Archive for November, 2014

Loving Like Sheep

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on November 23, 2014 by timtrue

sheep goat

Matthew 25:31-46

Every Sunday we say the Creed together. This statement of belief is our common bond; these are the words of the faith we share.

And every week, at the end of the middle section of the Creed, that section about Jesus, we say these words: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

We believe this, these words of the Christian faith.  Jesus will come again to judge.

But what will this coming again, this judgment, look like?

Our culture’s imagination has been captivated by this question.

A generation ago popular Christian imagination produced the film A Thief in the Night in which the main character, Patty Dunning, awakens one morning to find that her husband, along with millions of other people, has vanished during the night seemingly without a trace.  Where did they all go?  How did it happen?

More recently the very popular book series Left Behind has hit the bestselling Christian scene, just released in fact as a major(ly bad) motion picture starring Nicolas Cage.

Apocalypse scenarios are everywhere in pop culture too—scenarios not so Christian in focus but nevertheless addressing questions about the end of the world as we know it: movies like Mad Max and Knowing; TV shows like The Walking Dead; radio broadcasts, books, comics, video games, music; even attempts more literary in nature, works like C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

What’s gonna happen to us?

Today’s Gospel passage gives us a picture of this final judgment too.

And it looks a lot like some of these apocalyptic scenarios.  Sheep and goats walking together approach a Great Shepherd.  When they stand before this Great Shepherd, he separates them: the sheep are directed to his right; the goats to his left.  And on his right—where the sheep go—is paradise and everlasting bliss.  But on his left—where the goats end up—is endless, eternal punishment.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a goat!  I don’t want to be left behind.  If some kind of thief in the night comes and take souls off to everlasting paradise, then that’s where I want to be!  How do I sign up?

Here’s what I mean.  I read today’s passage about sheep and goats coming forward to be separated by the Great Shepherd, and of course I want to identify with the sheep.

This identification is only natural, I should think.  The sheep are the ones who pass on to the Great Shepherd’s right-hand side, the ones who are told, “Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, and enter the great inheritance he has promised you.”

Of course these words are directed at me, right?  I’ve been baptized.  I prayed to receive Christ on April 1st, 1985.  I attend church faithfully.  I pledge.  I serve.  Of course I’m a Christian!  Of course I’m saved!  Of course I’m one of the sheep, not one of the goats!

But then I get to the difficult part of the passage; that part where the Great Shepherd addresses the goats—who act surprised by being excluded.

They ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you naked, hungry, sick, or in prison and not help you?”

The implication here is that they did in fact help others.  And so the goats actually express surprise at being directed to the Great Shepherd’s left-hand side—as if they didn’t really know they were goats in the first place!

Then the Great Shepherd answers them: “Whenever you saw the least of my people naked, hungry, sick, or in prison and did not help, well, then you did not help me.”

And I think of all the many times I have failed to help a needy soul.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there are times I’ve seen someone cold and given her blankets, or hungry and given him food; there are times I’ve visited the sick or someone in prison.  Sure!  And I’d like to think that whenever I did these things I was doing it for the less fortunate in Christ.  And in this sense, if I’m a sheep, it’s all fine and well; because I’m actually doing it for Christ himself.

But what about all those times I’ve passed someone by?  What about that time I walked right on by that homeless woman who asked me for a handout in front of Walmart?  Or what about that time—to bring it closer to home—when my son was in bed with a fever and I grumpily refused to bring him a cup of water?

Well, according to this passage, I can’t really be sure if I’m a sheep or a goat.  If I am a sheep, fine.  All those times I didn’t do something for someone are forgiven, erased.  But what if it’s the other way around?  What if I’ve been deceiving myself?  Then, if I’m a goat, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done for needy people.  Instead, it’s all about whatever I’ve neglected to do.  Whatever I did not do for anyone, even the least person in Christ, I did not do for the Great Shepherd.

And so I think, I want to be a sheep, not a goat!  How can I make sure I end up a sheep and not a goat?

I want assurance of my salvation.

Okay, stop! Whoa!  Back up!

Like with the apocalyptic scenarios at the beginning of this sermon, my imagination is running away with me.  I’ve asked the wrong question; and I’ve followed it down a lengthy trail into a place that doesn’t even exist—into a pretend den of apocalyptic zombie-rabbits.

For the last few minutes, wrestling over assurance of my own salvation, I’ve actually been looking at the second coming from the perspective of works.  I’ve been thinking that salvation from the Great Shepherd’s judgment is all about what I do or don’t do.  I’ve been looking at this as if my works are going to save me.

But this idea—that works save—is not the message of the Bible.  Salvation is not about works; it’s about grace.

So let’s back up.

The question to ask is not, “What if I’m a goat?” or even, “How do I become a sheep?”  That’s not Jesus’s point.  No one who hears this story wants to be a goat; and everyone’s already identifying with the sheep anyway.  Rather, then, let’s look at how the Great Shepherd interacts with the sheep.

