Archive for Faith

Celebrating Inconvenience

Posted in Doing Church, Rationale with tags , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by timtrue

17th-century_unknown_painters_-_The_Resurrection_of_Christ_-_WGA23478[1]The following article, which appears in the April/May newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, Arizona, discusses the significance of the historic Easter Vigil worship service.

“The Great Vigil, when observed, is the first service of Easter Day. It is celebrated at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning.”

So says the Book of Common Prayer on page 284.

To which I ask, “Is there such a thing as a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning?”

Easter is late this year. Sunset will occur after seven o’clock, with real darkness only truly descending after 7:30. The rubrics of the Prayer Book constrain us really, then, to a first “convenient” time of 8pm.

But how convenient is 8pm for folks who cannot easily drive in the dark?

We do have other options, I suppose. “Between sunset and sunrise” means a midnight service would be appropriate, and midnight’s always cool. Or, for those who have trouble seeing in the dark, we could begin the service at 4:30am, timing it so that it would end just before sunrise (which will occur at 6:07am). That way people would only have to drive one way in the dark, and at a time of the day when there is very little traffic.

Still, neither of these options strikes me as any more convenient than 8pm.

The Prayer Book continues:

“The service normally consists of four parts:

  1. The Service of Light.
  2. The Service of Lessons.
  3. Christian Initiation [i. e., baptism], or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
  4. The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion.”

In other words, it’s like a normal Sunday service—which consists of two parts, the Service of Lessons and the Holy Eucharist—with a couple of additions: the Service of Light and baptism.

That “Service of Light” part really does constrain us to the dark—a time between sunset and sunrise—which, let’s face it, really does feel inconvenient, no matter how we look at it.

And it feels even more inconvenient when we think about that other part, that baptism part!

I mean, really? The Prayer Book would rather we baptize at the (dark) Great Vigil than wait for the next day, when the sun is up and the Easter Lilies are smiling along with everyone else who got a good night’s sleep? What if that baptism is of a young child, who’d probably be in much better spirits on a bright Sunday morning than a dark Saturday night—not to mention his parents? Or what if the hoped for godparents aren’t able to make it out at night for whatever reason? Or what if? . . .

Okay, okay, I hear your questions. Yes, they are reasonable. Yes, a nighttime, dark service does indeed feel inconvenient. And yes, we could just as well forget about the Vigil and revert to the way things used to be around here, when we simply waited for Easter Sunday to roll around, stress day.

But if there’s one thing about me you’ve gotten to know by now, it’s that I highly respect our Episcopal tradition. And by “Episcopal tradition” I don’t mean the way we did things last year, five years ago, fifty, or even a hundred; I mean the tradition that goes back before the Reformation, before the marriage of the Roman and English Churches in the seventh century, even before the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. I want to go clear back as far as history will take us. How did the early church do it? That’s the tradition I’m talking about.

The reason I value this tradition so greatly is because many, many saints before us have thought long and hard—a lot longer and harder than any of us have—about how best to worship and glorify Christ. By the way, this is the rationale behind our Book of Common Prayer, leaving little room in our assemblies for novel, innovative liturgies.

And, even more importantly, there’s this: Jesus inconvenienced himself a great deal—when he emptied himself of the glories of heaven and became human; when he washed his disciples’ feet; when he stayed up all night praying fervently in the garden that his Father would take his cup from him; when he stood trial before Pilate; when he was stricken, smitten, afflicted, and nailed to the cross mercilessly; when he eked out his last breath—all for us! We break these dark inconveniences when we come to worship him at the Great Vigil, the fitting end to this drama known as the Passion, where we celebrate new light and life together—something the bright Sunday morning service just can’t replicate.

And thus, when it comes to worshiping Christ as God, the term inconvenience takes on new meaning.

Let’s celebrate this inconvenience—the Great Vigil, the tremendous conclusion to Christ’s Passion—together on Saturday, April 15, at 8pm. There will be a baptism this year; and, immediately following the service, a champagne-and-hot-cross-buns reception!

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.

Beyond the Prison Cell

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2016 by timtrue

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Matthew 11:2-11

Spoiler alert!

