Archive for Transformation

Life Is Lent

Posted in Homilies, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 1:9-15

1.

Today I offer more a reflection than an exhortation—appropriate for the first Sunday in Lent. So, let’s begin with a question: Weren’t we just here?

The Gospel for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, just six weeks ago, was Mark 1:4-11, the baptism of Jesus.

And the third Sunday after the Epiphany, just four weeks ago, if you recall, was Mark 1:14-20, the calling of the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

Here, today, we straddle the two with Mark 1:9-15. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and end with the message he brought to the first disciples.

Yes, we were just here.

But—did you catch it?—during the season after Epiphany, we actually skipped right over two verses, 12 and 13, the two verses right in the middle of today’s text.

With everything else so fresh in our memories, this omission begs the question: Just what does the Gospel say, then, in vv. 12 and 13?

And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

This is what we skipped over in Epiphany: the temptation in the wilderness.

Which is certainly appropriate for the first Sunday in Lent.

For Jesus was tempted by Satan for forty days in the wilderness; and thus for forty days in Lent we acknowledge Jesus’ trials by adding some kind of spiritual discipline to our own lives, in his memory and honor.

But for the Gospel of Mark, this is it, just 2 verses!

There’s no mention here (as told in both Matthew and Luke) of fasting, of specific temptations, or of conversations with the devil; or (as in Luke) of the devil leaving Jesus until “an opportune time.”

Just the sparsest details: he was tempted for forty days; he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.

In Mark, this is all we get.

And it’s not a lot to go with.

2.

Next, are you familiar with the term liminality?

It comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold; and its idea is illustrated especially well in the Gospel according to C. S. Lewis—otherwise known as The Chronicles of Narnia.

The first book of this famous children’s series, The Magician’s Nephew, tells the creation story—the beginnings of Narnia—through the eyes of a boy named Digory; and his next door neighbor, Polly.

It begins in London, set in the earliest decade of the twentieth century. Digory’s mother is dying of cancer. They are living in a family home; where his old, eccentric, and maybe treacherous Uncle Andrew also lives.

Digory’s uncle, we soon learn, is delving into stuff he shouldn’t be, a mixture of science and the occult, stuff he doesn’t really understand. Somehow, he has managed to isolate and harness some ancient, magical powers in green and yellow rings.

This old conniver then tricks Polly into trying on a green ring; who immediately disappears into thin air. Of course, Digory is shocked.

“She’s gone into another world,” Uncle Andrew explains; “but you can bring her back—with a yellow ring.”

And so Digory, feeling trapped, puts two yellow rings in his pocket without touching them to his skin; and dons a green ring on his finger, following Polly into this other world, wherever that might be.

Where he finds her—they discover in time—is not another world at all; but a kind of threshold, a place filled with lazy green light and what looks like numerous ponds of water; and trees everywhere.

These “ponds,” turns out, are portals into other worlds. One transports you to and from earth; another to and from a world called Charn; and yet another to and from Narnia.

This wooded area is a liminal space, where nothing really happens; where you don’t know if several days or only a few seconds have passed; where you could lie down and sleep for all time without a care.

It is nowhere, really; a kind of in-between place, simply enabling a traveler to cross over from one world to the next.

And thus they call it, “The Wood between the Worlds.”

3.

So then, isn’t this idea—liminality—what’s happening here in Mark?

Just prior to the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus was baptized. Baptism signifies initiation. Something new has come, something we know from later on in Mark called the kingdom of God.

Following the temptation in the wilderness Jesus will take his newly proclaimed identity as Messiah and his message to the men who become his first disciples.

The period of temptation in the wilderness is the threshold between, enabling Jesus to cross over from his old identity to new, from human peasant to divine king. It is his wood between the worlds.

And what happens while he is there, during this in-between time in the wilderness?

The scriptures give us just three sparse details: he is tempted for forty days; he is with the wild beasts; and angels wait on him.

As I said earlier, it’s not much to go on.

Or is it?

Forty days is a direct reference to Moses’ spending forty years in the wilderness with the Israelites. Moses and the Israelites, as we all know, fell short in their time of temptation, as they crossed their threshold from Egypt to the Promised Land; Jesus does not.

The wild beasts harks directly to Adam. Adam was in the Garden where he was given the responsibility to name all the beasts. Of course, as we know, Adam fell short during his time of liminality in the Garden of Eden; yet Jesus does not fall short.

And angels wait on him refers to the patriarch Jacob, who came to a point of personal brokenness and saw a heavenly ladder upon which the angels were ascending and descending, waiting on him. God changed his name to Israel, who crossed a threshold to become the nation of promise, the nation that above all others would bring blessing to the world. Yet Israel too fell short.

Jesus crosses the threshold where all others have fallen.

And thus today’s Gospel is both a picture of Jesus’ earthly life—of his early identity as a man, his trial, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his newly understood identity as Savior and Messiah—and today’s Gospel is a picture of Christ’s eternal existence.

Before he ever humbled and himself and took on humanity, he dwelled co-equally and co-eternally in heaven as a Person of the Trinity.

