Archive for October, 2015

Effective Assessment

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


Mark 10:35-45

I’ve been studying a lot lately about congregational development. Congregational development is the term that’s in vogue today; twenty-five years ago it was church growth.

Do you know what I mean by this term?  It’s the area of ecclesiology—the theology of the church—that wrestles with questions like: How can our congregation grow?  What does it take for a congregation to attract more worshipers?  What clues can be learn from local demographics to help a congregation grow?  And—a question I’ve been confronted with recently—can a congregation of the Episcopal Church thrive in a geographic region where Trader Joe’s won’t open a franchise?

Okay, now we’re getting personal!  As a rector of an Episcopal parish in a town where there is in fact no Trader Joe’s, I have begun to take this area of ecclesiology seriously.  How can St. Paul’s grow?  How can we become, well, bigger and better?

And I’m not the only one studying.  This area of ecclesiology has become a rather prominent focal point of not just the Episcopal Church but of most Protestant Christian denominations in America.  And not in just one segment, like mainstream, liberal, conservative, settled, or adaptable.  But in all of the above!

Numerous books are published on the subject annually.  If I wanted to attend workshops or other continuing education opportunities on the topic of congregational development, well, there are so many available I don’t even know where to begin.  It has even become a focus of doctoral study: one of the terminal degree options I could pursue is a Doctor of Ministry in Congregational Development.

So, again, I’ve begun to take this area of ecclesiology seriously.  I’m reading a book on the subject right now called Owl Sight, by Russ Crabtree, a well-known expert on congregational development.  And later this week I will be attending a workshop on this subject at our diocesan office.  I’m giving congregational development some serious thought.

Then I’m confronted—we all are—with today’s passage.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus and ask, “Teacher, will you give us whatever we ask?”

And right here, already, things are sounding suspicious!  I mean, whenever someone approaches me and says something like, “Tim, will you do me a favor?” my defenses go up.

What is this “favor,” exactly, I wonder?  What is it that the asker is trying to get me to do?  Why hasn’t this person just come out with it and asked me directly?  Am I being manipulated?

That, and I’m also remembering in the back of my mind that Bible story about Herod and his stepdaughter:

Daughter: Daddy, will you do me a favor?

Herod: Sure, I’ll give you anything you like, dear, up to half my kingdom.

Daughter: Okay, then.  How about the head of John the Baptist on a platter?

And so I generally refrain from saying, “Yeah, sure.  What do you need?”

Maybe Jesus’s defenses went up too.  At any rate, he doesn’t say, “Sure, what do you need?  Name it”; instead, without answering their preemptive request, he asks for clarification: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Oh,” they say—I imagine at least a little sheepishly—“well, you know, nothing much; just that one of us gets to sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.  No big deal.  Won’t you do this for us?”

James and John’s is a recognizably audacious question.  We could even call it rash.  And thus there’s tension here.

These two brothers are arguing about who’s the best, about who deserves to be in a place of honor in the kingdom.  And—as if they didn’t already know—for the third time in this Gospel Jesus tells them what they must do to inherit the kingdom of God: be servant of all; be like a little child.

Now—though we’ve heard it all before—many times!—aren’t we a lot like James and John?  Aren’t we rather audacious and rash in our faith and practice?  When we go about our daily routines, isn’t it all too easy to put ourselves first and consider others only as an afterthought, if at all?

And what should we make of congregational development—how St. Paul’s might become bigger and better?  Isn’t this similar to what James and John are doing?

We want glory.  We like to be in places of honor.  We crave accolades.  Wouldn’t it be great if St. Paul’s became known as the best all-round parish in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego?  Well, how are we going to get there?

But we shouldn’t be self-absorbed, fighting for the top spot.  This passage of scripture—along with so many others!—demonstrates that.

So: on the individual level, how do we combat self-absorption?  And on the corporate level, why should we concern ourselves with congregational development?  Isn’t it simply a self-serving exercise?

Now, here’s the bigger picture. James and John were rebuked for striving to be on top; and yet, in the annals of church history, they are in fact some of the top saints.  Jesus rebuked them for wanting to be the greatest; they nevertheless became some of the greatest.

As a parish, we shouldn’t be competitive about how well-known we are or might become because of our ministries; though St. Paul’s may possibly be or become a model parish in the Diocese of San Diego.

Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

And we are left thinking it will all in fact happen as they say, though not as they envision.

Do you see?  The bigger picture here is about effective self-assessment.

