Archive for common good

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!

Advertisements

Practicing the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

USCurrency_Federal_Reserve

Matthew 20:1-16

1.

The Acts of the Apostles relates that members of the newly formed Christian church shared all things in common:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Similarly, other groups in and around early Christian Palestine—and the Jewish sect known today as the Qumran Community—attempted to live a communal life together.

People in these communities worked. At the end of the day they’d return and the community’s resources were pooled. Regardless of how much or how little each individual member of the community brought in, from this pool the community members were able to live lives of relative equality. Each member drew from the pool as he or she needed.

Discussing these communities one day in seminary, and referring to today’s Gospel, my church history professor posited this question:

“Was Jesus’ vision for his new realm one of communism? That’s what this sounds like to me—or something very much like it. Of course, we’ve seen that communism as a political ideal has failed. But the world’s twentieth-century experiments in communism were atheistic, largely devoid of God. What if God were central? Could a kind of Christian communism work?”

I shot my hand up in the air, along with several other classmates. After a few had shared their affirming thoughts—a few younger, idealistic classmates—it was my turn.

“Try raising five kids,” I said, “and you’ll see right away that communism doesn’t work.”

I was thinking of dishes, for example. Nobody in my family wants to do the dishes; everyone sees them as a chore. When it’s their turn, the family members with a lazier disposition (not to mention any names) don’t do a good job, or don’t do them at all, leaving the more industrious family members to clean up after them. Sharing the chore is supposed to be for the common good; and yet the result is guilt, frustration, and resentment. Christian communism is a nice ideal; but the reality just doesn’t work.

Later that week, at a community picnic, my young professor, whose wife was expecting their first child, pulled me aside and said, “You know, Tim, that was a really profound statement: ‘Try raising five kids; communism can’t work.’”

And I said thank you and smiled politely; and silently wished him good luck.

2.

Now, we can bag on communism all we want; for we live in a culture that values free speech and other liberties that are self-evident. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure Jesus’ vision wasn’t western capitalism either.

Just look at the parable:

First, early in the day, a wealthy land owner hires some workers. The mutual monetary agreement between them is a denarius, a day’s wage for a laborer. It’s not much; but it is enough for daily bread.

Next, three times more, every few hours, the land owner hires another batch of laborers. Each time a wage is not specifically stated; but it will be a just wage, the land owner assures.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, an hour before the sun sets, the land owner hires additional laborers one last time. This time there is no mention at all of a wage.

So, when the workday is done, the land owner has the laborers line up, the last to be hired at the front of the line. When he pays them each a denarius—same as the agreed wage for those hired early in the day—naturally, some expectations in the back of the line surface: the laborers hired last worked only one hour; it seems only fair then that we who worked the entire day should be compensated more for our troubles.

But when those hired in the middle of the day come forward and are given a denarius and no more, these expectations turn to feelings of entitlement: we who were hired early on did so much more for the land owner; don’t we deserve more compensation?

At last, when those hired first are paid a denarius just like everyone else, there is frustration and resentment. They grumble against the land owner. They feel themselves superior. They voice their complaints. “You have made them equal to us,” they say (v. 12)—as if equality is a negative value.

The land owner wonders out loud if these first hirees might be envious at his generosity.

Envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, the point of this parable is God’s generosity. God treats all people equally, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or whatever other category we want to place people in. God is generous, benevolent, and good.

Nevertheless, for many of us this parable is unsettling. Dissolved boundary lines aside, it feels unfair; maybe even unjust—like when I end up doing someone else’s dishes.

But I wonder how much of this unsettling feeling has to do with the ideal of western capitalism.

Capitalism teaches us from birth to compete against others, excel, and distinguish ourselves. If we go to the right college, earn the right degree, and work for the right company, why, aren’t we then entitled to receive a higher income than the person who didn’t? And when someone seems better off with fewer credentials, aren’t we prone toward frustration and resentment? Even envy?

And envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

3.

