Archive for death

Learning Hope from Dr. Jeffrey Cohen

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2018 by timtrue

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John 11:32-44

1.

October 27 marked the 300th day of this year. It also marked the 294th mass shooting this year in our country.

We all watched in horror as the news unfolded last Saturday.

Earlier that morning, Robert Bowers had entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and begun shooting his legally owned AR-15.

Then, in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital, after receiving several gunshot wounds himself from police, Bowers yelled out, “I want to kill all the Jews!”

He yelled the same thing some minutes later in the Emergency Room.

Ironically, a medical team led by a Jewish man treated Bowers in the hospital.

In the end: eleven worshipers had been slain, gunned down in a crime of hate, making this the largest massacre of our Jewish sisters and brothers in our nation’s history!

Holly and I visited Temple Beth Sholom here in Temecula on Friday night—to stand in solidarity and pray with people we love.

And, you know, a Jewish prayer service is really not all that different from a Christian prayer service! There are minor differences, sure—some of the readings are in Hebrew, for instance—but, at the core, Christians and Jews are largely the same: trying our best to find and serve God according to what we know—according to the revelation God has given us.

So:

The 300th day of the year!

The 294th mass shooting!

That’s nearly one mass shooting a day.

That’s more than a thousand people, already, who have lost their lives this year to gun violence.

And why?

2.

This week the Christian church around the world celebrated Halloween (a. k. a. All Halloweds Eve, or All Saints Eve); as well as All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Along these lines, a large portion of the Americas also celebrated Dia de Los Muertos.

It is a week when Christians focus on the people we have known and loved who have passed before us through the veil of death and beyond. In fact, during the Prayers of the People today I will offer us a time to name loved ones who are no longer with us.

These are days of grieving; and mourning. For we miss our beloved friends and family members with whom we’ve journeyed through part of this life together. We see a photo or speak their names or catch a scent that reminds us; and we’re suddenly reduced to tears.

But these are also days of rejoicing, of celebrating the lives and legacies they left behind.

We rejoice and celebrate because we hope in the resurrection. Death, we know, is only part of the story. And it’s the smaller part! For, we also know, death has been truly and finally vanquished by our Lord, Savior, Redeemer, and Friend Christ Jesus.

Which is why, by the way, the liturgical color of a funeral is white—same as a wedding!—same as today! It’s not so much about mourning as it is about rejoicing; not so much death as resurrection; not so much old life as new!

That’s how it’s supposed to be, at least.

But what if, instead, it feels like the mourning and grieving ought to take precedence—like when the loss is still too fresh to focus on much else; like now, at this moment in our nation’s history, when hate crimes are almost a daily occurrence?

How can we maintain any hope at all when such despairing obstacles get in the way?

3.

And then there’s this troubling question: What about the man who pulled the trigger?

I wonder, what would you have done in the Emergency Room doctor’s shoes? What would I have done?

The Jewish community in Pittsburgh is relatively small—Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where you’ll find nearly all of the Jewish community, has a population of about 25,000 people—and it has been there for several generations, certainly since the first half of the nineteenth century, possibly quite a bit earlier.

The Jewish network in Pittsburgh is tight; and it runs deep.

Imagine, then, with this kind of network, you’re leading a team of medical professionals in the E. R.; and a man is rushed in with gunshot wounds, bleeding, in need of urgent medical attention.

And he yells out, “I want to kill all the Jews!”

What do you do when you connect the dots?

What do you do when you suddenly realize, with horror, that this man before you is the very man who just entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and unleashed violence and death on the worshipers?

What do you do when you learn that he took the lives of eleven innocent people—eleven of your people?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could carry on. As much as I know, in my head, that I have a duty to seek to do all within my power to heal each person in my care, my emotions might just carry the day in this particular situation. I think I might have to find another doctor and say, “Take this one, please; I simply cannot.”

But the Jewish E. R. doctor did take Bowers under his care; along with a Jewish nurse, whose father just so happens to be a local rabbi.

Dr. Jeffrey Cohen caught wind of this unfolding drama. Dr. Cohen is the president of Allegheny General Hospital, where the perpetrator was taken for care. In fact, sitting in his office, Dr. Cohen heard the gunshots from the shootout. Even closer to home, Dr. Cohen is a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue; and personally knew nine of the eleven victims.

You know what Dr. Cohen did? He went to the E. R. and told the doctor and nurse attending Bowers that he was proud of them.

Then he approached Bowers himself and asked how he was doing, whether he was in pain.

