Benediction Online

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Let My People Go
Exodus 3:1-15

I heard this week about a couple in this county who have sent their children to stay with family in San Diego because they can’t earn enough to support them. They are undocumented workers who live in their car. Recently they were pleased to get work picking grapes in a vineyard. It was a big job and they worked late into the night for two days to pick all the grapes, looking forward to being paid at the end of it. When they had finished they were paid… $30 each.

It doesn’t matter that they are here illegally, it is unfair to employ anyone for two long days and then only pay them $30. There is no-one to whom they can complain. There is no-one in this county looking out for our migrant workers, especially those who are undocumented. In fact, no-one knows how many there are or where they live or what they get paid. When I drive down the road and see fieldworkers I give thanks to God for these people who do back-breaking work for long hours so that I may enjoy inexpensive fresh food.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, a holiday when we celebrate our workers and the labor movement. But the labor movement has largely passed San Luis Obispo by. There are two industries which are notorious for paying low wages – agriculture and hospitality – two industries which are very important here. But no-one knows how many workers there are or how much they are paid or where they live or how they manage to get by in this place where housing is so expensive. And the unions are not here. There is no-one speaking up for these workers. They are unseen and unheard.

Our first lesson this morning describes Moses being commissioned to set God’s people free from their taskmasters. Moses’ faithfulness and the events which led up to the Exodus are well-known. The Exodus – the deliverance of God’s people from oppression is the formative event in the life of the people of Israel – much like the story of the Mayflower is for Americans. As the spiritual heirs of the people of Israel it’s a formative part of our story too, one which we re-tell every year at the Easter Vigil. Often we interpret it metaphorically and spiritually. We think about how we have been delivered from sin and separation and brought into the new kingdom of God.

But it is also a story about social justice. It’s an account of how God heard the prayers of the people who were being exploited and sent Moses to fight for their rights. We live today in an unjust society. One of the aspects of God’s mission is to work for social justice, to work for a fair society in which all people are treated with respect, where everyone has enough to eat, everyone has health care, everyone has a home and everyone gets fair wages for their work.

It is God’s mission and so it is our mission. To work for a new and different society. The Anglican churches have always been active in the societies in which they live. For example, Church of England activists worked for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, and the Episcopal Church played an important role in the Civil Rights movement in this country. Today Episcopalians do quiet and important work for social justice in many different ways and many different campaigns. It is part of our mission to speak up against injustice and to work for equality.
Some people have expressed concern about the Church getting involved in politics. The Church needs to be involved in politics because it is from the political debate that social changes come. We may disagree about the best way for change to be carried out. That is the stuff of party politics and it is not appropriate for any church to advocate particular candidates or particular parties. That is why the IRS can challenge the non-profit status of churches which say that all Christians should vote Republican or that everyone must vote for candidates who have a particular point of view.

Moses challenged Pharaoh directly and personally. We don’t get to personally challenge our President in the same way, but that is what our representatives are for. In order for an issue to become important enough to be part of a Presidential platform or part of the promises a Congressional candidate makes, people have to care. People have to talk about the issue. Public opinion has to reach a critical mass. Our mission is to speak up for the disadvantaged, to speak up for the oppressed, again and again and again. Our work is to write letters to our representatives, write letters to the editor, show up for meetings, show up for marches, show that we care.

The pilgrim fathers and mothers came here hoping to create a new world of religious freedom and tolerance. That is why the writers of our Constitution separated church and state - so that no-one would be persecuted for their religious beliefs. It was not because they believed in a secular society, in fact quite the reverse. They expected and hoped that the religious values of the people would be expressed in the political process and the decisions that were made by state and federal government so that there would be one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.

They didn’t get it right anymore than we get it right today. Looking back we criticize their approach to the indigenous peoples and their support of slavery. I wonder what we’ll be criticized for most in a hundred years time? I imagine it’ll be for our failure to care for the most powerless in our world. And especially our failure to protect the planet and to prevent climate change which will have most impact on those already most vulnerable. Climate change is the single biggest social justice issue of our time. We need to do everything in our power to reduce our carbon output and to reduce the non-renewable resources we use.

