Archive for May, 2019

A Final Charge

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School in Temecula, California on May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

John 13:31-35

1.

Today is Day 29 of the Great 50 Days of Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen . . . but he has not yet ascended.

Jesus’ time remaining with the disciples is very limited—only eleven days to go. So, what does he have to say in these final days?

I mean, what would you say to your friends and loved ones if you knew you would be with them only eleven more days?

Here’s how the lectionary compilers imagine it. The Gospel today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, narrates the final time Jesus spoke to his disciples collectively before his death.

Surely, this is one of Jesus’ most important teachings of all!

They’ve gathered together at the last supper; Judas has just gone out. And Jesus begins, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

In other words, listen up! Jesus is not going to speak in parables, paradoxes, or riddles today. No complicated doctrine. No erudite theology. Just a simple message clear enough even for little children.

“I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

All along Jesus’ mission has been to go outward. He came to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the captives.

And he left this mission to us, to plant seeds of good news and spread them to the ends of the earth.

All this—Jesus’ mission—is very important.

But for today, as we remember Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, wedged right in the middle of them, we focus on something else: a most important, foundational, simple message.

It’s as if to say, “All that great stuff about the mission, all that going outward business—it’s nothing if we don’t love one another!”

2.

Well, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that, like with Jesus, today is my final opportunity to address you all as a collective body.

At that Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus didn’t mince words; at my last Eucharist with you, today, same.

No parables, paradoxes, or riddles; no complicated doctrine; no erudite theology. Just the plain, important message: love one another. This is where our community life’s rubber meets the road.

So simple! Right? Yet so complicated to live out!

So, in the remainder of my sermon today, my final charge to you, I’m going to address this question: What does love for one another look like in our specific setting, St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School?

After almost two years with you, I have a few suggestions I’d like to offer. How do we love one another?

My first suggestion: focus on the common good.

Many of us within the St. Thomas community have great ideas. This is a talented group! And as long as I’ve been here I’ve encouraged people to take risks with their ideas.

Create. Innovate. Collaborate. Try something new. And whether the idea succeeds or fails—that’s not the issue so much as doing something with and for the community resulting in the common good.

For example, a small team of people created an outdoor labyrinth for Easter Eve. More than fifty people showed up to walk this labyrinth in prayer, many of them from outside our community.

What an example of loving one another—and our neighbors to boot!

But what happens when an individual or small group presents a ministry to the community not for the common good as much as for the benefit of that person or group? Doesn’t the focus shift? From Christ to the group? From the common good to individuals?

So, let’s say twenty years from now the labyrinth program is still going. Now nobody really remembers the history behind it, how it began or even why; and only a few people show up when Easter Eve rolls around. Still, a few individuals feel very strongly about keeping it going. After all, they say, it’s tradition!

To which I ask, why? Is it glorifying Christ? Is it benefiting the common good? Or, maybe, on the other hand, has it become your pet project?

If it’s not benefiting the common good, or if it’s benefiting a few persons at the expense of the common good, let it go.

Ministries, programs, traditions, special interests—these things have life cycles. Maybe it’s time to let some of our precious programs die so that new life can rise up from within the community, new life that benefits the common good.

My second suggestion piggybacks on the first: increase flexibility.

Church bodies, as you know, are living organisms. They are always moving, breathing, changing. People come and go; new members join, old members move away.

For St. Thomas to benefit from this alive-ness, isn’t flexibility essential? And I’m not talking just a general tolerance for one another, but deep, out-of-your-comfort-zone flexibility.

Let’s say a newcomer visits and (out of her comfort zone) takes that brave first step of sitting down at the coffee hour or in an Adult Forum; and she joins in the conversation. What should our response be?

A general tolerance would put up with her like we put up with distant relatives when they come to our homes for a visit. We’re polite enough, we make pleasant conversation and feed them a nice meal.

But, still, they’re in my house and will therefore abide by my household rules; or I will show them the door.

In other words, we expect home visitors to assimilate to the culture we’ve established there, our culture.

But, in a church that lives out Christ’s love for one another, it cannot work that way!

When a newcomer enters into our church’s ongoing, living conversation, we must not expect her to assimilate to our ways; rather, love demands that we learn and grow from her, truly to listen to what she has to say and thereby, with her, experience ongoing, living transformation.

Flexibility is key.

Finally, my third suggestion: establish and maintain authenticity.

