Archive for Gospel of John

Yield to the Elephant

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

elephabt and rider

John 4:5-42

At the beginning of last week’s sermon, I observed that for the next four Sundays during Lent in Year A we will encounter four special people from the Gospel of John.

Last week, then, was a man named Nicodemus.  He and Jesus meet and have a difficult conversation about the nature and scope of salvation.

In this week’s passage, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well—and through him we too encounter her.  They have a difficult conversation about social norms and religious expectations.

Last week, also, I observed that there is an overarching theme of light and darkness governing this Gospel, a kind of lens through which we should interpret Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus and this Samaritan Woman.

But just about there the similarities stop: other than we encounter both of these characters in the Gospel of John and nowhere else in our scriptures; that they have conversations with Jesus about complicated matters; and that the theme of light and darkness should be our lens through which we interpret our encounters with these characters—other than these similarities there’s not much else these two have in common.

Consider:

  • N comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness. On the other hand, Jesus encounters the SW at about noon, in the full light of day.
  • N is a Pharisee, a member of a devout Jewish sect. For him, worship follows a finely tuned liturgy.  He comes from a proud lineage, from a people who see themselves as God’s chosen. On the other hand, the SW is a Samaritan, a half-blood people largely despised by the full-blooded Jews.  The Samaritans look to Jacob as their spiritual ancestor but figure it is acceptable to worship in their own way: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” she says, “but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Moreover, the Samaritans are largely forgotten by the Romans, the political rulers of the day.  Together, their despised and forgotten status makes Samaritans the lowest rung on the racial ladder.
  • On the one hand, N is a Teacher of Israel. This title signifies position, authority, and respect.  His people know him and he knows his people. On the other hand, the SW is just that, a woman.  That makes her already in the background of society.  The fact that she is a Samaritan makes it doubly so.  But to come to a community well at about noon says even more: she’s not there with the other women, who came earlier in the day, to gather water for their daily chores before the day grew too warm.  Perhaps her aloneness has to do with her present, somewhat scandalous living arrangement.  Perhaps it’s for some other reason.  Whatever the case, this poor woman is as much a social outcast as N is in the limelight.
  • Also, there’s this, whatever we want to make of it: N seeks Jesus; whereas the SW was found by Jesus.

In this comparison, it’s not just darkness and light: another theme rises to the surface; a theme I want to explore with you today. It’s a theme with which we are all very familiar: head vs. heart.

We think with our heads, our rationality.

We feel from our hearts, our seat of emotion.

These two—head and heart—can work together in beautiful harmony; for instance, in matters of social justice.

My friend Debby, from Texas, works as an adoption lawyer.  Early in her career she found herself confronted by a cumbersome adoption process, difficult to navigate for both the child and the parents-to-be: her heart was moved.  So, she took what she knew, adoption law—her head—and combined it with her new passion, a just adoption process—her heart—and now fights for this cause.

But, also, as we all know from our annual attempts at New Year’s Resolutions—in matters, shall we say, of personal justice—head and heart can work against each other.

January 1st rolls around and you vow to yourself, “Okay, here goes: all year long, you’re allowed only one glass of wine with dinner.”  And—you know the story—the first few days you do brilliantly.  But a week or so into it, your heart begins to tell your head things like, “Why not treat yourself to a bigger glass tonight.  You deserve it.  After all, a bigger glass is still only one glass.”  Or, you’re at some sort of celebration; and your heart tells your head, “Ah, just go ahead and have two tonight.  You can always have zero tomorrow night, to make up for it”—which, you know, may or may not actually happen.

Two brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, have written a book about this very struggle.  It’s called, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard.

They have a very helpful metaphor for the heart-versus-head struggle we all face: it is an elephant and its rider.

Your head is the rider, knowing where it wants the elephant to go and what it wants the elephant to do.  But your heart is the actual elephant, who may or may not want to follow the rider’s instructions.

The rider tries to steer the elephant.  But what if the elephant gets hungry? or decides it wants to cool itself off in the adjacent coursing waterbrook? or suddenly remembers it left something important back at the house?—an elephant never forgets, after all.

