Benediction Online

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Living the Holy Life

Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12
Psalm 15

There is a BBC radio program, Desert Island Discs, which is so popular that it’s been running since 1942. Each week a celebrity is asked to choose eight records which they would want to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island. They are also asked to identify a book and a luxury. (When I was growing up it was two books and no luxury was mentioned!) Almost invariably the celebrity would choose either the Bible or Shakespeare, and often both. If I were asked to choose eight Bible passages that I would want to have on a desert island I think this morning’s readings would be close to the top of my list.

Together they go to the heart of discipleship. They talk of what it means to live a holy life and as such they provide a place where the Christian faith meets other faith traditions. Not in the field of theology, but in compassionate living in relationship with God and all beings.

In the first reading, the eighth century prophet Micah, writing at the same time as Isaiah, sums up the ancient covenant between God and God’s people. It is written like a conversation: God reminds the people of all that he has done for them and calls them back into covenant relationship. The people respond with a note of sarcasm - what can they do which will be adequate for such a demanding God – perhaps they should bring thousands of rams, thousands of rivers of oil - perhaps God wants them to sacrifice their first born sons or even their own bodies – would that be enough? And in response comes that amazing prophetic statement, which has resonated through the millennia,

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The second reading was taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, one of his earliest letters. The Gospel we preach doesn’t make sense to the world in which we live. It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now. Paul writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified”. I wonder how we might add to that list, “Jews demand signs, Greeks desire wisdom and Americans lust after power”, or “Jews demand signs, Greeks desire wisdom and Americans yearn for security”. However we complete the sentence, Christ crucified does not seem to meet the need. Paul goes on “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…”

In the topsy-turvy world of the Gospel weakness is strength, walking humbly is power, the God-man shamed and crucified is our security. It doesn’t make sense.

If it made sense it would be easy. Living a holy life would be simple. But instead it is a quest which has called to the heart of humanity for thousands of years. The desire for holy living has sent humans to live in isolation in the desert or on the topes of poles; to live in communities or as hermits; to take to the road with vows of poverty, depending on others kindness; to seek wise teachers and spend hours in meditation, fasting and prayer; and in our own time to read books and attend workshops.

Some of us are using Joan Chittister’s commentary on the Rule of Benedict to deepen our spiritual understanding and increase our ability to live holy lives. She tells a teaching story:

“What action shall I do to attain God?” the disciple asked the elder.

“If you wish to attain God,” the elder said, “there are two things you must know. The first is that all efforts to attain God are of no avail.”

“And the second?” the disciple insisted.

“The second is that you must act as if you did not know the first,” the elder said.[1]

This is the paradox. Closeness to God is a gift not the result of our efforts. Yet we must still seek it. We are called to live a holy life but by the very nature of who we are that alludes us. Yet the very quest is in itself important. As we seek to “do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” so the God we love and serve will draw closer to us, and we will become more nearly the Christ-like beings we are called to be.

Although there is a long tradition of going away to monasteries and other places of retreat, the holy life is one which is to be lived wherever we are. Unlike some other traditions, Christianity calls us to live a holy life exactly where we are and in exactly the circumstances God has given us. This is the message of the Gospel reading. Jesus was not talking to monks or priests or holy men, Jesus was talking to the common people as he gave this amazing sermon, often called the Beatitudes.

Gandhi and Mother Teresa are famous examples of people who seem to have lived the beatitudes, but there are many more who are quietly living humble lives; people who recognize that true power comes from defenselessness not from pre-emptive strikes; people who have no need to push themselves forward because they know that they have committed themselves to God’s service and God will use them wherever God wills.

Last Saturday I was in England for the 80th birthday celebration of my spiritual father and mentor. At the end of his birthday Eucharist he invited us to say a prayer together. It is the Methodist covenant prayer based on one which John Wesley wrote. I found it quite stunning in its level of commitment and surrender. We often get the impression that if we seek God good things will happen to us and so when we have times of pain and difficulty we wonder if perhaps God is ignoring us. This prayer makes it quite clear that a life of service to God may mean suffering and may mean being apparently useless.

