Archive for discipleship

Hats Off for Trying!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered Sunday, March 3, 2019 at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California

Luke 9:28-43

1.

Today marks the Sunday we call, liturgically, the last Sunday after the Epiphany. For the last several weeks, during this Epiphany season, we’ve been considering passages in the Gospels that show us who Jesus is, his identity; and what we are to do about it, our response.

Let’s review briefly.

So, first, on Epiphany, January 6, we followed the wise men from the East on their journey and experienced the Incarnate God as a small child.

Next, we visited John the Baptist in the wilderness and re-lived Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit descended on Jesus bodily, like a dove; and a voice from heaven spoke. And the way Luke tells it, Jesus was praying, right along with everyone else.

We then attended a wedding where Jesus performed his first miracle: turning water into good wine. Jesus, God Incarnate, cares about the details of people’s lives; and here Mary showed us that we can and should prod God in our prayers.

Next, on January 27, the day of our Annual Meeting, Jesus came to his hometown synagogue and proclaimed before everyone there his mission statement. We’ve seen who he is. Now he says what he’s come to do: bring good news to the poor, release captives, recover sight for the blind, free the oppressed, and proclaim jubilee!

The following week Jesus explained what his mission statement meant, to go outward, beyond our tribal walls. And, if you recall, his hometown religious community was incensed—and I’m not talking about the good-smelling smoky stuff we use at solemn masses. They were angry! Enough to lead Jesus to the brow of a cliff in order to hurl him off!

Well, this segued nicely into the next week, where we considered with Peter what it means to be a disciple—or at least part of what it means. “Put out into the deep water,” Jesus told Peter, “and let down your nets on the other side of the boat.” Tired as Peter was, he obeyed; and do you remember the huge catch of fish?

We’re to take on Jesus’ mission of evangelism—of carrying the good news outward!

Then, two weeks ago, Jesus appeared to the crowds and delivered the Sermon on the Plain. In Luke’s version Jesus delivered a grittier, earthier version of the beatitudes than what we hear in Matthew.

Life is full of blessings and woes. In our evangelism, we are to stand in solidarity with those experiencing things differently than we experience them, just like Jesus did.

And finally, last week, Father David reminded us that, above all, Jesus’ mission is love. No matter how much another person is like me or different from me, no matter how much she is my friend or enemy, I am to love her in Christ.

That is Christ’s identity. That is his mission.

Which brings us to today; which marks the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the culmination of this Epiphany season.

And today Jesus is transfigured.

What does the transfiguration mean for us? How are we to respond today to Jesus’ mission and identity?

2.

So, 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 to carry the water away from the problem area.

Once upon a time, I worked for a civil engineering firm. And this is in fact the kind of work we did at 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.

And thus putting together a proposal required planning. Lots of planning—analyzing drawings and flood records, making site visits ad infinitum, and drafting, drafting, drafting—in order to go from Point A to Point B with the fewest surprises possible!

Such was the civil engineering world I knew.

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

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

Computer technology had come of age.

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 iPhone launch date of June 29, 2007?

No.

You and I both know that Apple Inc. developed the iPhone through what’s called an iterative process: a long journey, full of twists and turns, risks 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—

Like’s Peter’s future, like the church’s future, on that day when Jesus was transfigured.

3.

So, we have two images.

The first, let’s call establishment.

In the world of flood-control civil engineering, there is an established way of doing things. The City of San Antonio calls on several engineering firms to put forth a proposal on how best to fix a flooding problem. The engineering firms then make their respective proposals based on established, time-tested ways of doing things.

The second image, the 1984 Apple Inc. image, let’s call innovation, for reasons that I hope are self-explanatory.

Now, a question. Which of these two images aligns with Peter on that day when he saw Jesus transfigured? Isn’t it the second image?

Peter was thoroughly confused, overshadowed by a cloud physically and mentally. Still, in his half-asleep-half-awake stupor, comical as it might come across to us today, Peter decided to do something: he offered to make shelters.

I mean, hats off to the guy! Not sure why; but, hey, at least he was getting something started, willing to take a risk, at the beginning of this iterative process we call the church.

That’s a lot like Apple Inc.’s beginnings. Doesn’t the Macintosh 128 seem kind of comical to us all now in hindsight? Surely, many people in 1984 watched and scratched their heads, wondering what in the world Apple was doing at what ended up being the beginning of a long iterative process!

It was risky! Maybe even a little gutsy!

And now, a second question, rhetorical this time. Which of these two images, establishment or innovation, characterizes the mainline church today? . . .

So, returning to today’s Gospel, for whatever reason, it all came to a crashing halt. Peter heard a booming voice from heaven, and I can’t quite grasp why—maybe he didn’t like the iterative process, the risks involved; maybe he didn’t like failure; maybe he just didn’t know Jesus well enough yet—but, whatever the case, we hear, “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

Peter and his companions kept their mouths shut. They told no one about the amazing transfiguration they had just witnessed.

In their confusion over Jesus, they did the exact opposite of Jesus’ mission. Instead of taking the good news outward, they clammed up, kept it to themselves.

Imagine if Apple Inc. back in 1984 decided just to give up, to keep its knowledge to itself.

Well, we know the larger story. Thankfully, Peter didn’t give up either. Later, after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter followed the way of innovation; and today the church is here, the mission of Jesus continues to go outward.

4.

What is our response to the transfiguration of Jesus?

We, the church, are called to reveal it to the world, to show the world who Jesus truly is, his identity; and what he came to do, his mission.

But this isn’t easy.

The world around us is in a constant state of flux. Cultural trends come and go. What was important to the culture in 1984—a computer with a whopping 128k of memory, for instance—may not be so important to the world today.

And thus the ways in which the church reveals Christ’s identity and mission to the world today should be different than how the church responded to the needs of the world in 1984.

Do you see? Christ calls us to the way of innovation, not to the way of establishment; or, to say it another way, Christ calls us to respond to the changing culture around us, not to control it.

But this is hard work! It takes a lot of creative energy to understand the ever-changing culture around us enough to respond to it intelligently. Sometimes, let’s face it, the mystery of it all shrouds us like a cloud; we have no clue how to move forward at all.

So, should we therefore keep our mouths shut?

Or should we try something new, take a risk? And what if we end up looking comical?

Hats off to Peter for trying!

Hats off to us, too, in whatever attempts we make towards revealing Christ’s identity and mission to our ever-changing world!

Doldrums Evangelism

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on February 10, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 15:1-11

1.

How do you feel about evangelism? And here I’m not talking about the technical definition of the word, the carrying out of good news. Rather, what is your gut reaction when you hear the word? Evangelism. What pictures come to your mind’s eye? What do you want to do? Roll your eyes? Turn and run away?

Now, evangelism goes two ways, right? As Christians, we are called to carry the good news outward. We are called to be evangelists. That’s the active side of evangelism.

But have you ever been on the passive side? Can you put yourself in the shoes of those to whom the “good news” is being carried?

A story from my Youth Director days comes to mind.

A local, dynamic youth pastor had just pulled off the ultimate epic evangelism event, he boasted. Then he explained: a car rally scavenger hunt.

The youth group broke into teams of four and drove around the town looking for items on a list—simple items, like a coffee cup, a slice of cheese, a cup of ice, a Polaroid selfie with a stranger.

Each item had to come from a different place; and each team had to introduce itself with the scripted, “Hi, we’re from Trinity Church’s Youth Group and we’d like you to know that Jesus loves you,” before they could request the item.

The kids had one hour. And, of course, the team with the most items won—or, if they found all the items on the list in less than an hour, the first team back with all the items won.

Sounds like fun, eh? . . . Until you heard how it unfolded!

Mostly it involved interruptions; for example, kids running into Starbucks, cutting to the front of the line, and shouting their script: “We’re from Trinity and Jesus loves you. Can we just have an empty coffee cup?”

And I remember distinctly thinking, “Man, I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it! Not sure that’s the kind of love I’m looking for. Certainly not the kind of church I’m looking for!”

Is it just me, or did you experience this kind of thing too?

Evangelism—back in the late eighties through Y2K anyway—became synonymous with obnoxious, confrontational methods of telling people your message whether they wanted to hear it or not.

