Archive for love

And It’s Visceral

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2018 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 6:51-58

1.

How does one describe an altogether new concept, something that has never been described before? Words are limiting.

So, as a starting point, let’s turn to Greek mythology. There are many monsters in Greek mythology that look like nothing else, monsters that the authors of the myths had to describe to their readers who had never seen them before.

Scylla comes to mind: a hideous beast presumably that lived on the side of a cliff in a narrow strait and fed on sailors as they passed beneath. How would the myth’s author describe Scylla?

I strained my eyes upwards, and she came.

She was gray as the air, as the cliff itself. I had always imagined she would look like something: a snake or an octopus, a shark. But the truth of her was overwhelming, an immensity that my mind fought to take in. Her necks were longer than ship masts. Her six heads gaped, hideously lumpen, like melted lava stone. Black tongues licked her sword-length teeth. . . .

She crept closer, slipping over the rocks. A reptilian stench struck me, foul as squirming nests underground. Her necks wove a little in the air, and from one of her mouths I saw a gleaming strand of saliva stretch and fall. Her body was not visible. It was hidden back in the mist with her legs, those hideous, boneless things that Selene had spoken of so long ago. Hermes had told me how they clung inside her cave like the curled ends of hermit crabs when she lowered herself to feed. . . .

She screamed. The sound was a piercing chaos, like a thousand dogs howling at once.[I]

That comes from Madeline Miller’s recent book Circe.

But do you see? To describe a monster her readers have never seen, the author builds on what they already know: gray as a cliff, necks as long as ship masts, heads like lava stone, sword-length teeth, the cacophony of a thousand dogs howling at once, and so on.

To describe a new concept, metaphor is essential—metaphor based on what is already known.

So then, Madeline Miller described a creature—something concrete. What about when the new concept is abstract? How does one describe a new idea?

2.

For the people in Jesus’ day, the incarnation, God with us, was just that: a new idea.

Whether with the pantheon of Hellenism or the High God of Judaism, the common understanding was that God ruled and reigned from on high, far away, aloof and distant.

To communicate this up-close, new idea, then, Jesus used metaphor, building from what his hearers already knew: food and wine, eating and drinking.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Now, to clarify, the concept of the incarnation was not totally new. Israel’s God was seen traditionally as a warrior. A God who gets right in the midst of our army and fights our battles with us—that’s incarnation.

Also, glimpses of the incarnation appear throughout the OT.

God spoke to Abraham. Isaac listened and watched as God provided a ram in his place. Jacob wrestled all night long with God. And God appeared to Moses as a burning bush.

God was a pillar of cloud by day and a column of smoke by night as the nation of Israel wandered the wilderness. God’s spirit possessed the artisans who built and furnished the Tabernacle and Temple. And God fought with Israel’s army as the chosen nation took possession of the Promised Land.

The concept of the incarnation was already there, at least in seed form. But Jesus chose not to build on this traditional knowledge. Why?

Well, a suggestion: What about the victims?

God may very well have been with the army of Israel, fighting their battles as they overtook the Promised Land. But, at the same time, is that to say God wasn’t there with the victims too, as they were overcome, stricken down, and, as the Bible reports, slaughtered?

As he builds the concept of the incarnation from bread and wine, Jesus is teaching the common people of his day, people who likely would have identified more with the victim than the victor. Was God with them? At the same time, was God—could God be—with their Roman oppressors? If so, surely God was with each group of people in a different way!

So, today, Jesus talks about the incarnation in a new way.

And it’s visceral.

To eat his flesh and drink his blood is to ingest God. We bite, break apart, chew, swallow, digest, and expel God. The nutrients of Christ become part of our very flesh and blood. God is so incarnational that the Christ becomes part of who we are just as we become more of him and less ourselves.

3.

This was an altogether new concept, a unique way to view God.

So incarnational that we eat, digest, and expel him? Why, that’s just too earthy, too profane!

But is it?

I remember a scene from a high school Bible study I attended regularly—I’m not trying to be crass here; just to illustrate a point. The topic was prayer; and one of the girls made the mistake of telling the group that she prayed whenever she used the restroom.

Now, to be fair, in her own spiritual life she was trying to practice St. Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing. But, of course, the rest us, and especially the male percentage of the rest of us, giggled and laughed and jabbed each other in the ribs.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” one person said; “or at least you’re not supposed to tell us you do it!”

“Well, why not?” she asked.

“Because you’re not supposed to pray there!”

And yet the Apostle Paul does exhort us to pray without ceasing. Which began a weeks-long debate; and the phrase “praying on the potty” became a part of our Bible Study verbiage for the rest of the year: “How’s your prayer life doing?” someone would ask; “Still praying on the potty,” another would reply.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that the kind of language Jesus uses today to describe the incarnation is earthy, maybe even profane-feeling.

This language made a lot of people squirm in Jesus’ day; and it makes a lot of us squirm still today.

4.

We have no problem with the belief that God is transcendent; it’s our belief in immanence that we have trouble with. Understandably, we want to be reverent; we don’t want to be sacrilegious.

There is weighty precedence for what we do here each Sunday, namely approaching Christ together and communing at his Table. But God is also in every moment of our day and in every molecule of our being.

It’s okay to pray on the potty!