After his resurrection, he returned to heaven with a new identity.

Taking on humanity and living and dwelling with us as a human being was liminality, his wood between the worlds.

Not much to go on?

Think again.

Incredibly, these two short verses in today’s passage contain the entire Gospel.

4.

And so here we are, on the first Sunday in Lent.

We find ourselves in a liminal place, crossing a kind of threshold.

Before we got here, last week in fact, our focus was on the Incarnation: God has come to dwell among us, understood especially in his advent, birth, and epiphany.

Our identity was as a host. God came to visit us where we lived; and we gave God a place to stay.

In forty days or so, beginning with and following the Great Vigil, our focus will be new life: God’s kingdom becoming the reality as our world fades, understood especially in the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost.

Our new identity will be as a guest. We will be invited into God’s realm; and we will be given a place to stay.

Now, during Lent, we are crossing the threshold between the two, facing Satan’s temptations and trials; living with wild beasts; with the angels waiting on us. We are learning to let go of our old identity and live into our new.

We are in that in-between place: no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of a new kingdom; no longer hosts to God but guests of God; our permanent residence is no longer in London but in Narnia.

Lent reminds us, we are on a journey from old identity to new; a journey of transformation.

Isn’t this the journey we all take, not just during Lent but through the course of life?

And thus, today we see: Lent is life.

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Showing Up with Authority

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on January 27, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 1:21-28

1.

Let’s begin with a character study this week, shall we?

There are many characters in today’s Gospel. With whom do you most closely identify?

I bet many of you, after hearing what was just read, would say the disciples. The disciples followed Jesus; we follow Jesus. It seems a safe bet.

But these guys, remember, had only just responded to Jesus’ call. We don’t know why they dropped everything on that beach along the shore of the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus, leaving behind safety and security for risk, uncertainty, and danger. But they did.

Everything was new and fresh and exciting for them. Adventure was upon them!

However, most of us responded to Jesus’ call long ago. We’re not leaving everything we know behind to follow Jesus into the unknown. Instead, on the Sundays we can manage it, we stop what we’re doing for a couple of hours to come to church and worship; then pick up right where we left off when we get home.

And as for the newness part of it, the adventure? By now our faith is mostly old hat.

So, come to think of it, maybe we don’t identify so closely with the disciples. Maybe for you and for me, we identify more closely with Jesus.

He walks into this local synagogue and teaches with authority. And, after all, isn’t that what we want? To teach the good news of Jesus to the community around us with authority?

What must his sermons have been like?

We hear a little bit about what they were not like: the sermons of the scribes.

And here you might be tempted to remember the absolute worst and the absolute best sermons you’ve ever heard—or, in my case, the absolute worst and best sermons I’ve ever delivered—and say, “That worst example was like the scribes; the best like Jesus.”

Or you might remember that movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; and that scene where the economics teacher is calling roll. “Bueller? Bueller?” he calls repeatedly. He’s also the teacher who says, “Anyone? Anyone?”

Do you remember him? The longer version goes like this:

In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the—Anyone? Anyone?—Great Depression, passed the—Anyone? Anyone?—tariff bill, the Holly Smoot Tariff Act, which—Anyone?—raised or lowered?—raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone?

The camera pans around: students are bored to tears; a couple resemble zombies; one is fast asleep, his head on his desk in a puddle of drool. And of course we’re all left thinking Ferris was right: how could anyone be expected to go to high school on such a perfectly glorious day?

Anyway, that econ teacher is what comes to my mind when I hear about the scribes preaching so unlike Jesus.

So, now that I mention it, maybe we identify most closely not with Jesus but with the scribes. For the scribes of ancient Israel were those who interpreted the Torah to their people; and we are those who interpret the Bible to the people of our modern world.

It’s much the same as Jesus was doing, except the scribes taught not with their own authority but with an authority beyond themselves—the authority of the Torah.

And that’s how a lot of us feel. We can teach the Bible, sure, and so we do—to our kids, to our grandkids, to our family members, to our friends, to each other—but, unlike Jesus, without any kind of authority to call our own.

Which brings us to the final character of today’s story: the man possessed with an unclean spirit.

Does any of us identify most closely with him?

The wording in the text says he was “a man with an unclean spirit.” But let’s just tell it like it is: he had demons—his own, personal demons.

And doesn’t each of us deal with his or her own demons? . . .

Maybe we do in fact identify with this man.

2.

Now here’s an interesting thing to me about this man: he was there, in the synagogue, with his demons.

How long had he been there? How long had this been going on? Was he a one-time visitor?

More likely, he was a regular, a long-time member.

Communities were a lot more settled—people were far less transient—in those days. The synagogue wasn’t like church today—or not like we’re trying to make our churches today—in the sense of inviting and welcoming visitors. Visitors weren’t really a thing for synagogues. Synagogues were part of community life—for all the community, not just those who felt like showing up on the Sabbath.

So, point is, this man with his personal demons was probably known well to Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and the other members of the community, including the scribes.

No doubt he knew just how to interact with the community—just how to put on a game face—so that outwardly he looked like he had his act together.

