Benediction Online

Sunday, May 08, 2016

We Believe

Olivier Miche,
Today we start the first of a series of sermons, one a month, which will be covering that difficult issue, the Nicene Creed. The Creed is difficult for us for a number of reasons; it was written at a specific time and place to solve specific problems, and although it remains the one creed that is accepted by the Orthodox, Catholic and most Protestant churches, it turns many of us off.  I have had people tell me they don’t come to church because they don’t believe some part of it, which is why, here at St Ben’s, we use alternative forms many Sundays. However, it remains the central statement of Christian faith which connects us not only to our spiritual ancestors but also to other Christians worshiping across the planet. So it is helpful I think, to attempt to interpret it and understand it rather than treat it as something that has no relevance for us.

Once a month between now and Advent, usually on the 3rd Sunday of the month, we’ll be exploring the concepts of the Nicene Creed in a sermon with two voices – one will be more theological, one more personal and then there will be a discussion after the service for those who want to explore some of the ideas more deeply. Today Donna+ will be the second voice you’ll hear, and the after-service discussion will begin about 10 minutes after the service ends in the small meeting room, and will be led by Joe Morris and Fr. Barry.

I want to start off by talking about the history of the creed because theology is always closely linked to time and place. God is not tied to time and place but we live in a space/time continuum and as we try to talk about the things of God, we necessarily use language and concepts which make sense to us. The language of the Nicene Creed comes from the 4th century when things were very different that they are today, so it’s helpful to have the context which gave birth to it.

By the 4th Century, Christians were regularly persecuted. During the so-called Great Persecution (303–311), the emperor ordered Christian buildings and the homes of Christians torn down and their sacred books collected and burned. Christians were arrested, tortured in horrible ways and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators. The Great Persecution ended in April 311, with an edict which granted Christians the right to practice their religion. Additional edicts in the next few years returned their property and made Christianity the favored religion. Why the change?

According to Eusebius, a contemporary historian, in 312, before the battle of Milvian Bridge over the river Tiber which is in modern-day Italy, Constantine had a vision in which he saw a cross and was told he would conquer in this sign. He commanded all his troops to put a Christian sign on their shields and indeed he won the battle, which was decisive in making him the undisputed Roman Emperor.

Consequently he elevated Christianity to be a favored religion. Emperors considered themselves responsible to the gods for the spiritual health of their subjects, and so Constantine believed he had a duty to help the Church define orthodoxy and maintain orthodoxy. However, he soon discovered that there were a number of different Christian groups with some very different teachings. Rather than being the force that would unify his empire, the new emperor soon discovered that Christianity was fractured, even then, by theological disputes, especially by conflicting understandings of the nature of Christ.[1]

Arius, a priest of the church in Alexandria, asserted that the divine Christ, the Word through whom all things have their existence, was created by God before the beginning of time. Therefore, the divinity of Christ was similar to the divinity of God, but not of the same essence. Arius was opposed by the bishop, Alexander, together with his associate and successor, Athanasius. They affirmed that the divinity of Christ, the Son, is of the same substance as the divinity of God, the Father. To hold otherwise, they said, was to open the possibility of polytheism, and to imply that knowledge of God in Christ was not final knowledge of God.[2]

To counter a widening rift within the church, Constantine convened a council in Nicaea in 325. Over 300 Bishops showed up and they were each allowed an entourage of 2 priests and three deacons so there may have been as many as 1800 people there. Most of them were from the eastern part of the church – Rome itself only sent two priests.

It took them an entire month to agree a creed reflecting the position of Alexander and Athanasius. It was signed by a majority of the bishops – the two bishops who did not agree were excommunicated and exiled.

This was the first time the church had agreed a doctrinal statement. But it didn’t completely solve the problem: the two parties continued to battle each other so 56 years later, in 381, a second council met in Constantinople. It adopted a revised and expanded form of the creed of 325, now known as the Nicene Creed. 

It was another 200 years before the Creed was added to the regular mass to prevent heresy, but in Rome they didn’t start using it regularly until the 12th century because they said, Rome had never erred in matters of faith![3]

Of course, because the Creed was written to solve a specific theological controversy it is focused on that. If you take a look at it – it’s on page 358 in the red or black prayer book – if you look at it you’ll see that the first section about God the Father is very brief while the second section on Jesus goes on for a couple of paragraphs. That’s because the hot issue was whether Jesus the Christ was co-eternal with God the Father or was created by God the Father.

