Archive for fear

Is American Christianity Giving Jesus a Bad Name?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2020 by timtrue

I will deliver this homily, which focuses on a hard saying about family, via Zoom tomorrow, the Third Sunday after Pentecost, aka Father’s Day, 2020. As noted parenthetically, it’s a weird juxtaposition.

Matthew 10:24-39

1

From time to time, we Christians are called to persevere. We’ve all experienced trials and tribulations, right?

But today, don’t you think Jesus might be taking things a bit too far?

I mean, what’s all this stuff about setting a man against his father and a daughter against her mother? Does following Jesus mean that I will live my life estranged from my own dad?

But I love my dad! So much of what I know today—even more importantly, so much of who I am today!—is because of him.

(What a weird passage to fall on Father’s Day, eh?)

So, yeah, today I think Jesus maybe goes too far!

Still, he’s Jesus. And thus, maybe I should seek to understand him, to figure out what he’s trying to say rather than pass it off as out of time and out of place.

To do so, I turn to the context.

Now, if you remember from last week, Jesus was addressing the twelve apostles before sending them out on their first mission. “Go to the house of Israel,” he said. “Proclaim good news, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

Make things right, in other words.

But a little later, Jesus turned the topic to how those on the receiving end would respond. “See,” he said, “I am sending you like sheep into a den of wolves.” Beware, he said, for they will flog you and otherwise persecute you.

Flogging. Persecution. For following Jesus.

Huh.

But Jesus is God! But Jesus wants to bring peace to the world! But what Jesus wants is right and good! Surely his followers shouldn’t be persecuted, right?

Then, today, we find Jesus in a follow-up conversation with his disciples. Do not be afraid, he says. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

<Point.> Jesus’ message and mission call for change; and people don’t like change. Or, at least the people in charge don’t like it! And that’s what Jesus’ message and mission involve, after all: challenging the status quo and its leadership to change.

<Counterpoint.> But the status quo and its leadership possess power—power to keep change from happening, through violence if necessary.

<Point.> Yet God cares for each little sparrow; and God cares even more for each person. . . .

Anyway, now armed with this contextual understanding, recalling that this first mission was not to the Gentiles but to the house of Israel, Jesus’ words make more sense.

The house of Israel was family. The twelve were being sent to confront their own heritage, their own tradition, their own religion, their own status quo. And Jesus was offering words of comfort to his disciples.

So now I’m thinking—all that stuff about family members turning against one another; and the connection that the twelve disciples were part of the Jewish family—maybe Jesus isn’t taking things too far. Maybe a man against his father and a daughter against her mother is exactly the kind of persecution Matthew’s community faced.

2

Well, when we think of Christian persecution today, we don’t really think like this, do we? Instead, don’t we think in political terms? It’s not a man against his father but the state against the church.

We all know the Roman world did not accept the early Christians. History tells us that the Emperors Nero and Diocletian took special note of the new, growing religion; and focused their attention in macabre ways. Persecution was rampant. Stories of martyrdom spread throughout the Empire.

Today in our country, thankfully, Christians aren’t persecuted like that. Today’s political leaders don’t go around looking for Christians to torture and kill.

Instead, isn’t it more the case that Protestant Christianity has become the status quo? Even with present-day low church attendance figures taken into consideration, isn’t Christianity largely accepted by our political leaders—our mayors, our governors, our President—as the religion of the nation?

And so, today, when we hear of Christians around the world being treated unfairly and unjustly by their respective governments, it raises our holy hackles—and rightly so!

But, thanks be to God, we don’t have to deal with that kind of thing here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. When it comes to political persecution, there really isn’t any in our country—at least none that threatens us with violence or death.

So, I wonder: what if we don’t think in political terms? With respect to Christian persecution, what if, looking to today’s Gospel as a model, we don’t think in terms of church versus state? What if, instead, we think within the bounds of our own tradition, our own heritage, our own religion? What if we think about persecution taking place within the Christian status quo?

3

On that first missionary journey, Jesus sent his disciples to their own people, to those who held and lived largely by the same religious and political ideologies they held and lived by.

And what happened?

They were rejected! By the religious status quo! Which included their own family members!

So, if we were to question American Christianity’s status quo, do you think a similar thing might happen to us today?

Christianity is the status quo religion in our country—or, at least the version of Christianity espoused by popular Evangelical leaders.

And what does its collective voice tell us? That women shouldn’t be ordained. That homosexuality is a sinful choice. Even more shockingly and sadly, that White is superior to Black.

But wait! Jesus’ message and mission call us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick. More deeply, Jesus’ message and mission call us to free captives from whatever bondage holds them—from whatever bondage holds us!

Hunger. Poverty. Ignorance. Violence. Prejudice. Bigotry. Classism. Sexism. Racism. Superiority.

These–and others–are the bondages that hold us.

Yet Jesus’ mission is one of absolute equality.

No more hierarchies! No more superior and inferior! No more fed and hungry, rich and poor, Jew and Greek, male and female—and, I might add, Republican and Democrat, straight and gay, White and Black!

God is love, an equal, Trinitarian, communal love that has existed for all eternity, beyond time and space. And this love—this perfect, equitable love—is ours for the taking.

And it’s our message and mission to the world.

We’ve got a lot of work to do!

4

But, unfortunately, time and again, where does the most vocal resistance to this mission come from? The voice of the Christian status quo.

Track with me here.

When Martin Luther King Jr. fought for racial equality, the most ardent opposition came from White Christians claiming that racial superiority was their God-given right.

Christians! Not atheists. Not the government.

When we, The Episcopal Church, determined that Jesus’ mission means the ordination of women, it wasn’t governmental policies that reacted strongly against us, but our own Christian tradition—Protestant and Catholic!

When TEC more recently determined that Bishop Gene Robinson’s sexual orientation had no bearing on the validity of his episcopacy, numerous congregations within our own denomination split.

