Archive for Organizational Change

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.

Stop Sulking Already!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on March 31, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

1.

With whom are we supposed to identify in this very familiar parable?

Are we supposed to be the prodigal?

How many of you have ever gone against your father’s wishes?

Well, maybe not to the extent that this young man went; maybe you’ve never journeyed so far from home.

There, in that distant country, after living riotously until he had nothing left, and after a famine swept over the land so that most everyone was in need, what’d he do but hire himself out to feed pigs?

Pigs! Swine! Unclean beasts! Not kosher!

Effectively, the prodigal son became no longer a son of Israel or even of his own father.

Maybe you’ve never journeyed this far from home.

Literally, anyway.

But what about figuratively? Have you ever journeyed so far from your heavenly Father that you effectively cut yourself off from him?

So, is this the character with whom we are supposed to identify most closely in today’s parable, the prodigal son?

2.

Or, maybe, are we supposed to identify with the merciful, benevolent, gracious father?

Yeah, this guy, the prodigal’s father, breaks with all convention.

He’s a Palestinian Jewish man. Convention says ancestral land is something you must hold on to with all tenacity, like a bulldog with a lamb shank bone.

When your son whines and wheedles his share of the ancestral lands out of you and then goes off and sells it in order to live selfishly, against all you’ve ever taught him—well, that’s got to be the end of it! Convention, not to mention common sense, demands that you disown such a profligate, rebellious, riotous son!

Besides, have you heard what the neighbors are saying?

But what does this father do instead? He watches for his son, keeps vigil, like Aegeus straining day after day to see Theseus’s white sails crossing the sea.

And when finally he does see his prodigal son still far off—who cares what the neighbors are saying!—he runs to greet him, embraces him, and weeps for joy over him.

Faugh on convention! His son was dead but is alive again; he was lost but now is found.

So, are we supposed to be like the father—merciful, benevolent, and gracious beyond all convention?

3.

But there’s a third character, an often overlooked, or maybe ignored character, in this parable: the older brother.

He’s the one, remember, that has obeyed all the rules. He’s the one who did not ask for his share of the inheritance, but instead kept to convention. He’s the one who remained faithful and loyal to his father throughout his younger brother’s selfish time of foolishness.

And yet what thanks does he get?

Has his dad ever thrown him a feast for all his years of fidelity? Has he ever gotten so much as a barbequed chicken dinner for him and a few friends?

Yet when his profligate partier of a younger brother returns home without a penny to his name—all the inheritance, for crying out loud!—he receives no punishment at all but a full prime-rib feast! What the heck!

So, I wonder, are we supposed to identify most closely with him, the older brother?

4.

Prodigal, Father, Older Brother: with which character are we supposed to identify?

We find our answer at the beginning of today’s Gospel. We might not like it, but the answer is there nonetheless; at the beginning of the passage, in the first few sentences, which frame the context.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable.

Two distinct categories of people are gathered around Jesus, his supporters and his opposers.

Who are the supporters? Tax collectors and sinners.

Well, here are the people, surely, who represent the prodigal son.

And I’m a sinner too. I have no problem wearing that label. And so I identify with the prodigal son. How about you?

But, really, am I a social outcast?

Tax collectors, in Jesus’ day, were nothing short of extortionists. Normal John-and-Jane taxpayers hated them. Tax collectors, plain and simple, were social outcasts.

For that matter, so were the demon-possessed, the lepers, the blind, the prostitutes, and the other sinners Jesus welcomed and ate with.

So, to be honest, this really isn’t me. Is it you?

For most of us, the answer is no. We’re not social outcasts in the sense that sinners is meant here. And so, as much as we might like to think so, we’re actually not all that much like the prodigal son.

And, in case you’re wondering, as for the father—the kind, watchful, benevolent, merciful, gracious father who breaks with all convention? That’s a picture of Jesus, not us.

That leaves only the opposers. By default, for most of us anyway, we are the older brother.

5.

But we don’t want to identify with the older brother! We don’t want to identify with the opposers, the grumblers, the scribes and Pharisees.

Well, like it or not, that’s us. After all, the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus addressed were members of the established “church” in their day.

Which leaves us at a crossroads. This is where the parable goes; this why we need to identify with the older brother.

For one thing, the church is called to be inclusive.

This theme comes up over and over in the Gospels; and we see it again today, loud and clear. Jesus is dining with tax collectors and sinners; the prodigal son is welcomed home with open arms.

Jesus loves the hated and the marginalized. We, his church, are called to love them too, to invite, welcome, and connect them into this living organism we call St. Thomas.

For another thing, the church is called to be adaptable.

Where do I see this? In the older brother’s reaction to the father throwing off convention. The older brother gives us an example of what not to do.

Jesus is doing a new thing in his church. Mainline Christianity is experiencing changes unlike anything it has ever faced in our nation’s history. We can no longer have an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. For, the fact of the matter is, people just don’t view church the way they did a generation ago: to be affiliated with a church is no longer a social obligation.

This has its pros and cons, sure. But the point for the moment is that in the last four decades both attendance and donations are in decline, yielding unprecedented change. All convention has been cast aside.

Will we be able to adapt? Or will we brood and sulk like Jesus’ opposers?

So, here’s the thing: Back to the parable, what the older brother decides to do in the end is left open. Will he celebrate with his father and younger brother, because his little brother was dead but is alive again; lost but now found? Or will he continue to brood and sulk, outside and alone?

We don’t know: the answer isn’t given; Jesus doesn’t tell us. We’re left at a crossroads.

We do know from history, however, that Jesus’ opposers chose the latter: to brood and sulk over the changes Jesus brought. And their brooding and sulking led to hatred, bigotry, and death.

But our history has not yet been completely written.

We are part of a church—mainline Christianity—that has tried to serve our heavenly Father faithfully and obediently, not nearly perfect yet repentant—a lot like the older son. So how will we respond to convention being thrown off—to Jesus doing things in an unexpected way?

Will we brood and sulk over it, guarding and protecting the institution we have created? Or will we rejoice with Jesus, going out into the highways and byways and inviting, welcoming, and connecting the hated and marginalized into our heavenly Father’s home?

Those who opposed Jesus in his day no longer have a choice.

We still do!

Community of Resistance

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 13:1-8

1.

Nothing stays the same.

The disciples look at Herod’s temple and marvel, “What large stones and large buildings!”

Herod planned to turn a small plateau, Mount Moriah, into a level platform measuring 1600’ x 900’. That’s 30 football fields!

So he dug a trench around the plateau and filled it with huge stones, making a gigantic retaining wall. The largest of these stones, found in excavations, measures some 44’ x 11’ x 16’, weighing approximately 600 tons, too heavy for the largest crane in Rome during Herod’s day![I]

Maybe the disciple pointed at this one when he exclaimed, “What large stones!”

But Jesus, apparently not very impressed, says, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Nothing stays the same.

Few of us, however, like change.

I mean, who likes to move from one home to another? Or what businessperson wants to change offices? Or what teacher wants to move her classroom across campus?

We humans like to establish a routine that works best for me and then stick with it!

But what if the change means improvement? What if you’re moving in order to get out of a termite-infested hovel into a structurally sound domicile? You still may not like the hassle of the change very much, but in the end, you have to admit, it’s a drastic improvement.

Is change then really all that bad? Especially if it’s needed change?

2.

So, to make a very serious turn, consider our nation’s history of slavery.

We know now, from our historical vantage point, beyond a shadow of a doubt, slavery was ethically, socially, politically, and spiritually wrong. Our nation needed a large, systemic change.

But change did not come easy.

In fact, in that day—the antebellum United States—so many people did not welcome this needed change that party lines were drawn against those who demanded it, a country was divided, and a “civil” war was fought.