This morning I’m just going to talk about the first section:
We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

So the first thing we say is that we believe in one God. Unlike most of the religions of Jesus’ time, we believe that there is only one God. Which means that we have to explain how Jesus could be God but at the same time talking to God. Jesus talked about God as his Abba, his Dad or his Father so that is how the problem is solved – there are not two Gods but just one yet that God has two, or as we shall see later, three persons.

Some people take the Father thing very seriously. They say that if that’s what Jesus said, that’s what Jesus meant and to call God the Father something else is like knowing that my name is Caro and constantly calling me Mildred. I disagree. It seems to me and to many other people that the language we use to describe God is just that – language. It is not a precise definition of God. God is beyond words but in order to communicate we need to use words.

We sometimes talk about God the Creator as a way to avoid using Father. Father has three problems – firstly it is exclusively male whereas God is neither male nor female; it reinforces the notion that God is external to us and to Creation; and finally, not all of us had good experiences with our human fathers so Father can be an unpleasant rather than an intimate term. God the Creator has some pitfalls too; we have a tendency to think of an external God who created the world and then let it go. That is of course reinforced by the ancient stories of how God created the world bit by bit and saw that each part was good.

But today we understand God more as the connective tissue and the evolutionary power of the cosmos; the force that drives life. God is within us but God is much more than us, so we can still pray to God but she’s not a white guy with a big beard sitting on a cloud checking off a list to see whether we are naughty or nice. I wonder whether God the Source might be a better term – recognizing that all things seen and unseen come from the same Source.

And it is in this sense that God is Almighty. I have to admit I struggle with this term. Of course God the Source is almighty, but if she/he is also personal and friendly then why doesn’t she use her almighty power to prevent needless suffering? We pray and sometimes things obviously get better and sometimes they don’t. Many of you will remember Brian McHugh who used to substitute All-Compassionate in any prayer that said Almighty. Sometimes I do that too. But it doesn’t seem quite right.

Some would say that God is almighty but is limited by the options we humans create by our free will. God has given us free will but within that free will there are usually a limited number of options and making one choice closes off other options. Might it not be the same for God operating within this creation?

I don’t know.

But that is the way of God with humans. We can’t tie him up in a neat package with a bow. Whenever we think we’ve got one idea settled another comes unravelled. Which is why the Nicene Creed didn’t really settle the argument and also why we continue to use it today – as a starting off point, not a definitive statement.

And now I’m going to invite Donna+ to add her thoughts to this conversation…


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Redeeming the Planet through Food

Romans 8:18-25, Mark 4:26-34

I am a third generation vegetarian. My grandparents were 19th Century food reformers completely vegetarian and a bit cranky; my mother ate meat once in her life and didn’t like it. But my father loved meat and so we were all brought up as omnivores; roast meat on Sunday which reappeared in different forms for as long as my mother could eke it out and fish on Wednesday (because that was the day the fishmonger came to our street. )

My first inkling that this might not be my own path came when I was about eight. We were walking home from church and I was chatting away as eight year olds tend to do. I declared that “All things bright and beautiful” was my favorite hymn. My mother, who was often disturbed by exuberance or enthusiasm, replied, “So why do you eat animals?”

This was an entirely new thought for me. The first time my theology and my life experience collided. There was no easy answer; part of me dismissed it as “Mom being Mom” while another part stored it away as a difficult question to be revisited.

As a young adult I discovered that meat is a very inefficient way to get protein since the animal has to eat pounds of grain and beans to produce one pound of meat and we could just eat the grain and beans ourselves. In fact, at that time, it was calculated that if people in the rich countries ate just 10% less meat and the resulting savings in grain and beans were redistributed there would be no hungry people. I hate to be hungry and I hate for anyone else to be hungry so it was an easy decision to eat less meat.

In the last decade I have come to understand that the way we raise animals for food is a huge contributor to global warming; I have realized that the way we grow most vegetables and transport them is also harmful to the health of the planet, sometimes to the health of the fieldworkers, and sometimes to our own health; and I have discovered that the way we raise and kill livestock is rarely without suffering; even more recently I learned that cheese production Is not much better than beef production in its effects on global warming.

