Benediction Online

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Living up to our Name
Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1: 29-42

Today’s readings make me think about identity - who we are and who God intends us to be. The Gospel reading is from John, the last of the four gospels, which was written most consciously to identify Jesus as the Son of God. In the reading, John the Baptizer identifies Jesus as the ‘lamb of God’- the one he has talked about. In the Jewish faith, lambs were sacrificed at Passover in memory of the exodus from Egypt. Before the Hebrews were freed from Egypt, the final plague was the death of the firstborn in each household. The Hebrews were told to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on the lintels of their houses, and when he saw this sign the angel of death passed-over their homes and the lives of their children were spared.

The Passover lamb was therefore an amazingly evocative image of mercy and freedom and life, and here John is likening Jesus to the lamb - not a lamb sacrificed by humans, but the Lamb of God. In Christian tradition, Jesus became the ultimate Passover lamb, God’s sacrifice, who was sacrificed so that the angel of death would pass over all of us. We use a lot of that imagery in the language of the Eucharistic prayer.

So John was making a dramatic and multi-layered statement about who Jesus was – its not surprising that two of his own disciples decided to follow Jesus. One of these, Andrew fetched his brother. When Jesus saw him he said “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Peter.”

Those must have been astonishingly profound words for Peter. Jesus, the Anointed Messiah, not only knew his name, but already knew him well enough to give him another. He must have felt deeply seen and known. Our names are important to us. They become a symbol of who we are. When I say ‘Mary Elizabeth’ that brings up in our minds not just a sound or a picture but an awareness of the person we know as Mary Elizabeth and that awareness is more like a taste or a flavor than a list of attributes. We often have nicknames or family names for those who are close to us – names which say something special about them or our relationship. People who use those names for us have a special relationship of intimacy.

Simon doesn’t need to be introduced to Jesus – Jesus already knows who he is. Jesus already knows who each one of us is. In the first reading, the suffering servant says ‘The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.’ I think that is true of every one of us. ‘The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.’ Now whether, when I was in the womb, the Lord named me Caroline or Caro or Caroline Jane or some totally different name, I don’t know.

It may be that God has special private names for each one of us, names which are known only to our souls. There are a couple of verses in Isaiah where the prophet talks about God giving us a new name. In Revelation as well there are several references to new names given to those who persevere. But Peter hasn’t persevered. He only just showed up, and Jesus tells him – you are Simon, you will be called Peter. The name Peter is related to rock and we can imagine how mortified Peter must have been later, when he, the one called the rock, goes into a total meltdown at the time of Jesus’ arrest and flip-flops all over the place in a very unrocklike manner.

Because we don’t always live up to our names. Someone called Grace may not always be graceful, and naming your child Joy does not guarantee a sunny disposition.

As a faith community we have the name St Benedict’s – I wonder whether we are living up to our name? Today is our parish meeting and a time for us to reflect again on what we are doing and why we are doing it. We are named for a 6th century religious around whom disciples gathered and who created an instruction manual or a rule which became widely known and used for the ordering of the monastic life.

The spirit of Benedict’s rule is summed up in the Latin phrase ora et labora which means ‘pray and work’. He aimed "to establish a school for the Lord's service" where "we progress in the way of life [that, in his love, the Lord shows us] and in faith", and so "run along the way of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love", with the hope that "never swerving from his instructions, but faithfully observing his teaching, we shall through patience share in the passion of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his Kingdom". St Benedict's rule organised the monastic day into regular periods of communal and private prayer, sleep, spiritual reading, and manual labour "that in all [things] God may be glorified". In later centuries, intellectual work and teaching took the place of farming, crafts, or other forms of manual labour for many – if not most – Benedictines. The Benedictines became known for their hospitality and their support of the arts and the life of the mind.

So we are named for more than a well-known saint; we are named for a way of life. A way of life which includes both communal and private prayer, spiritual reading, hard work, and (I’m glad to say) rest. Our name places us within a specific tradition of spirituality, that of contemplation and service. It marks us as a people who go deeper spirtually at the same time as we work for the well-being of all beings, as people whose spiritual life sustains hard work but hard work balanced with adequate rest.

‘The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.’ That’s how intimately God knows and loves each one of us individually. It’s also how intimately God knows us as a people.

People around us are hungry for that intimate relationship with the divine. They want to know that God loves them so much that they were called and named before they even took their first breath. We too are hungry for that relationship; we are hungry for a sustaining, life-giving relationship of loving intimacy with God. As Benedictines we have inherited a roadmap – a guide – to living in such a way that we can "run along the way of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love".

At yesterday’s visioning meeting with the Bishop she asked what it would look like if we did what we already do with more focus and action. I would change that a little and ask how we can do what we already do with more purpose and vision. When we see even the smallest or most menial thing we do as building the vision of a community living intimately with God "running along the way of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love". When we know that sweeping the floor, putting out the trash, washing plates is an expression of our life together that leads us closer to God and draws others to God. When we fully grasp that we are called to live every moment and do everything because we love and are loved and our hearts are overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.

