Archive for mission

Mindful of Matthew’s Metonymy

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered yesterday at St. John’s, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas.

Matthew 5:13-20

1.

Have you ever been in on a “ground floor opportunity”? If so, then you realize that these opportunities are always filled with both excitement and anxiety.

I wasn’t around fourteen years ago when the idea of my school, Imago Dei Middle School, became a reality. But I’ve heard enough of the stories to know the bipolar atmosphere of which I speak.

I mean, a tuition-free Episcopal School, funded privately one hundred percent? You know it was exciting—and filled with anxiety! Fear too!

Oh, the stories I’ve heard—of faculty being asked if they wouldn’t mind waiting a week or two for a paycheck; of writing a rent check on faith that a donation would come in before the property manager deposited the check with the bank; of enrolling students who had no documentation of any kind! . . .

In a way, I’m actually glad I wasn’t around to see it. Too much of a rollercoaster! And, besides, there’s enough anxiety for me just in today, when we must raise, somehow, $1.75 million a year just to cover our operating costs.

No, if you ask me, a synonym for ground floor opportunities is stress.

2.

Anyway, with this ground-floor-opportunity framework in mind, let’s imagine ourselves today in the shoes of the Matthean Community.

That’s the original, the ground-floor congregation to which St. Matthew the Evangelist wrote his Gospel; the community that was the very first group of people to hear this good news proclaimed.

So, what do we know about the Matthean Community? A few characteristics from the Gospel stand out:

First, the Matthean Community believed in Jesus’ message and mission. That’s the impetus behind why they had gathered in the first place—a Christian assembly.

Second, it was a community seeking to understand whether Jesus was truly divine. We infer this from the larger context of the Gospel, which never actually asserts Jesus’ divinity—even after his resurrection—but suggests its possibility, as in the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

And a third characteristic: the Matthean Community was mostly Jewish.

This is a fact that is often easily overlooked by Christians today, 2,000 years removed from the context of the first Christian communities. Early Christianity was simply a Jewish sect—left-wing whackos maybe, but a sect nonetheless.

The larger Jewish world was reidentifying itself in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Most of the Diaspora congregated into local synagogues.

With the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees, the Jewish party that had functioned as the political and religious leaders in Jerusalem, were effectively snuffed out. The Pharisees, another Jewish party, now held sway over popular opinion.

Ideologically speaking, the Pharisees were right-wingers. And thus, in general, the left-wing Christian offshoots were not favorably welcomed by the broader, reconstituting Jewish community.

Surely, excitement and anxiety—and, also, fear—characterized the Matthean Community.

3.

So, now, imagine that the Matthean Community is hearing this Gospel proclaimed for the first time.

Leading up to today’s passage, this community has heard the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, facing temptation in the wilderness for forty days, and the calling the first disciples; and that those who follow Jesus, despite being reviled, are instead truly blessed.

And at this point, in this context, for the first time ever, the people of this community hear two metaphors from Jesus himself: you are salt and light.

Salt and light. Curious metaphors: both have two sides to them.

Salt flavors in a delightful way.

But salt also has an edge to it. Too much salt is hard to take. To rub it on meat is to preserve; and yet too much rubbing is abrasive. We salt our roads to cut through ice and snow. Salt stings our wounds.

Similarly, light has a delightful side to it: it illuminates the things we need to see. But it also exposes things we sometimes don’t want to see, things we sometimes don’t want others to see.

In our world today, we now know, too much light produces light pollution.

So, we, Jesus says, are salt and light. We, the Church, have a pastoral call to the world around us. This pastoral call has a good side to it—we flavor our world; we illuminate it. But it also has a harsh side.

We flavor our world. We also preserve it—with abrasiveness when we must, cutting through the ice and snow of dark, cold evil. Too, we illuminate our world, which shows the world Jesus; but which also brings evil to light.

Our mission is two-sided.

We affirm—we welcome and include.

But, simultaneously, we criticize where necessary—calling the world around us to repent from the Way of Domination, from lives in conflict with God.

There’s something of mercy and judgment in the mission Jesus left to us.

4.

Now, at this point I want to return to something I mentioned above. Let’s back up and have a look together at the Matthean Community’s so-called opponents: Who were these Pharisees? Who were these caricatures criticized by the Matthean Community?

We hear Matthew mention Pharisees in today’s Gospel—“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”—and we think, “Villains! Boo! Hiss!”

And, certainly, elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel our suspicions are confirmed.

Pharisees pray long prayers on street corners in order to be heard by others. Pharisees tie up heavy burdens and lay them on the shoulders of other people. Pharisees love to have the best seats in banquets and synagogues.

And over in chapter 23, Matthew portrays Jesus as vilifying Pharisees with not one or two but eight woes:

  • Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.
  • Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
  • Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.”

And on it goes!

To the Matthean Community, Pharisees were the villains.

But the reality in the ancient world was just not so.

In the ancient, spiritually confused world, Pharisees piously sought God’s will.

In the desperate time of Jewish rebuilding following the destruction of the Temple, Pharisees led pastorally the communities of the Diaspora.

In that day as well as today, Pharisees were and are Jewish role models of what it means to live an upright life.

So, why does Matthew vilify them so? Why are they criticized?

It is because they represented a larger system that was very much opposed to the Matthean Community’s ideals and all that it was trying to establish—that ground floor opportunity, full of excitement and worry and fear.

It became all too easy for the early Christians to look at their opponents and blame them for the oppressiveness they felt from the real opposition: a much larger, abstract, faceless, person-less system; the Way of Domination.

5.

Of course, we today are not that early community. Nevertheless, we are still carrying out Jesus’ mission.

There’s a tale of caution here. Carrying out Jesus’ mission today, it remains all too easy for us to look around and ask, “Who are our opponents?”

We want to vilify too. This want is in our nature.

So, for instance, in light of my sermons over the past several weeks, we might answer that those who support the idea of the border wall are our opponents.

More specifically, we might even say that US Border Patrol agents are our opponents.

But this is the wrong answer!

Matthew was using a figure of speech called metonymy. The Pharisees themselves were not the opponents. Rather, the Pharisees represented the larger religious system—that faceless, person-less system—the Way of Domination—that worked against them.

Just so, we might be tempted to vilify Border Patrol agents today; because, as we see it, they represent the Way of Domination.

But are they really our opponents?

No! Of course not!