He wore the right clothes.

He tithed the right amount of money.

He attended the synagogue’s annual meetings.

And he voted.

He’d probably served on committees, or as a delegate to convention, or even on the vestry.

So, just how long had he been dealing with his demons? . . .

And yet no one knew!

The scribes, remember, weren’t like Jesus. They did not teach with authority.

But then Jesus showed up. And he taught with authority.

And we know this precisely because the unclean spirit came out!

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

The scribes and the community couldn’t do it. It took Jesus, with his inherent authority, to bring the demons to the surface—demons that this poor man had been dealing with for who knows how long!

And once his demons were confronted, he experienced healing.

3.

Which brings up a probing question.

What demons are you dealing with today?

Like the man in today’s Gospel, do you go to your place of worship and put on your game face, exchange the peace with a smile, commune at the altar, and go to the annual meeting—

But then, when the spirituality and business of the day are over and done with, will you return to your home to continue to do battle with your inner demons—demons no one else knows about: not your parish family; not even your own family?

There is hope. We see that today. With a word, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man; and it does.

Now, I’m not Jesus. Your spiritual friends and leaders—they’re not Jesus either. Try as we might to preach and teach with authority, or to command an unclean spirit to leave you alone, at the end of the day we’re just scribes, interpreting the Bible the best we know how.

But here’s the thing: Jesus often shows up in spite of us.

When we’re doing what we do, living the lives we live, fulfilling our vocations as God gives us strength and ability, suddenly and without warning Jesus is there in our midst.

We know this; we sense it when it happens.

And you know who else knows this?

Our personal demons.

And they shudder!

Those unclean spirits at war within you know Jesus whenever and however they hear him—in church through the bread and wine, on the phone with a friend, or in an argument with an opponent.

Whenever and however Jesus shows up, your inner demons know, and they shout out so that you can almost hear them audibly, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

4.

If the overarching Epiphany message is about anything, it’s about transformation.

Jesus was baptized and the skies between heaven and earth were torn apart. He has ushered in the kingdom of God. He is the ladder forever uniting earth and heaven. He is showing himself, God Incarnate, to the world. The healing of the world has begun.

But, as we know, transformation is not a quick conversion—like praying a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call. Transformation takes a lifetime, an era.

We, the church, have thus been called to carry on the work of transformation, to continue to heal the world, to love outwardly.

Yet transformation reaches inwardly too.

We have our inner demons. Transformation necessitates that we deal with them—that we wrestle with them until they convulse us, let out a scream, and depart. Only then do we begin to experience true healing.

My prayer today is that Jesus shows up and continues his work of transformation—both out there, in the hurting, dark places of the world; and also in here, in the deepest, most secret hiding places of our souls.

When Faith and Beliefs Collide

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

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Mark 1:14-20

1.

Jumping right into today’s Gospel:

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

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

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

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

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

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

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

But we know that they did.

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

2.

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

Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation takes a lifetime!

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

3.

Which brings up a good point.

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

This life was risky, even dangerous.

It was insecure.

It was unstable.

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

And their faith resulted in their transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what about ego? . . .

4.

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

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

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

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

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

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot.

And why is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our belief systems are impeding our transformation.

5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

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

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

Well, what side had the four fishermen picked?

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

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

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

Glad to Be in Matthew’s Church

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered on Sunday, October 15, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

1.

I wish we were in the Church of St. Luke today.

The way Luke tells it, this parable is delivered in the house of a Pharisee who’d invited Jesus to dine with him on the Sabbath.

A person desires to throw a great feast, Jesus says. But one by one the invitees give excuses as to why they cannot attend.

“I just bought a field,” one says, “and must tend to it.”

“I just got married,” another says, “and you know how that is.”

“My father just died,” says a third; “I must go and bury him.”

And so on.

These excuses makes the host upset. He tells his servants to go out into the city and invite everyone—the poor, blind, lame, and so on. For that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

“Let us fill these halls!” he exclaims.

God is merciful. And who in their right mind would want to pass that up?

Luke’s message to his Church is mercy.

But we’re not in the Church of St. Luke today. Instead, we’re in the Church of St. Matthew.

And here in Matthew’s Church the message doesn’t feel very merciful. With Matthew, instead, the message feels more like judgment.

Not only do the invitees reject the king’s invitation, some of them are also violent in their rejection. They beat and even kill some of the king’s servants!

And there’s that poor guy toward the end. What do we do with him?

The king sees him and says, “Friend”—seems a happy enough beginning—but then continues less affably, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

And then, as we all know, it continues from bad to worse. This wedding-robe-non-wearer is bound hand and foot and thrown out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!

Really? Is Matthew’s God about judgment?

Where’s the mercy? Where’s the love? Why can’t we be in the Church of St. Luke today?

2.

Okay, okay, surely, Matthew isn’t all judgment! Surely for Matthew there’s mercy and love too! Right?

Remember the beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount? Blessed are the poor in spirit and all that? Well, that’s from Matthew.

Remember the feeding of the 5,000? That’s from Matthew too.

And remember the healing of the two blind men? They followed Jesus shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” And so Jesus touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done to you according to your faith.” And they were healed. There’s mercy there! And this story shows up only in Matthew’s Gospel.

So, yeah, there is mercy for Matthew.

But why not here? Why does the message from today’s parable feel more like judgment?

3.

Good question. Let’s take a closer look.

Recall from the last few weeks that Jesus is addressing the temple leaders.

The temple leaders were settled and inflexible; they’d established for themselves a religion of control, manipulating the Jewish people often by means of fear and—especially noteworthy for today’s purposes—judgment.

The common folk were judged by how often they made or didn’t make pilgrimages to the temple.

The common folk were judged by whether or not they could afford a sacrificial animal without blemish.

The common folk were judged by how well or not they kept the 613 commandments.

And now, today, Jesus is addressing not the common folk but the leaders who seat themselves in judgment over the common folk.

They—these temple leaders—are the ones in the parable who find excuses not to attend the wedding feast.

They are the ones who rose up against the king’s messengers, prophets such as Ezekiel and Amos and John the Baptist; who beat or even killed them.

They are the ones who, when they do show up to the wedding feast, wear their own robes and not God’s.

So, is that it? Is Matthew saying what goes around comes around—that the temple leaders will be judged with the same manner of judgment they themselves pour out on others?

4.

But there’s another matter that lies beneath the surface of today’s parable: historical context. Let’s take a step back and consider it.

Matthew penned the words we hear today more than a generation after Jesus’ death.

More than a generation!

That’s a lot of time, enough for stories about Jesus to develop, circulate, and percolate.

By this time, communities of disciples had congregated—each with its own personality and peculiarities—communities like the Church of St. Luke and the Church of St. Matthew.

And thus, though these communities told more or less the same old stories, Luke’s main point might in fact be quite different than Matthew’s.

The specific community of Matthew was a lot like our congregation today: a group of people which shared a common life in Jesus Christ, a faith that Jesus’ message and mission would bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

But at the same time Matthew’s Church was much different than our congregation because of its specific cultural and historical context.

More to the point, when Matthew penned his version of the old story, I’m sure the destruction of Jerusalem was on his mind.

In 70CE, under orders of Caesar, the Roman military commander Titus razed the city, including and especially the Temple—the emperor’s special focus. You can read about this horrific event in Josephus.

My point for today is that Matthew wrote today’s parable in hindsight; and his hindsight told him a couple of things.

First, it told him that Jesus had been right so long ago. He’d been right to confront the temple leaders. He’d been right to challenge the status quo. And he’d been right in his mission to topple unjust systems.

The second thing Matthew’s hindsight told him is that God is looking for transformation. God invites all to the wedding feast. It’s only those who are unwilling to be transformed—only those who come up with excuses or are found not to have put on God’s clothes—who find themselves outside the doors of the banquet hall at the end of the day.

And, surely, Matthew cannot help but wonder if things would have turned out differently if those temple leaders had instead listened to Jesus, if they had put on his robes instead of their own.

If only they hadn’t continued to control and manipulate the Jewish common folk by means of fear and judgment!

If only they hadn’t continued to aggravate, frustrate, and rebel against the Roman rulers, thereby provoking Caesar to an act of war!

Then Jerusalem wouldn’t have been destroyed at all!

Then no one would have been cast outside into the darkness, where there was, among so many other horrors, weeping and gnashing of teeth!

5.

I’m not sure, then, that Matthew’s message is so much judgment as it is lament.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)

Whatever the case, whether destruction or judgment, in it and through it Matthew offers consolation to us today.

Matthew’s Church endured and survived nothing short of a massacre.

The temple leaders and the Jewish people had faced the horrors of war. Many of them were killed when Jerusalem fell. Many others—those who lived elsewhere and those who fled the coming destruction—survived but were dispersed.

Matthew’s Church managed to gather itself together in the aftermath of the destruction.

And today, magnificently, the Evangelist tells us the story of a wedding feast, a lavish table set for anybody and everybody—“for both good and bad,” he says—for both temple leader and commoner—for both Jew and Gentile—for both rich and poor—to come to and be transformed; a transforming banquet rising gloriously out of the ashes of the ruined city!

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we are in Matthew’s Church today. For today Matthew reminds us:

Even in hardships; even when everything around feels like judgment; even in the midst of destruction, Jesus is there, inviting us all to his lavish banquet table.

Will you come to it and allow yourself to be transformed?

Adopting a Classical Cosmology

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by timtrue

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Ascension Day

1.

Since coming to St. Paul’s and the Diocese of San Diego, I’ve become keenly aware of the mainline American church’s decline over the past four decades.

Many parishes, including ours, have endured splits. Attendance and pledges have dropped significantly. Thousands of churches have closed their doors, given up, and walked away from their mission.

Here are just a few startling statistics from episcopalchurch.org demonstrating the decline in our denomination from 2005-2015:

2005                    2015

Total number of congregations:     7,635                    6,996

Active baptized members:              2.37 million         1.92 million

Average Sunday attendance:           830,706               614,241

These statistics yield an unnerving observation. Over the past decade the Episcopal Church’s average Sunday attendance has dropped by 26% and the active baptized membership has dropped by 19%; yet the total number of congregations has dropped by less than 9%. So: membership is dropping twice as fast as congregations are closing, a trend that is not sustainable.

And, thus, at the risk of sounding like a prophet of doom, I offer this prediction: the Episcopal Church will have to close many more congregations and sell off many more properties in order to reach a point of sustainability once more—even if the decline in membership plateaus!

Sad, I know. And worrisome! I mean, what if we—St. Paul’s—ever reach a point where we just can’t afford to keep the lights on anymore? Will the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in Yuma be forever cut off? And, is there anything we can do about it?

2.

Well, yes, there is something we can do about it. But before I tell you what, permit me to digress for a bit into the realm of ancient Greek cosmology. It is Ascension Day, after all; so why not hear what Plato had to say about the ascended bodies in the heavens—the sun, moon, and stars?

To begin with then, the ancient Greeks viewed our world as very unstable: our world—where we walk, talk, and otherwise live our lives—is subject to constant change.

This continual instability is readily apparent in the four elements of which our world is comprised: earth, water, air, and fire.

The order of these elements is intentional.

Earth is the heaviest. Take a handful of soil or a stone and throw it into a pond. What happens? It sinks.

Water, next, rises from the depths only as high as the air above it will allow. Or, on the flipside, rain falls; and rivers flow downward, to the sea.

Air is the element where we humans dwell—we humans, ourselves a complicated mixture of earth, water, air, and fire.

And fire, as we all know, rises through the air: it tries to escape the dominion of the air to reach its source, the sun.

Earth, water, air, fire. This is our world. And it’s constantly changing.

Earth seeks to go into the sea and sink to the bottom, where it can join the deepest pillars of the universe.

The sea itself—the water to which all waters flow—is at constant war with itself, rising and falling daily in what we call the tides. And have you ever tried to sail across it? It can be fiercer than the greatest navy; or smooth as glass. Talk about bi-polar!

Air is similarly unpredictable. It varies its temperature daily, up and down; and fluctuates vastly more broadly with the seasons—not to mention the rains, thunderings, lightnings, and tempests that so often infect it.

And as for fire, just light one and watch what happens! Anyone can see that it is trying to escape upward, back to where it belongs, back to its rightful home.

The world we inhabit is in a state of constant flux, change, even chaos.

Yet something curious happens when we gaze into the heavens: the flux, change, and chaos seem to diminish and even disappear.

Now, the planets are admittedly tricky. Take Venus. Sometimes she’s the morning star; other times she’s the evening star; and still other times she’s nowhere to be found. She can be unpredictable—which is why she’s a she and the other planets are all hes. Still, the same can be said, though to a lesser extent, about the others—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Nevertheless, there seems to be some rhyme and reason to the planets, even Venus, much more so than the chaos that surrounds us in our daily world; we just haven’t figured it out yet.

But as for the sun and the moon, well, we know what they’re all about. We can predict when the sun will rise and set; and his exact path across the sky on any given day. And, though she seems to follow the sun’s lead, we can say the same about the moon.

And beyond them? Ah, yes, the stars; the most certain, fixed, and stable things we know.

— For the ancient Greeks, all generation and corruption happened in the sub-solar region of the universe; whereas, on the other hand, the celestial region was uncorrupted, unchanging and perfect.

3.

Next, consider today’s lectionary. It tells the story of Jesus’ ascension: that day, forty days after he rose from the grave, when he commissioned his disciples to carry on his mission, instructed them to wait for the coming Holy Spirit, blessed them, and rose from their sight into the heavens.

I died and rose again, he told them.

And now I am rising to the Father, he said.

He will send the Holy Spirit soon, he said, to carry on the work I started.

In other words, he said, the Father and the Holy Spirit are in on it too: my mission, that is.

And they dwell in the heaven of heavens, he said.

Where I soon will dwell with them, he said.

We three are uncorrupted, unchanging, and perfect, he said.

My mission therefore cannot fail, he said.

Even when people reject me, he said.

Even when mainline American church membership declines, he said.

Even when congregations must close and properties must be sold, he said.

My mission cannot fail.

The Church—with an upper-case C—will prevail. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. His Church—his mission—will persevere to the end.

4.

Ancient Greek cosmology teaches us a lot about our faith.

Though things might seem to be falling apart right in front of our nose—though membership is declining and we find ourselves lamenting the “good old days,” whatever those were—we follow a Leader who is uncorrupted, unchanging, and perfect. Our ultimate mission is one that will not fail.

At the same time, however—on the other hand—ancient Greek cosmology reminds us that everyday life is in fact full of change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos.

Our mission is to share the Good News in such a way that yields transformation: transformation of individual lives into the perfect image of Christ; transformation of communities into the corporate Body of Christ; transformation of the realm of the world into the realm of God.

Indeed, just in its definition, the word transformation implies change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos.

But the Episcopal Church has largely become an established church: with established buildings and established properties and established vestments and established liturgies and established music and established traditions—

Ever wonder if our message to the world is that we’re already transformed, nothing more needed, thank you very much?

