Benediction Online

Sunday, February 28, 2016

But for the Grace of God

Public executions used to be a spectator sport. Even today we are all fascinated by a good disaster – as long as it’s happening to something else.  Disaster and scandal sell magazines and newspapers and keep news shows in business.

This human tendency to be interested in bad news was as prevalent in Jesus’ day as it is now. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is asked, “Did you hear about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?” Presumably these people were killed while they were at the temple offering sacrifice. Jesus uses this as a teaching moment. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” In other words, “do you think that somehow you are better than these people that you glory in their misfortune?” And then he relates it to accidental death – “do you think that the people killed by a falling tower were somehow more sinful then everyone else living in Jerusalem?”

I don’t think that Jesus is talking about why bad things happen to good people, but about the foolish idea that we are superior to others. “Unless you repent,” he says, “you will all perish just as they did."
When things go badly wrong we want to make sense of it. We look for someone or something to blame. “She got cancer because of her diet- if only she hadn’t eaten all that meat” or “I got cancer because of the stress caused by my last parish.” Those are both statements I have heard in the last few months. There may indeed be causes we can point to – the Galileans may have been insurgents, the tower may have been badly engineered – but our desire is to blame. When we have someone to blame we can feel better and safer. This is part of the underlying mechanism of scapegoating.

Often we blame God. We think we must be being punished. There is a strand of Biblical teaching which suggests that God disciplines us, and we equate this with being punished for having been bad. Many of us, however sophisticated, still have a big angry God in our heads who pops out when things go wrong and wags his finger at us. “Did you really think I loved you after all you’ve done?”
This is one of the reasons that people lose their faith. They think that if God loves them there will be no personal disasters. All disasters will happen to other people. Then something terrible happens – a child is killed, a job is lost amid false accusations – and the big angry God wags his finger at them. They feel that God has failed to keep his side of the bargain. Surely the deal was that if we are good nothing bad will happen, right?

When 9/11 happened there were many people who were not in the Twin Towers at the time who should have been. Were they somehow better than all those who died?

Jesus says, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Clearly we are all going to die, so what can he mean by this? If we repent will we be saved from disaster? No, it just doesn’t work that way. God’s love is just as great for those stabbed in Anaheim yesterday, for the family murdered by their father in India this morning, and for those killed by Russian and Syrian bombing today, as for those of us sitting here in these pews.

We are all the same. We are all connected. In that mysterious web of life, their disaster IS our disaster.

Luke has given us a second teaching of Jesus’ in this section of his gospel. They are in some way connected in Luke’s mind because he does not start a new section as he typically does with “at that time” or “on the Sabbath” or with a short description of where Jesus was and who was with him. Here he just continues straight on, “Then he told this parable…” So there is a relationship. What light can the parable of the fig tree throw on all this?

When the big angry God is at the forefront of our minds we will think that the owner who wants to cut down the tree is God. The God who thinks we’ve really had enough time to shape up and we’ve finally blown it. But what if this is just a teaching story about farming? What if we aren’t meant to think that anyone is God?

Perhaps the reason Jesus told this story is to show that even a farmer will give a tree another chance and will give it more fertilizer; try to help it be the best fig tree it can be. If that’s what farmers do, can’t we believe that God will do even better for us?

Instead of cutting us down because we’re not bearing enough fruit, God will give us more fertilizer. God does not punish people by having towers fall on them, or letting them experience pain. God’s love for us is so great that every time we turn towards God, every little step of repentance that we take is met by a bigger divine movement towards us.

Christ’s saving work in his life, death and resurrection is available for all who turn towards God. Yes we will all die - hopefully peacefully in our beds but maybe in accident or disaster. But those of us who are enrolled in the reign of God know that this is not the only reality. We are the ones who are living the future as if it is already here. We are the ones who know that God’s mercy is abundant and God’s love is everlasting. We may die, yet we will not perish in fear and terror but in the quiet confidence that we can rest in God’s arms.

This is one of the meanings of Christ’s death and resurrection. He showed that God is powerful even over death. Whether we perseverate over it or deny it, death is an ever present reality in our lives and in our culture. But it is not a big deal in God’s culture. Yes, Jesus died a horrible death. But he came back to life. Just like childbirth can be terribly painful yet women forget the pain in the joy of the new life; so the pain of a difficult death is forgotten and obliterated by the joy of the resurrection.

We can perish without hope or we can die knowing that God is holding us, because during our lifetimes we have sought out God. We have longed for God, and God has responded to us. Not perhaps in the way we expect. Not perhaps keeping us free from personal disaster and pain, but God has turned to us as we have turned to God.

John Bradford, a 16th century Anglican who was a renowned preacher and eventually a martyr is  reputed to have said whenever he saw people being led to execution, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.”

When we hear accounts of disaster, let us respond with compassion, and the love that God nurtures in our hearts. It is through the grace of God that we take very breath. It is through the grace of God that we live in peace and plenty. It is through the grace of God that we know that dying is not the end, and that God’s love and life conquer every expression of death.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

What do you See?

This morning is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany – the season of the revelation of Christ – this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday when we start to prepare for the bittersweet events of Holy Week and the great mystery of Easter. Since the date of Easter Sunday varies from year to year depending upon the moon, the number of Sundays in Epiphany also varies from year to year. But two of those Sundays always have the same readings; the first Sunday in Epiphany we remember Jesus’ baptism, and the last Sunday, today, when we recall the Transfiguration. They are like bookends to the season, and they both include a voice from heaven. At Jesus’ Baptism we hear, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased," and today at the Transfiguration, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

At Jesus’ baptism we see his humanity in his decision to get baptized even though he had no need to do so; in his transfiguration we see his God nature as he is briefly transfigured and the disciples see him shining with God’s glory. There’s a little foreshadowing in here of Jesus’ passion. The disciples are fighting sleep in order to see Jesus shining with light as he prays and in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus is once again praying, the disciples don’t manage to stay awake. And of course, here they see him with two men and Jesus is crucified between two men.

Transfiguration and Crucifixion – two very different events but deeply connected. Jesus is killed in an ignominious way and yet it is also his moment of greatest glory as in so doing he enables God to show the complete victory over the sin matrix which enmeshes us. We have a tendency to shy away from thinking about the cross, preferring to focus on Christ’s glorious resurrection and the new life he brings. This is a correction from previous generations who have tended to focus on sin and the necessity of Christ’s pain and suffering on our behalf. But I sometimes wonder whether we, and I speak for myself here, haven’t gone too far in the direction of joy and have lost something of the depth of the wonder that is the mystery of the cross.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this optical illusion, known as Rubin’s vase. If you look at it one way you see one thing; if you shift your perception you see another.

The transfiguration is a shift in perception. The disciples were able, in that limbic half awake, half asleep state of consciousness, to see Jesus as the Christ – the anointed one. They were able to see his light body shining brilliantly. The pain of the cross, the glory of the resurrection – you can’t have one without the other. Which one you focus on is a shift of perception. The dark part of the image or the bright part of the image? If there were no dark there would be no contrast and we could not see the light. If there were no light we could not see the dark.

Sometimes we get stuck in the darkness of the world and of our lives. We don’t see the light. It takes a shift in perception. I wonder how it would be if I saw everyone in this room or everyone in the market as the Christ? How would it be if I could see the oneness that we all share with all created life? How would I act differently if I could actually see that Christ light shining in the world?

We tend to think that everything in the wider world is going to hell in a handbasket. We see the news of war and refugee crises and hunger and disease, not to mention severe weather and water shortages. It all looks pretty bad. But this week, the Christian Science Monitor has a feature article explaining that worldwide less people are living in poverty.[1] Between 1993 and 2012 the number of people living in extreme poverty was cut in half. There has been an unprecedented reduction in poverty and an improvement in health. A shift in perception takes us from the daily diet of disaster to see that human flourishing is increasing.

Yesterday a few people gathered here at St Ben’s to make quilts to send to those who are dispossessed; refugees and the victims of natural disaster who will welcome a quilt made with love as a gift from friends across the world. We are adding to the numbers of those who are improving human flourishing.

Yet earlier this week I came across a quote from Dr. King about the parable of the good Samaritan.
“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[2]
This is a change in perception. Instead of just thinking about how we can help those in need by supplying their needs with food or quilts or contributions towards housing, we are to change the way we look at it, taking more of a bird’s eye view to see how the whole situation could be changed so that there are no more hungry people, no more cold people, no more homeless people. As King says, “we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.” That is the reign of heaven on heaven.
By a shift in perception we can see the darkness of the world as an opportunity for us to see God’s love at work, and be God’s love at work. Instead of seeing gloom and doom we can see a wonderful opportunity for God’s grace.  We are not Polyannas who always look on the bright side and ignore the darkness but the people of God who can see the darkness but are not swallowed by it. Because we see God’s light shining in the person of Christ so we are inspired to see that same light shining out of the people around us, God’s beloved.
The writer and teacher, Marianne Williamson, tells of a time when she was complaining to God about a man she didn’t like. After she had complained bitterly she heard God reply, “Huh, that’s funny, I really like him.” Every individual including you and me and the leaders of ISIS are God’s beloved, and the whole of creation is God’s beloved.
Let us ask God to let us see with his eyes, the eyes of compassion and unconditional love; and the eyes of truth.

[1] Steven Radelet, “The War against Global Poverty” Christian Science Monitor, February 8,2105

[2] "A Time to Break Silence," at Riverside Church