Benediction Online

Sunday, January 31, 2010

1 Corinthians 13

Love is all you need.

It’s a wonderfully appealing and romantic message. Love is all you need. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.’ Love is all you need.

Unfortunately we use the word love in so many different ways that we can’t be sure that 0John Lennon and the Apostle Paul were actually talking about the same thing. Even if they were totally in sync with one another across the centuries, what Love means to each one of us will be different depending on our experiences and understandings of love.

For example there’s a difference between love which is a sweet, exciting feeling that draws you towards another person and the love that leads a parent to tell a young addict that they’re not welcome at home until they get clean. Romantic love and tough love. Very different things.

We tend to bring together the message of love that we hear in the Gospel of Christ and assume that it’s talking about the same thing as popular culture. I don’t think it is, and the problem with assuming that romantic songs and the Scriptures are talking about the same thing is that we then don’t hear what’s really being said.

So let’s think about love in the culture around us for a few minutes. Most songs are about romantic love. They are about the attraction between two people that is a deep instinctual erotic force which can be the most creative human energy, but also the most destructive. Romantic love is very much about feelings. It’s about how I feel and how I hope you feel too. There’s no denying that it’s sweet and lovely when fully reciprocated between two people but it is often ultimately superficial. Marriages based only on romantic love without a firm basis in shared values and shared vision rarely last long. Because the feeling doesn’t last in the same way, and when it does linger it is because it is fanned and fueled by other aspects of the couple’s relationship.

Popular love is easy. It comes when you meet someone, perhaps when you just see them. It seems like an external force, something that sweeps us up and we have little choice but to follow our bliss.

When people tell me, ‘All we need is love’, I imagine that’s the kind of love that they’re thinking about – a nice warm feeling that makes everything better, eases relationships and helps everyone be happy. It’s a love based in feeling, and most feelings are transient.

Jesus told us to love one another as he loved us. The characteristics of Jesus’ love were that he gave of himself and he forgave. I imagine that knowing Jesus must have been an incredible experience of being known and seeing yourself in a different way through his eyes and as a result of his love. Living in a family or community calls out these qualities of love. To give and to forgive. To be loved and to be forgiven.

This is the kind of love that we need and long for. Mutual giving and forgiving.

Our society tends to hold grudges. The political world of partisanship depends upon stirring up resentment, reminding people of what they don’t like, of what hasn’t been done, of promises broken and generating fear about tomorrow. All in the service of making the world a better place. But in the process the seeds of hatred and distrust are sown, day in and day out.

Here are the headlines from the New York Times today:

· G.O.P. Hits Its Stride, but Faces Rifts Over Ideology

· U.S. Speeding Up Missile Defenses in Persian Gulf

· Site for Terror Trial Isn’t Its Only Obstacle

All of them refer to conflict and fear.

So we have a daily diet of conflict, fear and resentment, and the love which the popular culture has to counter that is romantic love combined with a degree of altruism. That’s not the kind of love we need.

Last week I talked about the importance of being able to disagree – of being able to tolerate different opinions. Today I want to add the importance of love in that picture. Not necessarily the feeling of love. When your feelings are running high and someone is stubbornly refusing to see things your way, feelings of love are usually quite distant. But love gives and forgives. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.’

This is our challenge within the community of faith and within our families, that we love in the way that Jesus loved us – giving and forgiving even though we may clearly see the other person’s limitations. This is where healing happens.

It is this kind of healing love that will change the world. It is hard for us to withstand the pressure to see everything in oppositional terms of them versus us when that is the way our leaders operate, exacerbated by the media. Giving and forgiving rarely sell newspapers or draw people to websites. Yet giving and forgiving are more powerful than conflict and fear.

This is our calling as people of God. The first great commandment is to love God, the second is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Even the neighbor you don’t like.

All you need is love.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Being the Body of Christ
1 Corinthians 12:12-31aLuke 4:14-21

We are the Body of Christ. That’s an astonishing statement isn’t it? Look around the room for a moment. You are looking at the Body of Christ.

