Archive for repentance

When Faith and Beliefs Collide

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2018 by timtrue


Mark 1:14-20


Jumping right into today’s Gospel:

  • John the Baptist has been arrested
  • Jesus has carried John’s message of repentance to Galilee
  • Four fisherman hear this message
  • And immediately they leave the lives they have always known to follow Jesus.

Consider: theirs were lives of safety, security, predictability, stability, and confidence; left behind for risk, danger, insecurity, uncertainty, and self-denial.

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

Did they know Jesus already? Had they seen him somewhere before? Was it his charismatic personality?

Or, maybe, was it his connection with JB? There’s some scholarly speculation, after all, that JB was an Essene, possibly even of the Qumran community. Prior to his public ministry, Jesus might even have been one of JB’s disciples. We don’t know for sure. But did Jesus perhaps dress like JB? Would the four fisherman have recognized Jesus at sight—by the clothes he wore (similar to people recognizing me as a priest when I wear my collar in public)?

Or, was there something about the authenticity of Jesus? Here was a man who not only proclaimed a message of repentance but also lived out the way of love. I like to think so: that the message and messenger were authentically one.

Whatever the case, the truth is we don’t know why these four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus. This detail has been left out of the story.

But we know that they did.

No speculation here! On that day long ago on that beach, four fishermen left behind stability, certainty, and predictability for a life of risky faith as disciples of Jesus.


And we know the result: through their faith they were transformed. Jesus called these disciples as fishermen and transformed them into fishers of people.

Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

He was called on the beach, the sand; and later called rock.

Jesus called him rock; and then, in the next breath, Satan.

Peter said he’d never deny Jesus; and yet denied him the next morning.

Peter became a stalwart spokesman for the church; yet disagreed and disputed openly and publicly with the apostle Paul.

Peter even waffled, tradition tells us, in the days leading up to his execution, one moment escaping from Rome and fleeing for his life, sure of his freedom; the next deciding martyrdom was the better way and returning of his own volition to face Nero for Christ’s glory.

Transformation for Peter—and for the others—was not a one-time experience, like repeating a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call.

Faith in Christ meant continuous conversion throughout his life, being conformed increasingly—more and more—from Adam’s fallen image into Jesus’ perfect image.

Transformation takes a lifetime!

And if it works this way for Peter, Andrew, James, John, and you and me, as individuals; then transformation also works this way for the corporate body of Christ, the Christian church around the globe.


Which brings up a good point.

Here is the beginning of the church—the earliest community to gather around the person and mission of Jesus Christ. And this earliest body of believers lived a life of faith.

This life was risky, even dangerous.

It was insecure.

It was unstable.

And—not a point to gloss over—it required them to let of their egos.

And their faith resulted in their transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

Is the church, the collective body of Christ around the globe, still transforming? Is it still living a life of risky faith, following Jesus into unknown, even dangerous realms as it tries to fulfill his mission?

Take financial risk as an example. Certainly these four fisherman followed Jesus at great financial risk to themselves and their families. Yet, obviously, they didn’t sit down beforehand and plan out a budget subject to board approval.

The contrasting picture today is one of sweaty hands wrung together, knuckles popping and fingernails being bitten off, frantic phone calls, bitter arguments—in fear of insolvency.

We’ve come a long way in some ways; though I’m not sure we can say transformation is one of them.

And what of stability? We talk an awful lot about having buildings to worship in, in geographic locations. We are the presence of Christ to our community, after all. Better make sure we look like we’re built on a rock then and not on shifting sand!

Yet Christ was transient in his ministry, meeting in an upper room or speaking from a boat or sitting on a hillside.

Since the beginning of the church, a lot about Christianity has changed. But I don’t think this is the kind of transformation Jesus had in mind.

And what about ego? . . .


Considered as a world religion, Christianity is commonly divided into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Each of these divisions can be further subdivided; and there are further subdivisions within these subdivisions; and so on; and so forth—leaving one dizzy.

A Catholic group says there are 33,000 different Christian denominations in the world; Gordon-Conwell Seminary claims there are 47,000.

But, of course, it depends how one defines “denomination.” Is an independent, so-called non-denominational church in effect its own denomination? Many would argue so.

If so, then, yes, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, in the USA alone there are more than 35,000 Protestant denominations.

But if, on the other hand, you lump all independent and non-denominational bodies into one group—a kind of anti-denomination I guess—then the number becomes a much more manageable 200 or so.[i]

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot.

And why is this?

Far and away, because of doctrinal differences: one church leader’s interpretation differs from another. And so, in the spirit of protest, channeling the Protestant Reformation, rather than seeking agreement a new denomination forms and breaks off from the old.

And if that’s not ego at work, I don’t know what is!

But, to be fair, you can hardly blame Martin Luther and the others! For the Roman Catholic doctrines of Papal Infallibility and magisteria (to name but two) are themselves exclusive systems of belief: if you don’t ascribe to them you can’t be in the club; and who wants to be in that kind of club anyway?

God is immutable, they say; and thus the church should reflect God’s unchanging nature.

To which I say, Immutability? Infallibility? (And I might as well add) Inerrancy? These words hardly sound transformational.

On that day long ago, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of them. We, the church, continue to have a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of us.

It seems to me, however, that our belief systems today are far removed from that beach where those four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus in faith.

Our belief systems are impeding our transformation.


You know what I think’s going on here? I think we—the Christian church—have confused our belief systems with faith.

Once upon a time I was a director of youth ministries in a church, overseeing programs for students in middle school, high school, and college.

The college students frequently volunteered to work with younger students and thus were seen role models.

One day, one of the college women who volunteered with the high school program came to the pastor in tears, confessing that she was pregnant. The father-to-be was a young man who didn’t attend church.

Now, this church’s system of beliefs held that believers should not marry unbelievers; that abortion is murder; that sex outside of marriage is a sin; that sins necessitate repentance; that pregnancy is a public sin, for a swollen belly is soon obvious to everyone; and that failure to repent should result in excommunication from the church.

This system of beliefs had come from much prayer and Bible study, to be sure.

But it also led the pastor and elders (who were all men, by the way) to conclude, therefore, that the young woman must either publicly apologize to the congregation during Sunday morning worship or face excommunication. It probably goes without saying that abortion would have resulted in excommunication too; and unless he converted, marrying the unbelieving father-to-be was discouraged.

As you can imagine, this whole scenario put me into an ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, I was a vital part of this church. I ascribed to its belief system. I supported the pastor in his vision for the congregation.

And yet, on the other hand, I had gotten to know this young woman well. She had taught, prayed with, and otherwise provided spiritual leadership to a number of the youth. She demonstrated a life of love to these kids.

And love, after all—wasn’t this Jesus’ main message?

“Lord,” I prayed, “of all the beliefs in my belief system, which one is the greatest?” And he answered, “The greatest of these is love.”

How was this local church loving this young woman now, I wondered? By telling her not to marry her boyfriend because he didn’t ascribe to the church’s belief system? By publicly humiliating her in front of the congregation? By excommunicating her? Really?

The dilemma was real: My belief system collided with my faith.

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

But I’d also developed my ethic of love from Jesus!

As these two worlds collided, I realized I couldn’t hold both without significantly compromising my integrity as a disciple of Christ. I had to pick a side: belief or faith. Which would it be?

Well, what side had the four fishermen picked?

As with the four fishermen, Jesus is calling us to faith: to live out a risky ethic of love rather than to hold tenaciously to some rock-solid, immutable system of beliefs we call our own.

Through faith, not a belief system, we shall be transformed.


[i] Cf.


The Parable of the Brooding Brother

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

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Who are we supposed to identify with in this very familiar parable?  Are we supposed to be the prodigal?

How many of you have ever gone against your father’s wishes?

Well, maybe not to the extent that this young man went.  Maybe you never asked for your inheritance early, to go spend it all, partying—or—how does the KJV put it?—with riotous living.

Maybe you’ve never journeyed far from home.  His journey, by the way, was both literal—he went to “a distant country”—and figurative.  While he was there, in that distant country, after living riotously until he had nothing left, and after a famine swept over the land so that most everyone was in need, what’d he do but hire himself out to feed pigs?

Pigs!  Swine!  Unclean beasts!  Not kosher!

So he’d sold off all his inheritance, which was most likely land, a commodity more precious than gold to Palestinian Jews; and he’d spent everything partying; and now, as if he hadn’t distanced himself from his people enough already, he was feeding unclean beasts!

Effectively, he’d become no longer a son of Israel or even of his own father.

Maybe you’ve never journeyed this far from home.

Literally, anyway.

But what about figuratively?  Have you ever journeyed so far from your heavenly Father that you effectively cut yourself off from him?

Have you ever sensed God calling you to do something and instead of doing it you ran in the other direction?  Have you ever been so upset at God that you shook your fist at him and wished you’d never been born?  Have you ever denied your Lord Jesus when others were putting pressure on you?

Well, so did Jonah, Job, and Peter—if that makes you feel any better.

But, to return to my question for today, so is this who we are supposed to identify with most closely in this parable, the prodigal son?

Or are we supposed to identify with the merciful, benevolent, gracious father?

Now, you’ve got to understand, this guy, the prodigal’s father, breaks with all convention.

