Benediction Online

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The glory of God is the human being fully alive

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal Life?” In our gospel readings over the past few weeks we’ve seen Jesus answering this same question in different ways for different people. Because each one of us in unique, we are also unique in the ways we resist God’s call. Some people procrastinate, some people want to get everything tidy and sorted out before they start a new venture, some people are attached to their possessions, some people just don’t want to do anything that seems hard.

Today’s speaker is a lawyer (like Rumpole). He is used to the ways of the law – of precise definition and of separating this from that, right from wrong, black from white. Jesus answers his question with a question;
"Teacher," the lawyer said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

At the time of Jesus, people had begun to believe in life after death, but it was a fairly recent innovation and not something that was universally accepted. We have come to think of eternal life as meaning a future reward. Live well and love God and in the future you will be happy in heaven. In fact, some people will say they’re not Christians just because they don’t believe in heaven and hell. I doubt that this lawyer was thinking about going to heaven when he asked "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" I think he was looking for the same thing we look for today when we talk about life’s purpose or meaning. Perhaps we could translate his question as “Teacher, what must I do to find meaning in life?”

Jesus turns the question back on him "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

But that wasn’t enough for the lawyer. (Remember that he was trying to catch Jesus out.) He still wanted to argue about the fine print, and so he said "And who is my neighbor?". I wonder what kind of answer he expected… “Your neighbor is someone who lives within 50 yards of you” or “Your neighbor is anyone who lives within your town”? Since the last of the Ten Commandments tells us not to covet anything which belongs to our neighbor, I can only imagine that this question had already been debated by Jewish lawyers for centuries. Who, exactly, is your neighbor?

Jesus answers in a typical way, with a story. Jesus does not spend time on definitions and precise interpretations, because Jesus is not a lawyer. But the answer he gives, with all its many and varied implications, is much more challenging than any legal definition. Instead of reducing ‘neighbor’ to a careful definition, Jesus expands it to include just about anybody. The Jewish people generally despised the Samaritans. But in Jesus’ story, it is the Samaritan who takes action and helps the man who has been robbed and beaten.
And as Jesus concludes his story, he turns back to the lawyer and asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The lawyer said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

So the definition of neighbor is greatly expanded. It’s not just Gary and Mary who live next door, or Jenny and Bob across the street… instead, in Jesus’ story, my neighbor turns out to be someone I don’t even know… someone who I was brought up to despise… If that’s true, is there anyone who is not my neighbor? Is there anyone whom it is not my responsibility to love?

Of course, love is a word that has so many meanings it can seem meaningless. When I say I love chocolate and red wine I mean something quite different than when I say I love my partner which is different again from how I love my dog. Loving my neighbor in the abstract is quite easy – especially those neighbors I don’t know. But when it becomes concrete it’s quite different.

There are people it’s difficult for me to love all the time. People who criticize me. People who don’t keep commitments. People who overtake me on Los Osos Valley Rd when I’m already driving over the speed limit. People who seem manipulative. People in the White House who do things I don’t agree with. In fact, there are plenty of people who seem custom designed to annoy, aggravate and upset me. These are my neighbors. They are given to me in order that I may grow and show the fruits of God’s grace in my life.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to find meaning in my life?

He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And Jesus said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

It seems that the lawyer was using his intellect to hold himself back from experiencing true meaning in his life. What’s holding you back?
What gets in the way of your loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself?

If Jesus were here this morning and you asked him, “What must I do to find meaning in my life?” what would his answer – his answer tailored made for you – what would his answer be?

I recently read an article about the four A.s – ambition, achievement, approval, and acquisition. Is it one of those that’s holding you back? Or is it fear, doubt and depression? What is it that stops you from following Jesus? from fully saying ‘Yes” to God’s call in your life?

The meaningful life is not one of following rules. It is not keeping to a set of laws and asking for forgiveness when you break one. The meaningful life is one which is lived in the fullness of God’s grace. God’s grace is that which gives life – God’s grace is the full gift of the spirit.

Some preachers give the impression that being a Christian is a list of dos and don’ts, thou shalt, and thou shalt nots. The lawyer wanted Jesus to play that game, but he refused.
He refused because that’s not the gospel. The gospel is much simpler yet much more complex. We don’t have to memorize a list of things to do or to avoid. We don’t have to keep a rigorous spiritual discipline. All we have to do is to accept God’s grace – the grace by which (as we heard in the second reading) God ‘has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’

Grace is a free gift – we just have to accept it and then live it. You live it by loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

This is the gospel that we have understood and experienced and this is the gospel that this church of St Benedict’s has been proud to proclaim here in Los Osos these twenty years. It is not the way of rules and regulations but of freedom in the joy of loving and serving the most High God, and seeking and serving Christ in our neighbors. It is a way of life which celebrates everything it is to be human and made in God’s image – our creativity in art, theater, poetry, music and song; our mental abilities in writing, discussion and intellectual enquiry, and our practical abilities in building, decorating, cooking, and caring for each other and our environment.

Whatever it is that’s holding you back from fully experiencing the abundant life that is ours in Christ; whatever it is that is keeping you from giving everything to God, it’s not worth it. Whatever it is that may be keeping us as a community from fully experiencing the power of God… we can surrender it. That is why in a few minutes we will be confessing our sins to God. Not because we have to keep making amends for breaking the rules, but because we hold back, because we get in our own way, because we fail to love God with everything we have, and our neighbors as ourselves.

As Iraneaus said, ‘The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” God is calling us today to be fully who we were created to be. Let us not hold back but throw caution to the winds and respond with a resounding, AMEN.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Path of Discipleship

When we started using the Revised Common Lectionary for our Sunday readings some of you asked what was different about it, and I was very vague. One of the differences is that sometimes, like today, we have a choice for the Old Testament reading. The one I didn’t choose is the story of Elisha deciding to follow the prophet Elijah. At that time, Elisha was ploughing a field and when he decided to follow Elijah he slaughtered twelve yoke of oxen – that’s 24 cattle – used the traces and plough to make a fire on which he cooked the animals and gave them to the people to eat before he followed Elijah. Talk about burning your bridges! Not much chance of going back to farming after that! Presumably, though the text doesn’t say so, this was a sacrifice and covenant ceremony indicating his commitment to discipleship.

The reading we actually heard was at the end of Elijah’s life and ministry when he is on his final journey. He keeps giving his disciple, Elisha, opportunities to pull back, but having made his covenant, Elisha has no intention of turning away from the journey.

In the gospel reading, Jesus too is on his final journey. We are told that he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Along the way several people think they will join him, but each one has something that’s getting in the way. One of them wants the security of a settled life, one wants to make sure all his affairs are in order, one wants to say goodbye to his friends.

So the two readings provide contrasting examples of discipleship. On the one hand, Elisha determined to follow his teacher even after his death, on the other aspiring disciples who are quickly discouraged.

Which are you?

The Christian life is one of discipleship. Disciples are those who follow, who are learning, who are modeling themselves on their teacher. As we deepen our faith, as we continue to walk in the path of Jesus of Nazareth, so we can expect to become more like him and also to meet challenges like the ones he met.

I’ve always enjoyed those self-tests that you can take in women’s magazines – are you truly in love? do you have self-confidence? are you stressed out? or How stressed out are you, really? The reading from Galatians is a self-test. On the one side is a list of the sins of the flesh – on the other are the gifts of the Spirit. Where are we? How are we doing?

The language of ‘gratifying the desires of the flesh” is such odd language it makes it seem as though this list is really for someone else. But by the ‘desires of the flesh’ Paul meant something rather more than physical desires; he meant the behaviors and attitudes that are natural to our existence apart from God. In contrast, the gifts of the Spirit are those attitudes that come from our new life in Christ. Our baptism has translated us from the reign of this world, ‘the flesh’ into the reign of God, ‘the spirit’. That’s a done deal. But the spiritual journey, discipleship, is making that a reality.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul puts the contrast between the ways of the world and the fruits of the Spirit firmly within the context of loving our neighbor. I think that is really the bottom line for us too. Most of us don’t battle the temptation to engage in sorcery or fornication, but ‘enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy’ strike much closer to home. It is easy for us to make jokes at the expense of others, especially those who disagree with us. It is easy for us to harbor resentments, especially when we feel morally, or even spiritually, justified. It is easy for us to criticize. Paul is saying that there is no place for these in the Reign of God.

The fruits of the Spirit in contrast include patience, kindness, and generosity. So this is a quick self-test; how far are you on the path of discipleship? To what extent do patience, kindness and generosity mark your life? are you gentle and self-controlled? Are your home, your conversation, and your relationships marked by love, joy, and peace?

I know I have a long way to go.

It is tempting to step aside and say that I’ll follow Jesus when I have less to do, once I’ve finished my studies, once I’ve tidied my office or cleaned up the yard. I’ll be better able to practice generosity and self-control when we have a different President, or when the issues in the Anglican Communion are finally resolved in the way I want them to be. It’ll be much easier for me to be kind and peaceful when the one or two really aggravating people in my life move somewhere else.

That’s not the path of discipleship. Walking with Jesus means acknowledging that I have to change my own attitude; acknowledging that when I get angry or irritated it is no-one’s fault but my own. It is not up to me to change anyone else’s behavior, but it is up to me to change my own mind so that instead of getting angry I can demonstrate joy, peace and kindness. James and John wanted to rain brimstone on those who wouldn’t accept them. But that isn’t Jesus’ way. Jesus’ path is the path of gentleness and self-control.

It is the path that the Holy Spirit leads us on. We are not alone in this – the Holy Spirit is with us and will not only inspire and guide us but also provide the power we need to make the changes. Sometimes there will be overnight miracles, but most of the time it’s daily discipline, taking one step and then another. Sometimes it seems as though we will never learnt to forgive, never find forgiveness in our hearts, but the Holy Spirit works with us and we have our baptismal promise that we have been freed from the power of sin.

The path of discipleship demands total commitment. It requires that we hold nothing back; that we keep no part of life back and say that that is ours, not God’s. It is a path like Elisha’s that keeps taking us further than we expect. It is also a path that is quite different to the path that everyone else is walking on. It is, however, a path that is greatly blessed.

This is the path to spiritual fulfillment. This is the path that has been described by mystics and seers. This is the path that brings life and health and a deepening knowledge of divine love. It is a path that beckons to you.

In the words of Robert Frost:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveller,
long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could …
then took the other …
I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference”