Archive for individual vs. corporate

Gazing at the Underside

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 5:1-12

1.

Have you ever gazed at an icon?

One of the panels in St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt contains the oldest known icon of Christus Pantokrator, aka, “Christ, the Lord of Hosts.” I’ve never been there. But I’ve seen photos.

This particular icon first caught my attention because there seemed to be something wrong with Jesus’ face. It seemed somehow asymmetric, kind of like he’d suffered a minor stroke or TIA.

That was the first time I gazed at it.

Somewhat unsettled, certainly puzzled, I returned to it. The second time, yes, indeed, I saw there was something not quite right about his face—it hadn’t been my imagination. I also noticed that, in his left hand, he held a large, thick book; and was making a sign of blessing with his right.

Well, I don’t know how many more times I returned to this icon—how many total minutes I spent gazing at it—before someone spoiled it for me (as I am now, perhaps, going to spoil it for you).

This imposter (a church history teacher, actually) came with a sheet of paper and covered up the right half of Jesus’ face. “What does the exposed half look like?” he asked.

“Judgment,” I said.

He smiled then covered up the left half and asked, “Now what?”

“Wow! That’s compassion!” I replied.

And it clicked! That’s what was wrong with his face. The left half, reflecting the Torah in his left hand, displayed the judgment side of God; whereas the right half displayed mercy, seen in his sign of blessing.

Anyway, good icons are like that: one grows in one’s understanding as one gazes.

2.

Well, today I don’t so much want to gaze at icons as I want to gaze with you at the underside of tabletops.

Last week, if you recall, I framed my sermon with the image of Jesus turning over tables both literal and figurative. Why am I surprised, then, when following Jesus feels like I’m gazing at the underside of tabletops?

For instance:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches us, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

And, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

And so on.

But . . . the poor in spirit? Those who mourn? The meek? These aren’t exactly the bullet points I want to put on my résumé.

Instead, these strike me as kind of upside down.

And why, again, are these people—these disciples of Jesus—called blessed? Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven? Because they will be comforted? Because they will inherit the earth?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this. It all sounds like pie-in-the-sky talk to me!

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 such moralizing sounds an awful lot like what my second grade teacher used to tell me. I didn’t really buy it then; and I don’t buy it now.

It’s not the future that concerns me; I want to be blessed now! And I’m pretty sure being melancholy and mopey isn’t going to get me there.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in this present life; but the confident, the self-assured, and—dare I say?—the pushy! 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 blessed now!

I want Jesus to say something like:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money! For they can buy a comfortable home in a low-crime neighborhood; their kids can attend the best schools; and every amenity they could ever need or want is at their fingertips.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this? That’s what the culture around me is telling me! Why does following Christ have to feel so upside down, like I’m staring at the underside of a tabletop?

3.

But to gaze at the underside might not be such a bad thing. Jesus seems to know this—otherwise, why would he turn so many tables over in the first place?

Maybe that’s why he calls you and me and all the saints to do so.

I mean, isn’t that really what we do when we gather week after week, when we come together and engage in corporate spiritual practices—sacred story, sacred rituals, sacred music, sacred seasons? In these upside down practices we contemplate Jesus and the tables he has overturned.

And don’t we continue our underside musings during the week with individual practices like contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, and gazing at icons?

And—you know—the longer we gaze at the underside, the more we realize that this hidden, forgotten side of the table was meant by the Table-builder to be on top all along.

That’s why the beatitudes can feel so upside down. They’re the hidden side of the table; yet the side Jesus really wants us to see!

Remember those wants I listed earlier? When I said I wished Jesus would say that those who make a lot of money are blessed because they can live in a big house and so on?

Now—please hear me—these wants and dreams are not necessarily wrong. But they’re the American dream, not Jesus’ dream.

Jesus proclaims compassion, justice, and a society free from oppression and hatred, fear and guilt.

The beatitudes show us harmonious community.

But the other side of this table—the American dream side of this table—tells us a very different message: to live well, to look good, and to stand out; to be an individual.

4.

So what can we do about it? Is gazing at the underside of tabletops a valuable use of our time? Are the beatitudes reality? Or, is Jesus presenting us with an unrealizable ideal?

Most of us are individuals, after all, who have come together because of our common understanding of Christ—Christians, yes, but nevertheless individuals.

And besides, even if we do manage to break beyond our individualistic values and begin to form a cohesive common good, we’re still just one local body of Christ—and not a very big one at that—in the morass of modern American Christian individualism.

So what can we do?

Well, gazing at the underside of these tables is a lot like gazing at an icon: the more one does so, the more one comes to understand.

Most people today, I’m afraid, look only and ever at the topside (maybe we are partly to blame: maybe we aren’t overturning enough tables); and the topside shows only the individual.

What matters on the topside is that I love Jesus. It tells me to learn and cherish all those precious scriptures about my individual relationship with Jesus, that as long as I believe in him I shall not perish but have everlasting life even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!

Fine and well. But what the topside leaves out is all those Bible passages, many and manifold, about societal injustices, about neglecting the poor and destitute among us, about caring for widows and orphans (and we might add the homeless and mentally ill).

