Archive for February, 2019

The Grittier, Earthier Version

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered this past Sunday:

Luke 6:17-26

1.

Ahhh, the beatitudes!

And I’m thinking, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”: familiar words of comfort and affirmation!

But when I listen, something about this version seems a little jarring. This version starts out with, simply, “Blessed are you who are poor.” There’s no “in spirit.” What’s that about?

This version seems grittier, more earthy, less spiritual.

And then, as I continue to listen, Jesus bring in woes. “But woe to you who are rich,” he declares.

And somehow I don’t quite remember hearing this version of the beatitudes before. What Bible version is this anyway?

Well, it’s not the version; it’s the Evangelist.

That other version of the beatitudes, the one where Jesus starts out by blessing the poor in spirit, the one without the woes—and, if you’re like me, the one you remember when you think of the beatitudes—that version is over in the Gospel of Matthew.

In the words of theologian David Ostendorf, Matthew’s is “the watered-down, spiritualized version . . . preferable and more comfortable” than what we hear today: the version according to St. Luke.

And the way Luke tells it—not Matthew—blessings and woes fall upon people in the real world, in their present socioeconomic and political contexts.

Luke is grittier and earthier than Matthew.

But, at the same time, this does not mean that Luke is any less spiritual.

2.

To set the stage then, let’s notice a couple of details.

First, Luke points out that Jesus focuses particularly on his disciples in the midst of a great multitude. Jesus is addressing his disciples specifically here; but it’s a public meeting: the great multitude is invited to listen in.

Today Jesus is talking to the church; and the wide world is eavesdropping! His comments deal with us, Christians, and how we are to behave as citizens of his new realm while simultaneously living as ex-pats in the old realm. But he says them to both disciples and eavesdroppers.

And the second detail, which I find curious, is that here Jesus delivers a sermon on a plain, “a level place”; not a Sermon on the Mount as it is said over in Matthew. Here, in Luke, Jesus speaks to us “on the level.”

So then, what’s the meaning of these grittier, earthier beatitudes?

Four blessings find their counterparts in four woes:

Blessing               Woe

Poor                     Rich

Hungry                Full

Weeping              Laughing

Reviled                 Spoken well of, uplifted

You know, when I read through this list, I don’t know about you but I find myself identifying a lot more with the right side than the left.

I mean, I might feel like next month’s car payment is going to be tight; so what do I do? I determine that I just won’t be able to go out to dinner as much this month. Right?

I might have to cut back now and again, put a temporary crimp in my lifestyle; but in the context of most of the world I’m not exactly poor. No, whether or not I care to admit it, I’m quite rich.

And that’s not on the side of blessing; but the woe counterpart. Huh.

Next, I can’t remember the last time I felt a pang of hunger—unless it was self-imposed because of a diet or whatever. In fact, there’s so much food around me all the time that I have to go on a diet in order to cut back! No, I’m not in the “hungry” category but the “full.”

So, that’s 0 for 2.

As for the third, there are times where I weep, sure. Just turn on the news! Still, my life’s pretty easy. And where it’s not easy, there’s much at my disposal to make it easier—a good book, TV shows, comfort foods, a fire in the hearth at the press of a button. . . .

Like food, various forms of personal levity are seemingly omnipresent. And again, no: if I had to pick between the two, I’d definitely fall more on the laughing side of the spectrum than the weeping.

So that’s strike three.

But maybe I can take a foul tip on that last one; I do weep from time to time, after all. Pitch me another.

And, yes, here we go. I can definitely think of times when people hated me, excluded me, reviled me, and defamed me.

Like that one time in eighth grade when all my so-called friends conspired not to talk to me for the whole day. Or like that one time when those people spread that slanderous rumor about me. How’s it go again? Haters gonn’ hate.

Still, what’s the woe counterpart? Someone speaking well of me. Has that ever happened? If I’m honest with myself, only like every day!

And yet again, whether I care to admit it or not, I fall well over to the right side on this spectrum too.

Guess that makes me 0 for 4. What about you?

3.

What a confrontational passage!

We are Episcopalians in the USA. Most of us are rich, well fed, happy, and included. We like things this way. In fact, we’ve worked hard to make them this way. They are blessings to us—no doubt!

However, according to what Luke tells us today, what we consider our blessings actually are more woeful to us: they tend to work toward our spiritual detriment more than toward our spiritual benefit.

