Benediction Online

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Here we are again. It’s Christmas Eve. A few days after the longest night of the year we’re gathering together once again to remember and to celebrate the coming of the light into the world. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Twice in my life I have been present at the hatching of baby sea turtles. The mother turtles come out of the sea and up the shore to lay their eggs, and then leave. When the little creatures hatch they have to find their own way to the sea. The baby turtles are guided to the water by the light of the moon shining on it. But those hatched too close to human buildings become confused by our lights and can head in entirely the wrong direction. It doesn’t help to pick them up because it is in the struggle to find the ocean that they learn whatever they need to know to be able to find the same beach when as adults they return to lay their own eggs. The only way to help is to use a flashlight to draw them towards the water.

Their life depends upon the light. Our spiritual life depends on the Christ light. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

In the light we see and are seen for who we truly are. Without the light the baby turtles will not find their way into the ocean, the only environment where they can grow and flourish. Without the Christ-light we could not find our way to the abundant life which is available for us.

Many of us are afraid that a life devoted to spirit is a restricted life. When we think of following Christ, we think of obeying rules, of being good. In fact the life of the spirit is the opposite of restriction; it is the life which opens us up, which challenges us and enables us to be the people we were created to be. The life of the spirit is the environment in which we can truly flourish, in which we can access the abundant and overflowing life that is our heritage. A turtle is restricted to living in the ocean, but in the ocean swims thousands and thousands of miles; a turtle hatched on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica may swim as far as Norway and then down to South Africa before returning to the same beach to lay her eggs. This is not restriction but life as a turtle is meant to live it. Life in the spirit is not restriction for us but life as we are meant to live it.

In Jesus, God allowed Godself to be restricted. God chose to take a human body and live a human life. By so doing God fully entered into creation and blessed it in a new way and by so doing, God transformed what it means to be human. No longer are we limited to a mortal life of restriction but we are invited to the unrestricted life of the Spirit which brings a depth and joy to life that is not available elsewhere. Perhaps this makes it more difficult because now we know the potential that is in our heritage as sons and daughters of God and yet so often we fail to realize our potential. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

But just seeing it isn’t enough. The baby turtles have to not only see the light of the moon shining on the ocean but have to follow it. The people who walked in darkness can choose to continue. There’s something to be said for darkness. When it’s dark no-one can see what you look like, or what you’re doing. The darkness can be a very safe place. But it is a restricted place because you can’t do much. Those who are blind learn to live without seeing the light and can live very independently, but a society where everyone is blind is almost impossible to conceive. We need light to live, to grow and to be creative. It’s not surprising that in the story of creation, light is one of the first things God creates.

The Christ light shines on the path and shows us the way forward. Not towards an egocentric self-actualization, but towards becoming the people we were made to be. The glory of God, says the early father, Irenaeus, is the human being fully alive. This is the great message of Christmas; that God has come to be one of us, and to live with us, Emmanuel, so that we can be fully alive, so that we can flourish and live in the knowledge and the hope of abundant life in the Spirit.

Life in the spirit is a constant process of dying and being reborn. As we grow the things that we held as certain truth and cherished insight last year fall away and are replaced by a new way of seeing, a new birth, a new insight, a new light on the subject. So every Christmas is another opportunity to choose to follow the light. It is another opportunity to become aware of that which is growing within us, of the Christ-child that needs nurturing in our lives, of the Christ-light that beckons us forward into the ocean of God’s love.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We don’t know where it will lead us. The baby turtles have no idea where they are going as they head down the beach towards the light. We can trust that the Christ-light will lead us towards abundant life, because that is the nature of the compassionate Creator, but will we go?

We who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. Let us tonight have the courage to say yes, yes and again YES to the Christ-light and run forward to greet the Child of Bethlehem, God incarnate, God with us, Emmanuel.


In Mary’s time, to be an unwed pregnant woman was not just an inconvenience but a serious social problem. Joseph should have broken off the engagement in outrage and Mary should have been ostracized from the community. Matthew’s gospel explains that in a dream God told Joseph that the child was from God, and so instead of doing the socially expected thing he honored his earlier commitment and married the pregnant Mary. However, there were still the growing belly and the neighbors to consider, and so Mary went with haste into the hill country where she had family.

When we hear rhetoric about the importance of the heterosexual nuclear family it is worth pondering the fact that Jesus was apparently born without benefit of heterosexual union and there certainly weren’t nine months between his parents’ wedding night and his birth. Even in the manner of his incarnation our God did not abide by social expectations.

