Benediction Online

Sunday, September 16, 2007

All is well

The image of Jesus as our Shepherd is a familiar and comforting one. At the times when we feel lost, abandoned and alone, we need to know that God is not only looking out for us but is actively bringing us back, actively embracing us in God’s fold. We need to know it for our loved ones too. When we are feeling helpless, watching those we love go through times of pain and difficulty, it’s reassuring to know that God is out there keeping watch like a shepherd.

Sometimes we forget that that’s God’s job. We try to take it over ourselves and to make everything all right. It seems like it’s the loving thing to do. But when we protect someone from the consequences of their actions, when we try to smooth things over and pretend that there isn’t a problem when there is, we are probably getting in God’s way.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that everything that happens in life is a lesson and we are just here to learn. I think we are primarily here to serve and worship God. Sometimes things just happen because that’s the way life happens, not because the divine teacher set us up. But I do believe that the Holy Spirit uses the things that happen to draw us closer to God and to sanctify us, make us holy. If we keep trying to protect our loved ones from life then we may be getting in God’s way.

Worry has been described as a futile attempt at remote control. If Jesus eats with sinners and tells us that God is like a shepherd looking for the one missing sheep, then we can be sure that God is also looking after our loved ones. We do not need to worry.

Within Christian community we often get concerned if someone seems to be wandering away from the flock. When divisions and anger arise we want to try to keep everyone together, to make it all work out - after all, Jesus said, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. There may be times when we need to let go and allow someone to leave, trusting that the Great Shepherd is on top of the situation.

That seems to be the situation within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion at present. In American society there has been a separating of the ways over the past thirty or forty years. It’s not a clean break with people lined up neatly in two camps. The split has been different over different issues, but it is nonetheless there. During the 1970s there was a big increase in the number of Americans attending college, and with this came a big shift leftwards. People with right-wing political views and people with evangelical religious views both set to work to change this.

It would be naïve to suggest that the move towards the kind of right-wing Christian action we have seen in the last fifteen years was entirely due to political groups manipulating the Christian vote. It would be equally naïve to assume that no manipulation has taken place. We know, for example, that a right-wing group, the Institute for Democracy and Religion, targeted the Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal churches. Their intention was to cause sufficient internal strife to neutralize the churches’ ability to work for social justice.

The Episcopal Church is both uniquely vulnerable, and uniquely able to withstand such attacks. As a church which was created in the middle of just such a conflict, that between Puritans and Catholics, we have been there before and weathered the storm. However, the resolution of that crisis left us an unusual hybrid – a reformed Catholic church. We have held within our community both catholics with a focus on sacrament and imagery, and evangelicals with a focus on word and absolutes. In England, the fact that the Church of England is a state church has made this possible. It has been much harder for the American church to hold the opposites. We are uniquely vulnerable to be divided because of the wide range of theological positions which Episcopalians hold.

It may be that we are not able within the American context to contain both extremes. In the late nineteenth century most evangelical Episcopalians left the Episcopal Church to form the Reformed Episcopal Church. For the next seventy years there were no evangelicals to speak of within the church. Since the 1960s there has been a tremendous growth in the evangelical wing and many, though not all, evangelicals have come to see conservative political views as a necessary component of their faith. Thus the question of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the orders and rites of the church has become a key issue, although it is not itself the cause of the problem.

Starting on Thursday, our Bishops will be meeting in New Orleans. They will be considering, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the effect of the divisions on our church both here and overseas. As you know, several parishes around the country have decided to leave the Episcopal Church and instead join one of the African provinces. In turn the African archbishops have ordained bishops for these congregations. The province of Rwanda now has 16 bishops of which seven are Americans – formerly in the Episcopal Church. The Primates or archbishops from around the world have given the Episcopal Church until September 30 to make a statement which will indicate that it is changing its direction and bowing to pressure from the conservatives.

Whatever the outcome of the House of Bishops meeting the secular press is likely to report it in terms of continuing strife and schism. It is important to realize that in comparison with the number of Episcopal parishes like ours which are quietly going about God’s business, trying to serve God in their communities, the number leaving is quite small.

