Archive for Church

Light from Nicodemus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by timtrue

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

John 3:1-17

We’re in Year A this year. Year A’s pretty cool.

Year A is the first of three years in our Revised Common Lectionary.  That is, starting with Advent and continuing through the 29th Proper, aka “Christ the King Sunday,” the passages of scripture we hear read on Sunday mornings all year follow Year A’s outline.

Next year will be Year B.  The following year will be Year C.  And the year after that will be back to Year A.

So, if you’re sitting in this church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2020, you’ll hear the same scripture passages that were read today.

And I for one am glad to be back in Year A.

That’s because in Year A we encounter four very special people, all from the Gospel of John, four weeks in a row, during Lent, who appear nowhere else in the Bible.

Over the next four Sundays, we’ll hear the stories of four wonderful, surprisingly modern saints of God, from whom we can learn much—if we’re willing to take the time and listen to them.

To listen, I said.  This means we’ll have to figure out not what the world has told us we need to learn from them—not what the world tells us John 3:16 means, for instance—but what each has to teach us from his or her own story.

So, who are these people?

Today, John introduces us to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus secretly, by night; and has an image-laden conversation with him about what it means to be born from above, or born again.

Next week it’s the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman—confronting us simultaneously with culturally sensitive issues of race and gender!—who encounters Jesus and quickly runs off to share the good news with her friends and family.

The week after that brings us to an unnamed man blind from birth, whom Jesus heals, and who then confounds the very teachers of Israel.

Finally, in Lent 5, we encounter Lazarus, not to be confused with the blind beggar in the parable from Matthew.  This Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus first weeps over and then raises from the dead.

All four of these characters are found only in John’s Gospel; all four are surprisingly modern; all four encounter Jesus.

And through all four encounters, over the next four weeks, we will encounter Jesus ourselves.

He might even confront us, even challenge us, to think about our place in the world in new ways, an appropriate heart-and-soul exercise for Lent.

So, yeah, Year A’s pretty cool.

Who, then, is this guy, Nicodemus?

The passage begins: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night.”

What can we surmise?

Nicodemus is a Pharisee; and a community leader.  Yet at the same time he seeks Jesus out.

He seeks Jesus, who by this time has already been singled out by both the Pharisees and the Jewish community leaders as someone to steer clear of.

Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers, after all!  Why, he’s uneducated, the son of a carpenter!  Maybe he’s not all there, if you catch my meaning.

Yet Nicodemus doesn’t want to steer clear of him.  Maybe his community is on the right track: maybe there is something not quite right about this man Jesus.  Still, despite what the world around him—his world—is telling him, Nicodemus finds himself actually drawn to Jesus.

So he goes to him.  At night.  Under the cover of darkness.  In secret.

Wearing sunglasses.  And a hat.  To avoid the local Paparazzi.

I wonder, is Nicodemus spiritual but not religious?

It’s as if he wants to know Jesus, to know God through Jesus; but he’s not sure.  On the one hand, his way of approaching God, his religion, hasn’t been entirely satisfactory for him; while at the same time, on the other hand, he’s apparently skeptical that Jesus will be the answer he seeks.

We get locked into our own methods pretty easily, don’t we—our own ways of doing things, our own ways of approaching Jesus?

Mine’s through prayer.  What’s yours?

Oh, well mine’s through nature.  What about you?

Mine’s through praying the sinner’s prayer.  How about you?

Me?  Ah, I find Jesus in the liturgy.

And so on it goes.

But what if we find ourselves becoming spiritually curious?  What if we begin to look over denominational fences?  What then?

Some of you know my own story of how I came to the Episcopal Church from Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

I was a part-time staff member of a small church of a different denomination, working as a worship leader.

Yet I found myself drawn especially to two things about the Episcopal Church: its liturgy and music; and its sacramental theology.  I found myself wanting to attend the local Episcopal parish.  But I couldn’t, since I had obligations at the other place.

Well, what to do?

As it turns out, Holy Week was approaching.  So my family and I decided to attend the local Episcopal parish, St. John’s, for the Triduum, that three-day drama that comes at the end of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil.

By the end of these three days, we were convinced: The Episcopal Church would have to become our new home.

But that first time we donned the doors, on that Maundy Thursday—I couldn’t help but feel a lot like I was playing hooky; like I was doing something very wrong; like I was dishonoring the tradition to which I belonged; like I was somehow being unfaithful or disloyal.

How surprisingly modern Nicodemus’s story is!

So, what is the main lesson we learn from him?

Our world has made a lot of the conversation that takes place in today’s Gospel.

What does it mean to be “born from above” (as the version we heard today puts it; or, to put it in a more popularized outfit, what does it mean to be born again)?

The imagery of rebirth has captured the modern American evangelical imagination.

We’ve all heard the question, or some variation of it: Are you a born-again Christian?

I don’t know about you, but I feel this question has been overused; that the phrase born-again Christian ought to be put on a list of banned Christian lingo.

It’s a polarizing phrase.

To one group of Christians, it’s an identifier, as much as to say, “Yeah, you say you’re a Christian.  But are you really in?  Are you born again?”

Whereas to another group, it’s derogatory or pejorative, as much as to say, “Are you actually one of those fringe wackos: are you born again?”

