Archive for Irony

Time to Drop the Water Jar

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2020 by timtrue

To be delivered tomorrow, God willing, at St. John’s, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas.

John 4:5-42

1.

In last week’s sermon I laid a piece of groundwork.

For the next four weeks, I said, we will encounter characters seen nowhere else in the Bible. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, a man born blind from birth, and Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus—these four characters appear only in the Gospel of John.

And, I went on to say, we can learn much from our encounters with these surprisingly modern saints.

We see them all, I observed, through the perspective of a governing lens: light and darkness.

That was last week’s piece of groundwork.

So, today, before we encounter the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, I want to offer two more foundational pieces of groundwork.

The first has to do with the eyes through which we see.

What do I mean?

Traditionally—my experience anyway—we’ve learned to see these four characters through the eyes of Jesus.

For instance, since Jesus told Nicodemus that a person must be born again in order truly to experience God, modern American Christianity has largely taught that Christians are to share this message with the lost world.

We’re supposed to go out into the world and say what Jesus said to Nico: “Be born again! Pray the Sinner’s Prayer! Be saved from your sins!”

And, regarding the Samaritan woman at the well—she is something of an outcast, after all—modern American Christianity has largely taught that we Christians are to welcome and receive all kinds of people.

I might add, the implication here is that we are to receive especially those who aren’t like us, thank you very much! I tithe. I pray. I devote myself to God. Because I’m like Jesus—unlike that sinner over there! But I’ll welcome her because Jesus did.

However—first piece of groundwork for today—I’m rather convinced it’s the other way around. That is, we are not to see these characters through Jesus’ eyes; instead, we are to see Jesus through their eyes.

Last week you and I—we—were the confused teacher of Israel who sought Jesus out by night; and went away, incidentally, still confused.

And today, we are the marginalized woman at the well who, after encountering Jesus, drops her water jar and goes and tells everyone she knows to come and see.

Do you see?

We’re not to think of ourselves as encountering four unique characters through Jesus’ eyes, as if to ask, “What would Jesus do?”; but we are encountering Jesus through the eyes of these four surprisingly modern and relatable saints.

2.

Which bring us to the second piece of groundwork for today: the application from these four encounters—our take-home lessons—is corporate, not individual.

Now what do I mean?

Well, for starters, these characters are broadly relatable.

Can’t we all relate to Nicodemus? How many of us have ever struggled with spiritual questions; and after seeking Jesus out we’re still in the dark?

Or, what about the woman at the well? How many of us have ever felt ostracized, marginalized, or somehow otherwise on the fringes only to be strengthened and encouraged through an encounter with Jesus?

We relate to these characters! And it’s not just one or two of us; but we all relate to them!

It’s not just you or me, as individuals, encountering Jesus through the eyes of the broadly relatable Samaritan woman. It’s us! Together! A congregational encounter!

But also, there’s this: as we’ll see especially next week—spoiler alert!—John wrote his Gospel with a congregation in mind—not specific individuals.

John was a pastor. He wrote to his congregation. Throughout his Gospel—the themes of light and darkness; love and fear; time and eternity—John encourages his congregation as a whole to live faithfully as enlightened outcasts in their specific historical and social context.

We would do well to understand John’s Gospel in this way too: to apply lessons from these four encounters not to the individual lives we each live but to our corporate life, our life together.

We’ll come back to this idea. For now, let’s turn our attention to the Samaritan woman at the well; let’s encounter Jesus together in the full light of day through her eyes.

3.

So, she meets Jesus at about noon, the passage says.

Now, it has been suggested that noon is the time of day when women did not normally come to draw water from the community well, implying that this Samaritan woman has been ostracized by her own community.

But, for our purposes today, looking through the lens of light and darkness, what else does noon tell us?

The sun is directly overhead. Shadows are the smallest they will be for the next 24 hours. This is the brightest natural light possible.

Everything about this scenario—the well, the surrounding landscape, the woman, Jesus—everything is exposed with the clearest light imaginable.

What a contrast to the Nicodemus story, eh? Nicodemus approached Jesus in the middle of the night, under cover of darkness, in secret.

So, no secrets here, right? In the full light of day?

Um, well, actually, wrong—we now see, as Jesus breaks societal rules and engages this Samaritan woman in conversation.

“Go, call your husband,” Jesus says.

“But I do not have a husband,” the woman replies.

“Too true!” Jesus continues. “And what is even more true is that you have had five husbands; and the man you now live with is not your husband.”

“All right, then,” she returns; “I see that you’re a prophet.”

You know what’s going on here? This is not an exchange designed to point out this woman’s scandalous life of sin, why her community has ostracized her, that we should be benevolent and inclusive like Jesus to the ostracized in our midst, and so on.

Rather, this conversation illustrates the governing metaphor of light and darkness.

