Benediction Online

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Stop making excuses

When you watch a series on television there’s often a brief introduction which brings you up to date with the main parts of the plot. I think we need that this morning to help us make sense of the Gospel reading. Last week we heard that Jesus took his disciples on retreat and tried to teach them about his impending death and resurrection. But they didn’t get it. We are told, “They did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” (Mk 9:32) The idea that after all this he was just going to die was so inconceivable to them that they couldn’t wrap their brains around the words he was saying.

So they started to argue about which of them was the greatest.

Jesus has just told them for the second time that even though he is the Son of Man he is not going to lead them victoriously against the Roman occupying forces, and in fact he is going to let himself be killed. He is trying to teach them about the path of non-violence, the path of the reign of God, and what is their response? They immediately revert to the path of the world – who has the greatest power. Jesus responds by telling them that the one who wants to be powerful must be a servant, and then he takes a child in his arms, and says “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

That’s where this morning’s reading comes. John blurts out “We saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he was not one of us.” We told him to stop because he was not one of us. Time for another quick flashback… earlier in this very same chapter the disciples had been very embarrassed because they could not cast out a demon. Now they’re telling someone who can do it to stop because he’s not one of them.

So the disciples responded to Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection first by getting into a power struggle and secondly by trying to exclude someone and keep God’s grace just for themselves.
Jesus responds, “Anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.” A cup of water in my name. A simple gesture but potentially a life giving one. Jesus is continuing his teaching about the path of discipleship.

You may have noticed that doing something in his name has just come up three times; the man casting out demons in his name is bookended by Jesus saying, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me,” and “anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name..” The disciples are drawn to the power being exercised by an outsider, but Jesus brings them back to the humility of a little child and a cup of water.

We want to have power. We want the showy stuff whether it’s the newest iphone or the splashiest spiritual gift. We want to matter. And Jesus gently reminds us that it’s really about living a simple, generous, open life. A child is defenseless and has to be protected by his parents, a child is open to new possibilities, a child has not yet learned to put other people down or to indulge in cynicism. That is the life to which Jesus is calling his disciples, not the life of violence and aggression, of taking care of number one and watching out that you don’t get stabbed in the back.

The next part of the reading is full of horror movie imagery. Jesus is either getting very worked up or he is using grotesque imagery to get his point across.

Stop coming up with excuses, he says. Stop saying, well my hand did it, or my ear heard, my eye noticed. Take responsibility. What could be more important than the reign of God? What could be more important than living the life that God has called us to? Whatever it is, get rid of it. When you hear gossip you don’t need to pass it on; when someone you see makes you lust it isn’t the fault of the beautiful person nor the fault of your eyes, but a cleansing of your heart that’s needed. When your hand takes one more cookie out of the cookie jar, don’t just say you couldn’t help it; get rid of the cookie jar, or failing that cut off your hand.

This life of discipleship is not about getting riled up and going to war. No, it’s about the complete opposite.

This life is about giving a cup of water to someone who’s thirsty; it’s about making sure that every being on earth has clean water to drink. Which means using less yourself, conserving what you have so that you can give generously; it means fighting pollution of every kind whether that’s trash from packaging, or the heavy metals in your last iphone; it means giving money to support those who are digging wells and creating local water sources; those who are building better sanitation facilities in order to protect water sources around the world.

This life of discipleship is about what the Pope calls “humility and sobriety” which I might translate as simplicity and discipline. It means putting God’s reign first and everything else second. It means finding the path of contemplation and spiritual development which enables you to develop an inner serenity that can withstand all the difficulties that will come your way. It means living simply; using less resources, not wasting, being able to really enjoy the moment because you’re not caught up in the past or worrying about the future, or taking care of your stuff. It means living a life poured out in service to others. And that may be doing exactly what you do already but doing it with a gracious heart of blessing.

Joann Rusch and I had many conversations about this, especially as her health declined. She longed to have quietness and time to write but she was dedicated to creating a fairer world, and worried that she should be writing letters to the editor rather than poetry, and that she should be going to activist meetings rather than enjoying the estuary and the company of friends. When you ask, God will show you what to do in order to be a blessing; the Holy Spirit will guide you into the paths of the reign of God. You will find what is yours to do, and what is yours not to do.

But it may not be splashy and big. You may not be asked to cast out demons in public. You may have to wrestle with your own demons in private. God may not send you a text or write a sentence in the sky. Because the reign of God is in a small child and a cup of water. It is in a flower and in writing letters. It is in being God’s blessing to all beings, living a life of spirituality, simplicity and service.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Turning the World Upside Down

Today’s gospel reading marks a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. Up until now he has been healing the sick and preaching the reign of God. But today, he asks his disciples who do you think that I am? And when they respond, “The Messiah” he starts to talk about his betrayal, death and resurrection. I don’t know why he asked them. Did he need an outward confirmation of what he was feeling inside? Was he beginning to dread what was coming and wondering if he could back out? Or was it away to introduce his new teaching?