“Come, you that are blessed,” he says, “and enter into this place of eternal paradise.  For you clothed, fed, tended, and visited me when I was naked, hungry, sick, and in prison.”

And do you remember the sheep’s response?  “When did we do this?” they ask.  It’s as if they say, “What?  We did?”

They’re surprised!

And the Great Shepherd answers, “Of course you did!  You did it whenever you helped the least of persons.  Whenever you help the least, you help me.”

So they’re saved at the last day.  But they’re saved not because of anything they’ve done.  Nevertheless, a kind of subconscious mindset governs their actions: they do good acts, but they do them without even being aware of it.

This is the point: salvation is nothing we achieve; but comes when we least expect it.

It seems that the best questions to ask ourselves, then, are, “What is this subconscious mindset?” and, “How do I acquire it?”

As to what it is, that seems fairly obvious to me.  There are two great commandments Jesus teaches us: love the Lord your God; and love your neighbor.  Clothing, feeding, tending, visiting—aren’t these just various expressions of godly love for a neighbor, for another human being created in God’s own image?

But the answer to the second question is not so obvious: How do we acquire a mindset of service—a mindset that clothes, feeds, tends, and visits?

It starts with those closest to us, right?  We see our own family members—our own brothers and sisters, our mom and dad, our children, our spouses—everyday.  Day in and day out!  And, yes, to live in close proximity with each other we have to look out for each other.  But we tend to take those we’re closest to for granted.

We all do this.  We put on a public persona at work or school where we’re kind to others, we put others’ needs before our own, we consciously try to live out Christ’s teachings; but when we get home, we change our public personas for private ones, like changing clothes.  And these private personas are different.  It’s easier to let our guards down in front of family.  They know us.  They know our weaknesses.  And they love us anyway.  So we take them for granted.

Perhaps this is what Jesus means by least.  Whatever you do for the least of these—whatever you do for your very family members—you do for me.

So, a challenge for this week: look for ways to serve your own family members.  And it doesn’t have to be big.  Take out the trash for your brother.  Do the dishes for your sister.  Cook your wife a hot breakfast.  Do something to show family members you love them.

But don’t stop with just this week.  Do it next week too.  And the week after that; and the week after that; and so on, and so on; until it becomes so second-nature that you barely even realize you’re doing it anymore—until it becomes a habit.

This is the picture that the sheep paint for us in today’s Gospel.  And in practicing such habitual love, our own salvation will come from nothing we achieve; but when we least expect it.

Quiet Ain’t Dishonest

Posted in Background with tags , , , , , , on November 18, 2014 by timtrue

police

Another post spurred on by my childhood friendships rekindled on Facebook; this one having to do with a certain corner.

The setting: I grew up in an unincorporated part of Ventura County, California, just outside the city limits of Camarillo.  It was unincorporated, but not undeveloped.  Fifty or so houses lined this three-quarter-mile street and its accompanying private drives, appearing on the county map like an artery with so many smaller veins, the private drives, shooting off in whatever direction, following contours predetermined by the terrain.  Hills and barrancas running every which way, not to mention avocado trees and chickens.

We all seemed to have avocado trees and chickens, though not really.  But the fences were barely kept up—no need to keep them tidy—so our chickens and our neighbors’ ran all over the neighborhood so that it seemed like everyone had a few or several.  (The neighbors weren’t running all over the neighborhood, mind you.  I’m talking only about the chickens: the some chickens that belonged to us and the other chickens that belonged to our neighbors.  Do you see how important apostrophes are?)

But the chicken coops were kept tidy!  For there were coyotes and the occasional bobcat—another story for another day!

Add to all this that along this street, Alosta Drive, were thirty or so kids within a three- or four-year age range.  Yeah, Asphodel for the grown-ups but Elysium for us!  We still refer to ourselves as the Alosta Mafia.

So, I lived near the top of the street.  Usually people would say “end of the street,” and so it was, for the street ended just a hundred yards or so above the property where I grew up.  But remember those hills and barrancas?  The street weaved its way up the side of a sizable hill, rising 400 or so feet in elevation along its three-quarter-mile length.  Getting the picture?

Now, if we kids were to take Big Wheels—which we did—frequently—or Red Flyer wagons, modified with go-cart wheels and raised axles to lower their centers of gravity—which we also did—frequently—if we were to take these engineless vehicles to the top/end of the street, it was a full quarter-mile down (a precariously steep) hill to the first leveling-off place.  And, yep, that first leveling-off place was at the corner we’ve all been reminiscing over on Facebook.

It was a ninety-degree left turn; and the leveling-off place coincided with the corner, meaning it was a steep descent from the top all the way up to the corner.  Crazy steep!  Like 200 of that 400 feet of elevation!  And to make matters worse, some telephone company engineer had once upon a time decided to plant a telephone pole right at the end of the curve.  Something like this:

Corner

By the way, I don’t know whose idea it was to plant the ice plant there once upon a time, but it was brilliant!

