Archive for Resurrection

Celebrating Inconvenience

Posted in Doing Church, Rationale with tags , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by timtrue

17th-century_unknown_painters_-_The_Resurrection_of_Christ_-_WGA23478[1]The following article, which appears in the April/May newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, Arizona, discusses the significance of the historic Easter Vigil worship service.

“The Great Vigil, when observed, is the first service of Easter Day. It is celebrated at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning.”

So says the Book of Common Prayer on page 284.

To which I ask, “Is there such a thing as a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning?”

Easter is late this year. Sunset will occur after seven o’clock, with real darkness only truly descending after 7:30. The rubrics of the Prayer Book constrain us really, then, to a first “convenient” time of 8pm.

But how convenient is 8pm for folks who cannot easily drive in the dark?

We do have other options, I suppose. “Between sunset and sunrise” means a midnight service would be appropriate, and midnight’s always cool. Or, for those who have trouble seeing in the dark, we could begin the service at 4:30am, timing it so that it would end just before sunrise (which will occur at 6:07am). That way people would only have to drive one way in the dark, and at a time of the day when there is very little traffic.

Still, neither of these options strikes me as any more convenient than 8pm.

The Prayer Book continues:

“The service normally consists of four parts:

  1. The Service of Light.
  2. The Service of Lessons.
  3. Christian Initiation [i. e., baptism], or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
  4. The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion.”

In other words, it’s like a normal Sunday service—which consists of two parts, the Service of Lessons and the Holy Eucharist—with a couple of additions: the Service of Light and baptism.

That “Service of Light” part really does constrain us to the dark—a time between sunset and sunrise—which, let’s face it, really does feel inconvenient, no matter how we look at it.

And it feels even more inconvenient when we think about that other part, that baptism part!

I mean, really? The Prayer Book would rather we baptize at the (dark) Great Vigil than wait for the next day, when the sun is up and the Easter Lilies are smiling along with everyone else who got a good night’s sleep? What if that baptism is of a young child, who’d probably be in much better spirits on a bright Sunday morning than a dark Saturday night—not to mention his parents? Or what if the hoped for godparents aren’t able to make it out at night for whatever reason? Or what if? . . .

Okay, okay, I hear your questions. Yes, they are reasonable. Yes, a nighttime, dark service does indeed feel inconvenient. And yes, we could just as well forget about the Vigil and revert to the way things used to be around here, when we simply waited for Easter Sunday to roll around, stress day.

But if there’s one thing about me you’ve gotten to know by now, it’s that I highly respect our Episcopal tradition. And by “Episcopal tradition” I don’t mean the way we did things last year, five years ago, fifty, or even a hundred; I mean the tradition that goes back before the Reformation, before the marriage of the Roman and English Churches in the seventh century, even before the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. I want to go clear back as far as history will take us. How did the early church do it? That’s the tradition I’m talking about.

The reason I value this tradition so greatly is because many, many saints before us have thought long and hard—a lot longer and harder than any of us have—about how best to worship and glorify Christ. By the way, this is the rationale behind our Book of Common Prayer, leaving little room in our assemblies for novel, innovative liturgies.

And, even more importantly, there’s this: Jesus inconvenienced himself a great deal—when he emptied himself of the glories of heaven and became human; when he washed his disciples’ feet; when he stayed up all night praying fervently in the garden that his Father would take his cup from him; when he stood trial before Pilate; when he was stricken, smitten, afflicted, and nailed to the cross mercilessly; when he eked out his last breath—all for us! We break these dark inconveniences when we come to worship him at the Great Vigil, the fitting end to this drama known as the Passion, where we celebrate new light and life together—something the bright Sunday morning service just can’t replicate.

And thus, when it comes to worshiping Christ as God, the term inconvenience takes on new meaning.

Let’s celebrate this inconvenience—the Great Vigil, the tremendous conclusion to Christ’s Passion—together on Saturday, April 15, at 8pm. There will be a baptism this year; and, immediately following the service, a champagne-and-hot-cross-buns reception!

Entitled or Grateful?

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

codexaureus_cleansing_of_the_ten_lepers1

This sermon was preached on October 9, 2016.

Luke 17:11-19

Two students come to mind from my time in Sewanee.

One was entitled.  She cheated.  But she beat the system.  Curiously, her parents are alumni and supporters.  I cannot help but wonder if she in fact expected to be the system.  She was forever angry at me afterward, for I was the professor who called her out.  Her attitude said, “What can Sewanee do for me?”

The other student was thankful.  He was a refugee from Sierra Leone, for all intents and purposes an orphan, for his parents remained in SL.  He came to Sewanee on a full scholarship.  He was a joy to be around; he loved each day.  And he offered to the Sewanee community what he knew: dance.  Many children and students benefited from his knowledge and love of this art form.  His attitude said, “What can I do for Sewanee?”

Now, in last week’s sermon we learned a couple of things that faith is not.

Faith cannot be quantified.

In our consumer, materialistic culture, we hear Jesus say, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”; and we think in terms of amount.

The mustard seed is a tiny seed; and from it grows a shrub so large that sizable birds come and roost in its branches.  If only we could have faith like that!  Then we could say to a mulberry tree or even a mountain, “Be cast into the sea!” and it would obey us.

But then we try it.  And it doesn’t work.

Neither is faith cause-and-effect.

You receive terrible news: say, a family member has cancer.  So, as many modern-day Christian voices have taught, you reason that all you need to do is believe hard enough and God will heal your family member.

And if healing happens, well and good.  But if it doesn’t, you’re left thinking that you didn’t pray hard enough and believe deeply enough: you simply had too little faith, less than a mustard seed’s worth.

Faith hasn’t worked.

You’ve spent hours upon hours in personal prayer.  You’ve attended seminars on increasing your personal faith.  You may even have sent tax-deductible contributions to that man on the TV who promised that doing so would increase your faith.  But still the answer hasn’t gone the way you wanted it to.  Surely, you conclude, my faith lacks.

Last week, then, the Gospel of Luke offered a picture of what faith is not: it’s not quantifiable; it’s not cause-and-effect.

By contrast, this week the Gospel of Luke (in the very next passage/pericope) offers us a picture of what faith is.

There are ten lepers.  They see Jesus and shout out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Do these lepers have faith?

Here’s an interesting thing about lepers in the ancient world—at least in the region of Palestine where this story takes place.  A leper had to be declared clean not by a physician but by a priest.

If a person had leprosy—a term used to describe any number of skin infections—the normal protocol was to go and live in a colony, away from society.

A leper couldn’t go to synagogue to worship with his or her community.  A leper couldn’t go to the local market to buy, sell, or barter.  A leper couldn’t carry on whatever trade or skill he knew.  Lepers had to move out, away from the life and people they’d always known.

To come out as a leper was thoroughly disruptive, upsetting the equilibrium of not just one life but entire households, even communities.

Once publicly known, the leper would move out of her community and into a colony with other known lepers.  There, quarantined away from society, she would depend on others—friends and family—for sustenance.  She couldn’t go to the market after all!  And these others—the friends and family—came to the leper colony at their own risk.

Talk about social outcasts!  Lepers of the ancient world knew what it was to be exiled—perhaps more keenly than anyone else.

And the only way for lepers to enter back into society was through the priests.  If a leper’s skin cleared up—a big if, mind you!—he or she must then go to a priest for inspection and approval—a declaration of cleanliness—before re-entering society.

The whole thing was a cumbersome process, a kind of ancient Jewish red tape.

So then, on this certain day when Jesus and his apostles are going through the region between Samaria and Galilee, they pass near enough to a quarantined leper colony that ten lepers are able to approach them.

And they say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Do they have faith?

Well, here’s what we know.  Jesus answers them, saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

Jesus does not heal them then and there.  The text makes this quite clear: “And as they went,” it says, “they were made clean.”

This is an important detail.  When Jesus tells them to go to the priests, the lepers aren’t yet healed.  This is an important detail because it demonstrates faith—or at least a kind of faith.  If Jesus is truly their Master, as they call him, then it is an act of faith to obey Jesus before they are actually healed.

So, I ask again, do these lepers have faith?

Yes.  Or, at least, they show a kind of faith.

But only one turns back. Only one comes back to Jesus to express gratitude.  And only to this one does Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”

Now, to be sure, a lot of theological discussion of this text revolves around the point that this one is a foreigner, a Samaritan.  For Samaritans were viewed in Jesus’ day with thorough disdain.  They were the racial scapegoats.  Jews especially viewed them as less than human.  They were half-bloods with a cheap and highly compromised religion.  So, this one leper who turns around and comes back to Jesus is doubly an outcast.

Nevertheless, this Samaritan leper was still required to go to the priests in order to return to normal society as he knew it.

In other words, let’s not make too much of this racial sub-point.  The main point here is that this one turns around and the other nine do not.

Where do the other nine go?  Without a doubt, to the priests.  They want to re-integrate with society, after all.

Does this mean that the one who turns around does not go to the priests?  Not at all!  He wants to re-integrate with society just as badly.

But before he goes to the priests—and this is the main point here, above everything else!—this one foreigner turns around in order to express gratitude.

And what happens?

Ten are made clean.

But only to the one does Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well.”

If the nine show us one kind of faith, the one shows us another.  The nine demonstrate a utilitarian faith; the one demonstrates a grateful faith.  The nine are made clean; the one is made clean and well.

Shouldn’t gratitude be intimately connected to our faith?  According to this week’s Gospel, this is what faith looks like.

Last week we saw that faith is not cause-and-effect. In other words, it’s not utilitarian.  This week we see gratitude.

There’s a great lesson here for us.

Are we merely going through the motions?  Is faith for us merely utilitarian?

Our faith makes us clean.  We see it in the waters of baptism.  We hear it when we renew our baptismal vows together, and indeed whenever we say the Nicene Creed together.  And we feel it whenever we commune together at Christ’s Table.

