Archive for John the Baptist

Authority’s Paradox

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2017 by timtrue

Matthew 21:23-32

1.

Why did Jesus pick John?

In response to their question, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it is from the people or from God.

But why did Jesus pick John?

Why didn’t he pick, say, the emperor?

This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God? The emperors themselves maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, they called it.

Yet others, probably most of the common people of the empire, and certainly the temple leaders, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.

The Jews worshiped the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whereas the emperor was a pagan; he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of false gods in fact. Jewish tradition would have said absolutely and unapologetically no, the emperor’s authority is not divine.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor. He was addressing Jewish leaders, after all.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people. He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance. And besides, didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?

Most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird. Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus? Yeah! Remember him? He was a true Jewish hero. He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses had with Pharaoh. He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people. He was certainly viewed as having authority.

So why didn’t Jesus use him? Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from the people?”

But, then again, Judas Maccabeus’s rebellion had come to nothing. He was killed by the Romans, his army was dispersed, and eventually the whole thing blew over. In the end, I suppose, his authority had not been from God; his mission and movement came to nothing.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of Judas Maccabeus.

But, still, couldn’t Jesus have used many other, better known examples to make his point? Why did he use John—obscure, eccentric, weird John?

2.

We’ll come back to this question. But first, let’s look at the real issue: authority. This is the question the temple leaders raise. How can Jesus do the things he is doing? Who does he think he is? What right does he have?

I can’t help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent.

They understand their tradition; they’re leaders in their religion; they know how spiritually to direct a congregation of people. For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out. They’ve got their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons, and their policy manuals. Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.

They place a lot of value in having a codified methodology (to which I—and perhaps every Episcopalian on the planet—can relate).

And so, justifiably, they ask, “By what authority are you doing these things? And by whose authority are you doing them?”

Of course, it helps to know what “things” they’re referring to. This is a very important detail—one we skip over entirely, unfortunately, in Lectionary Year A.

The most recent thing Jesus did, just yesterday as Matthew tells it, was to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple courts.

So, imagine if someone were to come into our building, fresh off the street—we don’t know him; he may have been here a time or two before, I suppose, but a lot of people pass through these doors so it’s hard to tell—and he randomly starts tipping over chairs and other pieces of furniture, maybe even the baptismal font, maybe even the altar! I’m sure we’d have a thing or two to say to this character. Who does he think he is, after all? What right does he have? And, beyond these questions, why even do it in the first place?

No doubt this is something like what the temple leaders in today’s Gospel feel. After all, it is their established policy to allow moneychangers to sell sacrificial animals in the temple courts. They’ve come to this policy after many a long and difficult vestry meeting. So who is this rebel to upset the status quo?

But, actually, come to think of it, they have seen this character a time or two before, or maybe even several. He’s that guy who blasphemed, telling the paralytic that his sins are forgiven. He’s that guy who eats meals with tax collectors and sinners. He’s that guy who casts out demons by the power of the chief demon. He’s that guy who healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath! He’s that guy who supposedly fed five thousand people with only some loaves of bread and a few small fish.

So, rather than simply call the temple police and confront him, the temple leaders formulate a question about authority: By whose authority are you doing these things, Jesus?

3.

But here’s where I hope we’re different than the temple leaders: they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.

Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something. Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

They reason that there are only two possible answers. If Jesus answers, “By human authority,” then he will be acting in rebellion against the authority of divinely inspired tradition. But if he answers, “By divine authority,” he will be blaspheming. Either way, he will be guilty.

They have him cornered—or so they think.

But Jesus turns the tables on them again—mental tables this time.

He doesn’t provide an answer. Instead, he asks them a question: Tell me, John’s authority, was it human or from heaven? And he assures them that if they answer his question, he will answer theirs.

Well, the temple leaders mull it over.

They cannot answer that John’s authority is from heaven, for they do not believe John. How could they? For they had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get where they are today—a discernment process, postulancy, seminary, etc.; but John hadn’t done any of that!

But, on the other hand, they cannot answer that John’s authority is human, for the people believe him to be a prophet; and they don’t want to provoke a violent mob.

Thus, they refuse to answer Jesus. Or, maybe, because their minds are already made up, they cannot answer Jesus.

Whatever the case, Jesus responds: Fine! Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

4.

Nevertheless, an answer has risen to the surface. And it’s an answer that, among other things, explains why Jesus referred to John in the first place.

A father has two sons. He asks them both to do some chores. One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.” But in reality the son who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.

The first son, Jesus says, is like the tax collectors and prostitutes; the second is like the temple leaders.

And isn’t this an amazing thing!

On the one hand we have tax collectors and prostitutes—sinners.

On the other hand we have temple leaders—the keepers of the religious tradition.

Then there’s John, who came in the way of righteousness—with a divine authority.

Now, put these together: the so-called sinners recognized John’s divine authority; yet the keepers of the religious tradition did not!

And this is why Jesus uses John as his example.

John came with a divine authority. His authority is recognized by the common people, even the lowest rung on society’s ladder. We might call this the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet, ironically, those who proclaim themselves as possessing a God-given authority fail to see the divine nature of John’s authority.

