Benediction Online

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Comfort and Confidence

Preached by the Rev. Donna Ross on Sunday, May 25, 2008

“The Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.”
(Isaiah 49:13)

Isaiah was talking to us.

Yes, the prophet spoke to the people of ancient Israel, exiled in Babylon, after they were deported from their home in Jerusalem. But the first Christians, six long centuries later, believed that Isaiah’s prophecies helped them understand the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. And even today, when Isaiah’s words are read again, we can have confidence that he is speaking to us.

There are sixteen chapters in the book of Isaiah that bring us the most amazing sequence of good news to be found anywhere in the Old Testament. (Isaiah 40-55) In these chapters Isaiah was speaking to exiles in Babylon, carried away from Jerusalem almost 50 years before.

Isaiah begins his prophecy with words familiar to us from Advent (and from Handel’s Messiah), “Comfort, comfort my people.... In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God... Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed... for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1f)

Comfort: The Hebrew word Isaiah uses is related to the Hebrew word for mother-love. The God Isaiah describes – the God for whom Isaiah speaks – is a God whose tender love for his people is like a mother’s compassionate love. It is a love that comes from deep in the womb; it is a love that will never forget a child once carried there; it is a love which will never let a people go.

Today’s psalmist also speaks of mother-love: “I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” (Psalm 131) It is God’s breast upon which we rest when we are troubled, quieted from our rages, our hungers, our fears.

In today’s gospel Jesus also speaks of the same kind of motherly love - the tender love of a heavenly Father who will not forget us, who will feed our souls, who will give us life. Jesus tells us not to worry, because God who feeds the birds of the air, the God who clothes the lilies of the field, will take care of us. (Matthew 6:24f)

Today’s reading from Isaiah 49 repeats God’s words of comfort for Israel, and God’s promise to take them home again. But the prophet’s words also include Israel’s complaint against God – for Israel, in its extremity, feels abandoned by God:

“Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’" (Isaiah 49:14)

(Didn’t Jesus also feel abandoned by God, as he was hanging on the cross? Didn’t the disciples feel abandoned by God, when Jesus was dead and his body in the tomb? Don’t we feel abandoned by God, when things are going terribly wrong, when adversities pile up upon us, when we can’t see our way forward and we are paralyzed with worry?)

Isaiah’s God then answers: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion
for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:13)

Isaiah’s God does not promise that our lives will have no pain or trouble; even God’s son suffered pain and died on a cross. But Isaiah’s God does promise that we will never be alone; Isaiah says God will always be with us, our companion through whatever life brings us.

Why does God allow suffering? I don’t know. Isaiah doesn’t tell us. Jesus doesn’t tell us. But Isaiah does tell us – and Jesus shows us – that our God is not a God who watches our suffering from afar, aware but uncaring. Rather, Isaiah’s God cares so deeply for us that he walks with us – on the painful road to Babylon, and on the joyful way back to Jerusalem. And Jesus’ God cares so deeply for us that he walks with us – on the dusty roads of Galilee, and on the painful way to Jerusalem. Christians have always believed – Christians today still experience – that the Risen Christ lives with us still.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ still walks with us, suffers with us, cares for us like a mother, and in the end leads us home to God.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday: Glimpses of the Elephant
preached by the Rev. Donna Ross on May 18, 2008

This is Trinity Sunday – the one Sunday of the year when the main topic is a church doctrine, rather than a story from the Gospel. Trinity Sunday is well known to clergy as the day when the seminarian, or the youngest priest, may be asked to give the sermon so the pastor and the congregation can see if the preacher manages to escape heresy. (Perhaps, as the most recent priest on St. Ben’s staff, that role has been given to me today!)

We know from history that people in the early church sometimes came to blows over their understandings of the Trinity, and that many were expelled from the church – and worse – because their understanding was deemed heretical. We also know that a lot of books have been written over the years, attempting to tell what Christians mean by the Trinity. So many times Christians have tried to define the Trinity – but how can we really fully explain a mystery?

Our Scripture lessons today try to describe the mystery by telling stories. Genesis tells the story of God working in creation, and pronouncing it all good. The Psalmist describes the beauty of the night sky, reminding us of the times we’ve stood outside at night under the stars, wondering at the vastness of the universe is and how small we are, and wondering again – in all this immensity – that we exist at all, and that God cares for us. The Gospel tells a story of Jesus after his resurrection, meeting his disciples in Galilee and telling them to go forth into the world, teaching everyone they meet about the Good News of Jesus, and baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

There it is again – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How can we explain – how are we to understand – what the church means by this ancient and holy baptismal formula?

My husband Rob says that when we begin talking about the Trinity, we are like the blind men and the elephant. This is an old story from India, which became famous in the 19th century through a poem written by John Godfrey Saxe. Saxe’s poem begins

It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant (though all of them were blind),
That each by observation might satisfy his mind.