To illustrate what I mean, most Episcopal congregations I’m aware of are bemoaning the almost absolute disappearance of Millennials from our midst. Many of these young people have grown up in the church but have left. Why?

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. In fact, four of my kids arguably are Millennials and we’ve had many a conversation along these lines. I also have a number of colleagues and friends who fit in the “Millennials” category. Even my new boss is a Millennial!

And, you know, it’s not that Millennials are spiritually uninterested or indifferent. Actually it’s quite the opposite, as cultural-trend watchers have testified!

The number one answer I hear is that most churches are not authentic. Or, to say it another way, to Millennials, most churches feel contrived.

And that includes most Episcopal churches!

My friend David, a Millennial who works with a Episcopal congregation, explains it like this.

In the years following WWII, churches found it very important to state what they believed; for, during this ethically despairing time, doctrinal beliefs formed a kind of moral anchor for society.

Think of denominational distinctives. Lutherans and Presbyterians and Baptists are all Christians; but what makes them distinct from one another became top priority. And broader culture was grateful for the clarity.

Out of these pools of distinctive beliefs, then, communities formed and grew. And from these communities, finally, the mission of Christ—good works done in the name of love—could go forth.

That paradigm was beliefs-community-works.

And that paradigm stuck. And it has continued to stick. And it remains largely stuck in churches today.

So, according to David and other Millennials with whom I’ve spoken, it’s time for this paradigm to change. It feels contrived, inauthentic. Communities should not form around beliefs—complicated doctrine and erudite theology. Rather, communities should form around the deeds of love Christ has called us to do.

That old paradigm, in other words, should be inverted. Works of love make up the foundation that calls God’s people together into communities of love—churches; and only then, once this foundation is set in place, should churches solidify their common beliefs.

So that’s what an authentic body of Christ looks like to Millennials.

Yet, for most of us, it’s probably a different way of seeing things. It might make some of us—many of us—uncomfortable.

But remember my previous suggestions? Be out-of-your-comfort-zone flexible for the sake of the common good.

New wine needs new wineskins.

*****

Dear community of St. Thomas, seek the common good; increase your flexibility; establish and maintain your authenticity.

By this all will know that you are Christ’s disciples, if you have love for one another.

May God continue richly to bless St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School.

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From our Armchairs

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2019 by timtrue

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Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on May 12, 2019, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

John 10:22-30

1.

Today, John the Evangelist offers us deep irony.

The historical context is Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration of lights.

A couple centuries before, a Hellenistic political leader named Antiochus IV took over the Jewish Temple and decimated it by sacrificing pigs on the altar. Then the Temple was returned to the Jews; so they rededicated it.

So, the story goes, the Sabbath was approaching and the Temple lamps had to be lit. But, because of Antiochus’ abomination, hardly any clean oil could be found, certainly less than enough to last one day; and the process to make new, kosher oil would take eight days!

In faith, the Temple priests went ahead and lit the lamps, praying and hoping for the best. And, lo and behold, the lamps burned through the Sabbath; and continued burning through the following Sabbath, through the eight days needed to make new oil.

God miraculously provided for the rededicated Temple, hence the term we hear today, “the Festival of the Dedication”; a. k. a. Hanukkah. The miracle of the lamps is the focal point of the celebration. The menorah—that Jewish candelabrum with eight holders—represents the eight days.

So, today Jesus is walking in the Temple during the time of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights; when his questioners fail to acknowledge that here before them stands the very Light of the world.

“Tell us plainly,” they demand; “are you the Messiah?”

Deep irony!

2.

Now, for the record, Jesus does answer their question plainly. But, interestingly, he does not use words to explain.

I mean, really, how can you explain the unexplainable? Words are limiting.

Ever seen a sunset? You quietly sit there atop a summit watching the sun sink towards the western horizon, the Pacific Ocean. It happens to be a partly cloudy day: billowy, cottony cumulus clouds float lazily across the sky.

The colors are spectacular. And the reflection on the water, the rays of sunlight!

You take out your camera, thinking, “I’ve just got to capture this moment to share with my friends on Facebook!” But one shutter snap later and a glance at your smart phone screen and you think, “Anemic! Pathetic!”

And you put your phone away deciding that the best use of your time is simply to sit back and take it all in. Be present.

Still, how will you describe this to your friends later? How can you? Mere words only go so far.

