Benediction Online

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Living in Relationship

Psalm 8

God is awesome. God is much more than we can ever imagine. God is beyond our wildest dreams. Over the millennia humans have imagined many gods, like nature gods who control the weather, or mythical gods a level above us, or an indifferent mastermind who keeps order, or a distant king who has left us to ourselves.

The Christian God is first and foremost relational. This is at the core of our description of God as Trinity. Creator, Son and Spirit are who they are by doing what they do: they relate to each other. Then, out of God’s infinite and creative love, God creates outside beings to relate to as well. God relates to rocks and goats and ground squirrels and humans according to their capacity to respond. Absolutely nothing can exist outside of some relationship with God.

But we humans have a very special place in God’s heart and in creation. The psalmist asks, ‘What is man that you should be mindful of him? the son of man that you should seek him out?’ Our ability to be self-aware, our level of consciousness gives us the ability to be more like God than any other creature. In some ways we have god-like powers. (I’m quite sure that Sam, my dog, thinks I am God!) The early stories of the Bible grapple with the question of humanity’s proper place in the cosmos. In the Garden of Eden we develop the ability to know good and evil, and later come together to build the tower of Babel. Did this make us God? No, but according to the ancient people, it made us sufficiently god-like that we had to be given the restrictions of physical difficulty and communication barriers in order to stop us imagining that we are equal to God.

God has always spoken to his people through prophets and in direct revelation, but in Jesus God became intricately bound with humanity. When God incarnated in the birth of Jesus, God’s future was forever linked with the destiny of humans. God’s life is henceforth incomplete without humanity. We can’t get on without God, and God can’t get on without us. God’s basic pattern of relationship now includes us.

Let’s return to the psalm. Things get a little more difficult in the next two verses:
You have made humanity but little lower than the angels; you adorn people with glory and honor;
You give them mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under their feet.

This is similar to the verse in Genesis 1 which says that God made humanity to have dominion over the rest of creation. The word dominion also comes up in one of our Eucharistic prayers, and when I catch it in time I change it to say that we are stewards of Creation. So which is it? Are we Lords or Stewards?

I think we have to interpret these verses in the context of the whole of Scripture and especially, as we are Christians, in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus. Jesus taught us a whole new way of being. In Jesus we see the one who is indisputably Lord acting in a way that it is quite out of keeping with our ideas of power and authority. How would it be if humanity were to exercise dominion over Creation in the way that Christ exercised his dominion?

It would mean approaching Creation with reverence, because it is made by, and is beloved of, God. It would mean assisting all beings to find the joy of their own true nature. It would mean putting the needs of the planet before our own.

When we think of having dominion in the way Jesus showed us, there is very little difference between stewardship and lordship. But given our tendency to forget, and the difficulty we have living as Christ-like beings, I think we would be better to use the language of stewardship.

We are called to be stewards of all that God has given us. We don’t own any of it, because it is all God’s. We don’t own our homes or our cars, and neither does the bank – God does. We don’t own our land or our country – God does. But we are God’s hands and feet. We are the Body of Christ. It is up to us to love and cherish each thing and each being that God has made and entrusted to us.

Which brings me to the oceans. It’s been six weeks that oil has been gushing out into the water of the Gulf of Mexico. My thoughts and prayers are with those who are working to stem the flow, with those who are working to mitigate this disaster, and with those whose livelihood is threatened. I am heart-sick at the damage and the suffering this is causing and will cause for years to come to fish, reptiles, birds and sea mammals.

Why did this happen? It’s easy to point the finger at BP but it really isn’t that simple. We want to buy things as cheaply as possible which means that companies want to produce them as cheaply as possible which leads to decisions to cut corners and do it quicker and faster. We want to maintain our standard of living which is dependent on oil and so the oil companies continue to look for ways of providing what we want. But it’s becoming more difficult and it’s only going to go on getting more difficult because we are depleting the world’s oil supply. Until we can quit our addiction to oil, disasters like this will become more and more frequent.

We don’t just use oil for transport, we use petroleum products in every area of our lives. Think of all the plastic we use. Most plastics are made from oil. How would we manage without them? I can’t imagine. But I can imagine finding ways to use less plastic just as I can imagine ways to use less gas. Just think how much packaging there is on our food. Buying in bulk and looking for things with the least packaging can make a significant difference to the amount of plastic we use. It’s instructive to take a look at everything you put in the recycling bin and see what you didn’t need to bring home in the first place.

These are little things in comparison to the magnitude of millions of gallons of oil polluting the ocean, but it is going to take all of us making small and big adjustments, changing the way we do things, before the big oil companies are going to change the way they do business. Just because we don’t personally have the power to shut off the oil leak doesn’t mean that we don’t have the responsibility to do things differently.

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who takes our cups and plates home to wash, and especially to thank Alice who donated them. It isn’t as convenient as using paper or plastic. In fact it’s a hassle – I know – I took some home one week and they sat on my porch for days until Carol Baker came and took them away to get them washed. But it is one way that we can exercise our stewardship of what God has given us. Every time we do something that reduces waste, we are acting as the Christ-like beings we were made to be.

The Transition Towns movement comprises people who are finding ways to reduce our dependency on oil. So are those who are committed to eating locally grown food and those who eat very little meat. So are those who are committed to using alternative sources of energy and to walking or cycling whenever they can. There are many ways we can reduce our carbon footprint by doing things differently, by reusing and by recycling. As Christ-like stewards we are called, now that we are conscious, now that we know what we are doing, to find ways, as many ways as we can, to reduce our own oil and carbon consumption and to encourage others to do the same.

Just as the Trinity is always in relationship, so are we. We are always in relationship with God, with ourselves, and with Creation. The relationship of the Trinity is one of immense joy, creativity and love. That is the kind of relationship that we yearn for and that we were made to have with God, with ourselves and with Creation. We’re not there yet, but every time we use our god-like powers to bring life and hope, we’re moving a little closer. As we pray for healing for each other this morning, let us also pray to God for the healing of the planet and especially of the oceans.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Come, Holy Spirit, Come

In the beginning, so the ancient story tells us, God formed a being from the dust, and breathed into it, she breathed into it the breath of life, and it became a living being. Humanity was born - born when the breath, the spirit of God entered the dust body. Today we commemorate Pentecost, the day when the Spirit of God breathed into the band of frightened disciples, and the Church was born.

The Church and the Spirit have a special connection. Without the Spirit we go back to being a confused and frightened group of people wondering what to do next. With the Spirit we become the household of God united in the Ascended Christ. We are empowered as the daughters and sons of God to live God’s abundant life and to share that with the world around us.

It must have been an amazing day in Jerusalem when the wind blew through the room and the great flames of fire appeared, transforming the disciples for ever. They were never the same after that day. They began to teach Jesus resurrected and alive, and their words were miraculously understood by people from many nations. This story is like a book end with the ancient story of the Tower of Babel. That story explains that God made the people speak in different languages so that they would no longer be able to cooperate and together try to become greater than God. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was bringing people together through the power of the Holy Spirit, transcending the differences of language to create one people of all nations. The people of God.

Some of you, I know, are uncomfortable when we recite the Nicene Creed or when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, because of the expression ‘Holy catholic Church’. It seems that we are referring to the “Catholic Church” headed by the Pope. But that is only one expression of the ‘holy catholic church’ and is properly called the Roman Catholic Church. We are part of the catholic church because we are members of the church which began at Pentecost. From this perspective we are called not just to be disciples of Christ but to be members of God’s family and God’s household. We are members because of our faith in Jesus Christ and our calling, expressed in our baptism, not because of our beliefs.

Thus our unity comes not from all speaking the same language, not from all saying or thinking the same thing, but from our membership in the Body of Christ, our membership in the Church. You will notice when we renew our baptismal vows that the holy catholic church comes immediately after we have said that we believe in the Holy Spirit. This isn’t an accident. There is a special relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit there would be no Church.

There might be groups of people who gather together to remember things that happened a couple of millennia together, but they would not have the same possibility of meeting the vibrant Spirit of God in the midst of that meeting. It is my prayer every Sunday that the Spirit of God will be here tangibly in our midst, that each person who worships here may be touched by God’s Spirit and that not one of us will leave here unchanged. It is also my prayer that the Holy Spirit will knit us together into a unique expression of the Body of Christ, a community of healing, a community of service and a community of worship. And I believe that the Holy Spirit is doing just that.

If there would be no Church without the Holy Spirit, just as there would be no humanity without the breath of God, then we need to get to know this Spirit, to know more about her and to understand her ways so that we can cooperate with her.

In today’s reading from Acts we see the Holy Spirit as wind and flames of fire. At Jesus’ baptism we see him as a descending dove which is often the symbol used for the Holy Spirit. In the Celtic tradition he was a white goose. In the Gospel reading we heard that he is the Spirit of truth who will be with us, will remind us of God’s peace and will teach us everything. Very specifically, we believe that the Spirit interprets God’s word to our hearts and makes it relevant to our lives. So when we read the Bible whether alone or here in the service, we expect that the Holy Spirit will be active in teaching us about God and in interpreting the word to us.

The early church was very conscious of the power and work of the Spirit and during the last few weeks we have had several readings from the Acts of the Apostles in which Peter was empowered to preach, Saul was converted, Tabitha was raised from the dead, Gentiles were welcomed, Lydia started a house church and Paul and Silas were freed from the prison. All because of the Holy Spirit. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul describes the gifts of the Spirit as wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues.

Pentecostal churches give priority to seeking and expressing these gifts and they are attracting many people and growing fast. That is not the way that God is working in the Episcopal Church at this time. I sometimes wonder whether we are somehow at fault in that, but I have come to the conclusion that God works in different ways at different times. God is totally free and gives different gifts to different people and different churches. There are those among us who have a private gift of praying in tongues and I encourage those who do, to pray in tongues as part of your private prayer life. Many of us have moments when God gives particular insights which may be gifts of wisdom or knowledge and, when that happens, I encourage you to share those insights with humility.

In his letters Paul is very clear that although miracles and prophecy and speaking in tongues may seem glamorous they are not the most important thing. It is the Holy Spirit working in us who teaches us to pray. If we listen, we will be given ideas of how God wants us to pray and what God wants us to pray about. Some of us are asked to pray in particular for the environment, others for specific situations or people. When we pray as the Holy Spirit directs then we are praying with power whether with unusual sounds, in our normal voice or in silence

It is the Holy Spirit who whispers gently to us, reminding us of God’s incredible and boundless love for all beings. It is the working of the Holy Spirit in us which turns our hearts to God and enables us to love with more than human love. It is the Holy Spirit who works within us to make us holy. It is the Holy Spirit who has called us to be the community of God at St. Benedict’s and who is present with us in our worship and in our service to God.

Just as light is both wave and particle, so the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, and is the expression of the passionate, creative, adoring, worshiping love which flows between the Creator and the Word. It is that quality of relationship which God longs for us to experience and to express. It is too much for any one human alone. But together we can become a part of the Godhead and participate in the passionate, creative, adoring, worshipping love which is the Holy Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

One in the Ascended Christ

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

We could call this Sunday the festival of the Ascended Christ. We are poised between Ascension Day, which was on Thursday and commemorates the ending of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and Pentecost next Sunday when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church. So our scripture readings focus on the Ascended Christ who is far more than human, even while he is completely human, the Christ who is more powerful than all the forces of this world.

Psalm 97 begins ‘the Lord is King’ or in more literal language, ‘the Lord reigns’. It is a hymn of praise to the power of the God who is exalted in the heavens. This is poetry – the one who is exalted, who is so powerful that he is lifted up into the heavens but who is still connected to humanity, to the beloved saints whose lives are preserved. The reading from Acts gives us a graphic example of the actions of this powerful and all-compassionate God. It tells us about the evening when Silas and Paul were in prison because they had healed a young woman. That evening the power of God proved much greater than the power of man, and they were easily set free through an earthquake. But it wasn’t just a coincidence, Christ’s presence was so palpable in the jailhouse that night that the jailer experienced it too, and became a believer.

The second reading, this time from the end of the Book of Revelation, continued the theme of the Ascended Christ. Here in his visions, John hears the words of the Ascended Christ, ‘See I am coming soon’, ‘Surely I am coming soon’. I imagine if we were able to transport ourselves to the Greek island of Patmos two thousand years ago to interview John after his mystical revelation he would have said, of course, the Christ is coming any day now – he said so.

But it seems that we are still waiting.

We are still waiting for the power of the Ascended Christ to be fully revealed. We are still waiting for the people of the earth to be freed from hunger, slavery, homelessness and degradation. We are still waiting to know the power of the Ascended Christ in our midst. From time to time we are given glimpses. From time to time we hear the whisper “I am coming soon” but still we wait, and wait.

And so we turn to Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, which becomes ever more important. How are we to wait? What does God have in mind for us?

Jesus prayed, “The glory that you have given me I have given them so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

“That they may become completely one so the world may know that you have sent me.”

I think we tend to take this too literally. We know that when the psalm says ‘the mountains melt like wax at the presence of the Lord’ it is poetry. But when we come to Jesus words, we sometimes forget that they too are poetry, describing the indescribable. They are attempting to put into words a spiritual, mystical truth.

Some people argue that being one means we should all think alike. But from the very beginning Christians have disagreed amongst themselves. Disagreements are the norm not the exception. If it were easy for the diverse people whom God has made to agree then there would not be conflicts and there would not be wars, and there would be much less complexity and brilliance in human culture. So I don’t think Jesus is talking about agreement. I don’t our think unity comes from all believing the same thing and expressing it the same way. We know that that kind of group think is dangerous.

Our unity comes from our inner connection with Jesus, with God and, as a result, with each other. Jesus said, “The glory that you have given me I have given them so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” In his prayer Jesus is making a connection between the way in which the Godhead is one and the way in which we become one. We know that the Trinity is a more complex kind of organization that we are used to. Just as a single celled amoeba could not possibly conceive of the multi-celled complexity we take for granted, so we cannot truly grasp the multi-personed oneness which is the Trinity. But it is this kind of oneness which we are invited to share.

Clearly we are not going to get there through our minds. We are only going to get there by becoming one with the Ascended Christ. That’s mind boggling. We are only gong to get there by becoming one with the Ascended Christ. Perhaps that’s what the Alpha and Omega meant in the vision when John heard him sat “Surely I am coming soon” – the Ascended Christ coming soon to a church near you.

Coming soon to a heart near you, because this is an inner, a mystical oneness. The way we live externally in our everyday lives shows the extent to which we truly understand this oneness. It is easy for a church to experience unity by criticizing or fighting something outside itself. It’s easy for us to feel that We are not like Them. We are more open-minded, we are more forward thinking, we are more American, we are better Episcopalians. But that’s the human way to unity, not God’s way. God’s way never creates unity by defining an enemy, never creates an in-group and an out-group.

Jesus prayed, “As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” There are different ways that we enter into union with the Ascended Christ but it is always an inner mystical union. It can happen in prayer, it can happen in silence, it can happen when we least expect it. It is symbolized in the eucharist. As we come together at the table of God, we are invited to eat and drink the Ascended Christ and then take that oneness and live it in our everyday lives. Live as though we are truly one even when we disagree, even when we hurt and offend one another by our thoughtlessness or carelessness.

We are invited to eat and drink the Ascended Christ in the bread and the wine. Even though we say the prayers and bless them, it isn’t magic. It isn’t an instant fix. We have to be ready and willing and open.

You are what you eat. If you eat and drink a piece of dry wafer and a sip of wine it won’t make much difference to you. If you eat and drink the body and blood of the Ascended Christ then you are becoming one with the Godhead. The difference is in you.

Do you believe that God is present in the bread and wine? Or that this is a symbol of something that happened a long time ago?... Are you ready or willing to become one with the Ascended Christ?

Listen again to the invitation from the Alpha and Omega:

"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."

And let everyone who hears say, "Come."

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."

Let us sit quietly for a moment and meditate on those words.

If you are willing to become one with the ascended Christ, if you are ready to answer the invitation, whisper in your heart “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”