Archive for Transformation

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.

Right Ahead

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was delivered on November 20, 2016.

Luke 23:33-43

One thing our church gets right is eschatology.

A definition I read this week defines eschatology as, “The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”  Eschatology is the study of the eschaton, or of last things.

Our church gets this right.

Consider our church calendar.

Today is the last day of the year in the church calendar, Proper 29, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday.  It’s called Christ the King, for on this day we focus on the culmination of all of history, that day when Christ’s absolute supremacy will be realized.  Did you notice today’s color is not green but white?

Next week we’ll start over, with Advent.  For four weeks we’ll reflect on Christ’s coming.

Then, from Christmas through Easter we focus on the realization of Christ’s incarnation; and from Ascension Day through Pentecost and the following season we focus on the realization of Christ’s supremacy.

All year, then, in some sense anyway, we’re looking forward to today, the one day of the year when as a church we consider “death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”

Our church gets this right.

Also, consider today’s Gospel.

At first reading—and maybe at the second and third—it sounds and feels more like a Good Friday text than anything else: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (v. 23).

In fact, nearly the whole passage focuses on the details of the moment at hand: the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes; the people stand by and watch; leaders scoff and mock; even the criminals on either side join in.

But where does this passage end?  Or, in other words, what is this passage’s culmination?

One of the thieves next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today, though we begin at Good Friday, we focus ultimately on Paradise: the Realm of Christ; the culmination of all history.

Our church gets this right.

But it seems kind of brief, doesn’t it? I mean, only one day of the year?  What if we miss it?  What about all the people who couldn’t make it to church today?  Especially the ones with legitimate excuses?  Do they have to wait until Proper 29 rolls around again next year?  Really, why don’t we spend more time focusing on eschatology?

Other churches do.

Ever hear of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth?  A best-selling book published in 1970, Lindsey compares then-current events to biblical prophecies about the end times.

He speaks of an event called the Rapture, at which time, he says, all believers in Christ will be called by a trumpet blast suddenly home to heaven.

The Rapture will be followed by a Great Tribulation, a seven-year period of a literal hell on earth, he says, where the king of the world will be Satan himself.

Finally, an earthly age called the Millennium will follow the Tribulation, he says, during which time Satan will be locked up and the world’s king will be Christ; and all the world’s leaders will be faithful risen Christians.

By the way, this book was made into a movie in 1976, narrated by none other than Orson Welles, the same voice that generated mass fear in 1938 in a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Well, since the publication of this book, all sorts of modern American evangelical Christian leaders have joined in the fray.  Whole denominations today abide by Statements of Faith that include fundamental beliefs about the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the Millennium.

Individual scholars, seeking to clarify where they stand on the matter, have authored theological tomes on this subject, attempting to argue from literal interpretations of the scriptures just how and when our world will come to an end.

And who of us has not heard about the relatively recent phenomenon called The Left Behind Series—arguably the quintessential eschatological distraction of our day?

So—surprise, surprise!—disagreements have arisen.

Is there such a thing as the Rapture, or not?  The word rapture nowhere appears in the Bible, after all.

What about the so-called Great Tribulation?  The books of Daniel and Revelation mention a seven-year period of great struggle; but will Christians actually escape it, or will they have to endure it—or will they be raptured away mid-way through, before things get really tough?

And the Millennium!  C’mon!  A literal thousand years!  Really?

Those who care about this subject demand to know where others stand.  Are you Pre-trib or Post-, they ask?  Are you Pre-millennial, Post-millennial, or A-millennial?  Do you believe in the Rapture?

To which I say, “I’m pan-millennial: I believe it’ll all ‘pan’ out in the end.”

But it’s all quite pessimistic.

For, no matter how you look at it, the whole cosmos is just gonna burn up.  So, after all, what does it really matter what we do for the common good in our lifetimes?

My seminary professor Rob MacSwain tells of a time he attended a conference at an evangelical University in the Midwest.  After he could not find a recycle bin to throw away a piece of paper, he inquired only to be answered, “There aren’t any: the world’s just going to burn up anyway; we don’t believe recycle bins are necessary.”

For Christians who hold this pessimistic view, faith becomes no more than an individual kind of Gnosticism: we work on our own, internal relationships with Jesus; we are saved by faith alone (and not by works).  In the end, one is either in or out; saved or damned.