But there’s another option that stands between the human ideals of communism and capitalism: the Christian practice of the common good.

This phrase, the common good, shows up in many places in our Book of Common Prayer. A few examples:

  • In the Good Friday Liturgy, we pray for those who serve the common good, including the President of our country, Congress, and members and representatives of the United Nations.
  • In the Collect for Vocation in Daily Work, we pray, “Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good.”
  • In the Prayers of the People, Form IV, we pray, “Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.”
  • And in the Great Litany, we pray, “That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good.”

I’ve said it before: our calling in Christ is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christ’s mission and ministry are for the common good; or, in other words, the best quality of life we can experience together, as a community.

And while our community starts with you and me as individuals, it flows outward, like circles after dropping a rock into the still waters of a pond, to our church, city, state, nation, and the world; from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.

That’s the idea of the common good. Which is a big part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But, of course, our reality is modern-day America, a highly individualized culture. Ideas about the common good are seemingly lost in a vast sea of individualism.

So then, how do we practice the common good in our cultural context?

4.

Well, I’m glad you asked. Our annual Pledge Drive affords us a wonderful, tangible example.

We will be launching our Pledge Drive soon.

All too often, financial stewardship is addressed from a very individual perspective. We’re asked to be introspective, to look at our personal budgets, to pray individual prayers about what we can reasonably afford to give to God, and figure out a way to give from what is rightfully yours.

But in our financial stewardship, God doesn’t call us just to be individuals, as if stewardship is merely a personal exercise just between me and Jesus.

Yes, personal introspection is a very real part of faithful stewardship; but it is not the complete picture. God also calls us to consider the common good.

Thus, when we pledge, in addition to our introspective, personal considerations, we also need to consider the bigger picture of this church body, its unique and particular makeup; its unique and particular needs.

And we need to consider the biggest picture of all: God is generous, benevolent, and good.

In pledging to the common good, then, we are merely managing what is already God’s: our pledges are acts of love to the Lord our God; and to our neighbor.

And what happens when we pool our resources together for the glory of God? We enable ourselves to live into our common life: we enable ourselves to work together as equals—no competition, no distinctions, no status; no frustration, no resentment, no envy—in order to accomplish Christ’s ministry and mission in Temecula and the world.

Reconciliation’s Fabric

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered Sept. 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

1.

The church, a lot like broader society, is a community made up of individual persons called to live together in harmony; to dwell with one another in unity, regardless of whatever differences those individual persons may share. Favorite sports teams, alma maters, political parties, Fox News or CNN—as individual persons within this community we are expected to lay all disagreements aside and live with one another happily.

Well, okay, maybe not lay them aside. And maybe not always happily. But we are expected to work through our differences.

Unlike broader society, however, it is easy simply to walk away. When something doesn’t go the way we want, it’s not that difficult for most of us simply to find another church that suits us, in another part of town; or just to quit going to church altogether. In other words, in the church it’s easy not to work through our individual differences.

In broader society, to walk away isn’t so easy. If you have a difference with your next door neighbor, for instance, it’s not that easy just to pack up and move. You have to work through your differences. If your neighbor owes you a debt and won’t pay, why, you can seek restitution through a court of law. And you probably will, especially if the debt owed you is substantial.

But the church is a nice society. When our neighbor in the pew wrongs us, we don’t seek restitution, like we might in broader society. For the church is called to turn the other cheek.

But neither do we want to seek reconciliation.

Someone has wronged us and we’re hurt. So, we simply walk away.

2.

Remember last week? In the church, conflicts will arise. (And, again, to be clear, I’m referring to conflicts outside of the context of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and so on.) And when they do, individuals in this community are not to seek swift restitution; but neither are they to walk away. Rather, first, they are to seek reconciliation with one another.

Continual reconciliation, it turns out, is the key to living a harmonious life together in this community we call church.

But before reconciliation is even possible, something else needs to be in place. And that something else is what we find in today’s Gospel: forgiveness.

