Benediction Online

Sunday, September 23, 2012

God's Love Makes us Special

Take a few moments to think about someone who you think of as living a holy life; it could be famous person or someone you know personally.

Now I have two questions for you – 

What is it that makes that person’s life holy?

What would you need to change in order for your life to be holy?

We are called to live holy lives. Lives dedicated to the worship and service of God. The ever practical James talks about it like this:
 Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Holiness starts in our hearts as we learn to let go of the judgments, the anger and the criticism that get in the way of our own serenity and which hold other people in bondage to our beliefs about them.

The disciples in this morning’s gospel got into a heated discussion about which one of them was the most important. This is typical human behavior. We all want to be special. We come up with all kinds of reasons why we are special – because we’re good at what we do – because we’ve made something out of our lives – because we have special gifts or talents – because we help other people – because we have particular ideas that set us apart - or even because our problems are more complex than anyone else’s.

None of these make us special. We are all special because we are loved by God. We are all special because God loved us so much that God became human and experienced everything that it means to be human and limited.

Any other reason for specialness separates us from other people, because we are judging them and comparing them with ourselves. If I am special because I can sing well then that suggests that someone who doesn’t sing so well is less special. The need to constantly compare ourselves with other people is the basis for what James calls “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” It is difficult to be peaceful when we are comparing ourselves to others all the time, but it’s difficult to stop doing it.

Yet it is completely unnecessary. It is God’s love which makes us special. That is really the basis of the gospel. God loves us so much that once we enroll in the kingdom of God, we can know that we don’t have to be as clever or as successful as anyone else. We no longer have to prove ourselves because we are already the daughters and sons of God.
I think most of us associate holiness with an inner peace. That peacefulness that comes from knowing that we are completely loved and that we no longer have to prove anything.

We no longer have to compare ourselves with others and wonder who is the most important. Each one of us has a different part to play, and its one that changes as we grow and as we age. Each one is equally valuable.

Holiness starts with the certain knowledge that God loves each one of us passionately and unconditionally. Holiness is a response to that love – we can let go of needing to be special and instead, throw ourselves into loving God passionately and dedicating ourselves to God’s service. Holiness is a habit of the heart:

the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Power of language

“In the beginning was the Word,” says the Gospel of John, echoing the very beginning of Genesis. “In the beginning…” when God created the world, not with his hands, not by using a tribe of elves but through his word – God said Let there be light, and there was light (Gen.1:3). God’s word is powerfully creative.

And we are made in God’s image with powers of language which are also deeply creative. Almost everything we do starts with thought.  We use language to express thought.

In today’s New Testament reading, in fiery language, James warns us about the power of words. This is perhaps even more relevant today than it was then. Just this week we have seen the effects of someone using his creative abilities of language and image through film to insult Muslims across the world. This was not just idle gossip, this was carefully planned using actors and filmed last year, released just at the anniversary of 9/11. Intentional hate speech.

We see speech being used in more subtle ways to condemn and deride every day in the election campaign. Words are twisted, actions interpreted. Our world depends on language and its skillful use brings power. But does it bring human flourishing? Are our souls uplifted and sustained by this use of language? I don’t think so.

That is our challenge. As followers of Jesus we want our language to sustain and uplift, to be full of the Spirit of God. This is not something someone else can do for you, because language starts in the mind, or as the Bible would say, in the heart.

We are influenced by what we hear and see – because we are inherently creative, what we focus on increases. When we listen all day to diatribes against this person or that idea, when we read magazines which constantly lampoon or criticize, we are feeding our minds a diet of disdain and scorn. It’s not surprising when that scorn starts to come out of our own mouths.  For most of us, there’s enough bitterness and fear and criticism already on our hearts without adding to it.

In Philippians, the apostle Paul says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil 4:8) Cleaning up our language starts with cleaning up our thoughts. If we are compassionate in our minds, forgiving ourselves and forgiving each other, then we will be compassionate in our speech as well.

Language is creative. What we speak, so we create.

I’m not saying that we can say “let there be chocolate cake” and lo there is chocolate cake – language operates at a different level of creativity.  We may think or say, “let there be chocolate cake” and a few minutes or a few hours later – depending on whether we go to the store or whether we bake it from scratch, lo there is chocolate cake. The cake started with the thought about the cake. Language preceded the cake.

So our thoughts and our words create the climate within which actions happen. If you want to change the course of a river you have to change the riverbed. Our thoughts are like the river bed. If we want to become more Christ-like and know the peace of God in our lives, we have to change the riverbed of our thoughts.

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil 4:8)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Not who am I? but who do you say that I am? Jesus is not having an identity crisis. He knows who he is – but he wants to hear what the disciples are saying about him. Because it’s important in their own spiritual growth that they are beginning to understand more about who he is and what is entailed in following him.

And then he goes on to teach them. He, Jesus, must undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed and rise again. Then he turns to the crowd and says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

On the face of it, being one of his disciples doesn’t sound like a plan for peace and prosperity, does it?

This is a particularly important reading for us, especially as we celebrate our 25th anniversary as the people of God gathered as St Benedicts, Los Osos, because Luke’s version of Jesus’ teaching about carrying our crosses is the reading set for St. Benedict’s day. How can we understand taking up and carrying our crosses?

If the reason that Jesus suffered and died was because he stood against the power of the sin matrix which everyone else was caught up in, and allowing himself to be crucified, apparently giving up his power, was a nonviolent response to the anger and the hatred of the world, then for us to take up our cross must also be a nonviolent response to the anger and hatred of the world, and the anger and hatred that we carry within us.

In that light, we can see “Take up thy cross” as not heading out to darkest Africa or putting up with an unpleasant relative, or living cheerfully with physical pain and suffering… though it may mean those things. But primarily, it is standing up against anger and hatred. Which are expressed in language.

Taking up our cross means changing our own thought patterns. That may lead us to outer actions – just as “let there be chocolate cake” will lead to a series of actions before chocolate cake appears, so “let there be compassion” will also lead to action. But the primary change comes inside.

It is a lifelong process of inner healing – of replacing anxiety, anger and hurt with gentleness and love.  It is a process that may lead us into therapy, or to meditation, or to spiritual reading, or to delving into our dreams or our artwork. Sometimes it means saying “no” to our own negativity – noticing the thoughts and saying “I’m not going there”. Sometimes it means choosing not to listen to other’s negativity. It is a process that will be challenging and often painful. It is a process that the Holy Spirit will lead you into once your clear intention is to change the riverbed of your thoughts in order to follow Christ.

Even as we are praying and pondering and changing our own thoughts it is essential to engage in compassionate action. “Fake it till you make it” is an important teaching. Our actions affect our thoughts. The two go hand in hand. Service to others is a vital part of countering the sin matrix which wants us to think that when someone else is helped, there is less for us.

Each one of us is equally loved. God’s outrageous and exuberant love embraces each one of us equally. When we give, we are taking part in the act of unconditional giving which is at the heart of God.

And really that’s what all this is about. We are not taking up our crosses and working to change the thoughts and worries of our hearts and minds just because we should, just because James tells us to, just because it’s our Christian duty. No, we are doing these things because deep down we long to be one with God.  As St Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.”

We were made to be Christ-like. We were made to have our hearts set on fire by the love of God. We were made to participate in the life of the Godhead. That is when we will be completely fulfilled – when we are participating with the Trinity in the way we were created to – humanity and God together in praise, joy and creativity.

Let us take up our cross and remember who are.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Getting to God

The response of Jesus in today’s gospel reading is always a little puzzling because it seems harsh and is almost certainly a racial slur. The Jews thought of the Gentile, pagan people as dogs because they were ritually unclean. And it was not exactly a term of affection.

This story is familiar to us in the version Matthew provides – which has details Mark does not mention. Since Matthew’s was written later, it’s very probable that his additions were the result of the story being circulated by word of mouth and added to by different storytellers. But today we hear Mark’s story – the historian Eusebius tells us that Mark got his information directly from Peter – of course we don’t know how Eusebius knew that and how reliable his source was, but this may be Peter’s version.

