New Adventure

Posted in Uncategorized on June 9, 2021 by timtrue

The following letter will be going out forthwith to the congregation of Grace Episcopal Church in St. George, Utah, where I have agreed to serve for the next eighteen months as Priest-in-charge. While I am saddened that Imago Dei Middle School was not able to renew my contract for the 2021-22 school year, I am very much looking forward to this new adventure. My time at Imago Dei is one I will forever cherish. PM or email me if you have any questions or want to know more.

6/8/2021

Dear Grace Church,

The last time we Episcopalians encountered Jesus telling the Parable of the Mustard Seed was almost a year ago, a few months into the pandemic, on Sunday, July 26, 2020. At this time I was doing pulpit supply work for a small congregation in southern Arizona. And when I say small, I mean somewhere between 6-10 people per Sunday. We met via Zoom, where we participated interactively in live services.

What were Sunday services like at Grace then, I wonder? Were you meeting on Facebook Live maybe? YouTube?

Anyway, in preparing for my sermon I learned that the mustard seed was brought into the Mediterranean region in Julius Caesar’s day in order to hasten an engineering project. This small seed grew quickly without much water to make quick work of erosion. You might say it could cast a mulberry tree into the ocean lickety-split. And so, because of the mustard plant, Caesar accomplished his project. What no one counted on, however, was that the weed would stick around. An invasive species, the mustard plant quickly took over the countryside, soon making farming difficult and otherwise disrupting the overall food supply.

Through the importation of the invasive mustard plant, the Mediterranean region was forever changed. Things would never return to the way things were, to “normal.” The farming task, which became much more time- and labor-intensive, not to mention the empire’s food supply chain, had no choice but to adapt.

And then Jesus has the nerve to come along and proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field” (Matthew 13:31).

What? How could the kingdom of heaven—something good—be likened to the mustard seed—something indisputably bad?

I imagine the crowd groaning audibly and rolling their eyes collectively.

But . . .

If Jesus were to visit us bodily today and teach us, I wonder, would he proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is like the coronavirus pandemic”?

I hear a lot of talk about returning to normal. Air travel is returning to normal, news anchors report. The economy is experiencing a brief, weird spike—in car prices, in housing, in selective unemployment, and so on—but, some experts say, the spike should come down when things get back to normal. Kids are going back to school, I’ve heard, like normal.

But what if—like the mustard seed in the days of Julius Caesar—what if the coronavirus has forever changed who we are—as a culture, as a society, as a church?

Moreover, what if—like the kingdom of heaven—what if that change is actually a good thing?

I bring this up because I will be joining the Grace Church community on July 1 to be your Priest-in-charge. What I have learned already of this community excites me; I am eager with anticipation to get to know this community better. Grace Church has been and will continue to be a shining light in St. George.

But, now that we’re coming out of this pandemic, my hope is not that Grace Church will return to what it once was. Rather, my hope—my agenda, if you will—is to guide Grace Church into a new identity, into becoming a beloved community more reflective of the kingdom of heaven than ever before—whatever that will end up looking like.

Happy to be on this journey with you!

Father Tim

Before Jumping Ship

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on May 2, 2021 by timtrue

John 15:1-8

1

How do you know finally when to jump ship? What is it that makes you decide it’s time to throw in the towel? How do you decide that a lost cause is really lost? If you can’t beat ’em, how long should you wait to join ’em?

These and similar questions come to mind when I read today’s Gospel.

Jesus is the vine, he says. And we are branches. Without him we will languish, wither, and dry up.

It’s a good metaphor for life in Christ.

But what if the vine itself is uprooted? What if we realize that the vine we’ve attached ourselves to isn’t the true vine we always thought it to be?

The vine of organized religion, after all, hasn’t always been the true vine: the Crusades of the Middle Ages; the institution of slavery in our own country . . .

So, what if that’s the case today?

A lot of people seem to think so: Is it just me, or does anyone else here know people who’ve given up on organized religion?

The thinking goes something like this. Church history is riddled with human error, evil even. That can’t be the true vine!

And so they decide it’s time to jump ship, to let go of the cause. They feel they can no longer beat organized religion’s critics—and so they join them.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

2

Do you remember the story from the ninth chapter of this Gospel about a man born blind?

Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples. They see a man blind from birth; and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus says, no, you’ve got it all wrong. And to show them, he stoops down, spits on the ground, makes a little mud, spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. Once he does, he comes back seeing. Incredible!

That’s the part of the story we usually remember. There’s a lot more to it.

So, next, some of the man’s neighbors see him walking around with his sight restored. Naturally enough, they ask him, “What happened? How is it that you now see?”

He explains that this man named Jesus put some mud on his eyes and told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before a group of influential leaders of the local religious community.

He tells them his story. And, curiously, the group of leaders is divided.

It happened on the Sabbath. Some of them say, “This man Jesus cannot be of God, for he healed on the Sabbath.” Yet others say, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

Then some of the leaders—those who feel that Jesus cannot be of God; only some of them—confront the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they ask. Yes. “Was he born blind?” they ask. Yes. “Do you know that he now sees?” they ask. Really? Incredible!

“Well, yes,” the unapproving leaders admit, reluctantly, maybe shuffling their feet a little, “I guess it is actually kind of incredible. But that’s beside the point! How is it that he can now see?”

And the parents answer, “We don’t know. But he is of age. Why don’t you ask him?”

What comes next really is incredible. But it comes fast and furious and is gone before we know it; and thus is a detail we all too often miss or forget about: the reason why the parents answered as they did.

“His parents said this,” the Gospel narrates, “because they were afraid of the [unapproving leaders]; for [these leaders] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

The healed man’s parents were afraid. They didn’t want to be put out of the synagogue. They feared excommunication: being cut off from the vine of Israel.

We’ve just seen domination at work. These leaders manipulate through fear. Their minds are already made up, which is prejudice.

And I’m thinking maybe it’s time for them—the man born blind and his parents—to jump ship, to leave their edition of organized religion. Would that be so wrong?

But to finish the story, the unapproving leaders again call forward the healed man, now charging him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth. “We know this man Jesus is a sinner!” they exclaim.

“Whether he’s a sinner or not,” the healed man replies, “I don’t know. But one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see.”

And at last the story concludes with these chilling words: “And they drove him out.”

Those influential community leaders drive the healed man out of the synagogue. He is excommunicated, cut off from the vine Israel.

3

Now, curiously, Jesus is not the first person to use this vine-and-branches metaphor. Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.

Psalm 80 says: “O LORD God of hosts . . . you brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”

Isaiah 5 sings of God’s relationship with Israel, beginning with these words: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard.”

And Ezekiel 19 says: “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard . . . fruitful and full of branches from abundant water.”

No doubt this metaphor was quite familiar to first hearers of John’s Gospel.

John’s audience—those to whom John had initially written his Gospel—like the man born blind in Chapter 9, had been driven out of the synagogue, cut off from the vine Israel.

And the reason they’d been cut off? Like the healed man, they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah.

Even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself; or, to tell it from John’s point of view, Israel cut itself off from Jesus.

So, here’s what John is doing: overturning logical tables.

The religious leaders who opposed Jesus and his followers claimed that their organized religious system was the true vine. But John proclaims to his hearers that Jesus is the true vine; Jesus is their true source of life.

Contrary to what those unapproving leaders intended—to cut off Jesus’ followers from their vine, their source of life—they had instead cut themselves off from the Christ, the true source of life.

Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; those who reject Jesus cut themselves from the true vine and are left to languish, wither, and dry up, spiritually alone.

John tells his hearers they were right to jump ship when they did.

4

Which brings us back to my original question.

Christianity has a colorful history. It is responsible for the Crusades. It is intricately tied up with our nation’s slave history.

Is it time to jump from the ship of organized religion? Lots of people have done so over the last four decades. People we know. Are they right? Is church a lost cause? Should we just give up and join them?

So, it may help us to remember, as we ponder this question, that organized religion—organized Christianity—is not the same thing as Jesus.

Jesus is the true vine, John says, not organized religion.

Organized religion can and does stray from the mark. And when it does, I should hope that we have the courage either to get it back on track or find our way back to Jesus through some other means.