I have also found that a vegan diet is in many ways the most healthy for our bodies. Besides which, there are many, many delicious vegan recipes these days – it’s no longer just a load of old lentils.
So as you know, as an act of stewardship of creation and of my own body, I chose to eat a predominately organic, locally-sourced vegan diet. However, I’m not very good at keeping rules so I make exceptions and I never chose to go hungry in the presence of food, whatever it is! But eating vegan has become an important part of my spiritual practice; it promotes the gospel values of non-violence because I cease to contribute to the suffering and violence caused by our systems of animal husbandry and reduces the amount that my daily life oppresses the planet and other people.

On Wednesday of this last week, the church remembered Anselm who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. Anselm was a brilliant theologian who is usually remembered for three things; the first is his definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding”. He saw clearly that the understanding of our faith cannot be divorced from the living of it. The second is his philosophical proof of the existence of God based on the idea that God is that of which nothing higher can be thought. And the third is his explanation of atonement – the mechanics of how Christ’s death on the cross serves to reconcile us with God.

England in the eleventh century was a feudal society and it was within that framework that Anselm re-interpreted the satisfaction theory of atonement that was current at the time.  In the feudal system, serfs worked on an estate for an overlord, usually a knight, who protected the estate from attack. The serfs owed the knight a debt of honor for their protection and livelihood. Anselm pictured God as the overlord of the world to whom is owed a debt of honor. But we humans cannot pay the debt because of our sinful natures. Yet God, the overlord, cannot overlook such an offence and demands satisfaction. While it is humanity who owes the debt, the only person actually capable of paying the debt is God himself. God therefore became man so that he himself could satisfy God's offended character. Christ's death accrued a superabundance of merit which then became available for distribution to those who believe.[1]
That theory has been foundational for later theologians. In the 16th century, the Protestant reformers shifted its focus to concentrate not merely on divine offense but on divine justice. In this view, God's righteousness demands punishment for human sin. God in his grace both exacts punishment and supplies the one to bear it.
The reason they made this shift was because that was the way the world worked in the 16th century. This was the time of the Tudors. Kings and queens, princes and lords demanded allegiance from their subjects and administered sharp justice for those whose loyalty came into question. Theology, faith seeking understanding, found a way to understand based on the economic and social structures of the day.

Five hundred years later, we do the same thing. As we seek to understand our faith and reinterpret it in a way that makes sense to us today, we look at it through our own perceptual screens. In thinking about theology we use insights from science, we relate it to our social and economic systems, we take that which has come to us in the tradition of the church and in the scriptures and use our reason to reframe the ancient truths. This is the three legged stool of Anglican theology – scripture, tradition and reason.

Just as my understanding of food and diet as an issue of stewardship has come a long way since I was eight, and I have brought my behavior more and more into line with my faith, so theology has developed over the centuries and our understanding of our faith continues to develop as humanity learns more and experiences new challenges.

We are facing a major challenge now. Never before has there been so much global awareness. Never before have we as humanity, together faced such a global disaster. Never before have 175 nations agreed to work together on anything; but yesterday delegates from 175 nations signed the Paris climate agreement.

These times call for new theology. A theology which not only talks about the nature of God as present within Creation and re-interprets the atonement in the light of that new understanding, but which also re-examines the place of humanity in this ever-expanding universe. And I think that the second lesson this morning from Paul’s final letter, his letter to the Romans provides the basis for this new theology. “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Our finding and claiming our inheritance as the daughters and sons of God is what creation is waiting for. This is what is going to make the difference in this global crisis. The Paris Agreement may be signed but there is a long way to go – not only has it to be ratified by the nations, not least our own, but it also has to be put into effect.

That will require us realizing that we are truly connected with one another. Scientific advances have helped us come to understand in entirely new way that the whole of creation is interlinked. The melting of the Arctic cap is causing drought in Los Osos; a new virus in one country quickly spreads to another; in experiments with tiny particles our thoughts can change the nature of reality. The little things we do and think really have an impact. Just like the mustard seed. Mustard makes thousands of seeds which can remain dormant and then spread whenever conditions are right – forcing out other vegetation.

This, Jesus tells us, is like the kindom of God. Someone scatters seeds and they mysteriously grow. Mustard seeds are scattered over a wide area by birds and animals. The effect we have by the simplest of actions is mysteriously broadcast and multiplied.

As the daughters and sons of God, what we do through our thoughts and actions has a big impact. We can have a huge impact by simply changing what we eat. You’ll be glad to know I don’t expect you to become vegan!

But just as we can bring about social justice by being informed and active citizens, so we can effect farming and husbandry by the way we spend our food dollars. Buying locally and buying vegetables and fruits that are in season reduces greenhouse gases as well as supporting the local economy.

