Archive for July, 2018

Love’s Superhighway

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2018 by timtrue

TECshield

John 6:1-21

1.

The information superhighway (i. s.) was supposed to be this awesome thing: awesome because now, at our fingertips, we have access to more information than ever before in only a matter of a few seconds!

You want to find a good restaurant? Why, just read the Yelp reviews. You need a new pair of shoes? They’re just a few clicks away. You can’t remember the names of the ships that went with Columbus to discover the New World? Just Google it.

But, if you’re like me, at times you might find the i. s. to be overwhelming, even paralyzing. There’s just too much information out there!

One search leads to another, which leads to another, and before I know it I’ve blown through two hours of my Saturday morning and three cups of coffee and I still don’t know the answer to what I set out looking for—or, worse, I’ve forgotten why I got on the i. s. in the first place.

Has that ever happened to you?

Now, as a church, left with the task of advancing Christ’s mission in the world around us, it goes something like this. We want to do some outreach. So how do we approach it?

Well, we grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and blow through a couple hours on the i. s.; where we find blog posts, web sites, book deals—all offering narratives of how some person or vestry or church succeeded and we can succeed too. But at the end of our drive we find ourselves still at a loss about where even to begin.

We end up, from my experience anyway, a lot like Philip in today’s Gospel.

Instead of beginning a new program of outreach, which is what we set out to do in the first place, we say things like, “Lord, how in the world are we going to do that? We’re in a lot of debt; yet six months of our operating budget wouldn’t even be enough for what we’d like to do!”

And instead of empowering us, today’s i. s. has overwhelmed us. Our outreach vision is paralyzed.

2.

But here’s the thing about the i. s.: it’s a highway of human knowledge; and human knowledge is not the same thing as love’s knowledge.

Human knowledge, however super it is, is nonetheless finite; but love’s knowledge is infinite. The i. s. comes to an end; but the highway of love’s knowledge has only just begun.

Don’t we see this in today’s Gospel?

Some five thousand people have gathered around Jesus; and they are hungry.

Jesus formulates a vision to feed them.

So Philip and Andrew, and we presume others around Jesus, gather information; but they come up short.

“This is a lot of people, Jesus,” they say. “Six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to feed them. And we’ve looked around; but all we’ve come up with is this boy who has five barley biscuits and couple of sardines. What good will that do?”

It’s an overwhelming, paralyzing problem. It would take a miracle!

In other words, they tried but failed.

Maybe it’s time to take another tack.

Or, better yet, maybe it’s time to let the idea die and move on.

But where their finite highway of information comes to an end, Jesus’ infinite highway of love has only just begun.

And somehow—I don’t claim to know, for love’s information is beyond human information—that miracle does take place. Somehow the 5,000 end up fed and satisfied, with leftovers!

3.

So, now I want to turn a corner and offer a “for instance” exercise.

For instance: What would it take to begin an outreach program for foster youth in our own backyard; in, say, Riverside County?

Most of you know I’ve done some work with Vida Joven, an orphanage in Tijuana. Well, we call it an orphanage; but it’s really a home for abandoned kids, wards of the state. It’s really the same thing, more or less, as what we in the states call a group home for foster children.

This got me thinking about foster children in our own backyard. Surely Mexico’s foster system is nowhere nearly as developed as ours, I thought; the need has got to be greater there, right?

So I sat down with a cup of coffee and took a drive on the i. s.

And I learned some facts:

  • There are about 4,000 children in the foster system (ages 0-18) in Riverside County.
  • If a child is not adopted by the time he or she reaches Middle School, chances of being adopted at all drop to near 0%.
  • Children are almost always booted out of group homes on their 18th birthday—whether they’ve completed high school or not. Happy birthday, right?
  • Nationwide, 83% of foster kids are held back by the third grade; about half graduate high school; <3% go on to earn a college degree; and 66% will be homeless, go to jail, or die within one year of leaving foster care (posted June, 2012).[I]

The needs of “orphans” in Mexico are profound; and we should not slacken our efforts with organizations like Vida Joven. However, I was surprised to learn, in the U. S. we have “orphans” too; whose needs run just as deep.

About 4,000 foster children live right in our backyard, in need of food, clothing, shelter, and, maybe even more importantly, stability and education. These statistics show: we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that our present foster system is adequate.

On another drive along the i. s., I learned about something good that is happening in San Diego County, called San Pasqual Academy.

This public charter school was the brainchild of two county supervisors who in the late 1990s decided it was time to do something about the plight of adolescent foster kids in S. D. County. The vision was to establish a residential home-and-school for foster high school students. And I’m happy to say that in 2001 SPA opened its doors, successfully defying the statistics I shared a moment ago ever since.[ii]

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take this idea a step further?

Episcopal Schools have a longstanding relationship with the Christian liberal arts tradition. This approach to education is designed to teach the whole person. It includes a spiritual element that public schools cannot. Its purpose is to develop leaders for tomorrow’s generation.

What if we brought this kind of education to foster youth in Riverside County?

Yet another drive on the i. s. took me to Imago Dei School, an Episcopal Middle School in Tucson that educates, specifically, at-risk students with the goal of making them high-school ready. It has proven to be a tremendously successful program; one that, despite being 100% private, has always been tuition-free!

Seemingly impossible funds—“six months’ wages”—can be raised! Modern-day miracles do happen. An Episcopal foster home-and-school in Riverside County, overwhelming as it feels, is possible.

4.

Jesus once had a vision to feed 5,000 people. So he asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?”

It was an overwhelming vision. So, “I don’t know,” Philip replied, paralyzed; “six months’ wages wouldn’t even be enough to pay for all the food we need.”

It would take a miracle!

Philip found himself at the end of his human knowledge—at the end of his information highway.

But there, at only just the beginning of love’s knowledge, he watched as Andrew approached Jesus with a boy who was willing to offer something: five loaves and two small fish.

And Andrew said, “It’s not enough food for five thousand people, Jesus; probably not even enough for five.”

But it was a start.

And Jesus knew it!

And I like to think the boy knew it too. Even if no one else believed in Jesus’ vision for outreach—neither Philip nor Andrew was there yet—even if it was just Jesus and a boy, it was a start.

And, as far as Jesus cared, that was enough. “Make the people sit down,” he said.

And we know what happened next. Love’s knowledge produced so much that the 5,000 were fed and satisfied; and twelve basketfuls of leftovers were gathered up.

Twelve basketfuls! Seemingly impossible funds! A miracle!

 

Does a vision for an Episcopal foster home-and-school in Riverside County feel overwhelming, maybe even paralyzing? Is your response to this vision, “It would take a miracle!”?

Yet already we have seen much more than five barley loaves and two fish in front of us—Vida Joven, San Pasqual Academy, NAES, Imago Dei School.

I pray that Jesus will take these and multiply them; and that we will see a modern-day miracle in our midst.

 

[i] Cf. https://vittana.org/43-gut-wrenching-foster-care-statistics ; https://www.nfyi.org/issues/education/ ; http://www.amarillo.com/article/20120624/NEWS/306249799

[ii] See www.sanpasqualacademy.org/background.htm

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Agenda Interrupted

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on July 22, 2018 by timtrue

FatherTim

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

1.

Today we find Jesus and his disciples on their way to a well-deserved retreat.

They’ve been traveling together around the region of Galilee, teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.

Jesus recently returned to his home town, where his reception was less than favorable.

Soon after that he sent the disciples out—apostles, he called them: “sent out ones”—to expand his mission. The apostles carried with them the power to heal people and cast out demons.

We infer from some of Jesus’ statements, however, that they did not meet with one-hundred-percent success. In fact, it may have been rather more difficult than not. They may have gone without a meal for a day or more. They may have met with hostile responses. They may even have had to shake the dust off their feet a time or two.

And while they were off expanding Jesus’ mission, we learn that John the Baptist was murdered for his ministry and mission!

The implication, now that they’ve come back together, is that Gospel work isn’t easy! Jesus and his disciples are tired. They’ve been selflessly giving of their time, talents, and treasure for the betterment of others. Their schedule has been so busy that they haven’t even had time to sit down for a leisurely meal!

Can you relate?

So, it’s time to get away, Jesus decides. He says to them, “The boat’s packed. Grab your pillows, toothbrushes, water bottles, and a snack. I’ve made reservations for us at a retreat center, so we can rest a while and center ourselves.”

Doesn’t that sound nice?

Perhaps you’ve experienced a break in your life’s frenetic routine at just the right time. If so, you know just how refreshing—and timely—a retreat like this can be: how restorative; how much of a spiritual boost; how centering it can be for the soul.

But, as they arrive at the other side of the lake it is not the deserted place Jesus imagined. He and the disciples are most definitely not by themselves!

Now, at this point, Jesus has a few options. He can try to escape with his disciples—though it’s very likely the crowd will see where they are headed and beat them there. He can tell the crowd to go away—which it may or may not do. Or, he can minister to the needy crowd now and postpone his agenda.

What does he decide? The Gospel says it this way: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus decides compassion!

2.

Pathos is the Greek word here. Jesus had pathos for the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

From pathos we get our English words pathetic, sympathetic, sympathy, empathy, pathological—to name but a few.

There’s something of pity and compassion in each word. Either of these is an acceptable translation into English: pity or compassion.

But their meanings are quite different, aren’t they? “Jesus had pity on the crowd” means something quite distinct from “Jesus had compassion on the crowd.”

The translators of our version of the Bible, the NRSV, went with compassion. And I’m glad they did, for I think compassion captures the reality of Jesus here much better than pity.

The chief difference in my thinking is this: pity is removed; whereas compassion is involved.

Pity suggests a sort of distance. I feel a type of sorrow for my neighbor because my neighbor’s plight is so pitiable. So, out of the goodness of my heart I decide to do something about it—I buy her a pair of shoes; I offer him a ride; I throw some money her way. And I go on with my life.

Pity has left me feeling sorry for my neighbor, maybe even sorry enough to do something about it. But at the end of the day I’m still over here dealing with my life and she’s still over there dealing with hers: a distance still remains between us.

But compassion is up close and personal, involved.

The word itself means, literally, suffering with, or suffering alongside. There’s no “us vs. them” here. Compassion comes alongside the neighbor and, like the Samaritan who helped the man in the ditch, gets wrapped up in the dirty details.

And today compassion, not pity, wins out.

Jesus cancels the retreat forthwith. He sets aside his agenda and instead comes alongside the desperate, noisy, dirty, smelly, needy crowd; and suffers with them.

It’s exactly what he did on a much larger scale: In the Incarnation, the Christ emptied himself of the Godhead; and took on humanity. He came alongside the whole world—the cosmos—and took on its suffering.

And it’s exactly what he calls us to do: to be moved by the hurting, desperate, needy people of our day; and not merely to have pity on them, but compassion—to come alongside and suffer with them.

We are called to live out the Incarnation. We are called to compassion.

3.

The key word here is we.

Compassion is not something only for Jesus; or only for the priest.

I don’t know why—maybe the terminology has something to do with it—but whenever someone in the congregation gets sick or is experiencing grief or desires wise counsel, why, the thinking often goes, it’s the pastor’s job. After all, we call it pastoral care.

But this is not the model Jesus left for us.

Jesus has compassion on the crowds. And the first thing he does is cancel his planned retreat with the disciples!

He doesn’t pull Peter aside and say, “Okay, look. This crowd of people needs pastoral care. So why don’t you take the disciples and go on to the retreat center without me? Here’s the address. When you get there, look up the program director and tell her I won’t be coming and that you’re the main point of contact. Be well; and enjoy this time of renewal with the others! I’ll meet you at the Starbucks in Capernaum in three days.”

No! He cancels the retreat—forthwith!—and the disciples stay with him, helping him minister to all who are sick.

Pastoral care is not a solo act, but a team effort.

So, now, for kicks, let’s just think through logically this concept of pastoral care. And, for the record, I’m not whining here—just trying to give you a window into what priests do.

There are about 375 names on our rolls here at St. Thomas; and one priest.

This priest, me, has more than 50 emails and a handful of phone calls to deal with every day; and two sermons to write each week, which must include several hours of study and preparation in order to make them worthwhile; and preparations to make for the adult forum or confirmation class or whatever other program might be going on.

Then there’s the monthly finance meeting, the Bishop’s Committee meeting (to plan and lead), and any number of diocesan meetings and reports to navigate.

And we mustn’t leave out the occasional weddings, funerals, and baptisms to plan and officiate; and participation in diocesan ministries, like serving as Chaplain at Camp Stevens.

Then there are the myriad other meetings and community gatherings to attend, happening seemingly all the time; and staff to oversee, preschool appearances to make, and newsletter articles to write.

And somehow in the midst of it all—I am supposedly a spiritual leader, after all—I’ve got to maintain some semblance of a prayer life, keep up with church leadership trends, stay current in my studies, and find time to be a dad and husband.

Sound frenetic enough? And I haven’t even mentioned pastoral care yet!

Even Jesus could heal only one person at a time!

Here’s the thing: it wasn’t just Jesus doing the work, but Jesus and the disciples. It’s not just the pastor who is called to do pastoral care, but all of us: the priest and the parishioners.

Look around for just a moment. You are a part of a community. Some of you know each other very well; some of you have known each other for years and years.

You are in a unique and privileged place, able to show compassion to each other, able to be Jesus to each other!

And, frankly, some of you are way better at pastoral care than I am; and much more available to offer it than I am.

Jesus calls us to compassion.

4.

That said, I want to end today’s message with a plug. Two ministries in particular here at St. Thomas are all about compassion: LEVs and Stephen Ministries.

LEVs stands for Lay Eucharistic Visitors. These are, as the name indicates, laypersons who take the Eucharist out to those who for whatever reason are unable to attend church.

It’s a very important and vital ministry, allowing those who are shut in the opportunity to commune with Christ and his church—the opportunity to be included in the community.

And right now we have only two active LEVs!

Would you like to show compassion as Jesus showed compassion? Here is a ready-made way. Join the LEV team. If interested, please let me know!

And, second, Stephen Ministries provides the opportunity to cultivate ongoing relationships with those in need, showing compassion through prayer and fellowship.

The training for Stephen Ministers is quite extensive, requiring some fifty hours before being sent out. But, for those who’ve done it, the opportunities to show compassion and the sense of reward are immense.

By the way, several people in our church will complete this required training in the next month. Soon after, we will have our very own commissioning ceremony for the St. Thomas Stephen Ministries team. Stay tuned!

And, again, if you’d like to learn more, please let me know.

 

Anyway, I hope you can see, opportunities to show the compassion Jesus calls us to are all around us. Today I focused really only on congregational needs; we didn’t even touch on outreach. But don’t worry: outreach opportunities will be the focus of future sermons, I promise.

In the meantime, as you witness these pastoral care efforts in our midst, consider ways in which you might show more compassion to those in your life, ways in which your agenda might need to be interrupted, just as Jesus showed compassion to the crowd, just as Jesus shows compassion to us.

In All the Murk

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2018 by timtrue

Operation Iraqi Freedom 04-06

Mark 16:14-29

1.

I think most of you know I wasn’t raised in the church.

I came to the Christian faith through a series of tough life events during my adolescence. My parents’ divorce was the catalyst: it sent me on a spiritual quest—a quest I’m still on to this day!

Early on in my faith journey, during high school, I attended some off-campus Bible studies taught by adult leaders of local youth organizations.

These leaders weren’t ordained; nor did they claim to be Bible scholars. They simply loved Jesus and wanted to do something with their lives that made a difference. And they definitely made a difference in my life, for which I am grateful!

However, some of the lessons I learned in those early days were not the best.

Jesus, I was taught, has all the answers I’ll ever need. God will make his will known to me—his exceedingly abundant will for my life—if I’m just patient in my personal prayers and Bible reading—in my “quiet times.”

All would be made clear in time, I was taught; and if all didn’t become clear, why then it was my fault: I didn’t have enough faith; or I was being stubborn, stiff-necked, hard-hearted.

My Christian faith, I was taught, should make things black-and-white, easy-schmeasy.

In other words, I was presented with a kind of Clarity Spectrum; a way to gauge my faith.

If the road ahead seemed clear to me, then I could be sure I was walking with Jesus as I should be.

On the other hand, if the road ahead was murky, well then something was wrong. I needed to spend more time in prayer, reading and studying the Bible, going to church, confessing my sins, volunteering at the local rescue mission; or maybe I just needed to give more money.

Have you ever heard this kind of Christian teaching?

Well, it shaped me profoundly in my early spiritual quest, affecting even the many decisions I’d make each day—from the insignificant ones, like which pair of shoes I should wear; to the huge ones, like where I should go to college.

When it came to reading the Bible, I’d approach passages like today’s as if they were Shakespearian tragedies.

2.

Herod has heard about a man named Jesus walking the countryside with a group of disciples, teaching, preaching, and healing. He then worries that this man might be John the Baptist risen from the dead. And if that’s the case, he knows, his days are numbered; for it’s only a matter of time before the risen baptizer comes for revenge.

For Herod, we learn in a grisly commentary provided by the omniscient narrator, has only recently beheaded John. Herod is riddled with guilt and fear for doing something clearly, obviously, indisputably, black-and-whitely wrong.

Today’s Gospel is a lot like Hamlet!

Do you remember him? He saw a ghost—or thought he did—the ghost of his father. And this ghost tells him he was murdered by his living brother and usurper to the throne; and that Hamlet should thus take vengeance.

Which he agrees to do.

Despite its being clearly, obviously, indisputably, black-and-whitely wrong!

Now, Hamlet doesn’t follow up on his promise straight away, but waits, waffling between fear and guilt, wondering in time whether the ghost is to be trusted or is instead some demonic spirit.

And the audience is left only to wonder: Is Hamlet’s apparition imagined? Is he going insane?

What we are not left to wonder about is good and evil. These are easy for us to see. We want to shout out at the players, especially Hamlet, “Hey! Can’t you see what’s about to happen? Don’t do it! Duh!”

Likewise, in today’s Gospel, Herod has made some really dumb decisions, clear, black-and-white, good-versus-evil decisions! And each time he has chosen the wrong way!

And now—serve him right!—he’s haunted by the fear that John the Baptist’s ghost will hunt him down and find him and take vengeance on him.

Is he imagining things? Maybe he’s going insane.

Whatever the case, reading this passage through my adolescent lens, I concluded, clearly, Herod has no faith. It’s the most logical explanation. Why else would anyone make such a foolish choice to oppose such a clearly shining example of a man of God as John the Baptist?

It was the lens I knew. Namely, truth was black-and-white, right there in front of my face, if only I took the time to notice it.

3.

So, I know my early Bible study leaders meant well and all, but this easy and clear faith doesn’t seem to jibe with the larger picture of the scriptures.

Over in Luke, for instance, we’re exhorted to count the cost; and in one of his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul bemuses, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.”

And, besides, what about before Mark wrote it all down? Was it really all that clear to Herod? Or, for that matter, John the Baptist? Was it black-and-white, as we, the audience, see so clearly today?

What was John the Baptist really like?

He ate locusts and wild honey and wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived in the desert—so we know he was eccentric. But what else?

Remember his messages? “Repent!” Or, “You cannot have your brother’s wife!” They were full of imperatives.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never done all that well with all imperatives, all the time.

And then there was that time Jesus told John, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” What was that all about? Had Jesus offended John? Was John an easily offended person? Was he thin-skinned? Was he, maybe a little, hotheaded?

He was a man of God, yes. But men of God are imperfect people too.

And what was Herod like in real time?

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was a puppet of Caesar, to be sure, put in charge of an obscure province in a far corner of the empire, eventually exiled for his excessive misuse of power.

He was also half Jewish, held in suspect—perhaps a little unfairly—by both Rome and the Jews.

Even so, in this context of potentially low, low approval ratings, Herod Antipas offered many liberties to the people groups within his domain.

During his forty-two years as Tetrarch he completed numerous beneficial building campaigns, including the establishment of the city Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which became in time a Mediterranean center of Rabbinic learning.

He also showed political sensitivity, minting image-less coins, for instance, for the Jews’ use.

Overall, he continued the program of hope begun by Augustus Caesar, who had appointed him to his position.

Now, I’m not trying to defend him; history is telling the truth: he was a tyrant. I’m merely trying to make the point that Herod had to make his way through life without clarity, without an omniscient narrator shouting directions to him as he navigated his way through each day.

Same with John the Baptist.

Same with us.

4.

Tragedies—whether in the Bible or Shakespeare—appear otherwise to us spectators.

We as the audience watch; and we see clearly where the protagonists are headed long before they see it themselves. Whether to the actors on the stage or on the silver screen, we find ourselves wanting to shout out, “Hey, can’t you see what’s right in front of your face? Don’t do it! Duh!”

That’s because we, looking at their stories, which are narrated from hindsight, see much more clearly than the players do.

Everyday life is not like this!

We wake up and, before we’re even dressed, must make choices, decisions: “Which shoes am I going to wear today?” or, “Khakis or shorts?”

Or more significant ones, like: “Is today the day we move Mom into the assisted living facility?” or, “How much longer till I can afford to see the doctor again?”

When we’re living it, we’re not so easily aware of the bigger picture going on around us, of the story each of us is in the midst of.

And we sometimes end up making choices that put us in the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time.

There is no omniscient narrator telling us, “Hey, can’t you see what’s happening? Don’t do it! Duh!”

Like John the Baptist and Herod, we are trying to navigate our way through daily life in accordance with our callings.

It’s not that the road ahead should be clear. Our faith journeys are not black-and-white. We’re not living in reality TV tragedies with omniscient narrators to guide our way.

Rather, the Christian faith is three steps forward, two steps back; or even, sometimes, two steps forward, three steps back.

Easter’s great and all; but you can’t experience resurrection without first experiencing death.

This is the real Christian story: not black-and-white, easy-schmeasy; but the two sides of death and resurrection.

Today’s Gospel focuses more on the death side.

 

And maybe this is how you feel. Maybe Christianity isn’t all Easter lilies and milk and honey and clarity for you. Maybe it’s murky, arduous, and even, at times, frightening.

If so, you’re in good company: John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, Jesus of Nazareth. . . .

If so, you’re doing nothing wrong: you do have enough faith.

God’s grace is there, in all the murk, transforming you, bringing you through death into new life.

Avoiding Spin’s Web

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2018 by timtrue

spider-web-with-water-beads-network-dewdrop[1]

Mark 6:1-13

1.

Spin.

That’s what we do to the truth, isn’t it? We spin it.

Not so long ago I walked my dog to a park, where we sat for a while and people-watched. Two little boys were playing on a slide.

It was a parallel slide: two slides ran side by side. Here was the perfect opportunity for a race. But, no, instead, one of the boys was attempting to go down the slide correctly, to slide down from the top to the bottom feet first; whereas the other boy was standing on the slide, attempting to block the first boy’s way.

A sort of cruel game ensued: the boy attempting to go down the slide the right way would pretend to begin a descent; and the second boy would predictably jump over to that slide and block his way. The first boy would then quickly scurry to the other slide, the parallel one, trying to beat the second boy’s attempts at blocking him.

This pretend-jump-switch-jump dance carried on for a bit until, at last, probably frustrated, the first boy let go for a bona fide descent. But on the way down, as fate would have it, he collided with the second boy, who promptly fell flat on his face, connecting his lower lip squarely with the slide’s surface.

Well, my dog and I continued watching, maybe passing each other a sideways glance, certainly feeling a kind of tacit vindication, as the second boy, the one who’d been blocking the slide, rose to his feet, rubbed his lip, saw a spot of his own blood on the back of his hand, began hollering, and ran straight for his mother—who was on her phone and had witnessed nothing!

Finally, grabbing his mother’s arm and pointing, he cried out, “That boy pushed me!”

Spin.

Some people put their spin on things really well—so well that we pay them for it! We’ve even given these professionals a name: spin doctors.

So, it often works like this. Someone, or a group of someones, wishes to communicate an opinion. But this spin doctor doesn’t start there—with his obvious opinion. Rather, he starts with a premise that has a ring of truth in it; and he builds upon this premise towards his conclusion, his opinion, not through logic but through spin: the manipulation of the truth.

“That boy pushed me!” And we often end up believing him.

It’s an age-old tactic; the devil does it over in Matthew.

“If you are the Son of God,” he spins, “throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Do you hear the ring of truth?

2.

Anyway, thisspin—is the backdrop to what’s going on in today’s Gospel.

Jesus has set out from his home town and begun his ministry. He’s called his disciples; he’s been teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons. And reports have reached his home town’s ears.

Imagine the excitement some of his friends and family must have felt.

Yes! One of our own has made a success of himself! Jesus has put Nazareth on the map!

Nevertheless, the neighbors soon began to whisper.

How could Jesus, the carpenter, the son of Mary, become a success? Why, he once made a few chairs and a table for me, sure; and they’re good enough quality in their own right. But he’s a carpenter, for crying out loud!—not a synagogue leader, a teacher, or a miracle worker. What gives him the right? How could anything good come out of Nazareth?

And the whispers grew; and the disdain spread; until today, when Jesus stops by for a home town visit: whatever excitement was once felt has now dissipated.

Spin has spun its web:

“And he could do no deed of power there . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

3.

It seems Aesop was right: familiarity breeds contempt.[i] Or maybe Mark Twain, who expanded Aesop’s moral, was even more right: familiarity breeds contempt—and children.

But I want to push back a bit here, on this idea that familiarity breeds contempt. In a relationship—for instance, since Mark Twain brought it up, in a marriage—is it really familiarity that breeds contempt?

I rather think it’s something else. I rather think familiarity is the goal.

At least it is early on.

Most of you have been in some kind of romantic relationship—whether marriage or dating. And if you haven’t, you probably will be someday.

So, think back to the early part of the relationship, when you were first starting to feel interested in the other person—butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, sudden surges in your heart rate, whatever.

And then she actually gives you the time of day; or he unexpectedly asks you on a date!

Well, what comes after that? Isn’t it that you clear every free moment of your schedule to spend time with this other person? Dates become top priority. You call in sick—for that is what you are, you tell yourself, love sick—just to get another few hours with your soul-mate. And when you can’t spend time together in person, it’s a phone call or face time. . . .

Relationships, especially in the early days, are all about becoming familiar with one another—increasingly familiar.

Familiarity may indeed breed children, but it does not breed contempt! It’s rather the other way around. Familiarity breeds intimacy. Familiarity breeds love.

4.

What is it, then, that breeds contempt?

Psychotherapist and author Mel Schwartz answers:

When we honor one another we’re not likely to experience contempt. The disdain comes from not getting our needs met. It originates from a turning away from your partner and a relationship philosophy that more likely resembles a “me first” attitude . . . When we devalue our partners, contempt becomes very prevalent.[ii]

We devalue the other person, Schwartz says. Ultimately, we are the ones to blame.

Now, I’ll come back to this idea—of devaluing the other person. But, first, even though we are the ones to blame, I think spin can take a good deal of blame here too.

For what is it that tells us our partner no longer meets our needs? Why do we consistently put ourselves first, ahead our loved ones? Why do we devalue the very human beings with whom we once desired to be so familiar? Isn’t it the spin we hear?

Culture tells me I’m more important than anyone else. I tell myself I’m more important than anyone else—than my spouse, than my kids, than God!

Spin has spun its web.

And when we listen to it—when we are caught in its web—we no longer believe in the relationship; it becomes powerless.

“[Jesus] could do no deed of power there . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

Whether with your spouse, your partner, your children, or your church, don’t allow spin to render your relationships powerless.

5.

So, let’s return now to the picture provided in today’s Gospel—and to this idea of devaluing the other.

Just like with the neighbors in his home town, Jesus once entered each of our lives.

Do you remember when you first met him? All was new. You maybe even cleared your schedule to get to know him better, to increase your familiarity with him, to love him.

But, again like with the home town neighbors, many of us have now lived with Jesus for a while. We’ve become familiar with him. The newness of our relationship has worn off.

Reports about his miracles and teachings have reached our ears.

Whispers have reached our ears too.

He’s not so great, we’ve heard; a wise man, maybe, but no more.

He supports family values, we’ve heard; he’s pro-life.

He supports liberal politics, we’ve heard; or conservative politics (take your pick).

He’s a feminist, we’ve heard; or he’s patriarchal.

His mission was a good idea, we’ve heard, but that ship has sailed; think of all the violence and other evils the church has practiced over the last two thousand years!

Can anything good come out of Nazareth, we’ve heard?

Spin has spun its web.

How do we respond?

There’s really no easy answer, is there? For the mind and heart work against each other: in your head, you know you should reject the spin and just believe in Jesus already; yet your heart tells you otherwise.

To make matters worse, today’s Gospel suggests that the more we struggle with unbelief—the more we listen to the spin—the less effective we render Jesus. In other words, the more we struggle with our unbelief, the more reason we find not to believe!

None of us wants that—in our heads! Yet that’s the heartfelt reality seen throughout the church today.

So, one suggestion: practice value.

Jesus has a lot to offer you—in the Eucharist, in preaching and teaching, in your own formation as a human being.

You once valued all this highly; you once spent a lot of time increasing your own familiarity with Jesus.

But now you’ve lost the sense of value in your relationship with Jesus.

So, like any other relationship, to retain or even increase its value you’ve got to work at it.

Pray, then, even when you don’t feel like praying. Attend church, fellowship with the community, study the Bible, volunteer in one of the many areas of need, and, yes, give money—even when you don’t feel like it.

Value your relationship with Jesus once again!

For, when you value your relationship with Jesus, familiarity leaves no room for contempt but increases intimacy and love; when you value your relationship with Jesus, you avoid getting caught in spin’s web.

 

[i] This moral comes from The Fox and the Lion. Mark Twain expanded on this moral in his notebook. Cf. www.twainquotes.com/Familiarity.html

[ii] Cf. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shift-mind/201010/does-familiarity-breed-contempt

 

God as Choirmaster

Posted in Homilies, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2018 by timtrue

Geoff Ward

Job 38:4-7

1.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Why?

According to one well-known evangelical leader, “God created the world for His glory”;[i] yet another answers, God created the heavens and the earth out of love.[ii]

I suppose either answer sounds reasonable enough, especially to modern evangelical Christian ears, which have been taught that God is perfect, immutable, and sovereign. We lowly humans can’t understand God’s purposes; so, I suppose, we just shrug our shoulders and get on with life.

But are these two the only possible answers? Could it be that God created the heavens and the earth for another reason?

According to the Jewish mind, the answer is yes.

A creation myth from the Midrash relates that, before creating our heavens and earth, God created a thousand other worlds, one at a time; yet none pleased God. God would make a world, decide it wasn’t right somehow, destroy it, and—clean slate—try again; until, with ours, at last, God got it right.

God did not create the world to glorify God’s self; nor did God create for love. Instead, according to this Jewish account, God created the heavens and the earth for the sheer pleasure of it.[iii]

Does this make God an artist? Did God create the heavens and the earth as an artist creates a composition, as an expression of beauty?

It’s an intriguing idea.

To explore it, we know from Genesis that one of God’s art forms is voice: the word of God goes forth from God’s mouth, “Let there be light,” and there is light.

Moreover, in the book of the prophet Zephaniah (3:17), God’s voice sings over Israel. It’s not the heavenly angels; and it’s not the people. It’s actually God who sings, who makes music.

Thus God is an artist; more specifically, God is a musician.

Maybe the creation account ought to go something more like this: “And God composed and sang, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

But the picture is not yet complete, not quite. For over in Job God mentions a celestial choir. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth,” God asks; “when the morning stars sang together?” (Job 38:4-7).

When God sang, “Let there be light,” right there alongside God, the morning stars sang too.

It’s not enough, then, to say God is a musician; or even that God is a singer and composer. The full image here is God as choirmaster.

2.

I wonder what those pre-creation choir rehearsals looked like—before that first day. I mean, when the celestial choir sang the earth into being, I’m sure they didn’t just take the stage, decked in their heavenly gowns and tuxedos, without first rehearsing—lots and lots of rehearsing.

After all, this wasn’t going to be just any old performance, just another Sunday. No! This was to be the first performance ever, the world premiere!

Not to mention, the choirmaster was, is, and will be only the greatest choirmaster ever, world without end, amen! (Don’t be nervous!)

What would the morale have been like in these rehearsals?

Maybe some of the morning stars only recently joined the celestial choir. Understandably, they’re insecure. Regardless of how inherently gifted and talented they may be, they come to their first rehearsals lacking the confidence necessary to perform as their choirmaster desires.

Other morning stars come to these rehearsals with the necessary confidence but—let’s face it—they just aren’t the best musicians. They regularly sing sharp or flat; they can’t seem to get the tune even after the umpteenth time through, even after the choirmaster places them next to someone who can sing; they clap on one and three.

Still other morning stars—not too many but there always seem to be a few in every choir—let me just say the word: ego. They’re here in God’s celestial choir too, thinking they’re God’s gift to this choir, singing out louder than everyone else around them, wanting to be heard, too confident in their abilities. Divas!

And then there’s the grumbling. The choir has failed a thousand times already! How in the world will they get it right this time? It’s the choirmaster’s fault, some of them whisper; he’s too much of a perfectionist!

But these grumblers keep it very quiet, for fear of losing their cherished places in the choir—like that guy Lucifer and the others, who lost theirs.

Anyway, first and foremost, as you can see, the choirmaster must concern himself with establishing and maintaining community. Somehow he must bring all these diverse individuals together as a team that will sound as a single instrument. This is the choirmaster’s primary goal: community.[iv]

Making music is secondary.

3.

So, let’s turn now to consider this aspect of the choirmaster’s task: making beautiful music—in other words, performance. What goes into a good performance?

First, as has already been mentioned, is lots of rehearsal time. The choirmaster and choir work, work, work until the individual choristers sound together as one—musical elements such as rhythm, timbre, and dynamics have to be precise—all must clap on two and four.