Here is a tale of caution for us. Where the Church took Matthew’s metonymy is truly shameful—terrible prejudice towards Jews resounds throughout the halls of Church history.

Well, do you know any Border Patrol agents personally today? I hope we’ve learned our lesson.

We are not called to vilify, villainize, or otherwise demonize individual persons—whether Border Patrol agents, Democrats, Republicans, white supremacists, Black Panthers, terrorists, or anyone else we perceive as the enemy.

Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

And what does it mean to fulfill the law in the deepest sense possible?

As we oppose the faceless, person-less, abstract system I’ve been calling the Way of Domination, we are to love God and our neighbor—even when we perceive that neighbor to be an enemy.

Love! The greatest commandment! Love!

We are salt and light—two-sided metaphors. We are called to exercise both mercy and judgment.

But in our judgment, we shall not vilify, villainize, or demonize any person.

Instead, we criticize the Way of Domination at work seemingly everywhere in the world around us; and, simultaneously, we uphold the dignity of every human being, proclaiming boldly the Way of Love.

Hope for the Meek

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2020 by timtrue

To be delivered tomorrow at St. John’s Church, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas. Both churches are near the Mexican border; one within eyeshot (a mere 10 blocks from the port of entry into Agua Prieta). Because of my twelve weeks with them and my intention to preach one, overarching story over these twelve weeks, I am using the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany rather than for the Feast of the Presentation.

Matthew 5:1-12

1.

Last week, we heard about Jesus calling his first disciples and explored just how radical that calling was; and how our call to follow Jesus today is similarly radical.

Last week, also, we contemplated the meaning of evangelism—that part of our call known as the good news.

How are we supposed to proclaim it? What actions are we called to take?

I argued for context: the good news we proclaim and the actions we take are defined, at least in part, by our social and historical contexts.

As I drew my sermon to a close, I stated that our context here in southeast Arizona is defined by a geographic border.

This border is one of the many things that defines each of our lives—ourselves; and our neighbors. That means, when we look outwardly, thinking about the mission Jesus has left for us, the good news we proclaim and the good deeds we do are defined by this border too.

What, then, is our good news? In our particular, border-defined context, what message should we proclaim and what actions should we take to tell this part of the world that Jesus’ Way of Love is alive and well; and that it will prevail?

Just how do we demonstrate God through Christ to the world around us?

Anyway, that was last week.

Today, I want—and the Gospel compels us—to dive deeper.

2.

So, I’ve been reading an eye-opening book over the past couple of weeks by an Arizona man named Todd Miller. It’s called Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. And, in good journalistic fashion, this book outlines just what the subtitle says.

Climate change is affecting our world. Sea levels are rising. Massive storms, unlike any in recorded history, are predicted. Of the first 16 years of the 21st century, 15 were the hottest on record.

An important corollary to climate change is migration. Because of rising sea levels and the advent of superstorms, people are being displaced from their homes on a massive scale: climate refugees, Miller calls them.

And this massive-scale displacement is not going to diminish any time soon. Rather, given the anticipated rise in sea levels globally, we can expect migration—the numbers of displaced people all over the world—to increase significantly throughout our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children and even our grandchildren.

At the same time, Miller observes, many of the wealthiest countries around the world—countries with the resources to make them best able to help climate refugees—the U. S., Australia, Iceland, Poland, and several others—are clamping down on their borders.

Do you know that our country’s annual operating budget for border security is over $20 billion? This is in addition to the construction of the wall, with a recently updated price tag of $11 billion.

That’s a lot of money–$20 billion a year!

I wonder how many refugees our country could accommodate with that kind of money, or how much work towards environmental sustainability we could accomplish. . . .

So, anyway, this is where the “Homeland Security” part of Miller’s subtitle comes in.

And this is where his book resonates most keenly with us.

3a.

For, I’m sure we’ve all experienced Border Patrol checkpoints.

For me, it’s never been an issue; maybe for you too.

I drive towards the armed agent in the familiar forest-green uniform slowly, only somewhat conscious of the staggered, decreasing speed limits confronting me every few feet; and, arriving at the booth, I roll down my window and nod when the agent makes eye contact.

At this point the agent usually waves me through with a statement along the lines of, “Have a good day, sir.”

Occasionally it has been a little more involved—like one time on Imperial County Highway S2, the old stagecoach route between Interstate 8 and Warner Springs, California, when an agent engaged me in a more detailed inquiry.

“Where are you coming from,” he asked; “and where are you going?”

After a fairly brief conversation in which I explained I was traveling from Yuma to Temecula, I got the familiar, “Thanks. You have a good day, sir.”

Point being, to a stop, from my perspective it’s always been a polite exchange with never much else; I hardly notice the guns and Billy clubs they carry.

But I’m white—as in Caucasian. And I drive a late model vehicle. And, like it or not, the Department of Homeland Security is allowed to profile people according to race and perceived wealth.

My Border Patrol checkpoint experiences have always been benign.

3b.

However, to a person of color, the Border Patrol checkpoint experience can be downright intimidating, frightening, and even traumatic.

In his book, Miller tells the story of Joshua Garcia, whose “pulse quickens every time he approaches a U. S. Border Patrol checkpoint” (p. 145). Miller explains:

Garcia has done nothing wrong. He is also a U. S. citizen. But he feels that sense of dread . . . Maybe this time, as on many occasions, they would just wave him through. Perhaps he’d be able to continue on his way back to Tucson as the harsh afternoon light softens into dusk. He hopes that is the case, because he has two kids from the youth council with him (146).

As Miller narrates, Garcia and the two youths were returning to Tucson after spending the day in the Tohono O’odham Nation. There are Border Patrol checkpoints on every paved road out of the sovereign nation.

To cut to the chase, that day did not go well for Garcia and the children. Miller continues:

When Garcia lurches ahead and finally reaches the authorities, they just wave him over to a secondary inspection. . . . Garcia slowly drives into the secondary inspection site. He drives to where the armed agents are standing. . . . [when] he hears a forceful, a commanding voice yelling: “Get out of the vehicle!” The voice is urgent, as if there are explosives somewhere, as if there were a bomb, as if someone were in danger (150-51).

So, Garcia and the kids complied; only to be commanded, once they were out of the car, “Get back!”

Then, seeing an agent begin to search through one of the kid’s backpacks, Garcia said, “We don’t consent to a search”;

To which the agent, armed with his Billy club and pistol, briskly walked toward Garcia and shouted in his face, “Get the <expletive> back!”