A lot like consumer marketing and advertising!

But, really, is the good news a commodity for sale to the highest bidder?

Well, a while ago my family found a sign in a craft shop. I’ve often desired to hang it on the front door of our home, but still haven’t. So, this sign fairly well captures my feelings about the passive side of evangelism. It reads:

NO SOLICITING

We are too broke to buy anything

We already know who we are voting for

WE HAVE FOUND JESUS

Seriously, unless you are selling Thin Mints

PLEASE GO AWAY!!

Maybe you feel similarly. I mean, the technical word is great. But evangelism has been so misused and abused that now it feels worn out, tired.

2.

So, this brings up a question: What does a disciple of Jesus look like?

Today, we meet Simon Peter for the first time in the Gospel of Luke. He leaves everything and follows Jesus—which certainly qualifies him as a disciple. So, let’s enter his shoes for a bit.

He’s washing his nets: he’s just worked a long night shift and it’s quitting time. Unfortunately, the work’s been unproductive.

You know the kind of day. As an engineer, you’ve been agonizing over a design requiring your signature and seal. It should all work out, you keep assuring yourself; but something feels off, something you’ve maybe overlooked. You’ve been over and over the plans again and again, the deadline’s already two hours past, but you just can’t put your signature to paper in good conscience; so you give up. It’s going to have to wait till tomorrow. You pick up the phone and dial your client.

Or, as a teacher, you’ve had one of those extremely frustrating days, when the kids are grumpy and uncooperative, half of them have the sniffles and should have stayed home anyway, and finally the bells rings. You’ve still got a pile of papers to grade, but you can do it, you tell yourself, just thirty more minutes—alone, thank goodness!

Peter’s just had that kind of day: long and unproductive and he just wants to go home already.

But then this stranger named Jesus approaches and asks for his boat.

Jesus, Simon thinks. That name rings a bell. . . . Oh yeah! Isn’t he the one who people are talking about? Teaching astonishing truths and doing remarkable deeds in Capernaum?

So Simon agrees. After all, he’s washing his nets anyway; he’ll continue to clean up and otherwise wrap things up from the boat—multitask—while Jesus teaches.

But then, next, after he’s done teaching, Jesus invites Simon to do something that will require considerably more personal sacrifice.

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” Jesus says.

And what do you think goes through Simon’s mind now?

Well, what goes through that engineer’s mind when her client says, “This is unacceptable; I must have those plans by midnight or I’ll take my business elsewhere”?

Or what goes through that teacher’s mind when an administrator unexpectedly enters his empty classroom and says, “You are needed for an urgent meeting right now; it should only last an hour . . . or so”?

Doesn’t he understand, Simon must have wondered? I’ve been at this all night and there’s been nothing! And I’ve already washed my nets! Why couldn’t he have said this fifteen minutes ago? Doesn’t he know anything? Probably never fished a day in his life!

Also—a point that should not be glossed over!—Simon could have said no to Jesus. Jesus did not command but invited him.

Whatever the case, Simon responds, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

He’s tired. He just wants to go home. He could say no to Jesus.

But he obeys—and is blessed miraculously for it!

And, seeing it is so, Simon immediately spreads the good news to his partners James and John, who leave everything to join the cause with him.

3.

This is what a disciple of Jesus looks like.

Invited to share the good news, and to be blessed for it, we are called to be evangelists.

But evangelism feels so worn out. We’ve been out evangelizing for fifty years and, anyway, people don’t want to hear it. We’re tired. They’re tired. We just want to go home already!

As Peter reminds us today, that’s not an excuse; that doesn’t mean it’s time to quit!

But it does mean we probably should think about evangelism in a new way; or, maybe more helpfully, in an old, old way.

Sharing the good news through proclamation (what many have called “testimony”)—Jesus did this for me; come and see!—is only a small part of what sharing the good news—evangelism—encompasses.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus and his disciples taught the uneducated, consoled the downhearted, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and included the marginalized.

And I’m just scratching the surface! They did many other acts of love, each one a way of sharing the good news, of evangelizing.

It’s time for us to rouse ourselves, shake off our end-of-the-workday doldrums, and drop our nets on the other side of the boat. There a miraculous catch awaits!

