Archive for Irony

From our Armchairs

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2019 by timtrue

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Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on May 12, 2019, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

John 10:22-30

1.

Today, John the Evangelist offers us deep irony.

The historical context is Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration of lights.

A couple centuries before, a Hellenistic political leader named Antiochus IV took over the Jewish Temple and decimated it by sacrificing pigs on the altar. Then the Temple was returned to the Jews; so they rededicated it.

So, the story goes, the Sabbath was approaching and the Temple lamps had to be lit. But, because of Antiochus’ abomination, hardly any clean oil could be found, certainly less than enough to last one day; and the process to make new, kosher oil would take eight days!

In faith, the Temple priests went ahead and lit the lamps, praying and hoping for the best. And, lo and behold, the lamps burned through the Sabbath; and continued burning through the following Sabbath, through the eight days needed to make new oil.

God miraculously provided for the rededicated Temple, hence the term we hear today, “the Festival of the Dedication”; a. k. a. Hanukkah. The miracle of the lamps is the focal point of the celebration. The menorah—that Jewish candelabrum with eight holders—represents the eight days.

So, today Jesus is walking in the Temple during the time of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights; when his questioners fail to acknowledge that here before them stands the very Light of the world.

“Tell us plainly,” they demand; “are you the Messiah?”

Deep irony!

2.

Now, for the record, Jesus does answer their question plainly. But, interestingly, he does not use words to explain.

I mean, really, how can you explain the unexplainable? Words are limiting.

Ever seen a sunset? You quietly sit there atop a summit watching the sun sink towards the western horizon, the Pacific Ocean. It happens to be a partly cloudy day: billowy, cottony cumulus clouds float lazily across the sky.

The colors are spectacular. And the reflection on the water, the rays of sunlight!

You take out your camera, thinking, “I’ve just got to capture this moment to share with my friends on Facebook!” But one shutter snap later and a glance at your smart phone screen and you think, “Anemic! Pathetic!”

And you put your phone away deciding that the best use of your time is simply to sit back and take it all in. Be present.

Still, how will you describe this to your friends later? How can you? Mere words only go so far.

And that’s just a sunset! How do you explain God—so much more than a sunset!—to your friends? How can you explain the unexplainable?

3.

The Bible describes God as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, King, Creator, Redeemer, Savior, Messiah, Friend, Shepherd, Vinedresser, Vine, Wind, Fire, Mother Hen . . . and that’s just beginning to scratch the surface!

Each of these descriptors is a metaphor. God is not really, truly wind. But God is like wind; God is in the wind. So God is called wind.

But the Church was not content to leave it there. The Church wanted to make things clearer: plain and simple, black and white, easy to understand.

And so the Church got its armchairs out and sat around and studied the Bible, God’s word; and over time made its own set of rules and regulations, ex cathedra—rough translation, from the biggest armchair—to guard its interpretation of God.

God is three persons and one substance, the Church declared. And if you don’t believe/agree, you cannot be a part of the Church/Club.

So, present day, good churchgoers that we are, we sit around in our armchairs and study our Bibles too. We seek to understand God, the ineffable—or, at least, to understand the Church’s interpretation of God.

So we ask questions like, “What does God want for us?” “What does the Bible teach us about evangelism?” “What does God’s word say about managing our debts?” “How do I make a difference in my community?” and, “What should my faith look like in the workplace?”

Don’t get me wrong, these are great questions to consider. But the effect of our armchair studies is often stultifying: we lose our enthusiasm and initiative regarding what Christ has called us to do.

In other words, we’ll just stay put in our armchairs, thank you very much.

But, challenging all of us right here today, whatever your personal beliefs, Jesus does not use armchair words and plain-and-simple, black-and-white explanations.

And if Jesus is not making it plain and simple with his words, why do we try to make our beliefs about God plain and simple?

Like Jesus’ questioners in today’s Gospel, are we failing to see Jesus for who he truly is? Are we failing to bring his light to the world?

4.

The late Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello tells a modern-day parable called “The Explorer”:

The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forests; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids?

He said, “Go and find out for yourselves.” To guide them he drew a map of the river. They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their town hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?

De Mello then offers this moral:

It is said that Buddha obdurately refused to be drawn into talking about God.

He was probably familiar with the dangers of drawing maps for armchair explorers.

Do we think ourselves experts on God because we study our maps, our Bibles? Do we pride ourselves on reading this author or listening to that radio program or following some preacher or other?

I wonder if we are experiencing a similarly deep irony today. I wonder if we, the church, have become armchair explorers.

5.

Near the beginning of my sermon I said that Jesus does answer their question.

“Tell us plainly,” his adversaries demanded, “are you the Messiah?”

The answer, plainly, is a resounding yes. But the answer is not given in words, from an armchair. Rather, it is given in works.

The works I do are of the Father, Jesus says; I and the Father are one.

Jesus isn’t giving a Trinitarian formula here: he’s not saying, “God the Father and God the Son are two persons of one substance.” Rather, Jesus is saying, plainly, the works he does and the works of the Father are one and the same.

And that is answer enough!

Which leads me to ask of myself, am I doing God’s work? I’d like to think so; but am I doing it so obviously that it is plain to the world around me?

That’s just not gonna happen from my armchair.

And it leads me to ask this question not just of myself but also of the St. Thomas community: are we doing God’s work; so much so that it is plain to the world around us?

The word of God is doing what Christ calls us to do. This is the Good News: when our deeds are God’s deeds.

*****

Bible study has its place, sure. We seek to understand God because we strive to conform to Christ, the perfect image of God.

And, yes, probably the best place to study and discuss God is from our armchairs.

But when our goal is to be right, to better someone else through our knowledge of the Bible, well, that really benefits no one but ourselves; and what kind of benefit is ego-stroking anyway?

Moreover, it’s not our calling to sit around and figure out how we can better explain Christ to the world around us. And, anyway, the world around us really isn’t all that interested anymore in what we have to say.

Deep irony!

But when we go out into the neighborhood doing what Christ calls us to do—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the captives, overturning the tables of domination, bringing about equality to all—sharing the Good News regardless of how well or poorly we can explain it—well, that’s when we actually speak the Good News plainly.

It’s time for us to get out of our armchairs.