Eventually, Garcia and the kids were allowed to go on their way. But Miller cannot help but wonder—me too—if the verbal assault traumatized the kids.

And there’s this: I cannot help but wonder if Joshua Garcia is feeling displaced from the land that he and his family for generations have called home—in effect, a domestic refugee.

Fear and violence (or the threat of it) are the means often used by Border Patrol agents to police our borders today.

And if Miller’s predictions about climate change’s effects on migration come true, fear and violence will only increase in the generations to come.

Does this police-state scenario sadden you? Does it leave you feeling—I don’t know—maybe kind of hopeless?

4.

On that note, let’s check back in with Jesus.

Last week he called his first four disciples and set off with them on a mission to proclaim the good news and heal the sick.

And now, here, today, he offers us an example of what it is to proclaim the good news: today Jesus begins to deliver his Sermon on the Mount. And he says:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

And so on.

There’s hope here. And it’s not just some pie-in-the-sky hope, idealistic or imagined. It’s real. As real as the geographic border that defines our southeast-Arizona context!

In fact, we’ve seen hope already, today, in the things I’ve said. You may not have noticed it, but it’s there—if you just look in the right places.

So, to point these out, in the first place, remember that Jesus’ original audience was full of people who were oppressed politically—people like Joshua Garcia. Many of them lived desperate lives, struggling continually to find hope.

In the second place, notice that these beatitudes are in the indicative mood, not the imperative. What do I mean? They’re statements, about the way things are, in the present—not commands; not attributes to which followers of Jesus should aspire (which is how they’re usually interpreted).

In other words, there is hope for those who are presently being displaced by the political machine.

In the third place, recall the ground we’ve covered with Jesus over the last few weeks. There are two conflicting powers at work in the world. One, the Way of Domination, is the way by which the world by and large operates. The other, the Way of Love, is the mission Jesus has left for his followers to do.

Putting these “right places” together then: The Way of Domination may very well be holding us or our neighbors in a position where, like Joshua Garcia, we are poor in spirit, mourning, and meek.

But(!), the Way of Love, a. k. a. the kingdom of heaven, is gradually overcoming the old Way; and thereby, simultaneously, the meek are being comforted: the meek presently are inheriting the earth!

Do you see? When the Way of Domination is at work, people are reviled, made meek, downtrodden, etc.

But when the Way of Love is at work, blessings prevail, hope overcomes despair, the meek—the Joshua Garcias of the world—inherit the earth.

***

The Way of Domination controls our borders through fear and intimidation and violence.

And we are called to respond to this Way of Domination with the Way of Love.

What does our response look like?

Offering meals to asylum seekers camped on the Mexico side of the border?

Yes, no question! And, please, keep up the good work!

But to push back a little, what about offering sanctuary to an undocumented person?

Now it becomes a little more difficult, eh?

Our southeast-Arizona context confronts us with difficult questions. My exhortation to you as a community of Jesus-followers; and especially to the Bishop’s Committee and wardens as you consider leading this congregation through these questions, is this:

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.

Where we see the Way of Love at work—where we proclaim it and demonstrate it through our actions—there hope overcomes despair.

A Final Charge

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School in Temecula, California on May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

John 13:31-35

1.

Today is Day 29 of the Great 50 Days of Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen . . . but he has not yet ascended.

Jesus’ time remaining with the disciples is very limited—only eleven days to go. So, what does he have to say in these final days?

I mean, what would you say to your friends and loved ones if you knew you would be with them only eleven more days?

Here’s how the lectionary compilers imagine it. The Gospel today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, narrates the final time Jesus spoke to his disciples collectively before his death.

Surely, this is one of Jesus’ most important teachings of all!

They’ve gathered together at the last supper; Judas has just gone out. And Jesus begins, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

In other words, listen up! Jesus is not going to speak in parables, paradoxes, or riddles today. No complicated doctrine. No erudite theology. Just a simple message clear enough even for little children.

“I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

All along Jesus’ mission has been to go outward. He came to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the captives.

And he left this mission to us, to plant seeds of good news and spread them to the ends of the earth.

All this—Jesus’ mission—is very important.

But for today, as we remember Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, wedged right in the middle of them, we focus on something else: a most important, foundational, simple message.

It’s as if to say, “All that great stuff about the mission, all that going outward business—it’s nothing if we don’t love one another!”

2.

Well, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that, like with Jesus, today is my final opportunity to address you all as a collective body.

At that Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus didn’t mince words; at my last Eucharist with you, today, same.

No parables, paradoxes, or riddles; no complicated doctrine; no erudite theology. Just the plain, important message: love one another. This is where our community life’s rubber meets the road.

So simple! Right? Yet so complicated to live out!

So, in the remainder of my sermon today, my final charge to you, I’m going to address this question: What does love for one another look like in our specific setting, St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School?

After almost two years with you, I have a few suggestions I’d like to offer. How do we love one another?

My first suggestion: focus on the common good.

Many of us within the St. Thomas community have great ideas. This is a talented group! And as long as I’ve been here I’ve encouraged people to take risks with their ideas.

Create. Innovate. Collaborate. Try something new. And whether the idea succeeds or fails—that’s not the issue so much as doing something with and for the community resulting in the common good.

For example, a small team of people created an outdoor labyrinth for Easter Eve. More than fifty people showed up to walk this labyrinth in prayer, many of them from outside our community.

What an example of loving one another—and our neighbors to boot!

But what happens when an individual or small group presents a ministry to the community not for the common good as much as for the benefit of that person or group? Doesn’t the focus shift? From Christ to the group? From the common good to individuals?

So, let’s say twenty years from now the labyrinth program is still going. Now nobody really remembers the history behind it, how it began or even why; and only a few people show up when Easter Eve rolls around. Still, a few individuals feel very strongly about keeping it going. After all, they say, it’s tradition!

To which I ask, why? Is it glorifying Christ? Is it benefiting the common good? Or, maybe, on the other hand, has it become your pet project?

If it’s not benefiting the common good, or if it’s benefiting a few persons at the expense of the common good, let it go.

Ministries, programs, traditions, special interests—these things have life cycles. Maybe it’s time to let some of our precious programs die so that new life can rise up from within the community, new life that benefits the common good.

My second suggestion piggybacks on the first: increase flexibility.

Church bodies, as you know, are living organisms. They are always moving, breathing, changing. People come and go; new members join, old members move away.

