Benediction Online

Monday, April 27, 2009

Being the Children of God

During Easter we get to hear readings from the Acts of the Apostles instead of the Old Testament. So we have the Gospel reading (written by the same author) which tells us about one of the appearances of the resurrection Christ, and another reading which tells us about the heady first few days of the Christians after they had received power from the Holy Spirit to talk about what had happened. The third reading provides a commentary, a perspective on what this is all really about.

It’s the reading from the First Letter of John that I want to focus on this morning. ‘Beloved, we are God’s children’. That’s not a very startling statement to us. We’ve become very used to thinking that we are all God’s children. But back then this was an entirely new thought. In fact it is not a sensible idea. We all know that we are to some degree made of the same matter as our birth parents. I have my mother’s mouth and tendency to use entirely the wrong word, and my father’s eyes and his irritability. In contrast, God is of different matter than we are. God is not created, we are. God is immortal, we are mortal. So we are not God’s children just because we are human. The very fact that we are human means that we are not God’s birth children.

If we think of the Trinity as a constant inter-relationship of three persons loving each other, pouring out themselves for each other in joy and praise and thanksgiving, then we can imagine Creation as the manifestation of their intimate loving – perhaps a bit like divine pillow talk. We can imagine that Creation, including ourselves, is intended to be part of this eternal conversation of lovers. The persons of the Trinity are eternally free – they are not bound in anyway and God wanted Creation also to be free – free to participate in the Godhead, free not to. So God allowed us to have free will so that we can choose to turn to God or away from God.

We sometimes say that Jesus is the only-begotten son of God, by which we mean that Jesus is the only child of God made of the same matter as his parent. But the amazing thing is that we are able to have the same relationship with God that Jesus did when we too become the children of God by adoption. Beloved, we are the adopted children of God. As such we are able to take our place in the Godhead, in that relationship of ongoing praise and thanksgiving of self-giving love and joy.

When I was a Brownie Guide there was a group game that I especially enjoyed. It had a song which went something like this:
One elephant went out to play
Upon a spider’s web one day.
He found it such enormous fun
That he called for another elephant to come.

Two elephants went out to play…

I think that God created us because he thought it would be enormous fun. He created us to be the adopted daughters and sons of God, participating in the fun of the Trinity. He created us to play on the spider’s web with the Trinity.

But of course we have to deal with the flaw in the Universe, the flaw which allows us to be free to relate to God but also separates us from God. We call it sin. As Peter said in the reading from Acts “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” It really seems to be that simple. If we repent and turn to God, our sin, our separation from God is removed. We are able to claim our adoption as God’s children and our place in the Godhead.

It is that simple, but it’s also not that simple. The writer of John’s first letter says, ‘All who have this hope purify themselves, even as he is pure.’ So, alas there is effort and discipline involved. It’s a bit like belonging to the gym. Like many of you, I belong to Los Osos Fitness. But that doesn’t do me much good unless I actually go to the gym and work out. In my case, staying physically fit takes repentance and turning back to the plan again and again. It is not in my nature to refuse delicious food. It is not in my nature to do anything until I sweat and ache. My desire to look after my body is constantly in conflict with my desire for food and comfort, and in my quest for healthy living I often make poor food choices unintentionally.

So all that we have to do to become the daughters and sons of God is to repent and turn to God but that’s a daily, even hourly practice. Sin is really not so much about doing bad things as it is about not practicing the presence of God, of forgetting that we are dependent upon God and imagining we can do it ourselves. The Johanine writer says, ‘No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.’ Abiding in him is what it is all about and learning to abide in God, rather than just to touch in occasionally, is learning to be the children of God. The second part of that phrase seems rather harsh, ‘No one who sins has either seen him or known him’ but if we change the tense to ‘No one who sins is either seeing him or knowing him’ it makes perfect sense. By very definition, if we are not knowing or seeing God we are separate and so we are in sin.

Abiding in God leads us to act in accordance with God’s will – to do what is right. This is very practical spirituality. Abiding in God allows us to live in the way that Jesus lived, in absolute confidence that we are loved by God and in absolute obedience to what we understand to be God’s will. Another way of putting it is loving God with our whole selves and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

The Risen Christ meets with us and eats with us in the Eucharist, as do all the children of God as we join in the chorus of praise which rings through eternity, which is the intimate loving life of the Trinity. That is our calling. That is our hope. That is our privilege.