He’s a Palestinian Jewish man.  Convention says ancestral land is something you must hold on to with all tenacity, like a bulldog with a lamb shank bone.  (Or like Rocky, my friend’s Boston Bull Terrier, with a Frisbee.)

When your son whines and wheedles his share of the ancestral lands out of you and then goes off and sells it in order to live selfishly, against all you’ve ever taught him—well, that’s got to be the end of it!  Convention, not to mention common sense, demands that you disown such a profligate, rebellious, and riotous son!

Besides, have you heard what the neighbors are saying?

But what does the father do instead?  He watches for his son: he keeps vigil, like Aegeus straining day after day to see Theseus’s white sails crossing the sea.  (Greek mythology tells the story of Theseus sailing off to kill the Minotaur and thus save his own land.  While he is away, his father, Aegeus, watches day after day for his son’s ship to return.)

And when his prodigal son is still far off—who cares what the neighbors will say!—he runs to greet his son, embraces him, and weeps for joy over him.

Faugh on convention!  His son was dead but is alive again; he was lost but now is found.

And so, is this what we’re to learn from this parable?  Are we supposed to be like the father—merciful, benevolent, and gracious beyond all convention?

It doesn’t matter that none of us really is this way, or that none of us will ever be this way during our respective lifetimes.  That’s not my question.  Rather, are we supposed to try to be like the father here?  Should we strive to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect?

Who are we supposed to be in this parable?

Oh, but there’s a third character, an often overlooked, or maybe ignored character: the older son.

He’s the one, remember, that has obeyed the rules.  He’s the one who did not ask for his share of the inheritance, but instead kept to convention.  He’s the one who remained faithful and loyal to his father throughout his younger brother’s selfish time of foolishness.

And yet what thanks does he get?  Has his dad ever thrown him a feast for all his years of faithfulness?  Has his dad ever even served so much as barbequed chicken for him and a few friends?  No!

Yet when his profligate partier of a younger brother returns home without a penny to his name—he’d spent all his inheritance, for crying out loud!—he’s receives no punishment at all but a full prime-rib feast!  What the heck!

I wonder, are we supposed to identify most closely with him?

While it is certainly true that we identify with the prodigal son, at least to some extent; and while it might be true that we aspire to be like the father, isn’t it actually the case that we are more like the older son than anyone else in this parable?

Let’s review.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable.

Ah, there it is: tax collectors and sinners.  Here are the people, surely, who represent the prodigal son.  And I’m a sinner.  I have no problem wearing that label.

Okay, so far so good.  But are you a bookie?  Are you a drug dealer?  Are you a prostitute?

Tax collectors, in Jesus’ day, were nothing short of extortionists.  Normal John-and-Jane taxpayers hated them.  Tax collectors were social outcasts.

Prostitutes were outcasts too.

For that matter, so were the demon-possessed, the lepers, the blind, and the other so-called sinners Jesus welcomed and ate with.

Is this you?  Are you a societal outcast?

For most if not all of us, the answer to this question is no.  We’re not societal outcasts.  We’re not drug dealers.  We’re not bookies.  We’re not sinners in the sense meant here.  And so, as much as we might like to think so, we’re actually not much like the prodigal son of this parable.

So then, what about the father?  Are we like him?

Well, I think this answer is a little easier for us to see.  The kind, watchful, benevolent, merciful, and gracious father who breaks with all convention is a picture of Jesus.  And as much as we try to be like him, we all know we are not him; and thus the prodigal’s father is not really a picture of us.

Thus we are left with the older brother.

He’s the one who has tried to be faithful throughout his life.  That doesn’t mean he’s been perfect; that he’s never messed up.  On the other hand, faithfulness suggests repentance.  When he has messed up, both in big and little ways, he has repented of his sins and mistakes and turned to press forward.

Just like us.

Yes, we are the older brother in this parable.

But here’s the rub: if you look at the parallels to the parable’s three characters, then we are effectively Pharisees.

Am I right?

The Pharisees were grumbling because Jesus was eating with and welcoming tax collectors and sinners.  So Jesus told them—the Pharisees—a parable.

Now the Pharisees couldn’t have been the tax collectors and sinners—i. e., the prodigal son.  Nor could they have been Jesus—i. e., the father in the parable.  For these were the very people they were complaining against!

That leaves the older son: the faithful, obedient older son who was left in the end saying, “What the heck, Dad!”

We can’t avoid it: we must identify with the older son; and the older son here is the Pharisees.

But, we protest, the Pharisees are the bad guys!

To which, I answer, maybe they are.  Or at least maybe we’ve been conditioned to think so.  On the other hand, they were the established “church” of their day.

But so what?  Let’s not allow our conditioning to distract us from the point!

In this parable, what the older brother decides to do in the end is left unsaid.  Will he celebrate with his father and younger brother, because his little brother was dead but is alive again; and because he was lost but is now found?  Or will the older brother continue to brood and sulk?  We don’t know: the answer is not given; Jesus doesn’t tell us.

History tells us, however, that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day chose the latter: to brood and sulk over Jesus’ dining with and welcoming sinners.  Their brooding and sulking led to hatred, bigotry, and death.  Obviously their brooding and sulking was the wrong choice.

But, despite our connection to the Pharisees here, our history has not yet been completely written.

We are a church that has tried to serve our heavenly Father faithfully and obediently, not nearly perfect yet repentant—a lot like the older son.  But how are we going to respond when convention is thrown off—when things are no longer done in the same way they always have been?

Will we brood and sulk over it?  Or will we rejoice with our heavenly Father as he throws a prime-rib feast in celebration of the one who was once dead but is now alive?

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day no longer have a choice.  We still do.

Why the Manure?

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

Luke 13:1-9

What makes you angry?

In college I had a roommate who made me angry.

Scott was the quintessential only child.  His mother had always picked up after him, apparently; and done his laundry; and his dishes; and cooked for him.  And, apparently, he figured his new roommates would show him the same treatment.

I didn’t know this about him when he and I and two other guys agreed to rent an apartment together.  But I figured this out by Christmas break.  So did my other two roommates.

In the academic quarter following Christmas, Scott decided to PELP.  That is, he took advantage of UC Davis’s Planned Educational Leave Program, to take a quarter—or two—or a year—off to write a book.

In other words, he stayed in the apartment for long hours on end playing computer games and dirtying vast, vast quantities of dishes.  Oh, and maybe he’d put in an hour a day on his book.  Maybe.

Anyway, this behavior began to annoy me.  My other roommates too.  Especially Brian, who shared a room with Scott.

It became particularly maddening for Brian when he couldn’t even walk across the floor of his room to climb into his bed because of the plates, bowls, silverware, glasses, and mugs that lay everywhere strewn like so much shrapnel.

Brian began to sleep regularly on the living room couch.

So, our temporary solution was to hide a single place setting each—one plate, bowl, glass, mug, fork, knife, and spoon—where Scott wouldn’t find them and let him deal with the rest of his mess.

Still, this made me angry.  Why did we have to take such measures just to enjoy a hot meal?  The injustice!

So what makes you angry?

Is it something petty, like dealing with a messy roommate, or like someone cutting you off on the freeway?  Hey, I feel you.

Or, maybe, it’s something more substantial, something like politics.  Do we have to listen to someone spout off their ideals seemingly every night these days, ideals we just know are going to mess everything up more than it already is?

Or maybe it’s something deadly serious, like ISIS or mass shootings.  There’s evil in the world.  But ours is the land of the free and the home of the brave!  Why can’t we do something to stop it—and preferably before war comes to our shores?

Kind of makes you want to go out after church and eat a nice, thick, juicy Anger Burger.

You know, made of 100% certified Anger beef, it’s one of seven offerings on the menu of Deadly Sins, that new yet timeless restaurant on the other side of town.

Granted, by itself, the Anger Burger is a little strong, a little difficult to stomach.  To enjoy it by itself requires something of an acquired taste.  But, oh, when it’s covered in a healthy helping of sautéed self-righteousness—mmmmmm, delicious!

Yes, that self-righteousness sauce helps you say angry things yet maintain an air of superiority.  So it’s okay.

You say things like, “Can you believe her audacity?  Who does she think she is?”

Or things like, “Did you hear about his addiction?  One thing’s for sure: I won’t be spending much time with him anymore, not if I can help it anyway.”

Mmmmmmmmm, so good!

So good, that is, until you learn there’s a secret ingredient added to the self-righteousness sauce during Lent—the Lenten special.

Right now, during this particular season in the Christian year, Anger Burgers are a little different.  Right now, during this time of the year when we omit “alleluia” from our vocabulary, there’s something about the sautéed self-righteousness that tastes a little funny, a little off.

You’re just sure of it.

So you ask your food server about it.

And he says, “Oh, didn’t you know?  During Lent we mix some manure into it.”

“I’m sorry,” you say; “I’m not sure I heard you right.  Did you say manure?”

He stares at you incredulously for a moment before answering, “Um, yeah!  Duh!” like it’s obvious.

Confound Lent!  It’s always messing with the menu!  We give up chocolate.  We give up beer.  And now we’ve got to give up our delicious Anger Burgers smothered in self-righteousness sauce!  (Unless, of course, you’d like to try to stomach the manure!)

What we’d really like to say is:

“Hey, Jesus, did you hear about what Pilate did to our Galilean people?  They were in the very Temple, a place where Pagans aren’t even allowed.  And yet he waltzes right in and cuts them to pieces right there at the altar.  Can you believe it?  The audacity!  Doesn’t that just make you angry!”

We want Jesus to be self-righteously angry and superior right along with us.

We’d also like to say:

“Hey, Jesus, have you heard about ISIS?  Why do you allow it?  Why do you allow such evil to take place in our world?  You’re God, after all; so why don’t you do something about it?”


“Hey, Jesus, what about all the shootings we keep hearing about?  It’s sheer idiocy!  Do something, quickly.”


“Hey, Jesus, why does my sister have cancer?  She’s lived such a good life!  Why do you have to take her?  Why can’t you take someone else instead, someone like ol’ Benedict over there?  He’s been drinking, smoking, and cussing for ninety-seven years.  It’s just not fair!  Am I right?”

All this is what we’d like to say to Jesus.

But we don’t.

Because it’s Lent.

And we can’t.

Because of the manure.

Then Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Now there are different ways to interpret this parable.

One interpretation says that we, as Christ’s disciples, are the vinedressers.  Both as individuals and churches, we are the ones who must do the hard work of digging and aerating the soil; and the smelly and dirty work of spreading the manure with our hands, of mixing our sweat with the dirt and muck of the world until it is wedged into our fingernails.  We are called to do the difficult work of preserving and tending to the sterile tree in the hopes that it will produce fruit.

Another interpretation, however, says that Christ is the vinedresser and his disciple is the tree.  In this picture, Jesus Christ mixes his sweat with the muck and dirt and manure of the world!  And, as for us, his disciples, we are effectively stuck in a pile of manure.

So, which interpretation do you like better?

As for me, I like the second one.  Not only is it a wonderful picture of the incarnation—of God mixing his sweat with the world’s muck—but also it offers a better insight into repentance, which is really what this whole episode is about.

But here’s the thing.  Whichever interpretation you happen to like better, in both cases we can’t escape the manure!  In the first, our hands are covered in it; in the second, we’re buried up to our knees in it.

Let’s face it: manure is a part of our earthly sojourn!

Why is there evil in the world?  Why do politics make us so angry?  Why does a family member have cancer?  Why ISIS?  Why mass shootings?  Why all the manure?

I don’t know!

But it’s here.  We have to deal with it.  It’s a fact of life.

And I do know this: through it—whether our hands are dirty with it or we’re buried up to our knees in it—through it Jesus works with us so that we might bear fruit.

Will you harden your roots to the manure all around you and remain a sterile tree?  Or will you allow the muck, sweat, and dirt that everywhere surrounds you—and the manure—to work new life within?

Returning with Grace

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


Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

And so today we arrange our schedules in order to come to church and have a dark cross of ash smeared upon our foreheads so that everyone around us can see how holy we are!

But Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

Does anyone else see the irony here?  What’s really going on here?

Why does the church encourage us to come to church on this day along with everyone else in order to engage in a public act of piety?

For that matter—since we’re here—why does the church encourage us to fast on this day?  Did you know that?  The Episcopal Church—the mainline denomination that offers us so little direct instruction about how to live our lives—recommends that we fast on two days of the year: Ash Wednesday (today); and Good Friday.  Cf. BCP p. 17.

Again, if we follow this recommendation to fast on Ash Wednesday together, then aren’t we fasting publicly?  Aren’t we engaging publicly in an act of piety?

But doesn’t the Gospel passage fly in the face of public acts of piety?  In fact, this Gospel passage was appointed to our lectionary by church leaders.  Why would they do such a thing?  Why would they assign a text on this day (of all days of the year!) that calls us to avoid engaging in public acts of piety?  What’s really going on here?

The 2009 movie The Soloist tells the story of a Los Angeles newspaper journalist looking for a news story that will boost his public image.

He’s been a hot-shot journalist in the past, with praises sung by others in the field, etc.; but now things aren’t going so well.  Not only is the newspaper industry in decline; but also he just can’t seem to write the stories that sell anymore.

And on top of that his personal life is coming unraveled: his wife is divorcing him and his grown son is effectively estranged from him.  If only he can write a riveting story, he thinks, then he will get back in the good graces of the public eye.

So, with these motivations he sets out to find a human interest story.  After some searching he finds what he thinks is a sure winner: a Julliard-trained cellist who is now homeless.  He will befriend this homeless person and tell L. A. his story through his eyes.

Somewhere along the lines, however, the journalist’s motivations change.  Somewhere along the lines, as he gets to know the homeless cellist, he goes from using him in order to get back into the public eye’s good graces to actually wanting to help him.  Somewhere along the lines his motivation changes from self-aggrandizement to charity focused on another human being, a person who—homeless or not—deserves respect and dignity.

No longer is landing a good story his goal; but the well-being of another person.

Through a public act of piety, despite his initial motivations, this L. A. journalist is transformed.

Now, let’s talk about what motivates us for a bit.

We live in an image-conscious culture.  How you look, the clothes you wear; how you present yourself, your body language; how straight or crooked your teeth are; how much or how little hair you have; how thin or not-so-thin you are; even what kind of car you drive—all these things, like it or not, communicate a lot of information about you.

Wasn’t it some rock star that said, “You don’t know how long it takes me to make my hair look like I just rolled out of bed”?

We want to look good.  We want others to think we look good.  We want others who we think look good to like us.  And so on.

We live in a culture that continually tells us, “It’s all about you.”

But today, together, as we participate in this public act of piety, it’s actually a chance to reorient ourselves from the culture’s message.  Today, as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God is reminding us that it’s not about you.

Ash Wednesday is not about earthly accolades.  It’s not about what we do or don’t do.  It’s not about whether we engage in acts of piety that are public or private.  It’s not about whether anyone notices you or not, or about whether you’re communicating the right message or not.

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

Ash Wednesday is about repentance.  It marks the beginning of Lent, a time of special devotion, a time of personal transformation, a time of grace-filled return to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Preparing for Christmas Company

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on December 7, 2015 by timtrue


Luke 3:1-6

Last week I pointed out an odd contrast we face during Advent. We walk down the aisles of local stores, maybe sipping on hot chocolates, shopping for gifts, listening to happy music, enjoying a sort of idealistic cheer as we remember Christ’s first coming, the Christmas season that’s everywhere around us.

Yet the Gospel was apocalyptic.  We heard about portents in the skies announcing Christ’s second coming and unknown distresses and fears for people: the end of the world as we know it.  Throughout Christian history, people have interpreted these portents in excessively gloomy ways.

On the one hand, then, we experienced idealistic cheer; yet on the other, excessive gloom.

The key to maintaining balance between these two attitudes, I said, is hope.  As we simultaneously look back in time at Christ’s birth and forward in time to his second coming, we maintain an attitude of hope.  The advents of Jesus give us reason to hope even though our world is falling apart.

This week we find a similarly odd contrast. Except now it’s not so much about attitude as it is about action; not so much about what we’re thinking as what we’re doing.  This week’s contrast deals with preparation.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. / Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

It’s that time of year again.  In just nineteen days you’ll be exchanging gifts, and, my, oh my, the house is a wreck.  Extended family is coming and why is that pile of clutter on the counter suddenly so big?

And so you clean; you decorate; you string lights up—on the tree and on the house.  You bake; you host; you attend Christmas parties.  And, if you’re like some people I know, you fix things—that broken doorknob; that burned out lightbulb; that loose handle on the chest of drawers; that leaky faucet in the guest bathroom.

The advent of guests has caused you to look at your home a little differently.  With a higher degree of scrutiny than normal, a kind of self-examination, you prepare for your guests’ arrival.

Then you come to church and hear today’s Gospel about a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t even begin to picture John the Baptist running around frenetically, trying to get his home ready for visitors.  I mean, the wilderness!  Locusts and wild honey!  Garment of camel’s hair (that likely hasn’t been laundered in months)!  Unkempt appearance!  He just doesn’t strike me as the type who’d be concerned about a leaky faucet.

Yet here is his message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

And you want to answer, “I am preparing already!”

But something about this contrast suggests that this yours not exactly the kind of preparation John has in mind.

Or is it?

John’s way of preparation can be summarized in one word: repentance.  It’s what he called the people of his day to do as they prepared a way for the Lord, as they made straight crooked paths.  It’s what the prophets of the OT called Israel to do as well.  And it’s what Jesus calls us, his disciples, to do.  It’s an important word and concept.

So, what does repentance have to do with our Christmas preparations?

A popular teaching likens repentance to a U-turn.  A person who has repented from sin, for instance, is said to have turned away from it completely, as if he was headed in one direction and then made a U-turn and now is heading in an entirely different direction.

We see this picture of repentance in the Bible, when Jesus has a conversation with a certain rich young leader.  “Teacher,” the young man says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answers, “Keep the commandments.”  The young man says, “All these I have kept since my youth”; to which Jesus replies, “Go and give all you have to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”  The young man, we read, goes away sad; he is unable to part with his things.

