Benediction Online

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Surrender to Death or Life?

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24, Lamentations 3:21-33
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 Mark 5:21-43

Recently I’ve been watching the series which Ken Burns made for PBS on the 2nd World War. Yesterday I saw the final episode and the images that linger in my mind are of piles of dead bodies. Incredible carnage. War is a truly horrible thing and we know that there are still wars going on today, apparently interminable blood shed, some of it in our name. I am truly grateful to live in a generation which has known little violence in our own homes.

Today’s readings deal with death and resurrection, pain and healing. The first reading today is from the Book of Wisdom, which is not one of the books included in the Bible but is included in the apocrypha – the B team of books which didn’t quite make the grade. Wisdom is thought to date from about one century before Jesus’ life and reflects a change in Jewish thinking about life after death. In earlier times the only possibility of immortality was through one’s descendants, which was why Abraham was so concerned about having children. As a result the Old Testament doesn’t say much about eternal life. In comparison New Testament writers often talked about death and compared it with life in Christ or eternal life.

But what do they mean by ‘death’? When Paul says ‘the wages of sin is death’ is he suggesting that if we were sinless we would live for centuries? I don’t think so. The death of the physical body happens to all us mortals sooner or later. I think the death that Paul means is the death of the soul or spirit within us. For most of us it happens slowly and subtly, every time we turn away from God we die a little – our hearts are hardened a little more – but every time we turn towards God we receive more life. Every time we replace doubt and fear by faith and trust we receive more life.

But that makes it sound as though the business of eternal life is ours alone, which is one of the distortions of our time. Books like “The Secret” and many contemporary ‘spiritual’ teachings make it sound as though we can do this ourselves. We cannot. Left to ourselves we cannot make even the small changes that lead to life because our lives as humans are so mired in sin. It is the grace of God which allows and causes us to change. It is the grace of God which calls us and makes us long for a life-giving relationship with the divine.

Sometimes we experience that grace as a sudden in-breaking of God in a moment of peak experience. Sometimes we experience it as a ‘warming of the heart’. Sometimes it is mediated through other people in something they say or do. But God never forces Godself into our lives, God always works with us, at our invitation. So turning to life is the result of our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, our choosing to surrender control of our lives to God.

‘Surrender’ is not an easy idea for most of us. The importance of autonomy and independence is so ingrained in American culture that we tend to bristle at any idea that we should give up our independence. Next weekend we will celebrate Independence Day. Yet the very basis of sin is independence. Independence from God is what leads to inner death, to the death that pervades human culture, the death that Jesus came to free us from.

Surrender has several different meanings. In war it means giving up, stopping fighting, handing over ones weapons and allowing one’s captor to decide what happens next. In love it means becoming receptive and allowing oneself to be embraced and surrounded by the lover. In the spiritual life it means all these things.

It means giving up and stopping fighting. Often we fight God. We choose not to listen, we ignore things that it’s inconvenient to hear. All of us have places where we want to stay in charge and so we choose not to listen to ideas that challenge us to surrender. We have a special room in our hearts for God and we want to keep her confined in that special place. God wants to be fully and completely in every room in our lives, especially the ones we want to keep to ourselves, whether from fear or shame or a desire to be in charge. Surrender means being willing to open the door to every room, to the places where we keep our deepest treasures and the places we hide our deepest shame.

Surrender means handing over our weapons. We are all trained to fight. We are trained to think that there is not enough to go around and so we must use our wits and our power to get enough for ourselves. Surrender means trusting that God will provide, and that there is enough. Surrender means stopping attacking other people, even in our minds, by criticism, anger, disdain and contempt. Surrender to God is not just changing our relationship to God but changing our relationship to those around us. The first great commandment is to love God, the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves. We get to lay down our weapons, not just the ones we turn towards God, but the ones we turn toward each other and the ones we turn towards ourselves.

Surrender means allowing one’s captor to decide what happens next. Allowing God to decide what happens next is especially difficult to think about. Since we are not passive, since our surrender does not make us puppets, it is perhaps best to think in terms of aligning our will with divine will. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said, ‘Not my will but thine’. That is the prayer of surrender, ‘not my will but thine.’ As we pray everyday, ‘not my will but thine’ so our wills become attuned and aligned with divine will.

Surrender means allowing oneself to be embraced and surrounded by the lover. Mystics have often used the language of physical intimacy to describe their experience of God. In order to be truly intimate with another we have to let down our defenses and surrender something of ourselves in order to let the other in. Surrendering to God is allowing one’s soul to be united with its lover and it’s beloved. This is deep spiritual work but it is where we find life.

Life is in our relationship to the divine. Life is God’s gift of grace. Life is not eternal youth. Life is not avoiding physical death or even physical pain. Life is becoming the people God created us to be. Life is the inner hope and joy that sustains us and those around us even in times of great difficulty. Life is in trusting so deeply in God’s love that nothing can frighten us, nothing can disturb our peace, even in the midst of war.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great is God’s Faithfulness!
Job 38:1-11Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13 Mark 4:35-41

Yesterday morning at 5:32 there was an earthquake. How many of you noticed? I didn’t, I slept right through it. Which gives me a bit more sympathy for Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading. His disciples who are seasoned commercial fishermen are hysterical with fear because there’s a massive storm and the boat is in danger, but he’s fast asleep.