And thus Jesus actually answers his opponents’ question. His authority, like John’s, is divine, whether or not the religious establishment recognizes it; the proof that the HS is at work is seen in the consensus of the people.

Jesus is not like an emperor, a tyrant whom we all obey or else! Neither is Jesus like a Judas Maccabeus, a revolutionary who rose to power from and for the people but whose mission and movement fizzled out.

Jesus is God Incarnate. And we know this from the consensus of the people—throughout all ages, from the earliest beginnings of the Jesus movement right on down through today.

The Holy Spirit works and moves not through the religious establishment but through faithful people.

5.

The Holy Spirit is like that. It goes where it chooses—hovering as a wind over the waters at creation, descending as a dove on Jesus’ baptism, overwhelming like tongues of fire at Pentecost. We cannot bottle it up. We cannot codify it, define it in bylaws, or capture it in any kind of methodology.

It’s not that the Holy Spirit won’t work through the religious establishment. It will if it wants to. But the Holy Spirit will not be contained by the religious establishment.

Look at the temple leaders. Their minds were already made up. Their methodology was fixed and rigid. If something or someone came along and didn’t fit within their rigid scheme, it was all too easy for them to conclude that God wasn’t present.

The Holy Spirit could have worked through them; but why?

To have bylaws and policy manuals in place is helpful, sure. And, yes, there’s authoritative weight behind a priest who has been to seminary. Yet the Holy Spirit is infinitely larger than these human-made structures.

John the Baptist shows us this. He heralded Christ’s coming and called the people to repentance not within the confines of the temple, abiding by the temple leaders’ methodologies and otherwise conforming to society’s expectations; but by going out into the wilderness. And there the Holy Spirit blessed his ministry beyond measure.

So, beyond all this, how are we supposed to discern the Holy Spirit?

Granted, this is a tricky arena to jump into. Some people will go to Cursillo, for instance, and declare that the Holy Spirit was most definitely moving through the place. Others will decide that, no, it felt like my emotions were being manipulated. Who is right?

Maybe neither! Maybe both! Maybe each is partly right and partly wrong! Who can say for sure?

But I think that’s the point. With the Holy Spirit, maybe we aren’t really supposed to come to the discussion with our minds already made up.

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Beyond the Prison Cell

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2016 by timtrue

300px-yuma3-13-04_161

Matthew 11:2-11

Spoiler alert!

Does anyone in this room believe in an actual, literal Santa Claus—you know, the jolly rotund guy in a red suit with fuzzy white fringe who somehow manages to deliver presents to several billion people all over the world in the mere space of twenty-four hours via a magical sleigh and some flying reindeer?  Anyone?

Well, if so, you might not want to be here for the next few minutes.  I mean, I don’t want to be the one who puts an end to this innocent dream of yours.  Far be it from me to point out that people have been lying to you—your brothers and sisters, your parents, maybe even the whole world.

Okay, maybe not the whole world; that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But it might feel that way.

I can remember the day clearly—almost exactly forty-two years ago today.  Mom was out playing tennis.  Dad was tinkering in the garage, probably working on one of the cars.  Point is, both parents were preoccupied.

Technically, I suppose, my brother Andy and I were being supervised.  He was seven; I was six.  But, hey, this was the seventies: technically speaking, supervision meant Dad was home, sure; but in reality his two young boys might escape his watchful eye for an hour or two—or several.

Andy realized this.  He was the firstborn and therefore already quite savvy to Mom and Dad’s ways.  I, however, was the second-born and still the baby of the family, quite content to let everyone else fuss over the details of day-to-day life so that I could focus on what really mattered: not on how things really were but on how things ought to be.

Anyway, Andy, realizing that we boys were out from under Mom and Dad’s watchful eye for a while, stood up and walked across the avocado green shag carpet of the family room and turned off the TV and said, “Tim, I want to show you a secret.”

Secret, did he say?  I’m in!

So I followed him upstairs to the entryway closet.  We entered.  He pulled the string that turned on the single 40-watt bulb that dangled at the end of a cord from the ceiling.  And he shut the door.

Then, inside this secret space, he said, “Follow me,” and he ascended the built-in ladder, pushed open the attic door, and disappeared overhead.

“We’re not supposed to go up there,” I reminded from below.

No response.

Well, what was I to do?  What would you do?

I ascended the ladder and entered the attic.

And to my great surprise there were several beautifully wrapped presents, apparently ready to be set out under the Christmas tree.

Andy had a pocketknife and a roll of scotch tape with him.  How they got there, I didn’t ask.  But by now I was thinking this all was premeditated.

His plan, I learned, was to unwrap the presents carefully enough to find out what our gifts were.  He was savvy, remember.  And his head was rooted in pragmatic reality.

But my head was rooted in the world of ideals.

As such, that morning my world caved in.  For I read a few labels.  One said, “To, Timmy; with love, Santa.”  Another said, “For, Andy; love, Mr. and Mrs. Claus.”  And the gig was up.