And that’s just a sunset! How do you explain God—so much more than a sunset!—to your friends? How can you explain the unexplainable?

3.

The Bible describes God as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, King, Creator, Redeemer, Savior, Messiah, Friend, Shepherd, Vinedresser, Vine, Wind, Fire, Mother Hen . . . and that’s just beginning to scratch the surface!

Each of these descriptors is a metaphor. God is not really, truly wind. But God is like wind; God is in the wind. So God is called wind.

But the Church was not content to leave it there. The Church wanted to make things clearer: plain and simple, black and white, easy to understand.

And so the Church got its armchairs out and sat around and studied the Bible, God’s word; and over time made its own set of rules and regulations, ex cathedra—rough translation, from the biggest armchair—to guard its interpretation of God.

God is three persons and one substance, the Church declared. And if you don’t believe/agree, you cannot be a part of the Church/Club.

So, present day, good churchgoers that we are, we sit around in our armchairs and study our Bibles too. We seek to understand God, the ineffable—or, at least, to understand the Church’s interpretation of God.

So we ask questions like, “What does God want for us?” “What does the Bible teach us about evangelism?” “What does God’s word say about managing our debts?” “How do I make a difference in my community?” and, “What should my faith look like in the workplace?”

Don’t get me wrong, these are great questions to consider. But the effect of our armchair studies is often stultifying: we lose our enthusiasm and initiative regarding what Christ has called us to do.

In other words, we’ll just stay put in our armchairs, thank you very much.

But, challenging all of us right here today, whatever your personal beliefs, Jesus does not use armchair words and plain-and-simple, black-and-white explanations.

And if Jesus is not making it plain and simple with his words, why do we try to make our beliefs about God plain and simple?

Like Jesus’ questioners in today’s Gospel, are we failing to see Jesus for who he truly is? Are we failing to bring his light to the world?

4.

The late Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello tells a modern-day parable called “The Explorer”:

The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forests; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids?

He said, “Go and find out for yourselves.” To guide them he drew a map of the river. They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their town hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?

De Mello then offers this moral:

It is said that Buddha obdurately refused to be drawn into talking about God.

He was probably familiar with the dangers of drawing maps for armchair explorers.

Do we think ourselves experts on God because we study our maps, our Bibles? Do we pride ourselves on reading this author or listening to that radio program or following some preacher or other?

I wonder if we are experiencing a similarly deep irony today. I wonder if we, the church, have become armchair explorers.

5.

Near the beginning of my sermon I said that Jesus does answer their question.

“Tell us plainly,” his adversaries demanded, “are you the Messiah?”

The answer, plainly, is a resounding yes. But the answer is not given in words, from an armchair. Rather, it is given in works.

The works I do are of the Father, Jesus says; I and the Father are one.

Jesus isn’t giving a Trinitarian formula here: he’s not saying, “God the Father and God the Son are two persons of one substance.” Rather, Jesus is saying, plainly, the works he does and the works of the Father are one and the same.

And that is answer enough!

Which leads me to ask of myself, am I doing God’s work? I’d like to think so; but am I doing it so obviously that it is plain to the world around me?

That’s just not gonna happen from my armchair.

And it leads me to ask this question not just of myself but also of the St. Thomas community: are we doing God’s work; so much so that it is plain to the world around us?

The word of God is doing what Christ calls us to do. This is the Good News: when our deeds are God’s deeds.

*****

Bible study has its place, sure. We seek to understand God because we strive to conform to Christ, the perfect image of God.

And, yes, probably the best place to study and discuss God is from our armchairs.

But when our goal is to be right, to better someone else through our knowledge of the Bible, well, that really benefits no one but ourselves; and what kind of benefit is ego-stroking anyway?

Moreover, it’s not our calling to sit around and figure out how we can better explain Christ to the world around us. And, anyway, the world around us really isn’t all that interested anymore in what we have to say.

Deep irony!

But when we go out into the neighborhood doing what Christ calls us to do—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the captives, overturning the tables of domination, bringing about equality to all—sharing the Good News regardless of how well or poorly we can explain it—well, that’s when we actually speak the Good News plainly.

It’s time for us to get out of our armchairs.

Staying on the Rollercoaster

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcipal Church and School in Temecula, California on May 5, 2019, the Third Sunday of Easter.

John 21:1-19

1.

One of the cardinal sins of preaching is to tell a story about a family member. But I can get away with it today because I have four daughters, none of whom is here; and I won’t tell you which one this story is about.

So, it’s the story of her first real rollercoaster ride: not the kiddie ride at putt putt golf but the real deal, the Steel Eel.

She was eight years old. And she’d always shown a little, shall we say, hesitancy when it came to uncertainty and risk. So, as I anticipated, she did not want to ride this rollercoaster, even though she was now tall enough.

But—probably poor judgment on my part—I coaxed and encouraged and otherwise persuaded until finally, either resolved or resigned—I couldn’t tell which—she said, “I’ll do it, Dad, but only because I love you.”

So, a few minutes later there we were, seated in the front car, strapped in, when the clicking began. You know those clicks: clackety clackety clackety all the way up that first, long, tall slope to the very apex where suddenly the clicking stops and gravity takes over and it’s up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth until the ride is over.

We were climbing up and up, clackety clackety; the anticipation building. Smiling, reassuring, I looked at my daughter and gave her a hug.

Her eyes were saucers.

Finally we reached the top, the apex, maybe thirty stories above the theme park sprawled out below us. And we were in the first car, as I said.

Well, what I hadn’t thought about was that this meant we couldn’t really see anything in front of us, on top of that apex.

It also meant that gravity didn’t take over right away; for, first, the remainder of the cars, which were attached behind us, had to be released from the clicking mechanism, meaning we just hung there for a bit, suspended, thirty stories up, theme park sprawled below, with seemingly nothing in front of us.

Then and only then did the clicking mechanism release; then and only then did gravity take over!

And just then I had a horrible moment of clarity, seeing what could only be understood as utter chaos through the eyes of my hesitant eight year-old.

So I looked over at her again. And now it was her mouth open wide, taking in a voluminous breath; her eyes were slammed shut! She clutched my arm, dug in her fingernails, and began screaming and sobbing at the same time—scrobbing, I like to say.

And she buried her face into my arm and stayed there, miserable and scrobbing, until at long last, an eternity of 38 seconds later, the ride came to its most welcome end.

She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.

But, there is a happy ending: this same daughter, a dozen or so years later, last summer, went to 6FMM and rode every nauseating rollercoaster there! And loved it!

Anyway, I tell this story because life can be an emotional rollercoaster. Up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

It’s fun . . . until it’s not; and then we just want it to stop.

2.

I’m experiencing something of that rollercoaster sensation in my life right now. So is the St. Thomas community. Transition—change—has a way of doing that.

And I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re beyond the sensation of fun. Instead, we’re all asking, “When’s this ride ever gonna stop?”

For what it’s worth, though, it’s not just us. This feeling of wanting the rollercoaster ride to stop already is increasingly characterizing our society—or at least economics professor Tyler Cowen thinks so.

In his recent book (2017) The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Cowen argues that Americans are becoming increasingly risk averse. We are less inclined to relocate than we were even a few years ago. The cultural desire to innovate is decreasing.

He writes,

Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we are talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things. In an age when it is easier than ever before to dig in, the psychological resistance to change has become progressively stronger.

As a society, we want this rollercoaster ride to end. We want to have more control over the journey we are taking; and when we find some modicum of control, we don’t want to let go of it. We don’t want to change.

3.

Now, do you think Peter and the other disciples felt this way? Were they hoping for their emotional rollercoaster ride to stop already? Is that what’s happening in today’s Gospel?

Over the past few weeks they’d been up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

They’d witnessed Jesus enter Jerusalem to shouts of acclamation, “Hosanna in the highest!”

That must have been a high high for them, an apex, a moment of affirmation beyond all others. “Yes!” they must’ve said; “Jesus is the Messiah, the savior of Israel. Yes, his mission is being accomplished!”

But, later that week, they stood by and watched helplessly as he was betrayed, arrested, and tried. They covered their ears as the crowd shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And they gazed on as he gave up his spirit.

That must have been the lowest of lows for them. “No,” they must’ve pondered; “does this mean it was all for nothing? Was Jesus and all he stood for just a flash in the pan, a moment of heat that amounted to nothing?”

And then, the stone was rolled away from the tomb.

And there was the head cloth, neatly folded by itself!

And Jesus himself appeared, first to Mary Magdalene and then to the disciples in the upper room!

And. . . .

Up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

Can’t it just stop already?

So, today, sitting around with six other disciples, Peter announces, “I’m going fishing!”

He returns to what he knows, to what he is sure of, to what he can control.

No change. No innovation. No carrying on Jesus’ mission. Just something that feels productive to pass the time.

Maybe it’s Peter’s way of escaping the emotional rollercoaster ride brought on by the changes Jesus called for.

And maybe that’s our story too.

4.

Jesus pointed out a need for change in his day: the political and religious establishments dominated the people they were supposed to be serving.

What Jesus called his followers to do was to resist the social injustices before him; and through resistance to upend the domination.

But without a doubt this resistance would keep Peter and the other disciples on an emotional rollercoaster ride; a ride, frankly, they just didn’t want to be on anymore.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to escape Jesus’ call?

As for us, what do we see? Hardly a day passes without hearing about violent acts of hatred, or about a friend who can’t afford rising medical costs, or about how Global Warming is already destroying our coastlines, or about increasing socioeconomic disparities.

It would be ignorant and irresponsible to say that our nation has no need for change.

Rather, isn’t the Holy Spirit telling us loud and clear, change is needed!

But—according to Cowen anyway—our societal response is to avoid change; to do what we know instead, what we are sure of, what we can control.

No change. No innovation. Just something that feels productive to pass the time, to escape the chaotic rollercoaster of life all around us.

“I’m going fishing,” Peter said.

Maybe that’s what we’re all doing too.

5.

Fortunately, though, today Jesus is having none of it.

Fortunately, the resurrected Jesus appears now for the third time.

And, fortunately, when Peter recognizes him, it’s a no brainer.

Without giving himself a chance to think, Peter—that gloriously impulsive disciple—quits fishing faster than you can say holy mackerel and gets right back on that difficult, emotional rollercoaster ride.

Because—even with all the up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth—Peter knows that doing what Jesus asks us to do is worth it!

Jesus has left us with a mission that is large in scope. Bringing salvation to the ends of the earth requires no less than upending large-scale systems of domination, whether political or religious. This call can feel overwhelming.

Now, we all know, sometimes church is fun: when we experience strong fellowship; in our prayers; when we break bread together; at baptisms and weddings.

But, we also know, sometimes it’s not so fun, like getting out there and sharing Christ’s love tangibly with our marginalized neighbors, or like tackling local practices of injustice, or like navigating our way through change.

Sometimes, let’s face it, we just want this rollercoaster ride to stop already!

What then?

Well, what happened with Peter at the end of the Gospel?

Three times Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”

And three times Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

And Jesus re-commissioned him: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Continue to do the work I have commissioned you to do, Peter: the work of love.

Okay then. I’ll ride this rollercoaster, Jesus, because I love you.

Love—Jesus’ love for us and ours for him—is key. Love is what will keep us on this rollercoaster.

Resigning

Posted in Doing Church, Rationale with tags , , , on May 4, 2019 by timtrue

The following letter, explaining my impending departure, went out to the St. Thomas community yesterday. I will offer more detailed rationale in the weeks to come.

April 30, 2019

Dear St. Thomas Community,

I write today with mixed emotions; my time with you is quickly coming to an end.

After months of prayerful discernment with the Bishop, the diocesan Canon for Deployment, and my spiritual directors, I have decided to leave parish ministry in favor of school chaplaincy. My last official day will be May 31st; with eight accrued days of vacation, this means my last Sunday with you will be May 19th.

St. Thomas is a beacon of Christ’s light in Riverside County and the Diocese of San Diego. During my short tenure here I have been challenged, strengthened, and encouraged by this community. You have helped me grow in my leadership and administrative skills. Thank you.

As your vicar, I have tried to follow Christ throughout, seeking to bring to St. Thomas an increased understanding of what it means to be a community. Together we have asked the questions, “What is Christ’s call to us as a body?” and, “What is our reasonable response to that corporate call?” I exhort you to continue moving forward here. Keep building relationships with our neighbors; welcome, include, and learn from all; serve the marginalized.

My new position will be Chaplain of Imago Dei School in downtown Tucson, Arizona. Imago Dei is a tuition-free Episcopal school that serves low-income students and their families, working towards breaking the cycle of poverty through education. For more information, or to help this unique organization achieve its goals, see https://www.imagodeischool.org.

I will keep the St. Thomas community in my prayers; please do the same for me and my family.

Christ’s Blessings,

Father Tim