Archive for Faith

Gracing Belief

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2018 by timtrue

Burning_match

John 3:14-22

1.

I’m sure we’ve all heard this saying before: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

To give us some context, this saying comes from I John 4:18, which reads in full: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

So, show of hands: Who out there has reached perfection in love? No one?

A week ago Friday night we played with this contrast between love and fear in my Lenten Class, Love 101. The relationship between love and fear is analogous to the relationship between light and darkness.

I threw out three images from the natural world to illustrate:

  1. The closest thing to absolute darkness I’ve ever experienced: turning off headlamps while spelunking; and the effect of a solitary match lit in that darkest of settings.
  2. A still very dark setting: stargazing on a moonless night; and the amount of light transferred only from planets stars light years away—amazing!
  3. And the brightest natural light I’ve experienced: hiking at noon on the summer Solstice, with the sun as high in the sky as it could be in the thin air of the Sierra Nevadas above treeline; and still I could see shadows—darkness hiding in corners.

Light and darkness exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

In that near-absolute dark setting in the cave, it was only dark because of the absence of light, dramatically demonstrated by a solitary match. You can’t have light without darkness—one defines the other.

Yet even in the brightest light I’ve experienced, the high, warm light of the noonday sun, there was shadow: even the brightest light could not chase all the darkness away.

It’s a great illustration for the relationship shared by love and fear:

Fear grips us. It sometimes overwhelms us to the point of despair. But one little flicker of love and fear disperses.

As we grow and mature in our love, we come closer to that perfect love that casts out fear. But we are human, and thus we can never attain to that perfect love that is God. Thus, as good as our love can ever be—as brightly as it can ever shine—fear is never chased completely away, always at least lurking in the shadows.

So, towards the end of our Love 101 hour together, I asked if there was anything from our day’s discussion that we might want to explore further; and someone raised his hand. “This picture of love and fear is very helpful,” he said; “but how does it relate to faith?”

Well, I gave the answer that all good teachers give when someone asks a question that hasn’t occurred to me before: “That’s a very good question.”

2.

In today’s Gospel, I’m happy to say, we find an answer to that question.

Notice, first, how the passage ends:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Jesus is the light; God is perfect love.

Some people come into the light; and as a result their good deeds, which are done in God, are seen.

Other people, however, would rather not have their deeds exposed. To their detriment, they avoid the light and hide in the darkness. They would rather live in fear than come out into the light of Christ and the love of God.

And do you see how John is playing with the same analogy? Light is to darkness as love is to fear. Symbiosis is at work: one doesn’t exist without the other.

But John brings an additional variable into the equation, one I did not bring into last Friday night’s discussion. This additional variable is seen in the beginning of the passage, summarized in the verse that perhaps above all others in our lifetime has enjoyed rockstar fame, John 3:16.

And we all groan and roll our eyes! For this is an old rockstar; one, we all know, who should have retired long ago; and, dignity suggests, ought to retire now before he hurts himself.

Still, let’s try to see this verse anew; to hear his song afresh, in the context of love and fear we’ve just been discussing:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And do you hear it? Faith is a part of this song.

John doesn’t say the word itself—faith. But John’s Gospel is about action; and what is the activity—the verb—associated with faith? To believe.

John brings active belief—otherwise known as faith—into our equation.

For John, the people who practice active belief are those who come into the light of Christ and love of God; the people who do not practice faith would rather remain in the shadows of darkness and fear.

But we’re not quite done: faith is only half the variable. Light lives in relationship with darkness. Love lives in relationship with fear. With what, then, does faith live in relationship?

Let’s listen to that old rockstar one more time:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—

Okay, okay, that’s enough! Retire already.

But, really, my point here is that we like the second half of the song, the part that tells me that all I have to do is practice active belief—that all I have to do is have faith—and I will be saved. But there is an important symbiotic relationship here; and if all we hear is the second half we’ll miss it.

God so loved the world. God gave his only Son. God is actively participating.

As an individual, I like to think that it’s all about me. It’s my faith. I chose to believe. Or, just as readily, I might say, “It’s my atheism; I chose to reject God.”

But we cannot skirt around the matter. In our individual practices of belief or disbelief, God actively participates.

So then, what is this divine participation called?

Grace.

And now our variable is complete.

3.

But grace and faith together? Oh, the tension!

Grace tells me it’s all about God and nothing about me.

But when we tease this logic out to its theological end, the result is called predestination; and predestination is a difficult pill to swallow.

