Archive for disciples

Transforming Fear

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on August 7, 2016 by timtrue


Luke 12:32-40

Oh, that today’s Gospel could be read on stewardship Sunday!

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Thus, Jesus goes on (in conclusion, in other words) “Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Surely we’ve all got extra stuff.  After all, clutter is a part of our consumer culture.  Our economy is driven in large part by something in us telling us we need something new, something even more user-friendly, something shiny.

Never mind that I just bought something new, shiny, and user-friendly last month; and that it no longer appeals to me in the way it did.  Never mind that in hindsight it looks now like I wanted it more than I actually needed it—or that maybe I didn’t really need it at all.  Never mind any of that!  This new, shiny, and even more user-friendly thing speaks to me deeply.  I know I didn’t really need that last gizmo; but this one, well, there’s no question!

And so, as the impersonal marketing executives somewhere out there predicted, with help from their detached demographic tables and disconnected socioeconomic charts, we give in to the pleadings of our hearts and we go out and buy the latest and greatest thing, adding to our stockpile of stuff.

Yes, we’ve all got extra stuff.

And here, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says to sell it and give alms.

And I’m left wondering, Why didn’t the compilers of the lectionary save this passage for later in the year, when St. Paul’s traditionally has its annual stewardship campaign?

It’s difficult to part with our money, isn’t it?  Giving to the church requires faith: belief that our monetary gifts—our cold, hard cash—will somehow enable and equip God’s ultimate mission to take place.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

But—okay, I admit it—today’s Gospel is more about fear than giving; and fear, we all know, is much bigger than being afraid to part with our money.

Which brings us to the other passages we heard today.

I wonder, did Abram have anything to fear?

God came to Abram and told him to set out for a distant country.  God told Abram to pack up everything he owned, leave behind everything he’d ever known, and go to a place he knew nothing about at all.

I mean, how would you respond?  God comes to you in a dream.  And he says something like this to you: “Hey there, son/daughter of mine.  I’d like you to do me a favor.  I know that you love me.  So I just need you to trust me here.  What I want you to do is this: quit your job—you know, that one you’ve worked hard at for most of your adult life; pack up your entire household; sell whatever you don’t really need for the journey; kiss your aging parents goodbye, for you’ll never see them again; and leave behind everything you’ve ever known—people, places, reputation, everything!”

Well, if you’re like me, you’d probably ask, “So, um, God, where am I going?  What’s my destination?  Where will you lead me?”

And if you’re like me you’d probably not like God’s answer: “I’m not telling.  You’ll find out when you get there.”

“Oh,” God continues, “but I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky.”

Um, okay.  I guess.

Anyway, do you think Abram had anything to fear then?

Or do you think Abraham had anything to fear several years later (after a name change) when he still didn’t have his promised son?  Or that he still didn’t know where this so-called Promised Land was?

He wanted to believe God, sure.  He tried to believe God.  But he also took matters into his own hands.  His wife Sarah wasn’t really young enough to bear children anymore, remember; so he had a son with Sarah’s servant Hagar, a son named Ishmael.  And we all know how that worked out!

Was Abraham afraid that what God had promised would not come true?  Was his fear overwhelming his faith?

Then, I wonder if the disciples had anything to fear.

Here they were, following a man who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life; a man who said that no one comes to the Father except through him.

That meant, in part, the Romans.  Jesus was proclaiming a message of defiance to the political rulers.  His was a new kingdom, meaning his was right where the Roman kingdom was wrong; meaning his provided for the hungry, the poor, and the destitute in ways the Roman kingdom could not.  Moreover, Jesus was proclaiming himself to be the king of kings and lord of lords, meaning he was putting himself in a position of authority higher even than Caesar himself.  Jesus was shaking his fist in the face of Rome—of temperamental, mighty, volatile Rome.

Did the disciples have anything to fear?

It wasn’t just Rome, but also Jerusalem and their own Jewish identity: Jesus was proclaiming a message that opposed many of the Jewish leaders of his day—a message that distanced him and his followers from their own traditions and identity.  When Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through him, he was dissociating himself from those who did not agree with his message, whether Roman or Jew (or anyone else).

From the disciples’ point of view, this must have looked like one man taking on the world—Jesus against all social, economic, political, and religious institutions.

Did the disciples have anything to be afraid of?  Were they in danger of their fear overwhelming their faith?

So: What about you?  What do you fear?  And here I don’t just mean things like fear of bugs, spiders, snakes, or the Seven-foot Man; but the fears that can overwhelm your faith.  What fears have the potential to eclipse your faith?

Do you fear letting go of your money?  We live in uncertain economic times, after all.  And you’ve worked hard to get where you are, or to get where you’d like to be.  To retire with a livable wage requires planning.  And you’d like to leave your kids something at least!