You see?  The rational rider will try to direct the emotional elephant; but it’s going to take a lot of patience and discipline to get the elephant to do what the rider wants.

Moreover, the elephant is a heck of a lot stronger than the rider; so, in a battle of strength, who’s going to win?

Keeping our hearts in check can be exhausting.

So, in looking at these two characters from the Gospel of John, one, Nicodemus, is much more like the rider from the metaphor; whereas the other, the Samaritan Woman, is much more like the elephant.

Nicodemus is a Teacher of Israel, a Pharisee, and a community leader.  All his theological and societal ducks are in a row.

Or at least they should be.

But his internal thoughts are in conflict.  Who is this man Jesus?  He stands in contrast to what I represent.  Could he be right?  Could his way actually be the way of truth?

And so, wrestling in his soul, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, under the cover of darkness, in secret.  And, after their confusing conversation, Nicodemus simply fades away, back into the darkness from which he came, just as confused as ever, still wrestling with his convoluted thoughts just as much.

The Samaritan Woman, too, has conflicting thoughts.  We see them in her conversation with Jesus.

We worship on this mountain, she tells Jesus, but you Jews worship in Jerusalem; one day the true Messiah will come and make it clear to us all.

Yet, in the clear light of mid-day, she hears what Jesus says and drops her water jar and runs off in haste to tell her friends and family to come and see the Messiah.  He has come!  In fact, he is here!  And . . .

No doubt she still had questions!  No doubt she still wrestled with conflicting internal thoughts!  No doubt she was aware of the injustices all around her!  No doubt she would still feel the deep injustices done to her personally!

Yet, despite it all, her heart, her seat of emotion, tells her in this moment, in the full light of day, that here is the very Messiah of God.

And she acts on her heart!

***

Beloved, the Gospel of John is clear.  When it comes to matters of faith, don’t overthink it.  When it comes to matters of faith, act on your heart.  When it comes to matters of faith, yield to the elephant.

Jesus is not looking for biblical experts; Nicodemus shows you that.

Jesus is not looking for perfect piety; the Samaritan Woman shows you that.

Jesus is calling you, now, to act only on what you know.

Yield to the elephant.

By the way, here’s a friend of mine learning (with a friend of hers) to yield to her elephant:

elephants

Light from Nicodemus

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

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

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.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 14:23-39

Do you know what I mean by the term breaking the fourth wall?  It’s a dramatic term, to refer to an actor who momentarily breaks out of the story itself in order to address the audience.

So, for illustrative purposes, imagine a movie we’ve all seen, The Wizard of Oz.  Do you remember that scene where the wicked witch flies over Dorothy and her cohort and writes a message in the sky?

We, the audience, hear the witch coming—a sound something like a whistle to represent an accompanying wicked wind, I suppose.  We then see what Dorothy sees—a small speck up in the left corner of the sky, a speck that we can only guess is the wicked witch—if we squint our eyes really tightly and tax our imaginations.  We then hear the witch’s cackling laugh, followed by some foreboding words, something like, “I’ll get you, my pretty; and that little dog of yours too!”  And then we see Dorothy’s terrified facial expression as she clutches Toto ever so tightly.  And, finally, we see the sky again, this time with the wicked witch as a small speck on the right side of the screen; and written across the sky is the message, “Surrender Dorothy!” skywritten magically from the tail of the wicked witch’s broom.

Do you remember this point in the movie?

My father in-law does!  The way he tells it, it was just here, at this point, just when the wicked witch wrote these words in the sky—little Jeffy was about four years old—“where I lost it,” he tells us.  “That’s when I just knew Dorothy was a goner!  Up to that point I’d held it together.  But at seeing the words, ‘Surrender Dorothy,’ I just couldn’t take it anymore.  And I began to cry.”

Poor little Jeffy!