And at the same time we need to be working to free the oppressed. The oppressed economically, socially and spiritually. Working for social justice is not an optional extra for us, it is part of our calling. So is bringing others to God. The exodus was about freeing people from oppressive working and living conditions. It was about setting people free economically. It was also about setting them free to know and serve the living God. The two go together.

For some of us it seems easier to work for social justice than to introduce anyone to God. Yet people around us are hungry for God as well as food. They long to be set free. They may not recognize it. They may use other words. Our mission is to witness to our own experience of the living God and to pray for those who need to find God.

So my challenge to you this morning is two-fold. Firstly to think of five people who seem to need God in their lives and to pray for them every day. Pray that they may find a life-giving relationship with the God who loves them unconditionally and that you may be given the words to talk to them when the time is right. And secondly, to decide how you will increase your work for social justice. What you will do to free God’s people from oppression. If you need help with either of those I’ll be happy to talk with you.

You may not feel confident. Neither did Moses. He asked for a sign. Listen to the sign that God gave him, Yahweh said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." I will be with you and when you have done what I am asking you then you will be back here and that’s your sign… a sign that happens after the task is completed.

Moses had to go on faith. So do we.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Who is Jesus to you?
Matthew 16:13-20

I’d like you to take a minute now to compete the sentence Jesus is… several times and if you have a pen, jot it down on the paper.

Jesus Is Lord was the first one that came to me and I wondered what we mean by it. What does it mean that Jesus is Lord? I can’t think of another context where I use the word Lord so I thought about what ‘Lord’ means and other words we could use instead. In feudal times the lord of the manor owned the land and all the resources. He didn’t own the people but he might as well have done. Today in England we still have the House of Lords and some of its members are wealthy landowners but many are not. I cat think of any equivalent in today’s America for the term Lord. Nor an equivalent for Messiah or Anointed One. Multi-millionaire is probably as close as we can get, because in our culture money can buy power and prestige in a way that inherited position no longer does. Unless of course you’re Mafia but ‘Jesus is the Godfather’ doesn’t work well either!

So we have to use the imagination of our hearts and our experience of Jesus to recreate for ourselves an understanding, an understanding that must have been simple in the days of the early church and probably for many centuries afterwards. The Good News was simple - Jesus is Lord! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah! The identification of Jesus with the Messiah or Christ was in and of itself the Good News. Which is why our gospel accounts are stories of Jesus rather than philosophical or metaphysical statements.

Jesus is the incarnate God. Jesus is the crucified Saviour. Jesus is the Cosmic Christ. Jesus is the great High Priest. Jesus is our soul’s lover. Jesus is Lord.

Let’s look at each of those briefly.

Jesus is the incarnate God. In Jesus the almighty God became human. God experienced the limitations and temptations of being Human. God the immortal experienced death. God the Creator became part of Creation. No longer can we think of Creation as totally separate and different from God because in Jesus God became incarnate, took on flesh and bones, became part of the molecular structure of the world. The great mistake of Gnostic thinking is to separate mind and body, spirit and matter, and to suggest that spirit is better, is more holy than matter. Jesus is the living proof that Creation is good enough for the Creator. We do not have to transcend our bodies in order to know God, we can know God through our bodies and that is why we have sacraments which involve our physical senses as well as our spiritual senses. Because Jesus is God Incarnate.

Jesus is the crucified Saviour. It’s a contradiction in terms. A savior is someone who saves. The savior is the person who jumps into the river and pulls out the drowning child, not the person who gets tossed into the river and drowns. It doesn’t make sense in human terms that the one who was sent to save the world from death, died. Yet that’s the point. Jesus on the cross seems to have given up, to have reached the bottom of the pile where everyone has more power than he. But it is at precisely that moment that God’s power is being made manifest. The incredible paradox. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. It is when we are most helpless that power is most available to us because when human power comes to an end God can step in. When human power comes to an end, God can step in. I’ll come back to that later.

