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Radical Contextualizing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2020 by timtrue

I will deliver this homily on Sunday, January 26, 2020–the Third Sunday after the Epiphany–to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee and St. Stephen’s in Douglas. It is the fourth of twelve homilies planned in my time with these congregations as a supply priest.

Matthew 4:12-23



My middle school peers and I used this word overly much. But, even if overused, I cannot think of a better word to describe the call Jesus issued to his first disciples: radical.

As Matthew relates, Jesus began his public ministry by calling four disciples: Simon Peter; his brother Andrew; and two other brothers, James and John, the sons of a certain Zebedee.

All four of these men were fishermen; and Jesus says to all four of them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Now, here is an excellent opportunity for me to talk about evangelism: evangelism is foundational to everything else we do together as a church community; we, too, need to fish for people.

And if that’s what you’re hoping for—just waiting on the edge of your seat for a sermon about evangelism—well, hang tight: we’ll get there.

First, however, I want to point out just how radical this call is that Jesus makes to his first disciples.


Track with me.

These men, all four of them fishermen, were living a comfortable life.

They were settled, doing what they knew how to do, continuing the vocation passed on to them by their fathers. So routine were their lives that they knew what to do without thinking.

They knew the sea—where to find the most fish, when the best times of the day were to find fish, what seasons of the year were better or worse for a kind of fish they’d like to catch, and so on.

And when their boats needed repairs, they knew what to do. If a boat sprung a leak while out on the surface of the sea, how to get to shore (or whether they could even make it to shore) was almost an afterthought.

Everything about their vocation was second nature.

Moreover, we can surmise—along with biblical scholars—that these men had fairly lucrative businesses.

Yes! Fish were in demand as a food throughout the region. The public paid relatively high prices for fish, an excellent source of protein. And, as is often the case with established businesses, overhead costs were low. These men enjoyed high productivity and low overhead, a recipe for a comfortable life.

Another consideration: these men more than likely were married with families. In fact, we know that Simon Peter was married: Jesus cures Peter’s mother in-law in Matthew 8.

Now, surely, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had heard of Jesus by the time he came calling. He was probably something like a celebrity by now, a household name.

Do we all know the name of our presiding bishop, Michael Curry? So, imagine if he sought you out personally and said, “Jane, John, Insert-Your-Name-Here, I have a job for you. Come with me now; and see.”

Well, yeah, there’d be a certain amount of adventure and excitement around that.

At least initially.

But what happens when the sense of adventure turns into a sense of obligation? When you realize Mr. Curry wasn’t calling you to join him just for a few days but for the rest of your life?

And today’s Gospel doesn’t end there: with the celebrity Jesus coming to these four men and saying, “Follow me on the adventure ahead, and I will make you fish for people.”

There’s another verse. Right at the end of the passage, Jesus and his new followers then set out traveling, teaching, preaching, and healing—with no foreseeable end in sight.

Point is, Jesus called these four men to follow him; and following Jesus for them meant sacrificing. A lot! Comfort. Stability. Established homes. Financial security. Predictability. Routine. Plans. Nest eggs. Family.

And they weren’t following Jesus into a kind of weekend-warrior life of adventure, to return to their comfortable, ordinary lives after two or three days; or a week. No! These guys left their established, comfortable lives on an indefinite leave of absence; to follow Jesus into the highly risky unknown.



So, that’s what it meant for them to follow Jesus. What does it mean for us?

Those who manipulate the good news—the evangelism—of the Bible for their own ends—who make a gospel out of prosperity or family values; or out of a weekend-warrior adventure—would do well to consider what we hear from St. Matthew today.

But also, if your understanding of evangelism is more authentic, more aligned with Jesus’ approach, you would do well too.

And we’ll get there, I promise.

But first—or second now, as it were—I’d like briefly to review where we’ve come on our Epiphany journey.

So, if you recall, three weeks ago, on my first Sunday with you—January 5, the last Sunday of the Christmas season—I reasoned from the Gospel that the image of God as a baby challenges us to see God anew. God loves us unconditionally in the messy details of our lives.

Next, on January 12, we saw that Jesus’ baptism is the commencement of the transformation of the world. Jesus came as the Incarnation to turn the world around, to establish and maintain a new era.

And last week, on January 19, I argued that the Incarnation and Epiphany call all of humanity to repent from the Way of Domination in favor of the Way of Love.

Do you see what’s going on here? There’s a trajectory.

God began a new thing in Jesus; and, like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we are called to continue and build upon this new thing.


Now, at last, we can turn our attention to the moment you’ve all been waiting for.

Drumroll, please!


We’ve all heard the word. But what does it mean?

As you probably know, our English word comes from the Greek euangelion, which is translated good news in today’s Gospel.

So, I was baptized in college, at a Baptist Church. I was unchurched growing up; all this Jesus stuff was new to me. I ate it up!

The college leader at this church then invited me to participate in an evangelism campaign—crusade, I think he called it. Our work was simple. We were to walk around the UC Davis campus handing out tracts to students.

Well, I took a tract home, sat on the couch, and began to read through it. And, aside from the comic-strip graphics striking me as silly, I didn’t like its message.

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” it began. And it continued to outline a method for achieving personal salvation.

The title of this pamphlet was Four Spiritual Laws, as if to say this method was immovable and unshakable—like God himself.

“Well,” I told the leader the next day, explaining why I did not want to engage in this evangelism crusade, “if God is sovereign; and if I pass this pamphlet out to someone struggling with addiction, alcoholism, promiscuity, whatever—then the message I’m really telling them is that their struggle is God’s immovable and unshakable plan for their life. And that’s supposed to be a wonderful plan? That’s supposed to be good news?”

Incidentally, we college students were encouraged to wear loud t-shirts with confrontational Jesus messages on them; and to attend week-long mission trips to far corners of the world where we could paint houses or lead a Vacation Bible School program for the less fortunate.

Really? Is that what it looks like to proclaim the good news? Is that what Jesus had in mind when he radically called those four men on that day on the beach so long ago?

Of course not!


So then, what does evangelism look like?

We find the answer in today’s Gospel, in the final verse:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Evangelism, the good news, is contextual.

For Jesus and his first disciples, it meant proclaiming that God is not an aloof king but very human, tied up in our messy lives and loving us unconditionally.

And, it also involved curing disease and sickness—because these acts afforded the most hands-on demonstration of the good news, a hands-on demonstration of God’s presence in the messy details, loving us unconditionally.

The old kingdom’s way is the Way of Domination; but the new kingdom is the Way of Love. That’s the good news Jesus and his first disciples proclaimed; and their actions were consistent with their message.

What should evangelism look like for us today? Weekend trips to help the homeless in Los Angeles? Week-long trips to paint houses in Jamaica; or to run a Vacation Bible School in Kenya?

Short-term missionaries from a highly privileged nation flying in and telling the less fortunate about God’s prosperous blessings; or painting cinder-block houses so they can feel good about themselves while simultaneously putting local artisans out of work—

To me, that sounds far more aligned with the Way of Domination than with the Way of Love.

Instead, evangelism looks around at the local community and asks, “What is our context? What is it going to take for our community—our neighbors and ourselves—to see the Way of Love at work?”

Our context, here, in southeast Arizona—

To be just a little more specific: to me, a border wall looks a lot like the Way of Domination. . . .

People of St. John’s/St. Stephen’s, this is our context.

Within this context, Christ’s call to radical evangelism compels us to proclaim the Way of Love; and to act in accordance with it.

2015 Lent 21

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2015 by timtrue


Jeremiah 11:1-8, 14-20

Prophets face a certain tension.  That is, they love the people they are called to serve on God’s behalf; and yet the people are often stiff-necked, hard-hearted, stubborn, and so on.

These aren’t my words, by the way.  These come right out of the Old Testament.  And as the OT puts it, these come right out of God’s own mouth.  The Israelites, God’s chosen people, the people whom God saved from Egypt through the parted waters of the Red Sea–these people God called stiff-necked etc.

Anyway, Jeremiah knows this tension.  God tells Jeremiah today, “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf” (v. 14).  Yet, still, Jeremiah loves these stiff-necked people.

He proclaims God’s message of repentance to them, hoping they will listen.  He prays for them, despite God’s word, because he loves them and cannot help himself.  He comes alongside them and helps them whenever and wherever he can.

Nevertheless, they want to kill him!

“But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter,” Jeremiah prays–no longer for the Israelites but for himself.  “And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!'” (v. 19).

The gig is up.  Jeremiah, at last, realizes that this people he loves has been betraying him all along.

Some recompense, eh?

So, is it time to pack up the motorcycle and head to the mountains of Mexico?  We shall see–we’ll be continuing in Jeremiah throughout the remainder of Lent (I just peeked ahead in the lectionary)–till Good Friday anyway.

But before I sign off today, there are a couple of pictures that come to mind.

One is of Socrates.  Socrates, as Plato relates, came to his people with a message of hope.  It wasn’t the same message that Jeremiah brought; but it was hopeful nonetheless.  If Jeremiah’s message was salvation through repentance, Socrates’ was salvation through education.  He taught the youth of his day radical ideas, ideas that if put into practice would transform society into a better place.