Does anyone in this room believe in an actual, literal Santa Claus—you know, the jolly rotund guy in a red suit with fuzzy white fringe who somehow manages to deliver presents to several billion people all over the world in the mere space of twenty-four hours via a magical sleigh and some flying reindeer?  Anyone?

Well, if so, you might not want to be here for the next few minutes.  I mean, I don’t want to be the one who puts an end to this innocent dream of yours.  Far be it from me to point out that people have been lying to you—your brothers and sisters, your parents, maybe even the whole world.

Okay, maybe not the whole world; that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But it might feel that way.

I can remember the day clearly—almost exactly forty-two years ago today.  Mom was out playing tennis.  Dad was tinkering in the garage, probably working on one of the cars.  Point is, both parents were preoccupied.

Technically, I suppose, my brother Andy and I were being supervised.  He was seven; I was six.  But, hey, this was the seventies: technically speaking, supervision meant Dad was home, sure; but in reality his two young boys might escape his watchful eye for an hour or two—or several.

Andy realized this.  He was the firstborn and therefore already quite savvy to Mom and Dad’s ways.  I, however, was the second-born and still the baby of the family, quite content to let everyone else fuss over the details of day-to-day life so that I could focus on what really mattered: not on how things really were but on how things ought to be.

Anyway, Andy, realizing that we boys were out from under Mom and Dad’s watchful eye for a while, stood up and walked across the avocado green shag carpet of the family room and turned off the TV and said, “Tim, I want to show you a secret.”

Secret, did he say?  I’m in!

So I followed him upstairs to the entryway closet.  We entered.  He pulled the string that turned on the single 40-watt bulb that dangled at the end of a cord from the ceiling.  And he shut the door.

Then, inside this secret space, he said, “Follow me,” and he ascended the built-in ladder, pushed open the attic door, and disappeared overhead.

“We’re not supposed to go up there,” I reminded from below.

No response.

Well, what was I to do?  What would you do?

I ascended the ladder and entered the attic.

And to my great surprise there were several beautifully wrapped presents, apparently ready to be set out under the Christmas tree.

Andy had a pocketknife and a roll of scotch tape with him.  How they got there, I didn’t ask.  But by now I was thinking this all was premeditated.

His plan, I learned, was to unwrap the presents carefully enough to find out what our gifts were.  He was savvy, remember.  And his head was rooted in pragmatic reality.

But my head was rooted in the world of ideals.

As such, that morning my world caved in.  For I read a few labels.  One said, “To, Timmy; with love, Santa.”  Another said, “For, Andy; love, Mr. and Mrs. Claus.”  And the gig was up.

“Um, I’m leaving now,” I told my big brother.  And without waiting for his approval I left that attic, exited the entryway closet, and went to my bedroom, where I closed the door, fell despondently onto my bed, and cried forlornly into my pillow.

My brother had lied to me.  My parents also, I realized, had lied to me.  Good grief, the whole world had lied to me!

I remember this story from my childhood about this time every year. What triggered it this year was John the Baptist’s question in today’s Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now, John the Baptist was an idealist.  His head usually was not caught up with the way things are.  Rather, his concern was with the way things ought to be.

We know nothing about his early life, except that he leapt in the womb when he met his cousin Jesus, also in utero.  But we can pretty easily surmise that he spent a lot of his early life in study, trying to discern the signs of the times.  For, as an adult he assumed the role of a prophet.  He knew a lot of theology.  He connected his current, pragmatic world to God’s ideal world—the way the world ought to be, when the kingdom of God becomes reality.

All this was fine during his formative years, when he was able to study.  All this was fine as he began his prophetic ministry, as an adult.  All this was fine when the multitudes came to him to be baptized in the Jordan.  All this was fine when Jesus came to him too; and he publicly proclaimed that here is the very Messiah himself.  All this was fine when his message of the way things ought to be was well received.

But then reality interfered and interrupted.  Herod arrested John and threw him in jail.

Wait a minute!  This isn’t how things are supposed to go.  If Jesus truly is the Messiah, then he should be righting wrongs.  He should be increasing while the powers of this world are decreasing.  Yet Herod has thrown John in jail.  The powers of this world are yet triumphing.  Reality is not allowing Jesus to gain a foothold.  All is not fine now!