But in terms of how to know if or when it’s time to jump ship, it helps me to keep the following in mind; maybe it will help you too:

Jesus’ message and mission delineate two ways, or paths, for us as we navigate our way through life.

One is what Jesus calls again and again the way of the world: the way of hierarchy, domination, fear, and violence.

This was the way used by the unapproving leaders in John 9.

The other is the way of the new world: the way of love, where there is no hierarchy, domination, fear, or violence.

How, then, do we discern the true vine? The true vine bears fruit that demonstrates the way of love.

I find this helpful, because now I can look through a kind of filter at the organizations around me—the organizations to which I belong, the organizations about which I might be thinking, “Is it time to jump ship?”

And thus, while, yes, I agree with my disenchanted friends that organized religion as a whole can be hard to stomach, now my focus is more specific.

My question—theirs too—should be, What about this particular organization, this particular congregation?

Is St. Michael’s following the way of the world? Or, is St. Michael’s practicing the way of love—among ourselves and outwardly, in the broader community?

And we don’t stop there. What about our Diocese? What about our Church? What about other organizations I volunteer with, or give money to?

5

And finally, there’s one more very important piece to this puzzle.

Let’s say you’ve determined it is in fact time to make a move—to leave an organization in which you play a part because, after prayer and consideration, you feel it practices the way of the world more than the way of love.

Fine and well. But where will you go?

Jesus is the true vine; and we are the branches. This means organizations not rooted in his message and mission of love are going to languish.

Additionally, this means that you and I, as individuals, will languish if we try to go it alone.

Community is needed. In the beginning, God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone. And before the beginning, God dwelled in triune relationship. You and I—we need each other.

And now the puzzle’s complete.

There may come a time in your life when you conclude that you do indeed need to jump ship. Such times can become necessary and even good (to move on from the institutions that manipulate through fear, for instance).

But be sure not to let go of your cause only then to languish, wither, and dry up alone.

Jesus is the true vine. His message and mission are love. Abide in him by belonging to St. Michael’s and other organizations that abide in him. And, so doing, bear fruits that demonstrate the way of love.

Just *One* Flock?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on April 26, 2021 by timtrue

John 10:11-18

1

I don’t know about you, but shepherds—good or otherwise—are not people I come in contact with on a daily basis. As I drive and hike around southern Arizona, I don’t see too many sheep. Maybe some cattle, from time to time. But never sheep.

So, I did some reading; and . . . sheep aren’t stupid.

Ever hear anyone say this, that sheep are stupid, good for little more than shearing and slaughtering?

I once endured a half-hour sermon on today’s Gospel passage where that seemed to be the preacher’s main and only point: sheep are stupid.

Well, how does that make you feel? I mean, if Jesus is supposed to be our Good Shepherd, then that makes us sheep. And when someone stands before me and proclaims that sheep are stupid, witless beasts, well, I’m not feeling it. Are you?

But also, three of the sources I read as I prepared for this sermon—not just one, but three—say that that rumor was started by cowboys. Yeah, you know, those guys who ride their horses and swing their ropes and whoop and holler behind the cattle to drive them forward.

Well, what happens when you try to get behind sheep and drive them forward? They don’t move forward at all but instead try to run around to get behind the driver.

Sheep aren’t stupid. They just don’t want to be pushed. They want to be led.

And so, cowboys called them stupid and witless beasts because sheep don’t behave like cows.

But sheep aren’t the same as cows.

And that makes me feel a little better. That makes me feel more like here is something I want to be a part of: a community that’s not pushed and prodded to get us to go where the cowboy wants us to. Say what you will about cowboys, but a good shepherd doesn’t bully, coerce, or manipulate.

Instead, we smart sheep are led by the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus; who shows us by example that we are to put others first, that we are maybe even, in the extreme, to lay down our lives for others.

And there’s that piece in there about sheep knowing their shepherd. It’s not just some comfortable platitude.

At night, while the flock is tucked in its cozy sheepfold, safe and warm, the beloved and trusted shepherd can walk in and among them without a single sheep stirring.

But if you or I or anyone else other than their shepherd were to walk among them, the sheep would wake up and begin to bleat nervously.

Sheep aren’t stupid; they know the difference between their shepherd and a cowboy.

2

However: sheep are temperamental, needy, smelly, and now and then they butt heads apparently for no reason at all. Which is to say they/we need shepherding.

So, at this point, let’s put ourselves in the shepherd’s shoes.

The flock has been together for many years; generations, in fact—baby, parent, and grandparent sheep all living together in community, trying to get along comfortably enough.

But the heat of summer comes around again and the waterhole dries up and the pastures turn brown and dust coats their throats . . .

Some of the sheep, the alphas, grow grumpy and begin to argue with one another: they begin to butt heads. Annoyance levels then spread throughout the flock and rise. Triangulation happens. Factions form.

What should the shepherd do?

Well, one option is to drive the biggest alpha out into the wilderness.

Notice, I said drive. Like a cowboy. For if the shepherd tries to lead the alpha out, the rest will follow. To preserve the flock, the individual, rogue alpha must be driven out.

What happens to this lone sheep out in the wilderness doesn’t really matter, the cowboy-shepherd reasons; for the flock will be better off with the alpha’s absence.

I call this method of shepherding—or pastoring—the Independent Cowboy. And, in case I haven’t been clear enough already, I’m not a fan.

But there’s a second option: to divide up the flock.

One alpha is unhappy with another. The one alpha believes she was predestined to be a part of this flock and has convinced many other sheep of her opinion; whereas the other alpha believes it is his choice, his free will, to be a part of this flock, and has likewise convinced several others of his opinion.

The shepherd understands this head-butting and decides that the best way to keep the peace is to divide the flock up, to establish separate denominations according to doctrinal differences.

This method is what I like to call the Judging Protestant shepherd. Also not a fan.

Then there’s a third shepherd who believes in tough love. She has a rod and staff; and she knows how to use them.

These tools will comfort her sheep, she believes, by giving them what they deserve, by keeping them in a state of submission so they don’t run off to the wolves. She knows what her sheep need much more than they do, after all. Discipline! And if they fear her a little, well, so much the better.

I call this the Medieval Catholic shepherd—or the Micromanaging School Marm shepherd, take your pick. Again, I’m not a fan.

And there are other approaches too. But, really, is any of these what the Good Shepherd would do?

3

Jesus has other sheep, he says, which do not belong to our fold; lots and lots of sheep, about which we know nothing.

Well, what does that mean?

  • Independent, non-denominational sheep?
  • Opinionated, judgmental, fundamentalist, Protestant sheep?
  • Conservative evangelical sheep?
  • Liberal mainline sheep?
  • Social-justice oriented Catholic sheep?
  • How about: Republican sheep?
  • Democratic sheep?
  • Or maybe: Religiously unaffiliated sheep?
  • Unchurched sheep?
  • Jewish sheep?
  • Muslim sheep?
  • Buddhist sheep?
  • Atheist sheep?

There are sheep who hear Jesus’ voice about whom we know nothing . . .

Talk about potential for head-butting!

Yet, if we are to take seriously what Jesus says about there being only one flock, then Jesus is their Good Shepherd just as much as he is ours—whether they know it or not; and whether we know it or not.

There will be one flock, one shepherd, Jesus says.

If we believe this, I mean really believe this, then we can’t say that Jesus’ approach to his mission is the Independent Cowboy, the Judging Protestant, the Medieval Catholic, or the Micromanaging School Marm.

Jesus’ mission never bullies, coerces, manipulates, divides, or excludes. If anyone ever suggests that Christianity guides society through “tough love,” fear, guilt, or shame, plug your ears and run away.

Instead, Jesus’ flock makes inclusive room for the other, meaning those who are not just like us.

4

Some of you know, I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies in my youth to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after about twenty years—becoming an Episcopalian.

Lots of spiritual dominoes had to fall to get me here, for, though I believed for a long time that there was only one flock, I held that it was a small and rather exclusive flock, that it had a monopoly on the truth that all those other flocks, all those false flocks led by false shepherds, failed to have.

Then, one day, at long last, there I was, with my family, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its exclusive theological confidence.

And, like in the Episcopal Church, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess its faith corporately in the words of the Nicene Creed.

And so, coming to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” something in my mind clicked. I looked around at the twenty-five or so other people saying the same thing—in a city with a population of 1.5 million—and I almost laughed out loud.

“No we don’t!” I said to myself. “We don’t believe in a universal church. We’re a tiny sect that has splintered off from another tiny sect. We believe in only our church! ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church’? My foot!”

What clicked for me on that day was this: Christ calls us to be unified, not divided; to community, not isolation.

5

Okay. But unity in the wider church around the world? “There will be one flock,” Jesus says, “one shepherd.” But as I look around me, I’ve got to ask: How?

With all the religious disagreements in the world, from small-scale denominational debates to large-scale wars and everything in between, it feels impossible. One flock? Unity? Yeah, right!

But like with so many other difficult, spiritual questions, it has to begin here, with us. There’s no other way. We are called to live in harmony: with one another; and with those outside these four walls—those who are not just like us.

When we butt heads, like sheep do, our response shouldn’t be to drive the alphas from our midst; but to work through our differences, knowing that we will become a stronger body for it.

We don’t coerce by threat of judgment or manipulate each other through fear, shame, or guilt.

Rather, we practice the greatest commandment of all, love, in inviting, welcoming, and including all; and in carrying our good shepherd’s message and mission of good news outward.

***

There will be one flock, Jesus says, one shepherd.

My exhortation for us today? Let’s change the tense: Let’s live our lives like there already is only one flock, the flock of humanity; and let’s dwell together now, in harmony under the love and care of Jesus, humanity’s good shepherd.

Making Peace with Ghosts

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on April 18, 2021 by timtrue

Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

1

Do you believe in ghosts? What about zombies?

Donny was my next door neighbor. He was my hero; my role model.

I have an older brother, Andy, about a year and a half older than I. Andy wasn’t my role model. He was my older brother; and, well, you know how that goes.

But Donny!

My family moved to Camarillo in January of 1972. I was almost four years old; Andy was five.

I can still remember that first day, pulling in with a moving truck, into the driveway that would be mine for the next twelve and a half years—the driveway, the old ranch house, the seventy or eighty avocado trees that came along with it. Here was my boyhood home.

Donny lived next door. He was two months older than Andy. To a boy of three, that made Donny much wiser.

In time, Donny learned to come on over any time of the day and peek in the back door, the sliding glass door; and if Andy or I was there, he’d just let himself in.

We’d do the same, too, at Donny’s house. We didn’t know any different. This was life.

So, happy doesn’t even begin to describe the emotion I felt when, finally(!), the day came: Donny was invited to spend the night. My first sleepover!

Donny was my hero; my role model. He was brave. He was tough. He wasn’t afraid of anything!

Andy and I shared a built-in bunk bed. He got the top bunk—he was the older brother, after all—and I got the bottom. I’m still holding a little grudge about this, by the way. But tonight it was going to pay off. For beneath my bunk lay a trundle bed; and tonight it would be rolled out and occupied by Donny, my hero, my role model.

Well, we had this foreboding, creaky, and frankly spooky spiral staircase—made of cold, hard wrought iron—leading from a rather dark corner of the kitchen down, down, down into the basement.

The steps on this staircase were open at the back; meaning there was a perfect space underneath to hide in and reach my hands through and scare the heebie-jeebies out of anyone who happened to be descending.

Like my mom. She never liked that staircase much, by the way.

And I mentioned the avocado orchard, right?

So, the story goes that there was this squatter who lived in our orchard.

Like most squatters, he remained elusive, hidden away in corners where we wouldn’t happen upon him easily.

But he wasn’t what you might call a typical squatter; for he wasn’t exactly, um, human.

Some time ago he’d been in a terrible accident: a pedestrian crossing the street when a Mack Truck plowed into him, catapulting him onto the ice-plant some forty feet away.

The truck driver screeched to a halt. A small crowd ran over to help the tall victim, a seven-foot-tall man. One person checked his pulse; another called 911; someone else performed CPR.

But, alas, it was too late. He lay crumpled and lifeless in a heap. The seven-foot man was dead.

Soon, the police showed up and started taking witnesses’ reports. The ambulance not yet on the scene, somehow or other everyone’s attention was diverted: no one was looking any longer at the seven-foot man.

When the ambulance finally did arrive and the people remembered the crumpled soul on the ice-plant, they turned and—gasp!—he wasn’t there.

“So, where’s the victim?” the medics asked; to which everyone, including the cops, just shrugged their shoulders and scratched their heads. Apparently, he’d just upped and vanished.

But I knew what really happened. The seven-foot man hadn’t really vanished. He was living in my avocado orchard.

And I also knew something else. I knew that in the terrible accident his body and spirit were separated from one another; and now both were haunting my home: both the disembodied spirit of the seven-foot man—his ghost; and his spiritless body—his zombie.

Late at night, as everyone lay in bed asleep, I knew that both zombie and ghost would sneak into that gaping maw, that space beneath the creaky spiral staircase, and try to reunite.

Andy knew it too. And sometimes feared for his life. Me too.

But we boys had learned to live with it.

But Donny: he laughed in the face of danger.

So then, on the day of the sleepover, after a long day of boyhood adventures, the three of us enjoyed a delicious dinner of Mac ’n’ Cheese and s’mores over a backyard fire for dessert, donned our pajamas, and brushed our teeth. Finally, it was time to climb in bed.

But, I smiled to myself, not before a good fright or two.

So, “Seven-foot man!” I shouted, pointing to a shadowy corner with the best look of fear on my face I could muster.

Andy and Donny gasped in fear. I laughed. And we turned out the lights.

What did I care if I’d just scared us all, me included? Donny—brave, tough Donny—my hero, my role model, was at my side.

And that’s when I heard a noise in the dark next to me. A sniffle maybe?

Uh, sure, Donny probably just had allergies or a little sleep apnea or something.

But then it wasn’t just a sniffle now: some throat-clearing, gulping down of air, and, yes, no doubt about it, all out sobbing.

“Donny?” I called out, “what’s wrong?”

A pause, a few more sniffles, then, “I wanna call my dad,” he replied.

Which he did. On the rotary phone. Which I could hear from the kitchen making its slow progress, one number at a time. 4 . . . 8 . . . 4 . . . 6 . . . 7 . . . 7 . . . 6.

And a few minutes later, Donny was packed up and heading home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man—and our fears—without him.

But he was my hero. But he was my role model. What now?

2

Whether you believe in ghosts, zombies, both, or neither, today’s Gospel teaches us something about belief.

Jesus appears among the disciples and they are “startled and terrified.” They think they’re seeing a ghost. They’re frightened. Doubts arise in their hearts.

But Jesus persuades them. “Look at my hands and my feet,” he says; “touch me.” And they do. And their beliefs begin to change. They are filled with joy; but still there is disbelief and wonder—kind of like that weird combination we heard about a couple weeks ago: they sort of understood but did not yet believe.

So, finally, Jesus takes some food and eats it; and he teaches the disciples, opening their minds so that they understand the scriptures. Now, no longer are they disbelieving; no longer are they skeptical. Their faith is certain.

We see three characteristics of belief in today’s Gospel story:

  1. Complete Disbelief—Jesus appears and they think he’s a ghost;
  2. Skeptical Wonderment—their disbelief is mixed with joy;
  3. Certain Faith—they hear the scriptures and understand.

I’m not saying that these characteristics of belief are progressive stages: that you have to go through one to get to another; that everyone needs to go through a time of complete disbelief and then a time of skepticism before he or she can truly believe.

Instead, you might find yourself in a state of sure and certain belief today—you can’t remember a time when your faith was stronger—and yet tomorrow you experience a complete crisis of faith.

Belief is complicated.

Fear has something to do with this, I’m sure.

Also, I’m not saying that these characteristics are comprehensive: that they cover the whole spectrum of belief possibilities. Belief is not so simple as to mark it out in three easy steps.

But we’ve all been here, right?

Also, these belief characteristics don’t just happen on the individual level. For example, a question might have been on this collective congregation’s mind this year: “How will St. Michael’s possibly regroup beyond this pandemic?”

And yet God will manage. Somehow. God always does.

But belief is like that. It’s complicated. It can be unstable, insecure.

3

So, Donny called his dad and went home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man on our own. We were completely and totally freaked out by this prospect.