At the end of a long and very funny poem, the blind men conclude that the elephant is like a wall – or like a snake, or a spear, or a tree, or a fan, or a rope, depending upon whether they have touched the elephant’s side, tusk, leg, ear or tail. The men have a heated debate that is never resolved. In one version of the story, whole religions are built up on each man’s partial understanding: there’s a religion of the tree, a religion of the fan, a religion of the wall.

The poem concludes,

And so these men of Hindustan disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right and all were in the wrong.

So oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!

Of course, the story reminds us that reality may be viewed differently depending upon our perspective. And perspective, of course, depends on our own experience.

So what is our perspective? That is what each of us needs to decide for ourselves, thinking for ourselves, reflecting on our own spiritual experiences. Fortunately, in this day and age, and certainly in most Episcopal Churches, you are free to wonder about God and try to describe the mystery for yourself, without fear that you will be cast out of the church – and without fear that God will reject you if you get it wrong!

Here’s my own reflection on the mystery of the Holy Trinity. My thinking begins with a verse from the lesson I haven’t mentioned yet – St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. At the end of his letter, he bids them farewell and he writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

The grace of Jesus Christ – the Greek word Paul uses is charis: free gift. Paul and the first Christians remembered the man Jesus as a gift from God. Jesus’ gift was given to all who heard his teaching, received his healing, or knew his presence.

Is there someone in your own life that you have recognized as a gift? It could be a friend, a spouse, a newborn child placed in your arms... Have you ever met someone who felt like a gift, not only to you, but to the world? In my own life, that gift of grace came through Desmond Tutu, who spoke at my seminary. Afterwards we stood in his presence and were able to shake his hand - a moment I’ll never forget. That’s a little taste, I think, of how the disciples must have experienced Jesus. And that’s how I experience the man Jesus, when I read the gospels.

The love of God – the Greek is agape: showing love by action. "God is love," says the first letter of John. "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another." Love is the deepest characteristic of God, our Father and Mother. Love is the defining characteristic of the authentic Christian community. The Christian God – the God preached and experienced in Episcopal churches – is not a God of judgment, a God of rejection, but a God of welcoming love. The Christian God embraces us all, just as the father embraced the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable.

Have you ever experienced the presence of love? It could be the love of a friend, a spouse, a child. But there is also the experience of Love beyond love, the Love that does not die, the Love that holds you fast forever. In my own life, that love has been experienced in churches where people, in spite of their hurts, forgive each other. That is the Love that cannot be killed ... that is the Love that lives at the center of the universe.

The communion of the Holy Spirit – the Greek is koinonia: binding together. As the old hymn tells us, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.” The Spirit of Jesus Christ binds us together in community.

Is there a time in your own life when you have known koinonia, the presence of the Spirit binding people together? In my own life, the awareness of the Spirit’s presence rises when I am singing in community. For me, music is an almost sacramental symbol of the Spirit of Christ; music brings us together and focuses on a common goal: to return God’s love to God, to love God’s world in his name.

Love is the badge by which Christ’s disciples may be recognized; love is the sign that they are God’s children. Love is the mark of the Church – and failure to love is a denial of the very nature of the church. Love comes to us as gift in Jesus the Christ; love lives among us in the community of God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit; love binds us together through the embracing of a welcoming God.