Hearing Jesus’ vision for a ministry of reconciliation, Peter wonders how many times we are to forgive church members who sin against us. “Seven?” he asks.

Seven is the perfect number. And so, probably thinking he’s being generous, and maybe showing off a little to the other disciples that he’s got the perfect Sunday-school answer, Peter asks, “Should I forgive the one who sins against me seven times?”

But how do you quantify, calculate, or measure forgiveness? True forgiveness is absolute. And absolute means infinite: it’s immeasurable.

Someone sins against you once. To forgive their sin absolutely is just as if you’ve cancelled their debt completely and entirely. The account is zeroed out! The file is forever deleted!

If that same person sins against you a second time—maybe even committing the very same sin—why, the first record is nowhere to be found; and so—as far as forgiveness is concerned anyway—the second debt is really now the first.

Similarly, a third debt—if the first two have been absolutely forgiven—should be viewed as merely the first.

True forgiveness is infinite; absolute forgiveness cannot be measured.

And thus Jesus answers Peter with, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” or, as some translations say, “seventy times seven”—and, if you’re like Peter, you want to ask, “You mean 490 times then?”

Oh, Peter, how you miss the point!

Forgiveness is the church community’s foundation for a continual ministry of reconciliation; and the point Jesus is making is that true forgiveness is absolute and infinite.

3.

So, what about the master in the parable?

At the end, after he forgives the slave who owes him an absurd amount of wealth; and after that same slave turns around and doesn’t forgive a fellow slave for a trivial amount, the master says he will not forgive the first slave after all.

And the clincher? Jesus says, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So my heavenly Father? Is there a limit to God’s forgiveness?

Well, that is one of the great questions of all time: it gets into the topics of heaven and hell, grace, mercy, and judgment.

On the one hand, if there’s not a limit to God’s forgiveness, then salvation has already come to the ends of the earth.

God is love. Love keeps no record of wrongs. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

And so, if God is love, doesn’t this mean that God’s forgiveness is absolute and infinite? For forgiveness is simply love applied.

But absolute and infinite forgiveness on God’s part would mean that Pharaoh and his army are forgiven. It would mean that Adolph Hitler is forgiven. It would mean no less than universalism: that salvation has already come to the ends of the earth. Why then would Jesus have needed to die? Why would the church be necessary at all?

But on the other hand, if there is a limit to God’s forgiveness, then Pharaoh and his army deserve what they got; then maybe all that stuff I heard about hell fire and damnation when I was younger is true; then maybe God is nothing more than a harsh slave-master.

Does God really call us to have an attitude of absolute forgiveness; yet God himself has to act in no such way?

Obviously, there aren’t easy answers to these questions. But the parable offers insights.

Jesus, remember, sets out to answer Peter’s question: how many times should I forgive my neighbor when he or she sins against me?

So, first, this is a question about personal forgiveness, one human individual forgiving another; not about divine forgiveness—not about God forgiving humanity.

Second, this parable is about forgiveness within the church (Peter says, “If another member of the church sins against me”), Christ’s divine community on earth.

And, third, the parable is filled with absurd hyperbole.

The slave owes his master an absurd amount of wealth—an impossible amount, really. The master forgives him absolutely and entirely out of mere pity—something an earthly slave-master would never do. Then the slave turns around and asks a fellow slave to repay a petty debt, showing absolutely no pity when he is unable—also an extremely unlikely result.

The point Jesus is making seems to be that our heavenly Father has forgiven us a great debt, a greater debt than we can ever repay; so it really is absurd when we cannot find room in our own hearts to forgive our neighbors of a relatively small debt against us.

4.

But this brings up a good point about forgiveness. For reconciliation to work; for our church community to be characterized by a ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness has to be a two-way street.

Going back to the parable, the forgiven slave’s real issue was that he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive the other slave of a relatively petty offense after he himself had been forgiven a great debt. That obstinacy caused a stir in the slave community, so much so that other slaves went and reported his obstinacy to the master.