Bowers said he was okay then asked who he was; to which Cohen replied, “I’m Dr. Cohen, the president of this hospital.”[i]

I don’t think I would have been able to do any of that. I don’t think, in that moment, I’d have had any hope at all. Would you?

4.

In today’s Gospel, death confronts Jesus with a number of despairing obstacles.

First, Jesus was delayed. If only Jesus had been able to get there earlier, Mary lamented, her brother Lazarus would not have died.

Then, second, Jesus could not lay his hands on Lazarus, or even look at him, for a large stone stood in the way, blocking the tomb’s entrance.

Third—suppose someone were to roll the stone away—there’d be the stench! Death has already claimed Lazarus, made certain by the smell of decay.

And, finally, in case all that weren’t enough already, Lazarus is wearing grave clothes—already clothed in death.

Death has won! All hope is vanquished.

There’s nothing left for us, we think, but to despair, be angry, and hate.

But see what Jesus does!

He weeps with Mary and the others.

He goes to where Lazarus lies.

He includes others: “Roll away the stone,” he says.

He then calls Lazarus forth.

And he tells the others to take off Lazarus’s grave clothes.

Jesus overcomes all the obstacles that death throws at him, taking each in turn; until, truly and finally, death is vanquished!

5.

For us today, many despairing obstacles stand in hope’s way. To name just a few:

  • The heavy stone of hatred, bigotry, and prejudice.
  • The decaying stench of intolerance and racism.
  • The fearsome grave clothes of homophobia and xenophobia.

These obstacles aren’t death itself; but they point to it.

Unless we weep with those who weep, confront these obstacles squarely, and roll them away together, death is all we will see: our hope is eclipsed.

Oh, but when we do, it’s Easter all over again!

Every year, on November 1, we remember all the saints—all those who have believed, do believe, or will believe that Jesus is the pathway to the divine.

But this isn’t enough; so every year, on November 2, we remember all souls—every person who has lived, does live, or will live.

Every soul!

Including all the holy women and men of the church!

Including all those who lost their lives a week ago in Pittsburgh!

And including even the perpetrators!

Vanquishing death forever means vanquishing our hatred now; including our hatred for the perpetrator.

Today, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen gives me hope.

[i] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2018/10/30/im-dr-cohen-powerful-humanity-jewish-hospital-staff-that-treated-robert-bowers/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.86137fad168a.

Entitled or Grateful?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was preached on October 9, 2016.

Luke 17:11-19

Two students come to mind from my time in Sewanee.

One was entitled.  She cheated.  But she beat the system.  Curiously, her parents are alumni and supporters.  I cannot help but wonder if she in fact expected to be the system.  She was forever angry at me afterward, for I was the professor who called her out.  Her attitude said, “What can Sewanee do for me?”

The other student was thankful.  He was a refugee from Sierra Leone, for all intents and purposes an orphan, for his parents remained in SL.  He came to Sewanee on a full scholarship.  He was a joy to be around; he loved each day.  And he offered to the Sewanee community what he knew: dance.  Many children and students benefited from his knowledge and love of this art form.  His attitude said, “What can I do for Sewanee?”

Now, in last week’s sermon we learned a couple of things that faith is not.

Faith cannot be quantified.

In our consumer, materialistic culture, we hear Jesus say, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”; and we think in terms of amount.

The mustard seed is a tiny seed; and from it grows a shrub so large that sizable birds come and roost in its branches.  If only we could have faith like that!  Then we could say to a mulberry tree or even a mountain, “Be cast into the sea!” and it would obey us.

But then we try it.  And it doesn’t work.

Neither is faith cause-and-effect.

You receive terrible news: say, a family member has cancer.  So, as many modern-day Christian voices have taught, you reason that all you need to do is believe hard enough and God will heal your family member.

And if healing happens, well and good.  But if it doesn’t, you’re left thinking that you didn’t pray hard enough and believe deeply enough: you simply had too little faith, less than a mustard seed’s worth.

Faith hasn’t worked.

You’ve spent hours upon hours in personal prayer.  You’ve attended seminars on increasing your personal faith.  You may even have sent tax-deductible contributions to that man on the TV who promised that doing so would increase your faith.  But still the answer hasn’t gone the way you wanted it to.  Surely, you conclude, my faith lacks.

Last week, then, the Gospel of Luke offered a picture of what faith is not: it’s not quantifiable; it’s not cause-and-effect.

By contrast, this week the Gospel of Luke (in the very next passage/pericope) offers us a picture of what faith is.

