Archive for Unity

There Will Be One Flock?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 22, 2018 by timtrue


John 10:11-18

Many, many images of God come to us from the Bible: God as King; God as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God as friend, brother, lover; God as wind, dove, fire; and so on. Today we see Jesus, the second person of the triune God, as Good Shepherd. What can we understand about God and us through this image?

Now I don’t know about you, but shepherds—good or otherwise—are not people I come in contact with on a daily basis. As I drive around southern California, I don’t see too many sheep—maybe some cattle, from time to time; but never sheep!

Sheep aren’t the same as cattle.

Ever heard anyone say that sheep are dumb animals, good for little more than shearing and slaughtering—maybe another preacher in another sermon?

Well, how does that make you feel? I mean, if Jesus is supposed to be our Good Shepherd, then that makes us sheep. And when someone stands before me and proclaims that sheep are stupid and witless beasts, well, I’m not feeling like I want to be a part of that flock. Are you?

Three of the sources I referred to this week as I prepared for this sermon—not just one, but three!—say otherwise. Sheep are not dumb.

In fact, all three sources say, that rumor was started by cowboys. Yeah, you know, those guys who ride their horses and swing their ropes and whoop and holler behind the cattle to drive them where they want them to go!

Well, what happens when you try to get behind sheep and push them? Why, they don’t move forward at all but instead try to run around to get behind the driver.

That’s right! Sheep don’t want to be pushed. Instead, sheep want to be led.

And cowboys call them dumb and witless—because sheep don’t behave like cows.

And that make me feel a little better. That makes me feel more like here is something I want to be a part of: a community that is not pushed and prodded to get us to go where the shepherd wants us to go—a good shepherd doesn’t manipulate.

But we are instead led by the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus; who shows us by example that we are to put others first, that we are maybe even, in the extreme, to lay down our lives for others.

And that piece in there about sheep knowing their shepherd—it’s not just some comfortable platitude.

I read stories this week about how at night, while the flock is tucked in its cozy sheepfold, safe and warm, their beloved and trusted shepherd will walk in and among them without a single sheep stirring.

But if you or I or anyone else other than their shepherd tries to walk among them—even the stealthiest of spies; or some cowboy!—the sheep wake up and begin to bleat nervously.

Sheep aren’t dumb; they know the difference between their shepherd and a cowboy.

And in Palestine, to this day, shepherds will lead their flocks to the same waterhole at the same time, allowing their flocks to drink together, not caring that their sheep get all mixed up with one another;

for all the shepherd has to do is whistle or call; and his or her sheep come out of the convoluted mass flocking together to their own shepherd, organized. Not one sheep is missing; not one extra has joined.

One flock; one shepherd.

They know their shepherd’s voice—his smell, his footfalls, his manner. His rod and staff—even his lumbering gait—comfort them.

So sheep aren’t dumb—which makes me feel better. They just don’t want to be pushed around; and, unlike cows, they know their shepherd.

Nevertheless, sheep are temperamental, needy, smelly, and now and then they butt heads apparently for no reason at all—which is to say they need shepherding.

At this point, the shepherd has some options.

The flock has been together for many years; generations, in fact—baby, parent, and grandparent sheep all living together in community, trying to get along comfortably enough.

But you know how it is. The heat of summer comes around again and the waterhole dries up and the pastures turn brown and dust coats your throat. Some of the sheep, the alphas, are grumpy and begin to argue with one another, to butt heads.

So what does the shepherd do?

One option is to drive the biggest alpha out into the wilderness.

Notice, I said drive. For if the shepherd tries to lead the alpha out, the rest of the flock will follow. To preserve the flock, then, the individual, rogue alpha must be driven out.

What happens to this lone sheep out in the wilderness doesn’t really matter, the shepherd reasons; for the flock will be better off with this alpha’s absence.

Let’s call this method of shepherding the “Independent Cowboy.”

A second option, however, is to divide the flock up.