But if Jesus’ mission is about setting captives free from whatever bondage they may be held under; if Jesus’ mission is about making wrongs right, about eradicating injustices; if Jesus’ mission is about absolute equality—

I wonder, has Jesus been left behind by the Christian status quo?

The voice of the status quo declares that Christianity is about hierarchy, about superiority, about God choosing some and not others, about domination.

The voice of the Christian status quo says men are better than women, heterosexuals are better than homosexuals, White is better than Black.

The voice of the Christian status quo, frankly, is giving Jesus a bad name!

Jesus sent the twelve out to their religious status quo to make things right. And they were persecuted for it.

We, too, are called to make things right, even if it means going toe to toe with our own family.

Mindful of Matthew’s Metonymy

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered yesterday at St. John’s, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas.

Matthew 5:13-20

1.

Have you ever been in on a “ground floor opportunity”? If so, then you realize that these opportunities are always filled with both excitement and anxiety.

I wasn’t around fourteen years ago when the idea of my school, Imago Dei Middle School, became a reality. But I’ve heard enough of the stories to know the bipolar atmosphere of which I speak.

I mean, a tuition-free Episcopal School, funded privately one hundred percent? You know it was exciting—and filled with anxiety! Fear too!

Oh, the stories I’ve heard—of faculty being asked if they wouldn’t mind waiting a week or two for a paycheck; of writing a rent check on faith that a donation would come in before the property manager deposited the check with the bank; of enrolling students who had no documentation of any kind! . . .

In a way, I’m actually glad I wasn’t around to see it. Too much of a rollercoaster! And, besides, there’s enough anxiety for me just in today, when we must raise, somehow, $1.75 million a year just to cover our operating costs.

No, if you ask me, a synonym for ground floor opportunities is stress.

2.

Anyway, with this ground-floor-opportunity framework in mind, let’s imagine ourselves today in the shoes of the Matthean Community.

That’s the original, the ground-floor congregation to which St. Matthew the Evangelist wrote his Gospel; the community that was the very first group of people to hear this good news proclaimed.

So, what do we know about the Matthean Community? A few characteristics from the Gospel stand out:

First, the Matthean Community believed in Jesus’ message and mission. That’s the impetus behind why they had gathered in the first place—a Christian assembly.

Second, it was a community seeking to understand whether Jesus was truly divine. We infer this from the larger context of the Gospel, which never actually asserts Jesus’ divinity—even after his resurrection—but suggests its possibility, as in the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

And a third characteristic: the Matthean Community was mostly Jewish.

This is a fact that is often easily overlooked by Christians today, 2,000 years removed from the context of the first Christian communities. Early Christianity was simply a Jewish sect—left-wing whackos maybe, but a sect nonetheless.

The larger Jewish world was reidentifying itself in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Most of the Diaspora congregated into local synagogues.

With the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees, the Jewish party that had functioned as the political and religious leaders in Jerusalem, were effectively snuffed out. The Pharisees, another Jewish party, now held sway over popular opinion.

Ideologically speaking, the Pharisees were right-wingers. And thus, in general, the left-wing Christian offshoots were not favorably welcomed by the broader, reconstituting Jewish community.

Surely, excitement and anxiety—and, also, fear—characterized the Matthean Community.

3.

So, now, imagine that the Matthean Community is hearing this Gospel proclaimed for the first time.

Leading up to today’s passage, this community has heard the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, facing temptation in the wilderness for forty days, and the calling the first disciples; and that those who follow Jesus, despite being reviled, are instead truly blessed.

And at this point, in this context, for the first time ever, the people of this community hear two metaphors from Jesus himself: you are salt and light.

Salt and light. Curious metaphors: both have two sides to them.

Salt flavors in a delightful way.

But salt also has an edge to it. Too much salt is hard to take. To rub it on meat is to preserve; and yet too much rubbing is abrasive. We salt our roads to cut through ice and snow. Salt stings our wounds.

Similarly, light has a delightful side to it: it illuminates the things we need to see. But it also exposes things we sometimes don’t want to see, things we sometimes don’t want others to see.

In our world today, we now know, too much light produces light pollution.

So, we, Jesus says, are salt and light. We, the Church, have a pastoral call to the world around us. This pastoral call has a good side to it—we flavor our world; we illuminate it. But it also has a harsh side.

We flavor our world. We also preserve it—with abrasiveness when we must, cutting through the ice and snow of dark, cold evil. Too, we illuminate our world, which shows the world Jesus; but which also brings evil to light.

Our mission is two-sided.

We affirm—we welcome and include.

But, simultaneously, we criticize where necessary—calling the world around us to repent from the Way of Domination, from lives in conflict with God.

There’s something of mercy and judgment in the mission Jesus left to us.

4.

Now, at this point I want to return to something I mentioned above. Let’s back up and have a look together at the Matthean Community’s so-called opponents: Who were these Pharisees? Who were these caricatures criticized by the Matthean Community?

We hear Matthew mention Pharisees in today’s Gospel—“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”—and we think, “Villains! Boo! Hiss!”

And, certainly, elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel our suspicions are confirmed.

Pharisees pray long prayers on street corners in order to be heard by others. Pharisees tie up heavy burdens and lay them on the shoulders of other people. Pharisees love to have the best seats in banquets and synagogues.

And over in chapter 23, Matthew portrays Jesus as vilifying Pharisees with not one or two but eight woes:

  • Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.
  • Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
  • Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.”

And on it goes!

To the Matthean Community, Pharisees were the villains.

But the reality in the ancient world was just not so.

In the ancient, spiritually confused world, Pharisees piously sought God’s will.

In the desperate time of Jewish rebuilding following the destruction of the Temple, Pharisees led pastorally the communities of the Diaspora.

In that day as well as today, Pharisees were and are Jewish role models of what it means to live an upright life.

So, why does Matthew vilify them so? Why are they criticized?

It is because they represented a larger system that was very much opposed to the Matthean Community’s ideals and all that it was trying to establish—that ground floor opportunity, full of excitement and worry and fear.

