Archive for repentance

A Bitter Pill

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

Delivered today, the First Sunday in Lent, as part of my ongoing supply work in Bisbee and Douglas.

Matthew 4:1-11

1.

So, Lent has begun.

In one corner of the ring, hailing from the darkest realms of darkness, stinking of millennia of unwashed destruction and gore, with lies ready on his festering lips, that fallen angel of old, the world champion, the devil.

In the opposite corner, a relative newcomer to the world, born about thirty years ago, hailing from a backwater town of Judea, the son of a carpenter, freshly baptized and famished after a forty-day fast, the contender, Jesus.

And we think, “Ha! The devil versus the Son of God? This ought to be good! Go get him, Jesus, once and for all! Show that supernatural serpent who’s boss!”

And we cheer: “Jesus, Jesus, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can. Yay Jesus!”

Jesus will do it, forever. We just know it, feel it in our bones! He’s going to beat the devil up and give him what’s coming to him. Evil will be forever snuffed out. We’ll all fly away!

But, sadly, already . . . we’ve only just heard the Gospel and already we’ve revealed ourselves as unable to withstand one of the very temptations Jesus himself withstood during those forty days.

For, the second temptation is all about spectacle.

The devil took Jesus and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said, “If you’re the Son of God, throw yourself down. God will protect you.”

But Jesus said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Life is difficult. Life is full of trials and tribulations. Life, we are reminded during Lent, is but dust—and to dust we shall return.

But aren’t we supposed to ask Jesus to heal us from cancer? Aren’t we supposed to expect supernatural miracles? Aren’t our health and wealth measures of our faith? Isn’t part of our calling to look for the spectacular?

Jesus reminds us today that we are not to put the Lord our God to the test.

2.

And we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.

For, what are today’s temptations getting at?

The first one’s about turning stones to bread.

It seems to me that here the devil is suggesting to Jesus that he doesn’t really have to trust in the world God has created.

Jesus, he seems to be saying, you have the power to subvert the natural order of things. You don’t have to go through the proper, time-consuming channels of planting, tending, harvesting, grinding, preparing, and cooking. Just say the word, Jesus, and these stones will become bread.

Just the word, the devil tempts, and Jesus can skirt around God’s established order.

Then there’s the second temptation, the one where the devil tempts Jesus to the spectacular—again, power to skirt around God’s established order of things: like gravity; and the fragility and sanctity of human life.

And what about the third temptation?

Worship me, the devil says, and you will have power over all the kingdoms of the world.

Authority! Dominion! Domination! Without even acknowledging God’s place!

So, skirting around God; ignoring God’s created order; elevating oneself to the position of God—really, aren’t these temptations all the same, just three variations on the theme of power?

3.

Well, we know, Jesus effectively resisted the devil’s temptations.

But what about us? What about the church? How well have we, the Christian church, resisted the temptations of power—authority, dominion, domination—control—throughout our history?

Two years ago, I read a book by Brain McLaren called The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian.

Now, I’ve known about the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Crusades for most of my Christian life. And I’m not especially happy to be associated with them.

But McLaren brought new light to this question for me. And his laser cut deep; I almost couldn’t bear the pain.

He called my attention to the 16th and 17th centuries—that time when explorations were being made into the new world.

Missionaries and military regiments joined the explorers; with a goal to Christianize the heathen lands of the new world.

Flags were planted. Claims were made. Missions were established. And natives were baptized—praise God!

But . . . if not baptized, they were engaged in battle!

And what happened to the indigenous peoples who lived through these battles and still did not comply?

Incarceration. Enslavement. And, more often than I want to admit, execution.

We grieve that six million Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust—and well we should! But McLaren documents that over the course of a century of exploration more than 15 million indigenous peoples had their lives stolen from them for the advancement of Christianity in the new world.

Genocide on a massive scale so that the Christian religion could exercise dominion and control!

Anyway, that was two years ago—in Lent, 2018—when I read McLaren’s book.

Last year—in Lent, 2019—I visited Mission San Juan Capistrano in California with my son’s fourth grade class: a stellar example of an early mission, founded by Franciscans in 1776, the stone church completed a short 30 years later, in 1806.

Now, I don’t know if I was extra sensitized because of McLaren’s book or what, but what stood out glaringly to me was that, in order for the structure to be completed in so short a time, labor was conscripted from the local, indigenous people—not the ones who had been incarcerated, but those who had converted to Christianity.

Six days a week, from sunup to sundown, conscripted native laborers constructed this Christian mission in exchange for three meals a day and lodging.

And on the seventh day, the day of rest, they attended mass and prepared for baptism and confessed. In other words, they were (expected to be) good Catholics.

Gone, mostly, were their former lives. Gone, mostly, were their foods, their customs, their songs, their culture.

“Beneath your feet,” our tour guide explained, “more than four thousand people are buried in this cemetery; all of them conscripted laborers.”

So, two years ago this knowledge was new for me; and one year ago, I experienced it tangibly: 15 million indigenous people killed for the advancement of Christendom in the new world.

And, of course, we all know it’s not just the Spanish explorers, missionaries, and military who took dominion of the new world. For, while the Catholics from Spain were engaged in South America and the western parts of our continent, Anglicans and Protestants from Europe and North America were crossing the Atlantic westward with cargoes of African natives.

Indeed, our history is a bitter pill.

4.

Fellow followers of Christ, Jesus stood fast for forty days in the wilderness; but we have not. Again and again, we the church have eaten the tempting fruit of power.

What are we to do?

What can we do?

Lent calls us to remember our failures.

And when we remember our failures, Lent calls us to lament them.

And when we lament our failures, Lent calls us to repent from them.

And when we have repented from our failures, Lent redirects us to hope.

Forty day and forty nights Jesus wandered in the wilderness, beaten down by temptation.

Forty days and forty nights Moses stood on Mount Sinai while the Israelites below forgot God.

Forty days and forty nights the rain pounded the earth nonstop while Moses and his family despaired inside the ark.

Yet, a common beam of light shines through all of these cloudy episodes: hope.

New and better things are on the horizon.

We fail; but hope pulls us forward.

5.

Now, you probably know, I was away last Sunday because I was touring several missions in southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

Back in November, I was awarded this trip as an educator. I accepted it gladly because I wanted to learn more about this region I now call home.

Anyway, as the tour progressed I found myself becoming increasingly impressed with one of the missionaries, Father Francisco Kino. He played no small part in founding the community of Tumacácori.

I am impressed with him, a Jesuit, because, unlike in California, the farmers and settlers in this region actually invited Father Kino to establish the mission;

And, his approach to administration was much more humane.

Those who wanted to convert to Christianity were able.

Three days a week, they helped to build the mission; and three days a week, they worked their own farms. And on Sundays, yes, they attended church and were catechized.

On the other hand, those who did not want to convert were left to themselves.

Now, one could argue there was a downside to Father Kino’s approach. For, unlike San Juan Capistrano, the Tumacácori mission never reached completion. Plans include a cruciform structure that was never fully realized, for instance.

But is this in fact a downside? Because of Father Kino, at Tumacácori people were treated humanely. Genuine needs were responded to. Dominion and control were not the focus.

Which—I don’t know about you—strikes me as much more like Christ’s approach to his own mission and ministry.

And it sounds to me much more like the Gospel passage we heard today.

Jesus faced temptation and resisted. He did not subvert God’s path. He did not take control or exert dominance—even over the devil!

It wasn’t easy, but Jesus waited on God.

As we continue to do Jesus’ mission today, we do well to remember our past failures, to lament them, to repent, and to move forward in hope.

And, though we fail again and again, that is the only way Jesus will defeat the devil once and for all!

The Way of a New Era

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2020 by timtrue

The following sermon is the third of twelve that I will preach to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee and St. Stephen’s in Douglas as part of a three-month stint doing pulpit-supply work. I will deliver it tomorrow.

John 1:29-42

1.

In our last two weeks together, we have encountered two profound ideas about God: Incarnation and Epiphany.

Incarnation: God becomes a human; empathy in its ultimate form.

Epiphany: God, through the Incarnation, is made known to the world.

Each of these ideas is staggering on its own. Together—well, not just one but both ideas are realized in and through the man named Jesus!

Perhaps even more staggering still is that, when we take a step back and look at him historically, Jesus was no one special.

Jesus was a common person, not born into aristocracy or royalty.

Jesus was an artisan, a carpenter’s son, not a statesman.

And Jesus was poor, a lot like everyone else in his circles.

And yet, common as Jesus was, with no kind of privilege working in his favor, he somehow managed to grab the attention of the world—so much so that he was eventually crucified by the world’s leaders, for rebellion.

And yet, too, Jesus has managed to keep the attention of the world down to this day.

Who was this man Jesus? Who is this Incarnation? This Epiphany?

Today I want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture—these profound ideas—with you.

Why did God become human—why the Incarnation?

And, why was Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” made known to the world—why the Epiphany?

And the answer—what I hope to demonstrate to you today—is that, through Jesus the Incarnation and Epiphany, God is calling all humanity to a radical change of mind; so radical, in fact, that the Incarnation and Epiphany comprise the beginning of an entirely new era.

2.

So then, the major worldview before Jesus’ birth is what I (and Walter Wink and Richard Rohr et al) like to call the Way of Domination.

Have you heard this phrase?

The Way of Domination tells us that in our relationships with one another, one person or group is always superior to another, inferior person or group. Even in our friendships! It’s just the way things are, the Way of Domination tells us, like a law of physics.

What is the result of viewing the world through this lens? Complex hierarchies; and social structures kept in place by violence and fear.

In the ancient world—in Jesus’ world—it looked like patriarchy and classism, among other things.

As for patriarchy, a husband ruled over his wife. A husband had legal liberty to beat his wife if, in his mind, she stepped out of line in some way. His children too.

With respect to classism, slaves answered to masters; freemen answered to equites; equites answered to senators; and, sitting at the top of the hierarchy, senators answered to the Emperor, Caesar.

Put these together, and it meant that a woman was answerable to her husband; yet that same woman was above any member of a lesser class. The wife of the Emperor had authority over all senators; the wife of a senator over equites; the wife of an eques over freemen; and so on down the line.

This hierarchy is the natural order of things, the Way of Domination tells us. For people who agree with the Way of Domination, their minds are made up. It’s just the way things are. To change their minds would be a radical thing indeed.

In our world today, the Way of Domination remains at work. It cries out that a man is superior to a woman; a boss is superior to an employee; an adult is superior to a child; rich are superior to poor; straight is superior to gay; white is superior to black; our nation is better than your nation; etc. It’s the natural order of things; just the way things are.

The Way of Domination tells us that for the Pax Romana to be truly effective, an ordered social hierarchy is absolutely necessary. Some person has got to sit on top, far away from the details of our day-to-day lives, aloof, like God, who sits far off on his throne in heaven.

And how, exactly, is the superior class to keep the inferior group in line? Through violence, whether real or imagined.

History shows us this all over the place. Whether through active aggression or through an underlying fear, like the threat felt during the Cold War, violence is always the means by which the Way of Domination controls.

Fellow followers of Jesus, that is the worldview away from which we and all humanity are called to turn. 180 degrees! The Way of Domination is the worldview from which Jesus calls us radically to repent.

3.

So, that’s what we are to turn from. Fine and well! But, then, what are we to turn towards? When we do make that 180-degree rotation, what are we left staring at?

I touched on this question a couple of weeks ago when I talked about ways in which we see, or image, God. Do you remember?

Prior to Jesus’ birth, the main image of God around the world was an aloof and mighty king.

Yet with Jesus’ birth and life—both the Incarnation and the Epiphany—we see a clear and very human image: God as a person who lives and breathes and eats and sleeps and laughs and makes judgment calls and sings off-key and loves among us—just like you and me!

God is not an aloof king to be feared. Rather, God is intimately and intricately tangled up in the messy details of our lives, loving us unconditionally.

So, recall with me how this very human image of God played out in Jesus’ life.

Two pictures come to mind.

a.

The first is equality.

More than once, what is Jesus’ financial counsel to those who wish to follow him? Isn’t it to sell everything? To remove economic inequality from the scene?

Over in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (6:24).

In Mark, Jesus states, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the realm of God” (10:25).

And Luke doesn’t avoid the issue either. Over there, Jesus exhorts, “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?” (6:34). We’re supposed to give freely, without expectation of repayment. Pretty radical!

Whatever else we make of this, the picture Jesus paints here is one of economic equality.

Why do you think he does this? Maybe—do you think—it’s because economic inequality is rooted in the Way of Domination?

The few rich exploit the many poor through economic superiority. It’s a story as old as history.

But with Jesus it’s not just economics—though that is the topic he addresses most frequently in his teachings. Jesus has a lot to say, also, about equality in relationships between women and men, slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean, the sick and the healthy, outcasts and righteous, and so on.

Everywhere he goes, everything he does, the first picture Jesus paints is one of equality. No hierarchies! No Way of Domination!

b.

And what is the second picture? Nonviolence.

Do you remember that time the disciples wanted to retaliate against some Samaritans who had been inhospitable to them (Luke 9:51-56)? Jesus rebuked them.

And what about the time Jesus’ disciple cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave? “No more of this!” Jesus declared (Luke 22:51); and, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

Or, do you remember when Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to do some mission work? They were not to take staffs (for self-defense); they were to bless those who reviled them; they were to pray for those who cursed them; and when they moved on from an inhospitable place, they were to wipe off the dust from their sandals—and nothing more. No violence!

According to Jesus, humanity’s way forward is the opposite of social systems established and maintained through violence. Humanity’s way forward is through equality and nonviolence.

God with us—Emmanuel—intimately and intricately tangled up in our messy lives—is not just a nice-sounding idea, just another divine angle, just one more way to approach God. It’s so much bigger than that!

The Incarnation and Epiphany challenge all of humanity to make a 180-degree change of mind, to turn its back on the Way of Domination and face squarely Jesus’ way, the Way of Love.

4.

What does this, the Way of Love, look like for us today? Is it even possible to establish and maintain equality through nonviolence? I mean, Jesus’ day was one thing. But that was two thousand years ago! What about our world today?

Take heart! We have a modern example: MLKJ, whom we remember and celebrate today. He lived according to Jesus’ Way of Love. He believed in equality; and he practiced nonviolence. And through living according to Jesus’ Way of Love, he has shown us and the whole world not only that it is possible, but also that it is the best way forward.

We’ve got a long way to go—no argument there—but it is possible. The Way of Love. And it starts with us, the people who have committed themselves to follow Jesus today.

Commit with me wholeheartedly and resolutely to live by Jesus’ Way of Love.

Chaos Baptized

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2020 by timtrue

The following sermon was delivered to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee, Arizona and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Douglas, Arizona on Sunday, January 12, 2020. I am engaged in pulpit-supply work with these two congregations through March. My approach, through these sermons, is to offer a 12-week survey of who the historical Jesus really was; and our reasonable response to him today as his followers–a response (spoiler alert) that looks hardly anything like modern evangelicalism. (Sorry to all my friends who think so, but Jesus would never have advocated for a border wall or a president who is hell-bent on building one. And that’s just one of many examples!) So, the sermon below is number 2 of 12. If you missed number 1, see “A Baby’s Dependence.” As always, feel free to let me know your thoughts. All best!

Matthew 3:13-17

1.

Why was Jesus baptized?

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance; and yet Jesus was God made man—perfect, sinless! John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance; yet Jesus had no need of repentance.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it?

Hence my question: why was Jesus baptized?

Jesus, the creeds tell us, is fully God and fully human. So, does his full humanness mean that he does in fact have some sort of pre-baptismal sin attached to him, some part of his humanity that needs to be washed away?

Is that it? Does Jesus need to repent from original sin?

But John’s reaction to Jesus is suggestive. Incredulous, John asks, “You want me to baptize you?”

I wonder, does Jesus’ baptism end up compromising his full godliness?

Ugh! I’m so confused! Why was Jesus baptized?

One commentator suggests that Jesus is demonstrating a new, purer kind of righteousness. He gets this from Jesus’ words to John, “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

According to this commentator, there is an old righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, a kind of forensic, legal righteousness; plus—now, with Jesus—a new kind of righteousness, a pure righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

So, wait, are you saying Jesus needed to repent of the old righteousness in order to usher in the new righteousness? I’m still so confused!

2.

Truth is, the scriptures aren’t clear. Truth is, too, theologians have been debating this question for two millennia; and still there’s no consensus.

Well, then, where does this leave us? I mean, that’s no fun: a paradox with no answer; and then, “See you next week!”

No, I’m not going to leave us hanging. Instead, in good Episcopal fashion, I want to bring some tradition and reason into the mix.

Looking to tradition, then, our Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer calls Holy Baptism a sacrament.

Well, what’s a sacrament? Our Catechism answers that too: “Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.”

Baptism, a sacrament, is an outward sign of God’s grace at work in us.

Now, connecting this to what we heard in today’s Gospel, repentance is part of the equation too. The Catechism asks, “What is required of us at Baptism?” And the answer: “It is required that we renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.”

Repentance! Did you hear it?

But—did you hear this too?—repentance is only part of what takes place during this mysterious work of God.

Here is a clue to the answer we seek. Repentance is only part of the picture.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is baptized by John, whose baptism is called a baptism of repentance.

But, also:

Jesus comes up out of the water and a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”;

Jesus is demonstrating to the world around him that God is at work—that God’s transforming grace is at hand; and that he will be the agent of this transforming grace.

I’ll say it again, there’s a lot more going on here than simply repentance.

3.

Now let’s bring reason into the mix.

Reflect with me for a moment on what water symbolizes. Two things:

First, water cleanses.

We shower to cleanse our bodies from the grime of the day.

And we all know the story of Jesus washing Peter’s feet. Peter said, “Well, then, why just my feet? Why not my whole body?” To which Jesus answered, “Only your feet are dirty.”

Water cleanses. Which fits with the idea of repentance, washing sins away.

But, second, water is symbolic of something else, seen throughout the scriptures: chaos.

In the beginning, when everything was formless and void, when all was chaos, God was there; and the breath, or wind, or spirit of God (any translation is acceptable) hovered over the chaos—the waters.

In Genesis 6, a chaotic flood transformed the world. Chaos–and yet, God is there.

In Exodus we read of a people passing through the Red Sea and its closing up. Through this transformation the Israelites were delivered from slavery, oppression, and chaos into something new.

And over in Job we hear of a marvelous creature named Leviathan, the epitome of chaos itself, dwelling in the oceans; and yet God treats this monster as a tame pet.

Do you see? Chaos is baptized.

Put these symbols together—cleansing and chaos; cleansing in chaos; cleansing through chaos—and the most important aspect of baptism rises buoyantly to the surface: transformation.

Our baptism is the outward sign of God transforming us from the chaos of this fallen world into the perfect image of Jesus Christ.

4.

Rodger, a Presbyterian pastor, tells the story of a young man named Kyle:

Kyle was nowhere to be found, and I missed him. In the weeks following his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday, he was noticeably missing. Several other members of the confirmation class asked about him too, as did his confirmation mentor. Kyle and his family had come to the congregation when he was in the fifth grade. They attended sporadically, so I was more than a little surprised when I asked him and his parents if he was interested in joining the confirmation class and they responded positively. In this congregation, the confirmation class happened during the ninth-grade school year. . . . Kyle and his parents came for the orientation meeting and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly classes for study and exploration. Kyle was serious in attending and missed a class or event rarely. He quickly became a significant part of the group and developed some wonderful friendships with the other ninth-graders who had barely known him. Since Kyle had not yet been baptized, he was not only confirmed but also baptized on Pentecost Sunday. It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, and their mentors.

That is pretty much where it ended. That is when I knew I had done something wrong. When I checked in with Kyle and his folks, they all seemed a little surprised that I was calling and checking up on them. I distinctly remember his mother saying, “Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Isn’t he done?”[i]

Isn’t he done?

Rodger’s story strikes a dissonant chord; and it’s a chord that’s all too common in our day. We like to accomplish things, sure; we like to be productive. And so when it comes to church, a lot of people seem to think that baptism is a sort of culmination. Whether it’s an infant, a child, a youth, or an adult, all too often baptism has the effect of a box to check off our spiritual list.

But it wasn’t this way with Jesus.

Jesus’ baptism is not the end of his ministry but rather just the beginning.

Why should it be any different for us?

Our baptism marks just the beginning of an entire transformation process—an ongoing, life-long process.

Now, look around. Is this transformation process done? Do we see the promises of scripture being realized all around us?

Is there worldwide peace in our day? Has disease and death been conquered once and for all? Is St. John’s/St. Stephen’s doing its part to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, liberate the captives, and otherwise spread the Good News of Christ?

By no means are we done! Don’t you dare check off that box!

Your baptism was no such thing as a culmination; rather it was a beginning, a commissioning: the outward expression of the start of an incredible, life-long transformation into the perfect image of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wherever you are in this transformation process, it’s not too late. If you’ve set your shoes aside, put them on again, lace them up, and run the race with perseverance once more!

So, now, I ask again: Why was Jesus baptized?

Because, maybe:

In Jesus’ baptism, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit demonstrate to the world incontrovertibly that the Trinity has begun a new thing, a mysterious thing, a thing that somehow combines and mixes up grace and repentance and water and chaos in order to yield transformation.

