Archive for Lent

Life Is Lent

Posted in Homilies, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 1:9-15

1.

Today I offer more a reflection than an exhortation—appropriate for the first Sunday in Lent. So, let’s begin with a question: Weren’t we just here?

The Gospel for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, just six weeks ago, was Mark 1:4-11, the baptism of Jesus.

And the third Sunday after the Epiphany, just four weeks ago, if you recall, was Mark 1:14-20, the calling of the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

Here, today, we straddle the two with Mark 1:9-15. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and end with the message he brought to the first disciples.

Yes, we were just here.

But—did you catch it?—during the season after Epiphany, we actually skipped right over two verses, 12 and 13, the two verses right in the middle of today’s text.

With everything else so fresh in our memories, this omission begs the question: Just what does the Gospel say, then, in vv. 12 and 13?

And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

This is what we skipped over in Epiphany: the temptation in the wilderness.

Which is certainly appropriate for the first Sunday in Lent.

For Jesus was tempted by Satan for forty days in the wilderness; and thus for forty days in Lent we acknowledge Jesus’ trials by adding some kind of spiritual discipline to our own lives, in his memory and honor.

But for the Gospel of Mark, this is it, just 2 verses!

There’s no mention here (as told in both Matthew and Luke) of fasting, of specific temptations, or of conversations with the devil; or (as in Luke) of the devil leaving Jesus until “an opportune time.”

Just the sparsest details: he was tempted for forty days; he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.

In Mark, this is all we get.

And it’s not a lot to go with.

2.

Next, are you familiar with the term liminality?

It comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold; and its idea is illustrated especially well in the Gospel according to C. S. Lewis—otherwise known as The Chronicles of Narnia.

The first book of this famous children’s series, The Magician’s Nephew, tells the creation story—the beginnings of Narnia—through the eyes of a boy named Digory; and his next door neighbor, Polly.

It begins in London, set in the earliest decade of the twentieth century. Digory’s mother is dying of cancer. They are living in a family home; where his old, eccentric, and maybe treacherous Uncle Andrew also lives.

Digory’s uncle, we soon learn, is delving into stuff he shouldn’t be, a mixture of science and the occult, stuff he doesn’t really understand. Somehow, he has managed to isolate and harness some ancient, magical powers in green and yellow rings.

This old conniver then tricks Polly into trying on a green ring; who immediately disappears into thin air. Of course, Digory is shocked.

“She’s gone into another world,” Uncle Andrew explains; “but you can bring her back—with a yellow ring.”

And so Digory, feeling trapped, puts two yellow rings in his pocket without touching them to his skin; and dons a green ring on his finger, following Polly into this other world, wherever that might be.

Where he finds her—they discover in time—is not another world at all; but a kind of threshold, a place filled with lazy green light and what looks like numerous ponds of water; and trees everywhere.

These “ponds,” turns out, are portals into other worlds. One transports you to and from earth; another to and from a world called Charn; and yet another to and from Narnia.

This wooded area is a liminal space, where nothing really happens; where you don’t know if several days or only a few seconds have passed; where you could lie down and sleep for all time without a care.

It is nowhere, really; a kind of in-between place, simply enabling a traveler to cross over from one world to the next.

And thus they call it, “The Wood between the Worlds.”

3.

So then, isn’t this idea—liminality—what’s happening here in Mark?

Just prior to the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus was baptized. Baptism signifies initiation. Something new has come, something we know from later on in Mark called the kingdom of God.

Following the temptation in the wilderness Jesus will take his newly proclaimed identity as Messiah and his message to the men who become his first disciples.

The period of temptation in the wilderness is the threshold between, enabling Jesus to cross over from his old identity to new, from human peasant to divine king. It is his wood between the worlds.

And what happens while he is there, during this in-between time in the wilderness?

The scriptures give us just three sparse details: he is tempted for forty days; he is with the wild beasts; and angels wait on him.

As I said earlier, it’s not much to go on.

Or is it?

Forty days is a direct reference to Moses’ spending forty years in the wilderness with the Israelites. Moses and the Israelites, as we all know, fell short in their time of temptation, as they crossed their threshold from Egypt to the Promised Land; Jesus does not.

The wild beasts harks directly to Adam. Adam was in the Garden where he was given the responsibility to name all the beasts. Of course, as we know, Adam fell short during his time of liminality in the Garden of Eden; yet Jesus does not fall short.

And angels wait on him refers to the patriarch Jacob, who came to a point of personal brokenness and saw a heavenly ladder upon which the angels were ascending and descending, waiting on him. God changed his name to Israel, who crossed a threshold to become the nation of promise, the nation that above all others would bring blessing to the world. Yet Israel too fell short.