I will read it to you now, and I have included it in your service leaflet. You may feel ready to pray it, you may not. It is not a prayer to be taken lightly.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, Crossroads 2010, p21,22

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Come and See” John 1:29-42 *
The Rev. Donna Ross

* to see this Gospel passage, scroll down to the end of the sermon

With every sermon, there are different directions a preacher might choose to go. (The members of St. Benedict’s know this better than most congregations, because you regularly hear four preachers, each with his or her point of view.) But even with a single preacher, sermons can go in different directions – just like a congregation’s thoughts during the reading of the lessons. (What direction did your mind go when you heard this Gospel?)

And since John’s Gospel is the product of memories, the result of long years of reflection, it has an abundance of splendid themes woven together. So today my first question is: Which of John’s themes should I follow? Which direction should we go?

Thinking about Sin and Salvation: In this reading, John the Baptist says Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:34) So we might begin a sermon by asking these questions: What is sin? Why is there sin? Why is there evil in this world? How can we escape sin? Asking these questions would be fruitful, but the questions would lead us to “thinking about” Jesus – that is, theologizing – rather than meeting Jesus face to face. And it’s clear that John the writer, in this first chapter, wants us to meet Jesus.

Thinking about the Church: In this reading, Jesus meets his first disciples, and he changes Simon’s name to “Peter.” (1:42) So we might begin a sermon by asking these questions: Is John the writer saying that the Church, the organization of Jesus’ followers, is already being established at the beginning of the story? This direction, too, might be fruitful – but it would lead us to “thinking about” the Church, its structure and authority, rather than Jesus himself, the Person the Church says is at its center.

Thinking about the Spirit: In this reading, John the Baptist sees the Spirit descending upon Jesus, and he says Jesus is the One who will baptize with the Spirit. (1:32-33) So we might begin a sermon by asking these questions: What is the Spirit? How does the Spirit do its work? How does the Spirit come to us, to me? The hymns we’re singing this morning, with their emphasis on the Spirit, may help us ponder these questions about the Spirit. But I’m thinking that before we meet the Spirit, we need to meet Jesus himself.

Thinking about Jesus the person: In this reading, Jesus invites two men to spend the afternoon with him, to get to know him. So one way to begin this sermon is to decide: Let’s try to meet Jesus for ourselves – try to see him, try to get to know him. Shall we respond to Jesus’ invitation to these men as if it were inviting us – “Come and see”? I think that’s what John, the Gospel writer, wants us to do. John shows us how Jesus’ first disciples came to “see” Jesus – and I’m convinced John wants us to follow them. After all, here are Jesus’ first words in this gospel: “What are you looking for? …Come and see.” (1:38,39)

Learning to see

But seeing is more complicated than it sounds, because there are many levels of seeing – in life, of course, but especially in the original Greek of John’s Gospel.

In the Greek, there is a word for plain, simple seeing with our physical eyes.

There is another Greek word for looking with concentration, as we try to learn more about what we are seeing.

There is a third Greek word for seeing with comprehension, for perceiving the inside qualities of an object or person.

And in the Greek there is a word for seeing with insight, seeing the inner and spiritual reality of whatever – or whomever – is before us. This is seeing with spiritual insight, seeing with the heart. That means not looking at something (or someone) as an object, but finding a way to participate in it, to build a relationship with it, a way to touch its inner truth.

At which level do you want to “see” Jesus?

Do you want to see what the man was like – would you like a snapshot of the historical Jesus? (Actually, I would love this. But we have no photographs, no definitive history approved by modern scholarship – all we have is hazy memories contained in old, old scriptures.)

Do you want to see Jesus at a more detailed level – to remember what he said, to see where he walked and taught, to know what he did? (His first disciples got to see on this level, and some of them wrote down what he said and did. Those disciples have left us pictures of Jesus at the detailed level, but the problem is that Matthew saw him slightly differently from Mark, and Luke and John had their own versions of what he said and did. And I haven’t even mentioned the Gospel of Thomas, or Mary Magdalene and the other gospels! So how will we know what he really said, what he really meant?)

Do you want to see Jesus at an even deeper level – to really understand what his teaching meant, what his actions demonstrated, what he believed about life and love and God? (But we know how much his first disciples, even as they spent time with him, struggled to understand him and his message. So how do we go about it.)