In Jesus’ baptism—and in ours—God is transforming the world into what God created it to be.

[i] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox: 2010). 236, 238.

Fertilizing Repentance

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 13:1-9

1.

Why do bad things happen to innocent people?

Why were fifty Muslim worshipers killed on March 15 in a senseless act of violence and hatred?

Now, I’m not curious about the gunman’s motives; I’m not trying to understand why he did it. That’s not what I mean by “why.” Rather, it’s bigger. I’m asking why there’s evil in our world at all.

God is good, right? And we like to say, too, that God is all-powerful, omnipotent.

So then, why doesn’t God just put a stop to it? Eradicate every last trace of evil in our world?

God is good; but evil continues.

So, I wonder if this was the question those people have in mind when they approach Jesus at the beginning of today’s Gospel.

Some Galilean pilgrims were in Jerusalem, they say, offering sacrifices at the altar of the Temple itself, when Pontius Pilate cut them down in cold blood.

Why, Jesus? These were good, pious, innocent people. Why is there such evil in the world?

But Jesus doesn’t answer this question. Instead, he answers another question that was probably on their minds too.

“Do you think,” he asks, “that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And the answer is: “No.”

And thus we learn, at least, that evil is not a manifestation of God’s judgment—a message that, sadly, still makes its way around some Christian circles.

And in case it doesn’t stick, Jesus makes this point again, referring to a tragedy, a tower that fell and crushed eighteen unsuspecting passersby. Were they “worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus asks. And again, the answer is no.

Jesus makes one thing clear: Evil is not a display of God’s judgment.

2.

Jesus also makes a statement about repentance. And he also makes this statement twice, which emphasizes it: there’s another important truth here. But this one isn’t so clear.

“Unless you repent,” he says, “you will all perish just as they did.”

What does Jesus mean?

He can’t mean death. For they died; and we will all die too, whether we repent or not.

But if we repent, Jesus says, we will not die in the same way they died.

Well, does that mean that, if we repent, then we will be immune to evil or disaster?

Surely not! Surely there were repentant people on board Flight 11 on that fateful day in September, 2001!

Repentance is not some magic protection against evil—a forcefield or whatever.

Nor is it some simplistic message about moral uprightness or belief, as if to say that all those people mentioned—the Galileans cut down by Pilate and the Jerusalemites crushed by the tower—all went to hell because they never had a chance to believe in Jesus; and you too will go to hell unless you repent.

No, that can’t be it! Indeed, the Galileans were cut down as they engaged in a pious act of belief!

There is something about repentance Jesus is getting at here. He brings it up twice! But just what is it? Thus far, it’s not clear.

3.

Maybe there’s a clue in the parable that makes up the second half of today’s Gospel. Let’s turn our attention to that; maybe there we will learn what Jesus means today by repentance.

So, a man had a fig tree that bore no fruit for three years. He told his gardener to cut it down. For, “Why should it be wasting the soil?” he asked.

And right away I’m remembering John the Baptist’s words about repentance back in chapter 3: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And, aha, here is one clue. The repentance about which Jesus speaks is likened to a fruit-bearing tree.

The barren fig tree in today’s parable thus represents persons living yet in an unrepentant state, like those Galileans who were cut down at the altar; or like those eighteen unsuspecting Jerusalemites upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell.

But then the gardener speaks up. “Sir,” he says, “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.”

Is this another clue?

The tree has been sitting in the same soil for the past three years; and it has borne no fruit. The gardener asks for one more year, one more chance to bear fruit, one more year to repent.

So just what, exactly, will be different about the year ahead?

As far as I can see, just this: the gardener will dig around the tree’s roots and mix manure into the soil.

Manure! That’s what will be different in the year ahead.

Now, what do we associate with manure? Fertilizer, yes. But otherwise isn’t it just waste? Sewage? Excrement? And a whole slough of other words I won’t say from the pulpit?

Our understanding of manure today isn’t very different than it was two thousand years ago!

In other words, I am fairly certain the manure in this parable represents the evil that is everywhere around us.

Yes, we have another clue!

Put it all together: manure is connected to fruitfulness; or, alternatively, evil in the world is connected to our repentance.

Why is there evil in the world? We don’t know. But there is.

What Jesus tells us today is that we’ve got to look at evil differently, not as a power over which we have no control, not as useless waste; but as a power that can be redeemed just as manure finds redemption as fertilizer.

4.

What does Jesus mean in today’s Gospel by repentance?

We can keep looking at the world the way we always have. Evil is here. We throw our hands up and do nothing about it, just live with that knowledge and try to avoid it—and bear no fruit.

And we will perish just the same as everyone else.

Or, as followers of Christ, we can see the evil in our world as he saw it: redeemable. Then we confront it, bury ourselves up to our knees in it, and even transform it by means of love.

Evil can be redeemed, at least to some extent, through love.

So, fine and well. It’s a nice idea. But what does this look like in real life? What does this look like, say, in our relationships with one another?

Well, what results when evil is at work in our relationships? Isn’t it various forms of domination?

One person becomes superior to another. One class becomes better than another. Entitlements and privilege abound for one group, but not for other groups.

Domination!

When evil is at work in our relationships, whether individual or corporate, we rank ourselves and others; we establish hierarchies; things like slavery, classism, and racism are the soil in which we dwell; our mentality becomes partisan, us vs. them; and rigidity characterizes our world.

So, do we simply throw up our hands and live with it?

