Archive for May, 2017

Adopting a Classical Cosmology

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by timtrue

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Ascension Day

1.

Since coming to St. Paul’s and the Diocese of San Diego, I’ve become keenly aware of the mainline American church’s decline over the past four decades.

Many parishes, including ours, have endured splits. Attendance and pledges have dropped significantly. Thousands of churches have closed their doors, given up, and walked away from their mission.

Here are just a few startling statistics from episcopalchurch.org demonstrating the decline in our denomination from 2005-2015:

2005                    2015

Total number of congregations:     7,635                    6,996

Active baptized members:              2.37 million         1.92 million

Average Sunday attendance:           830,706               614,241

These statistics yield an unnerving observation. Over the past decade the Episcopal Church’s average Sunday attendance has dropped by 26% and the active baptized membership has dropped by 19%; yet the total number of congregations has dropped by less than 9%. So: membership is dropping twice as fast as congregations are closing, a trend that is not sustainable.

And, thus, at the risk of sounding like a prophet of doom, I offer this prediction: the Episcopal Church will have to close many more congregations and sell off many more properties in order to reach a point of sustainability once more—even if the decline in membership plateaus!

Sad, I know. And worrisome! I mean, what if we—St. Paul’s—ever reach a point where we just can’t afford to keep the lights on anymore? Will the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in Yuma be forever cut off? And, is there anything we can do about it?

2.

Well, yes, there is something we can do about it. But before I tell you what, permit me to digress for a bit into the realm of ancient Greek cosmology. It is Ascension Day, after all; so why not hear what Plato had to say about the ascended bodies in the heavens—the sun, moon, and stars?

To begin with then, the ancient Greeks viewed our world as very unstable: our world—where we walk, talk, and otherwise live our lives—is subject to constant change.

This continual instability is readily apparent in the four elements of which our world is comprised: earth, water, air, and fire.

The order of these elements is intentional.

Earth is the heaviest. Take a handful of soil or a stone and throw it into a pond. What happens? It sinks.

Water, next, rises from the depths only as high as the air above it will allow. Or, on the flipside, rain falls; and rivers flow downward, to the sea.

Air is the element where we humans dwell—we humans, ourselves a complicated mixture of earth, water, air, and fire.

And fire, as we all know, rises through the air: it tries to escape the dominion of the air to reach its source, the sun.

Earth, water, air, fire. This is our world. And it’s constantly changing.

Earth seeks to go into the sea and sink to the bottom, where it can join the deepest pillars of the universe.

The sea itself—the water to which all waters flow—is at constant war with itself, rising and falling daily in what we call the tides. And have you ever tried to sail across it? It can be fiercer than the greatest navy; or smooth as glass. Talk about bi-polar!

Air is similarly unpredictable. It varies its temperature daily, up and down; and fluctuates vastly more broadly with the seasons—not to mention the rains, thunderings, lightnings, and tempests that so often infect it.

And as for fire, just light one and watch what happens! Anyone can see that it is trying to escape upward, back to where it belongs, back to its rightful home.

The world we inhabit is in a state of constant flux, change, even chaos.

Yet something curious happens when we gaze into the heavens: the flux, change, and chaos seem to diminish and even disappear.

Now, the planets are admittedly tricky. Take Venus. Sometimes she’s the morning star; other times she’s the evening star; and still other times she’s nowhere to be found. She can be unpredictable—which is why she’s a she and the other planets are all hes. Still, the same can be said, though to a lesser extent, about the others—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Nevertheless, there seems to be some rhyme and reason to the planets, even Venus, much more so than the chaos that surrounds us in our daily world; we just haven’t figured it out yet.

But as for the sun and the moon, well, we know what they’re all about. We can predict when the sun will rise and set; and his exact path across the sky on any given day. And, though she seems to follow the sun’s lead, we can say the same about the moon.

And beyond them? Ah, yes, the stars; the most certain, fixed, and stable things we know.