There are ten lepers.  They see Jesus and shout out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Do these lepers have faith?

Here’s an interesting thing about lepers in the ancient world—at least in the region of Palestine where this story takes place.  A leper had to be declared clean not by a physician but by a priest.

If a person had leprosy—a term used to describe any number of skin infections—the normal protocol was to go and live in a colony, away from society.

A leper couldn’t go to synagogue to worship with his or her community.  A leper couldn’t go to the local market to buy, sell, or barter.  A leper couldn’t carry on whatever trade or skill he knew.  Lepers had to move out, away from the life and people they’d always known.

To come out as a leper was thoroughly disruptive, upsetting the equilibrium of not just one life but entire households, even communities.

Once publicly known, the leper would move out of her community and into a colony with other known lepers.  There, quarantined away from society, she would depend on others—friends and family—for sustenance.  She couldn’t go to the market after all!  And these others—the friends and family—came to the leper colony at their own risk.

Talk about social outcasts!  Lepers of the ancient world knew what it was to be exiled—perhaps more keenly than anyone else.

And the only way for lepers to enter back into society was through the priests.  If a leper’s skin cleared up—a big if, mind you!—he or she must then go to a priest for inspection and approval—a declaration of cleanliness—before re-entering society.

The whole thing was a cumbersome process, a kind of ancient Jewish red tape.

So then, on this certain day when Jesus and his apostles are going through the region between Samaria and Galilee, they pass near enough to a quarantined leper colony that ten lepers are able to approach them.

And they say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Do they have faith?

Well, here’s what we know.  Jesus answers them, saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

Jesus does not heal them then and there.  The text makes this quite clear: “And as they went,” it says, “they were made clean.”

This is an important detail.  When Jesus tells them to go to the priests, the lepers aren’t yet healed.  This is an important detail because it demonstrates faith—or at least a kind of faith.  If Jesus is truly their Master, as they call him, then it is an act of faith to obey Jesus before they are actually healed.

So, I ask again, do these lepers have faith?

Yes.  Or, at least, they show a kind of faith.

But only one turns back. Only one comes back to Jesus to express gratitude.  And only to this one does Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”

Now, to be sure, a lot of theological discussion of this text revolves around the point that this one is a foreigner, a Samaritan.  For Samaritans were viewed in Jesus’ day with thorough disdain.  They were the racial scapegoats.  Jews especially viewed them as less than human.  They were half-bloods with a cheap and highly compromised religion.  So, this one leper who turns around and comes back to Jesus is doubly an outcast.

Nevertheless, this Samaritan leper was still required to go to the priests in order to return to normal society as he knew it.

In other words, let’s not make too much of this racial sub-point.  The main point here is that this one turns around and the other nine do not.

Where do the other nine go?  Without a doubt, to the priests.  They want to re-integrate with society, after all.

Does this mean that the one who turns around does not go to the priests?  Not at all!  He wants to re-integrate with society just as badly.

But before he goes to the priests—and this is the main point here, above everything else!—this one foreigner turns around in order to express gratitude.

And what happens?

Ten are made clean.

But only to the one does Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”

If the nine show us one kind of faith, the one shows us another.  The nine demonstrate a utilitarian faith; the one demonstrates a grateful faith.  The nine are made clean; the one is made clean and well.

Shouldn’t gratitude be intimately connected to our faith?  According to this week’s Gospel, this is what faith looks like.

Last week we saw that faith is not cause-and-effect. In other words, it’s not utilitarian.  This week we see gratitude.

There’s a great lesson here for us.

Are we merely going through the motions?  Is faith for us merely utilitarian?

Our faith makes us clean.  We see it in the waters of baptism.  We hear it when we renew our baptismal vows together, and indeed whenever we say the Nicene Creed together.  And we feel it whenever we commune together at Christ’s Table.

But we can’t leave it there.  If that’s all our faith is for us, it’s a utilitarian faith.

But what about when our faith involves gratitude?  What if we wake up each day thanking God for our friends, our family members, our pets; or simply for the warmth and light of a new day?  What if, when troubles come our way, instead of focusing on hardships we look for the good?  What if we focus on resurrection instead of death?

Then, not only does our faith make us clean; it also makes us well.

What we see today, then, is really two kinds of faith.  One is utilitarian; the other is grateful.

Or, in other words, one is entitled; the other thankful.  Like those two students from Sewanee.

When our faith is utilitarian, or entitled, the driving question becomes, “What will Jesus do for me?”  Our faith cleanses us, sure; but to what avail?

