Archive for church decline

Transfiguring Decline

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2017 by timtrue

My inaugural sermon at St. Thomas of Canterbury, last week, Transfiguration Day, August 6. just so happens I was able to touch on a lot of themes that characterize my ministry.

Luke 9:28-36

1.

Today is Transfiguration Day.

Imagine what it must have been like on that actual Day of Transfiguration for Peter, James, and John.

Who was this man, Jesus, exactly?

Yes, he’d called them away from their routine lives, offering a message of hope, redemption, and salvation. His was a good message. And convincing! So they’d left their routine lives and followed him.

And they’d witnessed him teaching, proclaiming good news to the oppressed and marginalized. They’d seen him perform miracles. Why, they’d even seen him raise a person from the dead!

But, really, was Jesus any different than the string of other messianic figures who’d popped up from time to time in the ancient world? Surely he wasn’t really God himself! He was a great teacher, a profound spiritual leader, and a healer. No doubt about it! So, godly, yeah! But God himself?

He leads these three disciples up a mountainside. And near the top, something spectacular, amazing, wonderful, and terrifying happens. Jesus, this great, godly, spiritual friend and leader, actually lights up!

What? How does a person light up? How does a person, shrouded in the darkness of a cloud, suddenly become illuminated brighter than the noonday sun?

And then, that voice! “This is my Son,” it booms, “my Chosen; listen to him!”

So, the disciples are left with few options. Either, one, they’re going insane; two, they’re dreaming; or, three, this man Jesus, their spiritual leader, teacher, friend, and healer, is actually who he says he is; and he is actually doing what he says he’s doing.

If we go with option three, Jesus is not merely a man, not merely another messianic figure to rile up an oppressed world; but he is actually God incarnate.

And that means—if we go with option three—that means he is accomplishing what he said he would. Namely, he is ushering in an entirely new age. The old is passing and the new has come. The kingdom of the old world, of humanity, is fading into darkness; whereas the kingdom of the new world, God’s world, is becoming more and more apparent, all around us!

What an exciting day for me to begin my tenure at STC! Transfiguration Day!

2.

One of the last sermons I preached was on Trinity Sunday, June 11. So, naturally, in preparation for today’s sermon, I’ve been drawing connections between the two, between the Trinity and the Transfiguration.

An important connection stems from the relationship within the Trinity.

Consider this: if God is Trinity—one-in-three and three-in-one, as our theology maintains—then God has always been this way. Always! As in, before the cosmos was ever created; as in, after the cosmos is fully transfigured into the new heavens and earth. God has always been three-in-one and one-in-three—outside of time and space, inside of time and space, always!

That means God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has always and will always be in relationship!

Well, what do you imagine this relationship to be like?

Do you imagine that it is characterized by one boss and two subjects? Does the Father employ the Son and the Holy Spirit to do his bidding?

If so, I imagine there would be disagreements, arguments, fights, and other kinds of divine drama taking place continuously. I imagine the Christian Trinity would then begin to look more like the Greco-Roman pantheon, where, for example, the lesser god Hermes deceives and manipulates the greater god Zeus in order to get his way.

But that just won’t do. For that understanding of the triune God—hierarchy—actually contradicts the definition of three-in-one and one-in-three.

Instead, the Trinity lives and dwells together in perfect unity, in perfect harmony, co-equally, and co-eternally. God, the Trinity, is love.

Huh. Sounds like something some ancient guy named Jesus once said, eh?

And that—that perfect harmony, unity, and co-equality—is what Jesus said he was doing. The Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus in his incarnation was ushering in, invites us to be a part of the very Trinity.

3.

Now, the early church seemed to catch on to Jesus’ message—right up until the turn of the fifth century or so.

The early church called together ecumenical councils—meetings of bishops all over the world, as far as Christianity had spread—to hammer out theological differences.

You know what the chief focal point of these councils was? The Trinity.

And from these councils a statement of faith has descended to us, largely unchanged; a statement of faith whose primary theme is the Trinity; a statement of faith we still confess together weekly.

We call it the Nicene Creed.

But around the turn of the fifth century, things began to change in the church. One bishop began to feel more important than another. And so he became the archbishop. Another responded by calling himself another fancy term: metropolitan.

One Christian city—or center—called itself more important than another. Oh, they were all important, to be sure. But one had to be in charge, after all. I mean, come on! It’s simple common sense. For all that Trinity, Pie-in-the-Sky idealism, we can’t really function in co-equal relationships after all, can we? One archbishop must be in preeminent authority over all other archbishops and metropolitans. One archbishop must be the, shall we say, Papa, aka Pope?

And so, around the turn of the fifth century, church government became hierarchical.

Just like ancient Roman government.

And thus, then, the church looked more like ancient Rome—with its emperor and senators and equestrians—than it did the Trinity.

But I thought Jesus was ushering in a new era, an era of harmony, unity, and co-equality.

I thought his followers would no more be subject to the oppression of the secular establishment, like the hierarchical structures of the Roman government.

I thought, too, they would no more be subject to a religious establishment which capitalized on fear to dominate its subjects.

I thought the Transfiguration was not simply about an individual man being transformed before the eyes of a few other individuals.

I thought, instead, the Transfiguration was about fundamentally altering all of the cosmos: about transforming the world from darkness to light, from death to life, from oppression to liberation; about eradicating hierarchy so that all humanity—no, all creation!—should dwell together in unity, harmony, and perfect love; in that divine dance that is the Trinity!

4.

At one point in my Trinity Sunday sermon I asked my audience to imagine what church might look like today if that turn-of-the-fifth-century change had never happened.

What if the church had continued to develop its theology and understanding of a co-equal, co-eternal Trinity? What would it mean for our liturgy? What would our music sound like? What would our art look like? What would our architecture feel like?

These are good questions for us to consider too. For today, as in the day of Jesus, a transfiguration is taking place. And it’s affecting you and me, STC, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, mainline Christian denominations in the US, even Christianity all over the world.

Church isn’t what it was forty years ago. Attendance is down. People who do attend aren’t attending for the same reasons they used to. Church no longer satisfies the social longing it once did. Missing church is no longer the social taboo it once was. On the pragmatic side, people aren’t giving as much as they used to.

All this leaves church leaders (like me) scratching our collective head. What about rents? What about missions? What about our dues to the diocese? Is our way of doing church still sustainable?

It’s a kind of transfiguration. Around the world on this Transfiguration Day the church is experiencing a profound change.

Very interesting that my first Sunday celebrating at STC is Transfiguration Day, eh?

So: Transfiguration Day is about much more than the transfiguration of an individual man—a good teacher, spiritual leader, and healer. Jesus’ Transfiguration destroyed all ideas of him being anything less than God incarnate.

Transfiguration Day is also about the church’s transfiguration.

It’s time to destroy all ideas that we are anything less than a divine institution. It’s time to leave behind the old models—the old hierarchies, the top-down leadership, the idea that “Father knows best,” and so on—and return to the even older models of Trinitarian relationship, of divine dance, of harmony, unity, and love.

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.