Archive for Peter

Your Conversion Story

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

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John 20:1-18

Conversion is not always a one-time experience.

By now you’ve heard parts of my conversion story—how I grew up in a family that meant everything to me.

We didn’t go to church.  So all my boyhood questions about the meaning of life were answered in my family.

That is, until my parents split up.  Which sent me outward, looking for answers to questions about the meaning of life beyond my little circle.  I had to think outside of my family box.

Which led me to Bible studies, and youth group, and a Billy-Graham-Crusade like experience at a camp where I went forward to pray and receive Christ as my Lord and Savior.

I remember the day, in fact, April 1st, 1985—almost 31 years ago today!  I even remember the time: 7pm.

Yes, something significant happened in my life at that moment.  Was it conversion?  Yes.  Another name for it, a more biblical name, is repentance.

Anyway, can you relate?  Do you have your own conversion story to tell?

Maybe yours was the day you were baptized, or even the moment the water first touched your scalp in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Or maybe, like with my wife’s conversion story, you don’t recall a specific time and place where the Holy Spirit grabbed hold of your heart in an obvious way.

Nevertheless, you reflect on your own life and you see Christ at work in you.  You were baptized: you have a certificate at home in your filing cabinet in your garage that says so.  And you know and trust the theology of the church well enough to know that this, too, was a bona fide conversion experience.

Is it okay that you can’t point to a specific time and place?

Well, of course it is!

You and I both know we can’t bank on a one-time conversion experience, as if we’ve checked off a box on our spiritual to-do list, depending on it to carry us through the rest of our lives into heaven.

Conversion, we know, is not always a one-time experience.

In fact, conversion is arguably never a one-time experience.  Rather, scripture, tradition, reason, experience—they all persuade us that conversion takes place over a lifetime.

And don’t we all experience conversion differently?

Just look at the three main characters in today’s story: there’s an unnamed disciple; there’s Peter; and there’s Mary Magdalene.  Each of these experiences conversion differently.

The unnamed disciple hears Mary’s news and runs—races, in fact—to reach the tomb first.  But there, at the entryway, he lingers.  He doesn’t enter the tomb, but just looks in, staring at the linen wrappings there on the ledge.

Peter then shows up and, unlike the unnamed disciple, enters the tomb without reservation or hesitation.

Why didn’t the unnamed disciple enter?  Was he too amazed, too awestruck, too afraid?  We don’t know.

Then something in him triggers.  He enters the tomb after Peter; and, the scriptures tell us, he believes.  He believes, that is, but he doesn’t yet understand the scriptures.

Now look at Peter.  He hears Mary’s words and runs to see if what she says is true.  He races against the other disciple, and loses—I wonder what the meaning is in this detail.

In any event, Peter reaches the tomb and doesn’t slow; rather, he bowls over the unnamed disciple, like an impetuous bull.  He then looks at the linen wrappings, and notices a detail: the head wrapping is folded up neatly by itself.  If Mary was worried about grave robbers, this detail doesn’t fit; for why would a grave robber take the time to fold up the head wrapping neatly?

The disciples then return home.  The unnamed one believes, at least to some extent.  But we’re left wondering if Peter believes yet at all.  The only thing we know about him at this point is that he, along with the unnamed disciple, still doesn’t understand.

There’s something of a conversion experience here for both disciples.  But they leave still confused, still not understanding.  We’re left with the impression that something more still needs to happen for these two.

Then we hear Mary’s story.  She reaches the tomb—and stands outside weeping.  She’s obviously not believing or understanding yet either.

In her remorse, she eventually peeks in the tomb.  And—incredible!—there are two angels inside.  And these ask Mary a question.  “Woman, why are you weeping?”

But even here—I don’t know about you, but I’d be dazzled by the spectacle of two heavenly beings talking to me—but even here Mary simply responds, “They’ve taken my Lord away.”

This whole episode with Mary suggests something of a sleep-like stupor.  My thinking is that she is so grief-stricken that she can’t even see that these are angels.

