What Happens in Florence . . .

Posted in Homilies on August 14, 2022 by timtrue

Luke 12:49-56

1

In college, I studied music.

It’s where I cut my teeth composing.

It’s where I learned to sing in an 8-voice Renaissance choir—also where I met my wife, Holly.

And it’s where I first heard about the Medici—you know, the banking family of Europe’s largest bank in the 15th-century. For a time, their bank even held the papal accounts.

My Renaissance choir director was Dr. David Nutter, a Renaissance musicologist who had spent seven years living in Florence, Italy as a young man—to study the lute and experience the Mediterranean culture.

“The Medici,” he explained, “nourished the Italian Renaissance. Without them it would not have been possible.”

Ever hear the names Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael, Machiavelli, or Galileo?

Aside from making a good list of names for my dog before we decided upon Ulysses, the Medici were patron to all these architects, artists, writers, and scientists.

The Medici, the wealthiest family in Europe, valued the arts and humanities.

But some of the Florentine nobility, such as the Pazzi, did not care for the Medici.

For the Medici weren’t nobility. They had risen through the ranks from common merchants to where they now sat in their seats of social influence.

This animosity became especially apparent when, in 1478, a conspiracy arose to assassinate Lorenzo d’Medici, the most influential man in the Republic—and thus one of the most influential men in all of Europe.

So, the plot probably originated with the Florentine nobility who envied him.

I mean, Lorenzo was young, well-liked, and spoke with the wit and wisdom of a reborn Cicero. The Republic had even started calling him and his household Medici the Magnificent!

But Lorenzo’s influence meant change. The old ways, the ways of nobility being on top and the commoner being suppressed, were being challenged.

If we don’t stop him, the envious nobility reasoned, the Republic will be overrun by the mob. It won’t be freedom or democracy, as Lorenzo imagines, but chaos.

And they realized, if they could somehow dispatch him and his brother Giuliano at the same time, why, then there would be no heir of age, which meant their wealth, all the Medici personal property, including the bank, would be seized and become the property of the Republic.

His assassination, they told themselves, would be for the common good!

So, the conspiracy “probably originated” there.

What we know today for certain, from our history books, is that the assassination attempt was far larger reaching. For the conspiracy also included people from across Italy, people of the Church, including the Archbishop of Pisa and, though he never officially sanctioned it, the Pope himself, Sixtus IV.

And so, on April 26, 1478, during Mass in the Cathedral of Florence, beneath the overarching Duomo, when the celebrant—the Archbishop of Pisa—raised the host, the assassins saw their cue and attacked.

And they succeeded in killing Giuliano d’Medici.

But after a scuffle (not to mention a mass exodus—sorry), Lorenzo escaped with only minor injuries.

2

Well, so, I wonder if Pope Sixtus had today’s Gospel in mind when he gave quiet assent to the conspiracy.

Jesus asks, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” only then to answer, “No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Did the Pope have this passage in mind when he gave quiet approval to the conspiracy?

The short answer is, probably not. Despite the escalating tensions between Florence and the Papal States in the late part of the 15th century, surely the Pope desired to keep the peace.

Calmness, quietude, stability, predictability—I’m sure these are what the Pope wanted for his subjects, the Papal States and the independent states, like Florence, where the Church controlled most matters political and all matters spiritual.

Nevertheless, not peace but division resulted.

So, what does Jesus mean?

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, on Christmas Day in fact, we heard:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Very early on, the Gospel of Luke declares peace.

But here today, Jesus says it is not peace that he brings but division.

Wait, what?

Well, as we ponder that puzzle, let’s go back to Lorenzo d’Medici’s story.

3

So, following the assassination attempt, a bit of mob rule did break out.

The people of Florence loved Lorenzo, remember; and so, shortly after the assassination attempt, they rose up as one against the conspirators, and those they caught they lynched publicly.

Including the Archbishop of Pisa, whom they hanged from the window of the city government building.

It wasn’t long before news reached Pope Sixtus. He responded by absolving the conspirators and excommunicating the entire Republic of Florence.

This meant that now, since the Church had absolute authority over all matters spiritual, none of Florence’s citizens could be baptized, married, buried, or absolved of sins.

Babies would be born illegitimately. People would die without the sacrament of Holy Water. Corpses would fester in the streets.

The Pope had Lorenzo cornered—or so he thought.

All Lorenzo had to do to restore peace to the serene Republic was to yield to the Pope’s demands.

Never mind that these demands were unjust, unmerciful, and inequitable. Surely, Lorenzo could overlook them for the sake of peace—calmness, quietude, stability, and predictability—for Florence?

So, the story goes that Lorenzo then called a meeting of the Tuscan bishops and, instead of yielding to the Pope’s demands, persuaded the bishops to form their own structure of ecclesiastical authority—temporary, of course—under which clergy would then have the authority to continue ministering sacramental rites in Florence.

Thus, there were no festering corpses in the streets.

Which, in turn, raised the Pope’s ire even higher.

Sixtus mustered an army and marched upon Florence.

4

I’m gonna leave off here. If you’re interested in how it ended, I recommend watching the Netflix original series called Medici the Magnificent.

But this was the year 1478.

Do you know when the Protestant Reformation took place? The day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church—that’s the day we look to as the beginning of the Reformation: October 31, 1517.

1478 and 1517. That’s less than forty years later!

What happened in Florence on April 26, 1478, is suggestive. At the time, the Church was an oppressive structure. It had controlled the people of Europe for a thousand years. And now that heavy, burdensome, outdated structure was cracking, only to crumble fully only four decades later.

As for today’s Gospel, my understanding is that Jesus is being descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, the purpose of his missional agenda is not to divide; nevertheless, he knows it will result in division.

And we know from Luke 4 what his missional agenda is, for there Jesus tells his hometown what he has come to do.

(And, by the way, by the time Luke 4 ends his hometown synagogue is in a state not of peace but division, desiring even to hurl Jesus off a cliff.)

His missional agenda is one of compassion, grace, mercy, equity, and justice. In a word, love—proclaimed and practiced.

But this agenda, he knows, will necessarily upend the status quo, just as he upended the tables of the moneychangers outside the Temple.

By the way, this is the key difference between the divine peace of Luke 2 and human peace. Human peace derives from political systems and structures designed to put and keep people in their place. Only God’s peace is true peace.

5

So, with the story of Lorenzo d’Medici still ringing in our ears, tease this out with me a little further.

I know people who would identify themselves as peacekeepers. They appreciate characteristics like calmness, quietude, stability, and predictability. Whenever conflict arises in their homes, they do whatever they can to return to a state of calmness and stability as soon as possible.

The status quo.

After all, what’s the big deal? Can’t we just get along? Don’t worry, be happy. Right?

Now, extend this picture outward, to church leadership boards—vestries. And diocesan judicatories—standing committees. And to entire denominations—General Convention.

As a church, shouldn’t we want to keep the peace, the status quo?

That’s what Pope Sixtus desired—and sought to accomplish through an assassination!

For Lorenzo d’Medici, to keep the peace—calmness, quietude, stability, and predictability—would have been the easier way. All he had to do was give into the Pope’s demands.

But to do so would have meant keeping a structure in place that held the common people under its oppressive thumb.

And, Lorenzo knew, that status quo was not in the best interest of the common good.

Jesus came not to keep captives imprisoned within human structures but to free them.

But those who guard and keep such structures resist the change Jesus calls for.

Thus, not peace but division.

In 1478, the status quo was breaking. Within forty years a movement erupted across Europe that today we call the Protestant Reformation, a movement that would not have been possible without Lorenzo d’Medici and the Republic of Florence.

But I’ve been using the Church as an example. That’s because, back then, the Church was the keeper of the status quo, the overarching structure under which all other political structures operated.

Today, however, our world has been secularized. The Holy Roman Empire is not the overarching structure under which we all live.

So, for us, what is? What’s the overarching structure, the keeper of the status quo, today? Our government?

Now, don’t get me wrong, we live in a great country.

But even in our great country, with all the freedoms we possess, we are still called as God’s people to carry on Jesus’ missional agenda of compassion, grace, mercy, equity, and justice.

And even in our great country, there are systems and structures in place that privilege one kind of person over all others—whether because of race, gender, sexual orientation, level of income, or level of education.

If our call as Christians were merely to be peacekeepers, then we should want to keep the privileged class on top, right where they want to be. For to do so would be to keep the peace, the status quo.

But that’s not our call. Instead, it is to carry out Jesus’ missional agenda of love—compassion, grace, mercy, equity, and justice. It is to be intentional about including the unloved, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and freeing people from the structures that hold them captive.

Sometimes calmness, quietude, stability, and predictability have no place on our agenda.

We are not called to keep the status quo in place—even when we, the church, are the status quo—just as we are not called to keep the privileged in their place—even when we are the privileged.

Whatever amount of division may follow, we proclaim and practice Jesus’ missional agenda of love to the ends of the earth.

A Pleasing Eschatology

Posted in Homilies on August 7, 2022 by timtrue

Luke 12:32-40

1

My early days as a Christian—late high school through about the age of thirty—were spent in the ideological camp that today I call North American Evangelicalism (NAE).

It’s broader than just one denomination, for almost every denomination that emerged out the Protestant Reformation is represented in one form or another.

Similarly, the term non-denominational is too narrow.

Thus, NAE.

Theologically speaking, this camp revolves around Statements of Faith that differ from our Creed in that they leave out some details—like specifics about the Trinity—and add others—like the belief that:

  • God ordained marriage to be between one man and one woman; and
  • Jesus will return bodily and, at his return, rapture all Christians to heaven.

While there is much I could say about this overall movement, it’s this last point I want to focus on today—the so-called Rapture. For today’s Gospel, in my understanding, flies in the face of NAE’s pessimistic eschatology.

Eschatology is just a fancy word meaning end times. NAE has a pessimistic understanding of Jesus’ second coming.

Jesus will return, we Christians believe, but then NAE goes on to provide some rather disconcerting specifics about his return.

It will be accompanied, they say, by a one-world tyrant rising to power.

There will be a worldwide war, including globe-encompassing violence and bloodshed. No one will be safe—including children, the elderly, and the infirm.

And a terrifying beast from the Lake of Fire will be unleashed upon us all.

Unless, they say . . .

Unless you are one of the chosen, one of the people who has given your life to Christ, accepted him as your personal Lord and Savior, who will be raptured away to meet him in the air, raptured away into his heavenly kingdom.

And . . . well, there’s a lot more to this pessimistic eschatology. But I’ve given you the gist. It’s violent, it’s apocalyptic, and it plays on our fears.

So, as a young man, I heard this interpretation of the Book of Revelation and lost sleep over it. Seriously!

I recall a nightmare in which I was sitting with my friends in a Bible study when it happened: the Rapture. The trumpet sounded and all my friends began to rise up from the floor. Me too. So far so good.

However, since I was sitting cross-legged, I got stuck passing through the roof of the house we were in.

And there I was, stuck, watching all my friends ascend to be with Jesus while I screamed at them not to leave me behind, for I couldn’t bear to face the coming wrath of God alone.

Left behind. My stuck-in-the-ceiling nightmare. True story.

2

But all that fear, all that pessimism about the coming kingdom of heaven—is that really the message of the Bible, Jesus’ message?

Indeed, we have much to fear in our world today: war, terrorism, violence, an unpredictable economy, natural disasters, climate change, a global pandemic . . .

Just turn on the news.

And if the stories being reported aren’t bad enough, read the messages that scroll along the bottom of the screen!

If we don’t figure out a solution to inflation, economists warn, then we’ll face a global economic crisis. Just look at how expensive gas is already.

If we don’t get a handle on climate change, scientists admonish, then millions of people around the world will be displaced or die. If you happen to live on the coast, sell and move to higher ground now.

Or—my personal favorite—if you vote for the other guy, why, then he’ll establish a new socialist world order. You will no longer be able to choose your own doctor or where you shop for groceries. Don’t let that happen. Vote for me.

Like the 1986 poster for the horror movie The Fly, the message we hear everywhere around us is, “Be afraid! Be very afraid!”

However . . . to my North American Evangelical friends, I’ve just got to ask, would Jesus do the same—preach and teach a message of fear?

Jesus promises us a kingdom, God’s kingdom. And this heavenly kingdom stands in stark contrast to the world’s way of fear precisely because of Jesus’ message and mission of love.

It’s love. Not fear.

And if I haven’t been clear enough already, 1 John 4:18 says it this way: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”

Why, then, does NAE—or anyone else—throw fear over Jesus’ followers like an ominous storm cell?

3

So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Again, God does not call us to the heavenly kingdom by means of fear, as if to say, “If you don’t believe, then you won’t be raptured; instead, you’ll experience seven years of trials and torments in the Great Tribulation—or maybe it’s a thousand, hard to say.”

No! Enough with your pessimistic eschatology!

Rather—Gospel truth today, right here—God calls us away from fear into the heavenly kingdom through love, through God’s “good pleasure.”

And then—what the rest of today’s passage is all about—God calls us to steward the heavenly kingdom faithfully, like a person who plans and takes precautions to discourage a thief from breaking into her house.

But even those plans and precautions aren’t done out of fear—or worry, or anxiety. Instead, they’re an act of faithful stewardship, done because of grateful love in response to God’s good pleasure.

Good pleasure and faithful stewardship.

Our life together in Christ is one of reciprocal love.

The heavenly kingdom will not come upon us suddenly, with the blowing of a trumpet, at the same time as apocalyptic destruction overwhelms the globe.

Rather, the kingdom of heaven is already here, the church, given to us through God’s good pleasure, stewarded by us through ours.

This is a much more optimistic eschatology, wouldn’t you agree?

4

Well, since we’re here, in Luke, can I just show you something?

So, I’m not sure why this happens, but we skipped over a profound passage today in our lectionary. Last week ended with verse 21 of Luke 12. This week begins with verse 32. We’ve skipped over ten verses, vv. 22-31.

Well, I’d like to read them to you now—because they elaborate my point:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

And then, here, Jesus says the words he started with today: “Do not be afraid . . . for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

So, here’s why I read those verses: God is with you.

We—you and I—have much to worry about in our world, much to fear.

But God pays attention to the smallest details—feeding ravens, who have no storehouses; and clothing lilies with more splendor than Solomon, the wealthiest king in Israel’s history.

Thus, of course, God is with you—and in all the details that cause you worry, anxiety, and fear.

I’ve said it before, so forgive me if I sound like a broken record. But this is a recurring theme in the Gospel of Luke. We see it over and over. So, if I’m a broken record, Luke is too.

God is in the details of your life.

The prevailing image of God before Jesus’ birth was an aloof, faraway king, too concerned with large-scale matters to pay attention to the needs of his individual subjects. To get God’s attention, so priests taught and people believed, required sacrifice, penance, humility—sackcloth and ashes.

But with the birth of Jesus the Incarnation, all that imagery changed.

Now God is as lovingly and caringly caught up in the details of each of our lives as a baby is caught up in the life of his family.

Now God is with each of us just as Jesus the man walked among the multitudes, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and toppling systems that keep us in their power—systems maybe even for which we’re culpable.

The ravens and lilies teach us this truth.

Worry and fear as we do, we have no reason to.

5

One more point, a corollary. That’s you and me as individuals. But what does this mean for us as a church?

There’s been a lot of talk in church circles in recent years about decline. Attendance is down. Pledges aren’t what they used to be. Far too many church properties are characterized by deferred maintenance.

It’s a trend, too, that shows no sign of slowing any time soon; a trend, rather, that covid seems only to have accelerated.

And this decline isn’t just in mainline denominations like TEC and the RCC. These discussions are happening in NAE too.

So, one way we can respond as a church is to fear and worry—which is our natural tendency, unfortunately.

When we do, however, we find ourselves stymied. We’ll never make our budget, we tell ourselves; we focus overly much on the negative aspects of community life, like conflict and gossip; and God feels distant, faraway. A cloud of pessimism hangs over us.

And then all we want is for Jesus just to come back already and rapture us all away, that we might escape this fearsome world.

But today’s Gospel demonstrates that we are called to a different response.

God is with us, in the church’s decline and all the worrisome details that come with it . . . and—we must not forget—God is with us, too, in all the joys we experience in our life together.

Our church exists because of God’s good pleasure, a thing that will never decline.

Thus, the other response—the correct one—is to reciprocate. God has given us the kingdom, the church, through God’s good pleasure; and we steward it faithfully through ours.

The Good Life according to Jesus

Posted in Homilies on August 1, 2022 by timtrue

Luke 12:13-21

1

Jesus starts out today by establishing some clear boundaries.

“Jesus,” a man approaches, “settle a dispute between me and my brother. He owes me my share of the inheritance and he won’t pay up. Tell him to do so. Bring me justice.”

But Jesus answers, “I am not a mediator.”

And already I’m finding today’s Gospel thoroughly intriguing, not to mention relevant.

For conflict is everywhere in the church, in every congregation.

Vestries disagree on how to spend money—or not.

Altar Guilds disagree on when and how to set up the altar for worship.

Outreach teams disagree on what constitutes reaching out.

Congregations debate what kind of music is best (and, just between us, no matter what kind of music is chosen, someone is always going to criticize).

However—even though conflict is everywhere within the church—Jesus says he is not a mediator.

According to the theology of TEC (the Episcopal Church), then, since the bishop is Christ’s representative, the bishop is not called to be a mediator either.

And, likewise, since the PIC (Priest in Charge) represents the bishop and thus Christ to the local congregation, neither is the PIC called to be a mediator.

Nevertheless, this is exactly what most (if not all) congregations and dioceses expect from their PsIC and bishops: to be a mediator; to jump into the middle of conflict, wherever it appears in community life, and resolve it.

Yet today Jesus asks, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

2

Instead, Jesus has a vision in mind. And it’s this vision, not the details, that motivates everything he says and does.

So, what is it that he says and does?

Time doesn’t permit me to go through everything. But most of you know—a moment’s reflection should be enough.

His teachings consist of things like the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”

And he summarizes the 613 Jewish commandments into one word: love. Love God; love your neighbor.

He also tells a lot of parables, brilliant and often surprising pictures of how we then should live. In fact, we see one today—which we’ll get to shortly.

As for his actions, what he does—he lives out that mission statement he read before his home synagogue back in Luke 4: healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, and otherwise freeing people from the systems and ideologies that hold them captive.

Everything Jesus says and does points to the kingdom of heaven, a community of beloved disciples, here on earth.

His vision is not about individual success and prosperity, how you can come out on top in your perpetual struggle with your neighbor.

And so, back in today’s Gospel, Jesus is not going to mediate in a family dispute over who gets what amount of money and why—because that’s not in alignment with his vision.

Similarly, Jesus is not going to appear to the BC (Bishop’s Committee–the congregation’s governing board) in a vision to say how we should or shouldn’t spend the church’s money; nor will he tell us who’s right and who’s wrong in an interpersonal conflict.

3

As for his vision . . .

You know what Jesus is doing today? He’s giving us an answer to the age-old question, “What is the good life?”

Socrates was the first person we know of to ask this question. He never really answered it.

But a generation later, Plato came along and offered an answer. Are you familiar with his cave allegory? Plato’s good life is to come out of the cave, a kind of intellectual enlightenment.

And another generation later, Aristotle answered the question too—and his answer was quite a bit different than Plato’s. The good life is to be found in the common details of everyday, whether in or out of the cave.

Yet both Plato and Aristotle leave gaps in their answers.

And so, by the time Jesus is living, many other answers to the good life—many other schools of thought—have arisen, including some you’ve probably heard of, like the Cynics, Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics.

Well, today we hear Jesus’ take—and I don’t know about you, but I find it more satisfying than any of the other answers, which has a lot to do with why I am a Christian in the first place. I assume it’s the same for you.

So, what is Jesus’ answer?

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly . . .”

His answer is in the parable.

A rich man with lots of land receives a bumper crop. It’s such a large harvest, in fact, that this man does not have enough storage space for it all.

What should he do, he wonders?

And I make this observation. This rich man has just been blessed by God. But instead of seeing this bumper harvest as a blessing, he sees it as a dilemma. “What should I do?”

So, next, he decides not to celebrate and feast with his neighbors, rejoicing in the blessing of the bumper crop; but rather to tear down his old storage facilities and build new, state-of-the-art larger ones, large enough, in fact, to store everything–his grain and his goods.

Well, obviously, he’s hoarding. So, this leads to a second observation: there’s waste here.

The rich man is not just going to build additional storage facilities. No. Rather, he will first tear down his old facilities before he builds the larger ones. No reducing, reusing, or recycling here.

Hoarding? Excessive waste? Why, this guy’s a picture of the present-day American consumer!

Just saying.

But also, a third observation. And this one, I believe, is the most condemning of all, the harshest critique, why this guy is nowhere near the kingdom of heaven, why his life stands in direct contrast to the good life according to Jesus.