And where is God’s love in that?

Anyway, it’s not just modern American evangelical Christianity that’s drunk these waters.  The dominant culture has a preoccupation with eschatology too.  Yeah!  Except it doesn’t call it eschatology; it calls it apocalypse.

There are variations on apocalypse, sure.  Some stories feature zombies; some aliens; some dastardly supervillains, like Lex Luther who bought a bunch of property out here in the desert and planned to send California into the ocean so that he’d suddenly own beachfront property.  And some stories feature just us humans, in over our heads with nuclear weapons.

Either way, whether in the subculture of evangelical Christianity or in the dominant culture, how it’s all gonna end is an American preoccupation.

But not with the Episcopal Church.

And, I maintain, our church gets it right.

Our church acknowledges the culmination of all things.  We understand that Christ has left us with a mission: not to sit around wondering how it’s all gonna end but to transform the world into his kingdom.

The realization of Christ’s incarnation—his birth—was when his kingdom first came; the realization of Christ’s absolute supremacy—his second coming—is when that kingdom will be fully realized.  In the meantime the kingdom of heaven is only partial.  Our mission is no less than the transformation of the cosmos: to increase Christ in the world and decrease the anti-Christ until the second coming.

Our eschatology is not pessimistic; it’s optimistic.

Our church gets it right.

So, we’re caught up in this in-between time: in between the realization of Christ’s incarnation and supremacy.

We work at Christ’s mission: trying to bring his realm into the world.

But there’s a tension.

For we know the importance of doing Christ’s mission.  And we feel the need to do it—keenly!

But it’s overwhelming.

It’s overwhelming because we can’t accomplish much on our own, as individuals.  And it’s overwhelming because bringing Christ’s kingdom to our world will take much longer than the time we have in our lifetimes.

And these things go against our American grain.  We love our individualism; and we want to solve the world’s problems yesterday.

So, we end up failing Christ and his mission—or at least we feel we do.

And when this final Sunday of the year comes along—Proper 29, Christ the King Sunday—we’re so distracted by bad eschatology; or we’re so preoccupied with doing the mission of Christ; or we’re so overwhelmed and caught up in our own failures that we end up missing the optimistic culmination we’ve so been looking forward to all year.

Just like we end up missing the point when we read today’s Gospel.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him.

And today our church gets it right.

Today it doesn’t matter whether you’re distracted.  Today it doesn’t matter if you’re preoccupied.  Today it doesn’t matter if you feel overwhelmed; or if you’ve failed Jesus; or if you’ve given up on your faith; or even if you’ve committed crimes worthy of crucifixion.

Today, none of this matters!

For today, we know that we will be with him in Paradise.

Straightening Up

Posted in Homilies with tags on August 21, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 13:10-17

I don’t know about you, but when I hear this story from today’s Gospel—about a woman so crippled she can’t even stand up straight; about Jesus healing this woman; and about the synagogue leader’s response—whenever I hear this story, I immediately focus on the synagogue leader.  Is it the same for you?

In part, I’m sure, it’s because of my modern American sensitivities.  The synagogue leader is just plain mean.  She’s a crippled woman, for goodness’ sake!  Shouldn’t she be treated with at least the same dignity and respect as any other person—or at least with as much dignity and respect as a donkey?  Go Jesus!  You tell that bully a thing or two!

Also, my kneejerk focus on the synagogue leader probably has something to do with my American independence.  I mean, this guy’s opposing Jesus—Jesus, who is always the good guy, by default.  And Jesus helps the underdog, right?  So there’s that.  And also there’s this constraint the synagogue leader demonstrates: he’s bound by the rules of his tradition.  He’s legalistic.  And what good American wants the rules of some foreign tradition foisted upon him?

Then there’s my personal bias.  I was raised during the musical era that’s known today as “classic rock”; and—what can I say?—I’m a product of my culture.  We all are.  Anyway, the synagogue leader represents the establishment.  And as all good cynical classic rock-and-rollers know, the establishment is designed only to benefit those in charge, its leaders.  So, here’s this leader of the synagogue—the establishment!  Take him down, Jesus!

Are you with me?

But what if instead of focusing just on the synagogue leader we also focus our attention on the bent-over woman?

I have a good reason for asking: the context suggests it.

