The Grittier, Earthier Version

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered this past Sunday:

Luke 6:17-26

1.

Ahhh, the beatitudes!

And I’m thinking, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”: familiar words of comfort and affirmation!

But when I listen, something about this version seems a little jarring. This version starts out with, simply, “Blessed are you who are poor.” There’s no “in spirit.” What’s that about?

This version seems grittier, more earthy, less spiritual.

And then, as I continue to listen, Jesus bring in woes. “But woe to you who are rich,” he declares.

And somehow I don’t quite remember hearing this version of the beatitudes before. What Bible version is this anyway?

Well, it’s not the version; it’s the Evangelist.

That other version of the beatitudes, the one where Jesus starts out by blessing the poor in spirit, the one without the woes—and, if you’re like me, the one you remember when you think of the beatitudes—that version is over in the Gospel of Matthew.

In the words of theologian David Ostendorf, Matthew’s is “the watered-down, spiritualized version . . . preferable and more comfortable” than what we hear today: the version according to St. Luke.

And the way Luke tells it—not Matthew—blessings and woes fall upon people in the real world, in their present socioeconomic and political contexts.

Luke is grittier and earthier than Matthew.

But, at the same time, this does not mean that Luke is any less spiritual.

2.

To set the stage then, let’s notice a couple of details.

First, Luke points out that Jesus focuses particularly on his disciples in the midst of a great multitude. Jesus is addressing his disciples specifically here; but it’s a public meeting: the great multitude is invited to listen in.

Today Jesus is talking to the church; and the wide world is eavesdropping! His comments deal with us, Christians, and how we are to behave as citizens of his new realm while simultaneously living as ex-pats in the old realm. But he says them to both disciples and eavesdroppers.

And the second detail, which I find curious, is that here Jesus delivers a sermon on a plain, “a level place”; not a Sermon on the Mount as it is said over in Matthew. Here, in Luke, Jesus speaks to us “on the level.”

So then, what’s the meaning of these grittier, earthier beatitudes?

Four blessings find their counterparts in four woes:

Blessing               Woe

Poor                     Rich

Hungry                Full

Weeping              Laughing

Reviled                 Spoken well of, uplifted

You know, when I read through this list, I don’t know about you but I find myself identifying a lot more with the right side than the left.

I mean, I might feel like next month’s car payment is going to be tight; so what do I do? I determine that I just won’t be able to go out to dinner as much this month. Right?

I might have to cut back now and again, put a temporary crimp in my lifestyle; but in the context of most of the world I’m not exactly poor. No, whether or not I care to admit it, I’m quite rich.

And that’s not on the side of blessing; but the woe counterpart. Huh.

Next, I can’t remember the last time I felt a pang of hunger—unless it was self-imposed because of a diet or whatever. In fact, there’s so much food around me all the time that I have to go on a diet in order to cut back! No, I’m not in the “hungry” category but the “full.”

So, that’s 0 for 2.

As for the third, there are times where I weep, sure. Just turn on the news! Still, my life’s pretty easy. And where it’s not easy, there’s much at my disposal to make it easier—a good book, TV shows, comfort foods, a fire in the hearth at the press of a button. . . .

Like food, various forms of personal levity are seemingly omnipresent. And again, no: if I had to pick between the two, I’d definitely fall more on the laughing side of the spectrum than the weeping.

So that’s strike three.

But maybe I can take a foul tip on that last one; I do weep from time to time, after all. Pitch me another.

And, yes, here we go. I can definitely think of times when people hated me, excluded me, reviled me, and defamed me.

Like that one time in eighth grade when all my so-called friends conspired not to talk to me for the whole day. Or like that one time when those people spread that slanderous rumor about me. How’s it go again? Haters gonn’ hate.

Still, what’s the woe counterpart? Someone speaking well of me. Has that ever happened? If I’m honest with myself, only like every day!

And yet again, whether I care to admit it or not, I fall well over to the right side on this spectrum too.

Guess that makes me 0 for 4. What about you?

3.

What a confrontational passage!

We are Episcopalians in the USA. Most of us are rich, well fed, happy, and included. We like things this way. In fact, we’ve worked hard to make them this way. They are blessings to us—no doubt!

However, according to what Luke tells us today, what we consider our blessings actually are more woeful to us: they tend to work toward our spiritual detriment more than toward our spiritual benefit.

On the other hand, the true blessings work the other way around: being poor, hungry, mournful, or excluded works to our spiritual benefit!

Maybe they’re blessings because they compel us to look away from ourselves to God. Not sure wealth, food, happiness, and a good reputation affect us similarly.

But, really, who wants these things? Would any man willingly enter into poverty? Would any woman intentionally remove herself from every available food source? Would anyone purposefully prefer mourning to happiness; or to live as a societal outcast?

Instead, rightly, we seek wellness, a balanced lifestyle. We even say, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not, “Poverty, hunger, and the pursuit of destitution.”

And when we find it, wellness, that balanced sweet spot, we thank God for it; for it is truly a blessing.

So, what is Luke getting at here?

4.

Maybe it will help to keep in mind that Jesus is not speaking in dualities.

These beatitudes and their woe counterparts are not either-or propositions, as if to say you are either poor or rich, either hungry or full, either weeping or laughing, either reviled or spoken well of—one or the other with no middle ground.

Rather, think of each beatitude and its counterpart as the two ends of a spectrum.

So, you might very well fall on the rich side of the poor/rich spectrum. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay there.

And I’m not talking here about giving away all your possessions! I am talking about mindset.

Regardless of where you land on this spectrum, can you put yourself in the shoes of those who have less than you do?

What is it like, for instance, to live paycheck to paycheck and not have good healthcare; and suddenly receive a bill for $25,000 for your child’s “emergency tonsillectomy”? Can you identify with that family when they cry foul? Are you able to empathize with them?

