Archive for love

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.

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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!

Imaging Love

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 25:14-30

1.

It’s not lost on me that today’s Gospel falls on our Ingathering Sunday.

This parable involves talents. Talents are money. Lots of money!

And it’s Ingathering Sunday, the day where we collect all our pledge cards and offer them up to God in hopes that we will be blessed in the coming year. And by “we will be blessed,” you and I both know what I mean: that the church will make ends meet and then some!

Oh, the temptation!

“Don’t be like that third slave,” I could preach, “for he took his talent and suppressed it. He buried it in the dirt; and ended up in that dark place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. We don’t want to be like him, do we? Well, here’s your chance. Pledge!”

Or, I could exhort, “Be like the first and second slaves. They took huge economic risks with their master’s money. And these risks paid off! Don’t you see? God wants you to take huge economic risks in what you pledge this year. Do it! And God will reward you.”

I could preach these kinds of things, sure. And, sad to say, many preachers will in fact expound along these lines today.

But—at the risk of losing a sales-pitch opportunity—my conscience steers me in another direction. I don’t think that this parable is telling you and me to empty our pockets for Jesus (though, if you want to interpret it this way, I won’t stand in the way!).

2.

Rather, the point of today’s parable is about how we understand—how we image—God.

We touched on this a few weeks back. The religious leaders that Jesus confronted had imaged God as a king, largely removed from the lives of his people. God is often likened to a king in the scriptures, after all.

But there are many other words, other images, associated with God in the Bible: father; mother hen; fire; wind; word; lover; friend; etc.

Do you image God as king? as father? as fire?

Or how about harsh taskmaster? For you, does God reap where he doesn’t sow? Does God gather where he did not spread seed? Are you afraid of God?

That’s how the third slave saw his master.

And, after all, he’s the focal point of today’s parable.

The first and second slaves do what is right: they’re the ones who take their master’s resources and double them, riskily living out their calling, as Jesus teaches his disciples to do.

But the first and second slaves are nearly identical. Other than the difference in amounts of resources, both go out and double what they were given; both do it in the same way; and both are welcomed and received by their master with the same words.

These first two slaves, much as they might teach us about stewardship, are merely setting the stage for what is to follow.

And what does follow is a sharp contrast:

in the way the third slave stewards;

and, especially, in the way he views, or images, his master.

“I knew you were a harsh man,” he says, “reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

Unlike the first and second slaves, who feel absolute liberty in using their master’s resources, and are themselves received with similar liberty, the third slave is afraid, constrained by his image of his master.

It’s not that the master is harsh at all. Rather, everything about his actions demonstrates generosity. It’s all in how the third slave views his master.

This third slave is like the religious leaders Jesus has been confronting since he arrived in Jerusalem some days ago. Long had they imaged God as a distant, aloof king who rules by law and judgment, a deity to be feared. And thus, in accordance with their image of God, they had established a religious system that held its people under a cloud of fear.

3.

Which brings up a good point: a good way to discern how we image God is to examine our own behavior. Whether we realize it or not, we act like the God we image.

So, for instance, how do we address God in prayer?

As a church, we say the Lord’s Prayer together weekly: here we address God, “Our Father in heaven.”

Also, I thumbed through fifty-one pages of collects in our BCP (pp. 211-61) and found these addresses:

Almighty God; Merciful God; Lord; God; Eternal Father; Father in heaven; Almighty and everlasting God; Most loving Father; Gracious Father; Almighty and everliving God; Lord God; Almighty Father; King of glory; Almighty and merciful God; Lord of all power and might; Blessed Lord; Everliving God; Lord of glory; Lord God Almighty; Gracious God; Almighty and gracious Father; Eternal Lord God; and Merciful Creator.

Rich and varied as these addresses are, most of them suggest distance, as if God is away from us, in heaven, ruling and reigning from on high—from somewhere else. A few, like “God” and “Gracious God,” are ambiguous: distance is neither suggested nor not suggested. But none of them addresses a God who is already present.

These are our collects. These are the prayers we say as the liturgy begins. The implication is that God is far off in a heavenly throne room somewhere until I, the ordained celebrant, summon God to be present with all of us.

Frankly, this is bad theology, a hangover from the medieval image of God as powerful and aloof king. If we say as a church we don’t view God this way—and we do say this: that God is always present with each of us and all of us—perhaps it’s time to revise some, maybe even a lot, of our liturgy.

