Compassion’s Abundance

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered via YouTube on 8/2/2020.

Matthew 14:13-21


A familiar story, eh? Jesus feeds 5,000 hungry men—and however many women and children happened to be present! Probably some dogs too.

But what’s the point here? That Jesus can do miracles? That God has abundant compassion on people who follow Jesus? What do you think Matthew is trying to teach us through the story of this miracle?

So . . . it follows right on the heels of two other stories.

In the first, which completes Chapter 13, Jesus went to his patris, his hometown; and there was rejected. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” his homies asked, as if to justify their rejection.

And in the second, which begins Chapter 14, John the Baptist was beheaded for rebuking Herod Antipas, that figurehead of Rome.

The first thing we hear in today’s Gospel is that Jesus withdraws from Nazareth to a deserted place in order to be alone.

Jesus was probably feeling inadequate: he’d been rejected by his hometown.

Jesus was probably grieving too: over the execution of his cousin.

But a sizable crowd followed him; a crowd hoping to hear more of his teachings.

Are you seeing any contrasts here? From Nazareth, a town buzzing with people, to a deserted, lonely place? Rejected by one crowd but followed by another? Jesus grieving while Herod rejoices? Herod throwing a lavish banquet, yet today’s crowd has no food whatsoever?

Let’s not lose sight of this context of contrast because of the fantastic account of the miracle.

Why does the story of the miracle follow on the heels of these other two stories?


For the answer, we go back one more story, to the beginning of Chapter 13.

There, before JB’s execution and before Nazareth rejected Jesus, we find another boat in which Jesus sat. Jesus got into that boat, Matthew says, pushed out a little from the shore, and began to teach the gathered crowd.

Now it’s not a contrast but a parallel. Do you see it?

Today, again, Jesus gets into a boat; and today, again, a great crowd has gathered to hear him.

It’s as if Matthew is telling us—ding! ding! ding!—that was Part 1; this is Part 2. Pay attention!

The first time Jesus got into a boat, he taught the crowd about the kingdom of heaven. Today, Jesus sees the gathered crowd and, forgetting about his own grief; forgetting about his own feelings of inadequacy, has compassion on the people—such abundant compassion, in fact, that twelve basketfuls are left over.

KoH taught; KoH enacted; and rejection and violence in between.

It seems pretty clear to me—I hope it does to you too:

  • From that first boat, Jesus taught what the KoH was like—a mustard seed, yeast in a batch of dough, and so on;
  • Followed by a picture of how the kingdom of this world operates—rejection and violence from the established social hierarchy;
  • And now, today, from a second boat, Matthew returns to the KoH.

But today, in this story of the feeding of the 5,000, rather than teaching about it again Jesus shows us what the KoH is like:

It stands in stark contrast to the earthly realm.


Now, allow me to bring this comparison-and-contrast between the KoH and the earthly realm into our time and space.

I’ve been doing a good deal of personal anti-racism work over the last decade. Some of it has been intentional—active work—and some passive.

This work began in earnest in Sewanee, while I was a graduate student. One of the deans, a self-proclaimed angry Black man, told me I was racist.

“But I grew up on the west coast,” I protested, “in southern California. Southern U. S. history has never been on my radar. In fact, I grew up with several Black and Mexican friends. I like to think of myself as colorblind.”

“O Timothy,” he countered, “the fact that you are so unaware of racism and its effects in our country proves that you come from a place of privilege.”

A moment’s reflection and I knew he was right. “Okay, then,” I said, “I am unaware; and I don’t want to be. Teach me.”

Some years later I became the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, where I inherited a fledgling Latino Congregation, Iglesia San Pablo.

In the beginning, admittedly, I approached this out of the goodness of my heart, as a service to those special people. However—thank God!—after three years of working alongside my Latino brothers and sisters, listening to what they had to say, and otherwise seeing life through their eyes, I became a part of “those special people.”

Incidentally, over those three years the ASA in the Latino congregation went from 8 to 35, with fully half of that number being under 18 years of age. All the baptisms and confirmations happened there—new life!

Anyway, to return to my point, while in Yuma what I saw with respect to White supremacy over the Latinx world would make your skin crawl.

And, to be honest, I’m seeing the same thing now, in Tucson.

That’s what the people who talk about it mean when they say systemic racism.


I have a friend named Tweedy. We know each other from my time in Yuma. She’s a Methodist minister who also happens to be Navajo.

Presently, Tweedy lives in Shiprock, New Mexico, where she is a pastor to the Navajo Nation. She and I shared a phone conversation this week about her new ministry.

Sadly, after being granted land in 1868, the Navajo Nation has been largely forgotten or ignored by our government. The roads are in poor condition. Trash litters the towns, highways, and byways. Internet service, where it exists at all, is still mostly dial-up (if you can believe it). Medical resources are few and far between (felt especially keenly during this pandemic). Many who live on the reservation do not have running water in their homes.

So, Tweedy tells me that birth defects in Tuba City, Arizona are especially high per capita and have been so for the past few decades. When pressed by me as to why, she surmised that it likely has to do with the abandoned uranium mines in the area, the tailings of which have never been properly abated since the mining companies closed up and moved away some years ago.

Somewhat shocked, I did a personal web search to follow up; and I learned—well, let me read just the first paragraph of an EPA report from September, 2018 (

USEPA, in partnership with Navajo Nation EPA (NNEPA), has identified 523 AUMs [Abandoned Uranium Mines] on the Navajo Nation. Of these 523 AUMs, 46 mines were identified as “priority mines” based on radiation levels, proximity to homes, and potential for water contamination.

The Navajo Nation—like Latinxs (especially near the Mexican border) and Black Lives (especially in the south)—has been treated unjustly by our nation’s socioeconomic system; a system that has made it very difficult to get ahead in this world, or even to break out of cycles of poverty.

Plain and simple: whether we see it or not, systemic racism is real.


Well, as we know already, systemic racism is only one of many social injustices that abound in today’s world.

They abounded in Jesus’ world too—in the established hierarchical Roman system of government; and in the established social pecking order of hometowns.

All social injustices, whether obvious or hidden, are based upon domination: one group of people establishing and maintaining superiority over all other groups, because of race, gender, social status, or some other difference.

KoH stands in stark contrast to these.

Jesus saw the vast crowd. All of them were hungry.

Jesus then had compassion upon them all. Equally.

And he called his disciples to act on that compassion.

We are called today to act on Jesus’ compassion, to work towards bringing an end to social injustices like systemic racism; to work towards equity.

Oh, but where do we start? It feels so overwhelming!

Yes, it is overwhelming. Systemic racism is, well, uh, systemic. But look once more to the Gospel.

Called to act, Jesus’ disciples looked out at the vast crowd and said, “Ugh! We have nothing, only some bread crumbs and a few sardines. We’ll never be able to feed so many people!”

And, called to act today, we look out at the injustices around us; and we pray, “But what can we do, Jesus, with so little?”

The good news is that, when we take a stand against the overwhelming established social order, our small actions spread like yeast throughout a large batch of dough, imperceptibly at first, so slowly we don’t even notice, until one day we do, in little ways at first, then bigger, bit by bit, until, at last, there’s leaven enough for a lavish feast.

Society has been fed and satisfied. We look around, smiling. Amazingly, twelve basketfuls are left over!

Christ’s compassion acted upon yields abundance.

The Parable of COVID-19

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered via Zoom to the St. Michael’s, Coolidge congregation.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


Do you know what the kudzu vine is?

An indigenous species in Asia, kudzu was first introduced to the United States at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, in 1876, as an effective groundcover for stopping erosion.

A few years later, at the New Orleans Exposition of 1883, kudzu was marketed to the south primarily as an ornamental vine to shade porches. Cattle farmers, too, discovered that their cows liked it as food, that it grew quickly, and that it has a high protein content.

During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s kudzu was planted extensively to combat erosion. In fact, it was so effective that the government cultivated and helped fund the planting of 85 million seedlings, yielding approximately 3 million acres of groundcover by the end of WWII.

However: boll weevil infestations soon decimated the cotton fields of the south; most southern farmers abandoned their livelihoods; kudzu was left unattended and unchecked.

And, turns out, kudzu likes the climate of the southeastern United States. A lot!

Pretty soon, people began to notice kudzu’s negative effects.

It grows faster than other plants.

It possesses a curious ability to establish new root systems from the ends of vines in a hurry; thus enabling new, independent organisms to grow quickly outward in every direction.