Back then it was no seat belts or helmets either!

Well, you can imagine the stories!  Flying down the hill as fast as (or faster than) a car, we’d lean into the corner and hope for the best.

“Do any of y’all remember that time Mike did a face plant?” one of my reminiscing friends asked.

“Yeah,” another answered, “I was there.  His face was a bloody and the skin around his lip peeled away.”

This was a fool’s hope, now that I look back; for in the event that the sand or gravel didn’t send you into a tailspin, there was a chance that a car just might be coming uphill as you were on your way down.

I vividly remember someone once exclaiming, “Dude, you almost got run over by your mom!”

In any event, most of the stories we remember today aren’t of us making it safely around the corner.  That happened more often than not, don’t get me wrong; but that’s apparently not the stuff of memories.  Rather, it’s the face plants we remember, the near collisions, the toppling headlong into and beyond the ice plant, and the stains the ice plant made in our clothes!

Good times!

But the memory I want to share of this corner is a little different.

By now we were a little older.  It was probably late in the spring of 1982, though I could be off by a year.  I remember school was almost out; it was one of those Friday or Saturday nights where some of the guys wanted to forget our studies for a while and just goof off.  So we rallied, five or six of us anyway, and met in Chris’s driveway for a game of ditch ‘em.

The object of ditch ‘em was simple.  It was dark; we’d see the glare from a car’s headlights approaching; and it was everyone for himself (or herself) into the bushes, gutters, trees, chicken coops, whatever, so long as the driver of the car didn’t see us.

Sounds kind of lame now, sure.  But we came up with it on a night when we had sneaked out of our respective houses; and so if we were to get caught it would get back to our parents and who knows what kind of trouble we’d be in!

But not tonight.  None of us had sneaked out.  We were just hanging out at Chris’s entirely under the auspices of our parents’ permission.

So ditch ‘em was in fact kind of lame.  Or boring at least.

“I’m bored,” my brother Andy complained.  “Why don’t we do something else?”

“Like a variation on a theme?” I asked, having recently begun working on Mozart’s Ah, Vous Dirai-je Maman.

“Huh?” everyone else asked.

So we started playing with the drivers’ minds.  Instead of running for cover, which held no risk and therefore seemed pointless, whenever the glare appeared one of us would stand on one side of the road and another on the other and we’d lift in tandem a pretend cable (or rope or whatever the driver wanted to imagine), or even string a real roll of toilet paper across the road at windshield height, to see if we could get the driver to slam on the brakes and stop the car.  Whenever we succeeded it was all laughter and high fives then drop the pretend rope or real roll of t. p. and run like mad for cover before the driver could get out of his (or her) car and wring our necks (unless it was your mom, who’d wring your neck later).

Anyway, in this way on this particular night we ended up at the corner.

Five or six cars into it I caught myself getting bored with this new game, this variation on a theme; which meant for me it was time to pull the M80 out of my pocket I’d been saving for just such an occasion.

“Hey Matt,” I whispered to the person closest to me—in proximity I mean, not in loyalty, “check this out.”

“Whoa!  What is it?”

I’d bought the thing on my last trip to Grandpa’s beach house in Baja, some miles south of Ensenada.  My family would go to Grandpa’s beach house a few times each year.  On a recent visit my brother and I had discovered how much fun fireworks could be and how easy it was to smuggle a few home to unincorporated Ventura County in our luggage.

I was always pretty good at math, and someone told me an M500 was a half a stick of dynamite.  They were also like ten bucks each.  The power alone frightened me; but so did the price.  But an easy calculation told me that an M80 was like a twelfth a stick of dynamite.  Technically, it was an M83.333…, but that’s too much of a mouthful, surely—or so was my theory.  Anyway, an M80 (or 83.333…) was a heck of a lot more powerful than a piddley firecracker or bottle rocket.  And they were only fifty cents each (“or eleven for five dollars, my American friend”)!  So I bought eleven and set five off later that day on the beach and traded four more to a guy for a live lobster.

I broke down and bought a few bottle rockets too, because they flew, which was cool.  But I left the firecracker purchases for my brother.

“Firecrackers are lame,” I said.

“But you can get a whole brick for five bucks,” he answered.  Which was true.

Anyway that left me with two M80s for the trip home, one of which was confiscated at the border because I flinched when the agent asked if I was bringing any fireworks home.  “You know these are illegal in California, son?” he’d asked.

So now I had my one, prized M80, tucked away in my pocket earlier that night for just such an occasion as this, here, bored with our variation on ditch ‘em at the corner.

Now, recovered from my boredom and quivering with excitement over my plan to scare the heebie-jeebies out of my friends, except for Matt who was in on my secret, when it was dark as dark and quiet as quiet, I stealthily lit the M80’s fuse and threw it out into the street, right in the middle of the corner.

And I waited, suppressing giggles as much as possible.

Matt giggled too.

“Shut up, doofus,” I said.

“You shut up!”