God is in here, in every moment and molecule of our being; and God is outside these walls too, in every moment and molecule of creation—

in the holy and reverent acts that are taking place in this and other houses of worship;

and also in the homeless hovels down in the riverbed, in the dregs of skid row, in rehab centers where people are recovering from addictions, in hospital ICUs where the sanctity of human life by necessity must take priority over matters of decency and modesty, and in anywhere else that might seem somehow too earthy or profane for our comfort levels.

And here’s where it all goes, as the rest of the Gospel of John proclaims: where the incarnation is, there too is God’s love.

Incarnation and love: you can’t have one without the other.

[i] Madeline Miller, Circe, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2018, p. 114.

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Love’s Superhighway

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2018 by timtrue

TECshield

John 6:1-21

1.

The information superhighway (i. s.) was supposed to be this awesome thing: awesome because now, at our fingertips, we have access to more information than ever before in only a matter of a few seconds!

You want to find a good restaurant? Why, just read the Yelp reviews. You need a new pair of shoes? They’re just a few clicks away. You can’t remember the names of the ships that went with Columbus to discover the New World? Just Google it.

But, if you’re like me, at times you might find the i. s. to be overwhelming, even paralyzing. There’s just too much information out there!

One search leads to another, which leads to another, and before I know it I’ve blown through two hours of my Saturday morning and three cups of coffee and I still don’t know the answer to what I set out looking for—or, worse, I’ve forgotten why I got on the i. s. in the first place.

Has that ever happened to you?

Now, as a church, left with the task of advancing Christ’s mission in the world around us, it goes something like this. We want to do some outreach. So how do we approach it?

Well, we grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and blow through a couple hours on the i. s.; where we find blog posts, web sites, book deals—all offering narratives of how some person or vestry or church succeeded and we can succeed too. But at the end of our drive we find ourselves still at a loss about where even to begin.

We end up, from my experience anyway, a lot like Philip in today’s Gospel.

Instead of beginning a new program of outreach, which is what we set out to do in the first place, we say things like, “Lord, how in the world are we going to do that? We’re in a lot of debt; yet six months of our operating budget wouldn’t even be enough for what we’d like to do!”

And instead of empowering us, today’s i. s. has overwhelmed us. Our outreach vision is paralyzed.

2.

But here’s the thing about the i. s.: it’s a highway of human knowledge; and human knowledge is not the same thing as love’s knowledge.

Human knowledge, however super it is, is nonetheless finite; but love’s knowledge is infinite. The i. s. comes to an end; but the highway of love’s knowledge has only just begun.

Don’t we see this in today’s Gospel?

Some five thousand people have gathered around Jesus; and they are hungry.

Jesus formulates a vision to feed them.

So Philip and Andrew, and we presume others around Jesus, gather information; but they come up short.

“This is a lot of people, Jesus,” they say. “Six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to feed them. And we’ve looked around; but all we’ve come up with is this boy who has five barley biscuits and couple of sardines. What good will that do?”

It’s an overwhelming, paralyzing problem. It would take a miracle!

In other words, they tried but failed.

Maybe it’s time to take another tack.

Or, better yet, maybe it’s time to let the idea die and move on.

But where their finite highway of information comes to an end, Jesus’ infinite highway of love has only just begun.

And somehow—I don’t claim to know, for love’s information is beyond human information—that miracle does take place. Somehow the 5,000 end up fed and satisfied, with leftovers!

3.

So, now I want to turn a corner and offer a “for instance” exercise.

For instance: What would it take to begin an outreach program for foster youth in our own backyard; in, say, Riverside County?

Most of you know I’ve done some work with Vida Joven, an orphanage in Tijuana. Well, we call it an orphanage; but it’s really a home for abandoned kids, wards of the state. It’s really the same thing, more or less, as what we in the states call a group home for foster children.

This got me thinking about foster children in our own backyard. Surely Mexico’s foster system is nowhere nearly as developed as ours, I thought; the need has got to be greater there, right?

So I sat down with a cup of coffee and took a drive on the i. s.

And I learned some facts:

  • There are about 4,000 children in the foster system (ages 0-18) in Riverside County.
  • If a child is not adopted by the time he or she reaches Middle School, chances of being adopted at all drop to near 0%.
  • Children are almost always booted out of group homes on their 18th birthday—whether they’ve completed high school or not. Happy birthday, right?
  • Nationwide, 83% of foster kids are held back by the third grade; about half graduate high school; <3% go on to earn a college degree; and 66% will be homeless, go to jail, or die within one year of leaving foster care (posted June, 2012).[I]

The needs of “orphans” in Mexico are profound; and we should not slacken our efforts with organizations like Vida Joven. However, I was surprised to learn, in the U. S. we have “orphans” too; whose needs run just as deep.

About 4,000 foster children live right in our backyard, in need of food, clothing, shelter, and, maybe even more importantly, stability and education. These statistics show: we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that our present foster system is adequate.

On another drive along the i. s., I learned about something good that is happening in San Diego County, called San Pasqual Academy.

This public charter school was the brainchild of two county supervisors who in the late 1990s decided it was time to do something about the plight of adolescent foster kids in S. D. County. The vision was to establish a residential home-and-school for foster high school students. And I’m happy to say that in 2001 SPA opened its doors, successfully defying the statistics I shared a moment ago ever since.[ii]

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take this idea a step further?