Or what about the hungry/full spectrum?

Have you ever experienced not knowing when or how you will find your next meal? Can you imagine it? The pain? The fears? The desperation?

Once you do begin to imagine it, you’re one step closer to standing in solidarity with that person who is truly hungry.

We could reflect similarly about the weeping/laughing spectrum and the reviled/uplifted spectrum; and I commend that to you as a personal spiritual exercise.

But the point that we must not miss today is the great equalizing effect of Jesus’ new realm; the realm to which we truly belong.

It’s not either poor or rich. Love brings both poor and rich together. Love eradicates socioeconomic differences.

Again, it’s not either hungry or full; either weeping or laughing; either reviled or uplifted—black or white, female or male, gay or straight, trans or cis, old or young, full-bodied or athletic, disabled or able-bodied, or any of the other labels and distinctions we slap on those who are different than we are.

Love reorients relationships and reverses socioeconomic and political injustices; love brings both one and the other together as true equals.

And when that happens, all people—disciples and eavesdroppers!—all are truly blessed.

Advertisements

Doldrums Evangelism

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on February 10, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 15:1-11

1.

How do you feel about evangelism? And here I’m not talking about the technical definition of the word, the carrying out of good news. Rather, what is your gut reaction when you hear the word? Evangelism. What pictures come to your mind’s eye? What do you want to do? Roll your eyes? Turn and run away?

Now, evangelism goes two ways, right? As Christians, we are called to carry the good news outward. We are called to be evangelists. That’s the active side of evangelism.

But have you ever been on the passive side? Can you put yourself in the shoes of those to whom the “good news” is being carried?

A story from my Youth Director days comes to mind.

A local, dynamic youth pastor had just pulled off the ultimate epic evangelism event, he boasted. Then he explained: a car rally scavenger hunt.

The youth group broke into teams of four and drove around the town looking for items on a list—simple items, like a coffee cup, a slice of cheese, a cup of ice, a Polaroid selfie with a stranger.

Each item had to come from a different place; and each team had to introduce itself with the scripted, “Hi, we’re from Trinity Church’s Youth Group and we’d like you to know that Jesus loves you,” before they could request the item.

The kids had one hour. And, of course, the team with the most items won—or, if they found all the items on the list in less than an hour, the first team back with all the items won.

Sounds like fun, eh? . . . Until you heard how it unfolded!

Mostly it involved interruptions; for example, kids running into Starbucks, cutting to the front of the line, and shouting their script: “We’re from Trinity and Jesus loves you. Can we just have an empty coffee cup?”

And I remember distinctly thinking, “Man, I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it! Not sure that’s the kind of love I’m looking for. Certainly not the kind of church I’m looking for!”

Is it just me, or did you experience this kind of thing too?

Evangelism—back in the late eighties through Y2K anyway—became synonymous with obnoxious, confrontational methods of telling people your message whether they wanted to hear it or not.

A lot like consumer marketing and advertising!

But, really, is the good news a commodity for sale to the highest bidder?

Well, a while ago my family found a sign in a craft shop. I’ve often desired to hang it on the front door of our home, but still haven’t. So, this sign fairly well captures my feelings about the passive side of evangelism. It reads:

NO SOLICITING

We are too broke to buy anything

We already know who we are voting for

WE HAVE FOUND JESUS

Seriously, unless you are selling Thin Mints

PLEASE GO AWAY!!

Maybe you feel similarly. I mean, the technical word is great. But evangelism has been so misused and abused that now it feels worn out, tired.

2.

So, this brings up a question: What does a disciple of Jesus look like?

Today, we meet Simon Peter for the first time in the Gospel of Luke. He leaves everything and follows Jesus—which certainly qualifies him as a disciple. So, let’s enter his shoes for a bit.

He’s washing his nets: he’s just worked a long night shift and it’s quitting time. Unfortunately, the work’s been unproductive.

You know the kind of day. As an engineer, you’ve been agonizing over a design requiring your signature and seal. It should all work out, you keep assuring yourself; but something feels off, something you’ve maybe overlooked. You’ve been over and over the plans again and again, the deadline’s already two hours past, but you just can’t put your signature to paper in good conscience; so you give up. It’s going to have to wait till tomorrow. You pick up the phone and dial your client.

Or, as a teacher, you’ve had one of those extremely frustrating days, when the kids are grumpy and uncooperative, half of them have the sniffles and should have stayed home anyway, and finally the bells rings. You’ve still got a pile of papers to grade, but you can do it, you tell yourself, just thirty more minutes—alone, thank goodness!

Peter’s just had that kind of day: long and unproductive and he just wants to go home already.

But then this stranger named Jesus approaches and asks for his boat.

Jesus, Simon thinks. That name rings a bell. . . . Oh yeah! Isn’t he the one who people are talking about? Teaching astonishing truths and doing remarkable deeds in Capernaum?

So Simon agrees. After all, he’s washing his nets anyway; he’ll continue to clean up and otherwise wrap things up from the boat—multitask—while Jesus teaches.

But then, next, after he’s done teaching, Jesus invites Simon to do something that will require considerably more personal sacrifice.

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” Jesus says.

And what do you think goes through Simon’s mind now?

Well, what goes through that engineer’s mind when her client says, “This is unacceptable; I must have those plans by midnight or I’ll take my business elsewhere”?

Or what goes through that teacher’s mind when an administrator unexpectedly enters his empty classroom and says, “You are needed for an urgent meeting right now; it should only last an hour . . . or so”?

Doesn’t he understand, Simon must have wondered? I’ve been at this all night and there’s been nothing! And I’ve already washed my nets! Why couldn’t he have said this fifteen minutes ago? Doesn’t he know anything? Probably never fished a day in his life!