We learned from the Sustainable Seafood talk on Monday that the Morro Bay fisheries use mainly sustainable practices so buy your fish locally – from our own Jo Oliver, direct from Mark Tognazzini at Dockside or from Wild Bay who sell at Farmers Market. Never buy farmed fish and just give up on shrimp – there is no sustainable way to harvest it - for every pound of shrimp caught, four pounds of other fish die for no purpose, and shrimp farms are an environmental disaster. Poultry contributes much less to climate change than other meats but please think about the suffering caused by chicken farming and buy cage free chickens whenever you can.

Believe me, I know it’s not easy. What do you do when your recipe calls for avocado but the only avocados at Ralphs come from Mexico and though you can get local ones at Native Café they close at 3 and its already 3:10? Do you spend the time and the gas to drive into Morro Bay to get local ones? And when money is short do you really pay an extra 50cents for organic celery?

These are questions that only you can answer in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. But I hope your take home from this Earth Day service is that what we do, think and say matters, and spread and multiply like the mustard seeds in the kindom of God. And changing our habits actually does change the world. So it’s time to roll up our sleeves and do it.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Mary Didn't Know it was Easter

Mary is in shock. Something is terribly wrong. She has been distraught since Friday and now she is finally able to go to the tomb where the remains of her beloved Jesus are… and they’re not there. And in her grief she sees Jesus but she does not recognize him.

This week we have witnessed the shock and horror of a terrorist attack in Brussels. People just going about their regular lives suddenly had everything turned upside down. Lives lost, lives broken. In too many places in the world such fearful and terrible disruption of life is a daily event. People live and survive in the midst of great suffering. Suffering which we inflict on one another.

Centuries after that first Easter morning, the world still does not recognize Jesus. It does not recognize the truth that he brought. The truth that violence is not the way forward. That only love conquers violence and ends the cycled of retaliation. That is the message of Easter. Love is greater than violence of any kind. Perhaps we do not always remember the power of love because we think of it in Hallmark terms. We think of the excitement of romantic love or the close bond of parent and child. Yet love is much more than that; it is not a mushy sentimental kind of thing but a clear-seeing intentional will-to-good. The love of steel that Jesus showed is a love that conquers all things.

But Mary didn’t know that. Mary didn’t know it was Easter.

All she knew was that her life had been turned upside down, and she could not find the body of her beloved.

This week the clergy of the deanery met with Bishop Mary. As many of you know, she lost her husband in a cycling accident almost two years ago. She shared with us that in that magical thinking that comes after great grief, she is still hoping for the day when the Easter bunny comes.

But the Easter bunny doesn’t come. Because resurrection is far more complicated than that. The Easter bunny never came for Mary Magdalene. Yes, she recognized Jesus in that life-changing awe-filled moment of overwhelming joy, “Rabbouni”, but she also saw that he had changed, that things would never be the way they had been.

Resurrection does not mean that things go back to the way they were. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Resurrection means that things change. Jesus is changed, so much so that at first Mary does not recognize him. We are changed. In the resurrections of our personal lives, in the resurrections of our social and political lives, things change. And it’s often not comfortable.

Butterflies are a symbol of resurrection. The caterpillar eats and eats and grows and grows until one day it stops, goes still and apparently dies. Inside the cocoon it auto-digests itself, until it is nothing but goo. Then, amazingly, its DNA rereads itself and transforms it into an adult butterfly. I can’t imagine what happens to the consciousness of the creature in this process. When it is just protected goo, does it know that it is goo? Does it go into a suspended state of consciousness? Or does it hover somewhere waiting until the goo resolves itself and then re-enters its body?

I have no idea. But what I do know is that we humans do something rather similar. When we are transformed, when disaster hits, when grief happens we are reduced to a state of goo. Unfortunately we don’t have a protective cocoon, we are usually expected to pick up and carry on. Resurrection comes out of the goo.

We don’t know what happened to Jesus after he was placed in the tomb and before Mary saw him that first Easter morning. Our ancestors believed that he went to hell, perhaps to bring back those who were there, or perhaps to look for his friend Judas. But to believe that, you have to first believe in a literal hell. Perhaps Jesus found himself in a state of goo. After the horror and agony of his death, was he ready to just get up and go, already completely the Christ? Or did he, human as he was, require a time of change, a time of protection in the cave of the tomb, while he transformed and adjusted to his new resurrection body?

