Archive for culture

Gazing at the Underside

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

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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.

Language by Baptism: Parte Dos

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by timtrue

As intimated previously, here are two food photos: of today’s lunch at our host’s local restaurante; tortilla soup followed by queso enchiladas con salsa verde:

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Anyway, three days into it now, I’ve experienced a couple of minor disappointments.

In the first place–at the risk of sounding like Hermione Granger–the school decided to cancel its last class of the day for this entire Session. What this means is that we’re done at 5pm instead of 6:20, which is the positive way to look at it. It also means, however, that the Mexican history section has been cancelled, a section entitled “Mexican Literature II,” something I was really looking forward to.

The second disappointment is the other afternoon class, beginning at 3:45, “Folksinging and Folkdancing.” Now, I’m okay with singing, especially folk singing, especially in Spanish. Trouble is, so far it’s only been a social dancing seminar, stress dancing and neither singing nor Spanishing.

Morning classes are nonetheless substantial, solid from 8:30am to 1:45pm.

Entonces . . .

We decided instead of “Folksinging and Folkdancing” today to take in a local botanical garden.

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Leaving the restaurant, we mapped out our walk to some botanical gardens whose name I can’t remember right now (brain’s kind of full at the moment . . .), some 1.5 miles distant. What we didn’t know was that this distance would be entirely uphill, sometimes at a 20% slope. We saw two medium-to-large men try and fail to ride a motorcycle up this slope. Most motorcycles around here have smallish engines, like 150ccs. Still, it was that steep!

Here are a few photos from our ascent via (steep) city streets:

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Looking back. AHA! is directly left of the white sedan. La Boganbilia, our host’s restuarante, is at the other end of the street, several blocks away.

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So, up we go.

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Another look back, SMA’s skyline is quite spectacular.

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And, huffing and puffing (at above 2,000 m/ 6,600 ft in elevation), we make it! Entrance fee, by the way, is 40 pesos, or about $2.20, a US penny per acre.

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Inside we find a trail around the garden and several plants you might guess are in the region.

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Mesquite (for my Texas friends).

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Gatillo (for my friends who like mimosas).

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And agave!–specia Magna in the top photo; specia Tequila in the bottom (for my friends who like margaritas).

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The property includes a wetland area.

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And what do you call this? A cactus pond garden?

But the real surprise comes when we encounter the ruins of an eighteenth-century aqueduct, to deliver water to the town once upon a time:

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This is the water source for the aqueduct.

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And some of the ruins.

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Here you see the gorge down which the aqueduct traveled. Near the top of the gorge on the far side there is a newer system of pipes to deliver water to SMA, however now also defunct.

A few steps away, I conclude today’s self-made cultural and historical experience with a couple more shots of this beautiful city. Stay tuned for parte tres.

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Responding like Thomas

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

FatherTim

John 20:19-31

Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We value skepticism in our culture.

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

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

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

What do I mean?

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

Hasn’t he taken his skepticism too far?

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

When?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Sunday School Scenario!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 9:30-37

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

Look upon a little child;

Pity my simplicity,

Suffer me to come to Thee.

 

Fain I would to Thee be brought,

Dearest God, forbid it not;

Give me, dearest God, a place

In the kingdom of Thy grace

 

Lamb of God, I look to Thee;

Thou shalt my Example be;

Thou art gentle, meek, and mild;

Thou wast once a little child.  Etc.

Nothing against Charles Wesley, who penned the words of this hymn; but these words demonstrate well my starting point today: we like to think of Jesus as meek and mild.

On his way to Capernaum, Jesus notices some of the disciples arguing among themselves.  So, rather than pointing out their pettiness, in his meek and mild way Jesus waits until they’ve reached their destination.

There, really knowing what the argument was about all along—because he’s Jesus, after all—rather than sternly rebuking these disciples openly, Jesus calls a little child to himself, for an object lesson.  And we all say, “Aw!”

Aw! because, well, there’s a child involved; and aren’t children just so precious!  And Aw! because Jesus is just so meek and mild and wise precisely because he does not rebuke his disciples openly but instead chooses to teach them through subtlety and persuasion.  And oh! don’t we all want to be just like him now?