The lesson is, so I’ve heard anyway, this young man didn’t fully repent.  He didn’t make the U-turn Jesus required of him.

But this picture of a U-turn is a bit too simplistic, don’t you think?  We’ve got our modern lives.  We have work and family obligations.  Surely Jesus doesn’t want us to walk away from our responsibilities, does he?

Well, like I said already, it’s not that simple.

Some people may in fact need to make a U-turn.  The rich young leader needed to, we assume.  A clearer example, if crasser, comes from prostitution.  We all know Jesus spent time with prostitutes.  But undoubtedly he did not approve of their profession.  For them, following Jesus meant making a definite U-turn.

Perhaps you need to make such a U-turn too.  If you are involved in a profession that doesn’t bring glory to God—such as prostitution—repentance for you means making an abrupt U-turn.

But I don’t know of anyone here who fits this category.  Instead, for all of us—I’m pretty sure—it’s not so easy as this.  When we come to Advent each year, Jesus is not asking us to make a complete U-turn, to run in an entirely opposite direction from what our life is currently all about.

Rather, for all of us, it’s more of a re-orientation.

For all of us, it’s more like Zacchaeus.

Remember him?

Jesus hung out with prostitutes.  He also hung out with tax collectors.  Jesus expected prostitutes to leave their professions.  But he didn’t expect this of tax collectors.

Later that day—after Jesus spotted him up in the sycamore tree, commanded him to come down, and spent the afternoon at his house—what does Zacchaeus do?

I’ll tell you what he doesn’t do.  He doesn’t leave his job.  He doesn’t abandon his wife and kids.  He doesn’t give everything he has to the poor.  He doesn’t change very much of his outward life at all.

What he does do is have a change of heart.  No longer will he cheat anyone of their money.  And if anyone has any just cause against him, he vows to repay them four times what he owes.

Repentance is less a U-turn than it is a re-orientation.

So: here we are, in Advent, preparing our homes and lives for the first advent of Jesus, Christmas; but also preparing daily to meet our Lord at his return, his second advent. What does repentance look like for us?

Our preparations give the answer.

Right now, we’re looking around with an eye we don’t always use.  We’ve been going about our daily routines for months: waking up when the alarm clock goes off, cooking breakfast, getting the kids to school, going through our work days, coming back together at the end of the day, going through our evening routines—dishes, laundry, bills—our normal mode of life.

But now, what with Christmas around the corner and presents to buy and lights to hang and trees to decorate and Christmas cards to get out in the mail and family coming to visit and—  You get the picture.  Right now, we’re looking at things a little differently than we normally do.  That clutter on the counter that’s been accumulating for months so that we hardly even notice it anymore—now, all of a sudden, it’s a huge eyesore and (doggone it!) I need to do something about it before the company arrives.

We’ve re-oriented.  During this time of preparation, we’re looking at our homes with a higher level of self-scrutiny.  We’re seeing things we don’t normally see.  All of a sudden the pictures on the walls are tilted and there are cobwebs on the ceiling fans.  All of a sudden, some things are amiss.

And so, with this new perspective, we do something about them.

And why?  Why have we re-oriented?  Why do we scrutinize ourselves more carefully at this time of year?  Why do we clean and repair and decorate?  Why do we bother with all these preparations?

It’s for love.  We love our guests.  And we love Jesus.

It’s just the same with your self, your soul.

Jesus is coming.  He’s your spiritual company.  You love him.

Don’t you think the right time is right for a re-orientation?

Look at yourself a little differently during this Advent season, with a higher level of self-scrutiny.  Examine yourself, making crooked paths straight as you prepare a way for the Lord.  Re-orient yourself.

A Lesson from a Baptist

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on September 28, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 21:23-32

Why did Jesus pick John? In response to their question about his authority, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it came from the people or from God.  But why did Jesus pick John?

He could have picked the emperor as an example.  This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God?  Some, including the emperors themselves, maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, we call it.  Others, probably most of the common people of the empire, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.  But the point here is that Jesus could have said, “Answer me this, O Jewish leaders: the emperor’s authority, does it come from God or people?”  Yet he chose John the Baptist as his example, not the emperor.

Of course, there were differences of religion between John and the emperor.  John was a Jew; and thus he worshiped the Jewish God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Whereas the emperor was a pagan; and thus he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of gods in fact.  So this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people.  He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance or something—wasn’t it?  And didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?  In short, most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird.  Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus?  Yeah!  Maccabeus!  Here was a true Jewish hero.  He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses.  He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people alike.  He was certainly viewed as having authority.  So why didn’t Jesus use him as his example?  Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Answer me this, then I will answer you: tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from people?”

