Archive for Resurrection

Breathed Upon

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the Second Sunday of Easter, 2019.

John 20:19-31

1.

Thomas missed it.

Early that morning, before dawn, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty, the stone rolled away.

But Thomas missed it.

A little later that same morning, Mary met the risen Lord and was commissioned by him to go and share the Good News with the disciples.

And so she went and announced, “I have seen the risen Lord, alleluia”; she told them the Good News.

But somehow Thomas missed it.

Nor was he there later that evening, when Jesus himself came and breathed on those who had gathered together.

Sometime later still, when Thomas finally does show up, the disciples tell him the same thing Mary said—except now it’s not just I but we: “We have seen the risen Lord, alleluia.”

The testimony of one thoughtful, faithful Christian has now been bolstered with the strength of community.

But, still, Thomas misses it.

“Unless I . . . put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side,” he announces, “I will not believe.”

And so, our day in the Church calendar for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle is—can you guess?

Well, what day of the year would you assign to a guy forever remembered by the name doubting?

Yep, December 21st, the day of the winter solstice: the darkest, most doubtful day of the year.

Because—poor guy!—he missed it.

2.

Now, if you happen to be here today and you weren’t last week, you’re probably hearing the exclamation, “You shoulda seen it!”

We had an illuminated labyrinth this year. You shoulda seen it!

There was an Easter Vigil. You shoulda seen it!

We started the service by candlelight. You shoulda seen it!

There was a baptism. You shoulda seen it!

The Bishop’s Committee hosted a champagne reception. You shoulda seen it!

And on Easter day: the musicians were exemplary; the Easter egg hunt was joyful; Father David celebrated with his easy-listening British accent. You shoulda seen it!

But, if you happen to be here today and were not here last week, do you actually believe this exclamation?

Or, like Thomas, are you doubtful?

I mean, just look around!

Today, attendance is low. The Easter lilies have begun to droop. In many churches around the world, the pastor’s taking today off. Quite a contrast to last week! Maybe all the excitement is over-rated.

We clergy have a term for this Sunday, by the way: low Sunday.

If you ask me, I think maybe a better term is Doubting Thomas Sunday; because for all intents and purposes it looks like the Church around the world has missed it too.

Resurrection! New life!

Really?

Today’s feast is the Second Sunday of Easter; we’re seven days into the Great Fifty Days! It should feel just as celebratory as last week.

But, let’s face it, it just doesn’t.

Aren’t we all a lot like Doubting Thomas—whether we missed last week or not? He missed the actual resurrection: he was not a witness. And haven’t we all missed it too? After all, it happened two thousand years ago. None of us was around.

3.

However, I argue, the resurrection is still taking place, all around us, everyday! If we’re missing it, it’s only because, like Thomas, we haven’t yet learned how to see it.

Thomas did learn how, in time. The early Church historian Eusebius tells us that Thomas carried the Good News to India, believing so firmly in Christ that there he died a martyr’s death.

Even though we still call him doubting to this day, Thomas did learn how to see the resurrection first-hand. We can do it too.

Here’s how.

Today’s Gospel tells us that one week later, one week after he missed it, Thomas did encounter the risen Jesus with the other disciples.

So, what do you think happened during that week in between?

A week ago, Thomas said that he would not believe unless he should touch Jesus physically. Now, today, Jesus appears and—did you notice?—merely says, “Touch me, Thomas,” and Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas said he wouldn’t believe unless he touched Jesus; and yet today I don’t see him touching Jesus at all! He merely cries out at the sight of him!

What changed? What happened during that week in between?

Well, what happens when you experience something utterly fantastic?

The disciples must have been talking non-stop! All week long, Thomas must have been surrounded by, “You shoulda seen it! Jesus did this” and “he said that” and “he couldn’t have been a ghost because he actually ate with us.”

All week long, Thomas was engaging in conversations, eating meals, praying, fellowshipping, and doing things with these people who kept coming back to the amazing claim that they’d seen the risen Jesus.

You shoulda seen it!

So that when Jesus finally does show up, a week later, Thomas needs no further prodding. At Jesus’ word, Thomas falls to his knees and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

To which Jesus replies to all of us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Thomas missed the actual, physical resurrection. Thomas was not among the first people to witness the resurrected Jesus.