It is also important to remember that the Great Shepherd did not prevent the hundredth sheep from walking away. We cannot know why God is allowing these things to happen. We can know that our God is a God of resurrection and good will come from it.

Our conservative brethren are acting in good faith, doing what they believe God is calling them to do. We are also acting in good faith, doing what we believe God is calling us to do. Can we both be right? Yes we can. It is important for us as a church and as individual’s to follow God’s call even if it puts us in a difficult position, even if it is unpopular, even if it goes against our desire to make everyone happy and comfortable.

We follow a teacher who did unpopular things. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? The Pharisees thought they were the good guys but it seems that Jesus thought the bad guys were the good guys. But maybe not. Maybe Jesus thought they were the bad guys but loved them anyway.

We do not know whether those who are leaving the Episcopal Church are the good guys and we are the bad guys or whether we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. It seems to me that the point of Jesus’ stories is that we are all precious whether we happen in the moment to be behaving like good guys or like bad guys.

And we need not worry. We need not worry that in our genuine attempt to follow God’s call we are doing the wrong thing, because the Great Shepherd is there to fetch us back. And we need not fret that someone is going to leave the fold, for the Great Shepherd will follow them too and make sure they’re safe – perhaps in a different fold.

I ask you to pray for the House of Bishops meeting this week. I ask you to pray that the may be given wisdom and that whatever the outcome, God will be glorified.

As Mother Julian of Norwich said, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.

And indeed, all IS well.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Making Lemonade Luke 14:25-33

Today’s gospel reading is of particular importance to us, because it is also the gospel used on St Benedict’s day. Jesus is at the height of his popularity, large crowds are traveling with him, and you would expect him to be pleased. If any of our presidential hopefuls had such crowds traveling with them we can be sure they would be making promises, telling people how great things will be if they get elected. But not Jesus. Jesus starts talking about counting the cost.

He wants people to know what they’re getting into. Being a disciple isn’t all about having a good time with your friends listening to a great preacher. Being a disciple isn’t all about feeling good on Sunday mornings, having terrific potlucks or even inspiring talks and Bible studies. Being a disciple means sacrifice. This isn’t the first time Jesus has mentioned it, but it’s still not an easy thing to hear. We want things to be easy, at least I know I do. I don’t like pain, I don’t like conflict, I don’t like difficulty. I want to look on the bright side and walk on the sunny side of the street.

But Jesus says it would be foolish to decide to be one of his followers without first counting the cost and asking yourself whether you’re ready. Because following Jesus means radical, ongoing transformation.

I don’t imagine for a moment that Jesus really meant that you had to hate your family. One of the rhetorical devices that he sometimes used was hyperbole – he over-emphasized something to make a point – like when he says if your hand offends you take out a chainsaw and cut it off. Cutting off your hand, plucking out your eye, hating your family, hating your life is hyperbole.

The point is that being a disciple means putting Christ and his way first. That’s a radical re-ordering of priorities. Instead of putting yourself and your family first, you are going to put God’s will first. The good news is that that is the very best order for everyone concerned. But at times it may not feel like it. It may not feel like it because it is denying the power of the little ego. The little ego always wants to be in charge, and will come up with all sorts of reasons why this is just not the time to put God first.

Jesus went on, ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ We’ve all heard people say something like, ‘well that’s just my burden in life, that’s my cross to bear’. They’re usually missing the point. Carrying the cross is not having a difficult mother-in-law, nor a difficult son-in-law. Carrying the cross is allowing your difficult relative to help you become more Christ-like. Carrying the cross is taking the lemons (and the honey) that God gives you and making the most wonderful lemonade you can imagine, and then offering it back to God as a gift.

Each one of us has different life experience and God works differently in each of our lives. So although there are hundreds and thousands of books written on discipleship and spirituality, none of them will tell you exactly how the Holy Spirit will work in your life. So the very first thing you do to pick up the cross is to open yourself up to God and to listen for God’s word to you. Now some of us may see visions or hear a voice. Most of us won’t. For most of us God’s voice is very subtle. We hear it through spiritual reading or the words of friends, we hear it through the liturgy, we hear it in a growing inner conviction, or in a sudden realization when we’re thinking about something else. Sometimes God breaks through when we least expect it, but most often we have to be ready and waiting. As Mother Julian of Norwich said, our Lord is very courteous. Spirit does not force Godself upon us but waits for our invitation. So the first step is willingness – being willing to hear and respond to God, and the second step is submission. Being ready, and doing what it is that God requests.

Since God’s presence in our lives is often subtle and quiet, we need to train ourselves to see and hear the Spirit. One of the ways we do this is in community. Whenever you share with me how God has been active in your life, it helps me to notice God in mine. We always start vestry meetings by sharing signs of God’s grace in our lives. I would love to find that during coffee hour we are also sharing how God is blessing us. God’s love is what draws us here. What could be more natural than that we share what God is doing for us?

Another way to train ourselves is at the end of the day to take stock – where has God been in my life today?

When I was at college I took a few days of retreat at the very gracious country house of a religious order somewhere in southern England. I was trying to discern God’s will for my life. A woman I met there told me that God’s will for me is in the Bible. This both puzzled and frustrated me. I could not understand how the Bible was going to tell me whether I should continue on my current course and become a social worker or whether I should switch to business studies. I thought perhaps it was my own failing that I could not find the career decisions section of the Bible.

This question continued to bother me for several years. How could the Bible tell me God’s will for my life?

I am sure that God has used the Bible to help people make career decisions, that’s not the way she has worked in my life. But the Bible does teach us the ways of God and picking up the cross, opening ourselves to God, means using the information we already have. So I’m going to highlight a couple of key points. These are things which are undoubtedly God’s will for us.

The first is generosity. God gives generously, and as God’s children and the disciples of Christ we too are called to give generously. Generosity means giving with no strings attached. It means giving without keeping account. Last week we heard Jesus say if you give a dinner party, don’t invite people who will invite you back again. This is giving without expecting to receive in return.

Living generously means living simply so that we have plenty to give and to share. Many people in our world live on a dollar or less a day. They do not have the ability to live more simply. We do. We have the option to find ways to live more frugally so that we can share with them the tremendous riches we have been given. With blessing comes responsibility. A generous life is one where we use less than we might in order to have more to give to others.

The second point is forgiveness. Cultivating an inner attitude of forgiveness is an extension of generosity. It is allowing other people to make mistakes, (like sending a personal email to fifty people). It is not holding anyone, including myself, trapped in the past. Forgiveness creates gentleness around areas of pain. It allows new possibility and new hope to enter. It is a principle way in which the lemons of life become pat of a recipe of resurrection.

And finally, making our lives a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It is a joyful thing to submit to God and everyday we see new miracles and new hope in believing. Carrying the cross is taking the lemons (and the honey) that God gives you and making the most wonderful lemonade you can imagine, and then offering it back to God as a gift with praise and thanksgiving.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Way of God with a Soul

Many protestant preachers announce the title of their sermon in advance, often a month or more ahead of time so that it can get in the church newsletter. Fortunately, this has not yet become the norm among more catholic preachers - I don’t think I’ll ever be sufficiently disciplined to plan my sermons a month in advance. Today, however, a title came before the bulk of the sermon, so the title of this sermon is “The Way of God with a Soul”. I’m going to be picking up again on the image we met last week of God as a ‘consuming fire’.

But before going there, let’s take a closer look at this morning’s gospel reading. The society Jesus lived in was very concerned with honor. People who were seen to be contributing to society or who excelled in some way were honored and brought honor to their extended family – whereas those who were rejects in some way, brought shame and dishonor. It was important for people to have a sense of where they and their family were within the honor structure so they knew their proper place. This is a parable about not paying proper attention to who you are.

The word that sticks out for me is ‘parable’. Luke says ‘when Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.’ If it’s a parable then it’s not just about how we behave when we go to parties or other social events. It’s about life in the reign of God, it’s about how we are inside. Often we think about the importance of our behavior, the importance of Christian ethics, the importance of working for social justice. Following Jesus involves those things but it’s not just about how we behave outwardly. It’s also about how we behave inwardly. They go hand in hand. Being a prophet is not an alternative to being a mystic. We need both aspects

It is the mystical aspect I want to address today. It is in our hearts, minds and souls that God works to make us more Christ-like.