But we can’t leave it there.  If that’s all our faith is for us, it’s a utilitarian faith.

But what about when our faith involves gratitude?  What if we wake up each day thanking God for our friends, our family members, our pets; or simply for the warmth and light of a new day?  What if, when troubles come our way, instead of focusing on hardships we look for the good?  What if we focus on resurrection instead of death?

Then, not only does our faith make us clean; it also makes us well.

What we see today, then, is really two kinds of faith.  One is utilitarian; the other is grateful.

Or, in other words, one is entitled; the other thankful.  Like those two students from Sewanee.

When our faith is utilitarian, or entitled, the driving question becomes, “What will Jesus do for me?”  Our faith cleanses us, sure; but to what avail?

But when our faith is grateful, the driving question becomes, “What can we do for Jesus?”  Now our faith makes us both clean and well.

Hope from Pessimism

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by timtrue

220px-francesco_guardi_0021

Luke 20:27-38

I don’t know about you, but over the course of the last week I’ve caught myself thinking a lot about death.

On Monday we celebrated Halloween.  This is a funny tradition we have, isn’t it?  What, are we trying to scare people into giving us candy?  Princesses and superheroes aside, why all the grisly, death-focused getups?

Then, on Tuesday it was All Saints’ Day.  If you happened to come to the service here on Tuesday night, the music was from Faure’s Requiem—a mass for the dead.  During the prayers a necrology—a list of names of loved ones who died over the past twelve months—was read.

Again, a chief theme was death.

Next, on Wednesday it was All Souls’ Day.  This is the day on the church’s calendar in which we remember specifically all those unnamed people who simply went about their lives day in and day out until they passed away, but never ended up in any history books.  God knows the names of every one; we do not.

Also on Wednesday, death entered my thinking as we witnessed what many thought impossible: the Cubs won the World Series.  The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908.  None of the players on that team was alive to see this team do it.  How sad!

Then on Friday I hiked by myself up Flag Mountain, variously called Jester’s Peak.  It started out pleasantly enough, with a well-marked trail ascending at a good clip.  But near the top the trail gave way to what I call an avalanche chute—a very steep depression down through which rocks falling from above would funnel if there were a rockslide.  Up this chute was my way.  But which way—to the right or to the left?—was up to me to guess.

So I scrambled left, climbing with both my hands and feet, until I came to a final rock face.  Too steep, I thought!  Still, I could see the temptation, for there, just through that crack, it seemed the trail should continue.

I decided to retrace my steps, however, down and then scramble up to the right.  Which turned out to be a better choice.

But, at the top of the chute now, I observed a crude memorial set up right where I would have come through that crack in the rock (if I hadn’t changed my mind).  And I realized: someone died right here, hiking this very trail.

So, yeah, death has been on my mind this past week.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tuesday’s election.  Will this be the death of our nation?  Probably not, in all seriousness.  But the death focus of my week has left me pessimistic.  Or, in other words, I’m “sad, you see.”

Which brings us to today’s Gospel: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.” The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death, so they were “sad, you see.”

Focusing just on death can leave us pessimistic.

But what happens after, or beyond, death?

The Torah—the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible—says very little about the afterlife.

We do in fact learn a lot about death in the Torah.  Adam and Eve are tempted by the wily serpent, who lies to them saying, “You will not die”; but, as we all know, they succumb; and we all learn what death is.

Lots of people die in these early stories.  Jacob lived a hundred and forty-seven years, the Torah says, a rich, full life; and then went to sheol, the place of the dead, whatever that means.

But as to what happens to us after death—what sheol is, what happens there, and so on—the Torah is silent.

And so the Sadducees developed a theology of death, angels, and the afterlife.  Namely, they said, since the Torah is silent, these must not be: there must not be an afterlife; and there is no such thing as angels.

For them, there was no resurrection.

But another Jewish tradition, that of the Pharisees, included more in its canon of sacred scriptures.  Specifically, it included the book of the prophet Daniel, who talks both about angels and the afterlife.

And don’t you find it interesting—just a brief observation—that Jesus here opposes the Sadducees but favors the Pharisees?  How often do we think of the Pharisees as the bad guys of the New Testament, the opponents of Jesus!  But here Jesus aligns with them.  We need to give the Pharisees more credit!

Anyway, we do it too, you know.  Like the Pharisees, we Christians formulate our own, traditional, inferential views about death and the afterlife.

We talk about body and soul being conjoined in the human person; and death being the separation of body and soul.  But this understanding of the human person is nowhere plainly stated in our Bible.  We’ve developed this doctrine over the centuries—a doctrine that in fact is being reconsidered by theologians today.

And we talk about eternal rest.  That’s what a requiem mass is—a prayer that those souls who have been separated from their bodies will find eternal rest: dona eis requiem aeternam, Domine; Lord, give them eternal rest.

But what does this term eternal rest mean?  Are we to picture souls just sleeping the eons away in peaceful slumber?  Or, is it more like leisure, more like what we do in our free time?  Or, do we sit around in an everlasting worship service, in continual praise of God?  Or, do we engage in relationships similar to what we know as humans, maybe around a giant banquet table with beloved friends and relatives, bringing out food and wine and the old family stories that have somehow gotten even better over the eons?

And then, what happens when we put them all together—body, soul, and rest?  What are we to make of souls who’ve been separated from their bodies and yet are unable or unwilling to go to that place of everlasting rest?

Hmm.  A soul without a body?  That sounds like a ghost.  And body without soul?  Sounds like a zombie.

And we’re back to Halloween!

Well, for crying out loud, what is it—Sadducees, Pharisees, the Faure’s Requiem, or Halloween?

But Jesus says, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

And isn’t this a masterful approach?  Jesus knows the Sadducees look only to the Torah as their sacred scriptures, from which they form all their theology; from which they derive all their ethics.  So this is where he goes:

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, [from Exodus, at the very heart of your sacred Torah,] where he speaks of the Lord as the [present] God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Life does not end, Jesus says; but it does change.  This much we know!  And thus we have confidence in our great hope, the resurrection!

And doesn’t this, our hope simply in the resurrection, change the way we look at things?

Some historians link Halloween to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, in which the dead and evil spirits are celebrated through dressing up and pulling pranks.  The church, these historians say, decided to “clean up” the festival by linking it to All Saints’ Day—Halloween means “all hallowed’s eve.”

However, other historians say no way!  All Saints’ Eve was never connected to Samhain.  Instead, yes, it is a part of All Saints’ Day, an extension of it, during which we Christians dress up as evil spirits and witches and so on in order to say, “Ha, we’re not scared!”—of Satan, his demons, or of any other power of darkness in the unseen realms—“for we follow Christ, and he holds the very keys to Death and Hades.  Our hope is in his resurrection and ours.”

Then, on All Saints’ Day we remember not just the dead but the church: followers of Christ who have lived throughout the ages, us who live now, and those who will live in the future.

And on All Souls’ Day, another extension of All Saints’ Day, we remember specifically the faithful departed—all those unnamed people who never ended up in any history books.  We can and should remember and honor them.

Do you see how our hope in the resurrection changes our perspective?  No longer are we pessimistic, but hopeful.

Two last thoughts:

First, think about the World Series Game.  1908 was the last time the Cubs won.  All the players on the team the last time they won are now dead and gone.  But, channeling hopeful thoughts of the resurrection, I wonder, were these former players, now passed on, sitting in some spiritual bleachers on Wednesday night, doing some kind of ghostly victory dance when that third out of the tenth inning finally materialized?

And the second thought: What about our nation?  Even if you are pessimistic about the possible outcome of Tuesday’s election, God is in the business of resurrection, of breathing in new life, of doing a new thing.  There’s tremendous hope in this!

Life does not end; it is changed.  We are not pessimistic, but hopeful.

God Touches the Beer

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2016 by timtrue

Weizenbier

Luke 7:11-17

One statement in particular from today’s Gospel stands out to me: “[Jesus] touched the bier.”

Now, what does this statement sound like to you?

I suppose, if you just heard me say it, on its own, apart from the context of today’s Gospel, you might suppose, uh oh, here it comes, Father Tim is going to offer some argument about the benefits of drinking beer.

After all, beer is an ancient drink; it’s been around since people started putting words to parchment, or even since people were painting figures on stones.  It goes well with lots of common foods—especially fish and chips.  And it cheers the spirits.

Why, even the great reformer Martin Luther recognized beer’s benefits, and thus brewed it at home, we learn from his own writings, for purposes of health.

And, on top of all this, right here in today’s Gospel, much to the moral tea-totaller’s chagrin, we read that Jesus touched the beer.

So it’s got to be good, right?  There’s just got to be some kind of moral imperative in here for us, some kind of biblical principal we can draw on.  No wonder Benjamin Franklin said, Beer is proof God loves us.

But—I’m sorry to say—that’s just not the case.  You can’t get blood from a turnip; and you can’t find a biblical mandate for drinking beer.

When the Bible says that Jesus touched the bier, it’s actually not talking about the beverage we enjoy with fish and chips.  Instead, it’s talking about a funeral bier, a sort of cart used in the ancient world to haul a corpse from one place to another.  This–not the other—is the bier that Jesus touched.

Well—eww!—you might be thinking, that’s kind of gross.  Why do you want to talk about Jesus touching a corpse, Father Tim?  Can’t we talk about the other kind of beer instead?

To which I answer, love to!

Just not here, not now.

Instead, feel free to give me a call any time and invite me out to Prison Hill Brewery.  They’ve got this great new brew called Rykers Red RyePA—delish!

But, oh yeah, I said we wouldn’t talk about that kind of beer, not here, not now.

So, well, um, I guess, it’s on to the other kind of bier, the funeral-cart kind of bier, the kind that carries a corpse.

Why would Jesus reach out and touch a corpse that happened to be passing by?

