Benediction Online

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bread = Jesus

Ephesians 3:14-21

A while back, I visited a Unity church in the Bay Area. It was a clear, warm morning and so I wasn’t surprised when the worship leader started by saying what a beautiful morning it was. “On a morning like this”, she said, ‘I wake up with my heart full of joy and I just want to say Thank you, Thank you… to my self.”

I was astonished. Thank you to myself! I was praising God not my self. Later I talked to the friend whose church it was, and she said, “Well there’s really no difference.” I beg to differ.

Certainly the Holy Spirit dwells within those of us who have enrolled in the kingdom of God, as the reading from Ephesians says, we are strengthened in our inner beings with power through his Spirit, and Christ dwells in our hearts through faith. But that’s very different from saying that I, myself, am God. Yet we live in a culture which emphasizes the importance of self-esteem, of personal achievement, of individual choice.

We have been reading the Gospel of Mark. But today there is a change. We’re in John, beginning to read John Chapter 6. The next five weeks will be devoted to this chapter which talks about Jesus as the bread of life. John starts his account of Jesus’ teaching by telling us about the great miracle of the feeding of a large crowd – other gospellers tell us it was five thousand plus women and children.

Here we see in physical form the teaching we are about to hear – Jesus feeds the people. Jesus gives bread which, when broken, multiplies so that when everyone is full there is more left over than there was to begin with.

What is it with Jesus and bread?

At the beginning of the Exodus, the original Passover, the people took unleavened bread because there wasn’t time to make bread with yeast, and ever since, unleavened bread has been a symbol of the Passover. In the desert, when they were hungry, the Hebrews received manna –  a bread from a heaven – to sustain them. Jesus broke bread and fed more than five thousand; he blessed the bread at the Last Supper and said it was his body; he made himself known to the disciples on the road to Emmaus by breaking bread. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus told Satan “Mankind does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Bread is a symbol of that which sustains us. If Jesus had been born in Asia no doubt he would have described himself as rice, but in the Middle East, like here, bread is the staple. So Jesus is the food which sustains us. Jesus is the Word of God. We do not live by physical bread alone but by the ongoing creative presence of the Word of God, of Jesus the Christ, living in our world and bringing us life in our hearts and minds. Notice that it’s not an either/or – Jesus did feed the people, he didn’t just teach them. Mankind lives by bread and the word of God.

We symbolize that here whenever we make Eucharist together. We listen to the word of God in the scriptures and then we meet with God in the symbolic feast of bread and wine; Christ’s body and blood given for us, and in the process we are ourselves are turned into the Body of Christ.

We are what we eat. As we feast on the word of God and let it digest in our hearts, as we eat the Eucharistic bread and let it digest in our stomachs, so we are transformed and become more and more the Christ-like beings that God made us to be. Which means becoming one with God.

But this is very different from saying that I am God. When we think or act as if we are God, we have displaced God from God’s rightful place. We have made an idol of ourselves.

Our physical bodies are dependent upon food and water. Starve us and before long we weaken and die. On a spiritual level we are as dependent upon God for our lives as on a physical level we are dependent upon food. When we turn our backs on God again and again we wither as surely as if we turn away from food. It may not seem that way at first – often people who fast remark on higher physical energy levels – but as we refuse to listen to the Spirit; as we refuse to feed ourselves through word and sacrament so we weaken and our spirits become mean, grasping, and turned inward.

I am not suggesting that the only way people are fed by Spirit is to come to church. But there is a special gift that only comes when the people of God gather together intentionally. I can eat on my own at home and get all the nutrients I need. But when I gather with others for dinner or another special meal, there is a joy and a connection that nourishes me in a different way. So it is when I pray and study on my own – it is good, but it is even better when I get to share the journey and experience with others.

The spiritual journey is both solitary and communal. We commune with God in the privacy of our own hearts, but there are times when God can only fully manifest divine purpose when we gather together to pray, to worship and to serve. There is tremendous power in our joining together to praise God.

There is tremendous power when we come together with hearts full of joy and we say “Thank you God”.

