Archive for Kingdom of God

Not a Table Manners Manifesto

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 14:1, 7-14

What’s the purpose of preaching?  Why do I stand before you, Sunday after Sunday, offering my reflections on and interpretation of the Word of God?  Is it simply to instruct?

So, here’s what happens when the purpose of preaching is simply to instruct.  The preacher generally gets to a point in the sermon where he or she says something like, “People, we’ve got problems.”

And our problems are whatever happens to have risen to the surface in the text.  We sin.  We despair.  We fear.  We don’t love our neighbor as we ought.  We don’t love God as we ought.  We hold grudges.  We aren’t as good in our discipleship as we should be.  We over-consume.  We ignore God’s mystery in our lives.  We condone injustice by allowing it to happen.  We whatever.  Are you with me?

And you sit there listening to the preacher go on and on about it all, and you think, “Yep, he’s nailed it.  That’s exactly what I do.”  And because we’ve read out of the Old Testament earlier in the service, you’re thinking, “And it’s exactly what people like me have been doing for thousands of years.”

And so the preacher goes on to explain how doing (or not doing) these ungodly actions harms you and all those around you and reinforces certain social conditions that end up harming all humanity.

And then, finally, the preacher provides answers, methods, or marching orders, telling you how then to live.  We preachers want to solve all the world’s problems and wrap up our solutions in nice, neat packages.

But here’s the problem.

You hear a preacher offer didactic instruction like this and you end up thinking, “Yep, she’s nailed it.  That’s what I do all right.  But, hey, I’m not Mother Theresa.  I’m just a guy like everyone else around me, kind of dysfunctional, just trying to live my life and have a little fun along the way.”

And your response to the preacher’s nice, neat package is something along the lines of, “Well, that sounds noble and all, but, c’mon, I can’t really do that”; or, “Hey, now, preacher, you’re taking it a little too far”; or, my favorite, “What in the world is he talking about?”

Now, have you noticed that Jesus very seldom offers instruction; that he rarely teaches didactically?  Instead, he tells parables, a kind of story laden with rich imagery; and he demonstrates life lessons through healings and miracles.

Rather than instruct, then, doesn’t Jesus instead disrupt?  He provokes his hearers to see things in new ways through imagery; and he evokes emotional responses.  He teaches not by instruction; but by disruption.

We preachers would do well to take note.

But then we come to today’s Gospel.  At our first hearing—and maybe at our second, third, fourth, and beyond—this reading sounds more like didactic instruction on table etiquette than it does a parable.  “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” Jesus says, “do not sit down at the place of honor.”

Jesus is at a banquet.  People are entering and selfishly grabbing seats of honor.  Jesus seizes the moment and teaches.  “But when you are invited,” he continues, “go and sit down at the lowest place.”

This sure sounds like didactic instruction to me!

Yet, Luke tells us, his readers, that Jesus is telling a parable here—an image-laden story designed to provoke and evoke, not to instruct.

So could something more be going on here?  Is Jesus addressing something other than only the selfish manners he sees in front of him?  Could it be that he is seizing the moment at hand not to teach didactically but, rather, provocatively?

This was a meal on the Sabbath, the text tells us.  Yet Jesus says, “When you are invited to a wedding banquet.”

Hmm.  Not a Sabbath meal; but a wedding banquet.  This is a disconnection.

Does this disconnection provoke us?  Do Jesus’ words, which seem a little detached, evoke some kind of imagery for us?  Do we maybe come across wedding banquets elsewhere in the scriptures?

And so we begin to piece it together.  Jesus almost always teaches by disruption, not instruction.  Striking imagery is taking place right in front of Jesus’ face: at this Sabbath meal, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors are selfishly grabbing for the places of honor.  Noticeably absent from this Sabbath meal are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Also absent from this meal, we should note, as was the custom of the day, are women.

No: this doesn’t look anything like a wedding feast.  And besides, what kind of wedding feast in wealthy Palestine would include the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?  Or, perhaps a better question to ask is, where would we find a wedding feast that includes the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?

Contrary to what some scholars argue, Jesus is not offering here a table manners manifesto.  Rather, like he does seemingly everywhere else in the Gospels, Jesus is seizing the imagery right in front of him not to instruct but to disrupt; not to explain but to provoke.

