A Time to Build, Part III in a Series

Oftentimes when rectors write a series of articles looking toward the possibility of a building campaign, the focus is on a new structure. In my experience the structures have been “family life centers” or education wings. Important projects, no doubt, and we certainly have them at St Timothy’s, albeit we have a better “family life center” (Drake Hall) than an education wing. Practically speaking, however, these buildings are often the least used. Education wings are used on Sundays or maybe even on Wednesdays. Parish Halls or family life centers are used a couple of times a week for specific purposes. Again, I’m not discounting their role or importance, but I am saying that is not where, in terms of space and square footage, the Christian rubber meets the Church road. 

The most traveled piece of real estate in any church is the path between the font and the altar. I mean that spiritually and physically. Spiritually, our entrance into the faith and the Church is through waters and Sacrament of Holy Baptism. That is why the font is placed at the entrance (west end) of the Church. It is one of the first things we see when we enter and one of the last things we see when we depart, intentionally so. We enter the Church through baptism and we leave reminded who and whose we are.

Each week we are strengthened by the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood. At the Eucharist, Our Lord’s self-offering on Calvary is made present to us. We are there on Good Friday. The Second Vatican Council wonderfully explained the Eucharist as “the source and summit of our life.” After initiation through Baptism, we find our strength for the journey and the destination of our journey through Christ’s Body and Blood. 

Think about the slate path that is worn down every single day between the font and the altar. I think of that path as the highway in which we move in the very life of Jesus Christ. I think about the people that walk down that path on Sundays and during the week. I’ve watched brides walk down that path and I’ve led the bodies of beloved parishioners over the same space. I’ve seen baptisms and confirmations and I’ve seen the heavy steps of penitents on their way to confession and the subsequent lightness of their feet after receiving absolution. I’ve seen people angry as they come up for communion. I’ve seen tears. I’ve seen faith and I’ve seen doubt. The stone in our floor supports the whole of human experience in the thirty of so yards from the font to the altar.

Addressing our worship space, especially the font and the altar, makes the most practical sense to me in at least two ways. First it is the space that is used by the most number of people and the most number of times. In terms of practicality, this is the “high traffic area” and therefore needs constant attention. Secondly, this area is the invitation to life in Christ. The very fact of its presence is a constant invitation and reminder of our life in Jesus, not only to our own members, but to those who happen to visit on Sunday and those who walk in during the week. The font and the altar are who we are. We are people grafted into Christ’s Body and have received the washing away of sin and are strengthened weekly by the very Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. 

Today (March 22) we commemorate on the Church Kalendar James De Koven. He was a priest and educator. He was controversial at the time because of his liturgical practices (he was called a ritualist) and was elected twice as bishop of two different dioceses. He did not, however, receive enough consents from other dioceses to actually be consecrated. At the General Convention of 1874, he said this, “You may take away from us, if you will, every external ceremony; you may take away altars, and super-altars, lights and incense and vestments; . . . and we will submit to you. But, gentlemen . . . to adore Christ’s Person in his Sacrament—that is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart. How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies with which we do it, are utterly, utterly, indifferent. The thing itself is what we plead for.” 

As I wrote last week, we do not need anything to adore Our Lord. We plead for the thing itself. That is what is important. But to honor Our Lord with a holy space and to elevate that path between the font and the altar as the highway to God is indeed meet and right.

A Time to Build, Part II in a Series

Among all the wonderful photos that exist of beautiful liturgies in beautiful churches, among my favorites are ones that show neither. A quick Google search of images from “mass during war” yields picture after picture of both priest and platoon risking their lives in an open field or in a formerly solid church, now feeble and barely standing. I love these pictures because they show the beauty of worship and the faith of the warrior. The adoration of God is portable with the person. We can be in a cathedral or on the hood of a Jeep and God is duly and equally glorified.

I keep these pictures in mind whenever thinking or discussing practical needs with a church building. The issue of need is relative. All we need is bread, wine, and one other person to have a valid mass. In the picture above, the priest has no church and no altar. He placed a piece of wood on top of two barrels. For pews, the soldiers used the rubble beneath them. With this in mind, I am not ignorant to the relevance of need.

For the Church, our battlefield is of a different kind. We are not engaged with militaries armed with bullets and bombs. We are engaged with hearts and minds that are fortified by cynicism and conceit. When it comes to the practical needs of the church building, I think we must consider the practical needs of teaching, showing, and deepening faith in Our Lord Jesus. So while we may have all the parts to do what is required, we may not always have all the parts to do what is requested by the liturgy. I want to address just one example today.

This past Christmas Eve, I was very glad that three or four of our shelter guests joined us for Midnight Mass. After being outside all day, it was quite an effort to stay up to midnight. They left after the homily (I hope because of the time and not because of the content!) and later reported their experience to Katie Bryant. What did they think about our worship? The were confused that we didn’t have Bibles in the pews and they were curious about the “bird bath” near the back. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not belittling our baptismal font. As I mentioned last week, two of my own children have been grafted into Christ’s Body from that font. The point, rather, is that the font by itself was not intelligible to our visitors. Its purpose wasn’t clear. It the purpose wasn’t terribly clear for our guests, it may not be terribly clear to our members. I’m not suggesting that newcomers should understand everything about the theology and practice of baptism just by looking at the font or the area that surrounds it, but it should be very clear that something powerful and spiritually real happens here. It should proclaim that this space is different from every other space and it should invite the questions of wonder. I wonder why this space looks so different. I wonder why there is water in the stone. I wonder why this candle is so large and why is set apart. I wonder why there are oils present and I wonder what they are for. Currently, there is no place for the paschal candle, the holy oils, or a permanent place for our font. In addition, our font is really only suited for the baptism of infants.

Julianna Grace Johnston receives the Sacrament of Baptism on February 26, 2017

Julianna Grace Johnston receives the Sacrament of Baptism on February 26, 2017

I can’t remember how many baptisms I’ve done since arriving at St Timothy’s. I think the number is near 150. As much as we celebrate this Sacrament, we can do more elevate the importance of Christian Initiation through our art and architecture.

These are practical concerns that can easily be addressed that move beyond “do we have the right parts?” to “are the parts we have, right?”

As we look at our current space, there many practical areas to be addressed. There are issues dealing with sound, lighting, electrical, and space (particularly the choir loft). These are the ones that speak to having the right parts. Then there is the baptismal area and the altar, which I’ll address next week. These are the areas that seek to ask if the parts we have are the right ones.

A Time to Build, Part I in a Series

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king (David) said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.” 2 Samuel 7.1-3

(Jesus said )“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’” Luke 14.28-30

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Genesis 12.1-4a (Sunday’s First Lesson)

As much as I try to do the opposite, I simply can’t preach or write with an economy of words. I just can’t. My original plan was to write an essay laying the vision for a possible capital campaign but I quickly realized it would be too long for the attention and patience of most readers. Therefore I am going to break the essay into smaller portions so they will be easier and more pleasant to digest.