Or, what if we repent—change our worldview and seek to redeem the manure in the world?

Then, instead of ranking, we link, one person to another, one organization with another, for the common good.

Then, instead of hierarchies—instead of leading from the top—we lead with others, hand in hand.

Then, social injustices like slavery, classism, and racism are topics on the table for all to discuss, no matter how uncomfortable these discussions may be; reparations are made and we move forward together.

Then, we move beyond our competitive partisanships towards a mentality of us and us.

Then, we become flexible, navigating our way into the future together in ways that humanity has rarely if ever seen.

Then, the result is not domination but equality!

And then, reports of mass shootings and other senseless acts of violence and hatred will dissipate, and maybe even disappear altogether.

And maybe, just maybe, when wide-scale repentance is established and maintained, evil will be redeemed, transformed into good through love.

Repenting Corporately

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

Luke 3:7-18

1.

Last week we discussed Luke 3:1-6. This week the passage is Luke 3:7-18. Last week was part 1, this week is part 2; and in both passages the message is the same: we are called to repent.

Repentance, as I said last week, is less a U-turn than a re-orientation, like a compass we use again and again, in conjunction with the other tools God has given us, to align and re-align ourselves along life’s way.

That’s what we see happening in today’s passage, isn’t it? The crowds are fleeing from the apocalyptic wrath that is to come—like a brood of vipers, John says, an interesting picture in its own right.

And when these people reach John in the wilderness and hear his message of repentance, they ask, “What then should we do?”

It’s as if they’re saying, John, we’re already using the tools at our disposal: the Torah, our spiritual guides, each other. And yet you say there’s more to it; that more is necessary if we are to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Tell us, then, what more is needed? What should we do?

Three times they ask it, in fact. From three different groups! It was their constant question.

It should be our constant question too.

For to repent is continually to re-orient ourselves.

Anyway, all that was discussed last week. So, what more we can learn about repentance today?

Time to put on our theological thinking caps!

2.

Here’s what I think happens when we present-day Christians in the United States hear this message of repentance. We go inward; we ask questions like, “Where have I sinned? Where do I need re-alignment? What do I need to ask forgiveness for?”

These are all good questions; we definitely should be asking these sorts of questions of ourselves on a regular basis. But this is only a small part of the overall message of repentance: the part of individual repentance.

In today’s Gospel, however, groups of people come to John and ask, “What should we do?”

Interesting! Corporate groups—crowds, tax-collectors, and soldiers; i. e., people representing societal bodies—come to John and ask him what repentance looks like.

And John’s answers are telling.

He does not say, “You, Maximus, stop being so arrogant. Search your heart; and where the Holy Spirit brings to mind personal sins—pride, selfishness, hubris—ask God to forgive you. Repent ye of your sins, and from now on use your physical strength for the common good.”

No! Instead, John answers the soldiers as a group, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation; be content with your wages.”

John addresses a group with a group concern; a criticism about soldiers that was largely true in general—though not necessarily true of individuals.

It’s the same thing Christ calls us to do, by the way, every time we renew our baptismal vows together. What should we, as followers of Christ today in the United States, do? We should renounce evil and resolve again to follow Christ; and we should do this together, as one body.

Repentance is corporate!

3.

What, then, does corporate repentance look like? This is my main concern in today’s “part 2” sermon.

So, two things happen at the same time during the act of repentance. We see these two things whenever we witness a baptism. The celebrant asks the baptizand two sets of questions (three questions each).

The first set is all about renouncing, or turning away from, something:

  • Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
  • Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

So, for one thing, we turn away from something.

And, for another thing, we turns towards something. That’s what the second set of questions is all about:

  • Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
  • Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
  • Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?

We repent publicly in baptism; and in our repentance we simultaneously turn away from evil and towards good.

But isn’t baptism an individual act? How is baptism related to corporate repentance?

I’m glad you asked. For we see this same expression of repentance whenever we renew our baptismal vows together, as a corporate body.

The very first question the celebrant asks the congregation is, “Do you”—as in all of you—“reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?”

In the act of corporate repentance it is the church body, not individuals, that turns away from evil and turns towards good.

Thus, to ask what corporate repentance looks like is to ask how we do these things as a church body. How can St. Thomas turn from evil towards good? Where does St. Thomas need to re-orient itself?

4.

Jesus would soon come with a winnowing fork, John declared, to gather wheat and to burn chaff.

When he did come, we know from the Gospels that Jesus opposed the religious and political establishments of his day, establishments that held the masses under their power.

These are the kinds of powers the writer of Ephesians means when he says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (6:12).

These are the kinds of powers, too, we address in our baptismal vows with the question, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

When Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God, he introduced a realm that is very different from the realm of the world. The world’s powers operate by domination; but Jesus operates by love, which shows itself in true equality.

Think this through with me. The religious and political systems in Jesus’ day dominated the lay people and the public, the “crowds”—a term used over and over in the Gospels. Jesus continually opposed these powers because they oppressed the crowds so in need of liberation.

Systems of domination do this: they create social hierarchies; they always seek to place one person above another.

The Roman system placed slaves below freemen; freemen below equites; equites below senators; and so on up the hierarchical pyramid until reaching the emperor at the very top.

And the Jewish religious system gave Samaritans and Gentiles a lower position on the hierarchy than Jews; the common laypeople lower than the scribes; and the scribes lower than the priests, all the way up to the high priest.

This is what Luke is getting at in the beginning of chapter 3, when he mentions all those tricky names:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

When John the Baptist began preaching his message of repentance out in the wilderness, obviously, there were established social hierarchies.

And yet now it’s the crowds, the tax-collectors, and the soldiers who come to John for repentance; and they come seemingly heedless of these established social hierarchies.

Equality! That’s Jesus’ new realm. That’s what John meant when he declared that Jesus would come with a winnowing fork to gather the harvest and burn the chaff.

Every valley shall be filled; every mountaintop leveled; every crooked path made straight.

The apostle Paul says it this way at the end of Galatians 3:

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

Racial inequality, religious inequality, socioeconomic inequality—Jesus came to eradicate these powers, to transform the systems of domination at work in our world into systems of love!

Wherever there is social hierarchy—wherever one person establishes himself above another; whenever anyone thinks herself somehow better than someone else—male above female, white above black, rich above poor, straight above gay, priest above layperson—eradicated!

Jesus confronted systems of domination wherever he saw them; his goal is to transform them. He calls us to do the same today, even if the powers crucify us!

These are the evils we renounce in our corporate repentance; and from them we turn to true equality for all in accordance with Jesus’ way of love.

5.

So that’s what corporate repentance looks like! And that’s the mission Jesus has left to his church.

As a church body, trying to live out Jesus’ call—trying to follow his example—when we look out at the people, places, and events happening all around us—all those tricky names—where do we see something, anything, contrary to Jesus’ message of love?

I don’t know about you, but when I look around for only a short time I see systems of domination and their powers at work seemingly everywhere: gun violence, refugees turned away at borders, children separated from their parents, unreasonable jail sentences, a widening gap between rich and poor, racism, hatred, bigotry—

Systems of domination are alive and well in our world today—“in rulers, in authorities, in the cosmic powers in this present darkness.”

When we renounce their powers and turn towards Jesus’ way of love together, corporately, as a church, then our voice is strong—much stronger than a mere collection of individuals could ever be.

This is our corporate calling: to re-orient ourselves continually; then, even if threatened with crucifixion, to be a stalwart community of resistance against the systems of domination at work in this present darkness; and finally to transform them into systems of love.

As we await Christ’s return, let us repent together!

Orienteering Advent

Posted in hiking, Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2018 by timtrue

John Muir Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

1.

Dad volunteered to lead a 50-miler.

The “50-miler” was a special accomplishment in Boy Scouts: a multi-day backpacking trip of at least fifty miles.

My older brother, Andy, was a Boy Scout; I was still in Cub Scouts, Webelos to be precise, still a year too young, technically, to be a Boy Scout.

No matter: I would go on the backpacking trip too—and so would my mom.

It turned out to be six of us total: the four members of my family, another adult leader, and a fourteen year-old scout named Chris.

Andy and Chris earned their 50-miler patch when it was all said and done. For the rest of us, it was merely an adventurous vacation.

Anyway, my dad had never led a backpacking trip this long before. So, ahead of time, he did what any good doctor of civil engineering would do: he overplanned.

From the menu to the location to equipment and supplies to first aid and rescue, everything had a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C. So extensive was his planning, in fact, that by the time we set out on our actual 50-miler, he had several alternative 50-milers lined up—that he may or may not ever get to in future years.

Now, as the eager little brother, excited as I was to be included, I got in my dad’s way a lot as he spent those evening hours in his overly abundant preparations. So, smart man that he is, he gave me something to do.

“Tim,” he said, “you see this map?”

Spread across the dining room table was the strangest piece of paper I’d ever seen—a map, apparently. There were no place names on it—unless terms like “Road’s End” and “Pinchot Pass” count; and there were no highways or state lines or color-coded regions. Rather, the whole thing consisted of dizzying lines seeming to run this way and that in random directions, but always one next to another, never crossing one another. If I looked at them long enough, they played tricks on my eyes.

“It’s topographic,” my dad explained, “elevation lines. And, look, here I’ve penciled in the trail we’re going to follow.”

And now I could see it: a faint dashed line—a trail—that had been traced over with a pencil.

Dad went on: “Every so often, you’ll see a number next to the trail, like this one—10.8. These numbers are mile indicators. Your job is to add up all the mile indicators on the trail.”

So I set to work, helping my dad plan our epic adventure. Awesome!

Maybe half an hour later I said, “Um, Dad, aren’t we planning a ‘50-miler’? Yeah, so, those numbers you asked me to add up come out to about 121.”

“No kidding!” Dad said.

He then double-checked my work and confirmed: yes, this plan was well over the distance needed, not to mention the week allotted. It wasn’t going to work, Dad concluded dejectedly. We’d have to figure out something else.

“But I really had my heart set on that part of the Sierras,” he muttered.

The next night, after dinner, Dad announced to me, “Tim, I’ve figured something out. Let me show you.”

He led me to the same map, still spread out on the dining room table, and pointed to a body of water called Marion Lake.

“Look at what I’ve done.” he said.

And now I saw a fresh pencil line running perpendicular, at first, to the designated trail; then around the shore of Marion Lake and twisting up and over and through the John Muir Wilderness and finally to a body of water labeled Horseshoe Lake.

“We’ll improvise,” he announced; “we’ll hike overland for a day, making up our own trail as we go! I think it’s only about 7 miles over Red Pass and White Pass to Horseshoe Lake. Once there, we can follow the Upper Meadow Trail back to Road’s End. Should cut off about fifty miles.”

