Benediction Online

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The sermon preached today, for Advent IV, at St. Benedict's, Los Osos, by the Rev. Brian McHugh can be found at:


Monday, December 15, 2008

John the Baptist and the Christmas Story
[John 1: 1-28]
preached by the Rev. Donna Ross on December 14, 2008

You never see John the Baptist in the Christmas carols or on the Christmas cards. (Imagine John in his scruffy camel’s hair coat, standing with the shepherds as they hear the angels sing!) Yet John and what he stands for is part of the Christmas story. The Light coming into the world – the Light of peace, the Light of love – is also the Light of justice.

The first Christians seemed to understand this better than we do. All four Gospels include John the Baptist in the story – and place his message at the very beginning. The Gospel writers knew that John was not only part of Jesus’ history, but the justice John called for was part of Jesus’ Gospel.

The writer of today’s Gospel begins his story with words which may have been part of an early Christian hymn, and into this hymn he intertwines the story of John the Baptist:

In the beginning was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. He was present with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, and apart from him not a thing came to be.

That which had come to be in him was life, and this life was the light of humankind. The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness did not overcome it.

There was sent by God a man named John who came as a witness to testify to the light so that through him all might be believe... He himself was not the light. The real light which gives light to everyone was coming into the world. [from a translation by Fr. Raymond Brown]

See how John the Baptist’s story is woven into the cosmic story: the healing Light of God is coming into the world through Jesus, and the messenger who announces his coming is John, who proclaimed God’s call for justice. Peace on earth, the lion lying down with the lamb – the light of God shining on and through the whole earth – will not come until justice becomes the rule all humans live by.

And what is justice?

The prophet Isaiah’s vision, heard in today’s first lesson [Isaiah 61:1-11] was that God’s great day of justice would bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, comfort all who mourn. (These words from Isaiah were also the text for Jesus’ first sermon.)

I believe that Christian history is also the history of the slowly dawning recognition that God’s justice is for all people – for Jews and Greeks, for slaves and free, for males and females. [Galatians 3:27f]

Our own American history reveals the slowly dawning recognition that God’s justice is for blacks as well as whites, women as well as men, gays as well as heterosexuals, the poor as well as the rich, the day laborers as well as the bankers.

Christian history also reveals that those who begin to work for justice for one class of people – blacks, women, gays – soon learn they must also fight for justice for all. As long as one class of people, as long as one person, is left out of the sphere of justice, God’s justice will not have reached its preordained limits.

Jesus’ call for justice was so clear to the first Christians that they included John the Baptist – and his message – at the very beginning of the story

To everyone who had more than enough, John said: “You must share your clothing and your food with those who have none.”

To those who served the government as tax collectors, John said: “Collect only what you are entitled to.”

To those who were soldiers, whether Romans or fighters in the resistance movement against the Romans, John said: “Be content with your rations. Don’t force the people to share their food or their homes with you.”

John’s calls for repentance were challenges not only to the individuals in the crowd; they were also challenges to whole societies, the Jewish and the Roman cultures of Jesus’ time. For the well-off to share what they had with others less fortunate wasn’t just a call to practice charity: John meant that the rich couldn’t keep getting richer as long as others suffered. For the tax gatherers to collect only what they were entitled to would mean a radical reduction in their standard of living. For resistance fighters to be content with their rations, when they had the power to force citizens to give them food and shelter, was a radical ethical demand. His was a call to change the system – his was a call for justice for all.

John’s demands are no less radical for us today. John’s words strike at the heart of our acquisitive society; they strike at the heart of all societies still organized by power, societies still divided between those who have and those who have not, those who are in and those who are out, those who matter and those who don’t.

We believe that Jesus Christ came to bring God’s presence, love and forgiveness to our broken world. We must also believe that Christ came to bring God’s justice to the world as well as love and peace. The love of God is meant for all of us, not some of us, and there will be no peace without justice for all.

And so Christians must be seen as agents of justice. Today the “Christianity” we hear about in the news and too often from our neighbors, is a narrow moral righteousness, preoccupied with the personal sins, real or imagined, of ourselves and others. But in Jesus’ Christianity, righteousness means justice for all, social as well as personal. Jesus’ Christianity is a Christianity which proclaims – and works for – justice for all.

So what can we do this Advent to proclaim the full meaning of Christ’s coming at Christmas?
Understanding that every Advent is just the beginning of a new year of being Christian, this Advent let’s begin a new year by praying for justice. By prayer, I don’t mean pleading with God to establish peace on earth this Christmas – although that would indeed be the Day of the Lord that John the Baptist prophesied. I mean that we can begin by asking God to change us so we can work to make justice more of a reality on this earth.