But when our faith is grateful, the driving question becomes, “What can we do for Jesus?”  Now our faith makes us both clean and well.

Hope from Pessimism

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 20:27-38

I don’t know about you, but over the course of the last week I’ve caught myself thinking a lot about death.

On Monday we celebrated Halloween.  This is a funny tradition we have, isn’t it?  What, are we trying to scare people into giving us candy?  Princesses and superheroes aside, why all the grisly, death-focused getups?

Then, on Tuesday it was All Saints’ Day.  If you happened to come to the service here on Tuesday night, the music was from Faure’s Requiem—a mass for the dead.  During the prayers a necrology—a list of names of loved ones who died over the past twelve months—was read.

Again, a chief theme was death.

Next, on Wednesday it was All Souls’ Day.  This is the day on the church’s calendar in which we remember specifically all those unnamed people who simply went about their lives day in and day out until they passed away, but never ended up in any history books.  God knows the names of every one; we do not.

Also on Wednesday, death entered my thinking as we witnessed what many thought impossible: the Cubs won the World Series.  The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908.  None of the players on that team was alive to see this team do it.  How sad!

Then on Friday I hiked by myself up Flag Mountain, variously called Jester’s Peak.  It started out pleasantly enough, with a well-marked trail ascending at a good clip.  But near the top the trail gave way to what I call an avalanche chute—a very steep depression down through which rocks falling from above would funnel if there were a rockslide.  Up this chute was my way.  But which way—to the right or to the left?—was up to me to guess.

So I scrambled left, climbing with both my hands and feet, until I came to a final rock face.  Too steep, I thought!  Still, I could see the temptation, for there, just through that crack, it seemed the trail should continue.

I decided to retrace my steps, however, down and then scramble up to the right.  Which turned out to be a better choice.

But, at the top of the chute now, I observed a crude memorial set up right where I would have come through that crack in the rock (if I hadn’t changed my mind).  And I realized: someone died right here, hiking this very trail.

So, yeah, death has been on my mind this past week.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tuesday’s election.  Will this be the death of our nation?  Probably not, in all seriousness.  But the death focus of my week has left me pessimistic.  Or, in other words, I’m “sad, you see.”

Which brings us to today’s Gospel: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.” The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death, so they were “sad, you see.”

Focusing just on death can leave us pessimistic.

But what happens after, or beyond, death?

The Torah—the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible—says very little about the afterlife.

We do in fact learn a lot about death in the Torah.  Adam and Eve are tempted by the wily serpent, who lies to them saying, “You will not die”; but, as we all know, they succumb; and we all learn what death is.

Lots of people die in these early stories.  Jacob lived a hundred and forty-seven years, the Torah says, a rich, full life; and then went to sheol, the place of the dead, whatever that means.

But as to what happens to us after death—what sheol is, what happens there, and so on—the Torah is silent.

And so the Sadducees developed a theology of death, angels, and the afterlife.  Namely, they said, since the Torah is silent, these must not be: there must not be an afterlife; and there is no such thing as angels.

For them, there was no resurrection.

But another Jewish tradition, that of the Pharisees, included more in its canon of sacred scriptures.  Specifically, it included the book of the prophet Daniel, who talks both about angels and the afterlife.

And don’t you find it interesting—just a brief observation—that Jesus here opposes the Sadducees but favors the Pharisees?  How often do we think of the Pharisees as the bad guys of the New Testament, the opponents of Jesus!  But here Jesus aligns with them.  We need to give the Pharisees more credit!

Anyway, we do it too, you know.  Like the Pharisees, we Christians formulate our own, traditional, inferential views about death and the afterlife.

We talk about body and soul being conjoined in the human person; and death being the separation of body and soul.  But this understanding of the human person is nowhere plainly stated in our Bible.  We’ve developed this doctrine over the centuries—a doctrine that in fact is being reconsidered by theologians today.

And we talk about eternal rest.  That’s what a requiem mass is—a prayer that those souls who have been separated from their bodies will find eternal rest: dona eis requiem aeternam, Domine; Lord, give them eternal rest.

But what does this term eternal rest mean?  Are we to picture souls just sleeping the eons away in peaceful slumber?  Or, is it more like leisure, more like what we do in our free time?  Or, do we sit around in an everlasting worship service, in continual praise of God?  Or, do we engage in relationships similar to what we know as humans, maybe around a giant banquet table with beloved friends and relatives, bringing out food and wine and the old family stories that have somehow gotten even better over the eons?

And then, what happens when we put them all together—body, soul, and rest?  What are we to make of souls who’ve been separated from their bodies and yet are unable or unwilling to go to that place of everlasting rest?

Hmm.  A soul without a body?  That sounds like a ghost.  And body without soul?  Sounds like a zombie.

And we’re back to Halloween!

Well, for crying out loud, what is it—Sadducees, Pharisees, the Faure’s Requiem, or Halloween?

But Jesus says, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

And isn’t this a masterful approach?  Jesus knows the Sadducees look only to the Torah as their sacred scriptures, from which they form all their theology; from which they derive all their ethics.  So this is where he goes:

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, [from Exodus, at the very heart of your sacred Torah,] where he speaks of the Lord as the [present] God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Life does not end, Jesus says; but it does change.  This much we know!  And thus we have confidence in our great hope, the resurrection!

And doesn’t this, our hope simply in the resurrection, change the way we look at things?

Some historians link Halloween to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, in which the dead and evil spirits are celebrated through dressing up and pulling pranks.  The church, these historians say, decided to “clean up” the festival by linking it to All Saints’ Day—Halloween means “all hallowed’s eve.”

However, other historians say no way!  All Saints’ Eve was never connected to Samhain.  Instead, yes, it is a part of All Saints’ Day, an extension of it, during which we Christians dress up as evil spirits and witches and so on in order to say, “Ha, we’re not scared!”—of Satan, his demons, or of any other power of darkness in the unseen realms—“for we follow Christ, and he holds the very keys to Death and Hades.  Our hope is in his resurrection and ours.”

Then, on All Saints’ Day we remember not just the dead but the church: followers of Christ who have lived throughout the ages, us who live now, and those who will live in the future.

And on All Souls’ Day, another extension of All Saints’ Day, we remember specifically the faithful departed—all those unnamed people who never ended up in any history books.  We can and should remember and honor them.

Do you see how our hope in the resurrection changes our perspective?  No longer are we pessimistic, but hopeful.

Two last thoughts:

First, think about the World Series Game.  1908 was the last time the Cubs won.  All the players on the team the last time they won are now dead and gone.  But, channeling hopeful thoughts of the resurrection, I wonder, were these former players, now passed on, sitting in some spiritual bleachers on Wednesday night, doing some kind of ghostly victory dance when that third out of the tenth inning finally materialized?

And the second thought: What about our nation?  Even if you are pessimistic about the possible outcome of Tuesday’s election, God is in the business of resurrection, of breathing in new life, of doing a new thing.  There’s tremendous hope in this!

Life does not end; it is changed.  We are not pessimistic, but hopeful.

Rekindled Friendships, Connections, and a Regret

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2014 by timtrue

In recent weeks my Facebook account has seen a surge in childhood friendships rekindled.  Friends I haven’t seen or heard from in more than thirty years are now people with whom I am enjoying daily conversations, usually over an old photo like this one:

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There’s a lot of catching up to be had.  Significant amounts of water pass under the bridge over the course of three decades.  Marriages have been started and ended; families have been raised; life has been enjoyed and endured.  Through it all I’m really wishing I could track each of these old friends down and enjoy an evening of dinner and good ol’ face-to-face conversation.  And maybe it will happen in time.  But for now the virtual world will have to suffice.

My favorite thread so far is now more than a hundred comments long, picking up something like seventeen of us childhood pals along the way.  After lots of stories told and commented upon, a friend altogether out of the blue except for some comment I made forty or so posts ago writes, simply, “I’m still tripping out that Tim’s a priest.”

Ha!  Well, me too.  In many respects anyway.  But in other ways not so much.

I’ve written elsewhere about the idyllic setting in which I grew up (see “Background” tab).  Many a day I can remember just sitting out on the lawn, my back against an avocado tree, soaking in the southern California sun and contemplating.  It doesn’t really matter what: the way the sun played on the mellow green leaves rustling in the wind; a jet trail in the sky; how the hens shuffled their feet and simultaneously jerked their necks as they foraged for food; whatever–I was contemplating the world, God’s world, and my place in it, much as the ancient poet Vergil contemplated his world beneath his bucolic beech.  Only (unlike Vergil) I wrote nothing down.  These contemplations were only for my own memories, to reflect upon as I grew older, like I’m doing now.

I was always a bit more esoteric and pensive than the rest of the group.  I asked questions they didn’t care or think to ask; questions about pain and sorrow and happiness and joy and the differences between them; questions about good and evil and purpose and value; questions epistemological and ontological; questions most nine year-olds didn’t consider.

