Archive for the Doing Church Category

Celebrating Inconvenience

Posted in Doing Church, Rationale with tags , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by timtrue

17th-century_unknown_painters_-_The_Resurrection_of_Christ_-_WGA23478[1]The following article, which appears in the April/May newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, Arizona, discusses the significance of the historic Easter Vigil worship service.

“The Great Vigil, when observed, is the first service of Easter Day. It is celebrated at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning.”

So says the Book of Common Prayer on page 284.

To which I ask, “Is there such a thing as a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning?”

Easter is late this year. Sunset will occur after seven o’clock, with real darkness only truly descending after 7:30. The rubrics of the Prayer Book constrain us really, then, to a first “convenient” time of 8pm.

But how convenient is 8pm for folks who cannot easily drive in the dark?

We do have other options, I suppose. “Between sunset and sunrise” means a midnight service would be appropriate, and midnight’s always cool. Or, for those who have trouble seeing in the dark, we could begin the service at 4:30am, timing it so that it would end just before sunrise (which will occur at 6:07am). That way people would only have to drive one way in the dark, and at a time of the day when there is very little traffic.

Still, neither of these options strikes me as any more convenient than 8pm.

The Prayer Book continues:

“The service normally consists of four parts:

  1. The Service of Light.
  2. The Service of Lessons.
  3. Christian Initiation [i. e., baptism], or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
  4. The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion.”

In other words, it’s like a normal Sunday service—which consists of two parts, the Service of Lessons and the Holy Eucharist—with a couple of additions: the Service of Light and baptism.

That “Service of Light” part really does constrain us to the dark—a time between sunset and sunrise—which, let’s face it, really does feel inconvenient, no matter how we look at it.

And it feels even more inconvenient when we think about that other part, that baptism part!

I mean, really? The Prayer Book would rather we baptize at the (dark) Great Vigil than wait for the next day, when the sun is up and the Easter Lilies are smiling along with everyone else who got a good night’s sleep? What if that baptism is of a young child, who’d probably be in much better spirits on a bright Sunday morning than a dark Saturday night—not to mention his parents? Or what if the hoped for godparents aren’t able to make it out at night for whatever reason? Or what if? . . .

Okay, okay, I hear your questions. Yes, they are reasonable. Yes, a nighttime, dark service does indeed feel inconvenient. And yes, we could just as well forget about the Vigil and revert to the way things used to be around here, when we simply waited for Easter Sunday to roll around, stress day.

But if there’s one thing about me you’ve gotten to know by now, it’s that I highly respect our Episcopal tradition. And by “Episcopal tradition” I don’t mean the way we did things last year, five years ago, fifty, or even a hundred; I mean the tradition that goes back before the Reformation, before the marriage of the Roman and English Churches in the seventh century, even before the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. I want to go clear back as far as history will take us. How did the early church do it? That’s the tradition I’m talking about.

The reason I value this tradition so greatly is because many, many saints before us have thought long and hard—a lot longer and harder than any of us have—about how best to worship and glorify Christ. By the way, this is the rationale behind our Book of Common Prayer, leaving little room in our assemblies for novel, innovative liturgies.

And, even more importantly, there’s this: Jesus inconvenienced himself a great deal—when he emptied himself of the glories of heaven and became human; when he washed his disciples’ feet; when he stayed up all night praying fervently in the garden that his Father would take his cup from him; when he stood trial before Pilate; when he was stricken, smitten, afflicted, and nailed to the cross mercilessly; when he eked out his last breath—all for us! We break these dark inconveniences when we come to worship him at the Great Vigil, the fitting end to this drama known as the Passion, where we celebrate new light and life together—something the bright Sunday morning service just can’t replicate.

And thus, when it comes to worshiping Christ as God, the term inconvenience takes on new meaning.

Let’s celebrate this inconvenience—the Great Vigil, the tremendous conclusion to Christ’s Passion—together on Saturday, April 15, at 8pm. There will be a baptism this year; and, immediately following the service, a champagne-and-hot-cross-buns reception!

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On Being Christmas-and-Easter Warriors

Posted in Doing Church, Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 4:12-23

Before we get into today’s Gospel, let’s gain our liturgical bearings. Where are we in the liturgical year?

Think of a pie graph.  Starting at the top, we have a purple section, Advent, which lasts between four and five weeks.  Next is white for a few weeks, Christmas, up to the Epiphany.

Then for some weeks we find ourselves here, in a green section of the year, the season after the Epiphany, or as my Roman Catholic friends call it, “ordinary time.”

Ordinary.  Ho-hum.  Not much of a ring to it, eh?

This year’s season after Epiphany is eight weeks.  Then we go to purple again for the season of Lent, for five Sundays.

We then have a narrow sliver of red on Palm Sunday; followed by seven Sundays of white—for Easter the resurrection, and the Ascension; another narrow sliver of red for Pentecost, and one more of white on Trinity Sunday.

And now we’re only halfway around our pie graph.

