Archive for authenticity

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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Not the Prim, Proper, and Perfumed

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

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

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

1.

No one is getting baptized here today.

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

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

What do you think Jesus experienced on that day?

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

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

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

What kinds of disabilities would Jesus have seen?

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

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

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

2.

My, how times have changed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churchgoers par excellence!

3.

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

But is this what baptism is about? Our actions?

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

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

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

Really?

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

Wise people? Magi?

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

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

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

4.

So, today we remember our Lord’s baptism.

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

But the Gospel of Luke does something different today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

Two things, right?

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

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

Prayers seem so immaterial, so abstract!

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

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

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

You pray; and God affirms!

God loves you; God is well pleased with you.

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

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

Belonging to the Truth

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 18:33-37

What is truth?

Is truth relative?  Or is it absolute?

If it’s relative, then what’s true for me doesn’t have to be true for you.

Now, there’s wisdom in this sort of thinking—that truth is relative.  It doesn’t take us long to see.  Right now, for instance, on the world stage there are people who believe that western thinking is wrong, and that all westerners deserve to die.

For me, anyone who possesses a personal truth, a doctrine, that prejudges another person or group of people because of race, color, creed, or ideology—well, that’s no “truth” for me.

So, what’s true for you doesn’t have to be true for me.

But we can go too far with this kind of thinking.

Like that time in college when a friend of mine declared, “There’s no such thing as absolute truth!”

And I said, “Are you absolutely sure?”

Absolute truth is a concern of all the great religions of the world.  Is there any sort of truth—or, if you like, are there some ideologies or doctrines—applicable to all humanity?  Is there some kind of moral code by which all people, regardless of era, civilization, or culture, ought to live?

The Golden Rule, maybe?  Or love?

If so—if there is such a thing as absolute truth, something applicable to all humanity regardless of time and place—then we’ve found a key to one of life’s great mysteries, a principle by which all people should live.

Nevertheless, whatever the case, persons, people, and whole nations can’t agree.  And the debate continues.

Is truth absolute, or is it relative?

But what if we’re asking the wrong question?

Today’s Gospel teaches us a lot about truth.

Near the end of the passage, Pilate asks Jesus a leading question about his identity: “So you are a king?”

Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

If Jesus is a king at all—and we all know he is—then his is a kingdom of truth.  To testify to the truth is why Jesus was born; it’s why he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  Everyone who listens to his voice belongs to his kingdom.  Everyone who listens to his voice belongs to the truth.  Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of truth.

But Pilate doesn’t get it.

For what does the very next verse say?

We ended with verse 37.  We ended with Jesus declaring, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Then—verse 38 says—“Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”

What is truth?

Well, Pilate, you think that Jesus and his kingdom are no threat to you.

You, Pilate, think that you’re the most powerful, in-control person in all of Jerusalem.  After all, the truth is, you are the local representative of Rome, of Caesar himself.  No human being is more politically powerful than you.

And you think, Pilate, that an ideological kingdom, a kingdom of truth, a kingdom not of this world, is no threat at all to you or Caesar.

And so you ask, “What is truth?” and you go out to Jesus’ opponents and tell them, “I find no case against him.”

BUT, Pilate, reality—in other words, the truth—is not what you think.

Despite that you think yourself so powerful, Pilate, you are obviously trapped in fear.  That’s the reality here.  Jesus’ opponents, the “underground” leaders of the community, want him crucified.  If you don’t give them what they want, who knows what kind of uprising will follow?  And then, what will Rome think of you?  You fear the answers to these questions, Pilate, don’t you?

Despite that his is an ideological kingdom, Pilate, this kingdom of truth is in fact a very real threat to you, your power, and the political kingdom of Rome.  For, despite what you think, Jesus’ teachings are very subversive when it comes to allegiance.  For Jesus’ followers, when it comes to either the kingdom of Rome or the kingdom of God, Rome takes second place every time.

So, you, Pilate, are in denial.