It became all too easy for the early Christians to look at their opponents and blame them for the oppressiveness they felt from the real opposition: a much larger, abstract, faceless, person-less system; the Way of Domination.

5.

Of course, we today are not that early community. Nevertheless, we are still carrying out Jesus’ mission.

There’s a tale of caution here. Carrying out Jesus’ mission today, it remains all too easy for us to look around and ask, “Who are our opponents?”

We want to vilify too. This want is in our nature.

So, for instance, in light of my sermons over the past several weeks, we might answer that those who support the idea of the border wall are our opponents.

More specifically, we might even say that US Border Patrol agents are our opponents.

But this is the wrong answer!

Matthew was using a figure of speech called metonymy. The Pharisees themselves were not the opponents. Rather, the Pharisees represented the larger religious system—that faceless, person-less system—the Way of Domination—that worked against them.

Just so, we might be tempted to vilify Border Patrol agents today; because, as we see it, they represent the Way of Domination.

But are they really our opponents?

No! Of course not!

Here is a tale of caution for us. Where the Church took Matthew’s metonymy is truly shameful—terrible prejudice towards Jews resounds throughout the halls of Church history.

Well, do you know any Border Patrol agents personally today? I hope we’ve learned our lesson.

We are not called to vilify, villainize, or otherwise demonize individual persons—whether Border Patrol agents, Democrats, Republicans, white supremacists, Black Panthers, terrorists, or anyone else we perceive as the enemy.

Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

And what does it mean to fulfill the law in the deepest sense possible?

As we oppose the faceless, person-less, abstract system I’ve been calling the Way of Domination, we are to love God and our neighbor—even when we perceive that neighbor to be an enemy.

Love! The greatest commandment! Love!

We are salt and light—two-sided metaphors. We are called to exercise both mercy and judgment.

But in our judgment, we shall not vilify, villainize, or demonize any person.

Instead, we criticize the Way of Domination at work seemingly everywhere in the world around us; and, simultaneously, we uphold the dignity of every human being, proclaiming boldly the Way of Love.

Breathed Upon

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the Second Sunday of Easter, 2019.

John 20:19-31

1.

Thomas missed it.

Early that morning, before dawn, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty, the stone rolled away.

But Thomas missed it.

A little later that same morning, Mary met the risen Lord and was commissioned by him to go and share the Good News with the disciples.

And so she went and announced, “I have seen the risen Lord, alleluia”; she told them the Good News.

But somehow Thomas missed it.

Nor was he there later that evening, when Jesus himself came and breathed on those who had gathered together.

Sometime later still, when Thomas finally does show up, the disciples tell him the same thing Mary said—except now it’s not just I but we: “We have seen the risen Lord, alleluia.”

The testimony of one thoughtful, faithful Christian has now been bolstered with the strength of community.

But, still, Thomas misses it.

“Unless I . . . put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side,” he announces, “I will not believe.”

And so, our day in the Church calendar for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle is—can you guess?

Well, what day of the year would you assign to a guy forever remembered by the name doubting?

Yep, December 21st, the day of the winter solstice: the darkest, most doubtful day of the year.

Because—poor guy!—he missed it.

2.

Now, if you happen to be here today and you weren’t last week, you’re probably hearing the exclamation, “You shoulda seen it!”

We had an illuminated labyrinth this year. You shoulda seen it!

There was an Easter Vigil. You shoulda seen it!

We started the service by candlelight. You shoulda seen it!

There was a baptism. You shoulda seen it!

The Bishop’s Committee hosted a champagne reception. You shoulda seen it!

And on Easter day: the musicians were exemplary; the Easter egg hunt was joyful; Father David celebrated with his easy-listening British accent. You shoulda seen it!

But, if you happen to be here today and were not here last week, do you actually believe this exclamation?

Or, like Thomas, are you doubtful?

I mean, just look around!

Today, attendance is low. The Easter lilies have begun to droop. In many churches around the world, the pastor’s taking today off. Quite a contrast to last week! Maybe all the excitement is over-rated.

We clergy have a term for this Sunday, by the way: low Sunday.

If you ask me, I think maybe a better term is Doubting Thomas Sunday; because for all intents and purposes it looks like the Church around the world has missed it too.

Resurrection! New life!

Really?

Today’s feast is the Second Sunday of Easter; we’re seven days into the Great Fifty Days! It should feel just as celebratory as last week.

But, let’s face it, it just doesn’t.

Aren’t we all a lot like Doubting Thomas—whether we missed last week or not? He missed the actual resurrection: he was not a witness. And haven’t we all missed it too? After all, it happened two thousand years ago. None of us was around.

3.

However, I argue, the resurrection is still taking place, all around us, everyday! If we’re missing it, it’s only because, like Thomas, we haven’t yet learned how to see it.

Thomas did learn how, in time. The early Church historian Eusebius tells us that Thomas carried the Good News to India, believing so firmly in Christ that there he died a martyr’s death.

Even though we still call him doubting to this day, Thomas did learn how to see the resurrection first-hand. We can do it too.

Here’s how.

Today’s Gospel tells us that one week later, one week after he missed it, Thomas did encounter the risen Jesus with the other disciples.

So, what do you think happened during that week in between?

A week ago, Thomas said that he would not believe unless he should touch Jesus physically. Now, today, Jesus appears and—did you notice?—merely says, “Touch me, Thomas,” and Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas said he wouldn’t believe unless he touched Jesus; and yet today I don’t see him touching Jesus at all! He merely cries out at the sight of him!

What changed? What happened during that week in between?

Well, what happens when you experience something utterly fantastic?

The disciples must have been talking non-stop! All week long, Thomas must have been surrounded by, “You shoulda seen it! Jesus did this” and “he said that” and “he couldn’t have been a ghost because he actually ate with us.”

All week long, Thomas was engaging in conversations, eating meals, praying, fellowshipping, and doing things with these people who kept coming back to the amazing claim that they’d seen the risen Jesus.

You shoulda seen it!