But what if—let’s imagine for a moment—what if, right at this point, right at the height of all this serious, scary drama—what if Dorothy all of a sudden comes to her senses, looks straight into the camera, and says, with a snarky expression on her face, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

Now she doesn’t do this, we all know—perhaps my father in-law best of all.  But if she were to do so, that would be to break the fourth wall.  She would come out of her story and into the audience’s.  Get it?

It’s not soliloquy.  For in soliloquy the actor never actually leaves his or her story and comes into the audience’s.  But neither is it narration, for a narrator is in the audience’s story, always removed from the story being viewed.

Nevertheless, breaking the fourth wall accomplishes what soliloquy and narration accomplish—temporarily taking the audience out of the story of the moment and simultaneously moving it forward—usually to great, and often very humorous, effect.

Like the recent movie Deadpool.

I haven’t seen it personally, but I understand Deadpool succeeds marvelously here: the story of a Marvel Comics character, Deadpool, ever aware he is trapped within the medium of a comic book.  Throughout the duration of the movie, time and again he stops whatever he’s doing to face the screen and offer the audience some snarky commentary; often producing explosive laughter.  Those who’ve seen the movie are left to wonder if perhaps Deadpool’s frequent success at breaking the fourth wall is in fact his only real superpower.

Anyway, that’s what I mean by breaking the fourth wall.

So, why do I bring all this up?  Because, a lot like Deadpool, St. John the Evangelist frequently breaks the fourth wall.

Do you know this about the Gospel of John?  Perhaps you’ve heard this, or studied this in a Bible study.

The Gospel of John was written last of all the Gospels, sometime between the mid-80s and the year 100 or so.

Mark was written first of all, probably around the year 70, around the time when a Roman commander named Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem.  We know this because there are echoes of the destruction of the Temple in Mark’s Gospel.

Matthew and Luke probably wrote their Gospels a few years later, for they offer more echoes of Jerusalem’s fall; and some subsequent echoes.

But none of the synoptic Gospels—nothing in Matthew, Mark, or Luke—suggests that Christians had begun to congregate and be persecuted as a sect or group.

Yet these echoes abound in John’s Gospel.

John 9:22, for instance, says (emphases added): “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

Again, John 16:2 says (emphasis added), “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

And again, John 20:19 reads (emphasis added), “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

In other words, there is a threat of excommunication that shows up commonly in John’s Gospel; but such threats nowhere show up in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  The logical conclusion is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have been written before Christianity was recognized by the Jews as a contrary sect.

But John—whether on purpose or by accident—breaks the fourth wall.  He breaks out of the story being told, the story of Jesus’ life, in order to give his audience some commentary regarding their very specific plight: of being excommunicated from their community’s synagogue.

We just heard three examples of John breaking the fourth wall.

And here, in today’s passage, we see a fourth example.  Judas (not Iscariot) asks Jesus a question; and John breaks the fourth wall in Jesus’ answer to Judas’s question.

“Lord,” Judas asks, “how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”

Judas is looking around him and scratching his head, just like John’s audience was looking around them, scratching their collective head.  How is it, Judas wonders (how is it, John’s audience wonders), that only a few of us—only a small group of us—seem to know the actual truth?  I mean, there are all these other people around us, all these Jews hanging out in the synagogue (or, if you will, the mainstream church) week after week.  Well, why is it that they’re not getting it, that they’re not recognizing you, Jesus, as the Messiah?  Why is it that only a few of us seem to be understanding what you have come to teach and to offer the world?

Does this question ever bother you?

Let’s cut to the chase here.  The present day Christian church is in a tight spot.  Quantifiable evidence has tracked incontrovertible decline over the last four decades.  Why is this?  Why is the church in decline?  If Jesus is the true Savior of the world, then why is the church shrinking?

But it doesn’t stop here.  Why is it that the group of people least represented in the American church today is the twenty-somethings, the millennials?  If Jesus is the truth, and no one comes to the Father except through him; if he is the way and the truth and the life and all that; if he is in fact the true Word of God, then why isn’t it obvious to the millennials?