In this particular case he paints a picture of his kingdom, the realm of God.  Except he uses the imagery in front of him to paint a picture of exactly what God’s realm is not.

There’s a lot of silliness going on before his face just now.  Brothers, relatives, friends, rich neighbors, business associates, maybe some patrons and clients, are all clamoring to grab for themselves a seat of honor.  They’re all clamoring to get ahead, to put themselves first.

And why, exactly?  So they will be noticed?  So they can sit next to someone who will be noticed?

We do this too.  It’s not just that crowd sitting around Jesus at that Sabbath meal.  And it’s not something found just in that day, time, and culture—something that those Romans struggled with but, hey, we’ve evolved.  No: self-centeredness, pushiness, greed, desire to be on top, getting ahead at someone else’s expense—these ambitions are part of the human condition.

We do these things all the time.  Just look around us!

How many CEOs got to their positions by acts of selflessness, or by being humble?

How many politicians can you name that exemplify the personality traits expressed in the beatitudes: blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers?

How many lawsuits, I wonder, are won by the people who actually deserve to win—from an ethical standpoint?

Nice guys finish last, the saying goes—for good reason.  We might as well just say, pushy people get their way.

And we shrug our shoulders and get on with life, saying to ourselves comforting aphorisms: “It is what it is.  It’s just the way things are.”

But why, exactly?  What is it in me that tells me I’m more important than any other person on the face of the planet?

I don’t know.  But it all seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?

Using provocative imagery, then, Jesus disrupts this Sabbath meal to make his point.  His kingdom isn’t anything like this silliness going on in front of his face.  In fact, his kingdom is the opposite.

In his realm, people don’t push and shove to be first, to grab honors for themselves, to get ahead of everyone else in the world.  In his realm it’s the forgotten people, the social outcasts, who sit in the places of honor at wedding banquets.

God’s realm is upside-down from the earthly realm.  Which leads me to wonder: maybe it’s the earthly realm that’s upside-down; and God’s realm is the one that’s right-side up.

So, let’s return now to my opening question: what’s the purpose of preaching?

Many people maintain that the purpose of preaching—why I stand up here before you Sunday after Sunday—is simply to instruct, or at least mostly to instruct.  Well, instruction happens, no doubt about it.  But it’s not the main purpose.  I hope I’ve effectively debunked this idea.

Jesus seldom instructed his hearers in a didactic way.  Rather, he most often disrupted them: their world, their common way of thinking.  We see this in today’s passage—and nearly everywhere else in the Gospels.

But is this the main purpose of preaching?  To disrupt?  Do I stand before you week after week mainly to call into question whatever I’ve seen you do or heard you say in the past week?  I don’t think so.  For that would make me a very contrary preacher.  And in short order I wouldn’t have many friends, let alone parishioners.

No, there’s more to it.  Why does Jesus teach by disruption?

His world wasn’t all too different from ours.  All around us, social conventions and institutions (yes, including religious institutions) prevent us from seeing things the way they really are.  Our earthly realm prevents us from seeing the greater reality of God’s realm.

And we get set in our ways.  We do things over and over the same way.  We get used to it all and say, “It is what it is.  This is just the way things are.”

And so, when you come to church and hear a preacher offer instruction about what’s wrong with your world and how you should fix it, you agree.  But you are also hardwired to go right back to the way you’ve always done things.  The preacher’s instruction doesn’t “stick.”

But disruption is more effective.  Disruption involves provocative imagery.  Disruption provokes you out of your comfort zone, your routine, much more effectively than straightforward didactic instruction.

But then what?  Once Jesus has effectively provoked his hearers; once Jesus has clapped them freshly awake out of their half-asleep stupor and they are suddenly aware of the greater reality of God’s realm, what does he do then?

He doesn’t give them a method or some kind of list for self-improvement.  He doesn’t give marching orders.  He doesn’t give them easy answers to be wrapped up in a nice, neat package.

Instead, Jesus most often leaves his hearers right where he’s taken them: to ponder his parables without any explanation at all.

Do you see?  Through disruption Jesus provokes his hearers out of a lesser reality into a greater reality, where he then leaves them to experience this greater reality; to draw their own conclusions; to wrap up their own not-so-nice, not-so-neat packages.  This is the preacher’s purpose.  Liberation!