We both giggled again, louder this time.

“What?” Andy’s voice came from behind.

“Oh, nothing.”

The fuse was lit.  Only a matter of seconds now!

But the wick was barely smoldering.

Whahuh?  Had I waited too long, I wondered?  Had keeping the firework in my pocket somehow damaged the fuse?  Argh!

I continued to watch and wait, jabbing Matt in the side and pointing out my demise, the quivering and giggling having ceased now, Matt and I watching silently as the firework’s wick glowed more and more dimly, until at last we could see no glow at all.

A dud, I concluded.  My plan had failed.

“Ha,” Matt remarked, jabbing me now and pointing, “bummer for you.”  And he went off to join Andy and Chris and the others.

Then, just as I was about to walk out into the middle of the street and retrieve my prized yet failed twelfth a stick of dynamite in the hopes of some semblance of recompense, humbled, staring at the ground, shuffling my feet—I’d already stood and taken the first steps—the unthinkable happened.

No, I know what you’re thinking; but the M80 did not explode.  Not yet anyway.  Rather, the telltale glare of headlights showed in the distance.  And for some reason—maybe the others were bored by now with the pretend cable game too, or maybe we were out of toilet paper, I don’t know—Chris yelled, “Ditch ‘em,” and we all ran pell-mell in several different directions.

I headed to the uphill side of the road, still anxious to fetch my prized yet failed firework, but after the car was to have passed, wanting to keep an eye on things, hopped over a droopy fence, and sat poised.  And, then—it’s like slow motion as I replay it in my mind’s eye—just as the car we’d all just ditched reached the corner, I saw my twelfth-a-stick-of-dynamite-failed-yet-prized firework suddenly spring back to life.  That fuse wasn’t just a smoldering glow now either, but a full flame!

“Matt!” I shouted.

And—not even a shred of lie here!—not even an ounce of exaggeration!—I swear it on the Alosta Mafia’s highest levels of honor and valor!—just as the car was fully straddled—I mean, the firework was dead center under it!—

KABLAM!

And all at once a collective shout of fright erupted from the Mafia (and maybe from the driver too, I don’t know)!—except from me and Matt.

Then, crickets—except for the idle of the car’s motor and the muted sound of muffled music from inside.

The car had stopped!

And the driver got out.

And he systematically walked around the car.

And he kicked all four tires.

And he shrugged his shoulders and got in and drove off.

And that was that!

But once he was out of earshot—oh, what rapture!—I and all my friends laughed out loud until our bellies ached.

And we were still laughing a half hour later, in fact,

when the cop showed up.

“Hey,” he shouted, “anyone here named Matt?”

And he stepped out of his patrol car.

Five of us rolled out of our various respective hiding spots and walked subconsciously towards this new voice of fearsome, badge-wielding authority; a voice which then said something about someone who’d called the station complaining of some teenagers near that corner up on Alosta Drive throwing lighted objects, thought one might be named Matt.

“Nope,” Chris said, which was true enough, for Matt had gone home shortly after the explosion; thought his dad (a fireman) might start asking questions and wanted an alibi.  (“Nah, I was home by then, Dad.  Don’t you remember?”)

“Yeah,” I offered; and added without thinking, “he went home already.”

And again, crickets.

Then it began to roll over me, like when one of us would roll out of a wagon onto, over, and across the blessed, saving ice plant!  What had I just said?  What had I just done?  The gig was up now for sure!  And by the betrayed looks of my former friends, I’d have some answering to do later.

“Well,” the cop said, “I appreciate your honesty, um—what’s your name?”

“Tim.”

“Yes, Tim, I appreciate your honesty.  You do realize, son, that fireworks are illegal in California?”

I flinched.

“Yes, uh, sir,” I managed, finally.

The cop addressed my cronies.  “You dweebs go wait over there,” he pointed.  “I want to talk to Tim alone.”

“Yessir!” they said collectively and, I thought, all too willingly.  And, swoosh, they were out of earshot.  Or at least I hoped they were.

Just to be sure, though, I spoke quietly.  And I told the whole story.  Including that part about smuggling the illegal firework from Mexico.  Including that part about the tattered fuse.  Including that part about me thinking it was a dud.  Including that part when I shouted Matt’s name, which is probably where the person who called the station had heard it, I said.  And even including that part about the driver getting out, kicking his tires, shrugging his shoulders, and driving off.

“And,” I continued, “I know I shouldn’t have—  Wait.  Officer, sir, are you laughing?”

“Um, son,” he cleared his throat.  Then, some moments later, after he’d turned his face from me so I couldn’t tell whether he was smiling or scowling or what, he continued.  “Never mind.  I appreciate your honesty though, son.  Don’t ever lose that.  And you just tell Matt, next time you see him, that fireworks are illegal in California.  Got it?  That’s all.”

I stared up for a few seconds in disbelief.  That was all?  Really?  I was nonplussed.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “Aren’t you gonna bust me?”