She then hears a voice from behind her, from outside the tomb.  And it asks her the same question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Mary supposes it’s the gardener, when she turns to see who spoke.  It’s really Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him: her grief has still got the better of her.

But then what happens?

“Mary!” Jesus calls her by name.

And now, in that divine address, Mary both believes and understands!

And in the conversation that follows, Jesus commissions her to go and tell the disciples that he lives!

And she does!

And so she is made the apostle to the apostles!

Have you ever thought about that?  Mary Magdalene was the first truly converted person.  Mary Magdalene was the person commissioned by Jesus himself to go and tell the Good News to the very apostles.  Mary Magdalene went and told the Good News to Peter—the Rock upon whom Jesus Christ would build his Church—and the others.

Leaving me to wonder—where would the Church be today without the conversion of Mary Magdalene?

But to return to my first point, every conversion story is different.  Mine is different than yours; Mary’s is different than Peter’s is different than the unnamed disciple’s.

Moreover, conversion is not just a one-time experience: it’s lifelong.

Like repentance.

Wait!  Hold the phone!  Did I just say repentance?

Yes, I did—for the second time, in fact.

Well, why am I bringing up repentance on Resurrection Day, Easter Sunday?  Wasn’t Lent the time for us to think about repentance?  Now is the day of resurrection—alleluia!—so why dwell any longer in the doldrums of our liturgical year?

Just this: repentance, remember, is the biblical word for conversion; and, more to the point, repentance is resurrection.

Repentance means turning away from the old nature of sin and death to the new nature of life in the risen Lord!

And this doesn’t happen just once, at some altar call, check off my spiritual to-do list and get on with my life already, thank you very much!

It is ongoing, daily, hourly, even minute by minute.  Repentance—and thus resurrection—is continuous and lifelong.

So, now, let’s return to our own conversion stories.  Think about your own ongoing conversion experience.

Have you ever experienced a time in your life when hope has overcome despair; when truth has defeated falsehood; when beauty has conquered ugliness; when charity has given selflessly; or when goodness has prevailed?  Every one of these is an example of new life overcoming death; every one of these is an example of ongoing conversion.

But Mary’s conversion story is different than Peter’s is different than the unnamed disciple’s.  And yours is different than mine.

But that’s just it: our stories are all different; but new life—resurrection—shines brightly through them all!  It is our common theme.

So follow Mary’s example!  Go and tell your story!

In your conversion, Jesus Christ is calling your name—again and again!  Listen to his voice.  Then go and tell your neighbors, your brothers and sisters, your friends and even your enemies, your ongoing conversion story!

Civil Engineering, Silicon Valley, and the Transfiguration

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 9:28-43

The shortest distance between Points A and B is a straight line.  Or so I’ve heard.

This holds true if you’re a civil engineer and Point A is a flooding problem and Point B is the installation of a culvert, you know, a kind of tunnel to carry the water away from the problem area the next time it rains heavily.

You may or may not know that I used to work for a civil engineering firm in San Antonio, once upon a time.  And this is in fact the kind of work I did with this firm: flood control work.

You can be sure that when a problem came our way we would plan as precisely as we could to go from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, taking the straightest line possible, with the fewest oversights and contingencies.

So, putting together a proposal required planning.  Lots of planning!

We’d look at drawings from previous projects in the problem area, trying to determine why something was flooding now and how future flooding could be averted.  We’d go out into the field, armed with various tools, surveying equipment, and a camera—always a camera—in order to obtain the present-day information we needed.  Then we’d return to the office where I’d sit at a computer, absorbed in AutoCAD, drafting information into a drawing; I’d develop and overlay a proposed design; I’d go over it all with the engineers; and we’d repeat whatever steps were necessary in order to go from Point A to Point B with the fewest surprises possible.

Next, when the city accepted our proposal, that’s when the often more difficult work began: the work of liaison between whatever contracting company was awarded the bid and city officials.