Also—a point that should not be glossed over!—Simon could have said no to Jesus. Jesus did not command but invited him.

Whatever the case, Simon responds, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

He’s tired. He just wants to go home. He could say no to Jesus.

But he obeys—and is blessed miraculously for it!

And, seeing it is so, Simon immediately spreads the good news to his partners James and John, who leave everything to join the cause with him.

3.

This is what a disciple of Jesus looks like.

Invited to share the good news, and to be blessed for it, we are called to be evangelists.

But evangelism feels so worn out. We’ve been out evangelizing for fifty years and, anyway, people don’t want to hear it. We’re tired. They’re tired. We just want to go home already!

As Peter reminds us today, that’s not an excuse; that doesn’t mean it’s time to quit!

But it does mean we probably should think about evangelism in a new way; or, maybe more helpfully, in an old, old way.

Sharing the good news through proclamation (what many have called “testimony”)—Jesus did this for me; come and see!—is only a small part of what sharing the good news—evangelism—encompasses.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus and his disciples taught the uneducated, consoled the downhearted, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and included the marginalized.

And I’m just scratching the surface! They did many other acts of love, each one a way of sharing the good news, of evangelizing.

It’s time for us to rouse ourselves, shake off our end-of-the-workday doldrums, and drop our nets on the other side of the boat. There a miraculous catch awaits!

Beyond the Tribal Walls

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 4:21-30

1.

Tribalism.

It’s a word we use in our culture to describe a group to which we belong, whose interests we care about deeply—my people, my tribe.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Which of you moms has never felt a kind of “mama bear” instinct, to protect your children—your people—no matter the cost?

Our modern culture, which places a high value on the individual, plays into tribalism especially well. You and I may be a part of one group—our church, for example. But what makes me really who I am as an individual is based on more. To which other tribes do I belong?

And these other, complementary tribes can go two ways, right?

I can belong to a smaller tribe within the larger tribe—a sub-tribe, if you will. Within St. Thomas, for instance, we have MoST, WoW, Prayers and Squares, and so on.

And, I can belong to other tribes, outside of this one—a car club, a bridge club, a sports team, the Rotary, an online chat group.

What makes me uniquely who I am, then, largely consists of the web of tribes to which I belong. My unique network of tribes makes me an individual, and hopefully a cool individual!

And so, naturally, I care a lot about certain tribes—the tribes I belong to; and the tribes I want to belong to—but as for all the other tribes out there, well, not so much. My time is precious, after all; and I just don’t have time for them. Got to draw the line somewhere!

But, despite what our culture tells us, tribalism isn’t always a good thing. We humans are inclined towards “group think” and “mob rule,” behaviors that shape our opinions and shade the truth.

So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts and challenges his own, hometown tribalism, which had become not-a-good thing.

And the tribe doesn’t like his challenge. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they ask.

Hold on, they say! They love their tribe! It’s part of what makes them who they are—what makes them unique and cool!

After all, this hometown tribe built their synagogue over the course of time into what it is today. Think of the investment: all that time, talent, and treasure!

And what does Jesus, this young upstart, know anyway? He’s just Joseph’s son, full of unrealistic ideals and pipe dreams.

And so, incredibly, these people—Jesus’ people; Jesus’ tribe—are so upset with the good news that they lead Jesus to the brow of a cliff in order to throw him off—an act that, thankfully, the Spirit prevents them from doing!

2.

What did he say to them? What did they find so provocative?

Well, first, Jesus mentions the Widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

Do you remember her? She and her son were both about to die of starvation. But God, through Elijah the prophet, brought them good news.

God could’ve sent Elijah to any widow. But God picked this one—in Sidon!

But that’s Gentile territory! She was not a part of God’s chosen people! She lived outside the tribal walls!

So next, in case his point wasn’t clear enough, Jesus mentions another character, Naaman the Syrian, who was suffering from leprosy.

This time God sent Elisha, another prophet.

And again, God could have picked any leper to demonstrate that the good news sets people free from all kinds of oppression. God could have picked a leper from among the Israelites, the chosen people of God, the tribe.

But God did not. Instead, through the prophet Elisha God again proclaimed the good news to someone outside of the tribe!

What did Jesus’ hometown tribe find to be so provocative? Jesus’ mission for him and for them was to go outward, to proclaim the good news to people who are not a part of the tribe!

God’s people have good news. It’s freedom for captives. It’s sight to the blind. It’s food for the hungry and healing for the leprous. It’s forgiveness of debts for those who owe; it’s jubilee, equality of all persons, Jew, Greek, white, black, and brown; rich, poor, and homeless; male, female, transgender, straight, and gay!

We have this good news! Keeping it to ourselves is hardly fair, hardly life-giving, hardly equal. Keeping it to ourselves, instead, is to hoard, to erect tribal walls, to keep us in and them out, to ignore the tribes we don’t have the time for. Keeping it to ourselves is anything but good news.

And two thousand years later it’s still much the same, really. As disciples, we are still called to dismantle tribal walls; we are still called to go outward; we are still called to find those specifically who are not a part of us, and to love them radically.

3.

Oh, now there’s a misunderstood word: love!

Don’t you find it curious that today we read that super-famous love passage, 1 Corinthians 13, which tells us so clearly what Christ’s love looks like; and yet we also read this passage about Jesus’ tribe trying to throw him off a cliff!

Love! Jesus tries to show his tribe what living into real love means—and their reaction is to try to kill him!

So, here’s what happens with us.

Once upon a time, we hear that Jesus means for us to go out into the world and proclaim the good news, to carry Christ’s love outward. And so we start a church.

Next, we think it’d be a good idea to have a building for our church, a visible, permanent manifestation of Christ within the greater community: to bring the good news in a stable, mutually beneficial way.

We then set our sights on turning this idea into a reality. And after a lot of hard word—a lot of time, talent, and treasure—lo and behold, we’ve done it: we’ve built our house of worship.

And, over time, we’ve developed our own unique touches. Our church has MoST. We have WoW. We have Dinners All Around. We include our pets. We are uniquely St. Thomas. Our tribe is pretty cool!

Christ is here, in our midst and in the midst of the greater community! We are proclaiming the good news! His love abounds!

What happens next, though, is the hard part. It happened to Jesus’ hometown synagogue; it happened to the church at Ephesus (cf. Revelation 2); and it happens to churches and other houses of worship today all over the world.

We lose our first love.

Instead of continuing with the work Christ left us to do—to proclaim the good news to those outside of our tribe—we look around—inside, at us—and decide, hey, we like this place.

And we decide to keep it just the way it is.

And . . . it’s gone. Our perspective has shifted. We no longer focus our communal efforts outward; instead, we’ve become preoccupied with us, our tribe.

4.

So, last week we considered Jesus’ mission statement; and today, tribalism. Put them together and we discover something about vocation, calling.

Here’s my understanding of what a pastor is called to do—what I am called to be here at St. Thomas. A lot of things really—but here’s the predominant calling—and I know some of you out there won’t agree with me; please just try to hear me out. A pastor’s calling is:

To equip the congregation to do Jesus’ mission.

The kingdom of God is not like a building project, where we plan, save, build, and pay it off—check that box, we’re done, on to the next project!

Rather, the kingdom of God is like breakers on the beach.

Go to the coast, take your shoes off, roll up your pant legs, and run out to the edge of the water. And what happens? One moment your feet are in the water, the next they’re on only sand. Over and over again!

After enough time, the tide goes in or out a little, and you adjust. Over greater amounts of time, the size of the breakers increase or decrease—some days are almost glass, others are stormy almost beyond comprehension.

The shoreline is always changing . . . but also always kind of the same.

Many things change over time. Temecula is a vastly different town than it was thirty years ago. St. Thomas is a very different church than it was thirty years ago. Building projects have been planned and completed. Lots of action items have been checked off.

But the mission continues . . . much the same as always.

The breakers that are the kingdom of God continue, wave after wave, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. So, too, the mission of carrying the good news outward is to continue, generation after generation, to break upon the shoreline of the world.

My ongoing desire is to equip us, as a congregation, to proclaim the good news beyond our tribal walls.

5.

So, that’s my sermon, really; but I want to offer an epilogue.

I don’t think what I’ve said today about vocation comes as a surprise to anybody. This is who I am and what I understand my calling to be; and what I understand our calling to be together, as a Christian community.

But—I’ve heard some pushback—some of you find my understanding of vocation unsettling. It doesn’t fit your perspective of what a pastor does, of who a pastor is.

Father Tim, I’ve heard, you’re too outwardly oriented. Obviously, you don’t care about us! What about visitations? Sunday school? Youth group? The choir? MoST? WoW? The preschool? Stephen Ministries? The Bishop’s Committee? Weddings? Baptisms? Funerals? (Etc.) Aren’t you called to be our pastor?

Short answer: Yes! Emphatically! Absolutely!

Longer answer: These are all important ministries, in which I am deeply invested. They are the individual units that contribute to the overall equipping of our congregation.

To use the Apostle Paul’s analogy from last week, each one is an important, individual part of the overall body. But the body, he writes,

does not consist of one member but of many. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . . As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

There are many ministries, yet one congregation. As your pastor, my predominant focus is on what the overall body, as a whole, is called to do and to be.

This doesn’t mean I am not concerned about the individual parts as well. I am! But it does mean I may not be able to devote the time you’d like me to devote to your specific ministry, to your particular sub-tribe.

To change the metaphor, there are numerous other trees in the forest!

Anyway, I know, thinking about our communal calling is a new perspective for some of you, maybe many of you; and taking on a new perspective is hard. A new perspective means change; and change is uncomfortable.

But, truth be told, while this perspective may be new for you, it is not new for the church. As a matter of fact, it’s as deep as our tradition goes.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus called his hometown tribe back to their mission. Ever since, the Holy Spirit has been calling the church back to this same mission, again and again, like waves breaking on the shore.

I am simply doing the same, calling us as a church to return together to our first love.

Vicar’s Annual Report

Posted in Doing Church, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church’s (Temecula, California) Annual Meeting was held on January 27, 2019 at 11:30 a. m. This was included in the Annual Report, distributed prior to the Annual Meeting. It gives a good glimpse into the practical sides of running a church.

In my report this year I want to begin with a piece of financial transparency. St. Thomas is in a considerable amount of debt. Presently the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is holding our promissory note (think mortgage) in the amount of approximately $1.8 million. We are repaying it back at 5% interest. Without going into detail, what this means is that we paid down principal on the note by about $30,000 in 2018. We’re poised to do the same in 2019. Additionally, we have a “backburner” loan with the diocese of approximately $900,000—backburner because we presently pay no interest on it but still owe (and will likely start paying interest once our promissory note is paid). Long story short, we’re managing; but at our present tack it will take about 75 years to pay off our total debt.

It didn’t take long after my arrival at St. Thomas to sense a feeling of anxiety here. This understandable, isn’t it? We are in a large amount of debt. The mainline church has been declining in membership and pledges steadily over the past four decades. Closer to home, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego has had to make the difficult decision to sell several church properties over the last dozen years or so. So, what will happen to us if we can’t keep up?

Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing, though. I applaud the creativity I’ve seen since arriving here, especially with respect to space sharing (for a fee, of course). Our parking lot is a “Park and Ride” area. Cadenza Music Academy uses our nave for rehearsals on Thursday nights. We recently hosted a diocesan Walkabout event. Anxiety has motivated us to think in creative ways about how best to steward the property that houses our spiritual community.

