Benediction Online

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Faith in Money = False Faith
The Rev. Faye Hogan

Vivian Malone Jones died in October three years ago. She was only 63 years old. Her name is probably not immediately familiar to most of us. But those of us who were around in 1963 remember the powerful pictures on the nightly TV news and in the morning newspaper of the then governor of Alabama, George Wallace, standing on the steps of the administration building of the University of Alabama. He stood, in defiance of a court order, and attempted to block the enrollment of two young black students named James Hood and Vivian Malone Jones.

They did enroll, of course, and while that enrollment day called for courage and determination that most of us can only imagine, I’m sure that it took just as much courage and determination to endure the hostile climate for the two years it took Vivian to complete her degree and become the first black student to graduate from the University of Alabama. She went on to have a career first with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. and later, for the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, Georgia.

At her funeral, James Hood spoke of that day in 1963 when he and Vivian got out of the car and, surrounded by jeering crowds, began to approach the steps where George Wallace and armed National Guards stood. James quietly whispered to Vivian that he was scared. Vivian squeezed his hand and, at the same time, handed him a note that said, “Whatever adversities these days, our Father, help us face them with courage.” Another friend, Glenda Hatchett commented at Vivian’s funeral “George Wallace didn’t know what he was up against because Vivian and God were on the same side.”

In 1963, many of us questioned how a nation claiming to be a Christian nation could allow lynchings in the South to go unpunished… could allow American citizens to be treated differently because of the color of their skin or their outward and visible signs of material wealth, or how some children could be overindulged while others went to bed hungry at night. I wish I could say that these are questions of the past, but they aren’t. But questions are good things. They can be powerful agents of truth.

Jesus grew up in the Hebrew faith, a tradition that puts a strong value on truth. As a child Jesus saw Rabbis sitting knee to knee debating and questioning, parsing out words of the Torah, disagreeing and agreeing on what God must have meant… looking for truth. This is a tradition that continues today in many Jewish homes on Friday nights following the Seder meal. By candlelight, family members share issues and events and everyone asks questions and gives helpful advice, wanted or not. One family member’s concern is everybody’s concern, like it or not!

In today’s gospel, we heard that the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked a question. The principals of this parable, the Herodians, the Pharisees, and Jesus and his followers each found themselves attempting to live under a repressive Roman regime. The first two groups, the Herodians and the Pharisees, had, in various degrees, adapted as best they could to the situation. Jesus, however, appeared to be the “wild card.” What he was teaching attracted great numbers of followers. He appeared to be a threat to their comfortable way of life. So they came to him and asked him to state openly where his loyalty lay. The question was a “trick” question. Whichever answer he chose would backfire on him! Instead, Jesus’ answer was not an “either/or” answer but a “both/and” answer. Jesus appears to be saying that loyalty to a political entity, expressed in this case by paying taxes to the emperor, is useful for survival, but limited while loyalty to God is absolute. The emperor and money must not be an idol. Coming to full union with God and with all of God’s creation is our earthly mission.

Today we find ourselves in an economic crisis unlike anything most of us have experienced. So very many mistakes along the way that led to where we are. Much like the Romans in Jesus’ time, we in this country have lived seeing ourselves as a majority with a divine mandate to prevent the rest of the world from lapsing into chaos. The old question in the gospel this morning remains, “What is owed to God?” There are those in high places who believe that service to America is identical to service to God. The bubble has burst for those who relied on the money markets for their religion. Loyalty to our country is important and healthy for survival but is also, as in Jesus’ time, limited. Loyalty to God is still the absolute.

In the midst of this economic crisis is it possible that God is nudging us toward enlarging our view of prosperity to encompass a more global prospective? There are a few billion people on this planet trying their best to live on less than two dollars a day and close to one half of those trying to live on less than one dollar a day. Part of what is happening to us now is perhaps that many, if not the majority of us as a country, needs to gain some perspective on what it truly means to live in this ever smaller world. Though we may have fallen a great distance, we still have God’s promise that, in the end, everything will be okay… that we matter to God. Is it possible that in these tough times when the bursting of the bubble of security is frightening to many of us, God is presenting us with yet another opportunity to place our faith into action for the good of others?

Our Harvest Dinner was festive and joyful. It signaled the beginning of our annual Stewardship Reflection. But more than that, it felt to me like those present were affirming their faith that St. Benedict’s would continue to care for each other and for those out in the community who are lost and seeking the God who cares for their hurts, their doubts, their fears. When clergy preach stewardship sermons we often use today’s gospel as a way to ask people how much we should give to the church and still have enough to pay our personal bills. Perhaps the real issue of stewardship is not “How much should I pledge?” but “From all that God has given me, how much should I keep for myself?”

Perhaps the real issue of stewardship is how much can I place my faith in God’s guidance to help me do what I can do to become even more empowered on my personal journey of service to God. With God’s help, we will find our way to a better time. In these anxious times what better prayer to remember than the one given by Vivian Malone Jones to James Hood, “Whatever adversities these days, our Father, help us face them with courage.”

Our challenges of today, just as the past challenges faced by those in 1963 are just more pieces of the process toward the just and loving society our God envisions for us. So we will face them with courage and faith in God’s goodness. We close with a prayer from the Church of England:
Lord God, we live in disturbing days… Our fragile security is under threat. Meet us in our fear and hear our prayer, be a tower of strength amidst the shifting sands and a light in the darkness. Help us receive your gift of peace and fix our hearts where true joys are to be found, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