He’s in it only for himself:

  • He has no concern for God, who gave him the abundant harvest in the first place—no feasting or celebrating in honor of God;
  • His answer to his dilemma is to make his own life enjoyable, so he can kick up his feet, eat, drink, and be merry for the rest of his days;
  • And, worst of all, he cares nothing for his neighbor—no community feasts or celebrations, no giving out of his abundance.

The implication, since he plans to store it all away, is that he will sell it later, when his neighbors have run out of grain, perhaps even during a time of famine, when his neighbors will be compelled to pay a high price.

The implication is that he will use his wealth to exploit his neighbors.

But God has different plans for this self-absorbed, rich man . . .

So, anyway, the answer Jesus offers to the question of what constitutes the good life is to concern oneself with God and to concern oneself with neighbor.

It is not to concern oneself with self.

According to Jesus, self-absorption stands in polar opposition to the good life.

4

Which flies in our faces, doesn’t it?

For we live in a culture that teaches that the path to happiness (prosperity) is to be self-absorbed, not to be concerned with the well-being of our neighbors.

We look out for Number One. It’s in the air we breathe and the water we drink.

So, for those of us who find Jesus’ answer to the good life compelling, how then do we live as a beloved community in our capitalistic, consumeristic, materialistic culture?

Is it okay to have a reliable car and a comfortable house? What about a retirement portfolio so that I don’t have to worry myself over how to make ends meet in my sunset years?

Well, the short answer is yes, it’s okay. Jesus’ good life comes down not to material possessions but to our attitude toward them—and our attitude toward God and neighbor.

If we follow Jesus, then that means we follow not just the belief that he is God the Son but also his message, his answer to what constitutes the good life.

That means we strive to make progress away from self-absorption in the direction of loving God and neighbor in and through the kingdom of heaven, aka the beloved community, aka the church.

5

Which brings up the subject of stewardship, faithfully managing and caring for the church. I would be remiss not to mention it.

So, with respect to financial stewardship, tithing is the biblical standard. And tithe, as you probably know, means 10%. Give your first fruits, ten percent, to God.

But I know for some people a tithe can be difficult. Some of you are in the position where to give ten percent would mean to put you or keep you in poverty.

If you are in this category, please, do not increase your indebtedness by giving compulsively to the church.

Nevertheless, on the other hand, the character in today’s parable—which is probably the case for the majority of Episcopalians—he could have given much more than ten percent; and if he agrees with Jesus’ message and mission—his answer to what constitutes the good life—he should.

Now, we’ve all heard that what you give is between you and God. But, really, it’s not. Instead, what you give is between you, God, and the beloved community. Others within the beloved community depend on you.

And when God blesses us with abundance, well, our first response should be to celebrate with God and the beloved community.

But it’s not.

Just to put it out there, best guesstimate, our average household giving—meaning here at Grace—is less than 2%.

So, tease this out with me a little—humor me.

What if the households within our beloved community were to average a tithe, ten percent?

Then something very close to an average household income would come from ten households–enough to pay for a full-time priest.

Another ten households would provide enough to cover operating costs—mortgage, utilities, personnel, and so on—and then some.

And thirty households tithing? Now we’re talking a surplus, a bumper crop.

And now, instead of hoarding it, like the man in the parable, we celebrate and feast; we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free the captives, and otherwise use the surplus for furthering the mission Jesus left to us.

And that’s just thirty households. We have nearly double that in our little congregation . . .

Anyway, Jesus is not a mediator. Jesus is a visionary. It’s time to stop worrying about what Jesus can do for each of us—how Jesus can be our mediator—and get back to his vision.

Squirrel Pie Anyone?

Posted in Homilies on July 26, 2022 by timtrue

Luke 11:1-13

1

A favorite family story—one that seems to surface every two or three years around the Thanksgiving table—has to do with my daughter Tori.

Tori’s my most esoteric daughter, the one kid most of all who likes to sit and ponder the mysteries of the universe.

She’s always been this way.

When she was about a year old, for instance, she sat on the couch and lost herself in the glossy photos of a “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine. All day. Like, we’d give her a meal at the highchair and a nap, and as soon as she was up again, she’d crawl straight back to the couch and that magazine!

So, anyway, the favorite family story goes like this.

Tori was about to turn four years old. As is the way of parents, Holly and I planned a special birthday party for her.

“Do you want a birthday cake?” we’d asked her.

“Yeth,” she’d answered, lisping.

“What kind?”

“Thrawberry!”

Okay then.

So, a few days later, in the afternoon, Holly was busy in the kitchen baking a special, Strawberry Swirl Cake just for Tori—you know, the kind where you swirl the strawberry bits into the batter before you bake it.

And while Holly was doing this, Tori was sitting on a barstool at the kitchen counter lost in her world of crayons and a coloring book.

Or at least that’s how I saw it—from where I was observing quietly in the family room, where I was pretending to read on the couch.

But just as Holly poured the swirled batter into the cake pan, Tori proved she wasn’t totally lost in her world of coloring. For without looking up or even breaking her back-and-forth crayon motion, she asked,

“Mommy, what kind of cake is it?”

Holly answered thoughtfully, “It’s a special cake just for you, called Strawberry Swirl.”

“Oh,” Tori replied simply. And, still without looking up, without breaking motion, very stoically, she continued her task of coloring.

Holly mentally shrugged her shoulders and continued her work too, preparing to bake the special Strawberry Swirl Cake and saying no more.

Until maybe a minute later when, still coloring away, still focused on her world, still stoic, Tori said, “Mommy, I don’t think I’m gonna want any.”

“Okay . . .” Holly answered.

And I wondered what went through Holly’s mind at this point. I mean, here she’d gone out of her way to ask Tori specifically the kind of cake she wanted for her birthday. And now, as she lovingly prepared just what was requested, Tori ups and declares she’s no longer interested?

Kids! Am I right?

 “But,” whatever else Holly might have been tempted to say, she asked simply, “why not?”

And now, finally, Tori lisped out what had been on her mind all along.

“Mommy, um, how’d the squirrel get in the cake?”

For a moment, Holly’s expression was nonplussed. Then all at once she burst out laughing. “Oh, Tori,” she said, “it’s Strawberry Swirl Cake, not Strawberry Squirrel Cake.”

And from my family room perch, I couldn’t help but laugh too.

2

Today’s Gospel relates the story of a disciple asking Jesus to teach him and the other disciples to pray, “as John taught his disciples.”

And Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer follows.

But—something helpful for us to remember—it’s not like the act of prayer, or the idea of it, was new or foreign to the disciples.

This is the Gospel of Luke. Luke was a Gentile, steeped in Hellenistic culture from birth. The book of Acts—also written by Luke—even incorporates literary conventions found elsewhere in Hellenistic literature, such as in Homer’s Odyssey.

Now there’s a fine work!

You know what I did last week, after I tested positive with Covid and had to isolate?

There it was, sitting on my bookshelf at home. And it’d been about ten years . . .

So, yeah, I read The Odyssey.

And throughout its pages there’s prayer after prayer to one or more gods of the Greek pantheon.

And most of the prayers involve some kind of sacrifice.

A bull is slaughtered on the beach next to a crimson-beaked trireme before praying to Poseidon for safe passage.

A corporate prayer of thanksgiving over a meal is made to Zeus, giver of all things, by pouring out a libation on the ground, the first mouthful from a golden chalice.

And so on.

Prayers, hymns, even liturgies are a familiar part of the Greco-Roman world, throughout the new Empire, when this disciple approaches Jesus.

So, why does he ask Jesus to teach him and the other disciples to pray? Obviously, examples of all kinds of prayers abounded.

So, to reframe the question, what is it about Jesus’ prayers—John’s too—that are different from the familiar prayers that were everywhere in the ancient world?

3

We find the answer in the verses that follow the Lord’s prayer today. And we see the answer, too, in the family story I told at the start of my sermon.

Now, there’s some question over what Jesus is really saying in this parable of two friends in the night. It’s presented in the subjunctive mood, as if to say this would never really happen.

You go to a friend at night asking for—actually, in desperate need of—hospitality. And what kind of friend would turn you away? With a true friend, this would never really happen, right?

Thus, the subjunctive mood.

Even so, though—even if a true friend were to turn you away in the middle of the night—well, a true friend is someone you can argue with, persist with, bang on his door until he is roused from his slumber and opens the door and lets you in.

True friends are those with whom you feel comfortable enough to persist until they come to your help.

And that, Jesus tells his disciples, is how you should approach God in prayer. Even if you feel like God doesn’t hear your prayers—which just isn’t possible—but even if, keep at it. God is a familiar friend, a true friend.

Likewise, the passage continues, what dad is going to give his children a roasted snake when they ask for a salmon dinner?

Or . . . what mom will give her daughter a squirrel pie when she asks for strawberry cake?

Just so, we should trust in God when we pray, that God cares about each of us as tenderly and as intimately as a caring parent.

That’s the picture Jesus paints for his disciples. That’s the picture Jesus paints for us.

God is a true friend. God is a caring parent. Go to God in prayer with these images in mind.

And . . . this imagery contrasts starkly with the picture of prayer offered by Hellenism, the prevailing culture of Luke’s day.

Sacrificing a bull to offer a sweet-smelling aroma to a faraway god, as if to catch his attention and appease his anger?

Pouring out a libation on the ground as if to say I am unworthy to drink before royalty?

To pray like that is to picture God as detached, far away, aloof, a king, even a despot, who may or may not find me worthy, depending on whether my sacrificial prayers check off the correct boxes.

But to see God, instead, as a close friend or family member—

This is how we are to pray.

4

Today, of course, there are many resources available to us, to aid us in our prayers—just as there were many examples available to Jesus’ disciples.

And there are different schools of thought on prayer. Have you noticed? It’s kind of funny, actually.

One school of thought says our prayers to God should be always extemporaneous, you know, from the heart, not written down. Because extemporaneous prayers are genuine, authentic.

But have you ever been to a gathering where people pray this way?

Their prayers often sound something like this:

Lord God, we just thank you for the day. And, Lord God, we just ask that you would just hear our prayers right now for our loved ones, that you would just keep them free from covid, and that you would just help us in our daily lives, Lord God, just to do what you have called us to do each day, Lord God. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

From the heart? Yeah. Still, to me there seems to be a lot of repetition, a lot of Lord Gods and justs—placeholders.

It’s a far cry from the richness we find in many of our written prayers—the other school of thought. For instance, listen again to today’s Collect:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The language is beautiful, poetic even. The people who wrote this prayer down obviously gave it a lot of thought. And there are no placeholders.

However, the first school of thought observes, there is a danger in written prayers, that they’re not from the heart, that those who offer them aren’t sincere.

Well, if you’re like me, you hear the criticisms from both schools of thought and you’re left second guessing yourself. If there is a right way to pray, you think, then I’m not sure what it is. And so you cry out, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

And, despite the many resources at our disposal, we’re back to where we started.

Except . . . we’ve all missed Jesus’ point.

Both schools of thought—placeholders and insincerity notwithstanding—both schools of thought offer us fine examples of how to approach God in prayer.

And so do the many, many other resources we have at our disposal, whether the Daily Office, Centering Prayer, Forward Day by Day, our Prayer Book’s numerous written Collects, Prayers, and Thanksgivings, our liturgies—do you realize that our Eucharistic liturgy is little more than one, large, corporate prayer?—and even extemporaneous prayers—

All these are good.

Jesus does not ask us to pull them apart, deconstruct, and criticize them.

Rather, whenever we approach God in prayer—whether out walking your dog or attending the Eucharist or anywhere in between—whenever we approach God in prayer, we are called to envision God not as a faraway king but as a true friend and caring parent.

God is not aloof.

God is right here.

Half-dead Auto Club

Posted in Homilies on July 10, 2022 by timtrue

Luke 10:25-37

1

Ah, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, comfort food for the soul.

We’ve heard it many, many times; but this one never gets old. It’s the perfect picture of the love God calls us to believe in and act on. And it’s memorable.

But in an effort to make it come alive once more . . . true story:

One night I was driving home from a class I was taking at Moorpark College. I was nineteen years old, still living with my parents, still trying to decide what to major in, still trying to figure out a lot of things.

I was new to the Christian faith. I hadn’t yet been baptized; hadn’t yet really even begun attending church regularly.

But even by then I’d heard this parable. And it stuck with me.

So, there I was, driving home from a night class that had ended at 10pm, down a two-lane backroad between Moorpark and Camarillo—it was late, I was tired, eyes a little blurry; inky blackness all around me, no moon, no streetlights, only stars—when up ahead a sudden glare momentarily illuminated the tops of the trees.

I couldn’t see the source of the glare, for there were railroad tracks between me and it, and the tracks were elevated a little, on a levee, blocking my ground-level view beyond.

But now my attention was riveted; now I was wide awake.

I drove on, crossing over the railroad tracks, slowing down a little as I approached, rounded a blind turn, and then and there, all at once, I saw the cause.

To the right of the road, in a turnout, was an upside-down car; one of the wheels still spinning. Illuminating the scene, about fifty feet from the car, a small fire burned, some dry grass at the base of a telephone pole. And in between, lying still, was a human body.

Now, I wish I could say I stopped and rushed to the aid of the victim.

But I didn’t—kind of like the priest and the Levite from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Instead, as I drove slowly by, gaping, looking out my passenger window in shock and awe, all at once hundreds of thoughts began to collide in my head, you know, a kind of inner dialog, or argument, something like:

Dang! Poor guy. I wonder if he’s okay. How could he not have seen that telephone pole? I wonder if he’s drunk. Yeah, that’s probably it. Ah, serves him right then. Oh, but that’s harsh, Tim. What if he’s badly hurt? What if he dies because of you, because you didn’t stop and help him? I don’t want to read that in tomorrow’s paper. I’ll feel guilty forever! Oh, what to do? Maybe I should just keep driving to the nearest police station and let them know what happened. No, too far. Maybe I should drive to the ER. Yeah, that’s closer. Oh, but even that’s several miles away. Really, I should just turn around. But I don’t know this guy. It was his own fault, after all. But this is exactly what the Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about! Dang you, Jesus. Now I’ve got to turn around! If I’m a Christian at all, I’ve just got to go help this poor soul. Lord, you’re testing me, aren’t you?

Well, so, that’s what I did: I turned around.

And all the way back to the scene of the accident I worried about what in the world I would do alone on the side of the road with a corpse, or, perhaps worse, a mangled, half-dead person. Would I remember—could I remember—my CPR training?

But, as providence would have it, in the few minutes it had taken for this inner dialog to take place and for me to turn around and return to the scene, two police cars and an ambulance had arrived.

I made another U-turn; and drove home.

By the way, there was nothing in the paper about it the next day, or the day after, at least as far as I saw. I never did find out who the person was, or what happened.

2

The Parable of the Good Samaritan comes up every three years in our lectionary. And every time it does, at least in my mind, I remember that I don’t always love my neighbor as I ought to.

That’s the point, right? We are to love our neighbor just like the Good Samaritan loved his neighbor. But we don’t. And we feel guilty for it. Right? Sermon over. Time to take my seat and get on with the rest of the service.

But hold on!

While it is true that we are called as Christians to love our neighbor as the Samaritan loved the man who’d been beaten and left half-dead by the side of the road, that’s actually not the point of this parable.

What do I mean?

Well, whenever we hear this parable, I think we put ourselves in the shoes of the Samaritan. I do anyway.

But I’m not just talking about me here. I think we do this as humans, as a culture. We name some of our churches after the Good Samaritan; we even name automobile clubs after Good Sam.

But Jesus’ original hearers would not have identified most closely with the Samaritan.

And for that reason, I don’t think we should identify most closely with him either.

3

Well then, with which character would Jesus’ hearers have identified most closely? With whom should we identify most closely?

Just prior to Jesus telling this parable, the scriptures say that a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

A lawyer. Other versions read expert in the law, which is perhaps a better translation. And others still say scribe. Better, I think, is the German schriftgelehrter, which translates, roughly, scholar of literature, or, in this context, scholar of the scriptures.

So, this lawyer/expert-in-the-law/scribe/schriftgelehrter—try saying that five times fast—this lawyer was a bona fide Old Testament Professor standing up to test Jesus.

And he asks a question to which he already knows the answer: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I wonder, what kind of sarcasm was in this lawyer’s tone of voice when he addressed Jesus as teacher. Really, if I were in a seminary classroom with my Old Testament professor and she stood up and looked at me and said, “Okay, Tim, teacher, you tell me what the Old Testament teaches us,” I’m sure her address to me as teacher would be dripping with sarcasm.

Was it the same when this expert in the law stood up and addressed Jesus?

Whatever the case, Jesus is unfazed. He turns the question back on the lawyer—“What is written in the law?”—who then eloquently sums up the law: love the Lord your God; and love your neighbor.

But then, seeking to justify himself, he clarifies: “Yes, teacher, I understand what the law says. I am an expert in it, after all. But tell me, good teacher, who, exactly, is my neighbor?”

The answer, according to Jewish law—which he already knew—was that only the peoples who descend directly from Noah’s son Shem—the Shemites, aka the Semitic peoples—only they were to be considered neighbors.

Everyone else? Including Samaritans and Gentiles? Not!

Sadly, racism based on religion is nothing new.

Still unfazed by this prejudiced law-expert before him, though, Jesus then tells the story, what we like to call the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

But here’s what I think we often miss.

Right at the end of it—after we hear about the poor wretch who is beat up and left half-dead; after the priest and the Levite avoid this half-dead man; and after a man of a different race, a Samaritan, helps the poor wretch—after all this—Jesus answers the lawyer’s question.

Who, exactly, is my neighbor?

The Samaritan, Jesus answers, is the neighbor to the half-dead man.

It’s the Samaritan, good lawyer, who is your neighbor.

Do you see? That’s not the way we usually understand it. We usually put ourselves in the shoes of the Samaritan.

We drive down a road, late at night, with darkness everywhere around us; and we see a sudden flash ahead. Someone is half-dead on the side of the road. And we think, “I’ve got to help this person. I’ve got to be like the Good Samaritan.”

And all this is well and true and good: we should indeed help the poor soul.

But the lawyer asks, Who is my neighbor; and Jesus answers, Your neighbor is the Samaritan, meaning, good lawyer, you are in fact that half-dead man on the side of the road, in desperate need of aid.

More than identifying with the Good Samaritan, I believe we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of the half-dead man.

We are broken people, in need of saving.

So . . .  maybe we should name some of our churches, the Church of the Half-Dead Wretch; or start a new co-op called “Half-Dead Auto Club.”

4

But this message goes against the grain.

Our culture tells us to be strong, self-sufficient, rugged individuals. God helps those who help themselves, we like to say. The eleventh commandment is, Thou shalt not depend on others.

But to identify with the man in the ditch—well, it’s counter cultural. And it confronts us with uncomfortable questions.

Questions like, first, am I able to receive help from others?

We live in a culture that gives us many opportunities to help others. Why, just yesterday our Food Box Team distributed food to the needy in our community; and we’ll do it again on the last Saturday of the month.

And how many of you like to be available for a friend or family member seeking counsel or comfort?

We like to help. And so we should.

But turn it around. Do we like to receive help? Are we okay making ourselves vulnerable to another person, a friend or maybe even a stranger, to ask for their help?

We might have to. But that’s not the same thing as being okay with it.

Or, how about if we don’t even ask? What if someone, a stranger, simply offers help to us?

Is it easy to receive help willingly? Or do you receive it maybe reluctantly? Or do you reject it outright, on principle, or maybe out of pride?

Our readiness to offer help but reluctance to receive it is a cultural attitude. It was there in the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus; and it’s here in modern-day evangelical (and not-so-evangelical) Christianity. And it’s connected to an attitude of superiority.

When someone asks me for help and I’m quick to offer it, it puts me in a superior position. Someone needs me. Someone is dependent on me. And this makes me feel good about myself.

Now, I’m not saying that someone’s attitude is one of superiority every time they offer help to a neighbor. The Samaritan, surely, wasn’t affected by an attitude of superiority—that I can tell.

But it works the other way too.

The man in the ditch, the half-dead wretch, was utterly dependent on his neighbor to help him.

And Jesus challenged the lawyer to identify with this man. He was the broken individual, the one in utter need of help.

But he didn’t need help, he told himself. He was strong, self-sufficient, a rugged individual, superior.

So, one question that confronts us today is whether we are able to receive help from others.

But this leads to a second question, one that might make us even more uncomfortable: What if the person who helps me is someone I despise?

  • What if the person helping me disagrees with me on a hot political issue, something like gun control?
  • What if that person has embarrassed or even insulted me in front of others?
  • What if that person hasn’t been to church in a while, or went away with that other group, or is of a different faith or of no faith at all?
  • Or—most challenging—what if I knew the person trying to help me was a felon—a criminal, a murderer, a gunman, a terrorist?
  • What if the single person I despise worst of all in this world ends up being the very person who pulls my half-dead body out of a ditch and makes sure I receive proper medical attention and even pays for it?