Perhaps best of all, the diocese is motivated in this way too. There is keen interest on the diocese’s part to partner with us in order to help us achieve the sustainability we so desire—maybe through developing the vacant part of our land, through rethinking our promissory note’s terms, through a combination of these, or through some other means. Stay tuned in 2019 as these ideas begin to take form.

Indeed, we are moving forward with respect to our financial situation, taking action. Now, though a level of anxiety remains, what I sense is a stronger feeling of hope and vision. We are making great strides towards becoming a full-fledged parish.

But, of course, the church is not just about making ends meet. It’s more—much more—about making disciples; about rallying together as a praying community to accomplish the mission Christ has left us, to proclaim good news to the world around us and heal and care for the sick and provide hope and advocacy for the marginalized and. . . .

The Bishop’s Committee and I did a lot of hard work in 2018 around ideas. We studied a book together that examines the most important elements of church life and devoted time during each of our meetings to hash out these ideas in conversation. This year I will work with the Bishop’s Committee to glean from the best of these mission-focused ideas and begin to put them into practice.

Exciting things are happening around here. Again, stay tuned in 2019!

Finally, then, the 2018 stats:

  • Eucharist celebrated 238 times: 149 on Saturday nights or Sundays; 46 on weekdays; and 43 in homes and hospitals. 6,459 total persons received.
  • Average Sunday attendance (ASA): 115.
  • Daily Office services: 12.
  • Baptisms: 1.
  • Confirmations: 5.
  • Reaffirmations: 1.
  • Weddings: 1.
  • Burials: 1.
  • Pledging (as of 1/15/2019): $163,014 ($167,672 last year).

Doing our Mission Statement

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered to St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 27, 2019. It was also the day of the Annual Meeting. It was also Mozart’s 263rd birthday (and Cadenza Music School joined us–it was glorious!).

Luke 4:14-21

1.

Before diving into today’s Gospel, let’s take a moment to gain our contextual bearings. Once upon a time, Jesus left his childhood home. Now he’s back. Where has he been in the meantime?

According to St. Luke the Evangelist, Jesus has just been tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights—a narrative we’ll explore more carefully during Lent. And just before that, Jesus was baptized—a narrative we considered two weeks ago.

But where was Jesus before his baptism, between then and the once upon a time when he left home? What was he doing? Carpentering?

More likely, he was studying and teaching. Maybe even with his cousin, John the Baptist. That’s what a good number of Jesus scholars think anyway, going so far as to suppose Jesus and John were members of the same community; a kind of monastic community; maybe even (quite speculative now) the Qumran community, from which we have the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And now, today, Jesus is back. He shows up in the midst of his hometown religious community—where he grew up—and, Luke says, is filled with the power of the Spirit.

It’s an epiphany, the start of his active ministry.

The people here know him. They’ve watched him grow up. No doubt, they’re wondering what he’s going to say.

So, you know what Luke is doing here? Luke is setting the stage for the next three years: Jesus’ ministry. In modern verbiage, Luke is giving Jesus’ mission statement.

By the way, do you ever marvel at God’s timing?

I mean, I didn’t pick out this passage today. It was chosen for me.

And long before I knew this would be today’s Gospel, the BC and I selected January 27, 2019 as the date for this year’s Annual Meeting.

And today, right here, Jesus gives his mission statement!

Meanwhile, today, right over there, we will be hearing about the work God has been doing in and through St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School; and the work we hope God will do in and through us into the future.

2.

So, following Jesus’ lead, I’m going to provoke us a little today.

Surely Jesus provoked his hometown religious community on that morning when he went into the synagogue, unrolled that scroll from Isaiah, and proclaimed that the realization of this chosen text was happening right now in their midst.

He was in fact the Messiah they were waiting for, he announced, the Messiah that all the Jews had been waiting for, for centuries!

And I’m sure they were uncomfortable—because—what we don’t read today but follows—they flatly rejected him!

These were friends and family members who’d watched him from childhood—

Who’d observed him growing in wisdom and stature—

Who’d seen him make his first, rough, misshapen carpenter’s box—

Who’d spent time with his family at synagogue fellowship meals—

Who’d seen him make mistakes as children do, as he’d played with their children—

And now he’d grown up and moved away.

He wasn’t carrying on the family tradition of carpentry. No! Instead, he’d gone off to spend time with one of his fringe cousins, John, you know, that guy who spent his days in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey!

And he’d gone away not to do something worthwhile, like build houses for people in need. He was just a wandering philosopher. Can you believe it?

I’m sure he provoked them on that day, when the Spirit carried him into his hometown synagogue; that day when he unrolled the scroll from Isaiah to that part where it says who the Messiah is and what he has come to do.

The audacity to claim that this passage was about him! That he was the Messiah! That this was his mission statement!

It provoked them. It made this hometown religious community uncomfortable, so uncomfortable in fact that these friends and family members rose up as a mob and led Jesus outside in order to hurl him off a cliff!

Yeah! We didn’t read that far today, but that’s what happens next.

And these aren’t the Pharisees we’re talking about, or the scribes, or the Sanhedrin, or the Sadducees, or any other of the people Jesus has trouble with later on in his ministry. These are his friends and family!

So, anyway, whether I provoke you or not; whether it makes you feel uncomfortable or not, this is my rationale today:

If Jesus as our Lord is stating his mission statement at the outset of his ministry (and he is), and if I as your vicar have committed my life to following him (which I have), and if we as a church are called to be his disciples (which we are), then his mission statement must be worthy of our consideration.

3.

Well, what, then, exactly, is his mission statement? And, maybe more to the point on this day of our Annual Meeting, how does his compare with ours?

So, here (again) is what Jesus read in the synagogue on that morning:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

My interpretation?

Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit to do something. And what is that something? To bring good news to the poor.

That’s it, really. The rest is just an elaboration, answering the question of what it means to bring good news to the poor. It means proclaiming release to captives; letting the oppressed go free; recovering sight for the blind; proclaiming Jubilee—that special year on Israel’s calendar when all debts are forgiven, all slaves emancipated, all socioeconomic differences eradicated.

His task was to bring good news to the poor: the marginalized, the downtrodden, and the oppressed!

And this is how we know that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him: because he actually did it! Throughout his ministry, Jesus didn’t just say his mission statement; he did it!

Jesus’ mission statement is undeniably focused on righting wrongs, on bringing justice where there is none, on doing and not just being love.

And it provoked his hometown religious community so much that they tried to throw him off a cliff!

The good news is provocative.

4.

Now, here’s our mission statement (found on the front of your bulletin):

To share Christ’s life-changing love with all people, invite and welcome them into the Body of Christ, and equip them for worship, ministry, and service.

My interpretation?

We here at St. Thomas see Christ’s life-changing love as essential; and we desire to act on his love in four ways, seen in the four verbs in our mission statement: share Christ’s love with all people; invite and welcome all people into the Body of Christ, and equip them to love and serve the Lord.

Share, invite, welcome, and equip. Good!

But—to push back a little—are we doing these things? Really doing them?

Well, for starters, we are welcoming people into the body. I think we’re pretty good at this. In fact, welcoming is often a word I hear used to describe St. Thomas: “It’s a welcoming place.”

Next, I think we’re doing pretty well at equipping too. We’re trying anyway—we’re getting better and better at equipping people to love and serve Christ, learning as we go.

But what about the first two verbs—share with and invite all people?

It seems to me we will never be very good at these until we learn to think outwardly on an ongoing basis; until we pro-actively go out into the surrounding community and really get to know our neighbors.

And I don’t just mean the nearby housing tracts. Our neighbors include places like Parker Medical Center, Citizens’ Bank, Temecula Valley Hospital, and Rancho Community Church—one of the largest houses of worship—maybe the largest—in the Temecula Valley.

Sharing Christ’s love with and inviting all people means going out and finding all those people first.

Anyway—main point here—Jesus knew that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him because he did the things he said he’d do in his mission statement. How will we know that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us? Not just by saying but by doing our mission statement.

5.

Okay, so here’s my chief concern today.

Right now is the time of year when we tend to focus a lot on how we’re doing as a church. Our annual meeting is today; our Parochial Report is due next month; ASA and pledge numbers are defining figures. So we ask questions like, “How can we increase our ASA? How can we increase pledges? How will we sustain our resources? Will we even be able to sustain them?”

How are we doing as a church? For the answer, we look to our building, budget, and attendance!

But Jesus never once mentions these.

Which leaves me to wonder: Are they distracting us from our real mission?

As your vicar, I don’t want our driving question to be, “How are we doing as a church?” Instead, let’s ask, “What are we doing for God?”

And let’s get specific about it!

What are we doing to get to know our community better—our neighbors? Do we know what their needs are—and not what we think they need, but what they tell us, through their stories? Where do they see injustice taking place around us? Then, how might we team up with them to bring justice to these places? Or, how can we collaborate with them to overcome inequality? What can we do together to overturn the nearby tables of domination and control?

So, we’re already doing a lot of things, sure. (Read the Annual Report.) But are the activities we regularly engage in furthering Christ’s mission? More bluntly, are the things we do for God; or are they, maybe, more for us?

Jesus’ own mission statement espoused such radical social transformation that even his friends and family were ready to hurl him off a cliff. Are we ready to transform our community with the Gospel, even if it provokes our friends and family members?

The Holy Spirit anointed Jesus. We know this because he did the things he said he’d do. I want to know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that the Holy Spirit has anointed us too.

Prod, Trust, Pray

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2019.

John 2:1-11

1.

What an outstanding passage from today’s Gospel, eh?

I mean, here’s Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, becoming known to the world—his epiphany, if you will—and where is he but at a party? And it’s not just any old dinner party, but a wedding, a week-long feast in the ancient world.

And what does he do for his very first sign but turn water into wine?

In one fell swoop, he both saves a host from social embarrassment and enables people to rejoice and be glad more than they already are. We don’t have to read into this story very much at all to see that Jesus enables those who are already drunk to get drunker still.

How our Baptist and Mormon friends have trouble with this one!

Have you ever heard the argument that when the term “good wine” appears in the scriptures—as it does in this passage—it actually means wine that hasn’t yet fermented? Good wine in the Bible, the argument goes, is actually grape juice and not what we would consider wine at all.

But, oh, you can’t get around this story: because the steward explains that usually the host brings out the good wine first; and that—as the steward puts it—only after the guests have become drunk is when the host brings out the inferior wine.

So, it’s right here: in the Bible people actually got drunk off good wine. In other words, Baptist friends, this ain’t grape juice!

And, by the way—I have to say it—I’m pretty sure that it was here, at this party, when that hymn was written, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.”

But, aside from all the wonderful lessons on everyday joy and gladness we can learn from this passage, I want instead to focus our time together on two vexing questions that rise to the surface here, two vexing questions about prayer.

2.

The first question is this: But why pray at all?

Last week we found Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel according to St. Luke. He went out to the Jordan River and was baptized by John along with all the other people. And we saw a bodily form, like a dove, descend and alight on Jesus; and we heard a voice from the heavens saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We heard about something else in Luke too: something that took place right after Jesus was baptized and right before the Trinity showed up; something that doesn’t make it into the other Gospels. Do you remember?

