Benediction Online

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40
Luke 22:14-23:56

I have a love-hate relationship with Palm Sunday. We start the morning with the fun of a procession remembering Jesus’ triumphal entrance to Jerusalem and then almost before we know it, we’re hit with the darkness and horror of the passion gospel. It makes me want to put my hands over my ears and hum loudly [Mmm… I can’t hear you…]. It’s not what I want to hear when I come to church. I like nice uplifting readings which give me hope and joy, not this painful story of Jesus being betrayed, given a mock trial and then dying a painful shameful death. I don’t even really understand why it happened.

And it’s not in and of itself a particularly unusual story. Things like this are happening all over the world today. In Baghdad it is not unusual for people to just disappear, taken by men in the night. We are just learning of a massacre in the Congo where thousands have died in civil war. [Mmmm…] Closer to home our own country has targeted individuals and taken them to secret locations in Europe for interrogation [Mmmm…] The names Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib will live in our memories for a long time. But I don’t want to hear this stuff [Mmmm…].

I’d rather read Oprah – this month I can find out what a happy marriage looks like, what books to read and how to minimize the broken blood vessels around my nose!

So why do we focus on Jesus’ death? Can’t we just move on to the resurrection?

It seems to me that the central mysteries of our faith are Creation, Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Christians often focus on Crucifixion to the detriment of the others. According to some understandings of the gospel, we are totally without worth until redeemed by the love of God through Jesus’ work on the cross. The 18th century preacher, Jonathan Edwards, told worshipers that they were loathsome spiders held over the pit of hell by the gracious hand of an offended God. According to this view, only by accepting that Jesus died instead of us can we be saved from the pit of hell.

We have moved a long way from that perspective. We have moved instead to what has been called Home Depot Christianity; “You Can do it; We can help” - Christianity which is about being more successful, about feeling good, about being blessed by God and being thoroughly nice people.

This is as much a distortion as being loathsome spiders.

God created us and God loves us unconditionally and extravagantly. God longs for our love in return. God loves for us to live the life of the Godhead, a life full of love, praise, glorifying, and obedience. But we have to make the choice. We have to turn our lives and our wills over to the Holy Spirit, because we’re human and as humans we always tend to move away from God.

So why did Jesus die, and why did he have to suffer first? I think that Jesus died as an inevitable outcome of the life he led, and the challenge that he was not only to the authorities but also to the average middle-class Jew. He was a threat to their way of life. Peace was tenuous and they didn’t want the boat rocked.

But if Jesus’ death was the result of the way he lived and his teaching, what about the idea that he died for our sins?

I get a lot of mailings from companies who want us to buy Christian materials from them. One company sends sample nails. I can purchase these nails and give you each one to carry in your pocket throughout Lent or Holy Week as a reminder that because of your sins you are responsible for hammering the nails into Jesus’ hands.

I don’t buy that theology and I don’t buy their nails. I am sure that if humans did not sin the Jesus would not have died, and I am sure that somehow by his death and resurrection he made it possible for us to change. If we take Jesus’ life seriously then we have to change and we have to keep changing. And most of us don’t want to do that. If we want to know God then we have to change and we have to keep changing. [Mmmm…]

Jesus could have walked away. At any moment in the whole horrible story he could have walked away. But he didn’t. He didn’t because God, our God, allowed himself to be killed. He allowed us to do our worst and then, in the resurrection, he showed us that it wasn’t the end. It wasn’t the end of our relationship. Like the story of the Prodigal Son. The son does his worst and his father not only accepts him back but rejoices in his return.

Jesus died because of our sin, and through it God experienced what it means to be fully human; in his last moments upon the cross even though it is impossible for God to be separated from God, Jesus experienced himself as separate. It is that separation which is sin and which causes the activities we describe as sin. Jesus died because of our sin and through it we get to learn something totally new about God’s incredible love for us.

So it is appropriate that we meditate and dwell for a while on the darkness and suffering of the end of Jesus’ mortal life. This is the effect of our sin. This is happening today in the back alleys of our cities, in prison cells and jungle huts. Betrayal is happening today in families where children are abused, in Albania where one in three women is the victim of domestic violence, in America where those on death row are shamed and denied privacy and basic human rights, where people go hungry and cold in the richest society in the world. Reflecting on Jesus’ passion allows us to sit with the darkness which is at the core of human experience.

I don’t want to do it. But that’s one of the challenges of Jesus’ life. God looks on suffering with compassion, and with grief. God’s heart breaks at the pain caused by sin. Looking at Jesus’ passion, looking at the darkness and grief and horror which is the heart of the darkness, looking with compassion and feeling, looking without turning away… that is the calling of Holy Week.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Holy Week is Here

Last week I found myself lying back in the dentist’s chair, with a section of my mouth going numb, trying to explain that Christianity is not so much about certainty as about mystery. I don’t think I was very articulate! This week we get to live the mystery. Holy Week is not just a week for clergy to pack in as many services as they can – it is a week for us to re-member, in the sense of putting-back-together – the mystery that God in Jesus allowed himself to be betrayed, mocked, tortured, killed.

Jesus could have walked away at any time. He didn’t. Because of God’s compassionate love for each of us and for creation as a whole, Jesus allowed himself to suffer and to experience the feeling which is at the core of our broken humanity – separation from God. This week we have the opportunity to connect with his suffering, which is often called his passion… though of course anything that we do or feel is just a shadow of what his experience must have been.