Crying “Fowl”

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2018 by timtrue

Rotluchs2

Mark 8:27-38

1.

Something was killing our chickens; our neighbor’s chickens too.

A couple of nights a week we’d hear it, that horrendous cackle alerting us that the mysterious perpetrator had once again found its way into the chicken coop and murdered and carried off another victim.

Whatever this beast was, it was elusive. We’d wait up late at night, listening and stargazing around the fire pit, flashlights at the ready. We’d sleep out on the balcony, where we could hear better. My dad even set his alarm for 3 o’clock in the morning and played sentinel a few times.

But always it was the same. By the time the chickens first cackled it seemed the culprit had already come and gone. We never so much as saw its hind quarters running away into the avocado orchard.

For me, a ten year-old boy, I wondered if chupacabras might in fact be real.

My dad’s remedy was to lock up the coop each night, watertight—close off every hole in the chicken wire, the doorways, the walls, and the roof.

But the chicken-stealing continued—not in our coop but in our neighbor’s, who apparently had not sealed his off as effectively.

So my neighbor’s remedy was to rig a trap.

He used what looked to me like a wire crate for a medium-sized dog; except he added a spring mechanism to the door—from a rat trap if I remember correctly—so that when the chicken-stealing beast took the bait, a weight underneath would rise and trigger the spring and the door would snap shut, latching itself.

It worked flawlessly in the testing phase. Still, would it capture this beast, whatever it was? The trap was big enough for a fox. But what if it was a coyote; or that mischievous hunting hound Jake who lived a quarter mile down the street; or a chupacabra?

For the next few nights, around dusk, I watched with rapt attention while Don, my neighbor, routinely set his trap, placing a generous amount of ground beef and raw bacon in the baiting area and sliding the trap strategically in front of the chicken coop doorway.

And each morning, at the crack of dawn, eager, I’d race outside and peek through the fence to check, hoping that something was in it.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. After only a few days it happened. There was no need for me to run to the fence and peek through, hoping to see something: it was obvious.

Long before the sun was up, before even the crack of dawn, the repetitive cries, hisses, and wailings of the chicken-stealing beast, not to mention the cacophony of cackling, woke us all up—the neighbors and my household. Don saw us exiting our front door and beckoned us to come on over.

Groggily, super curious, we all gathered in our pajamas and bathrobes and slippers around Don’s chicken coop, flashlights in hand, excited at last to see what mysterious creature was the cause of all the “fowl” play.

And there it was: in the cage, frightened and growling but certainly trapped beyond any hope of escape, not a chupacabra but a real live bobcat.

I’d never seen a bobcat before!

Anyway, the jig was up. Caught and trapped, its chicken-stealing days were over. And from the sound of its pathetic wails, it seemed to know it.

Don called animal control, who showed up by 9am and hauled the beast away, to release it later that day in the upper Sespe, they told us, far from any human dwellings.

And our chickens lived happily ever after.

2.

So, I wonder today if Peter feels at all like that bobcat.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks.

Peter responds: “You are the Messiah.”

And here, in the Gospel of Mark, there’s none of that glowing affirmation we read over in Matthew; Jesus says nothing to Peter about him being a rock, a solid foundation upon which he will build his church.

Instead—

Well, it plays out like this:

  • Peter calls Jesus the Messiah.
  • Jesus orders his disciples to tell no one.
  • Jesus then explains “quite openly” that this Messiah, the Son of Man, must endure unbelievable trials in the days ahead.
  • But Peter says no, Jesus, you’ve got it all wrong.
  • And immediately Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him Satan!

I wonder, does Peter feel like he’s just been baited and led into a trap, one with a spring mechanism that snaps shut tight with no way out?

It seems almost scandalous.

3.

Scandal. Now there’s a word with an interesting etymology!

Of course, today the term has at least a few different meanings. One has a moral connection; something morally wrong is often called scandalous.

But scandal can also mean something that feels somehow wrong to the general public: something that causes a public outcry, when general expectations aren’t being met.

This second meaning is more along the lines of what happens here with Peter today. He declares Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel; and, we infer from his following rebuke, his expectations are not met. Jesus is neither who the people think he is nor even who Peter thinks he is.

It’s scandalous.

So, here’s an interesting caveat about the etymology of scandal: The word comes from way back; from ancient Greek, skandalon. And it originally meant, literally, a trap with a spring mechanism—like Don’s trap for the bobcat.

By the time the term reaches the New Testament, it possesses the additional metaphorical meaning of a stumbling block; or an offense.[I]

Sound familiar? In his first epistle, Peter calls Jesus a stumbling stone and a rock of offense (cf. 2:8); and Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus is a stumbling block (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23).

Jesus is a scandal for those who don’t believe.

And Peter walks right into this scandal; and the door snaps shut behind him; and he’s left with no way out and nothing to do but rethink his understanding of who Jesus really is.

4.

Today, like Peter, the Gospel challenges us to rethink the scandal of Jesus.

Do we expect Jesus to be something he is not? Do we understand the mission he has left us with? Is true Christian discipleship really what we think it is? What is the Gospel calling us to do? Who is the Gospel calling us to be, really?

After Jesus called Peter Satan—a word that can be interpreted as adversary or opposer as readily as the devil—“Get behind me, Opposer!”—Jesus explained:

“For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter understood the Messiah in human terms. For Peter, Israel’s Messiah would set things straight. He would provide political and spiritual leadership for an oppressed and marginalized people. He would liberate them, save them, meet their needs.

But, no! These—and more—were all human, egotistical expectations of the Messiah.

Divine expectations were quite different. Divine expectations necessitated that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed.

This interplay between human and divine hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years.

Naturally, our humanity plays a large role in our relationship with Jesus. He was fully human, after all.

He therefore supports our human wants and desires, right? He therefore values the political and ethical ideologies we value, right? He therefore will meet our needs, whatever we perceive them to be, right?

Like Peter, we tend to focus not on divine but human things.

But it’s not about us! I cannot stress this enough—it is imperative—we must set our egos aside! Our relationship with Christ is not about human expectations as much as it is about divine expectations.

In other words, it’s about commitment. To what are you more committed, divine expectations or human expectations? Are you more committed to God or yourself? You can’t have it both ways.

5.

To return, then, to the story with which I began, we are the bobcat.

We have discovered a way to live an abundant life. The Farmer, we think, is providing us with all the chickens we should ever need, just sitting there, for us, whenever we like. God is good!

It all makes perfect sense, from our perspective anyway. God is meeting our expectations, providing for us, ministering to our needs, supporting our wants, and valuing what we value.

But the bobcat’s not thinking about the bigger picture. The chickens are not there for the bobcat’s desires and whims, but for the common good.

The bobcat was really created to be free, after all; not to be dependent on the Farmer in ways that result in chaos—chaos to which the bobcat in fact remains largely ignorant.

Do you see what happens when we set our mind on human expectations—when we don’t deny our egos? We end up frustrated, for one thing, scandalized by Jesus; and also we remain largely in ignorance to the chaos we generate all around us.

The Gospel is scandalous—until we set our mind on divine things.

[i] Cf. https://www.etymonline.com/word/scandal

Grumpy Raisins

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by timtrue

John 15:1-8

In today’s Gospel, like last week, we encounter one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he said last week; and today, “I am the true vine.”

So, last week I offered an exploration into the image itself. If Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are disciples of Jesus, then it follows logically that we are sheep.

And thus we imagined together what it means to follow a good shepherd and not a hired hand; what it feels like for Jesus to know each of us by name; and, particularly, what the other sheep might look like about whom Jesus says we know nothing.

Admittedly, my homily was playful and enlightening, in part because it’s easy to personify sheep. They’re living, active creatures with a kind of collective personality.

Today, however, not so much. I mean, how do you personify branches; or grapes; or raisins?

So, instead of putting ourselves into the skins of grapes this week, I want to look at the bigger picture, the historical and cultural contexts in which Jesus speaks.

To begin, do you remember the story from the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel about a man born blind?

Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples. They see a man blind from birth; and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus says, no, you’ve got it all wrong. And to show them, he stoops down, spits on the ground, makes a little mud, spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. Once he does, he comes back seeing. Incredible!

That’s the part of the story we usually remember anyway. But there’s a lot more to it.

Next, some of the man’s neighbors see him walking around with his sight restored. So, naturally enough, they ask him, “What happened? How is it that you now see?”

He explains that this man named Jesus put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before a group of Pharisees.

Now—a brief aside; I want to offer a word of caution—when we hear the word Pharisees, we should not automatically think “bad guys.” Pharisees were (and are to this day) something like an order in the Jewish religion—Benedictine, Franciscan, etc. Pharisees are generally devout people and highly respected in their community.

So, when the Bible mentions Pharisees, this is the image that should come to mind first and foremost: influential community leaders; and not (automatically) the opposition.

Returning to the story then, the healed man is led before a group of Pharisees—i. e., influential community leaders—and he tells them his story. And, curiously, the group is divided.

It happened on the Sabbath. So some of them say, “This man Jesus cannot be of God, for he healed on the Sabbath.” Yet others say, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

Some of the Pharisees—presumably those who feel that Jesus cannot be of God—only some of them—then confront the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they ask. Yes. “Was he born blind?” they ask. Yes. “Do you know that he now sees?” they ask. Really? Incredible!

“Well, yes,” they admit, reluctantly, “I guess it is actually kind of incredible. But that’s beside the point! How is it that he can now see?”

And the parents answer, “We don’t know. But he is of age. Why don’t you ask him?”

And what comes next really is incredible. But it comes fast and furious and is gone before we know it; and thus is a detail we all too often miss or forget about: the reason why the parents answered as they did.

“His parents said this,” the Gospel narrates, “because they were afraid of the Pharisees; for the Pharisees had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

The healed man’s parents were afraid! They did not want to be put out of the synagogue. They feared excommunication.

Another way to say this: they were afraid of being cut off from the vine of Israel—a point to which I will return shortly.

But, first, to finish the story, the Pharisees—or, to clarify, that part of the group of Pharisees who did not like Jesus—again call forward the healed man, now charging him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth! “We know this man Jesus is a sinner!” they exclaim.

“Whether he’s a sinner or not,” the healed man replies, “I don’t know. But one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see.”

And at last the story concludes with these chilling words: “And they drove him out.”

Those influential community leaders drive the healed man out of the synagogue because he trusts in Jesus. He is effectively excommunicated, cut off, in their minds, from the vine Israel.

Yeah—so to return to that point—the vine Israel!

Jesus is not the first person to use this vine-and-branches metaphor. Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.

Psalm 80 says: “O LORD God of hosts . . . you brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”

Isaiah 5 sings of God’s relationship with Israel, beginning with these words: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard.”

And Ezekiel 19 says: “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard . . . fruitful and full of branches from abundant water.”

No doubt this metaphor was quite familiar to John’s audience.

And John’s audience—those to whom John had initially written his Gospel—like the man born blind, had been cut off from the vine Israel. And the reason they had been cut off was because, like the healed man, they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah.

Even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself; or, to tell it from John’s point of view, Israel cut itself off from Jesus.

Do you see what John is doing here? Jesus is the true vine, John proclaims to his audience; Jesus is their true source of life.

Contrary to what those grumpy community leaders intended—to cut off Jesus’ followers from their source of life—they had instead cut themselves off from Christ, the true source of life. Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; it is those who have rejected Jesus who are cut off from the true vine, left to languish, wither, dry up, and become raisins.

And they did it to themselves! God didn’t cut them off; God can’t be blamed here. They pruned themselves. They cut themselves off from Jesus, the true source of life.

Today Jesus tells us that the vinegrower should be the one who removes fruitless and withered branches; the vinegrower should be the one to prune.

But remove and prune—these words suggest pain. And we don’t like the idea of someone else inflicting pain on us, even if that someone else is God. So, instead, like those grumpy Pharisees, we try to prune ourselves.

The trouble is we’re not very good at it.

Maybe this is where personifying the metaphor could be helpful. For how adept could a branch ever become at pruning itself? Branches, certainly, have very limited manual dexterity. And the older a branch grows, we all know, the more hardened and gnarled it becomes. Really, how could a branch, young or old, ever prune itself?

