Benediction Online

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Moving Beyond the Safety Barrier
Mary Elizabeth Pratt-Horsley

Today, June 24th, is the Feast of John the Baptist. If we were sitting at a café in Montreal, sipping a café au lait, we would be surrounded by people celebrating Québec’s National holiday. The Feast of St. John the Baptist is also a significant date on many church calendars.
As a child growing up in Mexico City, I could never forget this feast. Each year on John the Baptist’s Day, people in Mexico City took great joy in dragging each other into the city’s many fountains. If you didn’t want to get wet… you stayed close to home on June 24th!
Who was John the Baptizer? We are familiar with his words in the gospel accounts – calling people to repentance – to examine their lives – to change their priorities… In Luke’s gospel, which we are using on Sundays this year – John seems to lay down a structure for the kingdom values that will be incarnated and modeled in the life of Jesus. When the crowds asked John: “What should we do?” John answers without hesitation: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”.
John has been called a “bridge” person – enabling people to move from the former understanding of covenant with God to the new covenant incarnated in Jesus… In John’s person…and in John’s preaching… he drew together all the hopes and expectations of the former covenant. Yet when people flocked to him … he pointed away from himself towards Jesus….
John was the herald … but Jesus was the message…….
John was the voice … but Jesus was the Word…
John spoke of promise … Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise…
John preached repentance … Jesus brought forgiveness and healing…

In today’s Gospel we are given an example of that forgiveness, compassion and healing action that were so integral to Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is tired… He had fallen asleep in the boat crossing the Sea of Galilee – so deeply in sleep that he did not feel the raging storm which terrified the disciples. He stills the storm - to the amazement of the disciples – They then arrive at the other side of the sea – to the gentile land of the Gerasenes.
Despite his weariness, Jesus did not hesitate to reach out to this gentile man who was no longer in his right mind – who was naked, loud, out of control. Others in the Gerasene community responded to this man’s illness with fear – forcing him outside the boundaries of his own people. Jesus restores this man to new life…new possibilities. The man experiences new life out of the deathlike illness that had imprisoned him.
In response, the man wants to leave his community and stay with Jesus. Jesus directs him to stay within his own community: “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you”. Jesus clearly sees himself as a conduit for the healing power of God. The Gerasene man, however, just as clearly, sees the Divine in Jesus. Luke tells us: “So the man went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”
Thinking again about John the Baptizer… John called for a conversion of the heart… but Jesus made available the grace that enables such conversion and change to happen. It is abundantly clear that it is grace that makes it possible for any of us to move beyond the boundaries and walls that we create – walls which separate us from those perceived as “not like us”…
Of course this is not a new phenomenon – In today’s Epistle, Paul addresses the Galatian Christian community – reminding them that through Jesus’ Incarnation and Resurrection, they have been freed… freed from the strict purity code which, under Judaism, had separated people into “us and them”. Apparently other Christian missionaries had come to the Galatians, telling them that they had to follow the Jewish laws and code, including circumcision, before they could become true Christians. This was completely contrary to what Paul had taught them… about the freedom they had received in Christ Jesus to be children of God and brothers and sisters to one another…
We can sense Paul’s annoyance… He takes a prayer popular with Jewish men in his day… and seems to use it to frame his teaching to them. The prayer goes: “Thank you God, for not making me a foreigner, a slave, or a woman”. Paul declares: “…there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female … for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In the former covenant, obedience to the law protected one’s relationship with God. In Jesus, we are given God incarnate, who goes beyond obedience to the law – to model not only what right action looks like… but more importantly, what right heart looks like. It is no longer about who is in or out in the purity code – it should no longer be about boundaries and walls ---- Jesus made that clear when he moved beyond boundaries, as in today’s gospel. He healed those who were non-Jews or those who were unclean according to the Jewish purity codes.
Paul addressed a society that was experiencing difficulties around religious and ethnic diversity. So are we!
Today it seems that across our faith communities – Jewish, Christian, Muslim- there is a polarization between those who are progressive, and those who are literalists and separatists. I find I have more in common – it seems – with a faithful, progressive Jew – than I do with some of my brothers and sisters in the rest of the Anglican Communion.
And the Galatian Christians’ concern about ethnic groups (Jew or Greek), or economic place (slave or free) – seems to strike a chord today, as we consider the situation of the immigrant in our midst.
Paul reminds us that there is a healthy place for diversity in God’s creation and in our communities – He is not speaking of uniformity or homogeneity – but rather of the possibility of openness and unity in diversity. He is speaking of valuing diversity – by valuing all our brothers and sisters.
Of course we may prefer the comfort of surrounding ourselves only with the familiar -with those who think, act, talk and dress like we do. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, we are being challenged by Paul… by John the Baptist… by Jesus … to recognize our comfort zones … and to move beyond them.
Jesus challenged the Gerasene man to tell his community the story of what God had done for him. We are challenged to share our own personal stories – of boundaries crossed, of re-integration made possible, of healing and resurrection – of inclusion.
God is aware of our needs…and of our possibilities. God is constantly reaching out to us… giving us new possibilities for the real situations in which we find ourselves. God then empowers us to move in life-giving directions. When we are open and able to cooperate with that process … and increasing wholeness results … our call is to share what we have experienced, to follow the instructions we heard Jesus give today to the Gerasene man: “…declare how much God has done for you”. We can witness to God’s presence in our words, in our actions, in the way we live our lives…
To return to John the Baptist – How does the person of John impact our lives today?
John prepared the path … but Jesus is the way…
Like John, we are invited … we are challenged … to point to Jesus… to live our lives in such a way… that our words and actions reflect the Way that Jesus embodies…. the way of transformation and new birth … the dying to all that is darkness in our lives and in our society… and the resurrection experience of rebirth and new life --- so that we can truly be co-creators with God of wholeness in our communities and beyond. Amen.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Grace or Jealousy?

For the past couple of months some of us have been studying Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Prophetic Imagination. It’s taking a while not just because of the long words, but because some of the ideas are challenging and are giving us a great deal to chew on. Sometimes I read something and initially react against it but then as I turn it over in my mind it gives me a whole new perspective.

Take this for example: the enduring jealousy of Yahweh for his people. ‘This jealousy, so alien to our perceptual world, includes rejection of his people, which sends them and even Yahweh himself into exile. It is a jealousy that stays with his people, making their anguish his anguish and his future their future.’ p67

The idea of a jealous God is certainly quite alien to me. But as I pondered it, in the shower, I tried to understand the notion of a God who expects his people to keep to their covenant to put him first, but when they don’t, exiles them. However, this same God is so deeply devoted to these people that he goes into exile with them.

I’m going to run that past you again because it was hard for me to get my head round. God, Yahweh, exiled his people, Israel because they had not been faithful to the covenant. But then, God loved them so much that she went into exile with them, making their anguish her anguish and her future their future.

Can God be exiled from God?

Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Today’s readings offer us two quite different responses to sin. In the first reading, after Ahab has taken possession of Naboth’s vineyard, Elijah as the prophet of God, essentially curses him. In the Gospel reading, Simon the Pharisee is surprised that Jesus does not seem to know that the woman anointing him is a sinner. Jesus responds to his criticism with a teaching story about two debtors whose debt is forgiven – it is because this woman has been forgiven a great deal that she shows such love.

So, in the first story, punishment and in the second forgiveness and love.

Why the difference? Has God changed?

I think the reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians ties these two together. Paul is wrestling with the question of how Gentiles are now acceptable in the Reign of God without their converting to Judaism. ‘We know’, he says, ‘that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” The meaning of justification is a bit arcane but we can understand it as reconciliation with God – ‘a person is reconciled ot God not the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.’ In the previous covenant it was necessary to do the right thing – the works of the law- or to face punishment, as Ahab did. But because the Son of God loved us and gave himself for us, Paul argues, we are reconciled through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the other aspect of the jealous God – the one who makes our anguish her anguish and her future our future.

Paul was perhaps the first major theologian of the Christian church, who tried to make sense of the life death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus himself did not provide a theologically coherent explanation for what he did. He gave us teaching and example and clues of his significance but it was left to his followers to make meaning of it all. It is very probable that different Christian groups in the first centuries made sense of it in different ways, just as Christians today have some very different understandings of the scriptures.

All classic theological statements about Christ’s work on the cross include some aspect of substitution. In other words, they suggest that Jesus died in some way in our place. This is not a very palatable idea to many contemporary progressive thinkers who wonder about a God who would insist on someone, anyone, suffering and dying before being reconciled.

I find Brueggemann’s idea of a jealous God helpful here. Essentially all sin is making something more important than God and so it can be seen as idolatry – as worshipping something or someone else. The jealous God cannot bear idolatry and so sends the people of the covenant into exile… after the Babylonian exile this is no longer a physical exile, but an exile of the heart. But the same jealous God cannot bear the separation and so becomes human, incarnates, in order to once again be with the people. This time, the misunderstanding between God and people becomes so great that they kill him rather than look in the mirror Jesus holds up to them. Yet God uses that very death and turns it into a triumphant resurrection which enables us to be reconciled with God not under the terms of the old covenant but under the new.

Which is the good news.

Which is something we still have not fully grasped, and the people living around us have not fully grasped. It is the gospel that brings us into life giving relationship with God.

We are no longer reconciled with God by what we do but through God’s grace. When she was in SLO before the election, Mary Gray-Reeves, our bishop-elect, said that Christianity is not a faith of morality but of grace.


We are reconciled with God not by what we do, not by believing three or more impossible things before breakfast, but through God’s grace. It’s actually that simple.

The Gospel story is, I think, a picture of God’s grace. The woman represents all of us who long to be in relationship with the divine. She brings her very best to Jesus, her expensive ointment and her tears and Jesus accepts her unconditionally. He sees her not as just one more sinner but as someone who is forgiven and someone who has great love, and then he blesses her, ‘Go in peace’. Isn’t that what we all want, the peace of God. Don’t we long for Christ to fully accept us, exactly as we are, and give us deep, deep, peace.

And as we are forgiven it frees us to love. To love God, to love and serve Christ in one another. To share God’s grace, God’s radical hospitality with all beings.

Simon, on the other hand, was busy asking ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ Jesus’ behavior did not match his theology. Even though he was in the physical presence of Jesus Christ he was not open and fully present because he was criticizing and he was thinking about the law. Sometimes our minds get in the way of our being able to accept God’s grace because we don’t like the way the priest does something, or we don’t like the way someone interprets sacred text, or we see the damage that has been done in God’s name. There are many, many ways we can turn away from God’s grace, God’s gift.

We are reconciled to God by God’s grace. It is a gift. The jealous God longs to be with us, longs for our company, longs for our love.

Who do we choose to be like – Simon who criticized and missed out on truly being with Jesus even though he was in the same room – or the anonymous woman who gave her most precious things to Jesus and found the peace of forgiveness?

What of the widow whose food ran out?

The first reading and the Gospel reading this morning are exciting, inspiring stories of God at work in our world. Not only did the widow’s jug of oil and jar of meal continue to be filled, but her son was healed when he seemed to be dead, and in the Gospel, Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead.

But what of the widows whose food ran out? What of the widows whose sons died? What of those who are not healed? What of the children who will die unnecessary deaths as a result of hunger and illness even during the hour that we spend worshipping together this morning? Does God not care for them?

Why does God not answer our prayers and keep those we love from pain and from death? Does God not care for us?

These are relatively new questions. It was not until the period known as the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, that we began to think exclusively in terms of cause and effect. Since then we have come to expect that whatever happens has a cause. We find meaning for our lives in thinking that for everything there is a logical explanation, if we can only work out what it is. If something happens there must be a reason. Since things happen which we would not choose and which we would not allow if we were God, we assume that there is a greater reason. Life, we often tell ourselves, is a learning experience and we are given lessons, sometimes painful, in order for us to grow.

I am not sure that there is a firm Biblical basis for this way of thinking. We certainly have images of God as a parent who disciplines and teaches; we also hear Paul talking about the need to grow up and become mature in our faith. But not that we are here primarily to learn. Instead our tradition tells us that we are here to worship and serve God and to co-create with the Creator.

So if we are not here to learn. If everything that happens is not in some divine lesson plan, what then?

Perhaps God is absent. There’s a wonderful scene in the next chapter of 1 Kings. Elijah has challenged the priests of Baal to a contest. They are each to build an altar and implore their god to light the fire for the sacrifice. Whichever god can do that, wins. As the priests of Baal are begging and begging for fire, Elijah jeers at them saying, ‘Call louder –perhaps your god is in the bathroom, or perhaps he’s away on a trip.’

Some people think that God is essentially away on a trip. Having set up the universe with certain immutable laws, such as the one which makes apples fall, and the one which says that all creatures die, God is standing back watching things unfold, unable to intervene in the situation because it would get in the way of our free will.

I want to suggest that we are trying to answer the problem within a certain way of thinking which doesn’t allow us to find an answer. You have all heard the story about the tourist in England who stopped to ask a farm laborer the way to Devizes. After thinking for a long time he said, “Well if I were goin’ to Devizes, I wouldn’t start from ‘ere.”

We are caught up in a way of thinking that just seems like common sense. If something happens there must be a cause. If there is no human cause then it must be the result of divine action. How can we love, worship and serve a God who does such rotten things? or even a God who allows such things to happen?

Postmodern philosophers have pointed out that we are caught in a particular way of thinking; a way of thinking which creates ‘grand narratives’ that tie everything together. When we are thinking inside such a grand narrative it is nigh impossible to think outside the box.

But let’s try anyway.

Despite the terrible tragedies that happened in the Old Testament in God’s name – and still happen today – the New Testament, and especially John’s gospel assure us that God is love and cares about us. So when tragedy hits us we think that either God is teaching us something or is in someway powerless to stop it happening.

What if neither of these things is true? What if there are no definite rules, no divine intention unfolding? What if God is just making it up as God goes along?

Many of you are artists, and I don’t presume to understand the process you each go through when you create a work of art, so forgive me if I have this wrong, but it seems that most creative processes have an element of trial and error. You start out with one idea but along the way something else starts to develop, and when that happens you realize that something no longer fits somewhere else. Or you put down on the canvas or paper or in the clay, whatever medium you are using, something that seemed really good in your mind’s eye but, once you get it out there, is obviously a Huge Mistake. Which is where creativity really comes in, because now you have this Huge Mistake and you have to decide what to do about it.

Could that be a picture of the way God works and co-creates with us? Except that he’s not putting paint on canvas or words on a page which stay where they’re put, but working with us – people who have free will, people who make decisions which have impacts we can’t even imagine, people who are motivated by strange and curious things to do the unexpected and surprising.

Is it possible that God uses the intention and even the intensity of our prayer as well as our thoughts and actions as part of this creative process? Is it possible that God hasn’t yet made his mind up about how it will all turn out?

The philosophers among us will be quick to point out that this metaphor tends in the direction of creating yet another grand narrative that explains everything. That is a valid criticism, but it helps me to think of a God who is still in the process of creating, a God who hears our prayers and doesn’t choose to answer this one but not that one for some unexplainable capricious reason but rather uses them in the mysterious creative process which is the unfolding of the universe.

So what can we say to the widow whose son is not restored to life? To the mother whose son comes back from the war in a box, or her daughter in a wheelchair? To the one whose child is this moment dying from malnutrition and disease?

Metaphors of God’s creative process don’t save lives or put food on the table. We can say that God’s providence underlies all things and all experiences and that God in Jesus knows and has experienced extreme human pain. We can say that where there is suffering God is close. But the child still dies.

That is why we are working with other churches to address social justice issues. That is why the Episcopal Church has declared the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals to be its Number One mission priority. Because God co-creates with us; God expects us to do all we can to help create a world where suffering is reduced, where the hungry are fed, the widow is comforted, and no-one dies alone. New life will come as we work in cooperation with the divine to create the world which today we can only imagine.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Dancing God

If we could transport ourselves back one thousand six hundred and eighty two years to the year 325 in Nicea, a town which is now known as Iznik in modern Turkey – not far from where the Maruskas are on vacation – we would find about 300 bishops from across the known world in deep discussion about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Each bishop was accompanied by priests and deacons so altogether there were about 1500 people – an enormous gathering for its time though only about one in five bishops attended. They met for more than two months, starting the meeting on May 20 and not completing it until July 25.

By the end they had the first draft of what we now call the Nicean creed. Some changes were made later, but the creed we will say together in a few minutes essentially dates from this council.

Jesus did not provide his followers with any systematic belief system. Neither do the holy scriptures. So ever since Pentecost, Christians have tried to understand how all the bits of the jigsaw puzzle fit together. They have debated what is true and what is not true. The questions have changed through the years. Today we debate the relationship of gay, lesbian and transgender people to the church. Back in 325 they debated the relationship of God the Father to God the Son. Later the question of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to Father and Son became equally contentious.

That’s why there’s that tricky phrase in the Creed. Most of us have had the experience of saying it from memory and finding that as we say we believe the Holy Spirit, ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’, the rest of the church has suddenly stopped after ‘the Father’ leaving us the embarrassingly lone voice adding ‘and the Son.’ This phrase ‘and the Son’ is known as the ‘filioque clause’ – filioque is Latin for ‘and the Son’.

Seven hundred years after the council of Nicea, in 1054, the Church split, forming in the West what became known as the Catholic Church and in the East, the Orthodox Church. One of the arguments was about the ‘filioque clause’ which was being used regularly in the West. Since it is theologically speculative and became a cause of division it has been left out of the Creed in the alternative service booklet.

This all doesn’t seem a big concern to us. Most of us don’t lose sleep trying to understand how the three Persons of the Trinity relate to each other. In fact most of us don’t think much about the Trinity at all. We tend to think of God, period.
I imagine, though I can’t be sure, that if one of those 4th century bishops were to time travel into our time they would be horrified at the heretical and brazen disregard we have for the Trinity.

The images we use for God effect the way we understand ourselves and our world. When we imagine God as a king, we tend to think of someone who is quite distant and authoritarian. When we think of God as a companion and friend, we think of a close, sympathetic easy-going forgiving person.

So what difference does it make thinking of God as a Trinity rather than as a Unity?

As women have searched for positive images of the feminine in the Christian tradition, they have looked at the Trinity as providing a picture of God which is essentially relational. The three persons of the Trinity are in constant relationship to one another. Exactly what that relationship is, as we have seen, is rather difficult to define with certainty.

One way of thinking about it is as a mutual indwelling or an enveloping. The Greek term perichoresis is sometimes used to describe this, and it may be understood as a pun, meaning also to dance. So we have the image of the Trinity dancing together.

This is a very different idea than of a single, rather static monolithic God. A dancing God. A God in constant motion.

Some people see a parallel here with the energy in constant motion that forms matter as we know it. Perhaps the dance of the tiniest particles can be understood as the dance of the divine. Are the subatomic particles that make up this lectern kept in their motion by the dance of the Trinity? Is the nuclear force really God, or the force of God relating to Godself? If so, it gives a whole new meaning to God present in creation.

If we see God as Trinity, as fundamentally relational, then that raises up the importance of relationship in our lives. The Christian journey has often been imaged as the hero’s way – a solitary journey in which the hero battles serious odds in order to win the prize of the Holy Grail or to reach the New Jerusalem, heaven’s gates. But if God is first and foremost relational then the journey cannot be entirely a solitary one. Our pilgrimage will always be in a group. We will find God as much in our relationships with one another as in the silent times of personal prayer and reflection.

We think of the early hermits of the Egyptian desert as solitaries, but Antony the Great – the earliest monastic teacher – said ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour.’ ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour.’ We do not come to God alone. We cannot be the Body of Christ as an individual. This is a challenge to our individualistic culture which sees the search for God as a private and personal journey.

For several years I lived in a spiritual community in Scotland. One of the founders, Eileen Caddy, had over the years received guidance when she was in meditation. The young community gathered every morning to listen to the guidance about how it was to order its life together. But one day the guidance told her that this was to stop, that she was no longer to share her guidance every morning.

That was many years before I lived there, but even when I was there we struggled with how to know divine will for the group in the group. It was no longer OK for one person to dictate for the whole group – it was necessary for all of us to listen and then to reach consensus on how Spirit was leading. Not an easy task.

Today’s gospel reading shows a similar moment in the life of the disciples. They have been used to listening to Jesus and doing what he says. But now he is leaving and promising to send the Spirit who will guide them into the truth. Jesus is speaking to the group not just to the individuals. The group that became the church.

The church that is still struggling to hear what the Spirit is saying and to interpret that together.

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into the truth.’ In other words, there will be more that God reveals through the activity of the Spirit. One of the big questions the Christian church disagrees about today is whether God’s revelation is complete and finished in Christ Jesus or whether there is more, whether God reveals Godself in new ways as society changes.

It seems very clear to me that God continues to surprise us, that God continues to lead us in new paths. I have no doubt that there are genuine new insights about God and our relationship with God. The difficulty lies in discerning what is divine will, hearing what the Spirit is saying today. We often hear different things. Or perhaps we hear the same thing but interpret it differently.

This month we will elect a new bishop for our diocese of El Camino Real which stretches along the coast from Nipomo to Palo Alto. That person will be part of the council of the Episcopal Church as it continues to wrestle with the difficult questions of our day including our relationship with gay and lesbian persons, and our relationship with the international Anglican Communion. There are those who see this debate in terms of inclusion or exclusion, of cutting away those parts of the church that are in disagreement.

If God is a Trinity in constant relationship, if God is a dancing God engaged in a mutually enjoyable round dance to which we have been invited, then the priority of or mission is not exclusion but inclusion. The question is not ‘what do you believe?’ but ‘will you dance?’

It is only as we dance together that we will come to a deeper knowledge of the God who created us, redeemed us and now sustains us. As we dance together we will find that it is in our relationships as well as our worship that God is glorified. As we dance together we will be led into new revelations of truth.

Let us ask God to send us a bishop who will lead us in the path of the dancing God.