In the antebellum United States, no one had to tell slaves that the change was needed. From the slaves’ perspective, they were unequivocally oppressed, desperate, in need of liberation.

The war did not come about at the level of slavery, however; it came at the level of privilege.

What must it have been like to be a slave? No voice. No representation. No personal property. Can you imagine?

Admittedly, I can’t.

For the church I represent and quite probably some of my distant relatives were the oppressors, the slave owners, those in the place of privilege.

As much as I’m sympathetic to the slaves, then; as much as I’m in agreement today that large-scale, systemic change was needed in the antebellum U. S., I really have no idea what it feels like to have no voice, no advocate, and no personal property.

That’s how privilege works. It contains a certain level of ignorance. Even if I have no distant relatives who owned slaves—I know of none—my European heritage, not to mention the fact that I am male, has kept me distanced to a great degree from the slaves’ perspective.

They were a people far too highly oppressed and far too desperately in need of liberation for me even to begin to comprehend. Maybe it’s the same for you, too.

Privilege is a part of my story; and, like it or not, it’s a part of our church’s story.

What can we do about this? Can we change? Will we change?

3.

Along these lines, then, here’s another sticky question: How many leaders of our church and nation in our antebellum years—how many of the privileged people in, say, the year 1800—would have even considered slavery an evil?

Some did, sure. Especially as we approached the middle of the nineteenth century! Tensions were rising.

But, obviously, many privileged people argued in favor of slavery. Enough to draw party lines! Enough to divide a country! Enough to start a “civil” war!

That’s also how privilege works, by the way. Privileged individuals get swept up in their time and culture, imbibing the atmosphere all around them, an atmosphere that tells them continuously that things like slavery are acceptable, even good for the economy.

That was a message the privileged class had heard throughout their lives, incessantly, until they believed it as much as you or I believe in, for example, the tenets of western capitalism today.

They oppressed and denied their slaves of liberation; and yet, curiously, they themselves were held in a kind of captivity to the ideal, the institution, of slavery.

Our fight is not against flesh and blood, the writer to the Ephesians tells us, but against principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of evil.

Slavery was one such power, a spiritual force of evil. The oppressed needed to be liberated from it. And, concurrently, the privileged—the leaders of our church and nation—needed to be released and redeemed from their captivity to it.

We all recognize that today. But many of them, caught up in the atmosphere of their time and place, did not.

4.

So, here’s the thing: This consideration of slavery as a spiritual power points us to a larger power still alive and well in our world today: the power of privilege.

Those held in captivity by this power, whether or not they are aware of it, oppress those who are outside of it: the privileged are benefited at the expense of the marginalized.

So, let’s put this all together. Privilege is a spiritual power alive and well in the world today, a power that we Christians are called to oppose; and yet, the Episcopal Church is privileged—statistically, its members are the wealthiest and most educated of all mainline Christian denominations.

What this means is that a whole lot of change needs to take place within our church.

But change is so hard!

The good news is that TEC recognizes this—and has recognized it for at least the last few decades. Difficult change is needed; change for the better. And so, hard as it is, we are working through needed changes.

The ordination of women and, in more recent years, members of the LGBTQ community, demonstrates this—as does our recent church-wide recognition and full blessing of same-sex marriages.

For the entire history of our nation’s existence, women and the people of the LGBTQ community have been marginalized. It’s time to put an end to this inequality—whether it means liberation from oppression or redemption from captivity.

After all, if we, TEC, were to maintain dogmatically that only straight men can be ordained, such doctrine would perpetuate this power of privilege we are called as a community of Christ to resist—a power that has been at work in our nation continuously since its earliest days.

Do you see? The body of Christ is called not to be complicit in the oppressive principalities and powers at work in the world around us, but to be a community of resistance against them.

And TEC understands this.

Pray, then, for our church.

Where we become aware of past wrongs, like our complicity in slavery, pray that we apologize and make restitution; that we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest our past mistakes (as today’s Collect suggests).

Where we see a clear way forward, like helping the oppressed find liberation, pray that we follow it.

And in that vast middle ground, where, in this present darkness, we cannot see clearly, pray that we navigate our way carefully, making the best decisions we can from what we know—from what scripture, reason, and tradition tell us.

Our mission as a church, the body of Christ, is to resist the principalities and powers, the spiritual forces of evil at work in the world around us, powers—like privilege—that try with all the force of Satan to keep us captive.

We are a community of resistance.

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

Made for Humanity

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2018 by timtrue

moses

Mark 2:23—3:6

1.

Let’s do some Bible study. What is going on in today’s Gospel?

The passage begins with the words, “One sabbath”; an important detail.

The sabbath day was there in the beginning, a part of the creation story: God rested from creating on the seventh day; and thus humanity was to follow in God’s footsteps, et in saecula, saeculorum, amen.

Again, the sabbath day played an important role in the time of the exodus. The people were to gather only enough manna for each day; except on Fridays, when they were to gather twice as much so that they could rest on Saturdays, the sabbath.

And when Moses spent all that time up on Mount Sinai talking directly with God—well, one of the Ten Commandments was to remember the sabbath day and to keep it holy—you and your whole household, it commanded: dads, moms, brothers, sisters, servants, dogs, cats, livestock, aliens, strangers, and anyone else I forgot to mention!

So, “One sabbath” is a detail not to be glossed over.

Well, what happened on this particular sabbath? Two main events—and their fallout.

First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain. And the disciples are hungry. So, casually, and quite naturally, they do what you or I might do when out on a Sunday walk: they reach out and grab a small snack and nibble on it. I mean, have you ever tasted a sunflower seed directly from the flower? Delicious!

And second, Jesus enters the synagogue and a man with a withered hand is healed! How awesome is that!

But there were some present who didn’t agree: Pharisees, the Bible calls them.

And we boo and hiss, for, really, even with the importance of the sabbath being a day of rest and all that, why should anyone oppose our man Jesus?

I mean—sheesh!—reading the text closely, I’m not even sure Jesus did anything! It wasn’t Jesus picking the grains and nibbling, after all, but his disciples. And as for the man with the withered hand, all the text tells us is that he was healed; it does not say that Jesus did the actual healing!

Kind of makes you feel like the Pharisees already had their minds made up against Jesus, doesn’t it?

Ooh, ooh!—and don’t you just want to call them out for this! The very end of the passage says that they left the synagogue and went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians (whoever they are), about how they might destroy Jesus.

Destroy? As in kill? Huh. To me that sounds a lot more like a violation of permissible sabbath day activities than healing a man with a withered hand!

But I’ve skipped right over Jesus’ main point, which is, as translated in our version of today’s Gospel: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

—though an equivalently faithful translation is this: “The sabbath day was created for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath day; so the son of humanity is lord even of the sabbath.”

We’ll come back to this point. For now, notice, Jesus never discounts the importance of observing the sabbath day; what he does say, however, is that sabbath observance is for our benefit and not the other way around.

2.

Next, before we move on to consider what this passage means for us today, I want to point something out: a prejudice that Christianity has been guilty of for most if not all of the last two thousand years; a prejudice that arose out of Bible studies like we just did. Did you catch it?

Jesus’ opponents here are Pharisees; what image comes to your mind’s eye when you hear the word Pharisees?

Probably a self-righteous guy who likes to wear flowing robes and stand on street corners saying loud and long prayers to be heard by passersby.

Probably a guy who tries to keep all 613 commandments of the Halakah, even if that means walking by a person in terrible need lying in a ditch on the side of the road; even if that means paying his tithe to the Temple rather than paying for services for his aging parents.

Probably a guy who conspires with other like-minded guys to figure out a way to murder a radical teacher before he influences the community too much.

Well, if one of these is the image that enters your mind’s eye, don’t be too hard on yourself. For these images come to us straight out of the New Testament, our Christian scriptures.

However, to be clear, there are other images of Pharisees in the New Testament, some neutral, some even positive—like when the apostle Paul boasts of being a Pharisee among Pharisees (a good credential, in his thinking!).

But, for whatever reason, we Christians have gravitated and hung on to the negative caricatures of Pharisees, and formed stereotypes, which have become telltale prejudices.

But—what if I was to tell you?—we do in fact have a modern counterpart to the Pharisee in the Episcopal Church. Do you know who I mean?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the priest. The Christian priest in charge of a congregation is more like a Jewish rabbi, in charge of a local synagogue.

Instead, it’s someone who has committed his life to serving God, someone who has taken vows, someone recognized by the community as being called by God to the office, someone who doesn’t get paid for what she does. Any guesses?

The vocational deacon.

That’s right! We don’t have a deacon here at St. Thomas. But if we did, that person would help at our Eucharists, preach from time to time, probably be in charge of all our pastoral care needs, maybe outreach too, and act as a liaison between the church and the bishop—all as a volunteer.

Do you know any deacons personally? The deacons I know are extremely committed to loving the Lord with their heart, soul, and mind; and to loving their neighbors as themselves. They give of themselves far and away above the call of duty, acting selflessly for the sake of the common good.

Now, if you have a clear image in your mind of a modern-day deacon, the next step is to replace your image of a Pharisee with this new image!

In other words, this ought to be the image that comes to mind of the people Jesus squares off with today: upstanding, well-respected, pious persons.

Changes things up a bit, eh?

3.

Anyway, what does all of this mean for us today?

Isn’t really the same old story?

Jesus and the Pharisees were all members within the organized religious establishment of their day. The Pharisees in the story wanted to refine and hone the system to the point of greatest efficiency—a lot like deacons, and many others of us, do in the church today.

We have our constitution, our canons, our bylaws, and our mission statements. We create customaries for our liturgies and propose resolutions at our annual conventions. We plan, scheduling our worship services to take place at specific times in buildings we build at specific locations. We say “Blessed be God” at some times of the year and “Alleluia, Christ is risen” at others. We train our acolytes to know the secret code.

Jews have 613 laws in their Halakah, sure. But we have our laws too, lots of them, written and unwritten, because we’re doggone good Episcopalians.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that! In fact, I don’t think Jesus is saying there’s anything wrong with that either!

The rub comes, however, when Jesus, in their midst, points to another, and maybe even a better, way of seeing things.

The sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath. The son of all humanity, Jesus, is therefore lord of the sabbath—and not the other way around!

Jesus is in their midst and shows them another way, a better way.

But the upstanding, well-respected, pious people oppose it.

4.

So, what happens when Jesus comes into our midst and tries to show us another, maybe even a better, way? Do our upstanding, well-respected, pious people—do we—oppose it? Have we, like the Pharisees in today’s passage, become too institutionalized to see it?

In his most recent book, Christian activist and thinker Brian McLaren writes:

Each generation faces some great work, some heroic challenge that summons its children to courage and creativity. The great work of this generation will be to respond to the quadruple threat inherited from previous generations: an ecological crisis that, left unchecked, will lead to catastrophic environmental collapse; an economic crisis of obscenely increasing inequality that exploits or excludes the world’s poor while dehumanizing the rich as well; a sociopolitical crisis of racial, ethnic, class, religious, and political conflict that could lead to catastrophic war; and a spiritual and religious crisis in which the religious institutions that should be helping us deal with the first three crises either waste our time or make matters worse.[I]

Four serious crises, according to McLaren, we are passing on to the next generation. Hmm. Quite a legacy!

Which concerns me: I want a better world for my children and grandchildren than I have known, not a worse one; but I’m not sure we’re any closer to realizing the realm of God here on earth than we were twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years ago.

Not only do McLaren’s words ring with the sound of truth in my ears, which on its own is cause enough for concern, but also when my kids and I have discussions about the bigger things—meaning-of-life discussions—their anxieties about the future vividly reflect what McLaren says here.

Now, it’s no secret that today’s young people are leaving mainline Christianity in droves. We church leaders spend a lot of energy around the question why; and around the question of how to welcome them back in.

But I think McLaren spells it out clearly here. Young people see these crises we’ve left for them, and they’re saying, collectively, “Thanks a lot!” Young people see the church and other religious institutions and say together, “You’re not helping. And, um, actually, you might be making matters worse.”

What if this is Jesus in our midst? Through the collective voice of young people, is Jesus telling us a very important message today: that there is another way, maybe even a better way, to do church?

This time around, however, no one is conspiring to destroy Jesus. This time around, he’s simply leaving us without too much fuss. Jesus in our midst—young people—leaving the church in droves, feeling that organized Christianity is a waste of time—or, um, maybe worse.

And we just stand there, hands in our pockets, leaning up against the doorway, with a sad look on our face; and say, “Sorry to see you go; but when you’re ready to come back, we’ll welcome you with open arms.”

We’re missing the point. Jesus is trying to show us another, maybe even a better, way.

The church was made for humanity; not humanity for the church. The son of humanity, Jesus, is therefore lord of the church—and not the other way around.

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[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York. 2016.

When Faith and Beliefs Collide

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

Verkehrsunfall1

Mark 1:14-20

1.

Jumping right into today’s Gospel:

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

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

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

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

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

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

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

But we know that they did.

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

2.

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

Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation takes a lifetime!

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

3.

Which brings up a good point.

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

This life was risky, even dangerous.

It was insecure.

It was unstable.

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

And their faith resulted in their transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what about ego? . . .

4.

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

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

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

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

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

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot.

And why is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our belief systems are impeding our transformation.

5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

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

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

Well, what side had the four fishermen picked?

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

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

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

Fear Blights

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by timtrue

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46

1.

I begin today with a kind of parlor trick. Feel free to pass it along to your friends and family, especially the younger set.

<How to remember the Ten Commandments with your ten fingers.>

So, there it is. With this parlor trick, not only are you able to remember all ten commandments, but also you can remember which is which.

Now, before turning to today’s Gospel, I’d like to offer a couple remarks on this passage from Exodus:

  • Moses had recently freed the people of God from oppression: the oppressive hand of Pharaoh.
  • This new people was wandering in the wilderness, groping as if blind, not knowing their way forward.
  • As such, they were a new society in need of new rules. In addition to questions about religious worship, how were they to live together in relative harmony?
  • And notice Moses’ message: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” In other words, Moses said: Do not be afraid; but be afraid of God.

Okay. . . .

2.

Now, over in today’s Gospel we find some interesting parallels.

  • Jesus is seeking to free people from oppression.
  • This new Jesus movement is just that: new. And as such his followers feel much like they are wandering in the wilderness, not sure of a way forward.
  • Many questions surface about how to worship and otherwise understand corporate life.
  • And—while not specifically stated in today’s Gospel but most definitely a part of the larger context of his mission and ministry—Jesus shares a similar message: “Do not be afraid.”

But, unlike in Moses’ day, now it is not a political oppression that the people find themselves under but a spiritual oppression; and, ironically, it’s an oppression brought on by certain followers of Moses, the very agent of freedom we just heard about.

Back then, under Moses, the people wandered a little while longer, forging a path ahead, not knowing where God would lead. Their place of worship was a tabernacle: a large but flexible tent of worship, made so that in a day’s notice it could be packed up and moved to the next location.

Now, however, the corporate place of worship for the Jewish people is an inflexible, fixed, permanent temple.

The message under Moses was to fear God and obey his commandments—all ten of them.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, however, declare that there aren’t just ten; but 613. Now the people are called on not just to fear God, but also to fear those who on earth bear God’s special authority; namely, the leaders of the temple.