Episcopal Schools have a longstanding relationship with the Christian liberal arts tradition. This approach to education is designed to teach the whole person. It includes a spiritual element that public schools cannot. Its purpose is to develop leaders for tomorrow’s generation.

What if we brought this kind of education to foster youth in Riverside County?

Yet another drive on the i. s. took me to Imago Dei School, an Episcopal Middle School in Tucson that educates, specifically, at-risk students with the goal of making them high-school ready. It has proven to be a tremendously successful program; one that, despite being 100% private, has always been tuition-free!

Seemingly impossible funds—“six months’ wages”—can be raised! Modern-day miracles do happen. An Episcopal foster home-and-school in Riverside County, overwhelming as it feels, is possible.

4.

Jesus once had a vision to feed 5,000 people. So he asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?”

It was an overwhelming vision. So, “I don’t know,” Philip replied, paralyzed; “six months’ wages wouldn’t even be enough to pay for all the food we need.”

It would take a miracle!

Philip found himself at the end of his human knowledge—at the end of his information highway.

But there, at only just the beginning of love’s knowledge, he watched as Andrew approached Jesus with a boy who was willing to offer something: five loaves and two small fish.

And Andrew said, “It’s not enough food for five thousand people, Jesus; probably not even enough for five.”

But it was a start.

And Jesus knew it!

And I like to think the boy knew it too. Even if no one else believed in Jesus’ vision for outreach—neither Philip nor Andrew was there yet—even if it was just Jesus and a boy, it was a start.

And, as far as Jesus cared, that was enough. “Make the people sit down,” he said.

And we know what happened next. Love’s knowledge produced so much that the 5,000 were fed and satisfied; and twelve basketfuls of leftovers were gathered up.

Twelve basketfuls! Seemingly impossible funds! A miracle!

 

Does a vision for an Episcopal foster home-and-school in Riverside County feel overwhelming, maybe even paralyzing? Is your response to this vision, “It would take a miracle!”?

Yet already we have seen much more than five barley loaves and two fish in front of us—Vida Joven, San Pasqual Academy, NAES, Imago Dei School.

I pray that Jesus will take these and multiply them; and that we will see a modern-day miracle in our midst.

 

[i] Cf. https://vittana.org/43-gut-wrenching-foster-care-statistics ; https://www.nfyi.org/issues/education/ ; http://www.amarillo.com/article/20120624/NEWS/306249799

[ii] See www.sanpasqualacademy.org/background.htm

Quality of Life, Trinity Style

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2018 by timtrue

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

John 3:1-17

1.

What do we mean when we talk about “quality of life”?

It’s not just how wealthy you are, though financial well-being is a part of it.

Nor is it just about your health, though physical well-being fits into the picture too.

And it’s not just about social status, though relationships play a part.

Quality of life, we know, is a combination of all these things—and some others—how they work together in an integrated way to make your individual situation, whatever it is, most enjoyable for you.

Some people have serious health concerns. If this is you, then you know you don’t just give up and say, “Oh, well, guess it’s just a thorn in my flesh.” Rather, you seek the best remedies available. Maybe you will never experience full health again. Nevertheless, by keeping other areas of life in balance you can experience daily a high overall quality of life.

Or . . . how many stay-at-home moms have never daydreamed about dropping the kids off at daycare in order to land a job and bring in some extra income—income that you know will both make ends meet and give your family some extra “play” money?

Yet the stay-at-home moms I know also willingly make the extra-income sacrifice precisely because they want their children to experience greater stability in home life.

Quality-of-life questions are tricky. But achieving that sweet-spot quality of life is just that: sweet!

2.

Well, thus far I’ve deliberately avoided the subject. But let’s bring it in now: religion. Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?

For Nicodemus, his faith was a crucial factor.

Today, Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus comes to Jesus confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks.

His confusion indicates, among other things, just how important to him his faith is.

Nico—can I call him Nico?—is a part of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership that, according to John, is so vehemently opposed to Jesus in the first place. That Nico comes to Jesus at night, under cover of darkness, suggests how risky it is for him to seek Jesus out; and how much of a risk he was willing to take on account of his faith. His health, his wealth, his social status—he lays his quality of life on the line for his faith.

And the conversation isn’t easy. Jesus talks about being born from above and Nico only understands what it means to be born from below. Jesus talks of the Spirit; Nico of the flesh.

Jesus teaches the teacher of Israel that for those born from on high, the highest quality of life is initiated by God the Father, available through the redemption of the Son, and continues through the ongoing, everyday presence of the Spirit.

Jesus teaches the teacher that God is not as he has always thought, but is instead Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit.

The conversation ends with Nico fading into the darkness, seemingly as confused as ever.

3.

We’ll come back to Nico. But first an excursus. I want to tell you about a book I’ve just read and found to be utterly and simultaneously fantastic and profound. It’s called Circe.

Any fans here of Greek mythology? If so, you probably recall the adventures experienced by the Greek hero Odysseus after the fall of the city Troy. One of these involved the witch Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs and back again; and at whose island home he stayed for a year as a guest.

Odysseus’ adventure enters this book; but only briefly. For he was a mortal; but Circe is immortal. She is a witch-goddess, to be more precise. And this is her story, covering some 10,000 years of ancient history.