Dear Christians, the lesser reality of this world holds you no longer.  You have been set free.  Experience the greater reality that is God’s realm.

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Transforming Fear

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on August 7, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

Luke 12:32-40

Oh, that today’s Gospel could be read on stewardship Sunday!

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Thus, Jesus goes on (in conclusion, in other words) “Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Surely we’ve all got extra stuff.  After all, clutter is a part of our consumer culture.  Our economy is driven in large part by something in us telling us we need something new, something even more user-friendly, something shiny.

Never mind that I just bought something new, shiny, and user-friendly last month; and that it no longer appeals to me in the way it did.  Never mind that in hindsight it looks now like I wanted it more than I actually needed it—or that maybe I didn’t really need it at all.  Never mind any of that!  This new, shiny, and even more user-friendly thing speaks to me deeply.  I know I didn’t really need that last gizmo; but this one, well, there’s no question!

And so, as the impersonal marketing executives somewhere out there predicted, with help from their detached demographic tables and disconnected socioeconomic charts, we give in to the pleadings of our hearts and we go out and buy the latest and greatest thing, adding to our stockpile of stuff.

Yes, we’ve all got extra stuff.

And here, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says to sell it and give alms.

And I’m left wondering, Why didn’t the compilers of the lectionary save this passage for later in the year, when St. Paul’s traditionally has its annual stewardship campaign?

It’s difficult to part with our money, isn’t it?  Giving to the church requires faith: belief that our monetary gifts—our cold, hard cash—will somehow enable and equip God’s ultimate mission to take place.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

But—okay, I admit it—today’s Gospel is more about fear than giving; and fear, we all know, is much bigger than being afraid to part with our money.

Which brings us to the other passages we heard today.

I wonder, did Abram have anything to fear?

God came to Abram and told him to set out for a distant country.  God told Abram to pack up everything he owned, leave behind everything he’d ever known, and go to a place he knew nothing about at all.

I mean, how would you respond?  God comes to you in a dream.  And he says something like this to you: “Hey there, son/daughter of mine.  I’d like you to do me a favor.  I know that you love me.  So I just need you to trust me here.  What I want you to do is this: quit your job—you know, that one you’ve worked hard at for most of your adult life; pack up your entire household; sell whatever you don’t really need for the journey; kiss your aging parents goodbye, for you’ll never see them again; and leave behind everything you’ve ever known—people, places, reputation, everything!”

Well, if you’re like me, you’d probably ask, “So, um, God, where am I going?  What’s my destination?  Where will you lead me?”

And if you’re like me you’d probably not like God’s answer: “I’m not telling.  You’ll find out when you get there.”

“Oh,” God continues, “but I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky.”

Um, okay.  I guess.

Anyway, do you think Abram had anything to fear then?

Or do you think Abraham had anything to fear several years later (after a name change) when he still didn’t have his promised son?  Or that he still didn’t know where this so-called Promised Land was?

He wanted to believe God, sure.  He tried to believe God.  But he also took matters into his own hands.  His wife Sarah wasn’t really young enough to bear children anymore, remember; so he had a son with Sarah’s servant Hagar, a son named Ishmael.  And we all know how that worked out!

Was Abraham afraid that what God had promised would not come true?  Was his fear overwhelming his faith?

Then, I wonder if the disciples had anything to fear.

Here they were, following a man who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life; a man who said that no one comes to the Father except through him.

That meant, in part, the Romans.  Jesus was proclaiming a message of defiance to the political rulers.  His was a new kingdom, meaning his was right where the Roman kingdom was wrong; meaning his provided for the hungry, the poor, and the destitute in ways the Roman kingdom could not.  Moreover, Jesus was proclaiming himself to be the king of kings and lord of lords, meaning he was putting himself in a position of authority higher even than Caesar himself.  Jesus was shaking his fist in the face of Rome—of temperamental, mighty, volatile Rome.

Did the disciples have anything to fear?

It wasn’t just Rome, but also Jerusalem and their own Jewish identity: Jesus was proclaiming a message that opposed many of the Jewish leaders of his day—a message that distanced him and his followers from their own traditions and identity.  When Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through him, he was dissociating himself from those who did not agree with his message, whether Roman or Jew (or anyone else).

From the disciples’ point of view, this must have looked like one man taking on the world—Jesus against all social, economic, political, and religious institutions.