Jesus crosses the threshold where all others have fallen.

And thus today’s Gospel is both a picture of Jesus’ earthly life—of his early identity as a man, his trial, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his newly understood identity as Savior and Messiah—and today’s Gospel is a picture of Christ’s eternal existence.

Before he ever humbled and himself and took on humanity, he dwelled co-equally and co-eternally in heaven as a Person of the Trinity.

After his resurrection, he returned to heaven with a new identity.

Taking on humanity and living and dwelling with us as a human being was liminality, his wood between the worlds.

Not much to go on?

Think again.

Incredibly, these two short verses in today’s passage contain the entire Gospel.

4.

And so here we are, on the first Sunday in Lent.

We find ourselves in a liminal place, crossing a kind of threshold.

Before we got here, last week in fact, our focus was on the Incarnation: God has come to dwell among us, understood especially in his advent, birth, and epiphany.

Our identity was as a host. God came to visit us where we lived; and we gave God a place to stay.

In forty days or so, beginning with and following the Great Vigil, our focus will be new life: God’s kingdom becoming the reality as our world fades, understood especially in the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost.

Our new identity will be as a guest. We will be invited into God’s realm; and we will be given a place to stay.

Now, during Lent, we are crossing the threshold between the two, facing Satan’s temptations and trials; living with wild beasts; with the angels waiting on us. We are learning to let go of our old identity and live into our new.

We are in that in-between place: no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of a new kingdom; no longer hosts to God but guests of God; our permanent residence is no longer in London but in Narnia.

Lent reminds us, we are on a journey from old identity to new; a journey of transformation.

Isn’t this the journey we all take, not just during Lent but through the course of life?

And thus, today we see: Lent is life.

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Light from Nicodemus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by timtrue

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John 3:1-17

We’re in Year A this year. Year A’s pretty cool.

Year A is the first of three years in our Revised Common Lectionary.  That is, starting with Advent and continuing through the 29th Proper, aka “Christ the King Sunday,” the passages of scripture we hear read on Sunday mornings all year follow Year A’s outline.

Next year will be Year B.  The following year will be Year C.  And the year after that will be back to Year A.

So, if you’re sitting in this church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2020, you’ll hear the same scripture passages that were read today.

And I for one am glad to be back in Year A.

That’s because in Year A we encounter four very special people, all from the Gospel of John, four weeks in a row, during Lent, who appear nowhere else in the Bible.

Over the next four Sundays, we’ll hear the stories of four wonderful, surprisingly modern saints of God, from whom we can learn much—if we’re willing to take the time and listen to them.

To listen, I said.  This means we’ll have to figure out not what the world has told us we need to learn from them—not what the world tells us John 3:16 means, for instance—but what each has to teach us from his or her own story.

So, who are these people?

Today, John introduces us to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus secretly, by night; and has an image-laden conversation with him about what it means to be born from above, or born again.

Next week it’s the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman—confronting us simultaneously with culturally sensitive issues of race and gender!—who encounters Jesus and quickly runs off to share the good news with her friends and family.

The week after that brings us to an unnamed man blind from birth, whom Jesus heals, and who then confounds the very teachers of Israel.

Finally, in Lent 5, we encounter Lazarus, not to be confused with the blind beggar in the parable from Matthew.  This Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus first weeps over and then raises from the dead.

All four of these characters are found only in John’s Gospel; all four are surprisingly modern; all four encounter Jesus.

And through all four encounters, over the next four weeks, we will encounter Jesus ourselves.

He might even confront us, even challenge us, to think about our place in the world in new ways, an appropriate heart-and-soul exercise for Lent.

So, yeah, Year A’s pretty cool.

Who, then, is this guy, Nicodemus?

The passage begins: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night.”

What can we surmise?

Nicodemus is a Pharisee; and a community leader.  Yet at the same time he seeks Jesus out.

He seeks Jesus, who by this time has already been singled out by both the Pharisees and the Jewish community leaders as someone to steer clear of.

Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers, after all!  Why, he’s uneducated, the son of a carpenter!  Maybe he’s not all there, if you catch my meaning.

Yet Nicodemus doesn’t want to steer clear of him.  Maybe his community is on the right track: maybe there is something not quite right about this man Jesus.  Still, despite what the world around him—his world—is telling him, Nicodemus finds himself actually drawn to Jesus.

So he goes to him.  At night.  Under the cover of darkness.  In secret.

Wearing sunglasses.  And a hat.  To avoid the local Paparazzi.

I wonder, is Nicodemus spiritual but not religious?

