Deja vu

I try not to complain about preaching for couple of reasons.  One, because I love it.  The process of prayer, study, writing, editing, and delivering a sermon is one of the best parts of my vocation.  Two, because I’m spoiled.  With the exception of a couple of 2 to 3 month stints due to sabbaticals or health issues, in twelve years of ordained ministry, I’ve never worked as a solo priest.  There has always been someone (or sometwo) with whom I share the preaching load.  That being said, this morning as I opened the lessons for Sunday knowing that I’m not the one preaching, I had one of those, “are we here again already” moments.  It seems like I just preached on Luke 15:1-10.

The reality of the Lectionary cycle is that this lesson hasn’t been read on a Sunday in three years, so if I have dealt with this lesson recently, it was probably at a Wednesday service, but there is something about the Lost Parables that is so familiar, it really can cause deja vu.  It doesn’t take but a few words past the grumbling Pharisees to realize where we are and to elicit a quick and somewhat emotional response.  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them…”  I know where this is going… “does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?”  None Jesus.  Not a single person in their right mind would do this.  The one dumb lost sheep is not worth the potential cost of losing 99 others that you have to leave alone in the wilderness, subjected to the elements, to wolves, and to thieves, to find it.  Same goes for the old lady who spends more on the party she throws on finding one coin than the value of that coin.

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It just isn’t something that people do.  That’s why these stories have such stickiness.  And it’s exactly Jesus’ intent.  Nobody does such extravagant things over finding that which has been lost, but God does.  All of heaven rejoices when one sinner repents, even more than the joy that is experienced when 99 righteous do their righteous things because Jesus came to seek and save the lost.  Here’s the rub.  All of us are lost.  There is no herd of 99 good sheep hanging around dutifully waiting on their shepherd.  All of us are, as the old hymn goes, “prone to wander.”  So it is that we should all rejoice at how foolish God is to leave the safety of heaven, come to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, seeking to find every last dumbass, self-serving, wandering sheep.  Even you and even me.

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Cost/Benefit Analysis

Last weekend, the Episcopal Church published its annual compilation of Parochial Report statistics. I used to pour over these numbers with great interest, but time doesn’t allow for that any more.  Thankfully God still makes seminarians like Ben Crosby from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale who has both time and energy to dig into such things.[1]  As expected, the decline continues.  The median Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in an Episcopal congregation is 53 people, which is lower than the median ASA of our 8 am service.  There are now more congregations with an ASA under 10 than there are parishes with an ASA over 300.  My friend Tom Ferguson also noted that given that the Episcopal Church is 87% Anglo in a nation that is only 62% white and that our average age is 57, compared to an average age of about 37 in the US, the Episcopal Church is becoming less and less able to make the necessary changes to turn the tide around.[2]  As you might imagine, there is not a little bit of hand-wringing and anxiety among leaders in the Episcopal Church over numbers like this.  We might find some solace in the reality that almost every Christian denomination from the Southern Baptists to the Roman Catholics is experiencing statistically significant decline, but if our mission is, as our Prayer Book says, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” then we are clearly failing.[3]

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins by telling us that large crowds of people were travelling with Jesus.  Given the current rate of decline in the Episcopal Church, it would make sense to look to Jesus to see what he can teach us about church growth.  “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  OK, well, let’s look some more.  “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  Surely, there’s something we can use. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Huh.  Well.  I’m not quite sure Jesus is the church growth guru for us.  It’s no wonder that by the time he arrives at the cross no one but his mom, his closest friend, and a few faithful women were left hanging around.

How do we reconcile these two conflicting forces?  If we learn from Jesus that it is about depth of commitment and not necessarily bigger numbers, but are also pretty certain that our mission calls us to reach out to all people, what are we supposed to do?  Where is the sweet spot between the church with a rock band and fog machine that is designed to appeal to everyone and the old Celtic tradition of wading neck deep into the freezing cold waters of the North Sea and reciting all 150 Psalms from memory?  I think the key to unlocking this puzzle comes in the example Jesus gives about building a tower.  “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether there is enough to complete it? Otherwise, when the foundation has been laid and there isn’t enough to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule the builder.”

