Benediction Online

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


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