—–

By the way, has anyone in here ever brewed beer?  Yeah, I’m back to the first kind of beer again, the kind you drink.  I guess I’m a little distracted.  Anyway, the whole process of brewing beer strikes me as a kind of small miracle.  You know this if you’ve ever tried to brew it.

So, you start with the grain: barley.  It starts out as a living, growing plant, a member of the grass family in fact, a major cereal grain around the world, sometimes used as fodder for farm animals.

And, of course, like most grains, we harvest it when it’s ripe.  When harvested, it dies: it’s no longer connected to its stalk, its source of life.

By the way, one of Jesus’s own parables conveys just this image.  In John 12:24, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Do you think Jesus might have been referring to his own, yet-future resurrection here?  I do.

Do you think that Jesus might have been referring to other, smaller resurrections each of us experiences in day-to-day life, throughout our lives?  I do.

At any rate, at this point in the beer-brewing process—after the barley is dead—it is milled.  And, as I understand it, it has to be milled just right, crushing the grains enough so that the starchy center is exposed but not so much that the grain hulls are too finely crushed.  Not enough means there won’t be enough starch for fermentation; too much results in a gummy, unusable—not to mention disgusting—brew.

Next comes the step called mashing, where hot water mixes with the milled barley and, incredibly, enzymes are released which produce highly fermentable sugars.

Now the whole concoction is filtered to yield a sugary liquid brewers call wort.  The wort is boiled, to sterilize the liquid—and if you’re still recalling that last reference I made to Jesus, what is sterilization but another kind of death?—then cooled.

And now, behold, new life!

To this cooled, sterilized, figuratively dead liquid, yeast is added; and the amazing, life-like process of fermentation begins to take place.  The yeast and the sugars combine and transform into something entirely new: alcohol.

Now, don’t let the negative connotations we sometimes connect to alcohol distract you from seeing the phenomenal picture here.  A kind of metamorphosis has taken place.  In this process of brewing beer, we’ve witnessed the dead becoming alive; the old becoming new.  It’s a kind of small resurrection.  It’s nothing short of a small miracle.

No wonder legend tells us that Benjamin Franklin said, Beer is proof God loves us![i]

But—to return to the Gospel now—as that funeral bier passed by Jesus on that certain day; and as he reached out and touched it, no small miracle took place.  What Jesus did on that day was nothing so commonplace as the simple, chemical process we call fermentation.  Instead, what Jesus did was nothing short of bringing a person back from the realm of the dead; a bona fide resurrection!  This was no small miracle; this was a huge miracle!

So why did I take us down that rabbit trail all about the small miracle of fermentation?

Because of this: Jesus touched the bier.

Jesus reached out his hand and actually touched the corpse of a stranger.

This was a huge, chosen-people no-no.  A Jewish man just didn’t do such a thing!

Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?  A man was robbed and left for dead by the side of the road.  Some good Jews came along and—what did they do?  They walked by the half-dead man on the other side of the road.   They weren’t about to touch him.  For doing so would’ve made them unclean!  Doing so was forbidden.  And yet, Jesus reaches out and does something totally and completely socially unacceptable.  He touches the corpse of a stranger—and thereby makes himself an outcast.

Yes, a huge miracle followed.  But right here, before the huge miracle, a kind of small miracle takes place.  Jesus dies to society.

You know what else happens?  The man who had died was his mother’s only son; and she was a widow.  Translation: the man who had died was his mother’s sole source of livelihood and well-being.  What would she have done for the rest of her life with her only family member dead and gone?  How would she have survived?  But Jesus gives her new life.

Aside from the huge miracle that takes place here, Jesus reaches out, touches the bier, and thereby performs all at once any number of small miracles.  All before the huge miracle takes place!  Jesus demonstrates a divine display of compassion to the man who had died, to the man’s mother, to his own disciples, and to the crowd who was present.

Jesus touches the bier.

Do you see?  Here’s what happens when we focus on the huge miracle and forget about the small ones.

We look around us and we see evil and the effects of sin seemingly everywhere.  Why are there campus shootings?  Why are there terrorist groups bent on death and destruction?  Why did my daughter die of cancer?  Why did my wife leave me?  I mean, if Jesus was able to raise that man from the dead, then why doesn’t Jesus help me now, in my time of need?

When we focus only on the huge miracle, we’re left wondering why God doesn’t perform a huge miracle for us.

When we focus on the huge miracle, we end up forever haunted by questions we’ll never be able to answer.

But Jesus touched the bier.

Jesus is about small miracles before, and much more frequently than he is about, the huge ones.

In small miracles, Jesus forsakes societal norms and becomes unclean for you.

In small miracles, Jesus reaches into the intricate details of your life, replacing your despair with hope, your pain with wellness, your dysfunction with soundness, your death with new life.

In small miracles, Jesus shows us—no, he lavishes upon us—God’s compassion.

Now, do you see what happens when we focus on the smaller miracles?  We end up seeing that God is at work even in things like the simple, chemical process of fermentation.  We see that God is at work in the midst of our lives, our intricate, messy details.  No longer do we find ourselves mad at God for not making my world work out according to my expectations; no longer are we haunted by questions we’ll never be able to answer, but we are grateful—thankful for every small miracle we encounter from day to day.