She was born daughter of the Titan-god Helios. And thus, through her eyes as a bystander—for daughters didn’t dare interfere with their fathers’ schemes—the reader comes to know the Greek and Roman pantheon in an enlightening way: from a lesser goddess’s—that is to say a female’s—perspective.

These gods lived outside the moral universe of humanity. And thus they cared little for human beings. Truth be known, they cared little for anything but themselves, especially the most powerful among them, like Zeus and Poseidon and Helios.

At the same time, they loved to be worshiped—through the groveling prayers of humans and their sacrifices. And so, quite sadistically, as Circe relays, the gods of the pantheon inflicted pain and suffering on humanity in order that humans would grovel and sacrifice for their pity.

Point for the moment is the pantheon had no love—for divinity or humanity!—within it.

Circe, on the other hand, cared deeply for mortals. She thought it unfair and unjust for the gods to treat mortals with such contempt.

So, one of the things Circe does is find clever ways to rebel against the dysfunctional deities through favoring mortals, especially the weak and marginalized. Another thing Circe finds herself doing—and this runs much deeper to the heart of her story—is increasingly to desire mortality for herself; for only through mortality, she feels, will she be able to love as deeply and genuinely as possible.

In other words, she desires to be transformed through love.

It’s a brilliant book. I couldn’t put it down—I read 119 pages at my first sitting! The author’s name is Madeline Miller; and it’s only her second book. Her first—equally as brilliant—is The Song of Achilles.

Both are excellent reads for understanding the Hellenistic mindset so prevalent in Jesus’ world.

4.

And that is why I bring this book up.

This book captures the religious mindset of the broader world in Jesus’ day; which was of a pantheon of gods who cared little for humanity—other than their groveling prayers and sacrifices.

The Hellenistic world feared its gods—whether a pantheon or just one god over all. And such a mindset—fear!—does little to improve quality of life.

Now, Nicodemus was a part of this Hellenistic world!

As you know, Nicodemus didn’t worship the Greek and Roman pantheon. He worshiped the god of the Hebrews—the same God, he thought, that he saw in the man Jesus.

But there’s a crucial connection to draw here.

The gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were incapable of human love. So, too, in the minds of most people in the Hellenistic world, including most Jews—so, too, was a god who created the world and forever since watched over his creation as an aloof and distant king.

Thus was Nicodemus’s god to him.

Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, feared his god. Nicodemus—Nico—offered prayers and sacrifices to his god. Nico may have even loved his god in some way—in the way that we love a movement to which we belong—that is, with a kind of human love.

But, for Nico and most everyone else in the Hellenistic world, could his god actually love him? It was an entirely foreign thought. How was it possible that a god could love humanity? How could it be that a human being could be born from on high?

And yet, Jesus teaches Nico, today (my emphases, obviously):

  • “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
  • “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Father.

Son.

Spirit.

Love.

Today, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that God is not a pantheon of dysfunction. Neither is God absolutely monotheistic, unable to love co-equally and co-eternally. Rather, God is three-in-one, from eternity past, before there ever were heaven and earth and time and space, always loving and including the other, co-equally, co-eternally—forever and ever, God is love.

And the mind of Nico, the teacher of Israel, is blown.

5.

Fortunately, this is not the only place Nicodemus shows up in the Bible, fading back into the darkness whence he came, apparently confused. In fact, he shows up two more times, both in this Gospel.

In chapter 7, members of the Sanhedrin command the Temple police to arrest Jesus without probable cause. Nicodemus is there; and he calls the Sanhedrin out for their injustice—only to be ridiculed by them. He sympathizes with Jesus, not in the dark now but in the light, before his peers.

His social status, wealth, and even his health don’t seem so important to him now.

And he shows up again in chapter 19, in the full light of the sinking afternoon sun, to carry the body of Jesus with another formerly secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, to a tomb.

Through God’s love, Nico has been transformed. His quality of life is on a new plane. He has gone from a life of flesh to a life of the Spirit; from thinking God is distant and aloof to experiencing, first-hand, relationship with and even within the Trinity.

For God is love.

So then, to answer my earlier question, “Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?” it transforms it beyond anything you could ask or imagine.

Gracing Belief

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2018 by timtrue

Burning_match

John 3:14-22

1.

I’m sure we’ve all heard this saying before: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

To give us some context, this saying comes from I John 4:18, which reads in full: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

So, show of hands: Who out there has reached perfection in love? No one?

A week ago Friday night we played with this contrast between love and fear in my Lenten Class, Love 101. The relationship between love and fear is analogous to the relationship between light and darkness.

I threw out three images from the natural world to illustrate:

  1. The closest thing to absolute darkness I’ve ever experienced: turning off headlamps while spelunking; and the effect of a solitary match lit in that darkest of settings.
  2. A still very dark setting: stargazing on a moonless night; and the amount of light transferred only from planets stars light years away—amazing!
  3. And the brightest natural light I’ve experienced: hiking at noon on the summer Solstice, with the sun as high in the sky as it could be in the thin air of the Sierra Nevadas above treeline; and still I could see shadows—darkness hiding in corners.

Light and darkness exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

In that near-absolute dark setting in the cave, it was only dark because of the absence of light, dramatically demonstrated by a solitary match. You can’t have light without darkness—one defines the other.