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth welcomed her with open arms. There are very few Biblical passages which show us two women relating to each other there are only three that I can think of. Here (Luke 1:39- 56) we see two women who have both been left to some extent alone to cope with the implications of their pregnancies. Presumably Joseph was back home getting used to the idea of a new wife and a son that wasn’t his, and Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, had been struck dumb so was probably less than usually supportive. We don’t know whether Mary knew she would be welcome at their home, but Elizabeth’s joyful greeting left her with no doubt. The pregnant teenager was given a royal welcome.

How wonderful that must have been. We usually think of Mary as a strong, resilient woman, and so she became. But as a teenager it must have been a great blessing to be with her older relative with whom she could compare notes, not only about morning sickness and the sudden movements within her, but about the role in salvation history that they and their sons were called to play. Elizabeth was a strong presence for Mary as she thought through all that she knew about the enormity of what was happening.

Mary and Elizabeth model faith community for us. Elizabeth accepted Mary unconditionally; she was present for her in her time of need; they encouraged one another; and they prayed and praised God together.

I think we often underestimate the importance of the ministry of presence; the ministry of simply being present to each other. There are many reasons we give for not taking time with one another; we don’t want to intrude, we’re too busy, we’re shy, they probably have other people they’d much rather see or hear from. Yet when I talk with those who are grieving or in any other trouble, it is the presence of faith community that is so important to them. It is the sense that they are not alone in their time of difficulty that helps them to have hope. Research has shown that people who go to church live longer. Perhaps it is because they have a spiritual faith that sustains, and perhaps it is also because they have a faith community. They are in contact and connection with others.

This is not, however, something that we can take for granted. We have to cultivate our connectedness. In order to connect with Elizabeth, Mary had to get up and go into the hill country. She had to make a special effort. This is a season when we consciously connect with family and friends, when we send cards and letters, get together and share our homes. It is also a deeply lonely time for many of us, when we are very aware of the gaps and the absences; of those who are not present with us. In our ministry of presence for one another we can honor the breadth of experience, the differences in our life stories by not making assumptions, by not assuming that we know what another is going through. Yet, in order to continue to flourish and grow, our connections have to be nurtured not just once a year but week by week, month by month. We often have to be intentional about being present to each other in community and not getting lost in busy-ness.

Mary and Elizabeth encouraged one another; two women in very different life circumstances, but each one carrying within her a life that would change the world. Each of us today carries within us the life that is changing and has changed the world. Each of us carries within us the life and the light of Christ. We need encouragement. We need to be reminded of who we are as Christ-bearers. We encourage one another by sharing the signs of God’s grace that we see in or lives, by sharing not only the joys and the sorrows, but also the subtle workings of the Spirit. As we share how we experience God, so we help each other to experience the divine more fully.

It’s a lot like birding. There are a lot of little brown birds that live around here. They all look rather alike until someone tells you that the tip of the Godwit’s beak points up to heaven whereas the Dowitcher’s points down; or you learn to distinguish the call of the white crowned sparrow, and suddenly you hear it everywhere. If I share with you how I have seen God working in my life, the understandings that I have received recently, what I’m learning from my spiritual reading, then it may help you to see those things in your life too. My conversations with each of you show up in my sermons because I learn every day as you share with me glimpses of the divine and help me to see God’s hand more clearly in our lives.

Mary and Elizabeth praised God together, and Mary’s song (usually known by its Latin name, The Magnificat) has been remembered through the ages; ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Savior.’

You know that I don’t agree with the moral and political positions taken by many of our evangelical friends, and I think that Mary’s song supports the gospel of social justice and inclusion. But there are many things we can learn from evangelicals, and this is one; the power of praise and prayer. I wonder what difference it would make if whenever we got together, whether in meetings or for coffee, or just on the phone, we praised God and prayed together.

As a church we are shy about praying together. It’s easier to bake cookies or a casserole than it is to call up and pray with someone. It’s easier to discuss the weather or local politics than it is to praise God together. There’s something wrong with that picture.

We are a church. We are a faith community. We are called to love God, and to love one another as much as we love ourselves. This doesn’t happen automatically and it doesn’t happen just on Sunday mornings. It takes intentionality and practice. St Benedict’s has been described as the friendliest Episcopal church; we are always welcoming and open to visitors and newcomers. Yet I think this picture of Mary and Elizabeth calls us to take our understanding of faith community to a new level.