Beloved we are the Children of God!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Holding Pain and Joy

On Friday I went into one of the Los Osos stores. I was wearing my clergy collar and the young man serving me said, “Gearing up for Easter?” I replied that I was still on Good Friday and hadn’t made it to Easter yet. He looked a little puzzled so I added, ‘The guy has to die first before he can get resurrected.’ “Oh yeah,” he said, “I tend to forget that – always try to think positive I guess.”

It seems that we have a tendency to want to split the painful and the positive, the death and the resurrection. Either we focus on gloom and fear or we accentuate the positive, dance the happy dance and try to see the sunny side. The message of Easter is that both are true. The human-divine experience includes both pain and suffering and great joy and salvation. If we celebrate Easter, the coming of new life, the ultimate expression of God’s extravagant love for us, without at the same time acknowledging the pain and sin of human experience we fail to understand the full impact of the gospel.

We often don’t notice evil. It is so ingrained in the life of society that we accept it as normal. We accept the things people and institutions do to each other, and the evil, hatred and laziness that lie at their root, as part of the way things are. We cannot be outraged at every injustice, every murder, every rape, every hate crime or every hate filled joke, so we close our eyes and our ears. Jesus’ life was so unusual and love-filled, that it had the effect of exposing evil. In the last few days of his life Jesus experienced every kind of indignity, loss and torture, both emotional and physical that the world could inflict on him. Our technology is vastly superior to that of 1st century Palestine so we could do a better job today, but for a man of his times, he experienced the ultimate in extreme abuse.

Why? Because the beauty and grace of his life exposed the endemic evil. We have had a similar experience recently as aspects of our society which hid greed, cheating and lying have been brought to light. The death and resurrection of Jesus did not immediately end evil but it exposed it for what it is. The death of an obviously innocent victim exposed our tendency to scapegoat and to blame those who are defenseless.

After experiencing such hatred and vindictiveness from the people he loved, you would think that the God-man would have had enough of humanity. But after his resurrection Jesus the Christ goes to those very people who let him down, his closest associates and he goes on loving them. This gives a very different picture of God. This is not a punishing, angry God but one who forgives and forgives, who loves and loves regardless of how badly we behave.

That is the wonder of Easter. That God’s love is freely available for all of us. It is a love which gives meaning and life. A love which embraces the pain and the joy, a love which does not need us to always accentuate the positive but which holds us even when we are in our most negative places. A love which goes on giving and giving. We need do nothing but turn towards God.

Jesus Lives! And in him have we been judged, and we have been found to be the beloved daughters and sons of God. So beloved ones, let us celebrate the festival of our salvation as we continue our worship, offering to God the gifts of our lives and labors.

God grows Orchids
Easter Vigil

Tonight we are in a liminal time. In the in-between of Holy Saturday. Good Friday is passed and Easter is not quite yet. We all have liminal times in our lives. Times in-between when the past has passed and the future is uncertain. There is always a gap between Good Friday and Easter morning, and sometimes it is very long. The time between taking a test and getting the result, the time between losing a house and finding a new home, the time between diagnosis and recovery. Each of these is a liminal time. A time of uncertainty, grief and disorientation, even confusion.

The disciples that Saturday did not know that Easter was coming. They may have had memories of Jesus’ words about being raised from the dead but it seems that they were basically very depressed, shocked and in grief. The person on whom they had pinned all their hopes had been killed, dead and gone. I don’t know what they did that day but my guess is that they gradually gathered together, quietly, secretly and in stunned shocked silence. Or perhaps they began to accuse each other – if only you hadn’t done this, if only we had done that… So often when someone dies or we lose something of great importance we deal with anger and guilt – the coulda, woulda, shoulda’s. Or perhaps they were able to start the healthy process of telling stories, of re-membering Jesus by talking about the things he had said and done, the special moments, the times of joy and the times of pain and fear.

