Archive for individuality

Identity Eclipsing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by timtrue

John_the_Baptist_by_Prokopiy_Chirin_(1620s,_GTG)

So, what does it look like in our day to be John the Baptist to the culture? Delivered on December 17, Advent 3.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

1.

Are there any Mark Twain fans in the house?

In 1889 Twain published the book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It tells the story of a certain Hank Morgan, who wakes up after a blow to the head to find himself transported from present-day New England, where he was an engineer, to sixth-century England.

Of course, Hank doesn’t know right away that he’s been transported through time and space. But after a knight calling himself Sir Kay finds and captures him, Hank puts two and two together.

Good thing too! For, because of his industrialized appearance and funny accent, he is out of place in Camelot. The people are frightened of him, even threatened by him, especially a certain man named Merlin, who fashions himself as some kind of wizard. In an effort led by Merlin, Hank is thrown into a dungeon to await his execution.

There, in his prison cell, educated as he has been, in the east-coast liberal arts system of his day; and as a well-established engineer with some 2,000 subordinates, Hank concludes that he is by far the smartest person in this world of chivalry. And thus, he reasons, he ought to figure out a way not only to get out of jail but also to rise to the top of the political system, becoming second in command only to King Arthur himself.

Really a political satire on the USA, Hank gets out of his scrape in a very comical way. He deduces the present date: June 21st, 528. And, by coincidence, from his New England, liberal arts education, he remembers that on this date in history there was a total solar eclipse.

So, sitting in jail awaiting his appointed execution, he sends a message to the king that he is a greater wizard than even the mighty and revered Merlin; and that if the plans for his execution continue, he will in fact blot out the sun.

Merlin, wanting to maintain his reputation as the only true wizard (who we find out later is really more a scam artist than anything else), calls Hank’s bluff, giving him 24 hours to make good on his by now highly publicized threat.

Of course, the eclipse comes. Everyone is frightened. The world is thrown into disarray. And Hank is released from jail.

He then, taking more advantage of his situation, bestows feigned mercy and forgiveness on the fearful people. Just before the sunlight begins to return he commands the sun to come back, which it does; and, yes, he is suddenly promoted to the second-most powerful political position in the land, just below King Arthur; and, most deliciously for him, above Merlin; and given a new title, “The Boss.”

* * * * *

Throughout the history of humanity, solar eclipses have thrown the world into disarray. People fear them—and other astronomical phenomena—as portents or omens of coming disaster.

And Twain, a modern man with eyes opened by science, pokes fun at this.

Somewhat surprisingly, in our more-modern world than Twain’s, we are still thrown into mild disarray at eclipses. Do you remember all the hullabaloo around August 21st of this year? Indeed, some evangelical leaders went so far as to pronounce divine judgment!

2.

Now, last week’s message led us to the conclusion that—like it or not; and whether we realize it or not—we are John the Baptist to our world today. Advent is a time of preparation. Two millennia ago, John prepared the world for Jesus. Likewise, we are called to prepare our world for Jesus.

Today’s Gospel tells us more about John the Baptist (JB); and thus, since we are JB to our world today, more about us.

“There was a man sent from God,” it declares, “whose name was John.”

So, for one thing, today’s Gospel tells us that John stood on the threshold between the cosmic and the concrete. We stand there too. We have been sent from God, who dwells outside of time and space, into our unique time and place. The church is at once both a divine and a human institution.

The Gospel continues, “He came as a witness.”

So, for another thing, like JB, we offer testimony. We are witnesses, like it or not. Evangelism is a dangerous word today. But—like it or not—evangelism is part and parcel of who we are.

It’s a funny thing about evangelism: it works in both active and passive ways. We can get out there and share the good news of Jesus Christ to the culture like Mormon missionaries; we can go out and share the love of Christ through service projects and social outreach; we can retreat into our sanctuaries of Bible study and prayer. Whatever the case—whether we pro-actively bear witness or not—the culture is watching. What is the message we convey?