Here is a poem by Emily Dickinson which we used in our Quiet Day two weeks ago.

He fumbles at your soul
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on.
He stuns you by degrees,
Prepares your brittle nature
For the ethereal blow
By fainter hammers further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool,
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.

When winds take forests in their paws
The universe is still.
This is an image, actually multiple layers of images morphed together, of God’s power and the way God works with the soul. They’re very different images from the ones we have of God as lover, as good shepherd, as friend. Here God is a musician who plays us like a piano or perhaps a blacksmith who beats the metal into shape. The last two lines are quite thrilling:

When winds take forests in their paws
The universe is still.

Perhaps She wraps her paws around the universe and it is still, in peaceful contentment, or perhaps God is like the wind of a hurricane, like a great tiger playing with the trees, and the universe waits silent and still to see what will happen next.

Is God the blacksmith hammering us into shape, preparing or brittle nature, or is God the fire he uses?

The correct answer is, ‘Yes’.

Our God is a consuming fire like the great fires used to create molten iron. In the process the impurities are burned out. A consuming fire burns up. It is not something to be taken lightly. As we deepen our commitment to the life of spirit, God takes us seriously and acts on our souls like a consuming fire.

You don’t interact with a consuming fire, you submit to it. Submission to God is not something we talk much about. We are independent people and we are happy to co-create, to be friends with God but to submit?

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed “Not my will, but thine.’ This is the prayer of submission. It is also, paradoxically the prayer of freedom because it is the prayer that leads us to be most fully the people we were created to be. God does not want us to be anything less than our full potential. God does not want us to be smaller or lesser in any way. ‘The glory of God is the human being fully alive’. Submission to God brings us more fully alive than ever before.

As our souls burn in the love of God everything that gets in the way of us being fully and completely ourselves gets burned away. We are made to be radically and totally consumed by our love for God and consumed in God’s love for us. We are only completed in Christ, and the action of God-the-consuming-fire is to burn away those things that prevent us from being totally Christ filled.

This is the process of sanctification, of being made holy. It is also the way of the cross because it is a process of being stripped away, of being stretched, of releasing our attachment even to life itself. Our souls are like a precious metal which has to be heated and pounded until it is malleable and can be shaped into the beautiful creations God had in mind when we were first created.

Submission does not mean being passive. Our participation in sanctification is two-fold. First we seek God in prayer, offering ourselves to God and seeking to be transformed, and secondly we actively cooperate with the process. We submit to the process of sanctification as active participants. There are many ways of doing this, perhaps through dream work or journaling or participating in a spiritual journey group, but most importantly by engaging with Holy Scripture and participating in the sacramental life of the church.

An important part of the process of sanctification is learning who we are and what our true place is in the universe. Our little egos want us to be the centre of everything, and put a lot of time and attention into criticizing other people or comparing ourselves favorably or unfavorably with other people. Our egos spend a lot of energy bolstering our self-esteem or conversely telling us what lousy people we are. This can masquerade as humility, but true humility does not allow the little ego to be the centre of the universe. True humility puts Christ at the centre.

I have a friend who once told me how important today’s parable was for her. ‘I always like to take a lower seat’, she said,’ and wait to be invited up higher.’ However she made it very clear that she expected to be invited higher and became quite resentful if I failed to do so. This is not humility. This is putting oneself at the centre of the universe.

During the process of sanctification, as God takes our souls into her paws, we learn just how important we are as the beloved of God, as the ones for whom God became human and died. We also learn just how unimportant human ranks and pecking orders are. It doesn’t matter where we sit at dinner or in church, we am still God’s beloved. So we can be flexible, we can respond to the moment, we can have the seat of honor or we can take out the trash and only eat left-over potato salad. Whatever.

Our little egos don’t want us to make the prayer of submission. They fight against it and pull back control again and again. They don’t want to give in to the God of wind and flame, the God who demands.

But it is the only way to become truly who we were made to be. It is the way to become truly alive.

Just five words,

‘Not my will but Thine.’