Archive for January, 2019

Vicar’s Annual Report

Posted in Doing Church, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church’s (Temecula, California) Annual Meeting was held on January 27, 2019 at 11:30 a. m. This was included in the Annual Report, distributed prior to the Annual Meeting. It gives a good glimpse into the practical sides of running a church.

In my report this year I want to begin with a piece of financial transparency. St. Thomas is in a considerable amount of debt. Presently the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is holding our promissory note (think mortgage) in the amount of approximately $1.8 million. We are repaying it back at 5% interest. Without going into detail, what this means is that we paid down principal on the note by about $30,000 in 2018. We’re poised to do the same in 2019. Additionally, we have a “backburner” loan with the diocese of approximately $900,000—backburner because we presently pay no interest on it but still owe (and will likely start paying interest once our promissory note is paid). Long story short, we’re managing; but at our present tack it will take about 75 years to pay off our total debt.

It didn’t take long after my arrival at St. Thomas to sense a feeling of anxiety here. This understandable, isn’t it? We are in a large amount of debt. The mainline church has been declining in membership and pledges steadily over the past four decades. Closer to home, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego has had to make the difficult decision to sell several church properties over the last dozen years or so. So, what will happen to us if we can’t keep up?

Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing, though. I applaud the creativity I’ve seen since arriving here, especially with respect to space sharing (for a fee, of course). Our parking lot is a “Park and Ride” area. Cadenza Music Academy uses our nave for rehearsals on Thursday nights. We recently hosted a diocesan Walkabout event. Anxiety has motivated us to think in creative ways about how best to steward the property that houses our spiritual community.

Perhaps best of all, the diocese is motivated in this way too. There is keen interest on the diocese’s part to partner with us in order to help us achieve the sustainability we so desire—maybe through developing the vacant part of our land, through rethinking our promissory note’s terms, through a combination of these, or through some other means. Stay tuned in 2019 as these ideas begin to take form.

Indeed, we are moving forward with respect to our financial situation, taking action. Now, though a level of anxiety remains, what I sense is a stronger feeling of hope and vision. We are making great strides towards becoming a full-fledged parish.

But, of course, the church is not just about making ends meet. It’s more—much more—about making disciples; about rallying together as a praying community to accomplish the mission Christ has left us, to proclaim good news to the world around us and heal and care for the sick and provide hope and advocacy for the marginalized and. . . .

The Bishop’s Committee and I did a lot of hard work in 2018 around ideas. We studied a book together that examines the most important elements of church life and devoted time during each of our meetings to hash out these ideas in conversation. This year I will work with the Bishop’s Committee to glean from the best of these mission-focused ideas and begin to put them into practice.

Exciting things are happening around here. Again, stay tuned in 2019!

Finally, then, the 2018 stats:

  • Eucharist celebrated 238 times: 149 on Saturday nights or Sundays; 46 on weekdays; and 43 in homes and hospitals. 6,459 total persons received.
  • Average Sunday attendance (ASA): 115.
  • Daily Office services: 12.
  • Baptisms: 1.
  • Confirmations: 5.
  • Reaffirmations: 1.
  • Weddings: 1.
  • Burials: 1.
  • Pledging (as of 1/15/2019): $163,014 ($167,672 last year).

Doing our Mission Statement

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered to St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 27, 2019. It was also the day of the Annual Meeting. It was also Mozart’s 263rd birthday (and Cadenza Music School joined us–it was glorious!).

Luke 4:14-21

1.

Before diving into today’s Gospel, let’s take a moment to gain our contextual bearings. Once upon a time, Jesus left his childhood home. Now he’s back. Where has he been in the meantime?

According to St. Luke the Evangelist, Jesus has just been tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights—a narrative we’ll explore more carefully during Lent. And just before that, Jesus was baptized—a narrative we considered two weeks ago.

But where was Jesus before his baptism, between then and the once upon a time when he left home? What was he doing? Carpentering?