Even in the clearest light possible—the shadow-dispersing light of the noonday sun—we don’t see all there is to see. This woman has secrets, just as Nicodemus has secrets, just as we all have secrets. And the light of Jesus—the true light, which has come into the world and enlightens all people (cf. 1:9)—is far more illuminating than the brightest literal light imaginable.

There’s deep irony here—as there is throughout the Gospel of John.

Irony: seeing something more deeply than what appears on the surface.

For John, Jesus is the ironical Christ.

His light is the real deal. His light is authentic, genuine, and truthful; more authentic, genuine, and truthful than the brightest natural light possible.

She knows this; and she drops her water jar in order to act upon what she knows.

4.

So, now—you knew it was coming—it’s time to ask ourselves what we, as a congregation, learn from encountering Jesus through this woman’s eyes.

One take-home lesson stands out to me above all others: corporately, we are called to enlighten the world around us with Christ’s ironical, supernatural light.

Now, this can be a difficult lesson for us Episcopalians. For, Episcopalians rank as the wealthiest and most educated Christian denomination; meaning at least a couple of things:

  1. We Episcopalians are much more inclined to sit around in committees and write checks than we are to engage in hands-on work.
  2. And, we like our religion.

We Episcopalians have a great tradition, don’t we? Many, many people of the Anglican persuasion have thought long and hard about what we do.

Our liturgy—oh, the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty!

Ever been to an English Cathedral? How about the National Cathedral? Or, heck, even our own diocesan cathedral in Phoenix?

The processions evoke a regality worthy only of the king of kings and lord of lords! The architecture directs our otherwise earthly-focused gaze upward, heavenward, recalling in stained-glass beauty the lives and times of the saints of old! And the several centuries of celestial, cherub-like choral music? Oh, don’t even get me started! I have a degree in music—I love it all!

Yes, we Episcopalians, like Nicodemus, are the teachers of the New Israel. We are educated. We know things other Christians do not. We are sure and certain of the reasons for our hope in Christ.

Nevertheless, despite our liturgy, architecture, and music—despite our traditions—despite what we do or do not know—not to mention our wealth—like the Samaritan woman at the well, our corporate calling is to act, to get out into our community, to get to know our neighbors and their needs, and show them Christ.

We do good works; works that shine the light of Christ, a more illuminating light than the brightest natural light imaginable; works that are genuine, authentic, and truthful; works for the common good.

You see, when we come together in worship, that’s a wonderful thing.

We gather together, we pray together, we sing together, we listen to God’s word together, and we commune together.

But who does this benefit? Isn’t it only us Episcopalians?

We sit under our roof, the roof of our building, designed with our architecture, hearing our music, listening to our message.

This is all beautiful, and all very good.

But it’s not enough.

At the end of every liturgy, we are reminded that our calling is to go out into the world, into our community, to love and serve Christ, thanks be to God.

Jesus did not meet with the Samaritan woman in a beautifully constructed building with an angelic choir singing and a baptismal font gurgling and the smells of fresh bread and wine wafting and candles burning in the background. Same with Nicodemus. If fact, Jesus never once commanded or even suggested that we put our energies into buildings and choirs and processions and all the rest.

Unless we act—the mission Jesus left for us to do—heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, educate the uneducated, visit the imprisoned, free the captives—it’s all right here, right along the border—unless we act, our beautiful liturgies, buildings, and choirs are no more to our communities than a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

She dropped her water jar—a good and necessary part of her life. She’ll come back and get it later, I’m sure. For now, she simply must show her neighbors the Christ.

We need to drop our water jars too—we can come back to them later—and show the world the Christ who is here right now, in the full light of day, to meet all of our needs.

Addendum

So, what does this call to action mean for us during this time of pandemic? Here is something from my blog, posted on Friday; I will be happy to discuss this with you during the coffee hour:

This post deals much more with questions than any attempts at answers.

I’m wondering, as a teacher, preacher, pastor, school chaplain, and priest, what to make of my work and the omnipresent fear over the Coronavirus.

I get the medical rationale. We are seeing a pandemic. Looks like the president is about to declare a state of national emergency. Major league sports have shut down. The County of San Diego just banned all gatherings over 250 people. Public gatherings smaller than that have been given a mandate that individuals are to stay at least six feet apart. I’ve heard the mayor of Tucson issued a statement, but I haven’t read it yet. Point is, this is a big deal.

And yet . . .

Last week’s Gospel considered Nicodemus. He eventually came to the conviction that he should throw caution to the wind regarding his own life and reputation for the sake of a larger mission.

And this week we look at the Samaritan woman at the well, who similarly threw caution to the wind after encountering Jesus.

I have a larger mission than myself, my own personal well-being. That mission is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to free captives, and so on.

So, what? Am I just supposed to put this mission on hold and hole up somewhere until this pandemic blows over?

I mean, I could. I know wilderness survival. I don’t even need toilet paper. Or hand sanitizer!

But why would I want to do that?

The world has enough brokenness even without this pandemic. So, now, why should we pull back at all? Instead, shouldn’t we throw more caution to the wind than ever?

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.