to this prayer of Jesus as the High Priestly Prayer.

There’s that age-old question: What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?  Well, if you will, my question today is: What does the High Priestly Prayer have to do with The Last Battle?

So then, to set the stage, The Chronicles of Narnia largely follow the lives of four children, siblings, the Pevensies: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

In the second book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children enter a land, Narnia, through a magical wardrobe.  Narnia is entirely unknown to anyone on earth.  Some of the animals there talk.  There are mythological creatures come to life too: Fauns, dryads, naiads, centaurs, and so on.  Ultimately, the ruler of all of that foreign world—including Narnia and its other lands: Calormen, Archenland, the Seven Isles—is a lion named Aslan.  Aslan—spoiler alert!—is analogously Jesus Christ.

So I’ve mentioned the wardrobe and the lion; if you want to know how and where the witch fits in, read the book!—or talk to me later.

In the seventh book, The Last Battle, three of the Pevensie children—who are quite a bit older now—find themselves in Narnia once more.  This time, apparently, they have been summoned to help the present king, Tirian, fight what at first appears to be a routine battle.  Yet, as the story continues, Aslan appears and all characters realize that this battle is not routine at all, but will be the final battle between Narnia and Calormen.

But not all is lost.  Aslan appears and establishes two doorways.  All the world’s subjects will pass through one or the other.

When Peter, Edmund, and Lucy pass through the doorway on the right, they have no idea what they will find on the other side.  But when they get there, they find themselves in familiar surroundings!

Presently they see familiar Narnian sights.  There’s the castle, Cair Paravel!  There’s the lamppost, the very first object they’d ever noticed when they’d first entered Narnia so long ago.

But then, focusing far away, like standing on one mountain peak and looking to another, they see familiar sights from London.  St, Paul’s Cathedral.  Westminster Abbey.  Even some buildings that had been lost in the war to German bombings.

Somehow—it now dawns on them—this world beyond the door is everything the old world was but better, richer, fuller.  The old world—the world in which we live—is a mere shadowland compared to what the new heavens and the new earth will be.

Now we see only in part; but then we shall see much more fully!

Have you ever heard the accusation that Christianity is an escape from reality? Or, if the person saying it is feeling especially harsh, that reality is an escape from Christianity?  Have you ever heard this?

But—to reflect for a moment—is escape always wrong?

On the one hand, we know escape can be wrong.  We all know people who have turned to drugs or alcohol as a means of temporary escape from reality.  Perhaps you’ve done it yourself.

Without going into the dangers and damaging effects of such a practice, we all can agree that this is not an effective means of escape from reality.  For drugs or alcohol merely suppresses the pain for a moment; they do nothing to produce hope.

But, on the other hand, consider this:

A long-time gospel favorite is the song “I’ll Fly Away.”  Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away; to that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away. . . .

The focus here is escape.  Life now, as we know it, is hard.  We have bills to pay, obligations to meet, and often burdensome responsibilities to maintain.  The constancy of these realities can wear us down.  We might justifiably daydream about life in the new heavens and earth.

And what we experience in our daily lives—by and large anyway—is nothing in comparison to the hardships experienced by, say, American slaves a century-and-a-half ago.  Imagine having to live a life as someone else’s property!  And any acts of rebellion such as running away, or even natural processes such as growing too old to be any longer productive, were subject to brutal punishments or even death—without any means of appeal!

Many a great gospel song finds its roots here, in the oppressed American south.

In this case, and others like it, I submit to you that escape isn’t so wrong.  Songs of escape—theologies of deliverance—offer hope.  And hope can produce all manner of goodness in a person, even the ability to love and forgive a harsh slaveowner.

C. S. Lewis was accused by critics and skeptics of escaping from reality in his fantasy books—in his Chronicles of Narnia. These are children’s books, the argument goes; they encourage escaping from reality.  And escaping from reality is not good; not something we want to encourage in children.  Therefore children shouldn’t be allowed to read these books.

(And we see that the controversies surrounding Harry Potter—an example from more recent history—are nothing new.)

Well, I think you know where I stand on this already, from my point about escape not always being bad.  But where did Mr. Lewis stand?

He answers this question in another book, called Surprised by Joy.  This book is really a testimony, how he came to faith in Jesus Christ.  From early on in his childhood, he explains, even from his earliest memories, he would catch glimpses of something—he couldn’t totally explain it—that would suggest a fuller reality.  He felt it once when he viewed the mountains on the Irish horizon.  He felt it another time when reading the Beatrix Potter story Squirrel Nutkin (if I remember correctly).

This sense of a fuller reality compelled him from early life that this material world in which we live—the here and now—is not all there is.  Life can be so much fuller, he was persuaded; life can be so much richer.  But how?