One alpha is unhappy with another, obviously. The one alpha believes that he was predestined to be a part of this flock and has convinced many other sheep of his opinion; whereas the other alpha believes it is her choice, her free will, to be a part of this flock, and has likewise convinced several others of her opinion.

The shepherd understands this head-butting and decides that the best way to keep the peace is to divide the flock up, according to doctrinal differences.

This method is what I like to call the “Judging Protestant” shepherd.

Of course, yet another shepherd believes in tough love.

He has a rod and staff. These comfort his sheep, he believes, by giving them what they deserve, by keeping them in a state of submission so that they don’t run off to the wolves. He knows what his sheep need much more than they do, after all. Discipline!

I call this the “Medieval Catholic” shepherd.

But Jesus is different than all these other shepherds. Jesus is a good shepherd. And he has lots and lots of sheep, many, in fact, about which we know nothing:

  • Independent, non-denominational sheep;
  • Opinionated, fundamentalist, Protestant sheep;
  • Conservative evangelical sheep;
  • Liberal mainline sheep;
  • Republican sheep;
  • Democrat sheep;
  • Unaffiliated sheep;
  • Dogmatic, Sarum-rite Catholic sheep;
  • Unchurched sheep;
  • Muslim sheep;
  • Atheist sheep.

Talk about head-butting! Yet all these sheep, he says, are part of the same flock.

Jesus is their Good Shepherd just as much as he is ours—whether they know it or not; whether we know it or not.

There will be one flock, one shepherd.

Do you believe this?

Many of you know that I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies in my youth to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after about twenty years!—becoming an Episcopalian.

Lots of dominoes had to fall to get me here, for I believed for a long time that there was only one flock; but that it was small and rather exclusive.

One day, at long last, there I was, with my family, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its theological confidence.

Truth had been debated long and hard through the ages, but we chosen ones had a handle on it better than anyone else. We were enlightened; we understood. Too bad, so sad for you!

But, like Episcopalians, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess its faith weekly in the words of the Nicene Creed.

And so, coming to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” something in my mind clicked. I looked around; and I saw twenty-five or so other people saying the same thing; and I almost laughed out loud.

“No we don’t!” I said to myself. “We don’t believe in a universal church. We’re a tiny sect that has splintered off another tiny sect. We believe in only our church! ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church,’ my foot!”

You see, what clicked that day was this: Christ calls us to be unified, not divided; to community, not isolation.

But unity in the wider Church around the world?

“There will be one flock,” Jesus says, “one shepherd.”

But how?

Like so many other answers to difficult, spiritual questions, it begins here, with us; with what we are already doing: living in community with one another.

When we butt heads, we don’t drive the alphas out from our midst; but work through our differences, knowing that we will be a stronger body for it.

We study and pray together, working through the paradoxes of the Bible with reason; but at the end of the day we set aside our doctrinal disagreements and commune at the same table.

And we don’t coerce by threat of judgment or manipulate each other through fear and guilt; but rather practice the greatest commandment, love, in inviting, welcoming, and including all.

And we do this because:

The Lord is our shepherd—the good shepherd—and thus, we shall not be in want.

He guides his one flock along right pathways and leads us to still, sweet waters and green pastures; where together we eat and drink deeply of his body and blood.

And when one of his flock walks alone, through the valley of the shadow of death, we soon realize that we are not really alone; for he is there with us in and through his community.

In the daily struggles of life, he spreads his table before us.

And, surely, his goodness and mercy, we know, shall follow us, his one flock, all the days of our life; and we shall dwell in his sheepfold forever.


The Greater Commission

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

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

At the conclusion of last week’s service, a parishioner asked me a question about my sermon.

To recall, in last week’s Gospel we heard that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  In other words, he was resolute about fulfilling his mission, about completing the task God had called him to do.