Following Jesus comes at a cost.  The Church is not called to be everything for everyone.  We are not here to make following Jesus easy, comfortable, or entertaining, but rather to offer an honest assessment of what life is like in the Kingdom of God.  As a Church, we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to make sacrifices of our time to attend worship; to offer our gifts and talents to the ongoing mission and ministry of God in the world; and to give of our financial resources for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  As a congregation of disciples, the Episcopal arm of the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, we are called to love our neighbors and our enemies; to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to welcome the stranger.  None of this is easy.  All of it is risky.  Being the Church in the example of Jesus Christ comes at a real cost to us both personally and corporately.

Jesus wants us to know the costs before we start the journey so that we might not lose heart when the going gets tough.  All those who are willing to walk this path, the way of the cross, are invited to come along.  Thankfully, we know that this is not a journey we walk alone.  With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we walk with a community of disciples, arm-in-arm with the communion of saints who have gone before, eking ever closer to the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The cost may be high, the model may not be a popular one, but the rewards for us and for the world God created are well worth it.  May God bless us with the resources and the stamina to walk with Jesus on the path to eternal life.  Amen.

[1] https://twitter.com/benjamindcrosby/status/1168317805894279173 accessed 9/5/2019.

[2] http://crustyoldean.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-collapse-is-here.html accessed 9/5/2019.

[3] BCP, p. 855.

Possibility

Yesterday’s post was a bit of a downer.  Using the example of the failed Born2Run sports complex in my wife’s hometown, I argued that failing to count the cost of true discipleship can have lasting effects and lots of collateral damage.  Today, I’d like to suggest that there is hope.  You see, the story of Born2Run didn’t end with a vacant building and unpaid debts, and while the Microtel that was built adjacent to the property now stands condemned due to years of neglect, the way over built property has found new life thanks to some imaginative leaders in the community.

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After years of lawsuits and tax sales, the abandoned property was ultimately purchased at pennies on the dollar by Hovis Auto and Truck Supply, a local Federated Auto Parts dealer for use as a distribution center.  With some minor tweaks to the building, the cavernous space that was once full of big dreams has finally been put back to use making a positive impact in the community.  It has created jobs, brought in tax revenue, and taken an eyesore of a property and put it to good use.

It seems to me that there is a lesson in this for the Church.  One that comes on the backside of the rather stark teaching of Jesus in Luke 14.  One that we Christians might call resurrection.  Things die.  We all know that, even if we sometimes like to pretend it isn’t true.  But things die.  Programs run their course.  Churches built in a community to meet a certain need might need to die when that community changes and the need goes away.  And as the Crusty Old Dean points out with wisdom and a whole lot of words, maybe denominationalism needs to die as well in order to make room for what God is fixin’ to do next.

Even if you don’t want to go that far, it is clear that this time in American Christianity is, to slightly alter a phrase first suggested by the late Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer, in a time of sheriff sales.  What was is no more, and we have an opportunity to, with some imagination and trust in the Spirit, make wholesale changes to take the abandoned sports complexes of yesteryear and turn them into something that will change the world through the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In my doctoral thesis, I argued that the Episcopal Church has the potential to engage in resurrection and find new ways of being the Church if we are willing to:

  1. Come to know who we are and what we are about
  2. Raise up disciples
  3. Boldly go and tell our story
  4. Not be afraid to fail

It is that fourth piece that seems more crucial to me now than ever before.  Having counted the cost of maintaining the status quo, we must be willing to name the truth that much of what our congregations have to offer programmatically is dead on the vine.  Rather than continuing to throw good money after bad, let’s take that money and invest it in possibility, in a hope-filled future.  If we fail, we’ve not lost much more than we’d lose by simply draining our endowments paying for life-support when hospice was the smarter option.  If we succeed, and as Christians who believe that a) the Church belongs to Christ and b) in the power of resurrection, we can’t help but trust that success is possible, our communities of faith and the neighborhoods in which they live and move and have their being, will be beacons of hope in a world that desperately needs it.

Count the Cost

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Before going to seminary, I spent 18 months or so working for my father-in-law’s construction company.  As a fresh-faced business grad, I had some… few… well, very few of the skills that his growing office needed to get organized and poised for growth.  While working for him, I was a part of a couple of big projects that came down the pipeline, perhaps none bigger than the Born2Run Sports Complex.  The developer, Michelle Properties came in like a dad on Thanksgiving.  Eyes as big a saucers, they piled big idea onto big idea.  In northwestern Pennsylvania, where it snows 60% of the year and rains the other 90%, indoor sports facilities make a lot of sense, so let’s build six of them, but let’s aim it at sports that people aren’t really playing like indoor lacrosse and soccer, with basketball as an afterthought.  And, for that one weekend of summer, let’s have state-of-the-art outdoor turf fields in order to host a single soccer tournament a year.  And lest it be an eyesore, let’s make not be happy with steel warehouse type structures, but let’s cover them in faux stone so that we can have the biggest and best boondoggle in the area.