And because it’s polarizing, we’ve been distracted from the main point here.  The main point is not about individual souls being born again.  John 3:16, that favorite verse of countless people, says that God so loved the world.  It’s not about individual souls here so much as it is about all of creation.

So, let’s put this phrase away, on the list of banned Christian lingo, at least for a while, until it loses its polarizing quality.

Fortunately for us, there’s another image that comes out of this passage.  And I’m convinced that this other image, not the image of rebirth, is in fact the overarching image by which we can understand Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

What is this image?  Light and darkness.

The passage begins with this image (Nicodemus comes to Jesus by cover of darkness); and with this image the passage ends (light exposes people’s deeds, Jesus says).

Light and darkness here, not rebirth, is the governing image: it’s only after one has been reborn that one comes out of darkness into light.

So, what happens when we look at Nicodemus through this lens of light and darkness?

Nicodemus first comes to Jesus in darkness.  He is seeking.  He is curious.  He is probably concerned about what his community will think of him.  He may even be confused.

And isn’t this a lot like us?  Don’t we know a lot about darkness?  Isn’t our faith hard to understand?  Isn’t being a Christian often confusing?  Aren’t we seeing the looking glass only dimly?  Aren’t these all mere shadowlands?

By the way, we face darkness at both the individual and corporate levels.  The corporate Church, throughout its history, has made many errors.  I only have to mention the Crusades to prove that point.

But, this coming to Jesus in darkness isn’t all that we see of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.  He shows up again, later, near the end, with another heretofore secret disciple, a certain man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, who owns a tomb hewn of out rock on his property, the very tomb into which Jesus’ body will be laid.

Do you remember this part of the Easter story?

Nicodemus and Joseph come and carry Jesus’ body away and lay it in the tomb.

And they do this deed in the full light of day!

Despite his convoluted faith, fully aware that his religious and community colleagues would see him, fully aware that his deeds and faith would be exposed in the full light of day, Nicodemus throws caution to the wind and carries Jesus’ body away.

Despite the Church’s mistakes, whether in the Middle Ages or in the modern day; despite how confusing and convoluted our theology can be, the Church has been called to keep throwing caution to the wind, to keep carrying on Jesus’ work in the full light of today.

And what is this work?

Only to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick.

Only to care for orphans and widows.

Only to walk across town with food in our backpacks to donate to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Only to love all creation in such a way that it might be born anew.

Divine Human Touch

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2017 by timtrue

hands_of_god

Matthew 17:1-9

What do you fear?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.

Does anyone remember my fist sermon here?  I entitled it, “Making Peace with Ghosts”; and it was all about dealing with a fear I had as a boy of an imagined visitor that lived under my spiral staircase, the Seven-foot Man.  As a boy, I, along with my older brother Andy and especially my neighbor Donny, possessed a great fear of the Seven-foot Man.  We had to learn, as boys, to deal with it.

As I grew from boyhood into manhood, the clothes fear wore became increasingly less fantastic and more realistic.  Questions went from, “What if there’s a zombie living in my basement?” to, “Will I get into the right college?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” and, “How are we going to pay for diapers and baby food?”

More into adulthood now, the fears have increased in scope, becoming more outward in focus: “Why is there such hatred in the world?” “How much more abuse and mismanagement of resources can the earth take?” and, “What if there’s a global nuclear holocaust?”

What are your fears?

Is “Big Brother” watching you?  Are you in jeopardy of financial ruin, or feeling forever enslaved to that harsh taskmaster otherwise known as credit card debt?  Are—or (depending on how you look at it) were—your fundamental human rights of dignity and democracy in danger of being compromised?

What is it you fear?

Today’s Gospel rounds out Jesus’ epiphany. Here, along with Peter, James, and John, we see Jesus in his full glory; that though he is fully human he is somehow, gloriously, also fully God.

Now, that would be something to fear, don’t you think?

Imagine.  You’re walking up a mountain path, following your leader and trail guide, who suddenly is transfigured.  His face is shining like the sun.  His clothes become dazzlingly white.  Two ghost-like figures appear next to him.  And to top it all off a booming voice sounds from the clouds overhead!

These words that tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration are familiar to most of us.  But a danger here is that their power can get lost in their familiarity.

So, let’s change the scenario up a bit.

Let’s say we meet in the church parking lot one Saturday morning.  Our plan is to hike up Telegraph Pass.  So, since I know the way, it is agreed that I will lead you.

An overcast day, sometime later we pass that last bend in the road near the top, and find ourselves entering and soon enveloped by a cloud.  Then, at the top now—we know we’re there because through the fog we can see the registry box and the bench next to it—all at once you see me with shining white clothes, so bright they even seem to shine through the mist.  And you think, “Man, I’m sure he wasn’t wearing that when we set out!”

And then my face lights up too, illuminating the registry box, the bench next to it, an ocotillo plant, the road, the two other people there with us, even your very arms and legs.  And—whoa!—now there are two more people—Where did they come from?—who by all accounts look just like Thomas Cranmer and Queen Elizabeth—the first!

And then—ah, music to my ears—that voice from above, booming through the clouds, declares to you all, “This is your pastor; listen to him!”

And you think, “Wow, my heart’s beating fast and I’m sweating like crazy and I’m out of breath.  Surely, I must be hallucinating.  This is it!  I’m done for!  Call out the SAR bird!”

Anyway, point being, wouldn’t you be afraid?  At least a little?  For your own health and sanity if for no other reason?

The disciples are so afraid, the Bible says, that they fall down, “overcome by fear” (“sore afraid” in the KJV), with their faces to the ground.

Yet Jesus reaches out and—don’t fail to notice this detail—touches them; and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.  Yet Jesus touches his disciples and tells them, Do not be afraid.

*****

Jesus could have been like Moses.

Along with the Transfiguration narrative in Matthew today, we also heard a passage from Exodus.  In it, Moses went up on a mountain; the mountain was covered by a cloud; the people from below could see illumination on the top of the mountain, where Moses was; and we all know that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face shone with such radiance that he kept it covered with a veil.

This Exodus passage is a clear parallel to Jesus’ Transfiguration.  Which led me, in my preparation for this sermon, to read up on Moses, the larger context; and to compare and contrast this story of Moses with Jesus.

There are numerous similarities:

  • Both Moses and Jesus go up on mountains.
  • Both have companions with them.
  • Both are enshrouded by a cloud.
  • Both hear God’s voice.
  • Both are described as radiant in one form or another.
  • And, in both accounts, other people hear God’s voice and are afraid.

But there is a key difference between the two accounts.

And here, in this key difference, Jesus could have been like Moses.

But he wasn’t.

And I’m glad he wasn’t.

And because he wasn’t, this key difference is what stands out above all for me from today’s passages, our take-home lesson.

So then, what is it?  What is this key difference between Moses and Jesus?

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw that the people were afraid—well, let me just read the account:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:18-20).

Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and sees all the Israelites cowering in fear before the might and glory of God and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Fine and well.

But he doesn’t stop there.  No, Moses has to seize the moment, to capitalize on the opportunity; and thus goes on to say, in effect:

But, well, yes, since you are afraid, it’s for good reason!  God is testing you.  In fact, this is the reason God has come: to put fear in you “so that you do not sin.”

Now, Jesus could have been like Moses.  Jesus could have done this too.

But he isn’t.  And he doesn’t.

And I’m glad for that.

Instead, when his disciples see fearsome, wonderful, and awesome visions and hear the very voice of God, Jesus reaches out and touches them; and says, simply, “Do not be afraid.”

No lecture.  No admonition.  No teaching moment.  Just words of comfort and human touch.

What, then, is the key difference between Moses’ transfiguration and Jesus’?  One offers chastisement; the other, positive reinforcement through human touch.

Which approach do you respond to better?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world: “Big Brother”; financial ruin; the collapse of democracy; ISIS; terrorism; our own sin.  Why would I ever want to add to all of this an irrational fear of God?

In Jesus, God touches us gently, reassuringly, and humanly.

*****

So, from our starting point of Jesus’ Transfiguration, we looked back to Moses and have learned a valuable lesson. Now I want to look forward, to us, the church, today.

What is it we are doing here?

In ancient times—both in the time of Moses and in the time of Jesus—mountaintops were considered a kind of liminal space, a threshold of sorts, between earth and heaven.  They were seen this way topographically—a mountain peak is physically higher than any other place around it—as well as figuratively—places to encounter God.

Moses encountered God on top of Mount Sinai.  Jesus was transfigured on top of a mountain.

We see this concept in other traditions too: the Greek and Roman pantheon dwelled on high, above the peaks of Mount Olympus; and the Delphic Oracle was delivered high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In fact, even in our own day we refer to personal divine encounters as “mountaintop experiences.”

Mountain peaks were understood to be liminal spaces.

Today, here is our liminal space: church.  Here we come, setting aside for a time our cares, concerns, and preoccupations in the world; to meet God.

Now, take it a step further.  In a few minutes we’ll have opportunity to commune together.  Well, what happens when I stand up at the altar and lead us through the Eucharistic Prayer?  Somehow, mysteriously, the bread and wine become Jesus’ own body and blood.

And then, best of all, when we partake here at this liminal space, just like on that Day of Transfiguration when Jesus reached out and touched Peter, James, and John; so Jesus touches us.

God touches humanity in Jesus; God touches us in the bread and wine.

He picks us up from our knees, puts his arm around us, leads us back to our pews, prays with us, and, last of all, best of all, he blesses us and says, “Alleluia, alleluia.  Go in peace, without fear, back into the world, to love and serve the Lord.”

Partnering with Pokémon

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

pokestop

“Dad, St. Paul’s is a Pokéstop!”

This was the statement that really caught my attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

telegraphsunrise

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

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

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

Almost instant and definitely loud yesses erupted.

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

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

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

So, that was at 9am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All from that silly marquis!

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

Who knew?

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

Civil Engineering, Silicon Valley, and the Transfiguration

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 9:28-43

The shortest distance between Points A and B is a straight line.  Or so I’ve heard.

This holds true if you’re a civil engineer and Point A is a flooding problem and Point B is the installation of a culvert, you know, a kind of tunnel to carry the water away from the problem area the next time it rains heavily.

You may or may not know that I used to work for a civil engineering firm in San Antonio, once upon a time.  And this is in fact the kind of work I did with this firm: flood control work.