“Um, I’m leaving now,” I told my big brother.  And without waiting for his approval I left that attic, exited the entryway closet, and went to my bedroom, where I closed the door, fell despondently onto my bed, and cried forlornly into my pillow.

My brother had lied to me.  My parents also, I realized, had lied to me.  Good grief, the whole world had lied to me!

I remember this story from my childhood about this time every year. What triggered it this year was John the Baptist’s question in today’s Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now, John the Baptist was an idealist.  His head usually was not caught up with the way things are.  Rather, his concern was with the way things ought to be.

We know nothing about his early life, except that he leapt in the womb when he met his cousin Jesus, also in utero.  But we can pretty easily surmise that he spent a lot of his early life in study, trying to discern the signs of the times.  For, as an adult he assumed the role of a prophet.  He knew a lot of theology.  He connected his current, pragmatic world to God’s ideal world—the way the world ought to be, when the kingdom of God becomes reality.

All this was fine during his formative years, when he was able to study.  All this was fine as he began his prophetic ministry, as an adult.  All this was fine when the multitudes came to him to be baptized in the Jordan.  All this was fine when Jesus came to him too; and he publicly proclaimed that here is the very Messiah himself.  All this was fine when his message of the way things ought to be was well received.

But then reality interfered and interrupted.  Herod arrested John and threw him in jail.

Wait a minute!  This isn’t how things are supposed to go.  If Jesus truly is the Messiah, then he should be righting wrongs.  He should be increasing while the powers of this world are decreasing.  Yet Herod has thrown John in jail.  The powers of this world are yet triumphing.  Reality is not allowing Jesus to gain a foothold.  All is not fine now!

And John wonders: Maybe my brothers and sisters have lied to me; maybe my parents and teachers have lied to me; maybe the whole world has lied to me.  Maybe Jesus is not really who I think he is—who I’ve been told he is.

So: John the Baptist, the top kid in the class, the one person about whom the scriptures say no one born of a woman is greater, this John the Baptist asks a question that pesters all of us.

Maybe it only comes around only once or twice in your lifetime.  Maybe it comes around annually with Santa Claus.  Or maybe it pesters continuously.  But here it is: Jesus, are you really the Messiah?  Or are you nothing more than a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

Has my family been lying to me?  Have my teachers been lying to me?  Has the church been lying to me?  Has the whole world been lying to me?

And I’m glad John asks it.  Because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kid to raise my hand and ask a stupid question.

I don’t want everyone else to know that my faith is a struggle; that my faith is weak; that maybe at times my doubt is in fact stronger than my belief, maybe even for long stretches of time; that I often wonder if I even believe at all anymore.

I don’t want to be the one to admit I’ve lost my faith, especially when I’m sitting here in church!

But what about when I’m sitting in my own prison cell, and it sure seems like Jesus isn’t doing anything about it?

We all have them, you know: our own prison cells.

You might feel imprisoned by large events in the world: terrorist acts; supernatural disasters; large-scale events that produce chaos.  You sit there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless to do anything about them.

Or your prison cell might be a past relationship gone bad, and now it’s impossible to seek any kind of reconciliation.  You’re there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless, a cell made for you by another person.

Or your cell might be past mistakes you’ve made as an individual; and now you must face the consequences of your past choices, consequences you’re powerless to change.  Your cell has been made by your own hands.

Whatever your prison cell of brokenness, you are left with no other alternative but to cry out to a savior.

But what if your savior doesn’t deliver?  What if Jesus does not do the things you always thought he would?  What if Jesus does not do the things everyone always told you he would?  What then?

Has your family lied to you?  Has the church?  Has the whole world been lying to you?

I’m glad John the Baptist asks this question from his prison cell today.  Aren’t you?  For he’s the top kid in the class.  And if the top kid in the class struggles with this question, somehow that makes it okay for me and for you—for us—to struggle with this question too.

Jesus, are you the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of this sin-infected world?

Or are you merely a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

So, guess what: Jesus does not answer John’s question directly; which compels me to think, by extension, that neither will Jesus answer our doubts directly. We’re talking about faith, after all; not proof.

Nevertheless, Jesus does give John a kind of answer.  And it is this: look outside your prison cell.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And I imagine John’s response: “Fine and well, Jesus—for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the half-dead, and the poor.  But what about me?”

I know it doesn’t feel like Jesus is saving the world as you sit there in your prison cell with John the Baptist.  But Jesus says to look outside your own prison cell.  And, when you do, if you are able, what do you see?

Despite all the bad news, great strides are being made in the world towards liberation—from oppressive governments, from poverty, from illiteracy, from terrorism, from disease.

And it’s not just global society I’m talking about: great strides are being made right here in Yuma County.  And it’s not just the corporate: we hear an awful lot these days about individual mental health and personal wellness.

All around us, people are being liberated.  Take a look beyond yourself and see and hear it.  Any time we see or hear about liberation for a person, a family, a community, or the globe, this is Jesus at work.  And this gives up hope.

But what about those people who just can’t do it?  What about those who just cannot seem to see beyond their own prison cells, no matter how hard they try?

If this is you, please, I ask, let someone know, someone you trust, someone who might be able to help you in your prison cell.

But know this.  Even there, imprisoned and unable to see beyond the very walls of your cell, Jesus is with you.  You have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.  Whatever dignity you can find within yourself, whatever self-respect, there is comfort: Jesus in you.

Comfort, comfort, ye my people, says the Lord.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

. . .

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Preparing for Christmas Company

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on December 7, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

Luke 3:1-6

Last week I pointed out an odd contrast we face during Advent. We walk down the aisles of local stores, maybe sipping on hot chocolates, shopping for gifts, listening to happy music, enjoying a sort of idealistic cheer as we remember Christ’s first coming, the Christmas season that’s everywhere around us.

Yet the Gospel was apocalyptic.  We heard about portents in the skies announcing Christ’s second coming and unknown distresses and fears for people: the end of the world as we know it.  Throughout Christian history, people have interpreted these portents in excessively gloomy ways.

On the one hand, then, we experienced idealistic cheer; yet on the other, excessive gloom.

The key to maintaining balance between these two attitudes, I said, is hope.  As we simultaneously look back in time at Christ’s birth and forward in time to his second coming, we maintain an attitude of hope.  The advents of Jesus give us reason to hope even though our world is falling apart.

This week we find a similarly odd contrast. Except now it’s not so much about attitude as it is about action; not so much about what we’re thinking as what we’re doing.  This week’s contrast deals with preparation.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. / Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

It’s that time of year again.  In just nineteen days you’ll be exchanging gifts, and, my, oh my, the house is a wreck.  Extended family is coming and why is that pile of clutter on the counter suddenly so big?

And so you clean; you decorate; you string lights up—on the tree and on the house.  You bake; you host; you attend Christmas parties.  And, if you’re like some people I know, you fix things—that broken doorknob; that burned out lightbulb; that loose handle on the chest of drawers; that leaky faucet in the guest bathroom.

The advent of guests has caused you to look at your home a little differently.  With a higher degree of scrutiny than normal, a kind of self-examination, you prepare for your guests’ arrival.

Then you come to church and hear today’s Gospel about a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t even begin to picture John the Baptist running around frenetically, trying to get his home ready for visitors.  I mean, the wilderness!  Locusts and wild honey!  Garment of camel’s hair (that likely hasn’t been laundered in months)!  Unkempt appearance!  He just doesn’t strike me as the type who’d be concerned about a leaky faucet.

Yet here is his message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

And you want to answer, “I am preparing already!”

But something about this contrast suggests that this yours not exactly the kind of preparation John has in mind.

Or is it?

John’s way of preparation can be summarized in one word: repentance.  It’s what he called the people of his day to do as they prepared a way for the Lord, as they made straight crooked paths.  It’s what the prophets of the OT called Israel to do as well.  And it’s what Jesus calls us, his disciples, to do.  It’s an important word and concept.

So, what does repentance have to do with our Christmas preparations?

A popular teaching likens repentance to a U-turn.  A person who has repented from sin, for instance, is said to have turned away from it completely, as if he was headed in one direction and then made a U-turn and now is heading in an entirely different direction.

We see this picture of repentance in the Bible, when Jesus has a conversation with a certain rich young leader.  “Teacher,” the young man says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answers, “Keep the commandments.”  The young man says, “All these I have kept since my youth”; to which Jesus replies, “Go and give all you have to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”  The young man, we read, goes away sad; he is unable to part with his things.

The lesson is, so I’ve heard anyway, this young man didn’t fully repent.  He didn’t make the U-turn Jesus required of him.

But this picture of a U-turn is a bit too simplistic, don’t you think?  We’ve got our modern lives.  We have work and family obligations.  Surely Jesus doesn’t want us to walk away from our responsibilities, does he?

Well, like I said already, it’s not that simple.

Some people may in fact need to make a U-turn.  The rich young leader needed to, we assume.  A clearer example, if crasser, comes from prostitution.  We all know Jesus spent time with prostitutes.  But undoubtedly he did not approve of their profession.  For them, following Jesus meant making a definite U-turn.

Perhaps you need to make such a U-turn too.  If you are involved in a profession that doesn’t bring glory to God—such as prostitution—repentance for you means making an abrupt U-turn.

But I don’t know of anyone here who fits this category.  Instead, for all of us—I’m pretty sure—it’s not so easy as this.  When we come to Advent each year, Jesus is not asking us to make a complete U-turn, to run in an entirely opposite direction from what our life is currently all about.

Rather, for all of us, it’s more of a re-orientation.

For all of us, it’s more like Zacchaeus.

Remember him?

Jesus hung out with prostitutes.  He also hung out with tax collectors.  Jesus expected prostitutes to leave their professions.  But he didn’t expect this of tax collectors.

Later that day—after Jesus spotted him up in the sycamore tree, commanded him to come down, and spent the afternoon at his house—what does Zacchaeus do?

I’ll tell you what he doesn’t do.  He doesn’t leave his job.  He doesn’t abandon his wife and kids.  He doesn’t give everything he has to the poor.  He doesn’t change very much of his outward life at all.

What he does do is have a change of heart.  No longer will he cheat anyone of their money.  And if anyone has any just cause against him, he vows to repay them four times what he owes.

Repentance is less a U-turn than it is a re-orientation.

So: here we are, in Advent, preparing our homes and lives for the first advent of Jesus, Christmas; but also preparing daily to meet our Lord at his return, his second advent. What does repentance look like for us?

Our preparations give the answer.

Right now, we’re looking around with an eye we don’t always use.  We’ve been going about our daily routines for months: waking up when the alarm clock goes off, cooking breakfast, getting the kids to school, going through our work days, coming back together at the end of the day, going through our evening routines—dishes, laundry, bills—our normal mode of life.

But now, what with Christmas around the corner and presents to buy and lights to hang and trees to decorate and Christmas cards to get out in the mail and family coming to visit and—  You get the picture.  Right now, we’re looking at things a little differently than we normally do.  That clutter on the counter that’s been accumulating for months so that we hardly even notice it anymore—now, all of a sudden, it’s a huge eyesore and (doggone it!) I need to do something about it before the company arrives.

We’ve re-oriented.  During this time of preparation, we’re looking at our homes with a higher level of self-scrutiny.  We’re seeing things we don’t normally see.  All of a sudden the pictures on the walls are tilted and there are cobwebs on the ceiling fans.  All of a sudden, some things are amiss.

And so, with this new perspective, we do something about them.

And why?  Why have we re-oriented?  Why do we scrutinize ourselves more carefully at this time of year?  Why do we clean and repair and decorate?  Why do we bother with all these preparations?

It’s for love.  We love our guests.  And we love Jesus.

It’s just the same with your self, your soul.

Jesus is coming.  He’s your spiritual company.  You love him.

Don’t you think the right time is right for a re-orientation?

Look at yourself a little differently during this Advent season, with a higher level of self-scrutiny.  Examine yourself, making crooked paths straight as you prepare a way for the Lord.  Re-orient yourself.

The Coming Weirdness

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2014 by timtrue

Nicolas_Poussin

Mark 1:1-8

The Gospel of Mark begins differently, weirdly even.

Here we sit in Advent, waiting for the coming Christ.

The last couple of weeks we’ve been considering the end of the ages, when Christ shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

But now we’ve begun to change direction.  No longer are we preoccupied with the end of all things.  Instead, we are anticipating a new beginning: a particular advent: the birth of a baby boy named Jesus.  Now we are looking ahead to Christmas.

And so our lectionary turns to the beginnings of the Gospels—to something new, something fresh: birth; new life.

Matthew and Luke tell the stories of an angel coming to a peasant girl and telling her that she is highly favored, that she shall bear the child of God most high, and that he shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.

John’s account varies a bit.  He still focuses on Jesus as the incarnation of God.  But instead of beginning with a baby, John begins with the beginning.  “In the beginning,” he writes—harking back to the very first words of the Bible.  And so John tells of Jesus’s theological purpose, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

In this sense, then, John is explaining what takes place in Matthew and Luke.

But not Mark.  Mark is altogether different.

His first words state: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”

And we might think, “The beginning.  Ah, that sounds like the Gospel of John.”

But rather than continue to offer some kind of explanation for who Jesus is, Mark’s focus shifts abruptly to someone else: to some sort of retro figure called John the baptizer.

You all know John the baptizer, don’t you?  He’s the one Isaiah wrote about—long ago.  You know, Isaiah, that well-known albeit archaic prophet.  Anyway, Isaiah writes about a messenger in the wilderness who is not the Lord himself but will prepare a way for the Lord.

Well, that messenger—John the baptizer—he’s here, camped out by the river Jordan, preaching good news about the coming Messiah and baptizing the crowds of people coming to him for repentance.  And get this!  He eats locusts and wild honey; and he wears clothes right out of the ancient past.  If you ask me, I’d say he’s Elijah come down in his whirlwind.

Are you getting the point?  The beginning of Mark is different.  The beginning of Mark is weird.

But we’re not weird. No way!  We’re normal.  We fit the mold.

As individuals, we try to be like everyone else—or at least to be like the group we most closely identify with.

Okay, granted, some of us try to be different.  But ultimately we still fit in.  Have you ever noticed this?

The Goth movement began during my high school days.  The first kid to show up to school in all black, with black fingernail polish and heavy black make-up, well, I’ve got to hand it to her.  That took a lot of guts!  She made a statement.  She was identifying with a musical movement and wanted to tell the world about it in her own, individual way.  She was being different, in a sense.

The second student to do this was a guy—which took a lot of guts too, especially when he showed up with pierced ears and black fingernail polish.  But then it was like a new student began to express his or her individuality everyday—through the Goth look—until the Goths were one of the bigger groups on campus.  In the end, Goth wasn’t different at all; instead, it had become a sort of norm!

(Anyway if they really want to wear all black, they should just become priests!)