It’s as if he wants to know Jesus, to know God through Jesus; but he’s not sure.  On the one hand, his way of approaching God, his religion, hasn’t been entirely satisfactory for him; while at the same time, on the other hand, he’s apparently skeptical that Jesus will be the answer he seeks.

We get locked into our own methods pretty easily, don’t we—our own ways of doing things, our own ways of approaching Jesus?

Mine’s through prayer.  What’s yours?

Oh, well mine’s through nature.  What about you?

Mine’s through praying the sinner’s prayer.  How about you?

Me?  Ah, I find Jesus in the liturgy.

And so on it goes.

But what if we find ourselves becoming spiritually curious?  What if we begin to look over denominational fences?  What then?

Some of you know my own story of how I came to the Episcopal Church from Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

I was a part-time staff member of a small church of a different denomination, working as a worship leader.

Yet I found myself drawn especially to two things about the Episcopal Church: its liturgy and music; and its sacramental theology.  I found myself wanting to attend the local Episcopal parish.  But I couldn’t, since I had obligations at the other place.

Well, what to do?

As it turns out, Holy Week was approaching.  So my family and I decided to attend the local Episcopal parish, St. John’s, for the Triduum, that three-day drama that comes at the end of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil.

By the end of these three days, we were convinced: The Episcopal Church would have to become our new home.

But that first time we donned the doors, on that Maundy Thursday—I couldn’t help but feel a lot like I was playing hooky; like I was doing something very wrong; like I was dishonoring the tradition to which I belonged; like I was somehow being unfaithful or disloyal.

How surprisingly modern Nicodemus’s story is!

So, what is the main lesson we learn from him?

Our world has made a lot of the conversation that takes place in today’s Gospel.

What does it mean to be “born from above” (as the version we heard today puts it; or, to put it in a more popularized outfit, what does it mean to be born again)?

The imagery of rebirth has captured the modern American evangelical imagination.

We’ve all heard the question, or some variation of it: Are you a born-again Christian?

I don’t know about you, but I feel this question has been overused; that the phrase born-again Christian ought to be put on a list of banned Christian lingo.

It’s a polarizing phrase.

To one group of Christians, it’s an identifier, as much as to say, “Yeah, you say you’re a Christian.  But are you really in?  Are you born again?”

Whereas to another group, it’s derogatory or pejorative, as much as to say, “Are you actually one of those fringe wackos: are you born again?”

And because it’s polarizing, we’ve been distracted from the main point here.  The main point is not about individual souls being born again.  John 3:16, that favorite verse of countless people, says that God so loved the world.  It’s not about individual souls here so much as it is about all of creation.

So, let’s put this phrase away, on the list of banned Christian lingo, at least for a while, until it loses its polarizing quality.

Fortunately for us, there’s another image that comes out of this passage.  And I’m convinced that this other image, not the image of rebirth, is in fact the overarching image by which we can understand Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

What is this image?  Light and darkness.

The passage begins with this image (Nicodemus comes to Jesus by cover of darkness); and with this image the passage ends (light exposes people’s deeds, Jesus says).

Light and darkness here, not rebirth, is the governing image: it’s only after one has been reborn that one comes out of darkness into light.

So, what happens when we look at Nicodemus through this lens of light and darkness?

Nicodemus first comes to Jesus in darkness.  He is seeking.  He is curious.  He is probably concerned about what his community will think of him.  He may even be confused.

And isn’t this a lot like us?  Don’t we know a lot about darkness?  Isn’t our faith hard to understand?  Isn’t being a Christian often confusing?  Aren’t we seeing the looking glass only dimly?  Aren’t these all mere shadowlands?

By the way, we face darkness at both the individual and corporate levels.  The corporate Church, throughout its history, has made many errors.  I only have to mention the Crusades to prove that point.

But, this coming to Jesus in darkness isn’t all that we see of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.  He shows up again, later, near the end, with another heretofore secret disciple, a certain man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, who owns a tomb hewn of out rock on his property, the very tomb into which Jesus’ body will be laid.

Do you remember this part of the Easter story?

Nicodemus and Joseph come and carry Jesus’ body away and lay it in the tomb.

And they do this deed in the full light of day!

Despite his convoluted faith, fully aware that his religious and community colleagues would see him, fully aware that his deeds and faith would be exposed in the full light of day, Nicodemus throws caution to the wind and carries Jesus’ body away.

Despite the Church’s mistakes, whether in the Middle Ages or in the modern day; despite how confusing and convoluted our theology can be, the Church has been called to keep throwing caution to the wind, to keep carrying on Jesus’ work in the full light of today.

And what is this work?

Only to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick.

Only to care for orphans and widows.

