Archive for Kingdom of Heaven

Compassion’s Abundance

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered via YouTube on 8/2/2020.

Matthew 14:13-21

1

A familiar story, eh? Jesus feeds 5,000 hungry men—and however many women and children happened to be present! Probably some dogs too.

But what’s the point here? That Jesus can do miracles? That God has abundant compassion on people who follow Jesus? What do you think Matthew is trying to teach us through the story of this miracle?

So . . . it follows right on the heels of two other stories.

In the first, which completes Chapter 13, Jesus went to his patris, his hometown; and there was rejected. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” his homies asked, as if to justify their rejection.

And in the second, which begins Chapter 14, John the Baptist was beheaded for rebuking Herod Antipas, that figurehead of Rome.

The first thing we hear in today’s Gospel is that Jesus withdraws from Nazareth to a deserted place in order to be alone.

Jesus was probably feeling inadequate: he’d been rejected by his hometown.

Jesus was probably grieving too: over the execution of his cousin.

But a sizable crowd followed him; a crowd hoping to hear more of his teachings.

Are you seeing any contrasts here? From Nazareth, a town buzzing with people, to a deserted, lonely place? Rejected by one crowd but followed by another? Jesus grieving while Herod rejoices? Herod throwing a lavish banquet, yet today’s crowd has no food whatsoever?

Let’s not lose sight of this context of contrast because of the fantastic account of the miracle.

Why does the story of the miracle follow on the heels of these other two stories?

2

For the answer, we go back one more story, to the beginning of Chapter 13.

There, before JB’s execution and before Nazareth rejected Jesus, we find another boat in which Jesus sat. Jesus got into that boat, Matthew says, pushed out a little from the shore, and began to teach the gathered crowd.

Now it’s not a contrast but a parallel. Do you see it?

Today, again, Jesus gets into a boat; and today, again, a great crowd has gathered to hear him.

It’s as if Matthew is telling us—ding! ding! ding!—that was Part 1; this is Part 2. Pay attention!

The first time Jesus got into a boat, he taught the crowd about the kingdom of heaven. Today, Jesus sees the gathered crowd and, forgetting about his own grief; forgetting about his own feelings of inadequacy, has compassion on the people—such abundant compassion, in fact, that twelve basketfuls are left over.

KoH taught; KoH enacted; and rejection and violence in between.

It seems pretty clear to me—I hope it does to you too:

  • From that first boat, Jesus taught what the KoH was like—a mustard seed, yeast in a batch of dough, and so on;
  • Followed by a picture of how the kingdom of this world operates—rejection and violence from the established social hierarchy;
  • And now, today, from a second boat, Matthew returns to the KoH.

But today, in this story of the feeding of the 5,000, rather than teaching about it again Jesus shows us what the KoH is like:

It stands in stark contrast to the earthly realm.

3

Now, allow me to bring this comparison-and-contrast between the KoH and the earthly realm into our time and space.

I’ve been doing a good deal of personal anti-racism work over the last decade. Some of it has been intentional—active work—and some passive.

This work began in earnest in Sewanee, while I was a graduate student. One of the deans, a self-proclaimed angry Black man, told me I was racist.

“But I grew up on the west coast,” I protested, “in southern California. Southern U. S. history has never been on my radar. In fact, I grew up with several Black and Mexican friends. I like to think of myself as colorblind.”

“O Timothy,” he countered, “the fact that you are so unaware of racism and its effects in our country proves that you come from a place of privilege.”

A moment’s reflection and I knew he was right. “Okay, then,” I said, “I am unaware; and I don’t want to be. Teach me.”

Some years later I became the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, where I inherited a fledgling Latino Congregation, Iglesia San Pablo.

In the beginning, admittedly, I approached this out of the goodness of my heart, as a service to those special people. However—thank God!—after three years of working alongside my Latino brothers and sisters, listening to what they had to say, and otherwise seeing life through their eyes, I became a part of “those special people.”

Incidentally, over those three years the ASA in the Latino congregation went from 8 to 35, with fully half of that number being under 18 years of age. All the baptisms and confirmations happened there—new life!

Anyway, to return to my point, while in Yuma what I saw with respect to White supremacy over the Latinx world would make your skin crawl.

And, to be honest, I’m seeing the same thing now, in Tucson.

That’s what the people who talk about it mean when they say systemic racism.

4

I have a friend named Tweedy. We know each other from my time in Yuma. She’s a Methodist minister who also happens to be Navajo.

Presently, Tweedy lives in Shiprock, New Mexico, where she is a pastor to the Navajo Nation. She and I shared a phone conversation this week about her new ministry.

Sadly, after being granted land in 1868, the Navajo Nation has been largely forgotten or ignored by our government. The roads are in poor condition. Trash litters the towns, highways, and byways. Internet service, where it exists at all, is still mostly dial-up (if you can believe it). Medical resources are few and far between (felt especially keenly during this pandemic). Many who live on the reservation do not have running water in their homes.

So, Tweedy tells me that birth defects in Tuba City, Arizona are especially high per capita and have been so for the past few decades. When pressed by me as to why, she surmised that it likely has to do with the abandoned uranium mines in the area, the tailings of which have never been properly abated since the mining companies closed up and moved away some years ago.

Somewhat shocked, I did a personal web search to follow up; and I learned—well, let me read just the first paragraph of an EPA report from September, 2018 (https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-09/documents/western_aum_regional_fact_sheet-2018-09-18.pdf):

USEPA, in partnership with Navajo Nation EPA (NNEPA), has identified 523 AUMs [Abandoned Uranium Mines] on the Navajo Nation. Of these 523 AUMs, 46 mines were identified as “priority mines” based on radiation levels, proximity to homes, and potential for water contamination.

The Navajo Nation—like Latinxs (especially near the Mexican border) and Black Lives (especially in the south)—has been treated unjustly by our nation’s socioeconomic system; a system that has made it very difficult to get ahead in this world, or even to break out of cycles of poverty.

Plain and simple: whether we see it or not, systemic racism is real.

5

Well, as we know already, systemic racism is only one of many social injustices that abound in today’s world.

They abounded in Jesus’ world too—in the established hierarchical Roman system of government; and in the established social pecking order of hometowns.

All social injustices, whether obvious or hidden, are based upon domination: one group of people establishing and maintaining superiority over all other groups, because of race, gender, social status, or some other difference.

KoH stands in stark contrast to these.

Jesus saw the vast crowd. All of them were hungry.

Jesus then had compassion upon them all. Equally.

And he called his disciples to act on that compassion.

We are called today to act on Jesus’ compassion, to work towards bringing an end to social injustices like systemic racism; to work towards equity.

Oh, but where do we start? It feels so overwhelming!

Yes, it is overwhelming. Systemic racism is, well, uh, systemic. But look once more to the Gospel.

Called to act, Jesus’ disciples looked out at the vast crowd and said, “Ugh! We have nothing, only some bread crumbs and a few sardines. We’ll never be able to feed so many people!”

And, called to act today, we look out at the injustices around us; and we pray, “But what can we do, Jesus, with so little?”

The good news is that, when we take a stand against the overwhelming established social order, our small actions spread like yeast throughout a large batch of dough, imperceptibly at first, so slowly we don’t even notice, until one day we do, in little ways at first, then bigger, bit by bit, until, at last, there’s leaven enough for a lavish feast.

Society has been fed and satisfied. We look around, smiling. Amazingly, twelve basketfuls are left over!

Christ’s compassion acted upon yields abundance.

The Parable of COVID-19

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered via Zoom to the St. Michael’s, Coolidge congregation.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

1

Do you know what the kudzu vine is?

An indigenous species in Asia, kudzu was first introduced to the United States at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, in 1876, as an effective groundcover for stopping erosion.

A few years later, at the New Orleans Exposition of 1883, kudzu was marketed to the south primarily as an ornamental vine to shade porches. Cattle farmers, too, discovered that their cows liked it as food, that it grew quickly, and that it has a high protein content.

During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s kudzu was planted extensively to combat erosion. In fact, it was so effective that the government cultivated and helped fund the planting of 85 million seedlings, yielding approximately 3 million acres of groundcover by the end of WWII.

However: boll weevil infestations soon decimated the cotton fields of the south; most southern farmers abandoned their livelihoods; kudzu was left unattended and unchecked.

And, turns out, kudzu likes the climate of the southeastern United States. A lot!

Pretty soon, people began to notice kudzu’s negative effects.

It grows faster than other plants.

It possesses a curious ability to establish new root systems from the ends of vines in a hurry; thus enabling new, independent organisms to grow quickly outward in every direction.

It is classified as a structural parasite, meaning it finds light for photosynthesis by climbing on top of other structures—whether bushes, trees, power poles, or houses.

For living organisms, such as dogwood trees and blackberry bushes, this means their light gets blocked, their ability to photosynthesize becomes compromised, and they die.

For structures like power poles and houses, kudzu decays and destroys.

And—one more fun fact—it is super nitrogen-rich. I don’t presume to understand the science behind it all, but apparently this means it actually pollutes the ozone.

Yeah!

So, in 1953 the USDA removed kudzu from its list of recommended groundcovers. In 1970, they listed it as a weed. And in 1997, kudzu appeared on the Federal Noxious Weeds List for the first time, where it remains today.

Fight it as we might, kudzu covers approximately 7.5 million acres of U. S. soil today. If you ever drive down a road in the southeast, just look out your window and within a few minutes, no doubt, you’ll see some.

Anyway, point is, today we see nothing of value in kudzu. Instead, it is an invasive nuisance.

2

I’ve heard a similar story about the mustard seed in the ancient Roman Empire.

A foreign weed, the mustard seed was first brought to the Empire because of—you guessed it—a useful quality.

In an effort to rid the Empire of pirates, the story goes, Julius Caesar commissioned his military leader Pompey with a task to build—or, to dig—more harbors across the Mediterranean region.

The innovative mustard seed was employed—a plant known for its ability to grow quickly and to sap seemingly all nutrients and moisture from its surroundings.

The result was large-scale erosion in short order; and, for Pompey’s concerns, easy digging.

But, like kudzu, mustard quickly rose to the top of the Empire’s Noxious Weeds List. It was invasive. It became a widespread nuisance.

All Jesus had to do was mention the term mustard seed, and people’s eyes would roll with disdain and contempt—even if they knew its history and background, its original usefulness.

So, the question I now want to focus on is this:

Why does Jesus say the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed? How is the KoH like the kudzu vine—something worthless, disruptive, good for nothing but widescale, commonplace frustration?

After all, that is the jarring surprise from this parable.

In case this point weren’t already clear enough, Jesus goes on to equate the KoH with yeast that spreads throughout a huge batch of bread.

Yeast!

Jewish people didn’t like yeast. Their bread was unleavened. Yeast was unclean, impure, not kosher.

So, why is Jesus teaching us today that the KoH is like some everyday, commonplace, invasive nuisance that no one wants around?

If I didn’t know better, I’d say Jesus is saying that the KoH has a subversive quality to it. Mustard seed invades; yeast spreads; kudzu overwhelms, against all our efforts to the contrary!

3

Hmm. The KoH, subverting? Invading, spreading, overwhelming?

Sounds to me a lot like COVID-19.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I just went there. I just said that the KoH is like a global pandemic.

Shocking statement, isn’t it?

But this sense of shock was experienced by the first hearers of these parables.

So, actually, I’m thinking that if Jesus were with us today, he might tell the Parable of COVID-19:

The kingdom of heaven is like a global pandemic. It invades; it infects; it interrupts; it frustrates; it disrupts our lives—despite all our efforts to combat it. And, truth be told, no one really wants it around.

Well, why not? Let’s consider it; let’s make this our simile today:

How is the KoH like COVID-19?

The whole world is quarantining. We can’t take those summer vacations we planned. We’ve got to wear those confounded masks everywhere and apply hand sanitizer until our hands are cracked and bleeding!

Worse still, people we know—friends, family—have become sick and, in some cases, died.

COVID-19 has disrupted everything about our lives.

So, okay, the KoH is disruptive.

We human beings like stability. We like to plan and have everything play out according to our plan. We like things to be neat and tidy—efficient, productive!

Or, to come at it from another angle, we don’t like change. We don’t like it when we wake up in the morning, look out our window, and discover that weeds are there in the middle of our planned out, neat and tidy rows of wheat.

Our routine, our world, has been disrupted. It’s not fair!

But we get it, right? Humanity likes routine; and the KoH shakes us out of it. God is full of surprises. Aslan is not a tame lion.

Still though, there’s that negative side to the parable that leaves us scratching our head.

Churches have shuttered their doors. Services have gone virtual. Communion is an increasingly distant memory. Tithing and giving have dropped. Priests seeking to pray with sick parishioners or administer last rites are turned away from hospitals. Weddings and funerals are mostly on hold until further notice.

Isn’t society telling us, really, that everything about the KoH is non-essential; or, more jarringly, that the KoH is invasive, a nuisance, good for nothing but frustration?

Forgive me, you ask, but how is there anything redeeming anywhere in this?

4

Good question!

For the answer, we return to today’s Gospel. How was there anything redeeming anywhere in that invasive, overwhelming, frustrating nuisance known as the mustard seed?

Jesus gives us the answer. When that nuisance of a seed was fully grown, it became a home, a place of shelter, nurture, rest, and safety for the birds of the air.

The mustard seed, like kudzu, was originally brought into the Empire because of its usefulness; but it soon became a useless nuisance.

But Jesus tells us it becomes useful again—though in a way no one is looking for; in a way no one expects.

There’s a theological term for this: transformation.

Transformation does not mean that we will go back to the way things were—back to a Roman Empire before the mustard seed, back to the southeastern U. S. before kudzu took over, or back to a world before COVID-19.

But transformation does signal a way forward.

It’s a new and unexpected way forward; and so, yes, it’s scary.

But it is a way forward nonetheless.

And thus there is hope.

The KoH—especially as it is manifested in and through the Church—the KoH is God’s agent of transformation; not so that society can return to the way things were but so that it can move forward, in hope, into a new and unexpected world.

Humanity will move forward, beyond a world where everything lies under COVID-19’s shadow. Because of COVID-19, yes, things will forever be different, changed, transformed. But don’t despair in the present; we will get there!

The KoH is like that: an agent of transformation, pushing society into a new and uncomfortable place; and, at the same time, transforming it into something unexpectedly beneficial for the common good.

And that, to answer your question, is infinitely redeeming.

Not a Table Manners Manifesto

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

31012.dng_109_1_edited-2

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.

Awed Possibility

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2015 by timtrue

31012.dng_109_1_edited-2

Mark 10:2-16

What a difficult Gospel passage!

I mean, it’s got it all!  Marriage, divorce, adultery, children—we might say this passage is pregnant, just waiting to give birth to all sorts of conflicting opinions and hasty judgments from family and friends.

