Archive for October, 2016

How Much More Humility?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by timtrue

maccari-cicero1

Luke 18:9-14

This past Thursday I attended Fresh Start: a monthly gathering of clergy new to the diocese, or to a new position in the diocese. Father Paul was there, as he has just started a position as Priest-in-Charge in El Centro and Brawley.  Some newly ordained priests and transitional deacons were there too.  It’s a collegial group, whose purpose is to gather and discuss issues pertinent to our unique calling to the ordained ministry.

On the docket this month was a somewhat provocative question: How should we preach about politics, especially in light of the upcoming election and recent feelings of increased polarization?

It’s a good question to consider.  The election is less than three weeks away.  Which leaves me only today and two more Sundays to address it.  Should I name the political elephant in the room?  Or, on the other hand, should the church be the one haven in our world where we can still find a vestige of refuge from the political circus all around us?

Of course, different preachers take different approaches.

You may or may not know that in 2004 the Rev. George Regas preached a sermon in All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, which led to an investigation by the IRS.  Regas explicitly stated he was not endorsing one candidate over another.  Yet in his sermon—an imagined conversation between Jesus, John Kerry, and George W. Bush—he very much advocated for issues supported by Kerry and opposed by Bush.  And thus, yes, despite him saying he did not endorse one candidate over another, it sure seemed otherwise—to the IRS anyway!

And the IRS matters!

For, according to IRS code, if a preacher tells his congregation how to vote, that preacher’s church can lose tax-exempt status.  To be sure, if I were to stand up here this morning and tell you why you should or shouldn’t for one candidate or another, the IRS would consider St. Paul’s in violation of church and state laws: we could lose our tax-exempt status.

In fact, in recent months our own bishop raised some eyebrows in a diocesan letter in which he named Donald Trump and argued why we shouldn’t vote for him.  Concern was raised over whether the entire Episcopal Diocese of San Diego might fall under the IRS’s scrutiny, and what that would mean for congregations in the diocese (including St. Paul’s).

Preachers in favor of naming names in letters or sermons, including the bishop, rightly argue that as ministers of the Gospel we need the liberty to preach the full Gospel of Christ.

To which other preachers, including me, say, yes, we do need such liberty; but can’t we have it without naming names? Without endorsing or opposing a specific candidate?

To muddle the waters just a little more, during his earthly ministry even Jesus himself named a political figure, Herod; and called him a fox!

Anyway, such was our clergy discussion on Thursday. And thus we come to today’s Gospel: a thoroughly political text.

For, in the first place, I can’t help but associate at least one of the major candidates of this presidential race with the Pharisee.

Two men went up to the temple to pray.  One, a Pharisee, said (essentially), “Dear God, thank you that I’m better than everyone else.”

I mean, doesn’t this sound similar to the political debates?

Just for fun, what if the moderator of the final debate, Chris Wallace, would have asked, “Candidates, as this debate begins, I’d like you each to offer an opening prayer.”  What would that prayer have been?

It’s not hard to imagine the words of the Pharisee: “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that [other candidate], right over there.”

It doesn’t matter which candidate you happen to favor.  It’s the same for both sides.  One prays, “Thanks that I’m not a thief, like her”; whereas the other prays, “Thanks that I’m not an adulterer, like him.”

And, if you’re like me, you’re left scratching your head wondering when anyone’s going to give a reasonable answer to any of the issues at hand.

But we don’t really identify too closely with the Pharisee anyway.  Or at least we don’t want to.  Isn’t he the real reason the system is so messed up in the first place?

He’s a leader in society, in the established system.  But what is his position of leadership but to enforce the rules and regulations established by the system in the first place!

The Roman Empire’s really messed up when you sit down and think about it.  There are masses of people led by smaller and smaller groups of leaders until finally you reach the top of the pyramid: the emperor.  The Jewish leaders are really just one layer, about halfway up the strata, orchestrated ultimately by the system in order to keep the masses in check.

The Pharisee’s in a position to do something about it.  So why doesn’t he?  He’s a community leader.  Why doesn’t he then lead his community out of the oppressive system that enslaves them?  Why does he instead keep the system in place, perpetuating the bondage?

At any rate, that’s not us.  We really can’t identify with him.

Instead, we really just want to associate with the tax collector. After all, he’s the one who said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and beat his breast and repented and went home justified by God.