And yet we still try.

Just like those grumpy Pharisees!

And we know what happened to them: they cut themselves off from Jesus, their source of life, leaving themselves to become raisins.

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Let God be the vinegrower. Your job is to bear rich, plump, abundant fruit; not raisins.

When Faith and Beliefs Collide

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2018 by timtrue

Verkehrsunfall1

Mark 1:14-20

1.

Jumping right into today’s Gospel:

  • John the Baptist has been arrested
  • Jesus has carried John’s message of repentance to Galilee
  • Four fisherman hear this message
  • And immediately they leave the lives they have always known to follow Jesus.

Consider: theirs were lives of safety, security, predictability, stability, and confidence; left behind for risk, danger, insecurity, uncertainty, and self-denial.

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

Did they know Jesus already? Had they seen him somewhere before? Was it his charismatic personality?

Or, maybe, was it his connection with JB? There’s some scholarly speculation, after all, that JB was an Essene, possibly even of the Qumran community. Prior to his public ministry, Jesus might even have been one of JB’s disciples. We don’t know for sure. But did Jesus perhaps dress like JB? Would the four fisherman have recognized Jesus at sight—by the clothes he wore (similar to people recognizing me as a priest when I wear my collar in public)?

Or, was there something about the authenticity of Jesus? Here was a man who not only proclaimed a message of repentance but also lived out the way of love. I like to think so: that the message and messenger were authentically one.

Whatever the case, the truth is we don’t know why these four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus. This detail has been left out of the story.

But we know that they did.

No speculation here! On that day long ago on that beach, four fishermen left behind stability, certainty, and predictability for a life of risky faith as disciples of Jesus.

2.

And we know the result: through their faith they were transformed. Jesus called these disciples as fishermen and transformed them into fishers of people.

Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

He was called on the beach, the sand; and later called rock.

Jesus called him rock; and then, in the next breath, Satan.

Peter said he’d never deny Jesus; and yet denied him the next morning.

Peter became a stalwart spokesman for the church; yet disagreed and disputed openly and publicly with the apostle Paul.

Peter even waffled, tradition tells us, in the days leading up to his execution, one moment escaping from Rome and fleeing for his life, sure of his freedom; the next deciding martyrdom was the better way and returning of his own volition to face Nero for Christ’s glory.

Transformation for Peter—and for the others—was not a one-time experience, like repeating a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call.

Faith in Christ meant continuous conversion throughout his life, being conformed increasingly—more and more—from Adam’s fallen image into Jesus’ perfect image.

Transformation takes a lifetime!

And if it works this way for Peter, Andrew, James, John, and you and me, as individuals; then transformation also works this way for the corporate body of Christ, the Christian church around the globe.

3.

Which brings up a good point.

Here is the beginning of the church—the earliest community to gather around the person and mission of Jesus Christ. And this earliest body of believers lived a life of faith.

This life was risky, even dangerous.

It was insecure.

It was unstable.

And—not a point to gloss over—it required them to let of their egos.

And their faith resulted in their transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

Is the church, the collective body of Christ around the globe, still transforming? Is it still living a life of risky faith, following Jesus into unknown, even dangerous realms as it tries to fulfill his mission?

Take financial risk as an example. Certainly these four fisherman followed Jesus at great financial risk to themselves and their families. Yet, obviously, they didn’t sit down beforehand and plan out a budget subject to board approval.

The contrasting picture today is one of sweaty hands wrung together, knuckles popping and fingernails being bitten off, frantic phone calls, bitter arguments—in fear of insolvency.

We’ve come a long way in some ways; though I’m not sure we can say transformation is one of them.

And what of stability? We talk an awful lot about having buildings to worship in, in geographic locations. We are the presence of Christ to our community, after all. Better make sure we look like we’re built on a rock then and not on shifting sand!

Yet Christ was transient in his ministry, meeting in an upper room or speaking from a boat or sitting on a hillside.

Since the beginning of the church, a lot about Christianity has changed. But I don’t think this is the kind of transformation Jesus had in mind.

And what about ego? . . .

4.