There’s the uncle whose mind is already made up.  No matter what, the parents always seem to be doing something wrong as they raise their child.  They’re either too controlling, on the verge of being helicopter parents; or too permissive, producing a child who is a law unto himself.

Then there’s the aunt who’s twice removed.  At family gatherings, she looks on the child from across the room only as a spectator.  The child is interesting to her, but as a lizard in an aquarium is interesting, only to observe, never to engage.

Then there are the parents themselves.  That’s us, you know, the mainline Episcopal Church.  Our child is growing before our eyes and has begun to form her own take on the world—and it’s not always the same as ours!  In fact, sometimes we catch ourselves wondering if she is deliberately choosing the other side of the debate, just to spite us!

Whatever the case, it’s left us uncomfortable.  Why does she think the way she does about divorce, marriage, human sexuality, adultery, and children?  Doesn’t she know better?  Doesn’t she understand and value what Jesus teaches?

Still, some of what she’s saying seems to make sense.  It’s not what our parents taught us, no way, no how.  But—we’re second guessing ourselves now—maybe they didn’t know everything either, just as we know we don’t know everything.

Well, what does Jesus teach about divorce, marriage, and children—and maybe even human sexuality—in this passage?

A lot, it seems!  On the surface anyway.  At least there’s a lot in here about divorce.

But, then, why does the narrative about little children follow right on divorce’s heels?  Is it because children are the most innocent of victims in a divorce, as more than one commentator has noted?

While this may be true in general, and certainly has been so in specific cases, no, I don’t think this is why Mark brings children into the immediate context—at all!  Instead, this exchange between Jesus, some Pharisees, the disciples, and the little children runs much deeper than just wise instruction about marriage and divorce: this exchange is about worldview.

Are you familiar with this term, worldview?  It’s how we see things.  It’s our perspective.  It’s the governing lens through which we as individuals interpret all that goes on in the world around us.

Now, you’ve been to those scenic viewpoints with the coin-operated viewers, right?  I think there’s one on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  So, let’s say we’re on a trip together to the Grand Canyon and we stop to use this viewer.  You walk up to it, put a quarter in, and look through.  Then, when you’re done, I have my turn.

Now, despite the fact that we use the same viewer, you and I don’t see exactly the same things through it.  Right?

Well, this is like the worldview Christ calls us as Christians to have.  You and I look through the same lens.  But we don’t always focus on the same things.  And when we do, we often interpret them differently.  You might shop at Albertson’s while I prefer Fry’s.  You might vote for a different presidential candidate than I.  Or, coming closer to today’s passage, you may not have experienced divorce as a child; but I did.

Nevertheless, despite our differences in interpretation, Jesus calls us to a common worldview.  As followers of Christ, we should agree on perspective.

But all too often we don’t. We answer questions differently, questions like:

  • Is it ever okay for Christians to divorce?
  • If so, when?  Is it only okay to divorce in cases of abuse or neglect or adultery?  What about incompatibility?
  • Are Christians allowed to drink alcohol?  And, if so, is it ever okay for a Christian to get drunk?
  • Is it permissible for a man to marry a man?
  • Is it okay to ordain a woman?
  • And—a question from this summer—is it okay if a young woman going through a transgendering process is my son’s counselor at camp?

We tend to fixate on—and argue about—what’s permissible.  We like lists of dos and don’ts.

But isn’t this just what the Pharisees are doing in today’s passage: asking what’s permissible?

Verse 2 tells us they come to Jesus to test him with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Already, there’s a negative tone.  The Pharisees’ question is focused on the dissolution of marriage, not on the purpose of it or the blessings to be found in it—not on the positive.

At its core, their question is about what’s permissible.

But Jesus masterfully avoids the Pharisees’ trap by reframing their question.  After asking them what Moses says—an assent to their recognized, mutual authority—Jesus turns from what is permissible in marriage to marriage’s potential.

God created Adam and Eve in God’s own image.  Marriage is thus a divine joining of two people into one flesh.  It is based on mutual respect and shared dignity.

For Jesus, it’s not what is permissible but what is possible.  And this is the lens through which Jesus calls us to interpret the world.

So let’s return now to our viewer. We’ve been looking through it for a while now.  It’s still helpful, sure.  We wouldn’t trade it for another one.  And every now and then, still, we catch a glimpse of a new vista that brings a renewed excitement to our walk with Christ.  But, let’s face it: it’s starting to feel, well, I don’t know, normal.  Routine.  Status quo.  Ho hum.

And so you and I start to compare notes.  We like the way that particular bend in the canyon wall looks, especially when the light hits it in the early morning.  And we like the noises, the music—most of the time anyway.  But haven’t you noticed how crowded it’s getting lately?  And what kind of riffraff is the leadership letting into this place now?  Why, just last week someone left a banana peel on the ground and I hear it adversely affected a bear’s digestion.  The nerve!  Someone around here ought to get a list of rules together and enforce them before things really get out of control.

But then we see an unfamiliar, young child mount the steps and look through the viewer for the first time—the same viewer we’ve been looking through for so long now, about which we’ve begun to feel ho hum.  And—do you see?—a huge smile overwhelms his face and he lets out a sound of wonder: “Wow!”

And I am cut to the heart as I remember Jesus’ words: “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

It’s not about what is permissible but what is possible.

So, how do you look at marriage? How do you look at divorce?  How do you look at issues surrounding human sexuality?  How do you look at the kingdom of God?

Maybe you’re like that critical uncle.  You’re a part of the church, sure: you’re a Christian.  But in your opinion the Episcopal Church is either too controlling or too permissive and will never be quite right for future generations.

Maybe you’re like that twice removed aunt.  You like to view the goings on in the Episcopal Church as a spectator, aloof, not really engaged.  Yuma’s a good place to do so, because, after all, we are rather isolated out here.

Maybe you’re like the parents, caught in a tug of war, second-guessing yourself and the traditions to which you’ve grown so accustomed, not sure how to make sense of all the various voices that vie for your attention; not quite sure if you’re bringing up the next generation in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Or, maybe, just maybe, you’re like that small child, lost in wonder, love, and praise at the glories of the kingdom of God; not at all burdened by what is permissible but awestruck by what is possible.

In Jesus Christ, it’s not about what is permissible but what is possible.

Escaping to a Fuller Reality

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by timtrue

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

John 17:6-19

C. S. Lewis—Clive Staples, or, to his friends, Jack—is the author of the beloved children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia.

We say children’s series.  But have you ever read them: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; and so on?  These seven books are profound.  And while they do indeed tell stories that children enjoy—for their telling is simple enough—their content can be contemplated for a lifetime.

We might call Lewis an accidental theologian.  For, though a scholar of medieval literature by vocation, his heart, soul, mind, and strength bubbled a love for Christ that cannot but be noticed in everything he wrote, whether scholarly article or so-called children’s series.  He’s a man definitely worth getting to know.

I want to spend some time today focusing on the seventh (and final) book in the Chronicles, called The Last Battle; for a major theme from this story is also a major theme in the words we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel.  This section of the Gospel of John, by the way, is a prayer.  Jesus is praying for his followers; Jesus is praying for us.  Theologians refer to this prayer of Jesus as the High Priestly Prayer.

There’s that age-old question: What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?  Well, if you will, my question today is: What does the High Priestly Prayer have to do with The Last Battle?

So then, to set the stage, The Chronicles of Narnia largely follow the lives of four children, siblings, the Pevensies: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

In the second book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children enter a land, Narnia, through a magical wardrobe.  Narnia is entirely unknown to anyone on earth.  Some of the animals there talk.  There are mythological creatures come to life too: Fauns, dryads, naiads, centaurs, and so on.  Ultimately, the ruler of all of that foreign world—including Narnia and its other lands: Calormen, Archenland, the Seven Isles—is a lion named Aslan.  Aslan—spoiler alert!—is analogously Jesus Christ.

So I’ve mentioned the wardrobe and the lion; if you want to know how and where the witch fits in, read the book!—or talk to me later.

In the seventh book, The Last Battle, three of the Pevensie children—who are quite a bit older now—find themselves in Narnia once more.  This time, apparently, they have been summoned to help the present king, Tirian, fight what at first appears to be a routine battle.  Yet, as the story continues, Aslan appears and all characters realize that this battle is not routine at all, but will be the final battle between Narnia and Calormen.

But not all is lost.  Aslan appears and establishes two doorways.  All the world’s subjects will pass through one or the other.

When Peter, Edmund, and Lucy pass through the doorway on the right, they have no idea what they will find on the other side.  But when they get there, they find themselves in familiar surroundings!

Presently they see familiar Narnian sights.  There’s the castle, Cair Paravel!  There’s the lamppost, the very first object they’d ever noticed when they’d first entered Narnia so long ago.

But then, focusing far away, like standing on one mountain peak and looking to another, they see familiar sights from London.  St, Paul’s Cathedral.  Westminster Abbey.  Even some buildings that had been lost in the war to German bombings.

Somehow—it now dawns on them—this world beyond the door is everything the old world was but better, richer, fuller.  The old world—the world in which we live—is a mere shadowland compared to what the new heavens and the new earth will be.

Now we see only in part; but then we shall see much more fully!

Have you ever heard the accusation that Christianity is an escape from reality? Or, if the person saying it is feeling especially harsh, that reality is an escape from Christianity?  Have you ever heard this?

But—to reflect for a moment—is escape always wrong?

On the one hand, we know escape can be wrong.  We all know people who have turned to drugs or alcohol as a means of temporary escape from reality.  Perhaps you’ve done it yourself.

Without going into the dangers and damaging effects of such a practice, we all can agree that this is not an effective means of escape from reality.  For drugs or alcohol merely suppresses the pain for a moment; they do nothing to produce hope.

But, on the other hand, consider this:

A long-time gospel favorite is the song “I’ll Fly Away.”  Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away; to that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away. . . .

The focus here is escape.  Life now, as we know it, is hard.  We have bills to pay, obligations to meet, and often burdensome responsibilities to maintain.  The constancy of these realities can wear us down.  We might justifiably daydream about life in the new heavens and earth.

And what we experience in our daily lives—by and large anyway—is nothing in comparison to the hardships experienced by, say, American slaves a century-and-a-half ago.  Imagine having to live a life as someone else’s property!  And any acts of rebellion such as running away, or even natural processes such as growing too old to be any longer productive, were subject to brutal punishments or even death—without any means of appeal!

Many a great gospel song finds its roots here, in the oppressed American south.

In this case, and others like it, I submit to you that escape isn’t so wrong.  Songs of escape—theologies of deliverance—offer hope.  And hope can produce all manner of goodness in a person, even the ability to love and forgive a harsh slaveowner.

C. S. Lewis was accused by critics and skeptics of escaping from reality in his fantasy books—in his Chronicles of Narnia. These are children’s books, the argument goes; they encourage escaping from reality.  And escaping from reality is not good; not something we want to encourage in children.  Therefore children shouldn’t be allowed to read these books.

(And we see that the controversies surrounding Harry Potter—an example from more recent history—are nothing new.)

Well, I think you know where I stand on this already, from my point about escape not always being bad.  But where did Mr. Lewis stand?

He answers this question in another book, called Surprised by Joy.  This book is really a testimony, how he came to faith in Jesus Christ.  From early on in his childhood, he explains, even from his earliest memories, he would catch glimpses of something—he couldn’t totally explain it—that would suggest a fuller reality.  He felt it once when he viewed the mountains on the Irish horizon.  He felt it another time when reading the Beatrix Potter story Squirrel Nutkin (if I remember correctly).

This sense of a fuller reality compelled him from early life that this material world in which we live—the here and now—is not all there is.  Life can be so much fuller, he was persuaded; life can be so much richer.  But how?

For C. S. Lewis—as for us—the answer is found in faith in Jesus Christ.

And for him the literary genre of fantasy was in fact a means of expressing this fuller, richer reality.

That was his answer to his critics; and he demonstrated this through The Last Battle, in which the heroes of the story enter a richer, fuller reality upon passing through the door on Aslan’s right.

Fantasy for Lewis, then, is not an escape from reality.  If it is an escape at all, it is an escape to a fuller reality.

Now, as promised, we come to today’s Gospel, the Gospel of John.

The community in which John lived, and to which he wrote, was a persecuted community.  It had been excommunicated from the focal point of its larger community, the synagogue.  By the time the Gospel of John was written, this excommunicated group of Christ-believers—of Christians—had banded together, retreating from their larger community, feeling ostracized, excluded, and otherwise rejected.  No doubt they wrestled with feelings of escape—escaping from their world; their reality.

In the Gospel written to this community, then, Jesus prays his high priestly prayer.  He prays on their behalf, to his heavenly Father, for them.  And he states, repeats, and reiterates that they are not of the world, but that they are in the world:

  • I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.
  • But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
  • I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
  • They do not belong to the world.
  • As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

Christ’s disciples are not called to escape from their reality.  If anything, they are called to escape to a new, fuller reality, where they remain in the world but are not of the world.

And Jesus wasn’t just praying for that community—those disciples in that day.  In today’s Gospel Jesus is praying for all disciples in whatever community we find ourselves.  In today’s Gospel Jesus prays for us.

May we dwell now in that fuller reality that is the Kingdom of God.

How to Turn the World Upside Up

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 5:1-12

Our world is inverted.

It’s been that way since the beginning—or shortly thereafter, anyway.  For in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And God is a perfect God.  So God would not create the world to be a certain way—right side up—just to turn it upside down for fun, as if to see how we humans would handle it or some such nonsense.  No, that would go against God’s good nature.  Rather, it was inverted soon after the conclusion of the sixth day, soon after God created humankind in his own image.

We know the story.  God created people, not the animals, in his own image.  The animals were different, created to help us image-bearing people, created so that humankind might be glorified in some way.  In turn, humankind was created to glorify God.  From the bottom up, then, it was creatures, people, God.

But the serpent came along.  And he was crafty; craftier, in fact, than all the other creatures.  And he spoke.  (Does this remind you of anything?)  And he said to the woman, “Surely you want to be as gods too, don’t you?  Surely you want to know good from evil?”

Thus she and her man gave in to the crafty serpent.  They listened to it; and they put themselves in subjection to it.  And, when they did this, at the same time they exalted themselves above God.  From the bottom up, now, it was God, people, creatures.  In their sin—in their fall—all creation was turned upside down.

The prophet Isaiah says it this way: “You turn things upside down! / Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? / Shall . . . the thing formed say of the one who formed it, / ‘He has no understanding’ (29:16, my emphasis)?”

Our world is inverted.

In a nutshell, we see the Gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ here. For God so loved the world—the cosmos; creation—that he sent his only Son to re-establish the created order; to set things right side up.

We see this in the book of Acts, right?  That’s the book in the New Testament that follows the Gospels.  It tells the story of what Jesus’s followers started to do after he lived, died, and rose again; it tells the story of the founding of the church.