Only to walk across town with food in our backpacks to donate to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Only to love all creation in such a way that it might be born anew.

The Parable of the Brooding Brother

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on March 27, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Who are we supposed to identify with in this very familiar parable?  Are we supposed to be the prodigal?

How many of you have ever gone against your father’s wishes?

Well, maybe not to the extent that this young man went.  Maybe you never asked for your inheritance early, to go spend it all, partying—or—how does the KJV put it?—with riotous living.

Maybe you’ve never journeyed far from home.  His journey, by the way, was both literal—he went to “a distant country”—and figurative.  While he was there, in that distant country, after living riotously until he had nothing left, and after a famine swept over the land so that most everyone was in need, what’d he do but hire himself out to feed pigs?

Pigs!  Swine!  Unclean beasts!  Not kosher!

So he’d sold off all his inheritance, which was most likely land, a commodity more precious than gold to Palestinian Jews; and he’d spent everything partying; and now, as if he hadn’t distanced himself from his people enough already, he was feeding unclean beasts!

Effectively, he’d become no longer a son of Israel or even of his own father.

Maybe you’ve never journeyed this far from home.

Literally, anyway.

But what about figuratively?  Have you ever journeyed so far from your heavenly Father that you effectively cut yourself off from him?

Have you ever sensed God calling you to do something and instead of doing it you ran in the other direction?  Have you ever been so upset at God that you shook your fist at him and wished you’d never been born?  Have you ever denied your Lord Jesus when others were putting pressure on you?

Well, so did Jonah, Job, and Peter—if that makes you feel any better.

But, to return to my question for today, so is this who we are supposed to identify with most closely in this parable, the prodigal son?

Or are we supposed to identify with the merciful, benevolent, gracious father?

Now, you’ve got to understand, this guy, the prodigal’s father, breaks with all convention.

He’s a Palestinian Jewish man.  Convention says ancestral land is something you must hold on to with all tenacity, like a bulldog with a lamb shank bone.  (Or like Rocky, my friend’s Boston Bull Terrier, with a Frisbee.)

When your son whines and wheedles his share of the ancestral lands out of you and then goes off and sells it in order to live selfishly, against all you’ve ever taught him—well, that’s got to be the end of it!  Convention, not to mention common sense, demands that you disown such a profligate, rebellious, and riotous son!

Besides, have you heard what the neighbors are saying?

But what does the father do instead?  He watches for his son: he keeps vigil, like Aegeus straining day after day to see Theseus’s white sails crossing the sea.  (Greek mythology tells the story of Theseus sailing off to kill the Minotaur and thus save his own land.  While he is away, his father, Aegeus, watches day after day for his son’s ship to return.)

And when his prodigal son is still far off—who cares what the neighbors will say!—he runs to greet his son, embraces him, and weeps for joy over him.

Faugh on convention!  His son was dead but is alive again; he was lost but now is found.

And so, is this what we’re to learn from this parable?  Are we supposed to be like the father—merciful, benevolent, and gracious beyond all convention?

It doesn’t matter that none of us really is this way, or that none of us will ever be this way during our respective lifetimes.  That’s not my question.  Rather, are we supposed to try to be like the father here?  Should we strive to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect?

Who are we supposed to be in this parable?

Oh, but there’s a third character, an often overlooked, or maybe ignored character: the older son.

He’s the one, remember, that has obeyed the rules.  He’s the one who did not ask for his share of the inheritance, but instead kept to convention.  He’s the one who remained faithful and loyal to his father throughout his younger brother’s selfish time of foolishness.

And yet what thanks does he get?  Has his dad ever thrown him a feast for all his years of faithfulness?  Has his dad ever even served so much as barbequed chicken for him and a few friends?  No!

Yet when his profligate partier of a younger brother returns home without a penny to his name—he’d spent all his inheritance, for crying out loud!—he’s receives no punishment at all but a full prime-rib feast!  What the heck!

I wonder, are we supposed to identify most closely with him?

While it is certainly true that we identify with the prodigal son, at least to some extent; and while it might be true that we aspire to be like the father, isn’t it actually the case that we are more like the older son than anyone else in this parable?

Let’s review.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable.

Ah, there it is: tax collectors and sinners.  Here are the people, surely, who represent the prodigal son.  And I’m a sinner.  I have no problem wearing that label.

Okay, so far so good.  But are you a bookie?  Are you a drug dealer?  Are you a prostitute?

Tax collectors, in Jesus’ day, were nothing short of extortionists.  Normal John-and-Jane taxpayers hated them.  Tax collectors were social outcasts.

Prostitutes were outcasts too.

For that matter, so were the demon-possessed, the lepers, the blind, and the other so-called sinners Jesus welcomed and ate with.