But it doesn’t stop here.  For, if Jesus is the true Messiah and Word and Way and Truth and Life, then why are there so many other religions around the world, religions that either relegate Jesus as just a good man or teacher or flatly reject him altogether?  If he is truly human and truly divine—God, very God—then why don’t more people see him for what he is?

But it doesn’t even stop there.  For, if Jesus is the answer to all the world’s problems, then why has more unjust violence been done in his name than good?  Why the Crusades?  Why the longstanding violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants?  Why all the warfare in the Middle East?

If Jesus is truly the Messiah; if Christ truly is the way to the Father; if Christianity’s main message is love, the first and great commandment, then why aren’t more people seeing it?  Why is it only the few?

These were the fears of the Johannine Community, John’s original audience.  And—guess what—these are our fears too!

So, John breaks the fourth wall here and provides an answer to his audience: he provided an answer to the Johannine Community, his audience back then; and he provides an answer to us, his audience today.

  • Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
  • But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

When my father in-law was a little boy watching The Wizard of Oz and he lost it—when he began to cry, right when the wicked witch wrote that terrifying message in the sky—imagine what his response would have been if Dorothy had broken the fourth wall; if she had stopped her panic, looked right into the camera, and said, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

One thing’s for sure.  Little Jeffy would have been shaken out of his immediate context, out of his fear.  Little Jeffy would have been jolted out of the scary drama that was Oz and into a greater reality.  Little Jeffy would not have lost it.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe he would’ve laughed.

Today, John has done for us what Dorothy did not: he’s broken the fourth wall.  And he’s done it for our benefit.

The world’s a fearful place.  It’s full of serious, scary drama, like Oz: drama we can get so caught up in that we fail to see beyond the fourth wall to the greater reality, to the audience, that great cloud of witnesses.

But today, even if for but a moment, John has broken the fourth wall.  See beyond it!  Catch a glimpse of the Greater Reality!  And let it to shake you out of your fear, out of your immediate context, out of the scary drama of our world.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe you will be able even to laugh.

Smack Dab in the Middle

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 1:1-14

The book of John is one of four Gospels in our New Testament: one of four books in the Bible that specifically proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Yet John begins not by connecting his Gospel to the other three Gospels.

The other three Gospels start with the human person Jesus.

The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke begin with stories of the birth of Jesus—in vivid, nitty-gritty, even messy detail.  A son is to be born of an unmarried maiden.  How scandalous!

Luke goes on to relate that this maiden, Mary, visits her older cousin Elizabeth in some backwater part of the Empire—just two women, laughing and singing—marveling, really—that God should show them such favor at opening their wombs.

The Gospel of Mark—a little different—begins not with Jesus’ birth but with his adult ministry: John the Baptist sets the stage and all at once Jesus is defeating the devil, proclaiming repentance, and healing the broken.

And so, no matter what else is going on in the wide world, these three Evangelists remind us that God is in the nitty-gritty details of our lives.

But the Gospel of John is different: John doesn’t begin with the human person of Jesus; John begins, instead, with Jesus the divine: the logos, the Word.

And in using these words—in the beginning—John connects us not to the other three Gospels but to the very beginning of the Bible, to the creation of all things:

  • In the beginning was the Word;
  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

So, for a little while anyway, let’s set aside what we normally focus on throughout this day—little Jesus, meek and mild; baby Jesus, the Christmas child—and spend some time together contemplating just how these two cosmic events are connected.

Just how is Christmas connected to creation?

Well, for starters, John says, “In the beginning was the Word.”  But in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void; and darkness was everywhere.  So, where does the Word fit into creation?

Just here: God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  God also said, “Let there be dry land”; and there was dry land.  And God also said, “Let the waters teem with life”; and it was so.  And so on.

God spoke.  God used words.  And through God’s words—through God’s Word—all came into being that has come into being.

Most of you know by now that I’m a fan of C. S. Lewis’s children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  There are seven books in this series.  The first is called The Magician’s Nephew.  In this book, two children fantastically end up in a faraway world, Narnia, on the very day of its birth.  What they witness—C. S. Lewis’s description of creation—is creation through song.

At first all is darkness and silence.  The children become aware of an almost inaudible music all around them.  It’s nothing like any music we’ve ever heard on earth; but there’s no other way to describe it.  It’s music.

Almost immediately stars begin to appear in the sky.  As more and more appear, the children realize that the music and the appearance of the stars are connected: the music reaches a sustained note for a time just before a star appears; then it changes pitch, sustains, and another star appears.

Abruptly the music grows loud and strong.  The children now realize that this isn’t just any old music, but song: these are words they are hearing, sung words; in some language—some beautiful language—they don’t know.

All at once, in response to the loud and strong song, a moon appears in the sky; followed by a still louder and stronger song for a time and the sudden appearance of the sun.

Now, dazzled by the sudden appearance of such a bright, young sun, the children look into the distance and see a figure approaching.  It is the singer of this wonderful song: a lion, Aslan (they will soon learn his name).  Aslan is singing all things into existence.  And Aslan, if you know anything about the story at all, is an allegory of Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word.  And God said—or, maybe, and the Word sang—Let there be light.  And there was.

This is how C. S. Lewis imagined it.  But why not?  John’s Gospel is highly poetic.  Why not build on John’s image of poetry by imagining all things being sung into existence?

The Word was with God.  And the Word was God.  And the Word—spoken, written, sung, it doesn’t matter—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

Another connection between creation and Christmas: in Genesis we read that God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light; and in John we read, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

What did light do at creation?

Before light was spoken into existence, the earth was formless and void; and darkness covered everything.

Darkness covering everything shows up in another book from The Chronicles of Narnia: in The Last Battle, the seventh and final book.  Here the reader witnesses the final day of Narnia, as it is snuffed out forever.  And, of course, this book relates the final judgment.

All creation is summoned to Aslan.  And by all I mean all: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, plants, even mythical beasts who have long lain dormant awaiting this final day.  All creation came into being by the Word of God; now all creation must answer to its Creator.

At last, after days or weeks or maybe somehow only a few minutes, all of creation has passed by Aslan and looked into his face; all creation has gone on either to Aslan’s left or his right.  And the reader gets one last glimpse through a doorway of the old Narnia.

But the reader sees nothing, only blackness.  For through the doorway there is only absolute darkness—no more sun, no more moon, no more stars, no more life of any sort whatsoever—can you imagine?  And with absolute darkness comes absolute zero.  The world of Narnia that once thrived is now dead.  There is no source of heat, no source of light, no source of life.

At creation, light did away with darkness.  It provided heat.  It provided life.

At Christmas a new light has shone forth.  Christmas has brought new life to this old creation.

One more connection between creation and Christmas: the Word of God, this new source of life, has become flesh and dwells among us.

Think back to creation.  Where was God’s dwelling place?  Where did God dwell among us?  Wasn’t it in the Garden of Eden, right alongside the Tree of Life?

And where does Jesus dwell among us today?

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan shows up in every book.  And it’s not always as people expect—it’s not always in the flesh.  Occasionally he shows up on the page of a book; or a person thinks she sees him briefly out of the corner of her eye; or he shows up in another person’s dream.  He’s not a tame lion, you know.

But that’s just John’s point.  Jesus shows up where we would expect him too, right here in church—the Garden of Eden for the new age.  But he also shows up when and where we don’t expect him—in a conversation with a stranger, or at the dinner table when we’re simply laughing with friends.  He is the Word, after all.

On the flip side, sometimes he doesn’t show up when we expect him too; or he shows up in a different way than we ever expected, and only later we realize we missed him.  We can’t put a box around Jesus.  Aslan’s not a tame lion.

Christmas, then, is not just the story of God coming into the world in some backwater part of the Roman Empire.  Today we don’t just remember that God is involved in the intimate details of each of our lives.  Looking at Christmas through the eyes of St. John the Evangelist—and with some help from that modern evangelist, C. S. Lewis—today we see that Christmas is much more.  Today, we see clearly that Christmas is smack dab in the middle of the grand sweep of salvation history.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  And thus we’ve crossed the great threshold of time.  The old is passing away; the new is here!

