Archive for discipleship

Light from Nicodemus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by timtrue

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John 3:1-17

We’re in Year A this year. Year A’s pretty cool.

Year A is the first of three years in our Revised Common Lectionary.  That is, starting with Advent and continuing through the 29th Proper, aka “Christ the King Sunday,” the passages of scripture we hear read on Sunday mornings all year follow Year A’s outline.

Next year will be Year B.  The following year will be Year C.  And the year after that will be back to Year A.

So, if you’re sitting in this church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2020, you’ll hear the same scripture passages that were read today.

And I for one am glad to be back in Year A.

That’s because in Year A we encounter four very special people, all from the Gospel of John, four weeks in a row, during Lent, who appear nowhere else in the Bible.

Over the next four Sundays, we’ll hear the stories of four wonderful, surprisingly modern saints of God, from whom we can learn much—if we’re willing to take the time and listen to them.

To listen, I said.  This means we’ll have to figure out not what the world has told us we need to learn from them—not what the world tells us John 3:16 means, for instance—but what each has to teach us from his or her own story.

So, who are these people?

Today, John introduces us to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus secretly, by night; and has an image-laden conversation with him about what it means to be born from above, or born again.

Next week it’s the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman—confronting us simultaneously with culturally sensitive issues of race and gender!—who encounters Jesus and quickly runs off to share the good news with her friends and family.

The week after that brings us to an unnamed man blind from birth, whom Jesus heals, and who then confounds the very teachers of Israel.

Finally, in Lent 5, we encounter Lazarus, not to be confused with the blind beggar in the parable from Matthew.  This Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus first weeps over and then raises from the dead.

All four of these characters are found only in John’s Gospel; all four are surprisingly modern; all four encounter Jesus.

And through all four encounters, over the next four weeks, we will encounter Jesus ourselves.

He might even confront us, even challenge us, to think about our place in the world in new ways, an appropriate heart-and-soul exercise for Lent.

So, yeah, Year A’s pretty cool.

Who, then, is this guy, Nicodemus?

The passage begins: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night.”

What can we surmise?

Nicodemus is a Pharisee; and a community leader.  Yet at the same time he seeks Jesus out.

He seeks Jesus, who by this time has already been singled out by both the Pharisees and the Jewish community leaders as someone to steer clear of.

Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers, after all!  Why, he’s uneducated, the son of a carpenter!  Maybe he’s not all there, if you catch my meaning.

Yet Nicodemus doesn’t want to steer clear of him.  Maybe his community is on the right track: maybe there is something not quite right about this man Jesus.  Still, despite what the world around him—his world—is telling him, Nicodemus finds himself actually drawn to Jesus.

So he goes to him.  At night.  Under the cover of darkness.  In secret.

Wearing sunglasses.  And a hat.  To avoid the local Paparazzi.

I wonder, is Nicodemus spiritual but not religious?

It’s as if he wants to know Jesus, to know God through Jesus; but he’s not sure.  On the one hand, his way of approaching God, his religion, hasn’t been entirely satisfactory for him; while at the same time, on the other hand, he’s apparently skeptical that Jesus will be the answer he seeks.

We get locked into our own methods pretty easily, don’t we—our own ways of doing things, our own ways of approaching Jesus?

Mine’s through prayer.  What’s yours?

Oh, well mine’s through nature.  What about you?

Mine’s through praying the sinner’s prayer.  How about you?

Me?  Ah, I find Jesus in the liturgy.

And so on it goes.

But what if we find ourselves becoming spiritually curious?  What if we begin to look over denominational fences?  What then?

Some of you know my own story of how I came to the Episcopal Church from Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

I was a part-time staff member of a small church of a different denomination, working as a worship leader.

Yet I found myself drawn especially to two things about the Episcopal Church: its liturgy and music; and its sacramental theology.  I found myself wanting to attend the local Episcopal parish.  But I couldn’t, since I had obligations at the other place.

Well, what to do?

As it turns out, Holy Week was approaching.  So my family and I decided to attend the local Episcopal parish, St. John’s, for the Triduum, that three-day drama that comes at the end of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil.

By the end of these three days, we were convinced: The Episcopal Church would have to become our new home.

But that first time we donned the doors, on that Maundy Thursday—I couldn’t help but feel a lot like I was playing hooky; like I was doing something very wrong; like I was dishonoring the tradition to which I belonged; like I was somehow being unfaithful or disloyal.

How surprisingly modern Nicodemus’s story is!

So, what is the main lesson we learn from him?

Our world has made a lot of the conversation that takes place in today’s Gospel.

What does it mean to be “born from above” (as the version we heard today puts it; or, to put it in a more popularized outfit, what does it mean to be born again)?

The imagery of rebirth has captured the modern American evangelical imagination.

We’ve all heard the question, or some variation of it: Are you a born-again Christian?

I don’t know about you, but I feel this question has been overused; that the phrase born-again Christian ought to be put on a list of banned Christian lingo.

It’s a polarizing phrase.

To one group of Christians, it’s an identifier, as much as to say, “Yeah, you say you’re a Christian.  But are you really in?  Are you born again?”

Whereas to another group, it’s derogatory or pejorative, as much as to say, “Are you actually one of those fringe wackos: are you born again?”

And because it’s polarizing, we’ve been distracted from the main point here.  The main point is not about individual souls being born again.  John 3:16, that favorite verse of countless people, says that God so loved the world.  It’s not about individual souls here so much as it is about all of creation.

So, let’s put this phrase away, on the list of banned Christian lingo, at least for a while, until it loses its polarizing quality.

Fortunately for us, there’s another image that comes out of this passage.  And I’m convinced that this other image, not the image of rebirth, is in fact the overarching image by which we can understand Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

What is this image?  Light and darkness.

The passage begins with this image (Nicodemus comes to Jesus by cover of darkness); and with this image the passage ends (light exposes people’s deeds, Jesus says).

Light and darkness here, not rebirth, is the governing image: it’s only after one has been reborn that one comes out of darkness into light.

So, what happens when we look at Nicodemus through this lens of light and darkness?

Nicodemus first comes to Jesus in darkness.  He is seeking.  He is curious.  He is probably concerned about what his community will think of him.  He may even be confused.

And isn’t this a lot like us?  Don’t we know a lot about darkness?  Isn’t our faith hard to understand?  Isn’t being a Christian often confusing?  Aren’t we seeing the looking glass only dimly?  Aren’t these all mere shadowlands?

By the way, we face darkness at both the individual and corporate levels.  The corporate Church, throughout its history, has made many errors.  I only have to mention the Crusades to prove that point.

But, this coming to Jesus in darkness isn’t all that we see of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.  He shows up again, later, near the end, with another heretofore secret disciple, a certain man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, who owns a tomb hewn of out rock on his property, the very tomb into which Jesus’ body will be laid.

Do you remember this part of the Easter story?

Nicodemus and Joseph come and carry Jesus’ body away and lay it in the tomb.

And they do this deed in the full light of day!