If we don’t forgive those who sin against us, just as God has forgiven us our sins, we become like Pharaoh: people will cry out to God to deliver them from the shackles we put on them. And we all know what happened to P!

When we forgive those who sin against us; and those whom we sin against forgive us, the fabric of reconciliation remains intact. On the other hand, when one person refuses to forgive another, a thread is snagged and the knitting begins to unravel.

But what if I forgive my neighbor but my neighbor is unwilling to forgive me?

We can’t control our neighbor. So how can forgiveness be a two-way street?

Think of driving. We have lots of two-lane roads around here.

When you’re heading up Highway 79 toward Warner Springs, and Ken and Barbie are coming at you in their shiny new Corvette at an absurd speed, can you control Ken? No! No matter how much you’d like to say, “Hey, buddy, slow down! Hey, my 8yo is in the car with me! Hey, this is a daytime headlight section and your lights aren’t even on!”—no matter what you’d like to say or do—no matter how much you want to control him—you can’t.

Two-lane roads are a kind of dance. You do your part; and the car coming at you becomes your momentary partner, who does his part too. And most of the time it works out beautifully. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, there’s no way you’re going to control your partner. You simply have to let go of your desire to control the other person. You have to trust that the person coming at you at an absurd speed will do the right thing.

Ultimately, the only person you can control is yourself.

It’s the same with forgiveness. The call forgiveness is ultimately a call to you as an individual. The call for forgiveness is a call not to control other people, but to control your self: it is a call for self-control.

5.

Now, over the past few weeks we’ve learned a lot about the church.

Jesus delegated his authority over his mission and ministry to Peter; but not only to Peter but also to his disciples—to all of us. The church’s authority is corporate.

For the church’s authority to work harmoniously, we are called to cooperate through reconciliation.

And the church community’s commitment to reconciliation contrasts with broader society, which cooperates through retribution.

Today, we saw that the core of reconciliation is forgiveness, which ultimately is a call to individual self-control.

So, we began with the general and have come to the specific; from creation to the corporate people of God; to the community of the church; to two or three gathered; to you and to me.

And so I conclude by going back outward, from the specific—you and me—to the general—all of creation.

Forgiveness begins with the individual; an individual attitude of absolute forgiveness expands to mutual forgiveness between two or three individuals; and mutual forgiveness between two or three expands to form an entire community of reconciliation, a. k. a. the church.

When it works, then, a community of reconciliation paints a beautiful picture for broader society; a picture that encourages moving away from restitution towards reconciliation.

So, imagine if every individual follower of Christ were faithful in self-control and absolute forgiveness. Wouldn’t we see everywhere around the world church bodies cooperating through reconciliation?

And imagine if broader society did in fact follow the church’s lead.

Imagine: the entire globe reconciled to one another!

This picture is nothing short of salvation to the ends of the earth.

And that begins with you—not your neighbor but you—possessing and maintaining an attitude of absolute forgiveness toward your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Common Focus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2017 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 10:1-10

Today’s Gospel offers us an image of sheep, shepherds, a gatekeeper, and a gate. It evokes the care and concern Jesus expresses for each of us.

He is our good shepherd, we like to say.

And so Psalm 23 comes to mind, where, yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Jesus’ rod and staff comfort me.

Or I recall that popular poem Footprints, in which, as I look back on my life’s journey, I see a pair of footprints on the beach; only during the hardest times I realize now there was only one set of footprints, not a pair. Why did you leave me alone then, Jesus, I ask? Only to hear the answer that I wasn’t alone at all; that, instead, these one-set-of-footprints times were when Jesus was in fact carrying me.

Or I bring to my mind’s eye that kitschy piece of visual art in which a blond-haired, blue-eyed shepherd Jesus is tenderly carrying a lamb across his shoulders. He is my shepherd, I think, and I am his little lamb.

Aww. How precious!

And thus today’s Christian culture has developed a whole theology of self. It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus, we say. Jesus meets me where I am, we say. What else matters, we ask, as long as I love Jesus?

Common good? Community? Church? Bah! Who needs ’em?

I’m fine on my own, thank you very much. I’ve got my Bible and my cross and my Jesus; and I’ll be fine just packing them all in my car and driving out to the beach this Sunday where I can find a spot to do church all by myself.

That’s my sheepfold. That’s my shepherd. That’s my gate.

As for the corporate church, it’s just a fallible human institution established and maintained by people who just want to perpetuate their version of reality. Where’s the corporate church—where’s that manmade institution—in the Bible? That’s what I would like to know!

Why should only priests get to consecrate the Eucharist? Why are only bishops authorized to ordain? I’ll tell you. It’s because priests and bishops made all the rules!

No, as far as I can see, nothing else matters except that I love Jesus!

We love modern Christianity, because so much of modern Christianity is all about me!

We—you and I—are the sheep, yes.

Yet Jesus is the gate.

And the gate, not the sheep, is the focus of today’s lesson.

These are Jesus’ very words, by the way. Elsewhere he says, “I am the good shepherd.” But not here; not today. Today, Jesus is the gate.

Now, a sheepfold in the ancient world was an area closed off by a tall rock wall; completely enclosed except for one opening, the gate. The top surface of the wall would be lined with thorns and sharp sticks, to discourage climbing, a sort of razor wire of the ancient world. Other than climbing over or dismantling the wall, then, there was only one way in and out of the sheepfold: through the gate.

By way of the one gate, the sheep were led out to pasture every day, to rich, green, nutritive grass—when the sun was up; when the shepherd could easily see predators and thieves by the clear light day.

And by way of the one gate, the sheep were led back into the sheepfold every night, back into safety, back into a place of protection from predators and thieves.

At a certain time in the morning, and at a certain time in the evening, the gate would open and all the sheep would pass through. Twice a day.

Otherwise, the gate was shut and locked.

The sheep were given abundant life—food, water, protection, community—because of the one gate, the one way in and out of their sheepfold, twice a day, every day.

But sheep are shortsighted.

By day, they go out to pasture. There’s plenty of room for all. They each find a delicious-looking bit of hillside or a shady dale with a year-round water source, stake out their territory, and begin to munch.

And by the clear light of day, their life looks pretty good.

So they call their friends together for a kind of show-and-tell. “He-e-ey,” they say, “look what I’ve found. Look what I’ve done. I’ve got a good job, the neighborhood’s safe, my kids are going to good schools. My life’s pretty good, eh?”

And all their friends say, “Yea-a-ah!”

But by night, all the sheep are gathered together back into the sheepfold. Now things aren’t so comfortable. It’s cramped, noisy, and smelly. Now things aren’t as easy to see. It’s dark and dusty in the sheepfold.

And so now, that same clever-yet-shortsighted sheep who outside was boasting to his friends by day all about the good life he’d made for himself—now, by night, by darkness, his conversation changes. So does his tone.

“He-e-ey,” he calls to his friends, “what’s the deal with this sheepfold anyway? Safety concerns? Wolves? Rustlers? Bah! Ever hear of electric lights? Don’t they know anything around here? If you ask me, I don’t trust the management! Hey, you listening to me? Oy, get your chops out of my fa-a-ace!”

Do you ever wonder if maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things?

Ever wonder if we here in the sheepfold are focusing so much on our own patch of grassy hillside that we lose sight of our life together? Or, even more importantly, of the gate?

Ever wonder if we get so upset at the management of the sheepfold or the discomfort of living in close fellowship with one another that we end up shortchanging ourselves of abundant life?

Ever wonder what good church is at all? Nothing else matters except that I love Jesus. So why church at all?

The goal of today’s Gospel—the trajectory; where we’re going; the end of the rainbow (if you like)—is abundant life.

Jesus is the gate through which we sheep may enjoy abundant life. And sheep don’t pass through this gate solo. All enter together; all exit together.

Let me tell you: if you’re trying to live an abundant life on your own, you will fail.

There are many aphorisms about the Christian life out there floating around, aphorisms you like, for I hear you saying them to each other:

  • Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.
  • You must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • Nothing else matters but me and Jesus.
  • Jesus meets you where you are (or, with careless grammar, where you’re at).

But here’s the straight and skinny. Whatever truth is in these aphorisms, the Christian life is not all about you, as an individual. Rather, the Christian life is about focusing on Jesus, our one gate, together. It’s a common focus.

Abundant life doesn’t happen when we’re solo. Abundant life happens only in community.

So, don’t try to enter through the gate by yourself.

You might not be able to tell so well from the English, because the word sheep in English can be either singular or plural. But in Greek, everywhere we see it today it’s plural! Always and everywhere the sheep enter and exit through the gate together.

Do you know what happens when you try to enter or exit by yourself? The gate is shut and locked!

It’s not about just you and Jesus then. It’s about the community.

We live in a country that values freedom. And for that I am grateful!

But into the third millennium–and the third century of our country’s history–freedom has become less and less about the common good and more and more about the individual. We want our individual freedoms! We want our individual rights! We demand our right to bear arms! We don’t want others to tell us what we can do with our bodies!

And just like our personal, individual freedoms, we want our personal, individual religion!

Ever see Talladega Nights? Very funny movie about NASCAR!

Well, there’s a scene in which the protagonist, Ricky Bobby, says grace before an evening meal. He starts out, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus . . .” and goes through a litany of thanksgiving for food and family and friends and money and Powerade, always addressing God as “Dear Baby Jesus,” until finally his wife can’t stand it any longer and speaks up:

“You keep praying to baby Jesus! Why don’t you pray to the grown-up Jesus?”

To which he answers, “I’m saying grace, so I’ll pray to the Jesus I want to pray to. When it’s your turn to say grace, you can pray to grown-up Jesus!”

When it comes to religion, we want our personal, individual freedoms!

But the Bible’s testimony throughout just doesn’t work that way.

In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

God did not save one person, Moses, from Pharaoh’s hand of oppression; but a whole nation.

God sent his Son, Jesus, not to save you personally, individually from your sins; God so loved the world that he sent his Son to redeem it from sin and death and to restore it to perfection.

At baptism, we are baptized into one body. Godparents are there. The congregation participates. The entrance rite into the sheepfold is a corporate act!

And how did Jesus teach us to pray? “Our Father,” he says, not my Father—and most definitely not, “My Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” According to the Bible, prayer is normally a corporate act.

And what of the Eucharist? We call this sacrament Communion, which means common union. In this sacrament we come together as one.

We have not been called to focus on our own, individual patches of grassy hillside. We have not been called to focus on the petty disagreements we have with each other and “the management.”

But we have been called to a life together, corporately, with one focus: Christ and his mission to save the world.

The sheepfold’s focus is the gate; the church’s focus is Jesus Christ.

I know this sounds counter-cultural. That’s because it is. Many aspects of Christianity are.

But the Christian religion is and always has been about the one Body of Christ and never about me as an individual. TEC is and always has been about the common good above my own, personal comfort.

And thank God it’s so!

Because, do you know what happens when we forget this—when we make it all about my personal relationship with Jesus; when we ask questions like, what else matters as long as I love Jesus?

I’ll tell you what happens. Everything gets inverted.

Instead of being transformed into the image of Christ, we transform Christ into our own image.

Instead of asking, “How can I serve Christ?” we expect him to serve me.

But it’s not about me.

It’s about the gate—and paying attention to it; to when it opens and when it shuts, and passing through when I’m supposed to: along with everyone else. It’s about abundant life, being transformed—together with you and the world—into the perfect Body of Christ.

Responding like Thomas

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

FatherTim

John 20:19-31

Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

To this day—2,000 years later—he’s the butt of our jokes.  He’s not known by the name Didymus, the Twin, or simply St. Thomas; but forever gets the moniker Doubting.

In fact, I was at a church yesterday for a meeting, called St. Thomas of Canterbury, as if the church’s namers didn’t want anyone to confuse the church’s name with another Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

And, really, was his doubting anything more than the doubting we saw from Peter last week, who ran to the tomb, peeked in, and doubted Mary Magdalene’s testimony?

Oh, Peter.  Now there’s a piece of work!  Rash, thick-headed, and impulsive, he denied Jesus three times.  Yet we don’t nickname him Denying Peter.  Rather, we remember him as the Rock upon whom the whole Church was built!

But with Thomas the pejorative adjective has stuck.  He is and forever will be known as doubting.

But why is this so bad?  Isn’t a little doubt, a little skepticism, actually a good thing?  Don’t we as human beings in fact value a certain level of skepticism?

In our science labs we posit a hypothesis and then test it over and over.  And if our tests prove us wrong, why, we don’t conclude that the test results must be off but instead that we must rethink the hypothesis.  A certain level of skepticism is important in the science lab.

It’s no different in our courtrooms.  If one person files suit against another, it’s not automatically assumed that the prosecutor is correct.  Rather, we try—we don’t always succeed, but we try—to operate in our courtrooms by the adage “innocent until proven guilty.”  Gullibility is not valued; skepticism is.

And isn’t it the same in our research?  I can tell you, having endured three years of rigorous academic study in relatively recent personal history, if I were to state a little-known fact as part of an argument in an essay, I’d most definitely need to back that fact up with some kind of outside authority.  And Wikipedia doesn’t count!  We value skepticism.

This contrast between gullibility and skepticism comes to the surface even in some of our cultural traditions, such as April Fool’s Day.

I got on Facebook on Friday morning.  And on my feed was a post from a friend, which asked, simply, “What, is Trump really dropping out of the race?”

Well, by the time I saw this feed, posted by a friend two time zones to the east, there was already a slough of accompanying comments.  The first six or seven of this slough were expressions of amazement, shock, joy, and every other kind of emotion imaginable; until someone—someone skeptical—replied with these words: “I hate this day.”  Thereafter every reply pointed out that, oh yeah, it is April 1st; good one, Chris; I’ll get you back, just you wait; and, I don’t know how I could have been so gullible!

We value skepticism in our culture.

So, why then does Thomas get such a bad rap?

In line with science, then—not to mention our culture’s value placed on skepticism—let me posit a hypothesis.  We can always test it.  If you prove me wrong, I’ll revise it.  But I’ve been wrestling with it for a while now; and, as far as I can tell, it seems right.  Anyway, here it is:

Doubting Thomas gets such a bad rap not for being skeptical but because he takes his skepticism too far.

What do I mean?

In today’s Gospel we learn that Thomas was not there with everybody else when Jesus first appeared to them.  So, after Jesus left, the other disciples see Thomas and tell them what has happened.  “We have seen the Lord,” the say; “Jesus is alive, risen from the grave!”

This is where Thomas’s skepticism kicks in.  And we might think for good reason!  You know how it can be with the guys.  They like to act out jokes on each other, tell fibs, play pranks.  That’s all they’re doing now.

Or is it?

It’s not just one or two of the disciples we’re talking about here, but ten—twelve minus Judas and Thomas—plus some other disciples—at least Cleopas, Mary, and some other women.  There’s a whole group here saying the same thing!  Not to mention the grief is too recent!  No, this is not a prank.

Yet Thomas’s skepticism prevails.  And he says, “Look, friends, I don’t know what you’re playing at.  But, whatever it is, unless I see the marks in his hands and feet and side—no, unless I touch these marks—I will not believe.”

Now, it’s okay to be skeptical, to an extent.  But isn’t Thomas taking this too far?