If transformation is indeed our mission, why should we ever expect those we’re hoping to reach to meet us on our terms—to adapt to our traditions?

If the Church’s decline over the past four decades confronts us with anything, it is with our need to change. The way we’ve always done church, in all its deep richness, is no longer sustainable. As ancient Greek cosmology shows us, our world is just too unstable.

5.

So, is there anything we can do about it?

While it is true that the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations have been in steady decline for the past four decades, it doesn’t have to be so for us, here, in this particular parish called St. Paul’s.

You see, here’s how decline happens.

Change makes us uncomfortable. So we try to avoid it, to control our world so that we are confronted by the least amount of change possible.

But change will happen. Long-time parishioners grow old and pass away. People get mad over a matter of theology and leave—along with their pledges. New people come—hopefully! Volunteers come and go. Staff members come and go. Rectors and bishops come and go. Change is inevitable.

When we try to avoid or ignore change; or when we try to control our environments so that we are confronted by as little change as possible, since we can’t avoid it altogether we effectively put change in the driver’s seat.

And change is a bad driver! When we let change drive us around, decline is inevitable.

On the other hand, what if we accept the truth that change will come? Or, better yet, what if we are intentional about making changes ourselves? What if we are proactive—if we actively plan for and make changes and prepare for their effects?

Then we put St. Paul’s in the driver’s seat.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a driver than a passenger.

Anyway, putting it all together, in order to combat decline in the church—in order to continue with Jesus’ mission of transformation—we must adopt an ancient Greek cosmology.

That is, we must embrace the uncomfortable idea that everyday life is full of change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos; and, at the same time, we must fix our vision on the uncorrupted, unchanging, perfect Trinity and Christ’s mission to transform the world.

Right Ahead

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

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This sermon was delivered on November 20, 2016.

Luke 23:33-43

One thing our church gets right is eschatology.

A definition I read this week defines eschatology as, “The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”  Eschatology is the study of the eschaton, or of last things.

Our church gets this right.

Consider our church calendar.

Today is the last day of the year in the church calendar, Proper 29, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday.  It’s called Christ the King, for on this day we focus on the culmination of all of history, that day when Christ’s absolute supremacy will be realized.  Did you notice today’s color is not green but white?

Next week we’ll start over, with Advent.  For four weeks we’ll reflect on Christ’s coming.

Then, from Christmas through Easter we focus on the realization of Christ’s incarnation; and from Ascension Day through Pentecost and the following season we focus on the realization of Christ’s supremacy.

All year, then, in some sense anyway, we’re looking forward to today, the one day of the year when as a church we consider “death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”

Our church gets this right.

Also, consider today’s Gospel.

At first reading—and maybe at the second and third—it sounds and feels more like a Good Friday text than anything else: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (v. 23).

In fact, nearly the whole passage focuses on the details of the moment at hand: the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes; the people stand by and watch; leaders scoff and mock; even the criminals on either side join in.

But where does this passage end?  Or, in other words, what is this passage’s culmination?

One of the thieves next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today, though we begin at Good Friday, we focus ultimately on Paradise: the Realm of Christ; the culmination of all history.

Our church gets this right.

But it seems kind of brief, doesn’t it? I mean, only one day of the year?  What if we miss it?  What about all the people who couldn’t make it to church today?  Especially the ones with legitimate excuses?  Do they have to wait until Proper 29 rolls around again next year?  Really, why don’t we spend more time focusing on eschatology?

Other churches do.

Ever hear of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth?  A best-selling book published in 1970, Lindsey compares then-current events to biblical prophecies about the end times.

He speaks of an event called the Rapture, at which time, he says, all believers in Christ will be called by a trumpet blast suddenly home to heaven.

The Rapture will be followed by a Great Tribulation, a seven-year period of a literal hell on earth, he says, where the king of the world will be Satan himself.

Finally, an earthly age called the Millennium will follow the Tribulation, he says, during which time Satan will be locked up and the world’s king will be Christ; and all the world’s leaders will be faithful risen Christians.

By the way, this book was made into a movie in 1976, narrated by none other than Orson Welles, the same voice that generated mass fear in 1938 in a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Well, since the publication of this book, all sorts of modern American evangelical Christian leaders have joined in the fray.  Whole denominations today abide by Statements of Faith that include fundamental beliefs about the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the Millennium.

Individual scholars, seeking to clarify where they stand on the matter, have authored theological tomes on this subject, attempting to argue from literal interpretations of the scriptures just how and when our world will come to an end.

And who of us has not heard about the relatively recent phenomenon called The Left Behind Series—arguably the quintessential eschatological distraction of our day?

So—surprise, surprise!—disagreements have arisen.

Is there such a thing as the Rapture, or not?  The word rapture nowhere appears in the Bible, after all.

What about the so-called Great Tribulation?  The books of Daniel and Revelation mention a seven-year period of great struggle; but will Christians actually escape it, or will they have to endure it—or will they be raptured away mid-way through, before things get really tough?