Despite his convoluted faith, fully aware that his religious and community colleagues would see him, fully aware that his deeds and faith would be exposed in the full light of day, Nicodemus throws caution to the wind and carries Jesus’ body away.

Despite the Church’s mistakes, whether in the Middle Ages or in the modern day; despite how confusing and convoluted our theology can be, the Church has been called to keep throwing caution to the wind, to keep carrying on Jesus’ work in the full light of today.

And what is this work?

Only to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick.

Only to care for orphans and widows.

Only to walk across town with food in our backpacks to donate to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Only to love all creation in such a way that it might be born anew.

On Being Christmas-and-Easter Warriors

Posted in Doing Church, Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 4:12-23

Before we get into today’s Gospel, let’s gain our liturgical bearings. Where are we in the liturgical year?

Think of a pie graph.  Starting at the top, we have a purple section, Advent, which lasts between four and five weeks.  Next is white for a few weeks, Christmas, up to the Epiphany.

Then for some weeks we find ourselves here, in a green section of the year, the season after the Epiphany, or as my Roman Catholic friends call it, “ordinary time.”

Ordinary.  Ho-hum.  Not much of a ring to it, eh?

This year’s season after Epiphany is eight weeks.  Then we go to purple again for the season of Lent, for five Sundays.

We then have a narrow sliver of red on Palm Sunday; followed by seven Sundays of white—for Easter the resurrection, and the Ascension; another narrow sliver of red for Pentecost, and one more of white on Trinity Sunday.

And now we’re only halfway around our pie graph.

Do you know what color the rest of this graph is?  For the remaining 26 Sundays this year—with only two exceptions (Transfiguration and Christ the King Sundays, both white)—it is all green.

Yeah, green time.  Ordinary time.  Ho-hum time.

Which brings up a concern for me.

My concern is that as a church we love Christmas and Easter.  We focus our liturgical calendar around the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.  And well we should!

But do we focus too much on Christmas and Easter—to the exclusion of all the other times in the year—that green section after Christmas; that long spell after Pentecost; all that ordinary, ho-hum time?

Christmas and Easter aren’t enough to sustain us through our ordinary, ho-hum times.

I remember my freshman year of high school.  My parents had recently divorced; I wasn’t in a very good place.  But it was an El Niño year, meaning lots of snow was coming to the Sierras.  Maybe Dad understood I wasn’t in a very good place, I don’t know.  But he knew my brother and I loved to snow ski.  And so that year we planned three three- or four-day trips to Mammoth Lakes, as well as some a one-day trips to the local soCal mountains—Mountain High, Mount Waterman, and Mount Baldy—promising at least one ski trip a month through the winter.

Well, I remember how much I looked forward to those trips in the months, weeks, and days leading up to them.  I also remember how much I relished the recent memory of those trips after returning home from them.

But what I remember most keenly was the dread I felt when I got out of bed each morning realizing that I had to plod through another day of the prison sentence I called high school.

That year, my freshman year, I tried to live for my skiing adventures, with the resolve that the anticipation and memory of them would sustain me until the next one.

But they were few and far between compared to the everyday, ordinary, ho-hum experience of high school, my daily grind.

That year, the only moments I lived in were when I was skiing, escaping from the daily grind.  While enduring the daily grind itself, I never lived in the moment, but rather always in the future or the past.

I had become a bona fide weekend warrior.

When we in the church live for Christmas and Easter, we risk not living in the moment of the ordinary, ho-hum times that, frankly, comprise most of our corporate life together.  We instead become bona fide Christmas-and-Easter warriors.

Now we’re ready to turn to today’s Gospel.

In it, Jesus begins his ministry by calling four disciples: Simon Peter; his brother Andrew; and two other brothers, James and John, the sons of a certain Zebedee.  All four of these men were fishermen.  And, because Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” we usually focus on the evangelism theme here: we, too, need to fish for people.

But I want to look at another theme, having to do with—you guessed it—the ordinary, ho-hum life Jesus called these men to live.

So, track with me.  These men, all four of them fishermen, were living a comfortable life.  They were settled, doing what they knew how to do, continuing the vocation their fathers had passed on to them.  So routine were their lives that they knew what to do without thinking.

They knew the sea—where to find the most fish, when the best times of the day were to find fish, what seasons of the year were better or worse for a kind of fish they’d like to catch, and so on.  When boat repairs were needed, they knew what to do.  If a boat sprung a leak while out on the surface of the sea, how to get to shore (or whether they could make it to shore) was almost an afterthought.  Their vocation was second-nature.

Moreover, we can surmise—along with biblical scholars—that these men had fairly lucrative businesses.  Fish were in demand as a food throughout the region.  People paid relatively high prices for them.  And, as with many established routines, overhead costs were low.  These men enjoyed high productivity and low overhead, a recipe for a comfortable life.

One more consideration: these men more than likely were married with families.  In fact, we know that Simon Peter was married: Jesus cures Peter’s mother in-law in Matthew 8.

Point is, Jesus called these four men to follow him; and following Jesus for them meant sacrificing a lot!  Comfort.  Stability.  Established homes.  Financial security.  Predictability.  Routine.  Plans.  Nest eggs.  Family.

What does it mean for us to follow Jesus?  Those who manipulate the good news of the Bible for their own ends—who make a gospel out of prosperity or family values—would do well to consider today’s Gospel!  So would we, as in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—which we’ll get to shortly!

Now, sure, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had heard of Jesus by the time he came calling.  He was probably something like a celebrity by now, a household name.

Do we all know the name of our presiding bishop, Michael Curry?  So, imagine if he sought you out personally and said, “Jane, John, Insert-Your-Name-Here, I have a job for you.  Come with me now, and see.”

Well, yeah, there’s a certain amount of adventure and excitement around this.  At least initially.

But today’s Gospel doesn’t end there: with the celebrity Jesus coming to these four men and saying, “Follow me on the adventure ahead, and I will make you fish for people.”  In today’s reading, there’s another verse.  Jesus and his new followers then set out traveling, teaching, preaching, and healing.

These four men followed Jesus, sure.  But they weren’t following him into a kind of weekend-warrior life of adventure.  They followed him into a kind of ho-hum, ordinary life.  And they left their established, comfortable lives to do so.

These apostles weren’t Christmas-and-Easter warriors—by any stretch of the imagination!  The feast of the Epiphany and the Last Supper could not have sustained these men for the three years ahead of them—and not just for the three years with Jesus but for the lifetime beyond that, for they all went on to build the church of Jesus Christ.

So, we’ve looked at the liturgical calendar; and we’ve looked at the Gospel. Now it’s time to do some harder work: to look at us, St. Paul’s.  Loosen your collars: it might get a little warm in here.

I’m concerned that we are a church of Christmas-and-Easter warriors: that we think these principal feasts are enough to sustain us through all the ordinary, ho-hum times of the year.

On page 15, the BCP says there are seven Principal Feasts in the liturgical year, which all point (at least loosely) to Christmas or Easter: Easter Day; Ascension Day; The Day of Pentecost; Trinity Sunday; All Saints’ Day; Christmas Day; and the Epiphany.

The word “feasts” suggests that we should break bread together, which is another way to say celebrate Communion together, on these seven days.

But when I got here, we weren’t doing this: we weren’t coming together for all these feasts—which is one indication that maybe, over a long time of doing church together, we have become Christmas-and-Easter warriors.

In addition to these seven Principal Feasts, on p. 16 of the BCP, we read, “All Sundays of the year are feasts of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

All Sundays are feasts.  Thus, we should celebrate Communion together on all Sundays of the year.

Which is why our Constitution and Canons make it clear that, unless we are unable to obtain a supply priest, we should celebrate Communion on any given Sunday.  Otherwise we demonstrate a lack of respect for the Eucharist.

Now—to turn up the heat a little more—our operating budget for 2017 is just north of $200K.  To date, pledges for 2017 are south of $140K—about $70K shy of our operating expenses.  In an ideal world, our operating expenses and pledges would be equal.  But they’re not.  Leaving the vestry with some difficult challenges and questions.

Their chief question of late has been where to cut costs.

It’s a question faced by a lot of organizations.  Public schools, for instance.  Long has it been a complaint among my friends and family members that the first budget corners to be cut in education are in the arts.

So, here’s my main concern.  As a way of cutting costs for the year, the vestry has proposed allotting only $1000 for supply clergy in this year’s budget.

Now, I anticipate being away for seven Sundays this year—a normal amount.  Father Paul is not here anymore; we can’t ask him.  Which means we need to fund supply clergy; or go without the Eucharist on the Sundays when we cannot obtain a supply priest.

With travel, accommodations, and a supply fee, it costs St. Paul’s approximately $500 per week of supply.  In other words, the budget should be at $3500 ($500 x 7 Sundays) for supply clergy, not $1000.  $1000 covers only two Sundays.

What will we do for the other five?

We could have a Morning Prayer service, yes.  But, unless we cannot obtain a supply priest—and supply priests are available!—we should celebrate the Feast.

So, anyway, that’s the what part of my concern.

The why part, however, concerns me even more.  Why would we cut corners here?  Sundays are feast days.  It’s when we gather as a corporate community.  And gathering for Communion—the Eucharist—is our chief corporate act of worship: not singing; not preaching; not praying; but Communion.

As your rector I’ve been called to be the spiritual leader of this community.  I don’t want us to be Christmas-and-Easter warriors.  That attitude will never sustain us spiritually.

Thus, I leave you with a few questions to contemplate in this week leading up to our annual meeting:

  • Have we become Christmas-and-Easter warriors?
  • Like the apostles, is St. Paul’s ready to follow Jesus wherever he calls?
  • Where have we become too comfortable in the way we do church? In our routines?  In our spiritual disciplines?
  • Where and how do we need to change? Along these lines, when we say we want to change, do we actually mean that we want to return to the way it was twenty years ago?  Are we really desiring to move forward?
  • Is our present way of doing church sustainable? The budget suggests that the answer to this question is no.  So, where do we need to cut corners?  Really?
  • Is cutting supply clergy costs a sufficient excuse to neglect the Sacrament?
  • Do we respect the Sacraments as we should?

When Bonds Are Severed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on September 4, 2016 by timtrue

800px-Anton_Van_Dyck_-_Christ_carrying_the_Cross_-_Google_Art_Project[1]Luke 14:25-33

Today we hear some difficult words from Jesus.  “Whoever comes to me,” he says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  And a little later, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

This is a hard saying.

Now, much has been made in scholarship over the word hate.  Does Jesus mean hate in the way we say “I hate terrorism” or some other evil, humanity-opposed ideology; or does he mean it more like when a young child says, “Ugh!  I hate spinach”?

So, after all the scholarship is said and done, here’s what scholars tell us.  When Jesus says hate here in the Greek, in English it means—are you ready?—hate!  The Greek is just like the English: there are many different ways to define this word.

Which isn’t really all that helpful.

So, we look at the context.

After Jesus says this hard saying about hating mother, father, wife, children, brother, sister, and even life itself, he goes on to offer a couple illustrations about anticipating the cost of some kind of endeavor or another.  Who among you would build a tower without first sitting down and figuring out how much it will cost?  Or what kind of king would run pell-mell into battle without first strategizing?

From the context, then, we see the gist: discipleship comes with a cost.  Faithfully following Jesus isn’t easy!

The Old Testament passage, from Deuteronomy, highlights this idea.  “If you obey my commandments,” God tells the people of Israel through Moses, “life will go well for you.  But if you don’t—well, not so much.”  There is a cost to being a part of the family of God.

Same goes for Psalm 1 and the book of Philemon.

Oh, Philemon!  In this beautiful letter, St. Paul writes to Philemon about his runaway slave, a guy named Onesimus.  Under Roman law, Philemon has every right to execute Onesimus.  But Paul beseeches Philemon to overlook the law and instead to take Onesimus back into his household.  Moreover, Onesimus himself has converted to the Christian faith and will be faithful, for he has counted the cost of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

That’s the gist.  Discipleship comes at a cost.  Therefore, as disciples of Jesus, we must count that cost.

But what does this cost look like?

I once had a good friend; let’s call him Ron.  Ron was my principal; I was a second-grade teacher.  From the moment we met we got on like two peas in a pod.

To illustrate our friendship: one November morning I left for school on foot, as was my custom.  Now, this was in northeastern Pennsylvania.  It was 25 degrees when I left the house for my two-mile walk to work: cold, but not cold enough for long johns, I figured.

But by the halfway point a stiff wind had come up and, with it, a sudden drop in temperature.  When I reached the school parking lot, I wasn’t all that surprised to find it empty and the front doors locked.

This was before the advent of cell phones or any other form of instant communication at our disposal today.  I would find out later that I’d left my house just moments before someone at the school had called me to say it was cancelled for the day.

Anyway, there I stood, locked out of the school building, shivering, already chilled deeply, regretting my choice not to wear long johns, when I remembered that Ron lived just around the corner.  So I walked to his house and knocked on his door.  The thermometer on the porch read 10 degrees.

A few seconds later Ron opened his door, with an expression of dismay on his face.  He was in his bathrobe.  “What are you doing out there?” he asked.  “Come in, before you catch your death!”

So I did.  Gladly!  And he proceeded to make a pot of coffee while I called my wife to explain I might not be home for a little while but I’m okay, just gonna warm up for a bit at Ron’s.

Then, of all things, on the old VHS together Ron and I watched The Muppet Movie while we sipped our coffees and allowed our conversation to meander like that great river in ancient Greece.

Such was our friendship!

Until some years later, when I called Ron on the phone to hash out some inner theological battle I was having over the sacraments.

“Ron,” I said finally, coming to my point, “so I’ve left the Baptist church and joined the Presbyterian.  Our girls will be baptized on Pentecost Sunday.  I’d love if you could be there.”