For C. S. Lewis—as for us—the answer is found in faith in Jesus Christ.

And for him the literary genre of fantasy was in fact a means of expressing this fuller, richer reality.

That was his answer to his critics; and he demonstrated this through The Last Battle, in which the heroes of the story enter a richer, fuller reality upon passing through the door on Aslan’s right.

Fantasy for Lewis, then, is not an escape from reality.  If it is an escape at all, it is an escape to a fuller reality.

Now, as promised, we come to today’s Gospel, the Gospel of John.

The community in which John lived, and to which he wrote, was a persecuted community.  It had been excommunicated from the focal point of its larger community, the synagogue.  By the time the Gospel of John was written, this excommunicated group of Christ-believers—of Christians—had banded together, retreating from their larger community, feeling ostracized, excluded, and otherwise rejected.  No doubt they wrestled with feelings of escape—escaping from their world; their reality.

In the Gospel written to this community, then, Jesus prays his high priestly prayer.  He prays on their behalf, to his heavenly Father, for them.  And he states, repeats, and reiterates that they are not of the world, but that they are in the world:

  • I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.
  • But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
  • I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
  • They do not belong to the world.
  • As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

Christ’s disciples are not called to escape from their reality.  If anything, they are called to escape to a new, fuller reality, where they remain in the world but are not of the world.

And Jesus wasn’t just praying for that community—those disciples in that day.  In today’s Gospel Jesus is praying for all disciples in whatever community we find ourselves.  In today’s Gospel Jesus prays for us.

May we dwell now in that fuller reality that is the Kingdom of God.

On Attracting Seekers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by timtrue

John 12:20-33; Jeremiah 31:31-34

The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church. “There are cultural trends that people naturally gravitate towards,” they reason; “so we ought to offer the products and ideologies that people want.  People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels.  That ought to bring ’em to church!”

Out of this movement arose the so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]

So, arguably, the church growth movement has done great work.  Just look at these results!

But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches?

20-somethings are a very me-oriented group.  We are probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they are not talking, joking, or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in his or her own world, a world in the shape of some gadget.

According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology.  Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract these young people?  How can we go viral?  To tweet or not to tweet?  (That is the question!)

Mega-churches are asking these questions, don’t misunderstand me; and they are trying to reach this subculture.  But their efforts just don’t seem to be working: this segment of society is noticeably missing from the pews.

In fact, according to recent Barna Group statistics I read recently in Christianity Today, more than 8 million 20-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.

So, where are they going?  And why?

The answers may surprise you.  By and large, 20-somethings are turning from Christianity to Atheism.[ii]  Why?  Authenticity, they say.

Churches are trying to imitate popular culture, the argument goes; and this imitation strikes 20-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely as hypocritical.  Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.

Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic is also genuine.  Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-somethings seem to crave.  Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies, including today’s version of Christianity, want to touch.

Critics of the church growth movement conclude, therefore, that the church ought to be counter-cultural, not pandering.

And so goes the church growth debate.

But what does Jesus have to say about it?

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Greeks, the Bible says.  Non-Jews!  Who went up to worship at the Passover—a distinctively Jewish—festival!

What were these Greeks but seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?

Here is a tremendous opportunity for church growth.  Both Philip and Andrew recognize it.  Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus.  Some seekers have come to church!  What an awesome opportunity!

So what does Jesus do?  He summarizes the entire Gospel, the good news about himself, in a short parable about agriculture:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Or, to summarize, Jesus proclaims that his disciples must:

  1. Embrace death;
  2. Hate life;
  3. And follow him through death to life.

Well, that’s an attractive message for seekers!

But that’s exactly what’s going on here!  These are Greeks he’s talking to.  They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—the pop culture of their day!  And yet, Jesus does not try to meet them where they are.  Jesus does not try to attract them to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object.

In fact, his message is death and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution!  His message to seekers—to those wanting to become his disciples—is crucifixion!  Granted, it’s also resurrection.

Here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life. This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels!  This is the message the world needs to hear.

So, how do we do this?  As individual disciples and as a church body, how do we take Christ’s message of crucifixion and resurrection seriously?

The text gives us three suggestions:

First, Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Disciples of Jesus must embrace death.  And the kind of death we’re talking about here is death to self.  Discipleship leaves no room for narcissism, or self-absorption.

Many of the 20-somethings in the article I mentioned above readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed.  They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them.  Their generation both breeds and nurtures narcissism.

It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when a church that fosters narcissism is seen by them as second-rate or hypocritical.  But in interviews, the 20-somethings said things like:

  • The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
  • We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center.  We don’t need the church to echo the world.
  • We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches.   So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]

Narcissism is a retreat from the world.  When church leaders appeal to it by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires.  It negates the message of Jesus Christ.  And perceptive 20-somethings see right through it.  They would rather learn how to die to oneself.

