Benediction Online

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Into the Flame

Sometimes one of my cats will refuse to come in at night because she’s having such a good time chasing moths. The best way to get her in is to turn off the outside lights so that the insects are no longer attracted to it. Moths are drawn to light to such an extent that they will fly into a flame and get die in its heat. We humans are drawn to God but to get too close has meant certain death, Ever since the first people realized that they were separate from God, for us to come too close has been fatal. Moses was not allowed to see God’s face, only his back and the people of Israel were not even allowed to touch the mountain where Moses spoke with God; only the priests after proper precautions were allowed in the Holy of Holies where God’s presence dwelled; Isaiah on seeing a vision of the heavenly court responded, ‘Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips.’

Like moths in a flame we would die in God’s immediate presence. Today we celebrate God’s solution. God did not put special barriers around himself so that we would not get too close but instead God sent his Son, an integral part of Godself, to die and rise again so that we might no longer die. This is the awesome mystery of Easter. Now we can come into God’s presence without fear. Now we can fly into the flame and not be consumed.

It’s been many, many generations since the first Easter and I wonder if we take this too much for granted. I have never known anyone who died because they mishandled holy things or because they tried to be too intimate with God. I am used to the idea that God wants to be my best friend, my parent, my guide and is just waiting for me to let Him. I am used to the idea that God is waiting eagerly to hear my every thought should I care to direct it to Him.

We have domesticated God and treat him like some kind of household pet who doesn’t need feeding and patiently waits for us to give it attention. Now I don’t know about your cats, but I know that mine would never stand for that kind of treatment.

So do we treat God as though God is less important than a cat?

Mary did not recognize Jesus in the garden. Very often we do not recognize God in our lives. For Jesus first resurrection appearance we might expect a heavenly choir, a trumpet fanfare, a little bit of excitement, but no, just a man in a garden blending in with his surroundings. That is often the way God comes to us, quietly and disguised in circumstances, in an odd whim, in the words or actions of others.

If we could only meet God in the temple, if we had to perform elaborate rituals and were afraid that a misstep could result in death, then we would attach so much more importance to the meeting. It would be noticeable and remarkable.

We have the incredible privilege of meeting God wherever we are, whatever we are doing and whatever we are wearing! It doesn’t matter who we are, God is available to us because since Jesus died and rose again, we no longer die if we not careful in God’s presence.

But God’s unassuming availability means that we might miss meeting him. I am a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan - English light opera from the late nineteenth century. Once a year the Performing Art Center brings a touring company who perform one of the popular operettas. I do everything I can to go. But I know that if they were performing here every week I’d probably go once or twice a year if that. It would no longer be so special. But since they come once a year I am attentive. I look for the Performing Arts Calendar, I hope they’ll be coming again and I look forward to it.

It is that quality of attentiveness and anticipation which we need to prevent us taking Jesus’ resurrection and the opportunity to be in relationship with God for granted. Once we start to pay attention and to notice God’s grace in our lives, once we start to give thanks for all that God has given us, then our lives begin to take on new meaning. Because we are made to be in relationship with the divine, and as we invite the Holy Spirit to transform us and as we say “not my will but thine’ a whole new life is ours.

Because life is really what it’s all about. Jesus brought life. Jesus gave his life so that we might have abundant life, the life that flows from being filled by God’s amazing and powerful love.

The message of Easter Day is that God loves you and me so much that there is nothing we can do which will make Him stop loving us. Even after we called for him to be crucified and nailed God to a cross in hatred he still came back to give us yet another chance.

If we take that for granted, we are missing out on so much. Like moths drawn to a flame, we are drawn to God. But there isn’t the same compulsion. We can fly around, saying ‘Hmm, I think this is probably the wrong angle’ or “I want to take my own individual flight path’ or ‘well I was going in with them but I just don’t like the way they sing’. We can come up with millions of excuses and then lose interest altogether – go off and fly around in the dark having a great life, but all the time missing something.

