Archive for individualism

Beyond the Tribal Walls

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 4:21-30

1.

Tribalism.

It’s a word we use in our culture to describe a group to which we belong, whose interests we care about deeply—my people, my tribe.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Which of you moms has never felt a kind of “mama bear” instinct, to protect your children—your people—no matter the cost?

Our modern culture, which places a high value on the individual, plays into tribalism especially well. You and I may be a part of one group—our church, for example. But what makes me really who I am as an individual is based on more. To which other tribes do I belong?

And these other, complementary tribes can go two ways, right?

I can belong to a smaller tribe within the larger tribe—a sub-tribe, if you will. Within St. Thomas, for instance, we have MoST, WoW, Prayers and Squares, and so on.

And, I can belong to other tribes, outside of this one—a car club, a bridge club, a sports team, the Rotary, an online chat group.

What makes me uniquely who I am, then, largely consists of the web of tribes to which I belong. My unique network of tribes makes me an individual, and hopefully a cool individual!

And so, naturally, I care a lot about certain tribes—the tribes I belong to; and the tribes I want to belong to—but as for all the other tribes out there, well, not so much. My time is precious, after all; and I just don’t have time for them. Got to draw the line somewhere!

But, despite what our culture tells us, tribalism isn’t always a good thing. We humans are inclined towards “group think” and “mob rule,” behaviors that shape our opinions and shade the truth.

So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts and challenges his own, hometown tribalism, which had become not-a-good thing.

And the tribe doesn’t like his challenge. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they ask.

Hold on, they say! They love their tribe! It’s part of what makes them who they are—what makes them unique and cool!

After all, this hometown tribe built their synagogue over the course of time into what it is today. Think of the investment: all that time, talent, and treasure!

And what does Jesus, this young upstart, know anyway? He’s just Joseph’s son, full of unrealistic ideals and pipe dreams.

And so, incredibly, these people—Jesus’ people; Jesus’ tribe—are so upset with the good news that they lead Jesus to the brow of a cliff in order to throw him off—an act that, thankfully, the Spirit prevents them from doing!

2.

What did he say to them? What did they find so provocative?

Well, first, Jesus mentions the Widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

Do you remember her? She and her son were both about to die of starvation. But God, through Elijah the prophet, brought them good news.

God could’ve sent Elijah to any widow. But God picked this one—in Sidon!

But that’s Gentile territory! She was not a part of God’s chosen people! She lived outside the tribal walls!

So next, in case his point wasn’t clear enough, Jesus mentions another character, Naaman the Syrian, who was suffering from leprosy.

This time God sent Elisha, another prophet.

And again, God could have picked any leper to demonstrate that the good news sets people free from all kinds of oppression. God could have picked a leper from among the Israelites, the chosen people of God, the tribe.

But God did not. Instead, through the prophet Elisha God again proclaimed the good news to someone outside of the tribe!

What did Jesus’ hometown tribe find to be so provocative? Jesus’ mission for him and for them was to go outward, to proclaim the good news to people who are not a part of the tribe!

God’s people have good news. It’s freedom for captives. It’s sight to the blind. It’s food for the hungry and healing for the leprous. It’s forgiveness of debts for those who owe; it’s jubilee, equality of all persons, Jew, Greek, white, black, and brown; rich, poor, and homeless; male, female, transgender, straight, and gay!

We have this good news! Keeping it to ourselves is hardly fair, hardly life-giving, hardly equal. Keeping it to ourselves, instead, is to hoard, to erect tribal walls, to keep us in and them out, to ignore the tribes we don’t have the time for. Keeping it to ourselves is anything but good news.

And two thousand years later it’s still much the same, really. As disciples, we are still called to dismantle tribal walls; we are still called to go outward; we are still called to find those specifically who are not a part of us, and to love them radically.

3.

Oh, now there’s a misunderstood word: love!

Don’t you find it curious that today we read that super-famous love passage, 1 Corinthians 13, which tells us so clearly what Christ’s love looks like; and yet we also read this passage about Jesus’ tribe trying to throw him off a cliff!

Love! Jesus tries to show his tribe what living into real love means—and their reaction is to try to kill him!

So, here’s what happens with us.

Once upon a time, we hear that Jesus means for us to go out into the world and proclaim the good news, to carry Christ’s love outward. And so we start a church.