Again, the Gospel continues, “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

So, a third observation from the text, like JB, we testify to the light; and yet we are not the light. We reflect the light of Christ—whether we want to or not—much as the moon reflects the sun. The light we shine is always secondary to and dependent on the light of Christ.

But this leads to a fourth observation—or a kind of anti-observation, for the text doesn’t say so directly, it only implies: Today’s Gospel brings to light (pun intended!) a way in which we are not like JB: he never eclipsed Jesus; but, as JB to our world today, we do end up eclipsing Jesus. All the time! Without even realizing it!

And eclipses, as Mark Twain reminds us, tend to throw the world into disarray.

3.

How do we eclipse Jesus? The ways are manifold and many, no doubt! But today’s passage focuses on one way in particular: identity.

When delegates of the religious establishment asked him, “Who are you?” John replied with who he was not: “I am not the Messiah,” he said.

Again, asked if he was Elijah or a prophet, he said, “No.”

Finally, when asked, “Well, who are you then? We need an answer for those who sent us”; he quoted the scriptures—“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”—thus saying nothing about his own identity but nevertheless identifying himself with Christ and God.

John’s identity was in Christ, not in himself.

Likewise, since we are JB to our world today; and since we bear witness (whether we realize it or not), our identity is in Christ.

Yet, unlike JB, our identity is also very much wrapped up in self.

Now, I know, everywhere I look, I’m told it is all about me. The clothes I choose to wear, the car I decide to buy and drive, how I choose to spend my free time, the foods I like (or don’t), the music I listen to (or won’t), the art that decorates my walls—good, bad, ugly, tacky, kitschy, it doesn’t matter!—it’s me. It all defines who I am, my unique, individual identity.

And that’s a good thing: to be an individual. Or, at least, that’s what my culture wants me to think.

But there’s a sort of irony here. For JB was more of an individual probably than any of us in this room. I mean, he walked around the region, unkempt, wearing a simple patchwork robe and eating whatever protein he could find.

I’m sure he had health issues related to his eccentricities—bad breath, probably malnourished, undoubtedly barefoot.

(You know what John’s unique identity was? I’ve got it! He was a super calloused fragile mystic plagued with halitosis!)

Anyway, here’s the irony. We value individuality as a culture; yet if you or I were to walk around Temecula like JB—as an eccentric, unique individual—we’d be stigmatized precisely because of our failure to conform to societal norms; or, in other words, precisely because of our unique individuality!

That’s because there’s a key difference between John’s individuality and ours: he was an individual by coincidence; whereas we are individuals by intention.

In all his camel-hair wearing and insect eating, John wasn’t focused on, preoccupied, or absorbed with himself.

Yet with us present-day Christians, it’s all self-focus, self-preoccupation, and self-absorption.

We want to convey an image of confidence and togetherness to everyone around us; and for us, our identity is all about this image: how we come across to our world in our own, unique, individual way—which is why none of us wants to walk around town looking and smelling like JB.

By the way, I’ve been discussing identity largely in terms of us as individual persons. Everything I’ve said applies to us as a corporate church body too. Our identity as a church body is partly in Christ; but it is also defined by our human preferences—our brand (STC/EDSD/TEC), our theology, our politics, our liturgy, our defining focuses of outreach, our shield. . . .

It’s something to think about.

John didn’t care a lick about his image; his identity was defined only in and through the image of Christ.

We, on the other hand, define our identity mostly in self—in the cars we drive or in the clothes we wear or in how much we pay for a haircut or in how we decorate our walls or in a political party or even in what church we attend—and only very little in Christ.

We should be reflecting Christ’s light. But in our attempts to establish and maintain our own unique identity—in our attempts to be seen—instead we end up blocking the light of Christ.

And that’s called an eclipse.

And eclipses, as Mark Twain reminds us, tend to throw the world into disarray.

We are JB today. We must decrease in order that Christ may increase.

