Archive for Prayer

Divine Impetus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2019 by timtrue

I will deliver this homily at St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson tomorrow, Oct. 20, Proper 24 of Year C. Prior to what you see written below, I will offer a brief introduction about me and my work at Imago Dei Middle School. (Advocating for my students and their families in local churches is something I plan to do a lot of over the next few years.)

Luke 18:1-8

1.

The Roman historian Livy tells a story that goes like this:

In 75 BCE, the man we know today as Julius Caesar was captured by pirates. These pirates had a notorious reputation, having controlled the Mediterranean Sea like the mafia for more than a millennium. They would release their captive, they announced, for a ransom of 20 talents of gold.

In case you’re wondering, I looked it up. In today’s dollars, one talent of gold is worth about $1.4 million; so, 20 talents is worth approximately $28 million.

Well, Julius caught wind of the ransom, called the pirate chieftain over, and said, “Pah! 2o talents isn’t nearly enough. Increase it to 50!” In other words, $70 million.

Which the chieftain did. And which the Roman people paid. (Not sure how the ancient taxpayers felt about that.)

Fast forward nine years, to 66 BCE: Julius Caesar has risen in rank from Army General to Emperor; and part of his agenda as Emperor is to rid the Mediterranean Sea of those notorious pirates. He commissions this task to his Army General, a man named Pompey.

So this becomes Pompey’s vision: rid the sea of pirates. But how?

Pompey decides to collaborate. He calls his best engineers together, lays out his vision, and together they formulate a plan.

More harbors will be needed, they determine, harbors all over the empire. To do that, land will have to be cleared, channels dug, large amounts of earth moved.

One of the engineers then suggests the use of a tiny, invasive seed that, when planted in abundance, will strip the soil of nutrients and suck out all moisture, making their earth moving projects much easier.

In fact, this seed—the mustard seed—proves to be highly effective. So crumbly became the affected soil, Livy writes, that even the hardiest of all trees, the mulberry, sometimes would fall of its own accord into the sea.

And thus were the necessary harbors created. And so, in the span of three months, according to Livy, Pompey rid the entire Mediterranean of pirates; and, he also relates, this accomplishment became widely known throughout the empire.

Hmmm. “Widely known”? Do you think, a century or so later, Jesus and his disciples might have known this story?

After all, Jesus taught them, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed. . . .”

2.

But that was the Gospel from two weeks ago. Today’s Gospel tells a different story, not about a mustard seed and a mulberry tree but about a widow and a judge.

And, you know, widows in the ancient world had it rough. There was no Social Security, no Medicare. Unless she had a son to take care of her, she was largely on her own. Where could she turn for help?

Well, this particular widow turns to a local judge. “I demand justice,” she cries; “justice that both God and humanity deserve!”

However, the judge she turns to is self-serving; he cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of persons. He’s a key player in the system already stacked against her.

Nevertheless, incredibly, after presenting her case before this self-serving judge, day after day, over and over, she gets what she asks for. The judge gives in—because she persistently wheedles, hounds, and annoys him.

Just what is Jesus teaching us through this parable?

Is there some kind of lesson here about stewardship—maybe if the rector wheedles, hounds, and annoys us persistently enough, the parish will raise 100% of next year’s budget through pledges alone?

I’m a little confused.

St. Luke the Evangelist states at the outset that this parable is not about stewardship; but about praying always. And yet—I didn’t see it; did you?—this widow never once prays!

And, besides, is this unjust judge somehow supposed to be a picture of God?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t view God as some aloof arbiter who cares nothing about me and only gives in to my prayers because I persistently wheedle, hound, or annoy God enough.

Just what does this parable have to do with prayer? Is anyone else confused?

3.

If we go back to the Gospel again, but this time to the end of the passage, then we find a key connection.

There, after telling this curious tale about the poor widow and the unjust judge, Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

There, in other words, at the end of the passage, Jesus connects prayer to faith.

This is the key to unlock our understanding of the parable.

For what have we been hearing about over the last couple of weeks? Hasn’t it been faith?

Last Sunday—do you remember?—we heard a story about Jesus encountering 10 lepers. He healed them and they left rejoicing.

But then one of these lepers returned to give thanks. And so we heard some more about this one leper, a foreigner, healed precisely because of his faith, a faith that took on a visible, tangible form, namely face-to-face contact and a warm smile. The healed leper’s faith was concrete.

And the week before that? Jesus told us that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey us.

This too is a tangible, concrete faith, a literal seed by which Julius Caesar and General Pompey were able to fulfill their vision—a means towards an end.

That’s what faith is for Jesus. Something literal. Something quantifiable. Dare I say, something, even, utilitarian.

But how often have we heard an entirely different message: that faith is some invisible, intangible thing? If God doesn’t answer our prayers, how often have we been told it’s because we lack faith; or because we haven’t prayed hard enough or just need to believe more?

Hear me now: that is not, nor was it ever, the good news of Jesus!

For Jesus, faith looks like the warm smile of thanksgiving from a healed leper. Or, another way, faith looks like a tiny mustard seed that alters a vast landscape. For Jesus, faith is tangible and concrete, a quantifiable means toward God’s ends.

4.

So, it’s time to ask ourselves: if faith is not the invisible, intangible something we’ve always heard, what does a quantifiable, tangible faith look like for us today?

Well, I can tell you what it looks like for the kids I work with, the kids of Imago Dei Middle School. For most of them—maybe for all—they’re vision includes earning a college degree.

So, you know what their faith looks like—a tangible, concrete faith? A means to that end?

It looks like a pencil!

“If you have faith the size of a pencil,” I tell them, “you can earn that college degree, land a stable job, and break free from poverty.”

What about you? Does your faith look like a pencil? How about a dollar? Or a pink ribbon? Or a rainbow? What is the best means for you to accomplish God’s ends?