One of his ideas, by the way, was that there was no pantheon of gods, but only one god.  And for this he was labeled an atheist!

On a bigger level, for bringing transformative ideas to the younger set; for offering a message of salvation through education, he was killed.  Some have called his death second only in terms of tragedy to Jesus Christ’s.

Which, of course, is my second picture.

Jeremiah loved, worked with, served, and prayed for his people.  Yet he was utterly despised, to the point that the people conspired against him to kill him.

Isn’t this the same thing that happened to Jesus Christ?

2015 Lent 19

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2015 by timtrue

This shot pretty much sums up everything.

Jeremiah 8:18–9:6

If nothing else, I’m learning that the Prophet Jeremiah’s heart was much like what I understand a pastor’s heart to be.  For he saw all the complexities that make up human nature–or, if you prefer, the human condition.

He was able to say, on the one hand, “Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin.”  For he knew, like Shakespeare, that man–the human person–is a piece of work.  Each of us is capable of the most treacherous of acts.

At the same time, on the other hand, he knew genuine joy and health.  There were poor people in the land who remained faithful, trustworthy, and honest despite the looming darkness of war and threat of death.  Some people–if only but a few–valued and practiced integrity regardless.

The human person is capable of both: honor and treachery.

Our culture has a certain fixation on the dark side of a hero.  Did you see Big Hero 6?  It was touted as a kid’s movie.  But the protagonist, a boy of twelve or thirteen, witnessed the death of his older brother near the movie’s beginning and ends up haunted by his own related demons throughout the rest of the story.  Mature themes for a kid’s movie if you ask me!

Our culture recognizes that real life is full of just these sorts of demons.  We’ve come to understand that dysfunctional is the norm and functional is more of an ideal.  The human person is complicated.  It’s not just that a person can be capable of either honor or treachery, good or bad; but, we say, the human person is both honorable and treacherous, good and bad.

Jeremiah shows me that it’s not just our modern-day, psychology-loving culture that understands people.  Jeremiah understood people back in the day (something like 2600 years ago!).  Even earlier, when someone wrote the book of Genesis (maybe more than 3000 years ago), the message of a complicated humanity calls out loudly and clearly.

Anyway, my prayer is that I, too, living in my modern-day, psychology-loving culture, will understand the rich complexities of the people I’ve been called to serve; and, like Jeremiah, will love them and lead them, even arguing with God for them when need be.

Music to Shut Out Pundits

Posted in Music, Musings with tags , , , , on August 22, 2014 by timtrue


Sometimes I am overcome with the level of truth, beauty, and goodness that humanity produces.

Just viewed this:

If you’ve got the time and patience, it’s definitely worth a hearing: a recording of Claudio Arrau performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in Bonn, Germany in 1977.

Watching Arrau is impressive enough.  He’s definitely a master of masters.  His interpretation is perhaps the best there is to date.  And the technical difficulty!  The music critics of 1820s Vienna said this sonata was unplayable after it was first published–if that gives you any idea.

But Arrau can play it.  So could some other pianists who lived closer to Beethoven’s time.  People who didn’t listen to the critics.  People who continued to believe in the aging Beethoven.

For an example of what I’m talking about, close your eyes right at about 25:20 into the recording.  After a few seconds it will sound like Arrau has three hands.  For there are three distinct voices, in three registers, sounding together!  It’s positively trinitarian.  But then you open your eyes and see that, no, no one has joined Arrau; nor has any Wizard enabled Arrau to grow a third hand.  But close your eyes and there it is again!  Truly genius!  Truly the ancient triad of truth, beauty, and goodness come to life!

Then you remember.  Here, now, already moved to tears, you remember that Beethoven was completely deaf at the time he composed this sonata.


. . .

Moved beyond material existence, you decide then and there to be like Beethoven.  You decide that you’ll be deaf to the critics, to the naysayers, and to the news reports all around you that try to force you into desperation regarding humanity.  Where is the truth, they say?  Where is the goodness?  Where is the beauty?

You can’t answer.  Beethoven has rendered you temporarily speechless.  Instead, you act.  You shut off the TV and those wagging pundits, click on that link I gave you above, and settle into hearing nothing for a half hour but this heavenly music brought to earth.

Finally, then, you recover.  And you say, “Right here, O pundits of pessimism.  Truth, beauty, and goodness–humanity’s splendor–are all right here.  You go ahead and tell your stories.  As for me, I’ll listen to Beethoven.”