So that when Jesus finally does show up, a week later, Thomas needs no further prodding. At Jesus’ word, Thomas falls to his knees and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

To which Jesus replies to all of us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Thomas missed the actual, physical resurrection. Thomas was not among the first people to witness the resurrected Jesus.

But for that week in between he saw the effects of the resurrection. For that week in between, he witnessed first-hand what belief in the resurrection was doing to the disciples.

Now, we may have missed it too. Like Thomas, we weren’t there at Jesus’ resurrection; we weren’t with the first people to witness it.

However, in the week since—or in the two thousand years since (same thing, really)—we have been surrounded by the effects of the resurrection.

And when we learn to see these effects, then we witness the resurrection first-hand.

4.

Well then, what do these effects look like—just what are we looking for?

For the answer, we return to the Gospel narrative.

In the twentieth chapter of John, two times the words to Mary Magdalene are, “Do not be afraid”; and three times Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”

The Gospel of John contrasts fear with peace. Incidentally, John also says elsewhere that perfect love casts out fear: there’s a strong connection for John between peace and love.

But to return to my point, according to this Gospel, peace is winning:

Two times : do not fear :: three times : peace be with you.

It’s two steps back but three steps forward. That can feel discouraging, sure; especially on this Second Sunday of Easter, low Sunday. But the net outcome is peace overcoming fear.

So: Where do we see peace overcoming fear in our world?

Of course, we see it in Jesus’ crucifixion. He remains peaceful throughout his passion—arrest, trial, mocking, and execution. Throughout, peace overcomes fear.

But, you know, we see it even before Jesus walks the earth, with—for instance—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the OT book of Daniel. These three young men peacefully resist the tyrant-king Nebuchadnezzar, even though he threatens them with the fear of death!

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see it with the early Christian martyrs. “Give up your faith or die,” they are told. Yet time and again they face whatever fearsome threats come their way; and, though many of them die, peace gains the upper hand.

We see it again in Church history with Martin Luther when he peacefully protests the Holy Roman Empire, standing resolute even though threatened repeatedly with violence and death.

We see it in our own nation’s struggle for Civil Rights, from the nonviolent songs of lament composed by slaves to the peaceful protests of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

We see it gaining remarkable steam around the world in 1989: peaceful students protest a violent military in Beijing, willing to die in Tiananmen Square so that others may live; and the border wall in Berlin tumbles to the ground, signifying the end of large-scale governmental systems of oppression.

Peace overcoming fear! Around the world!

And we see it still at work in our own day—arguably more now than ever before—as our society responds to violent acts of terrorism and hate in peaceful ways.

Light overcoming darkness; life overcoming death; peace overcoming fear.

In the end, like Thomas, we haven’t missed it; for every day we witness resurrection, the peace of Jesus, first-hand.

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.

Getting out of Our own Way

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by timtrue

FatherTim

Been a few weeks since I’ve posted–my computer has been down. Fixed now. Planning to post two today. The first, below, was delivered on December 10, Advent 2. The next post is really Part 2, up in a few minutes.

Mark 1:1-8

1.

Let’s begin today by putting ourselves in the shoes of a Jewish person living in year 69 of the Common Era.

Two schools of political thought constantly vie for your attention.

The first says to live into the Pax Romana, for that is your present reality. God is ultimately in charge even of tyrants, and thus God will not let you endure any more than you are able. Though no one can really point to a scripture that says it, everyone knows that God wants you to bloom where you’re planted. And you’ve been planted in a time and place where and when Rome is in charge.

The second school of thought summons you to protest Rome, resorting to violence and even guerilla military tactics if necessary. This school of thought has been the predominant call throughout Jewish history. So why should it be any different now? Judas Maccabeus almost succeeded a couple centuries ago. And today the secret sicarii are nevertheless widely known as assassins against Rome. Thus, like Esther, you reason that maybe God is calling you to such a time as this.

In addition to these schools of thought, the empire’s leadership is a mess. In the year since Nero’s suicide, four—count ’em!—new emperors have come to the throne: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and now Vespasian. It’s civil war, for crying out loud; something Rome has not experienced for a century, since Mark Antony’s death. And it’s a mess!

Ah, Vespasian. Nero commissioned him to lead an army against Jerusalem and flatten the Jewish rebels. His particular focus was the Temple, the very place on earth where God dwells.

Recently, however, after more than two years of besieging Jerusalem, Vespasian was called back to Rome as Imperator himself. And now, Titus, Vespasian’s right-hand man, who according to rumor is even more ruthless than Vespasian, is in charge of the Roman army.

What will happen in the coming months, you wonder? Food supplies have got to be running low! And Jerusalem’s army, so says the word on the street, is running out of weapons and supplies. Things looks bleak, apocalyptic even.

Fortunately, you live quite a ways away from Jerusalem, north of the Sea of Galilee a bit, outside Damascus, in Syria.

Here you’ve heard a lot about a certain Jewish man who seemed to call for a third political school of thought. He opposed the authoritarian oversight of the Romans; but at the same time opposed the idea of rebellion through violence. He was a teacher and healer, whose message and mission was love. His name was Jesus, from Nazareth.

You wouldn’t think much of him, probably—much more of him, anyway, than of the numerous other teachers, healers, mystics, and cynics of the day—except that this Jesus, in particular, has since gained a substantial following. In fact, a certain prominent Jew, Saul of Tarsus, now going by Paul, experienced a drastic conversion; from persecuting and even killing followers of this Jesus to becoming the most influential leader and thinker among all of Jesus’ followers, eventually dying for his faith at Nero’s hand.

Today there are even a few assemblies of Jesus-believers nearby, convinced that he was and is the Christ!

So, you wonder, is there something to it? Is Jesus’ third way the mean between the polarized extremes? Is Jesus’ way the genuine way forward for the Jewish people—and maybe for all people?

And then, in this context, it happens. A new manuscript about this Jesus has been circulating throughout Syria; and it comes to your synagogue.

Dropping everything, you run to see it; and, pushing your way to the front of the gathered crowd, there it is; and you read these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Good news, you question? In our day and age? But how?