There’s always a group—those with whom we most closely identify—which fits within our definition of normalcy.  As much as we value individualism and independence in our culture, at our core we still desire community.  It’s part of our human nature.

But what do we do with those who don’t seem to fit in anywhere—people who are such individuals that they don’t fit into any group—people like John the baptizer?  Don’t we tend to exclude, collude, ostracize, or medicate them?

The River Normalcy is wide.  There’s a lot of room in it for us swimmers—as long as we swim in the right direction.  But anyone who tries to swim against the current, or all those people who are gasping on the riverbank because they can’t keep up with the swiftness, well, then we tell ourselves there’s no room for them in the river anyway.

For those who don’t go with the flow, what to do with them we do not know.

But we have our reasons—good reasons.  We’re normal, because we want the culture to take us seriously.  We’re normal, because we want people to respect us.  We’re normal, because we want people to come to us, to hear our message, and to partake in our waters of baptism.

It was the same with John the baptizer.  His culture took him seriously.  The people of his day respected him.  They came to him, they listened to his message, and they partook in his waters of baptism.

But he wasn’t normal.  He was weird.

I wonder, what would it look like if some John-type person walked into our midst this morning? What would happen if some wild-looking, smelly, bedraggled, undernourished man walked onto our church steps this morning—and started preaching repentance?  Would you be uncomfortable?  Would you say something to him?  Would you let your kids talk to him?

Joshua Bell is a world-class violinist.  He tours all over the world, performing with the greatest symphony orchestras.

One day in 2007, Bell, then 39 years old, decided to put on a pair of blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a ball cap, backwards; and he took his Stradivarius—a $4 million-violin—to a Metro station in Washington, D. C.  He laid his violin case open at his feet and began to play during the morning commute.  He wasn’t playing simple ditties either, those you might hear from an amateur; but six Bach partitas for solo violin: a genuine recital.

You know what happened?  During this forty-five minute recital, only a few people stopped to listen—mostly small children who were quickly whisked away by their guardians.  Most people avoided making eye contact with Bell altogether; the ones who did quickly looked away.  A few passersby threw change in Bell’s open case.

At last Bell finished.  As he put his violin away, no one clapped; no one stopped to talk.  Bell counted the money in his violin case: $32.17.  By the way, just two nights before, Bell had played to a sold out crowd in Boston whose seats had averaged more than $100 each.

I tell this story because it is suggestive.  Joshua Bell is an internationally renowned violinist.  And yet, with the exception of a few children, the people of D. C. were so preoccupied with their daily commutes that they pretended not to notice him.  A world-class musician was in their midst and they avoided eye contact; a violinist for whom patrons routinely pay hundreds of dollars, and the people of D. C. walked right on by!  He seemed weird, out of place.

Wouldn’t it be weird if an out-of-place, wild-looking, smelly, bedraggled, undernourished man walked into our midst this morning?  Wouldn’t it be only natural for us to pretend not to notice him—or worse, to avoid him?

Well, guess what: he has walked into our midst.  Today.  Right out of Mark’s Gospel.  And I hope his appearance does indeed strike you as a little weird.

But that’s the nature of this thing we call the Kingdom of God. God has come to earth as a human.  God has lived and died as one of us.  God has risen from the dead.  And God will come again in power and great glory.  Does any of this strike you as at least a little weird?

And here’s the thing about weird: you can’t ignore it.  Sure, you can pretend not to notice it.  Or you can consciously avoid making eye contact with it.  But it’s right here in our midst, preaching repentance, playing a violin recital, eating locusts and wild honey.  You can’t ignore it.

And the particular weirdness we encounter this morning, on this second Sunday of Advent, is pointing to an even greater weirdness: a weird coming Messiah ushering in a weird Kingdom.

What are we going to do with all this weirdness?  Are we going to pretend it’s not here?  Are we going to act like it’s all perfectly normal?  Are we going to avoid it?

Whatever we do, it is impossible to ignore it.

A Lesson from a Baptist

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on September 28, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 21:23-32

Why did Jesus pick John? In response to their question about his authority, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it came from the people or from God.  But why did Jesus pick John?

He could have picked the emperor as an example.  This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God?  Some, including the emperors themselves, maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, we call it.  Others, probably most of the common people of the empire, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.  But the point here is that Jesus could have said, “Answer me this, O Jewish leaders: the emperor’s authority, does it come from God or people?”  Yet he chose John the Baptist as his example, not the emperor.

Of course, there were differences of religion between John and the emperor.  John was a Jew; and thus he worshiped the Jewish God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Whereas the emperor was a pagan; and thus he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of gods in fact.  So this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people.  He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance or something—wasn’t it?  And didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?  In short, most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird.  Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus?  Yeah!  Maccabeus!  Here was a true Jewish hero.  He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses.  He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people alike.  He was certainly viewed as having authority.  So why didn’t Jesus use him as his example?  Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Answer me this, then I will answer you: tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from people?”