So can’t we just focus on him today?  Can’t we just come to church and forget about the political circus?  Can’t we just gather with others, pray and sing together, listen to a normal sermon (for once!), gather at the Lord’s Table, and just go home justified by God?  Can’t we?  Please?

Oh, I wish it were so simple!

But here’s what happens when we come to church and focus just on the tax collector.  We meet, pray, sing, and commune; and we go home justified by God; and we turn on the news or open our computers or look at our phones; and all of a sudden we’re thinking, “Dear God, thank you that I am not like these ridiculous presidential candidates.  Thank you that at least I have the discipline to go to church.  Thank you that I pray and give.  Thank you that. . . .”

And we end up proud.  We end up justifying ourselves.  We become the Pharisee.  And we forget the point of this parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

And yet, even so—even if we focus just on the tax collector—I’m sorry to say, here too, in the second place, we can’t avoid politics.  For the tax collector is part of this oppressive Roman system too: tax collectors were employed by the powers-that-be to control people economically.

Think of the modern credit card economy we live with.

Do you ever feel enslaved to it?  Do you ever feel as if the powers-that-be calculate interest rates to be just the right amount—just enough to keep you in debt but not so much to bankrupt you?

That’s how the masses felt towards the tax collector.  Except it wasn’t a big company to be mad at, like Chase or Capital One or the Emperor’s 1st Bank, but at an individual person.

So this made the tax collector wealthy, sure; but also very alone, a kind of middle-manager outcast.  You can almost imagine him waking up one day and asking himself, “How did I get here?  Back when I was going to college and decided to major in finance, I never dreamed I’d end up here.  Yeah, college!  Those were the days!  Back then I lived on $600 a month.  Now, what with two kids in college and ever-increasing medical costs, I can’t even make ends meet with six figures!  I’m trapped forever in middle management!”

No wonder he leaves the temple humbled instead of proud!

The Pharisee is more like an executive, a more active player in perpetuating the system that’s in place, a system of rules and regulations; a system of boundaries which keep people in their place.

Either way, though, the present system has both the Pharisee and the tax collector in a kind of bondage!

Maybe you relate more to the tax collector.  How did you get here?  Now that you’re here, what can you do about it, if anything?  You feel trapped.

Or maybe you find yourself more able to relate to the Pharisee.  You’re a leader of society, a public figure.  Everywhere you go you’ve got to mind your Ps and Qs—lest some sort of Yuma scandal break out!  From time to time you wonder about issues of social justice and whether you can do anything to change injustice or maybe if in fact you’re part of the injustice.  You feel trapped too.

Either way it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t really matter who we are or what we do—whether we’re presidential candidates or parishioners in a pew; whether we identify more with the Pharisee or the tax collector.

God is after a broken spirit and a contrite heart.

God justifies the humble Pharisee just as much as the humble tax collector.  On the other hand, God humbles both the proud presidential candidate and the proud parishioner in the pew.

God calls us to be humble. We learn this from the tax collector who teaches us to focus on individual humility: he beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”; and went home justified by God as an individual.

But there’s more to it than just individual humility.  This we learn from the Pharisee.  He turns our thoughts outward, to society.  He’s not just an individual working within an oppressive system (like the tax collector), but a representative of the system.

And thus, turning our thoughts outward, a question confronts us: What about our systems?  Is God humbling us not just as individuals but also as a society?

Think about our immediate system, the Church.

We lament over the Church’s decline of the last four decades.  Attendance has been steadily falling.  Budgets have been continuously shrinking.  Many congregations around the country and the world are finding that they can no longer sustain their programs and buildings.

Is this decline God’s doing?  Is God humbling the Church’s pride?

Maybe.

Whatever the case, this so-called decline, which so many people see as negative, has a positive side: the Church is asking important questions that have needed to be asked for a very long time—questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.

In essence, the Church is looking around and saying, “How did we end up here?  Back in the early days we lived on $600 a month.  Now we can’t even seem to make ends meet on six figures!  God, be merciful to us sinners!”

We see a corporate humility.

Nevertheless—I don’t have to tell you—much pride remains in the Church.  All too often, the word bishop is interchangeable with ego.

How much more humbling needs to take place?

Now, let’s look at the bigger system: What about our nation?