But for that week in between he saw the effects of the resurrection. For that week in between, he witnessed first-hand what belief in the resurrection was doing to the disciples.

Now, we may have missed it too. Like Thomas, we weren’t there at Jesus’ resurrection; we weren’t with the first people to witness it.

However, in the week since—or in the two thousand years since (same thing, really)—we have been surrounded by the effects of the resurrection.

And when we learn to see these effects, then we witness the resurrection first-hand.

4.

Well then, what do these effects look like—just what are we looking for?

For the answer, we return to the Gospel narrative.

In the twentieth chapter of John, two times the words to Mary Magdalene are, “Do not be afraid”; and three times Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”

The Gospel of John contrasts fear with peace. Incidentally, John also says elsewhere that perfect love casts out fear: there’s a strong connection for John between peace and love.

But to return to my point, according to this Gospel, peace is winning:

Two times : do not fear :: three times : peace be with you.

It’s two steps back but three steps forward. That can feel discouraging, sure; especially on this Second Sunday of Easter, low Sunday. But the net outcome is peace overcoming fear.

So: Where do we see peace overcoming fear in our world?

Of course, we see it in Jesus’ crucifixion. He remains peaceful throughout his passion—arrest, trial, mocking, and execution. Throughout, peace overcomes fear.

But, you know, we see it even before Jesus walks the earth, with—for instance—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the OT book of Daniel. These three young men peacefully resist the tyrant-king Nebuchadnezzar, even though he threatens them with the fear of death!

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see it with the early Christian martyrs. “Give up your faith or die,” they are told. Yet time and again they face whatever fearsome threats come their way; and, though many of them die, peace gains the upper hand.

We see it again in Church history with Martin Luther when he peacefully protests the Holy Roman Empire, standing resolute even though threatened repeatedly with violence and death.

We see it in our own nation’s struggle for Civil Rights, from the nonviolent songs of lament composed by slaves to the peaceful protests of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

We see it gaining remarkable steam around the world in 1989: peaceful students protest a violent military in Beijing, willing to die in Tiananmen Square so that others may live; and the border wall in Berlin tumbles to the ground, signifying the end of large-scale governmental systems of oppression.

Peace overcoming fear! Around the world!

And we see it still at work in our own day—arguably more now than ever before—as our society responds to violent acts of terrorism and hate in peaceful ways.

Light overcoming darkness; life overcoming death; peace overcoming fear.

In the end, like Thomas, we haven’t missed it; for every day we witness resurrection, the peace of Jesus, first-hand.

Common Conversion

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 27, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on Easter Sunday, 2019.

John 20:1-18

1.

What is your faith story, your “testimony?”

We learn the faith stories of three main characters in today’s Gospel.

There’s the unnamed disciple. He hears the good 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.

Next, there’s Peter. He 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 of what might confront him? We don’t know.

But Peter’s arrival triggers something in him. The unnamed disciple enters the tomb after Peter; and, the scriptures tell us, believes.

Still, just what does he believe? That Jesus has been raised from the dead? Or, maybe, does he merely believe Mary’s story now, that she was telling the truth? Again, we don’t know.

What we do know is that, even though he believes, he still doesn’t understand the scriptures.

Huh.

So, back to Peter. He hears Mary’s words and runs to the grave too. He races against the unnamed disciple, and loses—an interesting detail—but, unlike the unnamed disciple, when he reaches the tomb, he doesn’t slow. Instead, he bowls right over him, looks at the linen wrappings, and notices a detail no one else does: 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 so neatly?

So, with their various perspectives of confused belief, understanding, and observations, these two disciples return home. No doubt they have a lot to talk about along the way.

Third, though, we hear Mary’s story. She reaches the tomb and . . . stands outside weeping. Like Peter and the unnamed disciple, she’s not fully believing or understanding yet either.

But eventually she musters enough courage and peeks into the tomb. And—incredible!—there are two angels inside, who then ask her a question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

But even here Mary simply responds, “They’ve taken my Lord away.”