It is classified as a structural parasite, meaning it finds light for photosynthesis by climbing on top of other structures—whether bushes, trees, power poles, or houses.

For living organisms, such as dogwood trees and blackberry bushes, this means their light gets blocked, their ability to photosynthesize becomes compromised, and they die.

For structures like power poles and houses, kudzu decays and destroys.

And—one more fun fact—it is super nitrogen-rich. I don’t presume to understand the science behind it all, but apparently this means it actually pollutes the ozone.


So, in 1953 the USDA removed kudzu from its list of recommended groundcovers. In 1970, they listed it as a weed. And in 1997, kudzu appeared on the Federal Noxious Weeds List for the first time, where it remains today.

Fight it as we might, kudzu covers approximately 7.5 million acres of U. S. soil today. If you ever drive down a road in the southeast, just look out your window and within a few minutes, no doubt, you’ll see some.

Anyway, point is, today we see nothing of value in kudzu. Instead, it is an invasive nuisance.


I’ve heard a similar story about the mustard seed in the ancient Roman Empire.

A foreign weed, the mustard seed was first brought to the Empire because of—you guessed it—a useful quality.

In an effort to rid the Empire of pirates, the story goes, Julius Caesar commissioned his military leader Pompey with a task to build—or, to dig—more harbors across the Mediterranean region.

The innovative mustard seed was employed—a plant known for its ability to grow quickly and to sap seemingly all nutrients and moisture from its surroundings.

The result was large-scale erosion in short order; and, for Pompey’s concerns, easy digging.

But, like kudzu, mustard quickly rose to the top of the Empire’s Noxious Weeds List. It was invasive. It became a widespread nuisance.

All Jesus had to do was mention the term mustard seed, and people’s eyes would roll with disdain and contempt—even if they knew its history and background, its original usefulness.

So, the question I now want to focus on is this:

Why does Jesus say the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed? How is the KoH like the kudzu vine—something worthless, disruptive, good for nothing but widescale, commonplace frustration?

After all, that is the jarring surprise from this parable.

In case this point weren’t already clear enough, Jesus goes on to equate the KoH with yeast that spreads throughout a huge batch of bread.


Jewish people didn’t like yeast. Their bread was unleavened. Yeast was unclean, impure, not kosher.

So, why is Jesus teaching us today that the KoH is like some everyday, commonplace, invasive nuisance that no one wants around?

If I didn’t know better, I’d say Jesus is saying that the KoH has a subversive quality to it. Mustard seed invades; yeast spreads; kudzu overwhelms, against all our efforts to the contrary!


Hmm. The KoH, subverting? Invading, spreading, overwhelming?

Sounds to me a lot like COVID-19.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I just went there. I just said that the KoH is like a global pandemic.

Shocking statement, isn’t it?

But this sense of shock was experienced by the first hearers of these parables.

So, actually, I’m thinking that if Jesus were with us today, he might tell the Parable of COVID-19:

The kingdom of heaven is like a global pandemic. It invades; it infects; it interrupts; it frustrates; it disrupts our lives—despite all our efforts to combat it. And, truth be told, no one really wants it around.

Well, why not? Let’s consider it; let’s make this our simile today:

How is the KoH like COVID-19?

The whole world is quarantining. We can’t take those summer vacations we planned. We’ve got to wear those confounded masks everywhere and apply hand sanitizer until our hands are cracked and bleeding!

Worse still, people we know—friends, family—have become sick and, in some cases, died.

COVID-19 has disrupted everything about our lives.

So, okay, the KoH is disruptive.

We human beings like stability. We like to plan and have everything play out according to our plan. We like things to be neat and tidy—efficient, productive!

Or, to come at it from another angle, we don’t like change. We don’t like it when we wake up in the morning, look out our window, and discover that weeds are there in the middle of our planned out, neat and tidy rows of wheat.

Our routine, our world, has been disrupted. It’s not fair!

But we get it, right? Humanity likes routine; and the KoH shakes us out of it. God is full of surprises. Aslan is not a tame lion.

Still though, there’s that negative side to the parable that leaves us scratching our head.

Churches have shuttered their doors. Services have gone virtual. Communion is an increasingly distant memory. Tithing and giving have dropped. Priests seeking to pray with sick parishioners or administer last rites are turned away from hospitals. Weddings and funerals are mostly on hold until further notice.

Isn’t society telling us, really, that everything about the KoH is non-essential; or, more jarringly, that the KoH is invasive, a nuisance, good for nothing but frustration?

Forgive me, you ask, but how is there anything redeeming anywhere in this?


Good question!

For the answer, we return to today’s Gospel. How was there anything redeeming anywhere in that invasive, overwhelming, frustrating nuisance known as the mustard seed?

Jesus gives us the answer. When that nuisance of a seed was fully grown, it became a home, a place of shelter, nurture, rest, and safety for the birds of the air.

The mustard seed, like kudzu, was originally brought into the Empire because of its usefulness; but it soon became a useless nuisance.

But Jesus tells us it becomes useful again—though in a way no one is looking for; in a way no one expects.

There’s a theological term for this: transformation.

Transformation does not mean that we will go back to the way things were—back to a Roman Empire before the mustard seed, back to the southeastern U. S. before kudzu took over, or back to a world before COVID-19.

But transformation does signal a way forward.

It’s a new and unexpected way forward; and so, yes, it’s scary.

But it is a way forward nonetheless.

And thus there is hope.

The KoH—especially as it is manifested in and through the Church—the KoH is God’s agent of transformation; not so that society can return to the way things were but so that it can move forward, in hope, into a new and unexpected world.

Humanity will move forward, beyond a world where everything lies under COVID-19’s shadow. Because of COVID-19, yes, things will forever be different, changed, transformed. But don’t despair in the present; we will get there!

The KoH is like that: an agent of transformation, pushing society into a new and uncomfortable place; and, at the same time, transforming it into something unexpectedly beneficial for the common good.

And that, to answer your question, is infinitely redeeming.

Exclusive Disjunctions and other necessary Evils

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2020 by timtrue

Another Zoom sermon, to be delivered live via that platform later this morning.

Matthew 13:24-30, 26-43


I don’t know about you, but I’ve experienced this parable’s interpretation to go something like this.

Now, understand at the outset, this was a long time ago, in a denomination far, far away; which, incidentally, took the doctrine of predestination quite seriously.

So, my former pastors taught, the field in this parable represents the church.

Both grains and weeds are in this field. Grains are good, weeds evil; and, likewise, there are both good and evil people in the church. It has been predestined by God to be so.

No one knows for sure, except God, which souls are genuinely good or evil; and thus in the end God will be the final judge: God will finally separate the sheep from the goats; the sheep will go to God’s right, the goats to the left.

But—an important caveat—in the meantime pastors have been called to be Christ to their congregations; and therefore, among other things, it is the pastor’s duty and responsibility to discern where evil exists within the congregation and administer discipline where necessary.

Yeast spreads through the whole congregation, my former pastors said; and the bad yeast, where it is found, may need to be excommunicated.

Have you experienced this interpretation too?

And so I remember sitting in a meeting with church leaders when a young, single woman entered the room in tears. She was pregnant. She was sorry. What should she do?

To the church leaders, this was obviously sin—sin that would become apparent to the entire congregation only soon enough.

Because of this the church leaders determined hers to be a public sin; and a public sin, they concluded, needed public discipline.

So, at last, this young lady was presented with a choice: she would either stand in front of the congregation on a Sunday morning and publicly apologize; or face excommunication.

For the church leaders, that exclusive disjunction would determine whether she was good yeast or evil; or, to return to our original metaphor, whether she was grain or a weed.

Some years later, by the way, in a different church, I witnessed a similar process toward a young man who was caught red-handed viewing pornography on the internet.

Well, I’m sorry to say that in both cases the young woman and the young man did what their church leaders demanded. In tears, center stage, standing before an entire congregation, these young people apologized for their “evil” and promised to do good from now on.

But it makes sense, doesn’t it?

To these young people, both of whom I knew quite well, their churches were their main communities. They’d been taught that within these communities there are inherently good people and inherently evil people. And, understandably, neither one wanted their names to be on the inherently evil list—the predestined-to-eternal-damnation list.

Either grain or weeds. Either good or evil. Either one of us or one of them.

Exclusive disjunctions.

We all want to be included in the “us” group, right? None of us wants to be in the “them” group—excluded!


But what if we reframe this parable’s interpretation? What if, instead of saying the field is the church—the kingdom of heaven on earth—what if we say the field is each one of us, as individuals? What happens then?

By the way, I see nothing in today’s Gospel to prevent us from seeing it this way. In fact, quite the other way around, Jesus often teaches that we, as individuals, are the kingdom of heaven on earth—in the beatitudes, in the parables of the mustard seed and the prodigal son, and so on.

So, here’s where my thinking goes:

Good and evil are not persons.

What do I mean?

Well, if you look up good in the dictionary, you won’t find a picture of Jesus or Gandhi or MLKJ illustrating the definition, right? And if you look up evil, much as you might hope to find a picture of some person you don’t like or of the devil or whatever, it’s just not there.

Instead—well, I plugged evil into a search engine on my computer, and this is the definition that popped up: “profound immorality and wickedness, especially when regarded as a supernatural force.”[i]

I think we would do well to consider evil as it is described in the second half of this definition: a supernatural force; or, a force that is impersonal.

For instance, instead of thinking of someone like Adolph Hitler as evil incarnate, let’s try to understand him as a man deeply affected by an impersonal force, an unseen power, at work within his psyche.

After all, he was a human being just like one of us. And thus his culture, his times, how he was raised, his education, his levels of physical health and mental wellness—each of these factors, and many more, played a role in who he became as a man and a leader; and in the terrible deeds he did.

Now, please understand, none of this means he is any less responsible for the acts of terror he committed.

But when we dehumanize evil—when we say Hitler was not evil itself but rather that he was profoundly influenced by an unseen, impersonal, and even supernatural force at work all around and within him—then it is a little easier to love an enemy as Jesus directs; then it is a little easier to show mercy.

But, of course, if we do that—if we dehumanize evil—then we have to dehumanize good too. Good, like evil, has to be an impersonal, unseen power at work all around and within us too.

So now what happens?

It’s complicated, isn’t it? Adolph Hitler becomes less of a monster; but, at the same time, Gandhi becomes less of a saint. Good and evil work—conflict—war—against one another—within us all—whether we are alone, as individuals; or we are together, in our homes, our churches, our places of work, our societies.

That co-worker, vestry member, sibling, spouse, President, or anyone else who stands in our way—now <sigh> we have to be gracious: they’re not bad people. But neither is that author, pastor, coach, or teacher the definition of goodness!

Let’s not be too quick to pass someone off, on the one hand, as a lost cause; or, on the other, to trust everything she says as Gospel truth!

Anyway, post-Freudian as this description may sound, nothing Jesus says today prevents us from this interpretation.

In fact, in the larger context of Jesus’ message and mission, I’m rather surprised that the popular interpretation—that individual persons are either good or evil—has any foothold at all!


But it does!

Did you catch that logical term I said a couple times already: exclusive disjunctions?

Exclusive disjunctions happen in logic when we say or think a thing must be either one way or another. It’s binary. There’s no middle ground, no room left for compromise.

Now, yes, there are in fact many legitimate exclusive disjunctions in our world.

Two plus two is either five or it’s not. I am either a father or I am not. That yellow fruit shaped like a crescent moon is either a banana or it’s not.

In fact, our entire technological revolution over the last fifty years is founded upon binary logic—exclusive disjunctions.

The trouble is, as a culture and society we have learned to see many things in life—ideas, political parties, sports teams, individual persons, our own selves—through the lens of exclusive disjunction.

I am either pro-life or pro-choice. I am either a Diamondbacks fan or a Giants fan. I am either Democratic or Republican. I am either a racist or a Civil Rights advocate. I am either a good person or an evil person.

We have left ourselves no middle ground, no room for compromise.

Is it any wonder that, as a society, we’ve largely lost the ability to participate in civil discourse?


On the other hand, what happens when we allow ourselves to hold two dissimilar ideologies together in tension?

Can I be both pro-life and pro-choice at the same time? Can I be progressive in my attitudes toward some things and conservative in my attitudes toward others? Can I fight for Civil Rights and yet still acknowledge my own tendencies toward racist thinking? Can good and evil be at work within me at the same time?

It’s not that some persons within our denomination are inherently good and others are inherently evil. It’s not that one President of the U. S. is good and another is evil. Rather, it’s that impersonal, unseen powers of good and evil are constantly at war around and within each of us.

And thus the worst human being you can think of—that abusive boyfriend, that double-crossing boss, that terrorist, that mass shooter, that White Supremacist, that tyrant, that vestry member, that . . . fill in the blank—the worst human you can think of has the power of good at work within.

And it works the other way around. The best human you can think of has evil within, at conflict with—warring with—the good.

This is true of every human being. It is true of you. It is true of me.

And it messes with our relationships!

But the governing biblical truth here is that every person—no matter what you might think of him or her or them—every person bears the imprint of God.

The very image of God!

And what is the image of God?

According to Jesus, God does not think or act in terms of exclusive disjunctions. It’s not that you are either evil or good, as if your life weighs in the balance! Rather, it’s about you becoming your best self—who you are, exactly as God made you.

According to Jesus, God cares for the outcast, the marginalized, the poor, the sick, the friendless, the needy, the leper, the prostitute, the single pregnant woman, the sex-addicted young man—just as much as God cares for the pastor or church leader—or that vestry member.

According to Jesus, God is 1,000% inclusive. That means you! And the most unlike-you person you can think of! And everyone in between!

According to Jesus, God is love!

That is the imprint found in every person.


Well then, last question: what does all this mean with respect to the final judgment? After all, that’s part of the parable.

So, according to my interpretation of this parable, the final judgment finishes the unseen war taking place around and within us: the good is gathered and the evil is burnt away. That is, within our individual souls, and our relationships, the power of good overcomes the power of evil once and for all.

That’s Good News. And, just as it was 2,000 years ago, that’s still our message and mission to our polarized world.


Of Dirge and Dance

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

To be delivered to St. Michael’s via YouTube on Sunday, the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2020. Shout out to my friend and faithful servant in Christ Eric Weber! Keep up the good work.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


I begin today’s message by focusing on the end of today’s Gospel:

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Well, aren’t we citizens of the U. S. carrying heavy burdens right now? COVID-19? Systemic racism? A tanking economy?

We are weary! We do need rest! Please, Jesus!

These are words of comfort for us, right?

So, all we have to do, Jesus continues, is take his yoke upon our shoulders.

Wait a minute! Am I hearing things? Jesus just said we can rest from our heavy burdens, our weariness; but all we’ve got to do is take on his yoke?

Isn’t that another burden?

I picture one ox plowing a field under a double yoke. One ox where there should be two!

And that one ox is Jesus, working to accomplish his message and mission—working alone to feed the hungry, tend the sick, clothe the naked, and free the captives.

Hard work!

But we oxen are burdened too—with our own pandemic spreading out of control, unjust and unseen systems of evil at work all around us, and cultural credit-infatuated captivity to the ideology of capitalism.

And Jesus tells us all we have to do to lessen our burden is to come alongside him and help him with his burden?

Really? Ours plus his? And the net result is less?

Is this new math?

Anyway, the question is, if we do add Jesus’ burden to our already overwhelming hardships, how will it lessen our burdens?

To illustrate, let’s say I hop on a plane tomorrow and go to help my friend Eric for a couple of weeks.

Eric is the Executive Director of the Sioux Falls Union Gospel Mission in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This mission serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner 7 days a week, 365 days a year, Coronavirus or not. That added up to 147,840 individual meals in 2019; and 2020 is on track to serve even more. Since 1900, the SFUGM has helped fulfill Christ’s larger mission by providing meals and shelter to the disadvantaged.

So, let’s say I go help Eric for a couple of weeks. This work will help some people, some individuals, who are down on their luck, no doubt. But how will this work—taking on Christ’s yoke—do anything to lessen the burdens of pandemic and social injustice?

Just what is Jesus telling us with these “words of comfort”?


You know, they only show up in Matthew—these words.

Yeah! The other parts of today’s passage show up in Luke. But not these words of comfort. This is the only place in the Bible where they show up.

That’s a clue.

Matthew must have wanted very much for his original audience to hear these words of comfort.

Matthew must have wanted very much for his original audience to know that following Jesus, however oppressive that might be, however much persecution they might receive, was an easier and lighter burden than any other option.

Matthew must have wanted very much for his original audience to rejoice in their position of gentleness and humility.

