Benediction Online

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Loving God

Matthew 22:34-46

You’ve heard me say it before – our faith is not primarily about right belief, nor is it about right action, though both are important and both have their place. Our faith is primarily about right relationship, and in this morning’s gospel we have it from the lips of the master himself,

"`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

The whole of the faith tradition, the law and the prophets can be summed up in these two commandments – both commandments to love, to be in right relationship.

But often when people tell me, it’s all about being loving, I shudder. Because this isn’t about sentiment. It isn’t about warm fuzzy feelings. The kind of love that Jesus is talking about is not easy, it doesn’t necessarily feel nice and it isn’t always pleasant. It isn’t about smiling at people in the supermarket or helping an old lady cross the street. This is the kind of love that gets us into trouble. The kind of love that leaves Jesus strung out on a cross. An inconvenient love.

"`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Sometimes people want to make Christianity all about being good to other people and they forget the first commandment, to love God. So this morning let’s just try to reflect on what it might mean to love the Lord our God.

There are preachers who argue that to say our faith is primarily about a relationship with God is misguided if not downright foolish. How, they say, can we have a relationship with Ultimate Being, with spirit who blows this way and that and no-one knows where it is coming from or where it is going?

From their perspective, by over-emphasizing relationship we run two risks.

The first is that we domesticate God – we imagine her as a kind of human – someone rather like us – we get into thinking what a friend we have in Jesus and soon we’re pals with the All-Compassionate, which reduces the awesome God who hung the heavens to the status of an invisible friend. The other risk is that we imagine that each of us will experience relationship with God in the same way and if mine doesn’t look like yours then one of us must be wrong, or inferior, or better. Which can lead to someone thinking that somehow they’re doing something wrong because they don’t have that “joy joy joy joy down in their heart” all the time.

Just recently we’ve learned that Mother Theresa didn’t experience a warm loving close relationship with God for much of her ministry – she experienced the silence and apparent absence of God – all she had to go on was her faith. This is true of other saints too. So it may be that those of us who have good warm or exalted feelings of God’s presence are the absolute beginners and those of us who keep wondering if God really exists are actually much further along the spiritual path!

If you’re having warm feelings about God it’s fairly easy to think about loving God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But if you’re not, if your experience is closer to Mother Theresa’s then how do you know that you are loving God? What does it mean to love the ineffable?

Now you might say, you know that you love God when you love other people but I think it is possible to love another human and not love God. Love is a multi-faceted thing. Some love is a selfish, clinging unhealthy love, but it’s still love. I don’t think that loving which is dependent and demanding and focused on getting our needs met is the kind of love that Jesus is talking about. Nor is the superficial love which is generally friendly but doesn’t cost anything.

If we are followers of Jesus and believe that he gives us the ultimate example of how to be fully human, and we are learning to love in the way that he loved, it’s going to be costly. It’s going to require an effort. It’s going to mean letting go your own desires and reining in your reactions so that you can be truly present and open to the other person and the situation.

Which may be how we show that we love God.

So this morning let’s ponder these three questions:

How do we imagine God?

How do we know that we love God?

How do we show that we love God?

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Wedding Robe

Matthew 22:1-14

Did any of you hear Prairie Home Companion yesterday?

If you did you will know that in the News from Lake Woebegone, Pastor Liz was worrying about her sermon for today because the gospel reading was, in Garrison Keillor’s words, such a “cranky bit of Scripture”.

It certainly is. And it highlights one of the difficulties of reading Scripture on your own without the benefit of a faith community. If we take this on face value we end up with a judgmental and vindictive God who picks on people for not wearing the right clothes. Since that’s not the God we know, we need to put this in a context which can help us understand it differently.

It seems that both Matthew and Luke drew from a written source which is not longer in existence. Scholars think this because they both include parables and sayings of Jesus which are remarkably similar but do not appear in Mark or John. But in this case there’s quite a difference in the way Matthew tells the story from Luke’s version. It seems that Matthew rewrote it to make it into an allegory of salvation history – a way of telling what he sees as the central movements of God’s actions and plans for all of human history.

Since it’s an allegory and not a parable, we don’t need to bother too much about whether the details of the thing make sense the way they do with regular parables. So, for example, we don’t need to worry about how the king keeps dinner warm while he makes war against the first set of invited guests, destroys their city, and then has the banquet in that same city on pretty much the same day. That sort of thing is no problem in an allegory.

In this allegory, the first guests stand for
Israel. The first two sets of slaves who issue the invitation represent the prophets of the old covenant, which is why some of them are beaten up and killed, hardly the usual way of declining an invitation. The city that is destroyed represents Jerusalem. If you detect some similarities between this story and last week’s story about the vineyard workers who killed the messengers sent by the owner, you are on the right track.