Or we can just go for it.

We can decide that living for and with God is the number one priority in our lives.
We can fly directly toward the flame, toss caution to the winds and throw ourselves on the mercy of God’s grace. We can believe that Jesus really has conquered death and that though we may be changed we will not be entirely burned and consumed as we engage passionately with the almighty and everliving God.

I hope that you will join me in coming in from the dark and the half light, trusting in Jesus’ resurrection, and flying full speed ahead into the flame of God’s extravagant love.

Why did Jesus Die?

If you have been channel surfing on Charter cable recently you may have come across the pilot for a series called “What Happened to God?”. The producer is a student teacher, Evan, who has been here for a couple of Hollister institute talks and has used me as a starting off point for some of his upcoming programs. If the first one, which was on homosexuality, is anything to go by, they are worth watching. He was here this week and during his interview asked “So you don’t think that Jesus died to save you from your sins?” I could only reply “No, I think that’s a very simplistic and not very helpful way to understand Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.”

But here we are on Good Friday faced with the cross and what it means to us. Theologians from St Paul on have written thousands of books trying to understand and explain what the cross is all about and still I don’t think we understand. I don’t know whether Jesus’ death was in some way in God’s plan from the beginning or whether it was a natural outcome of the way he lived, or both. But I think there are some things we can say with relative certainty.

The first of course, is that whatever it was about, Jesus’ crucifixion is a very big deal. In fact I would go so far as to say that his death and resurrection were a cosmic event which in some way changed the very fabric of the universe. That’s symbolized by the temple curtain; the curtain which kept the Holy of Holies separate from the part of the temple where ordinary people could go, that curtain was torn in two from the top to the bottom. This suggests a huge change in the relationship between God and humanity.

The second thing we can be sure about is that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice. Sacrifice was the language of religions from the earliest times and it is not surprising that when God wanted to communicate God’s love to humanity God used the vernacular of sacrifice. The earliest Christian theologians understood Jesus death on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice made to atone for sin.

In the two thousand years since then, sacrifice has come to have a different meaning. If I tell you that I made a sacrifice you do not immediately think that I went to the temple and bought a couple of pigeons, a lamb or a goat and had them slaughtered. You are more likely to think that I did without something I wanted in order to benefit someone or something else.

Jesus’ death was a sacrifice in both these ways, but it is the second definition that makes most immediate sense to us today. Jesus gave up the freedom and power that belongs to God and became fully human. He did that in order to demonstrate in a graphic and unforgettable way, God’s extravagant love for us.

So today, we gather to meditate upon the cross, but not to dwell on it. Unlike Mel Gibson we do not dwell on the nails, the blood and the pain but see through these to the extraordinary love that they communicate. Suffering and pain are an integral part of what it means to be human, but they are not part of what it means to be God. Very few of us choose to suffer but God chose to suffer; God chose to become human and to experience a cruel death, so that we might know the depth of God’s love.
To say that Jesus died for our sins is a limited and I think rather prosaic view of the immensity of God’s gift. As a result of Jesus’ death the curtain was torn in two; it became possible for us to enter the Holy of Holies. Before had we dared we would probably have been struck dead, but Jesus conquered death and so we dare, we dare enter the Holy of Holies, we dare go into God’s presence and we will not be struck dead for our impertinence.

Why was this necessary? Because God did not want us to be automatons – God wanted us to be in conscious relationship with him. Just as a fish doesn’t know it swims in water so Adam and Eve didn’t know they were in relationship with God – they didn’t know the difference until they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And as a result they were separated from God – sin entered the picture, because sin is what separates us from God. From then on it became dangerous for humans to get too close to God. Yahweh only showed Moses his back because he would have died to see his face, and that was Moses! think what would happen if the rest of us came within half a mile of the almighty God.

But in Jesus that problem is resolved, because Jesus died and rose again, thus conquering death and making it possible for us to go blundering into the Holy of Holies and still live, in fact to live at a higher level of vibration than ever before.

