Benediction Online

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Praise is the Key

Today’s story of Saul’s conversion is one of the classic Christian stories. The wicked Jew who has been persecuting Christians is stopped dead in his tracks, sees the light, and is converted on the spot. Then he is healed and baptized by the nervous but very courageous Ananias and after some initial difficulties is accepted as an apostle.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives a slightly different version of the story. He says:
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem. (Gal 1:14-18a)

The first account from Luke-Acts focuses our attention on the supernatural, the sudden blinding light from heaven and the voice from nowhere. The second account in Galatians seems much more prosaic, ‘When God was pleased to reveal his son to me’.

Some people have road-to-Damascus style conversion experiences. They can say, ‘on this day I found a new life. It was as though I saw the light and everything became clear and I found Jesus.’ For others, and I suspect the majority of us here, our experience of God is much more prosaic. There is no clear cut moment at which we were converted. We were not suddenly translated from a life of wickedness to being Christian, but nonetheless God has been pleased to reveal God’s son to us.

In Luke-Acts it seems that as soon as Saul is back on his feet after his baptism he is preaching in the synagogues. Paul remembers it differently – he went to Arabia and back to Damascus for three years before going to Jerusalem. I can only imagine that during that three years he had to rethink the whole of his theology. He had had God’s Son revealed to him, and he had been baptized, but now he needed to work out what that meant.

If Paul was like us, that was something that would take the rest of his life. We may have been converted, we may have been baptized, but we can be sure that God isn’t done with us yet. After conversion, after baptism, comes the living of it, the process of becoming more and more Christ-like, of becoming more and more holy; the process of sanctification.

I’m always amused about the way the guys drive cars in old movies – it nearly always is the man who’s driving - and he’s moving the steering wheel back and forth in his hands, all the while looking at the woman sitting next to him and only occasionally glancing at the road. Perhaps the steering was very different then and you really had to keep adjusting it, but in today’s cars if you drove like that you’d be all over the road. On the other hand, you can’t just take your hands off the wheel. Even if you start dead center, going straight ahead, the road surface will eventually make you veer one way or another. Driving in a straight line requires endless small corrections.

The spiritual life is a series of endless small conversions. Most of them not terribly profound in and of themselves but gradually adding up to transformative, powerful life change.

There’s a teaching story about a boy who goes to one of the elders and says, ‘I have two wolves fighting inside me and I don’t know which one will win.’ The elder replies, ‘That’s easy. The one you feed is the one who will win.’

Peter had those two wolves – the one in this morning’s Gospel, who loved Jesus above and beyond everything, and the one who in the courtyard denied that he even knew him. Love and fear fighting inside him. The one you feed is the one who wins.

That is the spiritual life. There are two natures fighting inside us. Although we know we have been freed from our old nature, it continues to behave as though it is most horribly alive. Our job is to starve it by turning away our attention and interest, and to feed the new life by developing holy habits.

This is nothing less than a total reorientation of our minds and hearts, away from a focus on me to a focus on God and God’s beloved. As the current popularity of ‘The Secret’ shows us, we live among a hungry people. A people who are hungry for God, but have become jaded by their experience of church and have replaced God in their hearts by the worship of self-esteem and material wealth. It is easy for us to be lulled by the same tune and put material comfort and personal well-being above the search for God.

We are called to a completely different path. We are called to the path of compassion, the path of discipleship. This is not an easy path because it does mean struggling with the wolf. It means dying to self, being willing to hear God’s voice and make constant course directions. Having little conversions again and again. If you are not making constant small course directions as you identify places where you are not yet fully allowing God, you are probably not feeding your spiritual life very well.

Socrates said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, and certainly for those on the spiritual path, self-examination is vital. We are given the gift of self-awareness which is one of the main tools we use to bring us closer to God. Not an egocentric selfishness which wants more and more, but a humble, mature self-awareness which enables us to see the places where we need God’s grace.

Which wolf are you feeding? the wolf of self-interest or the wolf of God’s kindom? Whatever you focus your attention on will grow. If you focus your attention on yourself and your little world, there will be less and less space in your life for God. If you focus your attention on God there will be more and more space for God and you will find yourself being blessed in ways that you can’t even imagine, but as a kind of byproduct of your worship and service of the most high God.
One of the marks of Christian discipleship, one of the things that sets us apart from our neighbors, is our understanding of the power of praise. The second reading this morning depicts the heavenly court with all the angels and elders praising God. Praising God always takes us out of ourselves and feeds our Christ consciousness. That is, provided we are not using praise as a way of congratulating ourselves. ‘God I praise you that I am doing so well in my life and that I have everything I want’ is not praising God, that’s praising you. Praising God focuses on the person and the activity of God. We may praise God for God’s work in creation. We may praise God for bringing us into new life. We may praise God for all the ways in which God has worked and is working in our lives and those of our community.

Living as though God really matters means putting all we have and all we do into his service. It means feeding our spiritual lives through the holy habits of daily prayer, spiritual reading, worship with the community, tithing and Sabbath keeping. It means regular mini conversions as we are challenged to become more and more Christ like in the process of becoming holy.

Praising God is the best way to feed our Christ natures. I suggest that we all consider starting each day by singing the doxology, the traditional and familiar song of praise or some other hymn. Sing it in you heart, sing it in the shower, sing it in the car.

Let’s all stand and praise God in the traditional doxology.

No New Messages

There seems to be a short-circuit in the church answering machine. I was sitting at my desk yesterday wondering what to say this Easter, and how to make it different from every other Easter. Every few minutes the machine beeped and announced, No New Messages. No New Messages.

And that is a little how I felt. There are No New Messages about Easter. It is the old, old story, as old as creation, the seed falls into the earth, apparently dead but then springs up again with new growth. The Christian gospel is as old as the church. And yet it is new every day because it is a living truth. It is not a factual statement to be learned, memorized and repeated. It is not a thought system that requires us to suspend our better judgment and believe the impossible. The gospel is a living reality today.

But it only becomes real to us when we act as if it’s real. Physicists tell us that matter is not really solid, but is composed of minute atoms in constant motion yet we go on acting as if it’s solid. When you sat down on the pew this morning you didn’t wonder whether it would actually be there. You acted as if it were solid, and indeed it is.

We have to act into the resurrection. Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”. She was probably in a state of shock. She probably couldn’t believe her eyes or her ears, but she acted as if it were true, she acted into the resurrection.

This morning we have the honor and the joy of baptizing Molly. It is an opportunity for us all to re-member the fact that we are baptized and that in our baptism we were joined to Christ in his death and resurrection. That is a done deal. A sacrament is an outward sign of something that God does inwardly and invisibly. Through our baptism each one of us has been brought into new life…but since it is something that God does, people who are not baptized may also be living in the new creation. It’s not up to us. This is a free gift of God.

Baptism changes us ontologically. That is, it changes the core of who we are. But that change will lie dormant inside us unless we choose to act into it in our daily lives. Which is why we have the baptismal covenant. In a few minutes we will once again be renewing our vows. We will once again be agreeing to turn away from evil and to return to God whenever we find ourselves straying.

The resurrection is utterly amazing and our participation in it means that we never again need to be afraid. We have been reconciled with God and when it comes down to it, that removes the one great fear that underlies all other fears. There is no longer an end. We have eternal life now and tomorrow and when we die and after our mortal bodies are gone. Whatever happens we will come through it.

But all relationships have their ups and their downs, and reconciliation with God, although it’s a free gift on God’s side is something WE have to work at. Evil is all around us. But in our society it is very subtle, we can easily overlook it. We can find that we have wandered a long way from God without ever noticing. Evil is such a big word for the things that get in the way. Our spiritual work is to constantly confront the behavior in ourselves which is less than Christ-like. That is sin, the behavior that is caused by evil. Most of us are very pleasant, polite people. We don’t usually do the things that are included in typical lists of sins. Our sins are the sins of holding judgments against people; failing to forgive; saying negative things and not looking for the positive ones; of being bad-tempered or resentful; of thinking that we are the only ones who’re doing anything around here; of being anxious and failing to trust; of putting things before people; things before God; of forgetting to worship; of forgetting that our first responsibility is to love God.