Yet even in the brightest light I’ve experienced, the high, warm light of the noonday sun, there was shadow: even the brightest light could not chase all the darkness away.

It’s a great illustration for the relationship shared by love and fear:

Fear grips us. It sometimes overwhelms us to the point of despair. But one little flicker of love and fear disperses.

As we grow and mature in our love, we come closer to that perfect love that casts out fear. But we are human, and thus we can never attain to that perfect love that is God. Thus, as good as our love can ever be—as brightly as it can ever shine—fear is never chased completely away, always at least lurking in the shadows.

So, towards the end of our Love 101 hour together, I asked if there was anything from our day’s discussion that we might want to explore further; and someone raised his hand. “This picture of love and fear is very helpful,” he said; “but how does it relate to faith?”

Well, I gave the answer that all good teachers give when someone asks a question that hasn’t occurred to me before: “That’s a very good question.”

2.

In today’s Gospel, I’m happy to say, we find an answer to that question.

Notice, first, how the passage ends:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Jesus is the light; God is perfect love.

Some people come into the light; and as a result their good deeds, which are done in God, are seen.

Other people, however, would rather not have their deeds exposed. To their detriment, they avoid the light and hide in the darkness. They would rather live in fear than come out into the light of Christ and the love of God.

And do you see how John is playing with the same analogy? Light is to darkness as love is to fear. Symbiosis is at work: one doesn’t exist without the other.

But John brings an additional variable into the equation, one I did not bring into last Friday night’s discussion. This additional variable is seen in the beginning of the passage, summarized in the verse that perhaps above all others in our lifetime has enjoyed rockstar fame, John 3:16.

And we all groan and roll our eyes! For this is an old rockstar; one, we all know, who should have retired long ago; and, dignity suggests, ought to retire now before he hurts himself.

Still, let’s try to see this verse anew; to hear his song afresh, in the context of love and fear we’ve just been discussing:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And do you hear it? Faith is a part of this song.

John doesn’t say the word itself—faith. But John’s Gospel is about action; and what is the activity—the verb—associated with faith? To believe.

John brings active belief—otherwise known as faith—into our equation.

For John, the people who practice active belief are those who come into the light of Christ and love of God; the people who do not practice faith would rather remain in the shadows of darkness and fear.

But we’re not quite done: faith is only half the variable. Light lives in relationship with darkness. Love lives in relationship with fear. With what, then, does faith live in relationship?

Let’s listen to that old rockstar one more time:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—

Okay, okay, that’s enough! Retire already.

But, really, my point here is that we like the second half of the song, the part that tells me that all I have to do is practice active belief—that all I have to do is have faith—and I will be saved. But there is an important symbiotic relationship here; and if all we hear is the second half we’ll miss it.

God so loved the world. God gave his only Son. God is actively participating.

As an individual, I like to think that it’s all about me. It’s my faith. I chose to believe. Or, just as readily, I might say, “It’s my atheism; I chose to reject God.”

But we cannot skirt around the matter. In our individual practices of belief or disbelief, God actively participates.

So then, what is this divine participation called?

Grace.

And now our variable is complete.

3.

But grace and faith together? Oh, the tension!

Grace tells me it’s all about God and nothing about me.

But when we tease this logic out to its theological end, the result is called predestination; and predestination is a difficult pill to swallow.

For, while God may have predestined my soul to eternal bliss and salvation, does that mean that God also predestined my unbelieving friend to eternal torment and damnation?

And, since we’re here, what about Adam and Eve? If it’s all about God’s activity, then God must have predestined Adam and Eve to sin; and the time of probation in the Garden of Eden was all a kind of moot, not to mention sadistic, stage play.

The same goes for Judas Iscariot. If he were only a puppet in God’s hands, then he actually betrayed Jesus under no volition of his own—and is therefore to be pitied above all other human beings.

But it’s no good, on the other hand, to say it’s all faith; for all faith places salvation in my hands. Whether or not I go to heaven at the last day depends on my personal steadfastness and self-control.

But my heart and my head wage war against one another. In my head, I know the disciplines I have set for myself to keep. But my heart tells me it’s okay to give in. And when I’m weary or fatigued—you know the drill—my heart always seems to win out.

Moreover, if my faith is all up to me, then God is removed to some far-off place and has little to nothing to do with me. And, really, who wants that!

Like light and darkness and fear and love, faith exists in symbiosis with grace.

4.

But there’s a key difference.

Love and fear exist together in tension, as do faith and grace. But we strive towards the goal of perfect love; and concurrently of casting out fear. Perfect love is our destination.

When it comes to faith and grace, however, our goal is not one over the other, but balance.

I came across a question this week[i] that sums it up well: “Put more personally, is my salvation dependent upon the steadfastness of my faith, or will I be graced by God whether or not I am faithful?”

The answer, according to that old rockstar, is yes.

Your faith and God’s grace go hand in hand.

Over in the Gospel of Mark, it sounds like this:

Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” (Mark 9:23-25).

“All things can be done”—God’s grace—“for the one who believes”—your faith.

“I believe”—semi-colon: same breath—“help my unbelief!”

This is the mysterious tension we find when grace and faith work harmoniously together.

May God be gracious to us all in our belief and unbelief.

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 120; Joseph D. Small.

