Divine Impetus

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

I will deliver this homily at St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson tomorrow, Oct. 20, Proper 24 of Year C. Prior to what you see written below, I will offer a brief introduction about me and my work at Imago Dei Middle School. (Advocating for my students and their families in local churches is something I plan to do a lot of over the next few years.)

Luke 18:1-8

1.

The Roman historian Livy tells a story that goes like this:

In 75 BCE, the man we know today as Julius Caesar was captured by pirates. These pirates had a notorious reputation, having controlled the Mediterranean Sea like the mafia for more than a millennium. They would release their captive, they announced, for a ransom of 20 talents of gold.

In case you’re wondering, I looked it up. In today’s dollars, one talent of gold is worth about $1.4 million; so, 20 talents is worth approximately $28 million.

Well, Julius caught wind of the ransom, called the pirate chieftain over, and said, “Pah! 2o talents isn’t nearly enough. Increase it to 50!” In other words, $70 million.

Which the chieftain did. And which the Roman people paid. (Not sure how the ancient taxpayers felt about that.)

Fast forward nine years, to 66 BCE: Julius Caesar has risen in rank from Army General to Emperor; and part of his agenda as Emperor is to rid the Mediterranean Sea of those notorious pirates. He commissions this task to his Army General, a man named Pompey.

So this becomes Pompey’s vision: rid the sea of pirates. But how?

Pompey decides to collaborate. He calls his best engineers together, lays out his vision, and together they formulate a plan.

More harbors will be needed, they determine, harbors all over the empire. To do that, land will have to be cleared, channels dug, large amounts of earth moved.

One of the engineers then suggests the use of a tiny, invasive seed that, when planted in abundance, will strip the soil of nutrients and suck out all moisture, making their earth moving projects much easier.

In fact, this seed—the mustard seed—proves to be highly effective. So crumbly became the affected soil, Livy writes, that even the hardiest of all trees, the mulberry, sometimes would fall of its own accord into the sea.

And thus were the necessary harbors created. And so, in the span of three months, according to Livy, Pompey rid the entire Mediterranean of pirates; and, he also relates, this accomplishment became widely known throughout the empire.

Hmmm. “Widely known”? Do you think, a century or so later, Jesus and his disciples might have known this story?

After all, Jesus taught them, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed. . . .”

2.

But that was the Gospel from two weeks ago. Today’s Gospel tells a different story, not about a mustard seed and a mulberry tree but about a widow and a judge.

And, you know, widows in the ancient world had it rough. There was no Social Security, no Medicare. Unless she had a son to take care of her, she was largely on her own. Where could she turn for help?

Well, this particular widow turns to a local judge. “I demand justice,” she cries; “justice that both God and humanity deserve!”

However, the judge she turns to is self-serving; he cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of persons. He’s a key player in the system already stacked against her.

Nevertheless, incredibly, after presenting her case before this self-serving judge, day after day, over and over, she gets what she asks for. The judge gives in—because she persistently wheedles, hounds, and annoys him.

Just what is Jesus teaching us through this parable?

Is there some kind of lesson here about stewardship—maybe if the rector wheedles, hounds, and annoys us persistently enough, the parish will raise 100% of next year’s budget through pledges alone?

I’m a little confused.

St. Luke the Evangelist states at the outset that this parable is not about stewardship; but about praying always. And yet—I didn’t see it; did you?—this widow never once prays!

And, besides, is this unjust judge somehow supposed to be a picture of God?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t view God as some aloof arbiter who cares nothing about me and only gives in to my prayers because I persistently wheedle, hound, or annoy God enough.

Just what does this parable have to do with prayer? Is anyone else confused?

3.

If we go back to the Gospel again, but this time to the end of the passage, then we find a key connection.

There, after telling this curious tale about the poor widow and the unjust judge, Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

There, in other words, at the end of the passage, Jesus connects prayer to faith.

This is the key to unlock our understanding of the parable.

For what have we been hearing about over the last couple of weeks? Hasn’t it been faith?

Last Sunday—do you remember?—we heard a story about Jesus encountering 10 lepers. He healed them and they left rejoicing.

But then one of these lepers returned to give thanks. And so we heard some more about this one leper, a foreigner, healed precisely because of his faith, a faith that took on a visible, tangible form, namely face-to-face contact and a warm smile. The healed leper’s faith was concrete.

