Archive for hope

Anteresurrection Hope

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

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on Good Friday, 2019.

John 18:1—19:42

1.

What must it have been like for his disciples?

They’d just witnessed their leader so anguished in prayer that he sweat blood.

They’d just watched, powerless, when Roman police came and arrested him, betrayed by one of their own.

One disciple, we know, didn’t like that feeling of powerlessness, that impulsive disciple, Peter; so he tried to do something about it. He took out his sword and—Take that!—cut off someone’s ear.

But Jesus stayed Peter’s hand; and, rather than allowing Peter to lead a charge in his defense, said Peace and reached out to the injured man and healed him.

What! Was Jesus actually that committed to nonviolence? Would Jesus not even allow his disciples to defend him?

Powerless, they watched as Jesus was tried, stricken, sentenced, condemned, and crucified.

Powerless!

What must have been going through their minds?

In the end, was Jesus just too idealistic?

But he’d turned tables upside down! He’d changed water into wine! He’d healed a man blind from birth! He’d raised Lazarus from the grave! They’d seen it all first-hand.

Still, now, there he was, before their eyes, raised up on a wicked device of torture, made an example of what becomes of rebels and revolutionaries who dare to defy the dominant system, the Pax Romana.

And he gave up his spirit.

It had all come to nothing.

Powerless.

2.

Spoiler alert: we know where this is going.

And that’s our temptation: to look ahead, to where it’s going, and proclaim hope on Good Friday. In fact, this is why we call it good: hope because we know where it’s going.

But the disciples did not know.

So, what if we dwell with the disciples tonight? What if we put ourselves in their shoes of powerlessness, of second-guessing, of fear? Is there any hope we can draw from their pre-resurrection Good Friday perspective?

They’d witnessed Jesus resisting the dominant powers—both political and religious—always without violence. He’d practiced an unusual third way, without reacting or resorting to the powers at work in the world around him. We hear “fight or flight.” But Jesus did neither.

Is there hope here?

Today we call it nonviolent resistance. And many people think it doesn’t work. The answer to school shootings, some argue, is to arm teachers with guns. Fight violence with violence, they say.

But Martin Luther King said differently, “Violence begets violence”; and we all know his nonviolent resistance actually got somewhere. Civil rights have come a long way in the last fifty years, thanks to his nonviolent resistance.

So, returning to tonight’s Passion narrative, see what happens.

When Jesus says, “I am he,” his opposition falters. Did they flinch? I don’t know. What I do know is that here is some kind of nonviolent, otherworldly power going forth from Jesus.

When Peter cuts off Malchus’ ear, Jesus says Peace and heals him. Again, nonviolent, otherworldly power.

And when Pilate says he has the power to let him live or die, Jesus explains that Pilate knows little of true power, that his view—the world’s view, “might makes right,” the Pax Romana—is convoluted.

It seems to me that the disciples on that Good Friday so long ago have more than enough information to see what Jesus is getting at: that the way of the world is power through domination, hierarchy, and violence; and that the way of Jesus is nonviolent resistance to these powers.

That’s not powerlessness. Rather, that’s turning over tables: the tables of domination, violence, and injustice. Or, as we learn from the book of Acts—once the disciples put two and two together—that’s turning the world upside down.

To turn established systems of domination on their heads? Why, that sounds a lot like the kingdom of God Jesus kept mentioning while he was alive with us!

The kingdom of God, lived out before their eyes!

With those early disciples, we have much reason to hope on this Good Friday.

Learning Hope from Dr. Jeffrey Cohen

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2018 by timtrue

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John 11:32-44

1.

October 27 marked the 300th day of this year. It also marked the 294th mass shooting this year in our country.

We all watched in horror as the news unfolded last Saturday.

Earlier that morning, Robert Bowers had entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and begun shooting his legally owned AR-15.

Then, in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital, after receiving several gunshot wounds himself from police, Bowers yelled out, “I want to kill all the Jews!”

He yelled the same thing some minutes later in the Emergency Room.

Ironically, a medical team led by a Jewish man treated Bowers in the hospital.