But he didn’t.  Jesus didn’t use Judas Maccabeus or an emperor or anyone else as his example.  Instead, he used John the Baptist.  He could have used many other, better known examples to make his point—that you shouldn’t be too quick to judge.  But he used John.  Obscure, eccentric, weird John.  Why?

Now, I cannot help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent. They’ve been Jews for a long time.  They’re leaders in their religion.  They know how to direct spiritually a congregation of people.  For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out.  They’ve got their policy manuals, their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons.  Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.  There’s a lot of value in this.  I can relate.

But they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.  Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something.  Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

“By what authority did you turn those tables over in the Temple yesterday?” they ask.  It’s a trap, because if Jesus says it was by the people’s authority then he is guilty of rebellion; and if he says it was by divine authority then he is guilty of blasphemy.  Either way, he’s guilty.  And either way, the Jewish leaders aren’t really looking for an answer.  They have him cornered.

But Jesus turns the tables on them—mental tables this time.  He doesn’t provide an answer.  Instead, he asks a question.  And it gets them thinking.  Despite the fact that their minds are already made up, he breaks through and does in fact get them thinking, pointing out their prejudices, their judgments presupposed since before the conversation began.  And now—I’d like to believe—there’s even some soul searching on their part.

Still, this turning of the mental tables doesn’t answer my earlier question.  If Jesus simply wanted to get us to question our own prejudices, our own already-made-up minds, our own presupposed judgments, he could have used many cultural examples, better than John the Baptist.  And well we should question our own prejudices!  But there must be something in particular Jesus wants us to associate with John the Baptist.  But what?

Without allowing the religious leaders to catch their breath—they’d been knocked off kilter by Jesus’s brilliant turning of the mental tables; so, while they were still off kilter, Jesus immediately tells a parable.

A father has two sons.  He tells them both to do some chores.  One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.”  Later we find out that the one who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.  And I think, “Sounds an awful lot like me and my brother when we were growing up!”

Of course we get that the first son’s actions are more genuine and the second’s are more hypocritical.  But the interesting thing for me here is that they both change their minds.  In other words, to use a biblical word we’ve all heard before, both sons repent.  For that’s what repent means: to change one’s mind.

We happen to associate repentance with changing one’s mind from pursuing something bad to pursuing something good, like going down the wrong road and making a u-turn and backtracking till we find the right road.  But the word equally means changing one’s mind from good to bad, or simply from pursuing one thing to pursuing another, whether good, bad, or indifferent.  To repent is to change direction; that’s all.

And now—aha!—we’ve stumbled upon the answer to “Why John?”  For that was John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Repent!  It was his message to everyone, regardless of whatever road a person might be heading down.  Repent!  Change!  For the kingdom of heaven is near!

This wasn’t the message of the emperors.  This wasn’t the message of Judas Maccabeus.  But this was the message of John.

And the amazing thing about all this is that it doesn’t matter which son you identify with—whether you are the one that is more genuine or the one that is more hypocritical; or whether you identify more closely with the religious leaders or with the sinners in this passage.  The point is to repent.  Everyone.  For we all sin.

And more specifically, we are to repent of our prejudices.

Someone like Jesus comes into your life, turning over the tables of the Temple in your mind.  You know what I’m talking about.  This is your table, one that you’ve set up in your imagination over which you are the chief authority.  This is a table you know more about than anyone else.

Maybe it’s a ministry at church into which you’ve invested a lot of time, effort, even money.  And over time you’ve come to feel ownership.  Or maybe it’s a relationship you’re in, a certain ownership you’ve come to feel over a friend or a relative.  But someone comes into your life and interferes and otherwise meddles with this table.  Like Jesus in the Temple, this new person is turning over the tables in your mind and you form some judgments, some prejudices against him or her.

Well, here’s the message today: repent from these prejudices.

But the worst prejudice of all is against Jesus.  Maybe you’ve been a Christian a long time.  Maybe you’ve tried hard to follow Jesus for years and years.  You study the Bible and pray regularly, you serve in various ministries, when you hear people engaging in gossip you avoid it—you’re trying to live a life that brings glory to Christ in all you do.

But then you get comfortable.  And, like those religious leaders in Jesus’s day who knew a thing or two about religious life, you become self-righteous.  This attitude has been growing in you so subtly, though, and for so long that you haven’t even noticed it.  Now you tend to view everyone by how spiritual they are.  And—your mind is already made up—the truth is if another person is not spiritual enough for you—if another person is too obscure, too eccentric, or too weird—well, that’s just too bad for them: they’re not worth your time.

It’s time for Jesus to turn these tables over—and all tables like them—that are standing in the Temples of our minds and hearts!  We all need to examine our hearts, examine our prejudices, and repent.

Taking Adventine Inventory

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on December 8, 2013 by timtrue

English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vin...

Matthew 3:1-12

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly.

You brood of vipers.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

’Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Frosty the snowman was a jolly, happy soul.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Jingle bells?

 

You see the conflict, don’t you?  We come to church on Sundays during this season of Advent and we hear tough passages, stern passages, hard passages of scripture.  Last week it was about the coming Day of the Lord.  “Then two will be in the field,” it says; “one will be taken and one will be left.”  Then there’s this week: “You brood of vipers”!  We hear these passages and, if you’re like me anyway, we think, “Huh.  I guess Advent’s kind of a solemn time, maybe even introspective.”