Or maybe the reality is that we actually image God this way after all without realizing it.

Well, that’s an example from us as a church. What about you personally?

How do you address God in your personal prayers? Is it always, “Almighty God,” or, “Father in heaven”? Have you ever tried addressing God as “Caregiver,” “Friend,” or even “Lover”? What about something like, “Nurturing Mother”?

I’m not saying you should; I’m not saying you shouldn’t. You have liberty. I’m simply trying to make the point that we understand God largely in terms of how we image God; and we subconsciously live out our faith in accordance with this image.

A good dose of self-examination here can do us a lot of good. It might even motivate us to rethink our image of God.

4.

Of course, Jesus gives us an image: Jesus tells us that God is love.

But how do we image love? Love is an action; an ideology. How do we form an image of action or ideology in our mind’s eye?

I don’t know that we can. Love may be simply too abstract.

But what we can do is recall how it looks when played out. What does love look like? It’s a meal given to a hungry person. It’s a quilt received by someone in need of healing. It’s a kind word spoken at the right time.

Really? Is a hot meal an image of God? Is a quilt? What about a word? Jesus himself is called the Word of God.

Perhaps this is what Jesus has been pointing to all along:

  • Seeing God in the smile on your daughter’s face at the dinner table as you crack a silly joke
  • Realizing that God is everywhere around you as you wait in the checkout line at the grocery store
  • Hearing God in a piece of music
  • Observing God’s hand in nature
  • Sensing God’s very presence in the middle of a heated discussion at diocesan convention

Is this what Jesus means when he says, “God is love”?

5.

I am reminded here of a story about Socrates, that great Greek thinker.

His is arguably the second most tragic death in the history of human civilization.

He walked the earth long before Christ, executed in 399 BCE.

Like Christ, he never wrote a word—that we know of anyway. He is remembered through the testimony of others, especially his disciple Plato.

So, the Greek world of Socrates’s day, as you know, imaged God as a pantheon.

Zeus was the father god of the earthly realm; while his brothers Poseidon and Hades ruled the sea and the underworld, respectively.

Of course, there were also Hera, Zeus’s wife; Aphrodite, Zeus’s daughter (born out of his head, by the way); Apollo, Zeus’s son from an adulterous relationship; Ares, Zeus and Hera’s son, whom (according to Homer) they hated; and so on and so forth.

But, as you can surmise already from the little I’ve told you, the popular image of God in Socrates’s day was nothing short of divine dysfunction!

And Socrates knew it!

So, one of his more brilliant ideas was that, yes, there must be some kind of deity, for everyday life has all kinds of pointers shouting out so; but, no, this deity simply could not be—to borrow from The Kinks—a mixed up, funked up, shook up pantheon (except for Lola—or Hera, as it were).

In other words, for Socrates there was in fact a deity, but not as the popular image portrayed it.

Socrates realized that the world around him, wanting to approach the divine, had fashioned for itself concrete images of the divine. These images were the pantheon, a kind of high court of deities, gods that looked, for all intents and purposes, a lot like regular people, with all their warts and weaknesses—not unlike DC Comics’ Justice League.

Still, Socrates knew, there was something of God in each of these images; yet all of God could not be contained by any of them. Concrete images cannot capture the ineffable. By definition, it’s impossible!

Anyway, Socrates’s downfall was teaching the youth to see through—or beyond—these popular images of deity. “God is not a pantheon,” he declared, “but One. God cannot be contained by images.”

And for this—for leading Athens’ youth astray into what his opponents called atheism(!)—Socrates was tried, found guilty, and made to drink the poisonous hemlock.

Tragedy came upon the world because one man dared to challenge its popular images of God.

Jesus challenged a popular image of God in his day too—the image of God as king; and again tragedy came upon the world.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be like the third slave in today’s parable. I don’t want to view God as a harsh taskmaster, which simply perpetuates the fear, shame, and guilt that already runs rampant in our society.

Rather, I want to be like the first and second slaves. These guys took risks! These guys understood and lived into their freedoms! And in the end they were elevated to a kind of equality with their master.

Yet even more than that, I want to be like Jesus, who imaged God as love. For in imaging God as love, we become love.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 22:34-46

1.

Just yesterday—or was it the day before?—Jesus turned the literal tables over in the Temple courts.

Which led to challenges from the Temple leaders about authority: Tell us, they demanded, by what and whose authority are you doing these things?