And not five minutes after we’d climbed back into bed, still spooked, now listening intently into the darkness, it happened: over in a dark corner on the other side of the house, due to the cooling evening temperature or something, the spiral staircase let out a loud and telltale creak.

Well, Andy lost it. He let out a scream to shatter a wine glass. Which triggered a similar scream from me. And together, like two coyotes under a full moon, we howled and wailed and cried until our real hero, our real role model, Dad, came into the room.

“Boys!” he shouted—mainly to get our attention. Then, “boys!” he said, much more calmly; “I don’t know what went down with you and Donny today. But I don’t have to. I’m here. I love you. And if you need anything, just call for me.”

Peace, he’d said; be still.

Isn’t today’s word from God the same for us? You might be in a sure and certain place today. And if so, great! Enjoy it. You won’t always be in such a desirable place.

Some of you, however, perhaps more of you, are not in such a certain and sure place. You might be experiencing some joy and wonderment; but also some disbelief. You might even find yourselves skeptical.

Others of you, maybe a few, don’t believe at all right now. You look around at the world and wonder how a god could even exist.

The truth is, we go back and forth between these places. It’s a natural part of faith. But we find it unsettling, unstable, insecure. And, like that guy in the story who meets Jesus, in the very same breath we say, “Lord, I believe! Help me in my unbelief!”

Peace! Be still!

Jesus came and stood among his disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” Peace—not stability, not security, but peace—be with you.

Skeptical of Self

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 11, 2021 by timtrue

John 20:19-31

1

The culture we live in is a lot like the air we breathe, isn’t it? We inhale and exhale all the time, whether or not we’re intentional about doing so; so too we take in and express our surrounding culture without even realizing it.

So, what if the predominant culture we live in is smog?

When I was a child, I lived in Ventura County, California, a coastal county just north of Los Angeles County. I heard a lot about smog growing up, experienced it less frequently.

While I didn’t have to deal with it as much as my neighbors to the south, it was nonetheless a real threat to my health. Especially during the Santa Ana wind season.

Each year, sometimes several times in a single season, these dry, hot winds would blow in from the east, making our otherwise temperate climate desert-like for a few days. And on the days when the weather would return to normal—the days when the wind shifted back to its prevailing westward course, from the ocean—a good chunk of L. A.’s smog would return with it.

On these pollution-infused days, each time I inhaled I would feel a pain deep in my chest. The deeper I inhaled the more pain I felt.

So, doesn’t our culture tell us a lot of things we don’t really think about too much? “It’s all about you.” “You deserve a new car.” “If you go on this diet for two months, you too can look like a celebrity.” “Don’t listen to it; it’s fake news.” “Ah, that’s a conspiracy theory.” And so on.

Well, what happens when the surrounding cultural air we breathe is smog?

We inhale and exhale the surrounding culture without thinking about it—until we feel an ache deep in our chest. The pain tells us something is wrong. But what? And how do we avoid this unhealthy practice in the future?

Well, first, we’ve got to identify the pollutant. Where is this cultural smog coming from?

Maybe somewhat surprisingly, we find an answer in Doubting Thomas. Yeah! That skeptical disciple from today’s Gospel.

So, let’s see what Thomas has to teach us. Then, well, then we can come back to this question.

2

To begin, I ask: Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

To this day—some 2,000 years later—he’s still the butt of our jokes.

Like this one:

Peter asks, “Hey, Thomas, do you think Christians will ever appreciate the fact that you were a person of great faith?”

To which Thomas replies, “I doubt it.”

Or this one:

John announces, “Jesus is risen.”

Thomas replies, “Sounds like fake news to me.”

He’s not known by the name Didymus, the Twin, or simply St. Thomas; but by the unflattering moniker Doubting.

I used to be a vicar of a church, in fact, that called itself St. Thomas of Canterbury, as if it didn’t want anyone to confuse its name with that other Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

Can’t you just hear it now?

“Welcome to the Episcopal Church of Doubting Thomas. Maybe I’m Father Tim, maybe I’m not”—

But, really, was his doubting anything more than the doubting we saw from Peter last week, who ran to the tomb, peeked in, and doubted Mary Magdalene’s testimony?

Peter! Oh, now there’s a piece of work! Rash, thick-headed, and impulsive, he denied Jesus three times.

Yet we don’t nickname him Denying Peter. Rather, we remember him as the Rock upon whom Christ built his Church!

But with Thomas the pejorative adjective has stuck. He is and forever will be known as doubting.

Still, why is this so bad? Isn’t a little doubt, a little skepticism, actually a good thing? Don’t we as human beings in fact value a certain level of skepticism?

In our science labs, for example, we posit a hypothesis and then test it over and over. And if our tests prove us wrong, why, we don’t conclude that the test results must be off but instead that we must rethink the hypothesis.

3

In line with science, then, let me posit a hypothesis of my own.

Doubting Thomas gets such a bad rap not for being skeptical but because he takes his skepticism too far.

Turning to today’s Gospel, here’s what I mean:

Thomas wasn’t there with everybody else on that day when Jesus first appeared to the others.

So, some time later, after Jesus left, the other disciples see Thomas and tell him what happened. “We have seen the Lord,” they say; “Jesus is alive, risen from the grave!”

And, naturally enough, this is where Thomas’s skepticism kicks in.

You know how it can be with the guys, right? They like to act out jokes on each other, tell fibs, play pranks. That’s all they’re doing now, isn’t it?

Well, Thomas, um, no, it’s not. A moment’s reflection tells you so.

It’s not just one or two of the disciples we’re talking about here, but the ten—plus some others: at least Cleopas, Mary, and some other women. No, there’s a whole group here saying the same thing. Not to mention the grief is too recent! This is no prank.

Yet still Thomas’s skepticism prevails. And this is where I think he takes it too far.

He says, “Look, friends, I don’t know what you’re playing at. But, whatever it is, unless I see the marks in his hands and feet and side—no, unless I touch these marks—I will not believe.”

What is Thomas doing here? Despite what everyone else is saying, he trusts in himself more. Despite their authority being so much more reliable than his own, he is not willing to trust his community.

It’s okay to be skeptical, as we’ve already discussed. But only to a point. Thomas takes it too far in that he trusts self over community.

We value skepticism in our culture; and there’s good reason to do so. But, like Thomas, we take our skepticism too far whenever we compromise the authority of our trusted community.

4

Now, I’ve mentioned it before: mainstream Christianity has seen a steady decline over the last four decades. This decline is easy to demonstrate: statistics prove it.

But a more difficult question to answer is why: Why has the mainstream church been in decline?

Perhaps it’s just this reason. Perhaps it’s because we take our valued skepticism too far; we place a higher value on the skepticism of the individual than we do on the collective wisdom of the community.

Episcopal author Dwight Zscheile says:

So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion. Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations.

Zscheile argues that we no longer connect with people through community, but

because we think they will meet our needs for intimacy or otherwise help us advance our own interests. Of course, the reverse also becomes possible—when we feel like relationships are not meeting our needs, we switch out of them. This applies to everything from friendships to jobs to marriage—and to church.[i]

This is Zscheile’s answer to the question why, and I have to say I agree. Individual choice—valuing the individual more than the community, taking our skepticism too far—is at the root of church decline.

Christ and his church are about the common good; yet culture tells us it’s about me, the individual.

The former is clean air, the latter smog.

5

Back to that question now about the cultural air we breathe. If it values skepticism and doubt to such an extent that the common good is compromised, what can we do about it?

Well, what have we done with real smog?

In the early 1980s, whenever my family made a car trip into L. A., we’d take the 101 south over a grade into the San Fernando Valley. And that’s where the smog was thickest and brownest.

There were 10,000’ mountain peaks over there, on the other side of the valley, the San Gabriel Mountains. I knew it! I’d hiked them! But on almost any day of the year, thick brown smog prevented us from seeing them.

And I remember thinking, “I’m breathing this air?”

Today, however, some forty years hence, I drive that same road and every time—even on the smoggiest days—I can see the mountains on the other side.

What’s the difference?

The air has improved—despite the fact that today there are more freeways, more people, and more cars.

So, how?

It’s been a long, difficult journey, admittedly; but we’ve trusted the authoritative community, in this case, the scientists and researchers who’ve been observing the air.