For St. Thomas to benefit from this alive-ness, isn’t flexibility essential? And I’m not talking just a general tolerance for one another, but deep, out-of-your-comfort-zone flexibility.

Let’s say a newcomer visits and (out of her comfort zone) takes that brave first step of sitting down at the coffee hour or in an Adult Forum; and she joins in the conversation. What should our response be?

A general tolerance would put up with her like we put up with distant relatives when they come to our homes for a visit. We’re polite enough, we make pleasant conversation and feed them a nice meal.

But, still, they’re in my house and will therefore abide by my household rules; or I will show them the door.

In other words, we expect home visitors to assimilate to the culture we’ve established there, our culture.

But, in a church that lives out Christ’s love for one another, it cannot work that way!

When a newcomer enters into our church’s ongoing, living conversation, we must not expect her to assimilate to our ways; rather, love demands that we learn and grow from her, truly to listen to what she has to say and thereby, with her, experience ongoing, living transformation.

Flexibility is key.

Finally, my third suggestion: establish and maintain authenticity.

To illustrate what I mean, most Episcopal congregations I’m aware of are bemoaning the almost absolute disappearance of Millennials from our midst. Many of these young people have grown up in the church but have left. Why?

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. In fact, four of my kids arguably are Millennials and we’ve had many a conversation along these lines. I also have a number of colleagues and friends who fit in the “Millennials” category. Even my new boss is a Millennial!

And, you know, it’s not that Millennials are spiritually uninterested or indifferent. Actually it’s quite the opposite, as cultural-trend watchers have testified!

The number one answer I hear is that most churches are not authentic. Or, to say it another way, to Millennials, most churches feel contrived.

And that includes most Episcopal churches!

My friend David, a Millennial who works with a Episcopal congregation, explains it like this.

In the years following WWII, churches found it very important to state what they believed; for, during this ethically despairing time, doctrinal beliefs formed a kind of moral anchor for society.

Think of denominational distinctives. Lutherans and Presbyterians and Baptists are all Christians; but what makes them distinct from one another became top priority. And broader culture was grateful for the clarity.

Out of these pools of distinctive beliefs, then, communities formed and grew. And from these communities, finally, the mission of Christ—good works done in the name of love—could go forth.

That paradigm was beliefs-community-works.

And that paradigm stuck. And it has continued to stick. And it remains largely stuck in churches today.

So, according to David and other Millennials with whom I’ve spoken, it’s time for this paradigm to change. It feels contrived, inauthentic. Communities should not form around beliefs—complicated doctrine and erudite theology. Rather, communities should form around the deeds of love Christ has called us to do.

That old paradigm, in other words, should be inverted. Works of love make up the foundation that calls God’s people together into communities of love—churches; and only then, once this foundation is set in place, should churches solidify their common beliefs.

So that’s what an authentic body of Christ looks like to Millennials.

Yet, for most of us, it’s probably a different way of seeing things. It might make some of us—many of us—uncomfortable.

But remember my previous suggestions? Be out-of-your-comfort-zone flexible for the sake of the common good.

New wine needs new wineskins.

*****

Dear community of St. Thomas, seek the common good; increase your flexibility; establish and maintain your authenticity.

By this all will know that you are Christ’s disciples, if you have love for one another.

May God continue richly to bless St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School.

Staying on the Rollercoaster

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcipal Church and School in Temecula, California on May 5, 2019, the Third Sunday of Easter.

John 21:1-19

1.

One of the cardinal sins of preaching is to tell a story about a family member. But I can get away with it today because I have four daughters, none of whom is here; and I won’t tell you which one this story is about.

So, it’s the story of her first real rollercoaster ride: not the kiddie ride at putt putt golf but the real deal, the Steel Eel.

She was eight years old. And she’d always shown a little, shall we say, hesitancy when it came to uncertainty and risk. So, as I anticipated, she did not want to ride this rollercoaster, even though she was now tall enough.

But—probably poor judgment on my part—I coaxed and encouraged and otherwise persuaded until finally, either resolved or resigned—I couldn’t tell which—she said, “I’ll do it, Dad, but only because I love you.”

So, a few minutes later there we were, seated in the front car, strapped in, when the clicking began. You know those clicks: clackety clackety clackety all the way up that first, long, tall slope to the very apex where suddenly the clicking stops and gravity takes over and it’s up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth until the ride is over.

We were climbing up and up, clackety clackety; the anticipation building. Smiling, reassuring, I looked at my daughter and gave her a hug.

Her eyes were saucers.

Finally we reached the top, the apex, maybe thirty stories above the theme park sprawled out below us. And we were in the first car, as I said.

Well, what I hadn’t thought about was that this meant we couldn’t really see anything in front of us, on top of that apex.

It also meant that gravity didn’t take over right away; for, first, the remainder of the cars, which were attached behind us, had to be released from the clicking mechanism, meaning we just hung there for a bit, suspended, thirty stories up, theme park sprawled below, with seemingly nothing in front of us.

Then and only then did the clicking mechanism release; then and only then did gravity take over!

And just then I had a horrible moment of clarity, seeing what could only be understood as utter chaos through the eyes of my hesitant eight year-old.

So I looked over at her again. And now it was her mouth open wide, taking in a voluminous breath; her eyes were slammed shut! She clutched my arm, dug in her fingernails, and began screaming and sobbing at the same time—scrobbing, I like to say.

And she buried her face into my arm and stayed there, miserable and scrobbing, until at long last, an eternity of 38 seconds later, the ride came to its most welcome end.

She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.

But, there is a happy ending: this same daughter, a dozen or so years later, last summer, went to 6FMM and rode every nauseating rollercoaster there! And loved it!

Anyway, I tell this story because life can be an emotional rollercoaster. Up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

It’s fun . . . until it’s not; and then we just want it to stop.

2.

I’m experiencing something of that rollercoaster sensation in my life right now. So is the St. Thomas community. Transition—change—has a way of doing that.

And I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re beyond the sensation of fun. Instead, we’re all asking, “When’s this ride ever gonna stop?”

For what it’s worth, though, it’s not just us. This feeling of wanting the rollercoaster ride to stop already is increasingly characterizing our society—or at least economics professor Tyler Cowen thinks so.

In his recent book (2017) The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Cowen argues that Americans are becoming increasingly risk averse. We are less inclined to relocate than we were even a few years ago. The cultural desire to innovate is decreasing.