Or do you want to see him with spiritual insight – not only to “see” him, but to “know” him? And here is a mystery: at its deepest point, “seeing” always becomes “knowing.” Deep seeing always moves beneath the surface, beneath the skin of an object or a person, into that place where we can make a connection, grow into relationship.


In my parish in Ohio, there is a blind woman whose name is Barbara. Barbara worked at Oberlin College, and every morning – in sun, rain or snow – Barbara walked the six blocks from her house to her office, striding along with her cane. Barbara and her husband Bob often came to our home for dinner. Bob was an English professor, extremely intelligent, a little absent-minded. The two of them would walk the streets to our house, Barbara with her cane in one hand and her other hand on Bob’s arm. I can’t tell you the number of times that Bob, ambling along in his absent-minded way, would pass by our driveway – only to be brought up short by Barbara, who knew exactly where she was.

But it wasn’t just the physical landscape that Barbara was able to negotiate. She was the same way at church – in her prayers in worship, in meetings, in Bible studies, in discussions. Although she couldn’t “see” the outsides of people, she always “saw” their insides. Perhaps because she couldn’t see your skin, she had to listen carefully to know who you were and what you thought. Perhaps because as a blind child she had to learn to be courageous, she was always willing to share her own thoughts and ideas and impressions. And because Barbara was like this, groups of people would become enlivened by the conversations she shared.

Indeed, there were times when I would be in a group along with Barbara and I would begin to think that everyone there was blind. And by that I don’t mean that I saw the people as physically blind, but I began to see them as deeply insightful, just like Barbara. She had that effect on all of us. Barbara is a person who “sees” with spiritual insight – because she has the confidence, the courage, to be open: about herself, about what she thinks and believes, about what she sees in you.

Has there been someone in your life - a friend, a loved one, a teacher – whom you came to know when suddenly or slowly you saw deeply into their inner self, came to “know” them and form a bond with them?

Whenever we move from seeing the outside appearance to the inner core, that encounter brings us to the spiritual heart of a person – and it touches our own inner heart as well.

And so Jesus says to us, “Come and see.”

In the gospel passage Jesus is saying, “Come and see me.” Come and listen to me, come and talk with me, come and spend time with me, so you can know me intimately – so you and I can form a bond, a connection that will never die.

As John’s Gospel continues, the writer will tell us that this relationship with Jesus, this intimate knowing, this living connection, becomes possible because of the divine energy in Jesus – and because his Spirit’s energy lives on in those who have met him. This is the mysterious energy that Christians, down through the ages, have struggled to describe, to put into words. This mysterious energy cannot be fully understood by thinking, even at the deepest level; it is an energy that only comes out of an encounter with a living Spirit.

Recognition energy

In “The Wisdom Jesus” Cynthia Bourgeault writes, The key ingredient I’ve been talking about is really recognition energy. It’s the capacity to ground-truth a spiritual experience in your own being. The gospels are built on it – and so was the early church – as the powerful liberation energy of the Christ event spills over and travels forward, moving from recognition to recognition.

Reading “The Wisdom Jesus,” I realized that in my friendship with Barbara there was arecognition energy that sparked between us. In a much deeper way, in my following of Jesus there has been a recognition energy that began long ago, but continues to reverberate in the depths of my inner being.

Cynthia Bourgeault also writes, In the gospels, all the people who encountered Jesus only by hearsay, by what somebody else believed about him, but what they’d been told, by what they hoped to get out of him: all those people left. They still leave today. The ones that remained – and still remain – are the ones who have met him in the moment, in the instantaneous, mutual recognition of hearts and in the ultimate energy that is always pouring forth from this encounter….

I have no other words this morning except to repeat what Jesus has already said: Come and see.


* John 1:29-39

John saw [simple seeing – in the Greek, blepo] Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Look,[look, see with perception – ide] here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know [know, understand, perceive - heidein] him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed [made known, revealed - phanerothe] to Israel." And John testified, "I saw [contemplated, observed a sign – theasthai] the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know [see with understanding - hedein] him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see [see the outward appearance - hideis] the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen [see with understanding - horan] and have testified that this is the Son of God." The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched [fix one’s gaze, look with insight - emblepein] Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look [look, see with perception – ide], here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw [observe, notice, contemplate – theasthai] them following, he said to them, "What are you looking [searching for – zetein] for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come andsee [see with understanding - heidein]." They came and saw [know, understand – heidein] where he was staying and they remained with him that day.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Remember Who You Are

Matthew 3:13-17

I was baptized when I was four weeks old. Not because I was sickly, but because it was Mothering Sunday and the vicar wanted a Mothering Sunday christening.

“Christening” comes from an Old English word, and was first used in the 13th century to mean “make Christian” or baptize. A few hundred years later it came to mean simply “to name” and so you can talk about “christening” a ship when it is first launched. Although we still sometimes call infant baptism “christening”, since the early 1970s the Church has come to view it very differently.

The 1970s were a time of great change in society and in the churches. New thinking coming from Vatican II and from the study of early Christian writings which had been discovered at the end of the 19th century led to a reassessment of sacramental theology and liturgy. Within the Episcopal Church, the 1979 Prayer Book, the one we use now, was the result. In some ways it is quite different from its predecessors.

One of the big changes was the rediscovery of the importance and centrality of baptism. Instead of a happy family event to acknowledge a new child, it was re-positioned as the rite of initiation into the Christian faith. As this morning’s gospel reading shows, baptism is important. It is important enough for Jesus to have seen it as “fulfilling all righteousness”. Even though Jesus was without sin he still entered into the rite of initiation and allowed John the Baptizer to baptize him.

In baptism we make the story of God’s people our own. The people of Israel were in slavery in a strange land, but then they were liberated and led through the waters of the Red Sea to freedom. This is the foundational faith story. We hear it again in the story of Jesus the Christ. Humanity was floundering in the bondage of sin, lost in separation from God, but God in Jesus liberated us and brought new life.

In baptism we make this narrative our own. We place ourselves into the story of God’s people as we come through the waters of baptism like the Hebrews came out of Egypt through the Red Sea and later through the Jordan into the Promised Land. Jesus died and was raised into resurrection life. As we too pass through the waters we die with Christ and are raised again as new people, as integral members of Christ’s Body. We claim for ourselves the cosmos-changing work of Christ which restores us to right relationship with God.

In baptism we show our commitment to living a new life, a life in community, a life of service, a Christ-like life and we are sealed as Christ’s own for ever.

Sealed as Christ’s own for ever. This is central to our identity. It is our baptism that proclaims us Christ’s own. When Jesus was baptized, his identity as the Son of God was revealed by the descending dove of the Holy Spirit. Our identity as the children of God is revealed by our baptism.

That is why we have the font at the entrance to the church, as a visual reminder that God’s grace manifests in baptism and that who we are is defined by our having been initiated into the Body of Christ.

This isn’t some magical ritual. Baptism is not something that happens to us and transforms us without our conscious participation - it is a sacrament in which we are active participants. Many of you, like me, were baptized as infants and can remember nothing about it. It was our parents and our godparents who took the life-giving leap of faith on our behalf, and took the responsibility to help us grow up to understand that we are sealed as Christ’s own for ever, members of the household of faith.

Too often we fail the children who we have brought for baptism and instead of growing up in the glorious knowledge of their initiation, they grow up with little understanding of the possibilities, love and fulfillment available to them in Christ.

And what of us? Of you and me? Do we understand the possibilities, love and fulfillment available to us in Christ? Do we understand what it means to be sealed as Christ’s own for ever? As a result of our baptism we can claim God’s words, “This is my daughter, my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” You are God’s beloved. You are God’s daughter, God’s son in whom She is well pleased.

We have the possibility of a loving and trusting relationship with the all-Compassionate God. God is always there. When we stumble and fall, God’s love is still freely available to us. When we are in pain, God’s love is there to help sustain us. That is the reality of our lives as the children of God. But we often forget how amazing it is. We often forget that we are baptized.

That is why from time to time we sprinkle each other with holy water. That is why the water is available in the font for you to dip your fingers in and remind yourself – in baptism we have died and been raised with Christ. We are the beloved sons and daughters of the living God. We are the Body of Christ, we have been sealed as Christ’s own for ever.

Remember who you are!