Which led to a series of parables from Jesus about what the kingdom of God is like: a vineyard planted by a landowner, he said, or a wedding banquet given by a king; tax collectors and prostitutes will enter it ahead of the religious leaders.

Which in turn led to a series of three debates: about taxes; about the resurrection; about the law of God.

Don’t make too much of politics, Jesus says; Caesar is neither Satan nor God.

God is not the God of the dead, he states; but of the living.

It’s not about the law, he declares; but love.

And, by the way, since I have your attention, why does David call his own descendant Lord?

And with this question he turns over another table—a mental table this time.

Since entering Jerusalem, Jesus has faced continuous opposition. Through it all—in his metaphors, parables, and debates—he brilliantly has overturned tables literal and figurative!

But here, with this third debate—did you catch it?—the verbal opposition comes to an abrupt halt. The last verse from today’s passage says, “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

In terms of drama, here the scene ends. In the next scene Jesus will spend some exclusive time with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The conspiracy against him will continue to develop; but quietly now, secretly, in the shadows, in whispered arguments in dark corridors; and it will become greedy, self-serving, treacherous. Here, now, the house lights have dimmed; the stage hands are rearranging the props.

Obviously, with this abrupt halt in the Passion play, Jesus has made his point. Obviously, after Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with love, he has turned another table on his opponents, a final table, with this stuff about David and the Messiah. Obviously!

He’s brilliant. He’s dialectically and rhetorically unstoppable. And thus no one will dare to attempt to trap him verbally again!

But—wait a minute!—I don’t know about you but I’m confused.

It may have been obvious to them, in Jesus’ day; but not to me! Just what in the world was it? What table did Jesus just overturn here? What point did Jesus just make, exactly, to put such a decisive end to the debates?

He pointed out to them that the greatest commandment is love; but then he turned their attention to the Messiah being both David’s son and David’s Lord.

I get the part about David’s son: the Messiah is some kind of king. Also, I get the part about David’s Lord: the Messiah’s kingship will far surpass David’s in some spiritual way. But how is this stuff about David and the Messiah connected to love? To channel Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it?

2.

This is a riddle, for sure. Nevertheless, today’s Gospel confronts us with it. Shouldn’t we therefore try to figure it out? Here’s my take:

Jesus was demanding a change in perspective.

Now, let me explain.

The religious leaders’ established perspective was of God as supreme King.

To be sure, many scriptural metaphors liken God to a king.

As a mighty king, God delivered Moses and the people of Israel from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. God is called king throughout the psalms. King David is called a man after God’s own heart. Even Jesus sometimes uses a king in his own parables: A king decided to throw a wedding banquet; and so on.

But there are other divine metaphors throughout the scriptures too, many and manifold, which liken God to other things: a father, a mother giving birth, a lover, a friend, fire, light, wind; and the list goes on.

God is like that. God is unexplainable, like a benevolent king who puts a stop to injustice and oppression; yet also like a lover, intimate and personal.

We try to explain; but, really, how can words convey God at all?

Now, it is a wonderful thing when a benevolent king exercises justice on behalf of his people.

But, to carry out this metaphor a little farther, a king is mostly removed from his subjects:

  • He has his palace up and away from the common people
  • He is largely aloof, detached from the experiences of daily peasant life
  • He must establish and maintain order over his subjects, order that comes through rules, regulations, and taxes
  • He must make judgments when laws are not kept
  • (And, for what it’s worth, he is male)

The trouble comes when people view God through one lens at the exclusion of others.

When people view God only as supreme King, God becomes mostly removed from them, up and away in his palace in heaven, aloof, away from the day-to-day experiences of his people. God is understood to establish order over his people through rules, regulations, and taxes—aka obligatory tithes. When his people sin against him, God presides as judge over them.

And now, the original metaphor—all that stuff about benevolence; or putting an end to injustice and oppression—has been largely forgotten.

Moreover, when the people viewing God through this lens happen to be leaders, as were Jesus’ opponents, they act accordingly, appointing themselves as spiritual kings over their “subjects.”

But the kingdom of heaven, Jesus teaches, is like a wedding banquet. It’s a king who is the host, sure; but he is there in the midst of the festivities, mingling with the guests, sharing, laughing, and dining with them; even with tax collectors and prostitutes!

Jesus is confronting his opponents with their need to change perspective.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as king; but Jesus told them not to make too much of politics.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as ruling from on high, far away and largely separate from the lives of his people; but God is God of the living, Jesus said, dwelling with and among the people as they dwell with God.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as maintaining order by the rules and regulations of the Torah; but the greatest commandment is love, Jesus declared.