He writes,

Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we are talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things. In an age when it is easier than ever before to dig in, the psychological resistance to change has become progressively stronger.

As a society, we want this rollercoaster ride to end. We want to have more control over the journey we are taking; and when we find some modicum of control, we don’t want to let go of it. We don’t want to change.

3.

Now, do you think Peter and the other disciples felt this way? Were they hoping for their emotional rollercoaster ride to stop already? Is that what’s happening in today’s Gospel?

Over the past few weeks they’d been up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

They’d witnessed Jesus enter Jerusalem to shouts of acclamation, “Hosanna in the highest!”

That must have been a high high for them, an apex, a moment of affirmation beyond all others. “Yes!” they must’ve said; “Jesus is the Messiah, the savior of Israel. Yes, his mission is being accomplished!”

But, later that week, they stood by and watched helplessly as he was betrayed, arrested, and tried. They covered their ears as the crowd shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And they gazed on as he gave up his spirit.

That must have been the lowest of lows for them. “No,” they must’ve pondered; “does this mean it was all for nothing? Was Jesus and all he stood for just a flash in the pan, a moment of heat that amounted to nothing?”

And then, the stone was rolled away from the tomb.

And there was the head cloth, neatly folded by itself!

And Jesus himself appeared, first to Mary Magdalene and then to the disciples in the upper room!

And. . . .

Up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

Can’t it just stop already?

So, today, sitting around with six other disciples, Peter announces, “I’m going fishing!”

He returns to what he knows, to what he is sure of, to what he can control.

No change. No innovation. No carrying on Jesus’ mission. Just something that feels productive to pass the time.

Maybe it’s Peter’s way of escaping the emotional rollercoaster ride brought on by the changes Jesus called for.

And maybe that’s our story too.

4.

Jesus pointed out a need for change in his day: the political and religious establishments dominated the people they were supposed to be serving.

What Jesus called his followers to do was to resist the social injustices before him; and through resistance to upend the domination.

But without a doubt this resistance would keep Peter and the other disciples on an emotional rollercoaster ride; a ride, frankly, they just didn’t want to be on anymore.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to escape Jesus’ call?

As for us, what do we see? Hardly a day passes without hearing about violent acts of hatred, or about a friend who can’t afford rising medical costs, or about how Global Warming is already destroying our coastlines, or about increasing socioeconomic disparities.

It would be ignorant and irresponsible to say that our nation has no need for change.

Rather, isn’t the Holy Spirit telling us loud and clear, change is needed!

But—according to Cowen anyway—our societal response is to avoid change; to do what we know instead, what we are sure of, what we can control.

No change. No innovation. Just something that feels productive to pass the time, to escape the chaotic rollercoaster of life all around us.

“I’m going fishing,” Peter said.

Maybe that’s what we’re all doing too.

5.

Fortunately, though, today Jesus is having none of it.

Fortunately, the resurrected Jesus appears now for the third time.

And, fortunately, when Peter recognizes him, it’s a no brainer.

Without giving himself a chance to think, Peter—that gloriously impulsive disciple—quits fishing faster than you can say holy mackerel and gets right back on that difficult, emotional rollercoaster ride.

Because—even with all the up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth—Peter knows that doing what Jesus asks us to do is worth it!

Jesus has left us with a mission that is large in scope. Bringing salvation to the ends of the earth requires no less than upending large-scale systems of domination, whether political or religious. This call can feel overwhelming.

Now, we all know, sometimes church is fun: when we experience strong fellowship; in our prayers; when we break bread together; at baptisms and weddings.

But, we also know, sometimes it’s not so fun, like getting out there and sharing Christ’s love tangibly with our marginalized neighbors, or like tackling local practices of injustice, or like navigating our way through change.

Sometimes, let’s face it, we just want this rollercoaster ride to stop already!

What then?

Well, what happened with Peter at the end of the Gospel?

Three times Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”

And three times Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

And Jesus re-commissioned him: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Continue to do the work I have commissioned you to do, Peter: the work of love.

Okay then. I’ll ride this rollercoaster, Jesus, because I love you.

Love—Jesus’ love for us and ours for him—is key. Love is what will keep us on this rollercoaster.

Beyond the Tribal Walls

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 4:21-30

1.

Tribalism.

It’s a word we use in our culture to describe a group to which we belong, whose interests we care about deeply—my people, my tribe.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Which of you moms has never felt a kind of “mama bear” instinct, to protect your children—your people—no matter the cost?

Our modern culture, which places a high value on the individual, plays into tribalism especially well. You and I may be a part of one group—our church, for example. But what makes me really who I am as an individual is based on more. To which other tribes do I belong?

And these other, complementary tribes can go two ways, right?

I can belong to a smaller tribe within the larger tribe—a sub-tribe, if you will. Within St. Thomas, for instance, we have MoST, WoW, Prayers and Squares, and so on.

And, I can belong to other tribes, outside of this one—a car club, a bridge club, a sports team, the Rotary, an online chat group.

What makes me uniquely who I am, then, largely consists of the web of tribes to which I belong. My unique network of tribes makes me an individual, and hopefully a cool individual!

And so, naturally, I care a lot about certain tribes—the tribes I belong to; and the tribes I want to belong to—but as for all the other tribes out there, well, not so much. My time is precious, after all; and I just don’t have time for them. Got to draw the line somewhere!

But, despite what our culture tells us, tribalism isn’t always a good thing. We humans are inclined towards “group think” and “mob rule,” behaviors that shape our opinions and shade the truth.

So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts and challenges his own, hometown tribalism, which had become not-a-good thing.

And the tribe doesn’t like his challenge. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they ask.

Hold on, they say! They love their tribe! It’s part of what makes them who they are—what makes them unique and cool!

After all, this hometown tribe built their synagogue over the course of time into what it is today. Think of the investment: all that time, talent, and treasure!

And what does Jesus, this young upstart, know anyway? He’s just Joseph’s son, full of unrealistic ideals and pipe dreams.

And so, incredibly, these people—Jesus’ people; Jesus’ tribe—are so upset with the good news that they lead Jesus to the brow of a cliff in order to throw him off—an act that, thankfully, the Spirit prevents them from doing!

2.

What did he say to them? What did they find so provocative?

Well, first, Jesus mentions the Widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

Do you remember her? She and her son were both about to die of starvation. But God, through Elijah the prophet, brought them good news.

God could’ve sent Elijah to any widow. But God picked this one—in Sidon!