And the Millennium!  C’mon!  A literal thousand years!  Really?

Those who care about this subject demand to know where others stand.  Are you Pre-trib or Post-, they ask?  Are you Pre-millennial, Post-millennial, or A-millennial?  Do you believe in the Rapture?

To which I say, “I’m pan-millennial: I believe it’ll all ‘pan’ out in the end.”

But it’s all quite pessimistic.

For, no matter how you look at it, the whole cosmos is just gonna burn up.  So, after all, what does it really matter what we do for the common good in our lifetimes?

My seminary professor Rob MacSwain tells of a time he attended a conference at an evangelical University in the Midwest.  After he could not find a recycle bin to throw away a piece of paper, he inquired only to be answered, “There aren’t any: the world’s just going to burn up anyway; we don’t believe recycle bins are necessary.”

For Christians who hold this pessimistic view, faith becomes no more than an individual kind of Gnosticism: we work on our own, internal relationships with Jesus; we are saved by faith alone (and not by works).  In the end, one is either in or out; saved or damned.

And where is God’s love in that?

Anyway, it’s not just modern American evangelical Christianity that’s drunk these waters.  The dominant culture has a preoccupation with eschatology too.  Yeah!  Except it doesn’t call it eschatology; it calls it apocalypse.

There are variations on apocalypse, sure.  Some stories feature zombies; some aliens; some dastardly supervillains, like Lex Luther who bought a bunch of property out here in the desert and planned to send California into the ocean so that he’d suddenly own beachfront property.  And some stories feature just us humans, in over our heads with nuclear weapons.

Either way, whether in the subculture of evangelical Christianity or in the dominant culture, how it’s all gonna end is an American preoccupation.

But not with the Episcopal Church.

And, I maintain, our church gets it right.

Our church acknowledges the culmination of all things.  We understand that Christ has left us with a mission: not to sit around wondering how it’s all gonna end but to transform the world into his kingdom.

The realization of Christ’s incarnation—his birth—was when his kingdom first came; the realization of Christ’s absolute supremacy—his second coming—is when that kingdom will be fully realized.  In the meantime the kingdom of heaven is only partial.  Our mission is no less than the transformation of the cosmos: to increase Christ in the world and decrease the anti-Christ until the second coming.

Our eschatology is not pessimistic; it’s optimistic.

Our church gets it right.

So, we’re caught up in this in-between time: in between the realization of Christ’s incarnation and supremacy.

We work at Christ’s mission: trying to bring his realm into the world.

But there’s a tension.

For we know the importance of doing Christ’s mission.  And we feel the need to do it—keenly!

But it’s overwhelming.

It’s overwhelming because we can’t accomplish much on our own, as individuals.  And it’s overwhelming because bringing Christ’s kingdom to our world will take much longer than the time we have in our lifetimes.

And these things go against our American grain.  We love our individualism; and we want to solve the world’s problems yesterday.

So, we end up failing Christ and his mission—or at least we feel we do.

And when this final Sunday of the year comes along—Proper 29, Christ the King Sunday—we’re so distracted by bad eschatology; or we’re so preoccupied with doing the mission of Christ; or we’re so overwhelmed and caught up in our own failures that we end up missing the optimistic culmination we’ve so been looking forward to all year.

Just like we end up missing the point when we read today’s Gospel.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him.

And today our church gets it right.

Today it doesn’t matter whether you’re distracted.  Today it doesn’t matter if you’re preoccupied.  Today it doesn’t matter if you feel overwhelmed; or if you’ve failed Jesus; or if you’ve given up on your faith; or even if you’ve committed crimes worthy of crucifixion.

Today, none of this matters!

For today, we know that we will be with him in Paradise.

Straightening Up

Posted in Homilies with tags on August 21, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 13:10-17

I don’t know about you, but when I hear this story from today’s Gospel—about a woman so crippled she can’t even stand up straight; about Jesus healing this woman; and about the synagogue leader’s response—whenever I hear this story, I immediately focus on the synagogue leader.  Is it the same for you?

In part, I’m sure, it’s because of my modern American sensitivities.  The synagogue leader is just plain mean.  She’s a crippled woman, for goodness’ sake!  Shouldn’t she be treated with at least the same dignity and respect as any other person—or at least with as much dignity and respect as a donkey?  Go Jesus!  You tell that bully a thing or two!

Also, my kneejerk focus on the synagogue leader probably has something to do with my American independence.  I mean, this guy’s opposing Jesus—Jesus, who is always the good guy, by default.  And Jesus helps the underdog, right?  So there’s that.  And also there’s this constraint the synagogue leader demonstrates: he’s bound by the rules of his tradition.  He’s legalistic.  And what good American wants the rules of some foreign tradition foisted upon him?

Then there’s my personal bias.  I was raised during the musical era that’s known today as “classic rock”; and—what can I say?—I’m a product of my culture.  We all are.  Anyway, the synagogue leader represents the establishment.  And as all good cynical classic rock-and-rollers know, the establishment is designed only to benefit those in charge, its leaders.  So, here’s this leader of the synagogue—the establishment!  Take him down, Jesus!

