Archive for 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.

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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.

Not the Prim, Proper, and Perfumed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2016 by timtrue

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-23-_-_Baptism_of_Christ

The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Have you ever considered that the notion of the term churchgoer is wrongheaded?

What picture comes to mind when you hear churchgoer?  I’ll tell you what comes to my mind.  It’s a picture that has been with me since the late 1980s, since I first began attending church regularly.

Now, you’ve got to understand the context.  I was 18 or 19 years old, never been in church more than a few times, and my eyes had recently been opened to the saving knowledge of the 1980s soCal conservative evangelical image of Jesus Christ, with all his gentleness and blue eyes and flowing blond hair.

Like a few surfers I knew.

But these guys weren’t like some surfers, the ones who lived out of their beat-up Volkswagen vans and somehow managed to eke out a living repairing surfboards and painting fences for a friend of a friend.

No, these surfers were good guys, who managed In-N-Out Burgers, which was a good job to come by, especially since you could find “John 3:16” on the bottoms of their drink cups.  And they drove respectable vehicles.

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

They behaved perfectly too, in church and out.

And their smell!  To have such a family pass me by on the steps leading to the narthex—just one whiff was enough for me to know, yes, here was the perfume, aftershave, and deodorant of the Promised Land.  Here were churchgoers par excellence!

But isn’t this vision wrongheaded?  The people I’ve just described seem to have it all together.  And maybe they really do!  If so, they probably can manage just fine on their own, without coming to church, without making the rest of us feel inferior, thank you very much.

But more likely, they don’t have it all together.  I mean, really, does any of us have a life free of stress, worry, fear, and interpersonal conflict?  Is any of us free from the drama of everyday life?

The notion of churchgoer—at least, my notion of it—is wrongheaded.  The people who turn to Jesus are very often not the prim, proper, perfumed people we envision.  In the Bible—and in our own day—the people who turn to Jesus most often are the poor, the sick, and the destitute.

And isn’t that us?

Why do you turn to Jesus?  Why do I?  There are times, sure, when everything seems to be going our way.  Then we feel like Midas, right?  It seems like everything we touch turns to gold.  And during these times—rare times for most of us—we rightly offer God prayers of thanksgiving.

But, much more often, don’t we turn to God out of need?

Like some fire-breathing beast of legend, a stressor rears its ugly head and threatens some part of our life.  And so we turn to Jesus for help.  “Save us,” we cry out, just as the ancient Britons cried out to St. George to save his kingdom from the dragon!  (Humor me.  I’m an Episcopalian, after all.)

Point is, it’s the needy who turn to Jesus—the sick, the destitute—not the people who’ve got it all together.  And that’s us: the needy.

And what about Jesus himself?

Jesus is fully human; but he’s also fully God.  And being fully God, wasn’t his human life free of stress, worry, fear, and interpersonal conflict?  Wasn’t Jesus free from the drama of everyday life?  Wasn’t Jesus, in fact, gentle and mild, with blue eyes and flowing blond hair?

Well, um, if that’s what you think, er, I’ve got some news for you!  (He was in fact crucified, remember.)

So, today, in Luke’s Gospel (this is wonderful, isn’t it?  I mean, this really should fill us with wonder!), Jesus is being baptized along with all the other people (v. 21)—all these people who came to John out of repentance—all these needy, sick, destitute, drama-affected people—all these people quite unlike our modern notion of churchgoers with their I’ve-got-it-all-together personas.

And then what does Jesus do?

The other Gospels go straight from this point—straight from Jesus’ baptism—into his ministry, or at least into his temptation in the wilderness and then into his ministry.  But not in Luke.

Instead, here, in Luke, before entering into his ministry, Jesus prays.  In Luke, prayer is the focal point of this whole scenario—even more central than the baptism of Jesus; even more central than the voice that speaks from heaven and the bodily form, like a dove, that descends!  It’s prayer!

Jesus, in identifying with all the needy, sick, and destitute people—in identifying with us—Jesus prays!

Well, I hope you see it as I do.  We should not be like the stereotypical churchgoer.  Moreover, we should not expect all the people around us to be stereotypical churchgoers.  Rather, like Jesus, we should be people of prayer.

We should be people of prayer because we are grateful.  But we should be people of prayer, too, because we are needy, sick, and destitute.  We pray because: we need to; we want to; and we have to.

And the best part about this passage for me is that I’ve been baptized with Christ.  That means I’m with him and he’s with me regardless of how good, bad, or ugly my life may be.  And since I’m with him and he’s with me, those words that came from above; and that bodily form that descended from heaven, like a dove, well, they apply to me too.

That’s right!  When God’s voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” God’s voice is not just speaking to Jesus.  It’s speaking to me; and it’s speaking to all who have followed Jesus Christ.

Have you been baptized with Christ?  It doesn’t matter how perfect or imperfect your life is.  It doesn’t matter that your life doesn’t look like that churchgoer stereotype.  It doesn’t matter how good, bad, or ugly you’ve been.  If you’ve been baptized with Christ, God’s voice is speaking these words to you too.  “You are my child,” God says, “my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

These words are yours.  They belong to you.  Take them.  Own them.  Live them.  You are God’s beloved.

(And so: on this Day of the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, instead of saying the Creed let us renew our Baptismal Vows together, found on BCP 292.)

2015 Lent 23

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by timtrue

drought

Jeremiah 14:1-9, 17-22

Well, I don’t know if it was calling them tighty-whities or what, but today, finally, the people of Israel begin to turn back to God.

Actually, according to this chapter, it was a drought; parched, dry, cracked land was the catalyst.  And this wasn’t just any drought.  This one was so severe that does (a deer, a female deer) were abandoning their own fawns; donkeys were sniffing the wind in an effort to draw some kind of moisture from the air, like jackals do, it says.

(And I think, do jackals do this?)

Point is, disaster came on the people of Israel and they turned to God in prayer.

That was Jeremiah’s point anyway.  But it brings up other questions.

Like: when bad things happen to us–things beyond our control–does this mean that God is judging us for our immorality?

Job maintained an upright heart throughout his time of trial, even when his wife told him, “Curse God and die!”  Bad things happened to Job.  He lost his property–including his home and numerous animals–to bandits; and all his children to some kind of natural disaster–they all died–every one of them!–all in the same day.

So he wept, fasted, and prayed.  Then his wife said what she did.  And some of his best friends came for a visit, assessed, and judged him.  And they said, “You, Job, obviously, have done some great wrong.  This is why you’re suffering, of course!  Just repent already and God will lighten up.”

But he hadn’t done anything wrong.  We readers learn this at the end of the book–like some macabre punch line.  Forces beyond human vision and understanding had been at work.  Evil was present in the world.  And there was nothing Job could do to prevent it.

So, no, bad things happening to us does not mean God is judging us.

And questions like: so why is there evil in the world at all?  If God created the world–which we Christians believe–and if God is good–which we also believe–and if God is sovereign over all–which some Christians believe (including this author)–then why isn’t the world entirely good?

Theologians call this conundrum theodicy.  I like to call it dicey theology.

But there are answers to this question.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, offers one answer.

The world was created upright, including Adam and Eve who were created in God’s own image, perfect and upright.  But evil entered the world.  Adam and Eve ate this evil, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, that forbidden fruit, about which they were told not to.  And then Adam and Eve, who had been created in God’s own image but were now marred, had a son named Seth.  Curiously, the writer of Genesis addresses this: Seth is said to be born in Adam’s image, not God’s (cf. Genesis 5:3); Seth, and all humanity after him (without going into Cain’s line), no longer bears God’s perfect image but Adam’s imperfect one.

To carry this string of logic a little farther, Christ is called the perfect image of God in the New Testament.  We Christians are said to be becoming more and more like Christ throughout our lives.  With this understanding of creation and fall, we could say that we are becoming less like Adam’s imperfect image and more like Christ’s perfect one.  Neat picture, eh?  (Although I must admit I know many people, including many Christians, who fall a lot closer to the imperfect side of the spectrum than to the perfect–or even than to the middle!)

But it still doesn’t answer all the questions.  Why did a perfect God allow evil into the good world in the first place?  Adam and Eve sinned.  But where did the conniving serpent come in?  And why would God have placed a tree with a forbidden fruit in the world in the first place?  Was God just trying to tantalize and tempt his creation to fall?  Was evil inevitable?  And, if so, is this something a truly good God would do?  And, if God is indeed sovereign, did Adam and Eve really have a choice at all?  (The same question has been asked about Judas Iscariot too, by the way: did Judas even have a choice, in the big, cosmic scheme of things, when he betrayed Jesus?)

There are answers to these questions too, if you’re interested.  But, predictably, these answers lead to yet more questions.  A whole lot more!

But enough already!  Now we’re confused, anxious, and maybe even a little stressed over our faith.  Now there’s tension.  (And, like Runt from Chicken Little, tension makes me bloat!)

And we’ve strayed from the point.