Matthew’s audience was not privileged. They were what we might call today disadvantaged, or even marginalized.

Do you know what it is to see the world through disadvantaged, marginalized eyes?

Jesus’ words of comfort are for them—then and now.


But there’s another clue in today’s passage that may enlarge our understanding of what Jesus is getting at.

It appears near the beginning. Some scholars refer to it as a parable, though I think of it more as a paradox.

Jesus asks, “To what shall I compare this generation?” and then goes on to describe children playing music without a correct response. “We played a dance,” they call out, “but you didn’t dance. Then we played a dirge but you didn’t mourn.”

Jesus’ “generation,” he says—or, alternatively, nation or even status quo—is having trouble interpreting something.

When they hear dance music, they just stand around, apparently unaware that their anticipated response is to be festive. Or maybe they’re like middle schoolers: they know what they’re supposed to do, but they lack the courage actually to do it.

On the other hand, when a dirge comes across the sound system, again his generation or nation or status quo is uncertain about what to do. Appropriate responses of lamentation and repentance are ignored or, worse, intentionally brushed aside.

Well, just what is it that Jesus’ generation—or nation, or status quo—is having trouble interpreting?

Jesus explains, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

Jesus’ generation missed the point. Specifically, when JB and Jesus played their songs—when they proclaimed their message and mission—their nation, their status quo—the religious and political establishments—did not interpret or respond to them as they should have.

Don’t get me wrong: they heard the message. But they either couldn’t figure out what to do with it or, like middle schoolers, knew what to do but lacked the courage.

I’m afraid not a lot has changed.

This clue lets us know what Jesus is getting at.

His message has been proclaimed for the past two thousand years. It’s a message of death and resurrection, of repentance and joy, of dirge and dance.

But his generation and ours—his nation and ours—the status quo—hear this message and either ignore it or lack the courage to act on it.


But now, through these clues, we have arrived at today’s good news.

Jesus offers words of comfort to those who hear and respond to the dirge and dance.

We hear, we lament, we repent; and, when appropriate, we rejoice and dance.

The burdens of our generation—COVID-19, systemic racism, a tanking economy—can overwhelm us.

But when we respond to Jesus’ message and mission, when we put him first and add his burden to our already overwhelming load—call it new math or anything else you like—the end product is lighter and easier.

For when we do add Jesus’ burden to our seemingly already overwhelming load, we find that feeding the hungry, tending the sick, clothing the naked, and freeing the oppressed in Christ’s name is in fact to dismantle the overwhelming edifices of evil one brick at a time.

Dismantling the old dominion and building a new heaven and a new earth, one hot meal, one Army-surplus blanket, one kind word, one welcome smile at a time—

And now—<deep sigh> ahhh!—by taking on the additional burden of Jesus’ yoke, just like Matthew’s early community of disciples, we find rest.

Words of comfort, then and now.

But only if we respond appropriately to the dirge and the dance.

A Case for Bona Fide Conversation

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2020 by timtrue

To be delivered later this morning via Zoom to parishioners from St. Michael’s Church, Coolidge, Arizona, and perhaps a smattering of others. Not trying to be political, just faithful to the text–and Jesus!

Matthew 10:40-42


Once upon a time I was a vicar of a church. This particular church prided itself on its hospitality.

Upon my arrival, the junior warden proudly told me, “The interim said ours is the most hospitable church she’s ever experienced in her fifty years of being an Episcopalian.”

Now, admittedly, I experienced this perception of hospitality.

When I first arrived, the Hospitality Committee hosted a welcome dinner for me and my family. Scallops, fettucine, a fresh salad with blackberries and goat cheese, white wine, molten lava cake for dessert—quite the spread!

And for the next few months this hospitable façade continued.

One Saturday, a couple invited my wife and me to dinner at one of the local wineries. The next Saturday, same thing, only it was a different couple and a different, somewhat nicer, winery. And again, another Saturday. And another.

But vicars don’t make much money, relatively speaking—and with so many invitations . . . well, we found ourselves in the slightly awkward position of being unable to reciprocate. Instead, we decided to invite the whole church over to our home for a Sunday-afternoon “Open House.”

It was a lot of work; and a lot of fun! In fact, curiously, more people attended the open house than had attended church that morning. . . .

However, sad to say, after that open-house event the invitations to dinner dropped to zero. The honeymoon was over; their initial work of hospitality was done. Check off that box!

And that’s about the time I began to notice that the Hospitality Committee was very selective about how, when, and upon whom to offer hospitality.

On the one hand, when the church was called upon to host a luncheon for the diocesan Executive Council, the HC pulled out all the stops!

But on quite the other hand, when a lesbian couple had their wedding and reception at the church, the HC evaporated like acetone wiped on a hot metal surface.

This church demonstrated a kind of hospitality. But it was selective. And selective is hardly genuine.


So, what, exactly, is genuine hospitality?

It’s something, we’ve been told, that should characterize us Christians.

“Whoever welcomes you,” Jesus says, “welcomes me”; and a little further on, “truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Welcome? Reward? I like the sound of that!

And so we practice hospitality.

In fact, I’ve got a guest room available right now for friends and family to drop in and stay for a few days, enjoy some good food and wine, fellowship, conversation, maybe some bridge. It’s fun for my guests; but also quite rewarding for me.

So, is this what it looks like to practice genuine hospitality? Maybe.

Still, is it the kind of hospitality Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel? Is this—a kind of personal pleasure—what he means by reward?

The context is the same as the past two weeks: Jesus is still talking to his disciples regarding their first mission. They’re to carry on his work. And doing so, Jesus predicts, will result to some extent in persecution. However, there might be some people as well who will show them genuine hospitality.

For us today, we’ve been called to carry on Jesus’ same mission, to heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, release the captives, and proclaim the good news.

But according to today’s passage, that’s not hospitality—feeding the hungry and so on. That’s the mission.

And yet, don’t we think of ourselves as practicing hospitality whenever we do works of outreach?


Maybe we should think about hospitality more like it’s presented to us today.

Inequity abounds in our world. Whether class, gender, race, or sexual orientation, it’s a story as old as history: the unseen powers that be make one category of persons superior to all others—white, male, heterosexual, wealthy—and all other categories thus fall by the inferior wayside.

When the church, in the name of Jesus, tries to make these wrong inequalities right, its work is often not welcome; just like the early disciples were not welcome.

And why not?

Because the persons in power—the superior ones—often do not want wrongs made right. They like the way things are, the status quo. Never mind the injustices of their world! They have grown accustomed to privilege. They want to hold on to their power.

And it is these people—the persons of power and privilege—who have the choice of whether or not to practice hospitality.

Right? It’s not the oppressed or marginalized who offer the privileged hospitality—it wasn’t the poor vicar who could afford to take the wealthy parishioners out to dinner at the glitzy wineries—but the other way round!

Those early disciples weren’t in a position of practicing hospitality. Rather, they were in the position of receiving it—or not, depending on what those in positions of privilege and power chose to do.

The early disciples were called to carry on Jesus’ mission regardless of whether or not they were in a position to offer hospitality.


Now, here’s where things get interesting.

As I observed last week, the church started out in the minority position—inferiors, like the early disciples, with respect to the established religious consciousness of the ancient world.

But somewhere around the fourth century, Christianity became the established religion—like those in today’s Gospel who were in a position to receive the disciples.

Now the tables had turned. Christianity went from inferior to superior. Christianity became the dominant religious ideology.

In other words, now Christianity was in the position of power, the position to decide whether or not to offer genuine hospitality to strangers.

And we know what happened.

From the moment Christianity became dominant, those it decreed heretics were forced to repent or be excommunicated (and often exiled!).

Also, Jews were persecuted by Christians, often violently.

A little later a new religion called Islam began to spread rapidly across northern Africa and into the western Mediterranean; and Christian kings and their forces answered with violence, which they called holy war.

Christianity’s bishops couldn’t seem to agree on who should hold the most power, and thus an event historians call the Great Schism resulted—Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, the West and the East, split!

None of this was hospitable. Indeed, they couldn’t even practice hospitality among themselves!

And I’m sure we all know of the Crusades—another form of holy war that lasted into the Renaissance—and the genocide committed at the behest of Christian Explorers in the New World.

Throughout its history, with respect to exercising hospitality the Christian church has failed miserably.

But, also, since I touched on it earlier, how are we doing with the original mission? Has the church made much progress towards eradicating hunger? Towards ending poverty? Towards stopping racism in its tracks?

