Archive for change

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.

Stop Sulking Already!

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

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

1.

With whom are we supposed to identify in this very familiar parable?

Are we supposed to be the prodigal?

How many of you have ever gone against your father’s wishes?

Well, maybe not to the extent that this young man went; maybe you’ve never journeyed so far from home.

There, in that distant country, after living riotously until he had nothing left, and after a famine swept over the land so that most everyone was in need, what’d he do but hire himself out to feed pigs?

Pigs! Swine! Unclean beasts! Not kosher!

Effectively, the prodigal son became no longer a son of Israel or even of his own father.

Maybe you’ve never journeyed this far from home.

Literally, anyway.

But what about figuratively? Have you ever journeyed so far from your heavenly Father that you effectively cut yourself off from him?

So, is this the character with whom we are supposed to identify most closely in today’s parable, the prodigal son?

2.

Or, maybe, are we supposed to identify with the merciful, benevolent, gracious father?

Yeah, this guy, the prodigal’s father, breaks with all convention.

He’s a Palestinian Jewish man. Convention says ancestral land is something you must hold on to with all tenacity, like a bulldog with a lamb shank bone.

When your son whines and wheedles his share of the ancestral lands out of you and then goes off and sells it in order to live selfishly, against all you’ve ever taught him—well, that’s got to be the end of it! Convention, not to mention common sense, demands that you disown such a profligate, rebellious, riotous son!

Besides, have you heard what the neighbors are saying?

But what does this father do instead? He watches for his son, keeps vigil, like Aegeus straining day after day to see Theseus’s white sails crossing the sea.

And when finally he does see his prodigal son still far off—who cares what the neighbors are saying!—he runs to greet him, embraces him, and weeps for joy over him.

Faugh on convention! His son was dead but is alive again; he was lost but now is found.

So, are we supposed to be like the father—merciful, benevolent, and gracious beyond all convention?

3.

But there’s a third character, an often overlooked, or maybe ignored character, in this parable: the older brother.

He’s the one, remember, that has obeyed all the rules. He’s the one who did not ask for his share of the inheritance, but instead kept to convention. He’s the one who remained faithful and loyal to his father throughout his younger brother’s selfish time of foolishness.

And yet what thanks does he get?

Has his dad ever thrown him a feast for all his years of fidelity? Has he ever gotten so much as a barbequed chicken dinner for him and a few friends?

Yet when his profligate partier of a younger brother returns home without a penny to his name—all the inheritance, for crying out loud!—he receives no punishment at all but a full prime-rib feast! What the heck!

So, I wonder, are we supposed to identify most closely with him, the older brother?

4.

Prodigal, Father, Older Brother: with which character are we supposed to identify?

We find our answer at the beginning of today’s Gospel. We might not like it, but the answer is there nonetheless; at the beginning of the passage, in the first few sentences, which frame the context.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable.

Two distinct categories of people are gathered around Jesus, his supporters and his opposers.

Who are the supporters? Tax collectors and sinners.

Well, here are the people, surely, who represent the prodigal son.

And I’m a sinner too. I have no problem wearing that label. And so I identify with the prodigal son. How about you?

But, really, am I a social outcast?

Tax collectors, in Jesus’ day, were nothing short of extortionists. Normal John-and-Jane taxpayers hated them. Tax collectors, plain and simple, were social outcasts.

For that matter, so were the demon-possessed, the lepers, the blind, the prostitutes, and the other sinners Jesus welcomed and ate with.

So, to be honest, this really isn’t me. Is it you?

For most of us, the answer is no. We’re not social outcasts in the sense that sinners is meant here. And so, as much as we might like to think so, we’re actually not all that much like the prodigal son.

And, in case you’re wondering, as for the father—the kind, watchful, benevolent, merciful, gracious father who breaks with all convention? That’s a picture of Jesus, not us.

That leaves only the opposers. By default, for most of us anyway, we are the older brother.

5.

But we don’t want to identify with the older brother! We don’t want to identify with the opposers, the grumblers, the scribes and Pharisees.