I’d have to step in on occasion and tell the gruff, tattooed contractor, I’m sorry to say, but, no, this culvert is not at the correct elevation; or, worse, you’ve installed it backwards.

The shortest distance between Point A and Point B is a straight line; and the civil engineering firm I worked for was that straight line.

But—to change the image now—what if Point B is an iPhone and Point A is Apple Inc. in 1984?

1984 is when Apple Inc. announced its revolutionary new computer, the Macintosh 128, via a commercial that first aired on Superbowl Sunday at a cost of something like $1.5 million.

Computer technology had come of age.  In fact, by 1984 some innovative types were already imagining the marriage of computers and touch-screen technology.

But how did Apple Inc. get from Point A to Point B?  Did it follow a straight line?  Back in 1984, did some forward-thinking people sit in an R&D lab somewhere and map this all out through drawings, meetings, and analysis, targeting a specific launch date of June 29, 2007?

No.

You know, as well as I, that Apple Inc. did not develop the iPhone through a thoroughly planned, Point-A-to-Point-B process; but rather through what’s called an iterative process.  It was a long journey, full of twists and turns, mistakes and failures, types and prototypes, trial and error.

Back in 1984, the future for Apple Inc. was unknown.  Or, to say it another way, its future was shrouded in a cloud.

So we have two images.

The first image, the one from civil engineering, let’s call establishment.  In the world of civil engineering there is an established way of doing things.  The City of San Antonio will call on several engineering companies to put forth a proposal on how best to fix a flooding problem.  The engineering companies make their respective proposals based on the established, time-tested ways of doing things.

The second image, the Apple Inc. image, let’s call innovation, for reasons that I hope are self-explanatory.

Now, a couple questions.

First, which of these two images aligns with Peter, James, and John on that day when they saw Jesus transfigured?  Isn’t it the second image?

Peter, James, and John are thoroughly confused here.  Not only are they overshadowed by a cloud physically, but so are they mentally.  The passage even says, “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake—”

Um, excuse me?  They’re weighed down with sleep but also awake?  Forget Peter, James, and John: I’m confused!

Then Peter, in his half-asleep-half-awake stupor, starts to move around excitedly and offers to make three dwellings—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  Clearly he’s not getting it.

Next, just to make sure we the readers aren’t in the dark any longer, the text explains: Peter does not know what he was saying.

Finally, after this whole scenario comes to an end; after the cloud overshadows them all, they hear God’s voice, and suddenly find themselves alone with Jesus again, we read this: “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

And they kept silent.  And they told no one.  And they were confused, befuddled, nonplussed, dumbstruck, flummoxed, mystified, bewildered—we get the point!

We call this the Transfiguration of Jesus.  But this is also just the beginning of the transfiguration of Peter, James, and John.  This is just the beginning of the process of groping through life and into the future for them, from a band of uncouth fisherman to the stalwart founders of the Christian Church.

You are Simon Peter, Jesus said, and on this rock I shall build my church.

You, Simon Peter, are Point A; and the Church is Point B.

Now, can you imagine Jesus saying, “And you’re going to get from Point A to Point B by sitting cloistered up in a room and getting out some parchment and planning, planning, planning until you’ve got a decent proposal, one that has analyzed and minimizes all possible glitches and contingencies . . .”?

No!  Peter, James, and John are going to have to grope their way through the cloud of the ancient Roman world.  And their way through it is innovation.

But I said I had two questions.  My first, which we’ve just answered, was, which of these two images—establishment or innovation—aligns with Peter, James, and John?  So my second question is, which of these two images aligns with the church today?

Isn’t it the image of establishment?

We want a new ministry, a new mission church, a new program, a new whatever.  Don’t we plan how to get from Point A—where we are—to Point B—the new ministry we desire—with as few contingencies as possible?

This is an establishment mindset.

But let me offer an even more specific example.  Now, this might hit a little close to home for some of you.  But I’m not trying to pick on anybody; I’m just trying to illustrate my point that the mainstream church today—including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma—possesses an establishment mindset.

So, here’s my example.  I’ve made a few changes around here in the last year or so.  Some have been accidental; some intentional.  But that doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that the single largest response I’ve heard to change is, “But we’ve always done it that way”; or some variation thereof.

Well, that response is the epitome of the establishment mindset.

And, by the way, that response is not a good reason not to make a change.

For instance, let’s say that every time I saw a $100 bill in the offering plate I stuck it in my pocket—not a $20 or a $10 or a $1 or any other denomination, just any and all Ben Franklins.  Eventually somebody would confront me.  (I hope!)  And I’d just smile and say, “But I’ve always done it this way, ever since I’ve been rector.  It’s my tradition.”

That’s not a good reason not to make a change!

Well, anyway, here’s where I’m going with all of this.

The mainstream church, including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, has had an establishment mindset for many a decade.  We’ve believed that if only we plan the right programs, preach the best sermons, build the right buildings, follow the tried and true examples of outreach, youth ministry, Sunday school, whatever—if only we follow the right recipe, we’ll cook up the most delicious church possible.

But the culture has largely changed over the last four decades.  We can no longer say that America is a Christian nation.  Practicing Christians are in the minority.  The church is no longer the establishment it once was.

St. Paul’s can’t simply be an established presence in our community and expect people from the neighborhood to come to us.  We need to take St. Paul’s to them.

What this means is that we need to rethink church.

But not like a civil engineering firm.

Rather, we must innovate, like Apple Inc.

We must be like Peter, James, and John, groping our way into a future that is shrouded in cloud.

We must experiment, troubleshoot, even fail—understanding that failure is simply part of the learning process—in order to move forward.  It’s an iterative process.

And it might even mean that we’ll end up changing some things from the way they’ve always been.

This Saturday the vestry and I will be on a retreat together.  It’s our annual meeting.  It’s also a time for us to get to know one another, to plan, and to strategize.

But not like a civil engineering firm!

So, there are some things I’m going to encourage the vestry to do in 2016, as we consider the future of St. Paul’s.  And today I’m encouraging you, as you are able, to do these things too.

First, I will encourage the vestry to value our traditions.

The Episcopal Church is big on tradition.  I’m big on tradition.  St. Paul’s is big on tradition—including many of its own, peculiar traditions.  As our church moves forward with a mindset of innovation, I will encourage the vestry not to eradicate any of our traditions without good reason.

In other words, I actually kind of sympathize with the statement, “But we’ve always done it this way”—even if I never want to hear it again!

Which brings me to my second encouragement: I will encourage the vestry to suspend judgment.

Here’s what I mean.  Innovation requires a safe place for discussion.  I will be asking the vestry this year to share ideas—about our worship space, about our mission, about what to do with that plot of land just beyond the playground.  A safe place for discussion means no idea is too small, no idea is too big, and no idea should be pushed aside just because we’ve always done it another way.  No one should ever feel ashamed for sharing an idea.

Help me and the vestry make St. Paul’s a safe place for sharing ideas—maybe even crazy ideas.

Third, we should build upon what we already know.

This goes back to valuing our traditions.  But, also, isn’t this the way true innovation works?

Apple Inc. didn’t arrive at the iPhone straight from the Macintosh 128; but after decades of trial and error building upon what they already knew.

Peter didn’t go straight from uncouth fisherman to church’s foundation.  He got there by building upon what he already knew.

I’m not advocating a blank slate here.  Rather, I’m encouraging the vestry and you to innovate with what we already have, from what we already know—from the uncouth fishers of men that we already are!

Fourth, and finally, I will encourage the vestry to fail.

(Gasp!)

That’s right.  I said fail.

But I mean this in the sense of Thomas Edison’s failures.  We’ve all heard how he failed more than a thousand times before he successfully invented the lightbulb.  This kind of failure is actually essential to learning and growth.  I want the vestry—I want this entire congregation—to learn and grow as we adopt a mindset of innovation.

We should anticipate failure along the way, as we grope our way into the church’s future together.  But we should also expect to learn and grow from these failures.  It is an iterative process.

Like Peter, James, and John, we are on a journey of transfiguration.  Therefore let’s not stifle the Holy Spirit, who wants to lead us on this journey!

A Theology of Glory’s Crux

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

Mark 8:31-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which it has.

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

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

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

But is this the main purpose of church?

Poses a sticky question, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are the Messiah,” Peter blurts out.

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

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

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

But what about a theology of the cross?

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

What do you think of that, Peter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So: remember the cross during Lent.

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

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

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

On Discipleship and Mothers-in-law

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on February 8, 2015 by timtrue

m-i-l

Mark 1:29-39

What do discipleship and mothers-in-law have to do with each other? This question might seem kind of out there, I realize.  But in today’s Gospel we encounter both Simon, one of Christ’s disciples; and his mother-in-law.  So I ask: what do discipleship and mothers-in-law have to do with each other?

Mothers-in-law.  How many jokes come to mind when I say this word?  How many caricatures pop into view in your mind’s eye?  I’m sure we all have lots to say about mothers-in-law we know.

Trouble is, it’s a lose-lose deal.  If I start to complain about my mother-in-law to my wife, it’s only a matter of time before she starts to complain about her mother-in-law to me.  Which happens to be my mom.  And don’t anyone talk bad about my mom!

So, yeah, it’s better to keep my complaints to myself.

On the other hand, if I try to offer a positive word in my mother-in-law’s direction, it is met with immediate suspicion.  What’s he saying this for?  Why’s he trying to butter me up?

It’s a lose-lose deal.  And so, despite the myriad mother-in-law jokes and caricatures, I mostly just keep my complaints to myself.

But if there’s anyone in the history of the world who had no right whatsoever to complain about his mother-in-law, it was Simon.  He had maybe the best mother-in-law in the world.

Jesus and the disciples were in the synagogue on a certain Sabbath, where Jesus taught with authority.  It was a new kind of authority too, not like the authority of the scribes.

His authority was demonstrated remarkably when a certain man stood up in the synagogue and challenged him.  The man was possessed by a demon, turns out; which Jesus cast out.

And the people said, “What is this?  A new teaching—with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

Meanwhile, down the street, a certain mother-in-law lay in her bed with a fever: Simon’s mother-in-law; you know, a. k. a. Peter; that impulsive disciple who walked on the water, yes; but who also denied Christ before his persecutors.

It was his mother-in-law who lay in bed sick with a fever while Jesus proclaimed his message and cast out a demon in the nearby synagogue.  And there she lay still some time later when Jesus and his disciples entered the house.

So they tell Jesus about her.  Jesus comes to her side; takes her hand; lifts her up; heals her.  And the fever leaves.

Then she gets up and begins to serve them all.

And isn’t that just the way things go!

The men are out having a good time.  Then they come home only to sit around the house and be waited on by the women!

She might have good reason to complain about him, but Peter has no right at all to complain about his mother-in-law—maybe the best mother-in-law ever!

Have you ever heard that one? The Gospels, so the argument goes, were written by men—men, who call the shots, who run the world, who write the history books.  It’s only natural, then, that the men in this story do what men have always done in Greco-Roman culture: they go outside of the home to work; but inside they sit and relax while the women serve them.

But what if we were to set aside our postmodern interpretation for a bit?  What happens in this Gospel when we try to look at it with fresh eyes?

For one thing, we see that Jesus is anything but conventional.  Jesus enters Simon’s house and is told that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick.  So far so good, as far as convention goes.  But it’s what Jesus does next, his response to this information, that’s unconventional: he goes into the private quarters of the house, where, conventionally, guests would never go; and there he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.

This is not the stuff of history books.  This is not a story written by someone blinded by his patriarchal culture.  This story bucks convention.

Then—for another thing—the mother-in-law’s service is an act of love.  No one compels her to do it.  No one asks her.  But she responds to Jesus’s healing hand by getting up and serving Jesus.

You know what this verb is—where it says to serve—in Greek?  You’ll recognize it: diakoneo.  Yeah!  From this Greek word we get our English words diaconate and deacon.

Simon’s mother-in-law responds to Jesus’s love in kind, with love.  But when the Bible says she served Jesus, she was more accurately ministering to him, just as the angels ministered to him when he fasted in the wilderness.  It’s the same word!

By the way, this is the first instance in the Gospel where this word is associated with a human being.  Or, to say it another way, Simon’s mother-in-law is the first deacon of the Church.  Conventional?  Hardly!

Simon, by contrast, is a piece of work!

A little later in the story we find that Jesus is tired.  He’s been busy serving others—preaching to them and healing them.  The crowd has tired him out.  Understandably, he goes off into a deserted place to have some time alone with his heavenly Father in prayer.

The introverts here can relate, I’m sure.

But Simon’s an extrovert.  And he looks around.  And he can’t find Jesus.

“But the work,” he thinks, “the ministry; it’s just getting good.  His program is finally starting to be recognized for the awesome thing I’ve always known it to be.  He’s meeting people’s needs!  So, now where is he?  Doesn’t he know the crowd needs healing?  Doesn’t he know there’s work to be done?  Where has he gone off to at a time like this?  Something must be wrong!”

So Simon rouses the disciples and hunts for Jesus.

This verb, hunts, suggests something really quite serious.  They’re not just looking for Jesus, or searching for him as if he’s gone off to some place by himself for some alone time and now—whoa, look at the time; we’ve got to get back to business!  That’s the picture we often have.  But something gets lost in translation.  In the original Greek, the verb instead conveys something like a rescue or intervention.

When Peter and the disciples hunted for Jesus, Mark wants us to know they were in fact seeking to rescue Jesus—to intervene so that he would stop doing whatever it was he now did and get back to the real business of healing others, of serving others.

The problem here is not with Jesus’s ministry.  Proclaiming the message of good news and healing others is wonderful work.  Rather, the problem is with Simon.

For, first, Simon is saying here that he knows better than Jesus: “These people like what you have to offer; so why don’t you stop wasting your time being quiet and get back to the real work at hand?”  He doesn’t trust Jesus’s leadership—that Jesus actually knows what he is doing, that the quiet work of prayer is in fact necessary, and that Jesus might really have a bigger picture in mind.

And second, Simon shows that he is distracted.  In the past twenty-four hours he has seen an incredible program begin to take shape.  People are flocking to Jesus to hear his teachings and to be healed by him.  Word is spreading.  “Everyone is searching for you,” Simon says.  “The wave’s breaking now; ride it.  Don’t lose this opportunity by withdrawing into some deserted place.  Don’t let it go because you have some felt need to center yourself in prayer.  Can’t you see?”

But it’s you, Simon, who fails to see.

So: what do discipleship and mothers-in-law have to do with each other? Well, I still don’t have an easy answer for you.  But we learn some valuable lessons from today’s passage.  I offer three; and I offer them in the specific context of serving—of ministering—right here in our church, in St. Luke’s.

The first lesson comes from the mother-in-law: look for ways to serve behind the scenes.

In any organization, the jobs on the frontline have a way of seeming the most appealing—especially to extroverted personality-types like Simon’s.  But the vast majority of the work that takes place is largely unseen.

In our church we see this beautiful altar in this magnificent setting.  But we very often don’t see the people who minister to make it happen—the people who prepare the altar, the people planning to ensure we always have enough bread and wine, the people who clean up this facility.

Seemingly countless other behind-the-scenes acts go on all week around St. Luke’s; many more, in fact, than the frontline acts you see, hear, and otherwise enjoy week to week.

Try to become more aware of these behind-the-scenes ministries and the people who do them; and consider ways in which you might serve in one or more.

The second lesson comes from Simon: don’t be distracted by the hoopla.

We have many great programs around here.  And, while they are good, we can easily become too busy with them.  And it’s not just church, but all of life.  With school, sports, job commitments, family obligations, TV, video games, smart phones, and so on, show me someone who doesn’t feel busy!  The problem comes when we allow this busy-ness—or maybe even want this busy-ness—to distract us from taking time to commune with Jesus and our heavenly Father.

And the third lesson comes from Jesus: strive for balance.

Jesus was deeply engaged in active, messy, crowded ministry.  But he did not neglect the quiet and alone discipline of prayer.  What is this but balance?

Such balance is necessary for body health; and it works this way both on the individual and corporate levels—both as an individual person and as a member of a local church body.  We need balance in our life together.

Look for ways to serve behind the scenes; don’t be distracted by the hoopla; and strive for balance.  May God bless St. Luke’s in this year of radical service.

Who Needs a Board when your Eyes are on the Lord?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on August 10, 2014 by timtrue

Peter on water

Matthew 14:22-33

And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

What kinds of images come to mind when you hear this story?

The image I recall every time I hear it comes from a t-shirt a friend of mine wore in college.  I don’t know why I remember it so well; but it’s there, the memory of this t-shirt, etched on the screen of my mind, in vivid detail.

From a distance the t-shirt’s design looks like something from OP or Roxy or Quicksilver or some other surfwear company.  On it is a beautifully breaking wave, peeling left; and at first glance there’s what seems to be an ordinary surfer riding the face of the wave.  But as you look more closely you see that the surfer is wearing not a swimsuit but a robe with a cincture—not unlike mine—and he’s bearded, with long hair.  After this double take you notice, too, that the surfer in fact has no surfboard, but is barefoot surfing down the face of this beautiful, Pipeline-like wave.

Now curiosity gets the better of you and you decide to read the words on the t-shirt.  On the top, above the image, it says, “Simon Peter’s School of Surf.”  And on the bottom, below the image: “Who needs a board when your eyes are on the Lord?  Matthew 14:29.”

So that’s the image that always comes to my mind when I hear this story—without fail!  And it’s not a bad image.  For as long as Peter’s eyes are on the Lord Jesus, he’s able to walk on the water.  It’s only after he notices his predicament—that there are wind and waves all around him—that he becomes frightened and takes his eyes off Jesus.  And once his eyes are off Jesus, he begins to sink.

We are like Peter: we become frightened; we take our eyes off Jesus; and we begin to sink.

We’ll come back to this image in a little while. But first, let’s look at the other main characters in this story.  Other than Peter there are two, as I see it: the disciples, who make up a kind of collective main character; and Jesus.

As for the disciples, we read that Jesus makes them get into the boat and go on ahead of him.  In other words, Jesus gives his disciples a mission.

This particular mission does not appear to be difficult.  It is simply to row across a lake.  It’s a rather large lake, granted; but no doubt these fishermen have rowed across this lake many times before.  This is a mission for which the disciples are qualified.

But this particular mission becomes difficult.  A strong headwind confronts the disciples; and with it, worrisome waves.  The disciples have to row hard, no doubt rotating responsibilities at the oars whenever one of them becomes too weary to continue.  Mission requires community.

Even so—even with Jesus’s commissioning their mission in the first place; even though the disciples are qualified for this mission; and even working in community—they become frightened.  They see Jesus walking to them in the middle of the night—Jesus comes to them in an unexpected way—and they say, “It’s a ghost!”  In their fear they default to a belief in the paranormal rather than the supernatural—even though they just witnessed Jesus perform an amazing miracle, the feeding of the 5,000.

How often do we do the same!  Jesus commissions us as his disciples to go forth and make more disciples, of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  That is our mission.  And it’s a mission for which we are qualified, especially as a community of disciples—especially as a church.

But we get to work on this mission and things don’t go as we expect.  We begin to question Jesus’s commission.  What if San Antonio doesn’t want to hear our message of good news?  What if our theme of radical hospitality ends up attracting the wrong sorts of people?  What if the church gets vandalized?  Or robbed?  What if . . . ?