Immediately before this story Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree.  For three years it bore no fruit.  The owner of the farm tells his gardener to cut the tree down.  But the gardener talks him out of it, saying to give it just one more year; if it bears no fruit by that time, then he will cut it down.

Is today’s story, then, just about an unrepentant synagogue leader; and how God is patient with us when we act like that synagogue leader, giving us more time to repent?  Maybe.  But it feels like there should be more to it.

So we look at what follows.  Here, Jesus tells two more parables, now about the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed.  Though a very small seed, it grows into one of the largest plants in all of the Mediterranean region, so large that even the birds of the air come to roost in its branches.  And again, the kingdom of God is like yeast that spreads throughout a batch of dough until all the batch is leavened.

And so, aha!  Now we begin to see!

On the one hand there’s repentance; and on the other there’s the kingdom of God.  And wedged between these teachings we find today’s story.  Surely, it’s got to be about more than just a kneejerk response to the establishment.

You see, because of our cultural context—we’re independent, rock-and-roll Americans—we immediately turn our focus on the synagogue leader and say Boo! and try to learn lessons about what we shouldn’t do; how we shouldn’t behave.  But the biblical context suggests that we should focus not just on the synagogue leader but also on the bent-over woman.  And perhaps even mostly, or all, on her!  For she is the one in this story who experiences a change in direction—i. e., repentance—and is transformed into a citizen of the kingdom of God.

So, setting aside our desire to heckle and jeer the bad guy in this story, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?

First, here are a few observations:

  • She’s been crippled for eighteen years.  Where were you eighteen years ago?  What were you doing?  That’s a long time!
  • Her ailment—for the last eighteen years!—is being bent over.  So severe is her ailment that she is unable to straighten up.
  • In contrast to the earlier miracles in Luke’s Gospel, this crippled woman does not ask for healing.

These observations come from the text.  So, next, what might we infer from them?

Well, what would it mean to be bent over so that you couldn’t straighten up?  You’d be looking at the ground all the time.  Imagine that.  Dust.  Dirt.  Mud.  Rocks.  Feet.  (In cities, sewage.)  All the time!

You hear a bird chirping in a nearby tree and you can’t look up at it—not without a lot of trouble anyway.  You approach a group of people talking and laughing with one another and you can’t look in their faces, you can’t see the laughter in their eyes—at least not without turning sideways and twisting your neck awkwardly and painfully.

The sun, the moon, the stars, the tops of trees and mountains, the distant horizon, the up-close faces of friends and family—all of these are mostly inaccessible to you.  Imagine that!  For eighteen long, frustrating years!

To struggle to see only the path immediately at your feet!  To see only the dirt and dust immediately before you!  Imagine!

And what can we make of her not asking for healing?  Had she resigned herself to her condition?  Had she concluded, “Well, I guess this is simply the way things are and the way things are always gonna be”?

But then!  Ah, then!  Jesus breaks into her life.  He calls her to himself; and he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”; and he lays his hands on her; and immediately she stands up straight—straight!—and she sees the sun and the birds and the faces all around her, without difficulty; and she begins to praise God.

She begins.  That’s an interesting word, isn’t it?  For it suggests that she will continue doing so—that she will continue praising God for her new condition; that she has experienced a changed life (repentance), and that this transformation will continue (into the eternal kingdom of God).

So, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?  Just this: transformation.  This crippled, often overlooked, unnamed woman offers us a picture of transformation, a picture of the ongoing life we should be living in Christ.

Jesus has called each of us to himself—whether we’ve asked him for healing or not!  And he’s said to each of us, “Child, you are set free from your ailment.”

Consequently, have you begun to praise God for your new condition?  If so, are you continuing to praise God?  Or, to rephrase these questions: Have you begun to be transformed in Christ?  And, if so, are you continuing to live into this transformation?

Too often we end up spending our whole lives looking down at the dust and dirt and muck at our feet, unable to take in the larger world around us because of our great ailment—an ailment much greater than this woman’s—called sin.

And don’t think for a moment this ailment only applies to those outside of the church!

Jesus was standing right in front of this woman.  And no doubt she had heard about him already.  No doubt, by this time in his ministry, word had spread far and wide of his teachings and workings of miracles.

And yet, when the opportunity presented itself to her—right before her downward-angled face!—she did not approach him; she did not express her need for healing.

Have we resigned ourselves similarly?  Have we been a part of church—has church been a part of us—for so long now that despite hearing Jesus’ call we merely continue looking down at our own two dirty, dusty feet; at our own treacherous path of life upon which we walk?  Do we fail to look upward at Jesus and praise God?  Do we forget to continue praising God for our ongoing transformation in Christ?

Transformation in Christ is a continuous process.  We are being transformed more and more throughout our lives from our marred, sin-laden, fallen images into the perfect, sinless image of Christ.  Or at least we should be!

This is the Good News.  This is why we follow Christ in the first place.

Transforming Fear

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on August 7, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

Luke 12:32-40

Oh, that today’s Gospel could be read on stewardship Sunday!

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Thus, Jesus goes on (in conclusion, in other words) “Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Surely we’ve all got extra stuff.  After all, clutter is a part of our consumer culture.  Our economy is driven in large part by something in us telling us we need something new, something even more user-friendly, something shiny.

Never mind that I just bought something new, shiny, and user-friendly last month; and that it no longer appeals to me in the way it did.  Never mind that in hindsight it looks now like I wanted it more than I actually needed it—or that maybe I didn’t really need it at all.  Never mind any of that!  This new, shiny, and even more user-friendly thing speaks to me deeply.  I know I didn’t really need that last gizmo; but this one, well, there’s no question!

And so, as the impersonal marketing executives somewhere out there predicted, with help from their detached demographic tables and disconnected socioeconomic charts, we give in to the pleadings of our hearts and we go out and buy the latest and greatest thing, adding to our stockpile of stuff.

Yes, we’ve all got extra stuff.

And here, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says to sell it and give alms.

And I’m left wondering, Why didn’t the compilers of the lectionary save this passage for later in the year, when St. Paul’s traditionally has its annual stewardship campaign?

It’s difficult to part with our money, isn’t it?  Giving to the church requires faith: belief that our monetary gifts—our cold, hard cash—will somehow enable and equip God’s ultimate mission to take place.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

But—okay, I admit it—today’s Gospel is more about fear than giving; and fear, we all know, is much bigger than being afraid to part with our money.

Which brings us to the other passages we heard today.

I wonder, did Abram have anything to fear?

God came to Abram and told him to set out for a distant country.  God told Abram to pack up everything he owned, leave behind everything he’d ever known, and go to a place he knew nothing about at all.

I mean, how would you respond?  God comes to you in a dream.  And he says something like this to you: “Hey there, son/daughter of mine.  I’d like you to do me a favor.  I know that you love me.  So I just need you to trust me here.  What I want you to do is this: quit your job—you know, that one you’ve worked hard at for most of your adult life; pack up your entire household; sell whatever you don’t really need for the journey; kiss your aging parents goodbye, for you’ll never see them again; and leave behind everything you’ve ever known—people, places, reputation, everything!”

Well, if you’re like me, you’d probably ask, “So, um, God, where am I going?  What’s my destination?  Where will you lead me?”

And if you’re like me you’d probably not like God’s answer: “I’m not telling.  You’ll find out when you get there.”

“Oh,” God continues, “but I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky.”

Um, okay.  I guess.

Anyway, do you think Abram had anything to fear then?

Or do you think Abraham had anything to fear several years later (after a name change) when he still didn’t have his promised son?  Or that he still didn’t know where this so-called Promised Land was?

He wanted to believe God, sure.  He tried to believe God.  But he also took matters into his own hands.  His wife Sarah wasn’t really young enough to bear children anymore, remember; so he had a son with Sarah’s servant Hagar, a son named Ishmael.  And we all know how that worked out!

Was Abraham afraid that what God had promised would not come true?  Was his fear overwhelming his faith?

Then, I wonder if the disciples had anything to fear.

Here they were, following a man who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life; a man who said that no one comes to the Father except through him.

That meant, in part, the Romans.  Jesus was proclaiming a message of defiance to the political rulers.  His was a new kingdom, meaning his was right where the Roman kingdom was wrong; meaning his provided for the hungry, the poor, and the destitute in ways the Roman kingdom could not.  Moreover, Jesus was proclaiming himself to be the king of kings and lord of lords, meaning he was putting himself in a position of authority higher even than Caesar himself.  Jesus was shaking his fist in the face of Rome—of temperamental, mighty, volatile Rome.