Let’s all say that together…

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Generous Hospitality

Ephesians 2:11-22

It seems to be part of human nature to build walls. Walls between people. Walls to keep people in, walls to keep people out. At the time that the Letter to the Ephesians was written, probably at the end of the first century, one of the big divisions, at least from the Jewish perspective, was between Jew and non-Jew. But this division disappeared within the new Christian church –  we heard, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

It had become clear to the early church that the grace of Jesus’ death and resurrection was available not only to the Jews, the traditional people of God, but also to Gentiles. In a similar way, earlier this month the Episcopal Church made it very clear that, as far as we are concerned, God’s grace is fully available to gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender and queer people. Since General Convention, there have been some cynical newspaper reports suggesting that in its death throes the Episcopal Church is making a last ditch effort to bring in the crowds, and in the process selling its soul to the wider culture, and by extension, the very Devil himself.

I am sure that there were people in the early church who came up with similar arguments when Peter and Paul began to talk about including Gentiles without expecting them to become Jews. Today it seems like a no-brainer – of course God wanted us in the Church – why wouldn’t she? But then it was a highly contentious issue. I imagine that some people left the Church because of it. Just like some people will probably leave the Episcopal Church because it is choosing to extend a gracious arm of hospitality to those who so often feel excluded and unwelcome.

The Gospel reading shows Jesus at his most gracious and welcoming. The disciples had come back from their first mission trip and were tired. Jesus wanted to meet with them and hear their stories. But their attempts to get away together were thwarted not once but twice. The first time Jesus saw the need of the people, how they were like sheep without a shepherd, and so he took the time to teach them, to give them a sense of direction. Then, after they had crossed the lake, people rushed to bring him all their sick people and whoever even touched the fringe of his cloak was healed. Jesus had planned a retreat but when people came he didn’t turn them away; he ministered to them.

People who were sick or disabled in first century Palestine were often marginalized. They had no way to support themselves, often they were unclean. Yet Jesus reached out to them and drew them back into community. He broke down the walls which separated the sick from the healthy. People who are sick or disabled today often find themselves on the margins. We are all so busy and active it is difficult for those who are in pain or who are slower because of physical or mental difficulties to feel that they can participate or contribute in a meaningful way.

We often think about the political divisions of contemporary America, but those are not the only walls that divide us. We are divided by walls of fear, of ignorance, of circumstance. Many of the walls are ones that we have built ourselves because we fear being attacked or hurt in some way.

But in the Body of Christ we can all be united. Jesus did not erect walls. He did not even defend himself against the high priests and Pilate. He allowed himself to be killed and then showed the impotence of death by rising again. In the Body of Christ we can let down our defenses.

We have all been saddened and shocked by the senseless and premeditated mass shooting in Aurora this week. It is easy after something like this happens to feel that we must increase our defenses. But that is not the way that Jesus demonstrated. The kingdom of God does not come from violence, it does not come from manning the ramparts and battening down the hatches. It comes when the people of God open their hands in generosity and welcome, even though that means being vulnerable. Even though it may be costly.

Because Jesus always comes from love and as the disciples of Jesus, we too get to come from love. As the Apostle Paul said, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor 13:4-8a)

Healing comes as we risk opening our own hands in generosity and vulnerability. We have more in common with those we fear than we have differences. Healing comes as we stop battling our pain and the pain of those around us and open to it in compassion and empathy. Healing comes as we reach out to God acknowledging that we are totally dependent upon the Divine.

Who is God asking you to reach out to today? Where are the places in your life which are tight and constricted? Where are the hard places in your heart which need to be softened? Where is the Holy Spirit prompting you to open your hand in generosity and vulnerability?

It takes courage for us to ignore the promptings of our culture. It takes courage for us to cross the walls that have been built in our minds and hearts. But we know that whenever we step out in love, the Holy Spirit is already there before us.

Let us this week, today, determine to open our hearts and hands in generous and loving welcome to all whom God sends, and to work to dismantle the walls which keep us trapped and others out.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A School for the Lord's service

St Benedict's Day Observed
Philippians 2:12-16
Luke 14:27-33

Many of you know that I have a dog, Shadow. He’s quite a nice dog –half German Shepherd and quarter Border Collie – so he needs a lot of exercise and he loves to play with his ball. He is the first puppy I have ever had. It hasn’t been an easy year. He’s big and bouncy and demanding. He thinks he’s the one in charge and if he doesn’t get enough exercise he chases around our tiny little house, bouncing on and off the furniture, braking things and scaring the cats. He chewed holes in our relatively new furniture. I took him to obedience classes and he is obedient, when he knows I have treats. If I don’t, he doesn’t bother. I started taking him to agility classes but he was thrown out for bad behavior.