With this mindset, he sent some of his disciples ahead of him into a Samaritan village, in search of hospitality.  Foxes have holes, he said, and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to call home.  He and his disciples were dependent upon others for hospitality—for what they would eat and where they would sleep.

So, those disciples soon returned with bad news.  The Samaritans, it turned out, would not host Jesus and his disciples.

Now, these were Samaritans!  That is, they did not worship the same god as the Jews, but some kind of false amalgamation of a god, something kind of like the Jewish god but also kind of not.

This apparently reminded two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, of a story in their scriptures of a certain prophet of the Most High named Elijah; and how he once called fire down from heaven on four hundred priests of a god named Baal, you know, a god kind of like the god of the Jews but kind of not.

So James and John said, “Jesus, how could they?  Just give us the word, and we’ll call fire from heaven down upon these inhospitable Samaritans!”

But Jesus rebuked them.  They were simply to wipe the dust off their sandals and go on to the next village.

And so Jesus, I explained, had brought us a new plow.  This new plow was not like the old plow of Elijah’s era, one that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Jesus’ new plow, rather, was a plow of love.

Love your enemies, Jesus said.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Turn the other cheek.

This is the new plow upon which Jesus has called us to set our hands and not look back.

Anyway, that was my message from last week in a nutshell.  And the question the parishioner brought forth went something like this:

So then, Father Tim, is Jesus saying we should wipe the dust off our feet regarding followers of other religions? that we should have nothing to do with them?

It’s a worthwhile question.  For we know we are called to love others.  This is the plow to which Jesus has called us.  And loving others often results in discomfort for us.  To seek hospitality from others requires a certain vulnerability on our part.  To put another person’s needs and wants ahead of our own requires an uncomfortable level of humility.  And if we’re rejected, it requires a certain amount of self-control merely to wipe the dust off our feet and walk away rather than calling fire or other curses upon them.

But what if we’re certain—or almost certain—ahead of time that it’s a fool’s errand?  What if we just know already that our vulnerability, humility, and self-control—our self-inflicted discomfort—will simply fall flat?  Can’t we just avoid such discomfort altogether?  I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to take Christ’s message of love somewhere else, where its objects are potentially more receptive?

Well, to cut to the chase, the answer is no.  Christ’s mission of love is for all, whether or not their minds are already made up against it—against us.

We infer this answer from last week’s text.  For Jesus in fact sent his disciples into a village he knew ahead of time to be Samaritan.

He knew ahead of time that these villagers worshiped a different god from his.  He knew ahead of time that Samaritans didn’t normally associate with Jews.  He knew ahead of time that racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was commonplace in Palestine.  He knew ahead of time, in other words, that his disciples would almost certainly be rejected.

And yet he sent them ahead anyway.  For his was (and is) a mission of love.

But this answer is made even clearer in today’s Gospel.

For promoting Jesus’ message and ministry required the disciples to allow themselves to become vulnerable; to humble themselves; and, facing almost certain rejection, to exercise seemingly superhuman self-control.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.  The disciples were to go from place to place, preaching the Good News of Jesus, curing the sick, and accepting whatever hospitality they were offered.

And this was in Palestine, a half-forgotten province of the Roman Empire.

The religious context there went something like this: the Jews did their thing, the Samaritans did their thing, and those of a pagan bent did their thing.  Each group was content with its own religious identity, its own religious ideology.  As the woman at the well so eloquently put it, the Jews worship in their way and the Samaritans worship in their way.  One day all the differences will be cleared up.  But in the meantime, never the twain shall meet.

When it came to religion, there were established traditions and ideologies.  And these established ideologies conflicted with each other.

And now, in Jesus, something else, something new was happening.

His message and ministry seemed Jewish.  Mostly Jewish anyway.  Still, over and over Jesus had opposed the Jewish leaders—of both major parties: both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  His was a message of peace.  But, ironically, the peace he proclaimed was highly conflictive.

So Jesus’ message and ministry flew in the face of the established religious ideologies of his day.