Yet the story is not over.  The disciples are frightened, yes.  They fear when Jesus draws near to them in an unexpected way.  But they quickly recognize Jesus as God.  “Take heart,” Jesus says, “it is I; do not be afraid.”  And, collectively, they worship him and confess, “Truly you are the son of God.”

As for the character Jesus, he sends the disciples ahead and finally has that alone time he has been craving. Remember?  He had crossed the lake with his disciples to a deserted place where he hoped to spend some time in prayer.  But a large crowd followed him; so he healed them, spoke to them, and fed them.  Now the crowd has dispersed, he sends his disciples on a mission to go back across the lake, and he stays behind to pray.

Talk about a beautiful image!  A storm is brewing.  The disciples are becoming more and more worried out on the lake.  There is a sense of urgency—the “tyranny of the urgent”!  Yet even this urgency does not trump Jesus’s discipline of prayer.

Then there’s the image of Jesus walking on the water, going out to the disciples, showing them that he is master of all; and that despite their fear they have no reason whatever to fear.

But the real clincher for me comes in Jesus’s words: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

There is real power in words.  In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, it was through words.  “And God said, let there be light,” and so on.  Words.  Jesus himself is called the Word of God; through him the Father is revealed.

So, words are powerful.  And here Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I”; or even more simply, “it is I.”

What’s so important about these words, it is I?  Another way to say them is, I am.  In fact, if you were to read the Greek translation of the story where Moses stands in front of the burning bush and asks, “Whom shall I say sent me?” these exact words appear.  It is I.  I am.

Thus, when Jesus approaches the disciples who are terrified and thinking they’re seeing a ghost, Jesus is really saying, “Take heart.  I am God.  Do not fear.”

Take heart, St. Luke’s.  As we go about our mission to make disciples and baptize; and as we begin to fear that maybe our mission is too difficult for us and we start asking all those “what if” questions, remember: Take heart.  Jesus is God.  Do not be afraid.

Now to come back to Peter.

You gotta love him!  He hears these words, “Take heart, it is I,” and he goes from one extreme to another, from abject fear to joy-filled belief.  It’s like his faith meter suddenly pegs out—like that time when he says, “Lord, I’ll never wash your feet”; but in the next breath says, “Well, not just your feet, then, but your whole body!”  There’s something endearing about his impulsiveness, right?

At that moment when Jesus says, “It is I,” Peter is suddenly entirely fixated upon Jesus.  All of a sudden it doesn’t matter that there is a storm raging all around him; or that other disciples are wearying themselves at the oars; or that walking on water is technically impossible.  Never mind all that!  My Lord is here and speaking to me!

That’s endearing.  We all want that kind of faith and focus.

But in the next moment Peter falters.  The fixation is gone and reality begins to set in.  There is in fact a storm raging all around him, the other disciples are in fact struggling, and—I know Jesus is walking on the water, but he’s God!  He just said so.  What am I doing out here?

“Lord, save me!”

We’ve all been there!  Like Peter, we live in community with others.  In our community of disciples known as St. Luke’s, we share a common focus.  We gather around one altar.  We share a common mission.  But we are also individuals.  We each have our own individual experiences with Christ—highs, lows, and middles.  Our individual faith meters go up and down continuously.  Like Peter, we experience high times of joyous belief; but also low times of questioning and distraction.  We begin to sink.

But our Lord is not so focused on the mission that he neglects the individual.  At just this point, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus, the Word of God, God himself, reaches out his strong hand, lifts Peter up, and walks him into the boat.  And when they get into the boat, the wind ceases; and the disciples worship him.

Take heart.  Jesus is God.  He is accomplishing his mission.  But also, this same Jesus—who calms the wind and the waves and the disciples’ fears—cares for each one of you as individuals.

When you fear, he is right there, immediately; and he says to you, “Take heart, I am God.  Do not be afraid.”