Easter opens to us the possibility of becoming like Christ. Easter opens to us the possibility of living differently, of being made holy. Easter means that we are no longer on our own with our shortcomings but that the Holy Spirit is beside us to help us transform. But we have to do our bit. We have to act into the resurrection. We have to take responsibility.

But when we do, when we turn to God and admit that we can’t do it alone, God is there waiting to be active in our lives… We don’t always feel God’s presence in the way we’d like to. Many preachers make it sound as though a relationship with Jesus is a warm buddy buddy thing which makes you always feel good. That is not the experience of many of the saints and mystics. Which is why we promise to keep faith – we promise to continue in the apostles teaching, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers. These are the very basic disciplines of our resurrection life. These are the habits which will support us in living into the resurrection.

Many people say, “I can be spiritual on my own, I don’t need a faith community’. There are in deed those who are called to the life of a solitary, but they are rare. If you take one piece of wood out of a fire it will smolder for a while and then gradually stop burning. If you put a piece of wood next to a fire that’s going well, after a while it too will start to burn. That’s how we are too. The interaction with other people of resurrection is what keeps our faith strong.

So this morning we welcome Molly into this part of the Body of Christ and we are going to be promising to support her in her growth as a Christian. As we do so, let us make this promise to each other too because we are a faith community and we need each other to help keep us burning with the hope and joy of Easter.

There are No New Messages about Easter. Just the one you heard last year and you will hear again next year. God loved you and me so much God became a human being in Jesus, with all the difficulties and limitations humans have. Jesus lived a life of love and preached a new way to God, then he was killed by the authorities because he was dangerous to the vested interests in his society. But God took his death and made something new out of it, something never seen before. God brought new life and its available to us today, tomorrow and every day.

There are no New Messages about Easter. Just the same one that’s eternally true.
Alleluia, the Lord is Risen!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Spirituality is not for Sissies

Recently both Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres have been very excited about a book called ‘The Secret’. I have not read it, but from all the publicity that I have read about it, it seems to be another reiteration of the metaphysical teachings about the way our thoughts affect our lives. Put very simply, what we imagine can become reality and what we focus on tends to expand. Using visualization and positive thinking to create the world you want is often described as spirituality. But in comparison with the understanding of spirituality contained in today’s lessons it is superficial and simplistic.

Our first reading comes from the section of Isaiah known as the Suffering Servant poems. I think that in a very few lines it encapsulates deep truths about the spiritual life. These are not however easy, palatable truths. Lois, our oldest member, often says ‘Getting old isn’t for sissies,’ and as those of us who are aging can attest, it certainly isn’t. Real spirituality is not for sissies either.

So in this passage the Suffering Servant says that morning by morning he listened to God and was not rebellious. In other words, every day he opened himself to God and was obedient to what he heard. Step number one in Christian spirituality – daily attention to God and obedience to God’s call however we hear it. I wonder how many of us manage that faithful, daily observance of turning to God and opening ourselves up to the instruction of the Holy Spirit. Even following The Secret requires regular practice but so often we think that God is like a can of beans in the pantry, on reserve until one day we can’t think what to have for supper and pull it out. When we really need help then we’ll turn to God and of course God will be there.

That’s superstition not spirituality. Spirituality is like a muscle. If you don’t use it you lose it. Spirituality is the result of regular disciplined prayer, worship and acts of compassion. It’s not a warm feeling when you look at a sunset or listen to beautiful music. True spirituality is not for sissies.

The Suffering Servant says ‘I gave my back to those who struck me… I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.’ When we hear those words we immediately apply them to Jesus Christ. They are familiar to us from the wonderful alto aria in Handel’s Messiah and from reading them each year in this context. But they were not originally written about Christ. Millions of our Jewish sisters and brother read them today and don’t even think of Jesus. They remind me of Job whose life fell apart in the most dramatic and terrifying way.

Suffering happens. And suffering is a component of deep spirituality. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that people who suffer are more spiritual than those who don’t. What I am saying is that when you are being transformed into the beautiful, Christ-filled person you were created to be, it can hurt. Suffering happens. Suffering transforms. Perhaps transformation may be grace-filled but the kind of transformation that happens when the Living God takes hold of you is rarely easy. It’s not the kind of transformation that’s going to make the Oprah Show because often it’s difficult to talk about and it’s not very pretty.

The Suffering Servant, Job, Jesus… each one of them was obedient and each one of them was let down by their friends. Each one of them experienced physical pain. Each one of them suffered. Each one of them gives us a picture of spirituality quite different from the popular ‘Secret’ where good things always happen to good people.

From his experience of imprisonment and torture, the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, brought us an understanding of the ‘dark night of the soul’. A time when it seems that God has turned God’s face away. A time when everything secure falls apart. The dark night is an excruciating but necessary step of the spiritual journey when we experience a state of profound emptiness. It is, according to St. John of the Cross, the true beginning of the path to union in love with the Divine. Spirituality is not for sissies.

Returning to the reading, the Suffering Servant does not despair but says ‘The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced… he who vindicates me is near.’ He who vindicates me is near. This verse reminds me of Job’s statement, again made famous by Handel, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives’. In the midst of tremendous difficulty they both say with absolute faith that ultimately they will be vindicated, ultimately they will be acknowledged as the men of integrity that they are.

There is a parallel in the language they use, ‘he who vindicates me’ and ‘my redeemer’ are both terms from the courtroom. Our best interpretation would be ‘my defense attorney’. My defense attorney is at hand – it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Redeemer does it? This is where they apparently part company with Jesus, because Jesus is in a kangaroo court with no defense.

But is it really different? In the moment they are both defenseless just as Jesus is defenseless against the High Priests and later Pilate. This seems to me to be a deep spiritual truth which is best articulated in the Buddhist tradition but is demonstrated in Jesus’ approach to these last days. Defenselessness is the deeply spiritual response to attack and to suffering. Defenselessness means not fighting the situation, not fighting the pain, not fighting the shame but allowing ourselves to hold it gently and faithfully knowing that we don’t have to fight back we don’t have to defend ourselves because our Redeemer lives.

In fact, fighting back only makes things worse because it creates a tit-for-tat situation, whether we’re fighting external enemies or the enemies of our thoughts, behaviors or physical pain. We have seen that played out in Los Osos over the last decade. One group does something and another group sues, then there’s a countersuit, then there’s an attempt by one group to force their way forward followed by a counterattack and so on.

Now there is a difference between defenselessness and passivity. We are not called to be doormats. We are not called to just do whatever anyone else says, or passively put up with whatever happens. The Suffering Servant was obedient even though that led to suffering, and accepted the suffering as part of his relationship, his ongoing covenant with God. He says ‘The Lord God helps me: therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint’. He was not cowed or disempowered by the actions of hi tormentors. By choosing the path of defenselessness he remained fully in his own integrity.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have given us examples of creative defenselessness in the political sphere. They did not fight in a traditional way, but in a way that was consistent with their deep spirituality. We are each called to be Gandhis in our own lives. He was a man with a deep meditation practice which sustained and inspired him. Often he would meditate for two hours each morning. He was obedient to the call he heard to help liberate his people in a peaceful, non-violent way. Even when he was imprisoned and in great difficulty he remained calm and centered, knowing that ultimately he would be vindicated.

Although he was not a Christian, Gandhi is an example of Christ-like action and contemplation but Jesus is our supreme example. We know that he prayed and longed not to have to go through with the crucifixion. I am sure that he would have loved the solution suggested by some people, that at some point he simply walked away, using his miraculous abilities to save himself from pain. But spirituality is not for sissies and that is not what we believe really happened.

We believe that Jesus was obedient even unto death and then was vindicated by God. This is our example, and so, in the words of Paul,
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.