With this election cycle, American democracy seems to have changed fundamentally.

Is this God’s doing?  Is God humbling our nation?

Maybe.

As a nation, we’ve begun to ask the right questions; questions that have needed to be asked for a long time; questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.  Attempts are made at righting past wrongs.  Strategies are developed to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.  Thoughts are turning toward the common good.  These are all signs of national humility.

Nevertheless, there’s quite a lot of ego floating around.  And I don’t just mean in the presidential race!  Our whole country is wound tight around pride and self-justification—around ego!

How much more humbling needs to take place?

I won’t tell you how to vote.  But, when you vote, please, consider this very important question.

Advertisements

Prayer: Hope or Action?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by timtrue

300px-widow_and_judge1

Luke 18:1-8

There’s a certain tension that comes to the surface in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

On the one hand, there’s a God-fearing widow.  And widows in the ancient world, as we know, had it rough.  There was no social security system.  There was no Medicare.  And unless she had a son to take care of her or some other unlikely benefactor, she was largely on her own to make ends meet.  Widows in the ancient world were easy targets for bullies.

On the other hand, there’s a self-serving judge, who cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of other persons.  In short, he is a key player in the system which is already stacked against the marginalized and oppressed.

We followers of Christ are meant, of course, to identify with the widow.

Early Christians were marginalized and oppressed.  Out of necessity, they had to work within the extant Roman system to make a way forward—within a system that cared nothing about God and even less about the dignity of the marginalized; within a system that was stacked against them.

But what does this mean for us today?  What should our identification with the widow look like?

Are we to spend our time in prayer, as Luke’s own commentary states—“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (v.1, emphasis added)?  Or are we to engage in persistent work, like the widow did, who kept coming, over and over, to the unjust judge until he gave in?

More simply, is this a parable about praying or doing?  As Christians, are we called to hope or to act?

And thus the tension of which I speak.

The Bible is full of examples of people—at both the individual and the community levels—who couldn’t do anything about their present situation; who were left with no other option but to hope.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  God then promised redemption and reconciliation.  But when would it come?  Adam and Eve couldn’t do anything about said redemption and reconciliation: they were left just to hope.

A similar scenario plays out with the death of Abel and banishment of Cain.  How would God redeem the cosmos now?  They could only wait—and hope.

And do you remember the story of Joseph?  He was sold into slavery—by his own jealous, ungrateful, entitled brothers.  What could he do but cry out to God in hope?

Indeed, throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear story after story of individual widows, orphans, and slaves who are powerless to do anything about their respective situations; who can only hope through prayer.

And it’s the same at the community level.  Famines hit whole nations; war comes upon communities suddenly and unexpectedly; the nation of Israel becomes enslaved to Egypt.  What else can they do but cry out to God?

And, as you know, it’s not just the Bible.  People throughout history have been left with nothing they can do about their present situation—with nothing in their power but hope through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, I can also think of numerous examples where people actually can do something about it.

“Be strong and courageous; enter the land of promise,” Joshua commanded the people of Israel.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commanded.  And, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Moses led.  David protected.  Peter founded.  Paul preached.

In more modern times, Martin Luther King, Junior stood fast against systemic injustice.

Often times we are in fact called to act.  And, it seems reasonable to me, if we do not act it is to commit the sin of omission (as we name it in one of our prayers).

So, then, which is it? Hope or action?

To which I answer, yes.

The examples I’ve given are specific situations.  Of course there are times when individuals and communities will have no choice at all but to hope through prayer!  Likewise, of course there are specific times when individuals and communities will be called to act so that it feels as if hardly any prayer is taking place at all!

But our theology of prayer must not be formed from these polar extremes.  Informed by them, yes.  But not formed from them.

There are churches whose theology of prayer is formed only by hope.  You know what their message is?  Jesus will soon return and he’s not going to like what he finds.  A great battle will ensue culminating in the destruction of the entire cosmos.  All humanity, all the fauna and flora, all the sun moon and stars—all will be blotted out at the final trumpet blast!

There’s not a lot these churches can do.  Leaders from such churches encourage their parishioners to go out into the world and make disciples, for the souls of people are all that will pass into the afterlife.  But as for going out and fighting against social injustice, there’s really not much of a need.  Christianity’s place, they say, is only to hope in a future kingdom through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, there are churches whose theology of prayer comes only from good works.  Their message is: Christ has already brought his kingdom to earth; he has therefore called us to do as much as is in our power to bring this kingdom about.

The logical consequence is that we really have little time for sitting around in contemplative prayer.  Really, we shouldn’t take time out of our schedules at all for individual or corporate prayer, or even for worship.  In fact, we should spend as little money as possible on the church.  Instead we should use all our funds to feed and clothe the poor and to fight other social injustices we see in our local world.

Do you see the two polar extremes here?  A theology of prayer focused only on hope is infrared; and a theology of prayer focused only on action is ultraviolet.  To get the white light of the Gospel in its full splendor, we must have a proper theology of prayer: hope and action together, with all their gradients.

“Roy G. Biv” is how I learned the colors of the rainbow—like a man’s name: Roy as a first name, G as his middle initial, and Biv as his last name. And then I knew the colors of the rainbow in order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  Was it the same with you?

But we all know there are many more colors in the rainbow than seven.  For when we get to that liminal area between one color and the next—between red and orange, for instance—we see combinations of the two—reddish-orange and orangeish-red and a million other gradients—so that we can’t really see where one color stops and the other starts.

A full theology of prayer includes not just the infrared and the ultraviolet but also the ROYGBIV in between—and the millions upon millions of gradients therein.

Or, more simply, prayer is both hope and action—and all the millions upon millions of ways we can combine the two.

So, to return to the main point, Jesus says you need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Do you know how to do this?  It’s not easy.  But a church with a sound theology of prayer can help.

Here are just some of the traditions that have emerged from our church’s theology of prayer: lectio divina, the Ignatian method, praying our own Anglican rosary, centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, the Daily Office, meditation, intercession, giving gifts, the examen, journaling, walking, working, singing, chanting, reading, and simply sitting in silence.

This list is not exhaustive—please inquire later if you’d like to know more.  But I mention it because it shows how prayer is both hope and action, and all the various combinations of the two.

Take advantage of these traditions.  They will help you to pray always.  They will help you not to lose heart.

Pirates, Pompey, and the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2016 by timtrue

 

pompey

Bust of Pompey

Luke 17:5-10

How about a story? It comes to us from Roman engineering history; from that great military general Pompey, who was for many years a friend of Julius Caesar; and then an enemy.

So, in 66 BCE, about a hundred years before Jesus Christ was ministering in and around Judea, Pompey was given a charge: rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates; and, especially, protect the eastern borders of the Empire—not far from Judea.

Pirates had been a terrible nuisance in the ancient world since at least the fourteenth century.  They preyed upon coastal towns, often exacting tribute from fearful town leaders or kidnapping residents and selling them into slavery.  Many Greek cities were founded inland, as a matter of fact, to be out of reach of pirates.

It didn’t help their cause at all—if one could say they had a cause—that in the year 75 Cilician pirates ended up kidnapping Julius Caesar himself.  The early historian Plutarch says that Caesar’s kidnappers initially held him ransom for a price of twenty talents of gold; but then raised it to fifty at Caesar’s own request: he was worth at least that much, he said, if not more.

And now, a few years hence, Caesar charged Pompey with the task of ridding the Mediterranean of this menace.

During his campaign to end piracy, Pompey determined to build new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  There his engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall cliffs, whole mountainsides, often lined with the durable and hardy mulberry tree.

Soon, one of Pompey’s chief engineers discovered a way to accomplish this challenging task—in relatively short order too!—by spreading mustard seeds wherever the digging was to occur.  The mustard seed planted easily, grew quickly, and spread invasively, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.

So effective was this annual plant’s invasiveness that after only a few months an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, could be dug away and shaped into the harbors Pompey envisioned.  On occasion, digging wasn’t even necessary: records tell (so I’ve heard) that a few hillsides infested with the mustard plant simply crumbled and fell into the water.

Now, why do I tell this story about Pompey?  Because all this happened a century or so before Jesus tells today’s parable about the mustard seed.

Pompey was a very famous Roman military general.  He had spent time in the Palestinian region.  His engineering crews had discovered a way to make fast work of erosion to their great advantage using the mustard plant, so invasive that it could uproot the hardy mulberry tree; or command a mountain to be cast into the sea.