I believe we need to build at St Timothy’s and I believe the time has come. For two years, the Vestry has commissioned a body to explore a possible building and capital campaign, with the primary focus to build upon our existing nave and sanctuary addressing both practical and aesthetic concerns. I’ll introduce those issues in future essays. Before I recount the details of the discussions and process over the past two years, I want to address what might be rising up in your gut and what I know has risen in mine: anxiety.

I’ve placed the above scriptures in this order because it represents the order in which they convict, terrify, and challenge me. The first lesson is of King David’s realization and conviction that he has given more consideration to his own house than the house of the Lord. The second lesson is from one of Jesus’s parables where he warns about following him without first examining what this means. Finally, we have the lesson from Genesis that we will read this Sunday of Abram’s call to follow God to a new place. In my own mind, the call to create for Our Lord a Sanctuary, a Temple, that not only honors his Name and Presence but also draws people from all over and with varying degrees of faith or no faith at all, and brings them to their knees, is the same for us as it was for King David. Then there are the realities of doing this. The practicalities of building the Temple were not secondary concerns. Chapter after chapter in the Old Testament deals with those very details. Counting the cost, as Jesus advises, is a real and present issue. But through it all, we are reminded of the call of Abram, to go where the Lord is leading even if or especially if that destination is of yet unknown. That trust was called righteousness.

Throughout these essays, I’ll mention all three lessons from scripture, but for today, I want to acknowledge the cost before building a “tower.”

I completely understand that any discussion regarding a building campaign, especially one that addresses an existing building and not a new one, naturally brings forth emotions. Some of these emotions are of excitement and enthusiasm and others of anxiety and anger. Change, of any sort, is hard. No argument here. Despite the difficulty, we must remember what Evelyn Waugh wrote in Brideshead Revisted, “Change is the only evidence of life.”

I write “we need to build at St Timothy’s and I believe the time has come” knowing full well that this will bring anxiety to some. I think it’s important to own our anxieties and that in owning them we are able to take responsibility for them and discover from whence they came.

I am anxious about failing. As soon as the current church was completed in 2000, the average attendance dropped every single year for seven years (a total drop of 31%).

I am anxious about conflict. Decisions will be made that will not please everyone. We know that to be a fact of life but it doesn’t soften the blow when we are the ones who do not the like the decision.

I am anxious about raising money. Growing up in proud blue collar family who went through bankruptcy, I do not enjoy asking anyone for money (that is something I will have to get over!).

I’m sure some of you might be anxious at the prospect of a building project. What will change? How much will it cost? How will the church feel? Will it be too catholic? Will it not be catholic enough? Is it a waste? What will be next?

I hear you. I, too, have memories here, including the baptism of two of my children and my nephew. No campaign can take away these faithful memories and no campaign should be a threat to them. Rather, our campaign will seek to bring amplification and not anxiety to what we hold dear. The holiness of beauty will give expression to the beauty of holiness. Our discernment forward will ensure that St Timothy’s is not simply a point in someone’s past, but the promise of pilgrimage for all those who are seeking the good, the true, and the beautiful, for all those seeking the saving love of Our Lord Jesus.

If we amplify adoration, we will not fail.
If we amplify communion, we will move beyond conflict.
If we amplify the transformation of the person, we’ll never have to worry about the purse.

I may be a little anxious, but I am not afraid.

This morning I talked to Tony Hamby in the office. He was telling me stories, which he loves to do and is good at it, about Wilson Carter grading near Drake Hall and other stories of how parishioners built the chapel. For Tony, the building of the chapel was an extraordinarily formative experience for him. I’m sure our forebears had plenty of anxieties of their own when they laid the foundations of this parish. Hearing folks like Tony share these memories some 60 years later made it very plain that owning those anxieties, pushing through them, and having a hand in creating and building this church was absolutely worth it. 

I trust the same will be for us and a new generation will have the joy and privilege of telling stories about building the latest phase in the life of this blessed parish.

The Inspiration of St Matthew by Caravaggio | Canon Jeremy Haselock

The Christian Tetramorph is derived from the four living creatures in the vision of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:5-14) and the Revelation to St John (Revelation 4:6-8) wherein were seen a man, a bull, a lion and an eagle surrounding the throne of God.  While these four symbolic figures can be interpreted in many ways – St Jerome, one of the Four Latin Doctors, saw the man as representing the Incarnation, the bull as the Passion, the lion as the Resurrection and the eagle as the Ascension - in most Christian iconographic schemes they stand for the four Evangelists. So a ready way to identify the images of the gospel writers, who might very well look much like each other, is to look for the living creature lurking at their feet or hanging around with them. St Luke has the bull, St Mark has the lion, St John has an eagle and St Matthew, our subject this month, has that with “the face as a man”.

Artists from the early Middle Ages right up to the present day have interpreted these symbolic creatures or “attributes” in a legion of different ways. Our picture was painted by one of the most revolutionary and turbulent artists of the Italian Baroque, Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio and, true to his reputation, the image is radically different from those which had gone before.  What in the work of other painters would usually have appeared as a passive figure from the tetramorph, included only for identification purposes, has been transformed into a dynamic, angelic, figure of inspiration who reveals to a surprised Matthew all that should be written down in his gospel.

The picture was commissioned by the executors of Cardinal Matteo (Matthew) Contarelli for his family chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome where it still hangs along with two other great canvasses by Caravaggio – the Calling of St Matthew and his Martyrdom. The patrons were very demanding and difficult to please and the canvas now in the chapel was the second version of the subject painted by the artist in 1602 after the first was rejected as too radical and provocative. Caravaggio always used real models, recruited from the streets where he lived and moved, carefully posed for his compositions. The first version – alas destroyed in the Second World War and known today only from reproductions – was a masterpiece and its loss is a tragedy. It showed a common old man with dirty feet, entwined provocatively with a street urchin who whispers the sacred words into the Evangelist’s ear and guides his hand across the page of his open book.  Of the three paintings, this one was intended to hang above the altar of the chapel and in the mind of those who were supervising the project, it lacked the necessary decorum for this position. Caravaggio had to start again.

The second version is also an amazing exercise in artistic imagination but less controversial than the first.  It places the figure of the saint well above eye level with the bench on which he balances so precariously teetering into our space. All is darkness above the stone slab on which the composition is perched.  The Evangelist glows in his robes of yellow and orange and is dynamically posed as if he has just rushed to his desk. His feet are still dirty from the street but his bearing is far more patrician than the earlier model. Hovering above, amidst a whirlwind of white linen, the angel is firmly guiding the saint’s memory, counting off on his fingers the ancestors of Christ listed in Matthew’s first chapter. The angel, albeit hovering in a flurry of fluttering linen, seems very substantial and it is not difficult to see Caravaggio’s young boy model somehow suspended uncomfortably from a system of ropes hanging from the roof of the studio.

St Matthew’s was long thought to be the first of the four canonical Gospels. This painting, a moment seemingly frozen in time, reminds us to revere the saint’s respect for the writings and traditions of the Old Covenant as he reveals to us the fulfilment of all that has gone before.

Anxious About Earthly Things

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly.