Tonight we have listened to the retelling of the salvation history in words from the first Testament. This is not just for the sake of curiosity or as a way to pass the time but because this is the narrative within which we make sense of Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection, and the narrative which provides the framework within which our own lives and dramas take on meaning. Just as the disciples may have begun the work of repairing their lives by talking about Jesus, so in this liminal time we too remind each other of God’s great work of redemption.

We begin with the story of the Creation when God created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good. I read a book review this morning of a book entitled ‘Why Evolution is True’. It certainly seems from my own limited observations that the universe is constantly evolving. Perhaps that is part of God’s ongoing creation, that every death and rebirth brings a slightly modified organism. Rather than imagining God as a distant creator who started the ball rolling and then sits back to watch, we can instead imagine the Trinity constantly watching over creation like gardeners with a greenhouse of prize orchids.

Each moment there is something to remark upon, each moment there is something new and different happening. Every now and then something quite new appears. You can tell a true gardener from a weekender because they are constantly messing in the garden – there is always something to be fixed, something to be improved. In this Creation, God took on a great experiment. What if the Creation had a mind of its own, the ability not to do exactly what God wanted, and what if God were to become part of it and discover what it was like to be creation not just Creator?

We know how the ancient people described the flaw in Creation that made this possible, the serpent in the garden, the desire to be independent of God and do our own thing. Which, in the course of evolution had significant and increasing implications. Soon there was rampant greed and hostility among people who now thought that God was punitive and withholding, and that there was not enough to go around.

So God continued the great experiment by proclaiming a people as his own. Could they have enough of a relationship with the divine that they would be able to release their fear and belief in God’s basic hostility? Even though they were brought out of slavery across the dry sea bed into safety they were not willing to give up their independence. We know the stories of the Hebrews’ forty years spent wandering around a small piece of desert, one minute trusting Yahweh, the next going off in a totally different direction. This back and forth continued for the next many generations. Prophets came and went, generations repented and turned towards God, then went off in a different direction again. And all the while the evil in the world became greater.

By the time Jesus proclaimed his ministry the people of Israel were longing for something different. God was ready for the next step in the great experiment. I don’t know why this was a particularly good time but this was when God chose to become human, to take on the life and experience of one of the created ones. God could not chose not to do God’s will so Jesus could not experience what it was like to be separate from God in the way that we are used to. His participation in the Godhead brought forth all the fear and anger that people had been storing up against their God who seemed to be withholding, hostile and judging. In the extreme moment of his experience on the cross, just as he crossed from human life to death he experienced the separation from God which is so familiar to us.

To return for a moment to the picture of the gardeners tending their prize orchids, this created the amazing effect that the gardeners now knew in their marrow what it is like to be an orchid.

You might expect that the gardeners would be furious that the orchids had turned against one of them in such a hostile and angry way. But it has the opposite effect with God – God’s love within the Trinity and within the Trinity for all of Creation, including us, is only increased. The great experiment is not over. The gardeners continue to fuss over their orchids, but of course the orchids have been changed. The course of evolution has been changed. Jesus Lives! The ultimate power of evil – to kill someone - is ended. Death is not the end. Life and love go on in unending praise to God. No longer is God separating out one people, all people are equally able to access God’s infinite love.

But it is not forced on us. That would defeat God’s intent for us to relate freely to the divine. Tonight as we wait for the resurrection to be declared, we have been telling the story of our salvation history. As we come to the end of this liminal time, it remains for us once again to turn to God. We do this by reaffirming the vows made for us at our baptism and affirmed by us in our confirmation. In this act of rededication we consciously and intentionally open ourselves to accepting the gift of love given to us in the resurrection and offered anew every day. We also take on the responsibility to share Christ’s resurrection life with those around us, because we are some of the channels by which God’s salvation is made available to the world.

When we sprinkle baptismal water it is a symbolic reminder that we have been brought out of bondage through the great sea, that everlasting life is ours in God’s wonderful and unstoppable love. Our part is to open ourselves to Spirit and to turn back again and again, turn back to God knowing that there is always a welcome for us in the Risen Life of the Christ.

What does it mean to wash each others' feet?

Maundy Thursday 2009

Love is an overused word in our culture. We use it in so many different ways – I love children; I love chocolate; I love skiing; I love you. Any positive feeling can be described as love. But I am sure that when Jesus talks about love in tonight’s gospel reading he was talking about something more than positive feeling. In fact he may not have been talking about feelings at all. As any parent will attest, it is possible to love someone very deeply without actually liking them very much, at least in the short term.

We understand the Godhead to be a complex Trinity of persons living in a relationship of mutual love. This love is characterized by mutuality, surrender to each other in an outpouring of the self, and by thanksgiving and praise. That is the kind of love which Jesus demonstrated. It is the kind of love which is symbolized in the Eucharist and in foot-washing. It’s difficult for us to grasp because it is different in quality to the love we normally experience.

On a piano there are several different Cs. They’re the same note but played at different pitches. If there were no dampers, then every time John played a C all the other Cs would resonate. It’s like that with love. Every time we love we resonate with divine love which is the same thing but at a different pitch.

Tonight Jesus is challenging his disciples to change their understanding of love, to play it at a different pitch, one closer to the divine. Loving other people in this way is not about how it makes me feel, because it isn’t about me at all. It’s about God and the God in the other person. The more we are able to turn towards God and as a result move through the personality, ego and emotional junk that gets in our way, the more we can see Christ in others. The more we can see the true person, the person who is truly beloved of God behind the personality, ego and emotional junk that gets in the way, the more we can love them. And the more we experience ourselves as loved unconditionally by God and those around us, the more we can let go of all the things that prevent us from loving and being lovable.

Being part of Christian community means being called to live Love at a different pitch. It means being willing to wash each others feet. I want to suggest some areas in which we at St Ben’s might focus as we seek to love each other more in this way.

We have many very capable and competent people in the congregation. Many of us know how to get things done. We know how things should look, how things should go. This is wonderful but can lead to two problems. One is that we don’t take other people’s advice or instruction very kindly. In fact, sometimes we get downright infuriated. The other problem is that we see how something is being done, and when it isn’t the way we would do it we want to step in and tell the person how to do it our way.

Jim Marble who is one of our gentle bathroom cleaners said recently that he likes cleaning the bathroom because it’s the one thing at St Ben’s that no-one comes and tells him to do differently!

So I want to suggest that those of us who know how to do things practice washing feet. We will do this by adopting a discipline of gracefulness under instruction. So when someone else tells us how or when to do something, instead of inwardly snarling, we ask God for grace and thank that person for their suggestion. Then we pray for them for the next week. We will also adopt a discipline of not giving suggestions and or advice or telling anyone else how to do something without first asking whether such advice would be helpful to them.

These are disciplines which will help those of us who know what to do to practice love in a different way. There are also those of us who know what to say. Practicing foot-washing when you know what to say and you want everyone to hear it, is to adopt a discipline of listening. A discipline of waiting for someone else to finish before you jump in, even if that means you may be beaten to the post by someone else. A discipline of listening means allowing space for others to speak before you jump in. A discipline of listening means hearing not only with your ears but with your heart and understanding.

These are some of the disciplines which will help us as St Benedict’s to become more the people God intended us to be. In a small community personalities stick out more. It is difficult to get away from people who may dominate. So it is important for those of us, including myself, who sometimes have tendency to dominate, to pay greater attention to others. It would not have been surprising for Jesus to wash the disciples’ feet if he had been a servant. What is so surprising and shocking is that the leader, the Son of God, the one who is due ultimate praise and worship, Jesus the Christ, washed his disciples’ feet.

We don’t usually think about love and discipline in the same sentence but for us to change our behavior requires discipline as well as inspiration. The image of Jesus’ washing his disciple’s feet and our symbolic participation in that tonight will not magically make us able to love with a pitch closer to the divine. Love is not just a nice feeling, it is a way of behaving. Changing our behavior requires intention and discipline.

But we are not alone. Jesus continues to work in our lives bringing change and transformation and new hope. Jesus continues to work in the life of the church, bringing change and new possibility. It is this which give us hope, that as we turn towards God so God turns towards us. As we continue to seek deeper spiritual understanding and as we practice spiritual discipline, the Holy Spirit is there encouraging, guiding and supporting us so that our little attempts become important factors in the redemption of the world.