Make one (or all) of these petitions your own prayer this coming week of Advent:

That we may reverently offer in service to the world the ministry of light which we hold in fragile human hands, let us pray to the Lord.

That we may accept with courage God’s call to share in the divine mission of rescue for the world, bringing justice and joy to all peoples, let us pray to the Lord.

That the mercy of God may stir up in us the bold courage to be its faithful prophets in our world, let us pray to the Lord.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

What's In it for Me?

This morning we heard some of the familiar prophetic themes, made familiar by Handel in his Messiah, ‘Comfort, comfort ye my people’ and ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’. The collect, or the theme prayer for the day says ‘Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer’. That’s the job of the Biblical prophets – not to foretell the future but to preach repentance, to call people back to the God of our salvation.

We too are given the task of prophecy. We are called to be prophets in our own time, calling the society in which we find ourselves back to God. That is a task that is being taken very seriously by some of our evangelical brethren but their idea of what it means is a little different from mine. They want to make America the ‘Christian’ country they believe it once was. For them the mark of Christian is moral behavior. By moral behavior they mean individuals living what they consider to be pure lives. So they are opposed to particular things which they see as symbols of impurity – they are opposed to abortion, gay legal rights, teaching evolution. They worry about secular influences on their children in schools. I think we should admire the energy they put into the work they believe God has given them.

However, I think they’re missing the point a little. The Biblical prophets weren’t talking primarily about individual behavior. In the culture of the time, as in many cultures today, the individual did not have identity apart from their family and community so Isaiah for example, wasn’t concerned about the way any individual person behaved but about the way society as a whole behaved. Since the enlightenment we have become fixated on the individual so we tend to read the Bible with a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude. Society only changes when its individual members and families and communities change, but the message of the prophets is to the society not just to the individuals.

Looked at from this perspective, what are the things which we as a society need to repent and turn from? What would Isaiah or John the Baptist be preaching against today? I imagine he’d be challenging us to turn away from our addiction to oil, to repent our failure to understand our impact on our environment, to stop fighting wars that were ill conceived and are not achieving anything but bloodshed, to pay our people fair wages, not too much and not too little. I imagine he’d be encouraging us to find ways of living which support the life of our planet, to increase our cooperation with each other and, in the words of our baptismal covenant, ‘to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being’.

I imagine John the Baptist’s biggest criticism would be our constant question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ I was slightly shocked this week to read in the AARP magazine about Helen Baker in Cherry Hill New Jersey who disliked recycling until a new company Recycle Bank started offering discounts and coupons. Now she’s happy to recycle and says ‘It’s making the world a better place and we’re going to get personal rewards as well’.

What’s in it for me?

The financial meltdown we are in has multiple causes which may never be fully understood, but there are three that can be identified. Investors looking for high returns bought financial instruments backed by mortgages, and the demand was so high that mortgage lenders began to lend in risky situations they would normally never consider. The investors wanted to make money, the lenders wanted to make money, even though it was increasingly risky.

What’s in it for me?

Speculators in the future markets trade products they don’t want in order to make money. Essentially they take bets on where prices will go and in the process effect prices. They drove up the price of oil in order to make money.

What’s in it for me?

Federal regulators didn’t step in to prevent high risk loans. I don’t know why but probably because the economy was humming along and everything looked good even though it was on thin ice, and they didn’t want to make unpopular moves. They believe that in a market where everyone looks out for number one prices are lowest and there is greatest efficiency.

What’s in it for me?

Advertisers know that question is always on our minds. On the opposite page in the AARP magazine is this ad about ‘There’s something for everyone’. It answers the unspoken question ‘What’s in it for me?’

I have a friend who says she’ll believe in God if God starts answering her prayers. People tell me they go to church to be uplifted, to get some peace, to feel better. What’s in it for me?

We’ve got it entirely the wrong way around. Our lives are not intended to be about me but about God. It’s all about God, not all about me.

Focusing on self is the basis of individual sin and it’s the basis of social sin - thinking it’s all about me. We were created to be in relationship with God, the mysterious almighty God who chose to be limited in human form, who chooses to be limited so that we might have free will. Relationship with God is the purpose for which we were created and when we make the mistake of asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ rather than ‘what’s best for the community, for the planet?’ and ‘what would God have me do?’ - when we make that mistake, we are no longer living the way we were created to be and so we’re not living in our full potential.

Many of you know that my little car is a hybrid which has a very small three cylinder gas engine and a large battery which supports the gas engine when I need acceleration or extra power to get up a hill. Two weeks ago the big battery died. I could still drive the car but it just didn’t go as well.

That’s like us. When we as individuals are focused on ‘what’s in it for me?’ when our country makes decisions based on ‘what’s in it for America?’ or ‘what’s in it for this powerful group?’ rather than ‘what’s best for all of us?’, ‘What does God want?’ we still live, but we’re not living to our highest, fullest potential. Driving my car without the battery gets me around but it’s not much fun. Living our lives thinking it’s all about me gets us by but when we remember that its all about God, things are quite different.