There was only silence on the other end.  Uncomfortable, awkward silence.

“Ron,” I finally addressed, “what is it?”

And then he said the last thing I wanted to hear.  “Tim,” he said, “I don’t see how our friendship can ever be the same again.”

Turns out the vital bond holding our friendship together was our shared Baptist perspective.  Now that bond was severed.

Ron and I have exchanged some emails and Christmas cards since.  But that’s the last time I heard his voice.

A friend lost.  Over something as petty as a denominational difference.  Did I count the cost of this when I signed up to be a disciple?

Perhaps a better question to ask: Did I even have a choice?

This scenario brings up an interesting nuance in counting the cost of discipleship.  Ron and I no longer share the friendship we once did.  Our bond of friendship was severed over our ideological differences.  But it wasn’t my fault.  If it were solely up to me, Ron and I would still be bosom buddies today.  I was the passive party in the severing; Ron the active.

These things happen when we follow Jesus.  Our faith interferes with our friendships and family relationships.  Our faith interferes with the bonds we form with our things, our material possessions.  We need to understand that.  We need to count that cost.

But how active should we be in severing these bonds?

Let’s explore this nuance.

Jesus says that unless we hate family members, friends, and possessions we cannot be his disciple.  Does that mean, then, that I actively cut off ties with family members and friends because they don’t share the same perspectives as I do?

I’m an Episcopalian.  So, what if I have family members who are Roman Catholic?  If they visit me on a Sunday, they’re more than welcome to come to this Table and participate in Communion with me; but if it’s the other way around—if I go to visit them on a Sunday—I can’t take Communion, at least according to Catholic canon.  Thus, what does this mean for me?  Do I never attend church with them again?  Do I stop visiting them at religious holidays?  Do we agree never to talk about religion when we’re together?

So, change up the scenario a little bit.  I’m an Episcopalian.  What if the friends or family members go to one of those fundamentalist churches, one of those churches that says only born again Christians are going to heaven; and they drop continual hints that they really don’t think I’m born again?  What kinds of bonds and to what extent do I actively sever then?

Or what if a friend or family member wants to make politics a moral issue—that it is a moral imperative for me, he says, as a Christian to vote for one candidate or the other?  (The name doesn’t matter.  I’ve heard moral-imperative arguments for both sides!)

Now take it a step further.  What if my friends or family members are Mormon?  What if they’re Atheist?

It’s going to happen: I will experience differences and divisions because of my faith.  But should I be active in severing the ties that bind?

Ron thought he had to cut ties with me over a different Protestant perspective—two denominations within the same vein!

On a much larger scale, recall the ugly history of the Christian church.  In 16th– and 17th-century England, for instance, Roman Catholics burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake; and there was a lengthy civil war started and perpetuated by Protestant Puritans.

And what’s been happening in recent times?  One group doesn’t like another; so they actively break away and form their own, new denomination.

Is this what Jesus wants us to do as his disciples?  Is this what he means by hating father, mother, brother, sister, and so on?  Is this what it means to bear his cross and count the cost?

The Christian way, it seems, has been antithesis.  We see something we don’t like or that we don’t agree with and we say, well, Christ called us to hate sister and brother, so we should actively wipe the dust off our feet and move on.  We’ll start our own thing, a thing we like better, a thing more aligned with our perspective.  This has been the Christian way.

But is this Jesus Christ’s way?

Not too long ago we heard that Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him out into Samaritan villages.  Jesus knew ahead of time that his disciples would be opposed ideologically, that the mission would most likely fail.  If Jesus had wanted actively to sever bonds with these Samaritans, he most surely would not have sent his disciples on this mission.  But he did.

Christian history is replete with active division, discord, even hatred.  But Jesus Christ’s way is about reconciliation, forgiveness, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and loving our enemies.

Jesus Christ’s way is active love.

This, then, strikes me as the cost of discipleship, the cross that we are called to bear:

Be passive in hate; active in love.

The Greater Commission

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

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

At the conclusion of last week’s service, a parishioner asked me a question about my sermon.

To recall, in last week’s Gospel we heard that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  In other words, he was resolute about fulfilling his mission, about completing the task God had called him to do.

With this mindset, he sent some of his disciples ahead of him into a Samaritan village, in search of hospitality.  Foxes have holes, he said, and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to call home.  He and his disciples were dependent upon others for hospitality—for what they would eat and where they would sleep.

So, those disciples soon returned with bad news.  The Samaritans, it turned out, would not host Jesus and his disciples.

Now, these were Samaritans!  That is, they did not worship the same god as the Jews, but some kind of false amalgamation of a god, something kind of like the Jewish god but also kind of not.

This apparently reminded two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, of a story in their scriptures of a certain prophet of the Most High named Elijah; and how he once called fire down from heaven on four hundred priests of a god named Baal, you know, a god kind of like the god of the Jews but kind of not.

So James and John said, “Jesus, how could they?  Just give us the word, and we’ll call fire from heaven down upon these inhospitable Samaritans!”

But Jesus rebuked them.  They were simply to wipe the dust off their sandals and go on to the next village.

And so Jesus, I explained, had brought us a new plow.  This new plow was not like the old plow of Elijah’s era, one that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Jesus’ new plow, rather, was a plow of love.

Love your enemies, Jesus said.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Turn the other cheek.

This is the new plow upon which Jesus has called us to set our hands and not look back.

Anyway, that was my message from last week in a nutshell.  And the question the parishioner brought forth went something like this:

So then, Father Tim, is Jesus saying we should wipe the dust off our feet regarding followers of other religions? that we should have nothing to do with them?

It’s a worthwhile question.  For we know we are called to love others.  This is the plow to which Jesus has called us.  And loving others often results in discomfort for us.  To seek hospitality from others requires a certain vulnerability on our part.  To put another person’s needs and wants ahead of our own requires an uncomfortable level of humility.  And if we’re rejected, it requires a certain amount of self-control merely to wipe the dust off our feet and walk away rather than calling fire or other curses upon them.

But what if we’re certain—or almost certain—ahead of time that it’s a fool’s errand?  What if we just know already that our vulnerability, humility, and self-control—our self-inflicted discomfort—will simply fall flat?  Can’t we just avoid such discomfort altogether?  I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to take Christ’s message of love somewhere else, where its objects are potentially more receptive?

Well, to cut to the chase, the answer is no.  Christ’s mission of love is for all, whether or not their minds are already made up against it—against us.

We infer this answer from last week’s text.  For Jesus in fact sent his disciples into a village he knew ahead of time to be Samaritan.

He knew ahead of time that these villagers worshiped a different god from his.  He knew ahead of time that Samaritans didn’t normally associate with Jews.  He knew ahead of time that racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was commonplace in Palestine.  He knew ahead of time, in other words, that his disciples would almost certainly be rejected.

And yet he sent them ahead anyway.  For his was (and is) a mission of love.

But this answer is made even clearer in today’s Gospel.