For, while God may have predestined my soul to eternal bliss and salvation, does that mean that God also predestined my unbelieving friend to eternal torment and damnation?

And, since we’re here, what about Adam and Eve? If it’s all about God’s activity, then God must have predestined Adam and Eve to sin; and the time of probation in the Garden of Eden was all a kind of moot, not to mention sadistic, stage play.

The same goes for Judas Iscariot. If he were only a puppet in God’s hands, then he actually betrayed Jesus under no volition of his own—and is therefore to be pitied above all other human beings.

But it’s no good, on the other hand, to say it’s all faith; for all faith places salvation in my hands. Whether or not I go to heaven at the last day depends on my personal steadfastness and self-control.

But my heart and my head wage war against one another. In my head, I know the disciplines I have set for myself to keep. But my heart tells me it’s okay to give in. And when I’m weary or fatigued—you know the drill—my heart always seems to win out.

Moreover, if my faith is all up to me, then God is removed to some far-off place and has little to nothing to do with me. And, really, who wants that!

Like light and darkness and fear and love, faith exists in symbiosis with grace.

4.

But there’s a key difference.

Love and fear exist together in tension, as do faith and grace. But we strive towards the goal of perfect love; and concurrently of casting out fear. Perfect love is our destination.

When it comes to faith and grace, however, our goal is not one over the other, but balance.

I came across a question this week[i] that sums it up well: “Put more personally, is my salvation dependent upon the steadfastness of my faith, or will I be graced by God whether or not I am faithful?”

The answer, according to that old rockstar, is yes.

Your faith and God’s grace go hand in hand.

Over in the Gospel of Mark, it sounds like this:

Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” (Mark 9:23-25).

“All things can be done”—God’s grace—“for the one who believes”—your faith.

“I believe”—semi-colon: same breath—“help my unbelief!”

This is the mysterious tension we find when grace and faith work harmoniously together.

May God be gracious to us all in our belief and unbelief.

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 120; Joseph D. Small.

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When Faith and Beliefs Collide

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2018 by timtrue

Verkehrsunfall1

Mark 1:14-20

1.

Jumping right into today’s Gospel:

  • John the Baptist has been arrested
  • Jesus has carried John’s message of repentance to Galilee
  • Four fisherman hear this message
  • And immediately they leave the lives they have always known to follow Jesus.

Consider: theirs were lives of safety, security, predictability, stability, and confidence; left behind for risk, danger, insecurity, uncertainty, and self-denial.

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

Did they know Jesus already? Had they seen him somewhere before? Was it his charismatic personality?

Or, maybe, was it his connection with JB? There’s some scholarly speculation, after all, that JB was an Essene, possibly even of the Qumran community. Prior to his public ministry, Jesus might even have been one of JB’s disciples. We don’t know for sure. But did Jesus perhaps dress like JB? Would the four fisherman have recognized Jesus at sight—by the clothes he wore (similar to people recognizing me as a priest when I wear my collar in public)?

Or, was there something about the authenticity of Jesus? Here was a man who not only proclaimed a message of repentance but also lived out the way of love. I like to think so: that the message and messenger were authentically one.

Whatever the case, the truth is we don’t know why these four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus. This detail has been left out of the story.

But we know that they did.

No speculation here! On that day long ago on that beach, four fishermen left behind stability, certainty, and predictability for a life of risky faith as disciples of Jesus.

2.

And we know the result: through their faith they were transformed. Jesus called these disciples as fishermen and transformed them into fishers of people.

Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

He was called on the beach, the sand; and later called rock.

Jesus called him rock; and then, in the next breath, Satan.

Peter said he’d never deny Jesus; and yet denied him the next morning.

Peter became a stalwart spokesman for the church; yet disagreed and disputed openly and publicly with the apostle Paul.

Peter even waffled, tradition tells us, in the days leading up to his execution, one moment escaping from Rome and fleeing for his life, sure of his freedom; the next deciding martyrdom was the better way and returning of his own volition to face Nero for Christ’s glory.

Transformation for Peter—and for the others—was not a one-time experience, like repeating a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call.

Faith in Christ meant continuous conversion throughout his life, being conformed increasingly—more and more—from Adam’s fallen image into Jesus’ perfect image.

Transformation takes a lifetime!

And if it works this way for Peter, Andrew, James, John, and you and me, as individuals; then transformation also works this way for the corporate body of Christ, the Christian church around the globe.