Keeping It on the Move

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2018 by timtrue

VJ

Mark 1:29-39

1.

Vida Joven de Mexico is an orphanage I like to visit in Tijuana.

Okay, to be honest, I don’t really like to visit the home. I don’t necessarily enjoy visiting it in the same way I enjoy visiting a good restaurant. Nevertheless, there is something profoundly enjoyable—as in it fills me with life-giving joy—each time I go.

My most recent visit was last Saturday. My wife and son went with me. We sponsor an 8yo boy there named Daniel. One of his front teeth is still growing in; and, though the two of them don’t speak the same language, he and my son will pass a soccer ball to each other or play checkers or wage dinosaur wars.

It does my heart tremendous good when, after enduring the hassles of remembering our passports and long drives and waits, we arrive to the smiling, well-fed and cared for, and comfortably dressed children of Vida Joven.

But I said they were orphans. This is not entirely true. For the parents of all the children who live at Vida Joven are probably all still alive. The children have been abandoned, fortunately found by the state’s meager social services network.

Daniel’s story paints the picture as well as any. He’s the third of four siblings, the only boy. Social services found them all when Daniel was only three years old because his older sister, still a small child herself, had ventured outside to forage for food in an effort to keep herself and her little siblings from starving. The children, dirty and disheveled, were living in a shanty, trash strewn throughout, no sign of parents anywhere.

Of course, along with the life-giving joy I experience when I visit Daniel, his sisters, and the other children of Vida Joven, I also experience a kind of righteous indignation.

No child ought to have to experience the inhumane conditions faced for a time by Daniel! And yet it continues to happen: only a fraction of Mexico’s large street-children population ever become wards of the state.

God is love, we know. And love sees dignity in every human being. Mexico is our neighbor; and demonstrating love to our neighbor is a key part of what “God is love” means. Moreover, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is in a formal partner-relationship with the Anglican Diocese of Western Mexico; and Tijuana is geographically within this diocese.

Shouldn’t we privileged neighbors to the north be doing more about it?

By the way, if you ever want to join me on a trip, let’s talk. A vanpool typically visits on the third and fourth Saturdays of every month, leaving the parking lot of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chula Vista at 9am, returning between 2pm and 3pm.

2.

So: joy, compassion, indignation—and we come to today’s Gospel.

Jesus and the two sets of brothers with him leave the local synagogue, where Jesus has just healed a man of an unclean spirit; and now enters the house of Simon, one of the disciples.

Jesus carries the Good News from a public place to a private place. And, after all, isn’t that what the incarnate God is all about? God with us?

And Jesus doesn’t just enter Simon’s house as a normal guest would enter, to lounge in the triclinium, in the front part of the house, and enjoy a meal. No! Jesus, instead, goes into the most private part of the house, to the house’s inner recesses, where Simon’s mother-in-law is convalescing.

The Incarnation is everywhere—from the most public to the most private places of our lives.

And there Jesus takes this dear woman by the hand, lifts her up, and her fever leaves her immediately.

The Incarnation, we see, heals both spiritually and physically.

And she responds to Jesus’ healing by serving others! In fact, Simon’s mother-in-law is the first human in all the Bible to be called diakonos; in other words, she’s the church’s very first deacon.

Simon has been called disciple. But here’s a picture of true discipleship: someone who responds to Jesus’ love by loving others outwardly.

Well, word gets out. All the villagers needing spiritual and physical healing are brought to Jesus; who heals them, presumably, late into the night.

And very early in the morning, probably very tired, Jesus withdraws to a lonely place so that he can pray.

And what does Simon do? He hunts for Jesus.

This word, hunts, is a verb of purpose in the Greek. Simon hunts for Jesus with an agenda, with an intervention in mind.

Why in the world has Jesus gone off to pray, Simon wonders? Doesn’t he know there’s more work to do?

And so Simon—unlike his mother-in-law—gets it all wrong. He asks, “Don’t you understand how badly the people here need you, Jesus? What are you doing praying? It’s time to get back to your ministry and mission!”

Simon misses the point. The Good News is not to be cloistered up in a house somewhere so that people can make a pilgrimage to it and be healed. Rather, the Good News is to go out, to heal the people wherever there is brokenness, in places public, private, and anywhere in between.

The Gospel is meant to be kept on the move.

And so Jesus says, “Let us move on, for that is what I came out to do.”

And that is exactly what he and his disciples do. They go throughout Galilee, proclaiming the Good News in synagogues and casting out demons.

3.

What impresses me most about today’s Gospel?

It’s not that Jesus meets me where I am.

Sure, this is an important truth, one with which we are all familiar. The Incarnation is with us. We have our personal demons. He helps us confront them and overcome them. And he does this right where we are, in our present state of life, without having to make a pilgrimage to an English cathedral or the Holy Land. Jesus meets and loves me right where I am.

But that’s not the truth hitting me squarely between my discipleship eyes today.

Nor is it that here the Bible gives us a strong and important argument for women in ministry. Simon’s mother-in-law is the very first human called a deacon in the Bible. Angels have been called deacons before this point, but not humans. Later on other humans are called deacons—Stephen and Philip in the Acts of the Apostles, for instance—and it even becomes an office of the church!

That all starts here today, with Simon’s mother-in-law, a woman. Why then has it been a struggle in the modern church’s life to ordain women? Why is it still a struggle for two congregations within our own diocese?

