Archive for April, 2015

Flocking Together

Posted in Homilies with tags , on April 27, 2015 by timtrue

John 10:11-18

I am the good shepherd. . . .  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Sunday after Sunday we recite the Nicene Creed together. “We believe,” it begins.  And so we say our statement of faith, what we believe about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Towards the end, in that section about the Holy Spirit, one of the beliefs we say week in and week out is this: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

One flock.  One shepherd.

Really?

Just look around!  In our not-so-large city of 93,064 residents (according to the 2010 census—not including winter visitors), according to ChurchFinder.com, there are 96 churches—and ChurchFinder doesn’t include Mormon churches.  That’s more than one Catholic or Protestant church per thousand residents!

Jesus says, “One flock, one shepherd.”  We say, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  Yet ChurchFinder says that in Yuma alone there are 96 flocks.

Do these conflicting claims make anyone nervous?  Is anyone sort of shifting in their seats right now?

I am.

Some of you know already that this seat-shifting nervousness is part of my own journey to the Episcopal Church.

I started out on my Christian journey in high school.  My parents were divorcing and I was wrestling through my own set of issues founded upon adolescent angst; and I found myself drawn to a Bible study.

I had a lot of questions, of course.  My friends didn’t know any answers.  My parents were too busy navigating their way through their own set of issues.  If nothing else, this Bible study seemed to point me in the right direction when no one else did—or, maybe better, when no one else could.  It didn’t provide all the answers I sought; but it wrestled with many of the same serious questions I was wrestling with—questions about God, sin, salvation, truth, being, and belief.

So, through this Bible study I began to ask questions about things like baptism, Communion, and joining a church.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” the Bible study leaders told me.  “Churches are too wrapped up in their own issues.  They’ve established traditions.  These traditions lead to rituals.  And rituals produce religiosity.  You don’t need religiosity; you only need Christ—Christianity.  Churches just get in the way.”

So they said.  Still, as I read through the Bible—with the Bible study but increasingly more so on my own—I couldn’t reason around all that’s in the Bible about community—including organized community worship.  It’s all over the place!  In both the Old and New Testaments!  We are nowhere called to be followers of Christ by ourselves; but everywhere we hear words like, koinonia—fellowship; oikos—household of faith; and ekklesia—congregation, or assembly.

So, I concluded, like it or not, regardless of what my Bible study leaders were saying, I needed to become part of a church!

Well, I don’t need to go into too many more details now.  Suffice that I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after some twenty years!—becoming an Episcopalian.

Lots of dominoes had to fall to get me here too, let me tell you; and I’m sure many of you have similar stories; but, for now, just the clincher: the final domino to fall:

There we were, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its theological confidence.  Truth had been debated long and hard through the ages, but we chosen ones felt we had a handle on it better than almost anyone else.

One of these truths we were quite sure of was the Nicene Creed.  And so, like Episcopalians do most every Sunday, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess the faith weekly in its words.

And every Sunday we’d come to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” and I’d look around.  And I’d see twenty-five or so people saying the same thing.  And I’d think to myself,

“No we don’t!  We believe that we’ve got a better handle on the truth than most other Christians in the world; and so we don’t even want to identify with them.  ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church,’ my foot!”

Which led me into a long, arduous personal study of Church history, with a specific question in mind: What churches today maintain a tangible connection to the one holy catholic and apostolic Church—in other words, to the early Church?  And my conclusion was (and is) that the main Christian bodies in America today connected to the early Church are Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Episcopal Church.

And, as you can see, I chose the Episcopal Church.

Now, have you ever tried to seek unity in the (wider) Church? It’s not easy.

On the surface it sounds like a good idea, sure.  But what happens when we get into the details?

What about celebrating a community Eucharist?  We Episcopalians do something along these lines from time to time, actually—every time we celebrate the Eucharist at a wedding, funeral, or (in my own recent experience) school chapel.  In each of these settings, any number of different faith perspectives—or no faith at all—is represented.

And, I can tell you, confusion is the name of the game.

You’ve got good Catholics, for instance, who come forward to the rail because they don’t want to look like they’re making some kind of protest.  But then they put their arms across their chests.  There’s nothing wrong with this gesture, really; but when they do this they’re not actually communing with Christ and his people.