Jesus is the Cosmic Christ. The risen and ascended Jesus is now all powerful and seated on the throne and all things shall be put in subjection under him. Once again it’s odd archaic language, it’s the language of fairytale and myth. The Cosmic Christ who brings God’s plan to completion by redeeming everything and everyone. The Cosmic Christ in whose presence we realize how often we have failed but in whom we have the victory over sin and death.
Changing the imagery, Jesus is the great High Priest, the one who comes into God’s presence and intercedes on our behalf. He is our representative in the court of Heaven. It is through Jesus that we have access to God. We pray in and through the Name of Jesus because it is through Jesus that our prayers reach the Almighty.

And now we move from the cosmic, the majestic to the extremely personal. Jesus is the lover of our souls. Jesus is the Prince Charming who comes to wake up and to woo and to win the Sleeping Beauty of our souls. St Augustine wrote, ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’ Our hearts, our souls are restless, are longing, or are sleeping unconscious until kissed by the love of Jesus, until taken into his arms and given rest. We tend to overlook this aspect of Jesus because Christianity has become so commonplace that we think our soul Prince will surely come in more exotic clothing, perhaps as a Buddhist, or a sage, or walking out of a beautiful sunset. So we read metaphysical books, we go to ashrams and seek out new teachers or new practices because our souls are restless. And all the while Jesus is waiting, waiting for us to turn and recognize the one our souls’ desire above all.

But when we do, when our souls turn to their true lover, there is but one response. ‘Jesus my Lord’. This is the alchemical marriage, the coming together of masculine and feminine into a unity of creativity. This is the crucible where transformation occurs. It can only happen when we are willing to surrender entirely to God. It can only happen when we stop thinking we can do it in our own power and realize that we are powerless.

This is the key to the 12 step program. The first three steps:
“We admitted that we were powerless and our lives were unmanageable.”
“We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
“We made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God as we understood God.”

The crucified Jesus has surrendered and in that surrender comes resurrection and new life. The soul surrenders to the divine lover and in that surrender comes transformation and new creation. The addict surrenders to a high power and in that surrender finds new life and new hope. When human power comes to an end, God can step in.

I hope that you will take your piece of paper home with you and ponder in your heart this week, who is Jesus to me? Have you recognized, will you recognize, the lover of your soul? Are you willing to surrender yourself to the one who waits quietly but in whom is the peace we long for, the peace which passeth understanding?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Mission of the Church

There are two images I want to share with you from my time in England.

The first comes from a busy bus in the city of Leeds. I was sitting behind a petite Pakistani woman dressed in flowing robes. At the first stop an angry looking man got on and I immediately braced for trouble. He tried to sit next to the lady in front of me but she shooed him away, so instead he sat across the aisle muttering under his breath about being treated like dirt. As he muttered and glared at her the lady moved her shopping bag protectively into the space between them and I wondered if he was going to attack her and whether I would have the courage to intervene. I prayed, the man muttered and the bus went on. Suddenly he turned his attention to me. Without changing his tone of voice he asked if I was having a good day and then told me he was homeless and everyone treated him like dirt. They thought if they gave him money he would spend it on drugs and alcohol but all he wanted was a home. As I muttered back my concern that life was so difficult for him, he asked for money.

What was I to do? I hate situations like that. I didn’t have any money easily to hand but I certainly had some in the bottom of my bag, still I wasn’t able to give him enough to get a home or even a room for the night and I had no idea if his story was true. So I said, ‘How do I know that you’re homeless?’ He told me what bad shape his feet were in and offered to show me. I declined.