One episode goes like this: two of Jesus’s followers, named Paul and Silas, come to the city of Thessalonica.  There they enter the local synagogue and begin to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah of Israel.  Several people, including many leaders, like this message and convert.  But this riles up the other synagogue leaders who go out and, with the help of some local ruffians, start a riot.  The mob captures some Christians and drags them before the city officials; and the mob leaders say: “These people”—i. e., these emperor-defying Christians—“who have been turning the world upside down have come here also” (cf. Acts 17:1-9, my emphasis).

The Christians, they said, were turning the world upside down.  But the world was already upside down—inverted—since just after creation.  But turning the already upside down world upside down—isn’t that really just to turn it upside up?  That’s what the church is doing!  Or, at least, that’s what the church is called to do.

Are we doing it?  Are we doing what we can to put the world upside up?

Now we come to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount; and, in particular, to its introduction: the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  And again, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  And so on.

The poor in spirit?  Those who mourn?  The meek?  This doesn’t sound like a list of things I aspire to be.

And why are these people even blessed?  Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven; they will be comforted; and they will inherit the earth.  But aren’t these all things that will happen in the future?  Isn’t this a kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this.  Sure, you can tell me all you want that if I behave myself in the here and now then I will be rewarded in the future.  But that sounds an awful lot like something my second grade teacher told me.  I don’t really buy it.

I want to be blessed now.  And it seems to me—from the way things work in the world around me—it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in the present.  It’s fine and well to want a nice life in the future, or a nice afterlife; but what about the here and now?  I want to be comfortable now!  I want to hear Jesus say something like this:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money!  For theirs is a comfortable home in a no-crime neighborhood where their kids can attend the best schools.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this?

A couple observations.

First, Jesus’s discourse is designed to turn the world upside up.

The culture tells us in very tangible ways that the happiest or most blessed people are those with the most money, those who have fought their way confidently to the top of their respective ladders, those who live most comfortably.

Jesus’s beatific list runs against this; it’s counter-cultural.

But is this list so bad?

It starts out with poor in spirit, mournful, and meek.  These sound to me like a person who has been humbled before God—not a bad place to be.

The list continues, saying, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart.  I’m not sure our culture values these characteristics too much.  Just try putting some of these descriptions on a resume—peacemaker; persecuted for righteousness’ sake; reviled for Christ’s sake—and good luck getting that job!

No, these are not characteristics valued highly by our culture.  But they are highly valued by Christ; and they characterize the citizens of his heavenly kingdom—or they should.

Which brings us to my second observation.  This beatific list isn’t all about the future.  Instead, it is about the present, the here and now.

We hear terms like heavenly kingdom and we see the future tense (they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, etc.), and it’s easy to go into pie-in-the-sky mode.

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

And when I do, we think—when I fly away in glorious rapture at the trumpet blast—then I’ll be poor in spirit and all the rest; ’cause then I’ll inherit the kingdom of heaven.  But I’m not about to be poor in spirit and meek and all that before then!

But that’s just Jesus’s point!  We are not living in a world as aliens and strangers; we are not living in a world that will all burn up and fade away and good riddance!  The meek shall inherit the earth, not some imagined fantasy land!  It’s not all going to end like Left Behind tells us (itself an inverted way of thinking), but through Christ saving the world in an ongoing way through his church; his church that is made up of humble, meek, merciful, peacemaking, righteousness-seeking, upside-up people—you, me, all the saints—in the here and now.

Think of the beatitudes, then, as a how-to list.  Beginning now, with you, these are how to turn the world right side up.  Strive after humility.  Strive after purity of heart.  Strive to be merciful, a peacemaker, and all the rest.  Strive to live each day as a citizen of the heavenly kingdom, for that is what you are.

That’s NOT not Fair!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2014 by timtrue

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

Chris McDonough, the chair of the classics department at the University of the South, addressed last year’s graduating seniors with these words:[i]

“[T]here was a time in our country, once, when our schools had programs of free and reduced meals that were predicated on the idea of hunger. Children couldn’t get enough to eat. In the past few years, that program has had to be re-structured to account for a different sort of problem. It is not that children cannot get enough food to eat, but rather that they cannot get enough nutritious food to eat.

“We are no longer dealing with want, in other words, but with obesity. And in a similar fashion, those of us in education are learning likewise to provide an education that does not presuppose a lack of access to information but rather too much. We are needing to think about an education, in other words, that confronts mental obesity. All of which is to say that you who are about to graduate have grown up amidst tremendous technological sophistication, yet what has ultimately been rendered is a universe of information absurdly arranged, a sumptuous banquet of mentally empty carbohydrates.”

McDonough’s right.  We know abundance.  And we feel as if we’ve earned it.  But we are glutting ourselves on it.

It’s not a question anymore of whether we can give hungry children food, but whether we are willing to give them healthy food.  It’s not a question anymore of whether or not we can afford a TV, but whether we ought to limit somehow the thousands of channels available at the push of some buttons.  It’s not a question anymore of whether today’s generation is receiving an education—indeed, there is more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before in the world’s history!—; but how to focus all this information into some cohesive structure.

In our food, in our entertainment, in our education we have become unhealthy, even obese.  We are not viewing our manna, our day’s wages, our daily bread as sufficient.  We want more.  We hoard.  And we think it’s unfair when someone less talented or less driven has more or seemingly better stuff than we have.

Over in Exodus today we hear the story of manna from heaven. God has raised up a new leader, Moses, for a new day in Israel’s history.  Through Moses, God has freed Israel from the oppressive hand of Egypt, dramatically, with the parting of the Red Sea.  Now the chosen people are out in the wilderness—and what are they doing?—complaining!

Complaining?  Didn’t God just deliver them from the hand of slavery?  Didn’t God just answer their collective prayers in undeniable ways?  Didn’t God just promise to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey?  And they’re complaining?  Already?

Well, um, yes, they are, already, complaining.  “We don’t have enough to eat out here,” they say; “but back in Egypt we had plenty of meat and bread.  We’re hungry!”  The whole congregation, in fact!  Despite God’s demonstrated generosity!  And despite God’s promise to continue in this generosity!

So what does God do?  Does God say: “Fine!  Forget it!  I’m walking away.  I’ll just go find some other people to make promises to.  I’ll just go find some other people who appreciate me, who won’t complain”?

No, that’s not what God does at all.  Instead, God provides them with manna, bread from heaven.

But there’s a catch.  The people of Israel are to collect just enough for the day—and no more.  Sure, the healthy persons can collect more than they need for themselves, in order to share with those too young or too weak to collect manna; and everyone can collect two days’ worth on Friday.  But the point here is that God wants them to trust him for their daily bread.  They are not to hoard.

Even so, a few pages later we read about some people who hoard anyway.  They go out in the morning to collect their manna for the day, just like everyone else; but they don’t stop with their one day’s ration.  Instead, they collect two days’, three days’, maybe even a week’s worth of the stuff.

What’s going on here?

These hoarders are not trusting God; they’re not wanting to follow the new rules of the new nation.  Instead, they’re operating by the old rules of Egypt.

But what happens?

When they wake up the next morning and walk on over to their storage containers, the ones with the extra manna in it, it’s full of worms; it’s mealy; it’s, as we say, not suitable for human consumption.

And instead of seeing God’s generosity in their daily bread falling from heaven, they complain once more.  “What?” they say; “that’s not fair!”

In today’s parable, over in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s really the same thing.

Some workers are hired by a landowner at the beginning of the work day.  And they’re hired at an agreed upon pay rate: a denarius; a day’s wage, enough to buy one’s daily bread.

