Monday, August 6, 2012

Colin's Sermon Delivered at St. Paul's Cathedral Aug. 5

Tonight the NASA lander named Curiosity will make a daring landing on Mars.  After $2.5 billion dollars and eight months of space flight, Curiosity’s mission will now hang on a mere seven minutes of intricately sequenced activity to slow the 5000 pound craft from its blistering 13,000 mile/hr speed to just THREE miles/hour as it touches down.  The goal: to find signs of past or present life on the red planet.  Given the scale of the expense and thought involved, I think it’s safe to conclude that we humans really love explanations.  Especially explanations about who we are and how we came to be.

Now I’m all for science and space exploration and would definitely have wanted to be an astronaut if I thought I could fit in a rocketship, but I fear that our curiosity for the scientific explanation of our world can obscure the search for the deeper truth about who we are.  For these deeper truths, an exploration of 3500 years of human yearning for God through scripture, tradition, and reason may be more fruitful than a 127 million mile space odyssey.


The folks following Jesus around the Sea of Galilee in today’s gospel reading thought Jesus had some explaining to do.  Listen closely to how Jesus redirects their curiosity. They start with an understandable question: “When did you get here?”  They knew Jesus hadn’t gotten into the boat with his disciples after the miraculous feeding of five thousand, and they knew there had only been one boat on the shore.  So . . . how’d you get here, Jesus?  What, did you walk on water?!  Ha.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, he did.  If Jesus was about signs, then this was the chance to bring up another one, even better than the last.  But instead, Jesus answers: “You’re looking for me not because you saw signs but because that bread filled you.”  So let’s take this response apart.  First, Jesus ignores their question.  Not sure if anyone has experienced that one before with Jesus or God?  Fortunately, when we Christians ask dumb questions, the worst thing that happens is that we’re ignored.  And then we get an answer to a question we hadn’t known to ask, which is what happens here.  Jesus says: “You’re looking for me, not for signs.  And let me tell you something else about yourself: that bread filled you like nothing before.”  Now this truth must have unsettled the crowd, but what do we do when we feel uncomfortable?  Press on!  

“Okay, Jesus, you’re right, the bread was delicious.  How did you do it?  We want to do it too!”  Tell us your secret recipe!  This inclination for knowledge is all-too familiar to us today.  Information is fast becoming the essential currency of our daily lives.  We’re feeling increasingly brainless without our smartphone crutches!  So Jesus answers, “You want to know the secret?  Believe in God’s chosen one.”  Now he’s just playing coy with us, they think.  What’s he hiding? they wonder.  Believe in the Messiah?  A lot of them probably did.  The Jewish idea that there would be a messiah, God’s anointed one, who would restore the monarchy and kick out the occupiers, was an idea that had been around for hundreds of years.  So this seems like another evasive answer.  Sure, okay, fine -- believe in a messiah. But if this guys claiming to be that same messiah, we need a little more proof. You think you’re the messiah, Jesus? They say.  “What are you gonna do to persuade us, then?  We need more signs!  How about this -- can you do what Moses did with the manna?” They’re very persistent.

Now I don’t see Jesus as sighing here in frustration or disappointment.  I think he sees this instead as a top-rate teaching moment.  I think he’s even smiling a bit on the inside, but I imagine him keeping a poker face.  He responds, “My Father gives this bread, not Moses.  You ate the bread of God yesterday.”

Now they hear him, they really hear him.  “My Father? Who are you?”  You don’t talk like this unless you’re the real deal . . . or you’re itching to get stoned for blasphemy.  Fresh off the lakeside feeding, they’re inclined to ask for more, and they’re finally in touch with their real hunger.  Not for more explanations this time, just more bread.  “Sir, give us this bread always,” they say.  “I’d be delighted,” Jesus responds, smiling:  “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The truth in this disjointed conversation requires listening, really listening.  The people finally got it once they began letting go of their need for explanations.  Explanations give us control.  But living in control is not the Christian way -- and I say this thoughtfully, and with great sadness as a recovering control freak.  Jesus speaks truth with love to the people, and they finally hear him. 


Today’s Hebrew scripture reading adds another layer to our ability to hear when the truth is spoken.  To summarize the story: Israel’s armies are away at war, and King David’s stayed behind in his cushy palace.  He sees Bathsheba, and she’s beautiful, so he calls her in and impregnates her.  One of the many problems with this is that Bathsheba is married, so David commands his army general to put her husband on the front lines and he’s killed.  Then David marries Bathsheba.  Problem solved?  Hardly.  Rather, the problems are just starting, beginning with Nathan, who is sent from the LORD with a disturbing story of a powerful man who exploits a poor man.  David, being an upright, just ruler and all, is enraged at this powerful man’s actions...until Nathan replies: “You are the man!”  David didn’t see that one coming.

We are blind to many of our privileges.  And we must depend on those without a particular privilege to point out to us what we have — both so that we may be more grateful for our blessings, and to become more aware of how our use of privilege negatively affects others.  The powerful need to hear the truth spoken in love by the powerless.  This is not just the stuff of the Arab spring, but rather intimately bound up in our own lives.

Last weekend I attended a training for Hispanic ministry leaders in the diocese.    The facilitator ran the training in English and Spanish, which meant that those who were not bilingual had to be patient with frequent pauses in their comprehension.  The trainer offered us a beautiful way to experience these moments of confusion: as prayer.  She said, “I invite you to offer your discomfort as a prayer to God in thanksgiving that through a bilingual program all can be included together in this sacred time and space.”

Discomfort, huh?  That awkward, out-of-control feeling of not understanding with no explanation to be found.  This is the Christian way, when our discomfort and confusion can bring comfort and understanding to another.

I invite you to sit in on a 1 pm Spanish language service here sometime soon.  It’s beautiful and full of life and blessed with kids — and if you don’t speak Spanish, you won’t understand parts of it.  That’s alright.  You may just find a deeper truth hidden behind those stalwart English words we’ve come to know and rely upon for so long.  You may hear something new in the sort of off-beat shakers wielded by children at the altar singing the offertory song in a pitch you don’t know but can come to love; you may hear a larger, deeper truth of our church’s calling to unity under one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.  You may hear a new riff speaking to who you, who we, are.  Who are we, St. Paul’s?

At 10:30 tonight we’ll wait fourteen minutes for the signals from the Mars lander Curiosity to reach Earth.  Fourteen uncomfortable minutes.  Many of us will want to know so badly what happened: did the lander make it?  For better or worse, we’ll receive loads of explanations over the time ahead.

Trust, instead, that which has no explanation, because it is a very old and very good truth: I am the bread of life, says Jesus, and to know and believe and to experience this is really who you are.  Listen for that truth within our discomfort, and find there, my sisters and brothers, the good, good news of God.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How Can We Get More People to Come to Church?

How can we get more people to come to church?  Hispanic ministry leaders from across the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego recently participated in a training addressing that enticing question.  The answer, shared Kaleidoscope Institute trainer Patricia Millard, is bible study: with a twist.

Rev. Millard, a priest in the Diocese of Oregon, visited San Diego July 27-28 for two trainings on leadership for evangelism in Hispanic ministry.  Eleven attended the first training, held at St. Andrew's in Lake Elsinore, including members of St. Stephen's in Menifee and St. John's in Indio.  Fifteen attended the second training, held at St. Phillip's in Lemon Grove, including the rector of Good Shepherd in Bonita, Suzi Holding (Canon to the Ordinary), and Anthony Guillen (missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries for the national Episcopal church).

The Bible study begins with a conversation around respectful communication guidelines that ask participants to listen with and speak from their hearts as well as their minds.  Using the coming Sunday's gospel reading, a volunteer reads the passage once aloud.  Then each participant is offered space to share a word or image from the text that comes to mind before inviting the next person to share.  The passage is read again, and then the sharing/inviting process begins again, this time answering the question: "How does the presence of Jesus shape our ministry?"  The text is read a final time and participants respond to the question, "What is this text inviting me to do, be, or change?"  The study is concluded with a group prayer.

What's different about this approach?  And how can it build the church?  First, it's intentionally grounded in mutual respect for one another.  Participants agree to listen carefully, trust ambiguity, and examine their own assumptions as others share.  The process is also guided by mutual invitation, which grants each person the opportunity to share or pass and also the privilege of inviting the next person to speak.  Each round of questions encourages more personal and practical applications of the reading in the participant's life.  Prayer rounds out and blesses the exercise.

Increasingly, those who enter our churches -- especially those of younger generations -- expect to "belong" before they either "believe" or "behave."  This can be frustrating to the BCP-wielding veterans in our pews.  Through mutual invitation, this Bible study allows for such full participation while keeping the conversation closely tied to scripture and its impact on our own lives.  This safe space where one's own person can encounter the biblical text often leads to authentic and powerful spiritual experiences.  And relationships are formed.

Relational, authentic, and power sharing ministries are critical to future church growth, asserts the Rev. Eric Law, founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute.  But they must take place within a context that is sensitive and responsive to a variety of cultural expectations.  This issue came up often in San Diego's recent trainings.

Take the leadership self-assessment, for example.  Most of the English speakers felt comfortable diving into this sort of personally-directed listing of spiritual gifts.  The Spanish speakers, however, appreciated Rev. Millard's invitation to work in groups so that one's partner could help identify the gifts of another.

This steeper involvement of the community in one's personal understanding leads to another frequent challenge in cross-cultural communication.  Spanish speakers often feel more hesitant to respond to an invitation with a clear "no" for fear of hurting another's feelings, or worse, embarrassing him or her.  While many English speakers have been taught to use "I statements" when sharing feelings and to take responsibility for one's own emotions, Spanish speakers tend to take more responsibility for the well being of others.  This can lead to a situation in which both parties intend to be respectful but end up coming across as either offensively direct or frustratingly duplicitous. 

The key, claims Rev. Millard, is not to expect someone else to change their culturally familiar words and activities for us.  Instead, listen carefully and ask for help when we don't understand something.

A most fascinating example of such intercultural communication occurs within bilingual and bicultural individuals and groups.  Language is the primary medium through which we live out our particular culture.  Those who speak more than one language most often still depend on a single language for certain emotions or activities.  Prayer feels more comfortable in one language.  Business may be more comfortably conducted in another.  By conducting the two trainings in both English and Spanish, Rev. Millard allowed her bilingual participants to bring their full beings to the table and learn more about themselves in the process.

Rev. Millard preaches in a similar manner.  She'll begin a homily in one language and continue for about a third of the sermon before starting over in the other language.  She'll alternate several more times before ending both.  Even more impressive and intriguing, these no-notes sermons often carry substantially different messages.  This type of preaching or workshop facilitation challenges our legalistic understandings of how language interpretation ought to be done.  Instead of a word-for-word translation that often misses the larger cultural worlds that these words inhabit, she recognizes that each language community has different spiritual challenges and gifts and speaks directly and specifically to each in the appropriate language.

This means, however, that there will be times with monolingual speakers won't understand what's going on.  Rev. Millard asks her congregation and workshop participants to offer up these moments of incomprehension as prayers to God in thanksgiving that by their gracious patience all can be included in these moments' sacred time and space.