Benediction Online

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Maybe God is... difficult
The Rev. Caroline Hall
Jonah 3:10-4:11, Matthew 20:1-16

In a pivotal scene from the movie Then She Found Me which came out last year, Holly Hunt plays a devout Jewish woman about to have a medical procedure. Her mother, played by Bette Midler, suggests she prays first. Holly Hunt’s character refuses and eventually admits it’s because she feels let down by God whom she had thought was loving and good. Bette Midler’s character says, ‘What if God is… difficult… awful… complicated?’

And that is my question to you this morning. What if God is difficult, awful, complicated?

When I was living in Scotland my dear friend from Virginia told me about the wonderful birthday cake her mother made her every year, and I decided to secretly get the recipe and surprise her with her favorite cake. So I called her mother in Alexandria who seemed oddly elusive and said she’d see if she could find the recipe. A week or two later I received a parcel in the mail. It was a packet of Betty Crocker cake mix.

There are some real advantages to using a cake mix. It takes all the guess work out of it – instead of beating the sugar and butter until soft – how soft? Or adding a spoonful or two of flour, just enough to stop the mixture curdling – how much is just enough? Instead of all that uncertainty - you just add eggs and oil and pop it in the oven and it comes out the same every time. It’s easy – good results are pretty much guaranteed.

Many people want God to be like a cake mix. They want God to be sweet, simple, uncomplicated and the same every time. They want a tame God who shows up on cue to solve their problems and help them out of their difficulties. They expect that if God exists he will answer their prayers and keep them out of harm’s way. If that doesn’t happen then either God can’t exist or if he does, he doesn’t care. How, someone asked me yesterday, can I trust God if he doesn’t answer my prayers?

God’s primary purpose is not to answer our prayers. Our primary purpose is to relate to God in friendship, love and worship. We are only truly fulfilled when we are living in relationship to God however we understand her. But our readings today suggest that God may be a lot more difficult, awful and complicated than we would like to think. Relating to God is much less predictable than baking a cake from a cake mix.

In our first reading Jonah gets mad at God. Jonah, at great personal sacrifice, overcame significant reluctance and went to the Gentile city of Ninevah to tell them that if they did not repent they would be destroyed. Then he sat on a hill opposite the city and waited for God to destroy it. But they repented and God repented and there were no fireworks. Jonah was furious. He’d come all this way and gone through hell and high water all for nothing.

In the gospel reading we heard about some very disgruntled field workers. They started work early in the morning and agreed a fair wage with the owner of the vineyard. But at the end of the day they saw others who had worked only a few hours getting paid as much as they were expecting, and they were excited. Obviously the boss was in a generous mood – and they would get paid handsomely. But when it was their turn they were paid only what had been originally agreed. They were angry. Where was the fairness in that?

This is clearly not a parable about equitable pay for fieldworkers. Jesus is trying to talk about the kingdom of heaven and how it is different from the kingdom of earth. Assuming that the landowner is in some way representative of God, the fact that the landowner can spend his money the way he chooses tells us something important about God.

Both these stories talk about the freedom of God. God is difficult…awful… complicated… and free. That means that we cannot control God. We cannot take her out of a box, add the oil of prayer and the eggs of love and get the same result every time. Because it isn’t about us.

That may be the most difficult thing for us to really understand.

Yes God loved the world, and that means you and me, so much that she sent her only beloved Son, part of herself, to die on the cross so that we might know God. But it’s not all about us. It’s all about God. In the beginning was God. The one who is I AM Who I AM.

God is free to do whatever God wants. God created the universe and is continuing to create the universe and if God chooses to do that through DNA or through a creative word or in some totally different way, that’s up to God. God longs to be in relationship with us but it’s not a relationship where we ask for something and God gives it, again and again and again. God has already given us the ultimate gift in Jesus.

Now it’s up to us. It’s up to us to dedicate our lives to loving, serving and worshipping a God over whom we have no control. A God who is difficult, awful, complicated and free. A God who can send us off to do something and then change her mind. A God who can reward people as she sees fit, not according to human systems or ideas of fairness.