And the week before that? Jesus told us that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey us.

This too is a tangible, concrete faith, a literal seed by which Julius Caesar and General Pompey were able to fulfill their vision—a means towards an end.

That’s what faith is for Jesus. Something literal. Something quantifiable. Dare I say, something, even, utilitarian.

But how often have we heard an entirely different message: that faith is some invisible, intangible thing? If God doesn’t answer our prayers, how often have we been told it’s because we lack faith; or because we haven’t prayed hard enough or just need to believe more?

Hear me now: that is not, nor was it ever, the good news of Jesus!

For Jesus, faith looks like the warm smile of thanksgiving from a healed leper. Or, another way, faith looks like a tiny mustard seed that alters a vast landscape. For Jesus, faith is tangible and concrete, a quantifiable means toward God’s ends.

4.

So, it’s time to ask ourselves: if faith is not the invisible, intangible something we’ve always heard, what does a quantifiable, tangible faith look like for us today?

Well, I can tell you what it looks like for the kids I work with, the kids of Imago Dei Middle School. For most of them—maybe for all—they’re vision includes earning a college degree.

So, you know what their faith looks like—a tangible, concrete faith? A means to that end?

It looks like a pencil!

“If you have faith the size of a pencil,” I tell them, “you can earn that college degree, land a stable job, and break free from poverty.”

What about you? Does your faith look like a pencil? How about a dollar? Or a pink ribbon? Or a rainbow? What is the best means for you to accomplish God’s ends?

5.

Anyway, now, finally, I think we are able to see what Jesus’ parable has to do with prayer. For this kind of faith isn’t easy, is it?

It wasn’t easy for Pompey to rid the Mediterranean of pirates.

It wasn’t easy for a foreign leper to give thanks to the Jewish man who healed him.

It wasn’t easy for a widow in Jesus’ day to plead for justice repeatedly and persistently, again and again, over and over to an unjust judge.

And it definitely isn’t easy for the Imago Dei scholars to break out of the cycles of poverty they find themselves born into.

In every case, their faith is the means to accomplish God’s ends; but more than faith in necessary.

As I read today’s parable, though prayer is never mentioned, I cannot help but imagine the widow going through her daily regimen—another tiring, wearisome day of facing a heartless brick wall of a judge—I cannot help but see her praying herself through: every night, after she returns home heartbroken yet again; and every morning, when she rises to find, somehow, another small ray of divine hope flickering in her soul, thanks be to God.

Faith is the means to accomplish God’s ends; but prayer is the divine impetus that enables us to persevere.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

The Riddle of the Shrewd Steward

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on September 17, 2019 by timtrue

IDMS Chapel, 9/18/2019

Proper 20C

1.

I’ve got a couple of classic riddles for you:

First, “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?”

This riddle comes from Greek mythology, posed by the Sphinx. A man named Oedipus figured out the correct answer: man. . . .

Second:

This thing all things devours;

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats mountain down.

This riddle comes from a story called The Hobbit. Bilbo and Gollum are having an epic battle of wits in the heart of the mountain; and Gollum posits this “tricksy” one. But Bilbo figures out the answer: time.

2.

Jesus tells a similar riddle today about a man who is about to be fired from his job because his boss thinks he is dishonest, who then acts desperately and cleverly; and because of his actions his boss then commends him.

It’s a surprise ending! We’re left scratching our heads asking why. In fact, for two thousand years people have been asking why; and have come up with a lot of different answers, with very little agreement between them.

So, what we heard was that this guy was about to be fired, so he “sweet-talks” his way into favor with his boss’s customers; and this behavior impressed his boss.

Other versions of the Bible give us more detail. What this guy actually did was to go to one of the customers and ask, “Don’t you owe my boss a hundred jugs of olive oil?” And the customer answers, “Why, yes I do!” “Well then,” this guy says, “I have the authority to make it fifty. Would you like that? Now you only owe my boss fifty!”

This steward is shrewd!

Similarly, he goes to another customer who owes his boss a hundred containers of wheat and says, “Now you owe him only eighty.”

And the boss finds out! And he goes to his shrewd steward and says, surprisingly, “Well done because you have acted shrewdly!”

And for two thousand years, people who have heard this riddle have been saying, “But this guy just hurt you financially! How can you commend him?”

Just what is going on here, Jesus? Just what is the answer to your riddle?

3.

So, here’s where I land on this. I’m not saying it’s the right answer—that I’ve figured it all out, et in saecula saeculorum, amen! Rather, it’s my best guess right now, at this point in my life, knowing what I know at this moment:

Letting go is to have and possessing is to lose.

That’s what I think Jesus is getting at in this story about this shrewd steward. To let go is to have; to possess is to lose.

Whahuh? Isn’t this just another riddle?

So, here’s what I mean. This guy—I just called him a shrewd steward—so, this shrewd steward is about to get fired and he knows it. What does he do?

Now, while he’s still working for his boss, while he still has the authority to make important decisions, he takes huge risks and gives up everything. He’s not going to have his cushy job anymore, he realizes; and he’s really got nothing to fall back on except for whatever pension he may or may not have saved up. And no one else is hiring right now—and, besides, he’s got only a bad reference anyway!

So, he throws caution to the wind and risks everything.

When he cut that customer’s debt in half—a hundred jugs of oil? Make it fifty!—and when he cut that other’s customer’s debt down, you know what I think he was doing? He was giving up his own commission!

It was his money he gave up, not his boss’s!

But why in the world would he do that? He was just about to be fired! He needed some extra cash in his pocket, to stockpile away as much as possible!

Instead, dishonest or not, he knew an important truth. This shrewd steward had learned that true freedom is not found in possessions. Rather, he learned that letting go is to have and possessing is to lose.

In my thinking, here is the answer to Jesus’ riddle. Here is how Jesus encourages all people to live. Freedom is not found in what we possess but in a generosity that stretches us to the extent of, even beyond, our means.

It’s not just Jesus who says this, by the way. Gandhi says it too:

Golden fetters are no less galling to a self-respecting man that iron ones; the sting lies in the fetters, not in the metal.

There is goodness as well as greatness in simplicity, not in wealth.

4.

So, let’s think about what this means for us, here, at Imago Dei Middle School. What does it mean for us to be free of greed and wanting more? What does it mean for us to be generous?

Most of you met my daughter Emily. In seventh grade, she attended a private Episcopal school where many of the students came from homes with a lot of money. Quite a few of them lived in mansions. Some showed up to school in a Ferrari or a Maserati; others in Teslas.

So, one day Emily came home in tears. She had saved up her own money for about a year to buy herself an iPhone. I was so proud of her; she showed so much discipline. Anyway, she came home in tears on that day because she had dropped her iPhone on a concrete sidewalk and cracked the screen. “I’d ask for a new one,” she told me, tears streaming down her face, “but I know we don’t have the money. . . . But, Dad,” she continued, “the hardest part is that my friend Angela dropped her iPhone in the toilet and her mom just went out and bought her a new one the next day. It’s not fair!”

You ever feel like that: Other people have way more money than I do; it’s just not fair?

Yeah, me too.

But here’s what Emily did. Instead of thinking about things that weren’t possible, or that would take way too much time and focus for her to achieve, she looked around her immediate world and focused on the present. And she realized that already, here and now, she had much to be grateful for: friends, family, a warm bed at night, enough food; life’s simple yet profound pleasures.

What do you have that you are grateful for? You are part of a great school, a place where you are being challenged to grow into tomorrow’s leaders; surrounded by people who have your best interests at heart.

Also, think about the risks the shrewd steward took. Here at IDMS you are being encouraged to think and act in creative, innovative, risky ways.

You—all of you—have so much! Right here. Right now.

Throughout today and in the weeks ahead, remember this puzzling story from Jesus today, this riddle; and the challenge he leaves us all: letting go is to have and possessing is to lose.

Update: Chapel Rock

Posted in Reflection with tags , , on August 27, 2019 by timtrue

Have been posting infrequently lately, I know. Transitions tend to do that for me, tend to leave me processing, contemplative. And I haven’t written any new sermons since making the move half way through May. Still alive though; and still intending to keep this blog active. So here’s one for the August, 2019 archives.

This week finds me at Chapel Rock, the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona’s camp and conference center, in Prescott. The whole school is here, a kind of solidifying experience for the student body, faculty, and staff.

Getting to know Imago Dei Middle School has been everything I’d hoped it would be. It is a genuine blessing to work with people on the margins of society, to be their advocate, to take on their struggles, challenges, and elations as my own.

Yet, already, it has been more than hoped for. I’m not chaplain just to a group of 5th through 8th graders. The IDMS community includes family members of students, for whom we offer ongoing ESL classes and a food pantry. We run a graduate support services program, offering (for instance) free tutoring to alumni now in high school. We also (surprise!) own a couple subsidiary nonprofits that employ alumni and family members of students.

This, then, is the community that I serve. Though a school, it feels more a church to me than any other church I’ve been a part of!

Anyway, stay tuned for more. In the near future, I will be finishing up my several-part answer to the question, “Why School Chaplaincy?” I will also post more reflections as I get to know this unique community that everyday fills me with a sense of wonder.

Right now, however, I’ve got to go grab some camp breakfast!

Why School Chaplaincy: Ideals Bow to Pragmatics

Posted in Rationale with tags , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2019 by timtrue

Soon two kids became three; then three became four. All daughters. Each roughly two years apart. Yep, when our oldest turned six, Baby Number Four was about to say hello to the world.

The dream of ordination was now clouded by the necessity to get food on the table and diapers on bottoms.

On a teacher’s salary.

That’ll put one’s faith in ideals to the test!

But we managed, somehow, by teaching piano, voice, and violin students out of our home. I also took on evening jobs, usually having to do with music in some stripe of church or other.

And that was life for a while.

Treadmill.

Plodding on.

The vocational dream was still there, but now more like a phantom, leaving me to wonder often if I was merely imagining the ghost or if it was actually something of substance.

So I poured myself into my work, trying to extract value from it and not just going through the motions. I filled holes when they came up, offering to do extra work, administrative work, development work, curriculum work, as long as a few more dollars fit into the scenario.

Which is how I ended up, among other things, learning and teaching Latin. Teacher shortages were real and I was willing and energetic.

Having joined a Presbyterian Church by now, the pastor learned of my latent sense of ordination vocation and encouraged me to apply to a sister church in Texas, a church looking for a full-time staff person to focus half-time on education and half-time on music.

A chance to get back into church ministry? Heck yes! I was interested.

The interview went very well. My wife liked the idea. I was offered the position. We packed up and moved 1500 miles east.

So certain were we of this turn of events, in fact, so certain were we in our faith, that we bought a house.

This was God’s will for us, surely.

Only it wasn’t.

Somewhere between California and Texas the church’s elders decided that the timing wasn’t right to build the education program: the budget couldn’t support me.

Only they didn’t say anything to me until after we’d closed on the house.

Well, we decided the house would root us; we’d take the adventure that awaited us. An adventure, I might add, that wasn’t to include the Presbyterian Church.

So it was there–after returning to the profession where I had found success–teaching–but otherwise feeling back at Square One–no friends, no family nearby, no professional network yet–that we decided to check out the Episcopal Church.

And–why had it taken us so long?–we were home!

Here was a church that didn’t cheapen grace by calling Christianity fun. Here was a church, too, that recognized the faith as not so simple, not so black-and-white as our evangelical roots kept trying to tell us. The Christian faith, in other words, was more like real life: genuine.

That was a breath of fresh air for us.

We also liked the beauty of the music and liturgy, and a theology that included kids in the Eucharist, etc., but that’s another topic for another day.

Fast forward a year or so. By now my wife and I had been confirmed and received into the church. Then, suddenly and rashly it seemed to me, not long after the 2006 General Convention, the rector stood at the pulpit on a Sunday and announced,

“Well, the vestry and I have been having some serious discussions. We’ve come to an agreement that next Sunday will be our last. We’ll march out of here together to another building we’ve rented two blocks away. We’re leaving the Episcopal Church!”

My wife and I were floored! We’d just found our spiritual home–at long last!

So I called the bishop directly to express my concern and mentioned, “I wish I were ordained so that I could jump in here and help out.”

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say.

My words struck a chord with the bishop. In a short time I found myself entering a formal discernment process. Adult-lifelong dream, always met with obstacles; until now, when it was happening almost without any initiative or effort on my part!

By spring of 2008 the bishop asked if I was interested in relocating to attend a residential seminary.

Gulp!

By now we were expecting Baby Number 5, so I said something like, “Sounds great! But I can’t see how we could afford it–five kids in the house!”

We agreed to take a year to process, pray, daydream, and otherwise consider this new/revisited idea. Would seminary 2010 actually come to be?