5.

Anyway, now, finally, I think we are able to see what Jesus’ parable has to do with prayer. For this kind of faith isn’t easy, is it?

It wasn’t easy for Pompey to rid the Mediterranean of pirates.

It wasn’t easy for a foreign leper to give thanks to the Jewish man who healed him.

It wasn’t easy for a widow in Jesus’ day to plead for justice repeatedly and persistently, again and again, over and over to an unjust judge.

And it definitely isn’t easy for the Imago Dei scholars to break out of the cycles of poverty they find themselves born into.

In every case, their faith is the means to accomplish God’s ends; but more than faith in necessary.

As I read today’s parable, though prayer is never mentioned, I cannot help but imagine the widow going through her daily regimen—another tiring, wearisome day of facing a heartless brick wall of a judge—I cannot help but see her praying herself through: every night, after she returns home heartbroken yet again; and every morning, when she rises to find, somehow, another small ray of divine hope flickering in her soul, thanks be to God.

Faith is the means to accomplish God’s ends; but prayer is the divine impetus that enables us to persevere.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Prod, Trust, Pray

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2019.

John 2:1-11

1.

What an outstanding passage from today’s Gospel, eh?

I mean, here’s Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, becoming known to the world—his epiphany, if you will—and where is he but at a party? And it’s not just any old dinner party, but a wedding, a week-long feast in the ancient world.

And what does he do for his very first sign but turn water into wine?

In one fell swoop, he both saves a host from social embarrassment and enables people to rejoice and be glad more than they already are. We don’t have to read into this story very much at all to see that Jesus enables those who are already drunk to get drunker still.

How our Baptist and Mormon friends have trouble with this one!

Have you ever heard the argument that when the term “good wine” appears in the scriptures—as it does in this passage—it actually means wine that hasn’t yet fermented? Good wine in the Bible, the argument goes, is actually grape juice and not what we would consider wine at all.

But, oh, you can’t get around this story: because the steward explains that usually the host brings out the good wine first; and that—as the steward puts it—only after the guests have become drunk is when the host brings out the inferior wine.

So, it’s right here: in the Bible people actually got drunk off good wine. In other words, Baptist friends, this ain’t grape juice!

And, by the way—I have to say it—I’m pretty sure that it was here, at this party, when that hymn was written, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.”

But, aside from all the wonderful lessons on everyday joy and gladness we can learn from this passage, I want instead to focus our time together on two vexing questions that rise to the surface here, two vexing questions about prayer.

2.

The first question is this: But why pray at all?

Last week we found Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel according to St. Luke. He went out to the Jordan River and was baptized by John along with all the other people. And we saw a bodily form, like a dove, descend and alight on Jesus; and we heard a voice from the heavens saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We heard about something else in Luke too: something that took place right after Jesus was baptized and right before the Trinity showed up; something that doesn’t make it into the other Gospels. Do you remember?

Jesus prayed. Along with all the other people, Jesus prayed. Like you and me, Jesus prayed.

But why should we pray at all?

If God is indeed sovereign—if God is the absolute creator, ruler, and sustainer of the universe—then God is going to do whatever God wants, thank you very much. So, really, will one little, insignificant prayer from me make any difference?

On the other hand, maybe God isn’t sovereign.

Maybe this doctrine of sovereignty is mistaken, a sort of theological hangover from the Middle Ages, still giving us a headache in our modern day. (I guess I’m still thinking about that party.)

Maybe, instead, God sits up in the heavens and casts divine influence this, that, or the other way—key word being influence, not sovereignty.

Maybe God doesn’t really rule over everything after all, but sits in a celestial administrative office orchestrating great Rube Goldberg-like systems of cause and effect upon our world, wringing cosmic hands together, hoping, just hoping, that everything will turn out all right.

Is this why we pray? To influence God to make one decision and not another?

Well, I don’t know about you, but this seems to me hardly satisfactory.

Whatever the case—whatever reasons we have for praying—at the end of the day our prayers won’t change a looming deadline. We won’t stop that annoying bill from coming in. We won’t put an end to poverty. We won’t cause wars to cease.

But see what happens at this wedding party! And I’m not talking about Jesus turning the water into wine.

Something else happens, before the miracle: Jesus’ own mother prods. “They have no wine,” she tells him.

Jesus hems and haws a little, a response I’ll get to shortly.

Nevertheless, after his apparent cageyness, Jesus goes ahead and performs the miracle anyway.

And we are left with the distinct impression that Jesus would not have acted without his mother prodding first.

Are you ever like Jesus’ mother here? Do you ever prod Jesus in prayer?

A startling notion! But one that offers an answer to our first question.

3.

Which brings us to the second question: Why does Jesus seem reluctant? Why the hemming and hawing? Why the apparent cageyness?

Jesus’ mother comes to him and points out, “They have no wine.”

Now, at this point St. John the Evangelist could have gone straight to the part of the story when Jesus’ mother says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” John could have skipped over altogether Jesus’ response to his mother. But he didn’t. He includes it. “Woman,” Jesus says, “what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

What concern, he asks? I’ll tell you a concern!

It’s the term Jesus uses to address his mother: woman! Isn’t this a little disrespectful? I mean, of all people, to his mother! Is Jesus somehow giving teenagers everywhere a green light to act like, well, teenagers?

Listen! Sons everywhere—and daughters too—it’s never a good idea to address your mom like this! I know I almost always counsel you to do whatever Jesus does, to follow in his footsteps and all that. But here’s an exception, okay? Just don’t!

But more seriously, there’s been a lot of debate over this question from very early on in the church’s history. Some say it’s a language issue, that when Jesus addresses his mother with the word “woman,” it didn’t come across back then as abrasively as it does now. But others say, no, it still would have been fairly abrasive.

Wherever you side on the debate, one thing’s for sure: John wants to get our attention.

The host has run out of wine; social embarrassment is imminent. And Jesus doesn’t seem to want to do anything to help. Tension!

Does prayer ever feel this way to you? Have you ever experienced a particularly difficult time in life and no matter how many times you cry out to God it feels like God just isn’t listening? Tension!

But if so, you’re not alone.

Jesus’ mom felt that way, I’m sure. And in our world today we ask questions like:

Why are there wars? Why is gun violence so prevalent? Why genocide? Why hurricanes and earthquakes?

Surely, people around the world are praying that these evils come to an end! Why doesn’t God listen? If God is good and if God hears our prayers, then why does evil persist?

The theological term for this sticky issue is theodicy. In Greek, theo means God; and we all know what dicey means. So, simply put, going to God in prayer is dicey.

Why doesn’t God just answer our prayers already?

Whatever the case, whatever tension we feel, St. John the Evangelist includes this exchange between Jesus and his mother for our benefit. That Jesus is apparently reluctant to answer his own mother shows us that we can’t begin to think we understand God. God is ineffable.

Nevertheless, when we pray, our incomprehensible God listens.

We can prod Jesus through prayer, yes; but our prayers cannot and will not manipulate God.

Or, to come from another angle, God may not answer our prayers in the ways we expect; but God has reasons we will never understand.

4.

The nature of prayer is twofold.

On the one hand, prayer can be a catalyst for divine action.

But, on the other hand, we should never think of prayer as formulaic—like, “If only I pray the right way, then _____ will surely happen.”

We pray, asking God to do something in particular. But be prepared for God to answer our prayers in unexpected ways.

Prayer is not about aligning God to our will. Rather, prayer aligns us to God’s will.

Jesus’ mother prodded him. He didn’t answer her right away.

But the story continues. She doesn’t just give up. Instead, she goes and finds the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

Jesus doesn’t answer her as she anticipates; still, she anticipates an answer. She doesn’t know how, exactly, Jesus will act. But she trusts that he will.

God hears our prayers. God considers our prayers. And—though it often happens in ways we don’t expect—God acts on our prayers.

This is why we pray.

Prod. Trust. Pray.

Not the Prim, Proper, and Perfumed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 13, 2019, also known as the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

1.

No one is getting baptized here today.

Still, today we gather around the liturgy of baptism. Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the day on our church calendar when we celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s baptism.

Jesus was right there with everyone else in the crowd that day, waiting in line to be baptized in the Jordan by that enigmatic character John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

What do you think Jesus experienced on that day?

What did that crowd look like, “filled with expectation . . . questioning in their hearts . . . whether [John] might be the Messiah”?

Did the line of people stretch farther than the eye could see? Or was the “crowd,” say, only about twenty people?

Were the people mostly young; or a good mix of all ages, including children? Or were they only men, representing their households?

What kinds of disabilities would Jesus have seen?

What kinds of clothes did the people wear? How dirty were they?

Then, what do you think Jesus overheard the crowd around him discussing? The people were filled with expectation about John’s identity, Luke says. So, what were the topics of their conversations? Religion? Politics? Small talk? Gossip about their neighbors?

And what do you think they smelled like? Lunch? Livestock? Body odor?

2.

My, how times have changed!

What picture comes to your mind today when you hear the word churchgoer? What does the crowd we find ourselves a part of today look, sound, and smell like?

Here’s what comes to my mind, a picture from the late 1980s, when I first began to attend church regularly.

I was 18 or 19 years old, never been in church more than a few times. My eyes had recently been opened to the saving knowledge of the 1980s soCal conservative evangelical image of Jesus—all gentleness and blue eyes and flowing blond hair . . . like some surfers I knew.

Jesus wasn’t like those other surfers, the ones living out of their beat-up Volkswagen vans, somehow managing to eke out livings repairing surfboards and painting fences for the friend of a friend.

No, Jesus was one of the good guys, like the surfers who managed In-N-Out Burger chains, a good job to come by, especially since they print “John 3:16” on the bottoms of their drink cups. These surfers drove respectable vehicles, pickup trucks or hatchbacks.

And the families that these gentle surfers came from—well, now, there’s a picture to behold! The dads wore ties that matched their socks and the moms wore perfectly coordinated ensembles, often with three or four little siblings in tow, just as prim and proper as their parents, hair braided or gelled, always on time.

They behaved perfectly too, in church or out, from what I could tell anyway.

And as for their smell: just one whiff and I knew, yes, here was the perfume, aftershave, and deodorant of the Promised Land.

Churchgoers par excellence!

3.

Jesus came and stood in line with the crowd to be baptized by John. John’s message was repentance. Repentance means to turn and head in a different direction. By the looks, sounds, and smells of churchgoers today, well, we’ve repented all right!

But is this what baptism is about? Our actions?

When we come to the waters of baptism, we make a public statement expressing our repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, we don’t want to live the old way anymore; but new life in Christ!

And, as we all know, the old way of life looked, sounded, and smelled like the crowd that was with Jesus on that day so many years ago on the bank of the River Jordan.

The new life is different. We mind our p’s and q’s now! We need to have everything together, to live out a life that honors Christ. Or at least we need to look like we do.

Really?

What if I change the term from churchgoer to seeker? What image comes to mind now, of a person truly seeking Jesus today?

Wise people? Magi?

Sometimes. In fact, we considered this image last week.

But, also, what about the poor, the sick, and the marginalized? What images come to mind here? Homeless persons? AIDS victims? Criminals? Do they seek Jesus too?

Seekers are not always the people we like to envision. Seekers might not fit our prim, proper, and perfumed expectations. Seekers might make us uncomfortable.

4.

So, today we remember our Lord’s baptism.

Baptism is an act; and thus, logically, we associate actions with our baptism: the clothes we wear, the things we say, how we come across to others, how we express what we believe.