But of course I am running ahead of myself in the story.

Today is Good Friday and we are here to remember with awe Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross. There’s a line in one of our Eucharistic prayers, ‘deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace openly and not for strength’. I would pray that we be delivered from the presumption of meditating upon the cross for solace only and not for strength.

Yes the cross is the symbol of God’s extravagant love for us, but it is not just God’s love for us but for all beings - I guess that’s another problem with ‘Jesus died to save me from my sins’ – it’s all about me. If we think the cross is all about us then in some ways we’re missing the point.

The temple curtain was torn down the middle so that everyone could come to God and as disciples of Jesus it is our task to go out and share that knowledge, that experience. As we contemplate the cross this evening and the incredible love that shines through it, let us ask to be so filled, rooted and grounded in that love that we cannot help but bring others into relationship with God.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Resurrection and the Life: John 11
preached by the Rev. Donna Ross, March 9, 2008

Today we hear the story of Lazarus and Martha, one of the most powerful of all the stories told by the early church.

Lazarus’ story – and Martha’s story – was learned by heart by early Christians preparing for their baptism. And as they learned these stories, they came to believe that their own lives would be transformed through baptism – just as the lives of Martha and Lazarus were changed forever through their relationship with Jesus.

Why is Lazarus’ story so powerful? Because the story reminds us: We are all afraid of death. We are afraid of our own deaths; we are afraid of the deaths of loved ones. Indeed, we are in great danger of living our whole lives bound up in the fear of death.

We are so afraid of death that we want to protect ourselves – and especially we want to protect our children, to keep them safe from eternal death. But will those few drops of water we pour on their little heads keep them from eternal death – if we never tell them what the water means, if we never tell them the stories, if we never encourage them to meet Jesus for themselves?

So we need to tell Martha’s story, too. We (especially we women) know the “Mary and Martha” story. We know that Martha has a strong personality: we know she loves her brother Lazarus; we know she sometimes picks on her sister Mary; and we know she is willing to speak up to Jesus.

But Martha’s story becomes even more powerful when we hear her declare her faith in Jesus. (We hear the story of Peter’s confession over and over again:

Simon Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! ... And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

A whole church has been built up on the confession of Simon Peter! But we rarely hear – really hear – Martha’s confession:

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God...”)

Martha is someone who sees clearly, even under the greatest pressure life can give her. Martha is someone who will follow Jesus wherever he leads her – even into danger. Her trust in Jesus was a model for the first Christians, and it is a model for us: Martha does not let death or life stop her from doing what she believes is right.

Baptism cannot prevent death. We’re all going to die – even as Lazarus also died again. But here’s what baptism can do: It can keep us from being overwhelmed by our fear of death.

Jesus knew he was going to die – and Jesus, just like you and me, was afraid of dying. After the raising of Lazarus (so close to Jerusalem, the stronghold of the authorities), Jesus knew his every word and every action would bring him closer to his death. But the fear of death did not stop him from doing what he was called to do.

If you read the whole story of Lazarus, Martha and Mary in John’s Gospel (chapters 11-12), you will hear of Lazarus’ illness, his dying, and his coming forth alive from his tomb. You will also hear of the family meal that followed, when everyone was seated with Jesus the table. At that meal, Jesus was anointed with precious oil by Mary. When one of his disciples grumbled about the cost of the oil, Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

Jesus says more about his coming death – but he will call it his glorification. After Lazarus was released from his tomb and the authorities begin plotting to arrest Jesus (and Lazarus, too), Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23)

At the very beginning of the story we’ve heard today, when Jesus decides to go to Lazarus after all, Thomas says, “Come, let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas knows that if they go to Bethany, so near to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples will be in great danger. Thomas is right. Jesus might as well be saying, “Come die with me.”

We all die every day - in everyday defeats, in little deaths both material and spiritual. We all die through our worries about the future, and through our fears over things great and small. But in our baptisms we were given the power to defy these little deaths.