It tells us, instead, that the poor and destitute need to develop a better work ethic and embrace family values; that it’s not society’s fault, and so why should I be forced to pay taxes for the good of those unwilling to work for their food?

By way of contrast, the underside reveals to us (in agreement with Jesus), over time and much gazing, that social structures do in fact play a part.

I was shocked to learn in seminary, for example, that in our own “land of the free” people of color were denied mortgage loans on the basis of their skin color well into the 1980s. In fact, it is argued that in some regions of the country such discrimination continues to this day!

The people affected by this practice are true victims of a grievous social injustice!

Even more shocking to me was the sudden realization that I did not know this had been going on. Unlike so many others, I’d never had to experience this kind of systemic injustice personally. And wasn’t my ignorance, in itself, a kind of injustice?

Gazing at the underside, we begin to ask questions like this. Who are the true victims of the system? How do we care for them when we find them? How do we foster a compassionate social order for the common good?

As small a church as we are, then, we’re not too small to figure out some way of bringing the underside of the tables Jesus overturns into sharper focus, so that others can gaze with us.

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How Much More Humility?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 18:9-14

This past Thursday I attended Fresh Start: a monthly gathering of clergy new to the diocese, or to a new position in the diocese. Father Paul was there, as he has just started a position as Priest-in-Charge in El Centro and Brawley.  Some newly ordained priests and transitional deacons were there too.  It’s a collegial group, whose purpose is to gather and discuss issues pertinent to our unique calling to the ordained ministry.

On the docket this month was a somewhat provocative question: How should we preach about politics, especially in light of the upcoming election and recent feelings of increased polarization?

It’s a good question to consider.  The election is less than three weeks away.  Which leaves me only today and two more Sundays to address it.  Should I name the political elephant in the room?  Or, on the other hand, should the church be the one haven in our world where we can still find a vestige of refuge from the political circus all around us?

Of course, different preachers take different approaches.

You may or may not know that in 2004 the Rev. George Regas preached a sermon in All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, which led to an investigation by the IRS.  Regas explicitly stated he was not endorsing one candidate over another.  Yet in his sermon—an imagined conversation between Jesus, John Kerry, and George W. Bush—he very much advocated for issues supported by Kerry and opposed by Bush.  And thus, yes, despite him saying he did not endorse one candidate over another, it sure seemed otherwise—to the IRS anyway!

And the IRS matters!

For, according to IRS code, if a preacher tells his congregation how to vote, that preacher’s church can lose tax-exempt status.  To be sure, if I were to stand up here this morning and tell you why you should or shouldn’t for one candidate or another, the IRS would consider St. Paul’s in violation of church and state laws: we could lose our tax-exempt status.

In fact, in recent months our own bishop raised some eyebrows in a diocesan letter in which he named Donald Trump and argued why we shouldn’t vote for him.  Concern was raised over whether the entire Episcopal Diocese of San Diego might fall under the IRS’s scrutiny, and what that would mean for congregations in the diocese (including St. Paul’s).

Preachers in favor of naming names in letters or sermons, including the bishop, rightly argue that as ministers of the Gospel we need the liberty to preach the full Gospel of Christ.

To which other preachers, including me, say, yes, we do need such liberty; but can’t we have it without naming names? Without endorsing or opposing a specific candidate?

To muddle the waters just a little more, during his earthly ministry even Jesus himself named a political figure, Herod; and called him a fox!

Anyway, such was our clergy discussion on Thursday. And thus we come to today’s Gospel: a thoroughly political text.

For, in the first place, I can’t help but associate at least one of the major candidates of this presidential race with the Pharisee.

Two men went up to the temple to pray.  One, a Pharisee, said (essentially), “Dear God, thank you that I’m better than everyone else.”

I mean, doesn’t this sound similar to the political debates?

Just for fun, what if the moderator of the final debate, Chris Wallace, would have asked, “Candidates, as this debate begins, I’d like you each to offer an opening prayer.”  What would that prayer have been?

It’s not hard to imagine the words of the Pharisee: “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that [other candidate], right over there.”

It doesn’t matter which candidate you happen to favor.  It’s the same for both sides.  One prays, “Thanks that I’m not a thief, like her”; whereas the other prays, “Thanks that I’m not an adulterer, like him.”

And, if you’re like me, you’re left scratching your head wondering when anyone’s going to give a reasonable answer to any of the issues at hand.

But we don’t really identify too closely with the Pharisee anyway.  Or at least we don’t want to.  Isn’t he the real reason the system is so messed up in the first place?

He’s a leader in society, in the established system.  But what is his position of leadership but to enforce the rules and regulations established by the system in the first place!

The Roman Empire’s really messed up when you sit down and think about it.  There are masses of people led by smaller and smaller groups of leaders until finally you reach the top of the pyramid: the emperor.  The Jewish leaders are really just one layer, about halfway up the strata, orchestrated ultimately by the system in order to keep the masses in check.

The Pharisee’s in a position to do something about it.  So why doesn’t he?  He’s a community leader.  Why doesn’t he then lead his community out of the oppressive system that enslaves them?  Why does he instead keep the system in place, perpetuating the bondage?