In the case of culture—with all the cries of fake news and alleged conspiracy theories and social media influencers—who are you going to trust?

This is where the story of Doubting Thomas informs us most clearly.

For Thomas, his community was more knowledgeable about Jesus’ resurrection, and thus more authoritative, than he was. He should have trusted community over self.

For us, the question is, Who are you going to trust? The voice that says it’s all about you? The voice that stirs up fear in society? The voice within? Or the voice that proclaims the message and mission of good news for all—love for the sake of the common good?

Please, let’s not take our skepticism too far.


[i] Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church (2014), 16.

Unique Stories, Common Theme

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on April 4, 2021 by timtrue

John 20:1-18

1

Conversion is not a one-time experience.

You have likely heard parts of my conversion story—how I grew up in a family that meant everything to me, how we didn’t go to church, and how all my boyhood questions about the meaning of life were answered in my family.

That is, until my parents split up.

Which sent me outward, looking for answers to questions about the meaning of life beyond my little circle.

Which led me to Bible studies, and youth group, and a Billy-Graham-Crusade like experience at a ski-trip retreat where I went forward to pray and receive Christ as my Lord and Savior.

I remember the day, in fact, April 1st, 1985—36 years and three days ago today! I even remember the hour: about 7 o’clock in the evening.

Something significant in my life happened at that moment.

We like to call life-changing moments like this conversion.

Can you relate? Do you have your own conversion story to tell?

Maybe yours was the day you were baptized, you felt renewed the moment the water first touched your scalp.

Or maybe, like with my wife’s conversion story, you don’t recall a specific time and place where the Holy Spirit grabbed hold of your heart in an obvious way.

Nevertheless, you reflect on your own life and you see Christ at work in you.

You were baptized: you have a certificate at home in a filing cabinet in the garage that says so. And you know and trust the theology of the church well enough to know that this, too, was a bona fide conversion experience.

Is it okay if someone can’t point to a specific time and place?

Well, of course it is!

You and I both know we can’t bank on a one-time conversion experience, as if we’ve checked off a box on our spiritual to-do list, depending on it to carry us through the rest of our lives into heaven.

Conversion is not really a one-time experience. Conversion takes place over a lifetime.

2

Each of us experiences conversion differently, don’t we?

Just look at the three main characters in today’s story: an unnamed disciple—probably John; Peter; and Mary Magdalene.

The unnamed disciple hears Mary’s news and runs—races, in fact—to reach the tomb first. But there, at the entryway, he lingers. He doesn’t enter the tomb, but just looks in, staring at the linen wrappings there on the ledge.

Peter then shows up and enters the tomb without reservation or hesitation. He just barrels through!

But that unnamed disciple—why didn’t he enter? Was he too amazed, too awestruck, too afraid?

Then something in him triggers. He enters the tomb after Peter; and, the scriptures tell us, he believes. He believes, but he doesn’t yet understand.

It’s a kind of conversion.

As for Peter, he hears Mary’s words and runs to see if what she says is true. He races against the other disciple, and—interesting detail—loses.

But when he reaches the tomb he doesn’t slow. Instead, he bowls over the unnamed disciple like an impetuous bull; then looks at the linen wrappings and notices another interesting detail: the head wrapping is folded up neatly by itself.

Would a grave robber have taken the time to fold up the head wrapping so neatly? No way! Something else is happening here. But what?

Like the unnamed disciple, Peter doesn’t understand either. And, since the scriptures say the other disciple believes, I’m left thinking Peter isn’t really there yet.

There’s something of a conversion experience here for both disciples. But, whatever it is, it hasn’t yet stuck. They leave this scene—this come-to-Jesus moment; this altar call—still confused, still not understanding. For these two, something more still needs to happen.

Connecting this passage of scripture to my own story, I realize it’s not unlike my own conversion experience—believing in some sense but not yet understanding. Perhaps yours too.

3

But now we recall Mary’s story. She reaches the tomb—and stands outside weeping.

She’s obviously not believing or understanding yet either—at this point.

In her remorse, she eventually peeks in the tomb, and—incredible!—there are two angels inside. And they ask Mary a question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

And even here, Mary doesn’t understand or believe. She responds, simply, “They’ve taken my Lord away.”

What? The question here shouldn’t be, “Woman, why are you weeping?” but, “Woman, why are you sleeping?” I mean, c’mon, Mary. Can’t you see these are angels you’re talking to?

Whatever the case, then a voice calls from behind Mary, from outside the tomb; and this voice asks the question again: “Woman, why are you weeping?” And supposing it’s the gardener, Mary turns.

It’s really Jesus, we know. But, like with the angels, she doesn’t recognize him either.

And again I want to ask, “Woman, why are you sleeping?”

But then what happens?

Jesus, the supposed gardener, calls her by name.

“Mary!”

And her eyes are opened.

In that divine moment, unlike with the unnamed disciple and Peter, Mary both believes and understands.

And look at what follows! Jesus commissions her, a woman, to go and tell the disciples that he lives.

And thus Mary Magdalene becomes the very apostle to the apostles.

I’m left marveling.

Wow!

Mary Magdalene: the first truly converted person; the person commissioned by Jesus himself to go and tell the Good News to the very apostles; to Peter—the Rock upon whom Jesus Christ would build his Church—and the others.

Where would the Church be today without the conversion of Mary Magdalene?

4

Every conversion story is different. Mary’s is different than Peter’s is different than the unnamed disciple’s; mine is different than yours.

And conversion is not just a one-time experience. Peter and the unnamed disciple experienced something at the tomb; I experienced something on that ski trip; you experienced something, maybe at your baptism. But more was needed. More is needed.

Conversion is ongoing, throughout our lives.

Well, there’s a biblical word for this experience I’ve been calling conversion: repentance.

Wait a minute! Did I just say repentance? On Resurrection Day, Easter Sunday?

Lent was the season for us to think about repentance; and Lent’s over. Hallelujah! Now is the day of resurrection. In fact, we won’t even say the confession and absolution in our liturgy for the next 50 days. So why even bring up repentance?

Just this: repentance, the biblical word for conversion, is resurrection.

Repentance means turning away from the old nature of sin and death to the new nature of risen life.

And this—new life—doesn’t happen just once, at some altar call, baptism, or mountaintop experience. Rather, it is ongoing, daily, hourly, even minute by minute.

Repentance—and resurrection—is continuous and lifelong.

So, to wrap this all up, think back to your own conversion stories. Think about your own, ongoing conversion experience.

When in your life have you experienced hope overcoming despair?

For me, it happened in my youth when I attended those Bible studies after my parents’ divorce. It’s happening now, too, as we get back to “normal” life.

Where have you witnessed truth defeating falsehood? When have you seen beauty conquering ugliness? When has your charity given selflessly? Where have you known equity to dismantle supremacy?

Every time you witness goodness prevail over evil is an example of resurrection: new life rising out of death. Each is a display of repentance and resurrection, each proof of ongoing conversion in your life.

Mary’s story is different than Peter’s is different than the unnamed disciple’s. Yours is different than mine.

But that’s just it: our stories are different; but resurrection shines brightly through them all. It is our common theme.

Thank you, Jesus, for giving us all a hope so strong that even death cannot overcome it; through your resurrection, for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.

Carrying the Day

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 2, 2021 by timtrue

John 18:1—19:42

1

Our Lenten journey ends here—bare nave, stripped altar, no Eucharist. Jesus has given up his spirit.

We know what’s coming, of course: resurrection.

But the first disciples did not.

What must it have been like for them?

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

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

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

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

They were powerless! Jesus wouldn’t even allow them to defend him!

And powerless they watched as he was tried, stricken, sentenced, condemned, and crucified.

What must have been going through their minds?

What would have been going through your mind? Would you have wondered if Jesus, this fringe leader in whom you’d placed all your hope—would you have wondered if, perhaps, maybe, his claims had been too idealistic?

He turned tables upside down! He changed water into wine! He healed a man blind from birth! You saw it all first-hand.

Still, the reality is: now he’s there before you, raised up on a wicked device of torture, an example of what becomes of rebels and revolutionaries who dare to defy the Pax Romana.

And he’s dead.

Powerless.

Will his mission, his cause, all come crumbling down? Has it all been for nothing? Will his ideals die with him?