Frederick Niedner, who teaches Biblical studies at Valparaiso University, writes, “Like Lazarus, we find ourselves terribly hindered by the grave clothes that still bind us. We can’t walk the walk of the resurrected when we’re still bound by the old habits that the fear of dying has taught us so well. Thankfully, we find ourselves in a community to which Jesus says, ‘Unbind him; let her go.’”

This is why the baptizing community retells the stories of Lazarus and Martha – to help each other find the way of faith and trust that they walked with Jesus.

This is why the baptizing community calls us again and again to continuing conversion – not once in our baptism, not weekly in communion, but day by day and minute by minute – freeing ourselves from our fear of death, freeing ourselves to be fully alive.

This is why the baptizing community calls us to free ourselves from daily habits, from lifelong patterns – so we can open ourselves to issues of justice and compassion, and open ourselves to loving in spite of fearing.

What happens to the baptizing community when its members truly understand their mission?
What happens when the Christian community helps its members defy their fears and learn to trust? What happens when the baptizing community not only tells the ancient stories, but works to live them day by day?

Here’s a letter I found yesterday in the current Episcopal Life (you can read it again when you go home). It’s a letter about fear, about love, about life; it’s a letter that describes what it means to be baptized, and what it means to be a member of the baptizing community.

Sheena Lawrence writes, “I suffer from depression with psychotic features severe enough to have been granted disability. I have never been able to hold a job for more than one or two years and most for only a few months. When under even moderate stress, I become afraid of even the people who love me and are trying to help.

“Just before I found St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood, Georgia, I was practically housebound for four years because I was too afraid to even try to interact with people. I was convinced the entire world was against me, and there was no one I fully trusted.

“I was accepted with open arms from the very beginning. There were people willing to love me even when I had unwashed hair and body odor – and there were people brave enough to tell me lovingly I needed to shower and wash my hair.

“My life is more stable now than it has ever been because of the love and support of my church – my family. The protection my church family provides has allowed me to use my energy to work on other areas of my life, and I am learning and maturing because of that redirected energy. I do our church website and edit the newsletter. I am in the choir... I still have problems from time to time, but I know people love me and are trying to understand.

I frequently tell people I am the most blessed person on this earth.”

Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and for ever. Amen.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

May God's works be revealed in us.

The disciples asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.”

“He was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.” I always used to think that this meant that God’s work would be revealed when the blind man was healed. In other words, that it was a divine set up by which he was born blind in order for Jesus to heal him and this whole debate to take place. Reading it again this time I wonder whether Jesus meant that he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him, even if he stayed blind for the rest of his life.

Some of us are born with particular challenges or limitations and we get to glorify God not just despite the difference but through the difference. Over the last thirty years gay and lesbian Christians have come to understand our different sexuality as a gift from God which can enable us to serve and glorify God in a different way from most heterosexuals. In our Tuesday evening series we are reading a book by Henri Nouwen, who came to understand and cherish the gifts contained within the limitations of the very disabled people among whom he lived.

Even if we weren’t born with anything particularly unusual about us, all of us are limited. It is the human condition. We humans have tremendous potential and tremendous limitation, and as we get older most of us become more aware of our limitations: both our personal limitations, and the limitations of the situations in which we find ourselves.

So what if we have these limitations in order that God’s work might be revealed in us?

Please take a moment to think of something that you find particularly frustrating, disappointing, limiting…
What if that frustrating, disappointing, limiting thing were precisely the thing given to you in order to reveal God? What if the situation or relationship in your life which gives you the most grief was exactly the thing given to you by God to enable you to become more Christ-like?

When I was on vacation last week I was kayaking in the Sea of Cortez. We had large double touring kayaks and my paddling partner, Scott, was a graphic artist and editor from Nevada. Scott had a wonderful ability to ask questions. Was it difficult. he asked, running a small church? (He told me he preferred to attend large churches where he could be anonymous and not get involved in the politics.) I found myself explaining to him that it is much more difficult to be a member of a small church because there isn’t anywhere to hide.