Thus is our prayer this Sunday. This translation is based on a Latin prayer that dates from at least the 7th century that was appointed for Ascension Day. As Our Lord ascended to the heavens, the prayer reminds us, that is where our thoughts and focus should be, and not weighed down by things earthly and temporal. The prayer for Sunday is a bit longer and equally beautiful, but I hope the opening clause, Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly, will be a refrain that we can memorize and have at the ready when earthly anxiety begins to well up.

Anxiety is the consequence of the Fall. Human beings were created to glorify God and trust in Him for everything. This is the point of the Garden of Eden story. Adam and Eve were permitted to enjoy everything, save the fruit from one tree. Just trust in God. Enjoy it all, but don’t eat of the fruit of this one tree. By taking of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve bet on themselves. They bet they could handle discerning good from evil. They bet they could glorify God and live in harmony by following their own plan. Of course when they ate of the fruit, their eyes were opened and they were literally exposed. The first post-Fall emotion was anxiety. They were anxious about being naked and so they covered themselves. They heard the sound of God coming near, so they hid. What is anxiety but covering ourselves in the (futile) illusion of control? 

The story of anxiety goes further. Aware of their own mortality, human beings were now anxious of it. Not only are we anxious about our own death, but we pass this anxiety down to our children. We don’t pass it down in conscious ways, but in the subtle and profound teaching through our choices, priorities, and actions. We know, as the Psalms tell us, that we have 70 years or perhaps in strength even 80 (Psalm 90:10). The clock is always ticking in the back of our minds. That sense of urgency encourages us to use earthly things not as a means to glorify God, but as (futile) means to assuage our anxiety. People, places, and things become for us treatment for anxiety. The problem, of course, is that medicine only exacerbates the condition instead of promoting a cure: because it never ends. We never have enough. Or we if think we finally have enough, we are anxious about losing it. 

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read the prescription from the Great Physician. “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself (Jesus Christ) likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2.14-15). Jesus Christ took on our nature and our anxieties and went to the root cause and vanquished and returned victorious. We fear death because it is the ultimate unknown. We can’t ask anyone what it’s like, what to expect, or what happens. We can ask physicians what happens to our body, but they can’t tell us what happens after our heart stops beating. Jesus has gone to the unknown and made it known. He has exposed it with his victory. The Risen Christ is the answer to our question: what happens when we die? We still must make that journey, but the journey is no longer veiled in anxiety, for we know He who has gone there and come back.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly. The role of the Church is to show us both the heavenly things and how to love them. St John wrote “perfect love casts out fear.” Loving heavenly things is to love He who sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ. Loving him is to cast our fear. For those is no need to worry. Truly, there is nothing to fear.

Where is God? A Reflection for the 15th Anniversary of 9/11

On one hand it is hard to believe it’s been fifteen years since the world changed on 9/11. For some of us, we remember as if it where this morning; we remember where we were, who we were with and what we were doing. 9/11 has become one of those symbols that marks an end and a beginning, just like B.C. and A.D. On the other hand, for a large segment of the population it doesn’t seem like yesterday because it’s all they have known. For virtually anyone under the age of twenty, a post-9/11 world has been their only world. Therefore I think it is important, for theological reasons, that we always remember September 11, 2001 for several reasons. We remember 9/11 for the loss of life in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. We remember that the world changed very quickly, or we became aware of changes that were already underway. We remember because 9/11 brought to the forefront some very important questions: geopolitical, military, and most of all, theological. 

I was in seminary on September 11, 2001, so in a very real way my ministry has been framed by a post-9/11 worldview. But more than anything, I remember how pre-occupied we were with the question of where. Where are my loved ones? Where is the next attack going to happen? Where is this all coming from? Where is Osama bin Laden? Where is God in all this? I was in my third year of serving a church and I remember how full churches were after the attacks, at least for a little while. I think people came together in churches for solidarity and perhaps even to protest militant Islam. I also think people came together seeking answers to the questions of where and why: where is God and why did he let this happen? Remembering 9/11 as a religious event is to ask those questions again.

During the week at St Timothy’s, a bell rings eighteen times at noon and six o’clock. Traditionally it is rung early in the morning as well. The peals of the bell call people to pray the Angelus, or the Memorial of the Incarnation. A series of prayers that point our devotion to the Virgin Mary and the fruit of her womb – the Word made Flesh that dwelt among us. The creative power of God has come to us forever answering our persistent question of where. Before he died, the Incarnate Word of God instituted the Sacrament of His Body and Blood – the Holy Eucharist – to perpetually answer our question of where he is. He is here. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christ is everywhere, with all people, and at all times. But by the power of that same Spirit, the substance of the Crucified Body and Blood of Jesus is found in a particular place and at a particular time in the Holy Eucharist. 

The Crucified Body, the Broken Body, the Body that endured pain and suffering and evil, that body, is given to us. When we see the horrors of this world, the unthinkable acts of terror and evil, and we ask where is God, we are given a Broken Body. Here. Here is God. He has already endured what we can’t imagine and He presents His Victory as often as we remember Him. In the Holy Eucharist is not only the victory over terrorism but the Victim of terrorism. In the Holy Eucharist we find both the Victim and Victor of everything. Here. 

That is why the mass is so central to our life at St Timothy’s, because it answers that most important question: God is here. That is why the admittedly strange and, for some, uncomfortable devotion of Benediction at the end of Evensong this Sunday is so important. We are shown, blessed, and given the opportunity to adore the Sacramental Presence, that wonderful and mysterious way God has chosen to be with us always.

Fifteen years later, let us remember the events of 9/11. Let us pray for those who have died. Let us pray for an end of terrorism and the conversion of hearts. Let us remember the important questions that were thrust upon our lips. And let us give thanks in the answer. He is here.

Post Script: A holy card of Our Lady of Sorrows is available for everyone today. Painted by Lewis Williams, it shows the traditional image of Our Lady of Sorrows, but instead of a pierced heart, there is a haunting, even disturbing image of the World Trade Center towers on fire.

Holding the Door Open

Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Since John was imprisoned by Herod, our parish prayer intention was for those in prison. By God’s Providence, yesterday afternoon I visited a parishioner at the Forsyth County Jail. I had never met this person and was asked to visit by a relative. I have made professional visits to the Forsyth County Jail several times. The jail is a massive structure that feels empty even though I know it is quite occupied. Visiting someone in jail is just as you see it on television. There is a glass window that is divided by small privacy panels, a stool, and a phone.

Professional visits (clergy, social workers, attorneys, etc.) are allowed at times different from regular visits, so usually I am the only one present in the visitation room, again adding to the feeling of emptiness. Yesterday, however, I entered the room just as the professional visitation hour began and the regular visitation hour was ending, so there was some overlap. I sat on my stool and waited for my visit while family members were finishing their visits on either side of me. I wasn’t paying attention to their conversations as I was trying to focus in prayer on my own visit, but I easily recognized tones of voices. Laughter, affection, anxiety, and long good-byes were on either side. I wondered what I would say to someone if I were on the other side of the glass.  What would I find funny? How hard would it be to project affection through glass?