Did the disciples have anything to be afraid of?  Were they in danger of their fear overwhelming their faith?

So: What about you?  What do you fear?  And here I don’t just mean things like fear of bugs, spiders, snakes, or the Seven-foot Man; but the fears that can overwhelm your faith.  What fears have the potential to eclipse your faith?

Do you fear letting go of your money?  We live in uncertain economic times, after all.  And you’ve worked hard to get where you are, or to get where you’d like to be.  To retire with a livable wage requires planning.  And you’d like to leave your kids something at least!

Or maybe you’re more like Abraham.  Maybe you’ve just embarked on a new journey—you’re recently single again or you’ve just graduated from college or you’re about to get married or you’ve just changed jobs—and the uncertainty of it all can be overwhelming.  Do you fear the path of life ahead, the unknown?

Or, maybe, like some clergy I know, and at times like me, are you afraid for the church and its decline?  Do you ever fear that we’re a part of the wrong movement, that Christ’s Church, whatever the denomination, is losing its influence and effectiveness in the surrounding culture?

Do you ever feel like it’s you against the world?

Does your fears overwhelm your faith?

Well, you’re in good company.  Abraham felt this way.  Jesus’ disciples felt this way too.

Here’s the thing: Faith in Jesus is risky.  Following Jesus is unpredictable.  It can stir us in our own hearts to act in ways we never could have imagined.  It connects us with a movement that, just by association, means others may hate and prejudge us.

Faith in Jesus is risky and unpredictable, yes.  It can cause us to be afraid in ways that overwhelm our faith—in ways that tempt us to renounce our belief in Jesus Christ as God.

But let’s hear Jesus’ words once more: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Little Flock, he calls us; a term of endearment.  He loves us; he cares for us; he protects us.

And, to throw a technicality at you from the Greek, in that part of the verse where Jesus says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” the verb here is in a tense called the aorist.  This is a tense we don’t have in English.  And thus it doesn’t translate very well.

But here’s what it means: the action has already happened and is continuing to happen.  In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples—he’s telling us—“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, and in fact he has already given it to you.  It’s here.  It’s now.  And it will forever be.”

And thus, little flock, we have no reason to fear.

So, if you want to put your faith into practice—if you want to do something that will help you not be so afraid—let me suggest what Jesus does: sell your possessions and give all the money you make to St. Paul’s during our annual pledge drive.

We laugh.  But, seriously, can we look at stewardship not so much as something to help the church make its annual budget; but rather as a personal spiritual discipline—as a way to put your risky faith into practice?

And, of course, it’s not just about giving.  Wherever fear threatens to overwhelm your faith, transform it into a spiritual discipline: put your risky faith into practice.

You have no reason to fear.  Really!  For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Indeed, he already has.

The Greater Commission

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

At the conclusion of last week’s service, a parishioner asked me a question about my sermon.

To recall, in last week’s Gospel we heard that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  In other words, he was resolute about fulfilling his mission, about completing the task God had called him to do.

With this mindset, he sent some of his disciples ahead of him into a Samaritan village, in search of hospitality.  Foxes have holes, he said, and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to call home.  He and his disciples were dependent upon others for hospitality—for what they would eat and where they would sleep.

So, those disciples soon returned with bad news.  The Samaritans, it turned out, would not host Jesus and his disciples.

Now, these were Samaritans!  That is, they did not worship the same god as the Jews, but some kind of false amalgamation of a god, something kind of like the Jewish god but also kind of not.

This apparently reminded two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, of a story in their scriptures of a certain prophet of the Most High named Elijah; and how he once called fire down from heaven on four hundred priests of a god named Baal, you know, a god kind of like the god of the Jews but kind of not.

So James and John said, “Jesus, how could they?  Just give us the word, and we’ll call fire from heaven down upon these inhospitable Samaritans!”

But Jesus rebuked them.  They were simply to wipe the dust off their sandals and go on to the next village.

And so Jesus, I explained, had brought us a new plow.  This new plow was not like the old plow of Elijah’s era, one that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Jesus’ new plow, rather, was a plow of love.

Love your enemies, Jesus said.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Turn the other cheek.

This is the new plow upon which Jesus has called us to set our hands and not look back.