But the Gospel of Luke does something different today.

There’s Jesus, standing in line with the crowd of seekers, waiting his turn to be baptized; Jesus, taking in all those sights, sounds, and smells; Jesus, himself contributing to all those sights, sounds, and smells.

But Luke passes this over as if it’s no big deal.

Just like that, Jesus is baptized along with everyone else and it’s time for the story to move on. No lingering here; no detailed development like with the birth narrative. Just, bam! And it’s over.

This is a very different telling from we hear in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the versions we will hear on this Feast day over the next two years, which are both much more detailed.

But Luke is low-key; as if to say we shouldn’t make too much out of the act of baptism—or the things we do in our new life.

Even so, there is a little detail Luke adds to the story that we mustn’t overlook, a small yet profound phrase Matthew and Mark leave out. Luke glosses over the action and instead says Jesus “was praying.”

After everyone is baptized and before the heavens open and the heavenly voice booms—right in between!—Jesus prays.

In fact, the way Luke tells it, the Spirit descends bodily and the heavenly voice resounds not as a part of his baptism but because Jesus prays. The prayer of Jesus is the cause; the dove and God’s voice are the effects.

This unique-to-Luke detail arrests our attention today.

No one from our congregation is getting baptized; the rite will not be enacted today at St. Thomas.

But that’s perfectly appropriate; because the actions in and around our baptism—how we look, sound, or smell in our new life—are not Luke’s point! Rather, today Luke declares that the baptized life is characterized by the practice of prayer.

And then it doesn’t matter: then we pray because we are grateful churchgoers; and then we pray, too, because we are needy, sick, and marginalized seekers.

Comfortable or not, thankful or in need, we pray because we want to and we have to.

5.

And the best part about today’s Gospel is what happens when you do pray.

Two things, right?

The first: the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove; and here again Luke adds a detail not seen in the other Gospels: “in bodily form.”

You don’t see your prayers ascending. You speak them into the air and they dissipate. And you’re left to wonder, Has God heard me?

Prayers seem so immaterial, so abstract!

Yet, Luke reminds us today, when you pray the Holy Spirit descends upon you as concretely as a dove in bodily form!

And second—my favorite part of all—is that voice from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

You know what this is? You’ve just earned an 89 on your faith test; and God is not that parent who spouts off, “You should have earned an A!” Instead, God puts loving arms around you and responds affirmingly, “Well done!”

You pray; and God affirms!

God loves you; God is well pleased with you.

It doesn’t matter how imperfect or perfect your life is. It doesn’t matter whether you are a churchgoer or seeker. It doesn’t even matter what you look, sound, or smell like. “You are my child,” God says, “my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Our prayers are as concrete as a bird in flight; and God affirms us, whoever we are. What better reasons to live a life characterized by prayer?

Systems Failing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

alan_lee_-_riddles_in_the_dark

This sermon was delivered on November 13, 2016.

Luke 21:5-19

I begin today’s homily with a riddle:

This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats high mountain down.

It comes from a famous riddle dual in English literature; more specifically, from the fifth chapter of J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins and Gollum meet for the first time, and square off.

They pose riddles to each other, in turn, until one of them gets the wrong answer.  If Bilbo wins, why, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave in which he is now lost.  But if Gollum wins, he will eat Bilbo—or so he threatens.

Now it’s Gollum’s turn; and he poses this riddle.  (Repeat.)

What is this thing?

Is it an army?  I suppose an army slays kings, ruins towns, and even beats high mountains down.  The Roman army, for sure, was a force to be reckoned with.  Still, can you say that armies devour birds, beasts, trees, and flowers?  What about gnawing iron, or grinding stones to sand?

Maybe it’s a natural disaster.  Yeah.  Disasters have been known to turn stones to sand, especially tsunamis and hurricanes.  And a hurricane certainly ruins towns and devours birds and beasts.  But gnawing iron?  Ruining kings?

Hmm.

Well, why don’t we set that aside for the time being? We’ll come back to it later, I promise.  But for now I want to engage in a different kind of mental exercise.  Now, let’s imagine ourselves taking a tour of Washington, DC; and let’s imagine that our tour guide is Bishop Mathes.

And there we are, taking it all in.  The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument—all in its intimidating beauty.  This is stability.  This is security.  Just looking at all this solid, changeless architecture is enough to tell us our country is solid and unchanging.  It’s built to endure, to stand the test of time.  This visit is enough to say, “Our country and especially the freedom for which it stands is permanent.”

But then the bishop says something like this: “Do you see all this beauty, all these magnificent buildings?  What if I were to tell you that they would all be destroyed within a generation?  I had a vision last night.  Within a generation, leaders of our own army will come in, take over, and destroy everything you see right here before our eyes.  All will be razed.  Nothing will be left standing.”

What would you think?

Now, admittedly, this isn’t so hard to imagine.  Prophets of doom stand on street corners all the time, holding or shouting out messages of death, doom, and destruction.  In fact, I am willing to wager that this very morning just such prophets were standing on street corners preaching their doom and gloom in DC.

But the bishop?  He’s a little more sensible, isn’t he?

So, to tax our brains a little more, now let’s imagine that it’s several years later and it actually happens.  Just as the bishop said, our own army comes in, takes over, and destroys everything.  All the buildings are razed.  And we realize that it’s just as the bishop said, down to the last, fine detail.

Would this be at all disconcerting?

When some people were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The Temple Mount in Jesus’ day was a lot like Washington, DC in our day.

It wasn’t just a Jewish thing, you know, for them, those people, to worship as they do with all their animal sacrifices and other peculiarities.  No!  The temple, the Temple, Herod’s Temple, was a building of incredible significance, sanctioned by the Emperor, an architectural wonder of the ancient world, a source of Roman pride, as well as Jewish.