Teach us, Lord Jesus, to see the small miracles everywhere around us.  Teach us, Lord Jesus, to be thankful.

[i]     This is legend.  Franklin probably never said this.  What he actually said, in a letter to a friend in France, was, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”

Seeking New Life

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

FatherTim

Luke 24:1-12

Alleluia.  Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Amen.

We say this together, yes.  And we’re happy to be saying it—alleluia!—after setting it aside for the past 6.5 weeks.

But I wonder: do we mean it?

Christ is risen.

But do we tire of hearing the same old story?

Don’t we come back to the same old place at about the same old time of the year to engage in the same old service and hear the same old story?

Think about Mary Magdalene.  Not what you know about her today, in 3rd-millennium America; but how it must have been for her when she approached Jesus’ tomb on that dark morning and saw, incredibly, that the stone had been rolled away.

Can you do that?  Can you remove yourself from our twenty-first century mindset long enough to put yourself in Mary’s place?

What must have gone through her mind when she saw this?  What did she think when she entered the tomb and saw that Jesus’ body was not there?

Did she think someone had stolen Jesus’ corpse?  That’s what the Gospel of John suggests.

Whatever the case, here in Luke she didn’t have much time to think it over.  For, suddenly, she found herself standing in the midst of two other-worldly beings, “men in dazzling clothes”!

What must she have thought then, at that moment?  The passage says she was terrified and bowed her face to the ground.

Amazing!

But is all this lost on us?  Do we somehow miss it?

Because if it is, if we do; then surely we’ll miss the best part.

The best part of this story is not as dazzling as the rest of the show.  So if we’re no longer dazzled by this dazzling story—I mean, we’ve heard it so many times now—we’ll pass right over the less-dazzling-nevertheless-more-important part—the most important part—of this story.

It’s what these other-worldly messengers say.

They ask why.

Do we miss that?  Do we miss the challenge that these other-worldly messengers present?

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Now, there’s something in us that desires the new and novel.  There’s something about our humanity that seems to be wired this way.

  • The first iPhone was released in 2007;
  • The iPhone 3G came out in 2008;
  • In 2009 it was the iPhone 3GS;
  • 2010 launched the iPhone 4;
  • 2011, the iPhone 4S;
  • 2012 revealed the iPhone 5;
  • 2013 saw both the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5C;
  • 2014 gave us the iPhone 6;
  • 2015 went one step further with the iPhone 6S;
  • And—don’t worry, Apple will not let us down—2016 promises to give us the iPhone SE, with all the capabilities of the iPhone 6S but the more popular and convenient size of the iPhone 4.

Apple keeps giving us new phones—new, expensive devices—and we keep buying them!

Of course, this is just one example.  But what is it in our human nature that likes the new and novel?

And so we come to the Easter story—that same old story.  It’s not new.  It’s not fresh.  It’s the same old thing we’ve heard over and over for the last two thousand years.

And no matter how the church tries to repackage it and resell it every year, it can’t keep up with Apple.

Unlike my iPhone, the Easter story doesn’t have touch screen technology.  It doesn’t cater itself to me specifically, knowing what makes me tick.  It doesn’t interact with me with an almost human-sounding voice.

We’ve all heard it said that Jesus meets me where I am.  And yet Jesus doesn’t close to where my iPhone meets me.

And the same old story Easter and its men in dazzling clothes have, well, lost their dazzle.

It was there in the Garden, you know: this human desire for the new and novel.  Satan, that serpent of old, knew it.  And he capitalized on it.

“You’ve been in this comfortable garden a while now, Eve,” he slithered.  “Hasn’t it all begun to feel a little too comfortable?  A little too familiar?  A little ho hum?  A little, perhaps, mundane?”

And with a focus on the new and novel, he continues to wear Eve down.

“You know,” he says, “God calls it monogamy, when two people like you and Adam are bound in lifelong matrimony.  Sounds to me more like monotony.”

And so on and so forth until Eve actually becomes sympathetic; until,

“Has God really said,” Satan questions, “that you will die?  Surely, you’re not gonna die just from taking one little bite from that delicious fruit.  Instead—let me tell you—it’ll blow your mind.  You’ll know new things, see new things, beyond your wildest imagination.  Just do it, Eve.  Just take one bite—and hold on for the ride of your life!”

There’s something in our human nature that craves the new and novel.  Satan knows it.  Apple knows it.

Now, to clarify, and for the record, I am not equating Satan here with Apple, Inc.

In fact, I will go so far as to say there is nothing inherently or morally wrong in craving the new and novel.

In the story about the Garden I just reiterated, Adam and Eve’s desire for the new and novel was there before they fell into sin.  In other words, it was there in our humanity before sin ever entered the picture, in that part of our divine image that’s not tainted by sin.

So there’s nothing morally wrong when you find yourself craving the next version of the iPhone.

And Apple, Inc. is not in league with the devil.

Nevertheless, sometimes we crave the new and novel so much that we forget about the important parts of life.

Like the same old Easter story we hear year after year.

Or that same old message the “men in dazzling clothes” tell us all: not to look for the living among the dead.

But that’s just what’s going on here; that’s just what the dazzling men are telling us.

This is not the same old story year after year.  This story is new and fresh each time we hear it—or it should be.  For we are not told to look for the living among the dead, but rather to look for the living among the living!  That’s what resurrection is, after all, isn’t it?  New life emerging from the old!

So then, this story of resurrection, rather than being confined to the pages of a book, is alive and all around us.  We just need to know where to look!

For example, how many of you know a cancer survivor who, after getting a clean bill of health, has said something along the lines of, “Now I have a new lease on life!”  Isn’t this a kind of death and resurrection?

As another example, what about marriage?  What married person doesn’t know the truth of dying to self in order to enjoy new life in and with another person?

Now, okay, these are big things—overcoming cancer; deciding to leave the single life for marriage.  There’s a certain sense of death and resurrection in them that’s fairly obvious.

But what about in smaller things?  Do you see resurrection—new life—in these?

Do you see new life in the waters of baptism?  We go down under the water—symbolizing death to self—and come up again—symbolizing new life in Christ.  Isn’t this an expression of death and new life?  And so we renew our baptismal vows, annually, at this service.

Or, did you see it in the new fire and the Paschal candle?  New fire snuffs out darkness with its light.

Do you see new life each time you come to the altar to receive communion?  This is your spiritual sacrifice, where you die to self and live in Christ.

Or, to move out of the realm of the sacred, what about in the first-grade classroom, when a student’s eyes suddenly light up with the joy of a new truth discovered?  Do you see new life here?

What about in the smile of a homeless person as you hand her a sandwich?

Any time hope overcomes despair; any time truth defeats falsehood; any time beauty conquers ugliness; any time charity gives selflessly; any time goodness prevails—aren’t these all examples of new life overcoming death?

New life is all around us!

Let’s take the advice, then, that the men in dazzling clothes give us.  Jesus is not here, they tell Mary, where you might expect, in a tomb, among the dead.  Rather, he is risen.  He is out there, with the people, among the living!  Go, seek, and find him!

This “same old story,” rather than being dusty, old, and monotonous—is alive.

That’s because this same old story is about resurrection.  It’s about seeing new life all around you, in and through and with all the living souls with whom you interact day in and day out, all those people who may or may not clamor to get the latest iteration of the iPhone.

Do you see the new and novel in your daily life?  Do you see new life all around you, in the world of the living?  Do you live out resurrection?

Your Conversion Story

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

31012.dng_109_1_edited-2

John 20:1-18

Conversion is not always a one-time experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, of course it is!

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

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

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

And don’t we all experience conversion differently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then what happens?

“Mary!” Jesus calls her by name.

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

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

And she does!

And so she is made the apostle to the apostles!

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

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

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

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

Like repentance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mocking Hades

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on August 24, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 16:13-20

41D4tux0HUL__SS500_

I’d like to begin today with a game I call Name that God.

This figurine I am now holding is a replica of a well-known sculpture of a Greek god.  I purchased it on a recent trip to California when I was visiting the Getty Villa with my daughter and my mom.  It now sits at home on a bookshelf filled with Greek and Roman mythology.

Do you know which god this is?  If you do, don’t answer out loud—not yet anyway; just raise your hand and keep it raised while I offer some hints.  After my hints I’ll call on someone.

A first hint then: the real sculpture, upon which this figurine is based, is housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum on the island of Crete.  Okay, not much of a hint, really, granted.  So:

A second, easier hint: look at the staff he’s holding.  At first glance—out of the corner of my eye—I thought it was a trident.  And that would have been easy: trident = Poseidon, or Neptune as he was called by the Romans.  But it’s not a trident; for there are not three prongs sticking up here, but only two.  What would we call this?  A bident?  Anyway, two prongs.  Do these remind you of something?  Horns, maybe?

A third hint: look at the beast with him.  It’s a dog of some sort.  But it’s not a normal dog, for it has three heads.  This particular dog, named Cerberus, guards the gates of this god’s kingdom.

One more hint: this god’s Roman name is Pluto.

So, who is this god?  What is his Greek name?

Hades.  That’s right!

Now, strange as it may seem to us today, this mythological god actually shows up in today’s Gospel. Did you hear it?

Jesus is talking to Peter.  And he says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The gates of Hades.  The same gates, according to Greek mythology, that are guarded by this three-headed dog, Cerberus.

Really?

Jesus is making a profound theological statement about the establishment of his church.  It is no less than a new kingdom; a kingdom that we know today has surpassed all other kingdoms—even the Roman Empire—in magnitude, importance, and permanence.  It is certain and sure.  It is fixed.  It is reality.

And yet Jesus compares it to a myth?  Really?  What’s he playing at?

Hades. You know, KJV says hell: “The kingdom of hell shall not prevail against it.”  But Hades is the word in the Greek Bible.  And it doesn’t mean the same thing as hell.

When we hear the word hell, we think of a place separate and distinct from other places such as heaven and, maybe, purgatory.  And in this sense what Jesus says rings true: the kingdom of heaven is a separate and distinct place from the kingdom of Hades.

The Christian tradition has taught us to think of these places—hell, heaven, and purgatory—as distinct realms into which souls pass when they are separated from their earthly bodies.  We think of them as separate and distinct places.

But Jesus’s disciples didn’t think this way.

Instead, they thought in terms common to their day and culture.  And to them, the kingdom of Hades was the one place into which all souls passed at death.  All souls: good, bad, or indifferent!

(Hades’ kingdom was divided up into three regions.  But all three comprised the single kingdom.  Tartarus was the region to which the really wicked souls went, something like our idea of hell; Elysium to which the heroic, exceptional souls went, something like our heaven; and the Fields of Asphodel to which everyone else went, much like the medieval understanding of purgatory.  But these were not seen as three separate places, like we see hell, heaven, and purgatory.  Rather, they were all part of the one kingdom of Hades.  That’s why—in another Gospel story—Lazarus, Abraham, and the rich man can see each other in the afterlife; despite the fact that one was in a place of torment and the others in a place of bliss.)

At death, then, as Peter and the disciples understood it, there was no escaping: like it or not, you would pass through the gates of Hades on your way into the underworld.

Unless!  There was one exception: unless you were a god.

Yes, Zeus, Hera, Ares, and all the rest were exempt from the kingdom of Hades.

But now we’re back to mythology.  So what?

So what?  Here’s what’s so what: there were also some others—some people, some mortals—who were claiming in Jesus’s day that they would be exempt from the kingdom of Hades when they died.  Death had no hold on them, they said.  This was no mythology.  This was really going on in Jesus’s day.  This was reality.

So, who were these people, these mortals, who claimed to be exempt from Hades’ kingdom?  The emperors!  Julius Caesar!  Augustus Caesar!

And so, when Jesus says to Peter and the other disciples that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his kingdom, it is not an imagined mythology that he is playing at.  Rather, what Jesus is saying here is magnificent.

Death has no hold over him!  He is the very Son of the living God, the only real and true God!  But his exemption from death is so much better than even what Caesar claims.  Caesar!  Ha!  He claims to be exempt from death.  But can he offer exemption to others?

But Christ!  Not only does death have no hold on him.  Death has no hold on Peter!  Death has no hold on the disciples!  Death has no hold on the entire kingdom of Jesus Christ!  That includes us!

This is the magnificent reality of the kingdom of heaven.  This is the magnificent reality of the church, built upon the rock of Peter’s testimony, upon the rock of the testimony of the disciples, and upon the rock of our own testimony.  Death has no hold on us!  The Lord is risen!  Alleluia!

Now, let’s bring this home. Sad to say, but we see death all around us—or, if you prefer, we see the kingdom of Hades all around us.

It’s in nature: when the leaves fall off the trees every autumn; or when a lioness overcomes an antelope in order to survive.

It’s in things like cancer, or on that sign over the freeway reporting how many traffic fatalities there have been already this year.

And it’s in the bad choices people make: in acts of terrorism and war; or in child abuse or neglect.

But the kingdom of Hades will not prevail against the church!

Wherever we see death gaining a foothold—in creation, in disease, in war, in child abuse—we must confront it with the new life Christ offers.

But I said confront, not avoid.  We confront death with new life.  We don’t avoid the kingdom of Hades.

What do I mean?  Consider Halloween.  It will be here soon.  It’s very popular in our culture.  How will you respond to it this year?

In my many years as a teacher at Christian schools, I’ve seen that there are really two approaches to Halloween.  One is to avoid it.  It’s all about scariness: skeletons, ghosts, vampires, and zombies; just take a look at people’s front yards around here in October.  Scariness!

Some Christians I know are averse to this.  Why would I want to frighten my own child, they ask?  Christianity’s not about fear, but about overcoming fear.  Or, as I’ve heard too, Christianity glories in life; but Halloween glories in death.  Why would I want my kids to glory in death?

This approach to Halloween avoids the kingdom of Hades.

But to confront it looks something like this (and I believe this is the more accurate understanding of Halloween historically).  Halloween means “All Halloweds’ Eve,” or, to put it in terms more familiar to us, the eve of All Saints’ Day.  On All Saints’ Day we celebrate all baptized Christians.  All!  Meaning those now alive and those who have already passed into glory!  Death has no hold over us, or them!

So when we dress up on Halloween as ghosts or goblins or werewolves or hags or whatever, what we’re really doing is confronting death with a statement of mockery.  Ha ha, Hades!  You have no hold over us and we know it, because we have new life in Christ.  In fact, you don’t scare us and we’ll prove it by mocking you!

You see?  The one approach avoids death; the other confronts it with new life.  But this is really just a picture of what we should be doing every day.

We are the church.  And the kingdom of Hades will not prevail against us.