It also flew in the face of political ideologies.

Politically, Rome was in charge.  This meant good things for the privileged classes.  If you were in an upper class, you fared well—as long as you were self-focused and pushy enough to keep yourself in your privileged position.

Rome’s way was thoroughly hierarchical.  This meant you could lose a privileged position.  This also meant others could climb social ladders, sure.  But for a place like Palestine, on the fringe of the Empire, most people were simply half-forgotten.  Most were economically challenged, i. e., lower class.  And there was nothing they could do about it.

Occasionally a messianic figure would come along and offer an uprising, a violent protest against the powers that be.  Judas Maccabeus is perhaps the most well-known example.

But Jesus came along and said, yes, there is in fact an oppressive hand over us all; but, no, we are not to protest violently.

Do you think that this crazy message of new religion and non-violence would have been received by anyone?  It wasn’t just those of a different religious persuasion who would reject Jesus’ disciples and his message.  The disciples also faced almost certain rejection from those most like them, namely, the poor, half-forgotten Jews of Palestine.

Jesus never said following him would be comfortable, simple, or easy.  If anyone is telling you this, don’t listen.  Rather, Jesus says following him will be uncomfortable, even difficult.

This was true for his disciples in Palestine under Roman rule; and it’s true for his disciples in Yuma today.  For, at its core, Jesus’ message and ministry—a message and ministry we carry on to this day—are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, now you’ve gone too far, Father Tim.  What do you mean that Jesus’ message and ministry “is about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world”?  Jesus’ message and ministry is a personal one, about love, peace, and salvation; it’s about saving my soul from sin and eternal damnation.  No one ever said this life would be easy, true.  But that’s just Jesus’ point.  There’s nothing he could do about it; and there’s nothing I can do about it—except to make sure that my walk with Jesus is on the straight and narrow.  That’s all anyone can ever do!

And then you stick your fingers in your ears and break into song:

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away . . .

To which I say, yes, in the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew Jesus commands his disciples to go out into the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So, yes, there is in fact a very personal element to Jesus’ message and ministry.

But here, in Luke, we see another perspective in another commission.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus sends out twelve; but here, in Luke, he sends out seventy.  So, arguably, the commission here in Luke is an even Greater Commission than the so-called Great Commission of Matthew.

At any rate, here Jesus commands his disciples to accept whatever hospitality (or rejection) they’re shown, cure the sick, and (whether received or rejected) proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Do you see?  Doing works—i. .e, ministry—is first.  Preaching—i. e., message—is second.

And as for the message: what is it to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near but to proclaim that all that is now wrong is being made right?

Jesus’ ministry and message is to make wrongs right presently.  It has a personal element, sure.  But, maybe even more, it has a social element.

Jesus’ ministry and message are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Well then, this begs two questions.  First: Do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in our world today?  This is America, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  And second: If so, are we able even to do anything about them?

As to whether oppressive or exclusive systems exist in our day, hindsight is a good place to begin, for, as they say, it’s 20/20.

In relatively recent history, we see now how wrong slavery was.  But did slave owners see slavery as oppressive or exclusive in their day?

As we know, our country was bitterly divided on this issue.  Did you know the Episcopal Church was divided over it too?  On the one hand, slave-owning Episcopal bishops argued from scripture that slavery was an acceptable institution for society’s greater good.  On the other hand, parishes such as the Church of the Transfiguration—still thriving today in Manhattan—were stations on the Underground Railroad.

So, can we learn anything from hindsight?  Our nation and Church were divided over slavery back in the day.  What divides our nation today?  What divides our Church?  This is our starting point.  Then ask: Are any of these divisions based on oppressive or exclusive systems?

An elephant in the room here is human sexuality and the present debates over issues stemming from it:

Does a county clerk have the religious right to protest a gay marriage?  What bathroom should or shouldn’t a trans-woman be able to use?  Is it contrary to the authority of scripture to ordain a homosexual person in a monogamous relationship?