It calls us to be intentional in our hospitality to one another, practicing the ministry of presence whenever we can. It calls us to encourage one another not only in the practical aspects of our life together but in our knowledge and practice of the presence of God. Above all it calls us to constantly live our lives within the context of our faith, bringing everything to God in prayer and praise together. When we learn to share our faith as Mary and Elizabeth did, then the life within us will quicken and burst forth into the world.

Schism in the Episcopal Church?
There have been a number of news reports this week that the Episcopal Church is in schism. This is an attempt to provide a background to the media story.

Over the last fifty years the Episcopal Church has made some quite big changes. If you were transported back to a service in the 1950s you would probably be amazed at the difference. None of these changes have happened without critics within the church. Since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s some felt that the church was getting into inappropriate political areas and should focus more on its spiritual task of raising individuals and families in the ‘historic faith’. This sense that the church was trying to serve the world rather than God increased when in the 1970s a new prayer book was adopted with more focus on celebration and less on sin, and women were ordained as priests. The church’s critics began to argue that the Episcopal Church had turned away from the historic faith and biblical teaching and was being absorbed by American culture.

This way of thinking was supported by the growth of right-wing, conservative Christianity across the US. Within the Episcopal Church, many different conservative pressure groups have, since the 1980s, sought to turn the church back to what they believe is ‘orthodox’ Christianity. They have experienced themselves as a persecuted minority and have attempted a number of times to create a different structure within which they would receive the ministry of ‘orthodox’ bishops. Each of these attempts failed and so they cultivated relationships with conservative bishops in Anglican dioceses overseas and convinced them that the Episcopal Church is in serious trouble.

As a result, these bishops have been persuaded that the Episcopal Church is heretical. From their perspective the church (1) has refused to discipline those, such as Bishop Spong, who have taken radical positions which are at first sight contrary to traditional teaching; (2) has changed the Prayer Book, thus changing the emphasis of traditional teaching especially about sin and redemption; and (3) has continued to welcome gay and lesbian people. These are seen as symptoms of a bigger problem, the apparent refusal to acknowledge the authority of the Bible. (Actually, most Episcopalians fully accept the authority of scripture but not the way it is being interpreted by these conservatives.) The ordination of Presiding Bishop Katharine was the final straw, not because she is a woman, though this is a problem for some, but because she interprets the Bible according to current historical-critical understandings and supports the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons. Thus she embodies all that is wrong with the Episcopal Church.

Several of the ‘primates’ (head bishops of Anglican churches), mainly from the Global South, have sworn to take action on behalf of those who are holding to the ‘orthodox’ faith. Many conservatives hope to create a separate church which would become the ‘official’ Anglican Church in the US, so the Episcopal Church would no longer be recognized as part of the Anglican Communion. The diocese of San Joaquin has taken steps in this direction by eliminating from its Canons and Constitution all references to the Episcopal Church. This will have to be ratified at a second diocesan convention, which could be held as soon as March. The Archbishop of Nigeria, Akinola, seems determined to earn his place in history by leading the ‘orthodox’ to the safety of a new church. He has made a Virginian rector, Martyn Minns, a bishop in the church of Nigeria but functioning in the US. Two large churches in Virginia have decided to join the Nigerian church under his pastorship. This is what is being described as ‘schism’ by the media.

Over the years many parishes have decided to leave the Episcopal Church for other small Anglican churches, usually conservative. Yet others have decided to join the Episcopal Church. Whenever a parish decides to change denominations it raises difficult questions about those who do not want to change and the intent of those who gave money, time and energy to build the church buildings and endowments. It is particularly complex when a church decides to leave the Episcopal Church but join another church in the Anglican Communion – something that would be unthinkable had conservatives not managed to declare an extreme emergency of faith in the Episcopal Church.

In February the primates are meeting in Tanzania, and it is anticipated that this will be a crucial meeting for the future of the Anglican Communion (the family of churches that have grown from the Church of England). Some primates have already declared that their church is no longer ‘in communion’ with the Episcopal Church, and it is possible that a major split will occur within the Anglican Communion which will be expressed ‘on the ground’ here in the US. Let us pray for all the leaders of the Church that they may hear and respond to God’s call.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

There’s a great truth in these words. The peace of God comes when as we learn to give thanks and to rejoice in all circumstances. We want things to be a certain way. We want to have security; we want to have certainty; we want ourselves and our loved ones to have good health and fortune. But often life isn’t like that. That’s when rejoicing in God and giving thanks is a vital contribution to our mental and emotional peace.

Much suffering is caused by our desire to have things be a certain way, different from how they are now. We long for this and we look back with nostalgia to the ‘good old days’. Peace comes in living in the present moment. In the present moment all is well. All is as it is. Let us give thanks and rejoice in the present moment, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Advent 3 The One who is to Come is More Powerful
Luke 3:7-18

The first battle of the Civil War, after Fort Sumter, took place at Bull Run in Manassas just outside Washington DC. There was so little understanding of what was involved that people from the city came out in their carriages to watch. It was a diversion, an entertainment. I imagine that John the Baptizer was a bit like that in his time. This wild man ranting and raving and preaching up a storm in the desert became Sunday afternoon entertainment for the wealthy of Jerusalem and surrounds.

It was pretty exciting stuff but not, it would seem, overwhelmingly positive. To our ears the final sentence of the Gospel reading sounds almost ironic. John has just thundered at the good folk of Jerusalem that they are a brood of vipers, that there is wrath to come, that the Messiah is coming with his winnowing fork and will thresh the wheat and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. And then Luke tells us, ‘with many other exhortations, he preached the good news to the people’.

Doesn’t it seem a tad short on good news?

Perhaps Luke didn’t feel he needed to spell it out to his readers, it was so self-evident. I’m always trying to understand better what they meant by the good news and what it truly means for us today. I think in this passage, the good news is primarily contained in the phrase ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming.’ And that is good news indeed. One who is more powerful.

Most of the conflicts that consume us are about power. Who has the power to make the decisions? Who has the power to call the shots, to do things their way? The ongoing dispute in Los Osos these many years is primarily about power – the power to decide how we treat our wastewater and where to do it. Arguments we get into in the church are often about power – who has the power to decide what we do or how we do something and who has the power to get to done, or to prevent it happening.

One who is more powerful is coming. One who is more powerful than all our government, boards, committees and vestries. One who is more powerful than any human institution. The one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, who will gather the great harvest and separate the valuable wheat from the straw and the chaff. All human power struggles pale into total insignificance in comparison with the power of the one who is coming.

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!

Yet the power of the one we call Messiah, the power of Jesus was totally unexpected. He didn’t raise up a military force or a political party and wrest control away from the authorities. When tempted to use his power to gain instant fame, instant glory, Jesus declined. Faced with human power in the form of Pontius Pilate he did not use his divine power over Pontius Pilate. In his earthly life, Jesus did not use power to gain an advantage over anyone else.

Jesus’ power was different. It was not a power over but a power from within. A power that was able to heal the sick, cast out demons and bring new life. A power that didn’t fight back but brought transformation from within.

As the followers of Christ we get to look at our own use of power. There are those who resonate with the Messiah who has his winnowing fork in his hand, who is coming to clear the threshing floor and get rid of the chaff; the almighty harvester who will trample through the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored. This understanding of the power of the Christ leads to violence and to war. It leads to video games like which follows on from the popular Left Behind series and invites teen players to engage in battle with the antichrist and its forces. The makers deny that it invites killing in the name of the Lord but admit that it does include killing – after all it’s a video game.

Although the cosmic Christ is the all powerful and though the scriptures are full of descriptions of God the warrior who gives victory, that is not what we see in the way Jesus lived his life. That is not what we see in his confrontations with the powers and authorities of his own age. We see someone who was so confident in his own inner strength through his connection with God that he did not need to engage in power struggles.

How do we use power in our own lives? Do we use it to try to get our own way, to try to make things turn out just how we want them? Do we engage in confrontations with others, at least in the privacy of our own heads? Or do we trust in the power of the one who is coming? Have we found in ourselves that place of quiet confidence that allows us to know that in God all is well?

It is from that place of quiet confidence that we can show the fruits of repentance that John describes. We can risk giving away what we think we need. Like the tax-collectors and soldiers of his day, we can learn to be comfortable with what we have and not try to get more by forcing others to give to us. For most of us it’s rather subtle; we don’t exhort money by threats or false accusations, but sometimes we use our power through gossip or anger or white lies, to get what we want.