And John wonders: Maybe my brothers and sisters have lied to me; maybe my parents and teachers have lied to me; maybe the whole world has lied to me.  Maybe Jesus is not really who I think he is—who I’ve been told he is.

So: John the Baptist, the top kid in the class, the one person about whom the scriptures say no one born of a woman is greater, this John the Baptist asks a question that pesters all of us.

Maybe it only comes around only once or twice in your lifetime.  Maybe it comes around annually with Santa Claus.  Or maybe it pesters continuously.  But here it is: Jesus, are you really the Messiah?  Or are you nothing more than a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

Has my family been lying to me?  Have my teachers been lying to me?  Has the church been lying to me?  Has the whole world been lying to me?

And I’m glad John asks it.  Because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kid to raise my hand and ask a stupid question.

I don’t want everyone else to know that my faith is a struggle; that my faith is weak; that maybe at times my doubt is in fact stronger than my belief, maybe even for long stretches of time; that I often wonder if I even believe at all anymore.

I don’t want to be the one to admit I’ve lost my faith, especially when I’m sitting here in church!

But what about when I’m sitting in my own prison cell, and it sure seems like Jesus isn’t doing anything about it?

We all have them, you know: our own prison cells.

You might feel imprisoned by large events in the world: terrorist acts; supernatural disasters; large-scale events that produce chaos.  You sit there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless to do anything about them.

Or your prison cell might be a past relationship gone bad, and now it’s impossible to seek any kind of reconciliation.  You’re there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless, a cell made for you by another person.

Or your cell might be past mistakes you’ve made as an individual; and now you must face the consequences of your past choices, consequences you’re powerless to change.  Your cell has been made by your own hands.

Whatever your prison cell of brokenness, you are left with no other alternative but to cry out to a savior.

But what if your savior doesn’t deliver?  What if Jesus does not do the things you always thought he would?  What if Jesus does not do the things everyone always told you he would?  What then?

Has your family lied to you?  Has the church?  Has the whole world been lying to you?

I’m glad John the Baptist asks this question from his prison cell today.  Aren’t you?  For he’s the top kid in the class.  And if the top kid in the class struggles with this question, somehow that makes it okay for me and for you—for us—to struggle with this question too.

Jesus, are you the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of this sin-infected world?

Or are you merely a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

So, guess what: Jesus does not answer John’s question directly; which compels me to think, by extension, that neither will Jesus answer our doubts directly. We’re talking about faith, after all; not proof.

Nevertheless, Jesus does give John a kind of answer.  And it is this: look outside your prison cell.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And I imagine John’s response: “Fine and well, Jesus—for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the half-dead, and the poor.  But what about me?”

I know it doesn’t feel like Jesus is saving the world as you sit there in your prison cell with John the Baptist.  But Jesus says to look outside your own prison cell.  And, when you do, if you are able, what do you see?

Despite all the bad news, great strides are being made in the world towards liberation—from oppressive governments, from poverty, from illiteracy, from terrorism, from disease.

And it’s not just global society I’m talking about: great strides are being made right here in Yuma County.  And it’s not just the corporate: we hear an awful lot these days about individual mental health and personal wellness.

All around us, people are being liberated.  Take a look beyond yourself and see and hear it.  Any time we see or hear about liberation for a person, a family, a community, or the globe, this is Jesus at work.  And this gives up hope.

But what about those people who just can’t do it?  What about those who just cannot seem to see beyond their own prison cells, no matter how hard they try?

If this is you, please, I ask, let someone know, someone you trust, someone who might be able to help you in your prison cell.

But know this.  Even there, imprisoned and unable to see beyond the very walls of your cell, Jesus is with you.  You have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.  Whatever dignity you can find within yourself, whatever self-respect, there is comfort: Jesus in you.

Comfort, comfort, ye my people, says the Lord.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

. . .

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Systems Failing

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

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This sermon was delivered on November 13, 2016.

Luke 21:5-19

I begin today’s homily with a riddle:

This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats high mountain down.

It comes from a famous riddle dual in English literature; more specifically, from the fifth chapter of J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins and Gollum meet for the first time, and square off.

They pose riddles to each other, in turn, until one of them gets the wrong answer.  If Bilbo wins, why, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave in which he is now lost.  But if Gollum wins, he will eat Bilbo—or so he threatens.

Now it’s Gollum’s turn; and he poses this riddle.  (Repeat.)

What is this thing?

Is it an army?  I suppose an army slays kings, ruins towns, and even beats high mountains down.  The Roman army, for sure, was a force to be reckoned with.  Still, can you say that armies devour birds, beasts, trees, and flowers?  What about gnawing iron, or grinding stones to sand?

Maybe it’s a natural disaster.  Yeah.  Disasters have been known to turn stones to sand, especially tsunamis and hurricanes.  And a hurricane certainly ruins towns and devours birds and beasts.  But gnawing iron?  Ruining kings?

Hmm.

Well, why don’t we set that aside for the time being? We’ll come back to it later, I promise.  But for now I want to engage in a different kind of mental exercise.  Now, let’s imagine ourselves taking a tour of Washington, DC; and let’s imagine that our tour guide is Bishop Mathes.

And there we are, taking it all in.  The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument—all in its intimidating beauty.  This is stability.  This is security.  Just looking at all this solid, changeless architecture is enough to tell us our country is solid and unchanging.  It’s built to endure, to stand the test of time.  This visit is enough to say, “Our country and especially the freedom for which it stands is permanent.”

But then the bishop says something like this: “Do you see all this beauty, all these magnificent buildings?  What if I were to tell you that they would all be destroyed within a generation?  I had a vision last night.  Within a generation, leaders of our own army will come in, take over, and destroy everything you see right here before our eyes.  All will be razed.  Nothing will be left standing.”

What would you think?

Now, admittedly, this isn’t so hard to imagine.  Prophets of doom stand on street corners all the time, holding or shouting out messages of death, doom, and destruction.  In fact, I am willing to wager that this very morning just such prophets were standing on street corners preaching their doom and gloom in DC.

But the bishop?  He’s a little more sensible, isn’t he?

So, to tax our brains a little more, now let’s imagine that it’s several years later and it actually happens.  Just as the bishop said, our own army comes in, takes over, and destroys everything.  All the buildings are razed.  And we realize that it’s just as the bishop said, down to the last, fine detail.

Would this be at all disconcerting?

When some people were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The Temple Mount in Jesus’ day was a lot like Washington, DC in our day.

It wasn’t just a Jewish thing, you know, for them, those people, to worship as they do with all their animal sacrifices and other peculiarities.  No!  The temple, the Temple, Herod’s Temple, was a building of incredible significance, sanctioned by the Emperor, an architectural wonder of the ancient world, a source of Roman pride, as well as Jewish.

Herod began its construction in 19 BCE.  During his building campaign, he more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount.

The temple itself was wonderful, completed in about eighteen months, and, yes, was the principal place of worship for the Jews.  But Herod’s building plan included colonnades around the temple, a lot like an outdoor mall, where activities like buying, selling, teaching, and speech-making occurred daily.

In fact, so extensive was this project that it was not completed until the reign of Nero, some thirty years after Jesus’ death, some eighty years after construction had begun.

The Temple Mount was solid, immovable, built to endure, to stand the test of time.  It represented the Roman and Hellenistic ideology of solidarity in diversity.

And like a prophet of doom and gloom on a street corner, Jesus looks at it and says, “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Was this at all disconcerting?

How about a few years later?  Was it disconcerting in 70 CE, less than a decade after Nero completed Herod’s magnificent building project, when the Temple Mount was completely destroyed?  Was it disconcerting that, in some serendipitous fit of cosmic irony, it was in fact destroyed by the Roman army, the army of the same empire that had just completed building it?  Was it disconcerting that it happened just as Jesus had said?

Yes!  Especially if your faith was in government.

So: I think now’s a good time to return to Gollum’s riddle.

The answer is time.  Time is the thing that devours all other things, whether birds, beasts, trees, flowers, steel, iron, hard stones, kings, cities, high mountains, or even Temple Mounts and White Houses.

Look, we live in a tremendous country.  We experience wonderful freedoms.  We have a government that is vitally concerned about protecting these freedoms.  We have a military that is unlike any other in the world.  I for one am extremely grateful to be an American citizen.

But I don’t have to remind you that every great civilization in the history of the world rises and falls.  In our history books we read about the Medes and Persians; the Greeks; the Romans; the Ottomans; the Turks; the Plantagenets; the Tudors; the Huns; even the so-called Holy Roman Empire.  Yet all of these are no more.  Time has a way of putting an end to all things.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, our great nation will one day cease to be great too, just like all the others.

Is this disconcerting?

Are you frightened as you look around?  Do the changing world events terrify you?  Do wars and rumors of wars; reports of ISIS; another headline of another senseless shooting; nuclear tests in North Korea—do these kinds of things send jolts of fear down your spine?  Do you ever wonder if we might actually witness something as significant as the destruction of the Temple Mount in our own lifetimes?

We have good reason to fear.  Just like the disciples in the time of Jesus, we have a lot to be afraid of.   There will be wars, insurrections, natural disasters, and false leaders.  Nation will rise up against nation—in other words, race against race.  There will be earthquakes and other destructive natural disasters; and maybe even dreadful portents in the heavens.  These things will happen.  Jesus doesn’t try to skirt around it.  And this is scary stuff!

But there’s another side to it.

It’s all disconcerting, yes, if we place our faith in government.  We know this.  Luke knew it too.

And we can add to the picture a little bit: it’s not just government.  We can talk about any established system—the church, the company you work for, relationships.  Regardless of how solid and stable any system appears, there’s always the possibility of instability, erosion, and failure.

And this is disconcerting!

But here’s maybe something we don’t know, something maybe we can learn from Luke today.

Luke wrote his biography of the life of Jesus looking backwards.  That is, when we hear today’s account of Jesus foretelling the future—looking at all the parts of the Temple that will be destroyed—by the time Luke actually wrote it all down, the Temple already was destroyed—the future Jesus was foretelling was actually already in the past.

You know why he did this?  He did this in order to tell his readers—in order to tell us—yes, it is all disconcerting; but there is something in which we can put our faith—someone—who is stable where everything else is not; someone who endures, who stands the test of time; who is the one thing Gollum’s wicked riddle cannot destroy.

And that someone is Jesus.

Entitled or Grateful?

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

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This sermon was preached on October 9, 2016.

Luke 17:11-19

Two students come to mind from my time in Sewanee.

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

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

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

Faith cannot be quantified.

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

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

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

Neither is faith cause-and-effect.

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

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

Faith hasn’t worked.

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

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

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

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

Do these lepers have faith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do they have faith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what happens?

Ten are made clean.

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

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

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

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

There’s a great lesson here for us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope from Hindsight

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by timtrue

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Matt. 24:36-44

Today we find ourselves in an awkward place.

On the one hand, we find ourselves remembering last week, Christ the King Sunday.  On that final Sunday of the church year we focus on the culmination of all things, that day when Christ’s realm will be fully and completely inaugurated, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And so, on the one hand, we find ourselves still lingering on thoughts about Jesus’ second coming.

But, on the other hand, just look around.  Christmas, the birth of the baby Jesus, Christ’s first coming, is all round us.  Shopping malls remind us of this; commercials remind us of this; our neighborhoods remind us of this!

Today, we’re in an awkward place.

Why, just last night in fact, my wife told me of a kind of tension she is seeing on Facebook these days.  On the one hand, a good portion of her friends are posting things like, “Thanksgiving is over; time for the Christmas decorations!”  But, on the other hand, she’s got a significant number of friends saying things like, “Advent is here; gonna light a candle!”

So, what is Advent?

The word itself, advent, means “arrival.”  But, to press the issue, which arrival?  Are we looking ahead, to the future, to Christ’s second coming?  Or, are we looking behind, to the past, to Christ’s first coming?

And then we come to today’s Gospel.  Its main point seems to be that we should be ready.