Next, we think it’d be a good idea to have a building for our church, a visible, permanent manifestation of Christ within the greater community: to bring the good news in a stable, mutually beneficial way.

We then set our sights on turning this idea into a reality. And after a lot of hard word—a lot of time, talent, and treasure—lo and behold, we’ve done it: we’ve built our house of worship.

And, over time, we’ve developed our own unique touches. Our church has MoST. We have WoW. We have Dinners All Around. We include our pets. We are uniquely St. Thomas. Our tribe is pretty cool!

Christ is here, in our midst and in the midst of the greater community! We are proclaiming the good news! His love abounds!

What happens next, though, is the hard part. It happened to Jesus’ hometown synagogue; it happened to the church at Ephesus (cf. Revelation 2); and it happens to churches and other houses of worship today all over the world.

We lose our first love.

Instead of continuing with the work Christ left us to do—to proclaim the good news to those outside of our tribe—we look around—inside, at us—and decide, hey, we like this place.

And we decide to keep it just the way it is.

And . . . it’s gone. Our perspective has shifted. We no longer focus our communal efforts outward; instead, we’ve become preoccupied with us, our tribe.

4.

So, last week we considered Jesus’ mission statement; and today, tribalism. Put them together and we discover something about vocation, calling.

Here’s my understanding of what a pastor is called to do—what I am called to be here at St. Thomas. A lot of things really—but here’s the predominant calling—and I know some of you out there won’t agree with me; please just try to hear me out. A pastor’s calling is:

To equip the congregation to do Jesus’ mission.

The kingdom of God is not like a building project, where we plan, save, build, and pay it off—check that box, we’re done, on to the next project!

Rather, the kingdom of God is like breakers on the beach.

Go to the coast, take your shoes off, roll up your pant legs, and run out to the edge of the water. And what happens? One moment your feet are in the water, the next they’re on only sand. Over and over again!

After enough time, the tide goes in or out a little, and you adjust. Over greater amounts of time, the size of the breakers increase or decrease—some days are almost glass, others are stormy almost beyond comprehension.

The shoreline is always changing . . . but also always kind of the same.

Many things change over time. Temecula is a vastly different town than it was thirty years ago. St. Thomas is a very different church than it was thirty years ago. Building projects have been planned and completed. Lots of action items have been checked off.

But the mission continues . . . much the same as always.

The breakers that are the kingdom of God continue, wave after wave, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. So, too, the mission of carrying the good news outward is to continue, generation after generation, to break upon the shoreline of the world.

My ongoing desire is to equip us, as a congregation, to proclaim the good news beyond our tribal walls.

5.

So, that’s my sermon, really; but I want to offer an epilogue.

I don’t think what I’ve said today about vocation comes as a surprise to anybody. This is who I am and what I understand my calling to be; and what I understand our calling to be together, as a Christian community.

But—I’ve heard some pushback—some of you find my understanding of vocation unsettling. It doesn’t fit your perspective of what a pastor does, of who a pastor is.

Father Tim, I’ve heard, you’re too outwardly oriented. Obviously, you don’t care about us! What about visitations? Sunday school? Youth group? The choir? MoST? WoW? The preschool? Stephen Ministries? The Bishop’s Committee? Weddings? Baptisms? Funerals? (Etc.) Aren’t you called to be our pastor?

Short answer: Yes! Emphatically! Absolutely!

Longer answer: These are all important ministries, in which I am deeply invested. They are the individual units that contribute to the overall equipping of our congregation.

To use the Apostle Paul’s analogy from last week, each one is an important, individual part of the overall body. But the body, he writes,

does not consist of one member but of many. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . . As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

There are many ministries, yet one congregation. As your pastor, my predominant focus is on what the overall body, as a whole, is called to do and to be.

This doesn’t mean I am not concerned about the individual parts as well. I am! But it does mean I may not be able to devote the time you’d like me to devote to your specific ministry, to your particular sub-tribe.

To change the metaphor, there are numerous other trees in the forest!

Anyway, I know, thinking about our communal calling is a new perspective for some of you, maybe many of you; and taking on a new perspective is hard. A new perspective means change; and change is uncomfortable.

But, truth be told, while this perspective may be new for you, it is not new for the church. As a matter of fact, it’s as deep as our tradition goes.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus called his hometown tribe back to their mission. Ever since, the Holy Spirit has been calling the church back to this same mission, again and again, like waves breaking on the shore.

