Benediction Online

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Last week I watched a movie from a few years ago starring Helen Mirren; ‘Mrs. Stone’s Roman Spring’. The newly widowed and fabulously rich Mrs. Stone decides to stay in Rome rather than face returning home without her husband. As she whiles away the time with a succession of gigolos, a street bum watches and sometimes stalks her. Eventually all those she thought were friends turn on her, and she carefully wraps her house keys in a linen handkerchief and throws them to the man watching in the street. He is very handsome, and from early in the film I had hoped that somehow they would find each other and true love but the filmmaker has depicted him as sinister and obsessed. As he unlocks the front door I wonder which will prove correct – will he assault her and the evening end in violence, or will she offer him a drink and over fine cognac find enough Italian to discover his soul? He climbs the stairs to the room where she is waiting, and the camera moves to his face and then to hers. As it does so the faces go out of focus and blur. The screen goes blank and the credits start rolling.

We don’t know for sure what happens. The filmmaker leaves it to our imagination. The end of the story is shrouded in mystery – it is blurred, but will somehow unfold from all that has gone before. Just like today’s readings.

Today is the last day of the Church’s year and so our readings are about the end of the Christian story. About where it’s all going in the end. But it’s an end which is unclear. The picture is blurred.

In the first reading, (Jer. 23 :1-6) Jeremiah is prophesying as Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonians. God will once again gather together the remnant of the people, those who are left and will provide them with good leadership. Once again the house of David will produce a good king who will execute justice and righteousness in the land. This is a prophecy of the Messiah, the Anointed One – the future king who will come and set all things to right.

In the second reading, (Col. 1:11-20)Paul quotes from a popular hymn about the Christ who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Paul has made a few changes to make it more theologically correct, but it is still a poem. It is a poem to the cosmic Christ, the Anointed One who is the beginning and the end.

The Gospel reading (Luke 23:33-43) brings us down to earth, to the apparent defeat on the cross. However much we may know the reality of the resurrection, the cross is still somber and sobering. Why do we have this reading on the Sunday when we celebrate Christ as King?

Because our King is like no other. A King or Queen is one who rules, who is powerful and glorious, but in the amazing contradiction of our God, we see the King powerless and humiliated, in great pain.

Three images superimposed on one another. The Messiah who will rule justly and righteously, the cosmic Christ who is the beginning and end of creation, and the Innocent One who while hanging on the shameful cross promises paradise to another.

It’s not surprising that the images blur in the camera lens. This is one of the places where our faith offers only mystery while we long for certainty.

People long for certainty. ‘How can I believe in a personal God,’ my friend asked me yesterday, ‘when there is so much random violence and terror? Why does God answer some prayers, protect some people and not others?’ There are no easy answers to that question yet I think it is a central one of our time. We have to make a serious attempt to address it at least for ourselves so that we can share our own fumbling answers with those who are looking for a life-giving relationship with God.

Today’s readings point to a future when the darkness will be dispersed and the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Cosmic Christ will be fully revealed in all his or her glory and power. If we are waiting for the day when all things will be resolved, does that mean that the Cosmic Christ is limited in power today? If God hears a torture victim’s prayers for help but allows the horror to happen anyway, does that mean that God doesn’t care?

It is no longer enough to say that there will be a day at the end of time when Christ is victorious. That’s like saying just do what the doctor says and all will be well. We are no longer content to believe that the authorities have everything under control; we have learned that so often they don’t. We live in a time of radical uncertainty when everything is and should be questioned. Including just what God is up to.

I don’t have a clear answer but I think the key is in our Gospel reading. God on the cross. God allowing Godself to be limited in human form. God in our pain. Either there is something necessary about pain, and it was necessary that God share in it, or there is something so random that God too was randomly attacked and victimized.

Even though Jesus could have gotten down from the cross, he didn’t. He was simultaneously the Christ and the broken body. Even through the pain, Christ was Sovereign. So the fact that we experience pain does not mean that God is no longer Sovereign but it does mean that we are human. Illness, random acts of violence and unexpected accidents and even intentional cruelty are part of what it means to be human. Prayer will not protect us from the consequences of being human any more than it will stop us aging.

The person whose house was saved when his neighbor’s burned may be grateful that God answered his prayer but that he still has a house does not mean that he is any godlier or any more beloved than his neighbor. Jesus said, “my kingdom is not of this world”. To be so attached to things that we see them as the evidence of God’s blessing is to miss the point entirely. Could that be true of health, physical well-being and lack of pain as well?
Could it be that, like Buddha suggested, we only suffer because we expect things to be different and we are attached to comfort and well-being?

The camera focuses in and then the image blurs. We don’t know how the story ends. We don’t know how God gets to be Sovereign Lord while creation continues to suffer. We don’t know why it seems that some prayer gets answered and some doesn’t. But we do know that despite it all the Cosmic Christ is the final power before the throne of God and that we have been called to worship and serve the living God, and continue to ask the difficult questions because it is in seeking the answers that we are changed and transformed into the Christ-filled beings we were made to be.

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in England. The first time I came across Thanksgiving was when I was living in a vegetarian community in Scotland. Once a year the Americans got to eat turkey – it was the only time meat was cooked in the communal ovens. I was very happy to be an honorary American one Thursday a year – who knows – perhaps it was those winter feasts that started me on the road to emigrating.

The closest equivalent in English culture is the harvest festival which is traditionally a community event rather than a family celebration. When I was growing up we had harvest festivals at school and at church… days when we brought in our prize marrows, chrysanthemums and canned goods for a special display of abundance, and sang special hymns. Some churches had harvest suppers with music and perhaps country dancing.

Today we are combining harvest festival and Thanksgiving. We haven’t brought in our giant squash and heirloom tomatoes but instead we have brought our pledges, our commitments to God from the abundance that God provides us with. It’s a step in faith, to promise to give to God what we don’t yet know for sure that we have. It requires trust that God will provide, that there will be a bountiful harvest.

I confess that sometimes I feel anxious when I look at the changes that are happening in our world. As oil becomes scarce it gets more and more expensive and that puts up the price of food which is already rising since corn is being used for ethanol and severe weather affects crops. Here in Los Osos I wonder about the cost of the sewer and the effect that will have on us all. I look at St Benedicts and I wonder what God has in store for us. When I’m anxious it makes me want to hold tight to what I have. Instead of being able to be generous I close down and want to give less.

The second reading today is an antidote to worry. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always… Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ What a wonderful promise – this is one to cut out and put on your fridge. And then Paul goes on to tell us what we can fill our minds with now we’re not worrying, ‘Whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.’

Let’s take a closer look. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ This is quite different from counting your blessings. It’s not rejoicing in how lucky you are but rejoicing in the Lord. I am sure we have all had the experience of rejoicing in another person or a pet – someone who brings a light to our eyes – someone we’re delighted to see after an absence. Rejoicing in the Lord is thinking about God like that. It’s praising and worshipping God, not just on Sundays in church but every day. How would it be if every time you found yourself worrying you sang a verse of your favorite praise song or hymn? I think it would be a powerful way of retraining your mind.

‘Do not worry about anything’. The older translation says ‘Be careful for nothing’. I think there’s a fine line between planning and worrying. Sometimes I’ll be talking about what needs to be done for St Benedicts and someone will say ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be alright.’ I’m sure that God is looking out for us and that God will provide all our needs, but that doesn’t excuse shoddy planning and a failure to look ahead. It would be silly if we decided to have a bazaar in December and no-one prepared for it - we wouldn’t have anything to sell. But being filled with care or filled with worry doesn’t help either. Worry drains energy.

Instead of worrying the lesson tells us ‘in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your needs be made known unto God.’ We seem to have a certain reticence with this one. We feel good about praying for people we know who are sick or on trouble. We’re OK with praying for groups of people like the homeless or those serving in the military and for big issues like peace in the Middle-East. But we’re less comfortable praying for ourselves. When we pray together we rarely pray for St Benedicts and some of us feel it’s almost rude to ask God for money. But there are no exceptions to what we can bring to God.

‘In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your needs be made known unto God.’ There’s an important key in there – with thanksgiving. When we pray let us not neglect to give thanks - thanks for all that God has already given us and for all that God will give us.

Remembering to give thanks and rejoicing in the Lord help us to get unstuck from the material world. Today’s gospel reading is a helpful reminder that the physical world is not everything. ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ We do not always have everything we want materially. We are not as well off as we would like to be and during the tough times it’s easy to wonder why God is not supplying us with everything we want.

But God is not a vending machine where you put in your prayers in the right amount, press the right buttons and get goodies out the bottom. Jesus tells the crowd that they are following him for the wrong reasons - they are following him because he fed them with bread but more important is God’s bread.

When we can remain focused on rejoicing in the Lord and giving thanks in prayer. When we are taking time to stay in God’s presence and to wonder at who God is – then we are filled spiritually. People all around us are trying to fill themselves up with things that don’t satisfy, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is why folk get addicted, whether it’s to drugs, alcohol, romance, sex, food, shopping, television or the internet. We look for something to fill the hole. We want to be full and we imagine that eating more bread will do it.

But it won’t, only fixing our gaze firmly upon God and allowing our hearts to be filled with divine love. Only a true conversion, a turning toward Spirit will fill the hole. This is a conversion that happens again and again, not just once in a lifetime. Every time we choose to turn to God and rejoice in God we experience a mini-conversion. And every time it gets a little easier.
All that we have is a gift from God. But it is not what we have that satisfies. Only feasting upon God brings fullness and life and true thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Take Courage and Work to bring God's Kindom on earth

As you may remember, there were several different Jewish sects at the time of Jesus. The two who most often feature in Gospel stories are the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were particularly concerned with the temple and all things connected to ritual worship whereas the Pharisees were more concerned about the law and its correct interpretation in contemporary society. The two groups had different ideas about the afterlife. It’s easy to remember which is which. The Sadducees were sad-you-see because they did not believe in immortality but the Pharisees said ‘Far-I-see’ because they did believe in life after death.

Jesus was probably a Pharisee, despite the negative things he sometimes said about them. In today’s Gospel reading, the Sadducees are really taunting him – suppose, they said, a man died. Since it was customary for a man to marry his brother’s widow if she had not borne children the first brother married her, but alas he died very soon. The second brother married her, but he too died childless and then the third brother… and so through seven brothers. Whose wife would she be in this so-called resurrection??

Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t get hooked into an argument which is really not that important. He simply says that the rules of this world no longer apply in the resurrection and that even Moses believed that the dead lived on. And that’s it. Jesus really tells us very little about life after death, so it’s surprising that so many people think that Christianity is about what happens to you when you’re dead. They equate eternal life with life after this one and imagine that it’s all about making sure that you’ll live in paradise in the hereafter.

Of course it’s comforting to think that our loved ones who have died are happy, and as we age I think it’s only natural to wonder what happens next. But that’s not what Christianity is about. Christianity is about the here and now. It’s about how we live today. It’s about the quality of our lives on every level, spiritual, emotional, relational, physical. Eternal life is living everyday as if it truly matters. Many people who are told that they have a limited life expectancy find that they discover a heightened awareness of everyday life- every moment becomes more precious. That is eternal life. Living in the eternal now, living as if every moment counts.

One of the dangers of focusing on the hereafter is that we fail to live in the present. If I’m busy looking forward to tomorrow then I’m likely not to enjoy today. If I think that this life is just a stepping stone, a staging point before the real action starts, then I’m not going to take care of what is here and now. There’s no point in thinking about the environment because it’s only temporary; there’s no point in looking after my health, because we’re all going to die anyway, and the sooner the better.

In other words, focusing on what’s going to happen when we die leads to very poor stewardship.

God incarnated. God became flesh and blood, molecules and atoms. That means that God cared about the physical world enough to be part of it. Creation is not something that God did in God’s spare time on some long forgotten vacation and now checks in on from time to time. Creation is where God lives.

It’s also where we live. Stewardship is living as though we take that seriously.

All that we have is a gift from God. I know you’ve heard me say that before. I want you to put your hands into your pockets or into your purses and take out what you find there… whatever it is, take it out and look at it. What are you holding? …Kleenex, keys, candy wrappers…? All these things and the things they symbolize are gifts from God. Our cars, our homes, our tears, our food, our activities – all gifts from God.
Before you put them away and before I go on, please take a moment silently to thank God for the things you have in your hand and all that they symbolize.

All that we have is a gift from God to be used wisely to continue creation. We are co-creators with God – we have been given the power to create beauty or destruction. The decisions we make about how we use our resources lead to life or lead to death. As a people we are realizing that we have made choices that lead to death for many species and threaten to radically change our planet and the lives of all beings on it. Over-consumption has led not only to needless hunger and illness but now to global warming.

Is it too late to do anything about it?

The first reading today from the prophet Haggai is very encouraging, ‘take courage all you people of the land, work, for I am with you says the Lord of hosts… My spirit abides among you, do not fear.’

Take courage and work. Not take courage and do nothing different. Not take courage and wait for the government to do something or the vestry to find a solution. No, take courage and work.

We seem to be seeing an accelerator effect, that as global warming really starts to get underway, various natural processes are set in motion that make it happen faster. I suspect that if we really take seriously the work of restoring the earth, we will find the same thing happening in reverse. When we cooperate with God we truly find that God’s spirit abides among us and we need not fear. But it takes both courage and work. Hoping that somehow it’ll go away is not going to make the difference we need. A failure to act is as much an act of creation as a decision to work for change.

The same is true here at St Benedict’s. As we come to the end of this year, the first year when we have paid our mortgage out of our operating income, the figures are a little discouraging. Our income for last month was very low. I hope that we will end this year with just about as much cash reserve as we had at the beginning of the year.

I had hoped that by now the building would have been finished enough to get our permanent occupancy permit, but we continue to wait on the latest ideas from PG&E for our electricity supply. I am very grateful to Bill and Don who have been putting our baseboard in this week – doesn’t it look great! Our acoustical consultant was here two weeks ago and has a recommendation for a sound system which will enable people to really hear what’s going on. Little by little this building is being built.

Little by little we are understanding God’s purpose for us. I believe that God’s purpose for St Benedict’s is to witness to God’s love for us and all beings and to express that in a way that can be heard and received by people who have been turned off or rejected by other expressions of faith which are limiting and judgmental. I believe that God wants to use us to bring hundreds and thousands of people into a life giving relationship with Spirit. Some of them may become church members, many will not.

We are not all called to relate to God in the same way and we are not all called to minister in the same ways. This week you will all be receiving a letter from me asking you prayerfully to consider the promise you make for financially supporting God’s work in this church during the coming year. Next Sunday we will be collecting the pledges, the promises you make so that we can use them as we consider our financial goals for the coming year.

I ask you to consider seriously this week not only how much money God is asking you to give to St Benedicts but also how God is calling you to minister. Not all of us are called to build up the body of Christ. Many of us are primarily called to minister in our jobs, in our families, through our artistic gifts or through friendships and community activities. For many years I felt that I was not really accepted as a full member of this church because I had a demanding, busy job and could not give time and energy to the things that are necessary for our common life. There are those who have much time and energy to give to the church and others who only have a little because this is not where their primary ministry lies.

We sometimes feel stretched both financially and practically, but true stewardship calls us to do that which is joyful to us and to give our first fruits back to God with joy and thanksgiving. The renowned preacher, Frederick Bruechner, once said that our ministry is found where the world’s greatest need and our deepest joy meet. I urge you to look at where your deepest joy is found and to offer that in service to God.

Together we can take courage and work to fully realize the continuing creation of God in the beauty not only of our physical building but of our community together. Thus we shall bring to pass the prophecy of Haggai, “The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.”