The fruit of repentance, the heart of holiness, is a quiet confidence. A knowing that all is well, that the one who is more powerful is not only coming in the future, but has already come and has our well-being at heart. This is not the bravado of Washington society taking their carriages out into the country to see the battle, but a deeply grounded confidence that all is well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Baruch 5:1-9, Luke 3:1-6

The theme of today’s readings is restoration. The Old Testament reading we heard is a classic poem of the glorious restoration of Israel. Here all those who have been spread across the world by war and other disaster will return to Jerusalem who will once again be seen in her full glory. The glorious day when Israel’s fortunes will be restored. It’s unusual for us to have a reading from Baruch which is an apocryphal book. There are quite a few religious books which were known in the Jewish tradition or the early Church but which were not included when decisions were made about what should be in the canon of Holy Scripture. Baruch was written sometime between about 300 BCE and 70CE was one of those scrolls which did not make it into the final cut.

The reading was probably chosen for today not only because it is an exemplar of restoration thinking but also because it includes the verse:
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

which echoes the prophet Isaiah’s words that Luke includes in his gospel
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

This is obviously an important image in the tradition since it was first penned by the prophet known as Second Isaiah and then picked up in Baruch and Luke. Luke is using it to describe the role of John the Baptizer and to place him clearly in the Jewish tradition.

Although both Baruch and Luke draw from the same source, there is a significant difference in the way they use the imagery. In Baruch the ground has been leveled so that Israel may walk in safety. In Luke the mountains and hills shall be made low so that all flesh, all beings, shall see the salvation of God. Baruch’s vision is for Israel. As Christians we are spiritual heirs of Israel and so we may claim the spiritual vision as our own. Problems arise when Zionists and others take this vision and try to apply it literally in the Holy Land. The restoration of Jerusalem and Israel to the exclusion of other people and religions is one of the key sources of international conflict.

So how then, are we to understand these images of restoration? What is restoration for us? Luke obviously saw the coming of the Messiah as the beginning of the great restoration. Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled as John preached repentance in the desert, preparing the way for the Christ. But here we are, some 2,000 years later still waiting for restoration which has not yet come.

One response is to ignore it as a myth, a nice dream, something not relevant any more. I think this is a mistake because it robs us of a way of understanding our relationship with God and we also ignore some of the most glorious and exciting spiritual imagery.

Don’t you get goose bumps from those wonderful ringing lines in Baruch:
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
"Righteous Peace, Godly Glory." ?

Our faith becomes very bland when we lose the drama of the restoration, the return to God. We can treat the restoration visions as poetry or even allegory.

We can see that this passage describes the soul’s return to God. We can throw off the garments of sorrow and affliction and claim the beauty of God which is ours as heirs to the kingdom. Now we’re entering the archetypes of fairy tales. Through kissing the frog, or being kissed by the frog, we are turned into the handsome princess, the beautiful prince, and throwing off our old rags of sorrow and affliction, which had been thrust on us by the curse of the old godmother, we are seen and see ourselves in our full glory as children of God, evermore called ‘Righteous Peace. Godly Glory’.

It works for me.

In the imagery of restoration we find a deep truth about our souls. The earth may have to move. Things will have to change, but we are called to prepare ourselves to meet our God in a new and glorious way. Images of restoration allow us to open our horizons, to imagine our soul’s relationship with the divine in grand and glorious pictures. They open our imagination to new possibilities, so see our relationship with the divine not just as a friendship but as a wonderful relationship full of excitement and potential. It’s not surprising that through the centuries spiritual writers have imaged this as the coming of the bride to her bridegroom or the bridegroom to the bride. Today’s poem from Baruch offers a more gender inclusive picture but one which is exclusive in other ways. It’s difficult to describe the special-ness and intimacy of our relationship with the divine without using exclusive language.

Yesterday during our Quiet Morning we used two poems to help us in our soul work. I want to finish by reading one of these to you. It’s a poem by Mary Oliver which Joann shared with me, that offers quite another picture. But I think it is a picture of restoration, or of the longing for restoration expressed quite differently.

(I should mention that the yellow chat is a small Australian bird which is considered endangered.)

I wish I were the yellow chat down in the thicketswho sings all night, throwing into the air praisesand panhandles, plaints, in curly phrases,half-rhymes,free verse too, with head-dipping and wing-wringing,with soft breast rising into the air -- meek andsleek,broadcasting, with no time outfor pillow-rest, everything -- pathos, thanks --oh, Lord, what a lesson you send me as I standlisteningto your rattling, swamp-loving chat singingof his simple, leafy life --how I would like to sing to you all night in the dark
just like that.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent - Becoming a Holy People Zechariah 14:4-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-31
One of my friends had the opportunity to interview Katharine Jefferts-Schori, our new Presiding Bishop, last week. At the end of the interview he asked ‘What do you recommend that lesbian and gay Episcopalians do now?’ Bishop Katharine replied, ‘I recommend them being… being a holy people.’
Being a holy people. I think that’s what today’s readings are all about. Not the end of the world. Not looking for signs of the second coming. Not trying to hasten the day when Jesus returns, but being a holy people.
It was Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Thessalonica; ‘may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’

We here at St Benedict’s, just like the church at Thessalonica, are called to be a holy people. A people set apart for God’s use. When the altar guild prepares our table, or when they wash the pattern and chalices after the service, they do so with special care. Because they are handling holy things. In themselves the pattern and chalices are not holy, but they become holy because we have set them aside for God’s use in the Eucharist.

There’s a word in Greek which comes up quite often in the New Testament and is not easily translatable into English. The word is telos. It means something like ‘that for which it was intended’. So the telos of a teapot is to make and pour good tea. The telos of the people of God, that’s us, is to be holy. We are intended to be a holy people. Now when something acts in a way that is in line with its telos it is joyful and graceful because it is that for which it was intended.

This is important as we think about holiness, because often we think of it as something onerous or difficult. We think ‘if I completely surrender to God I just know He’ll send me to darkest Africa… or worse, Fresno’. Why? Why do we assume that God will make us do or be something that we weren’t created to do or be?

‘The glory of God is the human being fully alive,’ according to Ireneaus. The human being fully alive is the one who has found her telos. The church that is fully alive is that one that has become a holy people.

How then are we to be a holy people? When we think about holiness we often think of monks or people who have dedicated their lives to God in a way that takes them out of the everyday world. Clearly that is not the holiness to which we are called. We are called to be holy in the midst of the myriad demands of our daily lives.

The first step in holiness is to dedicate ourselves to God. This is simple but is also very demanding. To dedicate ourselves to God means committing to seeking God’s will in all things and accepting that God’s way in our lives is always the best. That seems self-evident when we remember that God is an inclusively loving being who wants only the very best for us. But when it actually comes to surrendering our lives to Spirit, I think many of us have a lot more difficulty.
We are used to being autonomous, free beings. The American way is ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and liberty means being able to do what we want to do. So surrendering to another power whoever it is goes a little against the grain. Yet it is our telos. We were made to be co-creators with God not as equals but as friends with God in the power seat.

Being holy means saying, “Not my will but Thine” again and again. It means starting everyday asking ‘Show what you would have me do today’. Being a holy people means that at every step we ask for God’s will, not just God’s input into the discussion. Being holy means that we remember that it is God who is in charge and ask for direction, ready to do whatever is in accordance with divine will.

Our little egos get in the way. We are attached to doing things in a certain way. We like things the way we like them. We are a church of strong people and many of us have strong opinions. Becoming a holy people means letting go of having things our way. It means surrendering to God and to one another. This is more than choosing which battles to fight. This is allowing God’s will to become evident by being willing to wholeheartedly support something which is not our first choice, and at the same time, being prepared to argue for something which we strongly believe is God’s will.

Our little egos get in the way because they resist surrendering to the divine. This is the ongoing challenge of holiness. As we attempt to develop holy habits, as we daily surrender anew to divine will, our personalities rise up in revolt.

Many people think that everything that happens is meant to teach us something, and that as we learn our lessons so we progress towards some kind of enlightenment. I think it’s more complex than that. I don’t think that learning is our primary goal. Our primary goal is to serve Spirit and to glorify God in all that we do. As we draw closer to God, there is a process of purification, a process of becoming holy. God uses the experiences of our lives in this process of making us more Christ-like. At the same time, as we move along the path of holiness, the friction that develops between our little egos and our decision to surrender to Spirit burns away those things that stand in the way of our becoming holy.

So there are two separate but inter-twined things happening. I don’t think that God sends us difficulties and tragedies in order to teach us a lesson but rather uses those, if we are willing, to transform us into the holy people we are called to be. And on an inner level, as we work with our own attitudes, fears and beliefs, consciously offering them to God and working to become more Christ-like in our inner lives, so new layers of difficulty are exposed. It is a labyrinth of growth. As we move forwards, we are constantly passing the place where we just were and visiting it again, with slightly different eyes.

This path of consciousness is one of great challenge but also of great joy. As we soften around the difficulties that present themselves so we are expanded. As we allow ourselves to be expanded by the love and worship of the Creator, so the Holy Spirit transforms us more into the people we were created to be. A holy people, set aside for God’s purposes.
Now may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all... And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen