Archive for John the Baptist

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.

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Getting out of Our own Way

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

FatherTim

Been a few weeks since I’ve posted–my computer has been down. Fixed now. Planning to post two today. The first, below, was delivered on December 10, Advent 2. The next post is really Part 2, up in a few minutes.

Mark 1:1-8

1.

Let’s begin today by putting ourselves in the shoes of a Jewish person living in year 69 of the Common Era.

Two schools of political thought constantly vie for your attention.

The first says to live into the Pax Romana, for that is your present reality. God is ultimately in charge even of tyrants, and thus God will not let you endure any more than you are able. Though no one can really point to a scripture that says it, everyone knows that God wants you to bloom where you’re planted. And you’ve been planted in a time and place where and when Rome is in charge.

The second school of thought summons you to protest Rome, resorting to violence and even guerilla military tactics if necessary. This school of thought has been the predominant call throughout Jewish history. So why should it be any different now? Judas Maccabeus almost succeeded a couple centuries ago. And today the secret sicarii are nevertheless widely known as assassins against Rome. Thus, like Esther, you reason that maybe God is calling you to such a time as this.

In addition to these schools of thought, the empire’s leadership is a mess. In the year since Nero’s suicide, four—count ’em!—new emperors have come to the throne: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and now Vespasian. It’s civil war, for crying out loud; something Rome has not experienced for a century, since Mark Antony’s death. And it’s a mess!

Ah, Vespasian. Nero commissioned him to lead an army against Jerusalem and flatten the Jewish rebels. His particular focus was the Temple, the very place on earth where God dwells.

Recently, however, after more than two years of besieging Jerusalem, Vespasian was called back to Rome as Imperator himself. And now, Titus, Vespasian’s right-hand man, who according to rumor is even more ruthless than Vespasian, is in charge of the Roman army.

What will happen in the coming months, you wonder? Food supplies have got to be running low! And Jerusalem’s army, so says the word on the street, is running out of weapons and supplies. Things looks bleak, apocalyptic even.

Fortunately, you live quite a ways away from Jerusalem, north of the Sea of Galilee a bit, outside Damascus, in Syria.

Here you’ve heard a lot about a certain Jewish man who seemed to call for a third political school of thought. He opposed the authoritarian oversight of the Romans; but at the same time opposed the idea of rebellion through violence. He was a teacher and healer, whose message and mission was love. His name was Jesus, from Nazareth.

You wouldn’t think much of him, probably—much more of him, anyway, than of the numerous other teachers, healers, mystics, and cynics of the day—except that this Jesus, in particular, has since gained a substantial following. In fact, a certain prominent Jew, Saul of Tarsus, now going by Paul, experienced a drastic conversion; from persecuting and even killing followers of this Jesus to becoming the most influential leader and thinker among all of Jesus’ followers, eventually dying for his faith at Nero’s hand.

Today there are even a few assemblies of Jesus-believers nearby, convinced that he was and is the Christ!

So, you wonder, is there something to it? Is Jesus’ third way the mean between the polarized extremes? Is Jesus’ way the genuine way forward for the Jewish people—and maybe for all people?

And then, in this context, it happens. A new manuscript about this Jesus has been circulating throughout Syria; and it comes to your synagogue.

Dropping everything, you run to see it; and, pushing your way to the front of the gathered crowd, there it is; and you read these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Good news, you question? In our day and age? But how?

2.

Of course, we know this manuscript today as the Gospel of Mark. And we’ve read these words of proclamation again and again. It’s quite familiar to us . . . and it’s quite removed from its original context.

Still, I wonder, is its original, highly polarized political context all that far removed from ours today?

Our nation, the United States of America, is hardly united. Rather, it’s polarized. One can hardly enter into a political discussion today without emotion gaining the upper hand. Did any of you experience tension over politics during the family Thanksgiving get-together this year?

And even now, as I’ve brought the mere topic of politics into the pulpit, I sense a kind of collective feet-shuffling going on.