The Messiah, David’s Lord, will not rule and reign as David’s son—he will not rule as supreme King, far off in his high palace, removed from the daily experiences of his peasant subjects.

Rather, God is love. God is relationship. Like a friend and lover, God dwells among us and in each of us.

God is upending the hierarchical, dominating systems of the world that breed injustice, fear, and judgment—systems political, social, and religious.

It seems to me, then, that in all his confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders since entering Jerusalem a few days ago, Jesus is proclaiming a largely forgotten yet very real side of God. It’s not the side they’ve all been looking at for so many centuries; not the side from which they’ve inferred hierarchy, fear, judgment, rules, and regulations—but the other side, the overturned side, the side that reveals God as friend and lover.

Thus: Jesus was demanding a change in perspective.

But this change was so radical that it would upend his opponents’ entire system of spiritual domination and control. It was a threat to their established religion. He was a threat to them. As far as they were concerned, the debating—not to mention his life—had to come to an abrupt and decisive end.

The curtain drops; the lights dim; the scene ends.

3.

Now, I don’t know about you, but all this makes me a little uncomfortable. For, doesn’t the modern Christian church, by and large, continue to view God as king rather than as friend and lover?

To view God as king is to view him (male image) as a distant, powerful being; who spoke and thereby brought the sun, moon, stars, planets, trees, plants, animals, and us humans into existence. He continues to operate in our world, but aloof, as sovereign judge from his throne far away in heaven.

This view makes sin and guilt focal points of our faith.

Theological concepts like repentance, redemption, liberation, and salvation are all defined by sin: sin is what we repent from; it’s what we are redeemed, liberated, and saved from. Yet none of us is able to meet the requirements of God’s law; none of us measures up—yielding no small amount of guilt.

And so we who are the church end up acting like the God we image. Far too often we appoint ourselves as judges over the world around us, keeping track of broken moral laws, feeling guilty and ashamed ourselves.

That’s the message the world has heard anyway; and it’s an old, tired message.

But God is a friend; and does a real friend make rules and regulations to be obeyed or else? But God is a lover; and does an ideal lover want his beloved to feel guilty?

Think about just how radical this turning of the tables is! Jesus is telling us today that God is not all about law and record-keeping and sin and judgment. Rather, God is love.

What does this perspective do to sin?

It’s still there, sure: sin is part and parcel of the human condition. But it is no longer an all-encompassing, guilt-inducing focal point of our faith. It no longer defines and constrains concepts like repentance, redemption, liberation, and salvation.

No longer do we stand condemned, as if stuck in a jail cell awaiting a judge’s sentence. Instead, we are merely estranged from the lover who seeks to win us back, who knows us personally, and who cares for us intimately.

God is our friend and lover.

This is the message Jesus proclaimed to the world so long ago;

This is the message which confronted the religious establishment;

And this is the message we are called to proclaim today.

Fear Blights

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by timtrue

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46

1.

I begin today with a kind of parlor trick. Feel free to pass it along to your friends and family, especially the younger set.

<How to remember the Ten Commandments with your ten fingers.>

So, there it is. With this parlor trick, not only are you able to remember all ten commandments, but also you can remember which is which.

Now, before turning to today’s Gospel, I’d like to offer a couple remarks on this passage from Exodus:

  • Moses had recently freed the people of God from oppression: the oppressive hand of Pharaoh.
  • This new people was wandering in the wilderness, groping as if blind, not knowing their way forward.
  • As such, they were a new society in need of new rules. In addition to questions about religious worship, how were they to live together in relative harmony?
  • And notice Moses’ message: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” In other words, Moses said: Do not be afraid; but be afraid of God.

Okay. . . .

2.

Now, over in today’s Gospel we find some interesting parallels.

  • Jesus is seeking to free people from oppression.
  • This new Jesus movement is just that: new. And as such his followers feel much like they are wandering in the wilderness, not sure of a way forward.
  • Many questions surface about how to worship and otherwise understand corporate life.
  • And—while not specifically stated in today’s Gospel but most definitely a part of the larger context of his mission and ministry—Jesus shares a similar message: “Do not be afraid.”

But, unlike in Moses’ day, now it is not a political oppression that the people find themselves under but a spiritual oppression; and, ironically, it’s an oppression brought on by certain followers of Moses, the very agent of freedom we just heard about.

Back then, under Moses, the people wandered a little while longer, forging a path ahead, not knowing where God would lead. Their place of worship was a tabernacle: a large but flexible tent of worship, made so that in a day’s notice it could be packed up and moved to the next location.

Now, however, the corporate place of worship for the Jewish people is an inflexible, fixed, permanent temple.

The message under Moses was to fear God and obey his commandments—all ten of them.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, however, declare that there aren’t just ten; but 613. Now the people are called on not just to fear God, but also to fear those who on earth bear God’s special authority; namely, the leaders of the temple.

And so, like Moses, Jesus comes along and upsets the status quo.

He enters Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey amidst the shouts of throngs of people.

He goes to the temple courts and overturns tables.

He tells tricky parables that impugn the religious leaders.

And he suggests it’s actually not 613 commandments; not even 10; but really only one—in two varieties—love.

Do not be afraid, he says, like Moses; but, unlike Moses, his message is not to fear but to love. Love God; love neighbor.

And I cannot help but notice this detail: at the end of today’s Gospel, the religious leaders, who run their whole operation by means of fear—keeping the people fearful of God and of themselves—are themselves fearful: they do nothing to stop Jesus because they fear the people, who hold Jesus to be a prophet.

3.

So, let’s carry this comparison-and-contrast exercise one step further.

Pharaoh was oppressive; Moses liberated the people and started something new.

Many generations later, the Jewish religious leaders were oppressive, keeping the Jewish laity under clouds of fear; Jesus sought to liberate the people and begin something new.

Now—one step further—here we are today, many generations later again, having established and maintained the mission and movement that this man Jesus began.

And where are we?

Have we listened to his message? Are we loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we loving our neighbor as ourselves? Are we “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? Are we bearing fruits of love?

Or do we see God as someone to fear? Are we keeping ourselves and our neighbors under clouds of fear?

4.

Now, I’m not going to deny it: there is in fact much to fear in our day.

Just this week we heard about a tragic and senseless act of gun violence. Why is this sort of thing happening more and more frequently, we ask? And why isn’t more being done to stop it? We could have been one of the victims, we know.

And, rightly so, we fear.

Then there’s the seemingly increasing threat of nuclear war. What if North Korea doesn’t back down? What if our president does something rash?

Again, we fear.

And then there’s that nagging question of the environment. Science is warning us that the globe is warming at an alarming rate. There’s a great plastic patch in the Pacific, choking and otherwise killing off the life that teems there. How can we leave a healthy and thriving planet to future generations?

We fear.

Cancer hits close to home for all of us. What if I’m its next victim, we agonize?

And what of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other so-called acts of God?

Yes, there is much to fear in our world!—just as there was much to fear in the world of Jesus’ day; and in the world of Moses’ day.

But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!”

To live under fear—and it doesn’t matter whether its source is human or divine—to live under fear is to live under oppression.

And Jesus came to free us from oppression.

5.

But haven’t we been going down a rabbit trail?

This parable calls us to bear fruit. In the end, that’s who the landowner is counting on; that’s who will be called on to tend and keep the vineyard: those who are already demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in their lives; those who walk in love as Christ loved us.

Bearing fruit is the point of this parable; and so what does fear have to do with it?

Just this: it’s how we bear fruit.

As he delivered this parable, Jesus was speaking directly to the religious leaders of his day. For our day, just like then, this is a message directly to church leaders.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were running the established religious institution by means of fear, not by means of love. They bore some fruit, sure; yet the little fruit they bore was sour and difficult—like 613 times more sour and difficult than it had to be!

Fear proved a blight on their harvest.

Part of Jesus’ mission was to change this, to take the religious leadership out of the hands of the few who led and controlled by fear and put it into the hands of those who would lead as servants, by means of love, and thereby bear truckloads more fruit; tasty and productive fruit.

This is a message for today’s church leaders. And so, as a leader of today’s church, I want you to know: I am committed to lead by love, not fear; and thus bear fruits of love, not fear.

But, at the same time, this is not just a message for today’s church leaders. It is also a message for the church as a whole—bishops, priests, deacons, and laity. For who else is going to offer spiritual leadership to society today?

Jesus’ message is to all of us, particularly this corporate body we call St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School.

In and around the Temecula Valley, and in fact throughout the world; in this day and age characterized by fear, Jesus calls us to fear not; and to bear fruits of love.