Jesus prayed. Along with all the other people, Jesus prayed. Like you and me, Jesus prayed.

But why should we pray at all?

If God is indeed sovereign—if God is the absolute creator, ruler, and sustainer of the universe—then God is going to do whatever God wants, thank you very much. So, really, will one little, insignificant prayer from me make any difference?

On the other hand, maybe God isn’t sovereign.

Maybe this doctrine of sovereignty is mistaken, a sort of theological hangover from the Middle Ages, still giving us a headache in our modern day. (I guess I’m still thinking about that party.)

Maybe, instead, God sits up in the heavens and casts divine influence this, that, or the other way—key word being influence, not sovereignty.

Maybe God doesn’t really rule over everything after all, but sits in a celestial administrative office orchestrating great Rube Goldberg-like systems of cause and effect upon our world, wringing cosmic hands together, hoping, just hoping, that everything will turn out all right.

Is this why we pray? To influence God to make one decision and not another?

Well, I don’t know about you, but this seems to me hardly satisfactory.

Whatever the case—whatever reasons we have for praying—at the end of the day our prayers won’t change a looming deadline. We won’t stop that annoying bill from coming in. We won’t put an end to poverty. We won’t cause wars to cease.

But see what happens at this wedding party! And I’m not talking about Jesus turning the water into wine.

Something else happens, before the miracle: Jesus’ own mother prods. “They have no wine,” she tells him.

Jesus hems and haws a little, a response I’ll get to shortly.

Nevertheless, after his apparent cageyness, Jesus goes ahead and performs the miracle anyway.

And we are left with the distinct impression that Jesus would not have acted without his mother prodding first.

Are you ever like Jesus’ mother here? Do you ever prod Jesus in prayer?

A startling notion! But one that offers an answer to our first question.

3.

Which brings us to the second question: Why does Jesus seem reluctant? Why the hemming and hawing? Why the apparent cageyness?

Jesus’ mother comes to him and points out, “They have no wine.”

Now, at this point St. John the Evangelist could have gone straight to the part of the story when Jesus’ mother says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” John could have skipped over altogether Jesus’ response to his mother. But he didn’t. He includes it. “Woman,” Jesus says, “what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

What concern, he asks? I’ll tell you a concern!

It’s the term Jesus uses to address his mother: woman! Isn’t this a little disrespectful? I mean, of all people, to his mother! Is Jesus somehow giving teenagers everywhere a green light to act like, well, teenagers?

Listen! Sons everywhere—and daughters too—it’s never a good idea to address your mom like this! I know I almost always counsel you to do whatever Jesus does, to follow in his footsteps and all that. But here’s an exception, okay? Just don’t!

But more seriously, there’s been a lot of debate over this question from very early on in the church’s history. Some say it’s a language issue, that when Jesus addresses his mother with the word “woman,” it didn’t come across back then as abrasively as it does now. But others say, no, it still would have been fairly abrasive.

Wherever you side on the debate, one thing’s for sure: John wants to get our attention.

The host has run out of wine; social embarrassment is imminent. And Jesus doesn’t seem to want to do anything to help. Tension!

Does prayer ever feel this way to you? Have you ever experienced a particularly difficult time in life and no matter how many times you cry out to God it feels like God just isn’t listening? Tension!

But if so, you’re not alone.

Jesus’ mom felt that way, I’m sure. And in our world today we ask questions like:

Why are there wars? Why is gun violence so prevalent? Why genocide? Why hurricanes and earthquakes?

Surely, people around the world are praying that these evils come to an end! Why doesn’t God listen? If God is good and if God hears our prayers, then why does evil persist?

The theological term for this sticky issue is theodicy. In Greek, theo means God; and we all know what dicey means. So, simply put, going to God in prayer is dicey.

Why doesn’t God just answer our prayers already?

Whatever the case, whatever tension we feel, St. John the Evangelist includes this exchange between Jesus and his mother for our benefit. That Jesus is apparently reluctant to answer his own mother shows us that we can’t begin to think we understand God. God is ineffable.

Nevertheless, when we pray, our incomprehensible God listens.

We can prod Jesus through prayer, yes; but our prayers cannot and will not manipulate God.

Or, to come from another angle, God may not answer our prayers in the ways we expect; but God has reasons we will never understand.

4.

The nature of prayer is twofold.

On the one hand, prayer can be a catalyst for divine action.

But, on the other hand, we should never think of prayer as formulaic—like, “If only I pray the right way, then _____ will surely happen.”

We pray, asking God to do something in particular. But be prepared for God to answer our prayers in unexpected ways.

Prayer is not about aligning God to our will. Rather, prayer aligns us to God’s will.

Jesus’ mother prodded him. He didn’t answer her right away.

But the story continues. She doesn’t just give up. Instead, she goes and finds the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

Jesus doesn’t answer her as she anticipates; still, she anticipates an answer. She doesn’t know how, exactly, Jesus will act. But she trusts that he will.

God hears our prayers. God considers our prayers. And—though it often happens in ways we don’t expect—God acts on our prayers.

This is why we pray.

Prod. Trust. Pray.

Not the Prim, Proper, and Perfumed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 13, 2019, also known as the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

1.

No one is getting baptized here today.

Still, today we gather around the liturgy of baptism. Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the day on our church calendar when we celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s baptism.

Jesus was right there with everyone else in the crowd that day, waiting in line to be baptized in the Jordan by that enigmatic character John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

What do you think Jesus experienced on that day?

What did that crowd look like, “filled with expectation . . . questioning in their hearts . . . whether [John] might be the Messiah”?

Did the line of people stretch farther than the eye could see? Or was the “crowd,” say, only about twenty people?

Were the people mostly young; or a good mix of all ages, including children? Or were they only men, representing their households?

What kinds of disabilities would Jesus have seen?