During that year of daydreaming etc. it dawned on me that there is a very strong network of Episcopal schools all over the country, most of which employ a full-time chaplain, an ordained priest.

So, what if I could combine my ideal vocation with my realized one–priest with educator?

“Bishop,” I asked one day in the middle, maybe during winter, “what if I were to become a school chaplain after ordination?”

“Tim,” he said, with a look on his face that was somewhere between dejection and disapproval, “I don’t send people to seminary to become chaplains. I send them to be parochial priests.”

“Okay,” I replied, quickly realizing that pragmatism would have to trump my idealism in the moment–like it had in so many other moments over the last fifteen years–“of course! Yes. I want to be a parochial priest.”

The bishop and I never brought up the subject again.

But the idea remained lodged firmly in my psyche.

Why School Chaplaincy: Vocational Ideals

Posted in Rationale with tags , , on June 29, 2019 by timtrue

My sense of call to the ordained ministry surfaced in college.

I hadn’t grown up in the church.

Dealing with a series of deep personal questions following my parents’ divorce, in high school I delved into some off-campus Bible studies led by some well-meaning if theologically misguided young adults. That was my introduction to the Christian faith.

When I moved away to Davis, California I decided it was high time to get baptized and join a church.

I jumped in with both feet to everything I was hearing and learning: the conservative American evangelical version of the Christian faith. Soon I was a key player on the College Life leadership team, a ministry of the church that baptized me; and during the summers I worked on program staff at a large and very popular evangelical Christian camp in the Sierra Nevadas.

Maybe not all my probing questions were addressed—definitely not! But one message came through loud and clear: Christianity was fun.

So, college became easy and enjoyable. I studied what I wanted, what I was passionate about—music theory and composition—rationalizing that I was bound for a graduate education in seminary, to earn a Master of Divinity degree. Seminary required a bachelor’s degree. Major mattered little. Check!

Well, do you see where this is going?

I met a girl. Our mutual interests in music and spirituality soon began morphing into discussions about the future, maybe even our future together. Seminary still figured into the equation, but more pressing became the idea of marriage and family, new life, resurrection after my parents’ divorce. Which is what we did, fresh out of college, jobless but in love.

After a year of doing this and that then, not to mention the birth of our first daughter, an opportunity availed itself: I accepted the position as Director of Youth Ministries with Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in my hometown.

We were happy. Our parents were happy. We were on our way to vocation realization. Life was good!

But here’s where it all went.

Up till now I had only very limited experience in actual churches. The one that baptized me in Davis was really more like a parachurch college ministry than church. It had a college worship service on Sundays, ninety-five percent of people in attendance being, you guessed it, college students. And in the Sunday school hour, when the rest of the congregation went to church, we college students had our College Sunday school class.

The gist is I knew very little about a church as a community, largely run by parishioners with money and longevity and opinions about the way things should be.

And now I found myself in a Baptist Church, still feeling called to ordained ministry, trying to maintain and develop a ministry for middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students, drawing from what I knew.

Which most definitely ran against the grain of the parishioners with money and longevity and opinions!

I noticed that the kids drawn to my ministry were largely in conflict with friends and family members, some effectively estranged from their parents, one a foster kid. What was needed was love enacted. The kids needed to feel respect and dignity; families needed reconciliation; the foster kid, who would be kicked out on his own on his eighteenth birthday despite not yet having finished high school, needed support. Big tasks!

What my overseers–the wealthy ones with staying power and expectations–wanted to see, however, was what they called “altar-call experiences, like a miniature Billy Graham Crusade. Bring 500 kids into the church. Do something fun. Then, in the last five minutes, preach at ’em! And don’t do anything to attract the skaters and surfers. We want the popular kids, the jocks and cheerleaders!”

Really? Fun? Is that what sums up the Christian faith?

I was a Baptist Youth Director long enough to realize I wasn’t a Baptist. So I quit.

Still, the personal sense of vocation remained. Except now my wife and I had two young daughters. Diapers and groceries couldn’t wait. Vocation realization, however, would have to.

Why School Chaplaincy: an Introduction

Posted in Rationale with tags , , , on June 21, 2019 by timtrue

I jotted most of this post down on June 2, when I was visiting our soon-to-be home in Tucson. I plan to reflect on this move from time to time as we Trues settle into the newest chapter of our lives. The post is not much, but it is a starting point; and it addresses a question I have been asked many times in the past couple of months. The answer I give today is general. It will become more specific in future posts. For what it’s worth, church life can take a toll on priests.