But after church we go shopping.  The weather outside is frightful, so we bundle up in the comfort of our warm homes, donning now our gayest winter apparel, and we brave the elements—in the comfort of our heated vehicles, maybe even equipped with heated seats.  And we go to the malls where, well, frankly, we end up feeling pretty good about ourselves.

While we shop in the bleak midwinter, whether we realize it or not, we are continuously reminded just how clever we are.  Baby, it’s cold outside; but no matter!  We heat our shops—“the fire is so delightful”—, we de-ice our sidewalks, we fill our dark spaces with artificial light.  And we marvel at the cleverness of the seasonal decorations and even at ourselves reflected in so many windows and double-glass doors as we sip our steaming peppermint lattes.  It’s kind of like a big party.  And there’s that ubiquitous music, telling us over and over that Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, so please put a penny in the old man’s hat.  And we think, “I guess this really is the most wonderful time of the year.”

Next Sunday, however, we’re back in church and we hear: “See, the Judge is standing at the doors!”

I don’t know about you, but I kind of prefer the malls.

Nevertheless, as today’s collect reminds us, God has sent prophets as messengers to preach repentance and to prepare the way for our salvation.

Are the prophets of the malls doing these things?  They remind me just how clever I am.  They sing to me of red-nosed reindeer and jingling bells and imaginary snowmen-priests in meadows.  I smile and feel good about myself and laugh and enjoy a festive atmosphere with hundreds of other clever, smiling people.  The messages of these prophets are delightful!

But they’re not preaching much repentance or preparing a way for my salvation—unless it’s salvation for the afternoon from visiting family.

On the other hand, the Church’s prophets—prophets like John the Baptist—are.  Today’s Gospel preaches repentance.  Today’s Gospel prepares the way for our salvation.

Keep in mind that the commercialization of the holiday season is a relatively recent invention in the larger scheme of history.  It’s very prominent today, as I’ve illustrated.  It was quite prominent when I was a boy too, as I remember from personal experience.  It was around too, I’m sure, during my parents’ childhoods, though maybe to a lesser extent.  It’s even there a little bit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.

Yet long before this the Church established Advent as a time of introspection, where we Christians ought to think long and hard about Christ’s return; or, to say it in the words of John the Baptist, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

That’s the main idea of today’s passage, by the way.  John the Baptist uses pictures from agriculture.  “The ax is lying at the root,” he says.  The bad trees, those that do not bear good fruit, these ought to be pruned away so that room will be made for good trees.

He says too, “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Chaff is the unwanted stuff, like the skin of an onion or on a clove of garlic.  You peel this stuff off and throw it away, or burn it, in order to get to the good stuff.

That’s like us.  We need to get rid of the unproductive, dried up, tangled, superfluous stuff of our lives and bear good fruit, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This idea of bearing fruit worthy of repentance aligns with today’s New Year custom of making resolutions.  We spend time reflecting over the past year—how we’ve lived our lives, the mistakes we’ve made, the successes we’ve experienced—and we resolve to do some things differently in the year ahead, to abandon some old not-so-good ways and to better ourselves.

What else is this custom but to do exactly what John the Baptist is saying?  Repent—meaning abandon or turn aside from your old ways—and bear fruit worthy of your new ways.

So then, this is all I’m asking of you today: take spiritual inventory.  Do it now, during Advent.  Don’t wait until that lethargic week after Christmas, when most people are too tired to ponder anything requiring much effort.  That sort of introspection just leads to anemic New Year’s resolutions.  Rather, as the Church has wisely allocated, take spiritual inventory throughout this four-week season of Advent.

And don’t just take personal inventory.  That’s where it begins, sure.  What do you need to let go of that gets in the way of your walk with Christ?  How can you serve Christ better in the year ahead?  What do you need to do to bear richer, fuller, plumper spiritual fruit?

These are all good and necessary questions.  So ask them!  But don’t stop with these.  Take spiritual inventory of your relationships.  Who is important to you?  Your husband? wife? son? daughter? parent? partner? coworker? sibling? friend?  And what about things?  I once heard a young person describe her i-Touch in terms of relationship.  Are you so dialed in to a screen that it hinders your maturity in Christ?

But go even one step further and take spiritual inventory of this church body.  Do you know our mission statement?  St. Luke’s is called to do one thing in three ways: according to our mission statement, we are called to illuminate San Antonio with the light of Christ; and the three ways we do this are through: transformative education; compassionate care; and inspiring worship (including music).

Think through this mission statement during Advent.  What are we doing well?  Where should we improve?  Then, please, share your thoughts.  Before the annual meeting!

So, take spiritual inventory this Advent.  Take it with respect to your individual self, take it with respect to your relationships, and take it with respect to this corporate body, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  This is the time of the year for it—the most wonderful time of the year, during which we forsake our sins and greet Christ’s coming with joy.