Maybe the question we should ask, then, is not whether truth is relative or absolute. Maybe it’s more about reality.  What is the reality into which Jesus calls us to live?  What is the truth that is Christ’s kingdom?  And what traps us in fear of living into that truth?

Journalist Jonathan Darman tells the story of a U. S. senator who wanted to make a public statement, after the fact, that he had acted against his better judgment when he voted to authorize the war in Iraq.  This senator wanted to declare that he’d made a mistake and offer a public apology.  So he wrote three drafts of an op-ed article.  But in every draft, his aides either deleted his confession altogether or tempered it to say, “I was misled.”

For this senator’s aides, maintaining power was more important than being honest.  And thus the senator was trapped.

Is that what our fears are about?  Maintaining position?  Do we fear what we would lose by being honest, authentic, real?

I wonder how many of us live in this fear.  Many of us enjoy our creature comforts.  Many of us have nice homes and comfortable cars; and we take expensive vacations.  Fine and well.

But to what extent do we go in order to enjoy these things?  Are we real with respect to our public personas?  Do our colleagues at work really know us—what we think, what we believe in, what makes us tick?  Or do we put up a front, out of fear of losing our jobs?

We’ve got to pay the mortgage, after all.  And the car payment.  And the credit card debt.

These things can trap us into denying reality—or avoiding it, or fearing it.

And what about the Church?

This question has been on my mind and heart a lot lately, especially after the recent pastoral letter from Bishop Mathes.

Today is known as Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year; next week Advent begins, the Christian New Year.  So, is Christ our King?  Do we in fact give all allegiance to Jesus Christ, trusting completely in his divine sovereignty, as we declare on this day?

The Church has grown accustomed to certain creature comforts.

But studies have demonstrated that the mainline Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church, have experienced steady decline in membership over the last four decades.  America is becoming increasingly post-Christian.  St. Paul’s is losing its place of influence in and around Yuma.

So, I’ve got to ask, are we trapped in fear of this reality?

Some of the Episcopal Church’s parishes are living in denial, following models of congregational development that once seemed effective but no longer address the realities of today’s world.  Leaders of such parishes say things like, “We’re just trying to be faithful to what Jesus calls us to do.”

Other parishes acknowledge the reality; but they try to avoid it.  They are trapped by fear of the unknown, or they suffer from that age-old disease called analysis-paralysis.

Still others temper their message and mission, like that senator’s aides, in a desperate effort to maintain position.

But the Church professes Christ as King.  Shouldn’t the Church live out its profession?

After Pilate asks Jesus the first time, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus turns the tables and asks him a very revealing question:

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

Jesus asks Pilate this revealing question and thus invites him to be honest, to be real, to be authentic.  It’s as if Jesus says, “Listen to me, Pilate.  Be true.  Be real.”  “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Do you see?  Even to Pilate, Jesus offers to be the good shepherd; Jesus offers Pilate the opportunity to belong to the truth.

But Pilate refuses.  Pilate dismisses Jesus’ offer, asking with disdain, “What is truth?”

It’s the same with us.  Jesus invites us to be authentic.  Jesus is offering to us—as individuals and as the Church—to be our good shepherd, the opportunity to belong to the truth.

So now it’s our turn.

Will we be like Pilate, refusing the truth, dismissing Jesus’ offer?

Or are we ready to receive it?

Unless you become like a Second Grader

Posted in Homilies with tags , on August 30, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Some of you know that I used to teach second grade.

Immanuel Christian School is a small, private school in northeastern Pennsylvania.  It is in a small city, Hazleton—spelled H-A-Z-L-E.  The word on the street is that when the city was founded, its name—which comes from the hazel tree—was misspelled on the founding documents; and that, when they discovered the misspelling, those in power decided it wasn’t worth going through the hassle to correct it.

Yeah!  Hazleton!  An old coal mining town whose heyday had long since passed!  This is where God called me to be a teacher for two years; to teach second graders.

Oh, the stories I could tell you!  Northeastern Pennsylvania was extreme culture shock for this thirty year-old and his twenty-six year-old wife, two born-and-bred Californians.  Especially the winter!