Or maybe you’re more like Abraham.  Maybe you’ve just embarked on a new journey—you’re recently single again or you’ve just graduated from college or you’re about to get married or you’ve just changed jobs—and the uncertainty of it all can be overwhelming.  Do you fear the path of life ahead, the unknown?

Or, maybe, like some clergy I know, and at times like me, are you afraid for the church and its decline?  Do you ever fear that we’re a part of the wrong movement, that Christ’s Church, whatever the denomination, is losing its influence and effectiveness in the surrounding culture?

Do you ever feel like it’s you against the world?

Does your fears overwhelm your faith?

Well, you’re in good company.  Abraham felt this way.  Jesus’ disciples felt this way too.

Here’s the thing: Faith in Jesus is risky.  Following Jesus is unpredictable.  It can stir us in our own hearts to act in ways we never could have imagined.  It connects us with a movement that, just by association, means others may hate and prejudge us.

Faith in Jesus is risky and unpredictable, yes.  It can cause us to be afraid in ways that overwhelm our faith—in ways that tempt us to renounce our belief in Jesus Christ as God.

But let’s hear Jesus’ words once more: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Little Flock, he calls us; a term of endearment.  He loves us; he cares for us; he protects us.

And, to throw a technicality at you from the Greek, in that part of the verse where Jesus says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” the verb here is in a tense called the aorist.  This is a tense we don’t have in English.  And thus it doesn’t translate very well.

But here’s what it means: the action has already happened and is continuing to happen.  In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples—he’s telling us—“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, and in fact he has already given it to you.  It’s here.  It’s now.  And it will forever be.”

And thus, little flock, we have no reason to fear.

So, if you want to put your faith into practice—if you want to do something that will help you not be so afraid—let me suggest what Jesus does: sell your possessions and give all the money you make to St. Paul’s during our annual pledge drive.

We laugh.  But, seriously, can we look at stewardship not so much as something to help the church make its annual budget; but rather as a personal spiritual discipline—as a way to put your risky faith into practice?

And, of course, it’s not just about giving.  Wherever fear threatens to overwhelm your faith, transform it into a spiritual discipline: put your risky faith into practice.

You have no reason to fear.  Really!  For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Indeed, he already has.


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.


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.”

Who Needs a Board when your Eyes are on the Lord?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on August 10, 2014 by timtrue

Peter on water

Matthew 14:22-33

And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

What kinds of images come to mind when you hear this story?

The image I recall every time I hear it comes from a t-shirt a friend of mine wore in college.  I don’t know why I remember it so well; but it’s there, the memory of this t-shirt, etched on the screen of my mind, in vivid detail.

From a distance the t-shirt’s design looks like something from OP or Roxy or Quicksilver or some other surfwear company.  On it is a beautifully breaking wave, peeling left; and at first glance there’s what seems to be an ordinary surfer riding the face of the wave.  But as you look more closely you see that the surfer is wearing not a swimsuit but a robe with a cincture—not unlike mine—and he’s bearded, with long hair.  After this double take you notice, too, that the surfer in fact has no surfboard, but is barefoot surfing down the face of this beautiful, Pipeline-like wave.

Now curiosity gets the better of you and you decide to read the words on the t-shirt.  On the top, above the image, it says, “Simon Peter’s School of Surf.”  And on the bottom, below the image: “Who needs a board when your eyes are on the Lord?  Matthew 14:29.”

So that’s the image that always comes to my mind when I hear this story—without fail!  And it’s not a bad image.  For as long as Peter’s eyes are on the Lord Jesus, he’s able to walk on the water.  It’s only after he notices his predicament—that there are wind and waves all around him—that he becomes frightened and takes his eyes off Jesus.  And once his eyes are off Jesus, he begins to sink.

We are like Peter: we become frightened; we take our eyes off Jesus; and we begin to sink.

We’ll come back to this image in a little while. But first, let’s look at the other main characters in this story.  Other than Peter there are two, as I see it: the disciples, who make up a kind of collective main character; and Jesus.

As for the disciples, we read that Jesus makes them get into the boat and go on ahead of him.  In other words, Jesus gives his disciples a mission.

This particular mission does not appear to be difficult.  It is simply to row across a lake.  It’s a rather large lake, granted; but no doubt these fishermen have rowed across this lake many times before.  This is a mission for which the disciples are qualified.

But this particular mission becomes difficult.  A strong headwind confronts the disciples; and with it, worrisome waves.  The disciples have to row hard, no doubt rotating responsibilities at the oars whenever one of them becomes too weary to continue.  Mission requires community.

