Benediction Online

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31
John 14:15-21

In 2006 British biologist Richard Dawkins published a best-seller called “The God Delusion” in which he argues that there is no scientific evidence for a personal God who is interested in us. He acknowledged that religion does seem to “fill a gap” by giving comfort and consolation to those who need it, though in his view atheism can do a much better job!

Liberal theologians have long argued that the existence of religion in every culture suggests that humans have a need to worship – and that their need for a god implies that there is a God. In other words, the same gap that Dawkins identifies as a need for comfort and consolation, they see as a need for divine presence. Paul seems to be taking this approach in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. He is in Greece, in the city of Athens, in the Areopagus which in ancient times was a council of the elders of the city, but by Paul’s time was a forum for discussion of religion and morals. It was the place for new religious and philosophical teachings to be discussed and evaluated.

So Paul, having taught in the synagogue and the marketplace, was invited to speak in the Areopagus, and there he starts by telling the Greek leaders that they are clearly very religious because they have so many objects of worship – even an altar to an unknown God. And he uses that to tell them about the God who has made Godself known. The God who created the world and made humans so that they would seek God and perhaps even find her because she is very close, “In God we live and move and have our being”.

We live in a society where God is unknown to many people. We are here this morning either because we have found a relationship with a living God or because we hope that we might discover that relationship and in it find a deeper meaning to our lives, in that relationship find the abundant life that Jesus promised. There are hundreds and thousands of people living here in this county who long to find that relationship. Some of them, like Dawkins, don’t believe it’s possible, others aren’t sure and some are intentionally seeking. Hundreds and thousands of people looking for God.

Jesus revealed God to us. In him, the human and the divine meet and are expressed in on person, so as we study his ways and listen to his teachings and ponder them in our hearts, making them part of ourselves, so we too touch God. In the Gospel reading Jesus assures his disciples that even though he will no longer be with them they will not be alone because the Holy Spirit, the advocate, will be with them. The Holy Spirit continues to be with us today. It is the Holy Spirit who works in our hearts and minds to continue to reveal God to us. So God still speaks today.

Jesus goes on to say “because I live, you also will live.” The abundant life which people long for, the abundant life which we experience to a greater or lesser extent comes directly from Jesus’ resurrection life. Which is in no way separated from the life of the Godhead in which Paul said, “we live and move and have our being”. So we are privileged to share in Jesus’ life through our baptism and through the practice of daily abiding with and in him.

In the last few weeks some of us have been meeting on Thursday mornings to explore some of the practices which can help us to abide in God every day. It requires intention, it requires some time but each one of us can find a way to experience Jesus’ life flowing more and more abundantly even as we deal with the tensions and sufferings of our lives. We tend to think that when things are going well we are abiding in God but that when things are out of sync or our bodies become uncomfortable, that God has removed herself, or that we aren’t doing something right.

That is very far from true. The challenge of the spiritual warrior is to use those times of discomfort as opportunities to become more Christ-like. In his times of suffering, Jesus was able to be peaceful and serene. In our times of suffering we tend to become anxious or angry or depressed. By softening around our negative feelings and cultivating an attitude of clear sighted compassion towards ourselves and others, we begin to become more Christ-like and more in touch with the Holy Spirit and the resurrection life that flows in us.

Still talking about the Holy Spirit’s presence after his ascension, Jesus told the disciples, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."

So loving God is not just a warm feeling in our hearts, though sometimes we get that and it’s wonderful. Loving God is keeping Jesus’ commandments – which are essentially to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In some ways it’s easier to love God than to love either ourselves or our neighbors, because God is not always in our face, being annoying! But this is not an either or situation but a both /and.

Our spiritual journeys are not just about abiding in God. That abiding is played out in the relationships we have everyday with our family, our parents, our children and other people’s children, our friends, people in the community, our pets, those who grow our food, those who supply our oil, those we love and those we hate, those whose politics we support, and those who disagree with us. If we say we love God but have hate-filled or even somewhat judgmental relationships with those around us, we are missing the point.

If you want God to reveal Godself to you then your spiritual practice will include service to other people, the practice of manifesting God’s love in the world. If you are obsessing about yourself, and focused on your own needs then there is little room in you for God to enter. Some of us are unable to serve in physical ways and we have the example of those in contemplative monastic orders who help us to realize that service can happen without much physical activity. Praying for the people we see on the news is service, calling a friend who is having a difficult time is service, writing a letter to a politician about an issue of justice is service. What is important is the attitude of mind. An attitude which puts God at the center not ourselves.

There are hundreds and thousands of people who are searching for the God who seems to be unknown. We have the tremendous privilege of being given glimpses of that God and we have a path to manifest God’s life in ours. As the Body of Christ we are also, amazingly enough, called to show Christ’s resurrection life to the world. We are called to be God with flesh on. It is astonishing to me that God calls the Church, with all our problems and inadequacies, to be the place where he is known in his incarnation. It is our job, our job, to make the unknown God known, to show God’s love and God’s compassion to ourselves and to our families and to all those with whom we are connected which is basically everyone and everything on the planet and beyond.

It is a huge but exciting calling. Our mission is to help the world know that God is not a delusion, God is a very present reality, not just an invention to provide consolation and comfort. As we seek healing for ourselves today let us also seek healing for all those whose relationship with God seems to be broken.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

I’ve been wracking my brains for a contemporary image for the shepherd and his flock, and I can’t find one. I thought coach and sports team but the coaches I’ve seen on TV seem more aggressive and in-your-face than the archetypal shepherd. Perhaps teacher with class of kindergarten children might be a better image. Sheep are wayward creatures, just like small children can be – liable to run off in different directions at any moment. Kindergartners are as dependent upon their teacher to provide a safe environment as sheep are on their shepherd. Little kids also learn their teachers’ voices and habits very quickly, used as they are to watching adults.

But, perhaps fortunately, kindergarten teachers don’t spend 24 hours a day with their charges in the way that Mediterranean shepherds did. And I think that most of us would rather think of ourselves as Jesus’ sheep than his kindergarteners!!

I am quite sure that when Jesus used this imagery he had the 23rd psalm in his mind. The good shepherd was already an archetypal image for his followers – a mixture of the reality of local agriculture and the words of the psalmist. So implicit in his description are the familiar and beloved words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he leads me beside green pastures…” There is also an important passage in the prophet Ezekiel concerning the good shepherd. Ezekiel was writing at the time when the people of Israel were being exiled from their homeland – many taken to Babylon but others scattered across the world. Ezekiel likens them to sheep being scattered and lost on the hillsides and then God says, “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.” (Ezek. 34:1-16)

So Jesus is also claiming the well-known prophecy. The Jews of his time were still expecting God to make good on his promise expressed through Ezekiel, so here Jesus is not only calling on well-known imagery but also claiming that he is the fulfillment of an important prophecy.

The image of the good shepherd is also very familiar to us. It is a story that can be shared meaningfully with children and which has inspired many a stained glass window. There’s even a San Luis Obispo dog training business called “the Good Shepherd”!

In ancient times a sheepfold was an enclosure made of stones or brambles or some combination of the two. After a day grazing on the hillsides, the shepherd would call each sheep by name into the fold and then lie down across the entrance, using his body as a gate. So Jesus is also using this imagery to talk about laying down his life, dying for the sake of his sheep, of those of us who have responded to the call to follow him and for those who have not yet come into the flock.

As we read it from our twenty-first century American perspective, his focus is on the sheep as individuals. Because he calls them by name we think of this as the ultimate picture of Jesus as our friend and protector. And it is a wonderful image of that. It is amazing to realize that in the billions of people who have lived, are alive today and will be born tomorrow and the next day, we are individually known and beloved by God. You are special. You are special not just to yourself and your friends and relatives, you are special to God. No-one else will ever be like you and no-one else will ever have the unique relationship you have with God. At the same time, you are no more special than anyone else because we are all members of Jesus flock and there is no hierarchy of specialness within the flock.

His listeners, who lived in a society where family and tribe were considered more important than individuals, would have imagined the Good Shepherd relating primarily to the flock but also knowing and caring for individuals. As Episcopalians one of our special gifts is our particular understanding of being part of the flock, not just individualists. Yes we may wander off and Jesus may have to come and find us from time to time, but we know that we do not and cannot come to God alone.

Anthony the Great, one of the earliest and most influential teachers among the Desert Fathers taught, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.” Let me repeat that: “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.”

We come to God as people-in-community. We do not come to Jesus in isolation because we are social people, we are embedded in relationship. Take us out of relationship, put us in solitary confinement and we gradually wither and die. We are flock animals, whether we like it or not. So when we approach God we come together and we come together not just with those who we can see around us, but with people who are not physically present. Those we are connected with through ties of love or hatred, family and friendship, and of community of all sorts.

When we come to God we come as people embedded in a flock. I think that is what Anthony the Great meant. I don’t imagine that when he said, “If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ,” he was suggesting the desert fathers went door to door attempting to convert their neighbors – I think he was talking about how we can help or hinder each other’s relationships with the flock and with the Shepherd, whether we do that knowingly or unknowingly.

When we hold things against one another we are hindering each other from coming to God. When we hold judgments against another person because of their size or their small intellect or their lack of common sense or whatever it is we think that they lack, or because of something they said or didn’t say, or did or didn’t do – we are getting in the way of our own relationship with God. When we look around the communion circle and think, “I do wish Pauline wouldn’t wear that dress, it really doesn’t suit her” we may not be causing Pauline to stumble but we are preventing ourselves from coming to God with a humble and thankful heart.

Yet even subtle criticism can communicate. We are sensitive to each other. And none of us is any better or any worse than any other one. When we imagine that somehow we are more special, more evolved, more intelligent, more creative, more gifted, and that somehow that makes us stand out, we are completely missing the point. In fact, we are sinning.

Sheep all look pretty much alike. You can tell one sheep from another but they are much more like one another than they are individual. Jesus will go off and find the missing sheep but his relationship is with the flock for whom he lays down his body. His relationship is with the church and it is as the church that we come together to worship because together we can experience God in a much deeper and richer way than when we worship alone. Together we can hear the shepherd’s voice speaking much more clearly and more frequently than in those precious moments alone. Together we can be the Body of Christ in the world far more effectively than we can as individuals.

So I want to end by reading you once again the description of the ideal life of the very early church. This is an ideal but it is one which we may consider as an archetype of how Christians can live together and come together to God. Perhaps it is the kind of communal life that Anthony the Great was envisioning when he said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.”

So, from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2:

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.