He leaned over and cupped his hand around his mouth and whispered—so there was no chance of them overhearing—“No, Tim, I ain’t gonna bust you.  Your friends will do enough of that, I’m sure.  But keep it quiet after I leave and they might keep it to a minimum.  After all, quiet ain’t dishonest.”

He then stood up straight, turned, walked to his car, called on his radio (loudly enough for anyone in earshot to hear, mind you)—“nothing to be concerned about, just some kids being stupid”—got in, sat down, turned off the flashing lights, turned the car around, and drove slowly away, out of Chris’s driveway, around that memorable corner, and out of sight.

Changing It Up

Posted in Doing Church, Musings with tags , , on November 16, 2014 by timtrue

Today’s Gospel reading in the Episcopal lectionary is Matthew 25:14-30, a parable about three slaves who manage their master’s money while he goes away for a time.  In this story we usually interpret the third slave as the bad guy, albeit a slightly dimwitted one; which is why we don’t feel so badly when he ends up thrown out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But what if we were to change it up a little?  (By the way, I have no specific persons in mind in anything that follows; I’m merely playing with the parable.)

untitled

Once there was a bishop who was about to go on sabbatical.

“I’m about to go on sabbatical,” he told three of his finest priests.  “But the trouble is, I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and I’ve disabled my email account and I’m not taking my cell phone with me so you have no way of getting in touch with me while I’m gone and I don’t know when I’ll be back.  It’s an open-ended sabbatical, see, and all my colleagues are jealous.

“Anyway–stop yawning, all of you, and listen to what I’m about to say!–there’s another ‘the trouble is’ problem here.  80 million dollars came across my desk just this morning for church development, and I don’t know what to do with it.  So I’m putting it in your charge!

“Here, you, Lenny, take 50 million.  I’ve seen you do brilliant things before.  Do it again with this!

“And you, Veronica, take 20 million and do something fantastic with it.

“And you, er, uh, what’s your name?”

“Frank.”

“Yes, you, Frank.  Can’t say I know much about you.  Where do you serve?”

“Saint Swithin’s, sir.”

“Well, okay, if you say so.  But I thought Jim was there.”

“Yes, sir.  Jim’s the rector.  I’m just a curate.”

“Oh, okay, whatever that means.  But you are an Episcopal priest, right?”

“Yes.”

“Of this diocese?”

“Yes.”

“Very well, then.  You, Frank, Curator of St. Swithin’s, take the other 10 million (give or take) and do something grand with it.”

“Um, not curator, but–well, never mind!  Sure thing, boss.”

“I’ll check in on all y’all when I return.”

So they all went on their merry ways: the bishop to his sabbatical of undisclosed location and duration, although I heard it had something to do with warm, sandy beaches in the part of the world where our winter is their summer, and it may or may not have included surfing lessons by day and pina coladas by night; and the three priests to their respective parishes.

The first priest, Lenny, put his $50 million to work by developing an Episcopal waterpark.  And $50 million!  Hey, that’s enough to get something good going!  So he hired the best architects and engineers who work on that kind of thing and spent a full week out at Schlitterbahn in Texas shadowing the executives and so on until he had a good plan together and an opening date on the books, Memorial Day Weekend.  When asked about his innovative brainstorm, he is reported as saying, “You just watch.  This is gonna be good!”

Likewise, the second priest, Veronica, set about putting her $20 million to work building a community center on the vacant 10 acres adjacent to her parish.  Yeah!  With the help of her vestry, she bought the lot and drew up plans for a community gathering place, complete with hip café, gift shop, playground, dogpark, and Vespa rentals.  It would be a veritable mall where adolescents with extra cash on hand, soccer moms, anxious husbands out for that last-minute anniversary gift, toy-dog aficionados–anyone!–could buy the latest cool thing for Christians.  And it would be right next to church!  “So hip,” was her only comment.

Meanwhile, the curate of St. Swithin’s, well, he decided to take the $10 million and purchase a plot of scrappy land, cultivate it, and plant two crops.  One was grapes.  Black Spanish was the varietal, because that was blight-resistant in this part of the country, unlike other varietals like Cabernet and Zinfandel; and because it is used in port, the wine of choice for the Episcopal Eucharist.

The other was wheat.  And not just any wheat, but non-GMO affected wheat; for long ago he had learned that the people of his parish that requested gluten-free wafers were actually not allergic to organic, non-GMO wheat.  Yes, his was a green desire; a desire to provide his parishioners with home-made wine and bread.  “Not only that,” he argued, “but it will bring jobs to the area and help sustain a local economy.  The project itself will be sustainable too, eventually.  We will become a supplier for churches with a similar vision.”

Time passed.  Sure enough, some glitches surfaced: the $50 million wasn’t quite enough front money (nothing a loan couldn’t cover) and the local conservatives picketed for one-piece swimsuits only throughout opening week (but the Episcopalians responded by wearing bikinis–even some guys); liability issues surfaced when a teenager crashed a scooter into a table laden with lattes while trying to avoid a toy poodle running from a rottweiler; the first wheat harvest was low due to drought conditions and the grapes, well, as every vintner knows, they take three full years before producing a harvest adequate for any amount of wine anyway.