None of this lets us off the hook, because it’s not about a relationship of equals. Just because God is free to do whatever God chooses and God may choose to allow Godself to be limited in order to respect our free will, it does not mean that we can forget about ethical holy living. It does not mean that we can forget about loving God.

In fact, it makes everything a bit more demanding and a bit more exciting. Relating to God is not like using a cake mix, it’s more like following a recipe from scratch. A recipe that you haven’t cooked before which has slightly imprecise directions – a ‘dab’ of butter, a ‘rounded’ spoon of sugar, then beat until it coats the back of the spoon – that kind of recipe. You have to give up the need to get it right. You have to surrender to the process and trust that it’ll come out alright and if it doesn’t it’ll still be alright.
That’s the kind of relationship that God calls us into. A deep relationship is one of submission, of saying God’s will not mine, but not one of passivity. We do not get to sit back and say whatever happens is up to God, God expects us to be actively engaged in working for the reign of God. God expects us to be actively engaged in our spiritual work.

Just as God is actively engaged in our lives and the life of this planet. But it isn’t a simple cake in a box, God’s activity is not a panacea which takes away suffering and difficulty. God’s love holds us and supports us but doesn’t mean we avoid pain and suffering. It’s all much more difficult… awful… and complicated than that.

Forgiveness towards a better destiny
The Rev. Faye Hogan

In every lifetime at least one major event happens that changes the course of our world as we know it. Seven years ago, on September 11, was one such event. Religious zealots we are told. Protected as we were by our belief that we were the strongest nation in the world and that everyone respected us, even envied us, there were those who, in all sincerity asked, “Why do they hate us so much?” And seven years later, many of the same people who grieved with us, who set up small shrines for our dead and lay sweet bouquets of flowers at those shrines, who sent material aid and prayers to New York, now have turned away from us, no longer trust us. The very soul of our country is lying in the rubble of villages destroyed in an increasingly unpopular war.
How do we regain the trust with the rest of the world? Many in the Middle East had access to radios and TV. They heard and saw what had happened and we are told many ran into the streets cheering. But there were also those who worried about their family members in New York. And were there others who saw how very alike we all are. Saw Americans responding in just the way they would. Did they see the TV footage of people from all over the U.S. paying their own way to New York to find ways to help? Did they see schools and churches become soup kitchens and shelters?
Bishop George Packard, Bishop to Chaplains in the Episcopal Church, sent out a memo last week in commemoration of 9/11.
“How can we forget those days?... We huddled in fear but we also cleaved to each other in some certainty that a better destiny was found together.”
“That a better destiny was found together.” Isn’t that what today’s scripture, in the end, is all about ? In the reading from Genesis [50:15-21] we have been following the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, mistreated by his brothers yet compassionate to them when they and Joseph’s father, Jacob, fled to exile in Egypt, now has the opportunity to get even. With Jacob dead, the brothers fear retribution from Joseph so decide to try to save their skins by begging on their knees for Joseph’s forgiveness. Joseph not only forgave them with apparently no conditions, and said with conviction, “God meant to bring good out of it.”
“That a better destiny was found together.” Paul ‘s letter to the Romans, apparently a broken body of people, chides the Jewish and Gentile Christians not to argue back and forth over the pervasive self-righteousness each had about the beliefs and practices of the other. Paul reminds them that each is part of a larger picture, each a member of God’s household and that if God has accepted them, who are they to judge one another? “Not everyone has to think as you do. Not everyone has to agree; persue the things that make for peace and build up the common life. Leave the judging to God.” [Romans 14:1-12]
None of us can choose the family we are born into We can’t choose who will be called to become a member of the Christian family, or a member of St. Benedict’s. We do not have to like them. We certainly do not have to love them. We do not have to agree. The hope is that we can help one another to grow into more the person God wants us to be. Disagreement, frustrations with one another present opportunities to learn to live in deeper unity as the body of Christ.
“That a better destiny was found together.” Joseph forgave his brothers. Paul reminds us that the Christian journey is a journey of growth in which forgiveness plays a huge part. In the gospel reading from Matthew [Matt 18:21-25], Peter brings up this whole idea of forgiveness. Most likely Peter knew the answer before he asked. In the culture of his day, Law dictated that you forgive someone 3 times. Only on the 4th time were you permitted to take action. But Peter also, no doubt knew, that Jesus would expect them to be a little more patient with those who offended them. II suspect many of us have had the same question. “But, when is enough enough?!”
William Willimon, religious scholar, writer, and Methodist Bishop, wrote:
“The human animal is not supposed to be good at forgiveness. Forgiveness is not some innate, natural emotion. It is natural for the Human animal to defend itself… to bite back when bitten. Forgiveness is not natural. It is not a universal human virtue.”
I’m so glad that Willimon said that. Each one of us knows that forgiving is often almost impossible. In support sessions with many people, I have heard things like, “I’m a good Christian but I just can’t get past this. I’ve tried but I can’t forgive him/her/them. He’s not even sorry. It would mean that she got away with it. I’ve prayed about this yet I can’t forgive and forget. What’s wrong with me?”
So back to Peter’s question, “When is enough enough?” Enough comes when you finally realize that you have ended up in chains of your own making. Enough is enough when you realize that the one who offended you has gone on living their life and you are still stuck in a mire of anger and resentment. Enough is enough when you finally realize that you have been missing an opportunity given to you by God. Is it possible that friction and disagreement may be the places where our faith is most deepened.
Bp. Fred Borsch, former Bp. Of the Los Angeles Diocese, was fond of reminding the clergy that life took place along the fine line of disorder and that changes often seem random, mysterious and strange and that we continually strive for balance between chaos and order. But into this mix, if we surrender some of our control, we are able to begin to love the mystery and to trust the beauty of a world in which God asks of us only that we attain inner peace and live in love and harmony with all others of God’s creation.
I close this morning with an untitled and anonymous poem that points to the good that one person saw coming out of 9/11:
As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,
We became one color
As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building,
We became one class.
As we lit candles of waiting and hoping,
We became one generation.
As the firefighters and police officers fought their way into the inferno,
We became one gender.
As we fell to our knees in prayer for strength,
We became one faith.
As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,
We spoke one language.
As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,
We became one body.
As we mourned together the great loss,
We became one family.
As we cried tears of grief and loss,
We became one soul.
As we retell with pride the sacrifice of heroes,
We become one people.