Even so—even with Jesus’s commissioning their mission in the first place; even though the disciples are qualified for this mission; and even working in community—they become frightened.  They see Jesus walking to them in the middle of the night—Jesus comes to them in an unexpected way—and they say, “It’s a ghost!”  In their fear they default to a belief in the paranormal rather than the supernatural—even though they just witnessed Jesus perform an amazing miracle, the feeding of the 5,000.

How often do we do the same!  Jesus commissions us as his disciples to go forth and make more disciples, of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  That is our mission.  And it’s a mission for which we are qualified, especially as a community of disciples—especially as a church.

But we get to work on this mission and things don’t go as we expect.  We begin to question Jesus’s commission.  What if San Antonio doesn’t want to hear our message of good news?  What if our theme of radical hospitality ends up attracting the wrong sorts of people?  What if the church gets vandalized?  Or robbed?  What if . . . ?

Yet the story is not over.  The disciples are frightened, yes.  They fear when Jesus draws near to them in an unexpected way.  But they quickly recognize Jesus as God.  “Take heart,” Jesus says, “it is I; do not be afraid.”  And, collectively, they worship him and confess, “Truly you are the son of God.”

As for the character Jesus, he sends the disciples ahead and finally has that alone time he has been craving. Remember?  He had crossed the lake with his disciples to a deserted place where he hoped to spend some time in prayer.  But a large crowd followed him; so he healed them, spoke to them, and fed them.  Now the crowd has dispersed, he sends his disciples on a mission to go back across the lake, and he stays behind to pray.

Talk about a beautiful image!  A storm is brewing.  The disciples are becoming more and more worried out on the lake.  There is a sense of urgency—the “tyranny of the urgent”!  Yet even this urgency does not trump Jesus’s discipline of prayer.

Then there’s the image of Jesus walking on the water, going out to the disciples, showing them that he is master of all; and that despite their fear they have no reason whatever to fear.

But the real clincher for me comes in Jesus’s words: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

There is real power in words.  In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, it was through words.  “And God said, let there be light,” and so on.  Words.  Jesus himself is called the Word of God; through him the Father is revealed.

So, words are powerful.  And here Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I”; or even more simply, “it is I.”

What’s so important about these words, it is I?  Another way to say them is, I am.  In fact, if you were to read the Greek translation of the story where Moses stands in front of the burning bush and asks, “Whom shall I say sent me?” these exact words appear.  It is I.  I am.

Thus, when Jesus approaches the disciples who are terrified and thinking they’re seeing a ghost, Jesus is really saying, “Take heart.  I am God.  Do not fear.”

Take heart, St. Luke’s.  As we go about our mission to make disciples and baptize; and as we begin to fear that maybe our mission is too difficult for us and we start asking all those “what if” questions, remember: Take heart.  Jesus is God.  Do not be afraid.

Now to come back to Peter.

You gotta love him!  He hears these words, “Take heart, it is I,” and he goes from one extreme to another, from abject fear to joy-filled belief.  It’s like his faith meter suddenly pegs out—like that time when he says, “Lord, I’ll never wash your feet”; but in the next breath says, “Well, not just your feet, then, but your whole body!”  There’s something endearing about his impulsiveness, right?

At that moment when Jesus says, “It is I,” Peter is suddenly entirely fixated upon Jesus.  All of a sudden it doesn’t matter that there is a storm raging all around him; or that other disciples are wearying themselves at the oars; or that walking on water is technically impossible.  Never mind all that!  My Lord is here and speaking to me!

That’s endearing.  We all want that kind of faith and focus.

But in the next moment Peter falters.  The fixation is gone and reality begins to set in.  There is in fact a storm raging all around him, the other disciples are in fact struggling, and—I know Jesus is walking on the water, but he’s God!  He just said so.  What am I doing out here?

“Lord, save me!”

We’ve all been there!  Like Peter, we live in community with others.  In our community of disciples known as St. Luke’s, we share a common focus.  We gather around one altar.  We share a common mission.  But we are also individuals.  We each have our own individual experiences with Christ—highs, lows, and middles.  Our individual faith meters go up and down continuously.  Like Peter, we experience high times of joyous belief; but also low times of questioning and distraction.  We begin to sink.

But our Lord is not so focused on the mission that he neglects the individual.  At just this point, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus, the Word of God, God himself, reaches out his strong hand, lifts Peter up, and walks him into the boat.  And when they get into the boat, the wind ceases; and the disciples worship him.

Take heart.  Jesus is God.  He is accomplishing his mission.  But also, this same Jesus—who calms the wind and the waves and the disciples’ fears—cares for each one of you as individuals.

When you fear, he is right there, immediately; and he says to you, “Take heart, I am God.  Do not be afraid.”