And, you guessed it, that’s about when the bishop returned.

“Lenny,” he said at the end of his first day visiting the Episcopal waterpark, “this was good!”

“Yep.  And the accountant says we should net $50 million in profits by the end of the season.”

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Then he remarked, “Veronica, this latte’s delicious.  And that puppy is so cute!  How’s it going with that law suit?”

“Oh, just fine.  Turns out we’ve been awarded $20 million by the state for allowing us to rent scooters to teenagers in the first place.  Turns out the kid should have been twenty-five.  Not our fault though!”

“Oh, that’s hip!  Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Then he turned to Frank.  “Tell me, curator, what’s up with your bread and wine enterprise?”

“It’s curate, by the way.  But never mind.  Anyway, well, eh hem, it’s gone about as well as one could expect in the first season of, um, an agricultural, er, enterprise, uh, sir.”

“But have you made any money?”

“Well, not yet.”

“Okay, then, well, do you have any bread or wine to show for it?”

“It doesn’t exactly work that way, sir.”

“No money?  No bread or wine?  That sounds hardly sustainable!

“So I see how it is: I hand you $10 million and you go and bury it in the dirt.  And now you have nothing to show for it.  I see.  Well, curate, I never knew you and I sure as heck have no reason to get to know you now.  You’re fired.  Go away and I hope never to see you again!”

Rekindled Friendships, Connections, and a Regret

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2014 by timtrue

In recent weeks my Facebook account has seen a surge in childhood friendships rekindled.  Friends I haven’t seen or heard from in more than thirty years are now people with whom I am enjoying daily conversations, usually over an old photo like this one:

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There’s a lot of catching up to be had.  Significant amounts of water pass under the bridge over the course of three decades.  Marriages have been started and ended; families have been raised; life has been enjoyed and endured.  Through it all I’m really wishing I could track each of these old friends down and enjoy an evening of dinner and good ol’ face-to-face conversation.  And maybe it will happen in time.  But for now the virtual world will have to suffice.

My favorite thread so far is now more than a hundred comments long, picking up something like seventeen of us childhood pals along the way.  After lots of stories told and commented upon, a friend altogether out of the blue except for some comment I made forty or so posts ago writes, simply, “I’m still tripping out that Tim’s a priest.”

Ha!  Well, me too.  In many respects anyway.  But in other ways not so much.

I’ve written elsewhere about the idyllic setting in which I grew up (see “Background” tab).  Many a day I can remember just sitting out on the lawn, my back against an avocado tree, soaking in the southern California sun and contemplating.  It doesn’t really matter what: the way the sun played on the mellow green leaves rustling in the wind; a jet trail in the sky; how the hens shuffled their feet and simultaneously jerked their necks as they foraged for food; whatever–I was contemplating the world, God’s world, and my place in it, much as the ancient poet Vergil contemplated his world beneath his bucolic beech.  Only (unlike Vergil) I wrote nothing down.  These contemplations were only for my own memories, to reflect upon as I grew older, like I’m doing now.

I was always a bit more esoteric and pensive than the rest of the group.  I asked questions they didn’t care or think to ask; questions about pain and sorrow and happiness and joy and the differences between them; questions about good and evil and purpose and value; questions epistemological and ontological; questions most nine year-olds didn’t consider.

I was also a bit more in my own world.  Sure we had our alphas.  I wasn’t one of them.  But I was much more of an omega than a beta (or delta or gamma or . . .); for to their chagrin I never really followed the alphas like my brother did.  I did my own thing.

Like figuring out that grapes made perfect ammo for pvc blowguns.  It was especially fun when I showed one of the alphas what I had come up with–by shooting him in the belly from about fifty feet away–and he led us into all-out neighborhood boy warfare.  The original paint-pellet guns, only with grapes instead of pellets; and pvc pipe instead of guns.  Anyway, I felt affirmed in my creativity and innovativeness when an alpha took my idea and ran with it–effectively so!

Not that an alpha can’t make a good priest.  I believe that one can–in theory anyway; don’t know that I’ve ever seen it in actual practice.

Okay, to be fair, I have seen it.  I even know a few.  But it’s a hard balance to maintain.

A bit of a tangent here: but the church today seems to value priests who are successful and effective leaders.  Those who can develop programs and lure in the numbers, or (especially) those who can secure great big pledges, and lots of them at that, are the valuable priests to the Church.  But really!  Shouldn’t the priests, the spiritual leaders of communities, be more about things like spiritual disciplines, prayer, and formation (i. e., knowledge, wisdom, contemplation, introspection, etc.)?  It’s hard enough to be one or the other; a true rarity is the priest who is both.

As for me, I fit into the second category.  Leave the first in the hands of the vestry, I say.  Anyway, I was that way as a kid; and I’m still that way now.