In the second part of the allegory, the slaves who are sent into the main streets to invite just anybody are the apostles, the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, who brought the church together. And the church, Matthew knew all too well, was filled with both good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving. After all, “everyone” means everyone: good, bad, and indifferent. The second crowd is very different from the first group, just as the church was very different from the leaders of

Matthew is expressing the early Christian belief that, in spite of the words of the prophets and of John the Baptist, Israel, especially Israel’s leaders, had repeatedly ignored God’s invitation to his great messianic banquet for his son Jesus. So they are rejected, and the church is formed by the apostles. Remember, the apostles are represented in this allegory by the slaves who are sent to everybody else, to the lower classes, to women, to the gentiles, to the ones who had been ignored. And the apostles are told not to judge, but to invite.

Not to judge but to invite. I’m going to linger here for a moment because in Luke’s version this is pretty much where the story ends (Lk. 14:16-24). Jesus adds that none of those originally invited will have a taste of the banquet – why? Not because they are bad but because they refused the invitation.

The image of a heavenly banquet is an important image in the Old Testament when the Lady Wisdom invites all who wish to come to her house to eat and drink wisdom. It is also important in our liturgy. We think of our Eucharistic meal as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a foretaste of the time when we will gather with all the saints and feast together in God’s house.

Our task is like that of the apostles – to invite, not to judge. I know I often judge whether it’s the “right time” to mention God or St. Benedict’s in my conversation. Sometimes people are receptive and sometimes they are not. It is not my place to judge whether they are someone who would fit in here or someone who seems receptive to God. It is my place to invite. Having said that, there can be risks involved, as these poor servants found when they gave the invitations to the original guests and had their throats slit in thanks. So it is I think, important that we are prayerful in our interactions with friends, neighbors and strangers. Prayerful so that we can hear when it is the best time to speak and the best time to refrain from speaking.

But make no doubt about it, it is our job to invite and not to judge the person or the outcome.

Ok, so what about the poor guy who isn’t dressed properly? Pastor Liz of the Lutheran church in Lake Woebegone concludes “Well sometimes life’s a bitch.” That’s certainly true and I imagine most of us have had experiences where we feel like we stick out like a sore thumb, because we misread the situation in some way.

But that’s not where Matthew is going.

Ever since being a child I’ve wondered where all these people kept their wedding garments. I have tried to imagine the beggar getting up from the dusty roadside, saying “Wow, a wedding” and rushing to some shower and locker room where all the poor of the city keep their wedding garments.

Better minds than mine have struggled with similar questions. Scholars have spent a lot of time guessing what the reference to a “wedding robe” or a “wedding garment” meant back then. Since nobody really knows what a “wedding robe” means, the guesses have included everything from ordinary clean clothes to a robe everybody supposedly had hanging in their house if they would only take a second to pick it up, to the white garments often given to newly baptized Christians.

Some interpreters even say the problem is the man’s silence, not his clothes. Still others like to talk about an inner state or condition. Some say the wedding robe is a metaphor for a “garment of good works.”
Saint Augustine said that the wedding robe was “love that springs from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith.”

Another theory is that the wedding garment was a robe that the host gave to the guests as they arrived that the guests put on over whatever else they were wearing.

But remember, what is happening here is not supposed to be a precise example of Palestinian social customs. Concern for accurate detail has gone out the window. This is a story about the final judgment!

Perhaps what Matthew is saying is that the church is full of people at different stages of spiritual growth, and that we can’t impose our own ideas of what is true and good on anyone else. Just like God does not impose on us. We still have free will. Here at St Benedict’s we have name tags to help those of us (like me) who have sudden senior moments not to embarrass ourselves, and also to help us learn each others names quickly. But we don’t insist that everyone wear them.

You don’t have to conform. You don’t have to wear the wedding robe. God invites everyone and it is up to each one of us how far to accept the invitation. There may be people sitting here this morning who are really here because they like the company and the coffee is so good. That’s just as OK as the people who are sitting here because they hear God’s calling and are saying yes to growing more and more Christ-like despite the cost. We do not get to judge one another.

I know there are people sitting here this morning who wonder why they’re really here. Who feel a bit like the guy without the wedding robe. So perhaps the message of this parable to them is that’s ok. You are a free being just as God is Free Being and you can decide. However there are consequences to your life decision.

Just as there are consequences for all of us. Have you accepted the invitation but neglected to take on the “garment of good works” or the “love that springs from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith”? In every moment there is an opportunity to change your mind and get a clean, new, shiny wedding robe.

Let’s do that today.

With thanks to the Rev. James Liggett and Sermons that Work:

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Blind Spots

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80: 7-14

Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

It’s a fascinating fact that all of us have a blind spot in our eyes; a place where the optic nerve passes through the retina so there are no cells which can perceive light. Our brains fill in the blank for us with information from around the blind spot and information from the other eye so we are totally unaware of it.