We get an A+ in putting ourselves on top and staying there.

But, with respect to Jesus’ mission and practicing hospitality, our cumulative GPA is 0.0.


You can hardly blame the established church though, right?

I mean, what would you do if a group of people came knocking on your door asking you to change your established ways?

Would you—be honest now!—would you invite them inside, offer them a place to sit comfortably, and have a bona fide conversation with them?

Or, maybe, instead, would you simply roll your eyes and say, “Go away, kid; you bother me”?

Or, maybe—a middle option (like my former church)—would you put a smile on your face, offer a place to sit for what appears to be a conversation, but all the while, behind that plastic smile, you’re not really listening; you’re still thinking, “Go away, kid; you bother me”?

But, to take a step back, do you realize how much of a position of privilege we are in just to be asking this in the first place?

We aren’t in the shoes of the early disciples here, coming from the perspective of the marginalized.

Instead, we, the Episcopal Church, are privileged and empowered, responsible for establishing and maintaining the current status quo; and the time has come for us to let go of our privilege and power.

It’s time to offer a table to the oppressed for bona fide conversation; knowing full well that, in order for genuine conversation to take place, we must listen—really listen—ask probing questions, and repent.

No more power plays! No more domination! No more privilege at the expense of others!

That is genuine hospitality!

And when such genuine hospitality takes place, it is the beginning of the end of hunger, poverty, violence, and all other forms of oppression.

Genuine hospitality. Jesus’ mission accomplished. The transformation of the world. Truly the best reward we could ask for!

Is American Christianity Giving Jesus a Bad Name?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2020 by timtrue

I will deliver this homily, which focuses on a hard saying about family, via Zoom tomorrow, the Third Sunday after Pentecost, aka Father’s Day, 2020. As noted parenthetically, it’s a weird juxtaposition.

Matthew 10:24-39


From time to time, we Christians are called to persevere. We’ve all experienced trials and tribulations, right?

But today, don’t you think Jesus might be taking things a bit too far?

I mean, what’s all this stuff about setting a man against his father and a daughter against her mother? Does following Jesus mean that I will live my life estranged from my own dad?

But I love my dad! So much of what I know today—even more importantly, so much of who I am today!—is because of him.

(What a weird passage to fall on Father’s Day, eh?)

So, yeah, today I think Jesus maybe goes too far!

Still, he’s Jesus. And thus, maybe I should seek to understand him, to figure out what he’s trying to say rather than pass it off as out of time and out of place.

To do so, I turn to the context.

Now, if you remember from last week, Jesus was addressing the twelve apostles before sending them out on their first mission. “Go to the house of Israel,” he said. “Proclaim good news, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

Make things right, in other words.

But a little later, Jesus turned the topic to how those on the receiving end would respond. “See,” he said, “I am sending you like sheep into a den of wolves.” Beware, he said, for they will flog you and otherwise persecute you.

Flogging. Persecution. For following Jesus.


But Jesus is God! But Jesus wants to bring peace to the world! But what Jesus wants is right and good! Surely his followers shouldn’t be persecuted, right?

Then, today, we find Jesus in a follow-up conversation with his disciples. Do not be afraid, he says. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

<Point.> Jesus’ message and mission call for change; and people don’t like change. Or, at least the people in charge don’t like it! And that’s what Jesus’ message and mission involve, after all: challenging the status quo and its leadership to change.

<Counterpoint.> But the status quo and its leadership possess power—power to keep change from happening, through violence if necessary.

<Point.> Yet God cares for each little sparrow; and God cares even more for each person. . . .

Anyway, now armed with this contextual understanding, recalling that this first mission was not to the Gentiles but to the house of Israel, Jesus’ words make more sense.

The house of Israel was family. The twelve were being sent to confront their own heritage, their own tradition, their own religion, their own status quo. And Jesus was offering words of comfort to his disciples.

So now I’m thinking—all that stuff about family members turning against one another; and the connection that the twelve disciples were part of the Jewish family—maybe Jesus isn’t taking things too far. Maybe a man against his father and a daughter against her mother is exactly the kind of persecution Matthew’s community faced.


Well, when we think of Christian persecution today, we don’t really think like this, do we? Instead, don’t we think in political terms? It’s not a man against his father but the state against the church.

We all know the Roman world did not accept the early Christians. History tells us that the Emperors Nero and Diocletian took special note of the new, growing religion; and focused their attention in macabre ways. Persecution was rampant. Stories of martyrdom spread throughout the Empire.

Today in our country, thankfully, Christians aren’t persecuted like that. Today’s political leaders don’t go around looking for Christians to torture and kill.

Instead, isn’t it more the case that Protestant Christianity has become the status quo? Even with present-day low church attendance figures taken into consideration, isn’t Christianity largely accepted by our political leaders—our mayors, our governors, our President—as the religion of the nation?

And so, today, when we hear of Christians around the world being treated unfairly and unjustly by their respective governments, it raises our holy hackles—and rightly so!

But, thanks be to God, we don’t have to deal with that kind of thing here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. When it comes to political persecution, there really isn’t any in our country—at least none that threatens us with violence or death.

So, I wonder: what if we don’t think in political terms? With respect to Christian persecution, what if, looking to today’s Gospel as a model, we don’t think in terms of church versus state? What if, instead, we think within the bounds of our own tradition, our own heritage, our own religion? What if we think about persecution taking place within the Christian status quo?


On that first missionary journey, Jesus sent his disciples to their own people, to those who held and lived largely by the same religious and political ideologies they held and lived by.

And what happened?

They were rejected! By the religious status quo! Which included their own family members!

So, if we were to question American Christianity’s status quo, do you think a similar thing might happen to us today?

Christianity is the status quo religion in our country—or, at least the version of Christianity espoused by popular Evangelical leaders.

And what does its collective voice tell us? That women shouldn’t be ordained. That homosexuality is a sinful choice. Even more shockingly and sadly, that White is superior to Black.

But wait! Jesus’ message and mission call us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick. More deeply, Jesus’ message and mission call us to free captives from whatever bondage holds them—from whatever bondage holds us!

Hunger. Poverty. Ignorance. Violence. Prejudice. Bigotry. Classism. Sexism. Racism. Superiority.

These–and others–are the bondages that hold us.

Yet Jesus’ mission is one of absolute equality.

No more hierarchies! No more superior and inferior! No more fed and hungry, rich and poor, Jew and Greek, male and female—and, I might add, Republican and Democrat, straight and gay, White and Black!

God is love, an equal, Trinitarian, communal love that has existed for all eternity, beyond time and space. And this love—this perfect, equitable love—is ours for the taking.

And it’s our message and mission to the world.

We’ve got a lot of work to do!


But, unfortunately, time and again, where does the most vocal resistance to this mission come from? The voice of the Christian status quo.

Track with me here.

When Martin Luther King Jr. fought for racial equality, the most ardent opposition came from White Christians claiming that racial superiority was their God-given right.

Christians! Not atheists. Not the government.

When we, The Episcopal Church, determined that Jesus’ mission means the ordination of women, it wasn’t governmental policies that reacted strongly against us, but our own Christian tradition—Protestant and Catholic!

When TEC more recently determined that Bishop Gene Robinson’s sexual orientation had no bearing on the validity of his episcopacy, numerous congregations within our own denomination split.

But if Jesus’ mission is about setting captives free from whatever bondage they may be held under; if Jesus’ mission is about making wrongs right, about eradicating injustices; if Jesus’ mission is about absolute equality—

I wonder, has Jesus been left behind by the Christian status quo?

The voice of the status quo declares that Christianity is about hierarchy, about superiority, about God choosing some and not others, about domination.

The voice of the Christian status quo says men are better than women, heterosexuals are better than homosexuals, White is better than Black.

The voice of the Christian status quo, frankly, is giving Jesus a bad name!

Jesus sent the twelve out to their religious status quo to make things right. And they were persecuted for it.

We, too, are called to make things right, even if it means going toe to toe with our own family.

Restoring Humanity’s Childhood Home

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2020 by timtrue

This sermon, delivered this morning via Zoom, marks the beginning of another interim appointment–and a new way of establshing relationships. Through November I have agreed to lead worship services and preach for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Coolidge, Arizona. I say “for” instead of “at” because for the time being services must take place through computer audio and video. For how long? Well, that is not my decision to make; I truly don’t know. The virus continues to surge in Arizona though, so, a while. Maybe even through November. It’s strange to meet and get to know people through Zoom; strange, too, to think this may be the only way I get to know most of this special community of people. Will be interesting to see how it unfolds. . . .