Another elephant, of course, revolves around the second amendment (no pun intended).

And what of all our technological opiates, the healthcare crisis, and our economy, which is founded on credit—or should I say indebtedness?

So, do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in America today?  Sadly, they seem to be everywhere and inescapable.

Perhaps the most important questions in these debates should be about the dignity of all persons.  In our opinions, in our political and religious ideologies, in our constitution and amendments, in our judicatory proceedings, in our bills and laws—for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—we must fight against systems that enable one group of people to oppress or exclude another.

But, you ask, what can I do about it?  I’m simply one individual in an ocean of humanity.

True.  But so were Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus didn’t call them simply to throw up their hands in a helpless shrug.  Instead, he commissioned them to become vulnerable, to seek out the hospitality of others even though it meant almost certain rejection, to offer healing to others, and to proclaim that the kingdom has come near.

And you know what happened?  These few rag-tag, seemingly insignificant disciples went out and did what Jesus commissioned; and they returned to him with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Beloved, it is the same with you.  Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!

Flocking Together

Posted in Homilies with tags , on April 27, 2015 by timtrue

John 10:11-18

I am the good shepherd. . . .  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Sunday after Sunday we recite the Nicene Creed together. “We believe,” it begins.  And so we say our statement of faith, what we believe about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Towards the end, in that section about the Holy Spirit, one of the beliefs we say week in and week out is this: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

One flock.  One shepherd.


Just look around!  In our not-so-large city of 93,064 residents (according to the 2010 census—not including winter visitors), according to, there are 96 churches—and ChurchFinder doesn’t include Mormon churches.  That’s more than one Catholic or Protestant church per thousand residents!

Jesus says, “One flock, one shepherd.”  We say, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  Yet ChurchFinder says that in Yuma alone there are 96 flocks.

Do these conflicting claims make anyone nervous?  Is anyone sort of shifting in their seats right now?

I am.

Some of you know already that this seat-shifting nervousness is part of my own journey to the Episcopal Church.

I started out on my Christian journey in high school.  My parents were divorcing and I was wrestling through my own set of issues founded upon adolescent angst; and I found myself drawn to a Bible study.

I had a lot of questions, of course.  My friends didn’t know any answers.  My parents were too busy navigating their way through their own set of issues.  If nothing else, this Bible study seemed to point me in the right direction when no one else did—or, maybe better, when no one else could.  It didn’t provide all the answers I sought; but it wrestled with many of the same serious questions I was wrestling with—questions about God, sin, salvation, truth, being, and belief.

So, through this Bible study I began to ask questions about things like baptism, Communion, and joining a church.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” the Bible study leaders told me.  “Churches are too wrapped up in their own issues.  They’ve established traditions.  These traditions lead to rituals.  And rituals produce religiosity.  You don’t need religiosity; you only need Christ—Christianity.  Churches just get in the way.”

So they said.  Still, as I read through the Bible—with the Bible study but increasingly more so on my own—I couldn’t reason around all that’s in the Bible about community—including organized community worship.  It’s all over the place!  In both the Old and New Testaments!  We are nowhere called to be followers of Christ by ourselves; but everywhere we hear words like, koinonia—fellowship; oikos—household of faith; and ekklesia—congregation, or assembly.

So, I concluded, like it or not, regardless of what my Bible study leaders were saying, I needed to become part of a church!

Well, I don’t need to go into too many more details now.  Suffice that I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after some twenty years!—becoming an Episcopalian.

Lots of dominoes had to fall to get me here too, let me tell you; and I’m sure many of you have similar stories; but, for now, just the clincher: the final domino to fall:

There we were, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its theological confidence.  Truth had been debated long and hard through the ages, but we chosen ones felt we had a handle on it better than almost anyone else.

One of these truths we were quite sure of was the Nicene Creed.  And so, like Episcopalians do most every Sunday, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess the faith weekly in its words.

And every Sunday we’d come to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” and I’d look around.  And I’d see twenty-five or so people saying the same thing.  And I’d think to myself,

“No we don’t!  We believe that we’ve got a better handle on the truth than most other Christians in the world; and so we don’t even want to identify with them.  ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church,’ my foot!”

Which led me into a long, arduous personal study of Church history, with a specific question in mind: What churches today maintain a tangible connection to the one holy catholic and apostolic Church—in other words, to the early Church?  And my conclusion was (and is) that the main Christian bodies in America today connected to the early Church are Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Episcopal Church.

And, as you can see, I chose the Episcopal Church.

Now, have you ever tried to seek unity in the (wider) Church? It’s not easy.

On the surface it sounds like a good idea, sure.  But what happens when we get into the details?

What about celebrating a community Eucharist?  We Episcopalians do something along these lines from time to time, actually—every time we celebrate the Eucharist at a wedding, funeral, or (in my own recent experience) school chapel.  In each of these settings, any number of different faith perspectives—or no faith at all—is represented.

And, I can tell you, confusion is the name of the game.

You’ve got good Catholics, for instance, who come forward to the rail because they don’t want to look like they’re making some kind of protest.  But then they put their arms across their chests.  There’s nothing wrong with this gesture, really; but when they do this they’re not actually communing with Christ and his people.

Then there are the Methodists who feel that wine with alcohol is sinful, and that grape juice—preferably Welch’s grape juice (for the Welch family is a great benefactor of the Methodist Church)—is the only acceptable blood of Christ; and so they abstain from partaking of the chalice.

Baptists are weirded out simply by the idea of coming forward to a rail; and, anyway, for them there’s nothing sacramental about Communion.  So they just stay in their seats.

And so on.  Seeking unity in the Church—the universal Church (which is what the word catholic means)—is not easy.  In fact, the tendency seems to be just the opposite: not unity but division.  A part of a congregation finds a problem, a faction forms, and before you know it a group ends up breaking away and forming another, independent congregation, completely dissociating themselves from the first congregation.

Yet Jesus says, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.” It is going to happen.

Leaving us with a question: how?

Well, the short of it is, I don’t know how.  I look around and I see all the controversies and arguments, all the differences and divisions within the Church, and (confession) it’s difficult for me to believe Jesus’s promise.

But it’s like anything else that’s presently a mess.  (Oh, did I just say the Church is a mess?  Yeah, I did.)  It begins with you, as an individual; and with us, a corporate body.

As individuals and as a corporate body of disciples, then:

We need to view Jesus as our good shepherd.

What comes to mind when you hear the word good?  If this word brings quality to mind, you’re not alone.  We describe things as being good or bad, one or the other.  Someone might report, “I found some really good bananas at the grocery store today”; and we have a pretty good idea what that person means.

But the Greek word here for goodkalos—has very little to do with quality.  When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” it’s not so simple as to say, “I’m not a bad shepherd.”  Rather, it has a much fuller meaning, like model, or ideal—something like Plato’s forms.

When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, he means us to hear that he is ordered, sound, noble, true, competent, faithful, and praiseworthy.

He is everything the hired hand—the substitute—is not.

He knows you by name; and he has your best interest at heart.

But not just your name; not just your interests!  Look around you.  Jesus is the good shepherd to every face you see here today.  He knows each person here by name.  He has each person’s best interests at heart.

And it doesn’t stop there!  Think of all the people you don’t see here today, the billions of unknown names and unfamiliar faces carrying on their lives around the world today.  Jesus knows each of them intimately, just as he knows us.  He is their good shepherd too.

Also, we need to view Jesus as our one and only shepherd.

When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he says the, meaning one and only.  It’s a deliberate definite article.  Jesus is our one and only model shepherd.  Not Buddha; not Mohammed; not Joseph Smith; not Gandhi; not Jim Mathes; not Tim True, but only Jesus.