You can be sure that when a problem came our way we would plan as precisely as we could to go from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, taking the straightest line possible, with the fewest oversights and contingencies.

So, putting together a proposal required planning.  Lots of planning!

We’d look at drawings from previous projects in the problem area, trying to determine why something was flooding now and how future flooding could be averted.  We’d go out into the field, armed with various tools, surveying equipment, and a camera—always a camera—in order to obtain the present-day information we needed.  Then we’d return to the office where I’d sit at a computer, absorbed in AutoCAD, drafting information into a drawing; I’d develop and overlay a proposed design; I’d go over it all with the engineers; and we’d repeat whatever steps were necessary in order to go from Point A to Point B with the fewest surprises possible.

Next, when the city accepted our proposal, that’s when the often more difficult work began: the work of liaison between whatever contracting company was awarded the bid and city officials.

I’d have to step in on occasion and tell the gruff, tattooed contractor, I’m sorry to say, but, no, this culvert is not at the correct elevation; or, worse, you’ve installed it backwards.

The shortest distance between Point A and Point B is a straight line; and the civil engineering firm I worked for was that straight line.

But—to change the image now—what if Point B is an iPhone and Point A is Apple Inc. in 1984?

1984 is when Apple Inc. announced its revolutionary new computer, the Macintosh 128, via a commercial that first aired on Superbowl Sunday at a cost of something like $1.5 million.

Computer technology had come of age.  In fact, by 1984 some innovative types were already imagining the marriage of computers and touch-screen technology.

But how did Apple Inc. get from Point A to Point B?  Did it follow a straight line?  Back in 1984, did some forward-thinking people sit in an R&D lab somewhere and map this all out through drawings, meetings, and analysis, targeting a specific launch date of June 29, 2007?

No.

You know, as well as I, that Apple Inc. did not develop the iPhone through a thoroughly planned, Point-A-to-Point-B process; but rather through what’s called an iterative process.  It was a long journey, full of twists and turns, mistakes and failures, types and prototypes, trial and error.

Back in 1984, the future for Apple Inc. was unknown.  Or, to say it another way, its future was shrouded in a cloud.

So we have two images.

The first image, the one from civil engineering, let’s call establishment.  In the world of civil engineering there is an established way of doing things.  The City of San Antonio will call on several engineering companies to put forth a proposal on how best to fix a flooding problem.  The engineering companies make their respective proposals based on the established, time-tested ways of doing things.

The second image, the Apple Inc. image, let’s call innovation, for reasons that I hope are self-explanatory.

Now, a couple questions.

First, which of these two images aligns with Peter, James, and John on that day when they saw Jesus transfigured?  Isn’t it the second image?

Peter, James, and John are thoroughly confused here.  Not only are they overshadowed by a cloud physically, but so are they mentally.  The passage even says, “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake—”

Um, excuse me?  They’re weighed down with sleep but also awake?  Forget Peter, James, and John: I’m confused!

Then Peter, in his half-asleep-half-awake stupor, starts to move around excitedly and offers to make three dwellings—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  Clearly he’s not getting it.

Next, just to make sure we the readers aren’t in the dark any longer, the text explains: Peter does not know what he was saying.

Finally, after this whole scenario comes to an end; after the cloud overshadows them all, they hear God’s voice, and suddenly find themselves alone with Jesus again, we read this: “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

And they kept silent.  And they told no one.  And they were confused, befuddled, nonplussed, dumbstruck, flummoxed, mystified, bewildered—we get the point!

We call this the Transfiguration of Jesus.  But this is also just the beginning of the transfiguration of Peter, James, and John.  This is just the beginning of the process of groping through life and into the future for them, from a band of uncouth fisherman to the stalwart founders of the Christian Church.

You are Simon Peter, Jesus said, and on this rock I shall build my church.

You, Simon Peter, are Point A; and the Church is Point B.

Now, can you imagine Jesus saying, “And you’re going to get from Point A to Point B by sitting cloistered up in a room and getting out some parchment and planning, planning, planning until you’ve got a decent proposal, one that has analyzed and minimizes all possible glitches and contingencies . . .”?

No!  Peter, James, and John are going to have to grope their way through the cloud of the ancient Roman world.  And their way through it is innovation.

But I said I had two questions.  My first, which we’ve just answered, was, which of these two images—establishment or innovation—aligns with Peter, James, and John?  So my second question is, which of these two images aligns with the church today?

Isn’t it the image of establishment?

We want a new ministry, a new mission church, a new program, a new whatever.  Don’t we plan how to get from Point A—where we are—to Point B—the new ministry we desire—with as few contingencies as possible?

This is an establishment mindset.

But let me offer an even more specific example.  Now, this might hit a little close to home for some of you.  But I’m not trying to pick on anybody; I’m just trying to illustrate my point that the mainstream church today—including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma—possesses an establishment mindset.

So, here’s my example.  I’ve made a few changes around here in the last year or so.  Some have been accidental; some intentional.  But that doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that the single largest response I’ve heard to change is, “But we’ve always done it that way”; or some variation thereof.

Well, that response is the epitome of the establishment mindset.

And, by the way, that response is not a good reason not to make a change.

For instance, let’s say that every time I saw a $100 bill in the offering plate I stuck it in my pocket—not a $20 or a $10 or a $1 or any other denomination, just any and all Ben Franklins.  Eventually somebody would confront me.  (I hope!)  And I’d just smile and say, “But I’ve always done it this way, ever since I’ve been rector.  It’s my tradition.”

That’s not a good reason not to make a change!

Well, anyway, here’s where I’m going with all of this.

The mainstream church, including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, has had an establishment mindset for many a decade.  We’ve believed that if only we plan the right programs, preach the best sermons, build the right buildings, follow the tried and true examples of outreach, youth ministry, Sunday school, whatever—if only we follow the right recipe, we’ll cook up the most delicious church possible.

But the culture has largely changed over the last four decades.  We can no longer say that America is a Christian nation.  Practicing Christians are in the minority.  The church is no longer the establishment it once was.

St. Paul’s can’t simply be an established presence in our community and expect people from the neighborhood to come to us.  We need to take St. Paul’s to them.

What this means is that we need to rethink church.

But not like a civil engineering firm.

Rather, we must innovate, like Apple Inc.

We must be like Peter, James, and John, groping our way into a future that is shrouded in cloud.

We must experiment, troubleshoot, even fail—understanding that failure is simply part of the learning process—in order to move forward.  It’s an iterative process.

And it might even mean that we’ll end up changing some things from the way they’ve always been.

This Saturday the vestry and I will be on a retreat together.  It’s our annual meeting.  It’s also a time for us to get to know one another, to plan, and to strategize.

But not like a civil engineering firm!

So, there are some things I’m going to encourage the vestry to do in 2016, as we consider the future of St. Paul’s.  And today I’m encouraging you, as you are able, to do these things too.

First, I will encourage the vestry to value our traditions.

The Episcopal Church is big on tradition.  I’m big on tradition.  St. Paul’s is big on tradition—including many of its own, peculiar traditions.  As our church moves forward with a mindset of innovation, I will encourage the vestry not to eradicate any of our traditions without good reason.

In other words, I actually kind of sympathize with the statement, “But we’ve always done it this way”—even if I never want to hear it again!

Which brings me to my second encouragement: I will encourage the vestry to suspend judgment.

Here’s what I mean.  Innovation requires a safe place for discussion.  I will be asking the vestry this year to share ideas—about our worship space, about our mission, about what to do with that plot of land just beyond the playground.  A safe place for discussion means no idea is too small, no idea is too big, and no idea should be pushed aside just because we’ve always done it another way.  No one should ever feel ashamed for sharing an idea.

Help me and the vestry make St. Paul’s a safe place for sharing ideas—maybe even crazy ideas.

Third, we should build upon what we already know.

This goes back to valuing our traditions.  But, also, isn’t this the way true innovation works?

Apple Inc. didn’t arrive at the iPhone straight from the Macintosh 128; but after decades of trial and error building upon what they already knew.

Peter didn’t go straight from uncouth fisherman to church’s foundation.  He got there by building upon what he already knew.

I’m not advocating a blank slate here.  Rather, I’m encouraging the vestry and you to innovate with what we already have, from what we already know—from the uncouth fishers of men that we already are!

Fourth, and finally, I will encourage the vestry to fail.

(Gasp!)

That’s right.  I said fail.

But I mean this in the sense of Thomas Edison’s failures.  We’ve all heard how he failed more than a thousand times before he successfully invented the lightbulb.  This kind of failure is actually essential to learning and growth.  I want the vestry—I want this entire congregation—to learn and grow as we adopt a mindset of innovation.

We should anticipate failure along the way, as we grope our way into the church’s future together.  But we should also expect to learn and grow from these failures.  It is an iterative process.

Like Peter, James, and John, we are on a journey of transfiguration.  Therefore let’s not stifle the Holy Spirit, who wants to lead us on this journey!

Smack Dab in the Middle

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 1:1-14

The book of John is one of four Gospels in our New Testament: one of four books in the Bible that specifically proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Yet John begins not by connecting his Gospel to the other three Gospels.

The other three Gospels start with the human person Jesus.

The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke begin with stories of the birth of Jesus—in vivid, nitty-gritty, even messy detail.  A son is to be born of an unmarried maiden.  How scandalous!

Luke goes on to relate that this maiden, Mary, visits her older cousin Elizabeth in some backwater part of the Empire—just two women, laughing and singing—marveling, really—that God should show them such favor at opening their wombs.

The Gospel of Mark—a little different—begins not with Jesus’ birth but with his adult ministry: John the Baptist sets the stage and all at once Jesus is defeating the devil, proclaiming repentance, and healing the broken.

And so, no matter what else is going on in the wide world, these three Evangelists remind us that God is in the nitty-gritty details of our lives.

But the Gospel of John is different: John doesn’t begin with the human person of Jesus; John begins, instead, with Jesus the divine: the logos, the Word.

And in using these words—in the beginning—John connects us not to the other three Gospels but to the very beginning of the Bible, to the creation of all things:

  • In the beginning was the Word;
  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

So, for a little while anyway, let’s set aside what we normally focus on throughout this day—little Jesus, meek and mild; baby Jesus, the Christmas child—and spend some time together contemplating just how these two cosmic events are connected.

Just how is Christmas connected to creation?

Well, for starters, John says, “In the beginning was the Word.”  But in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void; and darkness was everywhere.  So, where does the Word fit into creation?

Just here: God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  God also said, “Let there be dry land”; and there was dry land.  And God also said, “Let the waters teem with life”; and it was so.  And so on.

God spoke.  God used words.  And through God’s words—through God’s Word—all came into being that has come into being.

Most of you know by now that I’m a fan of C. S. Lewis’s children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  There are seven books in this series.  The first is called The Magician’s Nephew.  In this book, two children fantastically end up in a faraway world, Narnia, on the very day of its birth.  What they witness—C. S. Lewis’s description of creation—is creation through song.

At first all is darkness and silence.  The children become aware of an almost inaudible music all around them.  It’s nothing like any music we’ve ever heard on earth; but there’s no other way to describe it.  It’s music.

Almost immediately stars begin to appear in the sky.  As more and more appear, the children realize that the music and the appearance of the stars are connected: the music reaches a sustained note for a time just before a star appears; then it changes pitch, sustains, and another star appears.

Abruptly the music grows loud and strong.  The children now realize that this isn’t just any old music, but song: these are words they are hearing, sung words; in some language—some beautiful language—they don’t know.

All at once, in response to the loud and strong song, a moon appears in the sky; followed by a still louder and stronger song for a time and the sudden appearance of the sun.

Now, dazzled by the sudden appearance of such a bright, young sun, the children look into the distance and see a figure approaching.  It is the singer of this wonderful song: a lion, Aslan (they will soon learn his name).  Aslan is singing all things into existence.  And Aslan, if you know anything about the story at all, is an allegory of Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word.  And God said—or, maybe, and the Word sang—Let there be light.  And there was.

This is how C. S. Lewis imagined it.  But why not?  John’s Gospel is highly poetic.  Why not build on John’s image of poetry by imagining all things being sung into existence?

The Word was with God.  And the Word was God.  And the Word—spoken, written, sung, it doesn’t matter—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

Another connection between creation and Christmas: in Genesis we read that God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light; and in John we read, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

What did light do at creation?

Before light was spoken into existence, the earth was formless and void; and darkness covered everything.

Darkness covering everything shows up in another book from The Chronicles of Narnia: in The Last Battle, the seventh and final book.  Here the reader witnesses the final day of Narnia, as it is snuffed out forever.  And, of course, this book relates the final judgment.

All creation is summoned to Aslan.  And by all I mean all: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, plants, even mythical beasts who have long lain dormant awaiting this final day.  All creation came into being by the Word of God; now all creation must answer to its Creator.

At last, after days or weeks or maybe somehow only a few minutes, all of creation has passed by Aslan and looked into his face; all creation has gone on either to Aslan’s left or his right.  And the reader gets one last glimpse through a doorway of the old Narnia.

But the reader sees nothing, only blackness.  For through the doorway there is only absolute darkness—no more sun, no more moon, no more stars, no more life of any sort whatsoever—can you imagine?  And with absolute darkness comes absolute zero.  The world of Narnia that once thrived is now dead.  There is no source of heat, no source of light, no source of life.

At creation, light did away with darkness.  It provided heat.  It provided life.

At Christmas a new light has shone forth.  Christmas has brought new life to this old creation.

One more connection between creation and Christmas: the Word of God, this new source of life, has become flesh and dwells among us.

Think back to creation.  Where was God’s dwelling place?  Where did God dwell among us?  Wasn’t it in the Garden of Eden, right alongside the Tree of Life?

And where does Jesus dwell among us today?

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan shows up in every book.  And it’s not always as people expect—it’s not always in the flesh.  Occasionally he shows up on the page of a book; or a person thinks she sees him briefly out of the corner of her eye; or he shows up in another person’s dream.  He’s not a tame lion, you know.

But that’s just John’s point.  Jesus shows up where we would expect him too, right here in church—the Garden of Eden for the new age.  But he also shows up when and where we don’t expect him—in a conversation with a stranger, or at the dinner table when we’re simply laughing with friends.  He is the Word, after all.

On the flip side, sometimes he doesn’t show up when we expect him too; or he shows up in a different way than we ever expected, and only later we realize we missed him.  We can’t put a box around Jesus.  Aslan’s not a tame lion.

Christmas, then, is not just the story of God coming into the world in some backwater part of the Roman Empire.  Today we don’t just remember that God is involved in the intimate details of each of our lives.  Looking at Christmas through the eyes of St. John the Evangelist—and with some help from that modern evangelist, C. S. Lewis—today we see that Christmas is much more.  Today, we see clearly that Christmas is smack dab in the middle of the grand sweep of salvation history.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  And thus we’ve crossed the great threshold of time.  The old is passing away; the new is here!

Merry Christmas!

How to Turn the World Upside Up

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 5:1-12

Our world is inverted.

It’s been that way since the beginning—or shortly thereafter, anyway.  For in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And God is a perfect God.  So God would not create the world to be a certain way—right side up—just to turn it upside down for fun, as if to see how we humans would handle it or some such nonsense.  No, that would go against God’s good nature.  Rather, it was inverted soon after the conclusion of the sixth day, soon after God created humankind in his own image.

We know the story.  God created people, not the animals, in his own image.  The animals were different, created to help us image-bearing people, created so that humankind might be glorified in some way.  In turn, humankind was created to glorify God.  From the bottom up, then, it was creatures, people, God.

But the serpent came along.  And he was crafty; craftier, in fact, than all the other creatures.  And he spoke.  (Does this remind you of anything?)  And he said to the woman, “Surely you want to be as gods too, don’t you?  Surely you want to know good from evil?”

Thus she and her man gave in to the crafty serpent.  They listened to it; and they put themselves in subjection to it.  And, when they did this, at the same time they exalted themselves above God.  From the bottom up, now, it was God, people, creatures.  In their sin—in their fall—all creation was turned upside down.

The prophet Isaiah says it this way: “You turn things upside down! / Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? / Shall . . . the thing formed say of the one who formed it, / ‘He has no understanding’ (29:16, my emphasis)?”

Our world is inverted.

In a nutshell, we see the Gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ here. For God so loved the world—the cosmos; creation—that he sent his only Son to re-establish the created order; to set things right side up.

We see this in the book of Acts, right?  That’s the book in the New Testament that follows the Gospels.  It tells the story of what Jesus’s followers started to do after he lived, died, and rose again; it tells the story of the founding of the church.

One episode goes like this: two of Jesus’s followers, named Paul and Silas, come to the city of Thessalonica.  There they enter the local synagogue and begin to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah of Israel.  Several people, including many leaders, like this message and convert.  But this riles up the other synagogue leaders who go out and, with the help of some local ruffians, start a riot.  The mob captures some Christians and drags them before the city officials; and the mob leaders say: “These people”—i. e., these emperor-defying Christians—“who have been turning the world upside down have come here also” (cf. Acts 17:1-9, my emphasis).

The Christians, they said, were turning the world upside down.  But the world was already upside down—inverted—since just after creation.  But turning the already upside down world upside down—isn’t that really just to turn it upside up?  That’s what the church is doing!  Or, at least, that’s what the church is called to do.

Are we doing it?  Are we doing what we can to put the world upside up?

Now we come to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount; and, in particular, to its introduction: the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  And again, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  And so on.

The poor in spirit?  Those who mourn?  The meek?  This doesn’t sound like a list of things I aspire to be.

And why are these people even blessed?  Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven; they will be comforted; and they will inherit the earth.  But aren’t these all things that will happen in the future?  Isn’t this a kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this.  Sure, you can tell me all you want that if I behave myself in the here and now then I will be rewarded in the future.  But that sounds an awful lot like something my second grade teacher told me.  I don’t really buy it.

I want to be blessed now.  And it seems to me—from the way things work in the world around me—it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in the present.  It’s fine and well to want a nice life in the future, or a nice afterlife; but what about the here and now?  I want to be comfortable now!  I want to hear Jesus say something like this:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money!  For theirs is a comfortable home in a no-crime neighborhood where their kids can attend the best schools.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this?

A couple observations.

First, Jesus’s discourse is designed to turn the world upside up.

The culture tells us in very tangible ways that the happiest or most blessed people are those with the most money, those who have fought their way confidently to the top of their respective ladders, those who live most comfortably.

Jesus’s beatific list runs against this; it’s counter-cultural.

But is this list so bad?

It starts out with poor in spirit, mournful, and meek.  These sound to me like a person who has been humbled before God—not a bad place to be.

The list continues, saying, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart.  I’m not sure our culture values these characteristics too much.  Just try putting some of these descriptions on a resume—peacemaker; persecuted for righteousness’ sake; reviled for Christ’s sake—and good luck getting that job!

No, these are not characteristics valued highly by our culture.  But they are highly valued by Christ; and they characterize the citizens of his heavenly kingdom—or they should.

Which brings us to my second observation.  This beatific list isn’t all about the future.  Instead, it is about the present, the here and now.

We hear terms like heavenly kingdom and we see the future tense (they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, etc.), and it’s easy to go into pie-in-the-sky mode.

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.

And when I do, we think—when I fly away in glorious rapture at the trumpet blast—then I’ll be poor in spirit and all the rest; ’cause then I’ll inherit the kingdom of heaven.  But I’m not about to be poor in spirit and meek and all that before then!

But that’s just Jesus’s point!  We are not living in a world as aliens and strangers; we are not living in a world that will all burn up and fade away and good riddance!  The meek shall inherit the earth, not some imagined fantasy land!  It’s not all going to end like Left Behind tells us (itself an inverted way of thinking), but through Christ saving the world in an ongoing way through his church; his church that is made up of humble, meek, merciful, peacemaking, righteousness-seeking, upside-up people—you, me, all the saints—in the here and now.

Think of the beatitudes, then, as a how-to list.  Beginning now, with you, these are how to turn the world right side up.  Strive after humility.  Strive after purity of heart.  Strive to be merciful, a peacemaker, and all the rest.  Strive to live each day as a citizen of the heavenly kingdom, for that is what you are.

Christian Community’s Distinct Nature

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 18:15-20

We hear a lot these days about community. Why?  Why is community—and in particular, why is Christian community—so important?

In the beginning, the Bible tells us, God created Adam.  Adam was given stewardship over all creation.  He named the animals, he worked the land, and he dwelled with God.  But it was not good for him to be alone.  It was not good, in other words, for the man to live by himself, in solidarity, as a ruggedly independent individual.  He needed community.  So God, we read, created Eve.

The first man and woman dwelled together in community.  Much drama accompanied their life together, granted.  They shared the forbidden fruit; their once enjoyable work became toil and labor; their children argued and fought, even to the point of murder.  And yet, the story continues, God began to work his good will through them in their community.

God wants community, we infer; even with all the drama that comes along with it.

But can we take community too far?  In the sixth chapter of Genesis we read about the whole human population working in community against God.  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually, the Scriptures tell us (Gen. 6:5).  And it happens again only a few chapters later, when the people conspire to build a tower to subdue God, as if that were possible; and God confounds their language and scatters them abroad.

Community is good.  Community is necessary.  But community can go too far: community can go against God.

So how do we keep our Christian community, this church, in check?

The church is different from other communities.  Let’s think this statement through for a few minutes.

As a starting point, consider marriage.  It is a small community, consisting of two persons (like Adam and Eve).  When two people get married, there are many hopes and dreams that come into play.  Through the relationship prior to marriage, these two persons have discovered many things they share in common; they formulate goals that include one another; and they agree that together they harmonize better as a unit than they do on their own.  In time, if the couple has children, this community grows, sure.  But my point here is that this community has been founded upon human ideals.  Even if the marriage is intentionally Christ-centered, it is founded upon the human ideal intentionally to look to Jesus Christ for leadership.

Now, isn’t marriage a picture of other communities?

A community forms because of some ideal.  Whether a school, an organization focused on diminishing poverty in San Antonio, a civil engineering firm, whatever—a community forms with an ideal to be realized, or to die trying.

But the church, unlike all other communities, is not focused on human ideals.  Rather, the church is a present divine reality.  We follow Christ, the incarnation of God who lived and died as one of us then rose again and now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  But now, in between his resurrection and his second coming, his disciples have been scattered to the far regions of the world.  It is a privilege to be part of a Christian community—a church—at all.

Christian community is a gift from God we cannot claim, like sanctification.  It is a reality in which we participate, not an ideal we attempt to realize.  In the church, there is no place for fashioning a visionary ideal of community.

Now we come to today’s passage. We are the church, a community established and maintained by Jesus Christ.  But the church is a community unlike any other: a reality in which we participate rather than an ideal we try to realize.  As such, in this reality there will be disagreement; there will be dysfunction; there will be conflict.  Jesus knows this.  And Jesus tells us very plainly here how to deal with it.  But if I can nub and tag today’s passage in a simple sentence, it is this:

As the church, we must be reconciled to one another.

Reconciliation comes when we realize the nature of Christian community.  We enter into the church not as demanders, not attempting to realize our own ideals, but as thankful recipients.  Think about your own baptism.  Or maybe you’re too young to remember it, so think about baptisms you’ve witnessed.  These are times of gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  We enter the Christian community as thankful recipients.  We participate in this already extant reality called the church.  This is the nature of community we should always experience in the church.

But our mindsets don’t always stay that way, do they?  We don’t always remain grateful recipients.  We begin to think we have a lot to offer; maybe even more to offer Christ than he has to offer us.  This is a danger zone.

What is your understanding of the church?  What is your agenda?  Do you see the church as an organization to influence local politics?  Do you see the Christian community as a wholesome place to raise the kids?  To you, should the church follow a slick business model to market the good news of Jesus Christ to the consumer-oriented world around us?

Now, any time your own agenda disagrees with someone else’s, conflict results.  In a church this size, such agenda-clashing conflicts can happen a lot.  Sometimes the nature of these conflicts rises to a high enough level that feelings get hurt.  Sometimes we feel that people may have even sinned against us.  Sometimes people do in fact sin against us.  Reconciliation becomes necessary.

But reconciliation can be difficult—especially when we’ve taken ownership of our own agendas, our “babies”; and we become demanders rather than thankful recipients. “I’m gonna live or die on this one,” we tell ourselves, “and no one—not the vestry, not the rector, not even the bishop!—no one’s gonna stop me!”

If someone in the church has offended you, go to that person.  But go not as a demander.  Go instead with the willingness to hear him or her out.  Maybe there’s a side to this thing you’re not seeing.  Maybe your offense is unfounded.  Or maybe not.  But don’t go with your mind made up beforehand to get your way, that no one will change your mind, that no one’s gonna stop you.

Then, if you’ve truly gone with the right attitude, that Christ’s agenda is ahead of your own; and you still feel offended or sinned against, that’s when you bring someone else into it.

Do you see?  It’s a system of checks and balances given to us by Jesus Christ.  Perhaps you have been sinned against.  Or perhaps you haven’t.  Either way, in going humbly to the one who has offended you, the goal is to be reconciled to one another; the goal is to live in harmony with each other—whether the other is a regular churchgoer, a vestry member, a priest, the rector, or even the bishop.

This is the church.  It exists not so that we can accomplish our human ideals, our individual agendas.  Rather, it exists for the glory of Christ.  Christ’s glory is why it existed before we ever got here; and Christ’s glory is why it will continue to exist long after we pass on.

Disunity, disharmony, and dysfunction do little to glorify Christ.  Reconciliation does much.  Let us therefore be reconciled to one another.