Matthew 9:35—10:23


My southern California boyhood home was in the unincorporated part of Ventura County just outside of Camarillo’s city limits—

On a couple acres of avocado trees, with a smattering of fruit trees, grapevines, a garden, and a swimming pool with a rope swing; chickens, three cats, and a dog; and, for a few years, a donkey—an ideal boyhood home in many ways, my personal Garden of Eden.

I can remember lying on the lawn one lazy summer morning—probably seven or eight years old—watching the sunlight play in the avocado leaves. And the thought occurred to me, “I love this place. In fact, I hope I grow old here, to grow up and buy this house from my parents and one day play with my own grandkids right here on this lawn!”

Well, today, yes, I am a grandpa. Seven-month-old Ophelia Marie is only the cutest baby ever! But, somewhat sadly <sigh>, no, I did not end up buying the old place from my parents. Instead, they sold it to someone else, in 1984, when I was sixteen.

I went back and visited it some years ago. One of the same neighbors was still there; the others had either moved or passed away.

As you can imagine, the place had changed!

The house itself was improved—with a kitchen renovation, updated appliances, an addition, a new roof.

But, whether because it was true or merely my personal, nostalgic bias, some of the so-called improvements struck me as quirky, even tacky.

And the outside!

For starters, all the avocado trees were dead! Then, where once had sat the garden, now was all weeds and Bermuda grass. And as for the chicken coop? It lay in a heap in a corner of the property, looking like some forgotten pile of firewood.

Now, let’s play pretend for a moment. Let’s pretend I were able to go buy that property back. Granted, I don’t have the $3 million I’d need; but let’s pretend. (By the way, Dad bought the property in 1972 for just $26,000.)

Anyway, if I were to buy it back, what would I do with it?

Well, if I had the means, I’d set about fixing it up. Some things would be left unchanged, sure—maybe the renovated kitchen and the new roof. But I’d try to bring the avocado trees back, or plant a new orchard—and the swimming pool with the rope swing, for sure!

And maybe, just maybe, I could realize that long-ago daydream of playing with my grandkids on that same lawn I’d once thought of as my personal Garden of Eden.


So, a nice game of pretend, eh?

Do you know what we’ve just done? We’ve just played with two very important theological ideas: redemption and restoration.

Redemption is buying the property back—after a long period of mismanagement and inactivity.

And restoration is the hard work of bringing it back up to standard.

Jesus, the Christian story tells us, redeemed the world through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—after a long period of mismanagement.

That’s the first half of our calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. It’s all about Jesus and redemption.

Now, in the second half of the year, that long green season which we call the Season after Pentecost; or, alternatively, the Propers—now it’s up to us, his church, to restore the world, to bring it back to his standard, to make the realm of God increasingly apparent all around us.

Redemption; restoration: who Jesus is; the mission he has left for us to do.

Do you see? We are at the point in the liturgical year where we turn our focus to this hard work of restoration.

Last week was Trinity Sunday; Trinity Sunday marks the halfway point.

Before Trinity Sunday, the liturgy is all about contemplating Jesus, the Incarnation of God—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter.

Trinity Sunday then turns our focus, as if to say, “God is love; so, show God to the world”; or, in other words, “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

And so, beginning with this Sunday, we spend the rest of the liturgical year considering the mission Jesus has left us.

A call to restoration! A call to action! A call to rebuild the world to God’s standard of love!


And today’s Gospel is our starting point.

The timing is somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

The Twelve have been with him for a while now, along with a hodgepodge of other disciples.

Jesus has been teaching, proclaiming, and healing for some time. His disciples have been around him long enough to have caught a sense of who he is and what he does—even if they don’t yet understand it all.

And—the disciples don’t know it but we readers do—there’s only a limited amount of time left before Jesus will be arrested, tried, sentenced, and crucified.

It’s time, Jesus decides, to give a practical assignment. It’s time for the apprentices to roll up their sleeves and gain some hands-on experience, to become better equipped to carry on the mission.

And so he calls the Twelve and sends them out.

Likewise, Jesus calls us; and sends us out.

And his directions are specific.

The ongoing work of restoration begins with those whom you already know, with those who surround you: your community.

You look around and cannot help but see that everywhere people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

They’re people you already know; and it moves you to compassion.

And I’m not talking about the people with whom you go to church; I’m talking, rather, about the people you interact with outside of church on a regular basis!

But, speaking of church—since you brought it up—did you notice that Jesus calls his followers to focus outwardly? That includes our church!

In 10:2, Matthew uses the word apostles—the only time this word is used in Matthew’s entire Gospel. It literally means sent out ones.

Here is an instance where Jesus is intentionally training his disciples to carry out his mission; and in this instance he names them “sent out ones.”

Jesus’ core mission looks outward.

And don’t think we’re off the hook 2,000 years later! An outward focus applies to us in 21st-century Arizona just as much as it applied to the Twelve in 1st-century Palestine: the church’s main focus is not inward, on our spiritual health, but outward, on the restoration of the world around us—a point worth contemplating at length.


Now, to bring what I’ve been saying together, let me offer an illustration from my day job with Imago Dei Middle School in Tucson. It’s an Episcopal school—a private, tuition-free school serving students in poverty and their families. I am the chaplain there.

We are an urban school. Our downtown building provides more than adequate classroom space, a dining area, and a chapel. But we have no commercial kitchen or athletic facilities on-site.

We overcome these shortcomings through partnerships.

The students all participate in a P. E. program with a local gym called Playformance: twice a week they walk two blocks over to the Playformance building, where the staff there lead them in fitness classes and other activities.

As for food, a market one block to the south of us, Johnny Gibson’s, prepares, cook, and delivers two meals a day to our students and faculty.

So, these are just two organizations with which my school—or, what I like to call my church—interacts all the time.

As I have been getting to know these organizations and their people, I have gotten to know their successes and failures, their joys and fears.

When COVID-19 spiked and mandated that we close the school campus three months early, Playformance and Johnny Gibson’s worried that the school would stop paying for gym classes and meals. I mean, after all, what could they offer an empty school?

But we—the school—like our partnerships. Or, better, we have compassion for our partners; and want to demonstrate God’s love to them. After all, we want these relationships to continue after—fingers crossed!—things go back to normal.

So—and because it is morally right—we made the decision to continue paying our partners.

And, you know, something pretty amazing happened.

Totally out of the blue, Playformance sent us some videos to pass along: fitness classes made by the Playformance coaches specifically for our students.

And Johnny Gibson’s—again, entirely unlooked for—joined in our family food pantry effort and is now sending home fresh-cooked meals to every family that requests them twice a week.

Good news—gospel—hope—in challenging times!

Jesus looked around his community. They were like sheep without a shepherd. He had compassion on them. He called his disciples to take action: action rooted in compassion; action that shows God’s love.

We at Imago Dei are trying to take this calling seriously.

And what I’m saying today is that Jesus has called us, St. Michael’s Church in Coolidge, to do this kind of work too.

As we get to know our community, as we grow in our awareness of its needs, we are moved to compassion.

And we turn this compassion into concrete action.

From compassion to action: the core of Jesus’ mission.


In Jesus, God came into the world to transform it from death to life.

Jesus bought back humanity’s childhood home.

Now, it is up to us to restore it.

Dear Mom Letter

Posted in Doing Church with tags , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2020 by timtrue

Feeling like not much is happening these days–we’re still sheltering in place, same ol’ same ol’–I’m thinking (though it might not feel like it) it’s really the other way around. Our children’s children will have a lot of questions about pandemic life someday. So, yeah, for posterity: it’s probably a good time for an update. Here’s mostly something I wrote my mom earlier today and some accompanying photographs courtesy of my friend John:


Just hiked 35 miles in 3 days with my old friend John! (Remember him? We were on the Bionic Kids together in second grade.) Started Saturday morning on the south side of the Rincon Mountains at just under 3000′. Summitted Mica Mountain at noon on Sunday at 8666′, camping that night back down at 4200′ (with an ample supply of blisters forming on the steep descent). On Monday we crossed the desert Land between the Sky Islands (I made up this name), a thirteen-mile stretch ending with a hot and steep ascent into the Catalinas. We passed through 6 ecosystems on foot. Just awesome! Woke up this morning with every muscle sore but ready to do some more. (Has to be the most physically demanding thing I’ve done in like 30 years.)