But what are we to be ready for?

If we look ahead, to be ready for Christ’s return, well, after all, no one knows the day or the hour, not even the Son himself, but only the Father.  So how in the world are we to be ready?  I mean, if a thief might one day strike my house, there are some certain things I can do to be ready, like install an alarm system, buy a fireproof safe, whatever.  But in the end I’m just going to get back to my day-to-day life of eating, drinking, carrying on business, and relaxing with my family.

But, on the other hand, if we look back, at Jesus’ birth, his first coming, how are we to get ready for that?  Buy a tree in anticipation of this new life?  Plan on family visiting from afar, bearing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh?  Prepare my own home for hospitality, to receive Joseph and Mary and Emmanuel?  Give gifts of my own?

The celebration is sure a lot of fun—even if it’s a lot of work.  But here too, in the end, after we clean up and put things into storage for the next eleven months, we just get on back to our daily routines—of eating, drinking, exercising, working, relaxing.

So, which is it?  Jesus’ first coming, or his second?

The answer, of course, is yes.

During Advent, yes, we look ahead, to the future, the unknown, the scary—to Christ’s second coming.  And, yes, we simultaneously look back, to the past, to what we know, to the stuff of history books—to Christ’s first coming.  During Advent, yes, we prepare for Christ’s return; and, yes, we prepare for his birth.

It’s a sort of in-between time.

And, thus, today we find ourselves in an awkward place.

But is it really all that awkward?

I’ve told the story of my childhood before: raised in southern California in an idyllic setting for a boy—an outdoor playground, really: an avocado orchard, a swimming pool with a rope swing, grapevines, gardens, fruit trees, chickens, even a donkey for a while; with hiking trails a short walk away; and so on.

Man, I miss that place!

Anyway, reminiscing with my brother and mom this week over a Thanksgiving meal, I recalled how bored I used to get in elementary school, often wiling away my hours of classroom confinement daydreaming about what I would do when I got home from school that afternoon!

Life on Alosta Drive was certain for me, sure, predictable, and—when I wasn’t in the classroom—generally awesome.

Then, at 12 years old, my brother and I were completely blindsided when our parents announced that Mom would be moving out and they’d soon be divorced.

Now, divorce happens often.  I knew that even then.  Several of my school friends had already experienced it.  But it was one of those things I just assumed would never come to my life.

When it did, all that certainty and predictability and general awesomeness I just mentioned, well, now it flew out the window.  Suddenly, in the matter of just a few days really, my life became terribly uncertain; and terribly frightening.

No longer was it predictable.  No longer did it seem to provide all the answers I’d ever need or want.  No longer did I daydream about what I’d do that afternoon once I’d left my studies behind in my junior high locker.

Instead, I worried.  I became anxious about the future, the unknown, and the uncertain.

From there, my story gets better.  For my anxiety over life’s uncertainty drove me to Bible study and, in time, a personal relationship with Jesus.

But even here, I came to Jesus with some unrealistic hopes.  I wanted answers to questions that really can never be answered.  I wanted stability again.  I wanted my anxiety to disappear.  And I wanted the same mom and dad I’d always known—or at least the ones I imagined.

The mom and dad of my boyhood imagination were perfect, you see.  They knew all things.  They didn’t grope their way through life, worrying over silly things like how the bills were going to get paid; whether their kids would turn out okay; or if God existed.  The parents of my imagination were certain, sure, stable, and predictable.

I wanted these things again!  And I looked for them in Jesus.

So my early experience as a Christian was filled with wanting to know.  Jesus was sure, certain, stable, and predictable, I’d tell myself.  So, surely, all the answers to all of life’s perplexing questions were there in the Bible.  I just needed to hunt for them, to find them, and to apply them to my life.  Then I would know certainty, surety, stability, and predictability again.

And, best of all, I’d have no worries or anxieties about the future!

So: I did.  I read the Bible.  Cover to cover.  Several times!

And every time I did today’s Gospel would confront me.  Other passages too.  Like those about the dysfunctional lives of the patriarchs, losing their hope and trust in God when they ought to know better!  Like those about Moses leading a whole nation through the wilderness, groping his way through life and leadership.  Like those about David, trusting in his own “wisdom,” which resulted in adultery and murder.  And like those about Jesus, God himself, being led away like a lamb to the slaughter.