Well, like it or not, that’s us. After all, the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus addressed were members of the established “church” in their day.

Which leaves us at a crossroads. This is where the parable goes; this why we need to identify with the older brother.

For one thing, the church is called to be inclusive.

This theme comes up over and over in the Gospels; and we see it again today, loud and clear. Jesus is dining with tax collectors and sinners; the prodigal son is welcomed home with open arms.

Jesus loves the hated and the marginalized. We, his church, are called to love them too, to invite, welcome, and connect them into this living organism we call St. Thomas.

For another thing, the church is called to be adaptable.

Where do I see this? In the older brother’s reaction to the father throwing off convention. The older brother gives us an example of what not to do.

Jesus is doing a new thing in his church. Mainline Christianity is experiencing changes unlike anything it has ever faced in our nation’s history. We can no longer have an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. For, the fact of the matter is, people just don’t view church the way they did a generation ago: to be affiliated with a church is no longer a social obligation.

This has its pros and cons, sure. But the point for the moment is that in the last four decades both attendance and donations are in decline, yielding unprecedented change. All convention has been cast aside.

Will we be able to adapt? Or will we brood and sulk like Jesus’ opposers?

So, here’s the thing: Back to the parable, what the older brother decides to do in the end is left open. Will he celebrate with his father and younger brother, because his little brother was dead but is alive again; lost but now found? Or will he continue to brood and sulk, outside and alone?

We don’t know: the answer isn’t given; Jesus doesn’t tell us. We’re left at a crossroads.

We do know from history, however, that Jesus’ opposers chose the latter: to brood and sulk over the changes Jesus brought. And their brooding and sulking led to hatred, bigotry, and death.

But our history has not yet been completely written.

We are part of a church—mainline Christianity—that has tried to serve our heavenly Father faithfully and obediently, not nearly perfect yet repentant—a lot like the older son. So how will we respond to convention being thrown off—to Jesus doing things in an unexpected way?

Will we brood and sulk over it, guarding and protecting the institution we have created? Or will we rejoice with Jesus, going out into the highways and byways and inviting, welcoming, and connecting the hated and marginalized into our heavenly Father’s home?

Those who opposed Jesus in his day no longer have a choice.

We still do!

Beyond the Tribal Walls

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

Luke 4:21-30

1.

Tribalism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time God sent Elisha, another prophet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

So, here’s what happens with us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We lose our first love.

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

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

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

4.

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

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

To equip the congregation to do Jesus’ mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

Short answer: Yes! Emphatically! Absolutely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community of Resistance

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 13:1-8

1.

Nothing stays the same.

The disciples look at Herod’s temple and marvel, “What large stones and large buildings!”

Herod planned to turn a small plateau, Mount Moriah, into a level platform measuring 1600’ x 900’. That’s 30 football fields!

So he dug a trench around the plateau and filled it with huge stones, making a gigantic retaining wall. The largest of these stones, found in excavations, measures some 44’ x 11’ x 16’, weighing approximately 600 tons, too heavy for the largest crane in Rome during Herod’s day![I]

Maybe the disciple pointed at this one when he exclaimed, “What large stones!”

But Jesus, apparently not very impressed, says, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Nothing stays the same.

Few of us, however, like change.

I mean, who likes to move from one home to another? Or what businessperson wants to change offices? Or what teacher wants to move her classroom across campus?

We humans like to establish a routine that works best for me and then stick with it!

But what if the change means improvement? What if you’re moving in order to get out of a termite-infested hovel into a structurally sound domicile? You still may not like the hassle of the change very much, but in the end, you have to admit, it’s a drastic improvement.

Is change then really all that bad? Especially if it’s needed change?

2.

So, to make a very serious turn, consider our nation’s history of slavery.

We know now, from our historical vantage point, beyond a shadow of a doubt, slavery was ethically, socially, politically, and spiritually wrong. Our nation needed a large, systemic change.

But change did not come easy.

In fact, in that day—the antebellum United States—so many people did not welcome this needed change that party lines were drawn against those who demanded it, a country was divided, and a “civil” war was fought.

In the antebellum United States, no one had to tell slaves that the change was needed. From the slaves’ perspective, they were unequivocally oppressed, desperate, in need of liberation.

The war did not come about at the level of slavery, however; it came at the level of privilege.

What must it have been like to be a slave? No voice. No representation. No personal property. Can you imagine?

Admittedly, I can’t.

For the church I represent and quite probably some of my distant relatives were the oppressors, the slave owners, those in the place of privilege.

As much as I’m sympathetic to the slaves, then; as much as I’m in agreement today that large-scale, systemic change was needed in the antebellum U. S., I really have no idea what it feels like to have no voice, no advocate, and no personal property.

That’s how privilege works. It contains a certain level of ignorance. Even if I have no distant relatives who owned slaves—I know of none—my European heritage, not to mention the fact that I am male, has kept me distanced to a great degree from the slaves’ perspective.

They were a people far too highly oppressed and far too desperately in need of liberation for me even to begin to comprehend. Maybe it’s the same for you, too.

Privilege is a part of my story; and, like it or not, it’s a part of our church’s story.

What can we do about this? Can we change? Will we change?

3.

Along these lines, then, here’s another sticky question: How many leaders of our church and nation in our antebellum years—how many of the privileged people in, say, the year 1800—would have even considered slavery an evil?

Some did, sure. Especially as we approached the middle of the nineteenth century! Tensions were rising.

But, obviously, many privileged people argued in favor of slavery. Enough to draw party lines! Enough to divide a country! Enough to start a “civil” war!

That’s also how privilege works, by the way. Privileged individuals get swept up in their time and culture, imbibing the atmosphere all around them, an atmosphere that tells them continuously that things like slavery are acceptable, even good for the economy.

That was a message the privileged class had heard throughout their lives, incessantly, until they believed it as much as you or I believe in, for example, the tenets of western capitalism today.

They oppressed and denied their slaves of liberation; and yet, curiously, they themselves were held in a kind of captivity to the ideal, the institution, of slavery.

Our fight is not against flesh and blood, the writer to the Ephesians tells us, but against principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of evil.

Slavery was one such power, a spiritual force of evil. The oppressed needed to be liberated from it. And, concurrently, the privileged—the leaders of our church and nation—needed to be released and redeemed from their captivity to it.

We all recognize that today. But many of them, caught up in the atmosphere of their time and place, did not.

4.

So, here’s the thing: This consideration of slavery as a spiritual power points us to a larger power still alive and well in our world today: the power of privilege.

Those held in captivity by this power, whether or not they are aware of it, oppress those who are outside of it: the privileged are benefited at the expense of the marginalized.

So, let’s put this all together. Privilege is a spiritual power alive and well in the world today, a power that we Christians are called to oppose; and yet, the Episcopal Church is privileged—statistically, its members are the wealthiest and most educated of all mainline Christian denominations.

What this means is that a whole lot of change needs to take place within our church.

But change is so hard!

The good news is that TEC recognizes this—and has recognized it for at least the last few decades. Difficult change is needed; change for the better. And so, hard as it is, we are working through needed changes.

The ordination of women and, in more recent years, members of the LGBTQ community, demonstrates this—as does our recent church-wide recognition and full blessing of same-sex marriages.

For the entire history of our nation’s existence, women and the people of the LGBTQ community have been marginalized. It’s time to put an end to this inequality—whether it means liberation from oppression or redemption from captivity.

After all, if we, TEC, were to maintain dogmatically that only straight men can be ordained, such doctrine would perpetuate this power of privilege we are called as a community of Christ to resist—a power that has been at work in our nation continuously since its earliest days.

Do you see? The body of Christ is called not to be complicit in the oppressive principalities and powers at work in the world around us, but to be a community of resistance against them.

And TEC understands this.

Pray, then, for our church.

Where we become aware of past wrongs, like our complicity in slavery, pray that we apologize and make restitution; that we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest our past mistakes (as today’s Collect suggests).