Anyway, that was my message from last week in a nutshell.  And the question the parishioner brought forth went something like this:

So then, Father Tim, is Jesus saying we should wipe the dust off our feet regarding followers of other religions? that we should have nothing to do with them?

It’s a worthwhile question.  For we know we are called to love others.  This is the plow to which Jesus has called us.  And loving others often results in discomfort for us.  To seek hospitality from others requires a certain vulnerability on our part.  To put another person’s needs and wants ahead of our own requires an uncomfortable level of humility.  And if we’re rejected, it requires a certain amount of self-control merely to wipe the dust off our feet and walk away rather than calling fire or other curses upon them.

But what if we’re certain—or almost certain—ahead of time that it’s a fool’s errand?  What if we just know already that our vulnerability, humility, and self-control—our self-inflicted discomfort—will simply fall flat?  Can’t we just avoid such discomfort altogether?  I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to take Christ’s message of love somewhere else, where its objects are potentially more receptive?

Well, to cut to the chase, the answer is no.  Christ’s mission of love is for all, whether or not their minds are already made up against it—against us.

We infer this answer from last week’s text.  For Jesus in fact sent his disciples into a village he knew ahead of time to be Samaritan.

He knew ahead of time that these villagers worshiped a different god from his.  He knew ahead of time that Samaritans didn’t normally associate with Jews.  He knew ahead of time that racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was commonplace in Palestine.  He knew ahead of time, in other words, that his disciples would almost certainly be rejected.

And yet he sent them ahead anyway.  For his was (and is) a mission of love.

But this answer is made even clearer in today’s Gospel.

For promoting Jesus’ message and ministry required the disciples to allow themselves to become vulnerable; to humble themselves; and, facing almost certain rejection, to exercise seemingly superhuman self-control.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.  The disciples were to go from place to place, preaching the Good News of Jesus, curing the sick, and accepting whatever hospitality they were offered.

And this was in Palestine, a half-forgotten province of the Roman Empire.

The religious context there went something like this: the Jews did their thing, the Samaritans did their thing, and those of a pagan bent did their thing.  Each group was content with its own religious identity, its own religious ideology.  As the woman at the well so eloquently put it, the Jews worship in their way and the Samaritans worship in their way.  One day all the differences will be cleared up.  But in the meantime, never the twain shall meet.

When it came to religion, there were established traditions and ideologies.  And these established ideologies conflicted with each other.

And now, in Jesus, something else, something new was happening.

His message and ministry seemed Jewish.  Mostly Jewish anyway.  Still, over and over Jesus had opposed the Jewish leaders—of both major parties: both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  His was a message of peace.  But, ironically, the peace he proclaimed was highly conflictive.

So Jesus’ message and ministry flew in the face of the established religious ideologies of his day.

It also flew in the face of political ideologies.

Politically, Rome was in charge.  This meant good things for the privileged classes.  If you were in an upper class, you fared well—as long as you were self-focused and pushy enough to keep yourself in your privileged position.

Rome’s way was thoroughly hierarchical.  This meant you could lose a privileged position.  This also meant others could climb social ladders, sure.  But for a place like Palestine, on the fringe of the Empire, most people were simply half-forgotten.  Most were economically challenged, i. e., lower class.  And there was nothing they could do about it.

Occasionally a messianic figure would come along and offer an uprising, a violent protest against the powers that be.  Judas Maccabeus is perhaps the most well-known example.

But Jesus came along and said, yes, there is in fact an oppressive hand over us all; but, no, we are not to protest violently.

Do you think that this crazy message of new religion and non-violence would have been received by anyone?  It wasn’t just those of a different religious persuasion who would reject Jesus’ disciples and his message.  The disciples also faced almost certain rejection from those most like them, namely, the poor, half-forgotten Jews of Palestine.

Jesus never said following him would be comfortable, simple, or easy.  If anyone is telling you this, don’t listen.  Rather, Jesus says following him will be uncomfortable, even difficult.

This was true for his disciples in Palestine under Roman rule; and it’s true for his disciples in Yuma today.  For, at its core, Jesus’ message and ministry—a message and ministry we carry on to this day—are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, now you’ve gone too far, Father Tim.  What do you mean that Jesus’ message and ministry “is about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world”?  Jesus’ message and ministry is a personal one, about love, peace, and salvation; it’s about saving my soul from sin and eternal damnation.  No one ever said this life would be easy, true.  But that’s just Jesus’ point.  There’s nothing he could do about it; and there’s nothing I can do about it—except to make sure that my walk with Jesus is on the straight and narrow.  That’s all anyone can ever do!