Our God is a God of resurrection. After disaster there is always resurrection, if we choose it. But it is rarely immediate, and like Mary we often do not recognize it when it comes. In the middle of our pain and confusion, we don’t know that it’s Easter. When we are reduced to goo, we don’t realize that we are being transformed.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to look at the pain of Brussels, the plight of refugees, bombing in Syria, the millions in South Sudan at risk of starvation, and see in it resurrection. But we are an Easter people and we are called to see, not with rose-tinted glasses but with the perspective of that steely love that Jesus showed us. We must do all we can to alleviate suffering, but we can also know that out of this too, God will bring resurrection.

It doesn’t look that way. It looks as if the tomb is empty and God has deserted God’s people. It looks like a mess from which there will be no deliverance. But we are given hope. We are Mary in the garden; we can see the presence of the Christ. We are the ones who can see that love conquers; that even when human love fails and we revert to our violent ways, God’s love still triumphs.

For Jesus’ resurrection shows that even when humans do their very worst, even when they betray and lie and torture and kill, God still loves. God still keeps coming back offering a different way. We don’t recognize Easter in the middle of the goo, but it is there. God is transforming us and the whole of Creation.

And we are called to be a part of it. We are called to keep faith. To know that the resurrected and ascended Christ will one day put all things right. That is part of the movement of Creation - that all will be reconciled with God. Our task is to continue to hold that resurrection hope, to continue to look for the things that God is doing and to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in doing them. 

We are a resurrection people, and we serve an Easter God.


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

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Wedding Banquet

I’ve always been in awe of quilters. Their ability to construct beauty from small bits of fabric amazes me. Ann-Lining Smith, an amazing quilter who also happens to be an Episcopal priest and who often took our services in the interim period before Mary Elizabeth was called as rector, made us the three quilted hangings for the Long Green Season. When I visited Ann-Lining in the middle of her creative process, she was surrounded by pieces of fabric. Partly by trial and error and partly through a special way of seeing she took pieces of this seeming chaos and picked out the very best pattern for her design.

I think the gospel writers, whoever they were, were a little bit like quilters. They took the stories and the sayings of Jesus that they heard among the early Christians and put them together to make a coherent pattern. Probably none of them actually met Jesus in the flesh but, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote down what they had heard and what seemed most important to them and to the people they were writing for. Matthew and Luke both based their gospels on Mark and probably on another written source that no longer exists, and they both added stories and teachings to make the pattern that they saw in Jesus’ life.

John, however is the master quilter. He was very careful about which pictures of Jesus he used. I imagine him looking at each one very carefully, turning it this way and that and then sewing it into a very specific pattern to make his unique account of the good news of Jesus Christ, the light coming into the world. It is only John who gives us this account of the wedding at Cana. We don’t know exactly when in his life it happened but he says that his time has not yet come – presumably meaning that he wasn’t yet truly ready to let people know that he was the Christ. So we can see it as something of a prequel.

I’m a great fan of Rowan Atkinson, the comedian perhaps best known for creating ‘Mr. Bean’. If you’ve never seen him as Mr. Bean you might remember him in Blackadder, or as the vicar in Five Weddings and a Funeral who blesses in the name of “The Father, the Son and the Holy Sp..Sp…Sp..Spigot.” I have an old comedy tape – old enough that it’s on VHS – where Atkinson tells the story of the wedding at Cana. In his version, the steward did not know where the wine came from, “but the servants did know and they applauded loudly in the kitchen… and inquired of him, “Do you do children’s parties?” and the Lord said, “No.”’

Atkinson has put his finger on something that has often bothered me about this story. It seems a bit like a magic trick. Most of Jesus’ miracles involve healing or feeding or the natural world. This one is quite different, it seems rather trivial and domestic. So why did John, the master quilter choose to use it as his introduction to the signs that Jesus did?

At first glance it may seem that Jesus is either helping the host who underestimated his guests’ capacity for wine to save face; or obeying his mother; or maybe proving to his new disciples that he is the real thing. But remember that just as we would not understand Atkinson’s skit if we had never heard the story of the wedding at Cana or had never heard of Jesus, so we cannot fully understand the stories of the New Testament without knowing a something about the Old.