More likely, he was studying and teaching. Maybe even with his cousin, John the Baptist. That’s what a good number of Jesus scholars think anyway, going so far as to suppose Jesus and John were members of the same community; a kind of monastic community; maybe even (quite speculative now) the Qumran community, from which we have the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And now, today, Jesus is back. He shows up in the midst of his hometown religious community—where he grew up—and, Luke says, is filled with the power of the Spirit.

It’s an epiphany, the start of his active ministry.

The people here know him. They’ve watched him grow up. No doubt, they’re wondering what he’s going to say.

So, you know what Luke is doing here? Luke is setting the stage for the next three years: Jesus’ ministry. In modern verbiage, Luke is giving Jesus’ mission statement.

By the way, do you ever marvel at God’s timing?

I mean, I didn’t pick out this passage today. It was chosen for me.

And long before I knew this would be today’s Gospel, the BC and I selected January 27, 2019 as the date for this year’s Annual Meeting.

And today, right here, Jesus gives his mission statement!

Meanwhile, today, right over there, we will be hearing about the work God has been doing in and through St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School; and the work we hope God will do in and through us into the future.

2.

So, following Jesus’ lead, I’m going to provoke us a little today.

Surely Jesus provoked his hometown religious community on that morning when he went into the synagogue, unrolled that scroll from Isaiah, and proclaimed that the realization of this chosen text was happening right now in their midst.

He was in fact the Messiah they were waiting for, he announced, the Messiah that all the Jews had been waiting for, for centuries!

And I’m sure they were uncomfortable—because—what we don’t read today but follows—they flatly rejected him!

These were friends and family members who’d watched him from childhood—

Who’d observed him growing in wisdom and stature—

Who’d seen him make his first, rough, misshapen carpenter’s box—

Who’d spent time with his family at synagogue fellowship meals—

Who’d seen him make mistakes as children do, as he’d played with their children—

And now he’d grown up and moved away.

He wasn’t carrying on the family tradition of carpentry. No! Instead, he’d gone off to spend time with one of his fringe cousins, John, you know, that guy who spent his days in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey!

And he’d gone away not to do something worthwhile, like build houses for people in need. He was just a wandering philosopher. Can you believe it?

I’m sure he provoked them on that day, when the Spirit carried him into his hometown synagogue; that day when he unrolled the scroll from Isaiah to that part where it says who the Messiah is and what he has come to do.

The audacity to claim that this passage was about him! That he was the Messiah! That this was his mission statement!

It provoked them. It made this hometown religious community uncomfortable, so uncomfortable in fact that these friends and family members rose up as a mob and led Jesus outside in order to hurl him off a cliff!

Yeah! We didn’t read that far today, but that’s what happens next.

And these aren’t the Pharisees we’re talking about, or the scribes, or the Sanhedrin, or the Sadducees, or any other of the people Jesus has trouble with later on in his ministry. These are his friends and family!

So, anyway, whether I provoke you or not; whether it makes you feel uncomfortable or not, this is my rationale today:

If Jesus as our Lord is stating his mission statement at the outset of his ministry (and he is), and if I as your vicar have committed my life to following him (which I have), and if we as a church are called to be his disciples (which we are), then his mission statement must be worthy of our consideration.

3.

Well, what, then, exactly, is his mission statement? And, maybe more to the point on this day of our Annual Meeting, how does his compare with ours?

So, here (again) is what Jesus read in the synagogue on that morning:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

My interpretation?

Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit to do something. And what is that something? To bring good news to the poor.

That’s it, really. The rest is just an elaboration, answering the question of what it means to bring good news to the poor. It means proclaiming release to captives; letting the oppressed go free; recovering sight for the blind; proclaiming Jubilee—that special year on Israel’s calendar when all debts are forgiven, all slaves emancipated, all socioeconomic differences eradicated.

His task was to bring good news to the poor: the marginalized, the downtrodden, and the oppressed!

And this is how we know that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him: because he actually did it! Throughout his ministry, Jesus didn’t just say his mission statement; he did it!

Jesus’ mission statement is undeniably focused on righting wrongs, on bringing justice where there is none, on doing and not just being love.

And it provoked his hometown religious community so much that they tried to throw him off a cliff!

The good news is provocative.

4.

Now, here’s our mission statement (found on the front of your bulletin):

To share Christ’s life-changing love with all people, invite and welcome them into the Body of Christ, and equip them for worship, ministry, and service.

My interpretation?

We here at St. Thomas see Christ’s life-changing love as essential; and we desire to act on his love in four ways, seen in the four verbs in our mission statement: share Christ’s love with all people; invite and welcome all people into the Body of Christ, and equip them to love and serve the Lord.

Share, invite, welcome, and equip. Good!

But—to push back a little—are we doing these things? Really doing them?

Well, for starters, we are welcoming people into the body. I think we’re pretty good at this. In fact, welcoming is often a word I hear used to describe St. Thomas: “It’s a welcoming place.”

Next, I think we’re doing pretty well at equipping too. We’re trying anyway—we’re getting better and better at equipping people to love and serve Christ, learning as we go.

But what about the first two verbs—share with and invite all people?

It seems to me we will never be very good at these until we learn to think outwardly on an ongoing basis; until we pro-actively go out into the surrounding community and really get to know our neighbors.

And I don’t just mean the nearby housing tracts. Our neighbors include places like Parker Medical Center, Citizens’ Bank, Temecula Valley Hospital, and Rancho Community Church—one of the largest houses of worship—maybe the largest—in the Temecula Valley.

Sharing Christ’s love with and inviting all people means going out and finding all those people first.

Anyway—main point here—Jesus knew that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him because he did the things he said he’d do in his mission statement. How will we know that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us? Not just by saying but by doing our mission statement.

5.

Okay, so here’s my chief concern today.

Right now is the time of year when we tend to focus a lot on how we’re doing as a church. Our annual meeting is today; our Parochial Report is due next month; ASA and pledge numbers are defining figures. So we ask questions like, “How can we increase our ASA? How can we increase pledges? How will we sustain our resources? Will we even be able to sustain them?”

How are we doing as a church? For the answer, we look to our building, budget, and attendance!

But Jesus never once mentions these.

Which leaves me to wonder: Are they distracting us from our real mission?

As your vicar, I don’t want our driving question to be, “How are we doing as a church?” Instead, let’s ask, “What are we doing for God?”

And let’s get specific about it!

What are we doing to get to know our community better—our neighbors? Do we know what their needs are—and not what we think they need, but what they tell us, through their stories? Where do they see injustice taking place around us? Then, how might we team up with them to bring justice to these places? Or, how can we collaborate with them to overcome inequality? What can we do together to overturn the nearby tables of domination and control?

So, we’re already doing a lot of things, sure. (Read the Annual Report.) But are the activities we regularly engage in furthering Christ’s mission? More bluntly, are the things we do for God; or are they, maybe, more for us?

Jesus’ own mission statement espoused such radical social transformation that even his friends and family were ready to hurl him off a cliff. Are we ready to transform our community with the Gospel, even if it provokes our friends and family members?

The Holy Spirit anointed Jesus. We know this because he did the things he said he’d do. I want to know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that the Holy Spirit has anointed us too.

Prod, Trust, Pray

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2019.

John 2:1-11

1.

What an outstanding passage from today’s Gospel, eh?

I mean, here’s Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, becoming known to the world—his epiphany, if you will—and where is he but at a party? And it’s not just any old dinner party, but a wedding, a week-long feast in the ancient world.

And what does he do for his very first sign but turn water into wine?

In one fell swoop, he both saves a host from social embarrassment and enables people to rejoice and be glad more than they already are. We don’t have to read into this story very much at all to see that Jesus enables those who are already drunk to get drunker still.

How our Baptist and Mormon friends have trouble with this one!

Have you ever heard the argument that when the term “good wine” appears in the scriptures—as it does in this passage—it actually means wine that hasn’t yet fermented? Good wine in the Bible, the argument goes, is actually grape juice and not what we would consider wine at all.

But, oh, you can’t get around this story: because the steward explains that usually the host brings out the good wine first; and that—as the steward puts it—only after the guests have become drunk is when the host brings out the inferior wine.