And I want to ask, “Woman, why are you sleeping?” Is Mary really in such a grief-stricken stupor that she can’t see these are angels?

Then that voice sounds from behind her, from outside the tomb; and asks her the same question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Yet even now she cannot grasp that here is Jesus. She supposes, rather, it’s the gardener. 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!

Which she does!

And so she becomes the apostle to the apostles!

Quite a testimony!

2.

What is your testimony?

Is yours like the unnamed disciple’s? Do you believe in part, but still have a lot of trouble understanding the scriptures?

Or, is yours like Peter’s—excited, exuberant, observant, and yet still not knowing how to piece it all together?

Or, is yours like Mary’s? Have you experienced God first-hand? Have you heard God call you by name? Do you have a clear understanding of what God is calling you to do and who God is calling you to be?

My guess is that your faith story is something like each of these characters; and yet also is different, uniquely yours.

3.

Each of our faith stories is different.

Nevertheless, just as it was with the early disciples, we are called to a common focus.

Perhaps a better question for Easter Day, then, is this: Where are our testimonies are similar?

Where do our faith stories overlap? As followers of Jesus, what are we seeking to accomplish together? What is our common conversion?

Conversion.

The word comes from the Latin verb convertere, comprised of the verb vertere—meaning to turn—and the prefix con-—meaning altogether. It’s a good definition: to turn altogether, entirely.

But what is it, exactly, no matter how different our individual faith stories are, that we are called to turn entirely towards?

Today, Easter, we find our answer: Resurrection; new life.

It’s our common conversion. Resurrection is much larger than my new life or your new life, as individuals. It’s about the resurrection of Jerusalem, Judea and all Samaria, even to the ends of the earth!

Jesus left the unnamed disciple, Peter, Mary, and all of us with a task to resurrect our dying world.

That’s us, his church, called to be a community of provocation: to cause new life to erupt in the all around us.

4.

So, you know what happens when you drop a pebble into a still pool of water, right? Plop, and a small set of waves emanates outward in concentric circles.

That’s the body of Christ. A local church is plopped down in the middle of a community; and small waves of new life spread outward in concentric circles.

Well then, what happens when friends are with you and they throw pebbles into the pool too?

It gets kind of messy, right? Your pebble makes its concentric circles; someone else’s makes its concentric circles; and so on until the emanating waves from here and there and everywhere are crashing into one another, running over each other, and so on until the surface of the pool is nothing but ripples everywhere.

The same thing happens when one church is plopped in one part of the community and another is plopped in another and a third in yet another and so on until nothing but God’s provocative ripples of new life crash into and run over each other everywhere.

And, from our common conversion, societal transformation results—the resurrection of the world around us!

The unnamed disciple, Peter, and Mary each had different faith stories. But through their common conversion they turned their world upside down. Resurrection.

We can do it too. By means of our common conversion in Christ, let’s turn our world upside down too.

Alleluia, the Lord is risen!

Anteresurrection Hope

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on April 27, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on Good Friday, 2019.

John 18:1—19:42

1.

What must it have been like for his disciples?

They’d just witnessed their leader so anguished in prayer that he sweat blood.

They’d just watched, powerless, when Roman police came and arrested him, betrayed by one of their own.

One disciple, we know, didn’t like that feeling of powerlessness, that impulsive disciple, Peter; so he tried to do something about it. He took out his sword and—Take that!—cut off someone’s ear.

But Jesus stayed Peter’s hand; and, rather than allowing Peter to lead a charge in his defense, said Peace and reached out to the injured man and healed him.

What! Was Jesus actually that committed to nonviolence? Would Jesus not even allow his disciples to defend him?

Powerless, they watched as Jesus was tried, stricken, sentenced, condemned, and crucified.

Powerless!

What must have been going through their minds?

In the end, was Jesus just too idealistic?

But he’d turned tables upside down! He’d changed water into wine! He’d healed a man blind from birth! He’d raised Lazarus from the grave! They’d seen it all first-hand.

Still, now, there he was, before their eyes, raised up on a wicked device of torture, made an example of what becomes of rebels and revolutionaries who dare to defy the dominant system, the Pax Romana.

And he gave up his spirit.

It had all come to nothing.