But let’s look at this passage afresh. Is Jesus being meek and mild here?  Is this the Sunday-school Jesus here we’ve come to know and love, the Jesus who takes time to notice the small joys of life that others take for granted?  Is this the Jesus here who exercises wisdom through gentle persuasion and compassion?

Not to discount any of those traits!  Jesus is, at times, meek, mild, and gentle.  He does take time to notice the small joys in life.  He does exercise wisdom through persuasion.  He does all this—but elsewhere!  Not here!

Notice that the disciples are actually afraid of him.  Yeah, afraid!  Along the road Jesus teaches his disciples that he must be betrayed and killed; but that he will rise again.  Then v. 32 tells us, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

A little later, after Jesus asks them what they were arguing about amongst themselves on the road to Capernaum, they do not answer him but remain silent.  This time we’re not told directly that they are afraid, but the silence strongly suggests it.

Afraid!

Of Jesus!

Who then calls over a little child!

And we’re thinking, “Aw!”

Shame on us!

This isn’t some saccharine-sweet Sunday school scenario.  There’s raw emotion here.  Jesus isn’t being meek and mild with the disciples.  Rather, he’s challenging them and their views—their selfish, egocentric, pushy views—about who among them is the greatest.

Now, let’s step out of Jesus’ world for a moment and think about the world we know: our world. Who in our world is the greatest?

Just to clarify, I’m not asking the same question as the disciples: I’m not asking us to consider who among us, the parishioners of St. Paul’s in Yuma, is the greatest.  Rather, it’s a question in general.  In our modern-day, independence-valuing American culture, what kind of person gets ahead?  Who rises to the top positions in leadership?  Who wins?

Isn’t it—at least all too often—the pushiest, most self-promoting person?  We all want the underdog to win; it seems almost inherent to our nature.  And there are exceptions to the rule.  But the fact is that most people in positions of leadership get there by being a fighter.  We thrive on competition.  Vying for the top job means competing against others—sometimes hundreds of others—in order to get there.  This requires a certain amount of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and relentlessness.  Even my former seminary dean—one of the meekest, mildest, and humblest men I’ve ever known—admitted to having to do these things in order to become the dean.  It’s how we rise through the ranks in our culture.

Well, guess what.  It was no different in Jesus’ day.

We all know stories, of course, of Caesars who were egocentric megalomaniacs.  But a common Roman citizen might zealously desire to become a member of the equites, or even a senator.  And the way to get there—you guessed it—was through shameless self-promotion and otherwise fighting one’s way to the top.  It was about being the greatest.

But all this relentless pursuit to become something or somebody, to amass more wealth, to acquire more clients, to increase in status, to become more well-known and respected—does a mere child concern itself with these things?  (By the way, did you notice?  Our English translation captures the impersonalized pronoun for the child: it.  This child, It, no doubt, was at the very bottom of the bottom rung of the Roman social ladder.)

The relentless pursuit of self was miles from this child’s point of view.  So, here, today, Jesus is not some syrupy Sunday school caricature.  Quite the contrary, today Jesus is stern.  He’s turning the selfish pursuit for self-promotion head over heels.  He welcomes this child into his arms, and thereby sternly rebukes his disciples for arguing among themselves about who is the greatest; and likewise challenges the dominant values of society.

Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is not the same as leadership in the world.  Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is not about fighting your way to the top.  Leadership in Christ’s kingdom is about being the servant of all.

Which leaves me with just one application for today.

We have a turnover approaching in the leadership here at St. Paul’s.  The term of four vestry members will conclude in January; four new vestry members will be elected.

My application for you today, then, is a kind of homework assignment.  Over the next few months, think about those you know in this congregation who demonstrate the kind of servant leadership Jesus demands.  Then, if someone comes to mind, go and tell that person you’d like to nominate him or her for one of the upcoming vestry vacancies.

And if you’re a person who is approached, well, you have a follow-up assignment.  Pray.  Ask the Holy Spirit to work in your heart and help you discern whether this area of servant leadership is for you.  Then allow your name to be put forward as a nominee; and tell your nominator “okay” and to let me know.

And don’t worry about too many names!  Wouldn’t it be great if ten such nominees were to rise to the surface over the next four months?