So, it’s right here: in the Bible people actually got drunk off good wine. In other words, Baptist friends, this ain’t grape juice!

And, by the way—I have to say it—I’m pretty sure that it was here, at this party, when that hymn was written, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.”

But, aside from all the wonderful lessons on everyday joy and gladness we can learn from this passage, I want instead to focus our time together on two vexing questions that rise to the surface here, two vexing questions about prayer.

2.

The first question is this: But why pray at all?

Last week we found Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel according to St. Luke. He went out to the Jordan River and was baptized by John along with all the other people. And we saw a bodily form, like a dove, descend and alight on Jesus; and we heard a voice from the heavens saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We heard about something else in Luke too: something that took place right after Jesus was baptized and right before the Trinity showed up; something that doesn’t make it into the other Gospels. Do you remember?

Jesus prayed. Along with all the other people, Jesus prayed. Like you and me, Jesus prayed.

But why should we pray at all?

If God is indeed sovereign—if God is the absolute creator, ruler, and sustainer of the universe—then God is going to do whatever God wants, thank you very much. So, really, will one little, insignificant prayer from me make any difference?

On the other hand, maybe God isn’t sovereign.

Maybe this doctrine of sovereignty is mistaken, a sort of theological hangover from the Middle Ages, still giving us a headache in our modern day. (I guess I’m still thinking about that party.)

Maybe, instead, God sits up in the heavens and casts divine influence this, that, or the other way—key word being influence, not sovereignty.

Maybe God doesn’t really rule over everything after all, but sits in a celestial administrative office orchestrating great Rube Goldberg-like systems of cause and effect upon our world, wringing cosmic hands together, hoping, just hoping, that everything will turn out all right.

Is this why we pray? To influence God to make one decision and not another?

Well, I don’t know about you, but this seems to me hardly satisfactory.

Whatever the case—whatever reasons we have for praying—at the end of the day our prayers won’t change a looming deadline. We won’t stop that annoying bill from coming in. We won’t put an end to poverty. We won’t cause wars to cease.

But see what happens at this wedding party! And I’m not talking about Jesus turning the water into wine.

Something else happens, before the miracle: Jesus’ own mother prods. “They have no wine,” she tells him.

Jesus hems and haws a little, a response I’ll get to shortly.

Nevertheless, after his apparent cageyness, Jesus goes ahead and performs the miracle anyway.

And we are left with the distinct impression that Jesus would not have acted without his mother prodding first.

Are you ever like Jesus’ mother here? Do you ever prod Jesus in prayer?

A startling notion! But one that offers an answer to our first question.

3.

Which brings us to the second question: Why does Jesus seem reluctant? Why the hemming and hawing? Why the apparent cageyness?

Jesus’ mother comes to him and points out, “They have no wine.”

Now, at this point St. John the Evangelist could have gone straight to the part of the story when Jesus’ mother says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” John could have skipped over altogether Jesus’ response to his mother. But he didn’t. He includes it. “Woman,” Jesus says, “what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

What concern, he asks? I’ll tell you a concern!

It’s the term Jesus uses to address his mother: woman! Isn’t this a little disrespectful? I mean, of all people, to his mother! Is Jesus somehow giving teenagers everywhere a green light to act like, well, teenagers?

Listen! Sons everywhere—and daughters too—it’s never a good idea to address your mom like this! I know I almost always counsel you to do whatever Jesus does, to follow in his footsteps and all that. But here’s an exception, okay? Just don’t!

But more seriously, there’s been a lot of debate over this question from very early on in the church’s history. Some say it’s a language issue, that when Jesus addresses his mother with the word “woman,” it didn’t come across back then as abrasively as it does now. But others say, no, it still would have been fairly abrasive.

Wherever you side on the debate, one thing’s for sure: John wants to get our attention.

The host has run out of wine; social embarrassment is imminent. And Jesus doesn’t seem to want to do anything to help. Tension!

Does prayer ever feel this way to you? Have you ever experienced a particularly difficult time in life and no matter how many times you cry out to God it feels like God just isn’t listening? Tension!

But if so, you’re not alone.

Jesus’ mom felt that way, I’m sure. And in our world today we ask questions like:

Why are there wars? Why is gun violence so prevalent? Why genocide? Why hurricanes and earthquakes?

Surely, people around the world are praying that these evils come to an end! Why doesn’t God listen? If God is good and if God hears our prayers, then why does evil persist?

The theological term for this sticky issue is theodicy. In Greek, theo means God; and we all know what dicey means. So, simply put, going to God in prayer is dicey.

Why doesn’t God just answer our prayers already?

Whatever the case, whatever tension we feel, St. John the Evangelist includes this exchange between Jesus and his mother for our benefit. That Jesus is apparently reluctant to answer his own mother shows us that we can’t begin to think we understand God. God is ineffable.

Nevertheless, when we pray, our incomprehensible God listens.

We can prod Jesus through prayer, yes; but our prayers cannot and will not manipulate God.

Or, to come from another angle, God may not answer our prayers in the ways we expect; but God has reasons we will never understand.

4.

The nature of prayer is twofold.

On the one hand, prayer can be a catalyst for divine action.

But, on the other hand, we should never think of prayer as formulaic—like, “If only I pray the right way, then _____ will surely happen.”

We pray, asking God to do something in particular. But be prepared for God to answer our prayers in unexpected ways.

Prayer is not about aligning God to our will. Rather, prayer aligns us to God’s will.

Jesus’ mother prodded him. He didn’t answer her right away.

But the story continues. She doesn’t just give up. Instead, she goes and finds the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

Jesus doesn’t answer her as she anticipates; still, she anticipates an answer. She doesn’t know how, exactly, Jesus will act. But she trusts that he will.

God hears our prayers. God considers our prayers. And—though it often happens in ways we don’t expect—God acts on our prayers.

This is why we pray.

Prod. Trust. Pray.

Not the Prim, Proper, and Perfumed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 13, 2019, also known as the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

1.

No one is getting baptized here today.

Still, today we gather around the liturgy of baptism. Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the day on our church calendar when we celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s baptism.

Jesus was right there with everyone else in the crowd that day, waiting in line to be baptized in the Jordan by that enigmatic character John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

What do you think Jesus experienced on that day?

What did that crowd look like, “filled with expectation . . . questioning in their hearts . . . whether [John] might be the Messiah”?

Did the line of people stretch farther than the eye could see? Or was the “crowd,” say, only about twenty people?

Were the people mostly young; or a good mix of all ages, including children? Or were they only men, representing their households?

What kinds of disabilities would Jesus have seen?

What kinds of clothes did the people wear? How dirty were they?

Then, what do you think Jesus overheard the crowd around him discussing? The people were filled with expectation about John’s identity, Luke says. So, what were the topics of their conversations? Religion? Politics? Small talk? Gossip about their neighbors?

And what do you think they smelled like? Lunch? Livestock? Body odor?

2.

My, how times have changed!

What picture comes to your mind today when you hear the word churchgoer? What does the crowd we find ourselves a part of today look, sound, and smell like?

Here’s what comes to my mind, a picture from the late 1980s, when I first began to attend church regularly.

I was 18 or 19 years old, never been in church more than a few times. My eyes had recently been opened to the saving knowledge of the 1980s soCal conservative evangelical image of Jesus—all gentleness and blue eyes and flowing blond hair . . . like some surfers I knew.

Jesus wasn’t like those other surfers, the ones living out of their beat-up Volkswagen vans, somehow managing to eke out livings repairing surfboards and painting fences for the friend of a friend.

No, Jesus was one of the good guys, like the surfers who managed In-N-Out Burger chains, a good job to come by, especially since they print “John 3:16” on the bottoms of their drink cups. These surfers drove respectable vehicles, pickup trucks or hatchbacks.

And the families that these gentle surfers came from—well, now, there’s a picture to behold! The dads wore ties that matched their socks and the moms wore perfectly coordinated ensembles, often with three or four little siblings in tow, just as prim and proper as their parents, hair braided or gelled, always on time.

They behaved perfectly too, in church or out, from what I could tell anyway.