Powerless.

2.

Spoiler alert: we know where this is going.

And that’s our temptation: to look ahead, to where it’s going, and proclaim hope on Good Friday. In fact, this is why we call it good: hope because we know where it’s going.

But the disciples did not know.

So, what if we dwell with the disciples tonight? What if we put ourselves in their shoes of powerlessness, of second-guessing, of fear? Is there any hope we can draw from their pre-resurrection Good Friday perspective?

They’d witnessed Jesus resisting the dominant powers—both political and religious—always without violence. He’d practiced an unusual third way, without reacting or resorting to the powers at work in the world around him. We hear “fight or flight.” But Jesus did neither.

Is there hope here?

Today we call it nonviolent resistance. And many people think it doesn’t work. The answer to school shootings, some argue, is to arm teachers with guns. Fight violence with violence, they say.

But Martin Luther King said differently, “Violence begets violence”; and we all know his nonviolent resistance actually got somewhere. Civil rights have come a long way in the last fifty years, thanks to his nonviolent resistance.

So, returning to tonight’s Passion narrative, see what happens.

When Jesus says, “I am he,” his opposition falters. Did they flinch? I don’t know. What I do know is that here is some kind of nonviolent, otherworldly power going forth from Jesus.

When Peter cuts off Malchus’ ear, Jesus says Peace and heals him. Again, nonviolent, otherworldly power.

And when Pilate says he has the power to let him live or die, Jesus explains that Pilate knows little of true power, that his view—the world’s view, “might makes right,” the Pax Romana—is convoluted.

It seems to me that the disciples on that Good Friday so long ago have more than enough information to see what Jesus is getting at: that the way of the world is power through domination, hierarchy, and violence; and that the way of Jesus is nonviolent resistance to these powers.

That’s not powerlessness. Rather, that’s turning over tables: the tables of domination, violence, and injustice. Or, as we learn from the book of Acts—once the disciples put two and two together—that’s turning the world upside down.

To turn established systems of domination on their heads? Why, that sounds a lot like the kingdom of God Jesus kept mentioning while he was alive with us!

The kingdom of God, lived out before their eyes!

With those early disciples, we have much reason to hope on this Good Friday.

Learning Hope from Dr. Jeffrey Cohen

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2018 by timtrue

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John 11:32-44

1.

October 27 marked the 300th day of this year. It also marked the 294th mass shooting this year in our country.

We all watched in horror as the news unfolded last Saturday.

Earlier that morning, Robert Bowers had entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and begun shooting his legally owned AR-15.

Then, in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital, after receiving several gunshot wounds himself from police, Bowers yelled out, “I want to kill all the Jews!”

He yelled the same thing some minutes later in the Emergency Room.

Ironically, a medical team led by a Jewish man treated Bowers in the hospital.

In the end: eleven worshipers had been slain, gunned down in a crime of hate, making this the largest massacre of our Jewish sisters and brothers in our nation’s history!

Holly and I visited Temple Beth Sholom here in Temecula on Friday night—to stand in solidarity and pray with people we love.

And, you know, a Jewish prayer service is really not all that different from a Christian prayer service! There are minor differences, sure—some of the readings are in Hebrew, for instance—but, at the core, Christians and Jews are largely the same: trying our best to find and serve God according to what we know—according to the revelation God has given us.

So:

The 300th day of the year!

The 294th mass shooting!

That’s nearly one mass shooting a day.

That’s more than a thousand people, already, who have lost their lives this year to gun violence.

And why?

2.

This week the Christian church around the world celebrated Halloween (a. k. a. All Halloweds Eve, or All Saints Eve); as well as All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Along these lines, a large portion of the Americas also celebrated Dia de Los Muertos.

It is a week when Christians focus on the people we have known and loved who have passed before us through the veil of death and beyond. In fact, during the Prayers of the People today I will offer us a time to name loved ones who are no longer with us.

These are days of grieving; and mourning. For we miss our beloved friends and family members with whom we’ve journeyed through part of this life together. We see a photo or speak their names or catch a scent that reminds us; and we’re suddenly reduced to tears.

But these are also days of rejoicing, of celebrating the lives and legacies they left behind.