Responding like Thomas

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 20:19-31

Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

To this day—2,000 years later—he’s the butt of our jokes.  He’s not known by the name Didymus, the Twin, or simply St. Thomas; but forever gets the moniker Doubting.

In fact, I was at a church yesterday for a meeting, called St. Thomas of Canterbury, as if the church’s namers didn’t want anyone to confuse the church’s name with another Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

And, really, was his doubting anything more than the doubting we saw from Peter last week, who ran to the tomb, peeked in, and doubted Mary Magdalene’s testimony?

Oh, Peter.  Now there’s a piece of work!  Rash, thick-headed, and impulsive, he denied Jesus three times.  Yet we don’t nickname him Denying Peter.  Rather, we remember him as the Rock upon whom the whole Church was built!

But with Thomas the pejorative adjective has stuck.  He is and forever will be known as doubting.

But why is this so bad?  Isn’t a little doubt, a little skepticism, actually a good thing?  Don’t we as human beings in fact value a certain level of skepticism?

In our science labs we posit a hypothesis and then test it over and over.  And if our tests prove us wrong, why, we don’t conclude that the test results must be off but instead that we must rethink the hypothesis.  A certain level of skepticism is important in the science lab.

It’s no different in our courtrooms.  If one person files suit against another, it’s not automatically assumed that the prosecutor is correct.  Rather, we try—we don’t always succeed, but we try—to operate in our courtrooms by the adage “innocent until proven guilty.”  Gullibility is not valued; skepticism is.

And isn’t it the same in our research?  I can tell you, having endured three years of rigorous academic study in relatively recent personal history, if I were to state a little-known fact as part of an argument in an essay, I’d most definitely need to back that fact up with some kind of outside authority.  And Wikipedia doesn’t count!  We value skepticism.

This contrast between gullibility and skepticism comes to the surface even in some of our cultural traditions, such as April Fool’s Day.

I got on Facebook on Friday morning.  And on my feed was a post from a friend, which asked, simply, “What, is Trump really dropping out of the race?”

Well, by the time I saw this feed, posted by a friend two time zones to the east, there was already a slough of accompanying comments.  The first six or seven of this slough were expressions of amazement, shock, joy, and every other kind of emotion imaginable; until someone—someone skeptical—replied with these words: “I hate this day.”  Thereafter every reply pointed out that, oh yeah, it is April 1st; good one, Chris; I’ll get you back, just you wait; and, I don’t know how I could have been so gullible!

We value skepticism in our culture.

So, why then does Thomas get such a bad rap?

In line with science, then—not to mention our culture’s value placed on skepticism—let me posit a hypothesis.  We can always test it.  If you prove me wrong, I’ll revise it.  But I’ve been wrestling with it for a while now; and, as far as I can tell, it seems right.  Anyway, here it is:

Doubting Thomas gets such a bad rap not for being skeptical but because he takes his skepticism too far.

What do I mean?

In today’s Gospel we learn that Thomas was not there with everybody else when Jesus first appeared to them.  So, after Jesus left, the other disciples see Thomas and tell them what has happened.  “We have seen the Lord,” the say; “Jesus is alive, risen from the grave!”

This is where Thomas’s skepticism kicks in.  And we might think for good reason!  You know how it can be with the guys.  They like to act out jokes on each other, tell fibs, play pranks.  That’s all they’re doing now.

Or is it?

It’s not just one or two of the disciples we’re talking about here, but ten—twelve minus Judas and Thomas—plus some other disciples—at least Cleopas, Mary, and some other women.  There’s a whole group here saying the same thing!  Not to mention the grief is too recent!  No, this is not a prank.

Yet Thomas’s skepticism prevails.  And he says, “Look, friends, I don’t know what you’re playing at.  But, whatever it is, unless I see the marks in his hands and feet and side—no, unless I touch these marks—I will not believe.”

Now, it’s okay to be skeptical, to an extent.  But isn’t Thomas taking this too far?

Thomas is not trusting himself here to his community.  He refuses to listen to those who are actually in a certain position of authority over him: they have seen the risen Lord, he hasn’t; they are telling their story.  Shouldn’t he listen to and trust them?  Yet he refuses to believe.

Moreover, the disciples here are not far removed from Thomas in their authority, like some theologian who has written a book in a far off place whom the seminarian will never actually meet.  No!  These are the very people Thomas has been living with and among for the past three years, maybe more.  These are people he knows and respects, his community.  Yet in his skepticism he refuses to trust their testimony.

Hasn’t he taken his skepticism too far?

We value skepticism in our culture.  And there’s good reason to do so.  But, like Thomas, we often take our skepticism too far.

When?

Whenever we compromise community.  Whenever we don’t trust tradition.  Whenever we idolize individuality.

Now, I’ve mentioned it before: mainstream Christianity has seen a steady decline over the last four decades.  Decline is happening in the Church: the evidence proves it.

But a more difficult question to answer is why: Why has the mainstream church been in decline?

Perhaps it’s just this reason.  Perhaps it’s because we take our valued skepticism too far; we place a higher value on the skepticism of the individual than we do on the collective wisdom of the community.

A book I’ve been reading a lot lately says it this way—it’s an assessment, not a judgment:

“So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion.  Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations.”

It used to be that people were shaped by societal factors largely outside of their own choosing, their own control.  But now, whether in where we go to college, where we work, or even where we choose to live, the author continues:

“we connect with people because we think they will meet our needs for intimacy or otherwise help us advance our own interests.  Of course, the reverse also becomes possible—when we feel like relationships are not meeting our needs, we switch out of them.  This applies to everything from friendships to jobs to marriage—and to church.”[i]

Individual choice—valuing the individual more than the community—is at the root of all this.  Yet Jesus Christ and his church are about the common good above the individual.

We value skepticism.  But when Thomas’s skepticism went too far and he compromised the common good of the early Christian community, he was branded forever with the moniker doubting.  Whenever we compromise the common good for whatever reason—whether it’s skepticism, distrust, prejudice, or plain old pride and arrogance—we go too far.

So what do we do about it?  I mean, if the predominant culture values skepticism and doubt to such an extent that we regularly and routinely compromise the common good and even idolize individuality, where can we go?  We are all products of our culture, whether we realize it or not.

Well, first, let me suggest where not to go.

Let’s not try to tackle this cultural problem as a church, standing on the corners and proclaiming to every passerby who might care enough to listen that you’re all a bunch of Narcissists.  That would make St. Paul’s look like we don’t really love this fallen world the way we say we do, the way Christ says we ought to.  So let’s not go there.

But, second, let me suggest where I think we ought to go: to ourselves.

We are products of our culture.  And that means all parts of our culture—the good parts and the bad.  It’s the air we breathe.  This means that we reflect the culture without even realizing it.  So, with respect to what we’ve been discussing today, yes, without even being aware of it we value skepticism too much.

If something comes up in our community we don’t like, more often than not it’s easier in our culture just to walk away from the community and find or create another one that suits our needs better.  Or, if there is some problem to be solved, isn’t it often the most critical, skeptical, independent minds that get noticed?  And don’t we want to get noticed?

So, the first step is to become aware of this cultural tendency—in the world around us, yes; but even more importantly in ourselves.

And, then, whenever we catch ourselves compromising the common good; whenever we catch ourselves not trusting tradition; whenever we catch ourselves idolizing the individuality of self—that’s when Jesus meets us.

Just like he met Thomas, one week after Easter Sunday; and he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

In that moment, all Thomas’s skepticism and doubt fell by the wayside—all his compromising attitude towards the early Christian community; all his distrust of tradition; all his idolatry of self.

And he responded, simply, “My Lord and my God!”

Whenever we catch ourselves valuing our skepticism too much—whenever Jesus meets us in our individual arrogance—may we respond as Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

[i] Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church (2014), 16.