By the way, water is super scarce in the desert. I bought a good filter. Good thing too! At one point yesterday I was totally out of water. We were within a half mile of what a ranger we met on the trail had called “the Lake.” Turns out it was a small, stagnant pond with cow pies all around the shore and water bugs all over the surface. John passed, taking a gamble that there would be water two miles up the trail at an intermittent water source, counting on his remaining half-liter to get him there. I, on the other hand, got out my water filter and got to work, generating a liter and a half in five minutes or so. It was a less than appetizing cocktail, for sure. But good thing I did! I drank the whole thing by the time I caught up with John at the intermittent spring. Fortunately, there was one algae-filled pool there (with bleached bones of some kind of animal nearby–a true old-west scenario)–just one pool as far as the eye could see. We filtered away, both drank our fill, ate some lunch, and re-filled our 2.5 liters each which was enough to finish the final 2.1 miles, that hot and steep ascent into the Catalinas I mentioned above.

The only other thing I have to say about desert backpacking is: whoa!

So, John’s intention is to hike all 800 miles of the Arizona Trail from south to north in sections over something like six years. To date, he’s hiked 161.6 miles. The next 25 miles or so are over a tall mountain (with ample water sources). He asked me to join him when I can, and without thinking about it I’ve now hiked more than 65 miles of the trail. Will try to join him for the next, less hot section. After that, we’ll see. . . .

Otherwise, COVID life rolls along. H, E, and I are winding up our school years. E and H went back to college to retrieve their belongings and are now back (picked up H from the airport this morning). We’re still planning to close on the new house on the 28th. You know, social distancing at its finest.

The food pantry work continues. We at the school take many precautions, but it’s worth the risk to make sure our families aren’t too food-insecure. Also, it looks like I will be engaging in more church work soon, as a supply priest again, but this time with the possibility that I may stay on indefinitely as something like a quarter-time vicar: I will have ninety days to discern with the church whether the arrangement will work with my full-time chaplain position. It’s interesting to think about how we might re-open churches for public worship. How’s your pastor approaching it?

Hope all’s well with you,

More soon,





Beyond the Pandemic

Posted in Musings with tags , , , , , , on April 25, 2020 by timtrue

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Just finished another thought-provoking read–The Great Mortality by John Kelly!

The Black Death, as the subtitle proclaims, was the most devastating plague of all time.

The first case of this bubonic and pneumonic plague was recorded in Caffa, a city on the Crimea–a peninsula in the Black Sea–in 1347.

Over the next five years it made its way to central Europe, across England, through Scandinavia, into Russia, and back almost to its starting point–a vast geographical hangman’s noose–wiping out more than a third of the human population within its grasp.

And that’s just a reasonable guesstimate. In some localities the mortality rate was closer to 60%. Can you imagine?

Of course, there are always lessons we can draw from history, which is why I was attracted to this book. What parallels might there be between the Great Mortality and COVID-19? What lessons from this sad time in western history might help us today?

To clarify, this book was published in 2005. John Kelly, the author, has made a career of medical writing. He wrote this book with no agenda for today’s issues: Kelly is not making any kind of statement about COVID-19 (indeed, published 15 years ago, how could he?), its effects, our responses to it, how one political ideology is better than another during crisis management, etc., etc.

Instead, he offers insights which had only recently become available through the efforts of archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, and other scientists. Insights which shed new light on the Black Death. Insights, too, incidentally, which may help us understand the crisis presently confronting us.

Anyway, here are some quotations that caught my attention near the end of the book, where Kelly outlines some pretty dramatic changes that resulted in Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death–good changes, in my opinion. Will our world beyond COVID-19 experience similar changes?

The immediate aftermath saw a party-like, prosperous period:

“On a glorious morning, Christendom awoke to find the plague gone. Life and joy, denied for so long, demanded their due. Survivors drank intoxicatingly, fornicated wildly, spent lavishly, ate gluttonously, dressed extravagantly. . . . And everywhere survivors luxuriated in the sudden abundance of a commodity that only a few months earlier had seemed so fragile, so perishable–time: wonderful, glorious, infinite time” (276).

“As often happens after a major demographic catastrophe, immediately after the Black Death the birth rate surged” (281).

The longer term economy experienced an overturning:

“In the fifty years following the Black Death, the medieval world’s traditional economic winners and losers exchanged places. The new losers, the landed gentry, began to see their wealth shredded by the scissors of low food prices and high labor costs; the new winners, the people at the bottom, saw their one marketable asset–labor–increase dramatically in value, and with it their standard of living rise. . . . Serfdom . . . now began to disappear entirely . . . a man could simply up and leave a manor, secure in the knowledge that wherever he settled, someone would hire him” (285).

“One measure of the new peasant prosperity was a change in inheritance patterns. Before the Black Death, peasant holdings were so small, there was not enough land for anyone but the eldest son. By 1450 peasants were often prosperous enough to leave a parcel of land to all their children–including, increasingly, their daughters” (285).

“Women were also significant economic winners in the new social order. . . . Y. pestis [the plague bacillus] turns out to have been something of a feminist” (286).

Innovative technology increased and improved:

“Depopulation also had an important effect on technological innovation. The sharp decline in the workforce was an impetus for the development of labor-saving devices in many fields, including book production. . . . In 1453, at the near-centenary of the mortality, Gutenberg introduced his printing press to the world. Chronic manpower shortages also fostered innovation in mining . . . the fishing industry . . . the shipbuilding industry . . . [and] the development of firearms. . . . There were also a number of innovations in the medical profession” (287-8).

Institutions of higher learning flourished:

“Cambridge established four new colleges . . . while Oxford created two new schools. . . . Post-Black Death Florence, Prague, Vienna, Cracow, and Heidelberg also established new universities” (289-90).

Religious institutions . . . not so much:

“The long century of death that followed the medieval plague also had a profound effect on religious sentiment. People began to long for a more intense, personal relationship with God” (290).

“The upswing in religious feeling was accompanied by a deepening disillusionment with the Church. In the greatest crisis of the Middle Ages, the Church had proved as ineffective as every other institution in medieval society. In addition, it had lost many of its best priests, and those who survived often behaved in ways that brought shame to religious life. . . . In the decades after 1351, the ordination of ill-trained boys–the ordination age was dropped from twenty-five to twenty–and ill-suited widowers further damaged the clergy’s reputation” (290-1).

“The safest conclusion one can make about the plague’s contribution is that, by promoting dissatisfaction with the Church, it created fertile ground for religious change” (291).

Fertile enough ground to bring about the Protestant Reformation soon thereafter? I will leave that up to you to decide.

Whatever the case, Kelly leaves us with a hopeful conclusion:

“Europe emerged from the charnel house of pestilence and epidemic cleansed and renewed–like the sun after rain” (294).

As we look ahead, to a time beyond COVID-19, where will our culture and society find cleansing and renewal? Will there be a surge in the birth rate? Will our economy be overturned? How and where will we see innovation at work? And what about our institutions of higher learning and religion?

We like to say history repeats itself. It doesn’t, really. But we do often find parallels.

Time to Drop the Water Jar

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2020 by timtrue

To be delivered tomorrow, God willing, at St. John’s, Bisbee and St. Stephen’s, Douglas.

John 4:5-42


In last week’s sermon I laid a piece of groundwork.

For the next four weeks, I said, we will encounter characters seen nowhere else in the Bible. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, a man born blind from birth, and Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus—these four characters appear only in the Gospel of John.

And, I went on to say, we can learn much from our encounters with these surprisingly modern saints.

We see them all, I observed, through the perspective of a governing lens: light and darkness.

That was last week’s piece of groundwork.

So, today, before we encounter the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, I want to offer two more foundational pieces of groundwork.

The first has to do with the eyes through which we see.

What do I mean?

Traditionally—my experience anyway—we’ve learned to see these four characters through the eyes of Jesus.

For instance, since Jesus told Nicodemus that a person must be born again in order truly to experience God, modern American Christianity has largely taught that Christians are to share this message with the lost world.

We’re supposed to go out into the world and say what Jesus said to Nico: “Be born again! Pray the Sinner’s Prayer! Be saved from your sins!”

And, regarding the Samaritan woman at the well—she is something of an outcast, after all—modern American Christianity has largely taught that we Christians are to welcome and receive all kinds of people.