As I watched the inmates leave and walk down the steps to enter the general population area, I noticed they held the door open for each other. That struck me. These were men who have broken the law, some of them have taken away property, dignity, and even life itself. Why would they extend the very small courtesy of holding open the door? I thought about the times I have driven through the worst neighborhoods, places that are riddled with violent crime, drugs, prostitution, and abject poverty. I’ve seen homes with no windows, doors hanging off the hinges, and yet potted plants on the porch. Potted plants. They are watered and taken care of. In the midst of all this, why would they bother? The answer came quickly – even in the worst places there is the hope of redemption. There is this promise of good. Beauty is the script of God’s signature and it is seen everywhere and in everyone.

During my visit, I reminded the person on the other side of the glass about this. They understood the consequences of their actions and the future is uncertain. There are no atheists in foxholes and probably not in jail – at least in the beginning. I don’t think that is cheap grace, I think it is forced reckoning. The question has been called. Things have gotten real. What do I do now?

I was asked how to pray, what to read, how to hope, and how to be forgiven. The question was asked by a person with an assigned number but it was a person who has also been marked as Christ’s own forever. Let us remember that as we pray for those who are in prison. Let us pray for those in prison who do not belong there and let us pray for those in prison who need to be there. Praying for them does not take away what they might have taken away, but it does remind us that even in places where there is common history of inhumanity, they still hold doors open for one another. They, too, are made in the image and likeness of God.  Praying them reminds us that they are asking the questions that we too should be asking: how to pray, what to read, how to hope, and how to be forgiven. Praying for them is to hold the door open as they make their way.

We concluded our visit by praying the General Confession, the promise to read John’s Gospel, and future visit for more prayer and Bible Study, as best as can be done through glass and the phone. As I left the jail, retrieved my ID and keys, and walked outside to people waiting to visit or to sort out their own legal mess, someone held the door open for me as I walked outside.

Why what we do is important

Two new surveys were released this past week by the Pew Research Center. Pew Research is known for its research in the religious habits and trends of Americans. Last year, Pew released a devastating study that confirmed with numbers what many of us assumed through experience: 23% of all adult Americans self-identify as being either atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Pew Research calls those who in this category “nones” as in none of the above. Nearly one in four adults are none of the above. What was even more jarring, but no less surprising, is that the younger the person, the more likely they are to self-identity as having no religious affiliation whatsoever. 35% of the so-called Millennials (those born between 1981-1996) are “nones.” Pew’s research also showed that the median age for “nones” is 36. This should get our attention. The latest survey builds upon research among the “nones.” Half of the “nones” were raised in religious households. But keep in mind that the “nones” are taken from all adults, half of which were raised in religious households. The younger generations – children of “nones” – won’t even have a religious tradition to reject. Let me be clear, I’m not trying to be Chicken Little making a grand proclamation that the sky is falling. I’m also not inclined to say we have the luxury of still living in the Bible Belt where these issues don’t pertain to us. Both are untrue. The sky is not falling (the lesson from Hebrews this week reminds us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever), but these issues absolutely pertain to us. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve dealt with areligious children in planning the funerals of devout parents. I’ve also seen and heard the lament of many a parent in this parish whose adult children do not practice their faith or have no faith to practice. I have three children of my own who are raised in a religious home but live in a secular world. I, too, wonder and worry about their relationship with Jesus as they grow.

Everything I know and feel tells me that what we are trying to accomplish – in radical fashion – at St Timothy’s is right. I know that is different from a lot of churches and that the traditions and formality may seem to be counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom as to what reaches people, but I would argue that conventional wisdom has failed us. Conventional wisdom assured generations that Christian teaching and values would be reinforced by other facets of society. In reality, those facets challenge the faith we proclaim. Conventional wisdom has said that if we make faith more accessible and convenient, they will come. Yet every year the “nones” increase. When I read the answers that “nones” give for leaving the faith, they nearly all represent a rejection of Christianity that was poorly formed to begin with. Among the responses include the introductions of evolution and rational thought. Neither of these are, nor have ever been, barriers to serious Christian faith. The “nones” cite hypocrisy and money as other reasons why they’ve left. We are all hypocritical from time to time and some Christians, especially on television, have a horrible witness when it comes to money, but honestly, these are straw man arguments that contain more caricature than content.

Among the main objectives in ordering our common life at St Timothy’s is to create a culture of faithful people where there is an expectation of adoration, formation, and transformation. I want our children and youth to know and understand that our faith in Jesus touches everything in our lives. I want them to understand that the really big, important, and interesting questions are only answered through the words of faith. And I want to give them the tools to do this and to stimulate their imagination so that they never grow too cocky that they lose all awareness of things seen and unseen. I want them to know the power of Sacraments and the grace that flows from them. I want them to have spiritual muscle memory that immediately reacts in times of crisis, doubt, and abundance. This is why we do the things we do and this is why I’m convinced of their importance. We preach frequent attendance at church because that it is the fount of adoration, formation, and transformation. Studies show that what keeps youth connected to faith when they become adults is based on how their parents modeled living the faith. That is why we ask parents to read the Bible and sacrifice their time and resources for the sake of the Gospel: it forms and teaches. 

When I have young boys and girls fighting in the sacristy over who gets to hold the incense during mass, I am convinced all over again that there is wisdom in the Church’s experience. They want to be a part of something that is holy and mysterious. Everyone else is giving them what they want. We give them what they need. Even when they may be grumpy about it in the moment, they will be grateful later. And they will show their gratitude by practicing their faith all the days of their life.

What's Next...

In last week's This Week at St Timothy's, John Roberts announced his call to serve as chaplain at Canterbury School in Greensboro. Again, I wish to say how grateful we are to John and his ministry here over the past four years. His new call is a good kind of good-bye. He is following God's call which means he will serve in a new context, but he isn't exactly leaving us. He is getting married at St Timothy's in September and we will always be a parish home for both John and Hannah Marie.

I mentioned last week that I would share some information on what is next for us. The following is a preview of God's provision for us:

  • The Vestry and I are exploring calling a priest to St Timothy's. The monetary difference between replacing John and the minimum salary package for a priest in this diocese is around $18,000. This is our best chance to act on a much needed call.
  • Katie Harper has been contracted through February to continue as volunteer specialist and she will coordinate Youth Formation on Wednesdays nights. Katie has worked with the youth both on Wednesday nights and on mission trips. 
  • Youth Sunday School will continue with the same leaders as last year.
  • The youth will not be forgotten and I am very pleased with the growing support network that currently exists between Katie Harper and our adult volunteers. We are in really good shape. There is a sound foundation to build on.
  • Becky Johnston has been hired as the new program director by the the Abraham Project board.
  • The Young Adult Small Group will continue. We are currently exploring leadership and venues.

I will continue to keep you up-to-date on all ministry developments. This amazing opportunity for John is also an amazing opportunity for us. Grace abounds and we give thanks!

Fr Steve Rice

Dr. Ian Taplin, Guest Lecturer Oct 5 & 12

St Timothy's Dr. Ian Taplin will lecture on Wednesday October 5 and 12 on Henry VIII and the birth of the Anglican Church: Re-branding an island's identity. The class will begin at 6pm and will conclude at 7pm.

Ian Malcolm Taplin is Professor of Sociology, Management and International Studies at Wake Forest University and Visiting Professor at Kedge Business School, Bordeaux where he teaches Business Strategy in the wine mba programme. At Wake Forest he teaches courses on Global Capitalism and Technology, Culture and Change. His research interests are widespread and include a history of the North Carolina wine industry (The Modern American Wine Industry: Market Formation and Growth in North Carolina, Pickering and Chatto, 2011), the growth of luxury and iconic wines in Napa valley, and changing workplace organization in the clothing industry. Educated at Oxford College of Architecture, University of York (BA), University of Leicester (M.Phil) and Brown University (Ph.D) his background is in historical Social Science.

The Abraham Project calls new director

At the August meeting, the Abraham Project board called Becky Johnston as the new director of the program. The Abraham Project and St Timothy's are excited to welcome and support Becky in this new role.

from left to right, TAP Interns Emily, Jemi, Karley and director Becky Johnston.

from left to right, TAP Interns Emily, Jemi, Karley and director Becky Johnston.

Becky is originally from the mountains of NC, just outside of Asheville, where she learned to navigate the fine line of being her Mother's Daughter (a rule follower) and a Daddy's Girl (the life of the party.) She moved to Chapel Hill in 1994 where she began her Undergrad degree in Religious Studies and was hired to her first full-time ministry position. She married Dan (a Blue Devil) in 2000 and the two moved to Winston in 2002 for his Psychiatry Residency. Their first daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 2006, and their second, Julianna, joined their family in 2014. (Julianna's adoption will be finalized soon and we'll look forward to having her baptized into St. Tim's family.) In addition to a deep love of Millennials, Becky loves to read, binge watch on Netflix, entertain in her home, and discover new office supplies.

For the Feast of the Assumption | Fr Steve Rice

My devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary has certainly developed over the years. At first, I felt like I should have a devotion to Mary because so many, so many, Christians before me have been devoted to her and, as she says in the Gospel tonight, all generations will call her blessed. They should call her blessed. So between the overwhelming weight of the Christian witness and experience and the authority of Scripture, I knew that any reticence to honor her as the Mother of God said more about me than it did her.

I think, growing up as a Southern Protestant I was resistant because I was taught to be resistant. My resistance certainly wasn’t based in Scripture, Tradition, or Reason, but culture and expectation. I never felt like I had permission to honor her the way I felt I should. Even as a priest, I have held back out of either pastoral concern or pastoral cowardice, not wanting to stir anything else up.

But I’m growing out of it. And two things primarily have helped that growth. One was seeing my own children love their mother and the second was the death of my own.

I have three wonderful children. Honestly, I couldn’t be more blessed and I know it. And I know my children love me. But as much as they love me, they really love their mother. And I completely understand why. She knew them before I did. I was around as they were growing in her womb, but I didn’t feel them until the day of their birth. I may have changed their first diaper, but I wasn’t the first one to feed them. I cut the cord, but I wasn’t the first one to kiss them. I saw them before their mother, but she knew them long before me.

As a father, I know I have a role. I know I have a certain set of unique responsibilities and gifts for them. But the bond between a mother and child is deep, and there’s nothing else like it. I’m not saying that bond goes deeper than with fathers, but I’m saying it comes close.

And if that is by God’s design for us as human beings, then how absolutely perfect is it that our salvation came through this very same bond. Mary knew Jesus before anyone knew him. Mary felt Jesus before Jesus touched anyone else. Mary said yes to Jesus before anyone else heard of the invitation.

The Word of God was made Flesh through the inestimable bond between mother and son. In carrying the child Jesus in her womb, Mary is the perfect icon of faith. She loved him before she saw him. She was devoted to him before she heard his voice. His life was in her womb, but her life was in his hands.

And for that reason, among many, we venerate her. Not worship, for that belongs only to her son, but we venerate her as his mother and we celebrate the union of God and Man in Jesus that was literally given life though the bond of mother and son.

A child, son or daughter, never forgets that bond. Even in death, the bond is still felt. I lost my mother six years ago and I still miss her. I still love her and I certainly still pray for her. When I was in South Carolina last month for a funeral, I did what I always do when I’m back home. I drove out the cemetery and said a prayer at her grave. I know she is not listening to me from the ground, but even in death the bond is physical and there is a need to be close.

Which brings us today’s feast. We typically celebrate the saints not on the day of their natural birth, but on their heavenly birth – which is the day of their earthly death. We remember them not when they were born on earth, but when they were born in heaven.

The tradition surrounding the Mary’s death is very old and there are many variations of it, but they all agree on this – when it was time for the Blessed Virgin Mary to leave this earth, all of the apostles were brought to her. With the sound of thunder, wherever they were, the apostles were brought to Mary in a miracle.

Our Lord with the angels came and took her soul to heaven, and the apostles with great sadness and duty prepared her body for burial. After her burial, Our Lord also came to take her body which was reunited with her soul in glory in heaven.

The difference is that when we die, our souls are commended to God, undergo particular judgement and have a foretaste of eternal life. Our bodies are committed to the earth where they rest until the Return of Our Lord and the generation resurrection where all bodies and souls come together either for glory everlasting or eternal punishment.

Jesus gave his mother a profound honor by bringing her – body and soul – to himself in heaven. Remember, the bond between a mother and child is physical, and there will always be a desire to be close.

That is what we celebrate today. We celebrate her faith and devotion to her son before she ever knew him. We celebrate the love and devotion of Jesus to his mother by bringing her to himself – body and soul.

We celebrate what awaits us who die in faith. Mary is the first created human being to enjoy the fruits of the Resurrection. And just with everything else –when we look at Mary, we always see the love and work of her son.

So don’t be afraid to love Mary. Our love for her was promised. Don’t be afraid to look to Mary, for she is our model. More than anything else, let us remember that a mother’s life is to love her children. By loving Jesus, we love Mary more. And in loving Mary, we love Jesus all the more.

Coming Back to Church after a Death

“Father, I know I should be in church, but it is just too hard since ________ died.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that sentence. I’ve heard it from younger folks and older folks. I’ve heard it after the death of parents, spouses, children, and friends. For some, the church is the rock of stability, comfort, and hope. The death of a loved one might have resulted in the strengthening of their faith, which is lived out in the parish. But for others, coming to church is a painful reminder; it is the last connection with the physical remains of a person deeply loved.

Grief is both universal and particular. It is universal in that it spares no one from its presence and it is particular in that the experience of that presence is unique to every single person. I do not presume to know what an individual feels during their time of grief, for I cannot know. I can infer from what I’ve observed over a period of time along with my own experiences with grief. There seems to be at least three responses: 1) a perceived superficiality of the joy promised in the Gospel sometimes coupled with conscious or subconscious anger at God, 2) inadequate understanding of the hope of the resurrection and the Church’s teaching on death (especially the body), and 3) difficulties with our own mortality.  To restate this plainly, 1) how can I hear about joy and happiness when I’m seriously sad, and by the way, I’m not happy with God at all about this, 2) I have so many misconceptions about what happens after death and what will happen with the body, that all of it is confusing, too real, and scary, and 3) I had to face death at the funeral, I don’t want to come back and face it again.