Later, at the third hour of the day, the landowner returns to the market and hires other workers, telling them, “I will pay you whatever is right.”

Later still, both at the sixth and ninth hours of the day, the landowner does it again.

And once more, even at the eleventh hour, he hires yet more workers.

Finally the twelfth hour comes and it’s payday.  But the landowner pays everyone the same thing, starting with those who were hired last and working his way down to the first.

Then we hear that those who were first hired, the all-day workers, grumble.  “Hey,” they say, “these last ones hired didn’t have to stand in the scorching heat.  They didn’t have to bear the burden of the entire day.  Yet you paid them the same as us.  What is this?  That’s not fair!”

And we relate to these all-day workers, don’t we?  “Yeah,” we say.  “You know, those grumblers have a point.  That isn’t fair, really, when you think about it.  What’s Jesus playing at?”

But, remember, we live in America.  We have an abundance of food, an abundance of entertainment, an abundance of information.  We hoard unhealthily, even to the point of obesity.  This is not a judgment; it’s a statement about the way things are, a statement about our collective lifestyle.

But, remember too, we are citizens of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, with new rules and new ways of seeing and doing things.

Should abundance, then, be the lens through which we interpret today’s parable?  Should hoarding be the lens through which we understand fairness, justice, and equity?

I have my daily bread. That is what God gives me.  And with this I ought to be content; I should trust in God’s demonstrated generosity towards me—whether or not my neighbor has fifty times more.

But I see my neighbor and find myself wanting so desperately what he has.  And I shout out to God, “That’s not fair!”  I want that sumptuous feast, even if it’s only empty carbohydrates.

Or I’m like the workers in the parable.  “Why should my neighbor have as much as I have?” I ask.  “That’s not fair!  I work so much harder than she does!”  I don’t want to share God’s generosity with her.

But either way: when it gets to this point—when we think it’s unfair that someone else has it easier, or more than we do—it’s no longer a matter of fairness, justice, or equity.  We say, “That’s not fair!  That’s not fair!” feeling that we deserve more than the next person.  But the instant we point a finger at someone else and claim our just desserts, we cross a boundary: from the land of fairness, justice, and equity into the land of envy.

Today’s parable ends with the landowner asking those all-day workers a telling question: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

This question is what Jesus is playing at.

These all-day workers grumble against the landowner, accusing him that he’s being unfair.  After reminding them that he is in fact doing nothing unfair, that he is in fact paying them what they agreed upon beforehand, the landowner rightly turns the tables and asks the all-day workers to search their own consciences.  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

God is asking us the same.  We see our world through the eyes of our times.  Despite our Christian identity, it’s only natural that our views of fairness are going to align with our culture.  And God has been generous to our culture.  But when does our desire for fairness become envy?

We are citizens of a new kingdom.  It’s time to search our consciences.  Consider whether we need to reorder our views of fairness, justice, and equity to align with the view of the kingdom of heaven; to align with Jesus Christ’s views.  And it’s time to ask ourselves: is what we see as fair and just actually masking our own envy?

__________________________________________

[i]               Actually, Chris McDonough intended to address the graduating seniors; but a tornado warning interfered with his plans and the address never took place.  Cf. http://uncomelyandbroken.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/in-the-form-of-a-question/

Mocking Hades

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on August 24, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 16:13-20

41D4tux0HUL__SS500_

I’d like to begin today with a game I call Name that God.

This figurine I am now holding is a replica of a well-known sculpture of a Greek god.  I purchased it on a recent trip to California when I was visiting the Getty Villa with my daughter and my mom.  It now sits at home on a bookshelf filled with Greek and Roman mythology.

Do you know which god this is?  If you do, don’t answer out loud—not yet anyway; just raise your hand and keep it raised while I offer some hints.  After my hints I’ll call on someone.

A first hint then: the real sculpture, upon which this figurine is based, is housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum on the island of Crete.  Okay, not much of a hint, really, granted.  So:

A second, easier hint: look at the staff he’s holding.  At first glance—out of the corner of my eye—I thought it was a trident.  And that would have been easy: trident = Poseidon, or Neptune as he was called by the Romans.  But it’s not a trident; for there are not three prongs sticking up here, but only two.  What would we call this?  A bident?  Anyway, two prongs.  Do these remind you of something?  Horns, maybe?

A third hint: look at the beast with him.  It’s a dog of some sort.  But it’s not a normal dog, for it has three heads.  This particular dog, named Cerberus, guards the gates of this god’s kingdom.

One more hint: this god’s Roman name is Pluto.

So, who is this god?  What is his Greek name?

Hades.  That’s right!

Now, strange as it may seem to us today, this mythological god actually shows up in today’s Gospel. Did you hear it?

Jesus is talking to Peter.  And he says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The gates of Hades.  The same gates, according to Greek mythology, that are guarded by this three-headed dog, Cerberus.

Really?

Jesus is making a profound theological statement about the establishment of his church.  It is no less than a new kingdom; a kingdom that we know today has surpassed all other kingdoms—even the Roman Empire—in magnitude, importance, and permanence.  It is certain and sure.  It is fixed.  It is reality.

And yet Jesus compares it to a myth?  Really?  What’s he playing at?

Hades. You know, KJV says hell: “The kingdom of hell shall not prevail against it.”  But Hades is the word in the Greek Bible.  And it doesn’t mean the same thing as hell.

When we hear the word hell, we think of a place separate and distinct from other places such as heaven and, maybe, purgatory.  And in this sense what Jesus says rings true: the kingdom of heaven is a separate and distinct place from the kingdom of Hades.

The Christian tradition has taught us to think of these places—hell, heaven, and purgatory—as distinct realms into which souls pass when they are separated from their earthly bodies.  We think of them as separate and distinct places.

But Jesus’s disciples didn’t think this way.

Instead, they thought in terms common to their day and culture.  And to them, the kingdom of Hades was the one place into which all souls passed at death.  All souls: good, bad, or indifferent!

(Hades’ kingdom was divided up into three regions.  But all three comprised the single kingdom.  Tartarus was the region to which the really wicked souls went, something like our idea of hell; Elysium to which the heroic, exceptional souls went, something like our heaven; and the Fields of Asphodel to which everyone else went, much like the medieval understanding of purgatory.  But these were not seen as three separate places, like we see hell, heaven, and purgatory.  Rather, they were all part of the one kingdom of Hades.  That’s why—in another Gospel story—Lazarus, Abraham, and the rich man can see each other in the afterlife; despite the fact that one was in a place of torment and the others in a place of bliss.)

At death, then, as Peter and the disciples understood it, there was no escaping: like it or not, you would pass through the gates of Hades on your way into the underworld.

Unless!  There was one exception: unless you were a god.

Yes, Zeus, Hera, Ares, and all the rest were exempt from the kingdom of Hades.

But now we’re back to mythology.  So what?

So what?  Here’s what’s so what: there were also some others—some people, some mortals—who were claiming in Jesus’s day that they would be exempt from the kingdom of Hades when they died.  Death had no hold on them, they said.  This was no mythology.  This was really going on in Jesus’s day.  This was reality.

So, who were these people, these mortals, who claimed to be exempt from Hades’ kingdom?  The emperors!  Julius Caesar!  Augustus Caesar!

And so, when Jesus says to Peter and the other disciples that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his kingdom, it is not an imagined mythology that he is playing at.  Rather, what Jesus is saying here is magnificent.

Death has no hold over him!  He is the very Son of the living God, the only real and true God!  But his exemption from death is so much better than even what Caesar claims.  Caesar!  Ha!  He claims to be exempt from death.  But can he offer exemption to others?

But Christ!  Not only does death have no hold on him.  Death has no hold on Peter!  Death has no hold on the disciples!  Death has no hold on the entire kingdom of Jesus Christ!  That includes us!

This is the magnificent reality of the kingdom of heaven.  This is the magnificent reality of the church, built upon the rock of Peter’s testimony, upon the rock of the testimony of the disciples, and upon the rock of our own testimony.  Death has no hold on us!  The Lord is risen!  Alleluia!

Now, let’s bring this home. Sad to say, but we see death all around us—or, if you prefer, we see the kingdom of Hades all around us.

It’s in nature: when the leaves fall off the trees every autumn; or when a lioness overcomes an antelope in order to survive.

It’s in things like cancer, or on that sign over the freeway reporting how many traffic fatalities there have been already this year.

And it’s in the bad choices people make: in acts of terrorism and war; or in child abuse or neglect.

But the kingdom of Hades will not prevail against the church!

Wherever we see death gaining a foothold—in creation, in disease, in war, in child abuse—we must confront it with the new life Christ offers.

But I said confront, not avoid.  We confront death with new life.  We don’t avoid the kingdom of Hades.

What do I mean?  Consider Halloween.  It will be here soon.  It’s very popular in our culture.  How will you respond to it this year?

In my many years as a teacher at Christian schools, I’ve seen that there are really two approaches to Halloween.  One is to avoid it.  It’s all about scariness: skeletons, ghosts, vampires, and zombies; just take a look at people’s front yards around here in October.  Scariness!

Some Christians I know are averse to this.  Why would I want to frighten my own child, they ask?  Christianity’s not about fear, but about overcoming fear.  Or, as I’ve heard too, Christianity glories in life; but Halloween glories in death.  Why would I want my kids to glory in death?

This approach to Halloween avoids the kingdom of Hades.

But to confront it looks something like this (and I believe this is the more accurate understanding of Halloween historically).  Halloween means “All Halloweds’ Eve,” or, to put it in terms more familiar to us, the eve of All Saints’ Day.  On All Saints’ Day we celebrate all baptized Christians.  All!  Meaning those now alive and those who have already passed into glory!  Death has no hold over us, or them!

So when we dress up on Halloween as ghosts or goblins or werewolves or hags or whatever, what we’re really doing is confronting death with a statement of mockery.  Ha ha, Hades!  You have no hold over us and we know it, because we have new life in Christ.  In fact, you don’t scare us and we’ll prove it by mocking you!

You see?  The one approach avoids death; the other confronts it with new life.  But this is really just a picture of what we should be doing every day.

We are the church.  And the kingdom of Hades will not prevail against us.

From Nazareth to a Deserted Place

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on August 3, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 14:13-21

Maybe it was the fact that John the Baptist had recently been beheaded.

John!  His own cousin!  The one who had gone before him preaching repentance and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.  The one whom Herod the Tetrarch had locked in prison on account of a personal vendetta.

Ha!  Herod the Tetrarch—that fox!  More like Herod the Puppet!  Caught between a rock and a couple hard places—between a strong desire to satisfy his personal agenda, the Roman political hierarchy, and the pressures of the masses!  Oh, how Herod feared the masses!

So maybe it was out of grief for his cousin.

Or maybe it was the fact the he had recently been rejected by his home town.

He had come to them, the people of his home town, as a prophet, full of wisdom and power.  But who was he to them?  Simply a carpenter’s son.  To them, he had overstepped his social boundaries.  To them, he was an upstart, a know-it-all, too big for his own britches.

Having come to them as a prophet, then, and having been rejected as many prophets before him had been, wasn’t it the prophet’s natural course to retreat, to withdraw to a deserted place for a time during which he would commune with God the Father?

Maybe so: maybe he was acting as a prophet.

Or maybe he was simply an introvert and needed some time to himself to recharge.

Or maybe it was a combination of all these things.

Whatever the case, we read that Jesus withdraws from Nazareth to a deserted place.

This contrast—from Nazareth to a deserted place—is an important one to get into our minds; for it sets the stage for more contrasts that follow, significant contrasts, from which we can learn a great deal.

So what is so important about this contrast?  It’s just the same old story of town mouse and country mouse, right?  Jesus spends some time in the town, in Nazareth, and runs into some difficulty there; so he moves out to the country, where folks understand him better, where folks “get” him.

Well, yes and no.  Yes, he did run into some difficulty in Nazareth; and yes, the folks in the country did “get” him.  But no, it’s not so simple as that.

In Nazareth there was an established social order.  This is why Jesus’s home town rejected him in the first place: because he was bucking the established social order.  And if we were to trace this social order up, we would see that it doesn’t stop at the borders of Nazareth.  It continues beyond these borders, up through Galilee, up through Judea and all Samaria, up through Herod’s Tetrarchy, and so on up through the Roman Empire.

But when Jesus withdraws to a deserted place he is effectively withdrawing to an alternative social order.  He expects to be alone; but the fact that crowds follow him is the same thing as saying these crowds of people are seeking an alternative social order too, the social order of a new kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven.

But this alternative social order—Jesus’s social order—is not based on status and imperial brutality.  Jesus’s social order is based on compassion.

Here’s a fun Bible fact—something to arm yourselves with the next time you play a game of Bible trivia: this story, the feeding of the 5,000, is the only miracle to show up in all four Gospels.

But, I ask, is this just trivia?  At the very least, this factoid suggests that this story was highly important to the early church.  Jesus has just left his home town and is grieving the death of his cousin John.  He’s looking for time alone.  But, instead, he finds a crowd waiting for him; and he puts the crowd ahead of himself.  He pours out love on them in a very tangible way.

Jesus loves the multitudes, the commoners, the crowd, the plebs, the socially disadvantaged, the less-than-desirables, the untouchables—whatever you want to call them—Jesus loves the people who are otherwise relatively insignificant on the world’s stage—the people who are at the bottom of the social pecking order.  Jesus loves and cares for them!  Jesus loves and cares for us!

This message of love was extremely important to the writers of the Gospels; this message of love is extremely important to our world today.

So I mentioned that this contrast is important because it sets the stage for other contrasts that follow.  I don’t just mean the other contrasts in the text either, though there are many.  I mean these and the many contrasts we face in our twenty-first-century lives from day to day.

Consider this contrast: Jesus goes out to a place to be alone; but finds a multitude.

You can imagine this scenario pretty easily, can’t you?  You’ve been working hard all day and things haven’t been going particularly well.  You’ve been criticized today by your boss, questioned, perhaps even insulted.  And if that weren’t already frustrating enough, you then get a phone call telling you some bad news, some news that in fact brings you grief.

In this state of mind and heart you end your day; you drive home looking forward to some peace and quiet, some time to be alone with your own thoughts and loved ones, some time to recharge.  But as you pull into your driveway you get another phone call: some old friends happen to be passing through town and are in fact just a few minutes away—imagine that!—and what are you doing for dinner?

What do you do?  I’ll tell you what Jesus did: Jesus, who was seeking a quiet place, where he could enjoy a time of inaction, a time of passivity.  Instead—despite the disciples’ suggestion to send the crowds away—we read all sorts of action words: Jesus saw, had compassion, cured, ordered, took, looked, blessed, broke, and gave.  Instead of recharging through a time of passive inactivity, Jesus acted.  Would you do the same?  Could you do the same?

Another contrast for us to consider: the disciples and the crowd looked around and saw scarcity.  Only five loaves and two fish?  What can anyone do with so little?  Yet after Jesus blessed, broke, and gave, the disciples and the crowd ate until they were filled, with a great abundance left over.

Now I’m not suggesting here that the disciples did anything wrong.  They looked around at their situation and saw what you and I would see and were perfectly reasonable about it: There are only five loaves and two fish; there’s no way in the world this small amount could feed more than a few people.  That’s a perfectly rational assessment.

But this passage begins with a sort of ho-hum feel, that this is just another day in the life of Jesus, just Jesus doing what he does, his routine; but it ends with a sense of wonder coming upon everyone.  Five loaves and two fish feed five thousand men—not to mention the women and children?  How can this be?

Here’s a lesson from this contrast: we need to live our routine lives—our lives that can tend to feel ho-hum—looking for wonder.  Where is God at work when you have those terrible days, when work or school is a bear, when you receive a grief-generating phone call, or when unexpected guests arrive at an inconvenient time?  God is there.  God is everywhere.  Look for him.  You just might find him—and be wonderstruck!

Well, there are several other contrasts worthy of consideration in this passage. But I will end my consideration here.  Yours doesn’t have to though.  Why not go home tonight and contemplate this story some more?  Or tomorrow?  Contemplating the scriptures doesn’t have to take place only during worship.

But now I want to bring it all together.  Tonight we’ve heard again this familiar story of Jesus feeding the five thousand.  And we’ve contemplated it through a frame of contrasts.  What take-home lesson is there for us?

Just this: Jesus’s Kingdom presents a dramatic contrast to the kingdom of our world.  His is a Kingdom of equality and peace.  In it there is no social pecking order; no compulsion by force or threat of violence.

You who call yourselves Christians, then, are in something of a difficult place; for you have dual citizenship: in Christ’s Kingdom and in the world.  It’s when the values of these two kingdoms clash that you must make difficult decisions: to follow the way of Christ or the way of the world.

Here it is then, our take-home lesson: when these clashes come, always, always, always, choose Christ.  Choose the way of the desert.  Go there expecting to meet with God, expecting to recharge spiritually.  But go there, too, expecting to be wonderstruck by what God will do.

Finding Comfort in Apocalypse

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by timtrue

Matthew 24:36-44

“When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls; whenever candle lights flicker where the air is deathly still—that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight!”

So begins one of my favorite attractions at Disneyland: The Haunted Mansion.

We’ve entered a room through a doorway akin to a mouth, gaping, where we now are packed in tightly with loved ones and strangers—I don’t know, maybe something like fifty of us.  The closed doorway has recently shut all manner of sunlight out; our eyes are still adjusting to the dimness.

Our host’s voice comes to us from somewhere overhead, inviting us to look upward.  There we see eight family portraits lining the upper walls of this octagonal room.  Then, as the voice continues, the room’s floor starts descending; and the portraits extend, revealing that not all things are as they seem.  A nice-looking girl with a parasol, for instance, is now seen to be balancing precariously on a tightrope above a pit filled with hungry alligators!

Finally, as the family scenes reach their full length and after a loud scream, the voice of our ghost-host concludes.  We will take a tour of this haunted mansion via a three-passenger conveyor car.  But watch out, we are warned!  A ghost or a zombie may ride along with us at any moment.

All this, of course, is simply an introduction to the tour itself.  But we don’t necessarily see it that way—as an introduction—especially if it’s our first time.  Rather, it’s a part of the overall experience.  We find it somewhat frightening, sure; but we also take a certain comfort in that, deep down, at the bottom of it all, we know it isn’t actually real.

Today’s Gospel passage is our introduction to the Church year.  And like the introduction to Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion, some things about the passage may actually frighten us—especially if this is your first cognizant experience of it.

Listen to these words again, and let them sink in a bit:

  • For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
  • They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
  • Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
  • Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

This is frightening.  There’s a sense of apocalypse here, isn’t there?  Apocalypse: the end of the world as we know it.  That fires the imagination, doesn’t it?  What if, we ask?  What would things be like if there actually were an apocalypse in our lifetime?

But unlike Disneyland’s attraction, where we draw a certain comfort from knowing that deep down it isn’t actually real, in this case of the Gospel we know it is real.  Christ will come again!  And that will mean the end of the world as we know it.  And that’s frightening!

So let’s pause for a moment and consider this idea of apocalypse.  We humans seem to have a certain fascination with it.  For, at the same time, the idea of apocalypse both fires the imagination and frightens us.

Take popular media.  Ever heard of the TV show The Walking Dead?  It’s all about zombies roaming the earth after an apocalyptic event and the humans who struggle to survive.  Or how about the film Warm Bodies?  It’s a comedy about a zombie boy and a human girl who fall in love in a post-apocalyptic world—based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Now my gut instinct is to laugh at this idea.  A zombie apocalypse?  Pshaw!  Nevertheless, I did a little research, just to see how far back we can actually trace this idea of zombies and their connection to apocalypse.

To qualify, I used the Christian idea that the human person is the union of body and spirit.  When this union is severed, there are unusual results.  A spirit without a body is a ghost.  On the other hand, an animate human body without a spirit—that’s how I define zombie.

And wouldn’t you know?  According to this definition, zombies are there in that oldest of ancient texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh, when the god Anu vows to open the gates of the netherworld and unleash zombies to satisfy his daughter Ishtar’s anger.  They’re also there in the Bible.  Yeah!  In Zechariah 14:12 and Isaiah 26:19-20, the people of Jerusalem are told to hide themselves from a plague of walking corpses.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this idea of apocalypse is nothing new.  It was around in ancient times.  It is around today.  And—guess what?—it was around in Jesus’s day.  Yes, the idea of apocalypse captivated the minds of the ancient Mediterranean peoples too—whether in a Jewish sect like the Qumran community or the Roman aristocracy.

Will there actually be zombies in the Day of the Lord?  We don’t know, truth be told.  But our imagination, our fascination with the idea, and out fright have made room for it.

So, on the one hand, Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel passage are somewhat frightening, for they suggest apocalypse.  But, on the other hand, they are comforting.

They are comforting, not because they are like the Disneyland ride: unreal; but because there is, at the bottom of it all, a greater reality than what we know.  That greater reality is the kingdom of heaven, where we will end up in our liturgical readings fifty-one weeks from today.

The kingdom of heaven is governed by a loving and other-serving King.  Exactly what it will look like and exactly how things will come about—these details are unknown, sure!  And in these uncertain details we might become anxious, perhaps even frightened.  But the big picture is that God is good and loving; we therefore have nothing to fear.  This is real comfort.

But they are comforting words too because they are not just about the end of the world, but about today.  We don’t need to be sweating about the details of what is to come, whether there will be zombies or a rapture or whatever.  Today’s Gospel passage tells us how to live—today!  Whether or not we will experience Jesus’s second coming in our lifetime!

“But understand this,” it says: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”

How do you protect yourself from a thief?  It takes some thought and preparation: a security system, maybe some insurance, locks on doors and windows.  But then what?  You go on living your daily life.  Perhaps a thief will come someday and rob you of your goods.  Or maybe not.  You don’t know!  And you definitely shouldn’t spend your daily life fretting over it.

That’s life in Christ.  Think about that life; and prepare for it.  Trust Jesus as your savior and Lord.  Be baptized.  Reconcile yourself to your brothers and sisters.  Partake at the Lord’s Table with the saints.  But then what?  Carry on with daily life—as people did in the days of Noah.