At the time of Jesus, the Jewish imagination was well-versed in the “messianic banquet.” This was the belief that when the Messiah came and all was set to right, Jews and Gentiles would gather for a great feast. In Isaiah 25 we read,
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
A feast of rich food for all nations,
A banquet of aged wine –
The best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfold all peoples,
The sheet that covers all nations;
He will swallow up death for ever.  (Isaiah 25 6-8a)

I doubt that this was interpreted literally but served as a metaphor for the well-being and rejoicing and abundance that would accompany the Messiah. Wine was a symbol of well-being. One of the great images of shalom or peace from the prophet Micah was that everyone would “sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one [would] make them afraid”. (Mic 4:4)

So, for the people of Jesus’ time, wine was much more than a local industry or a way to get happy. Wine was a symbol of all that was hoped for, of all of God’s promises brought to fulfillment.
And here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in fact before it has really started, we see Jesus turning water into wine. Taking a common though precious element and turning it into something even more valuable – something to make life merry as Ecclesiastes says. (Ec. 10:19)

In John the gospel writer’s eyes, as Jesus does so, as he turns the water into wine, he is symbolically declaring the reign of God. He is symbolically declaring that the time has come when there will be a “feast of food for all nations, a banquet of aged wine”; he is declaring himself to be the Messiah. “And his disciples believed in him.” (v.11)

The Jewish notion of the messianic banquet has been absorbed into Christian thinking and imagination. But of course it is changed because now it is Christ, whom we know in Jesus, who brings the banquet, not some unknown but longed for Messiah. We know that the banquet of Jesus the Lamb comes not when we have finally gotten rid of all our enemies by fighting and killing them, but when peace comes through the path of non-violence and the grace of God.

This is the new covenant with God, the one that we celebrate in our Eucharist. The new covenant where we no longer have to try to obey a long list of rules, but are transformed by the renewing of our minds and the changing of our hearts by the Holy Spirit working in cooperation with our own wills. The new covenant of gentleness and peace. The new covenant sealed with Jesus’ blood as he dies on the cross but celebrated in his glorious resurrection and symbolized in the Eucharistic wine.
We see this in the wedding at Cana; it is a time of joy and festivity, and in the middle of it Jesus quietly turns water into wine, wine which is better than they had had. This new covenant is better than the one which went before…in Mark, Jesus says, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined.” (Mark 2:22). Jesus is proclaiming the reign of God in the new wine, wine which cannot be contained in the old but which bursts out of the old containers.

It is, of course, important for us to remember that there are many paths to God and that God welcomes people who still live under the old covenants; the covenants made with the people of Israel. Our path is one of humility and gentleness, not of triumphant crowing about how much better we are than another. John’s gospel in particular has been used to justify anti-Semitism. Racism or discrimination of any sort has no place in the Christian life. Jesus’ life – Christ’s blood - is shed for all and the redemption of creation which is the ultimate goal is necessarily the redemption of all creatures.

It is no coincidence that this miracle which proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed one, happens at a wedding. Just as the banquet of the Messiah permeates some of the ancient prophecies, so the symbolism of marriage appears again and again in the Bible, as it does in the work of psychologists like Carl Jung. Marriage is a symbol of the union we can experience with the divine. In Jung, it is the marriage of the opposites within the individual Self but in the Bible it is the union of Israel and Yahweh, and later Christ and the Church. So there is the important idea that we are united with God not just as individuals but as a collective. We hear this in Ephesians “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish but holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:26)

We are the Body of Christ and we are also being made into the Bride of Christ. So we cannot afford to ignore any other person who is part of the church. Each one of us is needed. As the reading we heard from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth says, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” However bizarre it seems, each one of us is equally important, equally part of the Body of Christ, being prepared for the great wedding feast.
And we celebrate this truth and hope in our Eucharist. This is not just a time to remember that Christ died for us, not just a time to offer our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, not just a time to be renewed by the food and drink of God, but also a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. A symbolic joining in the one cup, the cup of the new covenant which binds us to God and to one another, and which foretells the day when we will enjoy the banquet of the Lamb.

In Revelation we hear “blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:9) We are the ones who are invited. We are the ones who are given the new wine of Jesus to drink. We are the ones who are called and commissioned to work and pray for the coming of the reign of God.

Water into wine isn’t a party trick; it is the glorious work of the Son of God manifest in a wedding party in a small Palestinian town. It is the foretelling of Christ’s glory.