Merry Christmas!

Escaping to a Fuller Reality

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by timtrue

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

John 17:6-19

C. S. Lewis—Clive Staples, or, to his friends, Jack—is the author of the beloved children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia.

We say children’s series.  But have you ever read them: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; and so on?  These seven books are profound.  And while they do indeed tell stories that children enjoy—for their telling is simple enough—their content can be contemplated for a lifetime.

We might call Lewis an accidental theologian.  For, though a scholar of medieval literature by vocation, his heart, soul, mind, and strength bubbled a love for Christ that cannot but be noticed in everything he wrote, whether scholarly article or so-called children’s series.  He’s a man definitely worth getting to know.

I want to spend some time today focusing on the seventh (and final) book in the Chronicles, called The Last Battle; for a major theme from this story is also a major theme in the words we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel.  This section of the Gospel of John, by the way, is a prayer.  Jesus is praying for his followers; Jesus is praying for us.  Theologians refer to this prayer of Jesus as the High Priestly Prayer.

There’s that age-old question: What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?  Well, if you will, my question today is: What does the High Priestly Prayer have to do with The Last Battle?

So then, to set the stage, The Chronicles of Narnia largely follow the lives of four children, siblings, the Pevensies: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

In the second book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children enter a land, Narnia, through a magical wardrobe.  Narnia is entirely unknown to anyone on earth.  Some of the animals there talk.  There are mythological creatures come to life too: Fauns, dryads, naiads, centaurs, and so on.  Ultimately, the ruler of all of that foreign world—including Narnia and its other lands: Calormen, Archenland, the Seven Isles—is a lion named Aslan.  Aslan—spoiler alert!—is analogously Jesus Christ.

So I’ve mentioned the wardrobe and the lion; if you want to know how and where the witch fits in, read the book!—or talk to me later.

In the seventh book, The Last Battle, three of the Pevensie children—who are quite a bit older now—find themselves in Narnia once more.  This time, apparently, they have been summoned to help the present king, Tirian, fight what at first appears to be a routine battle.  Yet, as the story continues, Aslan appears and all characters realize that this battle is not routine at all, but will be the final battle between Narnia and Calormen.

But not all is lost.  Aslan appears and establishes two doorways.  All the world’s subjects will pass through one or the other.

When Peter, Edmund, and Lucy pass through the doorway on the right, they have no idea what they will find on the other side.  But when they get there, they find themselves in familiar surroundings!

Presently they see familiar Narnian sights.  There’s the castle, Cair Paravel!  There’s the lamppost, the very first object they’d ever noticed when they’d first entered Narnia so long ago.

But then, focusing far away, like standing on one mountain peak and looking to another, they see familiar sights from London.  St, Paul’s Cathedral.  Westminster Abbey.  Even some buildings that had been lost in the war to German bombings.

Somehow—it now dawns on them—this world beyond the door is everything the old world was but better, richer, fuller.  The old world—the world in which we live—is a mere shadowland compared to what the new heavens and the new earth will be.

Now we see only in part; but then we shall see much more fully!

Have you ever heard the accusation that Christianity is an escape from reality? Or, if the person saying it is feeling especially harsh, that reality is an escape from Christianity?  Have you ever heard this?

But—to reflect for a moment—is escape always wrong?

On the one hand, we know escape can be wrong.  We all know people who have turned to drugs or alcohol as a means of temporary escape from reality.  Perhaps you’ve done it yourself.

Without going into the dangers and damaging effects of such a practice, we all can agree that this is not an effective means of escape from reality.  For drugs or alcohol merely suppresses the pain for a moment; they do nothing to produce hope.

But, on the other hand, consider this:

A long-time gospel favorite is the song “I’ll Fly Away.”  Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away; to that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away. . . .