Anyway, yes, the ordination of women, too, is an important point. But I don’t think it’s the main point.

Rather, what impresses me today is that Jesus determines to move on, to keep the Gospel on the move, to bring the Good News out to those who need it. He doesn’t want us to keep it to ourselves.

Now, don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying that our buildings are unimportant.

A key part of Israel’s history was to establish a building for the king—a palace—and even more importantly, a building for God—the Temple.

Indeed, today’s passage touches on buildings and their importance. A large part of Jesus’ ministry occurs inside buildings—in synagogues; in houses; in the Temple courtyard.

The buildings we build are necessary and good. They give us a place to gather as a community and engage in the important rituals that unify us as a body of Christ. Things like architecture, furniture, and placement of windows matter. Facilities serve a valuable purpose.

Even the word!—it comes from the Latin facilis, which transliterates almost directly into English as facile, meaning easy: our facilities make Christ’s mission to heal the world easier than it would be otherwise.

But, human nature being what it is, we can tend to want our buildings to exceed their purpose—just as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had exceeded the Temple’s purpose by locking God inside and making it well-nigh impossible for the common person to approach the divine.

Whenever we convey the message that Jesus is to be found only in here; whenever we stop bringing the Good News out to the broken world around us, we end up doing the same thing Jesus so vehemently opposed throughout his earthly ministry.

Despite whatever our facilities might tempt us to think, the church’s purpose is not a social club, not a place for refuge, not a museum to house historical and cultural artifacts, and not a community chapel.

The local church, according to Jesus, our founder, is a force for transformation if it is anything at all, going outward, outward, ever outward, healing the world around us from its brokenness.

4.

In light, then, of this discussion, how can we—St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church—keep the Gospel on the move?

That’s an admittedly broad question. So, let me be more specific.

How can we, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, bring the Good News to the abandoned children of Mexico?

These children are our neighbors. These children live within the geographical boundaries of our partner diocese. And these children are growing up impoverished and illiterate—broken and in need of Christ’s healing. How can we go out to them with Christ’s Good News?

It’s not a rhetorical question.

I wrestle with it all the time.

  • I am a member of the diocesan multicultural taskforce.
  • I am continuously alerting others to the plight of Mexico’s street children.
  • And I am seriously considering joining Vida Joven’s Board of Directors.

But I am also a priest of Christ’s church, called to be the spiritual leader of this local body. So today I’m asking you to wrestle with this question too: How can we bring Christ’s Good News to children like Daniel and his sisters?

When Faith and Beliefs Collide

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2018 by timtrue

Verkehrsunfall1

Mark 1:14-20

1.

Jumping right into today’s Gospel:

  • John the Baptist has been arrested
  • Jesus has carried John’s message of repentance to Galilee
  • Four fisherman hear this message
  • And immediately they leave the lives they have always known to follow Jesus.

Consider: theirs were lives of safety, security, predictability, stability, and confidence; left behind for risk, danger, insecurity, uncertainty, and self-denial.

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

Did they know Jesus already? Had they seen him somewhere before? Was it his charismatic personality?

Or, maybe, was it his connection with JB? There’s some scholarly speculation, after all, that JB was an Essene, possibly even of the Qumran community. Prior to his public ministry, Jesus might even have been one of JB’s disciples. We don’t know for sure. But did Jesus perhaps dress like JB? Would the four fisherman have recognized Jesus at sight—by the clothes he wore (similar to people recognizing me as a priest when I wear my collar in public)?

Or, was there something about the authenticity of Jesus? Here was a man who not only proclaimed a message of repentance but also lived out the way of love. I like to think so: that the message and messenger were authentically one.

Whatever the case, the truth is we don’t know why these four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus. This detail has been left out of the story.

But we know that they did.

No speculation here! On that day long ago on that beach, four fishermen left behind stability, certainty, and predictability for a life of risky faith as disciples of Jesus.

2.

And we know the result: through their faith they were transformed. Jesus called these disciples as fishermen and transformed them into fishers of people.

Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

He was called on the beach, the sand; and later called rock.

Jesus called him rock; and then, in the next breath, Satan.

Peter said he’d never deny Jesus; and yet denied him the next morning.

Peter became a stalwart spokesman for the church; yet disagreed and disputed openly and publicly with the apostle Paul.

Peter even waffled, tradition tells us, in the days leading up to his execution, one moment escaping from Rome and fleeing for his life, sure of his freedom; the next deciding martyrdom was the better way and returning of his own volition to face Nero for Christ’s glory.

Transformation for Peter—and for the others—was not a one-time experience, like repeating a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call.

Faith in Christ meant continuous conversion throughout his life, being conformed increasingly—more and more—from Adam’s fallen image into Jesus’ perfect image.

Transformation takes a lifetime!

And if it works this way for Peter, Andrew, James, John, and you and me, as individuals; then transformation also works this way for the corporate body of Christ, the Christian church around the globe.

3.

Which brings up a good point.

Here is the beginning of the church—the earliest community to gather around the person and mission of Jesus Christ. And this earliest body of believers lived a life of faith.

This life was risky, even dangerous.

It was insecure.

It was unstable.

And—not a point to gloss over—it required them to let of their egos.