It is a metaphor of our salvation.  Alleluia!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Encountering the Christ

Photo by Josh Felise
Matthew 2:1-12

A few weeks ago we read some of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and I mentioned that some scholars think we can look at these early stories as a kind of prologue to the gospel itself; a narrative that sets out the key theme of the gospel. Today we hear from Matthew. Matthew starts with a genealogy to show that Jesus was descended from Abraham and then David through the male line even though he too makes it clear that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived and born.

And then, in chapter 2, he goes straight to today’s reading. No shepherds, no stable. But wise men from the East. We don’t know much about these wise men. They may have been Jews, they may have been Gentiles. They were clearly wealthy and were either astronomers or astrologists. We don’t actually know how they traveled, so no camels. That’s a later addition.

The early church expanded into the east quite quickly, into what is now Syria and Iraq. It may be that the inclusion of these wise men of the East was to show that people from outside Judea were involved from the very beginning. Although he is careful to establish Jesus’ Jewish credentials, perhaps Matthew also wants to show that this was the beginning of something which would affect a region much bigger than just Judea. Jesus is born King of the Jews but also so much more.

These three wise men headed for Jerusalem, assuming that a new king would be born there, but their arrival throws not just the palace, but the whole of Jerusalem into uproar. As we saw in Luke, the political climate is not welcoming to a new way of being, to the coming of the reign of Christ. In fact, it is absolutely murderous. We don’t hear about it today, but after the magi went home by a different route, Herod decided to kill his potential rival and to quell any rumors about new kings of the Jews by killing all the male children under two years old in Bethlehem and surrounds.

Joseph was warned in a dream and took his family into Egypt as refugees. So Jesus survived, but many children did not. It’s a strange thing how interconnected birth and death are. We think of them as opposites; one, the beginning of life, the other the end of life but they are closely related. A seed needs to die – to cease to be a seed – if the plant is to grow. Jesus died in order that we might have life.

There’s a wonderful poem by T.S. Eliot, “The journey of the Magi”. It describes how difficult the journey was for them and how uncomfortable. They often thought of going back but kept going and eventually got there. The final stanza depicts the narrator as an old man remembering how it was,

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Was it birth or was it death? For Herod, Jesus’ birth made him fear death and led him to kill children and traumatize many families. Jesus’ incarnation spelt death to the old system, death to the sin matrix.

Last week we heard the prologue to John’s gospel, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Light is not always comfortable at first. I always sneeze when the light intensity changes. It’s a reflex action, presumably developed at some time long before the invention of lenses that change with the light, to prevent my ancestors from hurting their eyes. We cannot look directly at the sun. When light comes, those of us who have been walking in darkness have to adjust and it’s not immediately pleasant – we have to cover our eyes until we adjust.

Epiphany is the season of light – when the Christ-ness of Jesus is revealed. It is a time when we discover and re-discover what this birth means, what the God-made-human is like, what it means for us to become Christ-like.

As we move from the darkness into the light there is death. There is death to our former ways of doing things. Sometimes this is dramatic and sudden, but mostly it’s slower and incremental. The Holy Spirit challenges us to come further into the light, to let go of an old habit, to develop a new one. But the old habit was comfortable and familiar.

We are used to viewing the world with cynicism. Negative remarks can be amusing. But we are called to be a people of the light. We are called to be the people of hope. Not Polyannas, but people like the prophets who see the good and the bad, the light and the dark and know that the light will shine in the darkness, that good must eventually prevail. There is no room for cynicism when God is present. In God’s eyes, even the most boorish politician is beloved.

In the poem, the aging magi says,

…I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…

The coming of the Christ child is indeed a cause of celebration and joy. But we fool ourselves if we think that the sin matrix – that nexus of personal sin and systemic sin which keeps humans trapped in negative patterns and which leads to great evil – we fool ourselves if we think that the sin matrix is going to give up easily. Herod is like the personification of the sin matrix – he is so threatened by the new arrival that he attempts to kill him, indiscriminately causing tremendous pain and suffering in the process.

So it is in our lives. The old never gives up without a fight. The coming of the light is a time of birth but it is not what we expected.
…this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here…

Living a life of peace and non-violence in a world of violence is not easy. Yet this is our aim. The spiritual journey is one of constant death and rebirth. Giving up self in order to embrace Christ. Giving up our little ego selves in order to embrace the Self that we were made to be. Giving up what seems like security in order that we may become whole.

Encountering Christ, encountering the light. It isn’t easy, but for us resurrection people, it is the only thing that makes life worth living.