(with thanks to Dr. Larry Bethune, from Remembrance of Hope)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sermon for: Sept 7, 2008 (St. Benedict’s, Los Osos CA)
Brian H.O.A. McHugh, Associate priest
Season: Proper 18A_RCL_Pent XVII

[ Note: all Scripture quotes are from Eugene Peterson's The Message"]

As I pondered the readings for this Sunday, I found most of the readings uninspiring. This happens every now and then. Usually it means that I’m in a discouraged or cynical mood. The constant drone of politics will always do it. Usually in these circumstances I produce a “comfort sermon”. Most of us like to come together as “church” to be comforted. To be reassured that “all will be well” both in this life and in the unknown Beyond; that God loves us unconditionally. This is OK. Of course we often make the assumption that if God loves us unconditionally, God approves of us and what we do. This, of course, is not necessarily the case. But, I don’t want to get off on a rant, especially since rants are pretty grim. Aside from their message, maybe that’s why the prophets were so “without honor in their own country”. So, I would like to engage us in a conversation. What does it mean that God is Love – if you agree God is? What does it mean that the Gospel is a Gospel about Peace and Reconciliation – if you agree it is? I will try to take a balanced look at both the Bad News and at the Good News today.

“Israel” is a symbol for Humankind. God chooses all Humankind as Her people. God loves all Humankind equally and unconditionally. This, I think, is clear in both the Hebrew and Christian Bible – despite the fact that various sides are always trying to co-opt God for their own ends. All peoples tend now and then to confuse God’s will with their own cultural values, especially in times of distress or threat, or of scrambling for power.