In the end: eleven worshipers had been slain, gunned down in a crime of hate, making this the largest massacre of our Jewish sisters and brothers in our nation’s history!

Holly and I visited Temple Beth Sholom here in Temecula on Friday night—to stand in solidarity and pray with people we love.

And, you know, a Jewish prayer service is really not all that different from a Christian prayer service! There are minor differences, sure—some of the readings are in Hebrew, for instance—but, at the core, Christians and Jews are largely the same: trying our best to find and serve God according to what we know—according to the revelation God has given us.

So:

The 300th day of the year!

The 294th mass shooting!

That’s nearly one mass shooting a day.

That’s more than a thousand people, already, who have lost their lives this year to gun violence.

And why?

2.

This week the Christian church around the world celebrated Halloween (a. k. a. All Halloweds Eve, or All Saints Eve); as well as All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Along these lines, a large portion of the Americas also celebrated Dia de Los Muertos.

It is a week when Christians focus on the people we have known and loved who have passed before us through the veil of death and beyond. In fact, during the Prayers of the People today I will offer us a time to name loved ones who are no longer with us.

These are days of grieving; and mourning. For we miss our beloved friends and family members with whom we’ve journeyed through part of this life together. We see a photo or speak their names or catch a scent that reminds us; and we’re suddenly reduced to tears.

But these are also days of rejoicing, of celebrating the lives and legacies they left behind.

We rejoice and celebrate because we hope in the resurrection. Death, we know, is only part of the story. And it’s the smaller part! For, we also know, death has been truly and finally vanquished by our Lord, Savior, Redeemer, and Friend Christ Jesus.

Which is why, by the way, the liturgical color of a funeral is white—same as a wedding!—same as today! It’s not so much about mourning as it is about rejoicing; not so much death as resurrection; not so much old life as new!

That’s how it’s supposed to be, at least.

But what if, instead, it feels like the mourning and grieving ought to take precedence—like when the loss is still too fresh to focus on much else; like now, at this moment in our nation’s history, when hate crimes are almost a daily occurrence?

How can we maintain any hope at all when such despairing obstacles get in the way?

3.

And then there’s this troubling question: What about the man who pulled the trigger?

I wonder, what would you have done in the Emergency Room doctor’s shoes? What would I have done?

The Jewish community in Pittsburgh is relatively small—Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where you’ll find nearly all of the Jewish community, has a population of about 25,000 people—and it has been there for several generations, certainly since the first half of the nineteenth century, possibly quite a bit earlier.

The Jewish network in Pittsburgh is tight; and it runs deep.

Imagine, then, with this kind of network, you’re leading a team of medical professionals in the E. R.; and a man is rushed in with gunshot wounds, bleeding, in need of urgent medical attention.

And he yells out, “I want to kill all the Jews!”

What do you do when you connect the dots?

What do you do when you suddenly realize, with horror, that this man before you is the very man who just entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and unleashed violence and death on the worshipers?

What do you do when you learn that he took the lives of eleven innocent people—eleven of your people?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could carry on. As much as I know, in my head, that I have a duty to seek to do all within my power to heal each person in my care, my emotions might just carry the day in this particular situation. I think I might have to find another doctor and say, “Take this one, please; I simply cannot.”

But the Jewish E. R. doctor did take Bowers under his care; along with a Jewish nurse, whose father just so happens to be a local rabbi.

Dr. Jeffrey Cohen caught wind of this unfolding drama. Dr. Cohen is the president of Allegheny General Hospital, where the perpetrator was taken for care. In fact, sitting in his office, Dr. Cohen heard the gunshots from the shootout. Even closer to home, Dr. Cohen is a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue; and personally knew nine of the eleven victims.

You know what Dr. Cohen did? He went to the E. R. and told the doctor and nurse attending Bowers that he was proud of them.

Then he approached Bowers himself and asked how he was doing, whether he was in pain.

Bowers said he was okay then asked who he was; to which Cohen replied, “I’m Dr. Cohen, the president of this hospital.”[i]

I don’t think I would have been able to do any of that. I don’t think, in that moment, I’d have had any hope at all. Would you?

4.

In today’s Gospel, death confronts Jesus with a number of despairing obstacles.

First, Jesus was delayed. If only Jesus had been able to get there earlier, Mary lamented, her brother Lazarus would not have died.

Then, second, Jesus could not lay his hands on Lazarus, or even look at him, for a large stone stood in the way, blocking the tomb’s entrance.

Third—suppose someone were to roll the stone away—there’d be the stench! Death has already claimed Lazarus, made certain by the smell of decay.

And, finally, in case all that weren’t enough already, Lazarus is wearing grave clothes—already clothed in death.

Death has won! All hope is vanquished.

There’s nothing left for us, we think, but to despair, be angry, and hate.

But see what Jesus does!

He weeps with Mary and the others.

He goes to where Lazarus lies.

He includes others: “Roll away the stone,” he says.

He then calls Lazarus forth.

And he tells the others to take off Lazarus’s grave clothes.

Jesus overcomes all the obstacles that death throws at him, taking each in turn; until, truly and finally, death is vanquished!

5.

For us today, many despairing obstacles stand in hope’s way. To name just a few:

  • The heavy stone of hatred, bigotry, and prejudice.
  • The decaying stench of intolerance and racism.
  • The fearsome grave clothes of homophobia and xenophobia.

These obstacles aren’t death itself; but they point to it.

Unless we weep with those who weep, confront these obstacles squarely, and roll them away together, death is all we will see: our hope is eclipsed.

Oh, but when we do, it’s Easter all over again!

Every year, on November 1, we remember all the saints—all those who have believed, do believe, or will believe that Jesus is the pathway to the divine.

But this isn’t enough; so every year, on November 2, we remember all souls—every person who has lived, does live, or will live.

Every soul!

Including all the holy women and men of the church!

Including all those who lost their lives a week ago in Pittsburgh!

And including even the perpetrators!

Vanquishing death forever means vanquishing our hatred now; including our hatred for the perpetrator.

Today, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen gives me hope.

[i] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2018/10/30/im-dr-cohen-powerful-humanity-jewish-hospital-staff-that-treated-robert-bowers/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.86137fad168a.

Crude as Cold, Hard Cash

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

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Matthew 22:15-22

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

Exact same comment—except the parties were switched!

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

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

Did you hear it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

Little has changed in two millennia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Pharisees and Herodians fill today’s pews!

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope from Hindsight

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

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Matt. 24:36-44

Today we find ourselves in an awkward place.

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

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

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

Today, we’re in an awkward place.

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

So, what is Advent?

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

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

But what are we to be ready for?

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

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

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

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

The answer, of course, is yes.

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

It’s a sort of in-between time.

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

But is it really all that awkward?

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

Man, I miss that place!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does this mean for us today?

Just this:

We live in a time characterized by fear.

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

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

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

We fear the future.

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

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

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

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

Ah, but don’t you see the fallacy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope from Pessimism

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 20:27-38

I don’t know about you, but over the course of the last week I’ve caught myself thinking a lot about death.

On Monday we celebrated Halloween.  This is a funny tradition we have, isn’t it?  What, are we trying to scare people into giving us candy?  Princesses and superheroes aside, why all the grisly, death-focused getups?

Then, on Tuesday it was All Saints’ Day.  If you happened to come to the service here on Tuesday night, the music was from Faure’s Requiem—a mass for the dead.  During the prayers a necrology—a list of names of loved ones who died over the past twelve months—was read.

Again, a chief theme was death.

Next, on Wednesday it was All Souls’ Day.  This is the day on the church’s calendar in which we remember specifically all those unnamed people who simply went about their lives day in and day out until they passed away, but never ended up in any history books.  God knows the names of every one; we do not.

Also on Wednesday, death entered my thinking as we witnessed what many thought impossible: the Cubs won the World Series.  The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908.  None of the players on that team was alive to see this team do it.  How sad!

Then on Friday I hiked by myself up Flag Mountain, variously called Jester’s Peak.  It started out pleasantly enough, with a well-marked trail ascending at a good clip.  But near the top the trail gave way to what I call an avalanche chute—a very steep depression down through which rocks falling from above would funnel if there were a rockslide.  Up this chute was my way.  But which way—to the right or to the left?—was up to me to guess.

So I scrambled left, climbing with both my hands and feet, until I came to a final rock face.  Too steep, I thought!  Still, I could see the temptation, for there, just through that crack, it seemed the trail should continue.

I decided to retrace my steps, however, down and then scramble up to the right.  Which turned out to be a better choice.

But, at the top of the chute now, I observed a crude memorial set up right where I would have come through that crack in the rock (if I hadn’t changed my mind).  And I realized: someone died right here, hiking this very trail.

So, yeah, death has been on my mind this past week.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tuesday’s election.  Will this be the death of our nation?  Probably not, in all seriousness.  But the death focus of my week has left me pessimistic.  Or, in other words, I’m “sad, you see.”

Which brings us to today’s Gospel: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.” The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death, so they were “sad, you see.”

Focusing just on death can leave us pessimistic.

But what happens after, or beyond, death?

The Torah—the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible—says very little about the afterlife.

We do in fact learn a lot about death in the Torah.  Adam and Eve are tempted by the wily serpent, who lies to them saying, “You will not die”; but, as we all know, they succumb; and we all learn what death is.

Lots of people die in these early stories.  Jacob lived a hundred and forty-seven years, the Torah says, a rich, full life; and then went to sheol, the place of the dead, whatever that means.

But as to what happens to us after death—what sheol is, what happens there, and so on—the Torah is silent.

And so the Sadducees developed a theology of death, angels, and the afterlife.  Namely, they said, since the Torah is silent, these must not be: there must not be an afterlife; and there is no such thing as angels.

For them, there was no resurrection.

But another Jewish tradition, that of the Pharisees, included more in its canon of sacred scriptures.  Specifically, it included the book of the prophet Daniel, who talks both about angels and the afterlife.

And don’t you find it interesting—just a brief observation—that Jesus here opposes the Sadducees but favors the Pharisees?  How often do we think of the Pharisees as the bad guys of the New Testament, the opponents of Jesus!  But here Jesus aligns with them.  We need to give the Pharisees more credit!

Anyway, we do it too, you know.  Like the Pharisees, we Christians formulate our own, traditional, inferential views about death and the afterlife.

We talk about body and soul being conjoined in the human person; and death being the separation of body and soul.  But this understanding of the human person is nowhere plainly stated in our Bible.  We’ve developed this doctrine over the centuries—a doctrine that in fact is being reconsidered by theologians today.

And we talk about eternal rest.  That’s what a requiem mass is—a prayer that those souls who have been separated from their bodies will find eternal rest: dona eis requiem aeternam, Domine; Lord, give them eternal rest.

But what does this term eternal rest mean?  Are we to picture souls just sleeping the eons away in peaceful slumber?  Or, is it more like leisure, more like what we do in our free time?  Or, do we sit around in an everlasting worship service, in continual praise of God?  Or, do we engage in relationships similar to what we know as humans, maybe around a giant banquet table with beloved friends and relatives, bringing out food and wine and the old family stories that have somehow gotten even better over the eons?

And then, what happens when we put them all together—body, soul, and rest?  What are we to make of souls who’ve been separated from their bodies and yet are unable or unwilling to go to that place of everlasting rest?

Hmm.  A soul without a body?  That sounds like a ghost.  And body without soul?  Sounds like a zombie.

And we’re back to Halloween!

Well, for crying out loud, what is it—Sadducees, Pharisees, the Faure’s Requiem, or Halloween?

But Jesus says, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

And isn’t this a masterful approach?  Jesus knows the Sadducees look only to the Torah as their sacred scriptures, from which they form all their theology; from which they derive all their ethics.  So this is where he goes:

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, [from Exodus, at the very heart of your sacred Torah,] where he speaks of the Lord as the [present] God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Life does not end, Jesus says; but it does change.  This much we know!  And thus we have confidence in our great hope, the resurrection!

And doesn’t this, our hope simply in the resurrection, change the way we look at things?

Some historians link Halloween to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, in which the dead and evil spirits are celebrated through dressing up and pulling pranks.  The church, these historians say, decided to “clean up” the festival by linking it to All Saints’ Day—Halloween means “all hallowed’s eve.”

However, other historians say no way!  All Saints’ Eve was never connected to Samhain.  Instead, yes, it is a part of All Saints’ Day, an extension of it, during which we Christians dress up as evil spirits and witches and so on in order to say, “Ha, we’re not scared!”—of Satan, his demons, or of any other power of darkness in the unseen realms—“for we follow Christ, and he holds the very keys to Death and Hades.  Our hope is in his resurrection and ours.”

Then, on All Saints’ Day we remember not just the dead but the church: followers of Christ who have lived throughout the ages, us who live now, and those who will live in the future.

And on All Souls’ Day, another extension of All Saints’ Day, we remember specifically the faithful departed—all those unnamed people who never ended up in any history books.  We can and should remember and honor them.

Do you see how our hope in the resurrection changes our perspective?  No longer are we pessimistic, but hopeful.

Two last thoughts:

First, think about the World Series Game.  1908 was the last time the Cubs won.  All the players on the team the last time they won are now dead and gone.  But, channeling hopeful thoughts of the resurrection, I wonder, were these former players, now passed on, sitting in some spiritual bleachers on Wednesday night, doing some kind of ghostly victory dance when that third out of the tenth inning finally materialized?

And the second thought: What about our nation?  Even if you are pessimistic about the possible outcome of Tuesday’s election, God is in the business of resurrection, of breathing in new life, of doing a new thing.  There’s tremendous hope in this!

Life does not end; it is changed.  We are not pessimistic, but hopeful.

Prayer: Hope or Action?

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

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Luke 18:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thus the tension of which I speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which I answer, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rather Grayer than Black and White

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by timtrue

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John 21:25-36

 

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But the fire is so delightful;

And since we’ve no place to go,

Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow.

 

But it doesn’t snow in Yuma.  Ever.  Except once, in December, 1932.  So, we change the lyrics:

 

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But your lips are so delightful;

And since marriage is such bliss,

Let us kiss, let us kiss, let us kiss.

 

Whatever the case—whether we’re carefree in front of a fire or sharing a blissful moment with a loved one—’tis the season, yeah?

Shiny toys line the aisles of local stores; seasonal specials advertise themselves from flashy, attention-grabbing signs; and catchy tunes piped through unseen speakers get us tapping our feet and daydreaming of sugar plums.

Holiday cheer envelopes us.  We lose ourselves in the carefree, blissful nature of it all.

But then we come to church.  And we hear today’s Gospel.

 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

 

And we scratch our heads.

Why, we wonder, is the holiday cheer all around us so carefree and blissful; yet the Church’s message of Advent is so doomy and gloomy?  I mean—I don’t know about you, but—if I had the choice I think I’d rather be out with the carefree and blissful bunch than in here.

Many of you know that as a boy my parents divorced.

I was on the cusp of thirteen years old, just about to finish seventh grade, when I heard my older brother upstairs crying.  He wasn’t one to cry typically, so I ran up to see what was the matter.  And there he stood with my mom, who had just told him—I was about to learn—that she and my dad were separating.  They got along fine, sure; they just didn’t have much in common anymore.

For the next few years, all became doom and gloom for me.  I stopped running with the track team.  I stopped taking piano lessons.  I started listening to Pink Floyd.  A lot of Pink Floyd!  Life seemed desperate.

Then I learned of a group meeting on my high school campus for Bible study.  Maybe I’d find some answers here, I thought.  So I began attending.  And, yes, here were some answers.  In fact—the leaders encouraged me—here were all the answers I needed.  The Bible, they said, the B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

Now all became clear.  It was all black and white, right here before my eyes.  And whatever questions the Bible didn’t address—well, if they weren’t good enough for Jesus then they weren’t good enough for me.

Life might be messy, but here I’d found my holiday cheer.  I could walk down the aisles of life tapping my feet to piped in music and otherwise telling myself that all was carefree bliss.

But as I grew in my faith I began to understand that the Christian life isn’t all carefree bliss.  Marriage isn’t all about sitting on the couch and losing oneself in the kisses of another.  Relationships aren’t all shiny and catchy and sugar plums and holiday cheer.  Sometimes disagreements surface.  Sometimes disagreements and differences become irreconcilable.  Differences between Christians!  Christians, who both love and serve God and desire to glorify Christ in all they do!

Was it all therefore a sham, I wondered, some sophisticated Santa story to dupe the world into believing an unrealistic ideal; when really, deep down, we all knew—all the grownups knew at any rate—that really there is no such ideal?  Not in this life, anyway?  That the world is all just going to burn up someday?  That it’s all just gloom and doom, so what’s the use?

So: Good grief!  What’s the real Advent story?  Is it carefree bliss or doom and gloom?

The Advent story—especially in this first week of Advent, when Christ the King Sunday is still fresh in our memories—looks to Christ’s comings. Yes, comings, I said: in the plural.  Meaning both of them.  During Advent, we look back to his birth; but also ahead to his second coming.  And thus we live in a tense contrast between cheer and gloom.

Cheer: so we shop and laugh and tap our feet to catchy tunes and sip hot chocolate with friends and decorate our homes.

And gloom: we go to church and hear of apocalyptic portents that will come upon the world and all creation: no one—not a star, planet, person, tree, or insect—will escape.

Advent is a time of tension.

By the way, we see just this contrast in various Christian churches and denominations.

Some churches focus almost exclusively on Christ’s first coming, his birth, his Incarnation.  These churches are generally optimistic in their overall outlook.  They see their calling as making the present world a better place.  And so they go out into the world—whether through outreach or evangelism—with ready answers.  Jesus is all the world really needs, they reason; and so, like Bob the Builder, they ask, “Can we fix it?” and they answer themselves, “Yes, we can!”

Other churches focus excessively on Christ’s second coming, when this age we know will come to an end.  It’s going to end, they say; and there’s not much we can do about it.  What we can do is make sure our individual walks with Christ are up to par.  And so these churches tend to focus more on individual discipleship.  Instead of going out into the world, the church becomes a haven of rest, or shelter, from the world.  These churches are generally pessimistic in their overall outlook.

But—hold the phone!—it’s not so clear as all that.  It’s not so black and white.  It’s not either holiday cheer or doom and gloom.  Advent reminds us of this.  In Advent, we are living in a very real tension between the two.

When we look at the Advent story closely, we see that Jesus’ comings are not so much about either cheer or gloom as they are, collectively, about hope.

As followers of Jesus Christ, hope is our reason to rejoice despite the truth that we live in a world that’s falling apart.

No one said the Christian life would be easy.

That was my mistake.  As a recent convert, I thought everything was crystal clear.  Jesus gave me all the answers I needed, right?  The other questions weren’t worth asking.  I had the Bible.  What else did I need?

And so I set out with my church to change the world.  We had all the answers we needed; so should the world.  We were determined to fix everything.

But as time went on this thinking discouraged the dickens out of me.  I was confronted by some of life’s messy realities.  Answers weren’t easy to come by.  Sometimes, no answers were available at all.

So I flip-flopped: I lost all idealism in the present and placed it only in the future and joined a church which believed and taught the same.  This world would all burn someday and Jesus would return to rapture all his faithful followers away with a trumpet blast.  And the sooner the better, as far as we were concerned!  We were walking with Jesus.  That was all that mattered.

But there is a middle way—a way between the first and second advents of Jesus Christ, a way between idealistic cheer and excessive gloom.  That middle way is hope.

Hope is about addressing fears and ideals in context, without focusing too much on one or the other.  Hope looks both ways—both going out into the world to share the good news and deeds of Jesus Christ; and engaging in personal spiritual disciplines, in growth as disciples.  Unlike idealistic cheer and excessive gloom, hope is authentic.

But it is all rather grayer than black and white.

Life is messy.  Following Christ doesn’t give us all the answers.  But we do have hope.

That’s what Advent shows us.