Archive for Holy Spirit

Authority’s Paradox

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2017 by timtrue

Matthew 21:23-32

1.

Why did Jesus pick John?

In response to their question, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it is from the people or from God.

But why did Jesus pick John?

Why didn’t he pick, say, the emperor?

This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God? The emperors themselves maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, they called it.

Yet others, probably most of the common people of the empire, and certainly the temple leaders, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.

The Jews worshiped the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whereas the emperor was a pagan; he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of false gods in fact. Jewish tradition would have said absolutely and unapologetically no, the emperor’s authority is not divine.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor. He was addressing Jewish leaders, after all.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people. He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance. And besides, didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?

Most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird. Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus? Yeah! Remember him? He was a true Jewish hero. He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses had with Pharaoh. He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people. He was certainly viewed as having authority.

So why didn’t Jesus use him? Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from the people?”

But, then again, Judas Maccabeus’s rebellion had come to nothing. He was killed by the Romans, his army was dispersed, and eventually the whole thing blew over. In the end, I suppose, his authority had not been from God; his mission and movement came to nothing.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of Judas Maccabeus.

But, still, couldn’t Jesus have used many other, better known examples to make his point? Why did he use John—obscure, eccentric, weird John?

2.

We’ll come back to this question. But first, let’s look at the real issue: authority. This is the question the temple leaders raise. How can Jesus do the things he is doing? Who does he think he is? What right does he have?

I can’t help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent.

They understand their tradition; they’re leaders in their religion; they know how spiritually to direct a congregation of people. For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out. They’ve got their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons, and their policy manuals. Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.

They place a lot of value in having a codified methodology (to which I—and perhaps every Episcopalian on the planet—can relate).

And so, justifiably, they ask, “By what authority are you doing these things? And by whose authority are you doing them?”

Of course, it helps to know what “things” they’re referring to. This is a very important detail—one we skip over entirely, unfortunately, in Lectionary Year A.

The most recent thing Jesus did, just yesterday as Matthew tells it, was to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple courts.

So, imagine if someone were to come into our building, fresh off the street—we don’t know him; he may have been here a time or two before, I suppose, but a lot of people pass through these doors so it’s hard to tell—and he randomly starts tipping over chairs and other pieces of furniture, maybe even the baptismal font, maybe even the altar! I’m sure we’d have a thing or two to say to this character. Who does he think he is, after all? What right does he have? And, beyond these questions, why even do it in the first place?

No doubt this is something like what the temple leaders in today’s Gospel feel. After all, it is their established policy to allow moneychangers to sell sacrificial animals in the temple courts. They’ve come to this policy after many a long and difficult vestry meeting. So who is this rebel to upset the status quo?

But, actually, come to think of it, they have seen this character a time or two before, or maybe even several. He’s that guy who blasphemed, telling the paralytic that his sins are forgiven. He’s that guy who eats meals with tax collectors and sinners. He’s that guy who casts out demons by the power of the chief demon. He’s that guy who healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath! He’s that guy who supposedly fed five thousand people with only some loaves of bread and a few small fish.

So, rather than simply call the temple police and confront him, the temple leaders formulate a question about authority: By whose authority are you doing these things, Jesus?

3.

But here’s where I hope we’re different than the temple leaders: they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.

Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something. Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

They reason that there are only two possible answers. If Jesus answers, “By human authority,” then he will be acting in rebellion against the authority of divinely inspired tradition. But if he answers, “By divine authority,” he will be blaspheming. Either way, he will be guilty.

They have him cornered—or so they think.

But Jesus turns the tables on them again—mental tables this time.

He doesn’t provide an answer. Instead, he asks them a question: Tell me, John’s authority, was it human or from heaven? And he assures them that if they answer his question, he will answer theirs.

Well, the temple leaders mull it over.

They cannot answer that John’s authority is from heaven, for they do not believe John. How could they? For they had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get where they are today—a discernment process, postulancy, seminary, etc.; but John hadn’t done any of that!

But, on the other hand, they cannot answer that John’s authority is human, for the people believe him to be a prophet; and they don’t want to provoke a violent mob.

Thus, they refuse to answer Jesus. Or, maybe, because their minds are already made up, they cannot answer Jesus.

Whatever the case, Jesus responds: Fine! Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

4.

Nevertheless, an answer has risen to the surface. And it’s an answer that, among other things, explains why Jesus referred to John in the first place.

A father has two sons. He asks them both to do some chores. One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.” But in reality the son who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.

The first son, Jesus says, is like the tax collectors and prostitutes; the second is like the temple leaders.

And isn’t this an amazing thing!

On the one hand we have tax collectors and prostitutes—sinners.

On the other hand we have temple leaders—the keepers of the religious tradition.

Then there’s John, who came in the way of righteousness—with a divine authority.

Now, put these together: the so-called sinners recognized John’s divine authority; yet the keepers of the religious tradition did not!

And this is why Jesus uses John as his example.

John came with a divine authority. His authority is recognized by the common people, even the lowest rung on society’s ladder. We might call this the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet, ironically, those who proclaim themselves as possessing a God-given authority fail to see the divine nature of John’s authority.

And thus Jesus actually answers his opponents’ question. His authority, like John’s, is divine, whether or not the religious establishment recognizes it; the proof that the HS is at work is seen in the consensus of the people.

Jesus is not like an emperor, a tyrant whom we all obey or else! Neither is Jesus like a Judas Maccabeus, a revolutionary who rose to power from and for the people but whose mission and movement fizzled out.

Jesus is God Incarnate. And we know this from the consensus of the people—throughout all ages, from the earliest beginnings of the Jesus movement right on down through today.

The Holy Spirit works and moves not through the religious establishment but through faithful people.

5.

The Holy Spirit is like that. It goes where it chooses—hovering as a wind over the waters at creation, descending as a dove on Jesus’ baptism, overwhelming like tongues of fire at Pentecost. We cannot bottle it up. We cannot codify it, define it in bylaws, or capture it in any kind of methodology.

It’s not that the Holy Spirit won’t work through the religious establishment. It will if it wants to. But the Holy Spirit will not be contained by the religious establishment.

Look at the temple leaders. Their minds were already made up. Their methodology was fixed and rigid. If something or someone came along and didn’t fit within their rigid scheme, it was all too easy for them to conclude that God wasn’t present.

The Holy Spirit could have worked through them; but why?

To have bylaws and policy manuals in place is helpful, sure. And, yes, there’s authoritative weight behind a priest who has been to seminary. Yet the Holy Spirit is infinitely larger than these human-made structures.

John the Baptist shows us this. He heralded Christ’s coming and called the people to repentance not within the confines of the temple, abiding by the temple leaders’ methodologies and otherwise conforming to society’s expectations; but by going out into the wilderness. And there the Holy Spirit blessed his ministry beyond measure.

So, beyond all this, how are we supposed to discern the Holy Spirit?

Granted, this is a tricky arena to jump into. Some people will go to Cursillo, for instance, and declare that the Holy Spirit was most definitely moving through the place. Others will decide that, no, it felt like my emotions were being manipulated. Who is right?

Maybe neither! Maybe both! Maybe each is partly right and partly wrong! Who can say for sure?

But I think that’s the point. With the Holy Spirit, maybe we aren’t really supposed to come to the discussion with our minds already made up.

Advertisements

From Spigot to Rivers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2017 by timtrue

Water_spigot[1]

John 7:37-39

“‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit.

1.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, like living water, will flow out of the believer’s heart.

It won’t just be the trickle of a low-flow spigot, he says; but rivers.

However!

Is this what we see in churches today? When we look around, do we see rivers of living water flowing forth from Christians, quenching the spiritual thirst of this parched land?

Yes, our land is parched. Yes, we’re thirsty.

We see spiritual thirst, for instance, in our individualism.

Culture tells me to be independent, self-sufficient, and confident in my own abilities. It’s a tempting message, especially when society is so accommodating to my independence.

I get in my car. I drive to the Starbucks I choose. And I order a café mocha, my favorite drink, except not as it appears on the menu but as I prefer it, with half the sweetener and twice the chocolate! Then I return to my home to watch my TV programs that I’ve pre-recorded to suit my schedule—after I run through my favorite apps that I’ve customized to my iPhone.

Ever wonder why it’s called the “i” Phone?

But, notice. This message is not all it’s cracked up to be. The “i” on the iPhone is lower case. You are actually quite dependent on others, whether you care to admit it or not.

And have you seen what this message does to relationships—or, should I say, to individuals trying to have relationships with other individuals?

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said. And yet that’s all most people seem to want anymore: to be left alone.

In the end, the water that independence sells us leaves us thirsty.

Likewise, there’s spiritual thirst in society.

Perhaps our societal spiritual thirst is seen best in the decline in mainline church attendance over the last four decades. Other spiritual are waters out there—spiritual waters that today seem more attractive than church. Their sellers have done a good job at marketing them, at making them more attractive.

I think we Christians are more to blame for this decline than those sellers though. For, if the unchurched or de-churched could actually see our living water, like the woman at the well, they would want it.

But they don’t see it. Which is our fault. Because—my thinking anyway—it’s not flowing out of us.

Oh, it’s there all right—living water. It’s just not flowing out of us. Instead, it’s bottled up inside our independent selves.

Thus we see spiritual thirst all around us; thirst that can only be quenched by the living waters of the Holy Spirit, by the living waters that we possess. So, let’s get it out there already!

2.

Speaking of the Holy Spirit, today is Pentecost Sunday. It is the day in the Church when we recall the Holy Spirit descending from heaven and entering all peoples.

This is a big day on the Church calendar, right up there with Christmas and Easter!

Now, God sent his Son to be Incarnate from the Virgin Mary. And we definitely see this remembered and celebrated in our churches today—also in the world around us. Christmas and Easter festivities abound!

But God sent the Holy Spirit too. And the Holy Spirit is a lot like Jesus: another Advocate; God dwelling with us.