DSCF3301

So, I’m sitting here in Tucson, in the house I will be moving into with my family in just over two weeks, with a little time on my hands.

I’m here on a scouting trip. To take pictures of the place so that my wife and I can figure out if our furniture will fit; and to go over details with the landlord, details like there are no blinds on the windows and the gas company failed to turn on the gas despite our bending over backwards to accommodate them.

The house, by the way, is fantastic. It’s a renovated bungalow with wood floors and wavy glass (i. e., old) window panes and a wonderfully landscaped backyard for entertaining.

Its location is likewise: seven blocks from my place of work (downtown) and two blocks off a very cool (and rather gritty) historic shopping and restaurant district. (The other Trues will have a 9-mile commute.)

But the house is 113 years old. So, yeah, it’s also got all the old house quirks and creeks, moans, groans, and inconveniences. (The garage is too short for my midsize pickup!) Wondering if there might even be a ghost story or two that comes with the place. . . .

Anyway, it should prove a good place for us to be for the next several years—while we save up a downpayment for a place of our own.

But all this points to an elephantine question (in the room): why move at all?

And you’re right to ask it. St. Thomas was a good gig.

I was a priest in charge of a congregation, I was my own boss, people listened to what I had to say, most of them even respected my leadership, I got along well with my bishop and colleagues, and I was making ends meet (not to mention building a pension).

I was comfortable. My family was comfortable. Why would any priest want to move on from such a situation? Why not just cruise for nineteen more years till retirement?

Well, thank you for your interest. It’s an unusual move, I know. But I’m following the calling Christ has given; and the past six years of parochial ministry have made clear that, for now anyway, it is time to step out of the priest-in-charge-of-a-congregation role.

Suffice that I am partly to blame–my disposition, how I’m wired, is more suited to school chaplaincy; but it is also partly (and I will argue much more) the fault of the institution we have created, which is very similar to the religious establishment Jesus opposed again and again in the Gospels.

More to come soon.

A Final Charge

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School in Temecula, California on May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

John 13:31-35

1.

Today is Day 29 of the Great 50 Days of Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen . . . but he has not yet ascended.

Jesus’ time remaining with the disciples is very limited—only eleven days to go. So, what does he have to say in these final days?

I mean, what would you say to your friends and loved ones if you knew you would be with them only eleven more days?

Here’s how the lectionary compilers imagine it. The Gospel today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, narrates the final time Jesus spoke to his disciples collectively before his death.

Surely, this is one of Jesus’ most important teachings of all!

They’ve gathered together at the last supper; Judas has just gone out. And Jesus begins, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

In other words, listen up! Jesus is not going to speak in parables, paradoxes, or riddles today. No complicated doctrine. No erudite theology. Just a simple message clear enough even for little children.

“I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

All along Jesus’ mission has been to go outward. He came to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the captives.

And he left this mission to us, to plant seeds of good news and spread them to the ends of the earth.

All this—Jesus’ mission—is very important.

But for today, as we remember Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, wedged right in the middle of them, we focus on something else: a most important, foundational, simple message.

It’s as if to say, “All that great stuff about the mission, all that going outward business—it’s nothing if we don’t love one another!”

2.

Well, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that, like with Jesus, today is my final opportunity to address you all as a collective body.

At that Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus didn’t mince words; at my last Eucharist with you, today, same.

No parables, paradoxes, or riddles; no complicated doctrine; no erudite theology. Just the plain, important message: love one another. This is where our community life’s rubber meets the road.

So simple! Right? Yet so complicated to live out!

So, in the remainder of my sermon today, my final charge to you, I’m going to address this question: What does love for one another look like in our specific setting, St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School?

After almost two years with you, I have a few suggestions I’d like to offer. How do we love one another?

My first suggestion: focus on the common good.

Many of us within the St. Thomas community have great ideas. This is a talented group! And as long as I’ve been here I’ve encouraged people to take risks with their ideas.

Create. Innovate. Collaborate. Try something new. And whether the idea succeeds or fails—that’s not the issue so much as doing something with and for the community resulting in the common good.

For example, a small team of people created an outdoor labyrinth for Easter Eve. More than fifty people showed up to walk this labyrinth in prayer, many of them from outside our community.