Herod began its construction in 19 BCE.  During his building campaign, he more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount.

The temple itself was wonderful, completed in about eighteen months, and, yes, was the principal place of worship for the Jews.  But Herod’s building plan included colonnades around the temple, a lot like an outdoor mall, where activities like buying, selling, teaching, and speech-making occurred daily.

In fact, so extensive was this project that it was not completed until the reign of Nero, some thirty years after Jesus’ death, some eighty years after construction had begun.

The Temple Mount was solid, immovable, built to endure, to stand the test of time.  It represented the Roman and Hellenistic ideology of solidarity in diversity.

And like a prophet of doom and gloom on a street corner, Jesus looks at it and says, “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Was this at all disconcerting?

How about a few years later?  Was it disconcerting in 70 CE, less than a decade after Nero completed Herod’s magnificent building project, when the Temple Mount was completely destroyed?  Was it disconcerting that, in some serendipitous fit of cosmic irony, it was in fact destroyed by the Roman army, the army of the same empire that had just completed building it?  Was it disconcerting that it happened just as Jesus had said?

Yes!  Especially if your faith was in government.

So: I think now’s a good time to return to Gollum’s riddle.

The answer is time.  Time is the thing that devours all other things, whether birds, beasts, trees, flowers, steel, iron, hard stones, kings, cities, high mountains, or even Temple Mounts and White Houses.

Look, we live in a tremendous country.  We experience wonderful freedoms.  We have a government that is vitally concerned about protecting these freedoms.  We have a military that is unlike any other in the world.  I for one am extremely grateful to be an American citizen.

But I don’t have to remind you that every great civilization in the history of the world rises and falls.  In our history books we read about the Medes and Persians; the Greeks; the Romans; the Ottomans; the Turks; the Plantagenets; the Tudors; the Huns; even the so-called Holy Roman Empire.  Yet all of these are no more.  Time has a way of putting an end to all things.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, our great nation will one day cease to be great too, just like all the others.

Is this disconcerting?

Are you frightened as you look around?  Do the changing world events terrify you?  Do wars and rumors of wars; reports of ISIS; another headline of another senseless shooting; nuclear tests in North Korea—do these kinds of things send jolts of fear down your spine?  Do you ever wonder if we might actually witness something as significant as the destruction of the Temple Mount in our own lifetimes?

We have good reason to fear.  Just like the disciples in the time of Jesus, we have a lot to be afraid of.   There will be wars, insurrections, natural disasters, and false leaders.  Nation will rise up against nation—in other words, race against race.  There will be earthquakes and other destructive natural disasters; and maybe even dreadful portents in the heavens.  These things will happen.  Jesus doesn’t try to skirt around it.  And this is scary stuff!

But there’s another side to it.

It’s all disconcerting, yes, if we place our faith in government.  We know this.  Luke knew it too.

And we can add to the picture a little bit: it’s not just government.  We can talk about any established system—the church, the company you work for, relationships.  Regardless of how solid and stable any system appears, there’s always the possibility of instability, erosion, and failure.

And this is disconcerting!

But here’s maybe something we don’t know, something maybe we can learn from Luke today.

Luke wrote his biography of the life of Jesus looking backwards.  That is, when we hear today’s account of Jesus foretelling the future—looking at all the parts of the Temple that will be destroyed—by the time Luke actually wrote it all down, the Temple already was destroyed—the future Jesus was foretelling was actually already in the past.

You know why he did this?  He did this in order to tell his readers—in order to tell us—yes, it is all disconcerting; but there is something in which we can put our faith—someone—who is stable where everything else is not; someone who endures, who stands the test of time; who is the one thing Gollum’s wicked riddle cannot destroy.

And that someone is Jesus.

Prayer: Hope or Action?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by timtrue

300px-widow_and_judge1

Luke 18:1-8

There’s a certain tension that comes to the surface in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

On the one hand, there’s a God-fearing widow.  And widows in the ancient world, as we know, had it rough.  There was no social security system.  There was no Medicare.  And unless she had a son to take care of her or some other unlikely benefactor, she was largely on her own to make ends meet.  Widows in the ancient world were easy targets for bullies.

On the other hand, there’s a self-serving judge, who cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of other persons.  In short, he is a key player in the system which is already stacked against the marginalized and oppressed.

We followers of Christ are meant, of course, to identify with the widow.

Early Christians were marginalized and oppressed.  Out of necessity, they had to work within the extant Roman system to make a way forward—within a system that cared nothing about God and even less about the dignity of the marginalized; within a system that was stacked against them.

But what does this mean for us today?  What should our identification with the widow look like?

Are we to spend our time in prayer, as Luke’s own commentary states—“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (v.1, emphasis added)?  Or are we to engage in persistent work, like the widow did, who kept coming, over and over, to the unjust judge until he gave in?

More simply, is this a parable about praying or doing?  As Christians, are we called to hope or to act?

And thus the tension of which I speak.

The Bible is full of examples of people—at both the individual and the community levels—who couldn’t do anything about their present situation; who were left with no other option but to hope.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  God then promised redemption and reconciliation.  But when would it come?  Adam and Eve couldn’t do anything about said redemption and reconciliation: they were left just to hope.

A similar scenario plays out with the death of Abel and banishment of Cain.  How would God redeem the cosmos now?  They could only wait—and hope.

And do you remember the story of Joseph?  He was sold into slavery—by his own jealous, ungrateful, entitled brothers.  What could he do but cry out to God in hope?

Indeed, throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear story after story of individual widows, orphans, and slaves who are powerless to do anything about their respective situations; who can only hope through prayer.

And it’s the same at the community level.  Famines hit whole nations; war comes upon communities suddenly and unexpectedly; the nation of Israel becomes enslaved to Egypt.  What else can they do but cry out to God?

And, as you know, it’s not just the Bible.  People throughout history have been left with nothing they can do about their present situation—with nothing in their power but hope through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, I can also think of numerous examples where people actually can do something about it.

“Be strong and courageous; enter the land of promise,” Joshua commanded the people of Israel.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commanded.  And, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Moses led.  David protected.  Peter founded.  Paul preached.

In more modern times, Martin Luther King, Junior stood fast against systemic injustice.

Often times we are in fact called to act.  And, it seems reasonable to me, if we do not act it is to commit the sin of omission (as we name it in one of our prayers).

So, then, which is it? Hope or action?

To which I answer, yes.

The examples I’ve given are specific situations.  Of course there are times when individuals and communities will have no choice at all but to hope through prayer!  Likewise, of course there are specific times when individuals and communities will be called to act so that it feels as if hardly any prayer is taking place at all!

But our theology of prayer must not be formed from these polar extremes.  Informed by them, yes.  But not formed from them.

There are churches whose theology of prayer is formed only by hope.  You know what their message is?  Jesus will soon return and he’s not going to like what he finds.  A great battle will ensue culminating in the destruction of the entire cosmos.  All humanity, all the fauna and flora, all the sun moon and stars—all will be blotted out at the final trumpet blast!

There’s not a lot these churches can do.  Leaders from such churches encourage their parishioners to go out into the world and make disciples, for the souls of people are all that will pass into the afterlife.  But as for going out and fighting against social injustice, there’s really not much of a need.  Christianity’s place, they say, is only to hope in a future kingdom through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, there are churches whose theology of prayer comes only from good works.  Their message is: Christ has already brought his kingdom to earth; he has therefore called us to do as much as is in our power to bring this kingdom about.

The logical consequence is that we really have little time for sitting around in contemplative prayer.  Really, we shouldn’t take time out of our schedules at all for individual or corporate prayer, or even for worship.  In fact, we should spend as little money as possible on the church.  Instead we should use all our funds to feed and clothe the poor and to fight other social injustices we see in our local world.

Do you see the two polar extremes here?  A theology of prayer focused only on hope is infrared; and a theology of prayer focused only on action is ultraviolet.  To get the white light of the Gospel in its full splendor, we must have a proper theology of prayer: hope and action together, with all their gradients.

“Roy G. Biv” is how I learned the colors of the rainbow—like a man’s name: Roy as a first name, G as his middle initial, and Biv as his last name. And then I knew the colors of the rainbow in order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  Was it the same with you?

But we all know there are many more colors in the rainbow than seven.  For when we get to that liminal area between one color and the next—between red and orange, for instance—we see combinations of the two—reddish-orange and orangeish-red and a million other gradients—so that we can’t really see where one color stops and the other starts.

A full theology of prayer includes not just the infrared and the ultraviolet but also the ROYGBIV in between—and the millions upon millions of gradients therein.

Or, more simply, prayer is both hope and action—and all the millions upon millions of ways we can combine the two.

So, to return to the main point, Jesus says you need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Do you know how to do this?  It’s not easy.  But a church with a sound theology of prayer can help.

Here are just some of the traditions that have emerged from our church’s theology of prayer: lectio divina, the Ignatian method, praying our own Anglican rosary, centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, the Daily Office, meditation, intercession, giving gifts, the examen, journaling, walking, working, singing, chanting, reading, and simply sitting in silence.

This list is not exhaustive—please inquire later if you’d like to know more.  But I mention it because it shows how prayer is both hope and action, and all the various combinations of the two.

Take advantage of these traditions.  They will help you to pray always.  They will help you not to lose heart.

Between Clarity and Muddle

Posted in Background, Homilies with tags , , , , on July 24, 2016 by timtrue

Foucault_pendulum_at_Griffith_Observatory

Luke 11:1-13

Many of you know the story of my spiritual journey:

  • How I grew up in a home where church was not a part of family life;
  • How I placed a lot of stock in my family;
  • How this stock was entirely upended when my parents divorced;
  • How through this divorce I began to question what things really mattered;
  • How I began to find answers first through Bible study and later through church;
  • How I sensed a call to ordained ministry during college;
  • And how more than twenty years passed before this call materialized.

Many of you know this.  But do you know the story of my spiritual pendulum swings?

When I was a little boy and life was good—when I was growing up in semi-rural southern California on an avocado orchard, with chickens and a donkey and a dog and three cats and a swimming pool with a rope swing and large lawns and hillsides nearby for hiking and bicycling and racing homemade go-karts and neighbor kids my own age and grapevines and citrus trees and afternoon Pacific breezes and delightfully cool summer evenings—when I was a boy experiencing all these things, let me tell you, life largely fell into two clearly defined categories: good and bad.

I have a vivid, lucid memory, in fact, of lying on my lawn on a lazy summer afternoon, mesmerized by the several hues of green the sunlight was making as it danced upon the avocado leaves playing in the breeze.  “This is what life is all about,” I told myself.  “This is where I will grow old.  I’ll grow up, get married, have a family, and my kids will grow up and have their families, and this is right where I’ll be, a grandpa, still living in this house, still lazing away my summer afternoons right here on this lawn.”

Here was absolute truth without even the faintest breath of falsehood.  Here was everything beautiful without any discernible scent of ugliness.  Here was all good and nothing bad.

My spiritual pendulum, in other words, had not yet swung; it was entirely over here, on this side, as far up the arc of clarity as it possibly could be.

But then, abruptly, with the divorce, it dropped.  And it swung.

Now all those avocado trees and lazy summer afternoon swims and philosophical musings in the breeze suddenly didn’t seem so important.  Now, instead, Mom and Dad, who’d so recently seemed so certain and sure of themselves, were unstable, emotional, and confused.

The truth, beauty, and goodness of my life—now there was something rancid in the smell.  Now discerning the good from the bad was—well, now I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other began.  Now life was all mixed up.