Did the disciples have anything to fear?

It wasn’t just Rome, but also Jerusalem and their own Jewish identity: Jesus was proclaiming a message that opposed many of the Jewish leaders of his day—a message that distanced him and his followers from their own traditions and identity.  When Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through him, he was dissociating himself from those who did not agree with his message, whether Roman or Jew (or anyone else).

From the disciples’ point of view, this must have looked like one man taking on the world—Jesus against all social, economic, political, and religious institutions.

Did the disciples have anything to be afraid of?  Were they in danger of their fear overwhelming their faith?

So: What about you?  What do you fear?  And here I don’t just mean things like fear of bugs, spiders, snakes, or the Seven-foot Man; but the fears that can overwhelm your faith.  What fears have the potential to eclipse your faith?

Do you fear letting go of your money?  We live in uncertain economic times, after all.  And you’ve worked hard to get where you are, or to get where you’d like to be.  To retire with a livable wage requires planning.  And you’d like to leave your kids something at least!

Or maybe you’re more like Abraham.  Maybe you’ve just embarked on a new journey—you’re recently single again or you’ve just graduated from college or you’re about to get married or you’ve just changed jobs—and the uncertainty of it all can be overwhelming.  Do you fear the path of life ahead, the unknown?

Or, maybe, like some clergy I know, and at times like me, are you afraid for the church and its decline?  Do you ever fear that we’re a part of the wrong movement, that Christ’s Church, whatever the denomination, is losing its influence and effectiveness in the surrounding culture?

Do you ever feel like it’s you against the world?

Does your fears overwhelm your faith?

Well, you’re in good company.  Abraham felt this way.  Jesus’ disciples felt this way too.

Here’s the thing: Faith in Jesus is risky.  Following Jesus is unpredictable.  It can stir us in our own hearts to act in ways we never could have imagined.  It connects us with a movement that, just by association, means others may hate and prejudge us.

Faith in Jesus is risky and unpredictable, yes.  It can cause us to be afraid in ways that overwhelm our faith—in ways that tempt us to renounce our belief in Jesus Christ as God.

But let’s hear Jesus’ words once more: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Little Flock, he calls us; a term of endearment.  He loves us; he cares for us; he protects us.

And, to throw a technicality at you from the Greek, in that part of the verse where Jesus says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” the verb here is in a tense called the aorist.  This is a tense we don’t have in English.  And thus it doesn’t translate very well.

But here’s what it means: the action has already happened and is continuing to happen.  In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples—he’s telling us—“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, and in fact he has already given it to you.  It’s here.  It’s now.  And it will forever be.”

And thus, little flock, we have no reason to fear.

So, if you want to put your faith into practice—if you want to do something that will help you not be so afraid—let me suggest what Jesus does: sell your possessions and give all the money you make to St. Paul’s during our annual pledge drive.

We laugh.  But, seriously, can we look at stewardship not so much as something to help the church make its annual budget; but rather as a personal spiritual discipline—as a way to put your risky faith into practice?

And, of course, it’s not just about giving.  Wherever fear threatens to overwhelm your faith, transform it into a spiritual discipline: put your risky faith into practice.

You have no reason to fear.  Really!  For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Indeed, he already has.

Returning with Grace

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2016 by timtrue

Crossofashes[1]

Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

And so today we arrange our schedules in order to come to church and have a dark cross of ash smeared upon our foreheads so that everyone around us can see how holy we are!

But Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

Does anyone else see the irony here?  What’s really going on here?

Why does the church encourage us to come to church on this day along with everyone else in order to engage in a public act of piety?

For that matter—since we’re here—why does the church encourage us to fast on this day?  Did you know that?  The Episcopal Church—the mainline denomination that offers us so little direct instruction about how to live our lives—recommends that we fast on two days of the year: Ash Wednesday (today); and Good Friday.  Cf. BCP p. 17.

Again, if we follow this recommendation to fast on Ash Wednesday together, then aren’t we fasting publicly?  Aren’t we engaging publicly in an act of piety?

But doesn’t the Gospel passage fly in the face of public acts of piety?  In fact, this Gospel passage was appointed to our lectionary by church leaders.  Why would they do such a thing?  Why would they assign a text on this day (of all days of the year!) that calls us to avoid engaging in public acts of piety?  What’s really going on here?

The 2009 movie The Soloist tells the story of a Los Angeles newspaper journalist looking for a news story that will boost his public image.

He’s been a hot-shot journalist in the past, with praises sung by others in the field, etc.; but now things aren’t going so well.  Not only is the newspaper industry in decline; but also he just can’t seem to write the stories that sell anymore.

And on top of that his personal life is coming unraveled: his wife is divorcing him and his grown son is effectively estranged from him.  If only he can write a riveting story, he thinks, then he will get back in the good graces of the public eye.

So, with these motivations he sets out to find a human interest story.  After some searching he finds what he thinks is a sure winner: a Julliard-trained cellist who is now homeless.  He will befriend this homeless person and tell L. A. his story through his eyes.

Somewhere along the lines, however, the journalist’s motivations change.  Somewhere along the lines, as he gets to know the homeless cellist, he goes from using him in order to get back into the public eye’s good graces to actually wanting to help him.  Somewhere along the lines his motivation changes from self-aggrandizement to charity focused on another human being, a person who—homeless or not—deserves respect and dignity.

No longer is landing a good story his goal; but the well-being of another person.

Through a public act of piety, despite his initial motivations, this L. A. journalist is transformed.

Now, let’s talk about what motivates us for a bit.

We live in an image-conscious culture.  How you look, the clothes you wear; how you present yourself, your body language; how straight or crooked your teeth are; how much or how little hair you have; how thin or not-so-thin you are; even what kind of car you drive—all these things, like it or not, communicate a lot of information about you.

Wasn’t it some rock star that said, “You don’t know how long it takes me to make my hair look like I just rolled out of bed”?

We want to look good.  We want others to think we look good.  We want others who we think look good to like us.  And so on.

We live in a culture that continually tells us, “It’s all about you.”

But today, together, as we participate in this public act of piety, it’s actually a chance to reorient ourselves from the culture’s message.  Today, as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God is reminding us that it’s not about you.

Ash Wednesday is not about earthly accolades.  It’s not about what we do or don’t do.  It’s not about whether we engage in acts of piety that are public or private.  It’s not about whether anyone notices you or not, or about whether you’re communicating the right message or not.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday is about repentance.  It marks the beginning of Lent, a time of special devotion, a time of personal transformation, a time of grace-filled return to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the Ladder

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2015 by timtrue

jacobs ladder

John 1:43-51

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

Do you remember the story of Jacob in the Old Testament?  He was critical, skeptical, and shrewd.  He was also very dishonest, a person in whom there was all deceit.  Quite the opposite of Nathanael in this regard!

Jacob was born along with his twin brother, Esau.  When their time had come, the first baby to exit the womb was hairy, with red hair covering his body.  So red was he that right then and there he was given the name Esau, which means red.  But before he was completely out of the womb, we hear that the hand of his twin brother was grabbing onto Esau’s heel.  So the brother was given the name Jacob.

Now, this name, Jacob, has a couple of meanings, one literal and one figurative.  The literal meaning of Jacob is Heel Grabber—which is what he was doing to his brother when he was born.  The figurative meaning is Deceiver.

How would you like to be given that name at your birth?  (“Um, name, please.”  “Liar.”  “Er, pardon?”  “Liar!”  “Uh, what’d you call me?”)

Well, it stuck with him.  You remember the story, right?  Jacob was the younger of the two brothers.  That meant he wouldn’t receive the inheritance, the birthright.  Rather, everything would go to his older brother, Esau, according to tradition.

But Jacob didn’t like this tradition.  (Adolescent rebellion is nothing new!)  So he critically, skeptically, and shrewdly determined to grab his brother’s heel again, this time in the form of his birthright.

What does Jesus mean, do you think, when he says that Nathanael is truly an Israelite? Nathanael is of the race of Israel, of Jacob; and truly means something like he’s faithful to his heritage.

But what about in whom there is no deceit?  What does Jesus mean by this?

We see from his interaction with Philip that Nathanael is thoughtful.  He questions Philip when he hears, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.”

At this point—we don’t see it in the narrative, but it’s easy to imagine—Nathanael’s probably asking, “Really!  The Messiah?  The Son of God?  The King of Israel?”

It’s easy to imagine this because of what happens next.