Also important is individual pitch. For a choir to be a true musical community, harmonies—even discordant harmonies—are necessary. But woe to the individual who can’t hold a pitch, who sinks flat or rises sharp even a little bit! That’s the quickest and most sure-fire way for a morning star to lose its luster.

How does the choirmaster accomplish all this—tight musical elements and precise pitches?

I recently had a conversation over coffee with Geoffrey Ward, the University Choirmaster at Sewanee. He tells me about a warm-up he does with his choir.

At his signal, his hands cupped together, the choir sings “ah” in unison. Again, at his signal—he moves his hands apart—each chorister goes to a pitch of his or her own choosing and holds it. Of course, every note of the scale, and maybe even every accidental, sounds; dissonance dominates. But it is purposeful; and it works. Finally, again at his signal—hands come back together—the choristers return to the unison.

“At first the students had trouble with this,” he explains. “They wanted to stay on the original pitch or go to the third or fifth, thus making a major triad. And they had a difficult time returning to the unison. But in time they learned to find the tri-tone, the fourth, the sixth, the minor third, or even the major seventh—and come back to the unison successfully.”[v]

Tight musical elements and precise pitches, achieved through many rehearsals.

4.

And then, maybe most important of all, a choirmaster must teach his choir to improvise. And here I don’t mean jazz!

Improvisation has been part and parcel to music for its entire history. We tend not to associate improvisation, however, with the western classical tradition because so much of its music is written down. But improvisation is there; especially when it comes to performance.

Countless decisions must be made before and during every performance—the level of dynamics at any particular point, how long to hold a fermata, when to breathe, which voice to bring out above the others, and so on. Listen to recordings; or do a YouTube search. Each ensemble performs the same piece quite differently.

What is the source of this diversity but improvisation?

In fact, prior to western notation, it was normal for court choirs largely to improvise. Polyphonic performances were based on a melody line called a cantus firmus. The choirmaster would sing this melody while the other singers would improvise their own lines from it.[vi]

This is how I imagine God the choirmaster singing with the morning stars as they set the foundations of the earth into place: God singing the cantus firmus and the morning stars improvising around it.

C. S. Lewis imagined it this way too, in The Magician’s Nephew. As Aslan sang at the founding of Narnia, one morning star improvised and an elephant rose out of the earth; another sang and a small shoot grew up rapidly to become a towering cedar; and so on.[vii]

5.

Now, here’s the best part: God’s celestial choir continues today; and we are members of it.

Creation wasn’t just a one-time, seven-day event; but is ongoing. We know this. God continues to be at work reconciling all the cosmos to God’s self through God’s people—through us, the members of God’s celestial choir.

And so, what does the image of God as choirmaster mean for us?

Two things.

One: we live in community.

Some of us are new at this, maybe lacking confidence, maybe insecure. Others of us may be surer of ourselves than we should be. Still others act like we’re God’s gift to the church—divas! Some of us might even grumble now and then. Nevertheless, God calls us to work as a team. We each keep our individual voices, but use them together, for the common good.

And two: we improvise.

The Bible is our cantus firmus, the melody from which we generate our harmonies and dissonances; just as many other voices before us have generated theirs.

We have great freedom here—to improvise and create. But, likewise, there are constraints. We don’t have the liberty to compose a new cantus firmus, or to deviate from the established rhythms, dynamics, and other musical elements we’ve been practicing together in our many rehearsals, Sunday after Sunday.

Our job is simply to sing: with each other; with the morning stars; with God. Sing.

_____________________________________________________________

[i] John Piper, “Why Did God Create the World?” last modified September 22, 2012. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/why-did-god-create-the-world

[ii] Dawson McAllister, “Why Did God Create Us? He Doesn’t Really Need Us, so Why Did He Create Anything?” no date given, accessed June 24, 2018. https://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/advice/faithdoubt/why-did-god-create-man.html

[iii] Cf. Howard Schwartz, “From Book Two, Myths of Creation: 90. Prior Worlds” no date given, accessed June 24, 2018. http://www.umsl.edu/~schwartzh/samplemyths_2.htm. Schwartz retells this story in modern English. He lists the Midrash sources from which he draws at the end of the retelling.

[iv] Cf. Lynn A. Corbin, “Building a Positive Choral Attitude,” Music Educators Journal Vol. 81, No, 4 (Jan., 1995): 24-26+49; Mary L. Cohen, “Writing between Rehearsals: A Tool for Assessment and Building Camaraderie,” Music Educators Journal Vol. 98, No. 3 (March, 2012): 43-48; Elizabeth Cassidy Parker, “The Process of Social Identity Development in Adolescent High School Choral Singers: A Grounded Theory,” Journal of Research in Music Education Vol. 62, No. 1 (April, 2014): 18-32.

[v] Geoffrey Ward (University Choirmaster) in discussion with author, June 18, 2018.

[vi] Bruce Ellis Benson, “Improvising Texts, Improvising Communities: Jazz, Interpretation, Heterophany, and the Ekklēsia” in Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 295-319.

[vii] C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1955), chapter nine.