— For the ancient Greeks, all generation and corruption happened in the sub-solar region of the universe; whereas, on the other hand, the celestial region was uncorrupted, unchanging and perfect.

3.

Next, consider today’s lectionary. It tells the story of Jesus’ ascension: that day, forty days after he rose from the grave, when he commissioned his disciples to carry on his mission, instructed them to wait for the coming Holy Spirit, blessed them, and rose from their sight into the heavens.

I died and rose again, he told them.

And now I am rising to the Father, he said.

He will send the Holy Spirit soon, he said, to carry on the work I started.

In other words, he said, the Father and the Holy Spirit are in on it too: my mission, that is.

And they dwell in the heaven of heavens, he said.

Where I soon will dwell with them, he said.

We three are uncorrupted, unchanging, and perfect, he said.

My mission therefore cannot fail, he said.

Even when people reject me, he said.

Even when mainline American church membership declines, he said.

Even when congregations must close and properties must be sold, he said.

My mission cannot fail.

The Church—with an upper-case C—will prevail. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. His Church—his mission—will persevere to the end.

4.

Ancient Greek cosmology teaches us a lot about our faith.

Though things might seem to be falling apart right in front of our nose—though membership is declining and we find ourselves lamenting the “good old days,” whatever those were—we follow a Leader who is uncorrupted, unchanging, and perfect. Our ultimate mission is one that will not fail.

At the same time, however—on the other hand—ancient Greek cosmology reminds us that everyday life is in fact full of change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos.

Our mission is to share the Good News in such a way that yields transformation: transformation of individual lives into the perfect image of Christ; transformation of communities into the corporate Body of Christ; transformation of the realm of the world into the realm of God.

Indeed, just in its definition, the word transformation implies change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos.

But the Episcopal Church has largely become an established church: with established buildings and established properties and established vestments and established liturgies and established music and established traditions—

Ever wonder if our message to the world is that we’re already transformed, nothing more needed, thank you very much?

If transformation is indeed our mission, why should we ever expect those we’re hoping to reach to meet us on our terms—to adapt to our traditions?

If the Church’s decline over the past four decades confronts us with anything, it is with our need to change. The way we’ve always done church, in all its deep richness, is no longer sustainable. As ancient Greek cosmology shows us, our world is just too unstable.

5.

So, is there anything we can do about it?

While it is true that the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations have been in steady decline for the past four decades, it doesn’t have to be so for us, here, in this particular parish called St. Paul’s.

You see, here’s how decline happens.

Change makes us uncomfortable. So we try to avoid it, to control our world so that we are confronted by the least amount of change possible.

But change will happen. Long-time parishioners grow old and pass away. People get mad over a matter of theology and leave—along with their pledges. New people come—hopefully! Volunteers come and go. Staff members come and go. Rectors and bishops come and go. Change is inevitable.

When we try to avoid or ignore change; or when we try to control our environments so that we are confronted by as little change as possible, since we can’t avoid it altogether we effectively put change in the driver’s seat.

And change is a bad driver! When we let change drive us around, decline is inevitable.

On the other hand, what if we accept the truth that change will come? Or, better yet, what if we are intentional about making changes ourselves? What if we are proactive—if we actively plan for and make changes and prepare for their effects?

Then we put St. Paul’s in the driver’s seat.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a driver than a passenger.

Anyway, putting it all together, in order to combat decline in the church—in order to continue with Jesus’ mission of transformation—we must adopt an ancient Greek cosmology.

That is, we must embrace the uncomfortable idea that everyday life is full of change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos; and, at the same time, we must fix our vision on the uncorrupted, unchanging, perfect Trinity and Christ’s mission to transform the world.

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Common Focus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2017 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 10:1-10

Today’s Gospel offers us an image of sheep, shepherds, a gatekeeper, and a gate. It evokes the care and concern Jesus expresses for each of us.

He is our good shepherd, we like to say.

And so Psalm 23 comes to mind, where, yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Jesus’ rod and staff comfort me.

Or I recall that popular poem Footprints, in which, as I look back on my life’s journey, I see a pair of footprints on the beach; only during the hardest times I realize now there was only one set of footprints, not a pair. Why did you leave me alone then, Jesus, I ask? Only to hear the answer that I wasn’t alone at all; that, instead, these one-set-of-footprints times were when Jesus was in fact carrying me.

Or I bring to my mind’s eye that kitschy piece of visual art in which a blond-haired, blue-eyed shepherd Jesus is tenderly carrying a lamb across his shoulders. He is my shepherd, I think, and I am his little lamb.

Aww. How precious!

And thus today’s Christian culture has developed a whole theology of self. It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus, we say. Jesus meets me where I am, we say. What else matters, we ask, as long as I love Jesus?

Common good? Community? Church? Bah! Who needs ’em?

I’m fine on my own, thank you very much. I’ve got my Bible and my cross and my Jesus; and I’ll be fine just packing them all in my car and driving out to the beach this Sunday where I can find a spot to do church all by myself.

That’s my sheepfold. That’s my shepherd. That’s my gate.

As for the corporate church, it’s just a fallible human institution established and maintained by people who just want to perpetuate their version of reality. Where’s the corporate church—where’s that manmade institution—in the Bible? That’s what I would like to know!

Why should only priests get to consecrate the Eucharist? Why are only bishops authorized to ordain? I’ll tell you. It’s because priests and bishops made all the rules!

No, as far as I can see, nothing else matters except that I love Jesus!

We love modern Christianity, because so much of modern Christianity is all about me!

We—you and I—are the sheep, yes.

Yet Jesus is the gate.

And the gate, not the sheep, is the focus of today’s lesson.

These are Jesus’ very words, by the way. Elsewhere he says, “I am the good shepherd.” But not here; not today. Today, Jesus is the gate.

Now, a sheepfold in the ancient world was an area closed off by a tall rock wall; completely enclosed except for one opening, the gate. The top surface of the wall would be lined with thorns and sharp sticks, to discourage climbing, a sort of razor wire of the ancient world. Other than climbing over or dismantling the wall, then, there was only one way in and out of the sheepfold: through the gate.

By way of the one gate, the sheep were led out to pasture every day, to rich, green, nutritive grass—when the sun was up; when the shepherd could easily see predators and thieves by the clear light day.

And by way of the one gate, the sheep were led back into the sheepfold every night, back into safety, back into a place of protection from predators and thieves.

At a certain time in the morning, and at a certain time in the evening, the gate would open and all the sheep would pass through. Twice a day.

Otherwise, the gate was shut and locked.

The sheep were given abundant life—food, water, protection, community—because of the one gate, the one way in and out of their sheepfold, twice a day, every day.

But sheep are shortsighted.

By day, they go out to pasture. There’s plenty of room for all. They each find a delicious-looking bit of hillside or a shady dale with a year-round water source, stake out their territory, and begin to munch.

And by the clear light of day, their life looks pretty good.

So they call their friends together for a kind of show-and-tell. “He-e-ey,” they say, “look what I’ve found. Look what I’ve done. I’ve got a good job, the neighborhood’s safe, my kids are going to good schools. My life’s pretty good, eh?”

And all their friends say, “Yea-a-ah!”

But by night, all the sheep are gathered together back into the sheepfold. Now things aren’t so comfortable. It’s cramped, noisy, and smelly. Now things aren’t as easy to see. It’s dark and dusty in the sheepfold.

And so now, that same clever-yet-shortsighted sheep who outside was boasting to his friends by day all about the good life he’d made for himself—now, by night, by darkness, his conversation changes. So does his tone.

“He-e-ey,” he calls to his friends, “what’s the deal with this sheepfold anyway? Safety concerns? Wolves? Rustlers? Bah! Ever hear of electric lights? Don’t they know anything around here? If you ask me, I don’t trust the management! Hey, you listening to me? Oy, get your chops out of my fa-a-ace!”

Do you ever wonder if maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things?

Ever wonder if we here in the sheepfold are focusing so much on our own patch of grassy hillside that we lose sight of our life together? Or, even more importantly, of the gate?

Ever wonder if we get so upset at the management of the sheepfold or the discomfort of living in close fellowship with one another that we end up shortchanging ourselves of abundant life?

Ever wonder what good church is at all? Nothing else matters except that I love Jesus. So why church at all?

The goal of today’s Gospel—the trajectory; where we’re going; the end of the rainbow (if you like)—is abundant life.

Jesus is the gate through which we sheep may enjoy abundant life. And sheep don’t pass through this gate solo. All enter together; all exit together.

Let me tell you: if you’re trying to live an abundant life on your own, you will fail.

There are many aphorisms about the Christian life out there floating around, aphorisms you like, for I hear you saying them to each other:

  • Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.
  • You must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • Nothing else matters but me and Jesus.
  • Jesus meets you where you are (or, with careless grammar, where you’re at).

But here’s the straight and skinny. Whatever truth is in these aphorisms, the Christian life is not all about you, as an individual. Rather, the Christian life is about focusing on Jesus, our one gate, together. It’s a common focus.

Abundant life doesn’t happen when we’re solo. Abundant life happens only in community.

So, don’t try to enter through the gate by yourself.

You might not be able to tell so well from the English, because the word sheep in English can be either singular or plural. But in Greek, everywhere we see it today it’s plural! Always and everywhere the sheep enter and exit through the gate together.

Do you know what happens when you try to enter or exit by yourself? The gate is shut and locked!

It’s not about just you and Jesus then. It’s about the community.

We live in a country that values freedom. And for that I am grateful!

But into the third millennium–and the third century of our country’s history–freedom has become less and less about the common good and more and more about the individual. We want our individual freedoms! We want our individual rights! We demand our right to bear arms! We don’t want others to tell us what we can do with our bodies!

And just like our personal, individual freedoms, we want our personal, individual religion!

Ever see Talladega Nights? Very funny movie about NASCAR!

Well, there’s a scene in which the protagonist, Ricky Bobby, says grace before an evening meal. He starts out, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus . . .” and goes through a litany of thanksgiving for food and family and friends and money and Powerade, always addressing God as “Dear Baby Jesus,” until finally his wife can’t stand it any longer and speaks up:

“You keep praying to baby Jesus! Why don’t you pray to the grown-up Jesus?”

To which he answers, “I’m saying grace, so I’ll pray to the Jesus I want to pray to. When it’s your turn to say grace, you can pray to grown-up Jesus!”

When it comes to religion, we want our personal, individual freedoms!

But the Bible’s testimony throughout just doesn’t work that way.

In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

God did not save one person, Moses, from Pharaoh’s hand of oppression; but a whole nation.

God sent his Son, Jesus, not to save you personally, individually from your sins; God so loved the world that he sent his Son to redeem it from sin and death and to restore it to perfection.

At baptism, we are baptized into one body. Godparents are there. The congregation participates. The entrance rite into the sheepfold is a corporate act!

And how did Jesus teach us to pray? “Our Father,” he says, not my Father—and most definitely not, “My Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” According to the Bible, prayer is normally a corporate act.

And what of the Eucharist? We call this sacrament Communion, which means common union. In this sacrament we come together as one.

We have not been called to focus on our own, individual patches of grassy hillside. We have not been called to focus on the petty disagreements we have with each other and “the management.”

But we have been called to a life together, corporately, with one focus: Christ and his mission to save the world.

The sheepfold’s focus is the gate; the church’s focus is Jesus Christ.

I know this sounds counter-cultural. That’s because it is. Many aspects of Christianity are.

But the Christian religion is and always has been about the one Body of Christ and never about me as an individual. TEC is and always has been about the common good above my own, personal comfort.

And thank God it’s so!

Because, do you know what happens when we forget this—when we make it all about my personal relationship with Jesus; when we ask questions like, what else matters as long as I love Jesus?

I’ll tell you what happens. Everything gets inverted.

Instead of being transformed into the image of Christ, we transform Christ into our own image.

Instead of asking, “How can I serve Christ?” we expect him to serve me.

But it’s not about me.

It’s about the gate—and paying attention to it; to when it opens and when it shuts, and passing through when I’m supposed to: along with everyone else. It’s about abundant life, being transformed—together with you and the world—into the perfect Body of Christ.

Calling Light

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2017 by timtrue

Been a while since I’ve posted. Not that I haven’t been writing! Chalk it more up to being too busy, if anything. Out of necessity, really, my blog has dropped to a lower rung on the priority ladder recently. Maybe it’s because Holy Week and Easter make up the busiest time of the year for us pastors. Maybe it’s because a nasty virus decided to make itself at home for a while in my body. Maybe it’s because I recently announced my resignation from St. Paul’s (blog post to follow soon on THAT). Maybe, probably, it’s a combination. Whatever the case, what follows is my sermon from Easter Day, April 16.

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John 20:1-18

Today is Easter:

  • the day when Jesus rose from the dead;
  • the day when enslaving sin, darkness, and death have been forever vanquished;
  • the day when more visitors come to church than any other of the year.

And so, on this day when more visitors are likely to attend than any other, we pastors are told, trim the roses, cut the lawn, clean the bathrooms, create an inviting nursery space, provide a fun Easter egg hunt, and, by all means, preach a simple sermon!

Well, I do hope you visitors and regulars alike find our grounds appealing and our facilities clean and our Easter egg hunt fun.

But I’m not so sure about the simple sermon.

I may not be the best gauge, but my impression is that visitors to church in this day and age aren’t really looking for some easy, laid back, elevator homily. If that’s what people are after, in my experience anyway, then in this day and age, why come to church at all—on Easter or any other Sunday?

People aren’t visiting church like they used to, we all know that. The sense of obligation—the social pressure—just isn’t there anymore.

Instead, visitors to churches on this Easter Sunday—as I see it anyway—more often than not are genuinely interested in the Christian story.

So, that’s what I’m going to do today: I’m going to tell the Christian story.

And I’m not going to hold back. I’m going to ask you to put on your thinking caps; to make some connections between the old, old story and our modern lives, connections that maybe haven’t occurred to us before.

So: our starting point is a metaphor.

If you’ve been with me for the last several weeks, during Lent this year, then you’ve heard me refer to this metaphor time and again; for we’ve been hearing the Good News from the Gospel of John this year, and John makes much of this metaphor.

If you haven’t been with me, however, not to fret: the metaphor is easy enough: light and darkness.

In the Gospel of John, darkness especially represents confusion; and light, clarity.

Think back to Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the man born blind, and Lazarus. All experienced a time of confused, muddled darkness. And all came into a light of clarity, of greater understanding about who Jesus really is and how to respond to him. Even Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus in the middle of the night and then disappeared back into the darkness from which he came—even Nicodemus came into the light of the fading day in order to haul Jesus’ corpse from the cross to the tomb.

This association—darkness represents confusion and light clarity—is an easy enough one to make, even in our day and age when light is available 24/7. Things aren’t as easy to see in the darkness. We get lost more easily. We know this from personal experience. Ever been in a blackout?

This metaphor has framed our Lenten journey in the Gospel of John.

Lent is over now, yes. But we’re still in the Gospel of John.

And thus, despite a new liturgical season; despite a shift in focus from repentance to resurrection, today, with Mary Magdalene, this metaphor continues.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Some say she was a prostitute. Ever heard that one? My guess is yes. Artists throughout the centuries have portrayed her that way. It’s a popular idea. There have been several “houses for fallen women” named after her, in Europe, England, and North America.