And their faith resulted in their transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

Is the church, the collective body of Christ around the globe, still transforming? Is it still living a life of risky faith, following Jesus into unknown, even dangerous realms as it tries to fulfill his mission?

Take financial risk as an example. Certainly these four fisherman followed Jesus at great financial risk to themselves and their families. Yet, obviously, they didn’t sit down beforehand and plan out a budget subject to board approval.

The contrasting picture today is one of sweaty hands wrung together, knuckles popping and fingernails being bitten off, frantic phone calls, bitter arguments—in fear of insolvency.

We’ve come a long way in some ways; though I’m not sure we can say transformation is one of them.

And what of stability? We talk an awful lot about having buildings to worship in, in geographic locations. We are the presence of Christ to our community, after all. Better make sure we look like we’re built on a rock then and not on shifting sand!

Yet Christ was transient in his ministry, meeting in an upper room or speaking from a boat or sitting on a hillside.

Since the beginning of the church, a lot about Christianity has changed. But I don’t think this is the kind of transformation Jesus had in mind.

And what about ego? . . .

4.

Considered as a world religion, Christianity is commonly divided into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Each of these divisions can be further subdivided; and there are further subdivisions within these subdivisions; and so on; and so forth—leaving one dizzy.

A Catholic group says there are 33,000 different Christian denominations in the world; Gordon-Conwell Seminary claims there are 47,000.

But, of course, it depends how one defines “denomination.” Is an independent, so-called non-denominational church in effect its own denomination? Many would argue so.

If so, then, yes, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, in the USA alone there are more than 35,000 Protestant denominations.

But if, on the other hand, you lump all independent and non-denominational bodies into one group—a kind of anti-denomination I guess—then the number becomes a much more manageable 200 or so.[i]

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot.

And why is this?

Far and away, because of doctrinal differences: one church leader’s interpretation differs from another. And so, in the spirit of protest, channeling the Protestant Reformation, rather than seeking agreement a new denomination forms and breaks off from the old.

And if that’s not ego at work, I don’t know what is!

But, to be fair, you can hardly blame Martin Luther and the others! For the Roman Catholic doctrines of Papal Infallibility and magisteria (to name but two) are themselves exclusive systems of belief: if you don’t ascribe to them you can’t be in the club; and who wants to be in that kind of club anyway?

God is immutable, they say; and thus the church should reflect God’s unchanging nature.

To which I say, Immutability? Infallibility? (And I might as well add) Inerrancy? These words hardly sound transformational.

On that day long ago, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of them. We, the church, continue to have a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of us.

It seems to me, however, that our belief systems today are far removed from that beach where those four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus in faith.

Our belief systems are impeding our transformation.

5.

You know what I think’s going on here? I think we—the Christian church—have confused our belief systems with faith.

Once upon a time I was a director of youth ministries in a church, overseeing programs for students in middle school, high school, and college.

The college students frequently volunteered to work with younger students and thus were seen role models.

One day, one of the college women who volunteered with the high school program came to the pastor in tears, confessing that she was pregnant. The father-to-be was a young man who didn’t attend church.

Now, this church’s system of beliefs held that believers should not marry unbelievers; that abortion is murder; that sex outside of marriage is a sin; that sins necessitate repentance; that pregnancy is a public sin, for a swollen belly is soon obvious to everyone; and that failure to repent should result in excommunication from the church.

This system of beliefs had come from much prayer and Bible study, to be sure.

But it also led the pastor and elders (who were all men, by the way) to conclude, therefore, that the young woman must either publicly apologize to the congregation during Sunday morning worship or face excommunication. It probably goes without saying that abortion would have resulted in excommunication too; and unless he converted, marrying the unbelieving father-to-be was discouraged.

As you can imagine, this whole scenario put me into an ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, I was a vital part of this church. I ascribed to its belief system. I supported the pastor in his vision for the congregation.

And yet, on the other hand, I had gotten to know this young woman well. She had taught, prayed with, and otherwise provided spiritual leadership to a number of the youth. She demonstrated a life of love to these kids.

And love, after all—wasn’t this Jesus’ main message?

“Lord,” I prayed, “of all the beliefs in my belief system, which one is the greatest?” And he answered, “The greatest of these is love.”

How was this local church loving this young woman now, I wondered? By telling her not to marry her boyfriend because he didn’t ascribe to the church’s belief system? By publicly humiliating her in front of the congregation? By excommunicating her? Really?

The dilemma was real: My belief system collided with my faith.

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

But I’d also developed my ethic of love from Jesus!

As these two worlds collided, I realized I couldn’t hold both without significantly compromising my integrity as a disciple of Christ. I had to pick a side: belief or faith. Which would it be?

Well, what side had the four fishermen picked?

As with the four fishermen, Jesus is calling us to faith: to live out a risky ethic of love rather than to hold tenaciously to some rock-solid, immutable system of beliefs we call our own.

Through faith, not a belief system, we shall be transformed.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] Cf. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/sbeale/just-how-many-protestant-denominations-are-there

Getting out of Our own Way

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

FatherTim

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

Mark 1:1-8

1.

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

Two schools of political thought constantly vie for your attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what of religious similarities?

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what was John’s message?

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

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

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

Listen to the text again (emphasis added):

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

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

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

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

4.

So then, let’s put all this together:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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