But he didn’t.  Jesus didn’t use Judas Maccabeus or an emperor or anyone else as his example.  Instead, he used John the Baptist.  He could have used many other, better known examples to make his point—that you shouldn’t be too quick to judge.  But he used John.  Obscure, eccentric, weird John.  Why?

Now, I cannot help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent. They’ve been Jews for a long time.  They’re leaders in their religion.  They know how to direct spiritually a congregation of people.  For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out.  They’ve got their policy manuals, their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons.  Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.  There’s a lot of value in this.  I can relate.

But they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.  Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something.  Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

“By what authority did you turn those tables over in the Temple yesterday?” they ask.  It’s a trap, because if Jesus says it was by the people’s authority then he is guilty of rebellion; and if he says it was by divine authority then he is guilty of blasphemy.  Either way, he’s guilty.  And either way, the Jewish leaders aren’t really looking for an answer.  They have him cornered.

But Jesus turns the tables on them—mental tables this time.  He doesn’t provide an answer.  Instead, he asks a question.  And it gets them thinking.  Despite the fact that their minds are already made up, he breaks through and does in fact get them thinking, pointing out their prejudices, their judgments presupposed since before the conversation began.  And now—I’d like to believe—there’s even some soul searching on their part.

Still, this turning of the mental tables doesn’t answer my earlier question.  If Jesus simply wanted to get us to question our own prejudices, our own already-made-up minds, our own presupposed judgments, he could have used many cultural examples, better than John the Baptist.  And well we should question our own prejudices!  But there must be something in particular Jesus wants us to associate with John the Baptist.  But what?

Without allowing the religious leaders to catch their breath—they’d been knocked off kilter by Jesus’s brilliant turning of the mental tables; so, while they were still off kilter, Jesus immediately tells a parable.

A father has two sons.  He tells them both to do some chores.  One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.”  Later we find out that the one who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.  And I think, “Sounds an awful lot like me and my brother when we were growing up!”

Of course we get that the first son’s actions are more genuine and the second’s are more hypocritical.  But the interesting thing for me here is that they both change their minds.  In other words, to use a biblical word we’ve all heard before, both sons repent.  For that’s what repent means: to change one’s mind.

We happen to associate repentance with changing one’s mind from pursuing something bad to pursuing something good, like going down the wrong road and making a u-turn and backtracking till we find the right road.  But the word equally means changing one’s mind from good to bad, or simply from pursuing one thing to pursuing another, whether good, bad, or indifferent.  To repent is to change direction; that’s all.

And now—aha!—we’ve stumbled upon the answer to “Why John?”  For that was John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Repent!  It was his message to everyone, regardless of whatever road a person might be heading down.  Repent!  Change!  For the kingdom of heaven is near!

This wasn’t the message of the emperors.  This wasn’t the message of Judas Maccabeus.  But this was the message of John.

And the amazing thing about all this is that it doesn’t matter which son you identify with—whether you are the one that is more genuine or the one that is more hypocritical; or whether you identify more closely with the religious leaders or with the sinners in this passage.  The point is to repent.  Everyone.  For we all sin.

And more specifically, we are to repent of our prejudices.

Someone like Jesus comes into your life, turning over the tables of the Temple in your mind.  You know what I’m talking about.  This is your table, one that you’ve set up in your imagination over which you are the chief authority.  This is a table you know more about than anyone else.

Maybe it’s a ministry at church into which you’ve invested a lot of time, effort, even money.  And over time you’ve come to feel ownership.  Or maybe it’s a relationship you’re in, a certain ownership you’ve come to feel over a friend or a relative.  But someone comes into your life and interferes and otherwise meddles with this table.  Like Jesus in the Temple, this new person is turning over the tables in your mind and you form some judgments, some prejudices against him or her.

Well, here’s the message today: repent from these prejudices.

But the worst prejudice of all is against Jesus.  Maybe you’ve been a Christian a long time.  Maybe you’ve tried hard to follow Jesus for years and years.  You study the Bible and pray regularly, you serve in various ministries, when you hear people engaging in gossip you avoid it—you’re trying to live a life that brings glory to Christ in all you do.

But then you get comfortable.  And, like those religious leaders in Jesus’s day who knew a thing or two about religious life, you become self-righteous.  This attitude has been growing in you so subtly, though, and for so long that you haven’t even noticed it.  Now you tend to view everyone by how spiritual they are.  And—your mind is already made up—the truth is if another person is not spiritual enough for you—if another person is too obscure, too eccentric, or too weird—well, that’s just too bad for them: they’re not worth your time.

It’s time for Jesus to turn these tables over—and all tables like them—that are standing in the Temples of our minds and hearts!  We all need to examine our hearts, examine our prejudices, and repent.