And it all had happened overnight!

Just like that, my spiritual pendulum had swung from its highest point of clarity to its opposite extreme.  All that had seemed so constant and stable was now uncertain and confused, just like my parents.

But there’s something about pendulums: they swing back.

The backswing came, very noticeably, a few years later, when I was in high school, when I’d gone away on a youth retreat and—in the words of the youth leaders—given my life to Christ.

“Have you ever felt uncertain and confused?” the speaker asked.  “Jesus knows how you feel.  And, in fact, Jesus has all the answers.  Do you want to stop feeling uncertain and confused?  Then just give your life to Him: give your life to Christ.”

Well, yeah!  I wanted the answers.  I wanted clarity and stability in my uncertain and confused life.  I wanted my spiritual pendulum to swing back to the high point of clarity again.

So I did what the speaker said.  I stayed behind, after the emotional meeting was over.  I met with a so-called spiritual counselor.  And I prayed a formulaic prayer to receive Christ, repeating the prompts given to me by this spiritual counselor.  And thus I “gave my life to Christ.”

Now all would be clear again, I told myself.  Now all would be black and white.  Now I would be able with certainty to discern truth from falsehood, beauty from ugliness, and good from evil.

So I changed my ways.  I stopped swearing.  I started doing my homework.  I said no whenever my friends invited me to parties.  And I tried to sort everything—and I mean everything—into two neatly defined, binary categories of right and wrong.

And you know what happened?  I lost a lot of friends.

Oh, sure, that’s not the only thing that happened!  A lot of good came out of this newly repentant life, sure.  Clarity in a season of uncertainty and confusion is always a good thing.  So, for instance, I developed serious spiritual disciplines during these years.  I also learned to value very highly a life characterized by integrity—a life I strive to live to this day.

But I also became intolerant of anyone who thought differently than I did.  What worked for me was good enough—I’d developed my system, my formula for life.  And whenever I met another person who tried to practice a similar system, well, we’d become fast friends.  But whenever I met a person who did not, which was more often the case, well, I’d tell myself, my time and energies would be better spent elsewhere.

So, yeah, I lost a lot of friends.  And I made very few new ones.  My spiritual counselor at that youth retreat never told me that would happen.

So, one thing about pendulums is they swing back.  Which, in time, I’m happy to say, mine did again.  But then, yes, I’m not so happy to say, after a while it swung forth again.  And then it swung back again.  And forth again.  And back.  And forth.  And so on.  And so forth.

But there’s something else: swinging isn’t the only thing pendulums do.  After time—and for some of us this may mean a long time, like the pendulum in the Griffith Park Observatory in L. A.—after time the swinging motion starts to slow down.  The large, violent swings that once went up so high from one side to the other now don’t go up so high anymore.  Now they become softer, gentler, more manageable.  Now we begin to see details and colors we never knew were there before.

For me, these softening swings were the twenty-some years of watching my call to the ordained ministry materialize, as I navigated the waters of life together with Holly and our growing family, through various churches and denominations, gaining vocational experience as a teacher and school administrator, learning, learning, always learning, that life isn’t so clear, certain, and stable as I’d like it to be; that Jesus isn’t so much a god with all the answers as he is a God to guide.

He never promised his disciples clarity on that Day of Pentecost.  Instead, he promised an Advocate, Comforter, and Guide: the Holy Spirit.

So, somewhere in there, after several years of swinging back and forth, of vacillating between clarity and muddle, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit my spiritual pendulum swings began to soften, to become gentler, more colorful, and more manageable.

Somewhere in there I learned that life isn’t just about discipline, rationality, and the head overcoming the heart.  Life is also human.  It’s full of emotion.  It’s unstable.  It’s confusing.  It’s messy.

Somewhere in there I learned that Jesus is not just some lofty ideal, out there somewhere, fully God but not quite fully human—or maybe more than fully human, maybe superhuman—who decided to wear humanity for a while, as if dressing up for a dinner party; and all I have to do is go find him and learn from him.

Rather, somewhere in there I learned that in Christ Jesus God actually became like me!  God met me where I already was.  God became human—and all that that means: all its emotion, instability, confusion, and mess!

Anyway, that’s the story of my spiritual pendulum swings.

What’s your story?  I’m sure you’ve been guided in this way too, vacillating back and forth throughout your Christian life; but that over time experiencing a sort of settling too—a softening that has produced a more colorful and manageable life.

So: in light of today’s Gospel, what is this settling?  Is it not prayer?

“Lord,” that disciple said to Jesus, “teach us to pray.”

Is this not our constant question?  Is this not what we ask again and again, over and over as we swing from one side of our human perspectives to the next?

Back and forth we go on our spiritual pendulums, setting personal standards that are humanly impossible and then failing to live up to them, vacillating between clarity and muddle.

But what softens our swinging?  What aligns us?  What draws us in?

Is it not prayer?  Is not prayer the gravity that orients and grounds us?

Lord Jesus, indeed, teach us to pray.

Prod, Hope, Pray

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by timtrue

Kathedraal - Bruiloft van Cana - Maarten de Vos (1595 - 97)

John 2:1-11

What an outstanding passage from today’s Gospel, eh?

I mean, here’s Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, becoming known to the world—his epiphany, as it were—and where is he but at a party?  And it’s not just any old dinner party, but a wedding, a week-long festivity in the ancient world.

And what does he do for his very first sign, or miracle, but turn water into wine?  In one fell swoop, he both saves a host from social embarrassment and enables people to rejoice and be glad more than they already are.  In fact, if we read into this story just a little, in this miracle Jesus enables those who are already drunk to get drunker still.

Oh, how our Baptist friends have trouble with this one!  Have you ever heard the argument that when the term “good wine” appears in the scriptures—as it does in this passage—it actually means wine that hasn’t yet fermented?  Good wine in the Bible, they argue, is actually grape juice and not what we would consider wine at all.