I was also a bit more in my own world.  Sure we had our alphas.  I wasn’t one of them.  But I was much more of an omega than a beta (or delta or gamma or . . .); for to their chagrin I never really followed the alphas like my brother did.  I did my own thing.

Like figuring out that grapes made perfect ammo for pvc blowguns.  It was especially fun when I showed one of the alphas what I had come up with–by shooting him in the belly from about fifty feet away–and he led us into all-out neighborhood boy warfare.  The original paint-pellet guns, only with grapes instead of pellets; and pvc pipe instead of guns.  Anyway, I felt affirmed in my creativity and innovativeness when an alpha took my idea and ran with it–effectively so!

Not that an alpha can’t make a good priest.  I believe that one can–in theory anyway; don’t know that I’ve ever seen it in actual practice.

Okay, to be fair, I have seen it.  I even know a few.  But it’s a hard balance to maintain.

A bit of a tangent here: but the church today seems to value priests who are successful and effective leaders.  Those who can develop programs and lure in the numbers, or (especially) those who can secure great big pledges, and lots of them at that, are the valuable priests to the Church.  But really!  Shouldn’t the priests, the spiritual leaders of communities, be more about things like spiritual disciplines, prayer, and formation (i. e., knowledge, wisdom, contemplation, introspection, etc.)?  It’s hard enough to be one or the other; a true rarity is the priest who is both.

As for me, I fit into the second category.  Leave the first in the hands of the vestry, I say.  Anyway, I was that way as a kid; and I’m still that way now.

One more.  As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my great grandmother.  She lived a quarter-mile down the street.  I mowed her lawn every other week or so throughout my childhood, pulled weeds in her garden, and enjoyed lots of home-baked goodies from her kitchen.  I have my mom to thank for this Granny time, by the way; though at the time I didn’t think anything of it: it was just part of the routine.

Now, though, as a priest I regularly visit shut-ins: those who are either too old or too frail to make it to church regularly.  I find this work very enjoyable.  And I’m a natural at it (thanks to Mom).

A few days ago, for instance, I visited an elderly woman suffering from the ravages of dementia.  After several minutes of barely intelligible conversation and feeling as if this was going nowhere, I moved to the piano I’d noticed in her living room.  There, on top, I grabbed a book at random from a stack and opened it and began to play.  Smiles, exclamations of happiness, applause, and even laughter followed.

I’d made a connection!  And the idea harked from childhood, when I used to do the same for my granny.

But a regret surfaced too from these rekindled-friendship conversations.  A friend’s younger sister died a year ago, I learned (very) recently, after a lifelong battle with cancer.

I remember her clearly, vividly even.  She was only a couple years younger than I.  But at nine she had no hair.  That seemed strange to me at the time, 1979 or so.  But rather than make easy conversation or simply be present, I didn’t know how to act around her and therefore avoided her most of the time.

Oh how I regret this now!  Now, when I spend hours of my week in close contact with people like her–beautiful souls–who love the presence of a smile and the joy of a story just as much as anyone else!  Oh, why wasn’t I more of a friend to her then?  And now she’s gone!

If only I could turn the clock back thirty-five years and do it again!

May her soul rest in peace.

Mocking Hades

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on August 24, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 16:13-20

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I’d like to begin today with a game I call Name that God.

This figurine I am now holding is a replica of a well-known sculpture of a Greek god.  I purchased it on a recent trip to California when I was visiting the Getty Villa with my daughter and my mom.  It now sits at home on a bookshelf filled with Greek and Roman mythology.

Do you know which god this is?  If you do, don’t answer out loud—not yet anyway; just raise your hand and keep it raised while I offer some hints.  After my hints I’ll call on someone.

A first hint then: the real sculpture, upon which this figurine is based, is housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum on the island of Crete.  Okay, not much of a hint, really, granted.  So:

A second, easier hint: look at the staff he’s holding.  At first glance—out of the corner of my eye—I thought it was a trident.  And that would have been easy: trident = Poseidon, or Neptune as he was called by the Romans.  But it’s not a trident; for there are not three prongs sticking up here, but only two.  What would we call this?  A bident?  Anyway, two prongs.  Do these remind you of something?  Horns, maybe?

A third hint: look at the beast with him.  It’s a dog of some sort.  But it’s not a normal dog, for it has three heads.  This particular dog, named Cerberus, guards the gates of this god’s kingdom.

One more hint: this god’s Roman name is Pluto.