We rejoice and celebrate because we hope in the resurrection. Death, we know, is only part of the story. And it’s the smaller part! For, we also know, death has been truly and finally vanquished by our Lord, Savior, Redeemer, and Friend Christ Jesus.

Which is why, by the way, the liturgical color of a funeral is white—same as a wedding!—same as today! It’s not so much about mourning as it is about rejoicing; not so much death as resurrection; not so much old life as new!

That’s how it’s supposed to be, at least.

But what if, instead, it feels like the mourning and grieving ought to take precedence—like when the loss is still too fresh to focus on much else; like now, at this moment in our nation’s history, when hate crimes are almost a daily occurrence?

How can we maintain any hope at all when such despairing obstacles get in the way?

3.

And then there’s this troubling question: What about the man who pulled the trigger?

I wonder, what would you have done in the Emergency Room doctor’s shoes? What would I have done?

The Jewish community in Pittsburgh is relatively small—Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where you’ll find nearly all of the Jewish community, has a population of about 25,000 people—and it has been there for several generations, certainly since the first half of the nineteenth century, possibly quite a bit earlier.

The Jewish network in Pittsburgh is tight; and it runs deep.

Imagine, then, with this kind of network, you’re leading a team of medical professionals in the E. R.; and a man is rushed in with gunshot wounds, bleeding, in need of urgent medical attention.

And he yells out, “I want to kill all the Jews!”

What do you do when you connect the dots?

What do you do when you suddenly realize, with horror, that this man before you is the very man who just entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and unleashed violence and death on the worshipers?

What do you do when you learn that he took the lives of eleven innocent people—eleven of your people?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could carry on. As much as I know, in my head, that I have a duty to seek to do all within my power to heal each person in my care, my emotions might just carry the day in this particular situation. I think I might have to find another doctor and say, “Take this one, please; I simply cannot.”

But the Jewish E. R. doctor did take Bowers under his care; along with a Jewish nurse, whose father just so happens to be a local rabbi.

Dr. Jeffrey Cohen caught wind of this unfolding drama. Dr. Cohen is the president of Allegheny General Hospital, where the perpetrator was taken for care. In fact, sitting in his office, Dr. Cohen heard the gunshots from the shootout. Even closer to home, Dr. Cohen is a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue; and personally knew nine of the eleven victims.

You know what Dr. Cohen did? He went to the E. R. and told the doctor and nurse attending Bowers that he was proud of them.

Then he approached Bowers himself and asked how he was doing, whether he was in pain.

Bowers said he was okay then asked who he was; to which Cohen replied, “I’m Dr. Cohen, the president of this hospital.”[i]

I don’t think I would have been able to do any of that. I don’t think, in that moment, I’d have had any hope at all. Would you?

4.

In today’s Gospel, death confronts Jesus with a number of despairing obstacles.

First, Jesus was delayed. If only Jesus had been able to get there earlier, Mary lamented, her brother Lazarus would not have died.

Then, second, Jesus could not lay his hands on Lazarus, or even look at him, for a large stone stood in the way, blocking the tomb’s entrance.

Third—suppose someone were to roll the stone away—there’d be the stench! Death has already claimed Lazarus, made certain by the smell of decay.

And, finally, in case all that weren’t enough already, Lazarus is wearing grave clothes—already clothed in death.

Death has won! All hope is vanquished.

There’s nothing left for us, we think, but to despair, be angry, and hate.

But see what Jesus does!

He weeps with Mary and the others.

He goes to where Lazarus lies.

He includes others: “Roll away the stone,” he says.

He then calls Lazarus forth.

And he tells the others to take off Lazarus’s grave clothes.

Jesus overcomes all the obstacles that death throws at him, taking each in turn; until, truly and finally, death is vanquished!

5.

For us today, many despairing obstacles stand in hope’s way. To name just a few:

  • The heavy stone of hatred, bigotry, and prejudice.
  • The decaying stench of intolerance and racism.
  • The fearsome grave clothes of homophobia and xenophobia.

These obstacles aren’t death itself; but they point to it.

Unless we weep with those who weep, confront these obstacles squarely, and roll them away together, death is all we will see: our hope is eclipsed.

Oh, but when we do, it’s Easter all over again!

Every year, on November 1, we remember all the saints—all those who have believed, do believe, or will believe that Jesus is the pathway to the divine.

But this isn’t enough; so every year, on November 2, we remember all souls—every person who has lived, does live, or will live.

Every soul!

Including all the holy women and men of the church!

Including all those who lost their lives a week ago in Pittsburgh!

And including even the perpetrators!

Vanquishing death forever means vanquishing our hatred now; including our hatred for the perpetrator.

Today, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen gives me hope.

[i] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2018/10/30/im-dr-cohen-powerful-humanity-jewish-hospital-staff-that-treated-robert-bowers/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.86137fad168a.

Increasing PSI

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2018 by timtrue

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John 6:56-69

1.

I begin with a framing image:

My first car was a 1968 Dodge A100 Sportsman van—3 on the tree, manual everything. With lots of windows all around, it kind of looked like an old VW. But this van was so much better, with a 318 V8, 210 horsepower—not a piddley 60 horses, like the VWs!

How I loved that van! I replaced the factory seating with a loveseat, chair, and ottoman—this was before seatbelt laws went into effect. Many were the days I loaded friends up and went to the beach or mountains or wherever, for yet another adventure!

As happens, I began to be associated with this van. People would see it coming and say, “Here comes Tim.”

So, one night a friend of mine and I decided to play a prank on another friend, Bobby. We TP’d his house, you know, snuck over, late at night, and threw a bunch of toilet paper rolls all over the place.

Well, Bobby woke up when we were up to our shenanigans; and, as I learned later, looked out his window but did not recognize the culprits. However, he did recognize a certain van parked across the street: my van.

And Bobby hatched his plan to avenge himself; which happened a few weeks later.

I’d gone to see a movie. And when I came out of the theater, there was my van all right, right where I’d parked it; but three of the tires were flat! Bobby had let the air out of them.

Well, I had only one spare. What was I to do? I couldn’t drive home. My van was effectively useless.

So I got in and started it up, dropped in into gear, and crept slowly as I could across three parking lots to a service station with an air hose. And then, finally, with air again in the tires, I was able to drive the van home, to use the van as it was intended.

Anyway, this is the framing image I want us to consider as I continue with my sermon: a van without air in tires is effectively useless.

2.

Now, fourteen weeks ago I mentioned that we were making a turn.

Up till that time, the church year had been focused on the person Jesus. Starting with Advent—the coming of the Christ—it then continued with Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter—all various manifestations of the Incarnation, God with us, in the person and work of Jesus—until finally, fifty days after Easter, Christ sent his Spirit to be with his disciples, the Church, until his promised return.

This was the turning point: Pentecost. Here, as a church, every year we turn our attention from thinking about who Jesus is to the work he has left for us to do. At Pentecost, we shift our focus to the question, “How are we to be the incarnate Christ to the world?”

This is the question that frames every Sunday from the Day of Pentecost to what we call Christ the King Sunday, about half of every year.

Now, this year, Lectionary Year B, we will spend most of these six months exploring this question through the lens of the Gospel of Mark. But for five weeks in the middle—concluding today, as a matter of fact—we have found ourselves instead in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Which leaves me wondering why. Why does the Gospel of John interrupt the Gospel of Mark? More particularly, why do we find ourselves in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John?

Or, to reframe the question: What is it that we are supposed to be learning from these five weeks that will shape us as a local body of Christ, to carry out his mission, to be the Incarnation to the world around us?

Today’s our last chance for quite a while: we won’t encounter John 6 again until three years from now, the next time it comes around. I’m not suggesting we’ll find the absolute, once-for-all answer. Still, we can get somewhere.

3.

So then, here’s what we know about the Gospel of John as a whole: John was writing, probably in the early second century, to a new community defined by their being ousted from the local synagogue.

But John was not written merely to guide an ancient community in its new life together. It was also written for all Christian communities, which includes us, today, with our unique set of challenges in our particular cultural context.

Narrowing our focus then, from chapter 6 Jesus teaches crucifixion and resurrection, incarnation and love—profound ideologies—through metaphor; and predominantly the metaphor of bread.