So, when’s the last time you walked into CVS and heard Pentecost carols playing from the speakers overhead? (For that matter, just between us, Pentecost hymns in our own hymnal are few and far between–and not very catchy!)

When’s the last time you walked down the greeting card aisle to buy some Pentecost greeting cards to give to your beloved friends and family members?

And why don’t we practice longstanding cultural traditions that involve a big, cuddly dove? A dove to descend our chimneys, maybe, and give us gifts? Doves fly better than reindeer, after all. Or red plastic dove egg hunts in our church courtyards? Doves actually lay eggs, after all, unlike bunnies.

No, by and large, we forget about Pentecost.

Maybe we should just get rid of it then, eh? Time to move on already—get with the times! Maybe we should just give up trying to figure out who or what the Holy Spirit is and just eliminate him, her, or it from our theology, liturgy, and practice.

3.

Who is the Holy Spirit anyway? Or, to frame it another way, what if we were just to get rid of the Holy Spirit altogether?

The Creed tells us who the Holy Spirit is. We say the Creed together most Sundays, including that section about the Holy Spirit: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” and so on.

But what do these words really mean? They all seems rather nondescript.

There’s this line: “He has spoken through the Prophets.” I get that one. Sort of. I mean, there were these fringy people in the Old Testament stories who stood their ground against dictators and despots; and how could anyone have done that unless they were empowered by something divine—or at least something supernatural, or unnatural?

But how do we make sense of the lines that follow?

“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. / We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. / We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

What in the world do these words have to do with the Holy Spirit?

Maybe nothing. Maybe they’re just some important bullet points that the Creed compilers felt compelled to include somewhere—like a kind of faith appendix statement.

Anyway, why couldn’t the Creed compilers have been more concrete, like they were with respect to Jesus?

Jesus! He was born of the Virgin Mary, tried before Pilate, crucified, died, and rose again on the third day. Also, he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Yes, Jesus is easy to believe in. It’s all right there in the Creed, concrete, before our eyes.

So why do the words about the Holy Spirit have to be so abstract?

To which I say, yes, they are abstract. The Holy Spirit is a bit confusing—and has been for the entire history of the Church.

But notice this: everything about the Holy Spirit in the Creed has a communal focus.

The Holy Spirit spoke through individual prophets, yes. But why? It was to rouse a collective people, a nation: to pray as a people; to convict a nation of its societal sin; to rouse the nation to justice—which is just the profile of corporate love’s face.

And as for those other statements?

One holy catholic and apostolic Church means our communal faith with all the saints of all the ages.

Our baptism is our entrance rite into the one fold of God.

And as for the resurrection of the dead? Every single person who walks this earth will die. You cannot get more communal than that!

So, what happens if we just get rid of the Holy Spirit altogether?

We lose our prophets, our teachings, our conviction, our prayers, our communion, our baptism, our justice, our love.

You see, a god without the Person of the Holy Spirit is like a swimming pool without water. What’s the point? It has form and function but fails to serve its purpose.

If the Holy Spirit is not flowing from us like rivers of living water, what’s the point? We might testify of God’s form and function; yet what good are our testimonies when we fail to accomplish Christ’s mission?

4.

So, how do we get the living water of the Holy Spirit to flow out of us?

Well, it looks like the stuff I just mentioned—Spirit stuff, I call it: corporate belief, prayer, communion, baptism, justice, and love. Or, to use the words of our patron, it looks like “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”—the things St. Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”

And that starts with each of us, as individual followers of Christ.

What? Did I just say individuals?

Yes!

I know many of my messages talk about our salvation, faith, belief, and so on in a corporate way. I’m not waffling on this theme! The Bible is clear throughout: Jesus’ mission is not to save individual souls from a world that is hellbound; but to save the world, the cosmos, all of it, by redeeming and restoring it to its rightful state. He’s already redeemed it, by the way; and now it’s up to us, his corporate church, to restore it.

But here’s the thing.

Do you remember what I said about that spigot? Jesus did not say, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow a trickling spigot of living water.” He said rivers.

But an individual, trickling spigot is better for a dry and parched land than nothing at all.

The living water of the Holy Spirit starts with each one of us. Each one of us would do well to live a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit. See what this looks like in Galatians 5. And to help us, St. Paul also includes a contrasting list, “the works of the flesh,” he calls them, the things that shouldn’t flow from us.

And when this living water begins to trickle from you, even if you are a low-flow spigot, well, hey, at least it’s something! And when a second low-flow spigot opens up nearby, why, its trickle joins yours and the two become a bigger flow.

And a third trickle combines to make the flow bigger still.

And so on, each one of us intentionally committing to live a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, until our individual, low-flow trickles become a brook; our brooks a stream; our streams a creek; and our creeks, eventually, mighty rivers of living water, to renew and revitalize a parched and dry land.

Come, Holy Spirit!

Grandpa’s Pentecost

Posted in Family, Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2016 by timtrue

Emmett-Grizzell-1463384883

John 14:8-17, 25-27

You may or may not know, my grandpa Emmett died this week.  He was one day past 99 and a half years, so we might as well round it to an even 100: born Nov. 12, 1916; died Friday, May 13, at about 7pm.

With him passes nearly a century of wisdom, humor, and selflessness.  He leaves behind his dear wife Peggy (whom he married just seven years ago); his five children (all adopted, by the way); and a vast assortment of grandchildren, nephews, nieces, great-nephews and great-nieces, great-grandchildren, and even some great-great-grandchildren.  Quite a legacy!

Emmett’s boyhood brought him from California to New Orleans, where he witnessed his mother—my great-grandmother—navigate her way through a failed marriage to his stepfather.  By adolescence he found himself back in California with his sister and their single mother; struggling to make ends meet in a day when women just weren’t single.

His mother found work building airplanes for the military.  Today we remember her and other women she worked with as Rosie Riveters.

Anyway, something in my grandpa clicked during these adolescent years.  He graduated high school and drove on over to Burbank one day, diploma in hand, inquiring about work with an airplane company called Lockheed.  That airplane company hired him.

Life was now good.  Emmett could now help his mom make ends meet.

But soon—after a certain December day in 1941—he found himself confronted with the possibility of having to join the military.

Instead, however, the people at Lockheed pulled some strings.  Emmett, they said, is involved with a special group of researchers in a place in our organization we call the Skunkworks.

That special group, we know now, was responsible for developing such secret aircraft as the SR71, a plane that for many decades held the record as the fastest of all aircraft.  Lockheed needed Emmett.  He never enlisted.

He then met, fell in love with, and married a woman.  I never learned her name.  Their relationship was fast and furious, like the aircraft he worked on.  In their young, fast, and furious love they decided to adopt a war baby, a girl born March 3, 1945.  They named her Cheryl.

But motherhood and other burdensome responsibilities were apparently too difficult for Emmett’s unnamed wife: he woke one morning to find a note on the pillow next to him; she’d left him and Baby Cheryl forever.

Emmett decided to pool his resources with his single mother.  Together they bought a house and raised Baby Cheryl.

For the next nineteen years, Emmett worked faithfully and tirelessly to provide for this household of three spanning as many generations.  He’d commute from Reseda to Burbank while Granny got Cheryl off to school each morning, picked her up each afternoon, shuttled her back and forth to her cousin Annette’s for play dates, and otherwise raised her.

Then at nineteen, Cheryl moved out and married a dapper, just-graduated-from-UCLA engineer named Dan.

And then—only then: only after he’d faithfully and tirelessly raised his adopted daughter Cheryl for nineteen years and she’d gone off and got married—did Emmett try again to succeed in the realm of romantic love.

Her name was Peggy.  And she brought four children in tow.

Not so fast and furious this time, he fell deeply in love again; and so did Peggy.  They were soon married.  And again Emmett went through the legal process of adoption.  And just like that he found himself with five children, ranging in age from 12 to 22.  Imagine that!

And just like that (!) everything settled into place.  What so recently had seemed chaos was now calm.  And Emmett played no small part in bringing this calm about.

So, by the time Dan and Cheryl had been married for a few years and I was born, this big, happy, stable, functional family was what I knew.

Whatever had occurred in this family’s history didn’t matter to me.  What I cared about was the here and now; and here and now before me (for the next 48 years) was one of the most wise, witty, and selfless persons I’ve ever known, Grandpa Emmett, a calming force, again and again, in our chaotic world.

And you know what else?  He taught me how to wash my eyeball.  Yeah!  Check this out!  <Demonstration.>

So: you know how it is.  We, his family—his five adopted children and all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews and everyone else—we miss his legacy.

Especially now, when the grief is still fresh, we miss him—his teachings, his jokes, his example.

—–

Do you think it was really all that different for Jesus’ disciples?

They’d just spent three years of their lives with him.  They’d listened to his teachings.  They’d laughed at his jokes.  And they’d pondered his example.

Who was this man, that even the wind and the waves obeyed him?  Who was he, that at something so simple as his word armed men fell away?  Who was he, to say that no one can come to the Father except through him?  Who was he to bring calm and order to a chaotic world?

He’d left behind a legacy.

But now that he was going away, now with the freshness of the resurrection still playing with the happy end of the disciples’ emotional spectrum, the thought of Jesus leaving them was almost too much to bear.  Hadn’t they just endured the grief of his death?  How would they be able to cope with his absence again?  How would they be able to carry on his legacy?

It is into this emotional roller coaster that Jesus sends his Spirit.

The world is crazy.  It’s chaotic.  It opposes the truth that Jesus is and brings.  But the Spirit continues Jesus Christ’s legacy, bringing calm to a chaotic world.

—–

Let’s revisit now the idea that John’s Gospel breaks the fourth wall.

If you were here two weeks ago—today’s Gospel actually overlaps some with that one—I talked about how John the Evangelist often comes out of his story into the present lives of his audience to make a point.  I likened John’s story to an imaginary rendition of The Wizard of Oz, where right at the tensest point in the movie, what if Dorothy suddenly turned to the camera with a snarky expression on her face and asked, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

It doesn’t happen, of course; but that would be to break the fourth wall.  And that is exactly what John does, several times in fact, in his Gospel.

He writes to an audience living two or three generations after Christ’s death and resurrection—two or three generations after the Day of Pentecost.

Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven.  He is no longer with his disciples.  And now they’ve been kicked out of the local synagogue.  What are they to do?

Through the story he tells, then, John breaks the fourth wall and comes into the present-day story that his community is living out.

“Do not be afraid,” he tells his audience directly.  “Jesus has sent the promised Advocate, his Holy Spirit.  And this Holy Spirit will guide, comfort, and teach us.  Do you see what Jesus promised to our forefathers, the first disciples?  And look around us!  That promise is still happening with us, nearly a hundred years later, despite the trials and chaos we now experience.  Do not let your hearts be troubled.  The Holy Spirit is with us.”

So, my grandpa’s story is something of a fourth wall for me.  I hope it is for you too.

Grandpa Emmett wasn’t a theologian.  He never taught Sunday school.  He didn’t read theological books or become an EfM mentor.

But when trials and chaos came his way and to those around him, he trusted the same words St. John wrote to his community so long ago.  The Holy Spirit was Emmett’s Advocate throughout his life.  The Holy Spirit brought Christ’s peace to Emmett in times of uncertainty.  The Holy Spirit guided Emmett through the way of truth.

And, Emmett’s century of life tells us, the Holy Spirit is still at work in our lives, advocating, guiding, and comforting us through the chaos of our world.

The promises Jesus gave to his disciples and the promises St. John gave to his community—these promises still hold true today.

Thank you for leaving me with this legacy, Grandpa.  May you rest in peace.


Follow up note: I’ve since learned that my grandpa did in fact enlist in the Army for a short time in 1945.  After boot camp and being sworn in, he was released because of the recent adoption of Baby Cheryl.  He returned to Lockheed something like two months after leaving for the Army.  The war ended very shortly after that.  He was thus a veteran, a thing I did not know until his funeral, when a decked veteran showed up and performed Taps while the coffin was lowered into the grave.

Purpose Probe

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on January 25, 2016 by timtrue

Christus_heilt_einen_Besessenen

Luke 4:14-21

I’m going to probe a little this morning.  It might get a little uncomfortable in here.

But why not?

Surely Jesus experienced a little discomfort on that morning when he went into his local synagogue, unrolled that scroll from Isaiah to the people of his hometown, proclaimed that the realization of this scroll was happening right now, as he spoke, in their midst—that he was in fact the Messiah they were waiting for, the Messiah that all the Jewish people had been waiting for, for centuries!—and was rejected!

The people rejected him—the people of his own town—the friends and family members who’d watched him from childhood—

Who’d observed him growing in wisdom and stature—

Who’d seen him make his first, rough, misshapen carpenter’s box—

Who’d spent time with his family and other families at synagogue fellowship meals—

Who’d subconsciously noticed him make mistakes as children do, as he’d played with the other children.

And now he’d grown up and gone away.  He wasn’t carrying on the family tradition of carpentry.  Instead, he’d gone off to spend time with one of his more on-the-fringe cousins, or so the rumors went, some unusual guy named John, who spends his days in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey—of all things!  And he’d gone away to teach!

That’s what Jesus had been doing: teaching.  Not something worthwhile, like building houses for people in need.  He was just teaching!  Can you believe it?

Anyway, I bet he experienced a bit of discomfort that day, when the Spirit carried him into the local synagogue.  That day he unrolled a scroll from the prophet Isaiah.  And he unrolled it to that part about the Messiah, where it says who the Messiah is and what he has come to do.

And then he claimed that this passage was about him!  He was the Messiah.  And what he’d come to do—his agenda—was right here!

I bet it was uncomfortable for him as he prodded the people—the local people—with his agenda.

I bet it was especially uncomfortable for him when these people—friends and family, mind you!—rose up as a mob and led him outside to hurl him off a cliff!

Yeah!  That’s what the following verses tell us.  We didn’t read that far this morning.  That’s because we should focus on his agenda.  Nevertheless, that’s what happens next.  Jesus tells his friends and family in his local synagogue—you know, the one he grew up in—his agenda; and they are so stunned they say nothing.  So he explains: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  And then—well!—his friends and family are so angry they rise up against him with the intention to kill him.

This isn’t the Pharisees we’re talking about here, or the scribes, or the Sanhedrin, or the Sadducees, or any other of the people he has trouble with later on in his ministry.  This is his friends and family!

Sheesh!  No wonder there’s that part that says a prophet is without honor in his home town!

But the friends and family who turn against Jesus can’t do him any harm.  Luke tells us that he just walks right on through the midst of them to safety.

That’s because he was being led by the Spirit.

Did you catch that part?  Luke is very sure to tell us that Jesus is being led by the Spirit through this beginning part of his ministry, his epiphany to his hometown and beyond.

Remember, when he went out to John in the wilderness, he was baptized and a voice spoke from heaven and the Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove.

Then he was led deep into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he ate no food for forty days and was sorely tempted by the devil.

And now, here, again it is the Spirit who leads him to his hometown synagogue, where he experiences a great deal of discomfort after he probes the people with his agenda, his must-do list.