Today we remember both his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday AND his death on the cross, it’s as though we fast forward through the week. But then we have the opportunity to go back and take it more slowly and see what it means for us today, this week, this year.

There’s a Buddhist practice, tonglen, which is a practice of using meditative imagination to connect with compassion to the suffering of others. During Holy Week we have the opportunity to connect imaginatively with the suffering of Christ which, mysteriously, was for us, and on our behalf. Connecting with God’s suffering in Jesus will cultivate within us the deep compassion which is the heart of God.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Living with a Free and Unpredictable God

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

When I was a teenager I was an ardent and literally minded evangelical. One of the things I was taught was the principle of seed-harvest. Whatever you needed, you tithed to God what you had and God would give you lots more. Your tithe was the seed and God’s response was the harvest. Today, I still think that tithing actually leads to greater abundance that not tithing. When we take the risk of trusting God enough to give 10% or more of our precious income away, God’s blessing comes in many and unexpected ways. However, the seed-harvest system is rather different. It treats God like an investment - I invest 10% and God pays me back a lot more. It also treats God as predictable.

Which God is not. Today’s readings remind us that we cannot control God. God is awesome and powerful and free to do whatever God wants.

God can choose whether to cut down the fig tree or let it grow another year. God can reveal Godself to us in a burning bush or in any other way that God chooses. God can destroy and God can build up.

One of the big intellectual changes of the Enlightenment was discovering how to find out why things happen the way they do. You drop an apple and it falls because of the law of gravity. Everything must have a cause and every cause must have an effect. They thought that once scientists discovered the laws of the universe then we would really know how it all worked, and then we’d be able to accurately predict if not actually control the future. Of course, what has happened in reality is that as scientists have continued to explore, things have become more complex, not less. Each new piece of knowledge brings with it new questions.

But our theological thinking has not caught up with our scientific thinking. We still look for cause and effect. We want things to be as simple and clear as if I tithe money I will become prosperous; if I tithe my time, God will give me more; if I put my prayers in the right slot, I will get health and prosperity from the tray at the bottom.

But God is not a vending machine. The universe is not just a mechanical system, and even more importantly, our relationship with God is not like a relationship with an ATM.

Our relationship with God is the relationship of two free beings. God has given us freewill – of course that is constrained by the restrictions of being mortal and bounded by time and space – but none the less we are free. We are free to pray or not. We are free to participate in the Eucharist or not. We are even free to believe in God or not.

The relationship that God calls us to is one of complete dependence upon her. In that wonderful story of God’s revelation in the burning bush, Moses says, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" and God replies enigmatically, “I AM that I AM”. God is. God is and God is complete in himself. God is Being with a capital B, and we are beings. There is nothing which comes before God, but God creates each one of us. If somehow God ceased to exist we would simply disappear.

We ARE completely dependent upon God - sin is our behaving as though we are not. It’s difficult for us to let go of our human competencies, our ability to do things and to turn our lives and our wills over to the Spirit of God - especially when we still operate in a world which requires our abilities and competencies. God does not expect us to stop living our lives to the best of our ability but to do so in partnership with Spirit – with Spirit as the senior partner.

As with any human partnership, the other party, God, is also free - so just because we do what we think is expected of us does not mean that God will do what we expect. I think that’s the point that Paul is making in the second reading today. He wrote,if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.’ We can have complete confidence in God’s limitless and unconditional love, but the danger is that our human pride can lead us to think that we’ve got it sorted, that we’re standing on solid ground and just then it all moves.

The further we travel along the path of spiritual maturity, the more this is true. Just as we think we’ve got it all figured out, everything shifts. So the trick is to find a way to live in free fall. To find a way to live so that the unexpected changes in our relationship with the divine and in our lives can be weathered with grace and calm.

It wasn’t exactly an easy moment for Moses when Yahweh told him to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt. He tried every which way to get out of it. But over the course of his life he came to have an extraordinary relationship with God who seems to have been quite hot tempered in those days. Day by day trusting God and doing whatever God told him led Moses to be able to bring the Hebrews through a time of great testing and frustration in the desert as they developed their tribal identities. Without his partnership with God he would have given up and gone back to being a shepherd.

The key to living in the uncertainty of a relationship with a free God does not lie in keeping rules, it does not lie in knowing the laws of the universe, it does not lie in being good. The key to living in the uncertainty of a relationship with a free God is in the third step of the 12 Step program – We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. That is the key.

It’s not a once and for all decision because our human tendency is to keep trying to take back the control. Everyday we make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. Sometimes we have to do it again every five minutes.

There is a tendency in popular spirituality to think that if we think right, have a good attitude or live good lives then the universe will support us, God will smile on us and all will be well. It’s great to have a good attitude, to think right and live a good life, and it probably makes things easier and happier. But it completely misses the point.

The point is that we are, amazingly and incredibly, invited to be in intimate relationship with the Creator God of the universe. We are invited to be all that we can be as we are fulfilled in that relationship of love and service. God, who is totally free, chooses to be in relationship with you. This is much, much more than living a good life and thinking right. This is abundant life. It’s like the difference between watching television and white water rafting - white water rafting with a knowledgeable and experienced guide.

Come on in, the water’s rushing and the guide is waiting for you.