Then there are the Methodists who feel that wine with alcohol is sinful, and that grape juice—preferably Welch’s grape juice (for the Welch family is a great benefactor of the Methodist Church)—is the only acceptable blood of Christ; and so they abstain from partaking of the chalice.

Baptists are weirded out simply by the idea of coming forward to a rail; and, anyway, for them there’s nothing sacramental about Communion.  So they just stay in their seats.

And so on.  Seeking unity in the Church—the universal Church (which is what the word catholic means)—is not easy.  In fact, the tendency seems to be just the opposite: not unity but division.  A part of a congregation finds a problem, a faction forms, and before you know it a group ends up breaking away and forming another, independent congregation, completely dissociating themselves from the first congregation.

Yet Jesus says, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.” It is going to happen.

Leaving us with a question: how?

Well, the short of it is, I don’t know how.  I look around and I see all the controversies and arguments, all the differences and divisions within the Church, and (confession) it’s difficult for me to believe Jesus’s promise.

But it’s like anything else that’s presently a mess.  (Oh, did I just say the Church is a mess?  Yeah, I did.)  It begins with you, as an individual; and with us, a corporate body.

As individuals and as a corporate body of disciples, then:

We need to view Jesus as our good shepherd.

What comes to mind when you hear the word good?  If this word brings quality to mind, you’re not alone.  We describe things as being good or bad, one or the other.  Someone might report, “I found some really good bananas at the grocery store today”; and we have a pretty good idea what that person means.

But the Greek word here for goodkalos—has very little to do with quality.  When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” it’s not so simple as to say, “I’m not a bad shepherd.”  Rather, it has a much fuller meaning, like model, or ideal—something like Plato’s forms.

When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, he means us to hear that he is ordered, sound, noble, true, competent, faithful, and praiseworthy.

He is everything the hired hand—the substitute—is not.

He knows you by name; and he has your best interest at heart.

But not just your name; not just your interests!  Look around you.  Jesus is the good shepherd to every face you see here today.  He knows each person here by name.  He has each person’s best interests at heart.

And it doesn’t stop there!  Think of all the people you don’t see here today, the billions of unknown names and unfamiliar faces carrying on their lives around the world today.  Jesus knows each of them intimately, just as he knows us.  He is their good shepherd too.

Also, we need to view Jesus as our one and only shepherd.

When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he says the, meaning one and only.  It’s a deliberate definite article.  Jesus is our one and only model shepherd.  Not Buddha; not Mohammed; not Joseph Smith; not Gandhi; not Jim Mathes; not Tim True, but only Jesus.

Yeah, I just went there.  People like me—pastors; spiritual leaders—need to get their egos out of the way and let Jesus truly be in charge!  There’s one shepherd!  Now, there might be some sheep who are better leaders than other sheep; but they’re still sheep!

And therefore, we need to see ourselves as part of one flock—whose main focus is the good shepherd.

We are all sheep together, following one leader, one leader’s vision.  We’re not called to do it independently!  We are called to walk the valley of the shadow of death with others; and to cry out to Christ—bleat to the good shepherd—when one of our fellow sheep wanders away into trouble or uncertainty.

There will be one flock, one shepherd.

Do you truly believe this?  Do you truly believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church?

Making Peace with Ghosts

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2015 by timtrue

Luke 24:36b-48

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

Do you believe in ghosts?  What about zombies?

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

I have an older brother, Andy, about a year and a half older than I—just this side of a year and a half, actually: fifteen months and sixteen days.

Andy wasn’t my role model.  Not so much anyway.  He was my older brother; and you know how that goes.

But Donny!  He was the one I looked up to!

My family had moved to Camarillo in January of 1972.  I was almost four; Andy was five.  And I can still remember that first day, pulling in with a moving truck, into the driveway that would be mine for the next twelve and a half years—the driveway; and the old ranch house; and the seventy or eighty avocado trees that came along with it!  Here was my boyhood home.

Donny lived next door.  He was two months older than Andy; and, to a boy of three, that made Donny so much wiser—and just plain better, any way you looked at it!

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

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

Happy doesn’t even begin to describe the emotion I felt, then, when—finally!—the day came: Donny was invited to spend the night.