And so, like Moses, Jesus comes along and upsets the status quo.

He enters Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey amidst the shouts of throngs of people.

He goes to the temple courts and overturns tables.

He tells tricky parables that impugn the religious leaders.

And he suggests it’s actually not 613 commandments; not even 10; but really only one—in two varieties—love.

Do not be afraid, he says, like Moses; but, unlike Moses, his message is not to fear but to love. Love God; love neighbor.

And I cannot help but notice this detail: at the end of today’s Gospel, the religious leaders, who run their whole operation by means of fear—keeping the people fearful of God and of themselves—are themselves fearful: they do nothing to stop Jesus because they fear the people, who hold Jesus to be a prophet.

3.

So, let’s carry this comparison-and-contrast exercise one step further.

Pharaoh was oppressive; Moses liberated the people and started something new.

Many generations later, the Jewish religious leaders were oppressive, keeping the Jewish laity under clouds of fear; Jesus sought to liberate the people and begin something new.

Now—one step further—here we are today, many generations later again, having established and maintained the mission and movement that this man Jesus began.

And where are we?

Have we listened to his message? Are we loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we loving our neighbor as ourselves? Are we “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? Are we bearing fruits of love?

Or do we see God as someone to fear? Are we keeping ourselves and our neighbors under clouds of fear?

4.

Now, I’m not going to deny it: there is in fact much to fear in our day.

Just this week we heard about a tragic and senseless act of gun violence. Why is this sort of thing happening more and more frequently, we ask? And why isn’t more being done to stop it? We could have been one of the victims, we know.

And, rightly so, we fear.

Then there’s the seemingly increasing threat of nuclear war. What if North Korea doesn’t back down? What if our president does something rash?

Again, we fear.

And then there’s that nagging question of the environment. Science is warning us that the globe is warming at an alarming rate. There’s a great plastic patch in the Pacific, choking and otherwise killing off the life that teems there. How can we leave a healthy and thriving planet to future generations?

We fear.

Cancer hits close to home for all of us. What if I’m its next victim, we agonize?

And what of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other so-called acts of God?

Yes, there is much to fear in our world!—just as there was much to fear in the world of Jesus’ day; and in the world of Moses’ day.

But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!”

To live under fear—and it doesn’t matter whether its source is human or divine—to live under fear is to live under oppression.

And Jesus came to free us from oppression.

5.

But haven’t we been going down a rabbit trail?

This parable calls us to bear fruit. In the end, that’s who the landowner is counting on; that’s who will be called on to tend and keep the vineyard: those who are already demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in their lives; those who walk in love as Christ loved us.

Bearing fruit is the point of this parable; and so what does fear have to do with it?

Just this: it’s how we bear fruit.

As he delivered this parable, Jesus was speaking directly to the religious leaders of his day. For our day, just like then, this is a message directly to church leaders.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were running the established religious institution by means of fear, not by means of love. They bore some fruit, sure; yet the little fruit they bore was sour and difficult—like 613 times more sour and difficult than it had to be!

Fear proved a blight on their harvest.

Part of Jesus’ mission was to change this, to take the religious leadership out of the hands of the few who led and controlled by fear and put it into the hands of those who would lead as servants, by means of love, and thereby bear truckloads more fruit; tasty and productive fruit.

This is a message for today’s church leaders. And so, as a leader of today’s church, I want you to know: I am committed to lead by love, not fear; and thus bear fruits of love, not fear.

But, at the same time, this is not just a message for today’s church leaders. It is also a message for the church as a whole—bishops, priests, deacons, and laity. For who else is going to offer spiritual leadership to society today?

Jesus’ message is to all of us, particularly this corporate body we call St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School.

In and around the Temecula Valley, and in fact throughout the world; in this day and age characterized by fear, Jesus calls us to fear not; and to bear fruits of love.