Philip says, “Yes, it’s Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.  He is the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote!”

And Nathanael’s critical.  He’s skeptical.  He’s shrewd.  He thinks, “Isn’t this what people were saying about the last guy?”

For the simple truth is that, in recent history, there were several Jewish leaders that had risen in the minds of the people to the level of Messiah, Savior, King of Israel, even Son of God.

So Nathanael answers Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

And so: is this why Jesus calls Nathanael a person in whom there is no deceit?  Because he’s critical, skeptical, shrewd?

But Jacob was also critical, skeptical, and shrewd.  And he was all deceit.

The story continues: Isaac, Jacob’s father, is getting on in years and is blind. So, while his brother Esau is out hunting, Jacob disguises himself with goatskins to feel and smell like his brother.  Then, with the help of his mother and some delicious stew, he tricks his father Isaac into thinking he’s actually Esau; and asks right then and there for the family blessing—the entire inheritance!—which Isaac gives.

A little later Esau comes home from hunting and is ravenously hungry.  He’s so ravenous, in fact, that he begs Jacob for some of the delicious stew he’s made.  “Give me your birthright first,” Jacob offers, “then I’ll give you some stew.”

Understandably, Esau is reluctant; but Jacob grabs at his heel—and doesn’t let go!  Finally, hunger overcomes Esau and he gives in to his little brother’s shrewd deceptions.  Jacob wins the birthright.

Here is Jacob—whose name is later changed to Israel—in whom there is all deceit!

Here is Nathanael, truly a son of Israel, in whom there is no deceit!

Are we to draw a connection?

Jacob’s deceit, as you know, nearly kills him.  When his brother Esau discovers the full extent of Jacob’s deception—that Jacob will indeed inherit the family fortune—he is angry enough to raise Cain.  And Jacob, fearing for his life, runs away in self-imposed exile.

His deception and trickery have left him with nothing.  He is homeless.  He is desperate.  He is a broken man.

With nothing but the clothes on his back, he finds a place in the desert to spend the night, lies down, and pulls up a rock for a pillow.  And here—homeless, desperate, and broken from his life of selfish deception—he meets God.

The Lord himself is right there at his side, speaking to him.  And angels are ministering to him, ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.

The order here is an important detail: the angels are said first to be ascending.  Broken and desperate as he is, feeling completely alone, Jacob suddenly sees that the angels of God are there with him.  Already!  They go up and down the ladder to heaven only to replenish what they need in order to continue ministering to him.

Jacob sees heaven and earth meet—the Lord stands next to him and says, “Do not fear; I am with you!”—and he is transformed!

Jacob, in whom there is all deceit, becomes Israel, in whom, when truly transformed, there is no deceit.

Yes, we are to draw a connection.

Jesus meets Nathanael and says, “Here is truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit!”

And Nathanael is no longer critical, skeptical, or shrewd.  Now he exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”

Jacob met the Lord and was transformed.

Nathanael meets Jesus and is transformed.

And look at what happens next.

Jesus says, “You will see greater things than these.  Very truly, I tell you, just like Jacob you will see the angels of God ascending and descending.  But Jacob saw them on a ladder.  You will see them ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus is the ladder.

In Jesus, heaven and earth meet.

Jacob saw heaven and earth meet in his vision; and he was transformed.

In the man Jesus, Nathanael saw heaven and earth meet; and he was transformed.

Today we sit in church, a place where heaven and earth meet, seeking Jesus.  Are we being transformed?

You see, it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are.

You might be like Nathanael—a person who is truly a Christian, born and raised in the church, steeped in its traditions, a so-called cradle Episcopalian—in whom there is no deceit!

Or, on the other hand, you might be like Jacob—a person who has spent a lifetime taking matters into his own hands, turning his back on God, resorting to trickery and deception to get ahead in life, using some people, pushing others out of the way, fleeing from others in your own self-imposed exile, estranging yourself from family members, acting in a critical, skeptical, and shrewd manner towards God and your neighbor—in whom there is all deceit.

My guess is that each of us is more like Jacob than Nathanael.

But it doesn’t matter!

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, Christ is with you!  He is at your side now, telling you, “Do not be afraid; I am with you!”  His angels are ministering to you day and night.  He wants you to encounter him, and through encounter to be transformed.