One more.  As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my great grandmother.  She lived a quarter-mile down the street.  I mowed her lawn every other week or so throughout my childhood, pulled weeds in her garden, and enjoyed lots of home-baked goodies from her kitchen.  I have my mom to thank for this Granny time, by the way; though at the time I didn’t think anything of it: it was just part of the routine.

Now, though, as a priest I regularly visit shut-ins: those who are either too old or too frail to make it to church regularly.  I find this work very enjoyable.  And I’m a natural at it (thanks to Mom).

A few days ago, for instance, I visited an elderly woman suffering from the ravages of dementia.  After several minutes of barely intelligible conversation and feeling as if this was going nowhere, I moved to the piano I’d noticed in her living room.  There, on top, I grabbed a book at random from a stack and opened it and began to play.  Smiles, exclamations of happiness, applause, and even laughter followed.

I’d made a connection!  And the idea harked from childhood, when I used to do the same for my granny.

But a regret surfaced too from these rekindled-friendship conversations.  A friend’s younger sister died a year ago, I learned (very) recently, after a lifelong battle with cancer.

I remember her clearly, vividly even.  She was only a couple years younger than I.  But at nine she had no hair.  That seemed strange to me at the time, 1979 or so.  But rather than make easy conversation or simply be present, I didn’t know how to act around her and therefore avoided her most of the time.

Oh how I regret this now!  Now, when I spend hours of my week in close contact with people like her–beautiful souls–who love the presence of a smile and the joy of a story just as much as anyone else!  Oh, why wasn’t I more of a friend to her then?  And now she’s gone!

If only I could turn the clock back thirty-five years and do it again!

May her soul rest in peace.

Remembering William Temple

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2014 by timtrue

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John 1:9-18

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

I wonder, did it feel like the very Word of God was dwelling among us a hundred years ago, when the so-called Great War was beginning?  Maybe this would be the war to end all wars, some people thought.  But was there any hope at all in this thought?

What about a quarter-century later?  I wonder, did it feel like Jesus was at all present with us here on earth then, when another worldwide war began?  Was there any dignity at all in that notorious Kaiser Adolph Hitler?  Did even a vestige of hope remain in humanity then?

The Bible says that the Word of God, Jesus, the Christ, had come and dwelt among us.  But where was he now?

William Temple was born in 1881. This means he was 33 years old a hundred years ago, when World War I began.  He died in 1944, shortly before the end of World War II.

Yet—despite the fact that he had seen the worldwide rumblings that started two world wars—William Temple maintained a personal hope in humanity until his dying day.  This is because he truly believed God’s Word; he believed that God’s Word had once become flesh and dwelt among us; and he believed that God’s Word, Jesus Christ, continued to dwell among us in the flesh.  Despite tyranny!  Despite unbridled violence!  Despite genocide!

William Temple believed that the heavenly kingdom had indeed come to earth with Christ—that heavenly city, whose foundation is justice and whose law is love—despite the wickednesses he experienced all around him in his life.

And his was no foolish optimism.

Ever hear the term “Cradle Episcopalian”?  William Temple was the quintessential cradle Anglican.  He was born when his father, Dr. Frederick Temple, was Bishop of Exeter.  Young William was baptized at Exeter Cathedral when he was 22 days old.  When William was fifteen, his father was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

To say he grew up in the Church is a gross understatement.  He knew the Church’s place in the world—and what it could effect.  Perhaps that is why he found himself Bishop of Manchester by the time he was 40, Archbishop of York at 48, and the Right Reverend Archbishop of Canterbury himself at 61.

Through his life and career he developed and maintained a passion for social justice that was deeply rooted in the incarnation of Christ.  Jesus Christ lived and dwelt among us; and as a result, Temple wrote, “the personality of every man and woman is sacred.”  Every man and woman—including Adolph Hitler!  (Tough one to swallow, eh?)

But this reminds me of our Episcopal theology, from our baptismal covenant (said this past Sunday at the 9am and 11am services): the celebrant asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  And the people—we—answer, “I will, with God’s help” (BCP 305).

With this commitment to the Incarnation, Temple was a key player in establishing COPEC, the Conference on Christian Politics, Economics, and Citizenship, in 1924 (between the wars); and the Malvern Conference in 1940, to reflect on social reconstruction needs in Great Britain following World War II.

May William Temple be a shining example to us of incarnational faith in Christ despite whatever harshnesses we see in our world!

How to Turn the World Upside Up

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 5:1-12

Our world is inverted.

It’s been that way since the beginning—or shortly thereafter, anyway.  For in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And God is a perfect God.  So God would not create the world to be a certain way—right side up—just to turn it upside down for fun, as if to see how we humans would handle it or some such nonsense.  No, that would go against God’s good nature.  Rather, it was inverted soon after the conclusion of the sixth day, soon after God created humankind in his own image.