2.

Of course, we know this manuscript today as the Gospel of Mark. And we’ve read these words of proclamation again and again. It’s quite familiar to us . . . and it’s quite removed from its original context.

Still, I wonder, is its original, highly polarized political context all that far removed from ours today?

Our nation, the United States of America, is hardly united. Rather, it’s polarized. One can hardly enter into a political discussion today without emotion gaining the upper hand. Did any of you experience tension over politics during the family Thanksgiving get-together this year?

And even now, as I’ve brought the mere topic of politics into the pulpit, I sense a kind of collective feet-shuffling going on.

We are a politically polarized people today—just as in the day of Mark’s proclamation.

Along with this, and maybe in part because of it, fear is everywhere around us. God is omnipresent, we theologians like to say: always with us, in all circumstances and situations. But turn on the news. It’s not God that seems omnipresent to the culture, but fear. North Korea, gun violence, natural disasters—it feels like it’s only a matter of time before each and every one of us will be a victim. And thus, we are told, we should be frightened.

So it was in Mark’s day, especially for the Jewish people.

And what of religious similarities?

Our Jewish protagonist above had been exiled religiously, in a manner of speaking. The Temple was where God was believed to dwell on earth. Yet to live outside of Jerusalem meant to live outside of the regular, expected, normal parameters of worship. Synagogues were merely a temporary solution, a compromise to include those who were otherwise excluded.

Does not broader culture today feel largely excluded from the church?

And yet, broader culture still seeks a spirituality. Excluded people still yearn for God; they still confess, seek forgiveness, and pray.

3.

Curiously, the Gospel of Mark, after stating its intention to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and in the highly polarized political climate of its day—curiously, the Gospel of Mark does not launch into political solutions. Rather, it focuses our attention immediately on a herald named John: you know, that eccentric guy who baptized people, proclaiming repentance for forgiveness of sins, down at the River Jordan.

John’s was a message about the coming leader, a man who was far greater than any earthly, political leader, whose way was not violent but the way of love.

As a herald, then, John was preparing the way for someone greater than himself, the coming Messiah. In this respect, he was determined not to let his ego get in the way.

Have you ever thought about this? John had disciples. In fact, Jesus’ first two disciples were John’s disciples first. And John let them go without a fuss. In fact, John actively encouraged them to quit following him in order to follow this new teacher on the scene.

That just doesn’t happen in our world! I mean, could you imagine in like 1998 Bill Gates calling up Steve Jobs to say, “Hey, Steve, I’ve invested the last few years in a couple of interns who’ve proven to be my best ever; and, well, deep down I believe your product is really better than mine. So, I want to do them and us a favor and send them your way. You cool with that?”

Yet this is exactly what John does with Jesus. No ego, no pride to get in the way; just the statement, “I must decrease so that Christ may increase.”

And what was John’s message?

If I were to take a survey, I’m willing to wager that most (if not all) of you would say, “Repentance.”

And that’s what it is over in Matthew’s Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

But not in Mark. Or, not exactly anyway. Repentance plays a part, sure. But, in Mark, repentance is secondary to forgiveness.

Listen to the text again (emphasis added):

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The people of the surrounding regions came to John and confessed their sins. They were forgiven their sins, John assured them, for God is love. In fact, there was one coming after John who was much greater than he; whose message and mission were love.

John’s baptism, which followed the people’s confession, was simply a response to God’s mercy, grace, and love; an act to demonstrate the confession’s authenticity. It was to say, “I’ve confessed and God has forgiven me; and to show that God’s grace is not cheap I will do something about it, I will be baptized right here and now.”

In other words, the Gospel of Mark portrays John not as a prophet of judgment but as a herald of love.

4.

So then, let’s put all this together:

  • The polarized, political climate of Mark’s day shares parallels with the political climate of our own day.
  • Fear is everywhere around us, seemingly in the air we breathe.
  • People feel exiled from the church but nevertheless continue to seek God.
  • And it’s Advent, a time of preparation.

We, the church, are John the Baptist today, a voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way; a herald to proclaim love to a fearful world.

It’s time to read the Gospel of Mark with fresh eyes!

It’s time to follow John’s lead and proclaim Christ to the hurting, fearful world around us!

It’s time for us to broadcast a message of side-by-side confession and repentance—without judgment!

It’s time for us to respond in love to a confessing, repenting culture!

And it’s time for us to get out of our own way, for us to decrease so that Christ may increase!

Glad to Be in Matthew’s Church

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered on Sunday, October 15, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

1.

I wish we were in the Church of St. Luke today.

The way Luke tells it, this parable is delivered in the house of a Pharisee who’d invited Jesus to dine with him on the Sabbath.

A person desires to throw a great feast, Jesus says. But one by one the invitees give excuses as to why they cannot attend.

“I just bought a field,” one says, “and must tend to it.”

“I just got married,” another says, “and you know how that is.”

“My father just died,” says a third; “I must go and bury him.”

And so on.

These excuses makes the host upset. He tells his servants to go out into the city and invite everyone—the poor, blind, lame, and so on. For that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

“Let us fill these halls!” he exclaims.

God is merciful. And who in their right mind would want to pass that up?

Luke’s message to his Church is mercy.

But we’re not in the Church of St. Luke today. Instead, we’re in the Church of St. Matthew.

And here in Matthew’s Church the message doesn’t feel very merciful. With Matthew, instead, the message feels more like judgment.

Not only do the invitees reject the king’s invitation, some of them are also violent in their rejection. They beat and even kill some of the king’s servants!

And there’s that poor guy toward the end. What do we do with him?

The king sees him and says, “Friend”—seems a happy enough beginning—but then continues less affably, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

And then, as we all know, it continues from bad to worse. This wedding-robe-non-wearer is bound hand and foot and thrown out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!

Really? Is Matthew’s God about judgment?

Where’s the mercy? Where’s the love? Why can’t we be in the Church of St. Luke today?

2.

Okay, okay, surely, Matthew isn’t all judgment! Surely for Matthew there’s mercy and love too! Right?

Remember the beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount? Blessed are the poor in spirit and all that? Well, that’s from Matthew.

Remember the feeding of the 5,000? That’s from Matthew too.

And remember the healing of the two blind men? They followed Jesus shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” And so Jesus touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done to you according to your faith.” And they were healed. There’s mercy there! And this story shows up only in Matthew’s Gospel.

So, yeah, there is mercy for Matthew.

But why not here? Why does the message from today’s parable feel more like judgment?

3.

Good question. Let’s take a closer look.

Recall from the last few weeks that Jesus is addressing the temple leaders.

The temple leaders were settled and inflexible; they’d established for themselves a religion of control, manipulating the Jewish people often by means of fear and—especially noteworthy for today’s purposes—judgment.

The common folk were judged by how often they made or didn’t make pilgrimages to the temple.

The common folk were judged by whether or not they could afford a sacrificial animal without blemish.

The common folk were judged by how well or not they kept the 613 commandments.

And now, today, Jesus is addressing not the common folk but the leaders who seat themselves in judgment over the common folk.

They—these temple leaders—are the ones in the parable who find excuses not to attend the wedding feast.

They are the ones who rose up against the king’s messengers, prophets such as Ezekiel and Amos and John the Baptist; who beat or even killed them.

They are the ones who, when they do show up to the wedding feast, wear their own robes and not God’s.

So, is that it? Is Matthew saying what goes around comes around—that the temple leaders will be judged with the same manner of judgment they themselves pour out on others?

4.

But there’s another matter that lies beneath the surface of today’s parable: historical context. Let’s take a step back and consider it.

Matthew penned the words we hear today more than a generation after Jesus’ death.

More than a generation!

That’s a lot of time, enough for stories about Jesus to develop, circulate, and percolate.

By this time, communities of disciples had congregated—each with its own personality and peculiarities—communities like the Church of St. Luke and the Church of St. Matthew.

And thus, though these communities told more or less the same old stories, Luke’s main point might in fact be quite different than Matthew’s.

The specific community of Matthew was a lot like our congregation today: a group of people which shared a common life in Jesus Christ, a faith that Jesus’ message and mission would bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

But at the same time Matthew’s Church was much different than our congregation because of its specific cultural and historical context.

More to the point, when Matthew penned his version of the old story, I’m sure the destruction of Jerusalem was on his mind.

In 70CE, under orders of Caesar, the Roman military commander Titus razed the city, including and especially the Temple—the emperor’s special focus. You can read about this horrific event in Josephus.

My point for today is that Matthew wrote today’s parable in hindsight; and his hindsight told him a couple of things.

First, it told him that Jesus had been right so long ago. He’d been right to confront the temple leaders. He’d been right to challenge the status quo. And he’d been right in his mission to topple unjust systems.

The second thing Matthew’s hindsight told him is that God is looking for transformation. God invites all to the wedding feast. It’s only those who are unwilling to be transformed—only those who come up with excuses or are found not to have put on God’s clothes—who find themselves outside the doors of the banquet hall at the end of the day.

And, surely, Matthew cannot help but wonder if things would have turned out differently if those temple leaders had instead listened to Jesus, if they had put on his robes instead of their own.

If only they hadn’t continued to control and manipulate the Jewish common folk by means of fear and judgment!

If only they hadn’t continued to aggravate, frustrate, and rebel against the Roman rulers, thereby provoking Caesar to an act of war!

Then Jerusalem wouldn’t have been destroyed at all!

Then no one would have been cast outside into the darkness, where there was, among so many other horrors, weeping and gnashing of teeth!

5.

I’m not sure, then, that Matthew’s message is so much judgment as it is lament.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)

Whatever the case, whether destruction or judgment, in it and through it Matthew offers consolation to us today.

Matthew’s Church endured and survived nothing short of a massacre.

The temple leaders and the Jewish people had faced the horrors of war. Many of them were killed when Jerusalem fell. Many others—those who lived elsewhere and those who fled the coming destruction—survived but were dispersed.

Matthew’s Church managed to gather itself together in the aftermath of the destruction.

And today, magnificently, the Evangelist tells us the story of a wedding feast, a lavish table set for anybody and everybody—“for both good and bad,” he says—for both temple leader and commoner—for both Jew and Gentile—for both rich and poor—to come to and be transformed; a transforming banquet rising gloriously out of the ashes of the ruined city!

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we are in Matthew’s Church today. For today Matthew reminds us:

Even in hardships; even when everything around feels like judgment; even in the midst of destruction, Jesus is there, inviting us all to his lavish banquet table.

Will you come to it and allow yourself to be transformed?

Fear Blights

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by timtrue

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46

1.

I begin today with a kind of parlor trick. Feel free to pass it along to your friends and family, especially the younger set.

<How to remember the Ten Commandments with your ten fingers.>

So, there it is. With this parlor trick, not only are you able to remember all ten commandments, but also you can remember which is which.

Now, before turning to today’s Gospel, I’d like to offer a couple remarks on this passage from Exodus:

  • Moses had recently freed the people of God from oppression: the oppressive hand of Pharaoh.
  • This new people was wandering in the wilderness, groping as if blind, not knowing their way forward.
  • As such, they were a new society in need of new rules. In addition to questions about religious worship, how were they to live together in relative harmony?
  • And notice Moses’ message: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” In other words, Moses said: Do not be afraid; but be afraid of God.

Okay. . . .

2.

Now, over in today’s Gospel we find some interesting parallels.

  • Jesus is seeking to free people from oppression.
  • This new Jesus movement is just that: new. And as such his followers feel much like they are wandering in the wilderness, not sure of a way forward.
  • Many questions surface about how to worship and otherwise understand corporate life.
  • And—while not specifically stated in today’s Gospel but most definitely a part of the larger context of his mission and ministry—Jesus shares a similar message: “Do not be afraid.”

But, unlike in Moses’ day, now it is not a political oppression that the people find themselves under but a spiritual oppression; and, ironically, it’s an oppression brought on by certain followers of Moses, the very agent of freedom we just heard about.

Back then, under Moses, the people wandered a little while longer, forging a path ahead, not knowing where God would lead. Their place of worship was a tabernacle: a large but flexible tent of worship, made so that in a day’s notice it could be packed up and moved to the next location.

Now, however, the corporate place of worship for the Jewish people is an inflexible, fixed, permanent temple.

The message under Moses was to fear God and obey his commandments—all ten of them.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, however, declare that there aren’t just ten; but 613. Now the people are called on not just to fear God, but also to fear those who on earth bear God’s special authority; namely, the leaders of the temple.

And so, like Moses, Jesus comes along and upsets the status quo.

He enters Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey amidst the shouts of throngs of people.

He goes to the temple courts and overturns tables.

He tells tricky parables that impugn the religious leaders.

And he suggests it’s actually not 613 commandments; not even 10; but really only one—in two varieties—love.

Do not be afraid, he says, like Moses; but, unlike Moses, his message is not to fear but to love. Love God; love neighbor.

And I cannot help but notice this detail: at the end of today’s Gospel, the religious leaders, who run their whole operation by means of fear—keeping the people fearful of God and of themselves—are themselves fearful: they do nothing to stop Jesus because they fear the people, who hold Jesus to be a prophet.

3.

So, let’s carry this comparison-and-contrast exercise one step further.

Pharaoh was oppressive; Moses liberated the people and started something new.

Many generations later, the Jewish religious leaders were oppressive, keeping the Jewish laity under clouds of fear; Jesus sought to liberate the people and begin something new.

Now—one step further—here we are today, many generations later again, having established and maintained the mission and movement that this man Jesus began.

And where are we?

Have we listened to his message? Are we loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we loving our neighbor as ourselves? Are we “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? Are we bearing fruits of love?

Or do we see God as someone to fear? Are we keeping ourselves and our neighbors under clouds of fear?

4.

Now, I’m not going to deny it: there is in fact much to fear in our day.

Just this week we heard about a tragic and senseless act of gun violence. Why is this sort of thing happening more and more frequently, we ask? And why isn’t more being done to stop it? We could have been one of the victims, we know.

And, rightly so, we fear.

Then there’s the seemingly increasing threat of nuclear war. What if North Korea doesn’t back down? What if our president does something rash?

Again, we fear.

And then there’s that nagging question of the environment. Science is warning us that the globe is warming at an alarming rate. There’s a great plastic patch in the Pacific, choking and otherwise killing off the life that teems there. How can we leave a healthy and thriving planet to future generations?

We fear.

Cancer hits close to home for all of us. What if I’m its next victim, we agonize?

And what of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other so-called acts of God?

Yes, there is much to fear in our world!—just as there was much to fear in the world of Jesus’ day; and in the world of Moses’ day.

But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!”

To live under fear—and it doesn’t matter whether its source is human or divine—to live under fear is to live under oppression.

And Jesus came to free us from oppression.

5.

But haven’t we been going down a rabbit trail?

This parable calls us to bear fruit. In the end, that’s who the landowner is counting on; that’s who will be called on to tend and keep the vineyard: those who are already demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in their lives; those who walk in love as Christ loved us.

Bearing fruit is the point of this parable; and so what does fear have to do with it?

Just this: it’s how we bear fruit.

As he delivered this parable, Jesus was speaking directly to the religious leaders of his day. For our day, just like then, this is a message directly to church leaders.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were running the established religious institution by means of fear, not by means of love. They bore some fruit, sure; yet the little fruit they bore was sour and difficult—like 613 times more sour and difficult than it had to be!

Fear proved a blight on their harvest.

Part of Jesus’ mission was to change this, to take the religious leadership out of the hands of the few who led and controlled by fear and put it into the hands of those who would lead as servants, by means of love, and thereby bear truckloads more fruit; tasty and productive fruit.

This is a message for today’s church leaders. And so, as a leader of today’s church, I want you to know: I am committed to lead by love, not fear; and thus bear fruits of love, not fear.

But, at the same time, this is not just a message for today’s church leaders. It is also a message for the church as a whole—bishops, priests, deacons, and laity. For who else is going to offer spiritual leadership to society today?

Jesus’ message is to all of us, particularly this corporate body we call St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School.

In and around the Temecula Valley, and in fact throughout the world; in this day and age characterized by fear, Jesus calls us to fear not; and to bear fruits of love.

Divine Human Touch

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2017 by timtrue

hands_of_god

Matthew 17:1-9

What do you fear?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.

Does anyone remember my fist sermon here?  I entitled it, “Making Peace with Ghosts”; and it was all about dealing with a fear I had as a boy of an imagined visitor that lived under my spiral staircase, the Seven-foot Man.  As a boy, I, along with my older brother Andy and especially my neighbor Donny, possessed a great fear of the Seven-foot Man.  We had to learn, as boys, to deal with it.

As I grew from boyhood into manhood, the clothes fear wore became increasingly less fantastic and more realistic.  Questions went from, “What if there’s a zombie living in my basement?” to, “Will I get into the right college?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” and, “How are we going to pay for diapers and baby food?”

More into adulthood now, the fears have increased in scope, becoming more outward in focus: “Why is there such hatred in the world?” “How much more abuse and mismanagement of resources can the earth take?” and, “What if there’s a global nuclear holocaust?”

What are your fears?

Is “Big Brother” watching you?  Are you in jeopardy of financial ruin, or feeling forever enslaved to that harsh taskmaster otherwise known as credit card debt?  Are—or (depending on how you look at it) were—your fundamental human rights of dignity and democracy in danger of being compromised?

What is it you fear?

Today’s Gospel rounds out Jesus’ epiphany. Here, along with Peter, James, and John, we see Jesus in his full glory; that though he is fully human he is somehow, gloriously, also fully God.

Now, that would be something to fear, don’t you think?

Imagine.  You’re walking up a mountain path, following your leader and trail guide, who suddenly is transfigured.  His face is shining like the sun.  His clothes become dazzlingly white.  Two ghost-like figures appear next to him.  And to top it all off a booming voice sounds from the clouds overhead!

These words that tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration are familiar to most of us.  But a danger here is that their power can get lost in their familiarity.

So, let’s change the scenario up a bit.

Let’s say we meet in the church parking lot one Saturday morning.  Our plan is to hike up Telegraph Pass.  So, since I know the way, it is agreed that I will lead you.

An overcast day, sometime later we pass that last bend in the road near the top, and find ourselves entering and soon enveloped by a cloud.  Then, at the top now—we know we’re there because through the fog we can see the registry box and the bench next to it—all at once you see me with shining white clothes, so bright they even seem to shine through the mist.  And you think, “Man, I’m sure he wasn’t wearing that when we set out!”

And then my face lights up too, illuminating the registry box, the bench next to it, an ocotillo plant, the road, the two other people there with us, even your very arms and legs.  And—whoa!—now there are two more people—Where did they come from?—who by all accounts look just like Thomas Cranmer and Queen Elizabeth—the first!

And then—ah, music to my ears—that voice from above, booming through the clouds, declares to you all, “This is your pastor; listen to him!”

And you think, “Wow, my heart’s beating fast and I’m sweating like crazy and I’m out of breath.  Surely, I must be hallucinating.  This is it!  I’m done for!  Call out the SAR bird!”

Anyway, point being, wouldn’t you be afraid?  At least a little?  For your own health and sanity if for no other reason?

The disciples are so afraid, the Bible says, that they fall down, “overcome by fear” (“sore afraid” in the KJV), with their faces to the ground.

Yet Jesus reaches out and—don’t fail to notice this detail—touches them; and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.  Yet Jesus touches his disciples and tells them, Do not be afraid.

*****

Jesus could have been like Moses.

Along with the Transfiguration narrative in Matthew today, we also heard a passage from Exodus.  In it, Moses went up on a mountain; the mountain was covered by a cloud; the people from below could see illumination on the top of the mountain, where Moses was; and we all know that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face shone with such radiance that he kept it covered with a veil.

This Exodus passage is a clear parallel to Jesus’ Transfiguration.  Which led me, in my preparation for this sermon, to read up on Moses, the larger context; and to compare and contrast this story of Moses with Jesus.

There are numerous similarities:

  • Both Moses and Jesus go up on mountains.
  • Both have companions with them.
  • Both are enshrouded by a cloud.
  • Both hear God’s voice.
  • Both are described as radiant in one form or another.
  • And, in both accounts, other people hear God’s voice and are afraid.

But there is a key difference between the two accounts.

And here, in this key difference, Jesus could have been like Moses.

But he wasn’t.

And I’m glad he wasn’t.

And because he wasn’t, this key difference is what stands out above all for me from today’s passages, our take-home lesson.

So then, what is it?  What is this key difference between Moses and Jesus?

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw that the people were afraid—well, let me just read the account:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:18-20).

Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and sees all the Israelites cowering in fear before the might and glory of God and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Fine and well.

But he doesn’t stop there.  No, Moses has to seize the moment, to capitalize on the opportunity; and thus goes on to say, in effect:

But, well, yes, since you are afraid, it’s for good reason!  God is testing you.  In fact, this is the reason God has come: to put fear in you “so that you do not sin.”

Now, Jesus could have been like Moses.  Jesus could have done this too.

But he isn’t.  And he doesn’t.

And I’m glad for that.

Instead, when his disciples see fearsome, wonderful, and awesome visions and hear the very voice of God, Jesus reaches out and touches them; and says, simply, “Do not be afraid.”

No lecture.  No admonition.  No teaching moment.  Just words of comfort and human touch.

What, then, is the key difference between Moses’ transfiguration and Jesus’?  One offers chastisement; the other, positive reinforcement through human touch.

Which approach do you respond to better?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world: “Big Brother”; financial ruin; the collapse of democracy; ISIS; terrorism; our own sin.  Why would I ever want to add to all of this an irrational fear of God?

In Jesus, God touches us gently, reassuringly, and humanly.

*****

So, from our starting point of Jesus’ Transfiguration, we looked back to Moses and have learned a valuable lesson. Now I want to look forward, to us, the church, today.

What is it we are doing here?

In ancient times—both in the time of Moses and in the time of Jesus—mountaintops were considered a kind of liminal space, a threshold of sorts, between earth and heaven.  They were seen this way topographically—a mountain peak is physically higher than any other place around it—as well as figuratively—places to encounter God.

Moses encountered God on top of Mount Sinai.  Jesus was transfigured on top of a mountain.

We see this concept in other traditions too: the Greek and Roman pantheon dwelled on high, above the peaks of Mount Olympus; and the Delphic Oracle was delivered high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In fact, even in our own day we refer to personal divine encounters as “mountaintop experiences.”

Mountain peaks were understood to be liminal spaces.

Today, here is our liminal space: church.  Here we come, setting aside for a time our cares, concerns, and preoccupations in the world; to meet God.

Now, take it a step further.  In a few minutes we’ll have opportunity to commune together.  Well, what happens when I stand up at the altar and lead us through the Eucharistic Prayer?  Somehow, mysteriously, the bread and wine become Jesus’ own body and blood.

And then, best of all, when we partake here at this liminal space, just like on that Day of Transfiguration when Jesus reached out and touched Peter, James, and John; so Jesus touches us.

God touches humanity in Jesus; God touches us in the bread and wine.

He picks us up from our knees, puts his arm around us, leads us back to our pews, prays with us, and, last of all, best of all, he blesses us and says, “Alleluia, alleluia.  Go in peace, without fear, back into the world, to love and serve the Lord.”

Systems Failing

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

alan_lee_-_riddles_in_the_dark

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.

Hope from Hindsight

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

350px-last_judgement_michelangelo1

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.