Archive for mission

A Final Charge

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School in Temecula, California on May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

John 13:31-35

1.

Today is Day 29 of the Great 50 Days of Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen . . . but he has not yet ascended.

Jesus’ time remaining with the disciples is very limited—only eleven days to go. So, what does he have to say in these final days?

I mean, what would you say to your friends and loved ones if you knew you would be with them only eleven more days?

Here’s how the lectionary compilers imagine it. The Gospel today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, narrates the final time Jesus spoke to his disciples collectively before his death.

Surely, this is one of Jesus’ most important teachings of all!

They’ve gathered together at the last supper; Judas has just gone out. And Jesus begins, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

In other words, listen up! Jesus is not going to speak in parables, paradoxes, or riddles today. No complicated doctrine. No erudite theology. Just a simple message clear enough even for little children.

“I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

All along Jesus’ mission has been to go outward. He came to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the captives.

And he left this mission to us, to plant seeds of good news and spread them to the ends of the earth.

All this—Jesus’ mission—is very important.

But for today, as we remember Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, wedged right in the middle of them, we focus on something else: a most important, foundational, simple message.

It’s as if to say, “All that great stuff about the mission, all that going outward business—it’s nothing if we don’t love one another!”

2.

Well, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that, like with Jesus, today is my final opportunity to address you all as a collective body.

At that Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus didn’t mince words; at my last Eucharist with you, today, same.

No parables, paradoxes, or riddles; no complicated doctrine; no erudite theology. Just the plain, important message: love one another. This is where our community life’s rubber meets the road.

So simple! Right? Yet so complicated to live out!

So, in the remainder of my sermon today, my final charge to you, I’m going to address this question: What does love for one another look like in our specific setting, St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School?

After almost two years with you, I have a few suggestions I’d like to offer. How do we love one another?

My first suggestion: focus on the common good.

Many of us within the St. Thomas community have great ideas. This is a talented group! And as long as I’ve been here I’ve encouraged people to take risks with their ideas.

Create. Innovate. Collaborate. Try something new. And whether the idea succeeds or fails—that’s not the issue so much as doing something with and for the community resulting in the common good.

For example, a small team of people created an outdoor labyrinth for Easter Eve. More than fifty people showed up to walk this labyrinth in prayer, many of them from outside our community.

What an example of loving one another—and our neighbors to boot!

But what happens when an individual or small group presents a ministry to the community not for the common good as much as for the benefit of that person or group? Doesn’t the focus shift? From Christ to the group? From the common good to individuals?

So, let’s say twenty years from now the labyrinth program is still going. Now nobody really remembers the history behind it, how it began or even why; and only a few people show up when Easter Eve rolls around. Still, a few individuals feel very strongly about keeping it going. After all, they say, it’s tradition!

To which I ask, why? Is it glorifying Christ? Is it benefiting the common good? Or, maybe, on the other hand, has it become your pet project?

If it’s not benefiting the common good, or if it’s benefiting a few persons at the expense of the common good, let it go.

Ministries, programs, traditions, special interests—these things have life cycles. Maybe it’s time to let some of our precious programs die so that new life can rise up from within the community, new life that benefits the common good.

My second suggestion piggybacks on the first: increase flexibility.

Church bodies, as you know, are living organisms. They are always moving, breathing, changing. People come and go; new members join, old members move away.

For St. Thomas to benefit from this alive-ness, isn’t flexibility essential? And I’m not talking just a general tolerance for one another, but deep, out-of-your-comfort-zone flexibility.

Let’s say a newcomer visits and (out of her comfort zone) takes that brave first step of sitting down at the coffee hour or in an Adult Forum; and she joins in the conversation. What should our response be?

A general tolerance would put up with her like we put up with distant relatives when they come to our homes for a visit. We’re polite enough, we make pleasant conversation and feed them a nice meal.

But, still, they’re in my house and will therefore abide by my household rules; or I will show them the door.

In other words, we expect home visitors to assimilate to the culture we’ve established there, our culture.

But, in a church that lives out Christ’s love for one another, it cannot work that way!

When a newcomer enters into our church’s ongoing, living conversation, we must not expect her to assimilate to our ways; rather, love demands that we learn and grow from her, truly to listen to what she has to say and thereby, with her, experience ongoing, living transformation.

Flexibility is key.

Finally, my third suggestion: establish and maintain authenticity.

To illustrate what I mean, most Episcopal congregations I’m aware of are bemoaning the almost absolute disappearance of Millennials from our midst. Many of these young people have grown up in the church but have left. Why?

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. In fact, four of my kids arguably are Millennials and we’ve had many a conversation along these lines. I also have a number of colleagues and friends who fit in the “Millennials” category. Even my new boss is a Millennial!

And, you know, it’s not that Millennials are spiritually uninterested or indifferent. Actually it’s quite the opposite, as cultural-trend watchers have testified!

The number one answer I hear is that most churches are not authentic. Or, to say it another way, to Millennials, most churches feel contrived.

And that includes most Episcopal churches!

My friend David, a Millennial who works with a Episcopal congregation, explains it like this.

In the years following WWII, churches found it very important to state what they believed; for, during this ethically despairing time, doctrinal beliefs formed a kind of moral anchor for society.

Think of denominational distinctives. Lutherans and Presbyterians and Baptists are all Christians; but what makes them distinct from one another became top priority. And broader culture was grateful for the clarity.

Out of these pools of distinctive beliefs, then, communities formed and grew. And from these communities, finally, the mission of Christ—good works done in the name of love—could go forth.

That paradigm was beliefs-community-works.

And that paradigm stuck. And it has continued to stick. And it remains largely stuck in churches today.

So, according to David and other Millennials with whom I’ve spoken, it’s time for this paradigm to change. It feels contrived, inauthentic. Communities should not form around beliefs—complicated doctrine and erudite theology. Rather, communities should form around the deeds of love Christ has called us to do.

That old paradigm, in other words, should be inverted. Works of love make up the foundation that calls God’s people together into communities of love—churches; and only then, once this foundation is set in place, should churches solidify their common beliefs.

So that’s what an authentic body of Christ looks like to Millennials.

Yet, for most of us, it’s probably a different way of seeing things. It might make some of us—many of us—uncomfortable.

But remember my previous suggestions? Be out-of-your-comfort-zone flexible for the sake of the common good.

New wine needs new wineskins.

*****

Dear community of St. Thomas, seek the common good; increase your flexibility; establish and maintain your authenticity.

By this all will know that you are Christ’s disciples, if you have love for one another.

May God continue richly to bless St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School.

Staying on the Rollercoaster

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

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcipal Church and School in Temecula, California on May 5, 2019, the Third Sunday of Easter.

John 21:1-19

1.

One of the cardinal sins of preaching is to tell a story about a family member. But I can get away with it today because I have four daughters, none of whom is here; and I won’t tell you which one this story is about.

So, it’s the story of her first real rollercoaster ride: not the kiddie ride at putt putt golf but the real deal, the Steel Eel.

She was eight years old. And she’d always shown a little, shall we say, hesitancy when it came to uncertainty and risk. So, as I anticipated, she did not want to ride this rollercoaster, even though she was now tall enough.

But—probably poor judgment on my part—I coaxed and encouraged and otherwise persuaded until finally, either resolved or resigned—I couldn’t tell which—she said, “I’ll do it, Dad, but only because I love you.”

So, a few minutes later there we were, seated in the front car, strapped in, when the clicking began. You know those clicks: clackety clackety clackety all the way up that first, long, tall slope to the very apex where suddenly the clicking stops and gravity takes over and it’s up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth until the ride is over.

We were climbing up and up, clackety clackety; the anticipation building. Smiling, reassuring, I looked at my daughter and gave her a hug.

Her eyes were saucers.

Finally we reached the top, the apex, maybe thirty stories above the theme park sprawled out below us. And we were in the first car, as I said.

Well, what I hadn’t thought about was that this meant we couldn’t really see anything in front of us, on top of that apex.

It also meant that gravity didn’t take over right away; for, first, the remainder of the cars, which were attached behind us, had to be released from the clicking mechanism, meaning we just hung there for a bit, suspended, thirty stories up, theme park sprawled below, with seemingly nothing in front of us.

Then and only then did the clicking mechanism release; then and only then did gravity take over!

And just then I had a horrible moment of clarity, seeing what could only be understood as utter chaos through the eyes of my hesitant eight year-old.

So I looked over at her again. And now it was her mouth open wide, taking in a voluminous breath; her eyes were slammed shut! She clutched my arm, dug in her fingernails, and began screaming and sobbing at the same time—scrobbing, I like to say.

And she buried her face into my arm and stayed there, miserable and scrobbing, until at long last, an eternity of 38 seconds later, the ride came to its most welcome end.

She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.

But, there is a happy ending: this same daughter, a dozen or so years later, last summer, went to 6FMM and rode every nauseating rollercoaster there! And loved it!

Anyway, I tell this story because life can be an emotional rollercoaster. Up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

It’s fun . . . until it’s not; and then we just want it to stop.

2.

I’m experiencing something of that rollercoaster sensation in my life right now. So is the St. Thomas community. Transition—change—has a way of doing that.

And I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re beyond the sensation of fun. Instead, we’re all asking, “When’s this ride ever gonna stop?”

For what it’s worth, though, it’s not just us. This feeling of wanting the rollercoaster ride to stop already is increasingly characterizing our society—or at least economics professor Tyler Cowen thinks so.

In his recent book (2017) The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Cowen argues that Americans are becoming increasingly risk averse. We are less inclined to relocate than we were even a few years ago. The cultural desire to innovate is decreasing.

He writes,

Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we are talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things. In an age when it is easier than ever before to dig in, the psychological resistance to change has become progressively stronger.

As a society, we want this rollercoaster ride to end. We want to have more control over the journey we are taking; and when we find some modicum of control, we don’t want to let go of it. We don’t want to change.

3.

Now, do you think Peter and the other disciples felt this way? Were they hoping for their emotional rollercoaster ride to stop already? Is that what’s happening in today’s Gospel?

Over the past few weeks they’d been up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

They’d witnessed Jesus enter Jerusalem to shouts of acclamation, “Hosanna in the highest!”

That must have been a high high for them, an apex, a moment of affirmation beyond all others. “Yes!” they must’ve said; “Jesus is the Messiah, the savior of Israel. Yes, his mission is being accomplished!”

But, later that week, they stood by and watched helplessly as he was betrayed, arrested, and tried. They covered their ears as the crowd shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And they gazed on as he gave up his spirit.

That must have been the lowest of lows for them. “No,” they must’ve pondered; “does this mean it was all for nothing? Was Jesus and all he stood for just a flash in the pan, a moment of heat that amounted to nothing?”

And then, the stone was rolled away from the tomb.

And there was the head cloth, neatly folded by itself!

And Jesus himself appeared, first to Mary Magdalene and then to the disciples in the upper room!

And. . . .

Up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth.

Can’t it just stop already?

So, today, sitting around with six other disciples, Peter announces, “I’m going fishing!”

He returns to what he knows, to what he is sure of, to what he can control.

No change. No innovation. No carrying on Jesus’ mission. Just something that feels productive to pass the time.

Maybe it’s Peter’s way of escaping the emotional rollercoaster ride brought on by the changes Jesus called for.

And maybe that’s our story too.

4.

Jesus pointed out a need for change in his day: the political and religious establishments dominated the people they were supposed to be serving.

What Jesus called his followers to do was to resist the social injustices before him; and through resistance to upend the domination.

But without a doubt this resistance would keep Peter and the other disciples on an emotional rollercoaster ride; a ride, frankly, they just didn’t want to be on anymore.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to escape Jesus’ call?

As for us, what do we see? Hardly a day passes without hearing about violent acts of hatred, or about a friend who can’t afford rising medical costs, or about how Global Warming is already destroying our coastlines, or about increasing socioeconomic disparities.