At any rate, that’s not us.  We really can’t identify with him.

Instead, we really just want to associate with the tax collector. After all, he’s the one who said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and beat his breast and repented and went home justified by God.

So can’t we just focus on him today?  Can’t we just come to church and forget about the political circus?  Can’t we just gather with others, pray and sing together, listen to a normal sermon (for once!), gather at the Lord’s Table, and just go home justified by God?  Can’t we?  Please?

Oh, I wish it were so simple!

But here’s what happens when we come to church and focus just on the tax collector.  We meet, pray, sing, and commune; and we go home justified by God; and we turn on the news or open our computers or look at our phones; and all of a sudden we’re thinking, “Dear God, thank you that I am not like these ridiculous presidential candidates.  Thank you that at least I have the discipline to go to church.  Thank you that I pray and give.  Thank you that. . . .”

And we end up proud.  We end up justifying ourselves.  We become the Pharisee.  And we forget the point of this parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

And yet, even so—even if we focus just on the tax collector—I’m sorry to say, here too, in the second place, we can’t avoid politics.  For the tax collector is part of this oppressive Roman system too: tax collectors were employed by the powers-that-be to control people economically.

Think of the modern credit card economy we live with.

Do you ever feel enslaved to it?  Do you ever feel as if the powers-that-be calculate interest rates to be just the right amount—just enough to keep you in debt but not so much to bankrupt you?

That’s how the masses felt towards the tax collector.  Except it wasn’t a big company to be mad at, like Chase or Capital One or the Emperor’s 1st Bank, but at an individual person.

So this made the tax collector wealthy, sure; but also very alone, a kind of middle-manager outcast.  You can almost imagine him waking up one day and asking himself, “How did I get here?  Back when I was going to college and decided to major in finance, I never dreamed I’d end up here.  Yeah, college!  Those were the days!  Back then I lived on $600 a month.  Now, what with two kids in college and ever-increasing medical costs, I can’t even make ends meet with six figures!  I’m trapped forever in middle management!”

No wonder he leaves the temple humbled instead of proud!

The Pharisee is more like an executive, a more active player in perpetuating the system that’s in place, a system of rules and regulations; a system of boundaries which keep people in their place.

Either way, though, the present system has both the Pharisee and the tax collector in a kind of bondage!

Maybe you relate more to the tax collector.  How did you get here?  Now that you’re here, what can you do about it, if anything?  You feel trapped.

Or maybe you find yourself more able to relate to the Pharisee.  You’re a leader of society, a public figure.  Everywhere you go you’ve got to mind your Ps and Qs—lest some sort of Yuma scandal break out!  From time to time you wonder about issues of social justice and whether you can do anything to change injustice or maybe if in fact you’re part of the injustice.  You feel trapped too.

Either way it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t really matter who we are or what we do—whether we’re presidential candidates or parishioners in a pew; whether we identify more with the Pharisee or the tax collector.

God is after a broken spirit and a contrite heart.

God justifies the humble Pharisee just as much as the humble tax collector.  On the other hand, God humbles both the proud presidential candidate and the proud parishioner in the pew.

God calls us to be humble. We learn this from the tax collector who teaches us to focus on individual humility: he beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”; and went home justified by God as an individual.

But there’s more to it than just individual humility.  This we learn from the Pharisee.  He turns our thoughts outward, to society.  He’s not just an individual working within an oppressive system (like the tax collector), but a representative of the system.

And thus, turning our thoughts outward, a question confronts us: What about our systems?  Is God humbling us not just as individuals but also as a society?

Think about our immediate system, the Church.

We lament over the Church’s decline of the last four decades.  Attendance has been steadily falling.  Budgets have been continuously shrinking.  Many congregations around the country and the world are finding that they can no longer sustain their programs and buildings.

Is this decline God’s doing?  Is God humbling the Church’s pride?

Maybe.

Whatever the case, this so-called decline, which so many people see as negative, has a positive side: the Church is asking important questions that have needed to be asked for a very long time—questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.

In essence, the Church is looking around and saying, “How did we end up here?  Back in the early days we lived on $600 a month.  Now we can’t even seem to make ends meet on six figures!  God, be merciful to us sinners!”

We see a corporate humility.

Nevertheless—I don’t have to tell you—much pride remains in the Church.  All too often, the word bishop is interchangeable with ego.

How much more humbling needs to take place?

Now, let’s look at the bigger system: What about our nation?

With this election cycle, American democracy seems to have changed fundamentally.

Is this God’s doing?  Is God humbling our nation?

Maybe.

As a nation, we’ve begun to ask the right questions; questions that have needed to be asked for a long time; questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.  Attempts are made at righting past wrongs.  Strategies are developed to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.  Thoughts are turning toward the common good.  These are all signs of national humility.

Nevertheless, there’s quite a lot of ego floating around.  And I don’t just mean in the presidential race!  Our whole country is wound tight around pride and self-justification—around ego!

How much more humbling needs to take place?

I won’t tell you how to vote.  But, when you vote, please, consider this very important question.

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.