Considered as a world religion, Christianity is commonly divided into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Each of these divisions can be further subdivided; and there are further subdivisions within these subdivisions; and so on; and so forth—leaving one dizzy.

A Catholic group says there are 33,000 different Christian denominations in the world; Gordon-Conwell Seminary claims there are 47,000.

But, of course, it depends how one defines “denomination.” Is an independent, so-called non-denominational church in effect its own denomination? Many would argue so.

If so, then, yes, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, in the USA alone there are more than 35,000 Protestant denominations.

But if, on the other hand, you lump all independent and non-denominational bodies into one group—a kind of anti-denomination I guess—then the number becomes a much more manageable 200 or so.[i]

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot.

And why is this?

Far and away, because of doctrinal differences: one church leader’s interpretation differs from another. And so, in the spirit of protest, channeling the Protestant Reformation, rather than seeking agreement a new denomination forms and breaks off from the old.

And if that’s not ego at work, I don’t know what is!

But, to be fair, you can hardly blame Martin Luther and the others! For the Roman Catholic doctrines of Papal Infallibility and magisteria (to name but two) are themselves exclusive systems of belief: if you don’t ascribe to them you can’t be in the club; and who wants to be in that kind of club anyway?

God is immutable, they say; and thus the church should reflect God’s unchanging nature.

To which I say, Immutability? Infallibility? (And I might as well add) Inerrancy? These words hardly sound transformational.

On that day long ago, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of them. We, the church, continue to have a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of us.

It seems to me, however, that our belief systems today are far removed from that beach where those four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus in faith.

Our belief systems are impeding our transformation.

5.

You know what I think’s going on here? I think we—the Christian church—have confused our belief systems with faith.

Once upon a time I was a director of youth ministries in a church, overseeing programs for students in middle school, high school, and college.

The college students frequently volunteered to work with younger students and thus were seen role models.

One day, one of the college women who volunteered with the high school program came to the pastor in tears, confessing that she was pregnant. The father-to-be was a young man who didn’t attend church.

Now, this church’s system of beliefs held that believers should not marry unbelievers; that abortion is murder; that sex outside of marriage is a sin; that sins necessitate repentance; that pregnancy is a public sin, for a swollen belly is soon obvious to everyone; and that failure to repent should result in excommunication from the church.

This system of beliefs had come from much prayer and Bible study, to be sure.

But it also led the pastor and elders (who were all men, by the way) to conclude, therefore, that the young woman must either publicly apologize to the congregation during Sunday morning worship or face excommunication. It probably goes without saying that abortion would have resulted in excommunication too; and unless he converted, marrying the unbelieving father-to-be was discouraged.

As you can imagine, this whole scenario put me into an ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, I was a vital part of this church. I ascribed to its belief system. I supported the pastor in his vision for the congregation.

And yet, on the other hand, I had gotten to know this young woman well. She had taught, prayed with, and otherwise provided spiritual leadership to a number of the youth. She demonstrated a life of love to these kids.

And love, after all—wasn’t this Jesus’ main message?

“Lord,” I prayed, “of all the beliefs in my belief system, which one is the greatest?” And he answered, “The greatest of these is love.”

How was this local church loving this young woman now, I wondered? By telling her not to marry her boyfriend because he didn’t ascribe to the church’s belief system? By publicly humiliating her in front of the congregation? By excommunicating her? Really?

The dilemma was real: My belief system collided with my faith.

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

But I’d also developed my ethic of love from Jesus!

As these two worlds collided, I realized I couldn’t hold both without significantly compromising my integrity as a disciple of Christ. I had to pick a side: belief or faith. Which would it be?

Well, what side had the four fishermen picked?

As with the four fishermen, Jesus is calling us to faith: to live out a risky ethic of love rather than to hold tenaciously to some rock-solid, immutable system of beliefs we call our own.

Through faith, not a belief system, we shall be transformed.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] Cf. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/sbeale/just-how-many-protestant-denominations-are-there

Light from Nicodemus

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

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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.

On Being Christmas-and-Easter Warriors

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

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Matthew 4:12-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings up a concern for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had become a bona fide weekend warrior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will we do for the other five?

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

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

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

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

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

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