But that’s Gentile territory! She was not a part of God’s chosen people! She lived outside the tribal walls!

So next, in case his point wasn’t clear enough, Jesus mentions another character, Naaman the Syrian, who was suffering from leprosy.

This time God sent Elisha, another prophet.

And again, God could have picked any leper to demonstrate that the good news sets people free from all kinds of oppression. God could have picked a leper from among the Israelites, the chosen people of God, the tribe.

But God did not. Instead, through the prophet Elisha God again proclaimed the good news to someone outside of the tribe!

What did Jesus’ hometown tribe find to be so provocative? Jesus’ mission for him and for them was to go outward, to proclaim the good news to people who are not a part of the tribe!

God’s people have good news. It’s freedom for captives. It’s sight to the blind. It’s food for the hungry and healing for the leprous. It’s forgiveness of debts for those who owe; it’s jubilee, equality of all persons, Jew, Greek, white, black, and brown; rich, poor, and homeless; male, female, transgender, straight, and gay!

We have this good news! Keeping it to ourselves is hardly fair, hardly life-giving, hardly equal. Keeping it to ourselves, instead, is to hoard, to erect tribal walls, to keep us in and them out, to ignore the tribes we don’t have the time for. Keeping it to ourselves is anything but good news.

And two thousand years later it’s still much the same, really. As disciples, we are still called to dismantle tribal walls; we are still called to go outward; we are still called to find those specifically who are not a part of us, and to love them radically.

3.

Oh, now there’s a misunderstood word: love!

Don’t you find it curious that today we read that super-famous love passage, 1 Corinthians 13, which tells us so clearly what Christ’s love looks like; and yet we also read this passage about Jesus’ tribe trying to throw him off a cliff!

Love! Jesus tries to show his tribe what living into real love means—and their reaction is to try to kill him!

So, here’s what happens with us.

Once upon a time, we hear that Jesus means for us to go out into the world and proclaim the good news, to carry Christ’s love outward. And so we start a church.

Next, we think it’d be a good idea to have a building for our church, a visible, permanent manifestation of Christ within the greater community: to bring the good news in a stable, mutually beneficial way.

We then set our sights on turning this idea into a reality. And after a lot of hard word—a lot of time, talent, and treasure—lo and behold, we’ve done it: we’ve built our house of worship.

And, over time, we’ve developed our own unique touches. Our church has MoST. We have WoW. We have Dinners All Around. We include our pets. We are uniquely St. Thomas. Our tribe is pretty cool!

Christ is here, in our midst and in the midst of the greater community! We are proclaiming the good news! His love abounds!

What happens next, though, is the hard part. It happened to Jesus’ hometown synagogue; it happened to the church at Ephesus (cf. Revelation 2); and it happens to churches and other houses of worship today all over the world.

We lose our first love.

Instead of continuing with the work Christ left us to do—to proclaim the good news to those outside of our tribe—we look around—inside, at us—and decide, hey, we like this place.

And we decide to keep it just the way it is.

And . . . it’s gone. Our perspective has shifted. We no longer focus our communal efforts outward; instead, we’ve become preoccupied with us, our tribe.

4.

So, last week we considered Jesus’ mission statement; and today, tribalism. Put them together and we discover something about vocation, calling.

Here’s my understanding of what a pastor is called to do—what I am called to be here at St. Thomas. A lot of things really—but here’s the predominant calling—and I know some of you out there won’t agree with me; please just try to hear me out. A pastor’s calling is:

To equip the congregation to do Jesus’ mission.

The kingdom of God is not like a building project, where we plan, save, build, and pay it off—check that box, we’re done, on to the next project!

Rather, the kingdom of God is like breakers on the beach.

Go to the coast, take your shoes off, roll up your pant legs, and run out to the edge of the water. And what happens? One moment your feet are in the water, the next they’re on only sand. Over and over again!

After enough time, the tide goes in or out a little, and you adjust. Over greater amounts of time, the size of the breakers increase or decrease—some days are almost glass, others are stormy almost beyond comprehension.

The shoreline is always changing . . . but also always kind of the same.

Many things change over time. Temecula is a vastly different town than it was thirty years ago. St. Thomas is a very different church than it was thirty years ago. Building projects have been planned and completed. Lots of action items have been checked off.

But the mission continues . . . much the same as always.

The breakers that are the kingdom of God continue, wave after wave, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. So, too, the mission of carrying the good news outward is to continue, generation after generation, to break upon the shoreline of the world.

My ongoing desire is to equip us, as a congregation, to proclaim the good news beyond our tribal walls.

5.

So, that’s my sermon, really; but I want to offer an epilogue.

I don’t think what I’ve said today about vocation comes as a surprise to anybody. This is who I am and what I understand my calling to be; and what I understand our calling to be together, as a Christian community.

But—I’ve heard some pushback—some of you find my understanding of vocation unsettling. It doesn’t fit your perspective of what a pastor does, of who a pastor is.

Father Tim, I’ve heard, you’re too outwardly oriented. Obviously, you don’t care about us! What about visitations? Sunday school? Youth group? The choir? MoST? WoW? The preschool? Stephen Ministries? The Bishop’s Committee? Weddings? Baptisms? Funerals? (Etc.) Aren’t you called to be our pastor?

Short answer: Yes! Emphatically! Absolutely!

Longer answer: These are all important ministries, in which I am deeply invested. They are the individual units that contribute to the overall equipping of our congregation.

To use the Apostle Paul’s analogy from last week, each one is an important, individual part of the overall body. But the body, he writes,

does not consist of one member but of many. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . . As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

There are many ministries, yet one congregation. As your pastor, my predominant focus is on what the overall body, as a whole, is called to do and to be.

This doesn’t mean I am not concerned about the individual parts as well. I am! But it does mean I may not be able to devote the time you’d like me to devote to your specific ministry, to your particular sub-tribe.

To change the metaphor, there are numerous other trees in the forest!

Anyway, I know, thinking about our communal calling is a new perspective for some of you, maybe many of you; and taking on a new perspective is hard. A new perspective means change; and change is uncomfortable.

But, truth be told, while this perspective may be new for you, it is not new for the church. As a matter of fact, it’s as deep as our tradition goes.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus called his hometown tribe back to their mission. Ever since, the Holy Spirit has been calling the church back to this same mission, again and again, like waves breaking on the shore.

I am simply doing the same, calling us as a church to return together to our first love.