And then you stick your fingers in your ears and break into song:

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away . . .

To which I say, yes, in the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew Jesus commands his disciples to go out into the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So, yes, there is in fact a very personal element to Jesus’ message and ministry.

But here, in Luke, we see another perspective in another commission.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus sends out twelve; but here, in Luke, he sends out seventy.  So, arguably, the commission here in Luke is an even Greater Commission than the so-called Great Commission of Matthew.

At any rate, here Jesus commands his disciples to accept whatever hospitality (or rejection) they’re shown, cure the sick, and (whether received or rejected) proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Do you see?  Doing works—i. .e, ministry—is first.  Preaching—i. e., message—is second.

And as for the message: what is it to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near but to proclaim that all that is now wrong is being made right?

Jesus’ ministry and message is to make wrongs right presently.  It has a personal element, sure.  But, maybe even more, it has a social element.

Jesus’ ministry and message are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Well then, this begs two questions.  First: Do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in our world today?  This is America, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  And second: If so, are we able even to do anything about them?

As to whether oppressive or exclusive systems exist in our day, hindsight is a good place to begin, for, as they say, it’s 20/20.

In relatively recent history, we see now how wrong slavery was.  But did slave owners see slavery as oppressive or exclusive in their day?

As we know, our country was bitterly divided on this issue.  Did you know the Episcopal Church was divided over it too?  On the one hand, slave-owning Episcopal bishops argued from scripture that slavery was an acceptable institution for society’s greater good.  On the other hand, parishes such as the Church of the Transfiguration—still thriving today in Manhattan—were stations on the Underground Railroad.

So, can we learn anything from hindsight?  Our nation and Church were divided over slavery back in the day.  What divides our nation today?  What divides our Church?  This is our starting point.  Then ask: Are any of these divisions based on oppressive or exclusive systems?

An elephant in the room here is human sexuality and the present debates over issues stemming from it:

Does a county clerk have the religious right to protest a gay marriage?  What bathroom should or shouldn’t a trans-woman be able to use?  Is it contrary to the authority of scripture to ordain a homosexual person in a monogamous relationship?

Another elephant, of course, revolves around the second amendment (no pun intended).

And what of all our technological opiates, the healthcare crisis, and our economy, which is founded on credit—or should I say indebtedness?

So, do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in America today?  Sadly, they seem to be everywhere and inescapable.

Perhaps the most important questions in these debates should be about the dignity of all persons.  In our opinions, in our political and religious ideologies, in our constitution and amendments, in our judicatory proceedings, in our bills and laws—for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—we must fight against systems that enable one group of people to oppress or exclude another.

But, you ask, what can I do about it?  I’m simply one individual in an ocean of humanity.

True.  But so were Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus didn’t call them simply to throw up their hands in a helpless shrug.  Instead, he commissioned them to become vulnerable, to seek out the hospitality of others even though it meant almost certain rejection, to offer healing to others, and to proclaim that the kingdom has come near.

And you know what happened?  These few rag-tag, seemingly insignificant disciples went out and did what Jesus commissioned; and they returned to him with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Beloved, it is the same with you.  Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!

Time for a New Plow

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by timtrue

old plow

Luke 9:51-62

There’s a curious interplay between two of today’s readings: the one from 1 Kings, involving Elijah and Elisha; and the one from the Gospel, the one involving Jesus and his disciples.

Now—scraping off our Old Testament rust here—recall that Elijah was a prophet of the Most High.  And he was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab.

Remember King Ahab?  1 Kings (21:25) sums up Ahab’s reign thusly: “Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel.”  Ahab was a terrible king in God’s sight.  And Elijah had been called by God to serve as a prophetic voice against this terrible king Ahab.

But what made Ahab so bad was, as the scriptures observe, his wife, Jezebel.  Remember her?  She was maybe the first person ever in the history of the world to claim Eminent Domain.

The story goes like this.  There was a man named Naboth who owned a small vineyard.  This vineyard was good, productive, and verdant.  And it happened to be right next door to Ahab’s palace.

So Ahab approaches Naboth one day and says, “Hey, Naboth, I really like your vineyard.  It’s so green!  And the grapes look delicious!”

“Yeah?” Naboth answers, warily enough, and says, “I like it too, as a matter of fact.  It’s been in my family for many a generation.”

“Well,” continues Ahab, clearing his throat, “um, er, well, um, so what it comes down to is, well, um, I want your vineyard for my own garden.  Sell it to me.  I’m your king, after all.  I’ll gladly pay you what it’s worth.”

And Naboth says, “But it’s not for sale.  For crying out loud, it’s my ancestral inheritance!”  And he walks away, turning his back on the king.

So Ahab goes home sullen and vexed.

And there, at home, sullen and vexed, Ahab grabs a glass of wine or whatever and sits down to brood.

And his wife Jezebel enters.

Now, to put it in context, old Israel was a patriarchal society.  Ahab’s the man.  He’s in charge.  He also happens to be the king.

So, have you ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding?  There’s a scene in this movie when the mother of the bride-to-be explains to her daughter how things really work.  “The husband is the head,” she says, “this is true.  But the wife—she’s the neck!  And the neck can turn the head any way she wants to!”

So Jezebel enters the room and sees her husband Ahab the king, the head of Israel, sitting there brooding, and she says, “What’s eating at you?”

And he explains the whole episode with Naboth and his verdant, productive vineyard; how he asked Naboth for it; and how Naboth said no.

And the neck Jezebel turns the head Ahab around.  “What!” she exclaims, “Aren’t you the king of all Israel?  I’ll go get that vineyard and give it to you myself!”

So she throws Naboth a birthday party.  But right during the middle of the festivities, two thugs—whom Jezebel had hired, by the way—stand up and loudly and falsely accuse Naboth of some crime worthy of death.  And the scheme works.  Without fair trail of any kind a crowd of people grabs Naboth, drags him away from his own party, and stones him to death.

And later that night Jezebel comes home to tell her beloved husband, “Guess what, Ahab, dear?”  And she hands Ahab the keys to Naboth’s vineyard and toasts her Eminent Domain victory.

By the way, Jezebel also convinced Ahab to employ several hundred priests of the Phoenician god Baal.  Yeah!  The state religion at the time was not Judaism!

Anyway, all this meant that Elijah had a very difficult job before him, one that required focus; or, to use a euphemism from the KJV, one that required him to set his face like flint.

Even so, when it comes time for him to pass on his mantle to a disciple, we read that he allows this disciple, Elisha, to tie up some loose ends first.

God tells the prophet Elijah, “Go and anoint Elisha as a prophet, to continue the ministry that you have begun against Jezebel and Ahab and their false god Baal and all those false priests.”

So Elijah goes and finds Elisha and explains.

Then Elisha answers, “Okay, but first let me go and kiss my mother and my father goodbye, and then I will follow you.”

And Elijah is like, “Sure, seems reasonable to me.”

But then we come to the Gospel.  And we read:

As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], “I will follow you wherever you go.”  And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  To another he said, “Follow me.”  But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”  Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And I’m left saying, “Wait a minute!”

Elijah just found Elisha plowing a field.  His hand was on the plow, in fact!  But before he commits to following his new leader, he looks back—even if but for only a short time—to kiss his mom and dad goodbye.  So, Elijah has no problem letting his disciple, Elisha, say farewell to those at his home.

But Jesus doesn’t allow it.  “No one,” he says, “who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  But wasn’t Elisha—of all people!—fit for the kingdom of God?  Yet his hand was to the plow.  Literally!

What is Jesus getting at?

Well, maybe if we go back and look a little more at the Elijah story we’ll begin to answer this question: what is Jesus getting at?

Before Elijah ever approached Elisha; before Elijah had received word from God to pass on his ministry to a disciple; and, in fact, before Jezebel had enacted her version of Eminent Domain on that poor soul Naboth, Elijah took on those several hundred priests whom had been hired by Ahab and Jezebel, in a fiery display of God’s absolute superiority.

Do you remember this story from Sunday school?

It was four hundred against one, bad odds by any stretch.  Except Elijah boldly took them all on, even mocking their god in front of them all.

“Where is your god now?” he taunted.  “Oh, perhaps he’s sleeping.”

So the four hundred priests of Baal danced and wailed and wept and cut themselves, all to get their god’s attention.  But nothing worked!  Their god Baal never came to bail them out.