So, like Jesus, I’m going to probe a little now.  And I’m going to do so using Jesus’ agenda.

I figure: if Jesus is stating this agenda at the outset of his ministry, and he is; and if I have committed my life to following him, which I have; and if we as a church are called to be his disciples, which we are; then this agenda must be important, something like a mission statement.

In fact, let’s see it as a mission statement: Jesus’ mission statement.  And let’s get out our own church’s mission statement.  And let’s compare the two.

This is how I’ll probe a little this morning.  And this—comparing Jesus’ own mission statement to ours—is why it might get a little uncomfortable in here.

I only ask a few things of you.  First, hear me out.  Second, ask if there are ways in which we might align our church’s mission statement more with Jesus’ own.  And third, please don’t hurl me off a cliff.

So then, here’s our mission statement:

We are servants of Jesus Christ, putting his love into action by:

  • Magnifying God’s Name;
  • Proclaiming God’s Word;
  • Equipping God’s people for ministry;
  • Caring for God’s world.

We are seeking, serving, and sharing Christ.

In my opinion, this is a good mission statement.  As servants of Jesus Christ, we recognize that the entire Gospel is summarized in one word: love.  And we desire to act out the Gospel, to put love into action, in four specific ways: magnifying God’s Name; proclaiming God’s Word; equipping God’s people for ministry; and caring for God’s world.

Moreover, there are specific ways in which we are accomplishing these actions already, as demonstrated in the annual report (get your fresh copy today!).  On the other hand, though, there are specific ways in which we could grow in each of these actions.

Now, to refresh our memory, here’s what Jesus read in the synagogue on that morning:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In my opinion, this is a good mission statement too.  In fact, it’s very good, way better than ours.

Like us, Jesus puts love into action.  But his actions get way more specific than ours do.

He is not simply proclaiming the good news.  We say that.  We are “Proclaiming God’s Word.”  He says it too.  But he doesn’t just leave it there.

Rather, he proclaims the good news to the poor.  Similarly, he proclaims not just release and recovery, but release to the captives; and recovery of sight to the blind.  He preaches not just a pie-in-the-sky form of liberation theology but freedom to the oppressed.  He proclaims the good news to people right where they are, whatever their lot.

Jesus’ own mission statement is quite specific.  It is undeniably focused on righting wrongs, on bringing justice where there is none, on doing and not just being love.

At St. Paul’s, we seek, serve, and share Jesus.  We love him.  So what are we doing about it?

Look: here’s my main concern.

Right now is the time of year when we tend to be asking, “How are we doing as a church?”  We have our annual meeting next week; I have to complete the Parochial Report by the next vestry meeting; the present elephant in the declining mainline church is, “How can we sustain our resources, or will we even be able to?”

These aren’t bad questions to ask in their own right.  But they can distract us from our real mission.

When it comes to our mission, instead of asking, “How are we doing as a church?” let’s ask, “What are we doing for God?”

And let’s get specific about it!

What are we doing to right the wrongs that are taking place in and around Yuma?

We’re already doing some things, sure.  (See our annual report.)  But can we do more?  Do we want to do more?  Enough so that we incorporate specifics into our mission statement?

Jesus’ own mission statement espoused such radical social transformation that even his friends and family were ready to hurl him off a cliff.  Are we ready to transform Yuma with the Gospel, even if it makes our friends and family members uncomfortable?

The Holy Spirit was with Jesus, making his mission not only a possibility but also a reality.  The Holy Spirit is also with us.  Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to lead us; and through the Holy Spirit let’s turn Yuma upside down!

And, since we’re here, a final comment: when Jesus sat down, after reading the scroll, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today!  The Spirit leads right now, in the present, today.

Let’s not procrastinate.

Pray with me. . . .

Eating a Gospel Hamburger

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on June 7, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 3:20-35

Palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms are cool.

Now, you might think I’m geeking out when I say that these things are cool—palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms—especially if you don’t know what they are.  “Oh dear,” you might be saying already, shifting uncomfortably in your seats as my captive audience; “the preacher’s going off on some pedantic tangent again, making some esoteric point that no one really cares about except him.”

And if you are, well, I can’t say I blame you.  But give me a minute.  This “pedantic tangent” will bear on the rest of what I’ve got to say.

That said, I return to my (perhaps esoteric) point: palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms are cool.

Palindromes are words, or strings of words, spelled backwards the same as they are forwards.  One-word examples include: “Hannah” (my daughter’s name); “mom”; “dad”; “radar”; and “deified.”

String-of-word examples include: “M’adam, I’m Adam”; “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” (from Teddy Roosevelt days); “Sit on a potato pan, Otis” (a personal favorite); and (one I once made up in a friendly competition) “Loop a red nun under a pool.”

I think palindromes are cool because they’re fun.  They are clever, orderly, and symmetrical.  There’s a focal point in each, something like an axis around which the word or string of words revolve.  In the word mom, the M and M revolve around the O; thus making the O a point of focus.  What’s the axis in the longer example, “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!”?  Yes, the letter C.

I also mentioned that hamburgers are cool.  And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so, for hamburgers are easily accessible to all.  Why, right here in Yuma we can drive down 16th Street and see an In-N-Out Burger on one side and a Five Guys Burgers directly across from it!

But the reason I think hamburgers are cool has little to do with how they taste.  Rather, hamburgers are a sort of visual palindrome.

You’ve got a bun; some stuff; a patty; some more stuff; and another bun.  Turn it upside-down and it’s essentially the same thing as it was right-side-up!  A visible palindrome!

Granted, it’s not an exact palindrome.  The top bun is not exactly symmetrical to the bottom bun.  Also, the stuff in between is usually not totally symmetrical.  It may be that the vegetables are above the patty and the condiments below.  But, generally speaking, we’ve got symmetry, order, and focus when we’ve got a hamburger in our hands.  And the focal point—the axis around which the sandwich revolves—is the patty.

So then, palindromes are cool; hamburgers are cool too.  But, though hamburgers are like palindromes, they’re not as precise.

Which brings us to chiasms.

Chiasm is the name of a certain literary form, or structure, that is symmetric, focused on a specific axis, or focal point.  An author might want to bring home a major point.  Before getting to the patty of the argument, however, she offers a lesser point, something attractive and maybe even enticing (like a soft, fluffy, freshly baked bun).  Whether or not the reader (or eater) is aware, this is not actually the main point.

She’ll get to that soon.  But before, she offers another, an even more tantalizing, taste-bud teasing subpoint, the condiments.  And now the reader (or eater) is thoroughly hooked.

And so the time has come.  Now, here, at the proper place in her argument, she offers the meat, what she’s really wanted to say all along.  It’s the focal point, the axis around which her mouth-watering argument revolves.

Even now, though, she’s not done.  Now that the meat of the argument has been tasted and otherwise considered, the author returns to a variation of her second subpoint, the vegetables—and maybe a slice of gruyere cheese—in order to bring the focal point to bear more strongly upon her complementary yet nevertheless significant subpoints.

But even now she’s not quite done.  There’s still the top bun!  So the meat of the argument must be considered again, now in light of the first subpoint and its variation.  And when it is, at last, the reader finds himself content and happy, with satisfied literary tastebuds and tummy.

In the world of literature we say chiasm looks like this: A-B-C-B’-A’.  But to me it looks like a hamburger.  And I think it’s cool.

Incidentally, many psalms are chiasms.  And, on a larger scale, Augustine’s Confessions is one great chiasm.

Anyway, all this is to say we encounter a chiasm in today’s Gospel passage. Think of it as a Gospel hamburger if it helps.  But this chiasm is important to note.  For through it, Mark is giving us readers a clue.  There is a focal point, an axis around which the passage revolves, which Mark wants us to take note of.

Jesus and a crowd are inside a house.  The buns of this passage—the A and A’—are Jesus’ family.  At the beginning of the passage (v. 21), we read, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for the people were saying, ‘he has gone out of his mind.’”  Now go to the end of the passage.  There we read the radical—maybe even unsettling—statements about Jesus’ family being outside; yet Jesus says that those with him inside, those who do the will of God, are his family.  A and A’, or the buns.

Next, we see the condiments and the vegetables of this passage—the B and B’—in the contrast between Beelzebul and the Holy Spirit.  (In v. 22) Scribes accuse Jesus of being possessed by demonic forces they call Beelzebul; whereas a little later (in vv. 28-30) Jesus says that all will be forgiven except blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  The condiments and vegetables here are contrasting spiritual forces, yet complementary in that they both focus on the spiritual.

And this brings us to the patty, the meat of the passage—Section C in terms of literary form.  What is the main point here that Mark wants us Gospel hamburger eaters to know?

Remember, this passage starts with Jesus’ family being outside of the home and wondering if he’s gone out of his mind; followed by religious leaders accusing him of demon possession.

Now Jesus says these words:

  • “How can Satan cast out Satan?”
  • “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”
  • “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”
  • “And if Satan . . . is divided, he cannot stand.”

What is the main point of this passage?  Anything divided against itself—whether kingdom, household, or person—will not stand.

If Jesus is indeed throwing out demons by a demonic power, as the scribes accuse, then the kingdom of demons will fall.

And if Jesus is in fact out of his mind, as his family wonders, his household will be divided.

And if Jesus is out of his own mind, he is divided against himself; and he will fall apart as an individual.

But what if he’s not?

What if, instead, Jesus is of sound heart, soul, body, and mind?  What if everything he teaches and preaches is true?  What then?

What if his household truly consists of those who are completely unified with him, of those who do the will of God—and not his blood relatives?  What then?

Or what if Jesus actually is casting out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit through God the Father, and not through some demonic power?  What if Jesus really is a part of the triune, indivisible God?  What then?  Eh?

Maybe then—just a thought—those who deny that Jesus is divine, who say that he was just a wandering mystic or just a good teacher or just insane—maybe to deny Jesus’ deity is what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit.