It would be ignorant and irresponsible to say that our nation has no need for change.

Rather, isn’t the Holy Spirit telling us loud and clear, change is needed!

But—according to Cowen anyway—our societal response is to avoid change; to do what we know instead, what we are sure of, what we can control.

No change. No innovation. Just something that feels productive to pass the time, to escape the chaotic rollercoaster of life all around us.

“I’m going fishing,” Peter said.

Maybe that’s what we’re all doing too.

5.

Fortunately, though, today Jesus is having none of it.

Fortunately, the resurrected Jesus appears now for the third time.

And, fortunately, when Peter recognizes him, it’s a no brainer.

Without giving himself a chance to think, Peter—that gloriously impulsive disciple—quits fishing faster than you can say holy mackerel and gets right back on that difficult, emotional rollercoaster ride.

Because—even with all the up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth—Peter knows that doing what Jesus asks us to do is worth it!

Jesus has left us with a mission that is large in scope. Bringing salvation to the ends of the earth requires no less than upending large-scale systems of domination, whether political or religious. This call can feel overwhelming.

Now, we all know, sometimes church is fun: when we experience strong fellowship; in our prayers; when we break bread together; at baptisms and weddings.

But, we also know, sometimes it’s not so fun, like getting out there and sharing Christ’s love tangibly with our marginalized neighbors, or like tackling local practices of injustice, or like navigating our way through change.

Sometimes, let’s face it, we just want this rollercoaster ride to stop already!

What then?

Well, what happened with Peter at the end of the Gospel?

Three times Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”

And three times Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

And Jesus re-commissioned him: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Continue to do the work I have commissioned you to do, Peter: the work of love.

Okay then. I’ll ride this rollercoaster, Jesus, because I love you.

Love—Jesus’ love for us and ours for him—is key. Love is what will keep us on this rollercoaster.

Beyond the Tribal Walls

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

Luke 4:21-30

1.

Tribalism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time God sent Elisha, another prophet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

So, here’s what happens with us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We lose our first love.

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

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

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

4.

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

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

To equip the congregation to do Jesus’ mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

Short answer: Yes! Emphatically! Absolutely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Trial with Pilate

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2018 by timtrue

John 18:33-37

1.

Today is the final Sunday of the church year: Christ the King Sunday, we call it. We focus on Christ in a particular way today: as king—as the one in charge—of his realm.

And in today’s Gospel we are confronted with two views of reality.

On the one hand, Christ tells us that his kingdom is the way of truth. On the other hand, Pilate’s kingdom is the way of violence.

We look at Christ the King today, then, through this lens: comparing two versions of reality. And what do we learn?

So, Jesus is on trial; and Pilate is the judge.

But doesn’t it almost seem—by the time we get to the end of the passage anyway—doesn’t it seem that the tables are turned? Doesn’t it feel like Jesus is in the role of judge and Pilate is really the one on trial?

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

But, before answering him, Jesus asks Pilate a question—and already the tables are turning over: “Do you ask this because you want to know, or because someone told you this?”

And so Pilate answers, “I am not a Jew.”

It’s enough to say, “Of course someone told me about you! I don’t have the time or energy to concern myself with what goes on in Jerusalem—in your people’s insignificant corner of the world.”

In other words, Pilate, a Roman, thinks himself somehow above the Palestinian peoples, who go about their day-t0-day business over there, in some forgotten corner of the empire.

But, Pilate knows, even the people over there are capable of rising up in rebellion—which is why he asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus now answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, I’d fight back with an army.”

Jesus knows Pilate’s kingdom—this world—follows the way of violence.

But, in Jesus’ kingdom, violence has no place; his kingdom is not from here.

Well, Pilate misses the point; and declares, “So then you are a king!”

And here I can almost hear Jesus sigh.

“You say I’m a king,” he says. “But that’s not what I’m about; I’m not raising up some kind of political insurrection against you. Rather, I am here to testify to the truth—a greater reality than you are able to see, apparently. But if you will only seek the truth, find it, and belong to it, you will know a kingdom far better than anything you can now imagine.”