And as for their smell: just one whiff and I knew, yes, here was the perfume, aftershave, and deodorant of the Promised Land.

Churchgoers par excellence!

3.

Jesus came and stood in line with the crowd to be baptized by John. John’s message was repentance. Repentance means to turn and head in a different direction. By the looks, sounds, and smells of churchgoers today, well, we’ve repented all right!

But is this what baptism is about? Our actions?

When we come to the waters of baptism, we make a public statement expressing our repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, we don’t want to live the old way anymore; but new life in Christ!

And, as we all know, the old way of life looked, sounded, and smelled like the crowd that was with Jesus on that day so many years ago on the bank of the River Jordan.

The new life is different. We mind our p’s and q’s now! We need to have everything together, to live out a life that honors Christ. Or at least we need to look like we do.

Really?

What if I change the term from churchgoer to seeker? What image comes to mind now, of a person truly seeking Jesus today?

Wise people? Magi?

Sometimes. In fact, we considered this image last week.

But, also, what about the poor, the sick, and the marginalized? What images come to mind here? Homeless persons? AIDS victims? Criminals? Do they seek Jesus too?

Seekers are not always the people we like to envision. Seekers might not fit our prim, proper, and perfumed expectations. Seekers might make us uncomfortable.

4.

So, today we remember our Lord’s baptism.

Baptism is an act; and thus, logically, we associate actions with our baptism: the clothes we wear, the things we say, how we come across to others, how we express what we believe.

But the Gospel of Luke does something different today.

There’s Jesus, standing in line with the crowd of seekers, waiting his turn to be baptized; Jesus, taking in all those sights, sounds, and smells; Jesus, himself contributing to all those sights, sounds, and smells.

But Luke passes this over as if it’s no big deal.

Just like that, Jesus is baptized along with everyone else and it’s time for the story to move on. No lingering here; no detailed development like with the birth narrative. Just, bam! And it’s over.

This is a very different telling from we hear in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the versions we will hear on this Feast day over the next two years, which are both much more detailed.

But Luke is low-key; as if to say we shouldn’t make too much out of the act of baptism—or the things we do in our new life.

Even so, there is a little detail Luke adds to the story that we mustn’t overlook, a small yet profound phrase Matthew and Mark leave out. Luke glosses over the action and instead says Jesus “was praying.”

After everyone is baptized and before the heavens open and the heavenly voice booms—right in between!—Jesus prays.

In fact, the way Luke tells it, the Spirit descends bodily and the heavenly voice resounds not as a part of his baptism but because Jesus prays. The prayer of Jesus is the cause; the dove and God’s voice are the effects.

This unique-to-Luke detail arrests our attention today.

No one from our congregation is getting baptized; the rite will not be enacted today at St. Thomas.

But that’s perfectly appropriate; because the actions in and around our baptism—how we look, sound, or smell in our new life—are not Luke’s point! Rather, today Luke declares that the baptized life is characterized by the practice of prayer.

And then it doesn’t matter: then we pray because we are grateful churchgoers; and then we pray, too, because we are needy, sick, and marginalized seekers.

Comfortable or not, thankful or in need, we pray because we want to and we have to.

5.

And the best part about today’s Gospel is what happens when you do pray.

Two things, right?

The first: the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove; and here again Luke adds a detail not seen in the other Gospels: “in bodily form.”

You don’t see your prayers ascending. You speak them into the air and they dissipate. And you’re left to wonder, Has God heard me?

Prayers seem so immaterial, so abstract!

Yet, Luke reminds us today, when you pray the Holy Spirit descends upon you as concretely as a dove in bodily form!

And second—my favorite part of all—is that voice from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

You know what this is? You’ve just earned an 89 on your faith test; and God is not that parent who spouts off, “You should have earned an A!” Instead, God puts loving arms around you and responds affirmingly, “Well done!”

You pray; and God affirms!

God loves you; God is well pleased with you.

It doesn’t matter how imperfect or perfect your life is. It doesn’t matter whether you are a churchgoer or seeker. It doesn’t even matter what you look, sound, or smell like. “You are my child,” God says, “my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Our prayers are as concrete as a bird in flight; and God affirms us, whoever we are. What better reasons to live a life characterized by prayer?

On Straight Lines

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered on Epiphany.

Matthew 2:1-12

1.

One of my favorite things about being a priest is hearing you all tell your individual stories of your journeys of faith—hearing your faith pilgrimage.

Two things about your journeys stand out to me:

  1. Each pilgrimage is unique; and,
  2. Each pilgrimage goes differently than expected.

No matter who tells me his or her story, it’s guaranteed that unanticipated forks in the spiritual road—bumps, obstacles, and barriers—will confront your faith.

So, an example from my own story:

I sensed a call to ordained ministry way back in college.

It crept in at first, quietly dropping hints, suggesting itself—insinuating itself, really—through work I was doing in churches, parachurch organizations, and Christian camps. By 1990 this sense of call had revealed itself entirely and unmistakably.

My sense of calling was so strong, in fact, that when Holly and I began to imagine the possibility of marriage—in 1991—I felt compelled to bring it to her attention.

“There’s something you should know,” I said. “I feel called to ordained ministry; and you and I both know quite a few pastors who haven’t had the easiest life. So, are you up for it? Are you ready for whatever life God might bring?”

And, like Mary, she said that she was ready to go wherever God might lead.

And I knew she was the one! (Aww.)

But where God led us from there has been anything but a straight line!

I mean, sheesh! We were at Point A and we wanted to get to Point B—and the shortest distance from Point A to Point B is a straight line, as we all know from high school geometry!

So why couldn’t we have simply gone from college straight into seminary?

But—as it turned out—for us to get from that conversation in the spring of 1991 in Davis, California, to my ordination in 2012—more than 20 years later!—in Comfort, Texas—1700 miles away!—was anything but the shortest distance!

Well, following God is like that. I know it. You know it. And the writer of Proverbs knows it: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (16:9).

Also, as we see in today’s Gospel, the Magi know it—from whom, if we pay attention, we might learn some lessons.

2.

So then, these wise men from the east had done their homework: they don’t just happen to stumble upon Jesus’ birth; they aren’t just in the right place at the right time. They were prepared from lots of time spent in study.

They were students of history and their culture’s sacred writings.

Also, they paid attention to the world around them: creation—the stars in the heavens—and their contemporary culture.

They knew both the signs of the heavens and the signs of their times.

When they recognized signs pointing to an important event, then, they were willing and ready to act.

The Magi gathered their travel wares and gifts, loaded their camels, and set out on unknown adventure, in search of a newborn king.

Beyond that? They knew very little.

Can you imagine? Setting out across the desert with expensive gifts to honor a king whose birth and existence you know about only through generations-old stories passed on orally; and how the celestial bodies happen to be aligning at the moment?

What if their interpretation were wrong? What if they were to be robbed along the way? What if their supposed king were not actually a king? What if there were no king at all?

Yet they risk the dangers of the unknown out of their faithfulness to God.

Along these lines, don’t you find their interaction with Herod curious?

The Magi were in search of a king. But Herod, who had all the pomp and circumstance of a king—and the tyrannical temperament to go with it—was not the one they sought.

And then they had the boldness to ask him for directions! “Where can we find the child who has been born the king of the Jews?”

Their pilgrimage story gets even more impressive when they find the king they seek; for, by all appearances, he’s not a king at all but a baby of peasants with a teenage mother!

However, the Magi know—their faith assures them—that, despite all appearances, here before them is the King of kings.

And they show all the thankfulness they can muster with those celebrated gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

They’ve reached their goal; they’ve gone from Point A to Point B. And it was anything but a straight line!

Yet even now they don’t stop: an angel warns them in a dream to return home by a different route, and they heed the angel’s warning. Even though they’ve “arrived,” they don’t let their guard down.

You know what this is? They do not rest on their faith’s laurels; their faith continues to remain active.

3.

Now, let’s return to that geometry idea I mentioned earlier, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

We’re standing here at Point A and we want to get to Point B.

Why can’t we just go there then? Why does God have to take us here and there and everywhere in between before we finally get there?

So, here’s my hypothesis for today: (according to human nature) we naturally think horizontally.

When we tell the stories of our faith pilgrimages, our default is to relate them in concrete terms: we talk of the ideas, events, and people who have influenced us—for good or ill—the circumstances surrounding why we have followed one path instead of another, why we took a certain fork in our spiritual road, why we climbed over one obstacle but turned around when confronted by another, and so on.

And from a horizontal perspective, this seems like anything but the shortest distance between Points A and B.

But the Magi aren’t thinking horizontally. They’re thinking vertically; focused on God’s pilgrimage for them, not on their own earthly journey.

And the result—that they successfully navigate their way across the desert safely to find the king they seek—is nothing less than mind-boggling.

They studied sacred writings and history—and their arts and culture—looking for signs of a coming king.

When they discerned these signs, they left on a journey into the unknown: family, friends, and familiarity for something entirely unfamiliar, risky, and dangerous.

And after they find what they seek—after they reach Point B—they remain teachable and attentive.

Seemingly impossible obstacles!

Anything but a straight line!

But they follow God faithfully throughout; and pass through and beyond what seems impossible.

What they show us is not a horizontal but a vertical perspective.

Points A and B are not about where we are now and where we hope to end up in space and time. Rather, they’re are about who we are now and who we hope to become in Christ.

God is Point A. We are Point B. The points are vertical, not horizontal.

And thus—well, um—the shortest distance between Points A and B is a straight line after all.

Time for Slow Church?

Posted in Doing Church, Musings with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Been falling behind a bit lately. Have a backlog of homilies from January and an Annual Report to post. Let me just say, lots going on. Here’s an article for the February newsletter:

Time for Slow Church?

We are in the Green Season again. That’s right, the season in our liturgical calendar when nothing seems to move quickly. We experience it for about six months after Pentecost; we experience it again between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Which is where we are now, on the longer side this year because Easter is late, April 21. In fact, by Ash Wednesday (March 6), we will have spent fully eight of the past twelve months in this slow, mundane season.

Maybe you’re like me and want things to happen more quickly. The season of Advent lasts only four weeks—that seems about right. Then Christmas is only 12 days—even better! Best of all is Holy Week, because it only lasts, well, a week!

But hold on a minute! Is slow all that bad?

We live in a busy world. We’re used to speed, things happening fast, instant gratification. But—as we recently considered together the Wise Men from the East—God seldom takes us from Point A to Point B via a straight line. Despite all our efforts to the contrary, God’s ways of doing things are not always the most efficient, productive, or economical.

Along these lines, pockets of humanity are coming to grips with our culture’s proclivities for promptness. Are you aware of the so-called slow movements that are (forgive me) picking up speed around the world? There’s the Slow Food movement, begun by people like you and me who were tired of consuming mass-produced foods. There’s also a Slow Cities movement (called Cittaslow—it began in Italy), which in 2014 (the date of publication of the article I read about it) included more than 140 communities in 23 countries. To qualify, cities of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants are evaluated on categories such as sustainable agriculture, local food cultivation, land use, and hospitality. By the way, there is even a World Slow Day, which falls annually on February 26.

I believe that these slow movements—not to mention other popular trends like yoga and forms of meditative prayer—demonstrate a large-scale response to the frenetic pace that characterizes today’s world. In other words, the productive, efficient lives we lead are tiring us out; wouldn’t it do us all some good if we were able just to slow down a little?

Maybe it’s time for a Slow Church movement. This is actually a thing, by the way. There’s a rather good book out there called Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. There’s also a blog worthy of your perusal: slowchurch.com/blog/. But isn’t that what we’re already doing? During that Green Season? That slow, mundane part of the liturgical year when things move along like molasses?

This Sunday’s worship service will largely be the same as last Sunday’s. I will say, “The Lord be with you”; and you will respond, “And also with you”—just like we always do during the Green Season. I will recite the same Eucharistic Prayer I recited last week. And the body and blood will taste just the same.

But that’s the point! Our faith grows best over the course of time, slowly, organically, authentically.