The focus here is escape.  Life now, as we know it, is hard.  We have bills to pay, obligations to meet, and often burdensome responsibilities to maintain.  The constancy of these realities can wear us down.  We might justifiably daydream about life in the new heavens and earth.

And what we experience in our daily lives—by and large anyway—is nothing in comparison to the hardships experienced by, say, American slaves a century-and-a-half ago.  Imagine having to live a life as someone else’s property!  And any acts of rebellion such as running away, or even natural processes such as growing too old to be any longer productive, were subject to brutal punishments or even death—without any means of appeal!

Many a great gospel song finds its roots here, in the oppressed American south.

In this case, and others like it, I submit to you that escape isn’t so wrong.  Songs of escape—theologies of deliverance—offer hope.  And hope can produce all manner of goodness in a person, even the ability to love and forgive a harsh slaveowner.

C. S. Lewis was accused by critics and skeptics of escaping from reality in his fantasy books—in his Chronicles of Narnia. These are children’s books, the argument goes; they encourage escaping from reality.  And escaping from reality is not good; not something we want to encourage in children.  Therefore children shouldn’t be allowed to read these books.

(And we see that the controversies surrounding Harry Potter—an example from more recent history—are nothing new.)

Well, I think you know where I stand on this already, from my point about escape not always being bad.  But where did Mr. Lewis stand?

He answers this question in another book, called Surprised by Joy.  This book is really a testimony, how he came to faith in Jesus Christ.  From early on in his childhood, he explains, even from his earliest memories, he would catch glimpses of something—he couldn’t totally explain it—that would suggest a fuller reality.  He felt it once when he viewed the mountains on the Irish horizon.  He felt it another time when reading the Beatrix Potter story Squirrel Nutkin (if I remember correctly).

This sense of a fuller reality compelled him from early life that this material world in which we live—the here and now—is not all there is.  Life can be so much fuller, he was persuaded; life can be so much richer.  But how?

For C. S. Lewis—as for us—the answer is found in faith in Jesus Christ.

And for him the literary genre of fantasy was in fact a means of expressing this fuller, richer reality.

That was his answer to his critics; and he demonstrated this through The Last Battle, in which the heroes of the story enter a richer, fuller reality upon passing through the door on Aslan’s right.

Fantasy for Lewis, then, is not an escape from reality.  If it is an escape at all, it is an escape to a fuller reality.

Now, as promised, we come to today’s Gospel, the Gospel of John.

The community in which John lived, and to which he wrote, was a persecuted community.  It had been excommunicated from the focal point of its larger community, the synagogue.  By the time the Gospel of John was written, this excommunicated group of Christ-believers—of Christians—had banded together, retreating from their larger community, feeling ostracized, excluded, and otherwise rejected.  No doubt they wrestled with feelings of escape—escaping from their world; their reality.

In the Gospel written to this community, then, Jesus prays his high priestly prayer.  He prays on their behalf, to his heavenly Father, for them.  And he states, repeats, and reiterates that they are not of the world, but that they are in the world:

  • I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.
  • But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
  • I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
  • They do not belong to the world.
  • As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

Christ’s disciples are not called to escape from their reality.  If anything, they are called to escape to a new, fuller reality, where they remain in the world but are not of the world.

And Jesus wasn’t just praying for that community—those disciples in that day.  In today’s Gospel Jesus is praying for all disciples in whatever community we find ourselves.  In today’s Gospel Jesus prays for us.

May we dwell now in that fuller reality that is the Kingdom of God.

Incarnation Trumps Sentimentality

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by timtrue

John 1:1-18

There’s quite a bit of sentimentality that accompanies the Christmas season in modern America. Do these sayings sound familiar?

  • Jesus is the reason for the season
  • Keep Christ in Christmas

But we know there’s more to it.  Christmas is about the Incarnation:

  • He came down from heaven;
  • He became incarnate;
  • He suffered, died, and rose again;
  • And he ascended to heaven, where he is now seated at the right hand of the Father and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Descent and ascent.  And this is all true!

But there’s even more to it than this.

And here, in today’s passage in John, we are invited to go deeper.  For the Gospel writer John starts talking about Jesus in a different way than the other three Gospels.  John doesn’t start with events surrounding Jesus’s birth—as we read in Matthew and Luke; John doesn’t start with the events surrounding the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—as we read in Mark.  Rather, John starts at the beginning of all things.

“In the beginning,” he writes: a direct reference to the first words of the Bible.

So what happened when God created the heavens and the earth?  “In the beginning was the Word,” John continues.  “And the Word was with God.  And the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.”

So, John points out, in the beginning Jesus Christ, the Word, was there.  At the beginning of all things, it wasn’t just God the Father there creating it all.  The Word was there too.  He was with God.  And yet, enigmatically, he was somehow also God.

So when we think of the Incarnation, we shouldn’t limit our thinking just to the sentimentality of the season. Also, we shouldn’t constrain our thinking to descent and ascent.  The Incarnation, rather, has always been present.

Now, this eternal perspective puts something of a different spin on how we view the holiday season at the end of 2014.

“Jesus is the reason for the season,” yes; and we should strive to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  But the Incarnation runs so much more deeply.  The Word of God has become flesh.  The creator of the universe has descended to human realms of time and space as a baby named Jesus.  The God of all things has been born in a manger!

Think about Jesus’s life—what we know of it uniquely from the Gospel of John.

John tells the story of Nicodemus, a Jewish leader and teacher who came to Jesus in the dead of night out of fear of what the other Jewish leaders would say.  But Jesus doesn’t reprimand him.  Rather, he has compassion and tells Nicodemus a glorious and paradoxical parable about being born again.  Out of this story comes the most quoted verse of the Bible, in fact: John 3:16: For God so loved the world. . . .

John tells the story of Lazarus.  Remember this one?  Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, is sick.  But he doesn’t go to him right away.  When he finally does arrive, Lazarus is already dead.  In fact, he’s been dead so long already that there is a stench.  Lazarus is dead—and decaying!  Mary and Martha seem both desperate and hopeful.  Then, right here, before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, what does he do?  He weeps!  Jesus, incarnate God, weeps with his friends!

There are other revealing stories unique to this Gospel too:

  • Jesus stoops and writes some unknown message in the dirt before a crowd ready to stone a woman caught in adultery—writing until all the crowd departs.
  • Jesus rebukes his stingy treasurer, a guy named Judas, for his reaction to a woman pouring expensive ointment on her savior’s feet.
  • Jesus heals a man born blind—and compassionately loves him after the synagogue excommunicates him.

What do these stories teach us?  Jesus knew all the joys and heartaches we know.  He was compassionate.  He was loving.

God is beyond our comprehension in many ways.  But we know God through Jesus Christ, the Word, the Incarnation.

The Incarnation, then, is not the sentimentality of the season. The Incarnation is not some dried up, old academic theory.  The Incarnation is not ancient history, irrelevant to us and the lives we live today.

Rather, the Incarnation is the living and present Word of God.  He forever has been; he forever is; and he forever will be.

We encounter him here, at church—in our fellowship with one another; in the Bible, the Word of God, read and proclaimed; in confessing our faith together in the Creed; in our prayers; and especially in Communion.

But we encounter him not just here.  We encounter the living Word, Jesus Christ, every moment of our lives—if we’re paying attention!

He’s with us in the making of lunches, in the folding of laundry, in taking out the trash and doing the dishes, and in the daily commute.  He’s with us at the family holiday meal, in the games we play together, and in the opening of presents.  He’s with us, too, in the eyes of that homeless person who sits in the downtown park across the street from St. Mark’s.

Jesus is the reason for the season, yes; but Jesus, the Word, the Incarnation, is also our reason for striving to live faithful Christian lives every day, throughout the year, regardless of the season—lives faithful in what we say and think; lives faithful in what we do; lives faithful to the Incarnate God who dwells in us.

May our prayers be not only in our hearts, but also in our hands and feet.