I don’t know, but it was a pretty shocking and memorable moment for the disciples. We have the advantage of 2000 years of hearing about Jesus as the Messiah and knowing about his death and resurrection. They didn’t. They knew of the Messiah as someone who would come and liberate Jerusalem, who would free Israel from its oppressors. But instead of talking about victory and vanquishing his enemies, Jesus starts to talk about being killed.
He’s got it upside down.

Verse 1[1]
O Lord all the world belongs to you
And You are always making all things new
What is wrong, you forgive,
And the new life you give
Is what’s turning the world upside down.

It’s not surprising that Peter feels a need to take him to one side to talk him out of his sudden funk. No, no, no he must have said, you are the Messiah, none of that happens to the Messiah, it can’t. But Jesus pushes him away abruptly. “Get behind me Satan!” – get away from me you stumbling block – because he can’t start to think like that. He can’t allow himself to slip back into the cultural mindset of what the messiah will do.

He has to keep his center even when every human nerve in his body must have been screaming, run, run, run away. He knows that the way for the redemption of the cosmos, the way to bring us all back to God, is not to follow business as usual, but to take the path of humility and non-violence. And so he calls the crowd together and tries to teach them that the path he is taking is also the path his disciples must take. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” This is Jesus’ call to arms. It’s not a call to carry weapons, but to carry the opposite, the cross. Jesus is turning the whole thinking of the world upside down.

The world’s only loving to its friends
But your way of loving never ends,
loving enemies too;
And this loving with you
Is what’s turning the world upside down.

For the past few weeks, several of us have been reading Laudato Si, the Pope’s encyclical. This is an important document because it establishes Catholic teaching and yet it is addressed to all human beings. The Pope is clear that the current environmental crisis has come about because we have messed up our relationships with each other, with the environment and with God. In other words, because of sin. Although technological advances will be useful, they are not the answer because the crisis has been caused by our assumption that if something can be done, it should be done, especially if it makes the rich richer and the powerful more powerful. It doesn’t matter if the consequences hurt both humans and non-human animals. We have no strong moral and ethical framework from which to evaluate the potential impact of technology and to make a decision about its use.

In order for lasting change, we’re going to have to turn that thinking upside down.

The world lives divided and apart
You draw us together and we start
In our friendship to see
That in harmony we
Can be turning the world upside down.

In fact, we are going to have to work together in a new way because we have to change the way we live and the way we think quite radically. Jesus says,” those who want to save their life will lose it.” 99% of scientists now agree that climate change is being brought about in large part by human activity and that unless we make radical changes and we make them now, the planet will become a very different place and a lot of people will lose their lives. For the sake of our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren, we need to act.

The most challenging part of the Pope’s encyclical for me has been his insistence that those of us who live in developed nations have used and wasted resources which were meant to be shared so we owe a great moral and social debt to those in less developed nations. He calls this climate justice. Our part in global change needs to be far more demanding than I had thought. I had thought that we could work out how to use renewable energy for everything and stop using animals for food and that would be enough. But our entire economic system is based on using other people’s resources, just as back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the English people we see on Masterpiece Theater in their big houses were benefitting directly and indirectly from slavery. Our economic system is based on trade which benefits us. How can we even imagine an economic system which is based on sharing?

The world wants the wealth to live in state,
But you show a new way to be great:
Like a servant you came,
And if we do the same,
We’ll be turning the world upside down

I know that it seems overwhelming. The things that we can do seem very small in comparison with the global scale of the problem. Our attempts to reuse, recycle, reduce our footprint of energy use, seem to be just drops in the bucket. But they are important, and we are important. Sitting back and saying well there’s so little we can do, let’s just continue to live comfortably is not following Jesus’ example. The ignominious death of a peasant rebel in Palestine was meant to solve a small order problem in the Roman Empire. Instead it turned the world upside down. Following Jesus means letting go of our lives as we have known them and embracing voluntary simplicity; to use the old adage – living simply so others may simply live. Following Jesus means doing everything in our power to restore relationships, between ourselves and God, between ourselves and our neighbor both near and far, and between ourselves and our environment.

There is much to be done and many sacrifices to be made in order that our children may live comfortably, and that those across the world whom we don’t know but whose lives are none the less intricately interconnected with ours, may also live in peace and prosperity. Living these gospel values is totally different from the way most of the world lives. Just as Jesus took up the cross not the sword, so we get to take up simple living not the so-called prosperity gospel.

This is turning our world upside down.

O Lord all the world belongs to you
And You are always making all things new
What is wrong, you forgive,
And the new life you give
Is what’s turning the world upside down.     

[1] O Lord, all the world belongs to you, Weinberger and Appleforth

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Was Jesus Racist?

In this morning’s gospel reading we hear a conversation which has to leave us asking “was Jesus racist?” He had taken a side trip into modern day Lebanon, perhaps to get a break from the constant demands of his ministry. But even on vacation he couldn’t get completely away; a local woman came to see him asking for help for her daughter. Yet Jesus doesn’t say yes right away. He actually tries to dismiss her. Why? Not because it’s his week off, not because he’s tired or it’s the Sabbath, but because she’s not a Jew.

Is that racist or is that racist?

If the story stopped there we’d be in deep trouble. But it doesn’t. The Syro-Phoenician woman – we don’t know her name, only her nationality - argues back. "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." And Jesus gets it. Jesus is changed. He was a man of his culture who had been brought up to believe that the Jewish people were God’s people, and that’s how he saw his ministry. This is quite an extraordinary story, especially when we read it with John’s gospel in the back of our minds. John portrays Jesus as knowing everything from the beginning of his ministry. But Mark has a different view. This is a moment of transformation for Jesus. Suddenly he gets it. It’s not just about the Jews anymore. And he is changed.

Today we are pausing, together with churches around the country to reflect on our own racism. Most of us in this church are white, most of us in Los Osos are white. We are brought up as people of privilege, the dominant culture in this area. Yet we live increasingly in a multi-colored world where people have a huge variety of different heritages. And we don’t privilege all of them in the same way. Historically in this country people of African descent have been used as slaves and have held lower positions in society. Today, most of our fieldworkers and many of our cleaning and maintenance staff are Latino or Filipino. We rely on their labor for our food and our comfort. Yet we pay them very little so that we can have cheap food and cheap convenience, and we rarely think about what they and their families need to flourish.

But the second reading we heard, the one from James, challenges us to think again about our cultural tendency to treat people of different social status differently. If we treat people who have smart clothes, big cars and good educations with more care and deference than we do people who are homeless or those who are living on the edge financially then we are judging with, James says, “evil thoughts”.  I like to think that we have a broad range of people in this congregation; people of differing economic status, differing backgrounds and differing experience. It gives us an opportunity to practice what James is saying. It gives those of us who have been blessed with education and wealth the opportunity to leave our privilege behind and welcome others as equal children of God.

Yet we really don’t have much of a racial mix. I reckon we have 3% Latino, and 3% Asian. Many of that 6% are not among our regular Sunday attenders. Why not? Why don’t we reflect the ethnic makeup of our neighborhood which is 14% Latino and 5% Asian? Probably because they wouldn’t feel comfortable here or because they don’t think the church is relevant to them – the same reason we don’t have more young adults. If we are to be truly inclusive then we will need to change some of the ways we do things. Radical hospitality means more than just saying, “y’all come”. It means being willing to give voice and power to those who are often marginalized and being willing to do things differently in order to fully embrace them.

I am sure that, like me, you have been saddened by the recent events in Ferguson, in Charleston, and other places where black people have been killed, and by retaliation killings in places like New York and Houston. It has become very apparent that our society continues to view those who have a different skin color as people who can be treated with less respect, and this leads to violence and tragic loss of life. I am saddened by the remarks of the Prime Minister of Hungary who said “we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” and even more ashamed of Donald Trump’s statements that people from Mexico are bringing drugs and crime and “some of them are rapists,” and “likewise tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.”[1] 

People believe this stuff.

Racism is alive and well in America. Racism is alive and well across the planet, and Los Osos is no exception. Today we are asked to repent for our part in maintaining the myth that some of us are better than others and that skin color or religion or sexual orientation or disability or whatever difference there might be, is an excuse for us to marginalize and scapegoat certain people. Today we are asked to see things differently. Like Jesus, we are asked to realize that God’s love is freely available to ALL regardless of where they were born or what they have done or what they believe or the way they dress.

Our baptismal vows call us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” In order to live into our vows we cannot stand by and watch while our society systematically stigmatizes those who are black or those whose English is not so good.

It is our duty as citizens of this country to make our voices heard; to stand for fair voting laws which empower every citizen to participate in our civic life; to call for prison reform; to call for resources to be made available to help those who are stuck in poverty and in the cycle of deprivation to find new ways of living. Pope Francis has said, “We cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.”[2] We cannot stand idly by while racism is supported, and our politicians can make points by denigrating those whom God sees as lovely.

It is our calling to change our own hearts and the hearts of those around us by treating everyone we meet as the beloved children of God that they really are, and by going out of our way to make connections with those whom we are not naturally drawn to, or those whose skin color, ideas, or way of life are very different from our own. If we are really honest with ourselves, each one of us carries within us some degree of prejudice. It may not be obvious, but we are culturally conditioned to be drawn to those who are like us and prejudiced against those who are not.

The gospel message is that there is no-one who is not like us. There is no-one who is not beloved of God. In his meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus got it. Jesus was changed. May we also be changed to fully live out the truth of God’s unconditional love.


[2] Laudato Si , 119