So, “What?” Elijah mocks.  “Well, where is he?  Maybe he’s preoccupied with some other matter.  Maybe he’s using the bathroom.”

Yeah!  That’s part of the story.  Did your Sunday school teacher include that part?

Then, with one word, Elijah calls down fire from heaven—which consumes the water-logged sacrifice in one fell swoop, and all four hundred of the opposing priests of Baal—whom Ahab and Jezebel had hired; and which immediately put Elijah on the top of the list of Israel’s Most Wanted!

And now we understand today’s Gospel a little more clearly.

Jesus set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem.  This was his mission, how he would bring about salvation to the world.  He had to do it, and he knew it.  Like Elijah, he had received word from God the Father.

So, on his way to fulfilling his mission in Jerusalem, Jesus sends some disciples ahead of him, in search of hospitality, into a village of Samaritans.  But, because his face was set towards Jerusalem, the Samaritans refuse.

And here we can so easily picture James and John, can’t we?  After all, we get righteously angry too.

“What?” they exclaim.  “How dare they refuse you!  I mean, come on!  Don’t they realize who you are?  You’re Jesus!

“Oh, but that’s right.  They are Samaritans.  They don’t worship the same God as we do.  They’re infidels!  Well, then, just give us the word, Jesus.  We’ll call fire from heaven down upon them, just like Elijah called fire from heaven on those accursed false priests!”

(Sigh!)  Had James and John forgotten that so recently—earlier in this same chapter of Luke, in fact—Jesus told them merely to wipe the dust off their sandals and walk away when rejected?

Have we forgotten this?

Beloved, fellow followers of Christ, we live in crazy times.  I don’t have to mention even the events from this week to demonstrate just how frightening our times are.  Terrorism, racism, and vigilante violence are seeming to spread across the globe like some new black plague.  No doubt a significant motivator of the so-called Brexit is fear; and, more particularly, fear of foreigners, xenophobia.

We fear them: those who aren’t like us, those we don’t understand.  We fear those whose skin color is a different shade from ours.  We fear those whose sexual orientations or gender identities don’t align with our perspectives.  And, maybe most of all, we fear those who worship a different god from ours.

So, what then?  Are we to call fire from heaven down upon them?

Jesus came and showed a new way.  When others reject us, we don’t call fire down from heaven.  That’s an old plow, one that should be abandoned altogether in an old world, in Elijah’s world.

When others reject us, instead, we take the high road.  We turn the other cheek.  We wipe off the dust.

Do not be afraid, Jesus said.  Rather, love.  This is the new way.  This is Christ’s way.  This is the new plow to which we’ve put our hand.

For the sake of God and humanity, don’t look back.

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.

2014 Lent 6

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , on March 11, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 1:20-31

The crucified Christ is something of a paradox.

Christ, God incarnate in the man Jesus, was actually executed in a brutal, bloody, base manner.  Yet Christ as God is the creator of all the universe, the creator and sustainer of the very human instruments that tortured and executed him.  How can this be?

Paul seems to be addressing this question here in his words about proclaiming Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”  This apparent paradox, he says, is the wisdom of God.

But rather than point out that it’s not really a paradox after all, that we’re just looking at it incorrectly or whatever, he instead points out other paradoxes in God.  He talks of God’s foolishness–as if such a concept could even be possible!  Yet even if there were such a thing it would be wiser than the highest human wisdom.  Too, there’s God’s weakness.  Is such a thing even possible?  Well, if it is, even it is stronger than any and all human strength!

To take his point a step farther, God, Paul states, has chosen the weak in the world to shame the strong; and the foolish to shame the wise.

With what is to come later in this letter–and here I’m thinking especially of the social injustices happening around the communion table: the rich eat all the bread and get drunk on the wine, leaving the poor nothing with which to celebrate–.  With what is to come later, I cannot but think that Paul is taking a direct shot at the divisions within the Corinthian church.  In God’s economy–not the world’s; not Rome’s–the weak shall prevail over the strong and the foolish shall outwit the wise; there will be no slave or free, male or female, wealthy or poor; the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

In the new age ushered in by Christ, in other words, we should get used to paradox; for, like those guys in the book of Acts, we who proclaim Christ crucified are in fact turning the world upside down.