The gospel calls us to a complete conversion. It’s not a conversion that happens one moment and then we are saved, fixed and holy. It’s a conversion that goes on day after day. It’s a conversion that requires our active work. Every time we catch ourselves asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ and ask instead ‘what does God want?’ we are taking a step in our conversion.

This is the holiness that God calls us to, not monitoring or censoring other individuals’ behavior but changing our own. Moving from ‘what’s in it for me?’ to ‘what does God want?’ will lead us into prophetic work for social justice. It will lead us into working for change, for justice and peace among all people. Each one of us has a different part to play in furthering God’s kindom. This Advent let us remember to start every morning by asking ‘What is God calling me to?’ “What would God have me do today?’

Traveling Through the Wilderness Time
Rev Faye Hogan

When Frederick Neidner, now a seminary professor, and his sister get together they sometimes re-tell a favorite story from their childhood. They were expected to go to church with their parents every Sunday. Fred remembers that he and his sister found the hymns “dull and hard to sing.” Well, all except one. When the children got to the following words they sang out with gusto:
“Lord, dismiss us with your blessing. Fill our hearts with joy and
and peace; let us each, your love possessing, triumph in redeeming
grace. Holy fishes, holy fishes trav’ling through the

When Fred learned to read he realized that the adults had been singing “O Refresh us…O Refresh us trav’ling through the wilderness.”

“Trav’ling through the wilderness.” That phrase conjures up thoughts of abandonment, of desolation, perhaps even fear. This morning's reading from Isaiah reflects those very qualities, plus an added dash of frustration, as Isaiah seems to be begging God to come out of retirement and get to work. “In the early years”, Isaiah says, “ you led our people with pillars of cloud by day and by fire at night. You fed them when they had nothing to eat and gave them water to drink. Now, when your people are scattered, now when we need you most, you are somewhere else. If the people no longer pray to you, it’s your fault. Let us see you again in ways we can understand.” Isaiah has worked himself up into having a real pity party!
But each of us has lived in that wilderness place. We remember what it is like. And when we are going through it was hard to believe that we would ever come out the other side.
So here we are again in a wilderness place, a waiting place designed to give each of us time to prepare for our Savior’s birth. Our God knows us well …how we humans have curious minds, how we tend to rush ahead toward things and seasons we enjoy such as Christmas. And just as God had not abandoned our Hebrew ancestors, God is also very present to us. The message is, “Slow down. Take time in that wilderness place, that waiting place. Something that will change the world is about to happen. Will you be ready?”
During this waiting time of Advent, we are challenged to live in tranquility amid all the pushing, grabbing, and spending associated with the Christmas season. This morning we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. Its lone, small flame gives little light or warmth but it is meant to be, for us, a tiny beacon of anticipation; anticipation of the warmth and light that will grow brighter and warmer as each week of Advent passes. The lighting of successive candles on the Advent wreath each week is not just a “nice” tradition that we do as we count down the number of shopping days we have left before Christmas.
The wreath, the hymns we sing, the scripture we read during this time in the “waiting place”, all point to operative words of Advent, “prepare, keep awake.” These coming weeks are meant to be a seriously retrospective time, serious one on one time with God. These weeks of Advent are an invitation to, once again, bring balance into our lives. Prophets and saints such as Isaiah, John the Baptist, St. Paul. And St. Mildred insist that God be moved from waiting in the wings to the center of our lives. St. Mildred?
Mildred lived in the 8th Century and was the daughter of English royalty. She was sent to a convent in France for her education and stubbornly defied her parent’s plans for her to marry a young French nobleman. Mildred reminded her parents that she had been sent to France for her education and that was what she intended to get. Mildred returned to England where she became a nun and later, and abbess, who was loved and respected by her community. Her steely determination remained intact even after her death. One story the community loved to tell was that, even after her death, she moved around the convent being sure that all was well and running in a proper fashion. One night, as she made her nightly rounds, she found a bell ringer who was supposed to be keeping watch in the church, asleep before the altar. The departed Mildred slapped him across the ear and yelled at him, “This is an oratory, not the dormitory!”
So during this Advent time as we sit quietly in the waiting place with God, as we joyously anticipate the coming of the Christ child, my wish for each of us is that we not get distracted, that we not fall asleep. If we do, I pray to God, please Lord, send John the Baptist, send Isaiah, even send St. Paul to wake us up, but please, Lord, don’t send Mildred!

The Rev. Faye Hogan St. Benedict’s – Los Osos, Ca.
Year B – 1st Advent November 30, 2008