Now he’s about twenty months old and I am finally coming to really like him. As he is maturing, he’s turning into a nice dog. I even missed him when I was away. He has adjusted to living with us – he knows our habits and our moods. He knows what to expect, what’s going to get him treats and what’s going to make me angry. We are adjusting to him. We have learned that he sometimes communicates his needs with a body slam. Another dog might look wistfully at his leash - Shadow body slams.

Training techniques which are meant to teach who’s in charge have backfired and set us back months. Shadow responds well to praise and to being able to do things his way. Cesar Milan would be horrified.

It’s been a year of coming into relationship with each other. Along the way I have learned a lot about myself. It hasn’t been easy – I’ve threatened to take him back to Animal Services many times. I have been formed by Shadow just as I have been forming him. He is a different dog and I am a different human for this year that we have spent tussling with each other. And when we sit quietly on the sofa together at the end of the day, we really like each other.

And so it is with God.

In the process of our spiritual formation we go through times when we’re ready to call the whole thing off and stop dealing with this radically free Being who seems so demanding. But at other times we are gifted with such peace and joy and sense of connection and significance that the bad times fade from mind.

As the Holy Spirit trains and forms us, God has an advantage. Because, as we heard in the second reading, “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God can get into our minds and hearts in a way I can never get into Shadow’s. If we allow it, the Holy Spirit will work with our spirits to train us and form us so that we can become the Christ-like beings we were made to be.

Benedict created a monastic rule for exactly this purpose. He said:

… we are going to establish 
a school for the service of the Lord. 
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. 
But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity 
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, 
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, 
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).
For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, 
our hearts expand 
and we run the way of God's commandments 
with unspeakable sweetness of love.
Thus, never departing from His school, 
but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching 
until death, 
we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13)
and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.

Each one of us who has enrolled in the kingdom of God and who has chosen to become a disciple of Christ is in training.  We are in the process of spiritual formation.

Some of that happens quietly in the solitude of our own hearts and in the quietness of our personal prayer. But much of it happens in community. We are formed by our relationships, by the love we receive and by the daily irritations of living alongside others.

“Do all things,” says the Letter to the Philippians, “without murmuring or arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” Nothing is more difficult in community than someone who always gripes and complains. Someone who tends to see what’s wrong and let’s that fester in their minds so that it slips out in little ways again and again.

But community does make us want to complain. If you never find anything to complain about in your experience with St. Benedict’s, I invite you to come further in. I invite you to participate more deeply in the Body of Christ in this place. You will not be formed by the community, it will not provide you a “school for the service of the Lord” unless you make the commitment to serve and worship God in this place.

St. Benedict was very clear that his monks were not to wander from place to place looking for somewhere where the grass was greener, but to dig in, and stay even when the going got tough. That is one of the reasons marriage is such an important school for spiritual growth; we make a commitment to stay with one person. In a marriage we are forming each other as we deal with the tensions and difficulties as well as the joys and pleasures of being together.

God’s good pleasure is for each one of us to become more and more Christ-like. As the aspects of our personalities which hinder God’s work are moved gracefully away, or sometimes stripped rudely from us through tragedy or confrontation, so God is able to move in and through us in depth and in power. Imagine being so connected and so transparent that wherever you go people around you find themselves having new experiences of God, and being healed.

This will only happen as we cultivate in ourselves a spirit of humility. One of the longest chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict is the one on humility. It’s not a popular concept, but it is an important and vital one as we participate with the Holy Spirit in our spiritual formation. When Shadow thinks he knows more than me he does not learn from me. When we think we know more than those around us we may be arguing with the Holy Spirit.

Humility does not mean imagining that we are worthless. That is delusion. Humility means knowing our place in the world and in God’s love. Humility means knowing that we are 100% dependent upon God and that we may not know as much as we think, because we do not see things with the eyes of the Spirit. Humility is the willingness to learn.

If someone or something makes you annoyed, the way to deal with it is not through murmuring and arguing but to pray about it. Ask to be shown what you have to learn from it. Sometimes reality just isn’t the way we want it and so we get to develop the quality of serenity; sometimes things can be changed in a way that will be better for everyone. Discerning the difference can be a challenge!

Humility means being open to knowing your part in any conflict or difficulty. Humility means being open to feedback from others. Humility means allowing the Holy Spirit to train you. Humility means carrying your own cross – not expecting someone else to and being mad when they don’t.

Humility allows the Holy Spirit to work in you and in the community around you to transform you and make you Christ-like.

Training Shadow would be much easier if he had humility!

Let us pray:
God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
Courage to change the things we can,
And wisdom to know the difference.