What they forgot, of course, was market research and cash reserves.  Having way overspent on the initial phase that was way too big, they could never sell folks on using the facility.  Nobody wanted to pay the price.  There weren’t enough hotels or restaurants.  Even after getting Nike to hold a coaches clinic with big names like Tubby Smith, then head coach at UK, they couldn’t make enough to pay their debts, let alone turn a profit.  As the nay-sayers shook their heads and laughed, while the newspaper wrote great headlines like, “Born to Sit Empty,” folks like my father-in-law were left to write off six-figure debts as the property went up on the auction block.

In our Gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus uses the example of a builder who doesn’t estimate the cost of construction to talk about the need for disciples to fully understand what they are signing up for.  While in his example, Jesus talks about the ridicule of those who start out to do something big and fail at it, what’s more interesting to me is the collateral damage done by the foolishness of those who don’t consider the cost.  Pride will be the downfall of American Christianity as evangelicals and mainliners alike come to the realization that easy, comfortable Christianity that is aligned with power isn’t true discipleship at all.  The damage done to those on the inside, who made the bad decisions and overspent their religiosity is sad, but it is the damage done to the faithful, the nones, the dones, and the interested that is truly devastating.  As we heard in today’s Daily Office reading from James, those who have taught will be [rightfully] judged more harshly.

As the Episcopal Church does its annual hand-wringing over the latest statistics dump, we need to take honest stock of the damage that we have done to ourselves pining after a golden era that never really existed, but more importantly, we should repent of the ways in which our desires to be close to the seat of power and privilege has done great harm to those who might have been open to the expression of the good news of Jesus Christ as we understand it.  Counting the cost isn’t just about what it means for me, but it is also about what it means for the world around us, the world who sees our folly, laughs, and writes off the whole Christian enterprise as a result.

Seeing and Being Seen

I am more and more convinced that the primary goal of Christian discipleship is learning how to see the world through the eyes of God.  The means to that end – Bible reading, prayer, worship, and acts of loving service – are all intended to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us, which should, it would seem, compel us, as the hands and feet of Christ, to get about that work.  To me, there is perhaps no better example of this calling than the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday from Luke 13.

The deck is stacked against the woman with the crippling spirit.  It has been 18 years since she was able to stand up straight.  18 years is a long time to live with a disability, and, if we are honest, it is a really long time for people to maintain compassion.  In the early days, I’m sure many saw her and had pity.  As the months went by, fewer and fewer people even saw her.  Eventually, even her closest friends began to forget about her.  Maybe even her family, weary of carrying her burden, fell away.  In modern times, we hear stories of those confined to a wheel chair who, because they sit below the typical line of sight, feel invisible even in the hallways of hospitals.

When Luke tells us that his woman “appeared,” it isn’t that she just fell out of the sky, but rather, for the first time in years, she was seen, known, cared for, and loved.  The Greek word that gets translated by the NRSV as “appeared” is horao, which means, variously:

  1. to see with the eyes
  2. to see with the mind; to perceive, to know
  3. to see, i.e. to become acquainted with by experience
  4. to see, to look to
    1. to take heed
    2. to care for
  5. to appear
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Barbara Schawrz, OP, “Jesus and the Bent Over Woman,” acrylic on canvas, 2014.

After 18 long years of being invisible, Jesus arrived at the Synagogue where, presumably, she had gone to pray at least weekly, likely daily, for her healing.  A new set of eyes raises the chances that she is seen, but she is still a woman in the first century, it is the Sabbath, she is still crippled, a sign of uncleanliness.  Yet, Jesus saw her, the same Greek root for her appearance, called her over, and declared her healed.  She didn’t come seeking Jesus.  She didn’t ask to be healed.  She had more than likely given up hope by now.  But, she was seen, and in being seen, she was healed.

Much of the world remains invisible to me.  There are people I can’t see, and people I choose not to see.  There are stories that ares systematically hidden.  There are motives that are well hidden.  As followers of Jesus, as we deepen faith and grow as disciples, more and more will be revealed to us.  It is dangerous work, this seeing business, but it is our calling.  To see, to perceive, to experience, and to care for the world around us.

The False Idol of Peace

It is startling to read it.  I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to hear.  The Rabbi who had made a career out of bringing people in, no matter what it was that had put them out, now stands before the disciples and says, “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”  They didn’t even have 150 years of the Christmas Industrial Complex messing up their heads with saccharine images of radically counter-cultural events capped, without any sense of irony, with the phrase “Peace on Earth” boldly emblazoned above or below.

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This idea of peace has, in many ways, become an idol for modern, western Christians.  That following Jesus would mean power, privilege, and comfort is so beyond the pale of what it meant to be a disciple in the first three centuries after Christ’s resurrection that I’m not sure Jesus would have any idea what he was looking at if he met the average white, middle-class, American Christian on their way to church on a Sunday morning.

Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth.  Even before he said it, we should have known.  By breaking bread with notorious sinners and tax collectors, he challenged the status quo.  By healing on the sabbath, he challenged the status quo.  By talking with women, by challenging the religious authorities, by speaking in parables, bringing the dead back to life, and by preaching the Kingdom of God, he challenged the status quo.  Everything Jesus did and said pushed against the notion that God is supposed to work for us, making our lives peaceful, and challenged future disciples to be prepared for difficulties that would come when they tried to follow his example.

Living out the Law of the Kingdom that Christ came to inaugurate means loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  It means loving your neighbor as yourself.  It means laying down idols like peace, security, comfort, power, and privilege.  It means putting the needs of the other ahead of your own.  It means sharing with those who are in need.  It means calling to account systems of oppression and degradation.  I means voting based on something other than “it’s the economy, stupid.”  It means shopping based on something other than the cheapest price tag.  It means, as our exemplars in the faith like the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Jeremy Taylor, Florence Nightingale, and Clare of Assisi can attest, being downright uncomfortable because the living out of our faith puts us at direct odds with the leaders of our time.

As one whose livelihood depends upon the gifts of others, I’m preaching to myself here.  Peace is an idol for me because it means keeping my family fed, clothed, and housed.  I’ve not always said what the Gospel would have me say or lived the way that Christ would have me live, but day-by-day, my faith grows a little stronger, my trust grows a little deeper, and the ledge feels just a little bit safer.  May each of us find that place where the idol of peace can be set aside and the revolutionary Gospel of Jesus Christ can be fully proclaimed.

The Kingdom is Now

One of the problems with being a lectionary-based preacher who doesn’t preach every week is that the appointed passages can begin to take on a life of their own, independent of the larger story.  They become bite-sized morsels, almost as if they are proverbs that you can just dust off for a week, only to eventually place them back into their slot in a compendium of vaguely spiritual ideas.  One week, it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Another week, we read about Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary.  Next, we get the Lord’s Prayer or the Rich Fool.  Taken separately, each of these short passages offers us a lesson.  Love your neighbor.  Focus on the Kingdom.  Prayer deepens our relationships.  Be rich toward God.  None of these are bad things, but taken in isolation, we learn only in part what it means to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I really struggled this week with what seemed like the most isolated of all the lessons we’ve had lately.  On Wednesday, I was in the car, driving to make a hospital visit, when I heard a quote from one of my favorite modern philosophers, Nicholas Lou Saban that put it all together.  Nick Saban is, for those who don’t know, the head football coach at the University of Alabama.  Coach Saban is one of the most fluent coach-speakers in the history of coach speak.  He can spend 20 minutes talking and say nothing at all.  Yet somehow, in this case, as I listened, I began to realize that, put back together, the last five weeks of Gospel lessons have had a consistent theme running through.  With the ubiquitous bottle of Coca-Cola Classic placed in the sight of the camera, Coach Saban spoke to reporters about the importance of his players focusing only on today.

UA Coaches Press Conference

“It’s really important that they focus on what they control today.  We have so many players here who get frustrated about what happened yesterday, or they get a little complacent because they had success yesterday.  And then we get some players who get worried about what is going to happen in the future.  Really, what you do today, correctly, making the right choices and decisions… that’s what really prepares you for the future… You know, all of us are a little bit addicted to tomorrow. I’ll quit smoking tomorrow. I’ll go on a diet tomorrow… I’ll start studying tomorrow, but really making it happen today is the way you improve. That’s the way we’ll get better. That’s the way you’ll create more value for yourself and that’ll really help our team get a lot better as well.”