I sometimes feel like God must be having a nap. When I listen to the pain in so many people’s lives, when I look at the situation in Iraq, at climate change, at St Benedict’s financial situation, I wonder what God is up to, and whether s/he is really paying attention.

Our first reading this morning is from the Book of Job, an unusual text which tells the story of the man who lost everything as a result of a bet between God and Satan. Job went from being a highly successful person to being a complete disaster overnight. He lost all his investments, his many children were killed in a nightclub accident and his body was covered in itchy painful sores. Even his friends didn’t recognize him. This highly successful business man just sat on the ground and scratched.

His friends tried to comfort him with conventional wisdom. Surely he had done something to deserve this and if he would just repent all would be well. But Job knew that his walk with God had been authentic and that one day he would be vindicated.
That wonderful aria from Handel’s Messiah, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ is actually a quote from Job. What he meant was that he had hope that there was someone – a redeemer - who would argue his case before God. Much of the wisdom of the ancient Hebrews said that if you lived a good life you would prosper. Job is a contrarian voice; the story of someone who was good and yet disaster befell him. Today we often think that if we love and serve God we will necessarily prosper, and so we think when things go badly that we must have done something wrong.

God is free. That is difficult for us to grasp. God is not obliged to do anything. God is not obliged to reward us for good behavior or to punish us for bad behavior. In fact that ‘have you been naughty or nice’ way of looking at things has very little to do with God and far more to do with Mom and Dad hiding behind Santa Claus.

God is free and God made us free - free to have a relationship with God and to become God’s adopted children, and free not to. Being God’s adopted children does not mean that everything is easy and pain free. We only have to look at Jesus’ life to see that being the child of God is not an easy way out. If you still need convincing, this morning Paul provides us with a laundry list of disaster in the reading from 2 Corinthians. He endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger, but he does not turn against God.

Neither did Job. In Chapter 13 v 15 he says ‘Though God slay me, yet I will hope in him.’ This is the benefit of a deep and abiding relationship with the divine, not that we are pain free and wealthy, but that we have hope and peace. We live in a world where there is great suffering as well as much joy and beauty. When we are walking with God our eyes are open to the joy and beauty in a different way because we have hope in the one who redeems us. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. Job was certainly not a happy man in the way that we think of happiness, but he had hope in God’s faithfulness and knowledge of God’s freedom.

The short passage we heard this morning comes from towards the end of the book of Job when the Lord answers Job – out of a storm. It’s difficult for us to accept God’s answer because we want everything that happens to have a logical reason. We believe in cause and effect, ‘everything happens for a reason’ we say. So it would be reasonable for God to explain to Job that everything happened because Satan said that Job only loved God because he was prosperous, and God had said not so, and had allowed Satan to try to prove his point.

But God doesn’t even mention their bet. Instead he gives a long speech about his power in creation and Job’s limited nature. Yet there is something about this meeting with God which is life changing for Job and which satisfies him. He says ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.’ The meeting with God in the storm takes away all Job’s questions about why me? His focus changes from, What did I do wrong? Why is this happening to me? To a focus on God’s faithfulness.

I think that is why Jesus was able to sleep through the storm. His focus was not on himself but on God and God’s faithfulness. It is easy for us to get discouraged both individually and as a faith community, but God is faithful and God will see us through everything we face as we realize and acknowledge our dependence on God. Jesus was completely dependent upon his Abba.

We too are completely dependent upon God. Sin is not so much doing bad things as failing to acknowledge our dependence upon God, believing and behaving as though we can do it alone, we can manage without the divine. When we live knowing that we are completely dependent upon God and that God is faithful, then we have hope. Yes we have difficulties, we live with pain and often things aren’t the way we would like them to be, but God is faithful.

Sometimes it is in the storms of our lives or in the times of greatest pain that God is closest to us. God spoke to Job out of the storm. Jesus’ connection with the Creator was demonstrated in a storm. This is not an easy year for St Benedict’s financially. We have once again slipped below our agreed reserve level. The Abundance Shop is not doing as well as in the past. But in this storm, in this time of difficulty we know that God is faithful. It is an opportunity for us to re-acknowledge our total dependence upon God and to remind ourselves that whatever happens, we are still held.

We are held in the unconditional and extravagant love of God. A God who is free and a God who is faithful. In God is our hope.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Dance of the Trinity
(Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3: 1-17)

There are many things I do not understand. These include black holes, parallel universes, quarks and fractals, string theory and chaos theory. There are other things I don’t understand which are a little more personal. Like how genes mutate, or where DNA comes from, or how the hypothalamus interacts with the thyroid, and what the spleen does. These personal ones seem particularly important to me because I depend on them for the healthy functioning of my body. But fortunately I don’t actually need to understand what my spleen does for it to do it, or how my kidneys are constructed for them to work quite well.