On Trial with Pilate

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2018 by timtrue

John 18:33-37

1.

Today is the final Sunday of the church year: Christ the King Sunday, we call it. We focus on Christ in a particular way today: as king—as the one in charge—of his realm.

And in today’s Gospel we are confronted with two views of reality.

On the one hand, Christ tells us that his kingdom is the way of truth. On the other hand, Pilate’s kingdom is the way of violence.

We look at Christ the King today, then, through this lens: comparing two versions of reality. And what do we learn?

So, Jesus is on trial; and Pilate is the judge.

But doesn’t it almost seem—by the time we get to the end of the passage anyway—doesn’t it seem that the tables are turned? Doesn’t it feel like Jesus is in the role of judge and Pilate is really the one on trial?

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

But, before answering him, Jesus asks Pilate a question—and already the tables are turning over: “Do you ask this because you want to know, or because someone told you this?”

And so Pilate answers, “I am not a Jew.”

It’s enough to say, “Of course someone told me about you! I don’t have the time or energy to concern myself with what goes on in Jerusalem—in your people’s insignificant corner of the world.”

In other words, Pilate, a Roman, thinks himself somehow above the Palestinian peoples, who go about their day-t0-day business over there, in some forgotten corner of the empire.

But, Pilate knows, even the people over there are capable of rising up in rebellion—which is why he asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus now answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, I’d fight back with an army.”

Jesus knows Pilate’s kingdom—this world—follows the way of violence.

But, in Jesus’ kingdom, violence has no place; his kingdom is not from here.

Well, Pilate misses the point; and declares, “So then you are a king!”

And here I can almost hear Jesus sigh.

“You say I’m a king,” he says. “But that’s not what I’m about; I’m not raising up some kind of political insurrection against you. Rather, I am here to testify to the truth—a greater reality than you are able to see, apparently. But if you will only seek the truth, find it, and belong to it, you will know a kingdom far better than anything you can now imagine.”

To which Pilate famously scorns (just after today’s passage ends), “What is truth?”

And with this small question Pilate rejects Jesus and his kingdom, the way of truth, choosing instead to remain with the life he knows, a life of power, wealth, privilege, lies, and violence.

The tables are turned. Pilate’s the one on trial today, not Jesus.

2.

Maybe we’re on trial today too. Maybe we are like Pilate, more attached than we’re willing to admit to the way of violence.

Pilate is offered true freedom, a world of peace, security, equality, and authenticity; and instead chooses to remain living in his narrow conception of reality, ruled not by the Christ but by his own fears.

“Are you a king?” he asks Jesus again and again, belaboring the point, fixated—because he fears!

Pilate has no time for the truth, no time for the way of Christ, because he’s too busy fearing that he will lose his power, position, and privilege. He’s too concerned with the things that really matter to him, like protecting his name, status, and position; and like watching his back so some political hothead doesn’t assassinate him.

Pilate is trapped in his way of violence; trapped by his system; trapped in fear.

And thus he rejects the truth.

On this final Sunday of the church year, we stand on trial with Pilate. Do we also reject the truth? Like Pilate, do we love our status: our places of power, wealth, privilege, and maybe even lies and violence?

Jesus calls us to lay these things aside and stand in solidarity with our neighbor—our sisters and brothers who are in different places than we are.

3.

By the way, I’m being careful here not to say “who have less than we do.” Jesus does not call us to stand in solidarity with those who have less than we do. That’s not what mission and outreach are about.

So, in case you’re wondering if you heard me right, I’ll say it again: Jesus does not call us to stand in solidarity with those who have less than we have.

But, also, neither does he call us to stand in solidarity with those who have more!

For, in Jesus, we are called not to have a less-vs.-more mindset at all!

But isn’t this often the church’s approach to mission and outreach?

We, the church, decide to engage in a project to help our neighbors in need. Fine and well!

But then we say something like, “This outreach project will help those who are less fortunate than we are”; and then pat ourselves on the back and tell our superior selves we’re loving our inferior neighbors just like Jesus commanded.

We become the patron; they become the client; and they forever stand in our debt.

But superiority and inferiority? Patron and client? That’s not Jesus’ way. That’s Pilate’s!

Whenever we approach anything with an attitude of superiority—including mission and outreach—that’s not the way of love!

Jesus calls us to come alongside others as equals, to establish and maintain truly mutual relationships; not to compare ourselves with one another in order to figure out who’s better or worse, who’s right or wrong, who’s richer or poorer, who’s smarter or dumber, who’s superior or inferior; but to sharpen one another, mutually, as iron sharpens iron, for the common good.

Are we willing to listen to those who are different than us?

They may speak a different language; they may eat different foods; their skin may be a different color; they may identify as a different gender; their sexuality may be different than ours; or they may be different from us in . . . fill in the blank!

Are we willing to come alongside them? To stand in solidarity with them? To hear their stories? To listen to the truth?

Or are we like Pilate, too focused on our own treadmills to listen?

4.

I offer a concluding illustration:

We’ve all heard the familiar phrase: “Violence begets violence.” I don’t know who first coined it. But I do know that Martin Luther King, Jr. used it. Listen to these words:

Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love . . . Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy; instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[i]

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man committed to live out the principle of non-violent resistance, a same principle by which Jesus lived. Both men resisted the authorities, the powers that be, without fighting back, without violence.

Their deaths, both vivid demonstrations of non-violent resistance, shout a message that will be forever etched in humanity’s history books; a message for all people, everywhere, to give up living for themselves—for power, position, status, wealth, prestige, and privilege—and to live instead for the other.

Love the Lord your God; love your neighbor. This is the way of truth, to which Jesus calls us.

 

[i] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_begets_violence.

Crying “Fowl”

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2018 by timtrue

Rotluchs2

Mark 8:27-38

1.

Something was killing our chickens; our neighbor’s chickens too.

A couple of nights a week we’d hear it, that horrendous cackle alerting us that the mysterious perpetrator had once again found its way into the chicken coop and murdered and carried off another victim.

Whatever this beast was, it was elusive. We’d wait up late at night, listening and stargazing around the fire pit, flashlights at the ready. We’d sleep out on the balcony, where we could hear better. My dad even set his alarm for 3 o’clock in the morning and played sentinel a few times.

But always it was the same. By the time the chickens first cackled it seemed the culprit had already come and gone. We never so much as saw its hind quarters running away into the avocado orchard.

For me, a ten year-old boy, I wondered if chupacabras might in fact be real.

My dad’s remedy was to lock up the coop each night, watertight—close off every hole in the chicken wire, the doorways, the walls, and the roof.

But the chicken-stealing continued—not in our coop but in our neighbor’s, who apparently had not sealed his off as effectively.

So my neighbor’s remedy was to rig a trap.

He used what looked to me like a wire crate for a medium-sized dog; except he added a spring mechanism to the door—from a rat trap if I remember correctly—so that when the chicken-stealing beast took the bait, a weight underneath would rise and trigger the spring and the door would snap shut, latching itself.

It worked flawlessly in the testing phase. Still, would it capture this beast, whatever it was? The trap was big enough for a fox. But what if it was a coyote; or that mischievous hunting hound Jake who lived a quarter mile down the street; or a chupacabra?

For the next few nights, around dusk, I watched with rapt attention while Don, my neighbor, routinely set his trap, placing a generous amount of ground beef and raw bacon in the baiting area and sliding the trap strategically in front of the chicken coop doorway.

And each morning, at the crack of dawn, eager, I’d race outside and peek through the fence to check, hoping that something was in it.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. After only a few days it happened. There was no need for me to run to the fence and peek through, hoping to see something: it was obvious.

Long before the sun was up, before even the crack of dawn, the repetitive cries, hisses, and wailings of the chicken-stealing beast, not to mention the cacophony of cackling, woke us all up—the neighbors and my household. Don saw us exiting our front door and beckoned us to come on over.

Groggily, super curious, we all gathered in our pajamas and bathrobes and slippers around Don’s chicken coop, flashlights in hand, excited at last to see what mysterious creature was the cause of all the “fowl” play.

And there it was: in the cage, frightened and growling but certainly trapped beyond any hope of escape, not a chupacabra but a real live bobcat.

I’d never seen a bobcat before!

Anyway, the jig was up. Caught and trapped, its chicken-stealing days were over. And from the sound of its pathetic wails, it seemed to know it.

Don called animal control, who showed up by 9am and hauled the beast away, to release it later that day in the upper Sespe, they told us, far from any human dwellings.

And our chickens lived happily ever after.

2.

So, I wonder today if Peter feels at all like that bobcat.

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

Peter responds: “You are the Messiah.”

And here, in the Gospel of Mark, there’s none of that glowing affirmation we read over in Matthew; Jesus says nothing to Peter about him being a rock, a solid foundation upon which he will build his church.

Instead—

Well, it plays out like this:

  • Peter calls Jesus the Messiah.
  • Jesus orders his disciples to tell no one.
  • Jesus then explains “quite openly” that this Messiah, the Son of Man, must endure unbelievable trials in the days ahead.
  • But Peter says no, Jesus, you’ve got it all wrong.
  • And immediately Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him Satan!

I wonder, does Peter feel like he’s just been baited and led into a trap, one with a spring mechanism that snaps shut tight with no way out?

It seems almost scandalous.

3.

Scandal. Now there’s a word with an interesting etymology!

Of course, today the term has at least a few different meanings. One has a moral connection; something morally wrong is often called scandalous.

But scandal can also mean something that feels somehow wrong to the general public: something that causes a public outcry, when general expectations aren’t being met.

This second meaning is more along the lines of what happens here with Peter today. He declares Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel; and, we infer from his following rebuke, his expectations are not met. Jesus is neither who the people think he is nor even who Peter thinks he is.

It’s scandalous.

So, here’s an interesting caveat about the etymology of scandal: The word comes from way back; from ancient Greek, skandalon. And it originally meant, literally, a trap with a spring mechanism—like Don’s trap for the bobcat.

By the time the term reaches the New Testament, it possesses the additional metaphorical meaning of a stumbling block; or an offense.[I]

Sound familiar? In his first epistle, Peter calls Jesus a stumbling stone and a rock of offense (cf. 2:8); and Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus is a stumbling block (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23).

Jesus is a scandal for those who don’t believe.

And Peter walks right into this scandal; and the door snaps shut behind him; and he’s left with no way out and nothing to do but rethink his understanding of who Jesus really is.

4.

Today, like Peter, the Gospel challenges us to rethink the scandal of Jesus.

Do we expect Jesus to be something he is not? Do we understand the mission he has left us with? Is true Christian discipleship really what we think it is? What is the Gospel calling us to do? Who is the Gospel calling us to be, really?

After Jesus called Peter Satan—a word that can be interpreted as adversary or opposer as readily as the devil—“Get behind me, Opposer!”—Jesus explained:

“For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter understood the Messiah in human terms. For Peter, Israel’s Messiah would set things straight. He would provide political and spiritual leadership for an oppressed and marginalized people. He would liberate them, save them, meet their needs.

But, no! These—and more—were all human, egotistical expectations of the Messiah.

Divine expectations were quite different. Divine expectations necessitated that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed.

This interplay between human and divine hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years.

Naturally, our humanity plays a large role in our relationship with Jesus. He was fully human, after all.

He therefore supports our human wants and desires, right? He therefore values the political and ethical ideologies we value, right? He therefore will meet our needs, whatever we perceive them to be, right?

Like Peter, we tend to focus not on divine but human things.

But it’s not about us! I cannot stress this enough—it is imperative—we must set our egos aside! Our relationship with Christ is not about human expectations as much as it is about divine expectations.

In other words, it’s about commitment. To what are you more committed, divine expectations or human expectations? Are you more committed to God or yourself? You can’t have it both ways.

5.

To return, then, to the story with which I began, we are the bobcat.

We have discovered a way to live an abundant life. The Farmer, we think, is providing us with all the chickens we should ever need, just sitting there, for us, whenever we like. God is good!

It all makes perfect sense, from our perspective anyway. God is meeting our expectations, providing for us, ministering to our needs, supporting our wants, and valuing what we value.

But the bobcat’s not thinking about the bigger picture. The chickens are not there for the bobcat’s desires and whims, but for the common good.

The bobcat was really created to be free, after all; not to be dependent on the Farmer in ways that result in chaos—chaos to which the bobcat in fact remains largely ignorant.

Do you see what happens when we set our mind on human expectations—when we don’t deny our egos? We end up frustrated, for one thing, scandalized by Jesus; and also we remain largely in ignorance to the chaos we generate all around us.

The Gospel is scandalous—until we set our mind on divine things.

[i] Cf. https://www.etymonline.com/word/scandal