For promoting Jesus’ message and ministry required the disciples to allow themselves to become vulnerable; to humble themselves; and, facing almost certain rejection, to exercise seemingly superhuman self-control.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.  The disciples were to go from place to place, preaching the Good News of Jesus, curing the sick, and accepting whatever hospitality they were offered.

And this was in Palestine, a half-forgotten province of the Roman Empire.

The religious context there went something like this: the Jews did their thing, the Samaritans did their thing, and those of a pagan bent did their thing.  Each group was content with its own religious identity, its own religious ideology.  As the woman at the well so eloquently put it, the Jews worship in their way and the Samaritans worship in their way.  One day all the differences will be cleared up.  But in the meantime, never the twain shall meet.

When it came to religion, there were established traditions and ideologies.  And these established ideologies conflicted with each other.

And now, in Jesus, something else, something new was happening.

His message and ministry seemed Jewish.  Mostly Jewish anyway.  Still, over and over Jesus had opposed the Jewish leaders—of both major parties: both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  His was a message of peace.  But, ironically, the peace he proclaimed was highly conflictive.

So Jesus’ message and ministry flew in the face of the established religious ideologies of his day.

It also flew in the face of political ideologies.

Politically, Rome was in charge.  This meant good things for the privileged classes.  If you were in an upper class, you fared well—as long as you were self-focused and pushy enough to keep yourself in your privileged position.

Rome’s way was thoroughly hierarchical.  This meant you could lose a privileged position.  This also meant others could climb social ladders, sure.  But for a place like Palestine, on the fringe of the Empire, most people were simply half-forgotten.  Most were economically challenged, i. e., lower class.  And there was nothing they could do about it.

Occasionally a messianic figure would come along and offer an uprising, a violent protest against the powers that be.  Judas Maccabeus is perhaps the most well-known example.

But Jesus came along and said, yes, there is in fact an oppressive hand over us all; but, no, we are not to protest violently.

Do you think that this crazy message of new religion and non-violence would have been received by anyone?  It wasn’t just those of a different religious persuasion who would reject Jesus’ disciples and his message.  The disciples also faced almost certain rejection from those most like them, namely, the poor, half-forgotten Jews of Palestine.

Jesus never said following him would be comfortable, simple, or easy.  If anyone is telling you this, don’t listen.  Rather, Jesus says following him will be uncomfortable, even difficult.

This was true for his disciples in Palestine under Roman rule; and it’s true for his disciples in Yuma today.  For, at its core, Jesus’ message and ministry—a message and ministry we carry on to this day—are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, now you’ve gone too far, Father Tim.  What do you mean that Jesus’ message and ministry “is about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world”?  Jesus’ message and ministry is a personal one, about love, peace, and salvation; it’s about saving my soul from sin and eternal damnation.  No one ever said this life would be easy, true.  But that’s just Jesus’ point.  There’s nothing he could do about it; and there’s nothing I can do about it—except to make sure that my walk with Jesus is on the straight and narrow.  That’s all anyone can ever do!

And then you stick your fingers in your ears and break into song:

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

To which I say, yes, in the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew Jesus commands his disciples to go out into the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So, yes, there is in fact a very personal element to Jesus’ message and ministry.

But here, in Luke, we see another perspective in another commission.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus sends out twelve; but here, in Luke, he sends out seventy.  So, arguably, the commission here in Luke is an even Greater Commission than the so-called Great Commission of Matthew.

At any rate, here Jesus commands his disciples to accept whatever hospitality (or rejection) they’re shown, cure the sick, and (whether received or rejected) proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Do you see?  Doing works—i. .e, ministry—is first.  Preaching—i. e., message—is second.

And as for the message: what is it to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near but to proclaim that all that is now wrong is being made right?

Jesus’ ministry and message is to make wrongs right presently.  It has a personal element, sure.  But, maybe even more, it has a social element.

Jesus’ ministry and message are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Well then, this begs two questions.  First: Do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in our world today?  This is America, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  And second: If so, are we able even to do anything about them?

As to whether oppressive or exclusive systems exist in our day, hindsight is a good place to begin, for, as they say, it’s 20/20.

In relatively recent history, we see now how wrong slavery was.  But did slave owners see slavery as oppressive or exclusive in their day?

As we know, our country was bitterly divided on this issue.  Did you know the Episcopal Church was divided over it too?  On the one hand, slave-owning Episcopal bishops argued from scripture that slavery was an acceptable institution for society’s greater good.  On the other hand, parishes such as the Church of the Transfiguration—still thriving today in Manhattan—were stations on the Underground Railroad.

So, can we learn anything from hindsight?  Our nation and Church were divided over slavery back in the day.  What divides our nation today?  What divides our Church?  This is our starting point.  Then ask: Are any of these divisions based on oppressive or exclusive systems?

An elephant in the room here is human sexuality and the present debates over issues stemming from it:

Does a county clerk have the religious right to protest a gay marriage?  What bathroom should or shouldn’t a trans-woman be able to use?  Is it contrary to the authority of scripture to ordain a homosexual person in a monogamous relationship?

Another elephant, of course, revolves around the second amendment (no pun intended).

And what of all our technological opiates, the healthcare crisis, and our economy, which is founded on credit—or should I say indebtedness?

So, do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in America today?  Sadly, they seem to be everywhere and inescapable.

Perhaps the most important questions in these debates should be about the dignity of all persons.  In our opinions, in our political and religious ideologies, in our constitution and amendments, in our judicatory proceedings, in our bills and laws—for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—we must fight against systems that enable one group of people to oppress or exclude another.

But, you ask, what can I do about it?  I’m simply one individual in an ocean of humanity.

True.  But so were Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus didn’t call them simply to throw up their hands in a helpless shrug.  Instead, he commissioned them to become vulnerable, to seek out the hospitality of others even though it meant almost certain rejection, to offer healing to others, and to proclaim that the kingdom has come near.

And you know what happened?  These few rag-tag, seemingly insignificant disciples went out and did what Jesus commissioned; and they returned to him with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Beloved, it is the same with you.  Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!

Time for a New Plow

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by timtrue

old plow

Luke 9:51-62

There’s a curious interplay between two of today’s readings: the one from 1 Kings, involving Elijah and Elisha; and the one from the Gospel, the one involving Jesus and his disciples.

Now—scraping off our Old Testament rust here—recall that Elijah was a prophet of the Most High.  And he was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab.

Remember King Ahab?  1 Kings (21:25) sums up Ahab’s reign thusly: “Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel.”  Ahab was a terrible king in God’s sight.  And Elijah had been called by God to serve as a prophetic voice against this terrible king Ahab.

But what made Ahab so bad was, as the scriptures observe, his wife, Jezebel.  Remember her?  She was maybe the first person ever in the history of the world to claim Eminent Domain.

The story goes like this.  There was a man named Naboth who owned a small vineyard.  This vineyard was good, productive, and verdant.  And it happened to be right next door to Ahab’s palace.

So Ahab approaches Naboth one day and says, “Hey, Naboth, I really like your vineyard.  It’s so green!  And the grapes look delicious!”

“Yeah?” Naboth answers, warily enough, and says, “I like it too, as a matter of fact.  It’s been in my family for many a generation.”

“Well,” continues Ahab, clearing his throat, “um, er, well, um, so what it comes down to is, well, um, I want your vineyard for my own garden.  Sell it to me.  I’m your king, after all.  I’ll gladly pay you what it’s worth.”

And Naboth says, “But it’s not for sale.  For crying out loud, it’s my ancestral inheritance!”  And he walks away, turning his back on the king.

So Ahab goes home sullen and vexed.

And there, at home, sullen and vexed, Ahab grabs a glass of wine or whatever and sits down to brood.

And his wife Jezebel enters.

Now, to put it in context, old Israel was a patriarchal society.  Ahab’s the man.  He’s in charge.  He also happens to be the king.

So, have you ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding?  There’s a scene in this movie when the mother of the bride-to-be explains to her daughter how things really work.  “The husband is the head,” she says, “this is true.  But the wife—she’s the neck!  And the neck can turn the head any way she wants to!”

So Jezebel enters the room and sees her husband Ahab the king, the head of Israel, sitting there brooding, and she says, “What’s eating at you?”

And he explains the whole episode with Naboth and his verdant, productive vineyard; how he asked Naboth for it; and how Naboth said no.

And the neck Jezebel turns the head Ahab around.  “What!” she exclaims, “Aren’t you the king of all Israel?  I’ll go get that vineyard and give it to you myself!”

So she throws Naboth a birthday party.  But right during the middle of the festivities, two thugs—whom Jezebel had hired, by the way—stand up and loudly and falsely accuse Naboth of some crime worthy of death.  And the scheme works.  Without fair trail of any kind a crowd of people grabs Naboth, drags him away from his own party, and stones him to death.

And later that night Jezebel comes home to tell her beloved husband, “Guess what, Ahab, dear?”  And she hands Ahab the keys to Naboth’s vineyard and toasts her Eminent Domain victory.

By the way, Jezebel also convinced Ahab to employ several hundred priests of the Phoenician god Baal.  Yeah!  The state religion at the time was not Judaism!

Anyway, all this meant that Elijah had a very difficult job before him, one that required focus; or, to use a euphemism from the KJV, one that required him to set his face like flint.

Even so, when it comes time for him to pass on his mantle to a disciple, we read that he allows this disciple, Elisha, to tie up some loose ends first.

God tells the prophet Elijah, “Go and anoint Elisha as a prophet, to continue the ministry that you have begun against Jezebel and Ahab and their false god Baal and all those false priests.”

So Elijah goes and finds Elisha and explains.

Then Elisha answers, “Okay, but first let me go and kiss my mother and my father goodbye, and then I will follow you.”

And Elijah is like, “Sure, seems reasonable to me.”

But then we come to the Gospel.  And we read:

As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], “I will follow you wherever you go.”  And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  To another he said, “Follow me.”  But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”  Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And I’m left saying, “Wait a minute!”

Elijah just found Elisha plowing a field.  His hand was on the plow, in fact!  But before he commits to following his new leader, he looks back—even if but for only a short time—to kiss his mom and dad goodbye.  So, Elijah has no problem letting his disciple, Elisha, say farewell to those at his home.

But Jesus doesn’t allow it.  “No one,” he says, “who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  But wasn’t Elisha—of all people!—fit for the kingdom of God?  Yet his hand was to the plow.  Literally!

What is Jesus getting at?

Well, maybe if we go back and look a little more at the Elijah story we’ll begin to answer this question: what is Jesus getting at?

Before Elijah ever approached Elisha; before Elijah had received word from God to pass on his ministry to a disciple; and, in fact, before Jezebel had enacted her version of Eminent Domain on that poor soul Naboth, Elijah took on those several hundred priests whom had been hired by Ahab and Jezebel, in a fiery display of God’s absolute superiority.

Do you remember this story from Sunday school?

It was four hundred against one, bad odds by any stretch.  Except Elijah boldly took them all on, even mocking their god in front of them all.

“Where is your god now?” he taunted.  “Oh, perhaps he’s sleeping.”

So the four hundred priests of Baal danced and wailed and wept and cut themselves, all to get their god’s attention.  But nothing worked!  Their god Baal never came to bail them out.

So, “What?” Elijah mocks.  “Well, where is he?  Maybe he’s preoccupied with some other matter.  Maybe he’s using the bathroom.”

Yeah!  That’s part of the story.  Did your Sunday school teacher include that part?

Then, with one word, Elijah calls down fire from heaven—which consumes the water-logged sacrifice in one fell swoop, and all four hundred of the opposing priests of Baal—whom Ahab and Jezebel had hired; and which immediately put Elijah on the top of the list of Israel’s Most Wanted!

And now we understand today’s Gospel a little more clearly.

Jesus set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem.  This was his mission, how he would bring about salvation to the world.  He had to do it, and he knew it.  Like Elijah, he had received word from God the Father.

So, on his way to fulfilling his mission in Jerusalem, Jesus sends some disciples ahead of him, in search of hospitality, into a village of Samaritans.  But, because his face was set towards Jerusalem, the Samaritans refuse.

And here we can so easily picture James and John, can’t we?  After all, we get righteously angry too.

“What?” they exclaim.  “How dare they refuse you!  I mean, come on!  Don’t they realize who you are?  You’re Jesus!

“Oh, but that’s right.  They are Samaritans.  They don’t worship the same God as we do.  They’re infidels!  Well, then, just give us the word, Jesus.  We’ll call fire from heaven down upon them, just like Elijah called fire from heaven on those accursed false priests!”

(Sigh!)  Had James and John forgotten that so recently—earlier in this same chapter of Luke, in fact—Jesus told them merely to wipe the dust off their sandals and walk away when rejected?

Have we forgotten this?

Beloved, fellow followers of Christ, we live in crazy times.  I don’t have to mention even the events from this week to demonstrate just how frightening our times are.  Terrorism, racism, and vigilante violence are seeming to spread across the globe like some new black plague.  No doubt a significant motivator of the so-called Brexit is fear; and, more particularly, fear of foreigners, xenophobia.

We fear them: those who aren’t like us, those we don’t understand.  We fear those whose skin color is a different shade from ours.  We fear those whose sexual orientations or gender identities don’t align with our perspectives.  And, maybe most of all, we fear those who worship a different god from ours.

So, what then?  Are we to call fire from heaven down upon them?

Jesus came and showed a new way.  When others reject us, we don’t call fire down from heaven.  That’s an old plow, one that should be abandoned altogether in an old world, in Elijah’s world.

When others reject us, instead, we take the high road.  We turn the other cheek.  We wipe off the dust.

Do not be afraid, Jesus said.  Rather, love.  This is the new way.  This is Christ’s way.  This is the new plow to which we’ve put our hand.

For the sake of God and humanity, don’t look back.

Purpose Probe

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on January 25, 2016 by timtrue

Christus_heilt_einen_Besessenen

Luke 4:14-21

I’m going to probe a little this morning.  It might get a little uncomfortable in here.

But why not?

Surely Jesus experienced a little discomfort on that morning when he went into his local synagogue, unrolled that scroll from Isaiah to the people of his hometown, proclaimed that the realization of this scroll was happening right now, as he spoke, in their midst—that he was in fact the Messiah they were waiting for, the Messiah that all the Jewish people had been waiting for, for centuries!—and was rejected!

The people rejected him—the people of his own town—the friends and family members who’d watched him from childhood—

Who’d observed him growing in wisdom and stature—

Who’d seen him make his first, rough, misshapen carpenter’s box—

Who’d spent time with his family and other families at synagogue fellowship meals—

Who’d subconsciously noticed him make mistakes as children do, as he’d played with the other children.

And now he’d grown up and gone away.  He wasn’t carrying on the family tradition of carpentry.  Instead, he’d gone off to spend time with one of his more on-the-fringe cousins, or so the rumors went, some unusual guy named John, who spends his days in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey—of all things!  And he’d gone away to teach!

That’s what Jesus had been doing: teaching.  Not something worthwhile, like building houses for people in need.  He was just teaching!  Can you believe it?

Anyway, I bet he experienced a bit of discomfort that day, when the Spirit carried him into the local synagogue.  That day he unrolled a scroll from the prophet Isaiah.  And he unrolled it to that part about the Messiah, where it says who the Messiah is and what he has come to do.

And then he claimed that this passage was about him!  He was the Messiah.  And what he’d come to do—his agenda—was right here!

I bet it was uncomfortable for him as he prodded the people—the local people—with his agenda.

I bet it was especially uncomfortable for him when these people—friends and family, mind you!—rose up as a mob and led him outside to hurl him off a cliff!

Yeah!  That’s what the following verses tell us.  We didn’t read that far this morning.  That’s because we should focus on his agenda.  Nevertheless, that’s what happens next.  Jesus tells his friends and family in his local synagogue—you know, the one he grew up in—his agenda; and they are so stunned they say nothing.  So he explains: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  And then—well!—his friends and family are so angry they rise up against him with the intention to kill him.

This isn’t the Pharisees we’re talking about here, or the scribes, or the Sanhedrin, or the Sadducees, or any other of the people he has trouble with later on in his ministry.  This is his friends and family!

Sheesh!  No wonder there’s that part that says a prophet is without honor in his home town!

But the friends and family who turn against Jesus can’t do him any harm.  Luke tells us that he just walks right on through the midst of them to safety.

That’s because he was being led by the Spirit.

Did you catch that part?  Luke is very sure to tell us that Jesus is being led by the Spirit through this beginning part of his ministry, his epiphany to his hometown and beyond.

Remember, when he went out to John in the wilderness, he was baptized and a voice spoke from heaven and the Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove.

Then he was led deep into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he ate no food for forty days and was sorely tempted by the devil.

And now, here, again it is the Spirit who leads him to his hometown synagogue, where he experiences a great deal of discomfort after he probes the people with his agenda, his must-do list.

So, like Jesus, I’m going to probe a little now.  And I’m going to do so using Jesus’ agenda.

I figure: if Jesus is stating this agenda at the outset of his ministry, and he is; and if I have committed my life to following him, which I have; and if we as a church are called to be his disciples, which we are; then this agenda must be important, something like a mission statement.

In fact, let’s see it as a mission statement: Jesus’ mission statement.  And let’s get out our own church’s mission statement.  And let’s compare the two.

This is how I’ll probe a little this morning.  And this—comparing Jesus’ own mission statement to ours—is why it might get a little uncomfortable in here.

I only ask a few things of you.  First, hear me out.  Second, ask if there are ways in which we might align our church’s mission statement more with Jesus’ own.  And third, please don’t hurl me off a cliff.

So then, here’s our mission statement:

We are servants of Jesus Christ, putting his love into action by:

  • Magnifying God’s Name;
  • Proclaiming God’s Word;
  • Equipping God’s people for ministry;
  • Caring for God’s world.

We are seeking, serving, and sharing Christ.

In my opinion, this is a good mission statement.  As servants of Jesus Christ, we recognize that the entire Gospel is summarized in one word: love.  And we desire to act out the Gospel, to put love into action, in four specific ways: magnifying God’s Name; proclaiming God’s Word; equipping God’s people for ministry; and caring for God’s world.

Moreover, there are specific ways in which we are accomplishing these actions already, as demonstrated in the annual report (get your fresh copy today!).  On the other hand, though, there are specific ways in which we could grow in each of these actions.

Now, to refresh our memory, here’s what Jesus read in the synagogue on that morning:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In my opinion, this is a good mission statement too.  In fact, it’s very good, way better than ours.

Like us, Jesus puts love into action.  But his actions get way more specific than ours do.

He is not simply proclaiming the good news.  We say that.  We are “Proclaiming God’s Word.”  He says it too.  But he doesn’t just leave it there.

Rather, he proclaims the good news to the poor.  Similarly, he proclaims not just release and recovery, but release to the captives; and recovery of sight to the blind.  He preaches not just a pie-in-the-sky form of liberation theology but freedom to the oppressed.  He proclaims the good news to people right where they are, whatever their lot.

Jesus’ own mission statement is quite specific.  It is undeniably focused on righting wrongs, on bringing justice where there is none, on doing and not just being love.

At St. Paul’s, we seek, serve, and share Jesus.  We love him.  So what are we doing about it?

Look: here’s my main concern.

Right now is the time of year when we tend to be asking, “How are we doing as a church?”  We have our annual meeting next week; I have to complete the Parochial Report by the next vestry meeting; the present elephant in the declining mainline church is, “How can we sustain our resources, or will we even be able to?”

These aren’t bad questions to ask in their own right.  But they can distract us from our real mission.

When it comes to our mission, instead of asking, “How are we doing as a church?” let’s ask, “What are we doing for God?”

And let’s get specific about it!

What are we doing to right the wrongs that are taking place in and around Yuma?

We’re already doing some things, sure.  (See our annual report.)  But can we do more?  Do we want to do more?  Enough so that we incorporate specifics into our mission statement?

Jesus’ own mission statement espoused such radical social transformation that even his friends and family were ready to hurl him off a cliff.  Are we ready to transform Yuma with the Gospel, even if it makes our friends and family members uncomfortable?

The Holy Spirit was with Jesus, making his mission not only a possibility but also a reality.  The Holy Spirit is also with us.  Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to lead us; and through the Holy Spirit let’s turn Yuma upside down!

And, since we’re here, a final comment: when Jesus sat down, after reading the scroll, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today!  The Spirit leads right now, in the present, today.

Let’s not procrastinate.

Pray with me. . . .

Compassion a Two-way Street

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on July 20, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Sometimes we miss important details in the scriptures.

For instance, do you recall the story of the exchange of power between King Saul and King David in Israel’s history?  If you don’t, I commend to your reading 1 Samuel 23 and 24.  You won’t be bored!

To remind you. . . .

And so what we remember is that David righteously spared King Saul’s life; that Saul was cut to the heart and repented of his folly; that waiting on God’s providential hand is what people do who desire to live after God’s own heart; and so on.

But we forget a very pertinent detail: God’s hand of providence works in and through even the most earthy of life’s details—even in and through bodily functions!

In today’s Gospel, then, the architects of the Revised Common Lectionary—the people who decided what passages we read today—didn’t want us to miss some details that are often overlooked.

Did you notice?  They left out a good chunk of narrative.  We hear just 9 verses of a much larger section of scripture, a 27-verse passage: after 5 verses we skip 18 then read the final 4.

Now, these middle, omitted verses are extremely significant.  They relate two very important miracles; namely, feeding the 5,000 and walking on water.  And, just so you don’t come away feeling slighted, it’s okay: there are other Sundays when we contemplate each of these two miracles in the Lectionary.

But today we look at the bookends: the narrative that takes place on either side of these miracles.  And I’m convinced this is the case so that we don’t miss them—so that we don’t miss the important details Jesus wants us all to know—because we’re too distracted by the signs and wonders.

So then, what is it Jesus wants us to know?

It starts with v. 34: “As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

It starts with compassion.

A question then: What’s the difference between compassion and pity?

The Gk. pathos can be translated either way: pity; or compassion.  Jesus had pathos for the crowd.

From pathos we get our English words pathetic, sympathetic, sympathy, empathy, pathological—to name but a few.  And we see something of pity and compassion in each word.

But the chief difference in my thinking is this: pity is removed; whereas compassion is involved.

Pity takes on a sort of distinction.  I feel a type of sorrow for my neighbor because his plight is so pitiable—or sad, or tragic, or whatever.  So, out of the goodness of my heart I decide to do something about it—I buy her a pair of shoes; or offer him a ride; or throw some money her way.  And thank heavens I’m not in his position; for then I don’t know what I’d do!

You see, pity has left me feeling sorry for my neighbor, maybe even sorry enough to do something about it.  But at the end of the day I’m still over here dealing with my life and he’s still over there dealing with his: a distance still remains between me and my neighbor.

But compassion means, literally, suffering with, or suffering alongside.  There’s no “me vs. him” mentality here.  Compassion is involved, not one step removed.  Compassion is thus significantly different than pity.

And this is exactly what Jesus does with the desperate, noisy, dirty, smelly, needy crowd.  He comes alongside them and is moved to passion for them—a kind of suffering with them.

And isn’t this a picture of what he did on a much larger scale?  In the Incarnation, he emptied himself of the Godhead; and he took on humanity.

He comes alongside the whole world—the cosmos—and takes on our passion, our suffering.

And it’s exactly what he calls us to do: to be moved by the hurting, desperate, needy people of our day; and not merely to have pity on them, but compassion—to come alongside them.

We are called to live out the Incarnation.

But (earlier) I said it starts with compassion. What other details can we discern from today’s passage?

A few observations:

  1. As followers of Christ (and as already mentioned), we are called to be the Incarnation of Christ.  We are the Church and thus Christ to the world; even if we are merely the fringes of Christ’s cloak, we possess the divine power to heal a hurting, desperate, and needy world.
  2. As followers of Christ, we are called to live out his compassion for the world.  How?
    • Flexibly, knowing that God may change our plans, just as God changed the plans of Jesus and the disciples.  They were withdrawing to an uncrowded place for renewal; yet the crowd follows them and doesn’t allow this renewal to occur.  So what does Jesus do?  He allows his plans to be changed and has compassion for the crowd.  He loves his neighbor.  He exercises selflessness.
    • Untiringly, with the knowledge that the work here is ongoing, around seemingly every corner.
    • Trustingly, knowing that God will give us the strength to sustain us even when “robbed” of planned times of renewal.
  3. But also—and here’s where I want to focus in our remaining time—we are humanity, the disciples, the crowd; we are not Christ.  Look around: in our world, today, who’s flocking to Jesus on Sundays—to be with him, to be healed by him, to commune with him, to touch him—but us?  It’s not that weekend-warrior neighbor of yours; or that other neighbor who sleeps in every Sunday and finds his spiritual refreshment through his bicycle.  No, these aren’t the picture of a flocking crowd, desperate to see Jesus.  If anyone in our culture fits a description of desperation, it’s us!

Okay, so that’s not quite fair.  I realize it.

We are the ones flocking to Jesus on Sundays, yes.  And the world around us can appear not to care much about Jesus, like they’re fine on their own without a Savior and Lord, thank you very much.  But they are nonetheless needy, hurting, even desperate.  As are we.

Our world often shows its desperation in vastly different ways than it did in the days of Jesus.  All too often, today’s world turns to alcohol and drugs—legal and illegal—out of desperation.  So, yes, it’s not really fair to say that we churchgoers are the only desperate ones in the world.

But we are desperate; and it brings up a fair point for us to consider.

We are Christians, disciples of Christ earnestly trying to bring the good news of Christ to the world around us; through teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.  This is called outreach.  And it is a very important part of our community life.

And right now, incidentally, (I don’t know if you know this, but) outreach is a kind of fad in churches all over the country (if not the world).  During my job-search process, without exception every single parish profile I looked at placed outreach as one of its top priorities—to the point where I began predicting it; and muttering things to myself like, “Tell me something I don’t know”; and, “Well, that’s original!”

Now, hear me clearly: I’m not downplaying outreach.  It is very important.  As today’s passage demonstrates, the world all around us desperately needs Christ.

But we, the Church, are desperate too.  So, what I want us to ask ourselves is: What about in-reach?

We are just as desperate and needy as the world around us for Christ’s hand of love and selflessness; of joy in all circumstances, whether good or bad; of peace, healing, and reconciliation in our relationships; of patience and large-heartedness; of kindness, giving others the benefit of the doubt; of goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, what about in-reach?  Is this a priority for us—as much a priority, anyway, as outreach?

It was for Jesus and his disciples.

We know, as individuals, just how important it is to live balanced lives.  It is important to interact with others, to live in community, in relationship.  And thus it is important to put others first: to practice a form of personal outreach.  We know this!

But, as individuals, we know it is just as important to set aside times for personal rest and refreshment.  Taking time to withdraw for prayer is a practice Jesus himself modeled.  Medical research today touts the values of getting enough sleep and taking regular vacations.  And what of mental health?  We’re learning more and more daily about just how important lifelong learning is.  All these pursuits are simply forms of personal in-reach.

It’s the same with the body of Christ!  As a church, we value outreach immensely.  But let’s not forget in-reach!

In our zeal to be Christ’s hands and feet to the needy world around us, let’s not forget that we are hurting and needy people too; just as desperate in our desires—maybe even more so!—to see Jesus and to experience his compassion.