If you have ever known the grace of Jesus Christ; if you have ever felt the love of God; if you have ever experienced the communion of the Holy Spirit – then you have walked around the elephant, and you have touched the mystery of God.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Rev. Mary Elizabeth Pratt-Horsley
"That we may be one" - John 17:1-11
In today’s Gospel Jesus prays for his followers and for us…“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. "
What does it look like when we at St. Ben’s are “one” – as Jesus and God the Creator are one?
It looks like this: the parish community welcomes with acceptance and hospitality--- and not just tolerance --- a wide diversity of people – of different economic and political backgrounds, to be sure … but also the individual who is physically or mentally challenged … the individual who marches to a different drummer … the elderly and frail … and the young and boisterous… those who might have questions and doubts…
And it looks like this… beyond these doors… through our actions… the hungry are fed… the homeless are affirmed and supported … through our voices – injustices in our communities and in our world are named and denounced…
How do these actions and attitudes lead to oneness among us in our community and as we interact with the world around us?
To understand that, we need to look at how Jesus and God the Creator/Father are one…
They are one in substance : We say it on most Sundays in the creed : Jesus is co-eternal and “of one Being with the Father”. Although not of one being in exactly the same way as God and Jesus are… we are of one human substance with our sisters and brothers in this community and around the world… To be one …means to recognize this connection and to practice solidarity.
Jesus and the Father are one in their love towards all creation : For us to truly be one… we must try to love creation as they do: When faced with a choice that will affect or have consequences for our brothers and sisters in this community or beyond these doors … When faced with a choice that will affect our environment and the non-human creatures given into our care… we are called to think carefully, and to decide, to the best of our ability, on the most life-giving choice. Look at page 6 of your bulletin today… just above the Holy, holy, holy… It says that with the angels, we give glory to God … “giving voice to every creature under heaven…” We are to be those who offer our voices for those who have no voice … those who have been silenced … we are to speak up for creation whose voice cannot be heard…
The decisions we make in the polling booth … the decisions we make as we open our checkbooks … the decisions we make as we schedule our daily activities …can all show the love for creation that is characteristic of the oneness of God.
Jesus and God the Creator are one in values and priorities… this means justice for the oppressed and abused, comfort for those suffering and in pain, transformation of difficult and deadly circumstances. God is constantly at work to bring wholeness… and healing… wherever they are needed in the created world.
Many of us read and discussed the book Three Cups of Tea recently. It tells the amazing story of how Greg Mortensen, an experienced mountain climber – saw a need and opportunity as he was recovering from a climbing accident in a small Pakistani village. He didn’t set out to “do good” for others … But within the circumstances of the village – he recognized that need and opportunity … and he worked tirelessly, and amidst the threat of great personal danger – to bring schools to the impoverished villages in the mountainous regions of Northern Pakistan. He might not say he was doing it for spiritual reasons, but clearly, he modeled oneness with others across cultural boundaries, love for creation, and an effort to bring transformative wholeness – all aspects of God’s love and purpose for humankind and the for created world.
This past Thursday, the church around the world celebrated the Feast of the Ascension… when the Risen Christ returned to God the Father, following his post-Easter time with his followers. It is described in our first lesson this morning.
While the followers are saddened – clearly it was necessary for Christ to go back to God the Creator. Because Jesus had experienced the fullness of human life – including joy, love, sorrow and suffering – when he returned to eternity - he was able to expand God the Creator’s understanding of what it meant to be human – of what love and wholeness in human life could be.
And at his Ascension, the Risen Christ promises to send the Holy Spirit to them…and to us…to guide…to strengthen… to energize… enabling us to be his witnesses in Los Osos …America… and “to the ends of the earth”. It is our love… and our being in solidarity with others… that will enable us to fully live in to that charge… And it is God, who will take our individual strengths, and even our weaknesses … and use them in grace filled ways to transform the world.
God and Jesus “being one” meant that they understood their relationship and love for one another to mean that the experience of one affects the other – changes and transforms the other.
If I am one with you, I am concerned about your well-being – I freely affirm your gifts and good qualities… and give you my support when you are going through difficult times…
When I think about this, two recent movies come to mind :
In the movie Waitress, Jenna is a waitress in a small diner in the South. Her great joy is making unbelievably creative and delicious pies… which reflect her emotional state of mind… such as her “kick in the pants pie”, made with cinnamon and custard.. She hopes one of her pie creations will win the $25,000 prize at a local fair, so she can finally leave Earl, her husband. He is possessive, controlling, self-centered, jealous, and emotionally stunted. When she becomes pregnant, Earl is obsessed with the idea that she is going to love the baby more than she loves him. As the pregnancy goes on, Jenna creates a “Pregnant, Miserable, Self-Pitying Loser Pie consisting of lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in. Flambé of course...” But her special pie is the strawberry chocolate oasis…
Andy Griffith plays Joe, the crochety owner of the diner. When Jenna says her strawberry chocolate pie is “just a pie” , Joe exclaims:
Just a pie! It's downright expert. A thing of beauty... how each flavor opens itself, one by one, like a chapter in a book. First, the flavor of an exotic spice hits you... Just a hint of it... and then you getflooded with chocolate, dark and bittersweet like an old love affair…
Despite his crabbiness, Joe affirms Jena, stands by her in a multitude of ways … and convinces her to believe in herself… and despite setbacks… to go for her dream… He recognizes her gifts and potential… His oneness with her … in the most difficult of times … enables her to keep hope … and carry on…moving towards wholeness.
The second movie, Lions for Lambs, was not a particularly good movie… but the character played by Robert Redford demonstrates a kind of oneness and solidarity that gives us food for thought. His character has been a college Political Science professor for 30 years… In several scenes we find him spending a lot of time in his office, trying to convince one student to rise to his potential and apply himself. The obviously intelligent student had been eager at the beginning of the semester, but then became disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the political process.
He asks the professor: “Why are you still teaching after all these years…? You know they say that those who can, do … and those who can’t…teach”. The professor answers him: “I teach for selfish reasons.. I seem to have had a gift for recognizing talent and potential in certain students through the years… Using that gift and convincing them of their potential … has made everything else worth it”.
We can be one … in love and relationship … in understanding and support … one as Christ and God the Father are one… here in our local surroundings or on the other side of the world.
We can love and support our brother or sister who is going through difficult times … by prayer… by action … by our presence … We can recognize and affirm the gifts and talents that others possess, giving them hope…
And beyond our local communities, we , like Greg Mortensen of Three Cups of Tea, can be open to perceive the need of others in difficult circumstances … and we can muster our energy and resources to work for wholeness and the transformation of their circumstances.
In the book “All Desires Known” the collect for this Sunday, the Sunday after the Ascension says: “You withdraw from our sight… that you may be known by our love.”
In the absence of Jesus’ physical body… we are to make him known. Others will come to know how they are loved by God…through us.