3.

Which brings up a good point.

Here is the beginning of the church—the earliest community to gather around the person and mission of Jesus Christ. And this earliest body of believers lived a life of faith.

This life was risky, even dangerous.

It was insecure.

It was unstable.

And—not a point to gloss over—it required them to let of their egos.

And their faith resulted in their transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

Is the church, the collective body of Christ around the globe, still transforming? Is it still living a life of risky faith, following Jesus into unknown, even dangerous realms as it tries to fulfill his mission?

Take financial risk as an example. Certainly these four fisherman followed Jesus at great financial risk to themselves and their families. Yet, obviously, they didn’t sit down beforehand and plan out a budget subject to board approval.

The contrasting picture today is one of sweaty hands wrung together, knuckles popping and fingernails being bitten off, frantic phone calls, bitter arguments—in fear of insolvency.

We’ve come a long way in some ways; though I’m not sure we can say transformation is one of them.

And what of stability? We talk an awful lot about having buildings to worship in, in geographic locations. We are the presence of Christ to our community, after all. Better make sure we look like we’re built on a rock then and not on shifting sand!

Yet Christ was transient in his ministry, meeting in an upper room or speaking from a boat or sitting on a hillside.

Since the beginning of the church, a lot about Christianity has changed. But I don’t think this is the kind of transformation Jesus had in mind.

And what about ego? . . .

4.

Considered as a world religion, Christianity is commonly divided into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Each of these divisions can be further subdivided; and there are further subdivisions within these subdivisions; and so on; and so forth—leaving one dizzy.

A Catholic group says there are 33,000 different Christian denominations in the world; Gordon-Conwell Seminary claims there are 47,000.

But, of course, it depends how one defines “denomination.” Is an independent, so-called non-denominational church in effect its own denomination? Many would argue so.

If so, then, yes, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, in the USA alone there are more than 35,000 Protestant denominations.

But if, on the other hand, you lump all independent and non-denominational bodies into one group—a kind of anti-denomination I guess—then the number becomes a much more manageable 200 or so.[i]

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot.

And why is this?

Far and away, because of doctrinal differences: one church leader’s interpretation differs from another. And so, in the spirit of protest, channeling the Protestant Reformation, rather than seeking agreement a new denomination forms and breaks off from the old.

And if that’s not ego at work, I don’t know what is!

But, to be fair, you can hardly blame Martin Luther and the others! For the Roman Catholic doctrines of Papal Infallibility and magisteria (to name but two) are themselves exclusive systems of belief: if you don’t ascribe to them you can’t be in the club; and who wants to be in that kind of club anyway?

God is immutable, they say; and thus the church should reflect God’s unchanging nature.

To which I say, Immutability? Infallibility? (And I might as well add) Inerrancy? These words hardly sound transformational.

On that day long ago, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of them. We, the church, continue to have a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of us.

It seems to me, however, that our belief systems today are far removed from that beach where those four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus in faith.

Our belief systems are impeding our transformation.

5.

You know what I think’s going on here? I think we—the Christian church—have confused our belief systems with faith.

Once upon a time I was a director of youth ministries in a church, overseeing programs for students in middle school, high school, and college.

The college students frequently volunteered to work with younger students and thus were seen role models.

One day, one of the college women who volunteered with the high school program came to the pastor in tears, confessing that she was pregnant. The father-to-be was a young man who didn’t attend church.

Now, this church’s system of beliefs held that believers should not marry unbelievers; that abortion is murder; that sex outside of marriage is a sin; that sins necessitate repentance; that pregnancy is a public sin, for a swollen belly is soon obvious to everyone; and that failure to repent should result in excommunication from the church.

This system of beliefs had come from much prayer and Bible study, to be sure.

But it also led the pastor and elders (who were all men, by the way) to conclude, therefore, that the young woman must either publicly apologize to the congregation during Sunday morning worship or face excommunication. It probably goes without saying that abortion would have resulted in excommunication too; and unless he converted, marrying the unbelieving father-to-be was discouraged.

As you can imagine, this whole scenario put me into an ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, I was a vital part of this church. I ascribed to its belief system. I supported the pastor in his vision for the congregation.

And yet, on the other hand, I had gotten to know this young woman well. She had taught, prayed with, and otherwise provided spiritual leadership to a number of the youth. She demonstrated a life of love to these kids.

And love, after all—wasn’t this Jesus’ main message?

“Lord,” I prayed, “of all the beliefs in my belief system, which one is the greatest?” And he answered, “The greatest of these is love.”

How was this local church loving this young woman now, I wondered? By telling her not to marry her boyfriend because he didn’t ascribe to the church’s belief system? By publicly humiliating her in front of the congregation? By excommunicating her? Really?

The dilemma was real: My belief system collided with my faith.

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

But I’d also developed my ethic of love from Jesus!

As these two worlds collided, I realized I couldn’t hold both without significantly compromising my integrity as a disciple of Christ. I had to pick a side: belief or faith. Which would it be?

Well, what side had the four fishermen picked?

As with the four fishermen, Jesus is calling us to faith: to live out a risky ethic of love rather than to hold tenaciously to some rock-solid, immutable system of beliefs we call our own.

Through faith, not a belief system, we shall be transformed.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] Cf. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/sbeale/just-how-many-protestant-denominations-are-there

Forward into Exile

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by timtrue

This sermon was delivered on November 12, 2017.

MANO-5

Matthew 25:1-13

1.

Once upon a time there was a great city on a hill.

A city which could not be hidden.

A golden city.

God’s city.

Its name was Jerusalem.

Long was it thought to be impenetrable—four hundred years long, in fact—standing there proud, even haughty, glowering at the inferior world below.

During these four centuries—oh, yes!—kings and their eager armies had tried to conquer it. For, especially when the sun was about to set, in that last hour of daylight, its sandstone buildings beckoned, dazzling, appearing as pure gold; especially that highest of all buildings, Solomon’s Temple.

The wealth!

But, alas, here was a prize that refused to be taken, by force or any other way.

For, in addition to having been built on the top of a vast hill, a high wall of hard stone surrounded it.

And, in addition to the high, hard stone wall, a water source bubbled up from the ground in the city’s middle.

Long, then, could this city’s inhabitants enclose themselves inside if need be, carrying on life more or less as they always did, should an enemy army ever encamp outside.

And it had worked.

For four centuries.

“Ah, Jerusalem,” King Jehoiachin boasted as he walked to and fro on his palace balconies, “my impenetrable city.”

Still, supplies such as food, spears, arrows, even stones are not infinite. Perhaps if an enemy army were merely patient enough. . . .

And then it happened.

A harsh and stubborn commander with a foreign name, Nebuchadnezzar, brought his army from far away Babylon. And he set up encampments, determined to starve Jerusalem if necessary. This golden city would be his.

And so—despite King Jehoiachin’s boasts, his certainty, his knowledge—it happened: Jerusalem was caught by surprise.

God can do this, you know: God can catch his people by surprise.

Over these past four hundred years, not just the king but also God’s people, all Israel, had grown confident, certain, and sure. They were God’s chosen people, after all. And God, stalwart and benevolent king that he was, would surely always provide for them and protect them from their enemies, surely, even if the enemy army were, say, tenfold the size of their own.

Armed then with this confident certainty, King Jehoiachin decided to parley.

But Nebuchadnezzar was a cruel enemy.

Jehoiachin was arrested, along with his princes, his mightiest warriors, and the city’s best craftsmen and artisans; and led away into captivity. Only the poor were left behind.

Nebuchadnezzar then established Jehoiachin’s own uncle Zedekiah as vassal king in Jehoiachin’s place: Zedekiah and the remaining people of Jerusalem were to pay an annual tribute to Babylon.

The people of God had been caught by surprise.

Even so, their confidence remained. As glowing embers at first, over the next decade they fed it enough heat, air, and fuel to grow into roaring flames. They were God’s chosen people, after all.

And Zedekiah decided it was high time to stop paying the annual tribute.

Surely, Zedekiah predicted, the Babylonian army would return. But Jerusalem had learned its lesson last time. This time he would not parley; no one would surrender. This time, weapons would be stockpiled ahead of time; the people of God would hole up in the fortified city and simply wait their enemy out.

And return Nebuchadnezzar and his army did.

And, again, God caught his people off guard.

For Nebuchadnezzar was ready to wait out his enemy too.

He established not mere encampments but whole villages at strategic points around the outside of the impenetrable city, complete with gardens and bath houses, as if to say, “Jerusalem may be able to sustain itself with food and water; well, we’ve got food and water too, and the land’s infinite resources for miles and miles around.”

It proved his distinct advantage.

The siege lasted almost two years. Then, as it turns out, Jerusalem’s small army was running out of defensive weapons and ideas. So one night in 586 BCE, under cover of darkness, the entire army sneaked out of the city in search of supplies—and were found out, caught, and captured in short order!

It was easy, then, for the enemy army to enter the city and take it without resistance. Those who tried to resist were killed. The other inhabitants, to a person, were led away in captivity to Babylon.

None who survived would ever see their beloved city again. Babylon had effectively snuffed out the Jewish nation.

But these were God’s chosen people.

But God had led them into this land, the land of promise, more than four hundred years ago.

But God had built their beloved Temple, the very place on earth where God chose to dwell.

How could this happen?

Where had God gone?

Why would God bring such evil upon his people?

2.

Today Jesus calls us to be prepared for surprises.

This is the message that stands out today.

Ten bridesmaids are part of a wedding party. They’re all there, together. They all know the bride personally.

But five are said to be foolish and the other five wise. Why?

This isn’t a parable about following Christ, as if the five foolish are not disciples and the five wise are. If Christ is represented by the bridegroom, then all ten bridesmaids are there, a part of his church as it were, waiting for him.

This isn’t a parable about the virtues of an active life, as if the five bridesmaids are wise because they keep active; whereas the foolish ones are more contemplative. Yes, Jesus does say, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”; but, no, despite what some extroverts would like us to think, this is not a statement about continuous activity for the Lord in this life. All ten of the bridesmaids—the five foolish and the five wise—are sleeping, after all, their lamps snuffed out, when the bridegroom arrives.

And this isn’t a parable about loving our neighbor. If it were, then maybe the five wise bridesmaids would have shared some of their extra oil with the not-so-wise. Surely there was enough to go around!

Instead, this parable is about being ready. And it’s not just being ready for what we think will happen; but for the unexpected, for surprises, for God catching us off guard at an unknown day and hour.

The real issue at hand is thinking we’ve got it all sorted out: thinking that the bridegroom will arrive exactly when we expect him to; thinking that we will be able to outlast the army encamped outside our walls because God cares for us more than other people; thinking that we’ve discovered a sure-fire method of growing the church.

This parable is a call for flexibility, adaptability, and resourcefulness rather than control, predictability, and order.

3.

Once upon a time there was a great city on a hill.

A city which could not be hidden.

A golden city.

God’s city.

Its name was the church.

The church offered a safe haven for long years from the opposing evil forces outside. God looked with favor upon the church. For the church was his chosen people.

But the church was predictable, ordered, even controlled. And thus, over time, many of the chosen people began to feel walled in.

Our world today is much different than the world of two thousand years ago; of two hundred years ago; or even of twenty. The authority structures of the Middle Ages are flatly unacceptable to the democratic world today. Popular church growth methods from the 1990s aren’t working today.

Across the world, there is discussion revolving around the decline of the Christian church. Numbers are down. Resources are scarce. Properties are being sold off at a staggering rate.

And we look around at all this and say:

“It’s not supposed to happen like this!

“Where has God gone?

“Why has God brought such evil upon us?”

Could it be that God has in fact been doing something unexpected both within and without the church? Could it be that God is catching the church off guard? Could it be that our church is in a kind of exile?

4.

Once the people of Jerusalem had been led away by Nebuchadnezzar and his army, there, in Babylon, their captors told them to sing their songs of Zion.

But they couldn’t do it.

There, in exile, they realized their preconceptions and definitions of God had been wrong. Their city was razed; their Temple destroyed. How could they sing their same old songs?

So, what did they do? God hadn’t acted like they thought God would. God had caught them off guard; taken them by surprise. Did they just give up and die?

No! They wrote new songs. They revised their understanding of God the unpredictable. And they forged a new path ahead.

The time has come, too, for us to write new songs, to revise our understanding of our God who surprises us, and to forge a new path ahead.

5.

And, I am happy to report, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is doing just that.

You may know that I, along with four members of our congregation, attended our diocese’s annual convention for the last couple of days. The convention is the corporation’s annual meeting; its main purpose is to elect diocesan leaders and to consider resolutions, etc., in order to adapt and continue the work it does.

Now, I had to leave yesterday before it was over, in order to get back in time for the Saturday evening service. In most years, the convention should have ended by 3:45. But not yesterday.

This was primarily because of two resolutions that were on the table. These two alone produced about ninety minutes of discussion and debate—often heated discussion and debate.