Do you know what color the rest of this graph is?  For the remaining 26 Sundays this year—with only two exceptions (Transfiguration and Christ the King Sundays, both white)—it is all green.

Yeah, green time.  Ordinary time.  Ho-hum time.

Which brings up a concern for me.

My concern is that as a church we love Christmas and Easter.  We focus our liturgical calendar around the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.  And well we should!

But do we focus too much on Christmas and Easter—to the exclusion of all the other times in the year—that green section after Christmas; that long spell after Pentecost; all that ordinary, ho-hum time?

Christmas and Easter aren’t enough to sustain us through our ordinary, ho-hum times.

I remember my freshman year of high school.  My parents had recently divorced; I wasn’t in a very good place.  But it was an El Niño year, meaning lots of snow was coming to the Sierras.  Maybe Dad understood I wasn’t in a very good place, I don’t know.  But he knew my brother and I loved to snow ski.  And so that year we planned three three- or four-day trips to Mammoth Lakes, as well as some a one-day trips to the local soCal mountains—Mountain High, Mount Waterman, and Mount Baldy—promising at least one ski trip a month through the winter.

Well, I remember how much I looked forward to those trips in the months, weeks, and days leading up to them.  I also remember how much I relished the recent memory of those trips after returning home from them.

But what I remember most keenly was the dread I felt when I got out of bed each morning realizing that I had to plod through another day of the prison sentence I called high school.

That year, my freshman year, I tried to live for my skiing adventures, with the resolve that the anticipation and memory of them would sustain me until the next one.

But they were few and far between compared to the everyday, ordinary, ho-hum experience of high school, my daily grind.

That year, the only moments I lived in were when I was skiing, escaping from the daily grind.  While enduring the daily grind itself, I never lived in the moment, but rather always in the future or the past.

I had become a bona fide weekend warrior.

When we in the church live for Christmas and Easter, we risk not living in the moment of the ordinary, ho-hum times that, frankly, comprise most of our corporate life together.  We instead become bona fide Christmas-and-Easter warriors.

Now we’re ready to turn to today’s Gospel.

In it, Jesus begins his ministry by calling four disciples: Simon Peter; his brother Andrew; and two other brothers, James and John, the sons of a certain Zebedee.  All four of these men were fishermen.  And, because Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” we usually focus on the evangelism theme here: we, too, need to fish for people.

But I want to look at another theme, having to do with—you guessed it—the ordinary, ho-hum life Jesus called these men to live.

So, track with me.  These men, all four of them fishermen, were living a comfortable life.  They were settled, doing what they knew how to do, continuing the vocation their fathers had passed on to them.  So routine were their lives that they knew what to do without thinking.

They knew the sea—where to find the most fish, when the best times of the day were to find fish, what seasons of the year were better or worse for a kind of fish they’d like to catch, and so on.  When boat repairs were needed, they knew what to do.  If a boat sprung a leak while out on the surface of the sea, how to get to shore (or whether they could make it to shore) was almost an afterthought.  Their vocation was second-nature.

Moreover, we can surmise—along with biblical scholars—that these men had fairly lucrative businesses.  Fish were in demand as a food throughout the region.  People paid relatively high prices for them.  And, as with many established routines, overhead costs were low.  These men enjoyed high productivity and low overhead, a recipe for a comfortable life.

One more consideration: these men more than likely were married with families.  In fact, we know that Simon Peter was married: Jesus cures Peter’s mother in-law in Matthew 8.

Point is, Jesus called these four men to follow him; and following Jesus for them meant sacrificing a lot!  Comfort.  Stability.  Established homes.  Financial security.  Predictability.  Routine.  Plans.  Nest eggs.  Family.

What does it mean for us to follow Jesus?  Those who manipulate the good news of the Bible for their own ends—who make a gospel out of prosperity or family values—would do well to consider today’s Gospel!  So would we, as in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—which we’ll get to shortly!

Now, sure, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had heard of Jesus by the time he came calling.  He was probably something like a celebrity by now, a household name.

Do we all know the name of our presiding bishop, Michael Curry?  So, imagine if he sought you out personally and said, “Jane, John, Insert-Your-Name-Here, I have a job for you.  Come with me now, and see.”

Well, yeah, there’s a certain amount of adventure and excitement around this.  At least initially.

But today’s Gospel doesn’t end there: with the celebrity Jesus coming to these four men and saying, “Follow me on the adventure ahead, and I will make you fish for people.”  In today’s reading, there’s another verse.  Jesus and his new followers then set out traveling, teaching, preaching, and healing.

These four men followed Jesus, sure.  But they weren’t following him into a kind of weekend-warrior life of adventure.  They followed him into a kind of ho-hum, ordinary life.  And they left their established, comfortable lives to do so.

These apostles weren’t Christmas-and-Easter warriors—by any stretch of the imagination!  The feast of the Epiphany and the Last Supper could not have sustained these men for the three years ahead of them—and not just for the three years with Jesus but for the lifetime beyond that, for they all went on to build the church of Jesus Christ.

So, we’ve looked at the liturgical calendar; and we’ve looked at the Gospel. Now it’s time to do some harder work: to look at us, St. Paul’s.  Loosen your collars: it might get a little warm in here.

I’m concerned that we are a church of Christmas-and-Easter warriors: that we think these principal feasts are enough to sustain us through all the ordinary, ho-hum times of the year.

On page 15, the BCP says there are seven Principal Feasts in the liturgical year, which all point (at least loosely) to Christmas or Easter: Easter Day; Ascension Day; The Day of Pentecost; Trinity Sunday; All Saints’ Day; Christmas Day; and the Epiphany.

The word “feasts” suggests that we should break bread together, which is another way to say celebrate Communion together, on these seven days.

But when I got here, we weren’t doing this: we weren’t coming together for all these feasts—which is one indication that maybe, over a long time of doing church together, we have become Christmas-and-Easter warriors.

In addition to these seven Principal Feasts, on p. 16 of the BCP, we read, “All Sundays of the year are feasts of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

All Sundays are feasts.  Thus, we should celebrate Communion together on all Sundays of the year.

Which is why our Constitution and Canons make it clear that, unless we are unable to obtain a supply priest, we should celebrate Communion on any given Sunday.  Otherwise we demonstrate a lack of respect for the Eucharist.

Now—to turn up the heat a little more—our operating budget for 2017 is just north of $200K.  To date, pledges for 2017 are south of $140K—about $70K shy of our operating expenses.  In an ideal world, our operating expenses and pledges would be equal.  But they’re not.  Leaving the vestry with some difficult challenges and questions.

Their chief question of late has been where to cut costs.

It’s a question faced by a lot of organizations.  Public schools, for instance.  Long has it been a complaint among my friends and family members that the first budget corners to be cut in education are in the arts.

So, here’s my main concern.  As a way of cutting costs for the year, the vestry has proposed allotting only $1000 for supply clergy in this year’s budget.

Now, I anticipate being away for seven Sundays this year—a normal amount.  Father Paul is not here anymore; we can’t ask him.  Which means we need to fund supply clergy; or go without the Eucharist on the Sundays when we cannot obtain a supply priest.

With travel, accommodations, and a supply fee, it costs St. Paul’s approximately $500 per week of supply.  In other words, the budget should be at $3500 ($500 x 7 Sundays) for supply clergy, not $1000.  $1000 covers only two Sundays.

What will we do for the other five?

We could have a Morning Prayer service, yes.  But, unless we cannot obtain a supply priest—and supply priests are available!—we should celebrate the Feast.

So, anyway, that’s the what part of my concern.

The why part, however, concerns me even more.  Why would we cut corners here?  Sundays are feast days.  It’s when we gather as a corporate community.  And gathering for Communion—the Eucharist—is our chief corporate act of worship: not singing; not preaching; not praying; but Communion.

As your rector I’ve been called to be the spiritual leader of this community.  I don’t want us to be Christmas-and-Easter warriors.  That attitude will never sustain us spiritually.

Thus, I leave you with a few questions to contemplate in this week leading up to our annual meeting:

  • Have we become Christmas-and-Easter warriors?
  • Like the apostles, is St. Paul’s ready to follow Jesus wherever he calls?
  • Where have we become too comfortable in the way we do church? In our routines?  In our spiritual disciplines?
  • Where and how do we need to change? Along these lines, when we say we want to change, do we actually mean that we want to return to the way it was twenty years ago?  Are we really desiring to move forward?
  • Is our present way of doing church sustainable? The budget suggests that the answer to this question is no.  So, where do we need to cut corners?  Really?
  • Is cutting supply clergy costs a sufficient excuse to neglect the Sacrament?
  • Do we respect the Sacraments as we should?

Partnering with Pokémon

Posted in Doing Church, Musings with tags , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2016 by timtrue

pokestop

“Dad, St. Paul’s is a Pokéstop!”

This was the statement that really caught my attention.

My daughter, Hannah, had been making comments for a few days about a new app she’d downloaded, something called Pokémon Go.  I’d listened to her explain how it works a time or two, half-interested, like I am with most things technological.  You know how it is: a new app comes out, it’s hot for a few days, then the fad passes and something else catches the attention of those who stay up with these things.

I don’t, though.  I’m not one of them.  My phone, for instance, doesn’t even have a camera.  I can text and call.  And I like it that way.

But I keep up with my kids.  And so what my kids are into, by extension I’m interested too, or at least half-interested.

But when she ran into my office on Sunday morning, wide-eyed and grinning, and expressed her excitement in the words at the start of this blog, my half-interest turned into full interest.

Here was an app that had caught her attention.  Moreover, a few days had passed and not only was her attention still caught, it was increasing.

And the out-the-box idea of a game to get people outside, off their backsides and into the highways and byways!

“So,” I replied, “explain.  What is a Pokéstop?”

Which she did, showing me on her iTouch just how this app worked, utilizing something called Augmented Reality (a term which, admittedly, before Sunday I thought referred to cosmetic surgery); something like a scavenger hunt all over the neighborhood, the town, the county, the state, or anywhere else a person determined to catch them all is willing and able to go, except what you’re hunting for are Pokémon, which can be seen only through a screen.  (Think of it as ghost hunting, where the ghosts can be detected only through paranormal cameras.  The Pokémon are the ghosts; the paranormal cameras your smart devices.  The more you catch, the more your rewards.)

And, for whatever reason, the creators of Pokémon Go decided to designate many churches (and gyms, by the way) as Pokéstops, places Pokémon could go to catch a breath, rejuvenate, whatever: a virtual Pokémon nest.

Now, we people in the church business think we’ve got something valuable to offer, namely, the calming presence of Christ to a chaotic world.  There’s salvation in this; it’s why we do the “business”—or it should be.  And thus we’re always concerning ourselves with the question of how to offer more of this message to the world around us, how to exude even more of Christ’s peace.  This question seems especially important now: politics, arguments over the second amendment, tensions over racial and religious differences—these matters are at a fever pitch.

So, my alarm woke me a 3:30am on Monday morning.  With another daughter, I was rising early to hike to the top of Telegraph Pass in order to catch the 5:40am sunrise.  I do some of my best thinking when I have a few hours of quietude, the heat would be unbearable by 8am, and besides it was a workday—so, yeah, a sunrise hike.

We enjoyed a brilliant sunrise in fact, summited just ten minutes before the eastern sky was pierced by fire; and returned home for breakfast just after 7am.

telegraphsunrise

Unusual morning as it was, it turned even more unusual some ten minutes later when we suddenly realized that all five of us—my wife, both daughters, my seven year-old son, and I—were sitting casually around the breakfast table—all on summer break (except me)!

So, put it all together—concentrated time freshly spent with the younger set; recent more-than-half-interest in this new app; fever-pitched large-scale angst over politics, religion, and race; and a personal constant concern to offer Christ to the world—and a sudden brainstorm came.

“Girls,” I announced, “what if I put a message up on the church marquis about it being a Pokéstop?”

Almost instant and definitely loud yesses erupted.

The marquis, by the way, is a sign with changeable letters.  See top photo.  The church makes an effort to change it out weekly, offering a sort of calendar or inspirational or humorous message to passersby.  And there are many passersby, for it overshadows a main thoroughfare in town.  Between you and me, when I first started as pastor I thought, really?  So I’ve tried to see it as potentially useful, maybe somehow, possibly, to offer Christ to the world around us, etc., etc.  Still, many a Monday you’ll find me agonizing in my office over coming up with something worthwhile to say.

In any event, my girls and I deliberated over the exact message during breakfast, concluding something short and to the point.

And when I arrived at the office, instead of agonizing indoors I took matters into my own hands outside, set up the ladder, removed last week’s message (“Good judgment comes from experience that often comes from bad judgment”), and put up, simply, “Pokéstop!!”  (I would have used more exclamation points if we had them.)

So, that was at 9am.

At 3pm a TV reporter stopped by and interviewed me, with the sign in the background.

At 5pm a 20-second clip of this interview aired on the news.

At 6pm the news showed again, but this time the local police told the dark side of the Pokémon Go story: some bad people might use Pokémon Go to lure good people into secluded areas and mug them; and (oh the horror!) in fact teenagers were out hunting for Pokémon last night past curfew!

And at 10pm, the whole minute-forty-nine story aired—both sides of it—giving me a full thirty seconds of air time:

http://www.kyma.com/yuma-police-warn-pokemon-go-players/

Then today a radio show from Phoenix called me and interviewed me over the phone—supposed to be broadcast on a morning talk show tomorrow—supposed to be emailed a transcript.

All from that silly marquis!

All from wanting to bring Christ’s peace to a chaotic world, and seeing how Pokémon Go is helping to do just that—a fun, community-oriented activity to distract us in a healthy way from the fear and anxiety over recent national and international tragedies.

Who knew?

On behalf of St. Paul’s, thank you for partnering with us, Pokémon Go!

Honing the Craft

Posted in Doing Church, Education, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2014 by timtrue
Preaching like Augustine?

Preaching like Augustine?

Earlier this week I had the tremendous privilege of attending a preaching conference.  I’ve attended conferences on preaching before, sure.  But this one was different.  Five of us–all priests of some sort of Anglican stripe–got to hang around one of the world’s most respected preachers for three days.  That preacher was Will Willimon (pictured below), sometime United Methodist Bishop of Alabama and present professor at Duke University’s Divinity School.

220px-William_Henry_Willimon_(2011)

The format was simple.  We each came to present and discuss two sermons.  An hour was given for each.  We’d listen as the presenter preached; then we’d discuss, critique, etc. for the remainder of the hour.

While not a requirement, my first sermon I’d already prepared and given elsewhere.  The other (for me) was to be a work in progress.  That is, my plan was to take time on Tuesday afternoon and evening, during some allotted free time, to write a second sermon, which I would then present on Wednesday morning in almost final-draft form.

Such was my plan anyway.

What actually happened was the three hours of free time Tuesday afternoon turned into an hour because of lunch discussion and ensuing conversations.  And the five or so hours I had set aside on Tuesday night turned into a gouda-mushroom buffalo burger, two pints of a local (to Dallas) craft porter, and conversation with my new best friend Lawrence, a priest from the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina; leaving me with only two or so hours to create (which I turned into three by staying up an extra hour, till midnight).

Point is, when it came time to preach my second sermon, “Um,” I confessed, “this ain’t anything like a final draft; it’s still very much a work in progress.”

By work in progress I don’t mean lack of length.  I had about 1,200 words, or 13 or so minutes of speaking (normalish length).  But I’d been dealing with two pretty substantive themes, both which should have their place, I’d rationalized, but was having trouble connecting them.  Etc.

Anyway, after my initial qualifications and run-through of Sermon 2, coupled with the feedback I’d already received from canned, preached-without-a-manuscript Sermon 1, the insights I received were invaluable.

I give you three that stick with me.

First, “You can preach the phonebook, Tim,” one of the priests told me, “and people will listen to you.  You have this incredible ability to draw people in just through your use of body language, variations of vocal intonations, and expression.”

Yeah, I was thinking, tell me more.

“But”–he did tell me more–“don’t rely on it.  You still need to have something valuable to say.”

Implication: what I said was lost in presentation.  Ugh!

But, really, it’s so true.  He told me this just after I’d preached Sermon 2, which really did come out as kind of a mess.  The themes were disjointed, for one thing.

“And your first theme was so strong,” Willimon added, “that I spent the second half of the sermon wondering how and when you’d come back to it.  But you never did.”

Point taken.  Clarity and concision are super important.

By the way, as I sat in the airport for two hours on Wednesday afternoon I revised this yet-to-be-preached sermon, starting by keeping the first third of my manuscript and deleting everything else.  I’m taking Willimon’s advice and developing only the first, strong theme.  I’ll save Theme 2 for another go around, next Advent maybe.

The second insight in fact comes from a theme that kept surfacing throughout the three days, culminating especially during a breakfast I enjoyed on Wednesday with Willimon himself.  Four of us were staying in the same hotel, which included an excellent breakfast (shout out to the Holiday Inn on SMU Blvd.), and as I exited the elevator, lo, there was the guru himself, sitting at a table by himself.  For my part, I didn’t even ask permission; I just sat down next to him and invaded his space.

He seemed okay with it.  Southern politeness maybe.

But then, “Tim,” he said, “you’re a musician.  So use your musicality in your sermons.  And don’t just draw parallels between musical forms and sermon forms” (which I do, by the way, and which we’d already discussed), “but incorporate crescendos, diminuendos, rests, fermatas–performance!  It will make you that much more engaging.”

Anyway, gold!

The third insight struck me like an epiphany.  This is what I needed to hear more than anything else all week.  And the coolest part is (because it shows how important collegiality is), it did not come from Willimon but from two of the other priests (albeit with Willimon chiming in).  These priests, I should add, (like Willimon) are seasoned teachers as well as preachers.  One is presently a seminary professor and the other has ten years’ seminary teaching experience.

So, it was an answer to a question I asked in one of our post-sermon discussions:

“In your mind, what’s the key difference between teaching and preaching?  You teach a thirty-minute lesson and you preach, say, a fifteen-minute sermon.  What’s the difference?”

And the answer seemed so simple:

“In teaching, we present truth, facts, points–information.  But in preaching, we’re after an encounter with the divine.”

So simple, but I’d never thought in this way before.

So now I’ve got a new goal in my sermons.  They’re not after relevance, an application for today, or increasing in knowledge and/or wisdom.  These things have their place; and they will often happen in sermons, sure.  But more important is the encounter with the divine–just prior (in Episcopal liturgy) to joining Christ at his Table for Communion with God and neighbor.

Beautiful!

Footnote: if you’re interested to see what my attempt at sermon-for-encounter looks like, stay tuned.  I will post my sermon (in manuscript form), the byproduct of this conference, on Sunday.

Changing It Up

Posted in Doing Church, Musings with tags , , on November 16, 2014 by timtrue

Today’s Gospel reading in the Episcopal lectionary is Matthew 25:14-30, a parable about three slaves who manage their master’s money while he goes away for a time.  In this story we usually interpret the third slave as the bad guy, albeit a slightly dimwitted one; which is why we don’t feel so badly when he ends up thrown out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But what if we were to change it up a little?  (By the way, I have no specific persons in mind in anything that follows; I’m merely playing with the parable.)

untitled

Once there was a bishop who was about to go on sabbatical.

“I’m about to go on sabbatical,” he told three of his finest priests.  “But the trouble is, I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and I’ve disabled my email account and I’m not taking my cell phone with me so you have no way of getting in touch with me while I’m gone and I don’t know when I’ll be back.  It’s an open-ended sabbatical, see, and all my colleagues are jealous.

“Anyway–stop yawning, all of you, and listen to what I’m about to say!–there’s another ‘the trouble is’ problem here.  80 million dollars came across my desk just this morning for church development, and I don’t know what to do with it.  So I’m putting it in your charge!

“Here, you, Lenny, take 50 million.  I’ve seen you do brilliant things before.  Do it again with this!

“And you, Veronica, take 20 million and do something fantastic with it.

“And you, er, uh, what’s your name?”

“Frank.”

“Yes, you, Frank.  Can’t say I know much about you.  Where do you serve?”

“Saint Swithin’s, sir.”

“Well, okay, if you say so.  But I thought Jim was there.”

“Yes, sir.  Jim’s the rector.  I’m just a curate.”

“Oh, okay, whatever that means.  But you are an Episcopal priest, right?”

“Yes.”

“Of this diocese?”

“Yes.”

“Very well, then.  You, Frank, Curator of St. Swithin’s, take the other 10 million (give or take) and do something grand with it.”

“Um, not curator, but–well, never mind!  Sure thing, boss.”

“I’ll check in on all y’all when I return.”

So they all went on their merry ways: the bishop to his sabbatical of undisclosed location and duration, although I heard it had something to do with warm, sandy beaches in the part of the world where our winter is their summer, and it may or may not have included surfing lessons by day and pina coladas by night; and the three priests to their respective parishes.

The first priest, Lenny, put his $50 million to work by developing an Episcopal waterpark.  And $50 million!  Hey, that’s enough to get something good going!  So he hired the best architects and engineers who work on that kind of thing and spent a full week out at Schlitterbahn in Texas shadowing the executives and so on until he had a good plan together and an opening date on the books, Memorial Day Weekend.  When asked about his innovative brainstorm, he is reported as saying, “You just watch.  This is gonna be good!”

Likewise, the second priest, Veronica, set about putting her $20 million to work building a community center on the vacant 10 acres adjacent to her parish.  Yeah!  With the help of her vestry, she bought the lot and drew up plans for a community gathering place, complete with hip café, gift shop, playground, dogpark, and Vespa rentals.  It would be a veritable mall where adolescents with extra cash on hand, soccer moms, anxious husbands out for that last-minute anniversary gift, toy-dog aficionados–anyone!–could buy the latest cool thing for Christians.  And it would be right next to church!  “So hip,” was her only comment.

Meanwhile, the curate of St. Swithin’s, well, he decided to take the $10 million and purchase a plot of scrappy land, cultivate it, and plant two crops.  One was grapes.  Black Spanish was the varietal, because that was blight-resistant in this part of the country, unlike other varietals like Cabernet and Zinfandel; and because it is used in port, the wine of choice for the Episcopal Eucharist.

The other was wheat.  And not just any wheat, but non-GMO affected wheat; for long ago he had learned that the people of his parish that requested gluten-free wafers were actually not allergic to organic, non-GMO wheat.  Yes, his was a green desire; a desire to provide his parishioners with home-made wine and bread.  “Not only that,” he argued, “but it will bring jobs to the area and help sustain a local economy.  The project itself will be sustainable too, eventually.  We will become a supplier for churches with a similar vision.”

Time passed.  Sure enough, some glitches surfaced: the $50 million wasn’t quite enough front money (nothing a loan couldn’t cover) and the local conservatives picketed for one-piece swimsuits only throughout opening week (but the Episcopalians responded by wearing bikinis–even some guys); liability issues surfaced when a teenager crashed a scooter into a table laden with lattes while trying to avoid a toy poodle running from a rottweiler; the first wheat harvest was low due to drought conditions and the grapes, well, as every vintner knows, they take three full years before producing a harvest adequate for any amount of wine anyway.

And, you guessed it, that’s about when the bishop returned.

“Lenny,” he said at the end of his first day visiting the Episcopal waterpark, “this was good!”

“Yep.  And the accountant says we should net $50 million in profits by the end of the season.”

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Then he remarked, “Veronica, this latte’s delicious.  And that puppy is so cute!  How’s it going with that law suit?”

“Oh, just fine.  Turns out we’ve been awarded $20 million by the state for allowing us to rent scooters to teenagers in the first place.  Turns out the kid should have been twenty-five.  Not our fault though!”

“Oh, that’s hip!  Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Then he turned to Frank.  “Tell me, curator, what’s up with your bread and wine enterprise?”

“It’s curate, by the way.  But never mind.  Anyway, well, eh hem, it’s gone about as well as one could expect in the first season of, um, an agricultural, er, enterprise, uh, sir.”

“But have you made any money?”

“Well, not yet.”

“Okay, then, well, do you have any bread or wine to show for it?”

“It doesn’t exactly work that way, sir.”

“No money?  No bread or wine?  That sounds hardly sustainable!

“So I see how it is: I hand you $10 million and you go and bury it in the dirt.  And now you have nothing to show for it.  I see.  Well, curate, I never knew you and I sure as heck have no reason to get to know you now.  You’re fired.  Go away and I hope never to see you again!”

Unity a Sign of Spiritual Maturity

Posted in Doing Church, Homilies with tags , , , on January 19, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 1:1-9

Mature.  It’s a curious adjective, isn’t it?

In the world of agriculture we use it to describe a plant that has the ability to bear fruit.  For example, grape vines are not considered mature until their third year; for they cannot bear grapes until then.  And even then it’s debatable.  For the grapes produced in the third year are generally few and far between.  It is not really until the fourth year that full bunches, rich and plump, appear on the vine; it is not really until the fourth year that we can call grapevines mature.  (Keep that in mind if the whim ever strikes you to go into wine-making.)

So there’s agriculture.  But we also use the word mature—and variations of it, like immature—to describe people, don’t we?  Oh, I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard these words thrown casually around my house!  An argument breaks out at the dinner table, or someone does something unpredicatably silly, for a laugh or whatever; and I know what’s going to follow: those three overused words, that well-known adolescent mantra: “You’re so immature!”  You know what I’m talking about?

But unlike with agriculture, to describe another person as mature or immature leaves a lot of wiggle room.  It’s not so easy to say a person is mature because he or she can bear fruit.  Granted, this may be true in a strictly physical sense; we won’t get into that here.  But what about an emotional sense?  Or a spiritual?  Can we ever really say that we’ve become fully emotionally mature as a human being, always and completely able to maintain control over our feelings?  Sometimes I may display a great deal of maturity with respect to controlling my anger, for instance; but the very next day I slip back into an immature loss of temper!

No, for human beings, the term mature is relative.  At least, it’s relative until the Kingdom of God is fully realized.

This is the idea that Paul is getting at in his first letter to the Corinthians—or part of the idea anyway.  The congregation in Corinth recently had been called out of its old life of sin into a new life in Christ.  It was made up of new believers.  In a spiritual sense they were immature.  Now some time had passed since Paul had planted this church.  And, as is the natural process with any living organism, Paul expected to see a maturing process.  But this process was not happening as quickly as he had expected it to—or as quickly as it needed to in order to sustain itself.

Do you recall what was going on at the Church in Corinth?  Perhaps most famously there was social division.  The rich and the poor were not getting along.  The rich, in fact, were drinking all the wine and eating all the bread at the Eucharist, leaving nothing for the poor.

But this social division was just the tip of the iceberg!  Without going into too much detail, let me just say that Corinth was the Las Vegas of the ancient world.  What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth—and there was a lot that happened in Corinth!  And this lot characterized the church there.

Anyway, all this divisiveness led Paul to say (3:1): “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as a spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”  He had fed them with spiritual formula, as a caregiver would feed an infant.  But instead of them maturing to a point spiritually where they no longer needed formula, to a point where they could feed themselves, they still weren’t ready for the solid food of Christ.  They were big spiritual babies.  They were immature.

Now I don’t know about you, but all this talk about divisiveness being a sign of spiritual immaturity makes me uncomfortable.  After all, what’s wrong with shaking things up a little?  What if I see something going on in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School that I disagree with?  I pledge.  Don’t I therefore have a right to sound my voice and make my opinions known?

Good question!  The answer is yes—and no.

I’m not saying that we need to agree on everything.  In fact, quite the contrary!  We need to disagree.  For we live in a constant tension as individuals in relationship with one another.  As individuals, we form our own opinions according to how God has made uniquely each one of us; but in relationship I continuously butt up against other individuals who see things differently than I.  So disagreement should be expected, and is maybe even essential to life.  And so, yes, I—you have a right to make your opinions known.

But the issue is how you go about making your opinions known.  Do you divide and conquer, as it were?  You see something you don’t like.  Fine!  It happens to all of us.  But then what?  Do you pull people aside, hoping to win them to your side in hushed whispers?  Do you think in terms of us vs. them, or of my people and your people?  Do you put yourself in some sort of category that you imagine is somehow superior to another—whether it be social status, the color of your skin, your gender, or your sexual orientation?  Such excluding behavior is according to the old way, the way of sin, the life you knew before Christ, what Paul calls the flesh.  Such excluding behavior too, by the way, is at the root of all sorts of social evils like bigotry, racism, and bullying.

But what happened in Corinth needs to stay in Corinth!  That was your old life, your old way of dealing with disagreement.  You are now a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  So act like it!

When disagreement arises, and it will, deal with it according to the Kingdom’s rules, not Corinth’s.  Don’t pull someone aside and whisper your cause into their itching ears!  Instead, go to the one with whom you disagree in love, loving the Lord your God as you go; and loving that other person, who is your neighbor, as yourself.  And seek reconciliation!

Right?  We should not seek to create factions, but unity.  Unity is a sign of maturity in Christ.

Now, here’s the good news: even with all the divisiveness that went on in Corinth, Paul nevertheless saw the Corinthians’ potential.

That’s what we read today: a vision of spiritual maturity.  The Christians in Corinth, Paul writes, are already sanctified in Christ Jesus.  They are already saints.  Despite the present disagreements!  Despite the present arguments!  Despite the present factions!  In fact, Christ is presently among them, enriching them and strengthening them to overcome their divisions, to become more and more mature as a corporate body.

It is just the same today, here, with us.  Whatever factions there are among us, and however poorly we deal with them, we are already sanctified; we are already saints.  Christ is present among us, enriching us in all things and strengthening us to overcome our divisions; and thereby we can become more and more mature in him.

Let us therefore pray to this end: for ourselves as individuals; for the corporate body of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School; and for the wider Church.

. . . .  Amen.

Dramatic Life-moment

Posted in Doing Church with tags , on December 16, 2013 by timtrue
The Communion of the Apostles

The Communion of the Apostles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I am following up on my last post, “The Drama of the Call.”  For the nonagenarian friend, the parishioner whose leg was amputated–well, she died on Saturday morning.

Now I’m not a medical professional.  In fact, I’m totally ignorant about most things requiring medical attention.  “Make it up as you go” has always been my medical m. o.  So, for instance, when I stuck my finger in a squirrel-cage fan as a boy and came running home with blood splattered everywhere, a little Neosporin and a butterfly bandage sufficed.  And, amazingly, it healed fairly well, no stitches needed, thank you very much.  And I’ve got the scar to prove it!  Point is, my medical ignorance–and improvisation–has proven blissful again and again; and so I’ve had enough positive reinforcement in my life to continue shunning medical experts and making it up as I go.  I remain medically ignorant.  I question no one’s medical judgment.  Still, was amputating a ninety-three year-old’s leg really necessary for a blood clot?  She didn’t recover from the surgery apparently, for she died three days later.

In that last post I said I would take her communion on Sunday.  Sadly, she died on Saturday.  But happily and providentially I ended up taking her communion on Friday.

It happened like this.  By noon Friday I was at a good breaking point from the week’s activities.  So my mind turned to visitations.  I would go and see her now, I decided, especially since doing so would free up my Sunday afternoon to spend with my own family.  Utilitarian, I know, but it is what it is.  So I called the assisted living home where she should have been.  But the nurse on the line said, no, my friend hadn’t been re-admitted.  I then called the hospital where the surgery had been performed, only to hear that she had been discharged yesterday, i. e., Thursday.  A little annoyed, I grabbed my communion kit and Prayer Book and headed for said retirement home hoping for the best.

My hunch proved correct.  My aged friend was in her room, eyes opening and closing slowly, almost lazily, barely cognizant.  There with her sat her daughter, her eyes puffy.

“So good to see you, Father Tim,” the daughter said, rising from her seat to greet me.

“I’ve brought communion,” I smiled.

“Wonderful!” she smiled back.

Without further conversation, I opened my Prayer Book and led the three of us through a brief service.  I partook of the bread and wine then gave the elements to the daughter saying the familiar phrases, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven”; and “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”  I then turned to her mother.

“I have some bread and wine for you,” I said.

Her eyes, now closed, stayed closed.

“Tim,” the daughter offered, “I’ve seen another priest dip his finger in the wine and touch her tongue with it.”

Brilliant idea, I thought, for there’s no need to take the elements in both kinds, as our theology states; meaning only bread or only wine is sufficiently sacramental.  And I acted upon it.

As my fingertip touched her tongue, I realized how dried up it was.  It felt something like the corner of a small stack of paper, fifty sheets or so thick.  She’d been breathing through her mouth for days, since the sedation for the surgery probably.  At any rate, she visibly responded to the drop of wine on her tongue.  It must have brought physical relief along with spiritual.

As I departed, the daughter walked me to the door of the room.  “We’re not sure how much longer she’s got,” she related tearfully.

“I understand.  Call us when you need anything.”

Her mother died something like twelve hours later.

Today funeral plans are being made.  “Can Father Tim do the funeral,” the four siblings asked?  “It means a lot to us that he was there in her last hours of life.”

And so, yes, I will be officiating at a funeral on Friday.  And though I barely knew her, it’s going to be difficult not to cry.

She was ninety-three.  It seems normal to expect that she would have passed on any given day.  But following such a severe surgery, an amputation!  Somehow this makes her passing seem not normal–makes it frustrating.  And in my frustration I want to shed tears with and for the family.  It’s part of the liminality, I suppose.

But the Episcopal funeral service is about resurrection–both Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of all believers in the last day.  So I am reminded that beyond this dramatic life-moment my nonagenarian friend is being restored to new life, to full life, to life without blood clots, to life with complete limbs, to life without doctors, where the m. o. is “make it up as you go.”