Is this you?  Are you a societal outcast?

For most if not all of us, the answer to this question is no.  We’re not societal outcasts.  We’re not drug dealers.  We’re not bookies.  We’re not sinners in the sense meant here.  And so, as much as we might like to think so, we’re actually not much like the prodigal son of this parable.

So then, what about the father?  Are we like him?

Well, I think this answer is a little easier for us to see.  The kind, watchful, benevolent, merciful, and gracious father who breaks with all convention is a picture of Jesus.  And as much as we try to be like him, we all know we are not him; and thus the prodigal’s father is not really a picture of us.

Thus we are left with the older brother.

He’s the one who has tried to be faithful throughout his life.  That doesn’t mean he’s been perfect; that he’s never messed up.  On the other hand, faithfulness suggests repentance.  When he has messed up, both in big and little ways, he has repented of his sins and mistakes and turned to press forward.

Just like us.

Yes, we are the older brother in this parable.

But here’s the rub: if you look at the parallels to the parable’s three characters, then we are effectively Pharisees.

Am I right?

The Pharisees were grumbling because Jesus was eating with and welcoming tax collectors and sinners.  So Jesus told them—the Pharisees—a parable.

Now the Pharisees couldn’t have been the tax collectors and sinners—i. e., the prodigal son.  Nor could they have been Jesus—i. e., the father in the parable.  For these were the very people they were complaining against!

That leaves the older son: the faithful, obedient older son who was left in the end saying, “What the heck, Dad!”

We can’t avoid it: we must identify with the older son; and the older son here is the Pharisees.

But, we protest, the Pharisees are the bad guys!

To which, I answer, maybe they are.  Or at least maybe we’ve been conditioned to think so.  On the other hand, they were the established “church” of their day.

But so what?  Let’s not allow our conditioning to distract us from the point!

In this parable, what the older brother decides to do in the end is left unsaid.  Will he celebrate with his father and younger brother, because his little brother was dead but is alive again; and because he was lost but is now found?  Or will the older brother continue to brood and sulk?  We don’t know: the answer is not given; Jesus doesn’t tell us.

History tells us, however, that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day chose the latter: to brood and sulk over Jesus’ dining with and welcoming sinners.  Their brooding and sulking led to hatred, bigotry, and death.  Obviously their brooding and sulking was the wrong choice.

But, despite our connection to the Pharisees here, our history has not yet been completely written.

We are a church that has tried to serve our heavenly Father faithfully and obediently, not nearly perfect yet repentant—a lot like the older son.  But how are we going to respond when convention is thrown off—when things are no longer done in the same way they always have been?

Will we brood and sulk over it?  Or will we rejoice with our heavenly Father as he throws a prime-rib feast in celebration of the one who was once dead but is now alive?

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day no longer have a choice.  We still do.

Returning with Grace

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2016 by timtrue

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Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

And so today we arrange our schedules in order to come to church and have a dark cross of ash smeared upon our foreheads so that everyone around us can see how holy we are!

But Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

Does anyone else see the irony here?  What’s really going on here?

Why does the church encourage us to come to church on this day along with everyone else in order to engage in a public act of piety?

For that matter—since we’re here—why does the church encourage us to fast on this day?  Did you know that?  The Episcopal Church—the mainline denomination that offers us so little direct instruction about how to live our lives—recommends that we fast on two days of the year: Ash Wednesday (today); and Good Friday.  Cf. BCP p. 17.

Again, if we follow this recommendation to fast on Ash Wednesday together, then aren’t we fasting publicly?  Aren’t we engaging publicly in an act of piety?

But doesn’t the Gospel passage fly in the face of public acts of piety?  In fact, this Gospel passage was appointed to our lectionary by church leaders.  Why would they do such a thing?  Why would they assign a text on this day (of all days of the year!) that calls us to avoid engaging in public acts of piety?  What’s really going on here?

The 2009 movie The Soloist tells the story of a Los Angeles newspaper journalist looking for a news story that will boost his public image.

He’s been a hot-shot journalist in the past, with praises sung by others in the field, etc.; but now things aren’t going so well.  Not only is the newspaper industry in decline; but also he just can’t seem to write the stories that sell anymore.

And on top of that his personal life is coming unraveled: his wife is divorcing him and his grown son is effectively estranged from him.  If only he can write a riveting story, he thinks, then he will get back in the good graces of the public eye.

So, with these motivations he sets out to find a human interest story.  After some searching he finds what he thinks is a sure winner: a Julliard-trained cellist who is now homeless.  He will befriend this homeless person and tell L. A. his story through his eyes.

Somewhere along the lines, however, the journalist’s motivations change.  Somewhere along the lines, as he gets to know the homeless cellist, he goes from using him in order to get back into the public eye’s good graces to actually wanting to help him.  Somewhere along the lines his motivation changes from self-aggrandizement to charity focused on another human being, a person who—homeless or not—deserves respect and dignity.

No longer is landing a good story his goal; but the well-being of another person.

Through a public act of piety, despite his initial motivations, this L. A. journalist is transformed.

Now, let’s talk about what motivates us for a bit.

We live in an image-conscious culture.  How you look, the clothes you wear; how you present yourself, your body language; how straight or crooked your teeth are; how much or how little hair you have; how thin or not-so-thin you are; even what kind of car you drive—all these things, like it or not, communicate a lot of information about you.

Wasn’t it some rock star that said, “You don’t know how long it takes me to make my hair look like I just rolled out of bed”?

We want to look good.  We want others to think we look good.  We want others who we think look good to like us.  And so on.

We live in a culture that continually tells us, “It’s all about you.”

But today, together, as we participate in this public act of piety, it’s actually a chance to reorient ourselves from the culture’s message.  Today, as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God is reminding us that it’s not about you.

Ash Wednesday is not about earthly accolades.  It’s not about what we do or don’t do.  It’s not about whether we engage in acts of piety that are public or private.  It’s not about whether anyone notices you or not, or about whether you’re communicating the right message or not.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday is about repentance.  It marks the beginning of Lent, a time of special devotion, a time of personal transformation, a time of grace-filled return to our Lord Jesus Christ.

A Theology of Glory’s Crux

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on March 1, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 8:31-38

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

We Christians like a theology of glory.  We enjoy this song.  We know how it’s all going to end—in Christ’s triumphant return; in a land of fadeless day; in a place where there are no more tears.  We like a theology of glory: of new life in Christ; of crossing the River Jordan; of passing through the Pearly Gates; of flying away; of resurrection!

And so we try to bring this theology to our earthly lives.  What would it look like, we ask, if all our outreach attempts as a church truly shone the bright light of the kingdom of God?  What would our own church body look like if only we could reflect even some the light of Christ’s kingdom more vividly?  What if we could only make a theology of glory come alive in this earthly kingdom now, where we live today?  How can we make the coming kingdom less future and more present?

A theology of glory is a good preoccupation.  For such a mindset leads to an answer like Peter’s.  When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Peter liked a theology of glory.  We like a theology of glory.

But things can get sticky when this theology becomes our main—our only—focus.

Which it has.

We modern-day American Christians crave a theology of glory.  So we’ve fashioned church into our own brand, a type of Christendom that in the end only we recognize.

Here’s how it happens.  We look around us to see what’s attractive, what programs seem to generate the most numbers, what kinds of messages seekers want to hear.  Then we compare: we ask questions about our own programs, the felt needs of the culture around us, our demographics.  We want our church to look just like that attractive, glitzy one in the Midwest that’s getting all the press lately!  That’s the kingdom of heaven come to earth!  Surely!

We understand and like a theology of glory.  And so that’s what we want: glory.

But is this the main purpose of church?

Poses a sticky question, eh?

But never mind.  We like our theology of glory.  We preoccupy ourselves with it.  And so we will continue to focus on it.

What we don’t like to talk about so much is a theology of the cross.

A theology of glory pictures a happy Christendom in the here and now.  The purpose is glory, the coming kingdom, heaven.  So a theology of glory focuses on how to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth now.  No more sorrow, no more tears, a land of fadeless day, a city foursquare—all now!

But, on the contrary, it’s a theology of the cross, not a theology of glory, that has now as its focus.

The Word became flesh and dwells—now—among us.  Jesus suffered and died on the cross in our stead; he’s with us now in all of life’s messiness.  A theology of the cross pictures the church not as a happy land of Christendom but as it is in its present, earthy, gritty, messy state.

Christendomland—that place we’ve invented to compete with that other happiest place on earth—is not the same thing as church!

A theology of glory is confident, certain, sure of itself, right.  It tells you things like, “If you struggle with questions about whether God is real, why you can’t ever seem to make ends meet, or why your kids don’t respect you, then, well, you don’t have enough faith.”

But this thinking tends to confuse faith with something else.  Confidence is not the same thing as faith.  Confidence seeks glory; true faith seeks the cross.

A theology of glory is optimistic.  “All things work together for good,” optimism says; “so just buck up and make the most of your struggles.  You’ve got cancer?  Well, God means it for good.”