Our Lenten journey ends here, at the foot of the cross.

2

But even here—even when our leader of leaders hangs dead before our eyes; even when his mission seems to have been vanquished; even when the forces of inhumanity and sin are the only things we can see—even here there is hope.

For now a certain disciple shows up. And he demonstrates incredible loyalty and faithfulness to Jesus, loyalty and faithfulness that can only stem from profound belief in him—in his idealism, in his cause, in his humanity, and in his divinity.

Here, at the end of our Lenten journey, Nicodemus shows up; and he shows us hope.

Do you remember Nicodemus, that “secret” disciple, who came to Jesus at night and had a confusing conversation with him about what it means to be born again?

The governing metaphor there is light and darkness. Nicodemus had left that conversation still confused, just as secretly as he’d come, fading back into the darkness. We readers are left to wonder if darkness has prevailed.

But that was only Chapter 3. Nicodemus is not mentioned again until here, near the end of Chapter 19. Perhaps by now we readers have forgotten about him altogether, have let him fade away into the darkness of our own memories.

But now our eyes are opened. For now, today, Nicodemus, with another formerly “secret” disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, takes Jesus’ body down from the cross and lays it in a tomb.

And he does this before the sun sets and the Sabbath begins—in other words, in the clear light of day; and not secretly but before an audience of Roman and Jewish leaders!

Today! At the end of our Lenten journey! At the foot of the cross! When we are left wondering if Jesus’ mission will come to nothing! Nicodemus, that formerly secret disciple, says,

“Yes: I know he’s dead. His cause and mission appear to be snuffed out; his idealism appears to have been vanquished; the rulers of this world appear to have proven themselves lords over him; and no doubt people will think less of me for following him! I know all this!

“But I also know this—my heart compels me: it’s not the whole story! Crucify me with him if you like! But there’s more to come! I believe! And in this I hope!”

Nicodemus does not know what the rest of the story will be. All he really knows is that Jesus is now dead.

But he hopes anyway.

As our Lenten journey comes to an end, we don’t know what the rest of the story will be either.

But, unlike Nicodemus, we do know that Jesus rose again on that Sunday so long ago, yes.

Still, don’t we continue to fear and doubt?

What will the future bring? Will Jesus’ mission and message be snuffed out? Will this global pandemic hit our little church so hard we won’t be able to recover? Will the evils of inhumanity and sin defeat us? Will good really prevail in the end?

Do not despair. Nicodemus is our example. Hope carries this day.

And that is why it is called Good Friday.

How to Grow the Church (beyond the Pandemic)

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on March 22, 2021 by timtrue

John 12:20-33

1

The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church.

“People naturally gravitate toward cultural trends,” proponents reason; “so churches should offer the products and ideologies that people want. People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels. That’s how we bring ’em to church!”

Out of this movement arose so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]

Arguably, the church growth movement has done great work. Just look at these results!

But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-and-early-30-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches—and any other kind of church, for that matter? (It wasn’t working in 2013; it’s still not working today.)

Now, some would say, 20-and-early-30-somethings are a very me-oriented group. We’re probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they’re not talking or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in their own world, a world in the shape of a smart phone.

According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-and-early-30-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology.

Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract young people? How can we go viral? To tweet or not to tweet? (That is the question!)

Mega-churches are in fact asking these questions; and they are trying to reach this subculture. Us too. But their efforts and ours just don’t seem to be working.

According to Barna Group statistics in an article I read recently from Christianity Today—statistics also from 2013—more than 8 million 20-and-early-30-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.

Where are they going?

The answer may surprise you. By and large, this age group is turning away from Christianity to atheism.[ii]

And why?

This answer may surprise you even more. Authenticity, they say.

Churches are trying to imitate popular culture; and this imitation strikes 20-and-early-30-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely hypocritical. Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.

Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic in its outlook, is genuine. Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-and-early-30-somethings seem to crave. Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies want to touch—including today’s version of Christianity.

2

So, it’s a good question: church growth. We Episcopalians call it “congregational development,” but it’s really the same thing.

Except now, today, the debate has become even more complicated; for now it has taken on the additional question of how to grow—or re-grow—the Church, beyond the pandemic.

I wonder: Does Jesus have anything to say about it?

I’m glad you asked, because today’s Gospel, in fact, does have something to say. Recall, it begins with this verse:

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Greeks, the Bible says. Non-Jews! Who went up to worship at the distinctively Jewish festival of the Passover! What were these Greeks but 20-and-early-30-somethings: seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?

So, here’s a tremendous opportunity for church growth, a. k. a. congregational development. Both Philip and Andrew recognize it. Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus. Some seekers have come to church! What an awesome opportunity!

“But what do we do now?” they ask.

And all of us interested in congregational development ought to sit up straight and take note here: this is the very response of Jesus! I mean, Bill Hybels and Rick Warren have great ideas when it comes to growing the church. But this is even better, right? This is Jesus!

And what does he say?

Well, he summarizes his mission, the good news, in a short and rather unsavory parable about agriculture:

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Huh.

Jesus’ response to these seekers is to summarize his mission and ministry. His disciples must:

  1. Welcome death,
  2. Hate life,
  3. And follow him through death to new life.

Well, that’s an attractive message! C’mon, Jesus, these are Greeks you’re talking to. They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—pop culture! Why don’t you meet them where they are?

But Jesus doesn’t. He doesn’t suggest building a comfortably Greek building, where Greeks can come and worship in cushy Greek armchairs sipping Greek lattes. He doesn’t recommend establishing attractive Greek-friendly programs or incorporating recognizably Greek music into the festival.

Jesus does not try to attract seekers to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object. In fact, Jesus’ message to these seekers is death; and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution!

Granted, Jesus’ message is also new life; but the immediate focal point is death—to self and the world! Resurrection will come, yes; but death’s got to come first.

So, can’t you just see it now? Welcome death, hate life, and follow Jesus into new life. Seekers will be lining up to fill our pews when we’re once again open for business.

3

But here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life.

This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels. This is the message for seekers. This is authentic Christianity.

But how? Especially now, as we’re thinking long and hard about what church will look like beyond the pandemic, how do we proclaim Jesus’ message of crucifixion and resurrection to seekers—and make it attractive enough so they won’t run away?

Allow me to offer a couple suggestions.

First, Jesus is speaking metaphorically. His followers must die and rise again, just as a grain of wheat must be buried and shed its old life before rising to new life.

But a grain of wheat doesn’t literally die. Rather, it sheds itself of a protective coat. It has to, in order to sprout, grow, mature, and bear fruit.

In the same way, we Jesus-followers aren’t called to die literally; but there is some kind of protective coat to shed before we can sprout, grow, mature, and bear fruit.

What is this protective coat?

There’s a lot to unpack, too much to get into here, but suffice to call it the way of the world: ideologies that exalt dominance, hierarchy, violence, and self.

Anyone who truly desires to follow Christ is called to die to this way of the world and rise again to a new way of thinking, Christ’s way of love.

4

And my second suggestion: Don’t worry about making this message attractive to seekers.

Many of the 20-and-early-30-somethings I mentioned earlier readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed. They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them. Their generation both breeds and nurtures a kind of soft narcissism.

But they have their reasons. They’ve grown up in the context of global pessimism, witnessing an increasing awareness seemingly everywhere of bigotry, hatred, and the possibly insurmountable challenge of climate change.

The result is what my daughter calls cognitive dissonance; and their soft narcissism affords them a kind of escape from today’s complex challenges.

It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when they judge churches that foster a similar soft narcissism to be second-rate or hypocritical. But in interviews, they said:

  • The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
  • We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center. We don’t need the church to echo the world.
  • We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches. So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]

When church leaders appeal to this cultural trend of soft narcissism by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who most engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires.

Worse, it negates the message of Jesus Christ. And perceptive 20-and-early-30-somethings see right through it. They would rather see churches practicing authentic Christianity; they would rather learn how to die to self.

Incidentally, we heard this message said another way today from the Prophet Jeremiah: There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on their heart.

And what is this law of God? Love! Love the Lord your God with all your being; and love your neighbor as yourself.

Well, imagine with me for a moment what this should look like. What would it look like if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?

Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, terrorism, or border security? Instead of hindering migrants as they flee their sinking villages, wouldn’t we welcome them? Indeed, would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?

Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love? Sounds like heaven!

But it’s also Jesus’ vision of new life here on earth, now, a life gotten to only by passing through death to self.

This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live here, in this culture, in this world. This is authentic Christianity. And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-and-early-30-somethings, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.

There really is no recipe for successful congregational development other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.


[i]               Cf. http://www.onlinechristiancolleges.com/megachurches/.

[ii]              Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/august/how-seeker-sensitive-consumer-church-is-failing-generation.html?paging=off.

[iii]             Ibid.

Dispersing with Nico

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on March 14, 2021 by timtrue

John 3:14-22

1

Today I’d like to focus on the part of this very familiar Gospel passage that talks about light and darkness.

It’s the part that begins with Jesus saying, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Jesus is talking to a man named Nicodemus about light and darkness. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night for this conversation; which follows on the heels of the last episode in John’s narrative, when Jesus turned over some tables in the full light of day. Darkness; and light.

So, channeling the genuinely questioning Nico, let’s wonder together for a moment: How are darkness and light related?

Well, have you ever sat out in the dark desert under the stars on a moonless night? What happens?

As you sit there, lie there, whatever, staring up into the night sky, your eyes begin to see more and more, right? Especially around August, when the Milky Way appears so clearly it almost looks like a cloud, and shooting star activity is at its peak!

It’s amazing, really: all that light transferred from only planets’ reflections and stars light years away!

On the other hand, what is the brightest, purest natural light you’ve ever experienced?

I remember hiking at noon, as a young man, on the summer solstice, with the sun as high in the sky as possible in the thin air of the Sierra Nevadas.

And still I could see shadows—darkness hiding in corners!

Thinking about it this way, light cannot really exist without darkness; and vice versa. They dwell together in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

Some people come into the light, Jesus tells Nicodemus; and as a result, their good deeds, which are done in God, are seen by others.

Jesus overturned the Temple tables in the full light of day. This was a good deed, Jesus seems to be saying.

Other people, however—many more people, the way John tells it—would rather not have their deeds exposed. To their detriment, they avoid the light and hide in the darkness. They would rather live in fearsome shadows than come out into the light of Christ and the love of God.

Is Jesus suggesting that this characterization fits Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus under night’s cloak of darkness?

2

Whatever the case, God so loved the world that he sent his son; and Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world and all that. But I’m not sure I like this darkness-and-light metaphor all that much.

I mean, really? Am I supposed to believe that some people want their good deeds exposed, so they seek out the limelight? Whereas other people, many more people, don’t want their evil deeds exposed, so they try to hide in life’s shadows?

Show of hands: How many of you actively try to live your life hiding in the dark corners of the world?

Oh, but of course! You’re all at church this morning, dwelling in the light already.

Maybe the better question is, do you know anyone like this? How many of your friends and family members who don’t attend church regularly—in other words, who don’t actively seek the light of Christ—how many of them would you say proactively seek out dark and hidden places?

Wouldn’t a better analogy be that each of us as individuals has both light and darkness in us, living in symbiotic relationship?

Some of the things I do I’m proud of. Like that time I saw a $20-bill fall out of a guy’s pocket and I rushed over, picked it up, and handed it back to him. I’d love for other people to know about that.

Other things, however, like that time in high school when a friend of mine was making fun of a mentally challenged kid and I didn’t stop him . . . well, not so much.

This light-and-darkness metaphor works better for me when thinking about the inner individual rather than society. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I tend to think that, deep down, humanity is fundamentally good: individuals—most of us anyway—don’t gravitate toward darkness; rather, divine light is dispersing the darkness within us.

The picture of most people evilly plotting the destruction of everyone and everything around them, rubbing their knuckles together in back alleys, while the few good people who remain make themselves easy targets because they stand exposed in the light—this leads to an “us versus them” mentality, exclusion, cults, and conspiracy theories.

Whoa, conspiracy theories? Does that sound a little familiar?

Maybe the early Christians, the first hearers of John’s Gospel, had reason to be nervous, protective, and secretive. But not us; not Christians today.

But even throughout the Gospels—even throughout the Gospel of John—Jesus wasn’t about us against them, exclusion, cults, or conspiracies.

Can we just set aside some of the popular interpretations of John 3:16 then—the ones that tell me Jesus wants to save me and who cares about anyone else?

If only just for this sermon, let’s try to understand the bigger picture here. What is the larger message Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus through this metaphor?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not that the media and Bill Gates and the CDC are feeding us a big lie!

3

So, taking a step back now, do you remember last week’s Gospel reading? Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple.

The way John tells it, the Temple leaders approached Jesus after he’d overturned all the tables and asked him by what sign he was doing these things.

And do you remember Jesus’ response?

“Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up.”

It was a riddle.

Well, as I mentioned last week, I like to think that Nicodemus was among the Temple leaders who confronted Jesus; or at least that Nicodemus heard about the goings on at the Temple. In fact, the way John tells it, today’s (or, rather, tonight’s) episode with Nicodemus is the very next part of the story.

Nico comes to Jesus at night, secretly—maybe because he hadn’t been able to figure out Jesus’ riddle; maybe because he doesn’t want the Temple leaders to see him—and calls him a teacher from God.

To be clear, Nicodemus is not hiding in the darkness of night because he’s evilly plotting to destroy Jesus. It’s not Nico versus Jesus here. He’s actually trying to learn something from Jesus.

Instead, it’s fear that keeps Nicodemus in darkness—fear of this good deed being exposed.

So, to review briefly: Jesus had just cleared out the vendors from the Gentiles’ Court, the only place in the entire Temple precinct that gave non-Jews access to God; Nicodemus was a Jewish leader who heard about—maybe even witnessed—this act; and now he comes to Jesus for instruction.

Put this all together, and here’s where I believe it goes.

Just as light and darkness must exist together in symbiotic relationship—one cannot exist without the other—so Jesus’ followers—their culture, tradition, and religion—must exist in symbiotic relationship with the world around them.

But notice: I didn’t say “Jews” or “Christians”; I said “Jesus’ followers.”

John wrote his Gospel well after the razing of the Temple in 70 CE. So he couldn’t have been writing to the Jews, as a kind of warning or something through the eyes of their fellow Nicodemus. The Jews were already dispersed; the Temple was no more.

And Christianity wasn’t really a thing yet; the early church was understood to be a sect of the Jewish diaspora.

John’s story of Jesus was a call to his followers as keepers of God’s light not to exclude, not to hide away, not to be secretive, not to conspire; but to live in symbiotic harmony with the world around them, to make room for all.

God sent his Son into the world to save the world through a kind of light-and-darkness symbiotic relationship.

It’s up to the those who have been enlightened to disperse darkness through divine light and thereby bring salvation to all.

4

Okay, so, did you see President Biden’s address on COVID the other night? Interestingly, in his speech he used a light-and-darkness metaphor.

For him, this past year—because of COVID—has been one of darkness; the vaccines, and the widescale efforts to vaccinate a large majority of the population, is the light that is dispersing this darkness at long last.

That’s a lot like what’s going on here in this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.

When Jesus was alive, there was no church yet. Nor was there even a religion called Christianity.

Jesus was telling Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, a keeper of the light of God during Jesus’ lifetime, that keeping God from the Gentiles by filling the Gentile Court with tables was the same as to place divine light under a bushel; or to hide a city on a hill.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether a person is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or anything else.

Why would anyone ever keep access to the divine from the people around them most in need of divine help?

Why would anyone keep a light source all to themselves when those within earshot are unable to find their way through the darkness?

Why would anyone keep a vaccine from those who most need it?

But that’s exactly what the Temple leaders were doing—whether they knew it or not.

And it’s exactly what we do today when we make Christianity into a religion that’s exclusive: that makes it about us versus them, the saved versus the lost, the chosen versus the damned, Christians versus Muslims, Jesus versus the Temple leaders, or me versus the world.

Just don’t go there . . . lest you’re prepared to find Jesus wielding a whip against you!

Rather, bring God’s light to your neighbors by loving them, by welcoming and including them, by seeking justice and equity for all.

This is the bigger message Jesus conveyed to Nicodemus by night.

This is why Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.

This is why Jesus was lifted on the cross.