Today, we hear God sending His “son of man”, the prophet Ezekiel to “speak to Israel” – remember, that’s us. The message is pretty “grim” and unequivocal: 'Wicked man, wicked woman, you're on the fast track to death!” Now, I think this is constant state of human affairs. We live on this fine edge between spiritual death and life most of the time - and I think we all know it. The lament that God has heard from Israel is the lament of Humanity when we are able to be honest: "Our rebellions and sins are weighing us down. We're wasting away. How can we go on living?” And God in frustration replies, “As sure as I am the living God, I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked. I want the wicked to change their ways and live. Turn your life around! Reverse your evil ways! Why die, Israel?'”

“Why die” indeed!? There is an old joke about a man arriving at the Heavenly Gates prepared to show his excellent credentials to St. Peter for instant admission. Peter just asks to see his chequebook; that will say what he truly valued. What Peter would see in the World’s chequebook today is a vast amount spent on weapons of destruction - this is the prevailing symbol of Death hanging over us all today (except for Costa Rica, which courageously has no military). As I look around the World today, it feels to me as if we are all on the Path to Death, both spiritual and physical. Fanatical extremist terrorists of all religions and cultures; hate-and-fear-driven skinheads of all stripes; ethnic gangs who (as the mayor of Santa Maria said Wednesday) would as easily shoot you as say Hi; governments who permit millions of their people to die or suffer or be raped or starve in order to stay in power; rapacious corporate capitalists, communists, oligarchs, all of whom in their own ways ruthlessly limit freedoms in order to allow the few to become fabulously rich or powerful while the majority – including now the “middle classes” in our society – struggle along managing as best we can, while the growing number of the poor slip further and further into desperation.

Oh, I know that many of us are “doing ok” in the parts of the World with enough economic power to provide the essentials, especially in America – but we are a very small percentage of God’s people. Maybe I’m only seeing the dark picture. If so, I can’t help it. I’ve been raised on the Gospel since I was four. I’ve heard about God’s equal and unconditional love for each and every sparrow that falls. I’ve heard that the heart of the Hebrew Scripture is Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. I’ve heard that the summation of all of Jesus’ teaching is, Love one another as I have loved you. I have heard and sung about justice for the poor and the oppressed. I have heard about the Good Samaritan, that my neighbour is anyone in need. I have heard about being my sister’s keeper. I have heard about it not being possible to worship both God and Money/Power - what does the Psalm say today: Give me a bent for your words of wisdom, and not for piling up loot. 37 Divert my eyes from toys and trinkets. I’ve heard about the core ministry of Peace and Reconciliation that has been given to all who have taken up the Way of the Cross.

I can’t help asking myself why, if there are over two billion Christians in the World whose Faith is centered in Love, Justice and Reconciliation, (not to mention one billion moderate Muslims, peace-loving Buddhists, etc), why is the World such a mess? And since I live here, where many of our elected leaders profess to be Christians, either Democrats or Republicans, why do I not see our foreign and domestic policy defined or at least powered by the core Christian values of Love, Justice and Reconciliation, or our Christian politicians walking the Way of the Cross – the Way of self-giving even unto death that all of God’s people may have every blessing for Life that God offers? Or, for that matter, Life, Liberty and Happiness, with equality and Justice for all? Have I heard wrongly? Is it just simply true that Power Corrupts? If you see it differently, I’d really like you to help me with this. Is the way that I understand the Gospel completely skewed? This is the conversation I’d like to have with you, my fellow travelers.

Of course there is Good News. God, we read in Ezekiel, does not want us to die. We know in Jesus that God gives His life to give us Life. God makes a home in every human heart, and is willing to suffer rejection in order to be there when we need Her. Psalm 119 says, God has taught us lessons for living; given us insight; commanded us on the path to Love and Justice; revealed eternal Wisdom; shown us “straight paths”; made many promises that He has kept; counseled us; preserved our Life. We are here because, I hope, we have experienced this. There is only one crucial catch - it is all dead unless, as the Psalmist says, we make our whole life one long, obedient response.

Paul says to the church in Rome in today’s reading, “The law code—don't sleep with another person's spouse, don't take someone's life, don't take what isn't yours, don't always be wanting what you don't have, and any other "don't" you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. 10 You can't go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.

He ends by saying: Dress yourselves in Christ. The question is, just what does this mean for how we live our lives, as individuals, as a church; and what is our witness to our local community and to our nation?