Would I rather die than receive their love?

But that’s just Jesus’ point.

Love is a two-way street: it both gives and receives. Allow yourself to receive it.

DMin, 2022

Posted in Education on June 23, 2022 by timtrue

You probably know, I am working on my Doctor of Ministry degree. What this means is that during the next few summers, for three weeks each summer, I am/will be spending time in Sewanee, Tennessee in residence at the School of Theology in another class or two. Further out, I will write a thesis and finish up, aiming for 2025. Anyway, what follows is a few assignments related to this summer’s course, “History and Imagination in Church and Parish,” as taught by Dr. Lauren Winner of Duke University. The first asks us to reflect on the most pressing issues in our present ministry context. The second imagines a newsletter-like article addressing these historical issues. And the third is a short sermon I delivered to the student body this past week, which emanated from the two assignments.

Most Pressing Historical Issues in my Ministry Context

My ministry setting is as an intentional interim. I arrived at my post less than a year ago, having come to it suddenly and unexpectedly following a layoff.

Of course, I learned as much as I could about the place before arriving. Grace Episcopal Church is in St. George, Utah, the fastest growing city in the country. Predominantly Mormon (statistics told me that approximately 2/3 of its residents identified as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), political and ideological values lean unmistakably to the right. I recall reading that 85% of the votes in Washington County, Utah were for Trump in November 2020.

As for the booming growth, much of it revolves around retirement. Several planned 55+ communities have sprung up all over the perimeter of St. George over the past decade, spilling over today into the surrounding towns. These 55+ communities offer many delightful amenities for those in retirement, from community golf courses, pickle ball courts, and swimming pools to restaurants and resident attorneys offering counsel on wills and trusts even to road scholar tours—solely for the residents. I’ve joked with some of my parishioners who live in Sun River, a premier example of one of these communities, that it’s camp for retired people. “It’s no joke,” they replied.

At the same time, land plays an important role in St. George. Visitors to St. George can easily access several National and State Parks for day excursions, including Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The region is iconic Southwest. Historically, native Americans were stewards of this land long before the Mormon settlers arrived.

Grace Episcopal Church, I had learned from my conversations with the Senior Warden, the Bishop, and a former vicar, was young, founded in the early 1980s because several persons who identified as Episcopalians had recently moved to the region. After an initial two decades or so of struggling to make ends meet and buy property, the congregation experienced a decade of prosperity. The diocese sold a hospital system and paid off every debt of every congregation in the diocese—a Jubilee program—meaning Grace suddenly found itself debt-free with a newish church building. A vibrant and dynamic vicar took the helm (2005-13). She called Grace the Ellis Island of St. George, meaning on the surface that it was a congregation anyone could come to, below the surface that Grace offered an alternative to the predominant religion and culture. During these years Grace also began a Soup Kitchen which has since been handed off to a nonprofit—still (to this day) to the frustration of some in the congregation.

After the dynamic vicar moved on, Grace entered a time of uncertainty, instability, anxiety, and conflict. The last vicar managed to stay three years before leaving in exasperation (according to my very capable Senior Warden). Before him, there was something like seven priests in seven years (accounts vary—some say there were as many as 11—but I infer some confusion over the difference between a supply priest and a priest in charge).

Knowing this context, my initial tack has been to address the larger historical issues at hand, the most obvious to me being the century-and-a-half-long rift between indigenous peoples and Mormons. That animosity remains today; there have been few if any attempts at reconciliation between the dominant culture (political and religious) and the local Bands of Southern Paiutes (the Shivwits Band being the most affected by St. George). I wonder, what if Grace were to offer a place for conversation, a neutral and safe space where both sides could come together for true civil discourse?

So, personally, to gain perspective, I watched Godless, a short Netflix series that re-imagines the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, and visited the site (which is local). I also read a book called American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West, which looks closely at several ideologies and incidents particular to the region.

As Priest-in-Charge, I initiated two formation programs, a book study called PIC’s Pick and a Land Discernment Team. PIC’s Pick, the larger group, has engaged in a careful study of Walter Wink’s The Powers that Be (fall semester) and Stephanie Spellers’ book, The Church Cracked Open (spring semester). The Land Discernment Team has been going through Nurya Love Parish’s book Resurrection Matters and praying how we might best use a vacant portion of the parcel on which Grace’s building sits (about 0.75 acres). There is much momentum here, by the way, around a labyrinth.

More recently, however, as I have grown increasingly aware of recent internecine conflicts, I am rethinking whether I might want to look more closely at our internal history. A tool that comes to mind for how to engage better with this conflict is an Appreciative Inquiry Workshop with the Rob Voyle. I’ve desired to take this since becoming an interim a year ago, but the workshop has not been offered in that time due to the pandemic.

Towards Restoration (imagined newsletter)

Dear People of Grace,

The first resolution presented at our diocesan convention in 2020, which passed without debate, encourages each congregation in the diocese to acknowledge publicly the land upon which it sits. “RESOLVED:” it begins, “That this convention strongly encourages all congregations in the Diocese of Utah to regularly acknowledge the Native people upon whose land they reside and to recognize the damage inflicted upon these people by the Doctrine of Discovery. This Convention realizes that assistance may need to be offered to the congregations in doing this” (https://www.episcopal-ut.org/wp-content/uploads/2020-Convention-Journal-FINAL-1.pdf).

So, today on our congregation’s website and weekly bulletins we say, “Grace Episcopal Church occupies and operates upon the ancestral and traditional lands of the Southern Paiute Tribes.”

Fine and well. We’ve incorporated this resolution, check.

But is it enough?

As most of you know, the so-called Mountain Meadows Massacre took place not far from St. George between September 7 and 11, 1857. In it, more than 120 people were massacred, an entire wagon train party traveling from Arkansas to California. The aggressors were a combination of Mormon and Southern Paiute men, the Paiutes probably fulfilling a previous agreement they had made with the settlers. (Some accounts, including the Netflix story below, say there were no Paiute men but Mormon men who had disguised themselves with warpaint and clothing to resemble Southern Paiutes.) Seventeen children under the age of seven—the agreed upon age of innocence—were spared, kidnapped and raised by their Mormon captors. There is a monument to this massacre we can drive out and visit today if we like, about an hour from here, its most recent iteration erected in 1999 (for a photo, see https://stgeorge.org), as a memorial to those slain, funded largely by the LDS (Mormon) Church.

A Netflix short series called Godless first aired on November 22, 2017. This fictional story imagines what might have happened to one of the children that survived the Mountain Meadows Massacre after being kidnapped and raised by his captors. Without spoiling the plot, I can say that Frank Griffin is a broken man. He is a gifted, persuasive preacher—a detail that becomes clear by the end of episode 2 (of 7)—but he is also a heartless, calloused outlaw. When all is said and done, because of his brokenness, I find myself identifying with this villain, even empathizing. (Explore https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5516154/ if you are interested in learning more.)

Anyway, happily, today some restoration has been made—between the Mormon Church and the victims’ descendants.

But there is another side to this local history.

The Shivwits Band of Southern Paiutes now resides on a reservation a mere 28,000 acres in area, just west of St. George. Prior to the arrival of the Mormon settlers and pioneers, this tribe, along with four others, occupied an estimated 30 million acres of territory, from southern Utah to southern California. Over time, the tribe’s numbers, which were originally in the tens of thousands, diminished to nearly zero. Today there are 311 registered Shivwits persons. Tension remains high today between the dominant, LDS population and culture of St. George and the Shivwits Band. (See https://shivwits.org/ for more information and to hear more of their story.)

As Episcopalians, then, where do we fit in?

Ultimately, I would like to see Grace Episcopal Church offer a truly hospitable, safe space for both sides to come together for restorative conversation.

Of course—with more than a century and a half of dispute as a foundation—this is a lofty vision. Restoration—indeed, even civil discourse—will not happen overnight, certainly not during my tenure as your interim Priest in Charge.

However, with the right kind of leverage and proper application, we can start this boulder moving.

This fall, PIC’s Pick will take a different tack. Beginning the Friday evening after Labor Day and for seven Fridays thereafter (Sept. 9-Oct. 28), I will be viewing Godless at the church with anyone who cares to join me, one episode at a time, followed by a half hour of discussion around each episode (5:30-7:00pm). Please keep in mind, this series is rated TVMA, defined as not suitable for persons under 17 years of age. Use discretion.

And please invite your neighbors. I’d especially love to include some of our Mormon and Shivwits friends, to begin to make strides towards civil discourse and even restoration sooner rather than later. Also, during our first gathering, plan to get out your calendars and determine a Saturday to take a field trip to the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Will you take this historical journey with me?

I close with a prayer from our Prayer Book, the Collect for the final Sunday of our liturgical year (Proper 29):

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Towards the restoration of all peoples,

Father Tim True

Vengeance, Fear, and the Golden Rule (homily delivered to the School of Theology student body on 6/21/2022)

2 Kings 19:9-21, 31-36; Psalm 48; Matthew 7:6, 12-14

1

So, just how are we supposed to reconcile today’s readings?

In 2 Kings we hear the story of King Sennacherib of Assyria threatening Israel’s King Hezekiah with war. Hezekiah fears. Hezekiah prays. Isaiah the Prophet prays. And, we hear . . . 185,000 of the enemy fall in a single day, struck down by the angel of the LORD.

Next, we come to Psalm 48. Here the Hill of Zion is likened to a throne in the center of the world, the throne of the Holy One of Israel, and all other kings of the world see it and shrink away in fear.

But then we come to Jesus, the Incarnation of the Holy One of Israel, who says this version of the Golden Rule:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

So, vengeance, fear, and the Golden Rule. Just how are we to reconcile these readings?

If we’re called to do to others as we would have them do to us, then I’m thinking vengeance is not the answer, even if God is the one taking vengeance.

Likewise, if we’re called to do to others as we would have them do to us, I’m not sure instilling fear and trembling is the answer either. I mean, I wouldn’t want to live my life constantly afraid of a god, or a government, or an oppressive system that works against me seemingly everywhere. Would you?

2

Back in Utah, I have a friend and colleague named Forrest.

A member of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Whiterocks, Forrest was born and raised on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Reservation in the northeastern part of the state. Thus far into his 39-year career, he has served as the education director for the Ute Indian Tribe, as a tribal planner, and as the ED for the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. The author of several books, Forrest knows what it is to be Native American in Utah.

Now, if you’ve heard anything about the history of the state of Utah, then you probably know that for the last century and a half the state’s dominant cultural context has been heavily shaped and influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormon Church.

It is an accurate assessment to say that Mormon settlers effectively pushed aside the Indigenous peoples who’ve inhabited the land since time immemorial. A tense division between the Indigenous tribes and the Mormon settlers arose soon after their arrival; a division that remains to this day. Few attempts if any have been made by either side towards reconciliation. Tensions between the two groups remain high.

What is Forrest’s take on this shared historical context?

“Sure,” he says, “my people would like to take vengeance; or, at least, they’d like to see God take vengeance on the whiteman who displaced us.

“Or, sure, we’d like to see the whiteman fear us, tremble in his boots,” he adds with a snarky smile on his face, “as we ride by on our horses with our headdresses.

“But,” he asks, “what’s all that gonna do?

“Even more,” he concludes, “my people want restoration. We want harmony. We want to dwell on this beautiful land that we share together—with all our different beliefs and cultures—in peace.”

3

How should we reconcile today’s disparate readings?

For that matter, how should we deal with our own present-day anger when we hear of another mass shooting—done in the name of religion?

Do you want to take vengeance? Or wish that God would? Maybe even just a little?

Do you want to instill fear in the hearts of all the gun-violence sympathizers?

Or is it just me?

But vengeance? Fear?

Jesus says to do to others as I would have them do to me.

How do I reconcile all this?

Well, according to my friend Forrest, I’m not sure that I have to.

Anger and its trajectory are common to humanity. Emotional responses like wanting to take vengeance and wanting to wield power in such a way that it instills fear in others—these are natural responses.

But better still is restoration—equity and justice across our differences—for the sake of the common good.

With Help from Dorothy and Deadpool

Posted in Homilies on May 21, 2022 by timtrue

Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 14:23-39

1

Do you know what is meant by the term breaking the fourth wall?

It’s a dramatic term—used in the world of drama—to refer to an actor who momentarily breaks out of the story itself in order to address the audience.

So, imagine a movie we’ve probably all seen, The Wizard of Oz.  Do you remember that scene where the wicked witch flies over Dorothy and her cohort and writes a message in the sky?

We, the audience, hear the witch coming—a sound something like a whistle.

We then see what Dorothy sees—a small speck up in the left corner of the sky, a speck that we can only guess is the wicked witch—if we squint our eyes really tightly and tax our imaginations.

Next, we hear the witch’s cackling laugh, followed by some foreboding words, something like, “I’ll get you, my pretty; and that little dog of yours too!”

And then we see Dorothy’s terrified facial expression as she clutches Toto ever so tightly.

And, finally, we see the sky again, this time with the wicked witch as a small speck on the right side of the screen; and written across the sky is the message, “Surrender Dorothy!” skywritten magically from the tail of the wicked witch’s broom.

Do you remember this point in the movie?

My father in-law does!

The way he tells it, it was just here, just at this point, just when the wicked witch wrote those words in the sky—little Jeffy was about four years old—

“When I lost it,” he tells us. “That’s when I just knew Dorothy was a goner! Up to that point I’d held it together. But at seeing the words, ‘Surrender Dorothy,’ I just couldn’t take it anymore. I began to cry.”

Poor little Jeffy.

But what if—let’s imagine for a moment—what if, right at this point, right at the height of all this serious, scary drama—what if Dorothy all of a sudden comes to her senses, looks straight into the camera, and says, with a snarky expression on her face, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

Now, she doesn’t do this, we all know—perhaps my father in-law best of all. But if she were to do so, that would be to break the fourth wall. She would come out of her story and into the audience’s.

Get it?

It’s not soliloquy. For in soliloquy the actor never actually leaves his or her story and comes into the audience’s. But neither is it narration, for a narrator is in the audience’s story, always removed from the story being viewed.

Nevertheless, breaking the fourth wall accomplishes what soliloquy and narration accomplish—temporarily taking the audience out of the story of the moment and simultaneously moving it forward—usually to great, and often very humorous, effect.

Like the 2016 movie Deadpool.

I haven’t seen it personally, but I understand Deadpool succeeds marvelously here: the story of a Marvel Comics character, Deadpool, ever aware he is trapped within the medium of a comic book.

Throughout the movie, time and again he stops whatever he’s doing to face the screen and offer the audience some snarky commentary; often producing explosive laughter.

Those who’ve seen the movie are left to wonder if perhaps Deadpool’s frequent success at breaking the fourth wall is in fact his only real superpower.

2

So, anyway, why do I bring this up—what do Dorothy and Deadpool have to do with today’s Gospel?

Because, a lot like Deadpool, St. John the Evangelist frequently breaks the fourth wall.

So, you might know that the Gospel of John was written quite a bit later than the other three Gospels, probably early in the second century CE.

As for the other Gospels:

Mark was written first of all, probably approaching the year 70, around the time when a Roman commander named Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem. We’re able to date it because there are suggestions of the destruction of the Temple in Mark’s Gospel.

Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels maybe a decade later. They offer more echoes of Jerusalem’s fall; and some subsequent echoes.

But none of the synoptic Gospels—nothing in Matthew, Mark, or Luke—suggests that Christians had begun to congregate and be persecuted as a separate religious sect or group.

Yet these echoes abound in John’s Gospel.

Which has led historians to conclude that sometime between the years 80 and 110, Christianity became a separate and distinct religious sect.

So, John—whether on purpose or by accident—often breaks the fourth wall in order to address this separate and distinct religious sect.

That is, according to John, Jesus breaks out of the story being told, the story of his life, in order to give John’s persecuted audience some commentary regarding their specific plight: excommunication, or worse.

And with this in mind, Judas (not Iscariot) asks Jesus a question.

“Lord,” Judas asks, “how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”

If your purpose in reading John’s Gospel is to grasp a historically accurate understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry, then this is a strange question.

Strange because, according to the other three Gospels anyway, there’s no way a disciple would have asked this of Jesus during his life and ministry; for the disciples didn’t even begin to understand Jesus’ identity as God until after his resurrection.

Yet here in John, this obscure disciple somehow knows that Jesus is God and will reveal himself to the disciples as such but not to the world?

Strange.

However, if John is breaking the fourth wall, then the question makes perfect sense; it’s not strange at all.

For John’s second-century audience is being persecuted. They’ve been kicked out of the Jewish religion. They are now a fringe sect at best (or a cult at less than best).

And if the Romans were able to raze the Jewish Temple and disperse the Jews to the four corners of the world, what could they do to this new sect, to these “Christians”?

The new separate and distinct faith, John’s audience, was characterized by fear.

But Jesus breaks the fourth wall in his answer. He comes out of his own context into the context of John’s audience to tell the new faith not to fear:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

3

Fear: How much has changed for the Christian faith between then and now?

Let’s face it. Present-day Christianity is in a tight spot. Quantifiable evidence has tracked incontrovertible decline over the last five decades.

Why is this? Why is the church in decline? If Jesus is the true Savior of the world, then why is his church shrinking?

But it doesn’t stop there.

The Christian voice that remains in today’s culture is thoroughly divided. In our own denomination, debates continue to rage over issues of race and gender as we Episcopalians try to come to grips with Jesus’ message of inclusivity and equity.

Moreover, so many divisions exist within broader Christianity that Jesus himself is often interpreted as a laughingstock.

But it doesn’t stop there either.

For, when Jesus is invoked, it’s often for expediency or utility. He’s the champion of those on the right and those on the left.

I’ve mentioned this anecdote before: while I was in seminary, I heard a classmate declare openly (in November 2012), “I don’t see how anyone claiming to be a Christian can vote Republican”; and on that very same day a family member proclaimed, “I don’t know how a Democrat can claim to be a Christian.”

But it doesn’t even stop there.

For untold amounts of unjust violence have been done historically in Jesus’ name. Why the Crusades? Why the longstanding conflicts between Catholics and Protestants? Why all the warfare in the Middle East? Why the KKK? Why gun violence?

If Jesus is truly the Messiah; if Christ truly is the way to the Father; if Christianity’s main message is love, the first and great commandment, then why aren’t more people seeing it?

These were the fears of the Johannine Community, John’s original audience.

And these are our fears too.

But John breaks the fourth wall today and provides an answer through Jesus:

  • Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
  • But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Jesus broke the fourth wall to say these truths directly to the Johannine community; Jesus breaks the fourth wall today and says these truths to us.

4

When my father in-law was a little boy watching The Wizard of Oz and he lost it—when he began to cry, right when the wicked witch wrote that terrifying message in the sky—imagine what his response would have been if Dorothy had stopped her panic, looked right into the camera, and said, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

One thing’s for sure. Little Jeffy would have been shaken out of his immediate context, out of his fear. Little Jeffy would have been jolted out of the scary drama that was Oz and into a greater reality. Little Jeffy would not have lost it.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe he would’ve laughed out loud.

Today, John has done for us what Dorothy did not. Like Deadpool, today John breaks the fourth wall. And he does it for our benefit.

The world’s a fearful place. It’s full of serious, scary drama, like Oz: drama we can get so caught up in that we fail to see beyond the fourth wall to the greater reality, to the audience, that great cloud of witnesses.

But today, even if for but a moment, John reveals divine truth.

See beyond the fourth wall. Catch a glimpse of the greater reality. And let it rouse you out of your fear, out of your immediate context, out of the scary drama of our world.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe you’ll be able to see it for what it is in the big scheme of things, which isn’t much, and even laugh out loud.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us all; “and do not let them be afraid.”

By This All Will Know

Posted in Homilies on May 21, 2022 by timtrue

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 till the Ascension. So, what does he have to say to us in his final days with us?

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

Well, here’s how the lectionary compilers imagined it. The Gospel today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, tells of the final time Jesus speaks to his disciples collectively before his death.

For the compilers of our lectionary, a group of people that includes leaders from TEC, today’s Gospel is one of Jesus’ most important teachings of all.

He and his disciples are 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 right now. 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: 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: not his mission but 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 have love for one another.”

And thus, it’s a good time for us as a congregation to pause and take inventory.

For we like to think outwardly—we give food away; we contribute when there’s a need, like with the Shivwits Toy Drive or the Ukrainian and Russian students; we show solidarity with the local LGBTQIA+ community.

But, as the Gospel of John reminds us today, all those actions are nothing if we don’t have love for one another.

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, just what does love for one another look like in our specific setting, Grace Episcopal Church?

I have three suggestions.

2

First, focus on the common good.

Many of you within the Grace 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. Present a new idea to the BC. And whether your idea succeeds or fails—that’s not the issue so much as doing something with and for the community resulting in the common good.

But here’s the downside of what can happen when individuals take risks.

You, as an individual, put yourself out there for all to see. It’s exposing. It’s potentially embarrassing. I mean, what if you put your idea out there and people reject it? What if the so-called cradle Episcopalians among us say those dreaded words, “But it’s never been done that way before”?

In other words, you can become so emotionally attached to your idea that you lose sight of how your idea might benefit the common good.

And this shift in focus from the community to self can happen anywhere in the process, not just during the beginning stages, when you take a personal risk and put your idea out there for all to see.

For instance, at a church where I once served as a priest, I arrived to learn that a woman—let’s call her Shelly—was in charge of the church’s music ministry. She picked the hymns each week, she ran an annual series of concerts, and she even kept a separate checking account for the ministry for which she was the sole check signer.

The music committee at this church was begun once upon a time with good intentions, for the common good. A former rector with little musical sense had formed the committee to help him, which in time developed the well-received concert series and was granted authority from the vestry to establish and maintain its own checking account.

Fine and well.

But that was years and years ago. Over time, the music ministry changed. It lost its vision, the organist and choirmaster retired, and people stepped off the committee until only Shelly and a few of her besties remained.

And now it was obvious to me—the church’s new priest in charge—and to most other people (except for Shelly and her besties) that the music program was much more for the benefit of one person, Shelly, than it was for the common good.

And when that happens—whatever the nature of the ministry—it becomes ineffectual.

Shelly actually kept good and talented musicians away from the music ministry because, without knowing it, she’d made herself a gatekeeper. Over time, she’d been handed the authority to make all the decisions regarding music, decisions with which most people disagreed—including the talented musicians in the congregation.

What had begun as a ministry for the benefit of the common good was now a ministry for the benefit of an individual.

By the way, the interim before my arrival warned me about this challenge. He was fully aware of it. But sadly, he had done nothing to address it.

And so, when I got around to addressing it, Shelly and her besties were upset and blamed me and threatened to leave the congregation and take their pledges with them.

And a few of them even made good on their threat.

But that turned out to be fine. For then the music ministry restructured and reorganized and new singers and musicians joined and a new choir formed and the church grew.

Anyway, do you see how this works?

Rather than a source of love for one another, this church’s music ministry had become a source of division. It needed desperately to change—or to die altogether in order to make room for new life, resurrection, to replace it.

If it’s not benefiting the common good, or if it’s benefiting only 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 and not just a few individuals.

3

My second suggestion piggybacks on the first: increase flexibility.

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

For Grace to benefit from this alive-ness, flexibility is essential. And I’m not talking just a general tolerance for one another, but deep, out-of-your-comfort-zone flexibility, for the benefit of the common good.

So, 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?

Hospitality, we answer.

But I think churches often confuse hospitality with a kind of general tolerance. They’re not the same thing.

A general tolerance puts up with her like we might put up with distant relatives when they come to our home for a visit. We’re polite enough, we make pleasant conversation and offer them a nice plate of edibles.

But, still, they’re in our house and will therefore abide by our household rules; or we’ll find a way to show them the door, bless they’re heart.

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

But, in a church that lives out Christ’s love for one another, it just can’t 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 true hospitality: that we learn and grow from her, truly to listen to what she has to say; and thereby, with her, we too experience ongoing, living transformation.

Flexibility is key.

Enough said?

4

So, my third suggestion: establish and maintain authenticity.

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

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. In fact, four of my kids arguably are Millennials—three for sure; with one straddling the fence between Millennials and Gen Z—and we’ve had many a conversation along these lines. You’ve probably had these conversations too.

And, you know, it’s not that Millennials are spiritually uninterested or indifferent. Actually, from what I’ve seen, it’s quite the opposite. Cultural-trend watchers agree.

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 Tremaine, a Millennial author and Christian thinker, explains it like this.[i]

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, 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—including, I believe, ours.

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 normally 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. And only then, once our works have coalesced into community—only then should we sit in our armchairs and work out our common beliefs.

That’s what an authentic body of Christ looks like to Millennials. And, by the way, that’s what the first body of Christ, the first community of disciples, looked like.

Yet, for most of us—me included—it’s a different and challenging way of seeing things. It might make some of us—most of us—uncomfortable.

But we’ve got to be willing to try.

Such authenticity comes out of an uncomfortable flexibility for the sake of the common good.

New wine needs new wineskins.

So . . . Jesus loved his first disciples for the sake of the common good, with an uncomfortable flexibility, and by means of a profound authenticity. And this simple and clear message remains the same for us, his disciples today.

By this all will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another.


[i]   Mr. Tremaine offered this model in a workshop in which I participated for the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego’s 2018 Diocesan Convention.

Not from our Armchairs

Posted in Homilies on May 21, 2022 by timtrue

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10:22-30

1

What picture comes to mind when you hear the word “armchair”?

What activities do you associate with armchairs?

Drinking coffee? Kicking up your feet on a coffee table? Engaging in friendly conversation? Sitting in a casual environment—as opposed to professional? Reading books?

Armchairs offer us a kind of comfortable, safe space, right?

In seminary, on occasion we students would break into small groups for discussion. That is, our professor would pose a question and, for a period of time, something like half an hour, the class would divide itself into groups of five or six and retreat into breakout rooms to discuss the question.

Several breakout rooms were available to us, most set up in conference-room style, you know, with a table and several chairs around it.

One breakout room, however, was different. It contained a loveseat and three or four armchairs centered around a coffee table.

Well, guess which breakout room we students all scrambled for?

It didn’t matter that the class’s average age was 46. Whenever it was small-group time, we fought like kids for the comfy-chair room.

So, the armchairs that we love to sit and sip our lattes in today have a curious ancestry.

The chair I sit in while I preside over our liturgy—that chair (pointing)—is also an armchair.

Its purpose is not to provide a comfy seat in a safe space for relaxed conversation but to address an assembly. It is a chair for teaching.

Synagogues in the ancient world worked this way. When Jesus visited his hometown in Luke 4, he read from a scroll, rolled it up, put it away, then sat down to teach—from a chair—while all the listeners remained standing.

Royalty worked the same way. The writings and illustrations of the ancient world, from East and West, depict kings making pronouncements from their thrones, seated.

Even in the Roman Catholic Church today, whenever the Pope issues a papal decree, it is said to come ex cathedra, or from the chair.

And it’s not just the religious world. Judges in our judicial system today—including the Supreme Court—make their pronouncements from chairs too.

We like to sit around in our comfy armchairs and sip coffee and engage in relaxed conversation. But when we take a step back and look at the bigger picture—when we consider armchairs of yore, their purpose, and the imagery that comes from them—well, we shouldn’t all presume to be teachers, should we? Or kings? Or judges?

When we sit around in our armchairs, well, we’ve leveled the playing field—a good thing. But I cannot help but wonder: Have we forgotten how to listen to each other?

2

In today’s Gospel, St. John the Evangelist offers us deep irony. For some men who fashioned themselves as teachers in Jesus’ day—who sat around in armchairs—have forgotten how to listen.

The historical context is Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration of lights.

A couple centuries prior, a Hellenistic political leader named Antiochus IV took over the Jewish Temple and decimated it by sacrificing pigs on the altar. Then the Temple was returned to the Jews; so they rededicated it.

The Sabbath was approaching and the Temple lamps had to be lit. But, because of Antiochus’ abomination, hardly any clean oil could be found, certainly less than enough to last one day; and the process to make new, kosher oil would take eight days.

In faith, the Temple priests went ahead and lit the lamps, praying and hoping for the best. And, lo and behold, the lamps burned through the Sabbath; and burned continuously through the following Sabbath, through the eight days needed to make new oil.

God miraculously provided for the rededicated Temple, hence the term we hear today, “the Festival of the Dedication”; a. k. a. Hanukkah. The miracle of the lamps is the focal point of the celebration. The menorah—that Jewish candelabrum with eight holders—represents the eight days.

So, today Jesus is walking in the Temple during the time of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light; when his questioners—armchair teachers—refuse collectively to acknowledge that here before them stands the very Light of the world.

“Tell us plainly,” they demand; “are you the Messiah?”

He’s the Light of the world. They’re celebrating light. How much more plainly do they need to be told?

For St. John the Evangelist, who utilizes the metaphor of light and darkness throughout his Gospel, this is deep irony.

Jesus does answer their question plainly; he just doesn’t use words. But since this is not the way they’re used to doing things, these teachers don’t hear what he is saying. They’ve forgotten how to listen.

3

So, words are limiting. I mean, how do you explain the unexplainable?

For example, ever see a sunset?

You quietly sit there atop a summit watching the sun sink towards the western horizon, say, the Pacific Ocean.

It’s a partly cloudy day: billowy, cottony cumulus clouds float lazily across the sky. The colors are spectacular. And the reflection on the water, the rays of sunlight—

You take out your camera, thinking, “I’ve just got to capture this moment to share with my friends on social media.” But one shutter snap later and a glance at your smart phone screen and you think, “Anemic. Pathetic.”

And you put your phone away deciding that the best use of your time is simply to sit back and take it all in. Be present.

Still, how will you describe this to your friends later? How can you? Mere words only go so far.

And that’s just a sunset. How do you explain God—so much more than a sunset—to your friends? How can you explain the unexplainable, the ineffable?

So, the Bible describes God as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, King, Creator, Redeemer, Savior, Messiah, Friend, Shepherd, Vinedresser, Vine, Wind, Fire, Mother Hen, Light . . . and that’s just beginning to scratch the surface.

Each of these descriptors is a metaphor. God is not really, truly wind. But God is like the wind; God is in the wind. So God is called wind.

But these teachers who approach Jesus—not to mention the historical church—are not content to leave it there, in wonderful, mysterious, ambiguous metaphor.

No, they’re teachers. Their job, they feel, is to make things clear: plain and simple, black and white, easy to understand. Metaphor only confuses. They need to speak plainly.

And so they get their armchairs out and sit around and study the Bible, God’s word; and over time they make their own set of rules and regulations, ex cathedrafrom the biggest armchair—to guard their interpretation of divine metaphor.

God is three persons and one substance, the church proclaims ex cathedra. And if anyone doesn’t believe/agree, then they cannot be a part of the church/club.

Now, present day, good churchgoers that we are, we like to sit around in our armchairs and study our Bibles too. We seek to understand God, the ineffable—or, at least, to understand the church’s interpretation of God.

And so we ask questions like:

  • What does God want for us?
  • What does the Bible teach us about evangelism?
  • What does God’s word say about managing our debts?
  • How do I make a difference in my community?
  • What should my faith look like in the workplace?

Don’t get me wrong, these are great questions to consider. But the effect of our armchair studies—us all putting ourselves in the seats of teachers and judges—is often stultifying: in our attempts to understand God more plainly, we lose our appreciation for and understanding of wonderful, mysterious, ambiguous metaphor.

Fashioning ourselves as teachers, we think we know better; we tell the world what they need; and, worst of all, we’ve forgotten how to listen.

4

The late Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello tells a modern-day parable called “The Explorer”:

The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forests; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids?

He said, “Go and find out for yourselves.” To guide them he drew a map of the river. They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their town hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?

De Mello then offers this moral:

It is said that Buddha obdurately refused to be drawn into talking about God.

He was probably familiar with the dangers of drawing maps for armchair explorers.

Do we think ourselves experts on God because we study our maps, our Bibles? Do we pride ourselves on reading this author or listening to that radio program or following some preacher or other?

I wonder if we are experiencing a similarly deep irony today. I wonder if we, the church, have become armchair explorers.

5

Bible study has its place, sure. We seek to understand God because we strive to conform to Christ, the perfect image of God.

And, yes, probably the best place to study and discuss God is from our armchairs.

But when our goal is to be right, to better someone else through our knowledge of the Bible, well, that really benefits no one but ourselves; and what kind of benefit is ego-stroking anyway?

Moreover, it’s not our calling to sit around in our comfy safe spaces drinking designer coffee as we discuss how better to explain Christ to the world around us, or how to make others get in line with our Savior’s program.

And, anyway, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the world around us really isn’t all that interested in what we have to say from our armchairs.

But when we go out into the neighborhood doing what Christ calls us to do—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the captives, overturning tables of domination, bringing about equality to all—sharing the good news regardless of how well or poorly we can explain it—well, that’s when we actually speak the good news plainly.

Not from our armchairs, but in wonderful, mysterious, ambiguous metaphor.

Fishing Naked

Posted in Homilies on May 2, 2022 by timtrue

Third Sunday of Easter

John 21:1-19

1

During times of extreme change, we humans seek the familiar, don’t we?

Throughout my life, I’ve often returned in my mind to an early childhood memory as a source of comfort and familiarity.

So, my boyhood home in southern California included an avocado orchard. The coldest winter nights dipped into the upper 30s and a warm summer day topped out at 85.

By the time I was 8 years old, when this memory takes place, my dad had made a number of improvements to our property—a chicken coop, a swimming pool with a rope swing, a sprawling lawn—and now it was time to settle in and enjoy ourselves—that is, when we weren’t sweeping the driveways or mowing the lawns or vacuuming the pool or collecting eggs or harvesting avocados or doing any number of other chores around the place.

Anyway, on a late spring day, when the feel of the air against my skin was that perfect balance of heat from the sun’s rays and the coolness of a gentle western breeze, the smell of avocado blossoms in the air, I lay on my back outside on the sprawling lawn, hands cupped behind my head, gazing at the sun’s light dancing between the fresh green leaves overhead.

And a thought occurred to me:

Right now, I feel perfectly content. I just need to take it all in. This is where I want to be forever. This is where I want to grow old. And when I’m older, I want to buy this house from your mom and dad and get married here and have kids here and, one day, grandkids and great grandkids too.

And that was it, my memory, a moment of perfect contentment I never wanted to end. It was my personal Garden of Even, a slice of heaven I’d temporarily tasted on earth.

But then, a few years later, as most of you have heard me mention before, my mom and dad separated. And you can imagine the challenge this posed for a boy just about to turn thirteen. Seemingly all that I’d known was suddenly thrown into chaos, changed for the worse, against my will.

When I was sixteen we moved away from that boyhood home, my personal Garden of Eden forever taken from me.

And, regardless of however many times I might return to it in my memories—to that day of perfectly contented happiness—there was nothing I could do to go back to the way things were.

Change—really radical change—confronted my adolescence. Radical because there was nothing I could do to go back to the way things had once been, back to that familiar place in childhood memory.

So, you know what I did instead?

I found solace in what I knew, in connections to childhood that were familiar—piano, relationships with friends, soccer, skiing, guacamole. In fact, for a while I learned to live for those things—the familiar—and tune everything else out. It was a coping mechanism for teenage me.

Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar along your life’s journey.

2

So, there’s probably a perfectly good scientific explanation for this—that we humans, especially in times of crisis, seek the familiar—something about the fittest of our evolutionary predecessors surviving by retreating into familiar camouflage or something.

But that’s not my field of expertise; I’ll leave that question to the biologists in the room.

But something common to humanity, a human trait, human nature? That’s got me thinking of Adam and Eve.

“In the beginning,” the Bible begins, and by the end of the first chapter we find the first man and the first woman enjoying the highest quality of life possible in a garden, the Garden of Eden.

God looked upon them in their highest-quality-of-life state and said tov-tov, which is the Hebrew way of forming a superlative: you repeat the adjective. A literal English translation is good-good; but it doesn’t work too well to say, “And God looked upon all that he had made and, behold, it was good-good,” so instead we say “very good.” We could just as well say that the Garden of Eden was the best.

Eden: heaven on earth. Though many gardens should follow, nothing would ever reach Eden in its perfection—that is, until all things will be once again set to rights in the far-distant future, when all things shall be once again reconciled to God. In this we hope.

But my point for the moment is that the Garden of Eden was Adam and Eve’s comfort zone. And we all know what happened. They disobeyed God and were banished from the Garden forever. Death entered the scene.

Change—really radical change—confronted them. Now they couldn’t go back to that slice of heaven they’d tasted.

Still, they returned to what they knew as much as they could. They cultivated plants and husbanded animals—but now by the sweat of their brow. And they raised another child, a boy named Seth.

By the way, the name Seth translates into English as “a man, the Lord.” Through this child they hoped to experience a taste of heaven once more.

3

Well, so, retreating to a comfortable setting, seeking the familiar—isn’t this also what we see happening with Peter in today’s Gospel?

For the past few years, Peter had tasted a slice of heaven on earth.

Jesus, this curious and interesting teacher, had called Peter into his ring of disciples.

Not only were Jesus’ teachings spot on, but also his actions backed up what he said.

Jesus healed lepers and the blind, he miraculously fed 5,000 hungry people, and he defied oppressive authorities through nonviolent protests.

Peter had witnessed it all.

But now?

Over the past few weeks, Peter saw Jesus make his move but was then betrayed by one of his own disciples, then arrested, beaten, tried, found guilty, and executed.

Even with the resurrected Jesus having appeared to him and the other disciples twice now, this change was just too great, too chaotic, too radical for Peter.

Now he couldn’t go back to that slice of heaven he’d tasted, to the way things had been with Jesus.

For, like my adolescence and the story of Adam and Eve, that life Peter once knew had been radically changed.

So, John narrates, he sought the familiar. “I’m going fishing,” Peter said. “Who’s with me?”

4

But there’s a major difference between John’s story of Peter and the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis.

And it’s not in the struggle, for the struggle is similar.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve and all humanity are exiled from the Garden, heaven on earth; and by the end of the book God’s people are hopefully trying to return to this slice of heaven.

Similarly, in John—which begins with the exact wording of Genesis, “In the beginning”—by the end of the Gospel, God’s people are hopefully walking toward heaven, with Peter as their reinstated leader.

There’s a strong parallel between Genesis and John in the struggles.

As for the major difference, it comes out of one of these similarities. Namely, John includes a curious detail also found in Genesis when he says that Peter “put on some clothes, for he was naked.”

Okay, okay. Giggle like a middle schooler if you must. But I’m serious!

To clarify, whenever I sit down to craft a sermon, the first thing I do is read the text through with a lectio divina approach.

That is, I read it through with an open mind, approaching the story as if I am hearing it for the first time, with the contextual ears, as much as possible, of John’s first audience.

And in this frame of mind, I listen for a phrase to jump out, a phrase to sit with and contemplate for a time.

Then I repeat this process a few times before ever opening up commentaries, study tools, or even my old sermons.

Well, guess which phrase jumped out at me this week. Every time I read it!

“He put on his clothes, for he was naked.”

And after I got over the initial bout of giggling like a middle schooler, and after I tried to listen with the ears of a first hearer of this Gospel, it occurred to me that here—yes, really, here—is the hinge on which the entire Easter story turns.

For Easter is about resurrection, new life. Easter is about love overcoming fear, hope overcoming despair, light overcoming darkness, and life overcoming death once and for all, fully and finally.

And back in Genesis, after Adam and Eve realize that they are naked and put on clothing, that never happens: death is still winning.

Don’t get me wrong, Genesis ends hopefully with Israel and all his children and grandchildren reunited and rescued from famine. But at Genesis’s end, hope has not yet overcome despair.

Later, after Israel’s descendants enter the so-called Promised Land, even at the end of the Pentateuch (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses still dies, enemies still surround God’s people, and sin still has the upper hand. Hope still has not fully overcome despair.

Back in Genesis, when Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened and they realized that they were naked, they were ashamed. They put on clothing to hide themselves from God.

On the other hand, here in the epilogue to John’s Gospel, Peter sees God, realizes he is naked, and, just like Adam and Eve, puts on his clothing too;

But—key difference here—unlike Adam and Eve, Peter does not hide from God.

Instead, Peter swims straight into fellowship with God around a charcoal fire and a common meal.

Do you see it, the difference?

In the beginning, after God looked upon creation and proclaimed it the best, Adam and Eve realized their nakedness and turned away from God to their own way. Genesis tells the story of humanity’s creation and fall.

But today in the Gospel of John, which also harks back to the beginning, when God proclaimed Eden the best—today, Peter, realizing his shame, turns back to God. John tells the story of humanity’s creation and redemption.

And only then, with death finally and fully forever vanquished, Jesus recommissions Peter to carry on his message and mission of good news to the ends of the earth through the organization we call the church.

5.  We stand exposed, naked before our creator. We are broken people, a broken church, seeking comfort from what we know.

Nevertheless, we need not be ashamed. For God knows what we are and beckons us to help him anyway.

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus says. “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”

This is the hinge of the Easter story.

Finally and fully, the door to humanity’s redemption stands forever open.

And we get to lead humanity through it!