The future is unknown.  It is uncertain.  It is even scary.

On the other hand, the past, what we’ve already lived through, is just that: the past.  It’s out of sight and out of mind in a sense.  Sure, we’ve made mistakes; we’ve lived through difficult times, as well as times of immense joy.  But there’s nothing scary about the past.  Well, scary, maybe, in hindsight.  But there’s nothing about the past to make us anxious.  For there it is: in the past; where we can just forget about it.

No, this in-between time called Advent is not really all that awkward at all.

So, what does this mean for us today?

Just this:

We live in a time characterized by fear.

The housing bubble burst in 2008.  6 million people lost their homes.  Our nation’s economy entered a Great Recession.  And, because our nation’s economy is so large, economies around the world were affected.  And we’re still not totally out of it.  What’s going to happen?

And we all remember September 11, 2001.  Since that time, ugly, desperate acts of terrorism and hatred have risen to unprecedented levels in the world—unprecedented at least for my lifetime.  Will it keep getting worse before it gets better?

And even if these things get better, what about all the hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes?  Every time I turn on the news it’s something terrible!  Is there no hope?

We fear the future.

Yet, at the same time, we are apathetic towards the past.

The history books were written by a bunch of European males, after all, who have put their misogynistic, Caucasian, patriarchal spin on things.

Also, we tell ourselves, our technological advances prove that we know more in our generation than all other generations combined.

So, we put these two premises together and conclude that we really don’t need history at all.

Ah, but don’t you see the fallacy?

We are anxious about the future; yet we are apathetic towards the past.  Maybe we are anxious because we are apathetic.

Advent comes along and names it.  On the one hand, it says, “Look at the future.  It is uncertain.  It is unpredictable.  No one knows the day or the hour.  The end will come when people are simply going about their day-to-day routines.”

But, on the other hand, Advent also says, “Look at the past.  We know, from history, that God has come into the world as a Baby; and that this Baby is a tremendous source of comfort for an anxious world.”

Advent teaches us not to be apathetic about the past, about history; for in it we see God working to set this world to rights.

And at the same time, Advent teaches us not to be anxious about the future.  Yes, it is uncertain, unsure, and unpredictable.  But it was just the same for God’s people of old—and history shows us that it turned out okay for them.  So with us!

Here it is, then: this is what Advent means for us today:  By looking back, to the past, Advent teaches us to have faith and hope when we look ahead, to the future.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

Prayer: Hope or Action?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 18:1-8

There’s a certain tension that comes to the surface in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

On the one hand, there’s a God-fearing widow.  And widows in the ancient world, as we know, had it rough.  There was no social security system.  There was no Medicare.  And unless she had a son to take care of her or some other unlikely benefactor, she was largely on her own to make ends meet.  Widows in the ancient world were easy targets for bullies.

On the other hand, there’s a self-serving judge, who cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of other persons.  In short, he is a key player in the system which is already stacked against the marginalized and oppressed.

We followers of Christ are meant, of course, to identify with the widow.

Early Christians were marginalized and oppressed.  Out of necessity, they had to work within the extant Roman system to make a way forward—within a system that cared nothing about God and even less about the dignity of the marginalized; within a system that was stacked against them.

But what does this mean for us today?  What should our identification with the widow look like?

Are we to spend our time in prayer, as Luke’s own commentary states—“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (v.1, emphasis added)?  Or are we to engage in persistent work, like the widow did, who kept coming, over and over, to the unjust judge until he gave in?

More simply, is this a parable about praying or doing?  As Christians, are we called to hope or to act?

And thus the tension of which I speak.

The Bible is full of examples of people—at both the individual and the community levels—who couldn’t do anything about their present situation; who were left with no other option but to hope.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  God then promised redemption and reconciliation.  But when would it come?  Adam and Eve couldn’t do anything about said redemption and reconciliation: they were left just to hope.

A similar scenario plays out with the death of Abel and banishment of Cain.  How would God redeem the cosmos now?  They could only wait—and hope.

And do you remember the story of Joseph?  He was sold into slavery—by his own jealous, ungrateful, entitled brothers.  What could he do but cry out to God in hope?

Indeed, throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear story after story of individual widows, orphans, and slaves who are powerless to do anything about their respective situations; who can only hope through prayer.

And it’s the same at the community level.  Famines hit whole nations; war comes upon communities suddenly and unexpectedly; the nation of Israel becomes enslaved to Egypt.  What else can they do but cry out to God?

And, as you know, it’s not just the Bible.  People throughout history have been left with nothing they can do about their present situation—with nothing in their power but hope through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, I can also think of numerous examples where people actually can do something about it.

“Be strong and courageous; enter the land of promise,” Joshua commanded the people of Israel.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commanded.  And, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Moses led.  David protected.  Peter founded.  Paul preached.

In more modern times, Martin Luther King, Junior stood fast against systemic injustice.

Often times we are in fact called to act.  And, it seems reasonable to me, if we do not act it is to commit the sin of omission (as we name it in one of our prayers).

So, then, which is it? Hope or action?

To which I answer, yes.

The examples I’ve given are specific situations.  Of course there are times when individuals and communities will have no choice at all but to hope through prayer!  Likewise, of course there are specific times when individuals and communities will be called to act so that it feels as if hardly any prayer is taking place at all!

But our theology of prayer must not be formed from these polar extremes.  Informed by them, yes.  But not formed from them.

There are churches whose theology of prayer is formed only by hope.  You know what their message is?  Jesus will soon return and he’s not going to like what he finds.  A great battle will ensue culminating in the destruction of the entire cosmos.  All humanity, all the fauna and flora, all the sun moon and stars—all will be blotted out at the final trumpet blast!

There’s not a lot these churches can do.  Leaders from such churches encourage their parishioners to go out into the world and make disciples, for the souls of people are all that will pass into the afterlife.  But as for going out and fighting against social injustice, there’s really not much of a need.  Christianity’s place, they say, is only to hope in a future kingdom through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, there are churches whose theology of prayer comes only from good works.  Their message is: Christ has already brought his kingdom to earth; he has therefore called us to do as much as is in our power to bring this kingdom about.

The logical consequence is that we really have little time for sitting around in contemplative prayer.  Really, we shouldn’t take time out of our schedules at all for individual or corporate prayer, or even for worship.  In fact, we should spend as little money as possible on the church.  Instead we should use all our funds to feed and clothe the poor and to fight other social injustices we see in our local world.

Do you see the two polar extremes here?  A theology of prayer focused only on hope is infrared; and a theology of prayer focused only on action is ultraviolet.  To get the white light of the Gospel in its full splendor, we must have a proper theology of prayer: hope and action together, with all their gradients.

“Roy G. Biv” is how I learned the colors of the rainbow—like a man’s name: Roy as a first name, G as his middle initial, and Biv as his last name. And then I knew the colors of the rainbow in order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  Was it the same with you?

But we all know there are many more colors in the rainbow than seven.  For when we get to that liminal area between one color and the next—between red and orange, for instance—we see combinations of the two—reddish-orange and orangeish-red and a million other gradients—so that we can’t really see where one color stops and the other starts.

A full theology of prayer includes not just the infrared and the ultraviolet but also the ROYGBIV in between—and the millions upon millions of gradients therein.

Or, more simply, prayer is both hope and action—and all the millions upon millions of ways we can combine the two.

So, to return to the main point, Jesus says you need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Do you know how to do this?  It’s not easy.  But a church with a sound theology of prayer can help.

Here are just some of the traditions that have emerged from our church’s theology of prayer: lectio divina, the Ignatian method, praying our own Anglican rosary, centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, the Daily Office, meditation, intercession, giving gifts, the examen, journaling, walking, working, singing, chanting, reading, and simply sitting in silence.

This list is not exhaustive—please inquire later if you’d like to know more.  But I mention it because it shows how prayer is both hope and action, and all the various combinations of the two.

Take advantage of these traditions.  They will help you to pray always.  They will help you not to lose heart.