Archive for community

Avoiding Spin’s Web

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 6:1-13

1.

Spin.

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

Not so long ago I walked my dog to a park, where we sat for a while and people-watched. Two little boys were playing on a slide.

It was a parallel slide: two slides ran side by side. Here was the perfect opportunity for a race. But, no, instead, one of the boys was attempting to go down the slide correctly, to slide down from the top to the bottom feet first; whereas the other boy was standing on the slide, attempting to block the first boy’s way.

A sort of cruel game ensued: the boy attempting to go down the slide the right way 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 second boy’s attempts at blocking him.

This pretend-jump-switch-jump dance carried on for a bit until, at last, probably frustrated, the first boy let go for a bona fide descent. But on the way down, as fate would have it, he collided with the second boy, who promptly fell flat on his face, connecting his lower lip squarely with the slide’s surface.

Well, my dog and I continued watching, maybe passing each other a sideways glance, certainly 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 ran straight for his mother—who was on her phone and had witnessed nothing!

Finally, grabbing his mother’s arm and pointing, he cried out, “That boy pushed me!”

Spin.

Some people put their spin on things really well—so well that we pay them for it! We’ve even given these professionals a name: spin doctors.

So, it often works like this. Someone, or a group of someones, wishes to communicate an opinion. But this spin doctor doesn’t start there—with his obvious opinion. Rather, he starts with a premise that has a ring of truth in it; and he builds upon this premise towards his conclusion, his opinion, not through logic but through spin: the manipulation of the truth.

“That boy pushed me!” And we often end up believing him.

It’s an age-old tactic; the devil does it over in Matthew.

“If you are the Son of God,” he spins, “throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Do you hear the ring of truth?

2.

Anyway, thisspin—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 reports have reached his home town’s ears.

Imagine the excitement some of his friends and family must have felt.

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

Nevertheless, the neighbors soon began to whisper.

How could Jesus, the carpenter, the son of Mary, become a success? Why, he once made a few chairs and a table for me, sure; and they’re good enough quality in their own right. But he’s a carpenter, for crying out loud!—not a synagogue leader, a teacher, or a miracle worker. What gives him the right? How could anything good come out of Nazareth?

And the whispers grew; and the disdain spread; until today, when Jesus stops by for a home town visit: whatever excitement was once felt has now dissipated.

Spin has spun its web:

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

3.

It seems Aesop was right: familiarity breeds contempt.[i] Or maybe Mark Twain, who expanded Aesop’s moral, was even more right: familiarity breeds contempt—and children.

But I want to push back a bit here, on this idea that familiarity breeds contempt. In a relationship—for instance, since Mark Twain brought it up, in a marriage—is it really familiarity that breeds contempt?

I rather think it’s something else. I rather think familiarity is the goal.

At least it is early on.

Most of you have been in some kind of romantic relationship—whether marriage or dating. And if you haven’t, you probably will be someday.

So, think back to the early part of the relationship, when you were first starting to feel interested in the other person—butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, sudden surges in your heart rate, whatever.

And then she actually gives you the time of day; or he unexpectedly asks you on a date!

Well, what comes after that? Isn’t it that you clear every free moment of your schedule to spend time with this other person? Dates become top priority. You call in sick—for that is what you are, you tell yourself, love sick—just to get another few hours with your soul-mate. And when you can’t spend time together in person, it’s a phone call or face time. . . .

Relationships, especially in the early days, are all about becoming familiar with one another—increasingly familiar.

Familiarity may indeed breed children, but it does not breed contempt! It’s rather the other way around. Familiarity breeds intimacy. Familiarity breeds love.

4.

What is it, then, that breeds contempt?

Psychotherapist and author Mel Schwartz answers:

When we honor one another we’re not likely to experience contempt. The disdain comes from not getting our needs met. It originates from a turning away from your partner and a relationship philosophy that more likely resembles a “me first” attitude . . . When we devalue our partners, contempt becomes very prevalent.[ii]

We devalue the other person, Schwartz says. Ultimately, we are the ones to blame.

Now, I’ll come back to this idea—of devaluing the other person. But, first, even though we are the ones to blame, I think spin can take a good deal of blame here too.

For what is it that tells us our partner no longer meets our needs? Why do we consistently put ourselves first, ahead our loved ones? Why do we devalue the very human beings with whom we once desired to be so familiar? Isn’t it the spin we hear?

Culture tells me I’m more important than anyone else. I tell myself I’m more important than anyone else—than my spouse, than my kids, than God!

Spin has spun its web.

And when we listen to it—when we are caught in its web—we no longer believe in the relationship; it becomes powerless.

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

Whether with your spouse, your partner, your children, or your church, don’t allow spin to render your relationships powerless.

5.

So, let’s return now to the picture provided in today’s Gospel—and to this idea of devaluing the other.

Just like with the neighbors in his home town, Jesus once entered each of our lives.

Do you remember when you first met him? All was new. You maybe even cleared your schedule to get to know him better, to increase your familiarity with him, to love him.

But, again like with the home town neighbors, many of us have now lived with Jesus for a while. We’ve become familiar with him. The newness of our relationship has worn off.

Reports about his miracles and teachings have reached our ears.

Whispers have reached our ears too.

He’s not so great, we’ve heard; a wise man, maybe, but no more.

He supports family values, we’ve heard; he’s pro-life.

He supports liberal politics, we’ve heard; or conservative politics (take your pick).

He’s a feminist, we’ve heard; or he’s patriarchal.

His mission was a good idea, we’ve heard, but that ship has sailed; think of all the violence and other evils the church has practiced over the last two thousand years!

Can anything good come out of Nazareth, we’ve heard?

Spin has spun its web.

How do we respond?

There’s really no easy answer, is there? For the mind and heart work against each other: in your head, you know you should reject the spin and just believe in Jesus already; yet your heart tells you otherwise.

To make matters worse, today’s Gospel suggests that the more we struggle with unbelief—the more we listen to the spin—the less effective we render Jesus. In other words, the more we struggle with our unbelief, the more reason we find not to believe!

None of us wants that—in our heads! Yet that’s the heartfelt reality seen throughout the church today.

So, one suggestion: practice value.

Jesus has a lot to offer you—in the Eucharist, in preaching and teaching, in your own formation as a human being.

You once valued all this highly; you once spent a lot of time increasing your own familiarity with Jesus.

But now you’ve lost the sense of value in your relationship with Jesus.

So, like any other relationship, to retain or even increase its value you’ve got to work at it.

Pray, then, even when you don’t feel like praying. Attend church, fellowship with the community, study the Bible, volunteer in one of the many areas of need, and, yes, give money—even when you don’t feel like it.

Value your relationship with Jesus once again!

For, when you value your relationship with Jesus, familiarity leaves no room for contempt but increases intimacy and love; when you value your relationship with Jesus, you avoid getting caught in spin’s web.

 

[i] This moral comes from The Fox and the Lion. Mark Twain expanded on this moral in his notebook. Cf. www.twainquotes.com/Familiarity.html

[ii] Cf. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shift-mind/201010/does-familiarity-breed-contempt

 

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Grumpy Raisins

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by timtrue

John 15:1-8

In today’s Gospel, like last week, we encounter one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he said last week; and today, “I am the true vine.”

So, last week I offered an exploration into the image itself. If Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are disciples of Jesus, then it follows logically that we are sheep.

And thus we imagined together what it means to follow a good shepherd and not a hired hand; what it feels like for Jesus to know each of us by name; and, particularly, what the other sheep might look like about whom Jesus says we know nothing.

Admittedly, my homily was playful and enlightening, in part because it’s easy to personify sheep. They’re living, active creatures with a kind of collective personality.

Today, however, not so much. I mean, how do you personify branches; or grapes; or raisins?

So, instead of putting ourselves into the skins of grapes this week, I want to look at the bigger picture, the historical and cultural contexts in which Jesus speaks.

To begin, do you remember the story from the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel about a man born blind?

Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples. They see a man blind from birth; and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus says, no, you’ve got it all wrong. And to show them, he stoops down, spits on the ground, makes a little mud, spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. Once he does, he comes back seeing. Incredible!

That’s the part of the story we usually remember anyway. But there’s a lot more to it.

Next, some of the man’s neighbors see him walking around with his sight restored. So, naturally enough, they ask him, “What happened? How is it that you now see?”

He explains that this man named Jesus put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before a group of Pharisees.

Now—a brief aside; I want to offer a word of caution—when we hear the word Pharisees, we should not automatically think “bad guys.” Pharisees were (and are to this day) something like an order in the Jewish religion—Benedictine, Franciscan, etc. Pharisees are generally devout people and highly respected in their community.

So, when the Bible mentions Pharisees, this is the image that should come to mind first and foremost: influential community leaders; and not (automatically) the opposition.

Returning to the story then, the healed man is led before a group of Pharisees—i. e., influential community leaders—and he tells them his story. And, curiously, the group is divided.

It happened on the Sabbath. So some of them say, “This man Jesus cannot be of God, for he healed on the Sabbath.” Yet others say, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

Some of the Pharisees—presumably those who feel that Jesus cannot be of God—only some of them—then confront the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they ask. Yes. “Was he born blind?” they ask. Yes. “Do you know that he now sees?” they ask. Really? Incredible!

“Well, yes,” they admit, reluctantly, “I guess it is actually kind of incredible. But that’s beside the point! How is it that he can now see?”

And the parents answer, “We don’t know. But he is of age. Why don’t you ask him?”

And what comes next really is incredible. But it comes fast and furious and is gone before we know it; and thus is a detail we all too often miss or forget about: the reason why the parents answered as they did.

“His parents said this,” the Gospel narrates, “because they were afraid of the Pharisees; for the Pharisees had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

The healed man’s parents were afraid! They did not want to be put out of the synagogue. They feared excommunication.

Another way to say this: they were afraid of being cut off from the vine of Israel—a point to which I will return shortly.

But, first, to finish the story, the Pharisees—or, to clarify, that part of the group of Pharisees who did not like Jesus—again call forward the healed man, now charging him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth! “We know this man Jesus is a sinner!” they exclaim.

“Whether he’s a sinner or not,” the healed man replies, “I don’t know. But one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see.”

And at last the story concludes with these chilling words: “And they drove him out.”

Those influential community leaders drive the healed man out of the synagogue because he trusts in Jesus. He is effectively excommunicated, cut off, in their minds, from the vine Israel.

Yeah—so to return to that point—the vine Israel!

Jesus is not the first person to use this vine-and-branches metaphor. Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.

Psalm 80 says: “O LORD God of hosts . . . you brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”

Isaiah 5 sings of God’s relationship with Israel, beginning with these words: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard.”

And Ezekiel 19 says: “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard . . . fruitful and full of branches from abundant water.”

No doubt this metaphor was quite familiar to John’s audience.

And John’s audience—those to whom John had initially written his Gospel—like the man born blind, had been cut off from the vine Israel. And the reason they had been cut off was because, like the healed man, they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah.

Even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself; or, to tell it from John’s point of view, Israel cut itself off from Jesus.

Do you see what John is doing here? Jesus is the true vine, John proclaims to his audience; Jesus is their true source of life.

Contrary to what those grumpy community leaders intended—to cut off Jesus’ followers from their source of life—they had instead cut themselves off from Christ, the true source of life. Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; it is those who have rejected Jesus who are cut off from the true vine, left to languish, wither, dry up, and become raisins.

And they did it to themselves! God didn’t cut them off; God can’t be blamed here. They pruned themselves. They cut themselves off from Jesus, the true source of life.

Today Jesus tells us that the vinegrower should be the one who removes fruitless and withered branches; the vinegrower should be the one to prune.

But remove and prune—these words suggest pain. And we don’t like the idea of someone else inflicting pain on us, even if that someone else is God. So, instead, like those grumpy Pharisees, we try to prune ourselves.

The trouble is we’re not very good at it.

Maybe this is where personifying the metaphor could be helpful. For how adept could a branch ever become at pruning itself? Branches, certainly, have very limited manual dexterity. And the older a branch grows, we all know, the more hardened and gnarled it becomes. Really, how could a branch, young or old, ever prune itself?

And yet we still try.

Just like those grumpy Pharisees!

And we know what happened to them: they cut themselves off from Jesus, their source of life, leaving themselves to become raisins.

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Let God be the vinegrower. Your job is to bear rich, plump, abundant fruit; not raisins.

There Will Be One Flock?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 22, 2018 by timtrue

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John 10:11-18

Many, many images of God come to us from the Bible: God as King; God as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God as friend, brother, lover; God as wind, dove, fire; and so on. Today we see Jesus, the second person of the triune God, as Good Shepherd. What can we understand about God and us through this image?

Now I don’t know about you, but shepherds—good or otherwise—are not people I come in contact with on a daily basis. As I drive around southern California, I don’t see too many sheep—maybe some cattle, from time to time; but never sheep!

Sheep aren’t the same as cattle.

Ever heard anyone say that sheep are dumb animals, good for little more than shearing and slaughtering—maybe another preacher in another sermon?

Well, how does that make you feel? I mean, if Jesus is supposed to be our Good Shepherd, then that makes us sheep. And when someone stands before me and proclaims that sheep are stupid and witless beasts, well, I’m not feeling like I want to be a part of that flock. Are you?

Three of the sources I referred to this week as I prepared for this sermon—not just one, but three!—say otherwise. Sheep are not dumb.

In fact, all three sources say, that rumor was started by cowboys. Yeah, you know, those guys who ride their horses and swing their ropes and whoop and holler behind the cattle to drive them where they want them to go!

Well, what happens when you try to get behind sheep and push them? Why, they don’t move forward at all but instead try to run around to get behind the driver.

That’s right! Sheep don’t want to be pushed. Instead, sheep want to be led.

And cowboys call them dumb and witless—because sheep don’t behave like cows.

And that make me feel a little better. That makes me feel more like here is something I want to be a part of: a community that is not pushed and prodded to get us to go where the shepherd wants us to go—a good shepherd doesn’t manipulate.

But we are instead led by the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus; who shows us by example that we are to put others first, that we are maybe even, in the extreme, to lay down our lives for others.

And that piece in there about sheep knowing their shepherd—it’s not just some comfortable platitude.

I read stories this week about how at night, while the flock is tucked in its cozy sheepfold, safe and warm, their beloved and trusted shepherd will walk in and among them without a single sheep stirring.

But if you or I or anyone else other than their shepherd tries to walk among them—even the stealthiest of spies; or some cowboy!—the sheep wake up and begin to bleat nervously.

Sheep aren’t dumb; they know the difference between their shepherd and a cowboy.

And in Palestine, to this day, shepherds will lead their flocks to the same waterhole at the same time, allowing their flocks to drink together, not caring that their sheep get all mixed up with one another;

for all the shepherd has to do is whistle or call; and his or her sheep come out of the convoluted mass flocking together to their own shepherd, organized. Not one sheep is missing; not one extra has joined.

One flock; one shepherd.

They know their shepherd’s voice—his smell, his footfalls, his manner. His rod and staff—even his lumbering gait—comfort them.

So sheep aren’t dumb—which makes me feel better. They just don’t want to be pushed around; and, unlike cows, they know their shepherd.

Nevertheless, sheep are temperamental, needy, smelly, and now and then they butt heads apparently for no reason at all—which is to say they need shepherding.

At this point, the shepherd has some options.

The flock has been together for many years; generations, in fact—baby, parent, and grandparent sheep all living together in community, trying to get along comfortably enough.

But you know how it is. The heat of summer comes around again and the waterhole dries up and the pastures turn brown and dust coats your throat. Some of the sheep, the alphas, are grumpy and begin to argue with one another, to butt heads.

So what does the shepherd do?

One option is to drive the biggest alpha out into the wilderness.

Notice, I said drive. For if the shepherd tries to lead the alpha out, the rest of the flock will follow. To preserve the flock, then, the individual, rogue alpha must be driven out.

What happens to this lone sheep out in the wilderness doesn’t really matter, the shepherd reasons; for the flock will be better off with this alpha’s absence.

Let’s call this method of shepherding the “Independent Cowboy.”

A second option, however, is to divide the flock up.

One alpha is unhappy with another, obviously. The one alpha believes that he was predestined to be a part of this flock and has convinced many other sheep of his opinion; whereas the other alpha believes it is her choice, her free will, to be a part of this flock, and has likewise convinced several others of her opinion.

The shepherd understands this head-butting and decides that the best way to keep the peace is to divide the flock up, according to doctrinal differences.

This method is what I like to call the “Judging Protestant” shepherd.

Of course, yet another shepherd believes in tough love.

He has a rod and staff. These comfort his sheep, he believes, by giving them what they deserve, by keeping them in a state of submission so that they don’t run off to the wolves. He knows what his sheep need much more than they do, after all. Discipline!

I call this the “Medieval Catholic” shepherd.

But Jesus is different than all these other shepherds. Jesus is a good shepherd. And he has lots and lots of sheep, many, in fact, about which we know nothing:

  • Independent, non-denominational sheep;
  • Opinionated, fundamentalist, Protestant sheep;
  • Conservative evangelical sheep;
  • Liberal mainline sheep;
  • Republican sheep;
  • Democrat sheep;
  • Unaffiliated sheep;
  • Dogmatic, Sarum-rite Catholic sheep;
  • Unchurched sheep;
  • Muslim sheep;
  • Atheist sheep.

Talk about head-butting! Yet all these sheep, he says, are part of the same flock.

Jesus is their Good Shepherd just as much as he is ours—whether they know it or not; whether we know it or not.

There will be one flock, one shepherd.

Do you believe this?

Many of you know that I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies in my youth to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after about twenty years!—becoming an Episcopalian.

Lots of dominoes had to fall to get me here, for I believed for a long time that there was only one flock; but that it was small and rather exclusive.

One day, at long last, there I was, with my family, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its theological confidence.

Truth had been debated long and hard through the ages, but we chosen ones had a handle on it better than anyone else. We were enlightened; we understood. Too bad, so sad for you!

But, like Episcopalians, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess its faith weekly in the words of the Nicene Creed.

And so, coming to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” something in my mind clicked. I looked around; and I saw twenty-five or so other people saying the same thing; and I almost laughed out loud.

“No we don’t!” I said to myself. “We don’t believe in a universal church. We’re a tiny sect that has splintered off another tiny sect. We believe in only our church! ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church,’ my foot!”

You see, what clicked that day was this: Christ calls us to be unified, not divided; to community, not isolation.

But unity in the wider Church around the world?

“There will be one flock,” Jesus says, “one shepherd.”

But how?

Like so many other answers to difficult, spiritual questions, it begins here, with us; with what we are already doing: living in community with one another.

When we butt heads, we don’t drive the alphas out from our midst; but work through our differences, knowing that we will be a stronger body for it.

We study and pray together, working through the paradoxes of the Bible with reason; but at the end of the day we set aside our doctrinal disagreements and commune at the same table.

And we don’t coerce by threat of judgment or manipulate each other through fear and guilt; but rather practice the greatest commandment, love, in inviting, welcoming, and including all.

And we do this because:

The Lord is our shepherd—the good shepherd—and thus, we shall not be in want.

He guides his one flock along right pathways and leads us to still, sweet waters and green pastures; where together we eat and drink deeply of his body and blood.

And when one of his flock walks alone, through the valley of the shadow of death, we soon realize that we are not really alone; for he is there with us in and through his community.

In the daily struggles of life, he spreads his table before us.

And, surely, his goodness and mercy, we know, shall follow us, his one flock, all the days of our life; and we shall dwell in his sheepfold forever.

Gazing at the Underside

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2017 by timtrue

170px-Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay

Matthew 5:1-12

1.

Have you ever gazed at an icon?

One of the panels in St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt contains the oldest known icon of Christus Pantokrator, aka, “Christ, the Lord of Hosts.” I’ve never been there. But I’ve seen photos.

This particular icon first caught my attention because there seemed to be something wrong with Jesus’ face. It seemed somehow asymmetric, kind of like he’d suffered a minor stroke or TIA.

That was the first time I gazed at it.

Somewhat unsettled, certainly puzzled, I returned to it. The second time, yes, indeed, I saw there was something not quite right about his face—it hadn’t been my imagination. I also noticed that, in his left hand, he held a large, thick book; and was making a sign of blessing with his right.

Well, I don’t know how many more times I returned to this icon—how many total minutes I spent gazing at it—before someone spoiled it for me (as I am now, perhaps, going to spoil it for you).

This imposter (a church history teacher, actually) came with a sheet of paper and covered up the right half of Jesus’ face. “What does the exposed half look like?” he asked.

“Judgment,” I said.

He smiled then covered up the left half and asked, “Now what?”

“Wow! That’s compassion!” I replied.

And it clicked! That’s what was wrong with his face. The left half, reflecting the Torah in his left hand, displayed the judgment side of God; whereas the right half displayed mercy, seen in his sign of blessing.

Anyway, good icons are like that: one grows in one’s understanding as one gazes.

2.

Well, today I don’t so much want to gaze at icons as I want to gaze with you at the underside of tabletops.

Last week, if you recall, I framed my sermon with the image of Jesus turning over tables both literal and figurative. Why am I surprised, then, when following Jesus feels like I’m gazing at the underside of tabletops?

For instance:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches us, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

And, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

And so on.

But . . . the poor in spirit? Those who mourn? The meek? These aren’t exactly the bullet points I want to put on my résumé.

Instead, these strike me as kind of upside down.

And why, again, are these people—these disciples of Jesus—called blessed? Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven? Because they will be comforted? Because they will inherit the earth?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this. It all sounds like pie-in-the-sky talk to me!

Sure, you can tell me all you want that if I behave myself in the here-and-now then I will be rewarded in the future. But such moralizing sounds an awful lot like what my second grade teacher used to tell me. I didn’t really buy it then; and I don’t buy it now.

It’s not the future that concerns me; I want to be blessed now! And I’m pretty sure being melancholy and mopey isn’t going to get me there.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in this present life; but the confident, the self-assured, and—dare I say?—the pushy! It’s fine and well to want a nice life in the future, or a nice afterlife; but what about the here-and-now? I want to be blessed now!

I want Jesus to say something like:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money! For they can buy a comfortable home in a low-crime neighborhood; their kids can attend the best schools; and every amenity they could ever need or want is at their fingertips.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this? That’s what the culture around me is telling me! Why does following Christ have to feel so upside down, like I’m staring at the underside of a tabletop?

3.

But to gaze at the underside might not be such a bad thing. Jesus seems to know this—otherwise, why would he turn so many tables over in the first place?

Maybe that’s why he calls you and me and all the saints to do so.

I mean, isn’t that really what we do when we gather week after week, when we come together and engage in corporate spiritual practices—sacred story, sacred rituals, sacred music, sacred seasons? In these upside down practices we contemplate Jesus and the tables he has overturned.

And don’t we continue our underside musings during the week with individual practices like contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, and gazing at icons?

And—you know—the longer we gaze at the underside, the more we realize that this hidden, forgotten side of the table was meant by the Table-builder to be on top all along.

That’s why the beatitudes can feel so upside down. They’re the hidden side of the table; yet the side Jesus really wants us to see!

Remember those wants I listed earlier? When I said I wished Jesus would say that those who make a lot of money are blessed because they can live in a big house and so on?

Now—please hear me—these wants and dreams are not necessarily wrong. But they’re the American dream, not Jesus’ dream.

Jesus proclaims compassion, justice, and a society free from oppression and hatred, fear and guilt.

The beatitudes show us harmonious community.

But the other side of this table—the American dream side of this table—tells us a very different message: to live well, to look good, and to stand out; to be an individual.

4.

So what can we do about it? Is gazing at the underside of tabletops a valuable use of our time? Are the beatitudes reality? Or, is Jesus presenting us with an unrealizable ideal?

Most of us are individuals, after all, who have come together because of our common understanding of Christ—Christians, yes, but nevertheless individuals.

And besides, even if we do manage to break beyond our individualistic values and begin to form a cohesive common good, we’re still just one local body of Christ—and not a very big one at that—in the morass of modern American Christian individualism.

So what can we do?

Well, gazing at the underside of these tables is a lot like gazing at an icon: the more one does so, the more one comes to understand.

Most people today, I’m afraid, look only and ever at the topside (maybe we are partly to blame: maybe we aren’t overturning enough tables); and the topside shows only the individual.

What matters on the topside is that I love Jesus. It tells me to learn and cherish all those precious scriptures about my individual relationship with Jesus, that as long as I believe in him I shall not perish but have everlasting life even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!

Fine and well. But what the topside leaves out is all those Bible passages, many and manifold, about societal injustices, about neglecting the poor and destitute among us, about caring for widows and orphans (and we might add the homeless and mentally ill).

It tells us, instead, that the poor and destitute need to develop a better work ethic and embrace family values; that it’s not society’s fault, and so why should I be forced to pay taxes for the good of those unwilling to work for their food?

By way of contrast, the underside reveals to us (in agreement with Jesus), over time and much gazing, that social structures do in fact play a part.

I was shocked to learn in seminary, for example, that in our own “land of the free” people of color were denied mortgage loans on the basis of their skin color well into the 1980s. In fact, it is argued that in some regions of the country such discrimination continues to this day!

The people affected by this practice are true victims of a grievous social injustice!

Even more shocking to me was the sudden realization that I did not know this had been going on. Unlike so many others, I’d never had to experience this kind of systemic injustice personally. And wasn’t my ignorance, in itself, a kind of injustice?

Gazing at the underside, we begin to ask questions like this. Who are the true victims of the system? How do we care for them when we find them? How do we foster a compassionate social order for the common good?

As small a church as we are, then, we’re not too small to figure out some way of bringing the underside of the tables Jesus overturns into sharper focus, so that others can gaze with us.

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.

Dealing with the Drama

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

Delivered on Sept. 10, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

1.

A couple weeks ago we encountered Jesus telling Peter that he was handing the keys of his kingdom over to him. In this statement, Jesus delegated the authority over his mission to Peter, the rock, upon whom he would build his church.

“And,” Jesus told Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In today’s Gospel, a few chapters later (in case you’re wondering), Jesus tells his gathered disciples, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Huh. This sounds familiar. Like, verbatim familiar!

But this time Jesus is not talking just to one man, namely Peter. This time Jesus says you; and the you here is translated in the south as y’all; or in the deep south as all y’all. In other words, it’s plural!

And just in case you’re dubious, Jesus goes on to illustrate the plurality of his teaching by clarifying:

“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you” (two is plural) “agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three” (again, plural) “are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus delegated his authority to carry on his mission not just to Peter, but to Peter and the disciples. Jesus’ authority is a collective authority.

And so, as I argued two weeks ago, the church is the only place on earth wherein we find Christ’s inherent authority.

Jesus didn’t leave his authority with parachurch organizations. He didn’t leave it with a political party. He didn’t leave it with individuals—with you or me or your favorite author or musician or Christian leader.

Jesus left his authority with the collective body of believers around the world, also known as the church.

Like it or not, Christianity is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Like it or not, Christianity is a community effort.

2.

But, Father Tim, what if I’m one of those people who likes to be by myself? What if I’m an introvert? What if I’m a little, well, socially awkward? What if I don’t like to make small talk? What if I don’t really need other people? What if I’ve learned how to be an island—a self-sufficient and independent person who stays out of everyone else’s way just as long as they stay out of mine?

To which I say: Yeah, so, you’re independent. You probably wake up most days to an alarm clock on your phone—a phone made by someone else. You then use electricity to charge your phone, turn on your lights, and keep food chilled in your refrigerator—electricity provided by someone else. Then you get in your car—made by someone else—and drive on smooth, paved roads—again, made by someone else—fill up your gas tank with clean, highly refined fuel; and on to the grocery store, where you buy fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese, and eggs—all harvested, butchered, aged, and collected by other people. So what’s your point?

We all know the old story. In the beginning, God created Adam. Adam was given stewardship over all creation. He named the animals, he worked the land, and he dwelled with God. But, the Bible tells us, it was not good for the man to be alone.

It was not good for Adam to live by himself, in solidarity, as a ruggedly independent island of a man. He needed community. For he was created in the image of God; and God has always dwelt in Trinitarian community.

So God created Eve.

And the first couple then dwelled together in community.

But then—and here is where the hang up regarding community seems to be for a lot of people—drama entered the scene.

The crafty serpent tempted. Eve listened. She tempted. Adam listened. And together the community of Adam and Eve shared the forbidden fruit. Next, God confronted. The community shuffled their feet and shifted the blame. And so their once enjoyable work became all manner of toil and labor and sweat; and their children argued and fought, until one day their angry and angst-filled son Cain reached out his hand and struck down his own flesh and blood, dead.

Yes, drama entered the scene!

Nevertheless, the community of Adam and Eve continued on. And God worked his good will through this community. Soon a new son, Seth, was born, from whose line would come the Savior of the world.

God created us for community. And, despite all the drama that comes along with it, the community of Christ is God’s only authoritative means of spreading salvation through Christ to the ends of the earth.

3.

But this brings up a very good point: What about the drama?

First off, let me just put something out on the table: In the church there will be drama.

If you’re tempted to romanticize and idealize, to say that, of all organizations out there, the church ought to be the shining, drama-free example to the world, forget it. That’s a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.

The church is a community that is both divine and human. It has been divinely established by Jesus Christ, upon whose authority we stand. But at the same time it is being maintained by humans.

And it’s the human part of that equation that means there will be drama in the church. We are human. We will make mistakes. Disagreements will surface. Conflict is not a matter of if, but when.

Okay. Now that that’s out there—now that we’re being realistic about our life in community together—secondly, let me offer a qualification.

There are times when it is necessary to circumvent the method of confrontation Jesus sets forth in today’s Gospel. I mentioned abuse, neglect, or abandonment in my sermon two weeks ago. And, sadly, the reality is that there have been cases of abuse, neglect, and abandonment by the church.

If you ever experience something traumatic along these lines—in the church or anywhere else—I urge you, go straight to the authorities who are able to help you confront and conquer the situation.

But, as serious as these matters are, my focus today is to go where the Gospel takes us. Jesus knows there will be conflicts in his church. And these conflicts, by and large, are really quite petty: they have to do with one person offending another; and usually without even knowing it.

One person says something impulsively and another person overhears it and takes offense. Or one person loves a particular ministry—feels a kind of ownership over the ministry—and another with an interest in the same ministry comes along and frustrates the first person’s plans.

One person steps on another’s toes, probably unknowingly, and thus a conflict arises between two persons, the offender and the offended.

And in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us very plainly just how to deal with the drama.

“If another member of the church sins against you”—then what does he say?

  • Wait until she’s out of earshot and then call your best friend to gossip about her.
  • Take it straight to the priest.
  • Or, even better, forget the priest; take it straight to the bishop!

No!

“If another member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Jesus tells us that when someone has offended you—and here he is talking about you as an individual—you (singular), the offended, are not to take it to other people. That’s called triangulation. And triangulation is messy, so messy that the people who get caught in its webs sometimes decide to leave the church altogether.

Don’t triangulate! Instead, you are to go alone to the other, the offender, and point out how and why you are offended.

And if it works out—if the two of you are reconciled to each other—well, that’s as it should be, isn’t it? You’ve communicated with each other. The mission and ministry of Christ will continue to go forward, with the added benefit that you two can now work together in greater harmony than before. And whatever passed between you two will forever remain your little secret. End of story!

Oh, but, Father Tim, what if it’s such a small matter that I don’t feel comfortable pointing it out to the person who has sinned against me?

Well, that’s part of the deal. If you feel it’s too small a matter to bring to the offender’s attention, then it’s time to examine your own heart. Maybe you’re actually the one in the wrong here. If it’s too small a matter to mention, then why is it a big enough matter to bother you in the first place? And, certainly, if it’s too small a matter to bring to the offender’s attention, then it’s certainly too small a matter to bring to someone else’s attention!

Only when the two of you, the offended and the offender, are not able to reconcile—only then do you bring in others.

But even here, when others are involved, it is an exercise in humility. For bringing other, objective minds and hearts into the conflict means opening oneself to the possibility of being told by others to drop it, to move on already.

Do you see what Jesus is asking us to do here? We are to dwell in community with each other in humility, seeking to live in harmony with one another, being gracious to one another, and giving one another the benefit of the doubt. Incidentally, some people call this “The Golden Rule.”

4.

Now, prior to my ordination, my spiritual journey meandered significantly. I spent some time in a church that interpreted today’s Gospel passage not for reconciliation but as a guideline for discipline. And, in case you don’t know, this is not a unique interpretation. In fact, it’s quite common.

The church, the pastor said, has been given the authority to bind and loose. Obviously, he said, this refers to membership and excommunication.

And so, when a young woman began dating a young man who was not a church member, several people took it upon themselves to go to her in private, one-to-one, and point out her fault.

Sometime later, when she became pregnant, well, since some of the church members had already gone to her individually, why, the matter of her unrepentant sinful choices was brought before the elders. Meanwhile, the young man, who was feeling in over his head, skipped town.

So, since the matter was already public, the elders presented this young woman with a choice. She could either stand before the entire congregation during a Sunday worship service and publicly apologize to the offended congregation; or face excommunication, i. e., be treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Well, she chose the public apology; and made it on a Sunday morning with a tear-stained face; and I’ve recalled with sorrow the scene in my mind’s eye many times since.

But doesn’t this interpretation miss the whole point?

This young woman didn’t need discipline and the threat of excommunication. She needed a community who would love her through the tough times ahead.

Jesus in fact sought out Gentiles and tax collectors. If we, the church, are to treat an obstinate offender as a Gentile or tax collector, it seems to me we shouldn’t ban them from the assembly but rather seek them out, like the good shepherd does when one sheep wanders away from the ninety-nine.

Jesus has not called us to a ministry of discipline—of who’s in and who’s out—of us vs. them. Jesus has called us to a ministry of reconciliation. As the church—the heavenly community here on earth—we seek not to be divided from but reconciled to one another.

Jesus says that when two or three are gathered, whatever we bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. Well, there are two or three (and more) of us here. So I say let’s loosen up on discipline and bind ourselves instead to the ministry of reconciliation.

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.