To which Pilate famously scorns (just after today’s passage ends), “What is truth?”

And with this small question Pilate rejects Jesus and his kingdom, the way of truth, choosing instead to remain with the life he knows, a life of power, wealth, privilege, lies, and violence.

The tables are turned. Pilate’s the one on trial today, not Jesus.

2.

Maybe we’re on trial today too. Maybe we are like Pilate, more attached than we’re willing to admit to the way of violence.

Pilate is offered true freedom, a world of peace, security, equality, and authenticity; and instead chooses to remain living in his narrow conception of reality, ruled not by the Christ but by his own fears.

“Are you a king?” he asks Jesus again and again, belaboring the point, fixated—because he fears!

Pilate has no time for the truth, no time for the way of Christ, because he’s too busy fearing that he will lose his power, position, and privilege. He’s too concerned with the things that really matter to him, like protecting his name, status, and position; and like watching his back so some political hothead doesn’t assassinate him.

Pilate is trapped in his way of violence; trapped by his system; trapped in fear.

And thus he rejects the truth.

On this final Sunday of the church year, we stand on trial with Pilate. Do we also reject the truth? Like Pilate, do we love our status: our places of power, wealth, privilege, and maybe even lies and violence?

Jesus calls us to lay these things aside and stand in solidarity with our neighbor—our sisters and brothers who are in different places than we are.

3.

By the way, I’m being careful here not to say “who have less than we do.” Jesus does not call us to stand in solidarity with those who have less than we do. That’s not what mission and outreach are about.

So, in case you’re wondering if you heard me right, I’ll say it again: Jesus does not call us to stand in solidarity with those who have less than we have.

But, also, neither does he call us to stand in solidarity with those who have more!

For, in Jesus, we are called not to have a less-vs.-more mindset at all!

But isn’t this often the church’s approach to mission and outreach?

We, the church, decide to engage in a project to help our neighbors in need. Fine and well!

But then we say something like, “This outreach project will help those who are less fortunate than we are”; and then pat ourselves on the back and tell our superior selves we’re loving our inferior neighbors just like Jesus commanded.

We become the patron; they become the client; and they forever stand in our debt.

But superiority and inferiority? Patron and client? That’s not Jesus’ way. That’s Pilate’s!

Whenever we approach anything with an attitude of superiority—including mission and outreach—that’s not the way of love!

Jesus calls us to come alongside others as equals, to establish and maintain truly mutual relationships; not to compare ourselves with one another in order to figure out who’s better or worse, who’s right or wrong, who’s richer or poorer, who’s smarter or dumber, who’s superior or inferior; but to sharpen one another, mutually, as iron sharpens iron, for the common good.

Are we willing to listen to those who are different than us?

They may speak a different language; they may eat different foods; their skin may be a different color; they may identify as a different gender; their sexuality may be different than ours; or they may be different from us in . . . fill in the blank!

Are we willing to come alongside them? To stand in solidarity with them? To hear their stories? To listen to the truth?

Or are we like Pilate, too focused on our own treadmills to listen?

4.

I offer a concluding illustration:

We’ve all heard the familiar phrase: “Violence begets violence.” I don’t know who first coined it. But I do know that Martin Luther King, Jr. used it. Listen to these words:

Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love . . . Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy; instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[i]

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man committed to live out the principle of non-violent resistance, a same principle by which Jesus lived. Both men resisted the authorities, the powers that be, without fighting back, without violence.

Their deaths, both vivid demonstrations of non-violent resistance, shout a message that will be forever etched in humanity’s history books; a message for all people, everywhere, to give up living for themselves—for power, position, status, wealth, prestige, and privilege—and to live instead for the other.

Love the Lord your God; love your neighbor. This is the way of truth, to which Jesus calls us.

 

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

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

Increasing PSI

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2018 by timtrue

flat-tyre

John 6:56-69

1.