I am simply doing the same, calling us as a church to return together to our first love.

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Common Focus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2017 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 10:1-10

Today’s Gospel offers us an image of sheep, shepherds, a gatekeeper, and a gate. It evokes the care and concern Jesus expresses for each of us.

He is our good shepherd, we like to say.

And so Psalm 23 comes to mind, where, yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Jesus’ rod and staff comfort me.

Or I recall that popular poem Footprints, in which, as I look back on my life’s journey, I see a pair of footprints on the beach; only during the hardest times I realize now there was only one set of footprints, not a pair. Why did you leave me alone then, Jesus, I ask? Only to hear the answer that I wasn’t alone at all; that, instead, these one-set-of-footprints times were when Jesus was in fact carrying me.

Or I bring to my mind’s eye that kitschy piece of visual art in which a blond-haired, blue-eyed shepherd Jesus is tenderly carrying a lamb across his shoulders. He is my shepherd, I think, and I am his little lamb.

Aww. How precious!

And thus today’s Christian culture has developed a whole theology of self. It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus, we say. Jesus meets me where I am, we say. What else matters, we ask, as long as I love Jesus?

Common good? Community? Church? Bah! Who needs ’em?

I’m fine on my own, thank you very much. I’ve got my Bible and my cross and my Jesus; and I’ll be fine just packing them all in my car and driving out to the beach this Sunday where I can find a spot to do church all by myself.

That’s my sheepfold. That’s my shepherd. That’s my gate.

As for the corporate church, it’s just a fallible human institution established and maintained by people who just want to perpetuate their version of reality. Where’s the corporate church—where’s that manmade institution—in the Bible? That’s what I would like to know!

Why should only priests get to consecrate the Eucharist? Why are only bishops authorized to ordain? I’ll tell you. It’s because priests and bishops made all the rules!

No, as far as I can see, nothing else matters except that I love Jesus!

We love modern Christianity, because so much of modern Christianity is all about me!

We—you and I—are the sheep, yes.

Yet Jesus is the gate.

And the gate, not the sheep, is the focus of today’s lesson.

These are Jesus’ very words, by the way. Elsewhere he says, “I am the good shepherd.” But not here; not today. Today, Jesus is the gate.

Now, a sheepfold in the ancient world was an area closed off by a tall rock wall; completely enclosed except for one opening, the gate. The top surface of the wall would be lined with thorns and sharp sticks, to discourage climbing, a sort of razor wire of the ancient world. Other than climbing over or dismantling the wall, then, there was only one way in and out of the sheepfold: through the gate.

By way of the one gate, the sheep were led out to pasture every day, to rich, green, nutritive grass—when the sun was up; when the shepherd could easily see predators and thieves by the clear light day.

And by way of the one gate, the sheep were led back into the sheepfold every night, back into safety, back into a place of protection from predators and thieves.

At a certain time in the morning, and at a certain time in the evening, the gate would open and all the sheep would pass through. Twice a day.

Otherwise, the gate was shut and locked.

The sheep were given abundant life—food, water, protection, community—because of the one gate, the one way in and out of their sheepfold, twice a day, every day.

But sheep are shortsighted.

By day, they go out to pasture. There’s plenty of room for all. They each find a delicious-looking bit of hillside or a shady dale with a year-round water source, stake out their territory, and begin to munch.

And by the clear light of day, their life looks pretty good.

So they call their friends together for a kind of show-and-tell. “He-e-ey,” they say, “look what I’ve found. Look what I’ve done. I’ve got a good job, the neighborhood’s safe, my kids are going to good schools. My life’s pretty good, eh?”

And all their friends say, “Yea-a-ah!”

But by night, all the sheep are gathered together back into the sheepfold. Now things aren’t so comfortable. It’s cramped, noisy, and smelly. Now things aren’t as easy to see. It’s dark and dusty in the sheepfold.

And so now, that same clever-yet-shortsighted sheep who outside was boasting to his friends by day all about the good life he’d made for himself—now, by night, by darkness, his conversation changes. So does his tone.

“He-e-ey,” he calls to his friends, “what’s the deal with this sheepfold anyway? Safety concerns? Wolves? Rustlers? Bah! Ever hear of electric lights? Don’t they know anything around here? If you ask me, I don’t trust the management! Hey, you listening to me? Oy, get your chops out of my fa-a-ace!”

Do you ever wonder if maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things?