Yeah, I just went there.  People like me—pastors; spiritual leaders—need to get their egos out of the way and let Jesus truly be in charge!  There’s one shepherd!  Now, there might be some sheep who are better leaders than other sheep; but they’re still sheep!

And therefore, we need to see ourselves as part of one flock—whose main focus is the good shepherd.

We are all sheep together, following one leader, one leader’s vision.  We’re not called to do it independently!  We are called to walk the valley of the shadow of death with others; and to cry out to Christ—bleat to the good shepherd—when one of our fellow sheep wanders away into trouble or uncertainty.

There will be one flock, one shepherd.

Do you truly believe this?  Do you truly believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church?

2014 Lent 5

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , on March 10, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 1:1-19

The lectionary today offers passages about beginnings.  There’s this one, to which I will turn my focus in a moment, the beginning of a letter written to the first church at Corinth by St. Paul.  There’s also the first thirteen verses of the Gospel of Mark; and the beginning of the story of Joseph in Genesis (37:1 ff.).  This theme of beginnings strikes me as serendipitous: I am writing from a Panera in Conway, Arkansas, where I have just enjoyed breakfast with my high school senior.  We’re here for the next eight hours to visit Hendrix College, one of several colleges to which she’s been accepted and which are waiting on her now to decide.  A child about to graduate high school and transition from adolescence to adulthood?  New beginnings!

As for Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, I peeked ahead in the Prayer Book lectionary and saw that the entire book of I Corinthians has been laid out over the next few weeks.  This excites me, for I’m a systematic thinker; and this should allow me fodder from which to write in a systematic way over the next several weeks as I read, mark, learn, inwardly digest, and otherwise think my way through the letter.  Also, a key theme in this letter comes out in today’s selection; namely, division.

Yeah!  There was a great deal of division in the Corinthian church, despite the fact that it had been recently begun by someone so holy as St. Paul!  Factions abounded (suggested today); social injustices occurred regularly; immorality was somewhat commonplace.

So why does this division excite me?  It’s actually unity that excites me.  I’m all about factions, injustices, and immoralities ceasing and instead people binding together for the common cause of Christ.  Reading through this letter and thinking through these issues and penning some thoughts should help me understand Christian unity better.  Perhaps it will help you too.

Unity a Sign of Spiritual Maturity

Posted in Doing Church, Homilies with tags , , , on January 19, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 1:1-9

Mature.  It’s a curious adjective, isn’t it?

In the world of agriculture we use it to describe a plant that has the ability to bear fruit.  For example, grape vines are not considered mature until their third year; for they cannot bear grapes until then.  And even then it’s debatable.  For the grapes produced in the third year are generally few and far between.  It is not really until the fourth year that full bunches, rich and plump, appear on the vine; it is not really until the fourth year that we can call grapevines mature.  (Keep that in mind if the whim ever strikes you to go into wine-making.)

So there’s agriculture.  But we also use the word mature—and variations of it, like immature—to describe people, don’t we?  Oh, I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard these words thrown casually around my house!  An argument breaks out at the dinner table, or someone does something unpredicatably silly, for a laugh or whatever; and I know what’s going to follow: those three overused words, that well-known adolescent mantra: “You’re so immature!”  You know what I’m talking about?

But unlike with agriculture, to describe another person as mature or immature leaves a lot of wiggle room.  It’s not so easy to say a person is mature because he or she can bear fruit.  Granted, this may be true in a strictly physical sense; we won’t get into that here.  But what about an emotional sense?  Or a spiritual?  Can we ever really say that we’ve become fully emotionally mature as a human being, always and completely able to maintain control over our feelings?  Sometimes I may display a great deal of maturity with respect to controlling my anger, for instance; but the very next day I slip back into an immature loss of temper!

No, for human beings, the term mature is relative.  At least, it’s relative until the Kingdom of God is fully realized.

This is the idea that Paul is getting at in his first letter to the Corinthians—or part of the idea anyway.  The congregation in Corinth recently had been called out of its old life of sin into a new life in Christ.  It was made up of new believers.  In a spiritual sense they were immature.  Now some time had passed since Paul had planted this church.  And, as is the natural process with any living organism, Paul expected to see a maturing process.  But this process was not happening as quickly as he had expected it to—or as quickly as it needed to in order to sustain itself.

Do you recall what was going on at the Church in Corinth?  Perhaps most famously there was social division.  The rich and the poor were not getting along.  The rich, in fact, were drinking all the wine and eating all the bread at the Eucharist, leaving nothing for the poor.

But this social division was just the tip of the iceberg!  Without going into too much detail, let me just say that Corinth was the Las Vegas of the ancient world.  What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth—and there was a lot that happened in Corinth!  And this lot characterized the church there.

Anyway, all this divisiveness led Paul to say (3:1): “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as a spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”  He had fed them with spiritual formula, as a caregiver would feed an infant.  But instead of them maturing to a point spiritually where they no longer needed formula, to a point where they could feed themselves, they still weren’t ready for the solid food of Christ.  They were big spiritual babies.  They were immature.

Now I don’t know about you, but all this talk about divisiveness being a sign of spiritual immaturity makes me uncomfortable.  After all, what’s wrong with shaking things up a little?  What if I see something going on in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School that I disagree with?  I pledge.  Don’t I therefore have a right to sound my voice and make my opinions known?

Good question!  The answer is yes—and no.

I’m not saying that we need to agree on everything.  In fact, quite the contrary!  We need to disagree.  For we live in a constant tension as individuals in relationship with one another.  As individuals, we form our own opinions according to how God has made uniquely each one of us; but in relationship I continuously butt up against other individuals who see things differently than I.  So disagreement should be expected, and is maybe even essential to life.  And so, yes, I—you have a right to make your opinions known.

But the issue is how you go about making your opinions known.  Do you divide and conquer, as it were?  You see something you don’t like.  Fine!  It happens to all of us.  But then what?  Do you pull people aside, hoping to win them to your side in hushed whispers?  Do you think in terms of us vs. them, or of my people and your people?  Do you put yourself in some sort of category that you imagine is somehow superior to another—whether it be social status, the color of your skin, your gender, or your sexual orientation?  Such excluding behavior is according to the old way, the way of sin, the life you knew before Christ, what Paul calls the flesh.  Such excluding behavior too, by the way, is at the root of all sorts of social evils like bigotry, racism, and bullying.

But what happened in Corinth needs to stay in Corinth!  That was your old life, your old way of dealing with disagreement.  You are now a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  So act like it!

When disagreement arises, and it will, deal with it according to the Kingdom’s rules, not Corinth’s.  Don’t pull someone aside and whisper your cause into their itching ears!  Instead, go to the one with whom you disagree in love, loving the Lord your God as you go; and loving that other person, who is your neighbor, as yourself.  And seek reconciliation!

Right?  We should not seek to create factions, but unity.  Unity is a sign of maturity in Christ.

Now, here’s the good news: even with all the divisiveness that went on in Corinth, Paul nevertheless saw the Corinthians’ potential.

That’s what we read today: a vision of spiritual maturity.  The Christians in Corinth, Paul writes, are already sanctified in Christ Jesus.  They are already saints.  Despite the present disagreements!  Despite the present arguments!  Despite the present factions!  In fact, Christ is presently among them, enriching them and strengthening them to overcome their divisions, to become more and more mature as a corporate body.

It is just the same today, here, with us.  Whatever factions there are among us, and however poorly we deal with them, we are already sanctified; we are already saints.  Christ is present among us, enriching us in all things and strengthening us to overcome our divisions; and thereby we can become more and more mature in him.

Let us therefore pray to this end: for ourselves as individuals; for the corporate body of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School; and for the wider Church.

. . . .  Amen.