One has to do with calling ourselves a sanctuary diocese: from this terminology alone you can probably guess why it was heated. The gist is that we want to provide a safe and holy place for immigrants, a resource to which they can turn for help. I should mention, it does not mean that we will hide people in any way from the authorities; rather that we will not “rat them out,” as it were.

The other resolution has to do with providing a safe place for victims of sexual misconduct. This resolution wasn’t so much debated as it was discussed; and it wasn’t so heated as emotional. Several people shared difficult stories from their past. Others simply approached the mic and said, “Me too.”

One priest, a female, shared the heartbreaking story that in her first year of ordination she was a victim. The perpetrator was a male priest. When she brought this matter to the attention of her bishop, she was encouraged to leave her diocese and the matter was dropped: it never went to the disciplinary levels it should have.

Now, both of these resolutions involved difficult conversations. But, to take a step back, could either of these conversations have taken place in the church of twenty years ago?

Not only do we feel safe enough to have these conversations today, but also these resolutions passed, meaning work is being done for God’s glory and the common good.

Jesus calls us to be ready for the unexpected. I’m glad to say I see that happening in our exiled church. I’m glad that we are writing and singing new songs. May this good work continue!

Crude as Cold, Hard Cash

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2017 by timtrue

Emperor_Tiberius_Denarius_-_Tribute_Penny

Matthew 22:15-22

1.

I once knew a man who felt strongly that it was his constitutional right to avoid paying taxes intentionally. Let’s call him Greg.

Greg was one of these guys who, commendably, studied his Bible all the time. Whenever any sort of question about life came up—what to do on weekends, how to divide up family chores, even what kind of car he ought to buy—he consulted his Bible, searching for some kind of answer or at least guidance.

Somewhere along the way he determined from his personal study of the Bible that federal and local governments extend their authority far more than they should.

The government’s purpose, Greg reasoned, is to protect its citizenship; so for a government to provide military, police, and fire departments, for instance, is its bounden duty.

But to offer services and agencies to look out for the welfare of its citizenship—for Greg this was an absolute no-no. Public schools are out, he reasoned; anyone using them, in Greg’s mind, commits grievous sin. And, of course, all of welfare’s variations—like Fannie Mae, Medicare, and Social Security—simply cannot be an option for Christians.

One of our country’s chief founding principles is separation of church and state. As a consequence, Greg felt deeply that the church, not the state, should establish and maintain all organizations concerned with the well-being and welfare of its members.

And so Greg’s logic led him to the conviction that he, and every US citizen, therefore possessed the constitutional right not to pay taxes.

He refused to get social security numbers for his kids. He ran a business completely “under the table,” paying his (always temporary) workers in kind. And while he was off conducting business during the day, his wife homeschooled the kids.

For Greg, to avoid paying taxes was to exercise his freedom of religion. Not sure the IRS would see it this way, but there it is.

2.

Anyway, I tell you about Greg because he sounds a bit like the Pharisees of today’s Gospel.

They come to Jesus with their minds already made up, with cold, hard cash in hand, in order to trap Jesus.

The coin they hold, a denarius, has an image of Tiberius Caesar on it; as well as an inscription, which reads, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.”

Good Jews find this coin simultaneously oppressive and blasphemous: oppressive because it reminds them that they are subject to an ungodly people, the Romans; and blasphemous because of its graven image and supremely arrogant message.

This highly offensive currency—whose minting and circulation is an ongoing violation of the first two commandments!—is required for the tax to the Romans: no other currency is acceptable.

So, what would Jesus do? What could he do?

If he says, “Pay the tax,” why, he’s guilty of collaboration with pagans!

And if he says, “Don’t pay the tax,” well, that’s sedition!

Either way, the Pharisees think, they have him trapped.

3.

My old friend Greg, like the Pharisees of today’s Gospel, separates church and state to an extreme. On the other hand, I also have friends who convolute their religion with their politics; friends who commingle religion and politics to such an extent that their religion becomes their politics; and vice-versa.

Do you know anyone like this? It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Democrat or Republican. Their tendency is truly bi-partisan.

I was in seminary during the 2012 presidential election. Discussion in one of my classes turned to politics, and more specifically to the church’s role in modern America. One of my classmates commented, “I don’t know how someone could ever vote Republican and call themselves Christian.”

That same night—no joke!—a family member who was visiting expressed his similar sentiment, “I don’t know how someone could vote Democrat and call himself a Christian.”

Exact same comment—except the parties were switched!

Well, I have news for people like this. For every Conservative who claims Jesus as his champion, there is likewise a Progressive claiming Jesus for her cause.

Anyway, these folks—those who essentially equate religion to politics and vice-versa—sound a lot like the Herodians mentioned in today’s Gospel.

Did you hear it?

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians.

Perhaps the most amazing thing here is that both the Pharisees and the Herodians have come together!

That would be like my old friend Greg and my seminary classmate going out for coffee—a meeting I simply cannot envision!

But the Pharisees and the Herodians from today’s Gospel share a common enemy: Jesus.

And so they come to him together, saying, “Teacher, we know that you . . . show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

Jesus, they say, you are neither Pharisee nor Herodian; neither Conservative nor Progressive; neither Republican nor Democrat. Or that’s what you say, at least. But we’re forcing you into a corner. And we’re doing so with this coin. Where do you land? Pick a side already!

And we know the story: both the Pharisees and the Herodians seek to trap Jesus, to incriminate him with either sedition or collaboration; but Jesus is so brilliant he takes their question out of the political realm and into the realm of theology; and thus blows their minds.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, he says; and to God what is God’s.

It is not an either-or but a both-and proposition.

Jesus gives us liberty to be loyal to the state; yet subordinates this loyalty to the lordship of God.

4.

Which brings up a great question: just what is the church’s place in the world?

The Jewish community of Jesus’ day included both those who believed in complete separation of church and state (the Pharisees) and those who believed that salvation came through the state (the Herodians).

Little has changed in two millennia.

On the one hand, there is a message spread far and wide through today’s church that says we Christians have been called out; we are separate from this world.

And thus, this teaching tells us, we shouldn’t care too much about what happens in our world—about ecology and the threat of nuclear war and so on—for the Bible is clear that we Christians are all going to be raptured away and the world will burn up in some kind of end-times apocalypse.

Let’s call this the sanctuary view: while we Christians have to endure the trials and hardships of this bluesy world we live in, the church provides us a temporary sanctuary from the storm.

On the other hand, there is another message that says we Christians can’t know about any of that end-times stuff, whether we’re all going to be raptured away or whatever, or whether there even is a heaven or a hell.

What we do know is that Christ has called us to care for widows, orphans, the sick, the lame, the poor, and the homeless. Our call as Christians is to make this world a better place, and thus, using the present political means at our disposal, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

Let’s call this the social-gospel view: we Christians spread salvation to the ends of the earth through present society and its political systems.

There are many people in today’s church that hold to the sanctuary view; and, at the same time, there are others who hold to the social-gospel view.

Both Pharisees and Herodians fill today’s pews!

But Jesus comes along and tells us we’re not focusing on the right things: it’s not an either-or proposition; though we may feel trapped by one worldview or another, it doesn’t have to be that way.

To focus on sanctuary makes our faith all about hope: life is fairly miserable but we have the hope that some glad morning, when this life is over, we will all fly away and be with Jesus in paradise.

To focus on the social gospel makes our faith all about action: what we will do in the here-and-now for the betterment of society.

But—please hear me here—our faith is not either hope or action. Rather, our faith is both hope and action!

Our future hope motivates us to present action—action towards the common good yielding salvation to the ends of the earth.

The world’s political systems simply are not able to operate from such a place.

5.

By the way, it’s not lost on me that Jesus is dealing with money at the same time that we are launching our pledge drive.

When Jesus says to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, money is the immediate and specific application. (I don’t know how my old friend Greg skirts around today’s passage.)

And, yes, we depend on money for almost everything necessary to function in modern society. This dependence applies to us both as individuals and as a church. So, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—pay your taxes—and to God what belongs to God—make your pledge, so that as a church we can continue to accomplish Christ’s ministry in the world.

But, as we launch this year’s pledge drive, here’s a closing thought to consider.

Jesus looks at the coin’s crude image of Caesar and recognizes it for what it is: simply cold, hard cash.

All the state can ever be is a crude, cold, hard image of its human leaders. At best, it is two-dimensional, something neither to separate ourselves from nor to view as our salvation.

With the church, however, we do not see a crude, two-dimensional image but the perfect image of Christ. This image is not always easy to see; but it is there—on the faces and in the hearts of every living, thinking, feeling, image-bearing person. Even at our very worst, then, the church is nevertheless three-dimensional.

Jesus reminds us today: the church is something the state is not; the church is much more; it fills the voids society cannot.

And thus: Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High.

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.