I begin with a framing image:

My first car was a 1968 Dodge A100 Sportsman van—3 on the tree, manual everything. With lots of windows all around, it kind of looked like an old VW. But this van was so much better, with a 318 V8, 210 horsepower—not a piddley 60 horses, like the VWs!

How I loved that van! I replaced the factory seating with a loveseat, chair, and ottoman—this was before seatbelt laws went into effect. Many were the days I loaded friends up and went to the beach or mountains or wherever, for yet another adventure!

As happens, I began to be associated with this van. People would see it coming and say, “Here comes Tim.”

So, one night a friend of mine and I decided to play a prank on another friend, Bobby. We TP’d his house, you know, snuck over, late at night, and threw a bunch of toilet paper rolls all over the place.

Well, Bobby woke up when we were up to our shenanigans; and, as I learned later, looked out his window but did not recognize the culprits. However, he did recognize a certain van parked across the street: my van.

And Bobby hatched his plan to avenge himself; which happened a few weeks later.

I’d gone to see a movie. And when I came out of the theater, there was my van all right, right where I’d parked it; but three of the tires were flat! Bobby had let the air out of them.

Well, I had only one spare. What was I to do? I couldn’t drive home. My van was effectively useless.

So I got in and started it up, dropped in into gear, and crept slowly as I could across three parking lots to a service station with an air hose. And then, finally, with air again in the tires, I was able to drive the van home, to use the van as it was intended.

Anyway, this is the framing image I want us to consider as I continue with my sermon: a van without air in tires is effectively useless.

2.

Now, fourteen weeks ago I mentioned that we were making a turn.

Up till that time, the church year had been focused on the person Jesus. Starting with Advent—the coming of the Christ—it then continued with Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter—all various manifestations of the Incarnation, God with us, in the person and work of Jesus—until finally, fifty days after Easter, Christ sent his Spirit to be with his disciples, the Church, until his promised return.

This was the turning point: Pentecost. Here, as a church, every year we turn our attention from thinking about who Jesus is to the work he has left for us to do. At Pentecost, we shift our focus to the question, “How are we to be the incarnate Christ to the world?”

This is the question that frames every Sunday from the Day of Pentecost to what we call Christ the King Sunday, about half of every year.

Now, this year, Lectionary Year B, we will spend most of these six months exploring this question through the lens of the Gospel of Mark. But for five weeks in the middle—concluding today, as a matter of fact—we have found ourselves instead in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Which leaves me wondering why. Why does the Gospel of John interrupt the Gospel of Mark? More particularly, why do we find ourselves in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John?

Or, to reframe the question: What is it that we are supposed to be learning from these five weeks that will shape us as a local body of Christ, to carry out his mission, to be the Incarnation to the world around us?

Today’s our last chance for quite a while: we won’t encounter John 6 again until three years from now, the next time it comes around. I’m not suggesting we’ll find the absolute, once-for-all answer. Still, we can get somewhere.

3.

So then, here’s what we know about the Gospel of John as a whole: John was writing, probably in the early second century, to a new community defined by their being ousted from the local synagogue.

But John was not written merely to guide an ancient community in its new life together. It was also written for all Christian communities, which includes us, today, with our unique set of challenges in our particular cultural context.

Narrowing our focus then, from chapter 6 Jesus teaches crucifixion and resurrection, incarnation and love—profound ideologies—through metaphor; and predominantly the metaphor of bread.

Two weeks ago I walked us through the bread-making process, from harvesting rye to separating the grains from the stalks to sifting and cleaning to grinding the grains into flour to finally baking.

Jesus said that his flesh was bread for the life of the world. Harvested, separated, sifted, ground; arrested, mocked, spat upon, crucified—for the life of the world.

Last week we explored what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to ingest him so completely that Christ becomes a part of us and we become more him.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. . . . But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

The Incarnation doesn’t mean that God is with us as a person sitting among our community. Rather, the Incarnation is within each one of us; and intends to permeate every corner of the world in just the same way.

And now, we come to today, this final portion of John 6, where we read that many disciples turn away from Jesus, for this is a difficult teaching.

What are we supposed to learn? What is our takeaway?

4.

Maybe something to do with spirit.

“It is the spirit that gives life,” Jesus says; “the flesh is useless.”

But didn’t Jesus just say that his very flesh was the true bread from heaven, the bread given for the life of the world?

Yes, he did.

So what can he mean now by saying the flesh is useless? Certainly, his flesh wasn’t useless!

Ah, but it is useless without the spirit.

Jesus’ flesh, smitten, broken, and lifted up on the cross for the life of the world—if it remains there, dead on the cross, why then it’s just a corpse.

Taken down, carried away, and laid to rest in the tomb—if Jesus’ flesh remains there, lifeless, without a spirit to animate it, why, again, it’s still just a corpse.

What about Jesus’ flesh set on the altar, consecrated, given, and received? It seems an appropriate parallel, drawn from our guiding bread metaphor: without the spirit, it, too, is lifeless; or, to use Jesus’ word, “useless.”

The people to whom John originally wrote this Gospel—the Johannine Community—experienced this lifelessness first hand.

They had been formerly a part of a synagogue—maybe even the synagogue at Capernaum, mentioned in today’s Gospel. But the synagogue’s leaders had excommunicated any and all who followed the teachings of Jesus—including a man born blind! (Read chapter 9.)

So, consider: local synagogues were a lot like modern local churches. People gathered as spiritual communities in buildings created for that purpose. Their worship services followed a liturgy very much like our own Morning Prayer liturgy. In addition to Sabbath worship services, synagogue congregations would gather, much like today’s church congregations, for times of communal celebration and grief—like bar mitzvahs and funerals.

And yet, as John writes to the ousted and re-organizing Johannine Community, he has Jesus say, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”

Without Jesus, that local body of the synagogue was lifeless, a corpse.

5.

What is our takeaway?

We are smack dab in the middle of the season after Pentecost. It’s a six-month season, primarily focused on the question of Jesus’ mission: How are we to be the incarnate Christ to the world around us?
For the last five weeks we’ve encountered Jesus presenting a particularly difficult teaching. He presents the crucifixion and resurrection, the Incarnation and love in an altogether new way—through a metaphor involving the very common, everyday practice of eating and drinking.

It’s a difficult teaching because it involves a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice from Jesus’ followers.

As we learned from the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, we often want to follow Jesus for the wrong reasons, self-focused reasons, like utility, political expediency, seeking the miraculous, or as a mere intellectual exercise.

Following Jesus requires from us so much more: to let go of our egos; to let Christ fill each of us as air fills a tire—air without which the van tires are effectively useless.

The same can be said for us as a corporate body.

We gather weekly as a spiritual community. In our gatherings, we pray, worship, hear the word of God together, respond, and commune around Christ’s Table.

But if we do this for the wrong reasons—utility, political expediency, and so on; any reason, really, that strokes our own egos—we do not allow the air that is the spirit of Christ to fill us—air without which we are effectively useless.

This is a difficult teaching; who can accept it?

But—and here at last is our takeaway—when we do accept it, when we abide in Christ and take him out to those who truly hunger, he is life-giving both to us and to the world all around us.

Outward. It sounds so simple.

Why, then, are we interrupted in the middle of the season after Pentecost in Year B? Why are we told so often to go in peace to love and serve the Lord?

Maybe because it’s so difficult actually to do.

God give us grace to go outward!

Adopting a Classical Cosmology

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

Dosso_Dossi_022[1]

Ascension Day

1.

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

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

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

2005                    2015

Total number of congregations:     7,635                    6,996

Active baptized members:              2.37 million         1.92 million

Average Sunday attendance:           830,706               614,241

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

The order of these elements is intentional.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

I died and rose again, he told them.

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

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

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

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

Where I soon will dwell with them, he said.

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

My mission therefore cannot fail, he said.

Even when people reject me, he said.

Even when mainline American church membership declines, he said.

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

My mission cannot fail.

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

4.

Ancient Greek cosmology teaches us a lot about our faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

So, is there anything we can do about it?

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

You see, here’s how decline happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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