We are a politically polarized people today—just as in the day of Mark’s proclamation.

Along with this, and maybe in part because of it, fear is everywhere around us. God is omnipresent, we theologians like to say: always with us, in all circumstances and situations. But turn on the news. It’s not God that seems omnipresent to the culture, but fear. North Korea, gun violence, natural disasters—it feels like it’s only a matter of time before each and every one of us will be a victim. And thus, we are told, we should be frightened.

So it was in Mark’s day, especially for the Jewish people.

And what of religious similarities?

Our Jewish protagonist above had been exiled religiously, in a manner of speaking. The Temple was where God was believed to dwell on earth. Yet to live outside of Jerusalem meant to live outside of the regular, expected, normal parameters of worship. Synagogues were merely a temporary solution, a compromise to include those who were otherwise excluded.

Does not broader culture today feel largely excluded from the church?

And yet, broader culture still seeks a spirituality. Excluded people still yearn for God; they still confess, seek forgiveness, and pray.

3.

Curiously, the Gospel of Mark, after stating its intention to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and in the highly polarized political climate of its day—curiously, the Gospel of Mark does not launch into political solutions. Rather, it focuses our attention immediately on a herald named John: you know, that eccentric guy who baptized people, proclaiming repentance for forgiveness of sins, down at the River Jordan.

John’s was a message about the coming leader, a man who was far greater than any earthly, political leader, whose way was not violent but the way of love.

As a herald, then, John was preparing the way for someone greater than himself, the coming Messiah. In this respect, he was determined not to let his ego get in the way.

Have you ever thought about this? John had disciples. In fact, Jesus’ first two disciples were John’s disciples first. And John let them go without a fuss. In fact, John actively encouraged them to quit following him in order to follow this new teacher on the scene.

That just doesn’t happen in our world! I mean, could you imagine in like 1998 Bill Gates calling up Steve Jobs to say, “Hey, Steve, I’ve invested the last few years in a couple of interns who’ve proven to be my best ever; and, well, deep down I believe your product is really better than mine. So, I want to do them and us a favor and send them your way. You cool with that?”

Yet this is exactly what John does with Jesus. No ego, no pride to get in the way; just the statement, “I must decrease so that Christ may increase.”

And what was John’s message?

If I were to take a survey, I’m willing to wager that most (if not all) of you would say, “Repentance.”

And that’s what it is over in Matthew’s Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

But not in Mark. Or, not exactly anyway. Repentance plays a part, sure. But, in Mark, repentance is secondary to forgiveness.

Listen to the text again (emphasis added):

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The people of the surrounding regions came to John and confessed their sins. They were forgiven their sins, John assured them, for God is love. In fact, there was one coming after John who was much greater than he; whose message and mission were love.

John’s baptism, which followed the people’s confession, was simply a response to God’s mercy, grace, and love; an act to demonstrate the confession’s authenticity. It was to say, “I’ve confessed and God has forgiven me; and to show that God’s grace is not cheap I will do something about it, I will be baptized right here and now.”

In other words, the Gospel of Mark portrays John not as a prophet of judgment but as a herald of love.

4.

So then, let’s put all this together:

  • The polarized, political climate of Mark’s day shares parallels with the political climate of our own day.
  • Fear is everywhere around us, seemingly in the air we breathe.
  • People feel exiled from the church but nevertheless continue to seek God.
  • And it’s Advent, a time of preparation.

We, the church, are John the Baptist today, a voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way; a herald to proclaim love to a fearful world.

It’s time to read the Gospel of Mark with fresh eyes!

It’s time to follow John’s lead and proclaim Christ to the hurting, fearful world around us!

It’s time for us to broadcast a message of side-by-side confession and repentance—without judgment!

It’s time for us to respond in love to a confessing, repenting culture!

And it’s time for us to get out of our own way, for us to decrease so that Christ may increase!

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.

Beyond the Prison Cell

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

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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.