I don’t know, I wanted to say, sounds risky. Who knows what we might run into by not following the designated trail? Lions? Tigers? Bears? Minion monkeys? Worse still, what if we get lost?

My gut told me I didn’t want to trust my dad’s leadership here. But, on the other hand, he was a doctor of civil engineering. He’d gone to school for this kind of stuff! Lots of school! Not to mention, he was my father!

I decided to hold my tongue. For the time being anyway!

Now fast forward a couple of months. The day finally arrived. We’d driven the family van to Road’s End—the end of California State Highway 180—parked, secured our wilderness permits, and were on our way, our 50-miler; or, rather, our 70-miler.

The first few days were relatively routine. We followed the Woods Creek Trail until we joined the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest, then up and over Pinchot Pass, breathtaking and still snowy at nearly 13,000’.

On Day 4 we left the John Muir Trail and headed up and over Cartridge Pass to Marion Lake.

So far so good!

But I was worried about tomorrow.

Back in the spring, when we were planning this adventure, I’d decided to hold my tongue. But there, on that fifth morning, as my dad shuffled his topographic map and a compass, I couldn’t hold back anymore. The risk just felt too great to me.

“Are you sure we’ll make it?” I asked. “I mean, we could always turn around, go back the way we came.”

“Tim,” he reassured, “trust me. We’ll be fine.”

“But, Dad, what if we get lost?”

And I continued with my anxious protests throughout the day:

  • “This looks precarious, Dad. Are you sure it’s the right way?”
  • “Dad, what if we’re misreading the map?”
  • “This looks like Granite Pass to me, Dad, not Red Pass.”
  • “Dad, is that a flying monkey?”

But my dad is a patient man—thank goodness!

And—just like he’d said—we found Horseshoe Lake, cut off fifty miles, and made it home in one piece, safe and sound, with many an adventurous story to tell.

2.

Advent is a time of preparation.

We look in hope at what we know, our topographic map: Jesus came to be with us, the Incarnation, God as a baby; and he dwelled among us, teaching, healing, and loving.

That’s part of Advent: what we know already (our topographic map).

But we also look in hope at what is to come, our epic adventure together in the great Sierras in the Sky, with Jesus as our guide.

Except here’s the thing: that epic adventure is not somewhere far off, in another time and place. That epic adventure is now! This life! The kingdom of God breaking in upon us, wave after wave, day after day!

And this part of our epic adventure is largely unknown. We don’t know how, exactly, wave after wave, day after day, life will play out. There is no designated trail.

So we look to our church leaders, our guides to help us along the way. These are people who know what they’re doing; or at least they know what they’re doing more than the rest of us do. They’ve been to school for this, after all. Lots of school!

But—oh!—it’s so hard to trust them! What if we encounter lions, tigers, bears, or mutant minion monkeys along the way? Worse still, what if we end up altogether lost?

And so we try to hold our tongues. But sometimes we just can’t help ourselves.

The good news today is that we have something else: we have our topographic map, and we have our spiritual guides; but also, as today’s Gospel reminds us, we have a compass, John the Baptist.

And the direction to which this compass needle continually points is repentance.

3.

So then, Advent is about preparation; and John the Baptist points us to repentance. What, then, does repentance have to do with preparation?

A popular teaching likens repentance to a U-turn. Have you heard this? A person who has repented from sin is said to have turned away from sin completely: she was headed in one direction but then made a complete U-turn and now is heading in an entirely different direction.

But don’t you think this picture of a U-turn is a bit simplistic? I mean, what if we’re already headed in the mostly right direction? A complete U-turn would then send us in a mostly wrong direction.

So, I’m thinking repentance is less like a U-turn than it is like that overland day between Marion and Horseshoe Lakes.

We have our topographic map: the Bible; the Incarnation; the first advent of Christ.

And we have our guides to help us along our way, orienteering our way through life, trying to follow the map but confronted moment by moment by a reality that only vaguely resembles the map.

These things send us in the mostly right direction.

But even the mostly right direction can still get us lost; something more is needed.

So here’s what my dad did on that day—despite all my mumbling, complaining, and criticizing, here’s what he did: he aligned everything up with the compass.

At the start of the day, at the shore of Marion Lake, he got out the compass; and, in conjunction with the topographic map, he gained his bearings: he found Marion Peak, Red Peak, and Red Pass in between; and picked out our path.

Half a mile or so later, he did it again—oriented himself and sighted out our path; and again at another half a mile; and so on, and so on, until, at last, we stood safe and sound on the shore of Horseshoe Lake, our planned and prepared for destination.

That’s repentance!

Using our spiritual topographic map and with the help of a spiritual guide, we see where Jesus wants us to go. But daily life disorients us. There are a lot of distractions along the way, after all! Even though we might be headed in a mostly right direction, we still can get lost; and so we complain and criticize and grumble.

But when we stop, look at the map, gain our bearings, and align it all again with our compass, we’re able to continue along our way; and, in the end, we find ourselves safe and sound to the shore of our planned and prepared for destination.

Our compass is repentance; rather than a U-turn, it aligns us again and again with the true path.

Repent, John tells us on this Second Sunday of Advent.

Today is a good day to stop, gain our bearings, and re-orient ourselves.

When Faith and Beliefs Collide

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

Verkehrsunfall1

Mark 1:14-20

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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? . . .

4.

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.

5.

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.

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[i] Cf. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/sbeale/just-how-many-protestant-denominations-are-there

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?”

Or:

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

Or:

“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

Crossofashes[1]

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.