We know the story.  God created people, not the animals, in his own image.  The animals were different, created to help us image-bearing people, created so that humankind might be glorified in some way.  In turn, humankind was created to glorify God.  From the bottom up, then, it was creatures, people, God.

But the serpent came along.  And he was crafty; craftier, in fact, than all the other creatures.  And he spoke.  (Does this remind you of anything?)  And he said to the woman, “Surely you want to be as gods too, don’t you?  Surely you want to know good from evil?”

Thus she and her man gave in to the crafty serpent.  They listened to it; and they put themselves in subjection to it.  And, when they did this, at the same time they exalted themselves above God.  From the bottom up, now, it was God, people, creatures.  In their sin—in their fall—all creation was turned upside down.

The prophet Isaiah says it this way: “You turn things upside down! / Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? / Shall . . . the thing formed say of the one who formed it, / ‘He has no understanding’ (29:16, my emphasis)?”

Our world is inverted.

In a nutshell, we see the Gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ here. For God so loved the world—the cosmos; creation—that he sent his only Son to re-establish the created order; to set things right side up.

We see this in the book of Acts, right?  That’s the book in the New Testament that follows the Gospels.  It tells the story of what Jesus’s followers started to do after he lived, died, and rose again; it tells the story of the founding of the church.

One episode goes like this: two of Jesus’s followers, named Paul and Silas, come to the city of Thessalonica.  There they enter the local synagogue and begin to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah of Israel.  Several people, including many leaders, like this message and convert.  But this riles up the other synagogue leaders who go out and, with the help of some local ruffians, start a riot.  The mob captures some Christians and drags them before the city officials; and the mob leaders say: “These people”—i. e., these emperor-defying Christians—“who have been turning the world upside down have come here also” (cf. Acts 17:1-9, my emphasis).

The Christians, they said, were turning the world upside down.  But the world was already upside down—inverted—since just after creation.  But turning the already upside down world upside down—isn’t that really just to turn it upside up?  That’s what the church is doing!  Or, at least, that’s what the church is called to do.

Are we doing it?  Are we doing what we can to put the world upside up?

Now we come to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount; and, in particular, to its introduction: the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  And again, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  And so on.

The poor in spirit?  Those who mourn?  The meek?  This doesn’t sound like a list of things I aspire to be.

And why are these people even blessed?  Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven; they will be comforted; and they will inherit the earth.  But aren’t these all things that will happen in the future?  Isn’t this a kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this.  Sure, you can tell me all you want that if I behave myself in the here and now then I will be rewarded in the future.  But that sounds an awful lot like something my second grade teacher told me.  I don’t really buy it.

I want to be blessed now.  And it seems to me—from the way things work in the world around me—it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in the present.  It’s fine and well to want a nice life in the future, or a nice afterlife; but what about the here and now?  I want to be comfortable now!  I want to hear Jesus say something like this:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money!  For theirs is a comfortable home in a no-crime neighborhood where their kids can attend the best schools.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this?

A couple observations.

First, Jesus’s discourse is designed to turn the world upside up.

The culture tells us in very tangible ways that the happiest or most blessed people are those with the most money, those who have fought their way confidently to the top of their respective ladders, those who live most comfortably.

Jesus’s beatific list runs against this; it’s counter-cultural.

But is this list so bad?

It starts out with poor in spirit, mournful, and meek.  These sound to me like a person who has been humbled before God—not a bad place to be.

The list continues, saying, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart.  I’m not sure our culture values these characteristics too much.  Just try putting some of these descriptions on a resume—peacemaker; persecuted for righteousness’ sake; reviled for Christ’s sake—and good luck getting that job!

No, these are not characteristics valued highly by our culture.  But they are highly valued by Christ; and they characterize the citizens of his heavenly kingdom—or they should.

Which brings us to my second observation.  This beatific list isn’t all about the future.  Instead, it is about the present, the here and now.

We hear terms like heavenly kingdom and we see the future tense (they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, etc.), and it’s easy to go into pie-in-the-sky mode.

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.

And when I do, we think—when I fly away in glorious rapture at the trumpet blast—then I’ll be poor in spirit and all the rest; ’cause then I’ll inherit the kingdom of heaven.  But I’m not about to be poor in spirit and meek and all that before then!

But that’s just Jesus’s point!  We are not living in a world as aliens and strangers; we are not living in a world that will all burn up and fade away and good riddance!  The meek shall inherit the earth, not some imagined fantasy land!  It’s not all going to end like Left Behind tells us (itself an inverted way of thinking), but through Christ saving the world in an ongoing way through his church; his church that is made up of humble, meek, merciful, peacemaking, righteousness-seeking, upside-up people—you, me, all the saints—in the here and now.

Think of the beatitudes, then, as a how-to list.  Beginning now, with you, these are how to turn the world right side up.  Strive after humility.  Strive after purity of heart.  Strive to be merciful, a peacemaker, and all the rest.  Strive to live each day as a citizen of the heavenly kingdom, for that is what you are.