On the other hand, the true blessings work the other way around: being poor, hungry, mournful, or excluded works to our spiritual benefit!

Maybe they’re blessings because they compel us to look away from ourselves to God. Not sure wealth, food, happiness, and a good reputation affect us similarly.

But, really, who wants these things? Would any man willingly enter into poverty? Would any woman intentionally remove herself from every available food source? Would anyone purposefully prefer mourning to happiness; or to live as a societal outcast?

Instead, rightly, we seek wellness, a balanced lifestyle. We even say, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not, “Poverty, hunger, and the pursuit of destitution.”

And when we find it, wellness, that balanced sweet spot, we thank God for it; for it is truly a blessing.

So, what is Luke getting at here?

4.

Maybe it will help to keep in mind that Jesus is not speaking in dualities.

These beatitudes and their woe counterparts are not either-or propositions, as if to say you are either poor or rich, either hungry or full, either weeping or laughing, either reviled or spoken well of—one or the other with no middle ground.

Rather, think of each beatitude and its counterpart as the two ends of a spectrum.

So, you might very well fall on the rich side of the poor/rich spectrum. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay there.

And I’m not talking here about giving away all your possessions! I am talking about mindset.

Regardless of where you land on this spectrum, can you put yourself in the shoes of those who have less than you do?

What is it like, for instance, to live paycheck to paycheck and not have good healthcare; and suddenly receive a bill for $25,000 for your child’s “emergency tonsillectomy”? Can you identify with that family when they cry foul? Are you able to empathize with them?

Or what about the hungry/full spectrum?

Have you ever experienced not knowing when or how you will find your next meal? Can you imagine it? The pain? The fears? The desperation?

Once you do begin to imagine it, you’re one step closer to standing in solidarity with that person who is truly hungry.

We could reflect similarly about the weeping/laughing spectrum and the reviled/uplifted spectrum; and I commend that to you as a personal spiritual exercise.

But the point that we must not miss today is the great equalizing effect of Jesus’ new realm; the realm to which we truly belong.

It’s not either poor or rich. Love brings both poor and rich together. Love eradicates socioeconomic differences.

Again, it’s not either hungry or full; either weeping or laughing; either reviled or uplifted—black or white, female or male, gay or straight, trans or cis, old or young, full-bodied or athletic, disabled or able-bodied, or any of the other labels and distinctions we slap on those who are different than we are.

Love reorients relationships and reverses socioeconomic and political injustices; love brings both one and the other together as true equals.

And when that happens, all people—disciples and eavesdroppers!—all are truly blessed.

Doldrums Evangelism

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on February 10, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 15:1-11

1.

How do you feel about evangelism? And here I’m not talking about the technical definition of the word, the carrying out of good news. Rather, what is your gut reaction when you hear the word? Evangelism. What pictures come to your mind’s eye? What do you want to do? Roll your eyes? Turn and run away?

Now, evangelism goes two ways, right? As Christians, we are called to carry the good news outward. We are called to be evangelists. That’s the active side of evangelism.

But have you ever been on the passive side? Can you put yourself in the shoes of those to whom the “good news” is being carried?

A story from my Youth Director days comes to mind.

A local, dynamic youth pastor had just pulled off the ultimate epic evangelism event, he boasted. Then he explained: a car rally scavenger hunt.

The youth group broke into teams of four and drove around the town looking for items on a list—simple items, like a coffee cup, a slice of cheese, a cup of ice, a Polaroid selfie with a stranger.

Each item had to come from a different place; and each team had to introduce itself with the scripted, “Hi, we’re from Trinity Church’s Youth Group and we’d like you to know that Jesus loves you,” before they could request the item.

The kids had one hour. And, of course, the team with the most items won—or, if they found all the items on the list in less than an hour, the first team back with all the items won.

Sounds like fun, eh? . . . Until you heard how it unfolded!

Mostly it involved interruptions; for example, kids running into Starbucks, cutting to the front of the line, and shouting their script: “We’re from Trinity and Jesus loves you. Can we just have an empty coffee cup?”

And I remember distinctly thinking, “Man, I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it! Not sure that’s the kind of love I’m looking for. Certainly not the kind of church I’m looking for!”

Is it just me, or did you experience this kind of thing too?

Evangelism—back in the late eighties through Y2K anyway—became synonymous with obnoxious, confrontational methods of telling people your message whether they wanted to hear it or not.

