It’s All Up To Me; A Timeless Misapprehension

One of the most satisfying parts of my ministry at Trinity is teaching Episcopal 101. This is an introductory course to Historic, Christianity. Because of the confusion in many minds between catholic Christianity with a small c, and Roman Catholicism, a predominant, yet not exclusive, transmission of catholic Christianity, the word Historic serves us better.

We have just completed the first three sessions on Christian Essentials where we have asked three questions. Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is the Church? These are not so much three separate questions so much as three linked aspects of a more fundamental question: being human, who am I?

For me, this is a really exciting question. I hasten to separate myself from the theological nerdism that some approaches to these questions about God inevitably give rise to. What excites me is not finding answers to the deeper question so much as stimulating reflection that begins to address some of the burning and burdening of our hearts.

Our heart-felt question takes various forms and is a question about core identity. Who am I? Where am I going? What do I long to become? Responding to these questions points us to the realization that we are made in the image of God.

The Relational God

God first identifies in Genesis:1 using the possessive pronouns us and ourlet us make humanity in our own image. God self-identifies clearly as communal and relational, not individual and solitary. If we are made in God’s image then we too are at our core, communal and relational.

In Jesus Christ, Godself further reveals in the form of a human face and human life. Therefore, to be made to be fully human is a reflection of the image of God made real in, and through, human relationship. In Jesus, we see God’s picture of full human likeness, which is very close to God’s self-likeness. In Jesus, God shows us clearly that what is essential to know about Godself is discoverable as we grow more and more fully into our own human natures.

God is communal. God is relational. This is the deep and wonderful mystery lying at the heart of our doctrine of the Trinity. What we most long for is to be part of community and to grow in, and through, relationships with one an other. One of the places this longing is met, is in the community of the Church. Like other aspects of human experience this communal identity, though often far from perfect, is where we are met by God and where we are nurtured and grow into a vision of being human that moves us beyond the limitations of our own individual and social imagining.

Luke 18-9-14


Which brings me to the Gospel text for today.          I have been wrestling with this text all week.  You might think this text is straight forward, but if  we have learned anything we should realize that nothing Jesus is reported to have said in the Gospel’s is, straight forward.

My comments about the current 101 program help to open this text beyond the trite traditionalist interpretation of bad Pharisee and good Toll Collector.  This approach to the text goes like this.  Once upon a time there was this self-righteous Pharisee – A.K.A Mr. self-assertion, pious, upright, self satisfied and a general turn-off for anyone thinking about belonging to the Church because he is the dark stereotype of good Christian churchgoers.  Given the strong competition between the Pharisees and the early followers of Jesus, competition resulting from their similarities and not their differences, the Pharisees became the straw men of the Gospel writers. Consequently the Pharisee is unfavorably compared with the Toll Collector, who while certainly not a very good man, is nevertheless, humble. So at the heart of this interpretation pride is compared with humility.

This pernicious interpretation portrays God as a very human-like judge, distinguishing between the good and bad. We of course gloat in identifying with the humble Toll Collector against the proud Pharisee, thereby falling into exactly the same fault as we condemn in the Pharisee.  We are thinking to ourselves: Thank you Lord that I am not like the stereotype of that self-righteous and hypocritical good churchgoer.

It is true, we are not like the Pharisee in this parable. Most of us do not fast. Most of certainly do not tithe. Yet to be honest, being in the middle of an annual stewardship renewal campaign and looking at the projected budget figures for 2014, I want to say: give me a few more Pharisees any day! I mean, the man tithes not only on those items the Jewish Law compels him to pay the tithe on, but on the whole of his income! Around here, we certainly could use a few more like him! 

The point of this parable is not the simplistic duality of piety bad, humility good. The Pharisee is to be commended for careful attention to his accountability before God. Maybe we should all be more like him. God desires that we also take seriously our accountability for the gifts entrusted to us for our enjoyment.

This parable highlights two attitudes. The Pharisee’s attitude is one of pride in his own religious accomplishments leading him to judge and to despise his neighbors. Jesus criticizes this attitude on the grounds that the self-assertion of spiritual accomplishments cuts the Pharisee off from feeling any need for God’s mercy, and any solidarity with others in his community. The attitude of the Toll Collector is commended because despite his despicably sinful life he desires God’s mercy. At the heart of his prayer is a profound dependency upon God’s mercy. Jesus means us to understand that our view of good and bad, diserving and underserving has nothing to do with the love and mercy of God.


This parable is about relationality. We are all much more like the Pharisee than the Toll Collector. The Pharisee is a very modern figure in the sense that he feels independent of God’s mercy. He is self-sufficient, possessing all the tools necessary for living a self-actualized life of self-assertion. He knows what he is accountable for to God, and he gives a good account. His piety is not hypocritical or insincere. The problem here is not his piety, but his omnipotent narcissism. Feeling in full control of his spiritual and material life leads him to place his confidence in his self-sufficiency. He feels independent of God and superior to his fellow human beings. Luke notes that in the Temple he stands by himself and I picture him insulated from others around him. In giving good account to God he seems to need nothing in return. His prayer of spiritual self-assertion cuts him off from a sense of community, which is the essential element for a fuller human spiritual experience.

The Toll Collector, on the other hand, is so deeply compromised by his life of exploitation and extortion that nothing in his life justifies him even being in God’s presence. Luke shows him standing a long way off, and I picture him gripped with a longing for God, while, at the same time being afraid to even raise his eye to heaven.  He fears to trespass upon God’s love and mercy. His prayer is in contrast to spiritual independence. It is a prayer recognizing his complete dependence on God’s mercy.

Jesus comments that this man, despite his despicable life understands something the Pharisee misses. Fred B. Craddock reflects that what both receive is ‘in spite of’, ‘not because of.’ their situation.  Righteousness on its own cannot earn God’s love. Neither can sinfulness disqualify us from God’s love and mercy. 

It’s all in the Attitudes

The issue here is about how our attitude to life either fosters or insulates us from being in relationship with God. Relationship with God is through relationships with one another. Relationship with God is not possible outside of being in relationship together within the faithful community directly addressed by God.  Episcopalians are heirs to the historic tradition of Christianity. We understand our relationship with God to be through baptism into the cross- bearing and saving community of the Church. Whatever God invites us into on an individual and personal basis, this pales in comparison with what God invites us into through our relationships within the faithful community.

In Conclusion

During these weeks of our annual renewal of stewardship, God invites us to a deeper connection with gratitude. We are also reminded of our responsibility to be accountable. One of the things we are accountable for is our contribution to building up the quality of our lives together. Three weeks ago I termed it as our need to feel that we can make a difference in the world.

This parable transforms the question who am I into the only proper question we need to be asking, which is, who are we discovering ourselves to be in this community of faithfulness at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central?

Gratitude on the Borderland

A little recap

Last week we launched our two-month annual renewal program, the theme of which I characterized as the stewardship of tender competence.  Stewardship is a year-long process, however, it gets an injection of energy during  the Fall of each year with an annual renewal phase. In the annual renewal phase we are asked to enter into an intentional reflection within ourselves and within our community. The focus of this reflection is on our relationship with God, lived and expressed through our relationship with one another as members of the Body of Christ at Trinity Cathedral. For me, there is a metaphor for the process of reflection borrowed from London Underground’s slogan: mind the gap.

As we begin the process of spiritual reflection on the way we are living, where do we notice the gap in our awareness lying?  I am keenly aware of a gap between what feels safe and manageable and what feels more than I am able to share from my gifts of time, talent, and treasure. It is when we mind the gap, that we notice the emotional- psychological chasm in our awareness between what we feel is reasonable and what is asked of us.