At that moment the person next to me got off the bus and I scooted over to the window seat away from the muttering gentleman and discontinued the conversation while I wondered what to do. Before I had reached a decision the bus stopped and he got off. I saw him hobbling away from the bus stop. I don’t know if he was homeless but I do know he had bad feet and poorly fitting shoes. I have been praying for him but I continue to feel that I let him down. That passage from Matthew haunts me, ‘Lord when did I see you a stranger and not help you?’ (Matt 26:44)

My other image is quite different and much briefer. It was an evening during the Lambeth Conference. I was holding a sign advertising a play that was about to start. I was wearing my collar and it was probably obvious that I was a woman priest and supportive of the full inclusion of gay people in the church. A man of privilege, a powerful priest in the Church of England, not a bishop, walked past with a friend and made a dirty joke at my expense.

They went off together laughing. I was so surprised that at first I thought I must have misunderstood. I have been verbally abused before but I never expected it from a priest.

Two very different images. Two images which speak to me about our calling and our difficulties as the Church of God.

Today’s readings provide a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what it means to be the Church, an opportunity which is appropriate on the heels of the Lambeth Conference, the once a decade gathering of bishops in Canterbury.

The reading we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans comes in the middle of a longer argument which is important for our understanding of who we are as members of the Church of Christ. He is saying that the people of Israel were God’s chosen people - the ones through whom God’s plan of redemption for the whole world was to be carried out. But they were unable to fill that role and so the Church was born in order to fulfill the promise. As Paul sees it the Church is not merely a way that we organize religion but is the way that God intends to save the world. God’s plan is to redeem the planet through us. That is huge and I’m going to come back to it, but first let’s look again at those first verses from our second reading.
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. (Romans 11:1-2a)
Part of the anti-semitism that has plagued European history comes from theological causes. First, blaming Jesus’ crucifixion on ‘the Jews’ as John’s gospel tends to do and secondly, thinking that Christianity has superseded Judaism. There is no excuse for this. Paul is very clear that although the Church has taken on the role originally intended for Israel, that does not suggest that God has rejected God’s original people. In deed God now intends to bring Israel to a full knowledge of Godself through the Gentiles instead of the other way around.

Paul saw himself at the cusp of this change. He was fully Jewish but dedicated to the new path of the Church of Christ. Jesus himself was at the leading edge. And this is one explanation for his rather odd behavior in today’s gospel reading. (Matt 15:21-28)

It’s an unusual story in several respects. Firstly it’s set in the region of Tyre and Sidon which were in the Phoenicia on the coast. Today Tyre is in Lebanon, about 50 miles south of Beirut. So it was in a different country. Jesus is talking directly with a Canaanite woman who most of his contemporaries would have treated with disdain and we see Jesus change his mind. When the woman asks for his help at first he responds that he only came for Israel but them he changes his mind – her recognition of him as Lord and Son of David makes him realize that she too can have faith, that Gentiles may also be believers.

Israel may have had a special role but God’s love is much greater than human boundaries. This is reflected in the First Reading from Isaiah(Is 56:1,6-8). ‘All… who hold fast my covenant…I will bring to my holy mountain’. ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’

I mentioned some theological reasons for ant-Semitism. There are some very practical ones as well. One way to unify people is to create a common enemy. One way to maintain power is to create a climate of fear. Both of these things happened in Nazi Germany and throughout Central Europe as Jews were isolated, denigrated and then killed. But it was not only Jews who died in the holocaust, it was also the disabled, Gypsies and gay people. All people who were different, all outcasts.

This passage from Isaiah is very clear that there are no outcasts in the Reign of God. God does not separate people into groups and categories, God gathers people together into the house of prayer, the holy mountain, the place of joy and feasting.

It was Israel’s calling to ‘Maintain justice, and do what is right’, to create a nation where there were no outcasts, a society of equality, where there was social justice for all. If we as the Church of Christ are now called to be the carriers of God’s plan for redemption then what was true for the Israelites is also true for us. We are called to work for social justice, to create a society where there is equality for all people, where there are no outcasts.