Anyway, as you know, second graders are curious folk to work with.  (Especially when from northeastern Pennsylvania!)

They’re like little grown-ups in a lot of ways.  They each have their own, unique desires, personalities, mannerisms, and traits.  They tend to gravitate towards one group of classmates and avoid another.  They lose their tempers; they become impatient with each other; they judge others and point out their faults; they gossip.  And so on.

But they’re different from most grown-ups in this: they haven’t yet learned discretion.

One day, in the middle of the school year, a second-grade boy ran up to me, panting, red in the face with urgency, obviously upset; grabbed my shirtsleeve; then pointed in another boy’s direction and shouted, “He hit me.”

We grown-ups do the same thing.  Only we use discretion.  We don’t run, for one thing.  And we’re usually not red in the face with urgency.  (We might be urgent, sure; but we know how to hide our redness).  And we aren’t so bold as to grab an authority by the shirtsleeve.  We us other, subtler means to get someone’s attention.

But we do seek someone who will listen to our cause, who will take our side.  And, yes, whether it’s gossip in the parking lot or a courtroom battle, just like second graders, we grown-ups point in someone else’s direction and shout out judgments against them.

So: what I wanted to say in this situation—when the second-grade boy grabbed my shirtsleeve and shouted that another had hit him—was, “Well, you probably deserved it.”

I wanted to say this (and I may or may not have actually done so once or twice in similar situations) because I knew I wasn’t hearing the whole side of the story.  There was another side, surely.  What would the second boy say if I were to ask him?  I knew: the first boy was telling me only what he wanted me to hear and hiding the rest from me.

It’s very easy for us—maybe even inherent in our nature—in our humanity—to think of ourselves more highly than we ought.  It’s very easy for us to put ourselves first, even when we tell ourselves we’re putting others first.  It’s very easy to see the speck in someone else’s eye without even noticing the two-by-four sticking out of our own eye.

We’re especially good critics of everyone else; and especially bad critics of ourselves.

“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel.

The word hypocrite has an interesting etymology.

It comes from the Greek noun hupokrisis, which means: the acting of a theatrical part.  We have the English word actor.  An actor acts a theatrical part, sure.  But before you want to start calling Chris Pratt a hypocrite, the meaning here is more like the character an actor plays and not the actor himself.  If anything, then, Chris Pratt is not a hypocrite; but Owen, the character he plays in Jurassic World, is.

The Greek verb hupokrinesthai gives us a little more insight.  It means: to play a part; to pretend.  This is the action that the actor does.  In Jurassic World, the actor Chris Pratt pretends to be Owen, the park’s game warden.

One more facet: hupokrisis, the Greek noun, can be broken into two constituent parts: hupo and krisisHupo is where we get our English prefix hypo-, which means below, or beneath.  (Example: hypothyroidism.)  And krisis, giving us our English word crisis, means decision, or judgment.  Put it together and you have a judging below—one person deciding that another person is beneath him.  (Just like Chris Pratt thinks he’s better than everyone else just because he’s a famous Hollywood actor!  Okay, for the record, I’m just kidding.)

Rightly, then (and now I’m not kidding), does Jesus call the judgment-casters in today’s Gospel hypocrites!  For they judge Christ’s disciples as being beneath them, since they don’t wash their hands before a meal.

Also, there is an element of pretension here: in that the judgment-casters are merely acting, putting on a show.

They’re disingenuous.

They’re inauthentic.

And that’s what I want to focus on: Hypocrisy is inauthentic.  Or, to say it a little differently, hypocrisy is the negation of authenticity.

So we’ve arrived at a contrast. On the one hand is hypocrisy: a pretend life.  And on the other hand is authenticity: an honest life.

Now, we certainly don’t want to be hypocrites!  Yet hypocrisy is something we all struggle with—whether you want to admit it or not—and if you don’t want to admit it, well, that’s proof enough.

Which leads to the question: What would it look like for us to live authentic lives, to live lives free of hypocrisy?

For the answer, I return to my second graders.

I wanted to say to the boy with the red face who’d pulled my shirtsleeve, “Well, you probably deserved it!”  But what I did instead was to capitalize on this incident by turning it into a teaching moment.

“All right,” I called out, not to him but to the entire class, “recess is over.  It’s time to line up and return to the classroom.”

Some minutes later, when everyone was seated and quiet—perhaps it was several minutes later—I continued.  “Get your Bibles out,” I said, “and turn to Matthew 18:15.  Raise your hand when you find it; first one there gets to read it aloud.”

And of course this was a sort of game for them.  But I had grander plans.

Predictably, the same red-faced boy who’d pulled on my shirtsleeve raised his hand first—or maybe he was second or third; but I was hoping to call on him anyway, so I used it to my advantage.

“Brent,” I said, “I see you’re there.  Begin reading, please.”

Which he did—from the New International Reader’s Version (the NIRV): “If your brother or sister sins against you, go to them.  Keep it between the two of you—”

And I interrupted.  “Wait,” I said.  “What did that just say?  Please, read it again, Brent.  And slow down a little bit, so that everyone can understand you.”

And he did.  But this time, now that everyone was really listening, I let him keep reading: “If they listen to you, you have won them back.  But what if they won’t listen to you?  Then take one or two others with you.”

“Thank you, Brent,” I said.

I then went on to explain that this is the Bible’s remedy for tattle-tales.  “Don’t you all think it would be a good idea,” I asked, “if, instead of running to a teacher right away to tell on someone, you just went to that person and tried to work it out between the two of you?”

Of course, there was a lot of nervous shuffling of feet and something of a murmur of incredulity.  But in the end we agreed to try it.  If a student brought a tattle to tell me, I wouldn’t listen until that person had spoken first with the offender.  And at first it wasn’t very easy; but we stuck at it.  And before the year was over, I’m happy to report, the students came a long way.  They increased in their authenticity and decreased in their hypocrisy.

More specifically, the students became more honest with each other.  They learned to let things go that weren’t really that important after all.  They gave each other the benefit of the doubt.  They became less quick at passing judgment on each other, and in thinking themselves better than everyone around them.  They didn’t tell on each other so frequently.  They didn’t lose their tempers as quickly.  They stopped cutting in the line to the drinking fountain.  They even began to transgress their imagined group walls, their social boundaries.  Boys hung out with girls; girls hung out with boys.  A girl of Italian descent began eating lunch with the Puerto Rican girls (and in northeastern Pennsylvania, that’s a big deal)!

But isn’t this what authenticity is all about?

Honesty.

Giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Not judging ourselves to be better than everyone around us.

I don’t know about you, but I want to live more like these second graders.

On Attracting Seekers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by timtrue

John 12:20-33; Jeremiah 31:31-34

The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church. “There are cultural trends that people naturally gravitate towards,” they reason; “so we ought to offer the products and ideologies that people want.  People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels.  That ought to bring ’em to church!”

Out of this movement arose the so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]

So, arguably, the church growth movement has done great work.  Just look at these results!

But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches?

20-somethings are a very me-oriented group.  We are probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they are not talking, joking, or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in his or her own world, a world in the shape of some gadget.

According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology.  Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract these young people?  How can we go viral?  To tweet or not to tweet?  (That is the question!)

Mega-churches are asking these questions, don’t misunderstand me; and they are trying to reach this subculture.  But their efforts just don’t seem to be working: this segment of society is noticeably missing from the pews.

In fact, according to recent Barna Group statistics I read recently in Christianity Today, more than 8 million 20-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.

So, where are they going?  And why?

The answers may surprise you.  By and large, 20-somethings are turning from Christianity to Atheism.[ii]  Why?  Authenticity, they say.

Churches are trying to imitate popular culture, the argument goes; and this imitation strikes 20-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely as hypocritical.  Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.

Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic is also genuine.  Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-somethings seem to crave.  Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies, including today’s version of Christianity, want to touch.

Critics of the church growth movement conclude, therefore, that the church ought to be counter-cultural, not pandering.

And so goes the church growth debate.

But what does Jesus have to say about it?

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Greeks, the Bible says.  Non-Jews!  Who went up to worship at the Passover—a distinctively Jewish—festival!

What were these Greeks but seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?

Here is a tremendous opportunity for church growth.  Both Philip and Andrew recognize it.  Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus.  Some seekers have come to church!  What an awesome opportunity!

So what does Jesus do?  He summarizes the entire Gospel, the good news about himself, in a short parable about agriculture:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Or, to summarize, Jesus proclaims that his disciples must:

  1. Embrace death;
  2. Hate life;
  3. And follow him through death to life.

Well, that’s an attractive message for seekers!

But that’s exactly what’s going on here!  These are Greeks he’s talking to.  They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—the pop culture of their day!  And yet, Jesus does not try to meet them where they are.  Jesus does not try to attract them to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object.

In fact, his message is death and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution!  His message to seekers—to those wanting to become his disciples—is crucifixion!  Granted, it’s also resurrection.

Here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life. This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels!  This is the message the world needs to hear.

So, how do we do this?  As individual disciples and as a church body, how do we take Christ’s message of crucifixion and resurrection seriously?

The text gives us three suggestions:

First, Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Disciples of Jesus must embrace death.  And the kind of death we’re talking about here is death to self.  Discipleship leaves no room for narcissism, or self-absorption.

Many of the 20-somethings in the article I mentioned above readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed.  They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them.  Their generation both breeds and nurtures narcissism.

It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when a church that fosters narcissism is seen by them as second-rate or hypocritical.  But in interviews, the 20-somethings said things like:

  • The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
  • We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center.  We don’t need the church to echo the world.
  • We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches.   So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]

Narcissism is a retreat from the world.  When church leaders appeal to it by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires.  It negates the message of Jesus Christ.  And perceptive 20-somethings see right through it.  They would rather learn how to die to oneself.

A second suggestion; Jesus says: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Disciples of Jesus must hate life.

But what does hating life mean?  I remember using this as a catch phrase when I was a kid.  It usually involved some kind of physical activity—surfing or motorcycling or playing football.  Someone would wipe out or high-side or get tackled by the entire opposing defensive line, and I’d say, “Oh, he’s hating life right now.”  Ever hear that?

Well, that’s not what Jesus means here.  Instead, it’s about hating the things in our culture that can entangle and ensnare us.

Things like money; things like ideologies, like narcissism; even things like unhealthy relationships.  These entangling things are here, all around us, confronting us every day.  We can’t ignore them.  We have to live with them; face them; deal with them.

Authentic Christianity is not afraid to do this—to wrestle through such things.  If there are people you know struggling with Atheism, narcissism, paying their bills, or even with each other, don’t be afraid to talk about it.  And—this is important!—don’t feel like you have to come up with a solution to the problem right now: it’s okay to live with tension for a while.

So: embrace death, hate life, and, thirdly, follow Jesus through death into life.

Jesus says it this way: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

But we also heard it said another way this morning, from the Prophet Jeremiah.  There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on his or her heart.

And what is the law of God?  Love!  Love the Lord your God with all your being!  And love your neighbor as yourself!

We think long and hard about this law of God in this church.  So I’m not going to tell you anything new about it.  Instead, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment what it should look like.  What would it look like—close your eyes if it helps—if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?

Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, or terrorism?  Would we turn on the local news and be sickened by all the criminal behavior going on right around the corner from our homes?  Would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?

Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love?  Sounds like heaven!

Well, it is.

It’s also new life, a life gotten to only after passing through death to self.  This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live now, here, in this culture, in this world.  This is authentic Christianity.

And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-somethings, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.

There really is no recipe for successful church growth other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

[i]               Cf. http://www.onlinechristiancolleges.com/megachurches/.

[ii]               Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/august/how-seeker-sensitive-consumer-church-is-failing-generation.html?paging=off.

[iii]              Ibid.