Then we wll begin to live up to the names by which we are called. Our public names, our family names, God’s special soul name, and the name of our faith community – St Benedict’s.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Epiphany -
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Today’s gospel is another wonderful story – three magi, astrologers or wise men come on their camels bringing rich and symbolic gifts to the infant.

I wonder how it would be in today’s Middle East if three Iraqis or Iranians tried to get to Bethlehem to visit a baby. If they managed to get visas they would find a 12 foot high, 700 mile long wall surrounding the town. If they headed to Jerusalem to try to meet the Israeli President first they might well be held as potential terrorists.

All in the name of security.

We live in a time of fear. The events of 9-11 are just one of the factors that have made us aware that we are vulnerable in a way this generation has never known. We are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, to rising prices and rising tides. It is only reasonable that in a time of such insecurity we should spend time and money trying to protect ourselves, to identify the next threat and to defend against it. Or is it?

Fear feeds upon fear. Does the wall that separates Israeli from Palestinian contribute to Israel’s safety or does it breed resentment which actually works against Israel’s interests? Does holding people without trial in case they are terrorists ensure safety or does it encroach upon the rights of individuals in a way that begins to threaten the core values of our way of life? Does torture protect us from attack or does it reduce our own humanity in such a way that instead of being protected we are diminished?

These are big questions.

When we act from fear we divide people into groups. These are people who are like me; they are people who are not like me. Then we begin to believe that the people who are not like us have all kinds of characteristics that are alien to us. We can see this on a national level where people are discriminated against because they have Middle Eastern names or because they look Arabic. But we also see it on a local level where those who have different ideas from us about the sewer plant location or technology we think of as stupid or crazy or aggressive. Politicians use this all the time to motivate us – the encourage us to be afraid of and resentful towards people with different skin colors, people with different languages, people with different habits, people with different sexual orientation, people with different religions.

Today’s readings are about the promise of God coming to all peoples. The reading from Isaiah is a wonderful picture of all the nations of the world uniting as they come to Jerusalem in worship. The writer to the Ephesians says that this plan was hidden in God until now – in other words, it has been God’s secret intention all along - that all people should be united in Christ.

This is the meaning of Epiphany – that God is revealed. And when God is revealed, in turning towards God, all our divisions cease.

So the divisions in our world are a reminder that we have not yet fully turned towards God, that God is not yet fully revealed in our midst. I was struck by that phrase from Ephesians, ‘so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.’ The wisdom of God in its rich variety.

We only have to look at the created world to know that God loves diversity. Who needs an orangutan if they have a gorilla? apparently God does. Who needs the Irish hills when they have the Seven Sisters? apparently God does. Who needs a Chihuahua if they can have an Irish setter? apparently we do.

God is not the only one who loves diversity. We love it. We love color and texture and new things. We are after all made in God’s image.

But difference also scares us. We’re most comfortable with people like us. So it’s tempting to try to make everyone like us, or only to get to know those who are similar. Within a faith community we have two challenges. The first is to learn to love those who are different from us and rub us up the wrong way. Personalities can be very challenging. We don’t choose the people we worship with in quite the same way that we choose our friends. So the message of today’s gospel is ‘get over it’.

Our spiritual challenge is to learn to love and be at one with all of God’s people. That’s one of the reasons we pass the peace before the Eucharist – how can we come to God’s table if we are not at peace with each other? But true peace and true love go deeper than a hug or a handshake. It is a spiritual discipline to forgive and to find a way to love those difficult people, even if they don’t change.

The second challenge we have is to be fully open to new and different people joining us. Its easy to get comfortable with who we are. It’s important for us to think about our identity and our mission and that involves identifying how we are different from other churches and, we would like to think, better. But the more attached we are to how we’re special, the more difficult it becomes to truly welcome others.

The gospel has been described as one of radical hospitality and we see that in today’s readings. No-one is excluded from coming to the light, and this has been God’s plan from the beginning. We see it in Jesus’ ministry. He spent time with people who were considered outcasts and encouraged children to come to him.

In American society things are much more subtle and complex. The ways that we exclude people are quiet and not so noticeable. We develop attitudes that exclude without even realizing it. People feel excluded even if we don’t intend exclusion. It’s easy for us to be complacent and say everyone is welcome here. Are they?

Our government’s response to perceived threat is to try to identify those who are a threat, which means treating everyone with suspicion. It has made preemptive warfare a policy –in other words hitting someone you think might hit you, before they do. It has resorted to inhumane ways of treating people and claimed that somehow it is above international law, while trying to enforce international law on others. It is easy for us to distance ourselves from the policies we disagree with, to say that’s them, not us. But our government’s policies and behavior are a reflection of who we are as a people.

Today’s readings of radical hospitality are much more serious than a nice story of three wise men. They call us to make changes. They call us to examine who we exclude or look down on or avoid, both within the church community and outside. They call us to find ways to embrace diversity – to meet and enjoy people who are different from us. They call us to hold our government accountable for all the ways that we encourage discrimination, foster hate and treat people as less than human.

They call us to action.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Christmas Eve

‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.’ The historian Josephus tells us that this happened in about 6 or 7 CE. The census was probably carried out in order to provide a basis for new taxes as the Romans were now ruling the area directly. Perhaps not surprisingly it led to an uprising and the beginning of an ongoing insurgency led by the Zealots.

Luke, who wrote the birth narrative we heard to night, made a big mistake. He used the census as a way to explain how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, but he got the year wrong. In his story the census must have happened about ten years before it did. In addition, contemporary historical accounts do not mention people going back to their ancestral homes.

If Luke got that wrong, what else did he get wrong?

Is there any truth to the Christmas story or are we all here under some kind of illusion rather like the stories we tell our children about Santa?

Is it time we grew up and realized that at the center of the Christmas story there is just a nice story which means nothing?

This year several people have published books arguing just that. There is no God. Religion is a fraud, or perhaps it is just a stimulation of part of the brain, or a genetically transmitted need to worship. Many people have focused on the negative effects of modern religion and concluded that we’re better off without it.

So why are we here tonight? What made you decide to come out this evening to sing and listen and pray? Are we all here because we’re gullible enough to believe a lie?

It depends, I think, on what we mean by truth.

There’s truth in the sense of facts. Like the historical fact that Quirinius was a Roman senator who was appointed by Caesar Augustus to be the governor of Syria; or the fact that our thoughts effect our behavior.

Then there’s truth in the sense of meaning. This is truth that cannot be ‘proved’ or sometimes even grasped by our logical minds, but which is nonetheless true. It is our intuitive grasp of this kind of truth which makes us more than computers. As scientists probe the further edges of the universe they start to use language which sounds more like poetry than science.

Because hard data only goes so far. The great truths are ones which can only be glimpsed, which can only be expressed in poetry and story. Luke knew that and he wrote a great story about Jesus’ birth. A great story that continues to inspire us two thousand years later.

It doesn’t really matter that Luke’s history wasn’t good. His use of the census immediately places Jesus’ birth within the context of conflict between the people of Judea and the Roman occupiers. Jesus’ birth happens in the midst of conflict. God becomes human not in easy circumstances, but in the middle of a conflict which would later flair up into war, in a place meant for only animals to sleep, without a midwife and with only shepherds as worshippers.

Why was there no room in the inn? Were Joseph and Mary rotten parents who didn’t think to book in advance? Possibly, but it’s more likely that Luke is pointing to the contrast between the busy inn where people are partying, talking and transacting business and the stable where no-one would think to look for God. This is not a mainstream God. The God whose human birth we celebrate today offers an alternative to the rat race; an alternative to the insecurities and fears which drive our society.

That is the truth behind the story that Luke tells. That is the reason we are here. That is why we continue to retell and celebrate the Christmas story even though the facts have been in question for well over a hundred years.

We long for something more. We long for an alternative world where we need not fear, where we need not be constantly striving; a world which is not based on competition because all are equally loved, all are equally valuable. We long to be able to be truly ourselves and to act and live with the integrity that comes from being a whole, complete person.

This is the promise of Christmas. All that we long for in the deepest part of our being is possible. God does not answer prayer. Not at the Santa Claus level of ‘please bring me an Ipod nano’ nor even at the level of ‘please cure this cancer’ but at the deeper level of ‘God meet me, feed me, heal me, transform me’ - at that level God always answers. There is no magic formula of words you have to use nor of the response that God will make. God’s relationship with each one of us is totally unique. But when your longing for meaning, your longing for spirit leads you to God, God always answers.

The child in the manger. God made flesh, God become human. The birth and rebirth of God in your life may not seem like much. There may not be choirs of angels singing, there may not be a great spiritual high. You may not get shepherds banging at your door late at night. Because this is a different world. This is God’s world where the most amazing things happen so quietly that you might not notice them if you weren’t paying attention.

The people in the inn didn’t hear the angels sing. They were too busy. The shepherds were out in the night, sitting in the dark. Sometimes it takes a lot of sitting in the dark before we realize that God is sitting quietly beside us. Perhaps that’s why so many spiritual leaders, for example Moses, David, the Prophet Mohammed, the Hindu Lord Krishna, were all shepherds. Spiritual maturity requires the cultivation of solitude.

I don’t want to give the impression that God was not present in the inn. Jesus’ birth tells us that God is fully present in creation. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, God is present. But because Spirit has this habit of being so quiet that God is easily overlooked and because we see God not with the eyes of our logical rational minds but with the eyes of the heart, we have to learn to be quiet enough ourselves to cultivate the knowledge and experience of God’s presence.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.