And this is the message Jesus calls his followers to convey today.

Goodness disperses evil.

Love disperses fear.

Light disperses darkness.

“In this way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

An Unexpected Jesus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2021 by timtrue

John 2:13-22

1

Let’s begin today with two riddles.

The first is an ancient one:

What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?

Anyone know the answer?

Anyone know the history, where this riddle comes from?

In Greek mythology, the Sphinx guarded the road to the pyramids and other treasures of Egypt. She would ask this riddle to travelers wanting to pass by; and if a traveler couldn’t answer, she would devour them.

Finally, after many travelers had come to a tragic end, a man named Oedipus—yes, that Oedipus—answered this riddle successfully; and the Sphinx met her tragic end, turning into sandstone and eventually crumbling—which is why she has no nose today.

What is the answer to this riddle?

Man. In the morning of life, a man is a baby and thus crawls on all fours. At life’s midday, a man walks upright, on two legs. In the evening of life, when a man is old, he uses a cane and thus has three legs.

Now the second riddle:

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,

Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.

It lies behind stars and under hills,

And empty holes it fills.

It comes out first and follows after,

Ends life, kills laughter.

Anyone know where I found this riddle?

It’s from Gollum, of The Lord of the Rings fame; posed to Bilbo when they first meet in the book version of The Hobbit.

Bilbo is lost in a cave deep within a mountain, the cave where he finds the notorious ring. Here he encounters Gollum and strikes up a deal. They’ll play a riddle game. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave. But if Gollum wins, Bilbo becomes his dinner!

So, anyone know the answer?

Darkness. Darkness cannot be seen, cannot be felt, and so on.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I like riddles. They’re a kind of puzzle for me.

When someone poses a good riddle to me—a clever one with only one possible answer, like the ones just discussed—it sticks with me. I wrestle with it. I struggle over it. I think about it in my sleep.

Until, at last, I either figure out the answer or return frustrated and defeated to the person who asked it, begging for a hint.

2

So, today’s Gospel tells a doozy of a riddle. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says; “and in three days I will raise it up.”

Of course, we know the answer to this riddle today. Jesus was talking not about the literal Temple in Jerusalem. Rather, he was talking about a figurative temple, his physical body.

We know the answer to this riddle; his opponents, however, did not. How could they have?

The religious leaders whom Jesus addressed were like all those people on the road to Giza before Oedipus—all those people who didn’t know the answer to the sphinx’s riddle. Or like Bilbo, who stood before Gollum scratching his head before the answer came to him.

So, can you put yourself in their shoes? I wonder how the religious leaders in this Gospel story responded in their minds to Jesus’ riddle.

Did they simply shrug it off as nonsense, as if it had no real application to them?

Or, maybe, did they ponder Jesus’ words, puzzle over them, lose sleep over them, and perhaps even grow frustrated as they sought unsuccessfully to understand what Jesus meant?

Did they secretly want to go to Jesus and ask him for a hint?

Hmm. Secretly.

That reminds me of the man named Nicodemus. He came to Jesus by night, secretly, asking for clues and declaring Jesus to be a teacher from God. And he was a religious leader: from that class of people who are Jesus’ main opponents in the Gospel of John.

Well, do you know where Nicodemus shows up? Only in this Gospel. And to be more precise, in the very next paragraph of this Gospel!

Was Nicodemus one of those religious leaders present on that day when Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple? I don’t know for sure, but I like to think so.

Maybe it’s a little too easy for us today, since we already know the answer to this riddle, to lose sight of the truth of the narrative.

We see Jesus standing there, armed with a whip, confronting the very people who oppose him most markedly throughout this Gospel, determined to set things right; and we think, “Jesus is my kind of hero! He’s the kind of leader I want to follow!”

And we form a picture in our minds of a vigilante Hollywood hero, muscular and handsome; and we stand in the background, pump our fists into the air, and shout, “Yes! Go, Jesus!”

But this just isn’t what’s happening here.

Jesus is in the Temple: a beautiful worship space, well-designed; the spiritual center of the holy city Jerusalem.

And the things taking place here don’t seem all that wrong.

People need a place to exchange their common currency—with images of Caesar on it—for drachmae, the image-less coins required for the Temple tax.

Spiritual pilgrims need to buy sacrificial animals, meaning animals without blemish. It would be very difficult to carry a turtledove, for example, from a long distance away and keep it unblemished.

Aren’t all these tables that Jesus is now overturning actually necessary for the Temple to function properly?

How is this scenario any different, really, from us renting out our facility to a preschool or having some kind of fundraiser?

3

Today’s passage, I’m thinking, isn’t really about our team and their team; about good guys vs. bad guys, about us vs. them; about some other, oppressive institution that’s nothing like ours, thank you very much—it’s not so much about us and them as it is about us and us.

We are the religious machine today. And, like the religious leaders of his day, maybe Jesus is coming along and catching us by surprise.

So, we can shrug off Jesus’ riddles as if they have no real application to us; or, like Nicodemus, we can ponder them.

On that day long ago when Jesus showed up, the Temple leaders were simply doing what they knew how to do. They were taking their jobs seriously. And they did their jobs well.

Pilgrims needed to exchange money and obtain unblemished animals for sacrificial purposes. The Temple leaders had attended even to these very particular details. They were meeting the people where they were! They were making Temple worship user-friendly! They were doing God’s will—as far as they understood it.

And yet, unexpectedly, Jesus was clearly upset.

Why?

This, in my thinking, is today’s real riddle.

So, I’ve landed on an answer. But before I give it, I’d like to qualify. It’s my answer, what I think makes the most sense; though it’s probably not the answer. And, besides, it’s not the main point I’d like to make today—a point I will get to in a moment.

That said, the qualified answer I’ve landed on is this:

I think it had to do with location. The money changers and animal vendors were conducting business in the part of the Temple called the Gentiles’ Court. By making this court into a crowded marketplace—the only place in the Temple precincts non-Jews were allowed—the Temple leaders effectively kept God from the Gentiles.

Their established practice was exclusive and hierarchical; whereas Jesus’ Way of Love is inclusive and equitable, the exact opposite.

Anyway, that’s my belief. But at the end of the day we don’t really know.

4

Now my bigger point.

We’ve had a pretty good run, this fairly well-oiled machine we call TEC.

Over the course of our history, we’ve strategized and troubleshot and brainstormed as necessary until, by and large, we were able to settle into a good and workable routine, methods for maintaining our spiritual home across this land of the free and home of the brave.

We arrived at our methods, of course, after much trial, error, and prayer. It didn’t happen overnight. But, eventually, we were able to say, “It works for us.” And so we published our canons, policies, and best practices manuals.

And, naturally, today we’re caught up in the workings of this machine. Like with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, it’s hard to change!

But . . .

For some time now we’ve been aware of decline in the Church. Pledge and plate amounts, ASAs, and membership numbers are decreasing. We’ve discussed what to do about it, but—my impression here—we haven’t been intentional about change except for specific instances: having to end the life of a certain congregation, whether to sell off a property, and the like.

In other words, our well-oiled machine has been in need of updating for some decades now; but we’ve largely deferred these updates because our business methods are so firmly established.

For the sake of clarity, I’m not talking about our theology and ideology. Of all Christian denominations, TEC has been on the cutting edge here. Our theology and ideology are as aligned with Jesus’ ideas of inclusivity and equity as you will find anywhere.

Rather, it’s our established ways of doing business. What are we supposed to do with all our properties and wealth as our membership declines in nearly all our congregations across the country?

Well, COVID-19 seems to me to be our wakeup call. Around the country, as an outcome of social distancing—which has resulted in rapid and sudden decline in Plates, Pledges, and Attendance—now TEC is becoming increasingly intentional about updating. Our tables have been overturned by a whip-wielding pandemic.

What will the Church look like beyond the pandemic?

This riddle is real; and no one knows the answer. Yet.

Nevertheless, we can put our heads together and try—just as Jesus and his ragged band of disciples put their heads together and tried to move the outmoded and outdated religious machine of their day into a new era.

This new era in our Church’s history—this overturning of tables—this riddle—calls for innovation, collaboration, and collegiality.

Are you with me?

But—fair warning—as we seek answers, we just might see a side of Jesus we aren’t expecting.