Or, how about this one: she was the secret wife of Jesus and the mother of his children? Dan Brown popularized this rumor in his books, including The Da Vinci Code. But it’s not just fast-paced literature. This story too, like the prostitute one, has been floating around for more than a millennium.

But the Bible never says either of these things. The prostitute rumor was started by a Pope, Gregory I, in the sixth century.

My personal opinion is that he didn’t like the idea of a woman receiving so much credit; and thus sought to discredit her.

And the secret wife story? It originates, probably, from an apocryphal gospel of the second- or third-century.

So, what does the Bible say?

The answer is, not much.

She is named as having been delivered by Jesus from seven demons. We don’t know more than that—what kinds of sins she committed because of the demons’ influence on her and so on, although this demonic oppression is the connection Gregory made to prostitution.

She may very well have been the Mary of Bethany, who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. If so—which I happen to believe—then she is also the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with that expensive perfume, called nard.

Delivered from seven demons. Maybe Lazarus’s sister. Maybe the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

And then there’s what we see today, this bit in the Gospel of John.

That’s it! That’s Mary Magdalene!

Oh, but what we see today is spectacular!

She comes to the tomb, while it is still dark, and finds it empty. This confuses her—as darkness is so often equated with confusion in the Gospel. So she runs to tell the disciples.

Her confusion is expanded in the narrative that follows. Two of the disciples, Peter and another, an unnamed disciple, race to the tomb and confirm what Mary has said. The body of their friend and leader is gone. Where he was laid, now there are only rags.

One of these two disciples believes, continuing the theme of hope seen in Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea; but the Evangelist is quick to point out that still they do not understand.

They’re still confused. They’re still in darkness. And in this state they return, like Nicodemus had done, into the darkness from which they came, shaking their heads.

But Mary stays.

And she stands there weeping.

And this time it is not the light of the sun that opens Mary’s understanding, but the white light of two angels. They speak to her, and as they do a voice behind her calls and—behold!—it is Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. And in this sense, she is the first real convert to the Christian faith. Ever!

And, even more profound, she’s the first person, the only person thus far, Jesus entrusts with the Good News, the Gospel. She’s the one told by the resurrected Jesus himself to go and share the Good News that he is indeed risen from the dead.

It’s not Peter, into whose hands Jesus placed the keys to the kingdom.

It’s not John, that disciple whom Jesus loved, without whose Gospel we would be left with an incomplete Bible.

It’s not any of his male disciples—which frustrated the dickens out of Pope Gregory.

But it’s Mary Magdalene, a woman, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. It’s Mary Magdalene, who anointed Jesus’ feet with a year’s wages out of simple gratitude. It’s Mary Magdalene, whose brother Lazarus was now raised from the dead to new life.

I wonder, what would have happened to the church if Mary had not gone and done what Jesus told her to do on that day so long ago? What if Mary just threw her hands in the air, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “I’ll just let one of the men handle it”?

Never mind! Mary Magdalene is and ever will be the Apostle to the Apostles.

(And Jesus is and ever will be a feminist!)

Light is connected to clarity in the Gospel of John. But if we’ve seen anything else this year during Lent, it’s that the Light of Christ is also a call to action.

Nicodemus comes by the fading light of day, in full view of a hostile world, to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and lay it in a grave.

The Samaritan Woman drops her water jar in the full light of midday to run and tell her friends and family the Good News.

The man born blind is made to see and immediately follows Jesus.

Lazarus hears Jesus’ voice and comes forth.

And Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, tells the disciples that Jesus is risen, alleluia.

By the new light of the Easter dawn, Mary acts.

And the world is a better place for it.

By the light of this Easter Day, you too have acted; for you are here.

Now let’s go out and continue to act; and make the world a better place for the sake of the risen Christ.

Alleluia. Alleluia.