What kinds of clothes did the people wear? How dirty were they?

Then, what do you think Jesus overheard the crowd around him discussing? The people were filled with expectation about John’s identity, Luke says. So, what were the topics of their conversations? Religion? Politics? Small talk? Gossip about their neighbors?

And what do you think they smelled like? Lunch? Livestock? Body odor?

2.

My, how times have changed!

What picture comes to your mind today when you hear the word churchgoer? What does the crowd we find ourselves a part of today look, sound, and smell like?

Here’s what comes to my mind, a picture from the late 1980s, when I first began to attend church regularly.

I was 18 or 19 years old, never been in church more than a few times. My eyes had recently been opened to the saving knowledge of the 1980s soCal conservative evangelical image of Jesus—all gentleness and blue eyes and flowing blond hair . . . like some surfers I knew.

Jesus wasn’t like those other surfers, the ones living out of their beat-up Volkswagen vans, somehow managing to eke out livings repairing surfboards and painting fences for the friend of a friend.

No, Jesus was one of the good guys, like the surfers who managed In-N-Out Burger chains, a good job to come by, especially since they print “John 3:16” on the bottoms of their drink cups. These surfers drove respectable vehicles, pickup trucks or hatchbacks.

And the families that these gentle surfers came from—well, now, there’s a picture to behold! The dads wore ties that matched their socks and the moms wore perfectly coordinated ensembles, often with three or four little siblings in tow, just as prim and proper as their parents, hair braided or gelled, always on time.

They behaved perfectly too, in church or out, from what I could tell anyway.

And as for their smell: just one whiff and I knew, yes, here was the perfume, aftershave, and deodorant of the Promised Land.

Churchgoers par excellence!

3.

Jesus came and stood in line with the crowd to be baptized by John. John’s message was repentance. Repentance means to turn and head in a different direction. By the looks, sounds, and smells of churchgoers today, well, we’ve repented all right!

But is this what baptism is about? Our actions?

When we come to the waters of baptism, we make a public statement expressing our repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, we don’t want to live the old way anymore; but new life in Christ!

And, as we all know, the old way of life looked, sounded, and smelled like the crowd that was with Jesus on that day so many years ago on the bank of the River Jordan.

The new life is different. We mind our p’s and q’s now! We need to have everything together, to live out a life that honors Christ. Or at least we need to look like we do.

Really?

What if I change the term from churchgoer to seeker? What image comes to mind now, of a person truly seeking Jesus today?

Wise people? Magi?

Sometimes. In fact, we considered this image last week.

But, also, what about the poor, the sick, and the marginalized? What images come to mind here? Homeless persons? AIDS victims? Criminals? Do they seek Jesus too?

Seekers are not always the people we like to envision. Seekers might not fit our prim, proper, and perfumed expectations. Seekers might make us uncomfortable.

4.

So, today we remember our Lord’s baptism.

Baptism is an act; and thus, logically, we associate actions with our baptism: the clothes we wear, the things we say, how we come across to others, how we express what we believe.

But the Gospel of Luke does something different today.

There’s Jesus, standing in line with the crowd of seekers, waiting his turn to be baptized; Jesus, taking in all those sights, sounds, and smells; Jesus, himself contributing to all those sights, sounds, and smells.

But Luke passes this over as if it’s no big deal.

Just like that, Jesus is baptized along with everyone else and it’s time for the story to move on. No lingering here; no detailed development like with the birth narrative. Just, bam! And it’s over.

This is a very different telling from we hear in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the versions we will hear on this Feast day over the next two years, which are both much more detailed.

But Luke is low-key; as if to say we shouldn’t make too much out of the act of baptism—or the things we do in our new life.

Even so, there is a little detail Luke adds to the story that we mustn’t overlook, a small yet profound phrase Matthew and Mark leave out. Luke glosses over the action and instead says Jesus “was praying.”

After everyone is baptized and before the heavens open and the heavenly voice booms—right in between!—Jesus prays.

In fact, the way Luke tells it, the Spirit descends bodily and the heavenly voice resounds not as a part of his baptism but because Jesus prays. The prayer of Jesus is the cause; the dove and God’s voice are the effects.

This unique-to-Luke detail arrests our attention today.

No one from our congregation is getting baptized; the rite will not be enacted today at St. Thomas.

But that’s perfectly appropriate; because the actions in and around our baptism—how we look, sound, or smell in our new life—are not Luke’s point! Rather, today Luke declares that the baptized life is characterized by the practice of prayer.

And then it doesn’t matter: then we pray because we are grateful churchgoers; and then we pray, too, because we are needy, sick, and marginalized seekers.

Comfortable or not, thankful or in need, we pray because we want to and we have to.

5.

And the best part about today’s Gospel is what happens when you do pray.

Two things, right?

The first: the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove; and here again Luke adds a detail not seen in the other Gospels: “in bodily form.”

You don’t see your prayers ascending. You speak them into the air and they dissipate. And you’re left to wonder, Has God heard me?

Prayers seem so immaterial, so abstract!

Yet, Luke reminds us today, when you pray the Holy Spirit descends upon you as concretely as a dove in bodily form!

And second—my favorite part of all—is that voice from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

You know what this is? You’ve just earned an 89 on your faith test; and God is not that parent who spouts off, “You should have earned an A!” Instead, God puts loving arms around you and responds affirmingly, “Well done!”

You pray; and God affirms!

God loves you; God is well pleased with you.

It doesn’t matter how imperfect or perfect your life is. It doesn’t matter whether you are a churchgoer or seeker. It doesn’t even matter what you look, sound, or smell like. “You are my child,” God says, “my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Our prayers are as concrete as a bird in flight; and God affirms us, whoever we are. What better reasons to live a life characterized by prayer?