But a theology of the cross tells us, “Yes, you’re experiencing tremendous pain right now.  Your very Lord Jesus Christ is right at your side, enduring your pain with you and helping you through.”  A theology of the cross doesn’t value some sort of pretentious optimism.  A theology of the cross genuinely hopes.

A theology of glory tends to look for escape.  I’ll fly away. . . .  But is escape the answer?  When pain comes our way, is escape from it the best way to deal with it?  Our culture seeks deliverance from pain at all costs.  But deliverance from pain is not the same thing as love.

Faith, hope, and love are properly understood only when our theology of glory is tempered by a theology of the cross.

The church is properly understood only when we read it with our bifocals on, through both lenses of glory and the cross, at the same time.

But we don’t like to.  We like a theology of glory.  But we don’t like a theology of the cross so much.  It makes us uncomfortable.

Now, isn’t this the same mistake Peter makes? Doesn’t Peter focus too much on a theology of glory and too little on a theology of the cross?

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples.

“Some say Elijah,” they reply; “and others, John the Baptist raised from the dead.”

“Fine.  But who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Messiah,” Peter blurts out.

And not in Mark but in Matthew we hear that Jesus responds, “Yes, Peter, and on this rock I shall build my church.”

Peter is caught up here in his quick answer with a theology of glory.  Peter is so quick to call Jesus Messiah, Son of God, deliverer of God’s people.  Peter is resolute and immediate in his connection with Jesus to glory.

Many of us are too.  And that’s a great thing!

But what about a theology of the cross?

What if the Son of Man must suffer and undergo many trials and tribulations at the hands of ruthless people?  What if Jesus ends up having to face that horrendous Roman invention of a slow and tortuous death, the cross?  Oh, and what if—just a possibility here—what if Jesus’s disciples must face suffering and hardship too, just like he did, on his behalf?

What do you think of that, Peter?

Well, we know what he thinks.  “May it never be!” he replies.

But we also know Jesus’s response to Peter, from today’s passage: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Peter didn’t like a theology of the cross so much.

We don’t like a theology of the cross so much.

But, obviously, Jesus doesn’t like it so much when we neglect a theology of the cross.

To understand God properly—to grow best as a disciple of Christ—we must understand glory in light of the cross.

So: remember the cross during Lent.

Remember that Jesus, the Son of Man, had to undergo great suffering; that he was rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes; that he was killed; and that after three days he rose again.

Remember that you, as his disciples, must take up your own cross and follow him; that you must lose your own life in order to gain his; and that you must strive never to be ashamed of Christ.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

2015 Lent 1: Ash Wednesday

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2015 by timtrue

Jonah

Jonah 3:1–4:11

Last year I established a sort of a precedent for myself.  I wrote a post a day during the season of Lent.  Well, I’m going to try again this year.

As an Episcopal priest I will draw on The Episcopal Church’s lectionary, or schedule of readings.  It is found in the back of the Book of Common Prayer (1979), in case you’re interested.

This lectionary is divided into two years, named, logically enough (though not too creatively), Year One and Year Two.  It’s easy to keep track what year we’re in: Year One, an odd number, mostly follows odd years; Year Two mostly even–“mostly” because the year starts in Advent, not quite (or only mostly) matching up with our calendar years.

So this year, 2015, lands me in Year One.

Within the year there are daily readings.  Finding the readings for Ash Wednesday is easy enough–p. 950 if you have a BCP.  But each day has a reading from the Old Testament, a reading from a New Testament epistle, a reading from a Gospel, and at least two readings from the book of psalms.  In other words, there are at least five readings to choose from on any given day.  Including today!

To make it easy on me, then, I’m making a decision to follow the Old Testament track this year.  I’ve established a precedent for myself, last year; so there are many years ahead, right?  That way, I figure, after ten years or so of doing this, I will have written a meditation on every passage in the BCP’s lectionary for Lent–quite a collection!  Of course, if I ever go back and read them I might be embarrassed.  Nevertheless, there it is, a Lenten project for myself.

Accordingly, today’s passage is the final two chapters of the book of Jonah.  You know, Jonah: the guy who rebelliously set out to sea, in the opposite direction, after God told him in a vision to go to the land of Nineveh; the guy who was swallowed by a big fish (the Bible never says “whale,” by the way) and the sea became  suddenly and strangely calm; the guy who, after three days (like Jesus in the tomb!), was given new life, finding himself spat up on a beach; and the guy who got mad at God for relenting.

That’s where we find him today: mad at God because God did not bring about threatened destruction on those mean people, those Ninevites, who’d greatly hurt Jonah’s people in the past.

But the king of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes during a forty-day period of grace.  Good grief, how Lenten is that!  And so God relented from anger.

Yet Jonah was mad!

