Benediction Online

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Trusting God

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17
Psalm 121

The last two Sunday’s had the theme of Transfiguration and Temptation; today we add Trust. The Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you….So Abram went.” And that is how the story begins, the great journey of humanity following the calling and promptings of God’s Spirit. Abraham trusted God with his life.

Paul picks up this theme in the second reading. Abraham was not blessed by God because he kept the law but because he believed. It was his trust in an unseen God which led to his becoming the ancestor of trillions of people, and the spiritual ancestor of even more.

Like Paul, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a leading Jewish group who interpreted the Torah in a more inclusive way than the Sadducees who were very literalist. The Pharisees spent much of their time reinterpreting the old laws in the light of contemporary experience and tradition. We might say that they were the Episcopalians of their time! The problem, from Jesus’ perspective, was that they had a tendency to be so busy defining what good Jews should do, that they lost sight of what it was all really about. They lost sight of God in the busy-ness of defining godliness. Just like we can lose sight of God in the busy-ness of being an active faith community.

Naturally they were appalled by Jesus who seemed to pay no attention to the niceties of the law. Nicodemus came to him by night because he didn’t want his colleagues to know. He couldn’t afford to be associated with the scofflaw Jesus, but he wanted answers. And Jesus said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." The original Greek also means “being born again”.

So the most important thing this busy, law-abiding religious leader needed to hear was that no-one can see the reign of God without being born again from above. How we are to understand this statement depends on how we understand the reign of God. I have come to think of the reign of God as the unseen realm which permeates the universe and the seen world but is quite different from the way we usually see and think.

In the reign of God we trust that all things are being worked out for good and for the redemption not just of humanity but of the whole universe. In the reign of God we play our part in bringing about that redemption by working with the Holy Spirit to bring the qualities of the reign of God into our hearts and lives.

This is the work of a lifetime. It means letting go of the human inclinations to criticize, to judge, to hold grudges and nurse anger; it means instead nurturing forgiveness, humility and gentleness – working to become more Christ-like in our thoughts and interactions. It means serving Christ in all persons and in fact in all beings. It means living out our baptismal vows.

As Christians we live with a foot in both realms. We don’t turn our backs on any part of the world because God made it and it is good. We cooperate with God in the redemption of the planet by working in whatever circumstances we find ourselves to bring gospel values into manifestation. At the same time we know that the reality we see around us and the reality we see on television and the internet are not all there is. God’s reign is the realm which will eventually become the whole of reality. God’s reign of gentleness, love and light is the one which is eternal.

In order to experience and live in God’s reign, Jesus says we have to be born again from above. This is a gift of God, this is grace, not something we can do. But we can seek to be born again – we can ask for the gift.

I imagine that in this room there are some of us who know we are twice-born, some who aren’t sure and some who have not yet received God’s gift. For a moment I want to address those who aren’t sure.

The gift of second birth is given by God in God’s own time, but also in answer to prayer. If you have asked to be reborn, you can trust that your prayer is answered; but just as a newborn baby’s eyes do not focus at first, so too our initial perception of God’s realm is very misty and vague. It takes effort to focus your spiritual eyes and it takes effort to keep them focused.

This is the effort that we call spiritual practice. Through prayer, spiritual reading and worship, we begin to perceive the outlines of God’s reign appearing in the fog of the physical world. As we continue on the spiritual path and return to it whenever we wander off in our own ideas and confusions, so we see clearer and clearer. We never lose the need to trust but it becomes a stronger muscle with exercise.

All of you who are parents and grandparents and even those of us who are aunts, uncles and godparents, have seen the innocence and openness of a new-born, a young child who has not yet learned the ways of the world, who has not yet become cynical, manipulative or judgmental. That is what it is like to be born again – to see everything with new eyes – the innocent and trusting eyes of a child. So perhaps very few of us can truly claim to be twice-born – perhaps we are all in the birth canal.

But most of us can see the outlines of the reign of God. We can believe that astonishing statement, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God loved the world, and by this it means the whole cosmos, God loved the expanding universe so much that she gave her own life to enable it to come into communion with the divine. God loved the world that much, and still does.

Even in the devastation that is Japan today, even in the horror of military attacks on Libya, we can trust that God loves the world, every part of it. Seeing the reign of God with the eyes of the twice-born allows us to trust that there is a reason why God allows disasters to happen. It allows us to trust that in the midst of enormous, uncountable suffering, God is present. It allows us to trust that the universe is unfolding perfectly and that God is bringing about resurrection and redemption in every moment.

Abraham trusted God and packed up his family and moved into an unknown and uncertain future. Paul trusted the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” enough to go to Rome to certain martyrdom. We can trust that the reign of God permeates all the things of this world and that God’s love for us, and the people of Japan and the people of Libya, is eternal and faithful.

My prayer of reach of us is that we are reborn with eyes to see the reign of God and trust in his grace so that we may know the peace which passes understanding and share that peace with the world.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Staying in the Heart of Compassion

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11

What a terrible week for the people of Japan. The images of destruction and distress have been overwhelming at times…

Yet another natural disaster… it seems that we live in a time when tragedies occur with horrific frequency; disasters like this one or the Haiti earthquake which effect whole communities at once, and quieter personal disasters which suddenly cut individuals and families from their moorings.

We are much better off than the people of northeastern Japan. Yet we too have much to contend with. The proposed state budget is threatening to withdraw help from those who need it the most. I imagine we will be seeing far more calls for help from those who are struggling to keep a roof over their head or to pay the electricity or even to eat. It’s difficult to keep watching what’s happening in our world and in the lives of our friends without either becoming so used to disaster that we no longer remember the tremendous pain and suffering involved, or turning away because we can no longer stand the pain.

Today’s readings start with the story of Adam and Eve becoming conscious; becoming conscious of themselves as sexual beings and as separate from God – a separation which is symbolized by their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This is the ancient people’s way of explaining why there is pain and suffering in the world – because the first humans made a big mistake - they gave in to the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit - and so were separated from the source of all goodness – the Creator God. As a result the whole of creation became warped and out of sync.

The second reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans which is probably the most complete statement of his theology. He argues that sin came into the world through one man’s disobedience and that the remedy came through one man, Jesus’s obedience.

We are reconciled with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However this does not mean that we are magically free from suffering, whether as a result of natural disaster, our own mortality, or human agency. There is a strand of thinking in the Old Testament which suggests that if we love and obey God we will prosper. Many modern day Americans have appropriated this to mean that if we love and obey God we will have disaster-free and prosperous lives. I think the apostle Paul would be shocked at the very notion of prosperity theology – he personally lived through many disasters before he was ultimately martyred.

The gospel reading shows us Jesus struggling with the very human experience of temptation. He was tempted to use his divine powers to take short cuts – to stop his hunger, to become famous through a publicity stunt, and to be very powerful.

Perhaps the temptation to take short cuts is a basic human trait. Adam and Eve apparently wanted to take a short cut to consciousness and knowledge by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We want to take short cuts to make the pain go away, whether through pretending it isn’t real or by thinking about something else.

Jesus didn’t do either of those things. Jesus saw the pain he would experience as a result of being obedient, but he went ahead anyway. We are told that as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane he sweated blood. Jesus knew the pain of the world and he carried it in himself. Yet when the soldiers came he wouldn’t take the easy way out and fight them or simply remove himself from the situation. He walked into the pain of feeling separate from God; the deep pain of humanity.

Jesus lived with his eyes open and his heart full of compassion. As his Body we too are called to live with our eyes open and our hearts full of compassion. Yet the temptation is to close our eyes, to turn away, to say “I just can’t do anything about it”. There’s even a new term to describe how numbed we can come to others’ pain; “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue is when we no longer respond to disaster with compassion and open hearts but just turn away. Compassion fatigue is when the problems seem so vast, so overwhelming that we say “I can’t do anything about it” and we change the channel and watch a sitcom instead.

Loren Eiseley told a story that goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that he was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one."

We can’t respond to every situation as fully as we would like. Yet compassion and our baptismal vows require that we do respond to the needs of the world in some concrete way. We can give money, sometimes we can give practical help, we can always pray. We can also work through the political process to bring changes which will benefit those who are most in need.

What is important is that we do not give in to the temptation to turn away. Even when we have nothing else left to give, we can still bear quiet, gentle and generous witness to another’s pain. We can still bring that pain to God in prayer, taking our place alongside the Christ who is interceding for the world.

Each time we look at pain with compassion, each time we donate money to Nets for Life, each time we write a letter to a Member of Congress, each time we pray for those in need, each time we pick up the phone to call a lonely person, we are helping one starfish back to the ocean.

So as we watch the unfolding drama of the tsunami, as we watch the struggle in Libya and the daily tragedies of our world, let us join Christ, the heart of compassion, in holding each person, each situation, gently in our hearts, bringing them before the throne of God and asking how we can help. As we come to the eucharist this morning, let us bring not only our own need but of the needs of the whole planet, especially of the people of Japan.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Heart of Compassion

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103:8-14

Welcome to our spiritual fitness program!

For the next forty days we will have the opportunity to tone our spiritual muscles, both as individuals and as a parish.

We often think about Lent as a time when we give something up, when we make some kind of sacrifice. Sacrifice in Christianity, as in Judaism, means the offering of life. Its greatest example is Jesus’ offering for us on the cross. The central way we commemorate this is in our offering of the Eucharist, a corporate offering of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.

In baptism, each of us is joined to the Body of Christ, the royal priesthood who offer the sacrifice, the life-offering of the Savior. We make this offering through Jesus for the world, in all its reality: for the homeless, refugees, those starving to death, those terrified by war and civil war, and even the rich living hopeless lives of denial and indulgence. In short, in the Eucharist, we get involved with the reality of life as it is.

Lent is not just a time for self-reflection and deeper spiritual discipline, traditionally symbolized by fasting and abstinence; it is also a time for flexing the spiritual muscle of compassion. Compassion is at the core of the spiritual life. As we grow in compassion we let go of the self-absorption that paralyses us. As we turn our eyes away from ourselves in compassionate service to others so we live the Eucharistic life of Christ.

That is why the Episcopal Church keeps Lent as a special time of focus on the needs of the world. Our daily reflections are provided by the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund which provides a practical way that we can help those in need, by supporting the ministry of Anglican churches and others who work to bring practical assistance in the name of Christ. Our Thursday evening soup supper discussions will focus on the larger picture of the planet and ecological awareness.

Compassion breaks us open as we begin to see the world through God’s eyes. And so it leads us to long for a deeper simplicity which will generate a broader generosity. This is not just an exercise for Lent but a call to a renewal of life; life lived as the compassionate children of God, life lived in the Eucharistic practice of offering our lives in the service of the world.

The gospel today reminds us that the smudge of ashes on our foreheads may either be a boast, or it may be a sign to us and to others that this Lent will be about more than giving up chocolate; it will be a time when God’s redeeming work transforms each one of us and our church community.

So may it be.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Why Not Become Entirely Fire?

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Today we come to the last Sunday of a long season of Epiphany and we end it as we began – with three men worshiping God revealed in Jesus. We started with three magi who had traveled long distances to find a baby born in an obscure place, and we end it with three fishermen worshiping their friend and master on a holy mountain.

Jesus is transfigured – he has become so one with God that this manifests itself physically and his whole body radiates light. The light who has come into the world is shining so strongly that it can be seen not just with the eyes of faith but with the physical eyes. And with him are Moses and Elijah – the representatives of the law and the prophets – which Jesus has come to fulfill. In this brief mountaintop experience, Jesus is revealed as the Christ, the one who has been expected, the human embodiment of God.

Transfiguration is also the fulfillment of our calling as the Body of Christ and as individual Christ-filled beings. We are called to embody God. Rainer Maria Rilke has a poem in his collection Love Poems to God in which he imagines the new human soul receiving its final instructions before incarnating: God says,

You, sent out beyond your recall, Go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.

This is not a partial experience of God but a complete make-over, in which we become so filled with the Holy Spirit that God’s light shines clearly through us. My favorite story form the Desert Fathers and Mothers is when the young brother goes to his elder and says, “Brother, I have sat in my cell and said my prayers and done everything I was told to do. What else is there?” And the older brother holds up his hands, and as he does so, flames spring from the top of every finger, and he says, “Why not become entirely fire?”

Why not become entirely fire?

What is stopping us from becoming so full of God that we become entirely fire, that we are transformed and even transfigured?

Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God. It didn’t happen immediately – he waited for six days. I imagine during that time he was praying and meditation, not tapping his foot and feeling impatient that God wasn’t showing up on time. He and Joshua watched, waited and prayed and then God called to him out of the cloud and he was there forty days and forty nights. When he came back down the mountain he was a changed man. We are told that after meeting with God, Moses’ face would glow so brightly that he had to wear a veil.

We are about to enter the forty days of Lent, our annual time of intentional waiting upon God. Will we come out of it transformed? Will we embody God in a new way? Will God’s light shine through us, the people of St Benedict’s, so that we become entirely fire?

That depends on God’s grace, and our willingness. Are we willing to fully embody God? Are we willing to truly live out our baptismal promise, to entrust ourselves entirely to the living God and become entirely fire?

It also takes work. Not that by our work we can earn the riches of God’s blessing, but because we are not created to be passive but to be active creative agents in God’s work. We are called to be co-creators with God. As we work for the coming of God’s kingdom, as we co-operate with Spirit, so we are transformed by God’s power working in us.

Prayer is the most important part of our work because it is in prayer that we are changed and it is through the power of our prayer that God is empowered to act. In the delicate dance between our freedom and God’s freedom, it is prayer which creates and deepens the space through which the Spirit works in our world. We can never force God to do anything, there is nothing automatic about prayer, but when we pray we invite God to enter and act in our lives. God never forces Godself upon us.

Joan Chittister writes:

Prayer…becomes a furnace in which every act of our lives is submitted to the heat and purifying process of the smelter’s fire so that our minds and our hearts, our ideas and our lives, come to be in sync, so that we are what we say we are, so that the prayers that pass our lips change our lives, so that God’s presence becomes palpable to us. Prayer brings us to burn off the dross of what clings to our souls like mildew and sets us free for deeper, richer, truer lives in which we become what we seek.[1]

That is the kind of prayer which will transform us into the Christ-like beings that we were created to be; prayer which becomes a furnace that burns away all that is not holy, all that gets in the way of us truly embodying God.

When Jesus was transfigured it was not just his face that shone with the Light, but his whole body. There is no split between our souls and our bodies – when we embody God we do so with our full humanity, body and soul. The way we care for our physical bodies, however strong, however weak they may be, when dedicated to God is also a form of prayer.

For many of us that is where we will first feel the effects of the smelter’s fire as we are challenged to let go of the habits of a lifetime, challenged to become as healthy as we can be. What that looks like will vary for each one of us. It’s not about worshipping the body beautiful but about loving God’s creation and doing the work we need to do to be able to fully embody the divine.

Forty days is enough time to change the neuro-pathways that keep us stuck in old habits. Forty days is enough time to learn new behavior. Forty days of intentional prayer and focus will draw us closer to God. Who knows, we may even be transformed, perhaps transfigured.

Why not become entirely fire?

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, p. 131