The religious people of Jesus’ time seem to have had some significant blind spots in their thinking. And Jesus brings this up again and again. He challenges their sense of entitlement. Apparently they had become so caught up in the politics, intrigue and theological correctness of their religious practice that they had lost sight of the central fact – that it was all about God and not about them.

The vineyard workers in the parable probably did a great job; introduced new varietals, scoped out new markets, designed new labels, put in a tasting room with a great view and really got that winery on the map. But they started to think that it was their vineyard. They felt that they had done all the work, they had made all the changes and got a great profit rolling in, so they should keep it all. They thought it was all about them.

When this happens in a faith community, it leads to ego battles and territorial behavior – the altar guild gets upset because the priest doesn’t fold the corporal properly; the tellers complain that the ushers are not filling in their paperwork just right; the ladies of the kitchen practically bar the door in case someone leaves crumbs on the counter. Before you know it there are negative emails flying around and general unpleasantness and talking behind people’s backs. We’ve all been there. These things happen when we forget that it’s about God and start thinking that it’s about our comfort; when we forget that the purpose of a faith community is to love, worship and serve God.

The other stumbling block in a faith community is that we get caught up in what’s right. Someone has a deep experience of one aspect of God or the gospel and becomes a champion for that particular theme. Someone else feels that the language of the Creed is so outdated we should never use it. Another one objects to the words of the Confession. Soon we have battles of the holy. We get caught up in matters of holiness or matters of doctrine, and we forget that these are all human issues. As the Buddhists might say, they are not the moon, just the finger pointing to the moon.

Theology and doctrine have their place, just as order in the church community has its place, but they are not what is ultimately important. Ultimately what is important is loving, worshipping and serving God.

The fruits we are called to grow are justice and compassion. Justice and compassion grow when we are focused on living in co-creation with God, in alignment with divine will. Working for justice and compassion take us out of our own comfort zones. We get to work at three different levels:

First we work on ourselves to cultivate within us forgiveness and compassion. Some of us are currently using the teaching of the Buddhist writer, Pema Chodron to help with this. Then we serve others with compassion through the way we live our lives and specific activities like the Abundance Shop, People’s Kitchen, and the Hunger Walk. And thirdly we use the community and political processes available to us to work for a more just and compassionate world through actively supporting organizations like Central Coast Clergy and Laity for Justice and Bread for the World, and by taking the initiative to write letters and got to meetings about issues that concern us.

We humans have been given the awesome task of being stewards of this world. We haven’t done the best job of it. We’re like vineyard workers who didn’t know how to run a vineyard, and let the grapes grow wild and sour. But it is up to us to do all that we can do now so that our children and grandchildren will have as good a life as possible.

Looking at the beauty here it is difficult to imagine that the planet is facing environmental catastrophe. But it is. Justice and compassion demand that we take immediate action to radically reduce the carbon fuels that we use every day, and to do everything we can to persuade our leaders, locally and nationally, to start taking the strong action that is necessary. Environmental action is not a nice add-on after you’ve done everything else you want to do, it is the immediate imperative.

To be busy making our own vineyard beautiful and productive without ever looking over the wall to see that because of climate change, our neighbors are dying of starvation in Africa and dying of flooding in Asia, is to think that it’s all about us and to forget that it is all about God.

In the middle of talking about vineyards, Jesus suddenly says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. I have been pondering this quotation over the last few days. The builders rejected a stone because they did not see the beauty in it, nor its usefulness. But God did. God made it the cornerstone – the block on which all else rested. We can assume that Jesus is speaking of himself here.

But it is typical of the reign of God, that it is based on something which humans reject. It’s easy to see that the Pharisees rejected Jesus and his teaching, not realizing that he was the cornerstone of the new heavens and the new earth. But who do we reject?

I can qickly see the error of other people’s ways. In December 2008 the Pope made clear that he rejects transgender people when he said that saving rainforests was certainly important but so was saving humanity from the blurring of the genders. I know that people who blur gender lines are a vital and celebrated part of God’s reign. Similarly gay and lesbian people have an important place in God’s reign, yet there are still too many churches, certainly the majority in this town, where gay people have to change to be accepted.

I can easily see these things. But I too have a blind spot. Who are the people that I don’t see? Who are the people that we don’t see? California has 172,000 people literally out of sight in prisons, 268,000 suffering from schizophrenia and 480,000 people living quietly with Alzheimer’s… What if the reign of God is not being built on the churches with their busy programs and services but on prisoners, schizophrenics and the victims of Alzheimers?

I wonder whether the cornerstone of the reign of God is actually our ability to accept those whom we reject? I wonder whether every time we make the inner transformation to see, forgive, embrace and celebrate someone whom we previously couldn’t see, whom we rejected or hated, we are building the reign of God, on the cornerstone of forgiveness, justice and compassion.

I wonder…