Has it ever struck you that the Old Testament scriptures portray God’s people as able to argue with God?  God is a father to them and they are like argumentative adolescents.  Abraham argues about how many righteous people there are in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Jacob wrestles with God’s angel until he gets his way (and a permanent limp!).  Moses argues with God on the Israelites’ behalf, and wins!  And have you read the psalms?  Now, here, likewise: grumpy, angst-ridden, disaffected Jonah argues with God.

But we New Testament Christians somehow squirm at the idea of arguing with God.  The scriptures, some modern-day American good evangelical Christians reason, are absolutely inerrant; or at least infallible.  To which I ask, really?  Then why does the Gospel of John say that Jesus was crucified on a different day of the week than the other Gospels?  Are the (infallible) scriptures trying to deceive us?

Good question!  Maybe we should not squirm at discussing this discrepancy (only one amongst myriad, by the way).  Maybe it’s okay even to argue about it, eh?  The people of God in the Old Testament had no problem doing so.  Maybe neither should we!

The Christian church’s history is full of messy humanity, good, bad, and ugly.  Maybe it’s the same with the scriptures.

If God should be mad at anyone in this story, it’s Jonah, who becomes so angry he says, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

Do you ever feel like Jonah?  I know sometimes I do.  But the Old Testament suggests that’s okay.  If and when we argue with God, we’re still loved.

Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to where this Lenten adventure will lead.

2014 Lent 40

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , on April 19, 2014 by timtrue

Neque_Illic_Mortuus,_inside_of_Santa_Maria_del_Popolo,_Rome,_Italy

Hebrews 4:1-16

The writer of Hebrews tells us that the promise of entering Jesus’s rest is still open to us.

It’s hard for a priest to feel anything like rest at this time of the year.

For many people, Christmas is the busiest time of the year.  In America anyway, even if you don’t regularly go to church the Christmas season is super busy.  The whole country seems to take on a festive air–filled with deals and a certain chocolatey cheer.  It’s a good thing the kids have time off school too, what with all the traveling relatives and New Year’s around the corner and all.  It’s busy!

But for a priest the most important part of the faith is the resurrection (though, don’t get me wrong, the birth of the incarnate Jesus is quite important too–for without it there could be no resurrection!); and thus the most important part of the year is Easter.

Tonight we priest-types will finish the three-day drama traditionally called the triduum.

It began on Thursday, Maundy Thursday, with a foot-washing Eucharist.  Here we remember demonstrably Jesus’s new command to love one another–demonstrably because it’s through the washing of another’s feet.

Yesterday, Good Friday, we recalled his actual crucifixion with a noon service.  Here the altar had been stripped bare (at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service); and we placed a rough wooden cross at the front of the nave, listened to the crucifixion story read (John 18-19–no homily at all, just let the scriptures speak for themselves), and recited anthems said only on this day of the year.

And tonight it’s the Easter Vigil, a service that goes from dark to light, from death to resurrection, including baptisms–themselves a picture of resurrection–a service that in ages past was the chief Easter service (and still should be, as far as I’m concerned).

Add to this that every evening leading up to the triduum we celebrated a communion service and that last Sunday, Palm Sunday, was also a special day, and, whew, I’m tired.  Between last Sunday and tomorrow I will have been involved in thirteen worship services, some of which I celebrated, others in which I preached, and even a few (four in fact) wherein I did both.

So, yeah, I’m tired.

And here, today, I read words in Hebrews about a promise of rest.

Bring it on, I say!

So I don’t know.  During Lent we try to take on a spiritual discipline–whether we fast, write rambling blog posts, pray more frequently, whatever.  We also talk a lot about slowing down, becoming more introspective, reflecting, centering, and all that.  But I don’t know: maybe being a little busier during Lent and becoming increasingly busier during Holy Week, as we priests must do, and as many a parishioner has done over the past forty days–maybe being a little busier is actually more biblical.  For that is more like life.

What I mean is this.  We live our lives doing our thing.  And life is full of ups, downs, levels, highs, lows, middles, twisties, and straights.  We get to the end of it and (though I cannot speak from personal experience) we’re tired out, ready for that promised rest–just as I (and you) are tired out now at this end of Lent, 2014.  Then comes the reminder that we are loved with a perfect love, death strikes, and then comes resurrection.  Not just Jesus’s resurrection but ours too.  And, ah, at long last, we enter into that blessed, promised rest.  Amen.

The trick now, of course, is figuring out how to experience a sort of small resurrection in my own life as I face life after Lent.  I need to find some time to rest now, to be rejuvenated, so that I can begin the cycle of advent, birth, life, ministry, death, and new life all over again.

Time for a vacation, anyone?