Archive for mission

Adopting a Classical Cosmology

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

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Ascension Day

1.

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

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

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

2005                    2015

Total number of congregations:     7,635                    6,996

Active baptized members:              2.37 million         1.92 million

Average Sunday attendance:           830,706               614,241

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

The order of these elements is intentional.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

I died and rose again, he told them.

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

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

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

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

Where I soon will dwell with them, he said.

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

My mission therefore cannot fail, he said.

Even when people reject me, he said.

Even when mainline American church membership declines, he said.

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

My mission cannot fail.

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

4.

Ancient Greek cosmology teaches us a lot about our faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

So, is there anything we can do about it?

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

You see, here’s how decline happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirates, Pompey, and the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2016 by timtrue

 

pompey

Bust of Pompey

Luke 17:5-10

How about a story? It comes to us from Roman engineering history; from that great military general Pompey, who was for many years a friend of Julius Caesar; and then an enemy.

So, in 66 BCE, about a hundred years before Jesus Christ was ministering in and around Judea, Pompey was given a charge: rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates; and, especially, protect the eastern borders of the Empire—not far from Judea.

Pirates had been a terrible nuisance in the ancient world since at least the fourteenth century.  They preyed upon coastal towns, often exacting tribute from fearful town leaders or kidnapping residents and selling them into slavery.  Many Greek cities were founded inland, as a matter of fact, to be out of reach of pirates.

It didn’t help their cause at all—if one could say they had a cause—that in the year 75 Cilician pirates ended up kidnapping Julius Caesar himself.  The early historian Plutarch says that Caesar’s kidnappers initially held him ransom for a price of twenty talents of gold; but then raised it to fifty at Caesar’s own request: he was worth at least that much, he said, if not more.

And now, a few years hence, Caesar charged Pompey with the task of ridding the Mediterranean of this menace.

During his campaign to end piracy, Pompey determined to build new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  There his engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall cliffs, whole mountainsides, often lined with the durable and hardy mulberry tree.

Soon, one of Pompey’s chief engineers discovered a way to accomplish this challenging task—in relatively short order too!—by spreading mustard seeds wherever the digging was to occur.  The mustard seed planted easily, grew quickly, and spread invasively, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.

So effective was this annual plant’s invasiveness that after only a few months an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, could be dug away and shaped into the harbors Pompey envisioned.  On occasion, digging wasn’t even necessary: records tell (so I’ve heard) that a few hillsides infested with the mustard plant simply crumbled and fell into the water.

Now, why do I tell this story about Pompey?  Because all this happened a century or so before Jesus tells today’s parable about the mustard seed.

Pompey was a very famous Roman military general.  He had spent time in the Palestinian region.  His engineering crews had discovered a way to make fast work of erosion to their great advantage using the mustard plant, so invasive that it could uproot the hardy mulberry tree; or command a mountain to be cast into the sea.

So: do you think anyone who heard Jesus that day might have remembered Pompey?  Pompey’s challenge was how to make new harbors when hardy trees and even mountainsides stood in the way.  For most people, this would have seemed an impossible task.  Yet Pompey believed he could bring it about; and he did.

And his belief—his faith—was about the size of a mustard seed.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The apostles heard this and—I’m certain!—immediately thought of Pompey and his amazing accomplishment.  We hear this and—I’d be willing to wager—we don’t.  Show of hands: how many of you thought of Pompey’s pirate-ridding accomplishments the moment Pat read today’s Gospel?

Instead, don’t we tend to think of our faith in terms of quantification?  “Lord,” we say with the apostles, “increase our faith!”  We then think that surely our faith must be small, smaller than even the itsy-bitsy mustard seed, for life is difficult and we rarely get what we feel should be coming to us; but, as we see in today’s passage, even if I had a little faith I could do incredible things.

Now, in fact, there’s a whole branch of modern-day American evangelical Christianity that promotes this message.  If you are sick, they say, pray and ask Jesus to heal you; then just believe.  If you stay sick, they say, then it’s only because you don’t have enough faith: you must pray for more.

The argument is just the same with money: if you’re poor, they say, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  Pray and believe; name it and claim it; and if your faith is large enough, why, anything you can dream of will be yours.

Faith is quantifiable, they want us to believe.  And the more money you send to them, they tell you, the more faith you will possess.

When the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” and Jesus answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—what we hear Jesus saying is, “Oh, if only you had even a little bit of faith; but as it is, you really don’t have any.”  The result is that we hear this parable in a modern, American, evangelical, prosperity-gospel, consumer sort of way: faith becomes an individual possession, a kind of talent or skillset that makes me an expert when I find out how to obtain it, to be envied by those who haven’t yet figured it out.

But, instead, when the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus’ response is really more along these lines: “Oh, don’t you know?  You already have faith.  Don’t you remember Pompey?  He believed he could move mulberry trees and indeed whole mountainsides in order to make his harbors.  And he did!  If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and indeed you do!—you can throw this mulberry tree into the sea too!”

With the apostles, we cry to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  And the Lord replies, “Oh, but you already have faith.  And with it you can move mountains!”

So why don’t we?

There’s no shortage of mountains in our world.  You all know this.  Right on our doorstep, for instance—right here in Yuma County—we have one of the lowest percentages in the country of high-school graduates who go on to college.  We also have one of the highest rates of unemployment.  Trader Joe’s won’t even open up a store here.  These are big problems.  They can feel like mountains.

But Pompey moved mountains and cast mulberry trees into the sea and thus built his harbors with a faith the size of a mustard seed.

How so?  He didn’t rely on himself—his own knowledge and talents and expertise or whatever.  Instead, he called on his chief engineers—to think creatively, to experiment.  And also he relied on his army—his employees, if you will.  This was his community.

And why did he do it?  To rid the Mediterranean from the pirates that controlled it, for the sake of the common good!  This was his mission: the common good.

And so, Plutarch writes, “Thus was this war ended, and the whole power of the pirates at sea dissolved everywhere in the space of three months” (Dryden’s translation).

But—and I think here is where we find our answer—Pompey’s faith was not our modern-day, American, evangelical, consumer understanding of faith.  For Pompey—and, more importantly, for Jesus—faith was not understood as something to be individually possessed; a thing to be stocked up, hoarded, and stored away as some kind of commodity; so that if we’re ever sick or suddenly encounter financial ruin we can somehow pull it out as a spiritual antibiotic or divine debit card.

Rather, Pompey understood the mission set before him; and he knew he couldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus Christ understood the mission before him; and he knew he wouldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus came to earth as God incarnate; and lived and died and rose again.  But he didn’t ascend to the right hand of the Father until after his disciples understood their mission.

And their mission is our mission.  We have been called to transform this troubled, confused, mixed-up, bewildered world into the very Kingdom of God, for the sake of the common good.

And how is this mission ever going to go forward if our focus is on our individual selves and how much of a consumer-faith we can acquire?  Or not!

Instead, we must bind together, put our heads together, call on our chief engineers to think creatively, to experiment with new ways of thinking; in order to rid our seas from the pirates that now control them.  For the sake of the common good!

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do; you do!—you can move mountains.

Compassion a Two-way Street

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on July 20, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Sometimes we miss important details in the scriptures.

For instance, do you recall the story of the exchange of power between King Saul and King David in Israel’s history?  If you don’t, I commend to your reading 1 Samuel 23 and 24.  You won’t be bored!

To remind you. . . .

And so what we remember is that David righteously spared King Saul’s life; that Saul was cut to the heart and repented of his folly; that waiting on God’s providential hand is what people do who desire to live after God’s own heart; and so on.

But we forget a very pertinent detail: God’s hand of providence works in and through even the most earthy of life’s details—even in and through bodily functions!

In today’s Gospel, then, the architects of the Revised Common Lectionary—the people who decided what passages we read today—didn’t want us to miss some details that are often overlooked.

Did you notice?  They left out a good chunk of narrative.  We hear just 9 verses of a much larger section of scripture, a 27-verse passage: after 5 verses we skip 18 then read the final 4.

Now, these middle, omitted verses are extremely significant.  They relate two very important miracles; namely, feeding the 5,000 and walking on water.  And, just so you don’t come away feeling slighted, it’s okay: there are other Sundays when we contemplate each of these two miracles in the Lectionary.

But today we look at the bookends: the narrative that takes place on either side of these miracles.  And I’m convinced this is the case so that we don’t miss them—so that we don’t miss the important details Jesus wants us all to know—because we’re too distracted by the signs and wonders.

So then, what is it Jesus wants us to know?

It starts with v. 34: “As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

It starts with compassion.

A question then: What’s the difference between compassion and pity?

The Gk. pathos can be translated either way: pity; or compassion.  Jesus had pathos for the crowd.

From pathos we get our English words pathetic, sympathetic, sympathy, empathy, pathological—to name but a few.  And we see something of pity and compassion in each word.

But the chief difference in my thinking is this: pity is removed; whereas compassion is involved.

Pity takes on a sort of distinction.  I feel a type of sorrow for my neighbor because his plight is so pitiable—or sad, or tragic, or whatever.  So, out of the goodness of my heart I decide to do something about it—I buy her a pair of shoes; or offer him a ride; or throw some money her way.  And thank heavens I’m not in his position; for then I don’t know what I’d do!

You see, pity has left me feeling sorry for my neighbor, maybe even sorry enough to do something about it.  But at the end of the day I’m still over here dealing with my life and he’s still over there dealing with his: a distance still remains between me and my neighbor.

But compassion means, literally, suffering with, or suffering alongside.  There’s no “me vs. him” mentality here.  Compassion is involved, not one step removed.  Compassion is thus significantly different than pity.

And this is exactly what Jesus does with the desperate, noisy, dirty, smelly, needy crowd.  He comes alongside them and is moved to passion for them—a kind of suffering with them.

And isn’t this a picture of what he did on a much larger scale?  In the Incarnation, he emptied himself of the Godhead; and he took on humanity.

He comes alongside the whole world—the cosmos—and takes on our passion, our suffering.

And it’s exactly what he calls us to do: to be moved by the hurting, desperate, needy people of our day; and not merely to have pity on them, but compassion—to come alongside them.

We are called to live out the Incarnation.

But (earlier) I said it starts with compassion. What other details can we discern from today’s passage?

A few observations:

  1. As followers of Christ (and as already mentioned), we are called to be the Incarnation of Christ.  We are the Church and thus Christ to the world; even if we are merely the fringes of Christ’s cloak, we possess the divine power to heal a hurting, desperate, and needy world.
  2. As followers of Christ, we are called to live out his compassion for the world.  How?
    • Flexibly, knowing that God may change our plans, just as God changed the plans of Jesus and the disciples.  They were withdrawing to an uncrowded place for renewal; yet the crowd follows them and doesn’t allow this renewal to occur.  So what does Jesus do?  He allows his plans to be changed and has compassion for the crowd.  He loves his neighbor.  He exercises selflessness.
    • Untiringly, with the knowledge that the work here is ongoing, around seemingly every corner.
    • Trustingly, knowing that God will give us the strength to sustain us even when “robbed” of planned times of renewal.
  3. But also—and here’s where I want to focus in our remaining time—we are humanity, the disciples, the crowd; we are not Christ.  Look around: in our world, today, who’s flocking to Jesus on Sundays—to be with him, to be healed by him, to commune with him, to touch him—but us?  It’s not that weekend-warrior neighbor of yours; or that other neighbor who sleeps in every Sunday and finds his spiritual refreshment through his bicycle.  No, these aren’t the picture of a flocking crowd, desperate to see Jesus.  If anyone in our culture fits a description of desperation, it’s us!

Okay, so that’s not quite fair.  I realize it.

We are the ones flocking to Jesus on Sundays, yes.  And the world around us can appear not to care much about Jesus, like they’re fine on their own without a Savior and Lord, thank you very much.  But they are nonetheless needy, hurting, even desperate.  As are we.

Our world often shows its desperation in vastly different ways than it did in the days of Jesus.  All too often, today’s world turns to alcohol and drugs—legal and illegal—out of desperation.  So, yes, it’s not really fair to say that we churchgoers are the only desperate ones in the world.

But we are desperate; and it brings up a fair point for us to consider.

We are Christians, disciples of Christ earnestly trying to bring the good news of Christ to the world around us; through teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.  This is called outreach.  And it is a very important part of our community life.

And right now, incidentally, (I don’t know if you know this, but) outreach is a kind of fad in churches all over the country (if not the world).  During my job-search process, without exception every single parish profile I looked at placed outreach as one of its top priorities—to the point where I began predicting it; and muttering things to myself like, “Tell me something I don’t know”; and, “Well, that’s original!”

Now, hear me clearly: I’m not downplaying outreach.  It is very important.  As today’s passage demonstrates, the world all around us desperately needs Christ.

But we, the Church, are desperate too.  So, what I want us to ask ourselves is: What about in-reach?

We are just as desperate and needy as the world around us for Christ’s hand of love and selflessness; of joy in all circumstances, whether good or bad; of peace, healing, and reconciliation in our relationships; of patience and large-heartedness; of kindness, giving others the benefit of the doubt; of goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, what about in-reach?  Is this a priority for us—as much a priority, anyway, as outreach?

It was for Jesus and his disciples.

We know, as individuals, just how important it is to live balanced lives.  It is important to interact with others, to live in community, in relationship.  And thus it is important to put others first: to practice a form of personal outreach.  We know this!

But, as individuals, we know it is just as important to set aside times for personal rest and refreshment.  Taking time to withdraw for prayer is a practice Jesus himself modeled.  Medical research today touts the values of getting enough sleep and taking regular vacations.  And what of mental health?  We’re learning more and more daily about just how important lifelong learning is.  All these pursuits are simply forms of personal in-reach.

It’s the same with the body of Christ!  As a church, we value outreach immensely.  But let’s not forget in-reach!

In our zeal to be Christ’s hands and feet to the needy world around us, let’s not forget that we are hurting and needy people too; just as desperate in our desires—maybe even more so!—to see Jesus and to experience his compassion.