James and John were poor self-assessors.  They looked around themselves and knew they were in an exceptional situation.  Here was Jesus, their mentor and friend, perhaps the greatest teacher in the history of the world, and they’d been with him, faithful followers since the very beginning.

They thought pretty highly of themselves; and on that basis, their own, limited self-assessment, they thought they deserved to have the two most honorable places in glory.

We, too, are poor self-assessors.  It’s very easy for us to see the faults in other people; but not so easy to see our own.  On the other hand, it’s very easy for us to see our own achievements and accomplishments—we’ve experienced them first-hand, after all—but much more difficult to see the accomplishments of others.  It’s easy to criticize others and praise ourselves.  Human nature comes with blinders included.

What we should be after in self-assessment, however, is the other way round.  For self-assessment to be effective, we must look outward, putting others first; not inward.  We don’t come to Jesus asking him to do something for us because, hey, we deserve it.  Instead we come asking humbly, “What must I do to inherit the kingdom of God?” “How can I become a servant to all?” “How can I receive the kingdom as a child?”

Ask Jesus these things in prayer; ask Jesus these things by asking those saints among us whom you trust for counsel.  Look outward, not inward.  Be vulnerable.  Put others first.

And this is precisely why I’m reading Russ Crabtree’s book and planning to attend a diocesan workshop later this week.

I’ve been here at St. Paul’s six months now; and, quite frankly, I like what I see.  St. Paul’s is a wonderful parish.  Two strengths especially stand out to me.  One is that we are a very hospitable folk.  Any time a newcomer visits, he or she is made to feel welcome.  The people of St. Paul’s very much care about other people, all people.  This is a very positive thing.

The other strength I call out is flexibility.  Some changes have been made in the half-year I’ve been here.  And not all of them have been small!  But, because of the flexibility that is woven into the fabric of this parish, they have all run very smoothly.

These are two great strengths for any church: hospitality and flexibility.  And if I’m only looking inwardly it’s really tempting to say, “Hey, Jesus, are you noticing what’s happening here in Yuma?  Doesn’t St. Paul’s deserve an awesome place in your kingdom?”

But this would be poor self-assessment.  Let’s assess ourselves; but let’s be effective in our assessments.  For in doing so will we learn to be the servants of all, see as through the eyes of a child, and inherit the kingdom of heaven.

Awed Possibility

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


Mark 10:2-16

What a difficult Gospel passage!

I mean, it’s got it all!  Marriage, divorce, adultery, children—we might say this passage is pregnant, just waiting to give birth to all sorts of conflicting opinions and hasty judgments from family and friends.

There’s the uncle whose mind is already made up.  No matter what, the parents always seem to be doing something wrong as they raise their child.  They’re either too controlling, on the verge of being helicopter parents; or too permissive, producing a child who is a law unto himself.

Then there’s the aunt who’s twice removed.  At family gatherings, she looks on the child from across the room only as a spectator.  The child is interesting to her, but as a lizard in an aquarium is interesting, only to observe, never to engage.

Then there are the parents themselves.  That’s us, you know, the mainline Episcopal Church.  Our child is growing before our eyes and has begun to form her own take on the world—and it’s not always the same as ours!  In fact, sometimes we catch ourselves wondering if she is deliberately choosing the other side of the debate, just to spite us!

Whatever the case, it’s left us uncomfortable.  Why does she think the way she does about divorce, marriage, human sexuality, adultery, and children?  Doesn’t she know better?  Doesn’t she understand and value what Jesus teaches?

Still, some of what she’s saying seems to make sense.  It’s not what our parents taught us, no way, no how.  But—we’re second guessing ourselves now—maybe they didn’t know everything either, just as we know we don’t know everything.

Well, what does Jesus teach about divorce, marriage, and children—and maybe even human sexuality—in this passage?

A lot, it seems!  On the surface anyway.  At least there’s a lot in here about divorce.

But, then, why does the narrative about little children follow right on divorce’s heels?  Is it because children are the most innocent of victims in a divorce, as more than one commentator has noted?

While this may be true in general, and certainly has been so in specific cases, no, I don’t think this is why Mark brings children into the immediate context—at all!  Instead, this exchange between Jesus, some Pharisees, the disciples, and the little children runs much deeper than just wise instruction about marriage and divorce: this exchange is about worldview.

Are you familiar with this term, worldview?  It’s how we see things.  It’s our perspective.  It’s the governing lens through which we as individuals interpret all that goes on in the world around us.

Now, you’ve been to those scenic viewpoints with the coin-operated viewers, right?  I think there’s one on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  So, let’s say we’re on a trip together to the Grand Canyon and we stop to use this viewer.  You walk up to it, put a quarter in, and look through.  Then, when you’re done, I have my turn.

Now, despite the fact that we use the same viewer, you and I don’t see exactly the same things through it.  Right?

Well, this is like the worldview Christ calls us as Christians to have.  You and I look through the same lens.  But we don’t always focus on the same things.  And when we do, we often interpret them differently.  You might shop at Albertson’s while I prefer Fry’s.  You might vote for a different presidential candidate than I.  Or, coming closer to today’s passage, you may not have experienced divorce as a child; but I did.

Nevertheless, despite our differences in interpretation, Jesus calls us to a common worldview.  As followers of Christ, we should agree on perspective.

But all too often we don’t. We answer questions differently, questions like:

  • Is it ever okay for Christians to divorce?
  • If so, when?  Is it only okay to divorce in cases of abuse or neglect or adultery?  What about incompatibility?
  • Are Christians allowed to drink alcohol?  And, if so, is it ever okay for a Christian to get drunk?
  • Is it permissible for a man to marry a man?
  • Is it okay to ordain a woman?
  • And—a question from this summer—is it okay if a young woman going through a transgendering process is my son’s counselor at camp?

We tend to fixate on—and argue about—what’s permissible.  We like lists of dos and don’ts.

But isn’t this just what the Pharisees are doing in today’s passage: asking what’s permissible?

Verse 2 tells us they come to Jesus to test him with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Already, there’s a negative tone.  The Pharisees’ question is focused on the dissolution of marriage, not on the purpose of it or the blessings to be found in it—not on the positive.

At its core, their question is about what’s permissible.

But Jesus masterfully avoids the Pharisees’ trap by reframing their question.  After asking them what Moses says—an assent to their recognized, mutual authority—Jesus turns from what is permissible in marriage to marriage’s potential.

God created Adam and Eve in God’s own image.  Marriage is thus a divine joining of two people into one flesh.  It is based on mutual respect and shared dignity.

For Jesus, it’s not what is permissible but what is possible.  And this is the lens through which Jesus calls us to interpret the world.

So let’s return now to our viewer. We’ve been looking through it for a while now.  It’s still helpful, sure.  We wouldn’t trade it for another one.  And every now and then, still, we catch a glimpse of a new vista that brings a renewed excitement to our walk with Christ.  But, let’s face it: it’s starting to feel, well, I don’t know, normal.  Routine.  Status quo.  Ho hum.

And so you and I start to compare notes.  We like the way that particular bend in the canyon wall looks, especially when the light hits it in the early morning.  And we like the noises, the music—most of the time anyway.  But haven’t you noticed how crowded it’s getting lately?  And what kind of riffraff is the leadership letting into this place now?  Why, just last week someone left a banana peel on the ground and I hear it adversely affected a bear’s digestion.  The nerve!  Someone around here ought to get a list of rules together and enforce them before things really get out of control.

But then we see an unfamiliar, young child mount the steps and look through the viewer for the first time—the same viewer we’ve been looking through for so long now, about which we’ve begun to feel ho hum.  And—do you see?—a huge smile overwhelms his face and he lets out a sound of wonder: “Wow!”

And I am cut to the heart as I remember Jesus’ words: “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

It’s not about what is permissible but what is possible.

So, how do you look at marriage? How do you look at divorce?  How do you look at issues surrounding human sexuality?  How do you look at the kingdom of God?

Maybe you’re like that critical uncle.  You’re a part of the church, sure: you’re a Christian.  But in your opinion the Episcopal Church is either too controlling or too permissive and will never be quite right for future generations.

Maybe you’re like that twice removed aunt.  You like to view the goings on in the Episcopal Church as a spectator, aloof, not really engaged.  Yuma’s a good place to do so, because, after all, we are rather isolated out here.

Maybe you’re like the parents, caught in a tug of war, second-guessing yourself and the traditions to which you’ve grown so accustomed, not sure how to make sense of all the various voices that vie for your attention; not quite sure if you’re bringing up the next generation in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Or, maybe, just maybe, you’re like that small child, lost in wonder, love, and praise at the glories of the kingdom of God; not at all burdened by what is permissible but awestruck by what is possible.

In Jesus Christ, it’s not about what is permissible but what is possible.