Two weeks ago I walked us through the bread-making process, from harvesting rye to separating the grains from the stalks to sifting and cleaning to grinding the grains into flour to finally baking.

Jesus said that his flesh was bread for the life of the world. Harvested, separated, sifted, ground; arrested, mocked, spat upon, crucified—for the life of the world.

Last week we explored what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to ingest him so completely that Christ becomes a part of us and we become more him.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. . . . But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

The Incarnation doesn’t mean that God is with us as a person sitting among our community. Rather, the Incarnation is within each one of us; and intends to permeate every corner of the world in just the same way.

And now, we come to today, this final portion of John 6, where we read that many disciples turn away from Jesus, for this is a difficult teaching.

What are we supposed to learn? What is our takeaway?

4.

Maybe something to do with spirit.

“It is the spirit that gives life,” Jesus says; “the flesh is useless.”

But didn’t Jesus just say that his very flesh was the true bread from heaven, the bread given for the life of the world?

Yes, he did.

So what can he mean now by saying the flesh is useless? Certainly, his flesh wasn’t useless!

Ah, but it is useless without the spirit.

Jesus’ flesh, smitten, broken, and lifted up on the cross for the life of the world—if it remains there, dead on the cross, why then it’s just a corpse.

Taken down, carried away, and laid to rest in the tomb—if Jesus’ flesh remains there, lifeless, without a spirit to animate it, why, again, it’s still just a corpse.

What about Jesus’ flesh set on the altar, consecrated, given, and received? It seems an appropriate parallel, drawn from our guiding bread metaphor: without the spirit, it, too, is lifeless; or, to use Jesus’ word, “useless.”

The people to whom John originally wrote this Gospel—the Johannine Community—experienced this lifelessness first hand.

They had been formerly a part of a synagogue—maybe even the synagogue at Capernaum, mentioned in today’s Gospel. But the synagogue’s leaders had excommunicated any and all who followed the teachings of Jesus—including a man born blind! (Read chapter 9.)

So, consider: local synagogues were a lot like modern local churches. People gathered as spiritual communities in buildings created for that purpose. Their worship services followed a liturgy very much like our own Morning Prayer liturgy. In addition to Sabbath worship services, synagogue congregations would gather, much like today’s church congregations, for times of communal celebration and grief—like bar mitzvahs and funerals.

And yet, as John writes to the ousted and re-organizing Johannine Community, he has Jesus say, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”

Without Jesus, that local body of the synagogue was lifeless, a corpse.

5.

What is our takeaway?

We are smack dab in the middle of the season after Pentecost. It’s a six-month season, primarily focused on the question of Jesus’ mission: How are we to be the incarnate Christ to the world around us?
For the last five weeks we’ve encountered Jesus presenting a particularly difficult teaching. He presents the crucifixion and resurrection, the Incarnation and love in an altogether new way—through a metaphor involving the very common, everyday practice of eating and drinking.

It’s a difficult teaching because it involves a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice from Jesus’ followers.

As we learned from the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, we often want to follow Jesus for the wrong reasons, self-focused reasons, like utility, political expediency, seeking the miraculous, or as a mere intellectual exercise.

Following Jesus requires from us so much more: to let go of our egos; to let Christ fill each of us as air fills a tire—air without which the van tires are effectively useless.

The same can be said for us as a corporate body.

We gather weekly as a spiritual community. In our gatherings, we pray, worship, hear the word of God together, respond, and commune around Christ’s Table.

But if we do this for the wrong reasons—utility, political expediency, and so on; any reason, really, that strokes our own egos—we do not allow the air that is the spirit of Christ to fill us—air without which we are effectively useless.

This is a difficult teaching; who can accept it?

But—and here at last is our takeaway—when we do accept it, when we abide in Christ and take him out to those who truly hunger, he is life-giving both to us and to the world all around us.

Outward. It sounds so simple.

Why, then, are we interrupted in the middle of the season after Pentecost in Year B? Why are we told so often to go in peace to love and serve the Lord?

Maybe because it’s so difficult actually to do.

God give us grace to go outward!

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.