But, oh, that argument can’t get around this story: because the steward explains that usually the host brings out the good wine first; and that only after the guests have drunk their fill—or, rather, as the steward puts it, only after the guests have become drunk—that’s when the host brings out the inferior wine.  Point being, for the moment, that even in the Bible people got drunk off good wine.

Oh, Baptist friend, this ain’t grape juice!

And, by the way, if you know anything about music history, I’m pretty sure that it was here at this party where the hymn was written, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.”

But, aside from all the wonderful lessons on everyday joy and gladness we could learn from this passage, I want instead to focus our time this morning on two vexing questions that come to the surface in this account.  These questions may seem unrelated at first.  But hear me out: I’ll attempt to weave them together before we conclude.

The first question, then, is this: But why pray at all?

Last week we found Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel according to St. Luke.  He went out to the Jordan River and was baptized by John along with all the other people.  And we saw a bodily form, like a dove, descend and alight on Jesus; and we heard a voice from the heavens saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

But we heard about something else in Luke too: something that took place right after Jesus was baptized and right before the Trinity showed up; something that doesn’t make it into the other three Gospels.  Do you remember?

Jesus prayed.  Along with all the other people, Jesus prayed.  Like you and me, Jesus prayed.

But why pray at all?

If God is indeed sovereign—if God is the absolute creator, ruler, and sustainer of the universe—then God is going to do whatever God wants.  Really, will one little, insignificant prayer from me make any difference?

On the other hand, maybe God isn’t so sovereign.  Maybe this doctrine of sovereignty is wrong, a sort of theological hangover from the Middle Ages, still giving us a headache in our modern day.  Maybe, instead, God sits up in the heavens and casts divine influence this or that way—key word being influence, not sovereignty.  Maybe God doesn’t really rule over everything after all, but sits in his administrative office orchestrating great Rube Goldberg-like systems of cause and effect upon our world, hoping, just hoping, that everything will turn out right, wringing his cosmic hands together.

Well, if this were the case, yes, we’d certainly have an answer to our question, “But why pray at all?”  But this case just doesn’t jibe with the rest of the scriptures.  We don’t worship a cosmic good guy at continuous odds with a cosmic bad guy, hoping that all will turn out right—hoping that the force will awaken and our cosmic good guy will win—in the end.

Maybe you’re like me.  Maybe you’ve wrestled with this question time and again and still haven’t found a completely satisfactory answer.  Deadlines won’t change.  Bills won’t stop coming in.  Poverty won’t end.  Wars won’t cease.  So why pray at all?

But what else happens at this wedding party?  Jesus turns the water into wine, sure.  But what happens just before the miracle?

Just this: Jesus’ own mother prods him.

Now, Jesus hems and haws a little—a response I’ll address shortly.  Nevertheless, he then performs the miracle.  And we are left with the distinct impression that he would not have acted without his mother prodding first.

Are you like Jesus’ mother here?  Do you ever prod Jesus in prayer?

Now, remember, my main question here is, “But why pray at all?”  I’m not attempting to answer those tough questions that follow, about whether or not God is sovereign.  In fact, if you can, put those other questions aside for right now.  Today’s passage suggests that we, like Jesus’ mother, can actually prod him in prayer.

That’s a startling notion.  And it answers our question, “But why pray at all?”

Now to address the hemming and hawing through a second vexing question: In his response to his mother, why does Jesus seem reluctant?

His mother comes to him and points out, “They have no wine.”  Now, St. John could have gone straight from here to the part where his mother says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  John could have skipped over Jesus’ response to his mother.  But he didn’t.  He includes it.  “Woman,” Jesus says, “what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”

Why does Jesus respond this way?

Why the apparent reluctance?  The host has run out of wine; social embarrassment is imminent.  And Jesus doesn’t seem to want to do anything to help.

But maybe even more of a concern to some of you: Is Jesus being disrespectful when he calls his mother woman?  To his mother, of all people!  Is Jesus somehow giving teenagers everywhere a green light to act like, well, teenagers?

There’s been a lot of debate over this very question from very early on in the church’s history.  Some say it’s a language issue, that when Jesus addresses his mother with the word “woman,” it didn’t come across back then as abrasive as it does now.  But others say, no, it still would have been fairly abrasive.  One thing is for sure: St. John wanted to get our attention.

But why?

The answer, I think, relates to our first question’s answer.  We seem to be able to prod Jesus through prayer—at least to some extent.  But here, in Jesus’ response, St. John is letting us know that Jesus is bound to no earthly authority whatsoever—not even to the authority of his own mother!

Now it’s time to weave these two ideas together.  There’s Jesus’ mother: she prods.  And there’s Jesus’ response: he will not be manipulated.

Nevertheless, Jesus performs his first miracle, of turning water into wine; and we are left with the distinct impression that he would not have performed it without his mother’s initial prodding.

Put these two ideas together and we learn about the twofold nature of prayer.

On the one hand, prayer can be a catalyst for divine action.

But, on the other hand, we should never think of prayer as formulaic—like, “If only I pray the right way, then _____ will surely happen.”

Prayer is not about aligning God to our will.  Rather, prayer aligns us to God’s will.

Jesus’ mother thought Jesus should act.  So she prodded him.  But he responded not in the way that she expected.

Does that ever happen to you?  You pray, asking God to do something in particular.  But how often does God answer in the way you expect?

Notice, the story continues.  Jesus’ mother doesn’t give up when Jesus doesn’t answer as expected.  Instead, she goes and finds servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

She didn’t know if or how, exactly, Jesus would act.  But she didn’t give up hope.  Most importantly, she continued to prod.

In your own prayers, do the same.  Don’t give up when God doesn’t answer you as you expect.

Keep prodding.  Keep hoping.  Keep praying.