This means more than giving money or even a new pair of shoes to a man on a bus. It means using the political process of this country to demand change, not just by voting, but by campaigning for justice so that instead of a few people living in huge mansions there is affordable housing for everyone. It means finding ways to live more simply, to use less resources, to lower our carbon footprint so that others may have even the basics of life. Climate change is the biggest social justice issue of our time because it is the poorest of the poor who will be worst effected. Within ten years communities of thousands of people who scrape a living off the land and sea will have to be relocated. Green living is no longer an option for the Church of Christ, it is a gospel imperative.

There are many smaller battles in working for a just society; civil equality for gays and lesbians is threatened this November, work for universal health care continues to need attention as does making sure that in a time of budget shortfall the most fragile are not the most effected. All this is our calling. It is part of our mission as the ones through whom God is redeeming the world.

It is easy for the Church to get off course and like the English priest to become exclusive and judgmental even with other Christians. Our job is to build not a Church, and not only a Church but a society where all are respected, all are honored. We start to do that by changing our own ways of living, our own attitudes.

I am praying for both men. It’s easier for me to pray with compassion for the man with painful feet than the man who seems to hate women. Jesus has compassion on both, God’s love embraces both of them and me and you equally. The mission of God starts in our hearts as we allow our prejudices and fears towards each other to be transformed. The mission of God leads us to work for social justice.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Miracle Stories
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Preached by the Rev. Faye Hogan

“One thumb Nellie” was an old Southern hill country woman who was something of a legend even to her neighbors. Rumor had it that her thumb was blown off when a hose broke on the moonshine whiskey still she had concealed in the woods behind her house. But Nellie was known for her quick temper so no dared ask her if that was what really caused her to lose her thumb. Yet, despite Nellie’s temper and her questionable occupation, Nellie had a love for her church. She walked into town for most Wednesday evening services and never missed a Sunday service.

Pastor Walt had been at the small church for a year before he got up the courage to do what he felt to be his Christian duty, to try to talk to Nellie about her occupation. Nellie listened just long enough to see where Pastor was going with his subject, and then excused herself and turned up the dusty road that led back home. The longer she walked the more riled up she got about what Pastor Walt had been trying to say. By the time she passed her neighbor Beulah’s house, Nellie had worked up a full head of steam. Of course Beulah asked Nellie what was wrong and Nellie told her, ending by saying, “ I liked him heaps better when he jes talk about love and NOT tellin’ me to change my life! Pastor jes move from preaching to meddlin!”

I wonder if each time the Pharisees had an encounter with Jesus they didn’t feel the same way? Some surely said, “We can tolerate this man as long as he just comforts people and talks about loving one another but when he starts telling us that the way we live, the way we expect the Hebrew people to live, needs to be changed, well then, he’s just moved from preaching to meddling.” The Pharisees were God fearing, devoted to God’s Law as they understood it, and they gave the Law full respect and scrupulous obedience. They felt that they were offering others a healthy alternative to the ways of the world surrounding them. To the Pharisees, as well as to some Christians today, the rules are clear and if the rules, at least as they interpret them, are followed they will earn God’s love. Those who don’t try to be just like them; those who don’t even try to measure up deserve to be the outcasts they are. They say, “Just let them go… it’s not much of a loss after all.”

Yet Jesus constantly responded in confusing ways…Jesus often didn’t follow the rules. One week he had been at the Sabbath table with a leader of the Pharisees, and the next week he was seen in a near by village visiting at the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha, having diner, sitting after dinner with both men AND women and treating them as equals.

No, most of us believe that Jesus would not have responded to “One thumb Nellie” as Pastor Walt did. By trying to preach to her or by advising her to find a better occupation, Pastor Walt was, indeed, “meddlin’ “ Jesus’ message was about the compassionate concern of an ever loving and ever searching God. Perhaps Pastor Walt just should have continued to welcome Nellie and talk about God’s love for her and leave the transformation to a new life in God’s hands and in God’s time. That ever seeking, searching God who never gives up on any one of us.