So: do you think anyone who heard Jesus that day might have remembered Pompey?  Pompey’s challenge was how to make new harbors when hardy trees and even mountainsides stood in the way.  For most people, this would have seemed an impossible task.  Yet Pompey believed he could bring it about; and he did.

And his belief—his faith—was about the size of a mustard seed.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The apostles heard this and—I’m certain!—immediately thought of Pompey and his amazing accomplishment.  We hear this and—I’d be willing to wager—we don’t.  Show of hands: how many of you thought of Pompey’s pirate-ridding accomplishments the moment Pat read today’s Gospel?

Instead, don’t we tend to think of our faith in terms of quantification?  “Lord,” we say with the apostles, “increase our faith!”  We then think that surely our faith must be small, smaller than even the itsy-bitsy mustard seed, for life is difficult and we rarely get what we feel should be coming to us; but, as we see in today’s passage, even if I had a little faith I could do incredible things.

Now, in fact, there’s a whole branch of modern-day American evangelical Christianity that promotes this message.  If you are sick, they say, pray and ask Jesus to heal you; then just believe.  If you stay sick, they say, then it’s only because you don’t have enough faith: you must pray for more.

The argument is just the same with money: if you’re poor, they say, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  Pray and believe; name it and claim it; and if your faith is large enough, why, anything you can dream of will be yours.

Faith is quantifiable, they want us to believe.  And the more money you send to them, they tell you, the more faith you will possess.

When the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” and Jesus answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—what we hear Jesus saying is, “Oh, if only you had even a little bit of faith; but as it is, you really don’t have any.”  The result is that we hear this parable in a modern, American, evangelical, prosperity-gospel, consumer sort of way: faith becomes an individual possession, a kind of talent or skillset that makes me an expert when I find out how to obtain it, to be envied by those who haven’t yet figured it out.

But, instead, when the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus’ response is really more along these lines: “Oh, don’t you know?  You already have faith.  Don’t you remember Pompey?  He believed he could move mulberry trees and indeed whole mountainsides in order to make his harbors.  And he did!  If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and indeed you do!—you can throw this mulberry tree into the sea too!”

With the apostles, we cry to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  And the Lord replies, “Oh, but you already have faith.  And with it you can move mountains!”

So why don’t we?

There’s no shortage of mountains in our world.  You all know this.  Right on our doorstep, for instance—right here in Yuma County—we have one of the lowest percentages in the country of high-school graduates who go on to college.  We also have one of the highest rates of unemployment.  Trader Joe’s won’t even open up a store here.  These are big problems.  They can feel like mountains.

But Pompey moved mountains and cast mulberry trees into the sea and thus built his harbors with a faith the size of a mustard seed.

How so?  He didn’t rely on himself—his own knowledge and talents and expertise or whatever.  Instead, he called on his chief engineers—to think creatively, to experiment.  And also he relied on his army—his employees, if you will.  This was his community.

And why did he do it?  To rid the Mediterranean from the pirates that controlled it, for the sake of the common good!  This was his mission: the common good.

And so, Plutarch writes, “Thus was this war ended, and the whole power of the pirates at sea dissolved everywhere in the space of three months” (Dryden’s translation).

But—and I think here is where we find our answer—Pompey’s faith was not our modern-day, American, evangelical, consumer understanding of faith.  For Pompey—and, more importantly, for Jesus—faith was not understood as something to be individually possessed; a thing to be stocked up, hoarded, and stored away as some kind of commodity; so that if we’re ever sick or suddenly encounter financial ruin we can somehow pull it out as a spiritual antibiotic or divine debit card.

Rather, Pompey understood the mission set before him; and he knew he couldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus Christ understood the mission before him; and he knew he wouldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus came to earth as God incarnate; and lived and died and rose again.  But he didn’t ascend to the right hand of the Father until after his disciples understood their mission.

And their mission is our mission.  We have been called to transform this troubled, confused, mixed-up, bewildered world into the very Kingdom of God, for the sake of the common good.

And how is this mission ever going to go forward if our focus is on our individual selves and how much of a consumer-faith we can acquire?  Or not!

Instead, we must bind together, put our heads together, call on our chief engineers to think creatively, to experiment with new ways of thinking; in order to rid our seas from the pirates that now control them.  For the sake of the common good!

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do; you do!—you can move mountains.