We were all baptized into one body and so together our mission is to bring into reality the gospel message,
to bring good news to the poor.
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

In the second reading we heard Paul’s extended metaphor of the Church as Body. Paul points out that we are all different and we all have different gifts and different callings.

We might add that we all have different ideas and different perspectives. If we imagine the Church as a community where there is never disagreement then we create a tyranny of the positive where no-one can express a different opinion, no-one can see things in a different way. That is not a creative way to live. But we all know that it can be difficult to stay together when there is disagreement and tension.

St. Benedict’s has seen its share of disagreement in the past and I hope there will be disagreement in the future.

I say hope because I believe it is when we can creatively deal with our disagreements as well as our places of agreement that we start to truly show the reconciling love of God. Where there is no difference there is no need of reconciliation. In our mission statement we describe ourselves as an inclusive Christian community. Inclusive of whom? Many of us are Democrats or tend to a ‘blue’ political stance. What of those of us who are Republican? Are they outcasts? Lesser citizens? Of course not, but when we assume that everyone agrees we make it uncomfortable to give a counter opinion.

To be able to disagree does not mean to live in tension. It does not mean to dislike each other.

One Sunday morning just after Christmas, after y’all had gone home and Steve and I were just tidying up, I changed the message on the phone machine. I had just said something like “You’ve reached St Benedicts where everyone is welcome whatever their faith journey’ when in the door walked two men dressed in homemade robes looking as though they had just stepped out of a poorly costumed Christmas pageant where they had been playing the shepherds. These guys said that they were travelling round to bring churches the message that we have to love one another, and they needed money for gas. I confess I had a negative reaction. God really challenged me that morning about whether I actually meant that at St Benedict’s everyone is welcome regardless of the faith journey!

When we are truly inclusive we will be open and ready to meet people whom we find difficult, people who make us uncomfortable, people who are very different from us.
When we are truly inclusive we will find ways to disagree and stay in positive loving relationship with each other so that no-one is outcast. In the past we have sometimes chosen not to talk about uncomfortable issues such as the Los Osos sewer for fear that it will be divisive and unhelpful. Not all conversation is helpful, and the sewer may be something we continue not to discuss, but I hope that as we grow together we will find ways that we can have open conversations about things that divide us as well as the things that we share.

James Alison, a Catholic who has written a great deal about the Church’s debate over the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people, says that ultimately it may not matter who is right and who is wrong, but how we deal with the difference and the debate.

Jesus told us to love one another as he has loved us. He did not tell us to agree with one another. Those who have left the Episcopal Church and those who want to exclude us from the Anglican Communion because we include lesbians and gays and because our Presiding Bishop says it is limiting God to say that the Christian path is the only way, those people are, I believe, mistaken in exalting their notion of truth over unity. But equally mistaken are those who stay we must stay together at the expense of gay and lesbian people. The mistake is in imagining this as an either/or situation.

Back to the body analogy. Different parts of the body deal with the same things in quite a different way. My mouth is happy to receive a carrot, but stick it in an ear or up a nostril and it will get a very different reception!

Why am I talking about difference today?

St. Benedict’s has come a long way. There is reason to be very grateful for God’s faithfulness and the results of our labors. It would be easy for us to grow complacent and self-satisfied. It would be easy for us to become inward looking and to unintentionally exclude others by our own sense of community. I think that that will not happen as long as we are able to have difficult conversations, as long as we are able to respect each other’s opinions and gifts.

We need each other. We need our prickly places as well as our well rounded and sunny ones. We need each other’s gifts and we need each other’s weaknesses. Allowing for difference helps to create a safe place where each person, each beloved child of God, can play their part and bring their gifts.

Then we can open our hearts to others who are also different and invite them into community. Then we can
bring good news to the poor,
proclaim release to the captives,
recovery of sight to the blind,
let the oppressed go free,
and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

Look around the room again. This is the Body of Christ. We were all baptized into one Body.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thinking about Haiti
Luke 4:16-21

Epiphany is the season of the year when we think about God’s revelation. Today we hear Jesus reading a scripture from Isaiah,
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
and essentially saying – that’s about me! Those who heard him were not impressed and said: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Of course readers of Luke’s gospel know that he wasn’t Joseph’s son). The angry mob drove him out of town, and were going to throw him down a cliff ‘but he walked right through the crowd and went on his way’ (Luke 4:30).

All week we have seen horrific images of the disaster in Haiti. How is God revealed in Haiti? How can we, or anyone ‘proclaim `the year of the Lord’s favor’ among such pain and suffering?

It seems that pain and suffering is part of what it means to be mortal. Jesus certainly experienced it during his relatively brief mortal life. Why? No-one really knows, and there are no intellectual answers which can adequately respond to the visceral agony we experience. But we can be sure that God is present in human pain… perhaps that was one of the big things that happened as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – the Godhead fully experienced human pain. Some people think that’s why Jesus cried ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me?’ on the cross - because for the first time he experienced the feeling of distance from God the Creator which is part of the pain of our lives.

Within the Buddhist tradition, the practice of compassion is to learn to look at another’s pain, as well as one’s own, without turning away. This solidarity with those in Haiti and other places of great suffering in the world is in God’s heart. Let it be in ours also.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back
Matthew 2: 13-233

And so it begins. After the glorious joy of the incarnation comes the reaction. The Empire strikes back. Herod, the puppet of the Roman Empire, is deeply threatened by the reports that a child has been born who fulfills the Jewish prophecies. And so he lashes out, attempting to assassinate his potential enemy and in the process causing significant collateral damage. He orders that all the boys under two years old in Bethlehem be killed. This seems horrific, but Empire demands that lives be sacrificed.

The population of Bethlehem at the time was somewhere between three hundred and one thousand. The total number of children killed has been estimated to be less than 20. Today Bethlehem is in Palestine. In the last decade 1,441 Palestinian children have been killed as a result of the unrest in the Holy Land, that’s 144 children per year, and during the same decade just 124 Israeli children died. During 2009 the United States gave Israel $7 million dollars a day in military aid. Who then is responsible for the deaths of those children? Who is Herod today?

The US has given more money to Israel than to any other single country ever, and has allowed it to use 26% of this money to build up its own arms manufacturing industry. Consequently Israel is now one of the biggest arms suppliers to developing countries.[1] So our tax dollars are being used to support war. If there were no war then arms suppliers would go out of business. Empire gets a lot of income from selling arms and has no incentive to work for lasting peace.

We are implicated in this. It’s our money. It’s our government.

We are citizens of the biggest and most powerful Empire the world has ever known. Like it or not we are intricately caught up in a system which causes pain and oppression. Most of the time we can’t see it. I am sure that some of you are wondering whether the information I just gave you about our aid to Israel is accurate. Empire does not want us to be aware of what’s going on. Empire wants to keep things the way they are because powerful interests are served.

Here’s another example. Recently Michael Pollan was invited to speak at CalPoly. He’s the author who sums up healthy eating as “Eat food, not too much, mainly plants.” But the chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Company threatened not to make a major donation to CalPoly if Pollan was allowed to speak, and so his presentation was turned into a panel discussion. Harris Ranch is the biggest beef operation in the West and is on Interstate 5 near Coalinga. You know it by its smell. The beef industry is the fastest growing sector of global agriculture. Why would such a big operation in such a growing industry feel so threatened by one speaker at a small town university?

According to the Food and Agriculture Department of the United Nations, livestock farming contributes 18% of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. Not just because of the methane cows and their manure produce, but also because of the energy the industry consumes and the clear-cutting of forests to make grazing pastures. Stopping eating meat products can reduce the amount you contribute to global warming each year as much as switching your regular car for a hybrid.[2] Our eating habits have implications that go far beyond our kitchens and our own bodies. But Harris Ranch doesn’t want you to change the way you eat because it will reduce their profits. Empire is more concerned about profits than about good health or global warming.

Empire wants things to stay the way they are. Much of the resistance to healthcare reform comes from, where else? The health insurance industry. We probably won’t see the kind of reforms we expected in the financial world either because the finance industry doesn’t want to change and they’re spending millions lobbying in Washington – even more than the health insurance companies.

This is the Empire. All of this is bigger than the individuals concerned. People are caught up in doing what they think is right, just doing their job, just looking out for the future of their company. We’re just paying our taxes and eating what any normal person eats. Empire is bigger than any of us. We get caught up in it and we can’t see out.

For the people of Israel, Pharaoh was the epitome of Empire. God delivered them from Pharaoh and the Empire of Egypt to live a new life, a life where God came first. But it didn’t last long. They weren’t able to resist the tendency toward Empire… by the reign of King Solomon the experiment was over. Everyone had to pay high taxes and many people were forced into hard labor to support the costs of Empire.

Jesus is the way out. Jesus did not compromise. He may not have made a sophisticated analysis of the development and maintenance of Empire, but he was clear. Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give unto God that which is God’s. Since it is all God’s there is nothing left for Empire.

So what are we to do? We are implicated in killing children as well as women and men. We are contributing to global warming all the time. We are trapped in a web of intricate relationships which leads us to exploit people we have never met. People who work to provide food, goods and services which we use, and we have no way of knowing what it cost them to provide for us. Were the shoes I am wearing made in a Chinese prison by a man who was in pain? Were they made in an urban factory where young people lose their health because of unsafe conditions trying to earn enough money to support heir families? I don’t know. What should I do? Stop wearing shoes?


We are called to be God’s people resisting Empire. Resisting a world which is based on profit. Resisting a world which is based on inequality. Resisting a world which is based on image instead of substance and integrity. What that looks like for each of us will be different. Some of us will choose not to watch television so that we are not sucked in by advertising and the constant need for breaking news which feeds insecurity and fear. Some of us will choose not to eat meat or only to eat grass-fed local meat. Some of us will choose to only buy fruit and vegetables that have been grown locally without pesticides. Others will decide to live with less. Some of us will choose to take part in protests, joining Women in Black or other groups such as Central Coast Clergy and Laity for Justice which draw attention to social injustice. Others may decide to withhold a portion of their taxes. Others may decide to only invest in companies which are socially responsible. There are many ways to resist Empire.

According to the writer of Matthew, Joseph took Jesus and Mary to Egypt for safety until Herod the Great had died. So Jesus’ life story parallels that of the Israelites whose formative story is the Exodus – of being brought out of Egypt, of being saved from Empire and brought into freedom.

Joseph did this because of his dreams.

I think this is the key to our resistance. By cultivating our inner life we are given the strength and inspiration to resist. As we develop our spiritual lives we are called to take action. To work on our relationship with God and not translate that into our relationships with others and our outrage and care for those who are exploited is self-indulgent. For us as a community to gather here and enjoy our worship and our fellowship together and not to use that to spur us on to greater resistance, is self-indulgent.

Empire has taken the incredible and outrageous possibility of relationship with the divine and turned it into another consumer good. It is packaged in CDs and books, in perfumes and candles, all promoted as ways to inner peace, and as ways to greater profit for the producers.

As we start a New Year and a new decade, the need to resist Empire is stronger than ever. It is as simple and as complex as living gospel values, living as though Jesus really worked and taught on this earth, living as though we really are the adopted children of God, allowing ourselves to be part of God’s transformative work of love, bringing peace and hope where there is fear and alienation. Together we can challenge each other to resist the many ways that Empire insinuates itself into our lives, dulling our awareness and lulling us into complacency.

The good news of Jesus is as radical today as it was in the time of Herod. Peace on earth and goodwill to all.