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Tired of Spinning?

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

TECshield

Mark 6:1-13

Spin.

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

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

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

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

Spin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Turn the World Upside Up

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 5:1-12

Our world is inverted.

It’s been that way since the beginning—or shortly thereafter, anyway.  For in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And God is a perfect God.  So God would not create the world to be a certain way—right side up—just to turn it upside down for fun, as if to see how we humans would handle it or some such nonsense.  No, that would go against God’s good nature.  Rather, it was inverted soon after the conclusion of the sixth day, soon after God created humankind in his own image.

We know the story.  God created people, not the animals, in his own image.  The animals were different, created to help us image-bearing people, created so that humankind might be glorified in some way.  In turn, humankind was created to glorify God.  From the bottom up, then, it was creatures, people, God.

But the serpent came along.  And he was crafty; craftier, in fact, than all the other creatures.  And he spoke.  (Does this remind you of anything?)  And he said to the woman, “Surely you want to be as gods too, don’t you?  Surely you want to know good from evil?”

Thus she and her man gave in to the crafty serpent.  They listened to it; and they put themselves in subjection to it.  And, when they did this, at the same time they exalted themselves above God.  From the bottom up, now, it was God, people, creatures.  In their sin—in their fall—all creation was turned upside down.

The prophet Isaiah says it this way: “You turn things upside down! / Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? / Shall . . . the thing formed say of the one who formed it, / ‘He has no understanding’ (29:16, my emphasis)?”

Our world is inverted.

In a nutshell, we see the Gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ here. For God so loved the world—the cosmos; creation—that he sent his only Son to re-establish the created order; to set things right side up.

We see this in the book of Acts, right?  That’s the book in the New Testament that follows the Gospels.  It tells the story of what Jesus’s followers started to do after he lived, died, and rose again; it tells the story of the founding of the church.

One episode goes like this: two of Jesus’s followers, named Paul and Silas, come to the city of Thessalonica.  There they enter the local synagogue and begin to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah of Israel.  Several people, including many leaders, like this message and convert.  But this riles up the other synagogue leaders who go out and, with the help of some local ruffians, start a riot.  The mob captures some Christians and drags them before the city officials; and the mob leaders say: “These people”—i. e., these emperor-defying Christians—“who have been turning the world upside down have come here also” (cf. Acts 17:1-9, my emphasis).

The Christians, they said, were turning the world upside down.  But the world was already upside down—inverted—since just after creation.  But turning the already upside down world upside down—isn’t that really just to turn it upside up?  That’s what the church is doing!  Or, at least, that’s what the church is called to do.

Are we doing it?  Are we doing what we can to put the world upside up?

Now we come to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount; and, in particular, to its introduction: the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  And again, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  And so on.

The poor in spirit?  Those who mourn?  The meek?  This doesn’t sound like a list of things I aspire to be.

And why are these people even blessed?  Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven; they will be comforted; and they will inherit the earth.  But aren’t these all things that will happen in the future?  Isn’t this a kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this.  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 that sounds an awful lot like something my second grade teacher told me.  I don’t really buy it.

I want to be blessed now.  And it seems to me—from the way things work in the world around me—it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in the present.  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 comfortable now!  I want to hear Jesus say something like this:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money!  For theirs is a comfortable home in a no-crime neighborhood where their kids can attend the best schools.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this?

A couple observations.

First, Jesus’s discourse is designed to turn the world upside up.

The culture tells us in very tangible ways that the happiest or most blessed people are those with the most money, those who have fought their way confidently to the top of their respective ladders, those who live most comfortably.

Jesus’s beatific list runs against this; it’s counter-cultural.

But is this list so bad?

It starts out with poor in spirit, mournful, and meek.  These sound to me like a person who has been humbled before God—not a bad place to be.

The list continues, saying, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart.  I’m not sure our culture values these characteristics too much.  Just try putting some of these descriptions on a resume—peacemaker; persecuted for righteousness’ sake; reviled for Christ’s sake—and good luck getting that job!

No, these are not characteristics valued highly by our culture.  But they are highly valued by Christ; and they characterize the citizens of his heavenly kingdom—or they should.

Which brings us to my second observation.  This beatific list isn’t all about the future.  Instead, it is about the present, the here and now.

We hear terms like heavenly kingdom and we see the future tense (they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, etc.), and it’s easy to go into pie-in-the-sky mode.

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.

And when I do, we think—when I fly away in glorious rapture at the trumpet blast—then I’ll be poor in spirit and all the rest; ’cause then I’ll inherit the kingdom of heaven.  But I’m not about to be poor in spirit and meek and all that before then!

But that’s just Jesus’s point!  We are not living in a world as aliens and strangers; we are not living in a world that will all burn up and fade away and good riddance!  The meek shall inherit the earth, not some imagined fantasy land!  It’s not all going to end like Left Behind tells us (itself an inverted way of thinking), but through Christ saving the world in an ongoing way through his church; his church that is made up of humble, meek, merciful, peacemaking, righteousness-seeking, upside-up people—you, me, all the saints—in the here and now.

Think of the beatitudes, then, as a how-to list.  Beginning now, with you, these are how to turn the world right side up.  Strive after humility.  Strive after purity of heart.  Strive to be merciful, a peacemaker, and all the rest.  Strive to live each day as a citizen of the heavenly kingdom, for that is what you are.

That’s NOT not Fair!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2014 by timtrue

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

Chris McDonough, the chair of the classics department at the University of the South, addressed last year’s graduating seniors with these words:[i]

“[T]here was a time in our country, once, when our schools had programs of free and reduced meals that were predicated on the idea of hunger. Children couldn’t get enough to eat. In the past few years, that program has had to be re-structured to account for a different sort of problem. It is not that children cannot get enough food to eat, but rather that they cannot get enough nutritious food to eat.

“We are no longer dealing with want, in other words, but with obesity. And in a similar fashion, those of us in education are learning likewise to provide an education that does not presuppose a lack of access to information but rather too much. We are needing to think about an education, in other words, that confronts mental obesity. All of which is to say that you who are about to graduate have grown up amidst tremendous technological sophistication, yet what has ultimately been rendered is a universe of information absurdly arranged, a sumptuous banquet of mentally empty carbohydrates.”

McDonough’s right.  We know abundance.  And we feel as if we’ve earned it.  But we are glutting ourselves on it.

It’s not a question anymore of whether we can give hungry children food, but whether we are willing to give them healthy food.  It’s not a question anymore of whether or not we can afford a TV, but whether we ought to limit somehow the thousands of channels available at the push of some buttons.  It’s not a question anymore of whether today’s generation is receiving an education—indeed, there is more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before in the world’s history!—; but how to focus all this information into some cohesive structure.

In our food, in our entertainment, in our education we have become unhealthy, even obese.  We are not viewing our manna, our day’s wages, our daily bread as sufficient.  We want more.  We hoard.  And we think it’s unfair when someone less talented or less driven has more or seemingly better stuff than we have.

Over in Exodus today we hear the story of manna from heaven. God has raised up a new leader, Moses, for a new day in Israel’s history.  Through Moses, God has freed Israel from the oppressive hand of Egypt, dramatically, with the parting of the Red Sea.  Now the chosen people are out in the wilderness—and what are they doing?—complaining!

Complaining?  Didn’t God just deliver them from the hand of slavery?  Didn’t God just answer their collective prayers in undeniable ways?  Didn’t God just promise to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey?  And they’re complaining?  Already?

Well, um, yes, they are, already, complaining.  “We don’t have enough to eat out here,” they say; “but back in Egypt we had plenty of meat and bread.  We’re hungry!”  The whole congregation, in fact!  Despite God’s demonstrated generosity!  And despite God’s promise to continue in this generosity!

So what does God do?  Does God say: “Fine!  Forget it!  I’m walking away.  I’ll just go find some other people to make promises to.  I’ll just go find some other people who appreciate me, who won’t complain”?

No, that’s not what God does at all.  Instead, God provides them with manna, bread from heaven.

But there’s a catch.  The people of Israel are to collect just enough for the day—and no more.  Sure, the healthy persons can collect more than they need for themselves, in order to share with those too young or too weak to collect manna; and everyone can collect two days’ worth on Friday.  But the point here is that God wants them to trust him for their daily bread.  They are not to hoard.

Even so, a few pages later we read about some people who hoard anyway.  They go out in the morning to collect their manna for the day, just like everyone else; but they don’t stop with their one day’s ration.  Instead, they collect two days’, three days’, maybe even a week’s worth of the stuff.

What’s going on here?

These hoarders are not trusting God; they’re not wanting to follow the new rules of the new nation.  Instead, they’re operating by the old rules of Egypt.

But what happens?

When they wake up the next morning and walk on over to their storage containers, the ones with the extra manna in it, it’s full of worms; it’s mealy; it’s, as we say, not suitable for human consumption.

And instead of seeing God’s generosity in their daily bread falling from heaven, they complain once more.  “What?” they say; “that’s not fair!”

In today’s parable, over in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s really the same thing.

Some workers are hired by a landowner at the beginning of the work day.  And they’re hired at an agreed upon pay rate: a denarius; a day’s wage, enough to buy one’s daily bread.

Later, at the third hour of the day, the landowner returns to the market and hires other workers, telling them, “I will pay you whatever is right.”

Later still, both at the sixth and ninth hours of the day, the landowner does it again.

And once more, even at the eleventh hour, he hires yet more workers.

Finally the twelfth hour comes and it’s payday.  But the landowner pays everyone the same thing, starting with those who were hired last and working his way down to the first.

Then we hear that those who were first hired, the all-day workers, grumble.  “Hey,” they say, “these last ones hired didn’t have to stand in the scorching heat.  They didn’t have to bear the burden of the entire day.  Yet you paid them the same as us.  What is this?  That’s not fair!”

And we relate to these all-day workers, don’t we?  “Yeah,” we say.  “You know, those grumblers have a point.  That isn’t fair, really, when you think about it.  What’s Jesus playing at?”

But, remember, we live in America.  We have an abundance of food, an abundance of entertainment, an abundance of information.  We hoard unhealthily, even to the point of obesity.  This is not a judgment; it’s a statement about the way things are, a statement about our collective lifestyle.

But, remember too, we are citizens of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, with new rules and new ways of seeing and doing things.

Should abundance, then, be the lens through which we interpret today’s parable?  Should hoarding be the lens through which we understand fairness, justice, and equity?

I have my daily bread. That is what God gives me.  And with this I ought to be content; I should trust in God’s demonstrated generosity towards me—whether or not my neighbor has fifty times more.

But I see my neighbor and find myself wanting so desperately what he has.  And I shout out to God, “That’s not fair!”  I want that sumptuous feast, even if it’s only empty carbohydrates.

Or I’m like the workers in the parable.  “Why should my neighbor have as much as I have?” I ask.  “That’s not fair!  I work so much harder than she does!”  I don’t want to share God’s generosity with her.

But either way: when it gets to this point—when we think it’s unfair that someone else has it easier, or more than we do—it’s no longer a matter of fairness, justice, or equity.  We say, “That’s not fair!  That’s not fair!” feeling that we deserve more than the next person.  But the instant we point a finger at someone else and claim our just desserts, we cross a boundary: from the land of fairness, justice, and equity into the land of envy.

Today’s parable ends with the landowner asking those all-day workers a telling question: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

This question is what Jesus is playing at.

These all-day workers grumble against the landowner, accusing him that he’s being unfair.  After reminding them that he is in fact doing nothing unfair, that he is in fact paying them what they agreed upon beforehand, the landowner rightly turns the tables and asks the all-day workers to search their own consciences.  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

God is asking us the same.  We see our world through the eyes of our times.  Despite our Christian identity, it’s only natural that our views of fairness are going to align with our culture.  And God has been generous to our culture.  But when does our desire for fairness become envy?

We are citizens of a new kingdom.  It’s time to search our consciences.  Consider whether we need to reorder our views of fairness, justice, and equity to align with the view of the kingdom of heaven; to align with Jesus Christ’s views.  And it’s time to ask ourselves: is what we see as fair and just actually masking our own envy?

__________________________________________

[i]               Actually, Chris McDonough intended to address the graduating seniors; but a tornado warning interfered with his plans and the address never took place.  Cf. http://uncomelyandbroken.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/in-the-form-of-a-question/