Both last Sunday and again today, Matthew presents us with two miracle stories which are perhaps the most famous miracle stories of the bible. In hearing both the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, we tend to get caught up in questions like, “Did this really happen?” or “How did Jesus do that?” There are those who simply say, “Miracles are miracles. That’s the point. Of course it happened just the way scripture says it did. We accept this on faith. When we get to see God face to face, we’ll ask God how miracles happen.”

And others warn that we need not take scripture so literally. The message in both these miracles is that:
God will provide all that we really need, OR without faith in God we will never feel truly filled or truly safe and will sink in our own doubt as Peter did, OR all of God’s creation should have enough to eat or to have shelter from the storms of life whether they be hurricanes, disease, wars, etc. and it is our job to care for one other, OR all of the above.

However these two miracles actually happened, one message we need to take away today is that God takes our often small beginnings and provides the out come that is needed. (Needed, not necessarily wanted). If this message today had a title, it would be “God never wastes anything that God has created.” There are those today who believe that the age of miracles is over, if there ever was such an age at all. They believe that today we can explain “miracles” away with our knowledge of medicine, technology, psychology, physics, or, or and the list goes on. I, and many of you, believe that miracles still happen. I’m not talking about pretty amazing events that leave us filled with a sense of wonder. Events that make us look at someone else and say things like, “Did you ever expect to see anything like that?” No, it’s more than that. When a true miracle happens, it not only leaves you with a sense of wonder, but also actually brings you to your knees in awe. The God who heals hurts, the God who brings about reconciliation is still at work.

Looking back at our reading from 1 Kings we heard: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” In the sheer silence the Lord appeared and spoke to Elijah, giving new hope, new mission, to a man who had felt hopeless, useless, and very alone.

After the first service this morning some of us saw the video,” The Spirit of St. Paul’s “ which told the story of how Trinity Church and the Chapel of St. Paul’s became an island of support providing support for the thousands of volunteers following 9/11. If any modern day example fits the description given in 1 Kings, the destruction of the Twin Towers is it. In the silence that followed, it was discovered that Trinity and St. Paul’s Chapel remained unscathed, not even one broken window. From the site of pure evil, 30 feet away across the street, a place of God’s healing opened its doors and through the efforts of an often-unlikely mix of people joined to do God’s work. God never wastes anything God has created.

Finally, (we have) one last example of a modern day miracle. Hospital chaplains see more than their share of grief but they also see more miracles than, I suspect, many people do. This one is one that those present that evening agree was truly God at work.

The young man’s family had kept vigil by his bedside in the ICU for days. His short life had been filled with drug abuse and wife beating until his wife finally had had enough and divorced him. She and her ex-in laws had not spoken since the divorce until they met in the ICU. Their meeting was so volatile that the chaplains had set up separate visiting hours for them so that the other families in the ICU waiting room could sit in peace and quiet.

But the young man had died and now it was time to discontinue all aggressive treatment including the ventilator. The family gathered around the bed and the chaplain went looking in all the usual places cafeteria, restroom, waiting room) for the ex-wife but couldn’t find her. Returning to the ICU, the chaplain closed the curtains, led the family in prayer, blessed the body, and left the room so that the family could be alone for a time. Leaving, the chaplain found the ex-wife standing outside the room clinging to the curtains for support, and quietly crying.

Hearing the chaplain speaking to the ex-wife, silently, from inside the room the curtains were drawn back a bit, and the ex-brother-in-law reached out, gently took the ex-wife’s hand and led her into the room. Silently each family member shifted around to make a place for her at the bedside. After a time, the family left and the chaplain walked with them to the elevator. The family and the ex-wife walked slowly down the hall… together. A life that had been wasted during the short time he had lived became an instrument, which God used to bring about a miracle of reconciliation.the healing of a broken relationship. God never wastes anything that God has created.