For the first response, the Church’s constant proclamation of joy and abundant life through Christ is not a denial of your grief. Christian joy does not make our grief trivial, but our grief also does not make Christian joy trite. Remember the exchange between Jesus and Martha after the death of her brother, Lazarus (Luke 11:17-27). Jesus gives Martha the good news of hope: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha responds, perhaps with a bit of irritation, “I know that he will rise on the last day.” It’s impossible to hear her tone, but I’ve often wondered if she was just repeating what her mind knew to be true, but her heart was grieving too much to say with trust. She wanted her brother alive, she said as much to Jesus. Jesus loves her with the truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Our irritation at the joy in the midst of our grief is also a sign that we are struggling with whether or not we believe it to be true. The place to struggle with that doubt is not alone, but in the very midst of Church. For we can’t wrestle with the message from a distance. Keeping away is not wrestling with faith, it’s avoiding the fight.

Secondly, the Church has much to say about dying, death, and what happens to both body and soul thereafter. The teaching is far too voluminous to summarize here, but let me address one of the most common misconceptions - the body. The body is not a shell from which our soul is finally and mercifully released. Our body and soul are beautifully and wondrously unified in the mystery of the human person. Without our soul, we cannot be. Likewise, without the body, we are not. At death, the soul is separated from the body where it receives the Particular Judgement (entrance to either the foretaste of eternal bliss or foretaste of eternal separation) and awaits the resurrection of the body and General Judgement of the Glorified Lord. We take great care to bury the body with reference and love because it is an integral part of the person.

Thirdly, facing our own mortality is a significant waypoint toward maturity. We will die. Every single one of us. The fear of own mortality is the motivation to sin (Hebrews 2.15). The power of Christ is that he frees us from this fear. This may not take away a natural fear of dying, but it does take away the fear of death. There is more to all this than the grave. Again, staying away from Church will not exempt us from the reality of mortality. Remaining in the Church will keep us growing in Christ, who died and returned so that we can live and die with the confidence that there is nothing to fear.

There is a wonderful story that I tell often of St Augustine and the death of his mother. While she was at the point of her death, Augustine and his brother promised to return her body back to her homeland for burial. She was irritated as only a mother could be and told her boys to not let the location of her body concern them anymore. “One thing I ask of you,” she said, “is that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you are.”

My mother died six years ago. I think about her nearly every single day. Sometimes those thoughts and memories are well-developed. Other times they are quick memories or images. Most of the time, however, I think of her at the altar. Every time we pray for the dead, she crosses my mind. And every time she crosses my mind, I pray for her.

At the end of the Preface at the Eucharist we are told that with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we sing the heavenly hymn. The Church has taught that at mass - at communion - we are joined with heaven in a way that is more intimate than touch. It’s more real than an embrace. We are both united in the Lord and therefore we are one. If you miss your mom, husband, child, or anyone else - come to mass.

Grief may make it hard to do anything after a death. Favorite restaurants, familiar places, the smell of old clothes, and even the memories associated with church may make it hard. Grief is natural. But lurking in the shadows of grief is sometimes something more subversive and sinister, designed to keep us focused on death so we won’t set our hearts on life.

Life is changed and not ended in death, the Eucharistic prayer teaches us. Their life is not over. Neither should yours.

Decline & Call

At this past Sunday's Old Fashioned Hymn Sing (which was fantastic, by the way), I talked to a couple that walked through the church doors for the first time. I got the impression they were expecting a regular church service but were delighted to sing old hymns for a spell. Afterwards, I learned that their home church was struggling and they felt the need to be open for a new spiritual home. No priest rejoices in conflict and/or decline of other churches. And while we always rejoice when new people walk through our doors looking for a home, we hate it when that journey began with conflict or spiritual decline. That's not good for anyone. The couple and I talked about the state of spirituality in America, how things have changed, and what should be done to address and ultimately reverse the problem. Or as I should say, how we can recognize the problem and not get in the way of the Holy Spirit's mission to transform death and decay into new life.

On Monday morning I read a fascinating article by Dr. Leander Harding, a priest and scholar in New York, where he addresses the growing decline in churches across the country and how the typical church leadership reaction is to come up with goals "without any genuine strategy" to achieve them. Often times, he writes, the real issues are misdiagnosed and so our goals and strategies try to treat the symptom instead of the cause. Dr. Harding lists some of the problems causing decline and I was delighted to see that our parish intuitions are in line with his observations. While we are certainly not perfect and have much, much room to grow and improve, I firmly believe we are on the right track. I quote the following from his article, which can be found in full here, along with my comments.

First of all, there are large theological issues. In the mainline churches there has been something very close to a surrender to the radical pluralism and relativism of Western intellectual culture and the inevitable loss of theological nerve that such a surrender entails. Faith is seen as a private choice and not as a claim about the truth that can be tested by reason and experience. This creates a kind of evangelical embarrassment. [I firmly believe this. Decline and conflict are most often rooted in theology and not personality or style. If we want to grow the church, we need to deepen our theology.]

A practical Deism forms the mindset of many of our clergy and laity. The relative neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity is both a sign and a cause of a lack of confidence in the presence of a God who acts in human affairs. [In 2005, UNC Chapel Hill sociologists published a groundbreaking work on the spiritual lives of teenagers. Among the nuggets mined from this work is the introduction of the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," which is to say many view God as a kind, benevolent deity who is there when we need him and will help us out. This kind of theology places no expectation on transformation of self or world and is completely self-centered.]

The way in which the doctrine of salvation is understood in both evangelical and liberal churches typically marginalizes the significance of the sacramental life of the parish church. The focus of salvation is either the isolated individual or the transformation of society. Growth in holiness in community is not typically a major theme in either case. [My doctoral dissertation was focused, in part, on this. The sacraments are the ultimate reason for coming to church. You can hear good music, good preaching, and have amazing fellowship away from the church. You cannot, however, receive valid communion. We can't compete with the Avett Brothers, the Peace Haven pool, or your iTunes, nor should we try. The Church then enters the realm of novelty. What we do best and what we do exclusively, is offer the means of grace - the sacraments - faithfully and frequently.]

Practical and pastoral issues form part of the problem. Massive biblical and liturgical illiteracy contributes to a persistent inter-generational failure of Christian formation. Our children and young people simply have not in most cases received any formation that enables a faith capable of withstanding the challenges of contemporary culture. Adults who were not adequately formed cannot pass on the faith to their children. If in the small town where I serve I could collect all the children and grandchildren that "should" belong to the parish our attendance would double. [Christian formation happens first and foremost in the home. The research referenced above from the UNC sociologists found that the number one reason young adults went to church and stayed was based on their parents' example and guidance, and not the cool youth director.]

Clergy deployment is a major problem. Parish churches need suitable, capable clergy who stay a long time. Parish-priest mismatches are a major problem. If a parish calls several clergy in a row that are a mismatch it can be very difficult if not impossible to recover. [God willing, I hope to be here for a while.]

Christianity is a kind of anti-brand for many people in our society. They know little about Christianity and the Church and what they know they don't like. Individual parishes may suffer from no reputation or a bad reputation. [St Timothy's is becoming known for our worship (liturgy and music), Abraham Project, and homeless shelter. This is a good thing. It's not based on personality or friendliness, which is hard to define and fleeting. It's based on objective practice.]

Our church culture is typically thin. The homes of our people are often no different in the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, and the media being consumed than the homes of non-believers. A thin church culture is a mismatch for a robust secular culture. [Culture is a word discussed frequently in staff, vestry, and finance meetings. It's a word we need to discuss more as a parish. How can we create and maintain an authentic Christian culture at St Timothy's; one that transmits our message and mission with and without words to people of all ages and from all backgrounds?]

~ Fr Steve

Homily Text for June 26, 2016

It is not my practice to preach from a manuscript, but I almost always write one. We have been posting the audio from the homilies in this email and they are on the website, but I thought some might wish to see the text. This is not exactly what was preached, but it is close. Grammarians, please note I don't write these for publication and I have not edited them. I can promise spelling and grammatical errors, missing words, and the like!

I first heard the word “fickle” when I was in elementary school. There was a girl, for the life of me I can’t remember which one that I was enamored with. And much to my pre-pubescent excitement, she was enamored with me. Or at least I thought. Because one day she sitting with me at lunch and laughing at my jokes and dotting her “I’s” with hearts in the notes she sent me. But then the next day, I apparently didn’t exist. Nowhere near at lunch, not laughter at my comedic timing and certainly no notes and no hearts.

As I explained this to my father, he tried to console me and said, “Son, girls are fickle.” No, before I raise the ire of more than half the congregation, let me state for the record that the condition or state of being described as fickleness infects both sexes. It’s not a female problem or a male problem; it’s a human being problem.

And it’s a human being problem that has implications that go far behind romantic relationships. Fickleness is the wick that keeps the flame of human brokenness burning.

Go back to the story of Adam and Eve. Don’t eat from this tree. Any other tree in the Garden is fine, but not this one. What happened? They ate from that tree. Fickleness whose fruit, no pun intended, was a way of life that is marked by an inability to hold firm, to be steadfast.

It has permeated every single aspect of life. It’s our default setting as people.

And here’s my theory: we have a predetermined idea as to how things should be. And so our fickleness gives us the options we need to come closer to that ideal.  For instance:

If what we want politically is achieved by popular vote, then we say that the people have spoken and their will must be obeyed.

But, if the masses vote for something we don’t agree with, then we call on the courts or elected officials to overturn it.

On one had we like to say the Constitution is a living document, evolving with the times – when it suits. When it doesn’t, then we demand the Constitution be interpreted and applied from the same perspective as its Framers.

63% of Divorce Lawyers reported an increase in couples signing prenuptial agreements.  I know this gets tricky, and as older adults, such as my 71 year old father, contemplate marriage, the legalities with estates and inheritance is tricky, but as a general rule, I won’t solemnize a marriage if there is a prenuptial agreement. I don’t know how you say to death do us part if we have an out.

Having options to achieve your ideal, on the surface, seems reasonable. But in the end, it’s never satisfying. And here’s the reason why: our ideal, when it comes from us, our vision, will ultimately, inevitably also take on the characteristic of fickleness. It will change. It has to, because that is our nature, and if our ideal comes from our nature it will act the same way.

But when our ideal, when our goal, comes from beyond us, it has the potential for stability. It can’t come from other people, because they are fickle too, it has to come from something that cannot be moved, that cannot change under pressure, it has to be constant.

When our ideal comes from God, stability is guaranteed. Through disaster, doubt, divorce, demotion, disappointment, disenchantment, disenfranchisement, depression, and disease, stability is guaranteed.

The Roman philosopher Seneca, who lived the same time as Jesus said that if you don’t know your harbor, no wind is a good wind. The human condition is to change course not because it’s the best course, but because the destination is ever changing.

With that in mind, now let’s look at what Jesus said to the would-be disciples who came to him.

Three men come to Jesus, two say they want to follow him and one Jesus actually calls. In every exchange, Jesus calls them to leave the fickleness of their own conditions and their own stipulations and to trust in the stability and eternity of his love and will. But as good as that sounds, it’s far easier said than done.

The first one comes to Jesus and says I will follow you wherever you go. Jesus replies and says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests but the Son of man has no where to lay his head.” In other words, the man said he would follow Jesus wherever he goes, but Jesus says he’s not going to any place. There is no personal or earthly security in following Jesus.  There’s no material advantage in following him. If you want to follow me, he says, give up your need for earthly or personal security.

That challenges us because that is a major motivating factor in our lives – to make sure we have enough to be secure – the question, however, is how we define what is ‘enough’.

Every time we put something in the offering plate, we have this conversation with Jesus. The Church isn’t asking us to empty our life savings or sign over our retirements. Jesus does challenge us, through the Church, to give enough so that we wrestle with what it means to be secure. Giving sacrificially, that is enough that we feel it, moves from the fickle realm of our understanding of security to trust that God will provide for us as he clothes the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has no where to lay his head. Are we willing to go to place where there is pillow? No bed? No roof? No golden parachute? If we’re not – then we’re not following Jesus. We’re following ourselves.

Jesus calls the second man and says, “Follow me.” The man makes a reasonable request, “Let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said the very harsh “Let the dead bury the dead.”

What does he mean by this? On one hand, the man’s father may not have been dead or even at the point of dead. The man might have been saying, let me finish all of my obligations, and then when I’m done, I’ll follow you.  Jesus was having none of it. If you wish to be my disciple and to be freed from the tyranny of your own instability, then coming follow me. Nothing can be an obstacle, even something as heart wrenching as this.

Jesus is making a point. This is how serious this is. Because he understands our nature; he took it on. We are very good at sliding down that slippery slope. If we are given an out or a condition or another option, we will take it every single time.

And finally, the third man is similar to the second. He tells Jesus he will follow him, but says let me first go back home and say goodbye. This is nearly identical to the scene in 2 Kings, where Elijah throws his mantle on Elisha and Elisha begs Elijah to let him go home and kiss his father and mother goodbye. Elijah lets him, but there are two major differences:

1.      Elijah is not Jesus.
2.      And by throwing his mantle on Elisha, he didn’t give him much a choice. He was conscripted to be a prophet.

Jesus doesn’t conscript. We come to him freely and if we come to him freely, we have to understand what we are getting into. He is freeing us from ourselves and reconciles us to God and to each other through him.

Following him is not a matter of convenience or preference or left up to the whims of our fickle human nature. He is the source and summit of our life.

So let me sum this up.

We as human beings are fickle.  We are at our worst when our understanding and ideas about the world and how we are to live comes from within.  Since we are fickle, so will our ideas and understanding.

Jesus is the Rock, he is immutable. He is constant.

In calling us to be disciples, his demands, as absolute as they are because they have to be, free us from our instability and give us direction.

Any relationship with Jesus that has loopholes or conditions or periods of time-off will always, 100% be incomplete. We will blame organized religion, or hypocritical people, or the Church, but that is not the real issue.

To be authentic disciples, we have to give up our notions of personal security, obstacles, and time-lines. Doing so is allow ourselves to truly trust Jesus and allow him to show us that as scary as this is – it is the only path to freedom.

Two quick, but deep, questions to end on.

1.      We are baptizing a baby today. How are we making the promise, cost, and joys of being a Christian known? How do we teach this? How do we establish a culture so that this baby, even though he lives in Asheville, when he comes to visit will see that this place is different from any other?  How we establish a culture so that everyone who is baptized or visits here understands what following Jesus means? Doing this fulfills our vow we make to help these children grow in the full stature of Christ.

2.      How do we make sure that everything we do – every activity, every group, everything that is under the banner of St Timothy’s, helps us to follow Jesus and move beyond our fickle insecurities? And how we do eliminate those practices and attitudes that look for outs, excuses, and loopholes?

Doing this work will not only show us how love Jesus with all our heart, mind, and soul. It will give us joy. A fickle-less joy.

Homily Text for June 19, 2016

It is not my practice to preach from a manuscript, but I almost always write one. We have been posting the audio from the homilies in this email and they are on the website, but I thought some might wish to see the text. This is not exactly what was preached, but it is close. Grammarians, please note I don't write these for publication and I have not edited them. I can promise spelling and grammatical errors, missing words, and the like!

I hope at some point today you take a moment to read my article in the announcement sheet. My hope in writing these each week is to introduce the readings to prime your spiritual pump before Sunday, so that you are already thinking just a little about what we will hear and sometimes I like to introduce something that won’t be covered in the homily. We don’t have a lot of time to really get into the power of the readings during the homily, so we have to take advantage of every avenue so that the Word of God  will become the Word on fire for us.

There are two images in your bulletin and in your announcement sheet that I’d like you to focus on. In the announcement sheet is a fragment of a tile from the first century. It’s the military emblem of the Legio X Fretensis, a Roman Legion. Founded by the heir of Julius Caesar, Octavian about 40 years before the birth of our Lord, it was a company of around 5,000 Roman soldiers who played a major role in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD which resulted in the destruction of the Temple, the Temple which no longer stands and all we have left is the outer Western Wall. That’s the wall you always see in pictures and in video as a place of prayer – the Wailing Wall. That’s all that’s left.

If you look closely at the tile, you can see the symbol of the Legio X Fretensis – a pig. The fact that the symbol for the Roman Legion in Judea at the time of Jesus was a pig is a biblical game changer.

Because when we read the Gospel today from Luke, and this story is essentially identical in Matthew and Mark, theological light bulbs start to go off.

On the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is just a big lake, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who is possessed by demons, many demons.  This man runs around naked, he lives in tombs, the townspeople try to keep him contained by shackles and chains, but he continually breaks them and is driven into the wild.

When the demon sees Jesus, the man falls down and confesses Jesus as the Son of God. By the way, Fr. Thomas Hopko, a brilliant Orthodox theologian who has now passed, once said that this is what Hell is like. The torment of Hell is to be in the presence of holiness, and to be tormented by it.

Fr. Hopko also makes this astute observation: when we are living a lie, when we are actively in sin, we can’t stand to be around those who are doing what is good and true and holy. He’s absolutely right. When we have been lax in coming to church, we can’t stand those goody two shoes that never miss. They just irritate us. When we aren’t putting the effort in our marriage, we can’t stand seeing pictures on Facebook of those who are. And the list goes on.

Back to the story…when Jesus asks the demon his name he says, Legion. Legion means many, but specifically it means many soldiers. Soldiers of evil. The evil in this man was a like a Roman army. Organized and efficient and lethal. The point is made – this is not an image of a disturbed man – this is spiritual war.

The image is extended when the demons, the soldiers, want to be sent into the pigs. On the cover of your bulletin is an icon of this scene. Parts may be difficult to make out, but you can see Jesus and you can see two men in chains and shackles living in tombs. But at the bottom right, do you see dark little interpretations of demons, riding on the backs of the pigs?

Remember the symbol from the Legio X Fretensis? The Legion isn’t just in the man, the legions are everywhere. What was in the man and what is represented by the pigs are one and the same.

And here, I think, is the truly important and more frightening part of this story.
When the pigs ran off the cliff and drowned, the swine herders went and told all the townspeople what had happened. And when they came and saw the Jesus and the man who had previously been possessed by evil sitting up and in his right mind, they were afraid and upset and asked Jesus to leave.

In other words – they preferred the pigs. They preferred the status quo. They preferred the legions around them.

I think there is a subtle and brilliant dichotomy of evil presented in this story. One is of the dramatic manifestation of evil – the Hollywood version, with chains and shackles and nakedness in tombs. It’s given to us to shock us and force us to pay attention. This is what evil is and this is what evil does.

And then we are given the image of the pastoral, non-offensive swing, minding their own business and grazing at the grass. Except they share the same name – Legion.

Evil prefers to be subtle and non-offensive and discreet. Sometimes it is manifested dramatically like the Nazi regime or ISIS. But Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Islamic State did not happen overnight. And they did not come into being in a dramatic fashion. It was subtle and slow and strategic.

The Church has always taught that evil is as real as the Gerasene demoniac. But our faith also teaches us that Gerasene demoniac is not our primary concern. It’s not the Legion that was in the man; it’s the Legion that grazes all around us.

It’s that grazing Legion that the townspeople didn’t mind. They profited from it, they enjoyed it. That Legion didn’t have to take over people and send them to the tombs. They didn’t have to because the people willingly went.

And as we seriously start to examine the evil that we currently face, the kind of evil that is dramatic, let us not ignore the subtle, slow, and strategic evil that grazes right under us. History has shown us that the subtle, slow, and strategic is far more dangerous. For they are one and the same. To fight one, we must fight both.

If we are outraged over dramatic loss of life, then let us not also be content and turn a blind eye to a culture of death, where every human life is not valued and protected.

If we are outraged over dramatic tools of destruction, then let us not also be content and turn a blind eye to the mundane tools of destruction that pull families a part and destroy lives and futures.
If we are determined to fight the Legion, then let us not open the gates to the swine.

About every other month, I come in the sacristy, usually on a Sunday morning, wearing a purple stole, and I use the traditional prayers to bless Holy Water. There are four prayers, two for the salt that is added and two for the water. Every now and then someone is in the sacristy with me and I ask them to say Amen when appropriate. I usually warn the person before I begin the prayers about the amount of demonic references.

The devotions surrounding Holy Water remind us of our own baptism, which reminds us that we are alive in Christ. There’s power in the water.

Remember how the pigs died in this story. They drowned in the water.

It washes us clean and it drowns the demons.

There may be legions around us. But we have Jesus in us.