I might add, the implication here is that we are to receive especially those who aren’t like us, thank you very much! I tithe. I pray. I devote myself to God. Because I’m like Jesus—unlike that sinner over there! But I’ll welcome her because Jesus did.

However—first piece of groundwork for today—I’m rather convinced it’s the other way around. That is, we are not to see these characters through Jesus’ eyes; instead, we are to see Jesus through their eyes.

Last week you and I—we—were the confused teacher of Israel who sought Jesus out by night; and went away, incidentally, still confused.

And today, we are the marginalized woman at the well who, after encountering Jesus, drops her water jar and goes and tells everyone she knows to come and see.

Do you see?

We’re not to think of ourselves as encountering four unique characters through Jesus’ eyes, as if to ask, “What would Jesus do?”; but we are encountering Jesus through the eyes of these four surprisingly modern and relatable saints.


Which bring us to the second piece of groundwork for today: the application from these four encounters—our take-home lessons—is corporate, not individual.

Now what do I mean?

Well, for starters, these characters are broadly relatable.

Can’t we all relate to Nicodemus? How many of us have ever struggled with spiritual questions; and after seeking Jesus out we’re still in the dark?

Or, what about the woman at the well? How many of us have ever felt ostracized, marginalized, or somehow otherwise on the fringes only to be strengthened and encouraged through an encounter with Jesus?

We relate to these characters! And it’s not just one or two of us; but we all relate to them!

It’s not just you or me, as individuals, encountering Jesus through the eyes of the broadly relatable Samaritan woman. It’s us! Together! A congregational encounter!

But also, there’s this: as we’ll see especially next week—spoiler alert!—John wrote his Gospel with a congregation in mind—not specific individuals.

John was a pastor. He wrote to his congregation. Throughout his Gospel—the themes of light and darkness; love and fear; time and eternity—John encourages his congregation as a whole to live faithfully as enlightened outcasts in their specific historical and social context.

We would do well to understand John’s Gospel in this way too: to apply lessons from these four encounters not to the individual lives we each live but to our corporate life, our life together.

We’ll come back to this idea. For now, let’s turn our attention to the Samaritan woman at the well; let’s encounter Jesus together in the full light of day through her eyes.


So, she meets Jesus at about noon, the passage says.

Now, it has been suggested that noon is the time of day when women did not normally come to draw water from the community well, implying that this Samaritan woman has been ostracized by her own community.

But, for our purposes today, looking through the lens of light and darkness, what else does noon tell us?

The sun is directly overhead. Shadows are the smallest they will be for the next 24 hours. This is the brightest natural light possible.

Everything about this scenario—the well, the surrounding landscape, the woman, Jesus—everything is exposed with the clearest light imaginable.

What a contrast to the Nicodemus story, eh? Nicodemus approached Jesus in the middle of the night, under cover of darkness, in secret.

So, no secrets here, right? In the full light of day?

Um, well, actually, wrong—we now see, as Jesus breaks societal rules and engages this Samaritan woman in conversation.

“Go, call your husband,” Jesus says.

“But I do not have a husband,” the woman replies.

“Too true!” Jesus continues. “And what is even more true is that you have had five husbands; and the man you now live with is not your husband.”

“All right, then,” she returns; “I see that you’re a prophet.”

You know what’s going on here? This is not an exchange designed to point out this woman’s scandalous life of sin, why her community has ostracized her, that we should be benevolent and inclusive like Jesus to the ostracized in our midst, and so on.

Rather, this conversation illustrates the governing metaphor of light and darkness.

Even in the clearest light possible—the shadow-dispersing light of the noonday sun—we don’t see all there is to see. This woman has secrets, just as Nicodemus has secrets, just as we all have secrets. And the light of Jesus—the true light, which has come into the world and enlightens all people (cf. 1:9)—is far more illuminating than the brightest literal light imaginable.

There’s deep irony here—as there is throughout the Gospel of John.

Irony: seeing something more deeply than what appears on the surface.

For John, Jesus is the ironical Christ.

His light is the real deal. His light is authentic, genuine, and truthful; more authentic, genuine, and truthful than the brightest natural light possible.

She knows this; and she drops her water jar in order to act upon what she knows.


So, now—you knew it was coming—it’s time to ask ourselves what we, as a congregation, learn from encountering Jesus through this woman’s eyes.

One take-home lesson stands out to me above all others: corporately, we are called to enlighten the world around us with Christ’s ironical, supernatural light.

Now, this can be a difficult lesson for us Episcopalians. For, Episcopalians rank as the wealthiest and most educated Christian denomination; meaning at least a couple of things:

  1. We Episcopalians are much more inclined to sit around in committees and write checks than we are to engage in hands-on work.
  2. And, we like our religion.

We Episcopalians have a great tradition, don’t we? Many, many people of the Anglican persuasion have thought long and hard about what we do.

Our liturgy—oh, the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty!

Ever been to an English Cathedral? How about the National Cathedral? Or, heck, even our own diocesan cathedral in Phoenix?

The processions evoke a regality worthy only of the king of kings and lord of lords! The architecture directs our otherwise earthly-focused gaze upward, heavenward, recalling in stained-glass beauty the lives and times of the saints of old! And the several centuries of celestial, cherub-like choral music? Oh, don’t even get me started! I have a degree in music—I love it all!

Yes, we Episcopalians, like Nicodemus, are the teachers of the New Israel. We are educated. We know things other Christians do not. We are sure and certain of the reasons for our hope in Christ.

Nevertheless, despite our liturgy, architecture, and music—despite our traditions—despite what we do or do not know—not to mention our wealth—like the Samaritan woman at the well, our corporate calling is to act, to get out into our community, to get to know our neighbors and their needs, and show them Christ.

We do good works; works that shine the light of Christ, a more illuminating light than the brightest natural light imaginable; works that are genuine, authentic, and truthful; works for the common good.

You see, when we come together in worship, that’s a wonderful thing.

We gather together, we pray together, we sing together, we listen to God’s word together, and we commune together.

But who does this benefit? Isn’t it only us Episcopalians?

We sit under our roof, the roof of our building, designed with our architecture, hearing our music, listening to our message.

This is all beautiful, and all very good.

But it’s not enough.

At the end of every liturgy, we are reminded that our calling is to go out into the world, into our community, to love and serve Christ, thanks be to God.

Jesus did not meet with the Samaritan woman in a beautifully constructed building with an angelic choir singing and a baptismal font gurgling and the smells of fresh bread and wine wafting and candles burning in the background. Same with Nicodemus. If fact, Jesus never once commanded or even suggested that we put our energies into buildings and choirs and processions and all the rest.

Unless we act—the mission Jesus left for us to do—heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, educate the uneducated, visit the imprisoned, free the captives—it’s all right here, right along the border—unless we act, our beautiful liturgies, buildings, and choirs are no more to our communities than a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

She dropped her water jar—a good and necessary part of her life. She’ll come back and get it later, I’m sure. For now, she simply must show her neighbors the Christ.

We need to drop our water jars too—we can come back to them later—and show the world the Christ who is here right now, in the full light of day, to meet all of our needs.


So, what does this call to action mean for us during this time of pandemic? Here is something from my blog, posted on Friday; I will be happy to discuss this with you during the coffee hour:

This post deals much more with questions than any attempts at answers.

I’m wondering, as a teacher, preacher, pastor, school chaplain, and priest, what to make of my work and the omnipresent fear over the Coronavirus.

I get the medical rationale. We are seeing a pandemic. Looks like the president is about to declare a state of national emergency. Major league sports have shut down. The County of San Diego just banned all gatherings over 250 people. Public gatherings smaller than that have been given a mandate that individuals are to stay at least six feet apart. I’ve heard the mayor of Tucson issued a statement, but I haven’t read it yet. Point is, this is a big deal.

And yet . . .

Last week’s Gospel considered Nicodemus. He eventually came to the conviction that he should throw caution to the wind regarding his own life and reputation for the sake of a larger mission.

And this week we look at the Samaritan woman at the well, who similarly threw caution to the wind after encountering Jesus.

I have a larger mission than myself, my own personal well-being. That mission is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to free captives, and so on.

So, what? Am I just supposed to put this mission on hold and hole up somewhere until this pandemic blows over?

I mean, I could. I know wilderness survival. I don’t even need toilet paper. Or hand sanitizer!

But why would I want to do that?

The world has enough brokenness even without this pandemic. So, now, why should we pull back at all? Instead, shouldn’t we throw more caution to the wind than ever?