Ever wonder if we here in the sheepfold are focusing so much on our own patch of grassy hillside that we lose sight of our life together? Or, even more importantly, of the gate?

Ever wonder if we get so upset at the management of the sheepfold or the discomfort of living in close fellowship with one another that we end up shortchanging ourselves of abundant life?

Ever wonder what good church is at all? Nothing else matters except that I love Jesus. So why church at all?

The goal of today’s Gospel—the trajectory; where we’re going; the end of the rainbow (if you like)—is abundant life.

Jesus is the gate through which we sheep may enjoy abundant life. And sheep don’t pass through this gate solo. All enter together; all exit together.

Let me tell you: if you’re trying to live an abundant life on your own, you will fail.

There are many aphorisms about the Christian life out there floating around, aphorisms you like, for I hear you saying them to each other:

  • Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.
  • You must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • Nothing else matters but me and Jesus.
  • Jesus meets you where you are (or, with careless grammar, where you’re at).

But here’s the straight and skinny. Whatever truth is in these aphorisms, the Christian life is not all about you, as an individual. Rather, the Christian life is about focusing on Jesus, our one gate, together. It’s a common focus.

Abundant life doesn’t happen when we’re solo. Abundant life happens only in community.

So, don’t try to enter through the gate by yourself.

You might not be able to tell so well from the English, because the word sheep in English can be either singular or plural. But in Greek, everywhere we see it today it’s plural! Always and everywhere the sheep enter and exit through the gate together.

Do you know what happens when you try to enter or exit by yourself? The gate is shut and locked!

It’s not about just you and Jesus then. It’s about the community.

We live in a country that values freedom. And for that I am grateful!

But into the third millennium–and the third century of our country’s history–freedom has become less and less about the common good and more and more about the individual. We want our individual freedoms! We want our individual rights! We demand our right to bear arms! We don’t want others to tell us what we can do with our bodies!

And just like our personal, individual freedoms, we want our personal, individual religion!

Ever see Talladega Nights? Very funny movie about NASCAR!

Well, there’s a scene in which the protagonist, Ricky Bobby, says grace before an evening meal. He starts out, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus . . .” and goes through a litany of thanksgiving for food and family and friends and money and Powerade, always addressing God as “Dear Baby Jesus,” until finally his wife can’t stand it any longer and speaks up:

“You keep praying to baby Jesus! Why don’t you pray to the grown-up Jesus?”

To which he answers, “I’m saying grace, so I’ll pray to the Jesus I want to pray to. When it’s your turn to say grace, you can pray to grown-up Jesus!”

When it comes to religion, we want our personal, individual freedoms!

But the Bible’s testimony throughout just doesn’t work that way.

In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

God did not save one person, Moses, from Pharaoh’s hand of oppression; but a whole nation.

God sent his Son, Jesus, not to save you personally, individually from your sins; God so loved the world that he sent his Son to redeem it from sin and death and to restore it to perfection.

At baptism, we are baptized into one body. Godparents are there. The congregation participates. The entrance rite into the sheepfold is a corporate act!

And how did Jesus teach us to pray? “Our Father,” he says, not my Father—and most definitely not, “My Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” According to the Bible, prayer is normally a corporate act.

And what of the Eucharist? We call this sacrament Communion, which means common union. In this sacrament we come together as one.

We have not been called to focus on our own, individual patches of grassy hillside. We have not been called to focus on the petty disagreements we have with each other and “the management.”

But we have been called to a life together, corporately, with one focus: Christ and his mission to save the world.

The sheepfold’s focus is the gate; the church’s focus is Jesus Christ.

I know this sounds counter-cultural. That’s because it is. Many aspects of Christianity are.

But the Christian religion is and always has been about the one Body of Christ and never about me as an individual. TEC is and always has been about the common good above my own, personal comfort.

And thank God it’s so!

Because, do you know what happens when we forget this—when we make it all about my personal relationship with Jesus; when we ask questions like, what else matters as long as I love Jesus?

I’ll tell you what happens. Everything gets inverted.

Instead of being transformed into the image of Christ, we transform Christ into our own image.

Instead of asking, “How can I serve Christ?” we expect him to serve me.

But it’s not about me.

It’s about the gate—and paying attention to it; to when it opens and when it shuts, and passing through when I’m supposed to: along with everyone else. It’s about abundant life, being transformed—together with you and the world—into the perfect Body of Christ.