It’s like that with God. I am totally dependent upon God but I don’t understand him/her or they. I don’t know what pronoun to use and I certainly can’t explain the Trinity to you. But the Trinity, fortunately, does not depend upon my understanding to go about their life and do what they do, quite independently of my small fuzzy brain.

Any language we use for God is inadequate, so the Holy Trinity is just a description, and probably quite a poor one. But even though language used to describe the ineffable is always going to be inaccurate, the language we use IS important. That’s one of the great contributions of feminist theology - showing that the way we talk about God has ramifications in every part of our lives. Because the way we talk about God mirrors the way we think about ourselves, the universe and our place in it.

My own faith life has been transformed this last year by a new understanding of the Trinity. I was inspired by the book, Mysteries of Faith, which we studied earlier in the year. It certainly wasn’t an easy read in places and at first I got bogged down in the discussion of the Trinity. But then I saw it in a new light. I saw that the Trinity is essentially about relationship. It is about the loving, adoring, worshipping, obeying, praising, exuberant relationship between the persons of the Trinity.

What has been so important for me is imagining the Trinity having this wonderful, crazy, mutual love affair which is so energetic that they have to DO something together. I am sure we have all had the experience of being with a friend or a sweetheart or a beloved family member and having such a good time being together that we’ve just wanted to go and DO something. Well the Trinity have that experience too – they have such a good time together that they just have to DO something – and the something that they do is create the universe with its quarks and black holes and you and me with our genes and spleens and all those things that we like to think we could possibly understand.

I love thinking that this whole thing was created because the Trinity were having such fun they just had to share it. It makes me feel quite differently about myself and the world, it puts a whole new spin on the repeated line in Genesis 1 ‘and God saw that it was good’. God creates the universe out of God’s exuberant, overabundant, bubbling up love.

Which means that we, when we are at our best, get to share that passionate creative love in our own relationships and in our communities. Because if we are created in the image of a God who is constantly in motion, in a dance of love and joy and mutual caring, then when we are doing what we are created to do, which is when we are at our very best, we too will be living creatively and lovingly in community. That’s a different way of understanding our call to be disciples; instead of seeing ourselves as primarily individuals who have an individual relationship with God, we see ourselves as part of the faith community during the ages, doing our small piece to bring the kindom of God to full realization. It means that our relationship with those around us is as important as our relationship with God.

That’s not new news since Jesus told us that along with loving God, loving our neighbor as ourselves is most important. But it’s still not something we’re good at. Because God calls us to be in community not just with those we already know but with those we don’t know. Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to explain about the neighbor we should love. If he were teaching today he’d probably talk about the Good Palestinian. Because his story was about reaching out across traditional lines of enmity. Our calling is to create community with those with whom we disagree; to find the places of connection with those we don’t know or don’t like.

All of creation was intended to be part of the Trinity’s ongoing dance of loving worship and mutual caring but God does not force that on us and as we know only too well, the human race chose to go a different way. But we are constantly invited back into that relationship and as we choose to return we get to bring our neighbor with us. That’s not something that comes naturally, and so Jesus talked about the need to be ‘born from above’, because living as disciples of Christ means living in ways that are simply unnatural to us. They are unnatural to us as humans but normal for those who are living in God.

Some people experience being ‘born from above’ as a sudden flash which changes everything. For most of us being ‘born from above’ is a more gradual process of transformation. It may begin with our baptism, when we become full members of Christ’s body the Church or it may have begun before that. It is a process of choosing every day to turn towards God, of being intentional about living as part of the community of God, of joining in the dance of the Holy Trinity. Every time we turn towards God we become aware of ways in which we are still apart and so we get to turn towards God again and again and again. Because we are free just like God is free, this requires our choosing - we cannot be passive but must actively seek to be transformed and to become part of the life of God.

We are not alone in this journey. Not only do we have the companionship of others who are on the same road, but we have the companionship of God. The Holy Spirit is the gift given to us to bring us new birth, to lead us into the paths of peace and truth, to help us align our wills with God’s and to teach us the steps of the divine dance.

‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.’ Far from it. God sent his Son into the world so that we might be able to return to the relationships we were made for. God sent his Son into the world to make all things new by being the first human to fully step into our potential as co-creators and dance partners with the Trinity.

Our challenge is to be so filled with the knowledge and experience of God’s incredible and amazing love that we share it with those who don’t yet have a life-giving knowledge of God. We are called not only to take our place in the divine dance, but to invite others to join with us. This is not about persuading anyone to believe a particular religious dogma, but about introducing them to God, helping them to open to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. We don’t have to ‘convert’ anyone, that’s not our job, that’s the Holy Spirit’s. Our job is to be so close to God ourselves that those around us are naturally touched by our lives and our witness.

My prayer is that through our ministry hundreds and thousands of people will be brought into a life-giving relationship with God and will become partners in the exuberant and loving dance of the Holy Trinity.