Are you with me?

But what if instead of focusing just on the synagogue leader we also focus our attention on the bent-over woman?

I have a good reason for asking: the context suggests it.

Immediately before this story Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree.  For three years it bore no fruit.  The owner of the farm tells his gardener to cut the tree down.  But the gardener talks him out of it, saying to give it just one more year; if it bears no fruit by that time, then he will cut it down.

Is today’s story, then, just about an unrepentant synagogue leader; and how God is patient with us when we act like that synagogue leader, giving us more time to repent?  Maybe.  But it feels like there should be more to it.

So we look at what follows.  Here, Jesus tells two more parables, now about the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed.  Though a very small seed, it grows into one of the largest plants in all of the Mediterranean region, so large that even the birds of the air come to roost in its branches.  And again, the kingdom of God is like yeast that spreads throughout a batch of dough until all the batch is leavened.

And so, aha!  Now we begin to see!

On the one hand there’s repentance; and on the other there’s the kingdom of God.  And wedged between these teachings we find today’s story.  Surely, it’s got to be about more than just a kneejerk response to the establishment.

You see, because of our cultural context—we’re independent, rock-and-roll Americans—we immediately turn our focus on the synagogue leader and say Boo! and try to learn lessons about what we shouldn’t do; how we shouldn’t behave.  But the biblical context suggests that we should focus not just on the synagogue leader but also on the bent-over woman.  And perhaps even mostly, or all, on her!  For she is the one in this story who experiences a change in direction—i. e., repentance—and is transformed into a citizen of the kingdom of God.

So, setting aside our desire to heckle and jeer the bad guy in this story, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?

First, here are a few observations:

  • She’s been crippled for eighteen years.  Where were you eighteen years ago?  What were you doing?  That’s a long time!
  • Her ailment—for the last eighteen years!—is being bent over.  So severe is her ailment that she is unable to straighten up.
  • In contrast to the earlier miracles in Luke’s Gospel, this crippled woman does not ask for healing.

These observations come from the text.  So, next, what might we infer from them?

Well, what would it mean to be bent over so that you couldn’t straighten up?  You’d be looking at the ground all the time.  Imagine that.  Dust.  Dirt.  Mud.  Rocks.  Feet.  (In cities, sewage.)  All the time!

You hear a bird chirping in a nearby tree and you can’t look up at it—not without a lot of trouble anyway.  You approach a group of people talking and laughing with one another and you can’t look in their faces, you can’t see the laughter in their eyes—at least not without turning sideways and twisting your neck awkwardly and painfully.

The sun, the moon, the stars, the tops of trees and mountains, the distant horizon, the up-close faces of friends and family—all of these are mostly inaccessible to you.  Imagine that!  For eighteen long, frustrating years!

To struggle to see only the path immediately at your feet!  To see only the dirt and dust immediately before you!  Imagine!

And what can we make of her not asking for healing?  Had she resigned herself to her condition?  Had she concluded, “Well, I guess this is simply the way things are and the way things are always gonna be”?

But then!  Ah, then!  Jesus breaks into her life.  He calls her to himself; and he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”; and he lays his hands on her; and immediately she stands up straight—straight!—and she sees the sun and the birds and the faces all around her, without difficulty; and she begins to praise God.

She begins.  That’s an interesting word, isn’t it?  For it suggests that she will continue doing so—that she will continue praising God for her new condition; that she has experienced a changed life (repentance), and that this transformation will continue (into the eternal kingdom of God).

So, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?  Just this: transformation.  This crippled, often overlooked, unnamed woman offers us a picture of transformation, a picture of the ongoing life we should be living in Christ.

Jesus has called each of us to himself—whether we’ve asked him for healing or not!  And he’s said to each of us, “Child, you are set free from your ailment.”

Consequently, have you begun to praise God for your new condition?  If so, are you continuing to praise God?  Or, to rephrase these questions: Have you begun to be transformed in Christ?  And, if so, are you continuing to live into this transformation?

Too often we end up spending our whole lives looking down at the dust and dirt and muck at our feet, unable to take in the larger world around us because of our great ailment—an ailment much greater than this woman’s—called sin.

And don’t think for a moment this ailment only applies to those outside of the church!

Jesus was standing right in front of this woman.  And no doubt she had heard about him already.  No doubt, by this time in his ministry, word had spread far and wide of his teachings and workings of miracles.

And yet, when the opportunity presented itself to her—right before her downward-angled face!—she did not approach him; she did not express her need for healing.

Have we resigned ourselves similarly?  Have we been a part of church—has church been a part of us—for so long now that despite hearing Jesus’ call we merely continue looking down at our own two dirty, dusty feet; at our own treacherous path of life upon which we walk?  Do we fail to look upward at Jesus and praise God?  Do we forget to continue praising God for our ongoing transformation in Christ?

Transformation in Christ is a continuous process.  We are being transformed more and more throughout our lives from our marred, sin-laden, fallen images into the perfect, sinless image of Christ.  Or at least we should be!

This is the Good News.  This is why we follow Christ in the first place.