The book of Jeremiah is simply pointing out that the people turn to God in prayer during times of hardship.

Isn’t this a natural response?  Perhaps even an innate response, something we’re all born with?

We face challenges beyond our comfort zone.  We need to focus, to face these challenges courageously.  So what do we do?

We pray.  Oh, some may call it focusing, centering, meditating, whatever.  But it’s all just different forms of prayer.  It might not be addressed to the God of the Christians.  And it’s certainly not concerned–in the heat of the moment–with questions about why evil exists, is God sovereign, is God even real, or some other challenge to the Christian faith.  But it’s prayer nonetheless.

And for me it’s a compelling proof of divinity.

2015 Lent 22

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2015 by timtrue

hanes

Jeremiah 13:1-11

All right, so today God likens Israel to tighty-whities.

I don’t even know where to begin.

The word is actually loincloth.  But when you read the passage, you realize that these aren’t loose fitting boxers here.  This cloth “clings to one’s loins” (v. 11).  These are tighty-whities.

So graphic is the imagery here, and to some extent so comical, I actually double-checked, just to make sure I hadn’t been mistaken and read the wrong passage.  Lectionary passages are intended to be read aloud before a congregation of hearers gathered for the purpose of prayer.  This passage is supposed to be just one part of an extended prayer.

But, really, I’m distracted when I hear this story.  My thoughts aren’t on prayer when I hear these words, for example: “For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord” (v. 11).  Instead I start to wonder things like, “Wait a minute!  Did Jeremiah just suggest that God has private parts?”  Whatever prayerful state I’d been in–now it’s gone!

To make matters worse, these are dirty tighty-whities, no longer fit for wearing, “ruined,” “good for nothing” (v. 7).

And now I’m remembering a hilarious book I just read to my son, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.  It’s book nine of a series, and so far as I know the last of the series, telling the story of Greg Heffley’s middle school experience.  This book, the long haul, focuses on a family road trip.

The family is towing a boat.  At one point someone realizes that the boat cover has come untied and luggage and other belongings are flying out of the boat onto the highway.  So they pull over and spend the next two hours gathering what flotsam and jetsam they can before dark.  They manage to retrieve most of their stuff.  But they also manage to find some extra things; including a pair of board-stiff, dirty underwear found by Rodrick, Greg’s older brother.

Anyway, this is the picture that comes to mind while I’m supposed to be praying!

So, where do I even start?

Thus far during my Lenten practice I’ve been able to fit myself into Jeremiah’s shoes fairly well.  A little snug, maybe; and not quite enough arch support.  But they’ll do in a pinch, I’ve said.

But today?  Ha!  Imagine if I were to stand before a congregation and proclaim to them that they’re just like a pair of dirty, useless tighty-whities.  I couldn’t do it.  I wouldn’t do it!  No, today Jeremiah’s shoes hurt.  In fact, I’m sure I have a few blisters.  Today I’m just going to take them off.

I mean, how am I supposed to deal with a passage like this?  I wouldn’t want my kids calling each other names like, “You dirty panty!”  Such name calling strikes me as immature, at best; or maybe just as some kind of joke.  Not to be taken seriously, at any rate!  And yet here is a prophet saying it to God’s people.  Seriously!  And he was told to do so (so the story goes) by God himself!

It’s a tough passage.

. . .

But, ah, that’s just it, isn’t it?  Two kids arguing and one calls the other a puerile name.  It happens all the time.  It’s commonplace, in all cultures and at all times in history.  Doesn’t the book of Jeremiah feel a lot like a common family squabble?

And then I recall yesterday.  The people of Israel–some of Jeremiah’s family members–were conspiring to kill their own brother, the Prophet Jeremiah.  Some family squabble!  Perhaps, then, in likening this conspiracy to good-for-nothing, dirty tighty-whities, God is really encouraging Jeremiah to take his opponents a little less seriously, not to stress so much.

I’ve got opponents too.  Do you?  And sometimes these opponents, those with whom I struggle most deeply on an interpersonal level, I have no choice but to be close with–whether I want to be or not (because they’re family or coworkers or colleagues or whatever).  And at times they can seem overwhelming: they’ve even induced nerve-, digestion-, and sleep-affecting stress!

Opponents is a nice way to say it too.  Many worse, uglier, more descriptive words come to mind when thinking about such asinine people.

But what if I view these difficult persons as worthless tighty-whities?

Okay, then: these are shoes I can fit my feet into!  (Or, to switch the metaphor, this is a loincloth I can wrap around myself!)