What an example of loving one another—and our neighbors to boot!

But what happens when an individual or small group presents a ministry to the community not for the common good as much as for the benefit of that person or group? Doesn’t the focus shift? From Christ to the group? From the common good to individuals?

So, let’s say twenty years from now the labyrinth program is still going. Now nobody really remembers the history behind it, how it began or even why; and only a few people show up when Easter Eve rolls around. Still, a few individuals feel very strongly about keeping it going. After all, they say, it’s tradition!

To which I ask, why? Is it glorifying Christ? Is it benefiting the common good? Or, maybe, on the other hand, has it become your pet project?

If it’s not benefiting the common good, or if it’s benefiting a few persons at the expense of the common good, let it go.

Ministries, programs, traditions, special interests—these things have life cycles. Maybe it’s time to let some of our precious programs die so that new life can rise up from within the community, new life that benefits the common good.

My second suggestion piggybacks on the first: increase flexibility.

Church bodies, as you know, are living organisms. They are always moving, breathing, changing. People come and go; new members join, old members move away.

For St. Thomas to benefit from this alive-ness, isn’t flexibility essential? And I’m not talking just a general tolerance for one another, but deep, out-of-your-comfort-zone flexibility.

Let’s say a newcomer visits and (out of her comfort zone) takes that brave first step of sitting down at the coffee hour or in an Adult Forum; and she joins in the conversation. What should our response be?

A general tolerance would put up with her like we put up with distant relatives when they come to our homes for a visit. We’re polite enough, we make pleasant conversation and feed them a nice meal.

But, still, they’re in my house and will therefore abide by my household rules; or I will show them the door.

In other words, we expect home visitors to assimilate to the culture we’ve established there, our culture.

But, in a church that lives out Christ’s love for one another, it cannot work that way!

When a newcomer enters into our church’s ongoing, living conversation, we must not expect her to assimilate to our ways; rather, love demands that we learn and grow from her, truly to listen to what she has to say and thereby, with her, experience ongoing, living transformation.

Flexibility is key.

Finally, my third suggestion: establish and maintain authenticity.

To illustrate what I mean, most Episcopal congregations I’m aware of are bemoaning the almost absolute disappearance of Millennials from our midst. Many of these young people have grown up in the church but have left. Why?

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. In fact, four of my kids arguably are Millennials and we’ve had many a conversation along these lines. I also have a number of colleagues and friends who fit in the “Millennials” category. Even my new boss is a Millennial!

And, you know, it’s not that Millennials are spiritually uninterested or indifferent. Actually it’s quite the opposite, as cultural-trend watchers have testified!

The number one answer I hear is that most churches are not authentic. Or, to say it another way, to Millennials, most churches feel contrived.

And that includes most Episcopal churches!

My friend David, a Millennial who works with a Episcopal congregation, explains it like this.

In the years following WWII, churches found it very important to state what they believed; for, during this ethically despairing time, doctrinal beliefs formed a kind of moral anchor for society.

Think of denominational distinctives. Lutherans and Presbyterians and Baptists are all Christians; but what makes them distinct from one another became top priority. And broader culture was grateful for the clarity.

Out of these pools of distinctive beliefs, then, communities formed and grew. And from these communities, finally, the mission of Christ—good works done in the name of love—could go forth.

That paradigm was beliefs-community-works.

And that paradigm stuck. And it has continued to stick. And it remains largely stuck in churches today.

So, according to David and other Millennials with whom I’ve spoken, it’s time for this paradigm to change. It feels contrived, inauthentic. Communities should not form around beliefs—complicated doctrine and erudite theology. Rather, communities should form around the deeds of love Christ has called us to do.

That old paradigm, in other words, should be inverted. Works of love make up the foundation that calls God’s people together into communities of love—churches; and only then, once this foundation is set in place, should churches solidify their common beliefs.

So that’s what an authentic body of Christ looks like to Millennials.

Yet, for most of us, it’s probably a different way of seeing things. It might make some of us—many of us—uncomfortable.

But remember my previous suggestions? Be out-of-your-comfort-zone flexible for the sake of the common good.

New wine needs new wineskins.

*****

Dear community of St. Thomas, seek the common good; increase your flexibility; establish and maintain your authenticity.

By this all will know that you are Christ’s disciples, if you have love for one another.

May God continue richly to bless St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School.