Dan and Stu, the sports-talk guys I was listening to, unpacked what Coach Saban was saying, noting that he was actually tapping into something that is taught in many of the world’s religions.  “It’s not just great coaching.  You will find… there is great wisdom in that that you will find in a spiritual quest.  Eckhart Tolle [who, by the way, changed his name due to the influence of the 13th century Christian Mystic, Meister Eckhart] has written about the power of now.  The two things that happen in life that contaminate a human… are regret, which is yesterday, and fear, which is tomorrow.”[1]  As I listened, I realized that over the last five weeks, as we’ve walked with Jesus all around the Galilean countryside, the larger lesson that Luke is trying to convey to his readers is to focus on the now in order to be present to what God has given you and to what God is calling you in this moment.

It began two chapters ago with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A lawyer, who was fearful about the future, asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  The response, that the law is summed up simply in “love God and love your neighbor,” is totally dependent on the now.  True love, the sort of love of which Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection serves as an example, can only exist in the now.  As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “true love keeps no record of wrongs” – it is not worried about the past, and “true love does not envy” – it is not focused on what I can get next.  Real love exists in this moment as you choose, minute by minute, to seek what is best for the person God has placed right in front of you.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite live in fear and worry, focused only on the future, and so, they pass by the injured traveler.  The Good Samaritan, however, was present to the need that God had placed right in front of him and thereby loved his neighbor.

Again, in the story of Jesus being welcomed into Martha’s home, we learn about the power of now.  In the hustle and bustle of the day, Martha was distracted by so many things that her worries were actively pulling her away from the gift that was sitting right in front of her.  When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he stressed the importance of hoping for the Kingdom to come, and that they should seek forgiveness for the sins of the past, but that their prayer should be focused on what God has set before each of us today, “give us this day our daily bread.”  Even last week, in the parable of the rich fool, we hear about the importance of being thankful in the present moment.  There is no wisdom in storing up treasures for tomorrow, but instead, we are called to share what we have right now with those whom God has set before us.

That theme continues into this week’s Gospel lesson with Jesus encouraging his disciples using the words that the spokespeople of God have used since the very beginning, “Do not be afraid.”  The Lectionary skipped us over similar teachings about worry, and Jesus’ famous line about the lilies of the field, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  During the long journey toward the cross, I have no doubt that the disciples were wracked with fear and filled with worry.  Where would they sleep?  How would they find food?  Had they hitched their wagon to the wrong leader as it seemed clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in political leadership or military power.

In the midst of it all, Jesus looked at them and said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  There is nothing that can be done about the sins of the past, but to seek forgiveness.  You have no power of the future, other than what you can do right now to make it better.  So, be present to the possibility of today.  Sell your possessions in order to meet the needs of your neighbor.  Put your trust in the Lord who will supply all your needs.  The Kingdom of God is available to you right now, if you will only be present to it.

As Coach Saban so wisely observed, the world is addicted to tomorrow.  The 24-hour news cycle, which blares at us in every waiting room, dining room, and gas pump, is dependent upon our fear of what tomorrow might bring.  Advertisers and lobbyists make their obscenely comfortable livelihoods by getting us addicted to the regrets of the past and the fear of the future, and then selling us on their particular solution to it.  Fear is the foundation of all the -isms which plague our nation: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and xenophobia, to name a few.  Fear is the root cause and the goal of the proliferation of violent acts that terrorize us on an almost daily basis.  The Kingdom of God, into which Jesus invites each of us, offers something completely different.  In the Kingdom of God, peace surpasses fear, love outweighs anger, and forgiveness overcomes regret.  It truly is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, but you have to be present to win.  Your eyes must be open to the needs of your neighbor and to the gifts God has given you.  It is what each of us chooses to do with the now that will help bring the Kingdom just a little bit closer to earth as it is in heaven.  Do not be afraid, my friends, for it is God’s desire to bring forth the Kingdom through you: right here, right now.  Amen.

[1] The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, August 6, 2019, Podcast “Hour 3: Ron Magill”