So, who is this god?  What is his Greek name?

Hades.  That’s right!

Now, strange as it may seem to us today, this mythological god actually shows up in today’s Gospel. Did you hear it?

Jesus is talking to Peter.  And he says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The gates of Hades.  The same gates, according to Greek mythology, that are guarded by this three-headed dog, Cerberus.

Really?

Jesus is making a profound theological statement about the establishment of his church.  It is no less than a new kingdom; a kingdom that we know today has surpassed all other kingdoms—even the Roman Empire—in magnitude, importance, and permanence.  It is certain and sure.  It is fixed.  It is reality.

And yet Jesus compares it to a myth?  Really?  What’s he playing at?

Hades. You know, KJV says hell: “The kingdom of hell shall not prevail against it.”  But Hades is the word in the Greek Bible.  And it doesn’t mean the same thing as hell.

When we hear the word hell, we think of a place separate and distinct from other places such as heaven and, maybe, purgatory.  And in this sense what Jesus says rings true: the kingdom of heaven is a separate and distinct place from the kingdom of Hades.

The Christian tradition has taught us to think of these places—hell, heaven, and purgatory—as distinct realms into which souls pass when they are separated from their earthly bodies.  We think of them as separate and distinct places.

But Jesus’s disciples didn’t think this way.

Instead, they thought in terms common to their day and culture.  And to them, the kingdom of Hades was the one place into which all souls passed at death.  All souls: good, bad, or indifferent!

(Hades’ kingdom was divided up into three regions.  But all three comprised the single kingdom.  Tartarus was the region to which the really wicked souls went, something like our idea of hell; Elysium to which the heroic, exceptional souls went, something like our heaven; and the Fields of Asphodel to which everyone else went, much like the medieval understanding of purgatory.  But these were not seen as three separate places, like we see hell, heaven, and purgatory.  Rather, they were all part of the one kingdom of Hades.  That’s why—in another Gospel story—Lazarus, Abraham, and the rich man can see each other in the afterlife; despite the fact that one was in a place of torment and the others in a place of bliss.)

At death, then, as Peter and the disciples understood it, there was no escaping: like it or not, you would pass through the gates of Hades on your way into the underworld.

Unless!  There was one exception: unless you were a god.

Yes, Zeus, Hera, Ares, and all the rest were exempt from the kingdom of Hades.

But now we’re back to mythology.  So what?

So what?  Here’s what’s so what: there were also some others—some people, some mortals—who were claiming in Jesus’s day that they would be exempt from the kingdom of Hades when they died.  Death had no hold on them, they said.  This was no mythology.  This was really going on in Jesus’s day.  This was reality.

So, who were these people, these mortals, who claimed to be exempt from Hades’ kingdom?  The emperors!  Julius Caesar!  Augustus Caesar!

And so, when Jesus says to Peter and the other disciples that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his kingdom, it is not an imagined mythology that he is playing at.  Rather, what Jesus is saying here is magnificent.

Death has no hold over him!  He is the very Son of the living God, the only real and true God!  But his exemption from death is so much better than even what Caesar claims.  Caesar!  Ha!  He claims to be exempt from death.  But can he offer exemption to others?

But Christ!  Not only does death have no hold on him.  Death has no hold on Peter!  Death has no hold on the disciples!  Death has no hold on the entire kingdom of Jesus Christ!  That includes us!

This is the magnificent reality of the kingdom of heaven.  This is the magnificent reality of the church, built upon the rock of Peter’s testimony, upon the rock of the testimony of the disciples, and upon the rock of our own testimony.  Death has no hold on us!  The Lord is risen!  Alleluia!

Now, let’s bring this home. Sad to say, but we see death all around us—or, if you prefer, we see the kingdom of Hades all around us.

It’s in nature: when the leaves fall off the trees every autumn; or when a lioness overcomes an antelope in order to survive.

It’s in things like cancer, or on that sign over the freeway reporting how many traffic fatalities there have been already this year.

And it’s in the bad choices people make: in acts of terrorism and war; or in child abuse or neglect.

But the kingdom of Hades will not prevail against the church!

Wherever we see death gaining a foothold—in creation, in disease, in war, in child abuse—we must confront it with the new life Christ offers.

But I said confront, not avoid.  We confront death with new life.  We don’t avoid the kingdom of Hades.

What do I mean?  Consider Halloween.  It will be here soon.  It’s very popular in our culture.  How will you respond to it this year?

In my many years as a teacher at Christian schools, I’ve seen that there are really two approaches to Halloween.  One is to avoid it.  It’s all about scariness: skeletons, ghosts, vampires, and zombies; just take a look at people’s front yards around here in October.  Scariness!

Some Christians I know are averse to this.  Why would I want to frighten my own child, they ask?  Christianity’s not about fear, but about overcoming fear.  Or, as I’ve heard too, Christianity glories in life; but Halloween glories in death.  Why would I want my kids to glory in death?

This approach to Halloween avoids the kingdom of Hades.

But to confront it looks something like this (and I believe this is the more accurate understanding of Halloween historically).  Halloween means “All Halloweds’ Eve,” or, to put it in terms more familiar to us, the eve of All Saints’ Day.  On All Saints’ Day we celebrate all baptized Christians.  All!  Meaning those now alive and those who have already passed into glory!  Death has no hold over us, or them!

So when we dress up on Halloween as ghosts or goblins or werewolves or hags or whatever, what we’re really doing is confronting death with a statement of mockery.  Ha ha, Hades!  You have no hold over us and we know it, because we have new life in Christ.  In fact, you don’t scare us and we’ll prove it by mocking you!

You see?  The one approach avoids death; the other confronts it with new life.  But this is really just a picture of what we should be doing every day.

We are the church.  And the kingdom of Hades will not prevail against us.

2014 Lent 40

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , on April 19, 2014 by timtrue

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Hebrews 4:1-16

The writer of Hebrews tells us that the promise of entering Jesus’s rest is still open to us.

It’s hard for a priest to feel anything like rest at this time of the year.

For many people, Christmas is the busiest time of the year.  In America anyway, even if you don’t regularly go to church the Christmas season is super busy.  The whole country seems to take on a festive air–filled with deals and a certain chocolatey cheer.  It’s a good thing the kids have time off school too, what with all the traveling relatives and New Year’s around the corner and all.  It’s busy!

But for a priest the most important part of the faith is the resurrection (though, don’t get me wrong, the birth of the incarnate Jesus is quite important too–for without it there could be no resurrection!); and thus the most important part of the year is Easter.

Tonight we priest-types will finish the three-day drama traditionally called the triduum.

It began on Thursday, Maundy Thursday, with a foot-washing Eucharist.  Here we remember demonstrably Jesus’s new command to love one another–demonstrably because it’s through the washing of another’s feet.

Yesterday, Good Friday, we recalled his actual crucifixion with a noon service.  Here the altar had been stripped bare (at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service); and we placed a rough wooden cross at the front of the nave, listened to the crucifixion story read (John 18-19–no homily at all, just let the scriptures speak for themselves), and recited anthems said only on this day of the year.

And tonight it’s the Easter Vigil, a service that goes from dark to light, from death to resurrection, including baptisms–themselves a picture of resurrection–a service that in ages past was the chief Easter service (and still should be, as far as I’m concerned).

Add to this that every evening leading up to the triduum we celebrated a communion service and that last Sunday, Palm Sunday, was also a special day, and, whew, I’m tired.  Between last Sunday and tomorrow I will have been involved in thirteen worship services, some of which I celebrated, others in which I preached, and even a few (four in fact) wherein I did both.

So, yeah, I’m tired.

And here, today, I read words in Hebrews about a promise of rest.

Bring it on, I say!

So I don’t know.  During Lent we try to take on a spiritual discipline–whether we fast, write rambling blog posts, pray more frequently, whatever.  We also talk a lot about slowing down, becoming more introspective, reflecting, centering, and all that.  But I don’t know: maybe being a little busier during Lent and becoming increasingly busier during Holy Week, as we priests must do, and as many a parishioner has done over the past forty days–maybe being a little busier is actually more biblical.  For that is more like life.

What I mean is this.  We live our lives doing our thing.  And life is full of ups, downs, levels, highs, lows, middles, twisties, and straights.  We get to the end of it and (though I cannot speak from personal experience) we’re tired out, ready for that promised rest–just as I (and you) are tired out now at this end of Lent, 2014.  Then comes the reminder that we are loved with a perfect love, death strikes, and then comes resurrection.  Not just Jesus’s resurrection but ours too.  And, ah, at long last, we enter into that blessed, promised rest.  Amen.

The trick now, of course, is figuring out how to experience a sort of small resurrection in my own life as I face life after Lent.  I need to find some time to rest now, to be rejuvenated, so that I can begin the cycle of advent, birth, life, ministry, death, and new life all over again.

Time for a vacation, anyone?