God's Grace Enfolds Us
The Rev. Mary Eliazabeth Pratt-Horsley

It’s not very often that the preacher takes the collect for her text – but this Sunday I am going to do just that.. Let’s look at the collect, on page 2 of your bulletin.
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works;
Those words made me reflect on the relationship between God’s grace and our works… But before we explore that further … I ‘d like to share a story with you. It is the picture book story of “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” – which my older sister gave to me last week. She sent it so that I can share it with my 5 year old granddaughter, Lauren.
There once was a quiltmaker who lived high up on the misty mountain. It seemed she had been there forever, sewing day after day … and making the most beautiful quilts anyone had ever seen…
Many climbed the mountain with bags of gold seeking to buy one of her gorgeous quilts. But the woman would not sell them… “I give my quilts to the poor and homeless… they’re not for the rich… On the coldest of nights the woman would go down to the town and find someone sleeping outside in the chill. She would tenderly wrap them in one of her quilts … and then go home to start sewing a new one.
At the same time there also lived a powerful and greedy king. He liked nothing better than to receive presents. But the thousands of beautiful gifts he got for Christmas and his birthday weren’t enough – and finally he ordered his soldiers to search the kingdom for those few people who had not yet given him a gift.
Over the years the king had come to own almost all of the prettiest things in te world – his castle from top to bottom was full of them. But even with all of those treasures, the king was not happy …. “Somewhere there must be one beautiful thing that will finally make me happy” he often said… “And I will have it!”
One day his servant rushed in and told him about the quiltmaker’s beautiful quilts. But sire, he said, she only gives her quilts to the poor and needy… “We’ll see about that” the king replied.
When the king arrived at the quiltmaker’s cottage, she refused to give him a quilt – “You are rich… and my quilts are for the poor” she said.
“But your quilt might be the one thing that will finally make me happy…! the king exclaimed. “What can I do to get one”…?
She said: Give away each present you have received… Each time you give away a present, I will make one piece for your quilt… when you have given everything away… your quilt will be ready”
But I can’t do that, the king replied… He ordered his soldiers to take the woman, and with an iron chain they chained her in the cave of a very big bear. When the bear awoke he stood up on his hind legs and roared ….
“No wonder you’re grouchy – with only those hard rocks to lie on… Find me some pine needles, and I’ll use my shawl to make you a pillow… When she had made the bear his pillow, he broke the chain that bound her… No one had ever been so kind to the bear before.
The king was sorry for what he had done… and he rushed to the bear’s cave in the morning and saw them having breakfast together. He was furious… He had the quiltmaker taken to the tiniest island in the sea… only big enough for her to stand on tippy toe… “Will you give me a quilt now?” he asked… Once again she said no…
“Very well… when you get tired of standing on tippy toe in the night you will fall over into the sea and drown… A little while later a sparrow was trying desperately to reach the shore in a very fierce wind --- he wasn’t going to make it. The woman called to the sparrow to come rest on her shoulder. The poor bird was shivering … so the woman made him a little cloak from her own purple vest. Once he was warmed, the sparrow flew off…. But not much later, the sky was filled with sparrows --- They swooped down and lifted the woman in their beaks … carrying her to safety.
Once again the king felt bad about what he had done – so he ordered his carriage to take him quickly to the sea shore… There he found the quiltmaker, perched in a tree … making little purple cloaks for all the sparrows.
“I give up… what must I do to get one of your beautiful quilts?” “Give away each of your beautiful possessions” she replied… “But I love my things” the king exclaimed…
“But if your things don’t make you happy… what good are they?”
After a moment the king said “You’re right”
The king went back to his palace and began to give his wonderful possessions away… At first nothing changed… but then slowly a smile began to form on the king’s lips… Out the door went his hundred waltzing blue Siamese cats … then his merry-go-round with real horses … As he saw the joy on the face of those who received his gifts… the king began to laugh out loud…
True to her word, the quiltmaker began to make the king’s quilt… Many years passed,… the king had spread his gifts around the world … bringing smiles wherever he went …
When the king finally returned – empty-handed – the quiltmaker went to find him. His clothes were in tatters – his toes poked out of holes in his boots – yet his face was filled with joy… The quiltmaker carefully put a beautiful quilt around his shoulders…
“What’s this?” the king asked. It’s the quilt I promised I would give you when you gave everything away and were poor”>
“The king replied: “ I am not poor – my heart is filled with the memories of all the happiness I’ve given and received… I’m the richest man I know”.
He thanked her… and asked her to receive the one gift he had kept for her… his throne. “It’s really quite comfortable… and just the thing for long days of sewing!”
And so they continued … by day the quiltmaker made beautiful quilts she would not sell … and by night the king took them down to the town … to give to the poorest people he could find … and they both were filled with happiness.
What is grace? Grace is a free gift from God – some say it is the positive energy of God – flowing out to us. Grace enables each one of us to develop – to be fruitful - Grace empowers us to do and to be what we were each created to be – God’s grace enables us to become the unique person God intends us to be.
God’s grace can be experienced in good times and in difficult times. In every situation, grace is given to move us and the world and all creation – into more wholeness… into fuller life.
In the story, the king has closed himself off from grace. He is uncaring of other – concerned only with “me” or what’s “mine”. He is totally unaware of the sacrifice and labor of others that went into each of his fabulous possessions. He is extremely unhappy – and despite the many beautiful objects he owns – he has no clue about the purpose of his life – about his unique gifts and abilities. He is captive – captive to his constant search for that one elusive material object that will make him happy.
The quiltmaker, on the other hand, understands that being whom we are called to be frees each of us. She had skills in sewing, but few material possessions – Yet all that she had, all that she had been given – she used to bring more life…more wholeness… to those around her.
Yes, she understands she is free… so when she is chained in the bear’s cave – she is not afraid - she looks with compassion on the bear, and she uses what she has to bring relief and comfort to him…
When she is forced by the king to stand on tippy toe on the smallest of islands, she provides safe haven and a warm cloak to the imperiled sparrow. In each case… and throughout the tale … the quiltmaker remains free, and continues to be the unique person she was called to be. She consistently allows grace to flow through her to others.
When the king finally begins to share the many precious gifts he has been given – he realizes the freedom and joy that come from being life giving --- While in the beginning he gave away his possessions out of fear – fear that unless he did it he would not get a quilt from the quiltmaker --- he nevertheless ended up giving away his possessions out of love --- and no longer fear.
I have heard it said that deep down inside --- in any given situation --- each of us operates out of love… or out of fear. To operate out of love brings freedom --- to operate out of fear brings captivity.
God’s grace enables us to have love as our source of energy – As we find the courage to open more and more of our selves to that grace – we are freed to become the unique person God has called us to be…. and we are freed and enabled to cooperate with God’s plan of wholeness for all of creation.
What does it look like to operate out of fear? Fear keeps us from giving freely and willingly – of our selves – of our resources – of our talents…
Today in America there is much fear and anxiety about physical and financial security – fear for the future – fear that whichever candidate we elect in a few weeks will be unable to implement life-giving policies for the common good.
When fear and anxiety surround you... it is a tremendous challenge to operate from a place of love – Yet this is precisely what we are called to do --- but not by some super-human effort of our own…
As Christians – we are invited to direct our efforts to remaining open to God’s grace. That grace can and will energize us --- enabling each of us to use more and more of our unique gifts to bring life and light … and not more darkness … to the anxious world in which we live.
To get back to the collect… what is the relationship between God’s grace and our works or actions? When we are open to readily receive God’s grace --- when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to turn to God instead of always saying: “I can do it myself” --- then God’s grace will energize us – God’s grace will equip us … to become the unique person we are called by God to be…
To refer back to Caro’s sermon last week --- with God’s grace --- we will be able to be fruitful – each in a unique way - as only each of us can be ….
As we learn to trust God enough to open ourselves to receive that grace --- then we will be enabled more and more to collaborate with God’s intention of bringing wholeness to the entire creation. We will be empowered to act out of love – and not out of fear – and our works will reflect that.
And it will carry through into all facets of our lives…
Exercising our right to vote is one of the “works” that we do. When we are open to God’s grace – and are enabled to act out of love, not fear – we will be able to truly reflect on how either candidate’s plans would affect the well-being of all…
When we are closed to grace --- building walls and filled with anxiety --- we can’t see beyond the fears that engulf us.
It is tremendously difficult to remain open and vulnerable in the swirl of free-floating anxiety and fear that surround us today… Our natural tendency is to try to pull back… to “circle the wagons” – to try and find safety by looking after only our own interests… so that we are not carried away in a tide that seems overwhelming.
It seems counter-intuitive to remain open – listening to God’s unique call to us – listening to the world’s need…
Yes it is a challenge… Yet it is a challenge that we’re familiar with … It is a challenge that we’ve encountered and embraced at St. Ben’s for many years…
In the past, facing difficult financial times … when free-floating anxiety about our future as a community had threatened to submerge us … we were able – time after time – to trust enough in God --- to open ourselves as individuals and as a community – to God’s grace. That grace energized us to pursue the journey … Time and again… we made a conscious decision to journey together in love – not fear – open to hearing God’s unique call to us --- open to serving our neighbors in the wider community.
As we listened, trusted, and were faithful… we were given … and are still being given … the necessary resources to move forward on our journey with … and towards God.
Let us now – as individuals… and as a community … continue to be open to each other … and to God’s grace that surrounds and enfolds us … so that we may become the people God yearns for us to be … and so that our works… and our lives… reflect the wholeness God intends for the all of creation. Amen

Sunday, October 05, 2008

St Benedicts was recently given a new computer, and, until such time as we have an office here and might need it, I plan to use it to replace my old and very slow one. But I’ve been putting it off. I expect you know why. I’m afraid that I’m going to spend a morning or perhaps two, getting it all set up the way I want it with the programs I use and the documents I need all carefully transferred. Then I’ll sit down at it, pleased to have this efficient new partner who doesn’t take an hour to wake up and check its vital signs every morning. I’m afraid I’ll sit down at it, write a lengthy email to the vestry about my latest inspiration, hit send and…nothing will happen.

Then I’ll have to spend several more hours troubleshooting and even have to pay a young person to come in and show me that this new computer has a handy-dandy firewall switch or some such gizmo that makes sure I don’t send emails unless I really want to… and by then I will have spent a week and a hundred dollars when I could have sent the email perfectly well on my very slow and elderly computer.

The first reading this morning describes the beloved’s vineyard which he tended carefully, planting the finest varietals and putting in irrigation systems and a security system. He built a state of the art wine vat in which to make the best wines. But the grapes grew small and sour. He did everything that needed to be done to produce luscious fruit and he did it all with hopeful expectation but despite his best efforts, the fruit was useless.

The gospel reading concerns another vineyard. Jesus is telling the story of a landowner who did all the right things but ran into another problem. This time it wasn’t that the fruit was sour and inedible. He just couldn’t get the right help. The people he left in charge did a great job of making wine but they kept all the money. The owner couldn’t get a penny of what was owed him!

In both cases the vineyard didn’t produce and so the owner took drastic steps. Fortunately we are told the moral of both stories so we don’t have to work particularly hard. In the gospel reading the vineyard was taken away from the thieves and given to those who would produce not just wine but also pay rent to the owner. In the first reading, the vineyard was destroyed and we are told quite clearly,

the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!

Just as computers are meant to send email, vineyards are meant to produce wine and income and the people of Israel are meant to demonstrate justice and righteousness. But they didn’t. Like the wild grapes in the vineyard they just couldn’t do what they were made for.

So are we doing what we are meant to be doing in the circumstances in which God has placed us? We don’t live in a vineyard and we are not vines, but we are all expected to bear fruit, the fruit of a spiritual life lived in the knowledge of Christ and his resurrection. As the fall brings fields of pumpkins along LOV Road and piles of apples at farmer’s market, we have a tangible reminder of the fruitfulness of creation. On Saturday night we will be celebrating a harvest dinner here together when we will remember God’s faithfulness to us and the miracles she has wrought in our lives and in the life of St Benedict’s.

The mark of a nation walking humbly with their God is social justice and right living. The mark of a church living humbly and faithfully with its God is working for social justice, serving the community, seeking to live more in alignment with gospel values and finding creative ways to communicate God’s abundant and reckless love for all beings. The fruit that God looks for in our lives are the signs that we are walking our talk, that our faith is not something we leave at the door when we leave on Sunday mornings, but which permeates every area of our lives.

This past month has been a time of tremendous financial concern as we have seen the sub-prime mortgage problem like a growing snowball hitting financial institutions and banks, threatening our savings and retirement plans, our real estate investments and the livelihood of millions of people. It reminds us that it is possible that life as we have known it could change in a flash. Like those in Texas who have lost their homes and everything they held dear, it is possible that we might wake up tomorrow and find our lives irrevocably changed. In times of financial and personal insecurity the only place we can turn is to our faith, our faith in a God who is bigger than all of it and in comparison with whom it all becomes quite unimportant.

This is part of what Paul is saying in the second reading. Looking at his resume you’d expect him to be highly successful. Born on the right side of the tracks, a leader of Israel, Paul had it made. In human terms. But he realized that none of that was important. Nothing is as important as knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection. That is what is truly important.

We are made to know and worship God. That means more than just attending church. It means knowing and worshipping God in the very core of our being every moment of every day. It means living our lives as if the most important thing really is God and as if Jesus really died and was resurrected. It means showing the fruits of the Spirit of God in every aspect of our lives. I have been noticing how difficult that can be in the run up to an election. The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, mercy. But when we talk about a candidate whom we don’t support we often seem to forget who we really are and make hateful jokes. That’s not walking our talk as the people of God.

Being who we were made to be means also trusting God with our finances. Putting our security in our knowledge of God not in things that seem to bring security. There is no ultimate security in investments or pension funds, in houses or even in relationships with other humans. This is a time when many people feel insecure. When we live in fear we can make foolish decisions and we can be manipulated by people who promise certainty. The only certainty there is, is that God loves us and made us to love, serve and worship God. When everything else falls away, God remains.

But that’s not an excuse for carelessness. We were made to live in a material world and loving God means living as simply as possible while caring for all that we have been given. That’s not something we can do alone – each one of us can only do so much to care for the planet – but we can each play our part. In the same way within the church we each have apart to play so that St Benedicts can be the light of God within Los Osos that we are called to be.

As far as we know a computer does not have consciousness so it probably doesn’t make any difference to it whether it can send email and how long it takes to wake up, it probably doesn’t feel any different when it’s connected to the Internet. We are not computers. We know when we are fulfilled. We know when we are peaceful. We know when we are connected to God.

Because that is what we were made for. We were act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. Let us today remember who we are.