Archive for common good

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.