Tyre is on the coast, about fifteen miles northwest of the boarder of Galilee. Perhaps Jesus was trying to take a vacation – certainly he was trying to be anonymous, an increasingly difficult task – and a woman not only sees him but follows him into the house. Perhaps when she asked him to heal her daughter, he himself was tired and hungry and his statement “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs” meant “give me a break – I need some spiritual sustenance before I can help you.”

Most scholars think that this is one story where Jesus’ humanness shows through. He was a Jewish man, and though he and his disciples often took the traditions lightly, he probably had some blind spots. Just like we do.

The reading from James challenges us on ours: What do we do when someone comes to church who smells bad? Or someone whose clothes are dirty? Or what about the person who talks too loudly or eats too much, who has bad manners?
Or the person who volunteers but doesn’t follow through?
Or the person who comes into the shop and makes a mess? Or who says the prices are too high when we know they’re rock bottom?
It’s much easier to be inclusive when everyone behaves like we do.

James says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show partiality, you commit sin.”

Sometimes we judge people by whether we think they are deserving or not. According to James,  if we give more to the person we think is deserving, and less to the person we think is underserving, then we are sinning.

Giving doesn’t just refer to material things. How much attention we give someone is a mark of how much we honor them. Some people are more fun to talk to than others. James says not to show partiality, so that means giving as much attention to those who are tedious as to those who are fun, to those who are self-obsessed as to those who are interesting.

For James, the gospel is a verb. It’s not just hearing the good news. It’s not just having wonderful spiritual moments or thoughts - it’s getting involved. It’s getting our hands dirty by caring for others. It’s working at the Abudance Shop, providing food for the Prado Day Center, it’s supporting Bread for the World to keep reminding our politicians to feed the hungry, it’s spending less on dinner and sending the money to help those who are literally hungry across the world. It’s paying attention and honoring those who we find difficult or boring.

So back to Jesus.

The Syrophoenican woman answers back – “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” and Jesus says, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”

This woman had three things going against her:
First she was a woman, second she was a pagan. Jewish men didn’t normally speak to women or Gentiles because they were unclean. And third, Jesus wanted to be left alone, and basically told her to go away.

But her love for her daughter helped her to push through to a real connection with Jesus.

What are the things that get in the way of your making a real connection with God?

Habits of the heart which keep us closed down to other people, which keep us judging and scornful, which make us hold on to grudges and anger, those keep us closed down to God too.

In the moment that the Syropheonician woman approached Jesus, he was closed to her, but he didn’t stay there. He let go of his thoughts about Gentile women, and he let go of his feelings about being bugged when all he wanted was some peace and quiet, so that he could be present to her. When we hold on to habits which keep us closed to certain other people, the ones we don’t like or who irritate us or who behave in ways we don’t like, or who call when we are watching our favorite program, we are holding on to habits which also work to keep us closed to God.

It works both ways. The more we are closed to others, the more we are closed to God – the more we open to the Spirit, the more we open to others. The more we can forgive ourselves, the more we can forgive others – and the more we love, the more love there is to go round.

Fortunately, God is not a Jewsih man – God is above and beyond all our human pettiness, all our human divisions. God is open to us all the time, 24/7.  In a few mimutes we’ll make our confession together, not so much because God needs it but because we need it, so that we can know with certainty that whatever might prevent us coming to God is cleared out of the way, and we have full access to the throne of grace.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

True Religion

James 1:17-27

As most of you know, for the past month I have been working on my book. I wish I could tell you it was completely finished, but no, not quite, my deadline has been extended to the end of this week. I thank you all for your prayers and your patience as I complete this major effort which has been one of my goals for many years.
The book is really about the question that comes up in our reading from James this morning -- What is true religion? For the past 35 years the Episcopal Church has been debating whether true religion is following specific beliefs which result in a particular ethical code, or whether true religion is offering hospitality to all whom God sends us and seeing the Christ in them.
That doesn’t seem like an either/or question until we examine the particular beliefs. There are those who believe that the Bible is unequivocally opposed to homosexuality. They base this largely on seven passages, none o f which in my mind are talking about the kind of committed, loving, God-filled same-gender relationships we know today. But to them it is quite clear.
So for them, true religion is following the Bible which they think says that sexual behavior outside of heterosexual marriage is always sin. If someone is sinning in that way and stops, then they are welcome in the Church, but to ordain as priests and bishops, people who are living unrepentantly in sin is to deny the authority of the scriptures. We can certainly sympathize with that position. If someone who made their living as a thief came to the church, we would want them to change. And until they did so, we would not make them the church treasurer. Nor would we support them for ordination.
In the last thirty years we have seen a rise in fundamentalisms; an increase in groups across the world who think that they know God’s truth and hold on to it fiercely – in fact so fiercely that they contribute to violence and warfare.  My own limited understanding is that God’s truth is always more than I can manage to wrap my brain around.  As Anglicans, we say that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. Everything necessary for salvation but not everything there is that can be said.
Luther was a big Bible believer. It completely changed his life, and the life of Europe, when he and others began to realize that the Bible teaches that God’s gift to us is freely given, and not something we can deserve. We can’t work our way into God’s good graces – we are there already. This was a big change from the contemporary teaching of the Catholic Church which made everyone think that they had to keep trying to do the right thing and to be good in order to avoid spending eternity in hell. Luther said, no that’s completely wrong – Jesus has done it already, we just have to get on board with God’ s plan for salvation.
Luther did not like the epistle of James. Because it suggests that we need to do something.
True religion, James says, is not just reading scripture, but doing what it says.
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
“To care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Why orphans and widows? Because in that society orphans and widows had no way to survive without help from people who were not their family members. To be orphaned or widowed was to be outside the economic system.
The people who are outside the economic system today are the long-term unemployed, chronically disabled, the homeless, those who have recently left prison and the elderly trying to manage on insufficient income. There are people here this morning who live in the edge every day. And then there are those who live in other parts of the planet, people whose homes have been washed away in floods or who have lost everything, including their animals, in drought and famine.
So true religion, according to James, is to care for those living on the edge and to keep ourselves unstained by the world. It’s not just about social action. It’s not just about giving time and money and working to change the unjust structures of society. It’s also about How we do it. Unstained by the world.
And here we get back to the dispute over homosexuality. Is it a sinful thing which is the result of being stained by the world, or is it a gift from God? As a young woman I was sure it was sinful and the result of inadequate prayer and Bible study. Today I can say for sure that it is potentially a gift of God, though sexuality of any kind can be used for good or for ill.  That is now the majority opinion of the Episcopal Church. We have seen God blessing us through gay and lesbian leaders and members. We have seen God’s hand in their lives.
When we read scripture we see it not as a set of rules to be applied, not as certain truth claims which we must all obey but as a call to a radical change of heart. As a call to be Christ-like, as a call to be deeply compassionate. Compassionate to ourselves, compassionate to those we know and those we don’t know, compassionate to those living on the edge, compassionate to those who oppose us and those who harm us.
Jesus tells us that it is not what we put into our bodies that defiles us – in other words, it’s not about being ritually clean and keeping kosher – its the words and actions that come from us which defile us. If we can always operate from a place of deep compassion then all that comes from us will be pure and we will be unstained by the world, because the world is rather short on compassion.
Compassion always gives the other person the benefit of the doubt; Compassion is always forgiving but not sentimental; Compassion calls us to be the best we can be; compassion helps us treat others with dignity and work to overthrow unjust structures in society.
I don’t need to tell you that we have entered election season. From now until November we will be barraged with accusations and counter-accusations; statements and analysis; spin and counterspin. As you make up your mind how you will vote, not only for the candidates but also for the various propositions, I would like to suggest that you vote for a compassionate society. Whatever policies and plans seem to you to be the most compassionate, vote for those.
For that is, I think, true religion – to embody compassion.