Where we see a clear way forward, like helping the oppressed find liberation, pray that we follow it.

And in that vast middle ground, where, in this present darkness, we cannot see clearly, pray that we navigate our way carefully, making the best decisions we can from what we know—from what scripture, reason, and tradition tell us.

Our mission as a church, the body of Christ, is to resist the principalities and powers, the spiritual forces of evil at work in the world around us, powers—like privilege—that try with all the force of Satan to keep us captive.

We are a community of resistance.

[i] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Temple.

Adopting a Classical Cosmology

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by timtrue

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Ascension Day

1.

Since coming to St. Paul’s and the Diocese of San Diego, I’ve become keenly aware of the mainline American church’s decline over the past four decades.

Many parishes, including ours, have endured splits. Attendance and pledges have dropped significantly. Thousands of churches have closed their doors, given up, and walked away from their mission.

Here are just a few startling statistics from episcopalchurch.org demonstrating the decline in our denomination from 2005-2015:

2005                    2015

Total number of congregations:     7,635                    6,996

Active baptized members:              2.37 million         1.92 million

Average Sunday attendance:           830,706               614,241

These statistics yield an unnerving observation. Over the past decade the Episcopal Church’s average Sunday attendance has dropped by 26% and the active baptized membership has dropped by 19%; yet the total number of congregations has dropped by less than 9%. So: membership is dropping twice as fast as congregations are closing, a trend that is not sustainable.

And, thus, at the risk of sounding like a prophet of doom, I offer this prediction: the Episcopal Church will have to close many more congregations and sell off many more properties in order to reach a point of sustainability once more—even if the decline in membership plateaus!

Sad, I know. And worrisome! I mean, what if we—St. Paul’s—ever reach a point where we just can’t afford to keep the lights on anymore? Will the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in Yuma be forever cut off? And, is there anything we can do about it?

2.

Well, yes, there is something we can do about it. But before I tell you what, permit me to digress for a bit into the realm of ancient Greek cosmology. It is Ascension Day, after all; so why not hear what Plato had to say about the ascended bodies in the heavens—the sun, moon, and stars?

To begin with then, the ancient Greeks viewed our world as very unstable: our world—where we walk, talk, and otherwise live our lives—is subject to constant change.

This continual instability is readily apparent in the four elements of which our world is comprised: earth, water, air, and fire.

The order of these elements is intentional.

Earth is the heaviest. Take a handful of soil or a stone and throw it into a pond. What happens? It sinks.

Water, next, rises from the depths only as high as the air above it will allow. Or, on the flipside, rain falls; and rivers flow downward, to the sea.

Air is the element where we humans dwell—we humans, ourselves a complicated mixture of earth, water, air, and fire.

And fire, as we all know, rises through the air: it tries to escape the dominion of the air to reach its source, the sun.

Earth, water, air, fire. This is our world. And it’s constantly changing.

Earth seeks to go into the sea and sink to the bottom, where it can join the deepest pillars of the universe.

The sea itself—the water to which all waters flow—is at constant war with itself, rising and falling daily in what we call the tides. And have you ever tried to sail across it? It can be fiercer than the greatest navy; or smooth as glass. Talk about bi-polar!

Air is similarly unpredictable. It varies its temperature daily, up and down; and fluctuates vastly more broadly with the seasons—not to mention the rains, thunderings, lightnings, and tempests that so often infect it.

And as for fire, just light one and watch what happens! Anyone can see that it is trying to escape upward, back to where it belongs, back to its rightful home.

The world we inhabit is in a state of constant flux, change, even chaos.

Yet something curious happens when we gaze into the heavens: the flux, change, and chaos seem to diminish and even disappear.

Now, the planets are admittedly tricky. Take Venus. Sometimes she’s the morning star; other times she’s the evening star; and still other times she’s nowhere to be found. She can be unpredictable—which is why she’s a she and the other planets are all hes. Still, the same can be said, though to a lesser extent, about the others—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Nevertheless, there seems to be some rhyme and reason to the planets, even Venus, much more so than the chaos that surrounds us in our daily world; we just haven’t figured it out yet.

But as for the sun and the moon, well, we know what they’re all about. We can predict when the sun will rise and set; and his exact path across the sky on any given day. And, though she seems to follow the sun’s lead, we can say the same about the moon.

And beyond them? Ah, yes, the stars; the most certain, fixed, and stable things we know.

— For the ancient Greeks, all generation and corruption happened in the sub-solar region of the universe; whereas, on the other hand, the celestial region was uncorrupted, unchanging and perfect.

3.

Next, consider today’s lectionary. It tells the story of Jesus’ ascension: that day, forty days after he rose from the grave, when he commissioned his disciples to carry on his mission, instructed them to wait for the coming Holy Spirit, blessed them, and rose from their sight into the heavens.

I died and rose again, he told them.

And now I am rising to the Father, he said.

He will send the Holy Spirit soon, he said, to carry on the work I started.

In other words, he said, the Father and the Holy Spirit are in on it too: my mission, that is.

And they dwell in the heaven of heavens, he said.

Where I soon will dwell with them, he said.

We three are uncorrupted, unchanging, and perfect, he said.

My mission therefore cannot fail, he said.

Even when people reject me, he said.

Even when mainline American church membership declines, he said.

Even when congregations must close and properties must be sold, he said.

My mission cannot fail.

The Church—with an upper-case C—will prevail. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. His Church—his mission—will persevere to the end.

4.

Ancient Greek cosmology teaches us a lot about our faith.

Though things might seem to be falling apart right in front of our nose—though membership is declining and we find ourselves lamenting the “good old days,” whatever those were—we follow a Leader who is uncorrupted, unchanging, and perfect. Our ultimate mission is one that will not fail.

At the same time, however—on the other hand—ancient Greek cosmology reminds us that everyday life is in fact full of change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos.

Our mission is to share the Good News in such a way that yields transformation: transformation of individual lives into the perfect image of Christ; transformation of communities into the corporate Body of Christ; transformation of the realm of the world into the realm of God.

Indeed, just in its definition, the word transformation implies change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos.

But the Episcopal Church has largely become an established church: with established buildings and established properties and established vestments and established liturgies and established music and established traditions—

Ever wonder if our message to the world is that we’re already transformed, nothing more needed, thank you very much?

If transformation is indeed our mission, why should we ever expect those we’re hoping to reach to meet us on our terms—to adapt to our traditions?

If the Church’s decline over the past four decades confronts us with anything, it is with our need to change. The way we’ve always done church, in all its deep richness, is no longer sustainable. As ancient Greek cosmology shows us, our world is just too unstable.

5.

So, is there anything we can do about it?

While it is true that the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations have been in steady decline for the past four decades, it doesn’t have to be so for us, here, in this particular parish called St. Paul’s.

You see, here’s how decline happens.

Change makes us uncomfortable. So we try to avoid it, to control our world so that we are confronted by the least amount of change possible.

But change will happen. Long-time parishioners grow old and pass away. People get mad over a matter of theology and leave—along with their pledges. New people come—hopefully! Volunteers come and go. Staff members come and go. Rectors and bishops come and go. Change is inevitable.

When we try to avoid or ignore change; or when we try to control our environments so that we are confronted by as little change as possible, since we can’t avoid it altogether we effectively put change in the driver’s seat.

And change is a bad driver! When we let change drive us around, decline is inevitable.

On the other hand, what if we accept the truth that change will come? Or, better yet, what if we are intentional about making changes ourselves? What if we are proactive—if we actively plan for and make changes and prepare for their effects?

Then we put St. Paul’s in the driver’s seat.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a driver than a passenger.

Anyway, putting it all together, in order to combat decline in the church—in order to continue with Jesus’ mission of transformation—we must adopt an ancient Greek cosmology.

That is, we must embrace the uncomfortable idea that everyday life is full of change, transition, flux, instability, maybe even chaos; and, at the same time, we must fix our vision on the uncorrupted, unchanging, perfect Trinity and Christ’s mission to transform the world.