A second suggestion; Jesus says: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Disciples of Jesus must hate life.

But what does hating life mean?  I remember using this as a catch phrase when I was a kid.  It usually involved some kind of physical activity—surfing or motorcycling or playing football.  Someone would wipe out or high-side or get tackled by the entire opposing defensive line, and I’d say, “Oh, he’s hating life right now.”  Ever hear that?

Well, that’s not what Jesus means here.  Instead, it’s about hating the things in our culture that can entangle and ensnare us.

Things like money; things like ideologies, like narcissism; even things like unhealthy relationships.  These entangling things are here, all around us, confronting us every day.  We can’t ignore them.  We have to live with them; face them; deal with them.

Authentic Christianity is not afraid to do this—to wrestle through such things.  If there are people you know struggling with Atheism, narcissism, paying their bills, or even with each other, don’t be afraid to talk about it.  And—this is important!—don’t feel like you have to come up with a solution to the problem right now: it’s okay to live with tension for a while.

So: embrace death, hate life, and, thirdly, follow Jesus through death into life.

Jesus says it this way: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

But we also heard it said another way this morning, from the Prophet Jeremiah.  There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on his or her heart.

And what is the law of God?  Love!  Love the Lord your God with all your being!  And love your neighbor as yourself!

We think long and hard about this law of God in this church.  So I’m not going to tell you anything new about it.  Instead, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment what it should look like.  What would it look like—close your eyes if it helps—if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?

Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, or terrorism?  Would we turn on the local news and be sickened by all the criminal behavior going on right around the corner from our homes?  Would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?

Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love?  Sounds like heaven!

Well, it is.

It’s also new life, a life gotten to only after passing through death to self.  This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live now, here, in this culture, in this world.  This is authentic Christianity.

And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-somethings, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.

There really is no recipe for successful church growth other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

[i]               Cf. http://www.onlinechristiancolleges.com/megachurches/.

[ii]               Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/august/how-seeker-sensitive-consumer-church-is-failing-generation.html?paging=off.

[iii]              Ibid.

2014 Lent 7

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 12, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 2:1-13

One of the divisive issues facing Paul in Corinth was social injustice, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere over the past couple of days.  There were other disparities too, of course–something that happens anytime you get an assembly of people gathering with an intentionally countercultural agenda!

In today’s passage I see the suggestion of Gnosticism.  Was Paul fighting against its influence at Corinth?

Gnosticism wasn’t a religion so much as it was a way to understand the bigger scheme of things.  At its core, spirit was understood to be good; matter bad.  Knowledge, a good thing, then was found in the spiritual.  So those who focused their time and energy upon material things–bankers and merchants, for instance–those whose preoccupations were mainly material, in other words–didn’t typically attain knowledge and true wisdom to the extent that, say, teachers, orators, and philosophers did: those whose main preoccupations were more of a spiritual concern.  Some of the various schools of thought at this time were Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism; you might think of Gnosticism as a meta-school of thought, that is, a key philosophical worldview undergirding it all.  It was in the Empire’s air, so to speak.  (Insert good Star Wars joke here.)

That the Corinthian Christians were breathing Gnostic air is a given.  So it strikes me that today’s passage plays with yesterday’s paradoxical ideas of wisdom and strength.  And if this is indeed the case–that Paul was speaking in terms as familiar to the Christians in Corinth as the air they breathed–then they would have understood Paul’s unwritten intentions.  Were his words to be understood at face value–WYSIWYG?  Or were his words more sarcastic in tone, something of a self-parody, that he was poking fun at his own imparting of secret knowledge to initiates (like some Gnostic sage), and therefore to be understood differently?

After asking this question and reading the passage again, I am inclined to go with the latter.  For in that way Paul effectively undermines the prevailing culture’s Gnostic understanding of wisdom, or of what it takes to be a wise man; and elevates the perceived lowliness of the mind of Christ to a higher place on the wisdom pyramid.  True wisdom is found in Christ crucified, not spirit; and this true wisdom is for all, regardless of whether one is a banker, merchant, philosopher, teacher, slave, free, male, female, and so on.  Not sure we get this from the passage if we’re seeking to understand it from a straightforward face-value reading.

At any rate, we readers today remain uncertain.  And scholars today debate about how to read and interpret this passage (and others).  But I think the Corinthian audience would have gotten it.

Or would they?

Sarcasm’s difficult to pick up on in written forms of communication (like texts and emails–and blog posts), isn’t it?  (Insert good misunderstood sarcasm-story here.)  But that’s another post for another day.