Small churches are only for those who are serious about discipleship because it is in the relationships we have with those who are close to us that we are transformed – if we allow ourselves to be. Relationships bring with them limitation because in relationship our egos no longer have free rein. In relationship we have to adjust and compromise. We do not always behave as well as we would like to be. Relationships bring up not only our beautiful, joyful selves, but also our angry, resentful, self-righteous selves. We want very much to get rid of the limitation, to make the other person see things our way.

But we cannot force anyone else to change; ultimately the only thing we can really control is our own reactions. Letting go of resentment, letting go of anger, letting go of the need to be right. This is the transformation of discipleship. Letting go of the negative habits of the little ego and embracing the Christ-like habits of forgiveness, compassion and selfless love is the calling and promise of our baptism.

I imagine there were times in Jesus’ ministry when he felt deep joy. I imagine putting clay in the blind man’s eyes and having him see again was pretty cool. But there were also times of great difficulty and how Jesus acted under pressure is a great example for those of us who are called to be his disciples. When he was tempted in the wilderness, as we discussed a few weeks ago, his human limitations were pressing on him. But he didn’t go along with the temptation to use his godly powers to make himself more comfortable by conjuring up a three course meal, he didn’t jump off the top of the temple in order to get praise and adulation. He took the difficult route, the humble route.

Pressed by Pilate to defend himself, he did not. On the cross instead of anger he showed forgiveness.

That is what it means to be Christ-like.

Being a disciple of Christ means allowing the Holy Spirit to use our limitations to transform us and to make us the gentle, humble yet canny people we were created to be.

Fire comes from the spark when a flint is struck. As we come up against our disappointments, our frustrations, our limitations, the friction is an agent for the transforming and purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. We are baptized with water and brought from the dark into the light, but we are also baptized by fire. It isn’t usually a comfortable thing.

The blind man was not born blind because he or his parents sinned -today we might understand it in terms of genetics or disease. Sometimes we find ourselves in difficult situations because of our poor decisions or our sin, sometimes because of someone else’s sin, and sometimes there is no fault – it just happens. How we got there doesn’t make any difference to the Holy Spirit’s ability to use the situation to transform us. What does make a difference is how we respond.

Frustration and anger are normal human reactions and they are useful when they give us energy to make changes. They are not useful when they simply reinforce our little ego’s way of seeing things. They are not useful when they make us feel more self-righteous, more judgmental, more resentful. These things separate us from other people and so they separate us from God. They are ‘sin’.

The desert fathers and mothers had a saying, ‘our life and our death is with our neighbor’. They understood that the things which separated them and made barriers with others were the exact same things that made barriers with God.

This is why we pass the peace before we come to the table for communion. It is not so much a time for greeting people we haven’t seen for a while as a symbolic act of reminding ourselves that we are to be at peace with each other before we come to God together.

Radical acceptance means acknowledging that the situation we find ourselves in, whatever it is, whatever limitations are around us, is precisely the situation that can best reveal God’s work in us. God’s work in us to transform us into truly Christ-like beings. But we are not passive recipients of transformation. We are co-creators with Christ of our own salvation.

When we were baptized we were translated from the dark into the light. That is what gives us hope as we deal with the difficulties of our own little egos. That is what gives us hope as we experience the fire of the Holy Spirit burning in us, challenging us to become more Christ-like. We dip our fingers in the water of the font in order to remember, to remind ourselves that the battle with sin has already been won. The promise of our baptism, the promise of eternal life, the promise of oneness with God gives us hope that transformation is possible and that God's work will be revealed even in the midst of our limitations.

Prayer of St Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.Where there is hatred let us sow love;Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, union; Where there is doubt, faith;Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understoodas to understand; To be loved as to love. For it is in givingthat we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen