Archive for community

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.

Pirates, Pompey, and the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2016 by timtrue

 

pompey

Bust of Pompey

Luke 17:5-10

How about a story? It comes to us from Roman engineering history; from that great military general Pompey, who was for many years a friend of Julius Caesar; and then an enemy.

So, in 66 BCE, about a hundred years before Jesus Christ was ministering in and around Judea, Pompey was given a charge: rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates; and, especially, protect the eastern borders of the Empire—not far from Judea.

Pirates had been a terrible nuisance in the ancient world since at least the fourteenth century.  They preyed upon coastal towns, often exacting tribute from fearful town leaders or kidnapping residents and selling them into slavery.  Many Greek cities were founded inland, as a matter of fact, to be out of reach of pirates.

It didn’t help their cause at all—if one could say they had a cause—that in the year 75 Cilician pirates ended up kidnapping Julius Caesar himself.  The early historian Plutarch says that Caesar’s kidnappers initially held him ransom for a price of twenty talents of gold; but then raised it to fifty at Caesar’s own request: he was worth at least that much, he said, if not more.

And now, a few years hence, Caesar charged Pompey with the task of ridding the Mediterranean of this menace.

During his campaign to end piracy, Pompey determined to build new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  There his engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall cliffs, whole mountainsides, often lined with the durable and hardy mulberry tree.

Soon, one of Pompey’s chief engineers discovered a way to accomplish this challenging task—in relatively short order too!—by spreading mustard seeds wherever the digging was to occur.  The mustard seed planted easily, grew quickly, and spread invasively, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.

So effective was this annual plant’s invasiveness that after only a few months an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, could be dug away and shaped into the harbors Pompey envisioned.  On occasion, digging wasn’t even necessary: records tell (so I’ve heard) that a few hillsides infested with the mustard plant simply crumbled and fell into the water.

Now, why do I tell this story about Pompey?  Because all this happened a century or so before Jesus tells today’s parable about the mustard seed.

Pompey was a very famous Roman military general.  He had spent time in the Palestinian region.  His engineering crews had discovered a way to make fast work of erosion to their great advantage using the mustard plant, so invasive that it could uproot the hardy mulberry tree; or command a mountain to be cast into the sea.

So: do you think anyone who heard Jesus that day might have remembered Pompey?  Pompey’s challenge was how to make new harbors when hardy trees and even mountainsides stood in the way.  For most people, this would have seemed an impossible task.  Yet Pompey believed he could bring it about; and he did.

And his belief—his faith—was about the size of a mustard seed.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The apostles heard this and—I’m certain!—immediately thought of Pompey and his amazing accomplishment.  We hear this and—I’d be willing to wager—we don’t.  Show of hands: how many of you thought of Pompey’s pirate-ridding accomplishments the moment Pat read today’s Gospel?

Instead, don’t we tend to think of our faith in terms of quantification?  “Lord,” we say with the apostles, “increase our faith!”  We then think that surely our faith must be small, smaller than even the itsy-bitsy mustard seed, for life is difficult and we rarely get what we feel should be coming to us; but, as we see in today’s passage, even if I had a little faith I could do incredible things.

Now, in fact, there’s a whole branch of modern-day American evangelical Christianity that promotes this message.  If you are sick, they say, pray and ask Jesus to heal you; then just believe.  If you stay sick, they say, then it’s only because you don’t have enough faith: you must pray for more.

The argument is just the same with money: if you’re poor, they say, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  Pray and believe; name it and claim it; and if your faith is large enough, why, anything you can dream of will be yours.

Faith is quantifiable, they want us to believe.  And the more money you send to them, they tell you, the more faith you will possess.

When the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” and Jesus answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—what we hear Jesus saying is, “Oh, if only you had even a little bit of faith; but as it is, you really don’t have any.”  The result is that we hear this parable in a modern, American, evangelical, prosperity-gospel, consumer sort of way: faith becomes an individual possession, a kind of talent or skillset that makes me an expert when I find out how to obtain it, to be envied by those who haven’t yet figured it out.

But, instead, when the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus’ response is really more along these lines: “Oh, don’t you know?  You already have faith.  Don’t you remember Pompey?  He believed he could move mulberry trees and indeed whole mountainsides in order to make his harbors.  And he did!  If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and indeed you do!—you can throw this mulberry tree into the sea too!”

With the apostles, we cry to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  And the Lord replies, “Oh, but you already have faith.  And with it you can move mountains!”

So why don’t we?

There’s no shortage of mountains in our world.  You all know this.  Right on our doorstep, for instance—right here in Yuma County—we have one of the lowest percentages in the country of high-school graduates who go on to college.  We also have one of the highest rates of unemployment.  Trader Joe’s won’t even open up a store here.  These are big problems.  They can feel like mountains.

But Pompey moved mountains and cast mulberry trees into the sea and thus built his harbors with a faith the size of a mustard seed.

How so?  He didn’t rely on himself—his own knowledge and talents and expertise or whatever.  Instead, he called on his chief engineers—to think creatively, to experiment.  And also he relied on his army—his employees, if you will.  This was his community.

And why did he do it?  To rid the Mediterranean from the pirates that controlled it, for the sake of the common good!  This was his mission: the common good.

And so, Plutarch writes, “Thus was this war ended, and the whole power of the pirates at sea dissolved everywhere in the space of three months” (Dryden’s translation).

But—and I think here is where we find our answer—Pompey’s faith was not our modern-day, American, evangelical, consumer understanding of faith.  For Pompey—and, more importantly, for Jesus—faith was not understood as something to be individually possessed; a thing to be stocked up, hoarded, and stored away as some kind of commodity; so that if we’re ever sick or suddenly encounter financial ruin we can somehow pull it out as a spiritual antibiotic or divine debit card.

Rather, Pompey understood the mission set before him; and he knew he couldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus Christ understood the mission before him; and he knew he wouldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus came to earth as God incarnate; and lived and died and rose again.  But he didn’t ascend to the right hand of the Father until after his disciples understood their mission.

And their mission is our mission.  We have been called to transform this troubled, confused, mixed-up, bewildered world into the very Kingdom of God, for the sake of the common good.

And how is this mission ever going to go forward if our focus is on our individual selves and how much of a consumer-faith we can acquire?  Or not!

Instead, we must bind together, put our heads together, call on our chief engineers to think creatively, to experiment with new ways of thinking; in order to rid our seas from the pirates that now control them.  For the sake of the common good!

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do; you do!—you can move mountains.

No Triangulation in the Trinity

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

Romans 5:1-5

For preachers, Trinity Sunday is perhaps the most feared Sunday of the year.  It exposes us.  It shows our deepest, most hidden (and maybe even treasured) heresies.  For how does one talk about God—the divine—using human words—human symbols, subject to human error and finitude?

Ever try to explain the mathematical concept of infinity to a kid for the first time?  Where do you even start?

You think, ah, numbers; so you say, “Okay, think of the largest number you can imagine.  Can you imagine a trillion?”

Then you write out the number for a visual, a one with twelve zeroes following it, with a comma before every group of three zeroes.

Then you say, “So, what happens when we add one to a trillion?”

And the astute child answers, “Uh, well, I guess we get a trillion one.”

And you clap your hands and dance a jig and otherwise express your amazement at this special child’s display of absolute brilliance.

But then you mess it all up by asking, “So, what happens when you add one to infinity?”

And, naturally enough, the astute child answers, “Uh, well, I guess you get infinity one.”

But instead of clapping your hands and dancing a jig, now you say, unwisely, “Nope.  You still have infinity.”

And now the once astute child is left standing there scratching his head, confused, despondent, miserable, wretched, or worse!

But you’ve just tried to explain an abstract concept beyond all numbers by using concrete numbers.

Well, such is the preacher’s task on Trinity Sunday: to try to explain an abstract concept that is beyond our finitude and limitations only to leave us all, in the end, scratching our heads, confused, despondent, miserable, wretched, or worse!

But what if we do something a little different this year?  What if, instead of trying to shed a little more light on this difficult-to-see topic, I don’t try to explain it?  What if, instead, I ask us simply to accept it—to accept that the trinity, one god in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just is?

I mean, after all, this is our confession of faith, our creed.  We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.  We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.  One god in three persons.

So, what if the trinity is our starting point, our premise?  What sort of conclusion might we draw?

Well, let’s try it and see where we end up.

So, God is trinity.  This is our starting point.  God has always been and God will always be triune.

Another way to say this is that God in trinity exists both inside and outside our world, or, both inside and outside our dimensions of time and space.

So, let’s go back to the beginning.  No, let’s go back to before the beginning.  In the beginning, the Bible says, God created the heavens and the earth.  It stands to reason, then, that before the beginning—before any heavens and earth were created—God still is.

Now, I’m not trying to give some big lesson in cosmology here, saying that I have all the answers, that you better believe in a literal, six-day creation or you’re not saved; or that evolution debunks the Bible; or that, for crying out loud!, only the Big Bang theory makes any sense.

Rather, I’m trying to remove everything but God from the picture.  I want us to envision God entirely alone—entirely by God’s self, if you will—before any part of creation was created.  Picture God alone, outside of our physical dimensions of time and space.

And, when you do, yes, even then and there—even outside of time and space—God was, is, and will be triune.

This is our premise.

Now, what kinds of inferences might we draw from this picture of God existing by God’s self, outside of space and time?

I can think of at least three.

The first inference is that God is, was, and always will be in relationship.  And I’m not talking about with us!  God is in relationship with us, sure.  But outside of time and space, God alone is in relationship with God’s self.  This can’t happen if God is simply one god in one person.  But our premise is one god in three persons.

A second inference builds from the first: since God is in relationship with God’s self; and since God is three persons, God is community.

“Two’s company, but three’s a crowd,” the old saying goes.  This is because it’s much easier for two people to get along than for three.

An episode from my boyhood comes to mind.  I had a best friend growing up.  His name was John.  John and I met when we were four, in YMCA Indian Guides (a name that wouldn’t fly now).  We were close friends through high school, till we went our separate ways in college.

One Saturday we found ourselves together at a park, playing.  But there was a third boy there too, an older boy—we were maybe 9 and he was more like 14 or 15—a boy neither of us knew.  This third boy came up to me, said hi, introduced himself, and said, “Hey, that boy over there called you a liar.”  And he pointed at John.

A few minutes later I noticed this older boy pull John aside, whisper something to him, and point at me.

A few more exchanges like this took place and before we knew what had happened John and I were exchanging blows.  Yeah!  Fisticuffs!

After a few minutes we stopped our fray and asked each other why we were fighting.  When we realized why, that this older boy had been the cause, we looked for the instigator but he was gone.

Point is, two persons get along just fine; but bring a third into the mix and things can get nasty in a hurry.  The psychological term for this is triangulation.

But the trinity of persons in God gets along just fine, in triune relationship, without triangulation.  This is community the way it’s intended.

The third inference to draw sounds extremely familiar: God is love.  God exists in perfect relationship and community.  Each person of the trinity gives and takes exactly what he should, balancing self with others, a finely tuned triad.  And what is such harmony but love?

Love is and was and always will be.

Theologians through the millennia have put together these three concepts—relationship, community, and love—summarizing them with a fancy theological word: perichoresisPeri– is a prefix meaning “around,” like in the words periscope and perimeter; and choresis is where we get the word chorus from, meaning (originally) “dance.”

The word perichoresis, then, assigned uniquely to the trinity, signifies an extremely complex divine dance, where each person of the trinity knows his part and the parts of his two partners; each giving and taking just enough and not too much.  Perichoresis is continuous relationship, community, and love.  And it is beautiful.

And because these things exist beyond all time and space, we can say they are attributes of God: a part of who God is.  Relationship, community, and love have always been; just like God has always been!  They are not human inventions.

But when we return to the physical world we know of time and space; to our created order; to our day and culture; to the particularities and peculiarities of our day-to-day lives, we can sure mess these things up, can’t we?

Relationship, community, love—these are attributes of God passed on to us humans.  We tend to mess them up, yeah!  But don’t lose hope.  They’re gifts from God!  And when we grow in these areas, the result is beautiful.

And so here is the conclusion we reach: relationship, community, and love are attributes of God.

And this is why I’m a Christian.

There are many religions out there that make a lot of sense.  Have you ever wondered what if you’d been born into a different family, or in another part of the world?  Would you have accepted the religion of that culture over Christianity?  Where would you be today?

There’s a lot of talk in our culture about all spiritual roads leading to God.  I don’t know.  Maybe this is true.  Who am I to say?  If God is above all else a god of love, as our New Testament claims over and over; if love truly wins, then, yes, I can make room for this idea in my thinking.

But here’s the key point for me: what makes Christianity shine above all other religions is love.  Only in the Christian, trinitarian understanding of God can love be an actual attribute of God—a part of who God is.

You can’t say this about the other great monotheistic religions of the world.  In both Judaism and Islam, God is simply one god in one person.  Outside of time and space, one person has no other to love, no other to be in relationship or community with.  Love must therefore be a creation of God, not an attribute, existing only within the realms of time and space, not outside or beyond them.

The same could be said for the various sects claiming to be Christian, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They don’t believe in the trinity, but only in a god of one person, a god who by nature does not possess as an attribute a love toward the other, a love that is outward.

Moreover, you can’t say that love is a divine attribute for the pantheistic religions of the world.

Hinduism has more than 300,000 gods.  Yet it is ultimately reduced to one impersonal, apathetic prime mover, unable to love another.

It is similar for the Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons.  In each case, there is a multitude of divinities; yet created by earlier forces; which in turn were created by earlier forces still; and so on until at the beginning there was only one, dispassionate, unmoved and unmoving mover, incapable of outward love.

You can’t say that love is an eternal divine attribute for the Buddhist either.  Indeed, the Buddhist understanding of divinity is fundamentally at odds with the Christian understanding, more atheistic than anything else.

And, perhaps it goes without saying, love cannot be a divine attribute for the Atheist.  There is no god for the Atheist—with the possible exception of the self, or the human animal.  But even the Atheist can’t deny that we catch glimpses of love all around us in our world.  So, the Atheist must ask, where does love come from?  If the harsh theory of natural selection is all that governs us human animals, as most Atheists maintain, where can an other-focused love fit in at all?

For all other religions, love can only ever be a human invention.  It is only the Christian religion that understands love to be a part of who God is.

So, too often on Trinity Sunday we preachers try to argue a case for the trinity.  How can we be sure there even is a trinity?  How can we prove that one god exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  How can we even begin to understand this idea?  And so, too often, we try to explain using words and analogies that are always and everywhere subject to finitude.

But if we just accept the doctrine of the trinity, that we don’t know how or why but the trinity just is, then we end up at a remarkable place.  God is love.  Love is, has always been, and always will be.  It’s not a creation.  It’s not a human invention.

And it’s why Christianity makes sense.

Sloppy Pruning

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by timtrue

John 15:1-8

Let me begin today by saying I’m glad I’m still new here.

I’m glad I’m still new here at St. Paul’s because this means I don’t really know you very well yet.  And that, you see, is a sort of protection for me; because today’s passage is a bit of a doozy.

Today’s passage from the Gospel of John says that we’re all branches; and that some branches have been cut off from the true vine that is Christ; and others will be pruned and cut by the vinegrower—by God the Father—himself.

In other words, there’s an element of judgment attached to today’s passage.  And if I, as your preacher today, bring this judgment to light—if I bring up specific attitudes or actions that might suggest God’s judgment—specific attitudes or actions you might practice—then I run the risk of stepping on your toes.

But I’m new here.  So, if I happen to bring up something that makes you a little squeamish, some attitude or action that you’ve had or done before, or that you might even be practicing now, remember, I’m not singling you out.  I don’t know you well enough yet to single you out.  I’m new here.

In other words, I can get away with saying a few things today I won’t be able to say later on, like a year from now.

Okay, then, now that I’ve got that off my chest, there’s this list of grievances I’ve brought with me today handed to me by the interim rector.  Names have been omitted from the list, he assures me, but. . . .

All right; just kidding!  I know it doesn’t really work that way.

But we do see another rich metaphor today in John’s Gospel, as we did last week; a metaphor pregnant with suggestion.  So there’s a chance that all of us will indeed see some of our own attitudes or actions in this passage.  It just might get a little uncomfortable, like being pruned—just warning you.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower . . . I am the true vine, and you are the branches.”

Do you remember the story from the Gospel of John about the man born blind?

Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples.  They see a man blind from birth; and the disciples ask Jesus, “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?”

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

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before the Jewish synagogue leaders, a. k. a. the Pharisees.  And after he tells them his story, curiously, the Pharisees are divided.

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

The Pharisees go to the man’s parents.  “Is this your son?” they ask.  Yes.  “Was he born blind?” they ask.  Yes.  “Do you know that he can see now?” they ask.  No.

“Well, you should.  How is it that he can now see?” they ask.

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

Do you remember what the Gospel tells us next?  It tells us why the parents say this.  Suddenly we are removed the drama of the moment and get a view from 10,000 feet up.

This should grab our attention.  This is a very important detail we need to consider closely.

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

Followers of Jesus were to be cut off from the synagogue: excommunicated.

By the time the Gospel of John was written, followers of Christ were no longer viewed as a Jewish sect.  This is not the same impression we get from the other three Gospels.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are some unkind Jewish leaders who confront Jesus and his disciples, sure!  But the followers of Jesus are everywhere assumed to be a Jewish sect, something like a denomination.  But by the time John is written—in the early second century—Christianity is no longer a sect but a separate religion, distinct from Judaism.

To finish the story, then, the Pharisees call forward the man born blind a second time.  Now they charge him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth!  “We know this man is a sinner!” they exclaim.

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

The exchange lasts a little longer.  But to cut to the chase, the story ends with these telling words: “And they drove him out.”  The Pharisees drove the healed man out of the synagogue because he trusted in Jesus.  Which is as much as to say the Pharisees cut him off from their community’s source of life, the synagogue, a branch of the vine Israel.

Yeah, the vine Israel.

Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.  For instance:

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 begins: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”

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

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

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 they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah.

But even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself.  Or, maybe a better way to put it, Israel had cut itself off from Jesus.

Do you see what John does here?  Jesus is the true vine, John says.  He, not Israel, is the true source of life.

Contrary to what the synagogue leaders had intended—to cut off Jesus’s followers from their source of life, the vine Israel—they had actually cut themselves off from Christ, the true source of life.  Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; whereas the members of the synagogue are the ones cut off from the vine, left to languish, wither, dry up, and die apart from the true vine.

And—here’s the gut-wrencher for me—they did it to themselves!  God didn’t cut them off.  God can’t be blamed here.  They did it to themselves.  They cut themselves off from Jesus.

Leading me to wonder: do we cut ourselves off from Jesus?

The Pharisees were divided, remember.  They were praying, reading, and otherwise seeking to interpret their scriptures; but it wasn’t altogether clear to them whether Jesus was the true Messiah or not.  They had to use their heads.  Eventually they made a decision—the wrong decision, we know today—to cut off Jesus.

But, at the time, they didn’t think they were wrong.

Do we do the same thing today?  As a community of Christians, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our authority.  But they’re not always cut and dry.  We wrestle over how best to interpret them for today’s context.  And when we reach conclusions, we don’t always agree with each other—or with others who are a part of the wider church.  We think we’re right—oh yeah!  But, like those Pharisees, what if we’re not?

From today’s discussion, three ways surface in which we Christians can do just this: we can actually cut ourselves off from Christ without knowing it.

The first seems obvious to me; I hope it seems so to you as well.  It’s what the Pharisees did to the man born blind and to all the others in their community who trusted in Jesus.  They excluded them.  They ostracized them.  They colluded against them.  They formed an “in” group—a clique—and wouldn’t let the Christians be a part of it.

God help us when we do the same!  When we exclude others we cut ourselves off from Christ.

Second, we value independence highly in our culture.  And rightly so!  The self-sufficient person is not needy; does not take from others, from society.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone were self-sufficient?

But this vine metaphor is not about self-sufficiency.  In fact, the person who wants to live a life alone—alone from others, alone from Christ—will languish, dry up, and wither away.

Instead, it’s about community.  We are many branches emanating from the same vine, the true vine.  And our purpose is singular: to produce the richest and most abundant fruit for God, our vinegrower.  We strive together in Christ for the same goal.

But when we value our independence so much that community is compromised, we cut ourselves off from Jesus, our true source of life.

And third, we don’t want to be pruned.  God comes at us with his knife.  The vinegrower carefully examines each and every branch.  When he spots an unproductive shoot or a mediocre baby bunch of grapes growing from a branch, he cuts it off.  And it hurts!

“Ouch!” we say; “I don’t want God inflicting pain on me!”

We don’t like pruning—trials, tribulations, hardships; big pruning like facing cancer; but small pruning too like annoying coworkers, whining family members, etc.  So we’d rather cut ourselves off from the vine entirely than endure the vinegrower’s knife.

Yet the vinegrower’s intention is to make us better, more productive, and more mature followers of Christ through his pruning.

And remember this: the vinegrower is never closer to the individual branch than when he is pruning it with his knife.

But we’d rather be in control—that independence again!  We don’t want to let God prune us; we don’t want to rest in the unresolved tension of cancer or an annoying coworker.  We would rather prune ourselves.

So we do!  All too often anyway!  We take matters into our own hands.

But we’re sloppy.  Our cuts are crude and harsh; and—what happens?—we don’t mean to but we end up cutting ourselves too deeply, cutting ourselves off completely, to languish, dry up, and wither away apart from Jesus.

Do you see?  The message here is really quite simple: Don’t try to do the pruning yourself.

You’ll cut others off; you’ll cut yourself off from others; and you’ll cut yourself off from Jesus Christ, the true vine.

Spiritual pruning is best left to the vinegrower.

Christian Community’s Distinct Nature

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 18:15-20

We hear a lot these days about community. Why?  Why is community—and in particular, why is Christian community—so important?

In the beginning, the Bible tells us, God created Adam.  Adam was given stewardship over all creation.  He named the animals, he worked the land, and he dwelled with God.  But it was not good for him to be alone.  It was not good, in other words, for the man to live by himself, in solidarity, as a ruggedly independent individual.  He needed community.  So God, we read, created Eve.

The first man and woman dwelled together in community.  Much drama accompanied their life together, granted.  They shared the forbidden fruit; their once enjoyable work became toil and labor; their children argued and fought, even to the point of murder.  And yet, the story continues, God began to work his good will through them in their community.

God wants community, we infer; even with all the drama that comes along with it.

But can we take community too far?  In the sixth chapter of Genesis we read about the whole human population working in community against God.  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually, the Scriptures tell us (Gen. 6:5).  And it happens again only a few chapters later, when the people conspire to build a tower to subdue God, as if that were possible; and God confounds their language and scatters them abroad.

Community is good.  Community is necessary.  But community can go too far: community can go against God.

So how do we keep our Christian community, this church, in check?

The church is different from other communities.  Let’s think this statement through for a few minutes.

As a starting point, consider marriage.  It is a small community, consisting of two persons (like Adam and Eve).  When two people get married, there are many hopes and dreams that come into play.  Through the relationship prior to marriage, these two persons have discovered many things they share in common; they formulate goals that include one another; and they agree that together they harmonize better as a unit than they do on their own.  In time, if the couple has children, this community grows, sure.  But my point here is that this community has been founded upon human ideals.  Even if the marriage is intentionally Christ-centered, it is founded upon the human ideal intentionally to look to Jesus Christ for leadership.

Now, isn’t marriage a picture of other communities?

A community forms because of some ideal.  Whether a school, an organization focused on diminishing poverty in San Antonio, a civil engineering firm, whatever—a community forms with an ideal to be realized, or to die trying.

But the church, unlike all other communities, is not focused on human ideals.  Rather, the church is a present divine reality.  We follow Christ, the incarnation of God who lived and died as one of us then rose again and now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  But now, in between his resurrection and his second coming, his disciples have been scattered to the far regions of the world.  It is a privilege to be part of a Christian community—a church—at all.

Christian community is a gift from God we cannot claim, like sanctification.  It is a reality in which we participate, not an ideal we attempt to realize.  In the church, there is no place for fashioning a visionary ideal of community.

Now we come to today’s passage. We are the church, a community established and maintained by Jesus Christ.  But the church is a community unlike any other: a reality in which we participate rather than an ideal we try to realize.  As such, in this reality there will be disagreement; there will be dysfunction; there will be conflict.  Jesus knows this.  And Jesus tells us very plainly here how to deal with it.  But if I can nub and tag today’s passage in a simple sentence, it is this:

As the church, we must be reconciled to one another.

Reconciliation comes when we realize the nature of Christian community.  We enter into the church not as demanders, not attempting to realize our own ideals, but as thankful recipients.  Think about your own baptism.  Or maybe you’re too young to remember it, so think about baptisms you’ve witnessed.  These are times of gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  We enter the Christian community as thankful recipients.  We participate in this already extant reality called the church.  This is the nature of community we should always experience in the church.

But our mindsets don’t always stay that way, do they?  We don’t always remain grateful recipients.  We begin to think we have a lot to offer; maybe even more to offer Christ than he has to offer us.  This is a danger zone.

What is your understanding of the church?  What is your agenda?  Do you see the church as an organization to influence local politics?  Do you see the Christian community as a wholesome place to raise the kids?  To you, should the church follow a slick business model to market the good news of Jesus Christ to the consumer-oriented world around us?

Now, any time your own agenda disagrees with someone else’s, conflict results.  In a church this size, such agenda-clashing conflicts can happen a lot.  Sometimes the nature of these conflicts rises to a high enough level that feelings get hurt.  Sometimes we feel that people may have even sinned against us.  Sometimes people do in fact sin against us.  Reconciliation becomes necessary.

But reconciliation can be difficult—especially when we’ve taken ownership of our own agendas, our “babies”; and we become demanders rather than thankful recipients. “I’m gonna live or die on this one,” we tell ourselves, “and no one—not the vestry, not the rector, not even the bishop!—no one’s gonna stop me!”

If someone in the church has offended you, go to that person.  But go not as a demander.  Go instead with the willingness to hear him or her out.  Maybe there’s a side to this thing you’re not seeing.  Maybe your offense is unfounded.  Or maybe not.  But don’t go with your mind made up beforehand to get your way, that no one will change your mind, that no one’s gonna stop you.

Then, if you’ve truly gone with the right attitude, that Christ’s agenda is ahead of your own; and you still feel offended or sinned against, that’s when you bring someone else into it.

Do you see?  It’s a system of checks and balances given to us by Jesus Christ.  Perhaps you have been sinned against.  Or perhaps you haven’t.  Either way, in going humbly to the one who has offended you, the goal is to be reconciled to one another; the goal is to live in harmony with each other—whether the other is a regular churchgoer, a vestry member, a priest, the rector, or even the bishop.

This is the church.  It exists not so that we can accomplish our human ideals, our individual agendas.  Rather, it exists for the glory of Christ.  Christ’s glory is why it existed before we ever got here; and Christ’s glory is why it will continue to exist long after we pass on.

Disunity, disharmony, and dysfunction do little to glorify Christ.  Reconciliation does much.  Let us therefore be reconciled to one another.