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

Now, Andy and I shared a built-in bunk bed.  He got the top bunk—he was older, remember.  And I got the bottom.  (I’m still sore about this, by the way.)  But tonight it was to pay off!  For beneath my bunk laid a trundle bed; and tonight it would be rolled out and occupied by Donny, my hero, my role model.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

Also, we had this foreboding, creaky, and frankly spooky spiral staircase—made of cold, hard wrought iron—leading from a rather dark corner of the kitchen down, down, down into the basement.  The steps on this staircase were open at the back; meaning there was a perfect space underneath, to hide in and reach my hands through and scare the heebie-jeebies out of anyone who happened to be descending.

Mom never liked this staircase much.  But we boys did.  Most of the time!

And then I already mentioned the avocado orchard, right?

So: there was a squatter who lived in the orchard.  Like most squatters, he remained elusive, hidden away in corners where we wouldn’t happen upon him easily.  But he wasn’t what you might call a typical squatter; for he wasn’t exactly human.

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

Witnesses saw it.  The truck driver screeched to a halt.  A small crowd ran over to help the tall man, the seven-foot man.  One person checked his pulse; another called 911; someone else performed CPR.  But, alas, he lay crumpled and lifeless in a heap.  It was too late.  The seven-foot man was dead.

Well, you know how it is.  When something like this happens and everyone realizes it’s too late to do anything about it, things kind of slow down a bit.  The commotion settles.

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

When the ambulance finally did arrive and the people remembered the poor crumpled soul on the ice-plant, they turned and—oh, gasp!—he wasn’t there.  “So, where’s the victim?” the medics asked; to which everyone, including the cops, just shrugged their shoulders and scratched their heads.  He’d upped and vanished!

Except he hadn’t really vanished, I knew!  Because he was living in my avocado orchard!

If you can call it living!

Because I also knew that in the accident his body and spirit had been separated from one another; and for whatever reason they couldn’t be joined back together.  And now both were haunting my home and avocado orchard: both the disembodied spirit of the seven-foot man—his ghost; and his spiritless body—his zombie!

The seven-foot man was a double whammy!

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

Donny knew it too.  So did Andy.  But we’d learned to live with it.

So then, after a long day of boyhood adventures, we enjoyed a delicious dinner of Mac ’n’ Cheese, donned our pajamas, and brushed our teeth.  Now it was time to climb in bed.

We boys had crossed the line a time or two that day, sure, daring each other to tempt fate.  We’d hunted for the seven-foot man, provoked each other to poke around in all the scariest corners of the orchard—the junk pile, the woodpile, the corner sectioned off by barbed wire—attempting to outdo each other in eight and nine year-old feats of manliness.

But, after all, the seven-foot man was just an invention of our own creativity, wasn’t he?  There really wasn’t some ghost-zombie man who would sneak into the basement after dark desperately seeking peace in the afterlife, was there?  Surely no!

Still, what if there were?

This question haunted me.  I mean, we’d just spent our day tormenting him, angering him . . .

Oh, well, it didn’t matter.  What did I care?  Donny, my hero, my role model, was at my side.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

That’s when I heard the noise next to me.  Maybe a sniffle?

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

But then—it wasn’t just sniffing anymore—now I was hearing snuffles!  And now some throat-clearing!  And now, positively, sobbing!

“Donny,” I called out, “are you okay?”

A pause; then, “I wanna call my dad,” he replied (sniff, sniff).

Which he did.  And within five minutes he was packed up and heading home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man—and our fears—without him.

But he was my hero; my role model!

Whatever the case—whether you believe in ghosts or not (that’s not the point!)—today’s Gospel teaches us something about belief.

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

Then Jesus persuades them.  “Look at my hands and my feet,” he says; “touch me.”  And they do.  And their beliefs begin to change.  They are filled with joy; but there is still disbelief and wonder.

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

This Gospel story shows us three characteristics of belief:

a. Complete Disbelief—Jesus appears and they think he’s a ghost;

b. Skeptical Wonderment—their disbelief is mixed with joy;

c. Certain Faith—they hear the scriptures and understand.

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

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

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

But I think we can all relate.  We’ve all been here, right?

Have you ever thought something like, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my child’s tuition this year”; or, “I don’t know how my marriage is going to last”; or, “I’m not even sure I believe in Jesus anymore”?

These belief characteristics don’t just happen on the individual level either.  For example, a question might have been on this congregation’s mind in recent years: “How is St. Paul’s possibly going to regroup after so many have left the congregation?”

And yet God has managed; somehow, we have regrouped.

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, he’d said; be still.

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

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

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

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

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