Benediction Online

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Walking Humbly

It’s a very un-American virtue. I think many of us misunderstand what it’s all about. Yet it is a virtue which is especially important in the Christian life and in today’s gospel, Jesus speaks directly to it. Our first lesson from the apocryphal book Sirach talked about one of the deadly sins. This is the virtue which is its opposite.

What am I talking about?


Perhaps the whole of the spiritual life can be summed up in this verse from Malachi 6: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.

Let’s get rid of some misconceptions.

Humility is NOT being a door mat. Humility is not putting up with things that could be changed. Humility is not always worrying about imposing on other people. Humility is not thinking that everyone else is better than you. Humility is not wringing your hands and saying what a bad person you are.

Humility is knowing who you are and where you stand in the universe. Humility is being interested in others and asking them to talk before you talk about yourself. Humility is generously and carefully listening to other’s opinions even when they differ from your own. Humility is trusting that God will help you get where you need to be so you don’t have to push and manipulate to get to the top.

Humility is knowing that God’s amazing and compassionate love is available to everyone, and that God has no favorites. You and I are as important to God as Martin Luther King Jr. and as loved by God as Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh.

So there’s no point in pushing yourself forward, it doesn’t achieve anything. And there’s no point in hanging back, hoping that someone will see your talent and call you forward. Because there’s no back or front or up and down. We are all equally valuable and equally important and equally beloved.

“Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” How do we walk humbly with God? This may be the most difficult thing for human beings to do. The Greeks told the story of Icarus who found a way to fly but became over-confident and proud, and flew too near the sun. His wings melted and he fell to the ground.

The ancient Hebrew people suggested that the reason we are separated from God is that the very earliest humans thought that they knew better than God and ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge. And then when God came walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, they were ashamed and embarrassed and they hid from him.

Humans thinking they can do it alone. Humans thinking they have no need of God. Humans forgetting that God is the life in all beings. We can make robots and machines and mechanical birds but we cannot breathe life into anything. Life is the breath of God. Without God we are just an interesting collection of molecules.

Yet we forget that. Even if you agree with me now, there’s a good chance that by the end of this morning’s service we’ll be back thinking we get to do it all ourselves. It’s difficult for us to keep turning our lives and our wills over to God. “Not my will but thine be done”, as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I think that is why Jesus is our example. Not because of the things he did. Not because of the things he said. But because of his relationship with his Abba Father. The gospels each give us a different picture of this foundational relationship, but they all show Jesus doing God’s will, living all the time with an awareness of the presence of the divine Creator. That is what we are called to do.

Right relationship with God is not the chatty relationship of friends or neighbors but a deep turning over of our lives to the divine. Daily aligning our wills with divine will. Every morning saying, “Show me what you would have me do, and be, today.” In every situation saying “Not my will but thine be done”.

Since God loves us unconditionally and extravagantly, God’s will is for our highest good. God’s will is for us to live full, rich and purposeful lives. So why wouldn’t we turn our wills over to God? Why wouldn’t we want what God wants?

…Because of sin, our notion that we can manage without God, that somehow our plans are better.

That, my friends, is pride.

True healing comes as we come into right relationship with God, as we pray “Not my will but Thine be done”. True healing comes as we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

God's Word is Fire

There’s an old adage that the task of the preacher is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Jesus’ words this morning certainly fall into the latter category! They are not very comforting. Jesus was very frustrated with the people around him who just weren’t getting what he was talking about. By this time he knew that things were turning ugly and he was probably going to get killed – and maybe some of his disciples too – but everyone seemed to be complacent and speaking in platitudes. They did’t get the seriousness of the time.

It reminds me of the situation we are in today. We know that the climate is changing. We know that the vast flooding we are witnessed in Pakistan is just a foretaste of the disastrous flooding that is going to increasingly affect some areas of the world while others will experience just as devastating drought and famine. The Global Humanitarian Forum reported recently that climate change is already claiming 300,000 lives per year. We can see what’s coming but we’re not willing to do much about it, we want peaceful lives and here in Los Osos things are pretty much okay, so why worry?

I can imagine Jesus standing here and yelling, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Something to jog us out of our complacency, to wake us up and get us moving.

So far the United States has not been willing to take global warming seriously. In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at significantly reducing climate-changing emissions, was ratified by 187 countries. The United States was not among them. In January of this year the Copenhagen conference on Climate Change ended without any significant international agreement. Here at home, legislation aimed at reducing climate change has been introduced and failed in almost every Congress since 1988.[1] Even though it is now considered to be one of the most serious security threats we know.

Global warming may be the most difficult problem our system of governance has ever faced. Our form of democracy is structured to provide benefits to the people who are able to actively participate in the system today. Those who are suffering now from the worst affects of climate change are not Americans and so are not represented. Those Americans who will suffer are in the future and so do not have a voice today. It will take people like you and me reading the signs of the times and grasping the seriousness of the occasion, to convince our elected officials to override the interests of the rich and powerful and enact policies that benefit political outsiders and future generations.

Jeremiah faced a similar situation in his time. His job was to prophecy the impending takeover of Jerusalem and the rest of Judah by the Babylonians, and to show the people of Judah that this was a result of their failing to keep their covenant with God. In his time, just like today, there were many preachers who preached sermons of comfort when it was time to preach sermons that afflicted. People then as now were wanting to hear a message of peace and comfort. They wanted to be soothed and leave feeling good. In our first reading this morning we heard about the false prophets who share their dreams. I can only imagine that these were dreams of comfort and prosperity.

What a contrast with God’s word which is like “fire and a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.” It is time for God’s word to shatter the calm of our dreams. It is time for us to be lit with fire and passion to change the way we live and the way this nation lives. Ironically the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has overshadowed the climate change bill which was passed in the House of Representatives earlier in the year but never reached the Senate. We have to put pressure on Congress to act even though it is not an immediate issue. Just like health care, the changes we need to make are difficult because they mean change. They threaten some business interests even as they act to protect the life of our children and grandchildren. It is only when people like you and me all over the country start to make our voices heard louder than big business that changes will be made. We need to act before it is too late!

The comfort this morning comes in the New Testament reading. There the writer to the Hebrews reminds us of those who have gone before who were sustained by their faith. He mentions some of the great names of Jewish history as examples who can give us courage. We might think of more recent examples, William Wilberforce who led the British movement to abolish slavery, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther-King Jr., Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Sister Teresa, Brother Roger of Taize, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu. These are among the many in our own time who have gone ahead in faith, who have hoped for things not seen and have taken action. These are the ones whose examples spur us on because they kept moving forward in faith and in hope even when everything seemed hopeless.

There’s a prayer we use sometimes which goes, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” We are gathered together this morning to worship God and to seek God’s face together. We come together to the great meal in which God comes to us in the form of food so that we may be comforted, and we may be sustained. But it is not enough for our faith to motivate us to turn out on a Sunday morning when it would be easier to stay home. It is not enough for our faith to show us God present here in this holy place but not show us God present in the faces of our neighbors in Pakistan, the Sudan, Iran, San Luis Obispo.

As we come together to God this morning let us pray for ourselves and for one another that we may receive solace AND strength for the journey, that we may not only be pardoned but also renewed, set on fire with God’s passion. We live in a world that desperately needs to know the life-giving love of God not just transforming the lives and hearts of individuals but transforming the lives of our nation and the nations of the world. And as we leave here today, let us remember that we are being sent out to take God’s love to the world. And on Tuesday, let us all remember to vote.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

When is enough enough?

When the rich man in today’s parable found that he had enough to meet his needs he just built a bigger space to hold it all. It didn’t occur to him to give it away or even to sell it. Even though he had enough, he wanted more. Does that sound familiar?

Lots of people wanting more money helped create the recession - a situation in which everyone loses. It’s easy to point the finger at the very rich, especially when we are not. It’s easy to laugh at the rich fool who built bigger warehouses but then died before he could enjoy any of his stores. But we are the richest people on earth even if we’re not millionaires. Most of us could manage on less than we do. Most of us also have at least one area in our lives where we always want a little more, where we have difficulty seeing when we have enough. We are constantly exposed to advertising which is intended to make us want more. Our consumer society is geared towards making us greedy.

But as members of the household of God, we are called to be good stewards of all that we are given. That means knowing when we have enough, and being willing to give away what we don’t need. It means taking care of what we have and not amassing stuff just for the sake of it.

As good stewards we are called to live frugally and invest wisely so that we have plenty to share. The rich fool had enough for himself and plenty to share but he couldn’t see it. All he could think of was himself. He was rich in his own eyes but he wasn’t rich towards God.

Rich towards God. At this point in the sermon I could start talking about all the ways we can be spiritually rich. But I’m not going to do that because spirituality is not something separate from how we spend our money and how we deal with our things. I often talk about practical spirituality in terms of how we relate to one another, but this morning I want to stay with how we deal with money and possessions. The way we use what we have is our walk with God. It is not separate.

Sometimes a church member will join the vestry and find themselves surprised at how much time we spend talking about money and about ‘stuff’, including of course this building. I’ve had people tell me they thought it would be more “spiritual”. But there is no separation between our spiritual paths and the way we live our lives as householders. Money is spiritual. Stuff is spiritual.

We know that God likes stuff. God made it. The whole Creation story is about how God made everything that exists and made us creative so that we can come up with endless new ways to turn matter into stuff that we like. The story of the Incarnation is about how God came as Jesus into the physical world in a more intimate and complex way than ever before. So it’s not having stuff that’s wrong… we don’t have to turn our back on the material world in order to love God. In Genesis 1 God celebrates creation, every day he looks at what he has made and says “It is good, it is very good”. God wants us to look at what we have created, the lives we have made for ourselves and that we share with those around us and say “it is good”. The problem comes when like the rich fool we don’t know when to stop, we don’t know when enough is enough.

We have seen the terrible effects greed can have on our economic life. Over the last 25 years the gap between rich and poor in this country has increased dramatically. The median income for a CEO of a large company in 2009 was $6.6 million. That’s down from $8 million two years earlier. In comparison the median household income in San Luis Obispo was $60,000. The annual income of someone working full-time on minimum wage is $16,600. By paying workers the lowest wage they can get away with, CEOs increase the profits for their shareholders and get paid a princely sum to do so. That’s the way capitalism works.

Part of the cause of the recession is that gap between the poor and the rich. The rich have been getting richer. Instead of the people who do the work benefitting from the profits they create, those profits have gone to the managers and the owners of capital. That was exacerbated by the 2001 tax-cuts for the wealthiest people. So the rest of us borrowed on our credit cards and our home equity loans, sometimes just to stay afloat, sometimes because we didn’t know when enough was enough. If those profits had been shared more equitably then those at the bottom wouldn’t have needed to borrow so much. If they hadn’t wanted to borrow then banks wouldn’t have made sub-prime loans. Those who made sub-prime loans did so because they wanted to make more money.

So it’s not just a personal issue. The way you use the money and possessions that God has given you is not just a personal decision. It affects everything. The less you use for yourself, the more you have to give away so the more you can support God’s work in the world.

Becoming rich in God is what enables us to loosen our grip on stuff, to let go of the need to hold tightly on to all that we have in case there is not enough. Becoming rich in God happens as we turn to Christ in daily prayer and loving surrender. As our fears and anxieties are calmed and as we are filled by the love of God, we no longer need to sooth and fill ourselves with things. We no longer need to be seen to be successful and wealthy. We find that ‘enough’ comes much sooner.

The early church gave away or sold their possessions and held everything in common, and at different times in history other groups of Christians have felt called to do the same thing. Because Jesus lived with few possessions, we his followers are also called to live a simple life. We are called to live lightly on the earth, in a way that does not produce pollutants and carbons which affect the air we breathe and contribute to global warming.

We are called to live carefully and compassionately in a way that honors God and does not leave trash for the generations coming after us to clear away. We are called to live simply so that others may simply live.

This last week I spoke at a rally to protest State budget cuts in health and human services. Once again we are in a deadlock position with the State budget and the Governor is determined not to raise any revenues but rather to cut services and subsidies for those who are already the most vulnerable - services which have already been cut by $20million over the last four years. Once again this is letting the rich get richer at the expense of the poor and at the expense of the jobs of those who help the least able.

It’s a mindset that invades every one of us. We are afraid that if we give anything away we will not have enough for ourselves. So we amass more clothes than we need, more square footage than we need, bigger cars than we need - we forget that we have enough and we go on wanting more. We don’t think about the effects our greed may have on others. And when we can’t get more, we feel inadequate as though there’s something wrong with us, and that we are being left out. As our incomes shrink or our abilities fade due to ill-health or age, we get scared. What if there isn’t enough?

God’s economy does not obey the same rules as the world’s economy. In God’s economy what you give away is given back to you. In God’s economy, living frugally so that you can give generously leads to greater riches. Many people find the idea of tithing hard. They look at their income and imagine how difficult it would be with 10% less. What they don’t realize is that in God’s economy, what you give comes back to you. It doesn’t usually come back in the form of checks in the mail, but your wealth increases.

Wealth is not big storage units filled with stuff. Wealth is having enough and to share, being peaceful and content with loving relationships and a life-giving knowledge of God. My prayer for all of us is that as we find ways to live more simply, with less stuff, so our wealth will increase and our lives will be poured out as a blessing to others.