A lot like consumer marketing and advertising!

But, really, is the good news a commodity for sale to the highest bidder?

Well, a while ago my family found a sign in a craft shop. I’ve often desired to hang it on the front door of our home, but still haven’t. So, this sign fairly well captures my feelings about the passive side of evangelism. It reads:

NO SOLICITING

We are too broke to buy anything

We already know who we are voting for

WE HAVE FOUND JESUS

Seriously, unless you are selling Thin Mints

PLEASE GO AWAY!!

Maybe you feel similarly. I mean, the technical word is great. But evangelism has been so misused and abused that now it feels worn out, tired.

2.

So, this brings up a question: What does a disciple of Jesus look like?

Today, we meet Simon Peter for the first time in the Gospel of Luke. He leaves everything and follows Jesus—which certainly qualifies him as a disciple. So, let’s enter his shoes for a bit.

He’s washing his nets: he’s just worked a long night shift and it’s quitting time. Unfortunately, the work’s been unproductive.

You know the kind of day. As an engineer, you’ve been agonizing over a design requiring your signature and seal. It should all work out, you keep assuring yourself; but something feels off, something you’ve maybe overlooked. You’ve been over and over the plans again and again, the deadline’s already two hours past, but you just can’t put your signature to paper in good conscience; so you give up. It’s going to have to wait till tomorrow. You pick up the phone and dial your client.

Or, as a teacher, you’ve had one of those extremely frustrating days, when the kids are grumpy and uncooperative, half of them have the sniffles and should have stayed home anyway, and finally the bells rings. You’ve still got a pile of papers to grade, but you can do it, you tell yourself, just thirty more minutes—alone, thank goodness!

Peter’s just had that kind of day: long and unproductive and he just wants to go home already.

But then this stranger named Jesus approaches and asks for his boat.

Jesus, Simon thinks. That name rings a bell. . . . Oh yeah! Isn’t he the one who people are talking about? Teaching astonishing truths and doing remarkable deeds in Capernaum?

So Simon agrees. After all, he’s washing his nets anyway; he’ll continue to clean up and otherwise wrap things up from the boat—multitask—while Jesus teaches.

But then, next, after he’s done teaching, Jesus invites Simon to do something that will require considerably more personal sacrifice.

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” Jesus says.

And what do you think goes through Simon’s mind now?

Well, what goes through that engineer’s mind when her client says, “This is unacceptable; I must have those plans by midnight or I’ll take my business elsewhere”?

Or what goes through that teacher’s mind when an administrator unexpectedly enters his empty classroom and says, “You are needed for an urgent meeting right now; it should only last an hour . . . or so”?

Doesn’t he understand, Simon must have wondered? I’ve been at this all night and there’s been nothing! And I’ve already washed my nets! Why couldn’t he have said this fifteen minutes ago? Doesn’t he know anything? Probably never fished a day in his life!

Also—a point that should not be glossed over!—Simon could have said no to Jesus. Jesus did not command but invited him.

Whatever the case, Simon responds, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

He’s tired. He just wants to go home. He could say no to Jesus.

But he obeys—and is blessed miraculously for it!

And, seeing it is so, Simon immediately spreads the good news to his partners James and John, who leave everything to join the cause with him.

3.

This is what a disciple of Jesus looks like.

Invited to share the good news, and to be blessed for it, we are called to be evangelists.

But evangelism feels so worn out. We’ve been out evangelizing for fifty years and, anyway, people don’t want to hear it. We’re tired. They’re tired. We just want to go home already!

As Peter reminds us today, that’s not an excuse; that doesn’t mean it’s time to quit!

But it does mean we probably should think about evangelism in a new way; or, maybe more helpfully, in an old, old way.

Sharing the good news through proclamation (what many have called “testimony”)—Jesus did this for me; come and see!—is only a small part of what sharing the good news—evangelism—encompasses.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus and his disciples taught the uneducated, consoled the downhearted, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and included the marginalized.

And I’m just scratching the surface! They did many other acts of love, each one a way of sharing the good news, of evangelizing.

It’s time for us to rouse ourselves, shake off our end-of-the-workday doldrums, and drop our nets on the other side of the boat. There a miraculous catch awaits!

Beyond the Tribal Walls

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 4:21-30

1.

Tribalism.

It’s a word we use in our culture to describe a group to which we belong, whose interests we care about deeply—my people, my tribe.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Which of you moms has never felt a kind of “mama bear” instinct, to protect your children—your people—no matter the cost?

Our modern culture, which places a high value on the individual, plays into tribalism especially well. You and I may be a part of one group—our church, for example. But what makes me really who I am as an individual is based on more. To which other tribes do I belong?

And these other, complementary tribes can go two ways, right?

I can belong to a smaller tribe within the larger tribe—a sub-tribe, if you will. Within St. Thomas, for instance, we have MoST, WoW, Prayers and Squares, and so on.

And, I can belong to other tribes, outside of this one—a car club, a bridge club, a sports team, the Rotary, an online chat group.

What makes me uniquely who I am, then, largely consists of the web of tribes to which I belong. My unique network of tribes makes me an individual, and hopefully a cool individual!

And so, naturally, I care a lot about certain tribes—the tribes I belong to; and the tribes I want to belong to—but as for all the other tribes out there, well, not so much. My time is precious, after all; and I just don’t have time for them. Got to draw the line somewhere!

But, despite what our culture tells us, tribalism isn’t always a good thing. We humans are inclined towards “group think” and “mob rule,” behaviors that shape our opinions and shade the truth.

So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts and challenges his own, hometown tribalism, which had become not-a-good thing.

And the tribe doesn’t like his challenge. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they ask.

Hold on, they say! They love their tribe! It’s part of what makes them who they are—what makes them unique and cool!

After all, this hometown tribe built their synagogue over the course of time into what it is today. Think of the investment: all that time, talent, and treasure!

And what does Jesus, this young upstart, know anyway? He’s just Joseph’s son, full of unrealistic ideals and pipe dreams.

And so, incredibly, these people—Jesus’ people; Jesus’ tribe—are so upset with the good news that they lead Jesus to the brow of a cliff in order to throw him off—an act that, thankfully, the Spirit prevents them from doing!

2.

What did he say to them? What did they find so provocative?

Well, first, Jesus mentions the Widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

Do you remember her? She and her son were both about to die of starvation. But God, through Elijah the prophet, brought them good news.

God could’ve sent Elijah to any widow. But God picked this one—in Sidon!

But that’s Gentile territory! She was not a part of God’s chosen people! She lived outside the tribal walls!

So next, in case his point wasn’t clear enough, Jesus mentions another character, Naaman the Syrian, who was suffering from leprosy.

This time God sent Elisha, another prophet.

And again, God could have picked any leper to demonstrate that the good news sets people free from all kinds of oppression. God could have picked a leper from among the Israelites, the chosen people of God, the tribe.

But God did not. Instead, through the prophet Elisha God again proclaimed the good news to someone outside of the tribe!

What did Jesus’ hometown tribe find to be so provocative? Jesus’ mission for him and for them was to go outward, to proclaim the good news to people who are not a part of the tribe!

God’s people have good news. It’s freedom for captives. It’s sight to the blind. It’s food for the hungry and healing for the leprous. It’s forgiveness of debts for those who owe; it’s jubilee, equality of all persons, Jew, Greek, white, black, and brown; rich, poor, and homeless; male, female, transgender, straight, and gay!

We have this good news! Keeping it to ourselves is hardly fair, hardly life-giving, hardly equal. Keeping it to ourselves, instead, is to hoard, to erect tribal walls, to keep us in and them out, to ignore the tribes we don’t have the time for. Keeping it to ourselves is anything but good news.

And two thousand years later it’s still much the same, really. As disciples, we are still called to dismantle tribal walls; we are still called to go outward; we are still called to find those specifically who are not a part of us, and to love them radically.

3.

Oh, now there’s a misunderstood word: love!

Don’t you find it curious that today we read that super-famous love passage, 1 Corinthians 13, which tells us so clearly what Christ’s love looks like; and yet we also read this passage about Jesus’ tribe trying to throw him off a cliff!

Love! Jesus tries to show his tribe what living into real love means—and their reaction is to try to kill him!

So, here’s what happens with us.

Once upon a time, we hear that Jesus means for us to go out into the world and proclaim the good news, to carry Christ’s love outward. And so we start a church.

Next, we think it’d be a good idea to have a building for our church, a visible, permanent manifestation of Christ within the greater community: to bring the good news in a stable, mutually beneficial way.

We then set our sights on turning this idea into a reality. And after a lot of hard word—a lot of time, talent, and treasure—lo and behold, we’ve done it: we’ve built our house of worship.

And, over time, we’ve developed our own unique touches. Our church has MoST. We have WoW. We have Dinners All Around. We include our pets. We are uniquely St. Thomas. Our tribe is pretty cool!

Christ is here, in our midst and in the midst of the greater community! We are proclaiming the good news! His love abounds!

What happens next, though, is the hard part. It happened to Jesus’ hometown synagogue; it happened to the church at Ephesus (cf. Revelation 2); and it happens to churches and other houses of worship today all over the world.

We lose our first love.

Instead of continuing with the work Christ left us to do—to proclaim the good news to those outside of our tribe—we look around—inside, at us—and decide, hey, we like this place.

And we decide to keep it just the way it is.

And . . . it’s gone. Our perspective has shifted. We no longer focus our communal efforts outward; instead, we’ve become preoccupied with us, our tribe.

4.

So, last week we considered Jesus’ mission statement; and today, tribalism. Put them together and we discover something about vocation, calling.

Here’s my understanding of what a pastor is called to do—what I am called to be here at St. Thomas. A lot of things really—but here’s the predominant calling—and I know some of you out there won’t agree with me; please just try to hear me out. A pastor’s calling is:

To equip the congregation to do Jesus’ mission.

The kingdom of God is not like a building project, where we plan, save, build, and pay it off—check that box, we’re done, on to the next project!

Rather, the kingdom of God is like breakers on the beach.

Go to the coast, take your shoes off, roll up your pant legs, and run out to the edge of the water. And what happens? One moment your feet are in the water, the next they’re on only sand. Over and over again!

After enough time, the tide goes in or out a little, and you adjust. Over greater amounts of time, the size of the breakers increase or decrease—some days are almost glass, others are stormy almost beyond comprehension.

The shoreline is always changing . . . but also always kind of the same.

Many things change over time. Temecula is a vastly different town than it was thirty years ago. St. Thomas is a very different church than it was thirty years ago. Building projects have been planned and completed. Lots of action items have been checked off.

But the mission continues . . . much the same as always.

The breakers that are the kingdom of God continue, wave after wave, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. So, too, the mission of carrying the good news outward is to continue, generation after generation, to break upon the shoreline of the world.

My ongoing desire is to equip us, as a congregation, to proclaim the good news beyond our tribal walls.

5.

So, that’s my sermon, really; but I want to offer an epilogue.

I don’t think what I’ve said today about vocation comes as a surprise to anybody. This is who I am and what I understand my calling to be; and what I understand our calling to be together, as a Christian community.

But—I’ve heard some pushback—some of you find my understanding of vocation unsettling. It doesn’t fit your perspective of what a pastor does, of who a pastor is.

Father Tim, I’ve heard, you’re too outwardly oriented. Obviously, you don’t care about us! What about visitations? Sunday school? Youth group? The choir? MoST? WoW? The preschool? Stephen Ministries? The Bishop’s Committee? Weddings? Baptisms? Funerals? (Etc.) Aren’t you called to be our pastor?

Short answer: Yes! Emphatically! Absolutely!

Longer answer: These are all important ministries, in which I am deeply invested. They are the individual units that contribute to the overall equipping of our congregation.

To use the Apostle Paul’s analogy from last week, each one is an important, individual part of the overall body. But the body, he writes,

does not consist of one member but of many. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . . As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

There are many ministries, yet one congregation. As your pastor, my predominant focus is on what the overall body, as a whole, is called to do and to be.

This doesn’t mean I am not concerned about the individual parts as well. I am! But it does mean I may not be able to devote the time you’d like me to devote to your specific ministry, to your particular sub-tribe.

To change the metaphor, there are numerous other trees in the forest!

Anyway, I know, thinking about our communal calling is a new perspective for some of you, maybe many of you; and taking on a new perspective is hard. A new perspective means change; and change is uncomfortable.

But, truth be told, while this perspective may be new for you, it is not new for the church. As a matter of fact, it’s as deep as our tradition goes.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus called his hometown tribe back to their mission. Ever since, the Holy Spirit has been calling the church back to this same mission, again and again, like waves breaking on the shore.

I am simply doing the same, calling us as a church to return together to our first love.