As Christians, and as a Christian Community, we long to contribute to the increase of well-being in the world around us. Becoming aware of the link between our desire to make a difference and our own spiritual growth and health is crucial. For instance, there is a strong spiritual health connection between the extent to which we long to open our hearts and the comparatively closed nature of our checkbooks. I am afraid that spiritual health requires us to open our checkbooks as widely as we long to open our hearts.  

The links: faith, courage and gratitude

In the passage from Luke’s Gospel that we heard proclaimed last week, Jesus drew our attention to the nature of faith. The problem of faith is not that we don’t have enough faith, but that we are not living courageously enough to believe that the mustard seed amount of faith we do have is able to achieve more than we can either imagine or expect.  Where are we to find the source for courage?

We live lives of gentle courage when noticing that at the heart of the mustard seed amount of faith there lies the core experience of gratitude. Gratitude is the first fruit of the spiritual life of discipleship. No circumstance is able to knock us off course for long when on a day by day basis we give grateful thanks for the freely given benefits we enjoy in our lives. In my experience only gratitude supplies enough of the energy needed for courageous, faithful, living.

The Gospel readings that will take us through this season of stewardship renewal focus on Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. This journey is an image for the path of discipleship. We are the disciples who accompany Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Along the way we are learning what God needs from us as accountable and tenderly competent stewards. Mark, Matthew, and Luke each offer their own interpretation of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Each, creates a particular feel for this journey through their selection of events encountered along the way. This year we journey with Jesus as seen through Luke’s eyes.

One of the key characteristics of the journey as perceived by Luke is the way Jesus goes out of his way to welcome those who were on the outside of society. Luke’s Jesus is particularly attentive to the plight of women and children in a brutally, male dominated society. He attends not only to the physical plight of the sick. He pays particular attention to the way illness socially relocates individuals to the outer edges of their social and religious systems. In doing this we are asked to reflect on the way social and religious systems continue today to relocate the sick and vulnerable to the margins. Luke’s Jesus is particularly concerned with the issues of inclusion and exclusion, who is in and who is out.

Gospel context

Today’s Gospel centers on a typical Lucan event, that of a request for healing. As Jesus moves through the contested borderlands between Jewish Galilee and the hostile region of Samaria, ten lepers encounter him along the road. They respectfully keep their distance while calling out for Jesus to have mercy on them.  Jesus turns his attention towards them and seeing them simply says: go show yourselves to the priests. As they set off to do so they are healed.

Miraculously finding themselves healed, nine continue on their way. Only one turn’s back to thank God, falling at Jesus’ feet, overwhelmed with gratitude. Jesus then asks the onlookers as well as his disciples, were not ten made clean?  Jesus’ point is that it is only the foreigner, the spurned other, who returns to give thanks?

This short story is crammed to overflowing with significance. Luke intends for us to read between the lines in order to grasp the significance for our own journey of discipleship.

  1. The first thing to notice is the location. Jesus is in the contested border region between two mutually hostile populations, Jews and Samaritans. It is significant that Luke does not place this event among the rolling hills of Jewish Galilee. Neither does he wait until Jesus has safely crossed into the Jewish heartland of Judea. Because it is in the borderland, the places in our lives in-between those comfortable zones of certainty and secure identity. It is in the in-between spaces that we find God is most active.
  2. The region between Samaria and Galilee is a metaphor for the in-between places where we experience risk and uncertainty, maybe even danger. It is in those uncomfortable experiences of taking a risk that we are more likely to be open to the power of God in our lives. The reason for this is simple. God is always closer to us in our vulnerability than in our security.
  3. The phrase Luke uses for the healing of the lepers is made clean. Jesus sends them to the priests so that they can be certified to be ritually clean again. We miss the point if we see their physical disease as the core problem for the lepers. It’s their ritual contamination, a source of their exclusion from society and religion that is the core problem for them. In my experience it’s often the so-called religious worldview of good Church–going Christians that presents the strongest resistance to the inclusive expectations of the Kingdom of God.
  4. In reflecting on tender competence in our relationships with others, does our religion protect us from those we shun? Does our faith challenge our need to protect our own sense of security by scape-goating and shunning those we fear as other?
  5. A related point follows. Presumably nine of the lepers were Jews. Luke wants us to see that only the Samaritan, the feared other, the foreigner, allows himself to be spiritually and not merely physically healed. The fruit of his spiritually healing shows in his becoming overwhelmed with gratitude.

Some concluding remarks

Why does God desire our expression of gratitude? The latin word gratis means freely given, not earned, not paid for, but gift. Gratitude is our human response for what is freely given to us by God. Gratitude is not a matter of groveling before an irate, finger wagging God, who in a booming voice demands: you should be be grateful!  By closing the gap in our awareness, gratitude functions as a spiritual and emotional realignment towards God that issues forth in generous love and service. Gratitude opens us to God like flowers before the warmth of the Sun. Gratitude calls us to more deeply appreciate the link between the gifts God has given us to enjoy and our responsibility towards the health and welfare of the common good.

God invites our collaboration. We have the free will to either accept or decline the invitation. Most of us don’t really decline God’s invitation, we simply postpone acceptance until what we imagine will be a more propitious time in the future when we will be better situated to accept. In this way we perpetuate the gap between what feels safe and what is required of us. In this gap our courage fails. We feel unable to make an impact upon the world around us. We are filled with a sense of futility that encourages us to close-in, living increasingly in the interests of our own safety and security.

As we proceed with our intentional reflection on the art of tender competence, my hope for us all is that we become more mindful of the gifts of health, wealth, time and talent, which are ours not only to enjoy, but to share through lives of courageous faith and generous service.

The Exercise of Tender Competence

First part of a message for the opening Sunday of stewardship renewal 

October 6th is the Sunday designated for the launch of our Annual Renewal Program. The first question to address is what is annual renewal? The short answer is, it’s the start of our annual renewal of stewardship awareness. Stewardship is a yearlong process, which focuses our attention, as individuals, on our relationship with God as our creator and our commitment to the creation, which is the world around us.

At the heart of being Christian lies the key realization that God is not solitary but relational and communal. In Genesis: 1, God converses with God-self saying: Let us make humanity in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves and let them be masters all that lives upon the earth. The essence of what it means to be human flows from being formed in the essential image of God. Consequently, we are relational beings made to seek our fulfillment through relationships with one another.  In other words, like God, our identity and fulfillment is to be found in community. Tertullian, the Early Church Father, is reputed to have said: one Christian is no Christian. To be Christian is to be a member of the people of God. We are the Body of Christ because we are all baptized into one body. 

Somewhere in his description of the responsibilities of the cellarer, the person in the monastery entrusted with the management of resources and care of fabric, St Benedict uses the phrase tender competence. Norvene West, a prominent writer on Benedict writes: Stewardship means working with God to tend and care for the world, including tending and caring for our own vocation. 1997 p59 

In creation God has appointed us to be trustees. The job of the trustee is to look after things that don’t strictly belong to us. It is to look out for the interests of others. It involves giving account for actions taken. To be a good steward involves learning, day by day, how to be watchful, and mindfully aware of the responsibility to practice a tender competence in the care for the material world and human relationships. Through tender competence we give thankful account to God for all we have been given in trust to enjoy.

Tender competence is the action of discipleship, an action flowing from the experience of gratitude. Gratitude is the first fruit of spiritual living. To live the spiritual life of discipleship is to live from the experience of gratitude. Disciples never resist, for too long at least, a generous impulse.

Second Part

I begin this cycle of annual renewal by sharing with you my enormous gratitude to this community for the honor and love you extend to me as your priest and pastor. My gratitude to God for leading me to this phase of my life connects me with my desire for all of you to live joyful lives, lives lived outside the box rather than lives created by the limitation of imagination and failure of courage.

The first element of our annual renewal process is to address the thorny issue of money. As we look to 2014, we need to assess our financial strengths and weaknesses in order to be able to plan how we are going to exercise tender competence in the coming year. Gratitude, expressing itself in a generosity made real through tender competence for the world, is God’s call to us.

Since 2009 we have been running a deficit budget. The reason for this lies in the fact that it was only in 2009 that Trinity Cathedral took full responsibility for paying our own clergy. We think of Trinity as an old and well-established community. Yet, financially speaking we are only really four years old. We survived the collapse of the Downtown and the white-flight to the suburbs in the 1970’s and 80’s because the Diocese took financial responsibility for keeping a cathedral presence in the heart of the City. That act of faith bore rich fruit and all of us here this morning are evidence to that.

Once again we are growing year on year. I believe that growth is the strongest evidence that we are meeting needs. Each one of us has a need for a place to journey in the company of others similarly searching. Here, together, we stand in the tension between our received Tradition and the expectations of the Kingdom.

Today, I invite us to renew our intentional conversation around a metaphor of the gap. Anyone who has been to London will have heard the voice-over telling travelers to mind the gap as they move from platform to train and vice versa on the Underground. I invite us to mind the gap in our expectations between what feels safe, and what feels generous.  Let’s mind the gap between what we think we can provide, and what we really can provide. The difference between the two is simply the limitation of expectation and imagination, and the failure of courage. loves live from a notion of scarcity rather than abundance.

We limit our expectations to what most of us can easily afford, which in most cases amounts to an incredibly low percentage of our surpluses of money, time, and skills. Yet, what is needed is a prayerful and courageous generosity of money, time, and talent. Part of the malaise of modern life lies in our experience of futility and helplessness. We accept that we are unable to effect any real change in the world.  At the heart of all our longing is our human need to experience making an impact for good. Through our shared journey of discipleship as a community, Trinity has the power to make animpact in the world and through this we come to experience making a difference in the world.

Last year was the first year that we addressed our annual renewal program in an intentional and planned fashion. I would like to share with you the three most important fruits of that during this past year.

  • Firstly, we increased the number of pledging households by 30%.
  • Secondly, we have faithfully served one another and the world around us through our vibrant ministry programs.
  • Thirdly, we have grown in talent so that this year, as Interim Dean, I do not have to lead our annual renewal. We have in place a highly skilled annual renewal ministry team that represents both established and new elements of our membership. The extent of their commitment to this ministry lies in their willingness to sign-on for three years so that continuity and incremental vision become the bedrock of the way we will address the demands upon us to become more empowered stewards.  

From today until Christ the King Sunday, which is the last Sunday before Advent, or the Sunday before Thanksgiving, selected speakers from the congregation will share with us the importance for them of being part of Trinity’s community. Members of the stewardship ministry team will explain the stages of our renewal process.

It is my life experience that God does not encroach into that part of life which is ours to be accountable for. One of the reasons we so often feel that our prayers go unanswered is because we want God to take all the responsibility for changing our lives and making a better world. God does God’s part, but God is also reliant on us doing ours!

Third Part

Today’s Gospel reading starkly sets the theme for our annual renewal phase of Stewardship. Jesus is saying two things to us:

  • We need only to have an amount of faith the size of a mustard seed for there to be no limit to what we can achieve.  Often our courage and vision fail because we think we need more faith than we have. What we have is enough!
  • As stewards and disciples, there is nothing out of the ordinary in doing only what is our duty and responsibility to do.   

We are God’s stewards. As Christ’s disciples we are called to be accountable for the good use of the resources of money, time and talent entrusted to us.  One result of this accountability is that we give generously from the benefits we enjoy so that this Christian Community can make an impact in the world for good. Another is that we encounter that longed-for deepening sense of purpose, which is the spiritual fruit of an expanding sense of gratitude.

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