Archive for evangelism

Calling Light

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2017 by timtrue

Been a while since I’ve posted. Not that I haven’t been writing! Chalk it more up to being too busy, if anything. Out of necessity, really, my blog has dropped to a lower rung on the priority ladder recently. Maybe it’s because Holy Week and Easter make up the busiest time of the year for us pastors. Maybe it’s because a nasty virus decided to make itself at home for a while in my body. Maybe it’s because I recently announced my resignation from St. Paul’s (blog post to follow soon on THAT). Maybe, probably, it’s a combination. Whatever the case, what follows is my sermon from Easter Day, April 16.

Antiveduto_Gramatica_-_Mary_Magdalene_at_the_Tomb_-_WGA10352[1]

John 20:1-18

Today is Easter:

  • the day when Jesus rose from the dead;
  • the day when enslaving sin, darkness, and death have been forever vanquished;
  • the day when more visitors come to church than any other of the year.

And so, on this day when more visitors are likely to attend than any other, we pastors are told, trim the roses, cut the lawn, clean the bathrooms, create an inviting nursery space, provide a fun Easter egg hunt, and, by all means, preach a simple sermon!

Well, I do hope you visitors and regulars alike find our grounds appealing and our facilities clean and our Easter egg hunt fun.

But I’m not so sure about the simple sermon.

I may not be the best gauge, but my impression is that visitors to church in this day and age aren’t really looking for some easy, laid back, elevator homily. If that’s what people are after, in my experience anyway, then in this day and age, why come to church at all—on Easter or any other Sunday?

People aren’t visiting church like they used to, we all know that. The sense of obligation—the social pressure—just isn’t there anymore.

Instead, visitors to churches on this Easter Sunday—as I see it anyway—more often than not are genuinely interested in the Christian story.

So, that’s what I’m going to do today: I’m going to tell the Christian story.

And I’m not going to hold back. I’m going to ask you to put on your thinking caps; to make some connections between the old, old story and our modern lives, connections that maybe haven’t occurred to us before.

So: our starting point is a metaphor.

If you’ve been with me for the last several weeks, during Lent this year, then you’ve heard me refer to this metaphor time and again; for we’ve been hearing the Good News from the Gospel of John this year, and John makes much of this metaphor.

If you haven’t been with me, however, not to fret: the metaphor is easy enough: light and darkness.

In the Gospel of John, darkness especially represents confusion; and light, clarity.

Think back to Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the man born blind, and Lazarus. All experienced a time of confused, muddled darkness. And all came into a light of clarity, of greater understanding about who Jesus really is and how to respond to him. Even Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus in the middle of the night and then disappeared back into the darkness from which he came—even Nicodemus came into the light of the fading day in order to haul Jesus’ corpse from the cross to the tomb.

This association—darkness represents confusion and light clarity—is an easy enough one to make, even in our day and age when light is available 24/7. Things aren’t as easy to see in the darkness. We get lost more easily. We know this from personal experience. Ever been in a blackout?

This metaphor has framed our Lenten journey in the Gospel of John.

Lent is over now, yes. But we’re still in the Gospel of John.

And thus, despite a new liturgical season; despite a shift in focus from repentance to resurrection, today, with Mary Magdalene, this metaphor continues.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Some say she was a prostitute. Ever heard that one? My guess is yes. Artists throughout the centuries have portrayed her that way. It’s a popular idea. There have been several “houses for fallen women” named after her, in Europe, England, and North America.

Or, how about this one: she was the secret wife of Jesus and the mother of his children? Dan Brown popularized this rumor in his books, including The Da Vinci Code. But it’s not just fast-paced literature. This story too, like the prostitute one, has been floating around for more than a millennium.

But the Bible never says either of these things. The prostitute rumor was started by a Pope, Gregory I, in the sixth century.

My personal opinion is that he didn’t like the idea of a woman receiving so much credit; and thus sought to discredit her.

And the secret wife story? It originates, probably, from an apocryphal gospel of the second- or third-century.

So, what does the Bible say?

The answer is, not much.

She is named as having been delivered by Jesus from seven demons. We don’t know more than that—what kinds of sins she committed because of the demons’ influence on her and so on, although this demonic oppression is the connection Gregory made to prostitution.

She may very well have been the Mary of Bethany, who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. If so—which I happen to believe—then she is also the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with that expensive perfume, called nard.

Delivered from seven demons. Maybe Lazarus’s sister. Maybe the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

And then there’s what we see today, this bit in the Gospel of John.

That’s it! That’s Mary Magdalene!

Oh, but what we see today is spectacular!

She comes to the tomb, while it is still dark, and finds it empty. This confuses her—as darkness is so often equated with confusion in the Gospel. So she runs to tell the disciples.

Her confusion is expanded in the narrative that follows. Two of the disciples, Peter and another, an unnamed disciple, race to the tomb and confirm what Mary has said. The body of their friend and leader is gone. Where he was laid, now there are only rags.

One of these two disciples believes, continuing the theme of hope seen in Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea; but the Evangelist is quick to point out that still they do not understand.

They’re still confused. They’re still in darkness. And in this state they return, like Nicodemus had done, into the darkness from which they came, shaking their heads.

But Mary stays.

And she stands there weeping.

And this time it is not the light of the sun that opens Mary’s understanding, but the white light of two angels. They speak to her, and as they do a voice behind her calls and—behold!—it is Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. And in this sense, she is the first real convert to the Christian faith. Ever!

And, even more profound, she’s the first person, the only person thus far, Jesus entrusts with the Good News, the Gospel. She’s the one told by the resurrected Jesus himself to go and share the Good News that he is indeed risen from the dead.

It’s not Peter, into whose hands Jesus placed the keys to the kingdom.

It’s not John, that disciple whom Jesus loved, without whose Gospel we would be left with an incomplete Bible.

It’s not any of his male disciples—which frustrated the dickens out of Pope Gregory.

But it’s Mary Magdalene, a woman, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. It’s Mary Magdalene, who anointed Jesus’ feet with a year’s wages out of simple gratitude. It’s Mary Magdalene, whose brother Lazarus was now raised from the dead to new life.

I wonder, what would have happened to the church if Mary had not gone and done what Jesus told her to do on that day so long ago? What if Mary just threw her hands in the air, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “I’ll just let one of the men handle it”?

Never mind! Mary Magdalene is and ever will be the Apostle to the Apostles.

(And Jesus is and ever will be a feminist!)

Light is connected to clarity in the Gospel of John. But if we’ve seen anything else this year during Lent, it’s that the Light of Christ is also a call to action.

Nicodemus comes by the fading light of day, in full view of a hostile world, to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and lay it in a grave.

The Samaritan Woman drops her water jar in the full light of midday to run and tell her friends and family the Good News.

The man born blind is made to see and immediately follows Jesus.

Lazarus hears Jesus’ voice and comes forth.

And Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, tells the disciples that Jesus is risen, alleluia.

By the new light of the Easter dawn, Mary acts.

And the world is a better place for it.

By the light of this Easter Day, you too have acted; for you are here.

Now let’s go out and continue to act; and make the world a better place for the sake of the risen Christ.

Alleluia. Alleluia.

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!