Whatever the case, there’s the meat of this passage. But, admittedly, meat by itself is too Spartan.  That’s why we dress hamburgers up—most of us anyway.

As a brief aside, I had a burger the other night at Prison Hill Brewing Company.  It just might have been the best burger I’ve ever had.  If you’re into this kind of thing, it has onions, mushrooms, and a patty all drenched and sautéed in red wine.  Delicious!  Anyway, back to my point: we like to dress burgers up.

So, what can we learn today from the other layers of this Gospel burger, from the condiments and vegetables and buns?

Just this: a caution.

From today’s passage and many others we know, two groups of people come to mind.  There are those who stand for Jesus, who follow him unreservedly as Messiah; and those who stand against Jesus.

On the one hand—the stand-for-Jesus hand—we see tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and sinners.  Outcasts and vagabonds accompany Jesus wherever we see him.  His disciples, too!—largely uncouth commonfolk, uneducated fishermen.  Yet none of these people questions Jesus.  None of them says he’s out of his mind, or that he’s possessed by a demon.

Then there are those in this passage who stand against Jesus.

It’s easy for us to think in terms of good guys and bad guys.  We love Jesus, we say; so we’re obviously the good guys.  We’re obviously like the riff-raff in this story, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, and the other sinners and outcasts, right?  We’re not like the bad guys in this story—like the scribes and the insensitive family members—are we?

But wait a minute!  We’re not outcasts.  We are the religious leaders.  We are the church.  In fact, we define the church today.  And so, whenever we think we’ve got it right when the others—the bad guys—have it wrong, we kick them out; or we ourselves leave and form a new congregation!

We’ve also known Jesus for a long time—some of us for a very long time.  He’s family to us!  So we know things about him that other, newer believers, don’t know: what he really meant when he said his hard sayings.  We know what he really meant, what he’s really about—or what he would be about if he were here in our midst today.  So we form organizations to promote what we’re sure we know: “traditional family values,” for example.

But wait a minute!  In reality, most of us align much more closely with the family members and scribes of this passage than with the riff-raff.  We know Jesus.  He’s family.  We’ve become comfortable with him.

And thus we end up opposing him—and each other!  We don’t mean to do it.  We often don’t even realize we do it.  But we do.

And, doing so, we divide.

A kingdom, a household, a person, or a church divided against itself will not stand.

When it comes to following Jesus, don’t be one of the religious leaders or family members left outside at the end of the story.

Background: From Then Till Now . . . For Now

Posted in Background with tags , on August 4, 2013 by timtrue

The following is an article I wrote for my church’s newsletter this month.  It finishes off my blog’s background story in brief.  In time, I’ll fill in more detail of my back story, I’m sure.  But this one brings you up to the present day in a fun way and thus fills out the picture.

 

Once upon a time, a long time ago, after a certain choir rehearsal, a young superhero named Captain Uriah (a. k. a. Tim) told Holly (his wife-to-be) that he sensed a nudging from the Holy Spirit towards the Gospel ministry.  Would she marry him anyway?  Yes, she said, misty eyed, though not from the adventure she knew a life of ministry promised but from the high concentration of pollens in the air that day: this was Davis, CA, after all, second only in allergen parts per million to south Texas, or so I’ve been told.  They were married a few months later and their adventure together began in earnest.

Tim accepted a call as Youth Director with a Baptist church in southern California.  Things cruised along well enough for a time, including the births of Tim and Holly’s first two daughters, till Tim realized he wasn’t really a Baptist after all, but maybe a Presbyterian.  “Whoa,” he told Holly one morning over coffee, “maybe I should figure some things out.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, adding a little Splenda to her mug, “maybe.”

So he changed lanes on what was really the same freeway and taught for some years, middle and high school students mostly, incredibly important things like passive periphrastics and gerundives and when to use the locative case and what it looks like and who Aeneas was and why this even matters–or not.  Somewhere along the lines two more daughters were born and Tim looked at Holly one day over lunch and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time, dear?”

And she said, sprinkling Parmesan cheese over her spaghetti ever so delicately, “Yes, yes it is.”

So, thinking they might really be more Episcopal than Presbyterian, on a certain Maundy Thursday this former superhero and his family donned the red door of an Episcopal church.  “Finally,” they all said together over Communion, “we’re home.”  And they knew they were right where they should be.

“How would you feel about going to seminary?” the bishop soon asked.

“What?” gulped Tim, “with five kids?  Pshaw!”

For, you see, now a fifth child, a son, had been born to Tim and Holly.  It happened in the mean time, when they were simply going about their business trying to live their lives, teaching, parenting, eking.  But that was beside the point.  The Holy Spirit said, “Time to man up!  Time to make good!”

And so the family left the Hill Country and sojourned in the Southern Wilderness of Sewanee for a thousand days, a land flowing with coffee and pasta lunches.

“I manned up,” Tim prayed at the end of this time; “I made good.”

“Indeed!” the Holy Spirit declared.

English: Texas Hill Country, on Route 187 head...

Texas Hill Country, on Route 187 heading North, just north of Garner State Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And now they are back in the Hill Country living happily ever after.