Thomas is not trusting himself here to his community.  He refuses to listen to those who are actually in a certain position of authority over him: they have seen the risen Lord, he hasn’t; they are telling their story.  Shouldn’t he listen to and trust them?  Yet he refuses to believe.

Moreover, the disciples here are not far removed from Thomas in their authority, like some theologian who has written a book in a far off place whom the seminarian will never actually meet.  No!  These are the very people Thomas has been living with and among for the past three years, maybe more.  These are people he knows and respects, his community.  Yet in his skepticism he refuses to trust their testimony.

Hasn’t he taken his skepticism too far?

We value skepticism in our culture.  And there’s good reason to do so.  But, like Thomas, we often take our skepticism too far.

When?

Whenever we compromise community.  Whenever we don’t trust tradition.  Whenever we idolize individuality.

Now, I’ve mentioned it before: mainstream Christianity has seen a steady decline over the last four decades.  Decline is happening in the Church: the evidence proves it.

But a more difficult question to answer is why: Why has the mainstream church been in decline?

Perhaps it’s just this reason.  Perhaps it’s because we take our valued skepticism too far; we place a higher value on the skepticism of the individual than we do on the collective wisdom of the community.

A book I’ve been reading a lot lately says it this way—it’s an assessment, not a judgment:

“So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion.  Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations.”

It used to be that people were shaped by societal factors largely outside of their own choosing, their own control.  But now, whether in where we go to college, where we work, or even where we choose to live, the author continues:

“we connect with people because we think they will meet our needs for intimacy or otherwise help us advance our own interests.  Of course, the reverse also becomes possible—when we feel like relationships are not meeting our needs, we switch out of them.  This applies to everything from friendships to jobs to marriage—and to church.”[i]

Individual choice—valuing the individual more than the community—is at the root of all this.  Yet Jesus Christ and his church are about the common good above the individual.

We value skepticism.  But when Thomas’s skepticism went too far and he compromised the common good of the early Christian community, he was branded forever with the moniker doubting.  Whenever we compromise the common good for whatever reason—whether it’s skepticism, distrust, prejudice, or plain old pride and arrogance—we go too far.

So what do we do about it?  I mean, if the predominant culture values skepticism and doubt to such an extent that we regularly and routinely compromise the common good and even idolize individuality, where can we go?  We are all products of our culture, whether we realize it or not.

Well, first, let me suggest where not to go.

Let’s not try to tackle this cultural problem as a church, standing on the corners and proclaiming to every passerby who might care enough to listen that you’re all a bunch of Narcissists.  That would make St. Paul’s look like we don’t really love this fallen world the way we say we do, the way Christ says we ought to.  So let’s not go there.

But, second, let me suggest where I think we ought to go: to ourselves.

We are products of our culture.  And that means all parts of our culture—the good parts and the bad.  It’s the air we breathe.  This means that we reflect the culture without even realizing it.  So, with respect to what we’ve been discussing today, yes, without even being aware of it we value skepticism too much.

If something comes up in our community we don’t like, more often than not it’s easier in our culture just to walk away from the community and find or create another one that suits our needs better.  Or, if there is some problem to be solved, isn’t it often the most critical, skeptical, independent minds that get noticed?  And don’t we want to get noticed?

So, the first step is to become aware of this cultural tendency—in the world around us, yes; but even more importantly in ourselves.

And, then, whenever we catch ourselves compromising the common good; whenever we catch ourselves not trusting tradition; whenever we catch ourselves idolizing the individuality of self—that’s when Jesus meets us.

Just like he met Thomas, one week after Easter Sunday; and he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

In that moment, all Thomas’s skepticism and doubt fell by the wayside—all his compromising attitude towards the early Christian community; all his distrust of tradition; all his idolatry of self.

And he responded, simply, “My Lord and my God!”

Whenever we catch ourselves valuing our skepticism too much—whenever Jesus meets us in our individual arrogance—may we respond as Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

[i] Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church (2014), 16.