Benediction Online

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Advantage You Get is Sanctification

Romans 6:12-23

When I was a teenager and my sister had gone to college I finally had a room to myself. I had the typical adolescent sleep disturbance that meant I stayed awake most of the night and slept until noon. In my room was a big old radio. So I lay in bed into the early hours listening to pirate radio stations broadcasting rock music from ships anchored far enough off the coast to be outside the area covered by the BBC’s monopoly of radio. Even more than I liked the music, I liked the idea that I was engaging in subversive activity – music broadcast to me in contradiction of the broadcasting law. Then when I seriously got religion I listened to TransWorldRadio broadcasting the gospel from Monte Carlo. I loved the fact that by simply turning the dial I could hear people talking in different languages, and I could get forbidden music from the ships at sea, or radio evangelists serving up an inerrant and infallible Bible all night long.

In today’s excerpt from Paul’s great Letter to the Romans, he writes, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.

Being freed from sin is just the beginning of what it means to be Christian. Paul tells us that we are what we obey – and the Greek word can also mean listen to or hearken to – so when he talks about being freed from sin, we can perhaps think about it as changing what we listen to - being able to change the radio station in our head. No longer do we have to listen to the station which broadcasts ways of thinking and living that lead to the withering of our souls, the hatred of other people, and the destruction of our environment. We are free to turn it off. That is the first step. When we become Christians, when we open up to the power of God in our lives, we are given a radio dial and we can choose to listen to, hearken and obey not just the old station but the new one too.

Being freed from sin means that the dial on our internal radio is no longer stuck on one station, so we can change it; we can choose to listen not to the voice of sin but to the voice of righteousness – we can choose not to listen to the voice of the culture of death but to the voice coming from outside the norm.

“Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” Being enslaved to God is not an appealing idea for most of us, used as we are to the idea that freedom is worth fighting for. But I think we can stay with the image of the radio – slaves listen to and obey the voice of their owner – we listen to and obey the voice of God’s Spirit. The difference is that God does not take away our free will – we can choose to keep turning the dial and seeing what else is out there. So our obedience to God is obedience that is freely given. Just as God’s gift of life abundant is freely given to us, so we in turn give back our loving obedience, our attentiveness, our surrender to Spirit.

The advantage we get? Sanctification.

Sanctification is the process by which we become the Christ-like beings that we were created to be. It isn’t just for saints or professional religious – monks, nuns and clergy – it is a normal part of growing up as Christians. As we mature in the Christian life so we stop fiddling with the dial and choose to tune in to God. Instead of our own ideas, we want to know what God’s are. Instead of deciding what to do with our day on our own, we want to ask God to direct our thoughts, our words and our actions. Why? Because we have found that it is so much more satisfying, so much more fulfilling. Living each day with God, developing a deeper and deeper more intimate relationship with the divine, is the most satisfying and life-enhancing thing we can do.

And in the process of listening to Spirit we are sanctified, made holy, made into the Christ-like beings we were created to be. But unlike lying in bed listening to the radio, this is not a passive process. We are called to be co-creators with God and to be active participants in our own sanctification. We are called not just to hear God’s word but to put it into practice. Otherwise the radio becomes just background noise that may be playing but we don’t really notice it. Sometimes Jill and I will be at the gym or out for lunch and she’ll say, “do you remember this song?” and I have to listen really hard to even hear that music is playing in the background. That’s the danger of being people who regularly go to church and hear God’s word – if we don’t put it into practice it can just become so much background noise that we aren’t paying attention to while we go about our lives pretty much ignoring God.

Some of us are reading “Practicing Peace in a Time of War” by Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron. This is a slim volume, if you read it in one sitting it probably wouldn’t take more than 90 minutes. But the point of reading it is not to have an intellectual understanding of the ideas she presents, but to try to put those into practice in your life. Now that is much harder as she challenges us to sit with the discomfort that usually leads to aggression, to become familiar with our desire to correct other people’s ideas or to snarl at the driver who cuts us off, and to let the feeling be without feeding it with our thoughts. This little book is part of my personal process of sanctification right now as I attempt to practice letting things be as they are, including my feelings about them, without immediately needing to make myself more comfortable. God is using Pema Chodron to help me learn new habits of becoming more Christlike. But it doesn’t just do to read the book once through and think I understand it.

Understanding is not sanctification. It doesn’t matter how much you study and how much you grapple with complex notions of who God is and the nature of creation - if you aren’t turning everything over to God, if you are hearing but not obeying, you aren’t getting anywhere. You are not living the life that God intends for you.

Paul says, “Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” By the end he doesn’t mean what you get at the end of your earthly life or the prize you get at the end of the race. The Greek word is telos which is an important concept in Christian thought but one not easily translated into English. It means “fulfilling what was intended”. So the telos of a chair is to be sat on. A chair that is in a shed rotting is not reaching its telos. Our telos is to become Christ-like beings in unity with God. That is eternal life.

And that is the gift of God. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is the free gift of God. But it is not enough for us to receive it – it is not enough for us to find that we can listen to a different radio station, a different message, one which has hope and life. That is just the first step. Then comes the long slow process of welcoming God, becoming obedient to her voice and turning our lives over to her service moment by moment, day after day. And as we do so we will find that this is a joyful thing, it is filled with hope and new life because it is our telos. It is what we were created for.

And the new life which wells up in us is not ours to hoard but is a gift for all of the cosmos. That is the wonder of co-creating with Spirit.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Made in the Image of the Loving, Creating Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

A story is told about St. Augustine, one of the great theologians of the church, One day Augustine was walking on the beach contemplating the mystery of the Trinity. He came upon a boy who was digging a hole in the sand. The boy was pouring water from the sea into the hole.

When St. Augustine asked him what he was doing, the lad explained,

“I’m going to pour the ocean into this hole.”

“That’s impossible,” St. Augustine declared. “The whole ocean won’t fit in a hole.”

The child replied, “And you cannot fit the Trinity into your tiny little brain.”

Then the boy vanished, leaving St. Augustine to wonder if he had been talking to an angel.

Just as a single celled organism would have difficulty understanding the complexities of our multi-celled bodies which we take quite for granted, so the Christian church has come to know God as more complex than we can fully understand; three persons coexisting as one God.

If we look at contemporary Christianity we can see that there is a tendency for us to forget the Trinity and to concentrate instead on just one person. The Pentecostal and charismatic churches focus on the Holy Spirit, many Evangelical churches focus on Jesus while others focus on the almighty Father God, who is usually angry and demanding. It is much easier for us simple minded humans to have a God who is The Holy One or The Spirit than to allow ourselves to live with the discomfort of the uncertainty and the not-knowingness of the Trinity, three in one and one in three.

The essential and underlying nature of the Trinity reflected in all our readings today is Love. The creation of the world grows out of God’s creative love. Theologian Mark McIntosh has described creation as the pillow-talk of the Trinity. The pillow-talk of the Trinity. Just as humans who are drawn together in loving and committed relationship want to create together, to make something, often a home and then a family, so too the loving and committed relationship of the Tri-unity is, by its very nature, creative. It is almost impossible for the Trinity not to be creating.

The way the ancients imaged the creation of the world, they seem to have thought that God created it over a period of time, and that then it was done – finished. With the assistance of scientific understandings of continuing evolution, we have a different picture. We see the Trinity in constant creative mode, but with a partner. That partner is humanity.

We too are creative, just like the Godhead, and we are constantly creating, not only by our decisions and actions but also by our thoughts, intentions and prayers. Unfortunately, unlike the Trinity, we do not always create from love.

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to choose to create from love, not fear, not hate, but love. We are made in the image of God with the capacity to be deeply loving and entirely creative, but there is a flaw in our make up, the flaw that we call sin. This flaw leads us to be self-obsessed, and to interpret our world from an ego-centric “what’s in it for me?” viewpoint. It leads us to feel that we have to protect ourselves all the time and so we assume that others are out to get us and often attack before we are ourselves attacked. Each one of us is astonishingly creative. Instead of using our creative powers in the most loving way, choosing to forgive and to connect, we use them to create defense systems and to imagine the ways we could be hurt.

We have an astonishing opportunity to work in loving co-creation with God to bring God’s reign on earth. That is our calling as the Church. We can do that at several different levels. To name but a few, we can co-create lovingly with our thoughts, we can co-create lovingly with our relationships, and we can co-create lovingly with our actions.

We can co-create through our thoughts. The way we think colors everything we do and say. If we think that we are more intelligent or more gifted than other people that will affect the way we act. If we think that the world is a hard and unforgiving place we will interpret everything as being difficult. Whenever we allow ourselves to dwell on unloving critical or aggressive thoughts towards another person or group, we are failing to take the opportunity to create love.

I am not saying that we should not use our abilities to discern what is happening. If someone is coming towards me pointing a knife at me, it is important to use all my God-given faculties to understand that person’s intent. But we all know that not everyone pointing a knife is malicious – that person could have paused in the middle of slicing bread to make an important conversational point and is just using the knife to gesticulate. We need to use our minds to discern what is happening, but when we are cultivating and providing room for thoughts which are aggressive in any way we are creating not love but aggression. That includes thoughts about ourselves.

Prayer is a particular kind of thought. I think that when we pray we are consciously joining with God in creating the universe. I don’t understand how it works any more than I understand how my thyroid works, but I think that prayer somehow provides energy for God to work. It provides an invitation. God respects our free will and does not push in where she is not wanted, so prayer opens the door, provides the invitation and says “come on in and sit right down” with me, with us, with my friend who needs your touch, and with the one I just can’t forgive.

We create lovingly when we nurture strong, loving and healthy relationships and let go of ones which pull us back. Sometimes God calls us to move away from old relationships which no longer help us to create lovingly. God also calls us to stay in relationship with people who are annoying, even destructive, so that through our prayer and our love the Holy Spirit may reach them and they too may be transformed. And in the amazing divine economy where nothing is ever meaningless, nothing is ever lost or wasted, whether we lovingly release a relationship, or lovingly stay, we are transformed to become more Christ-like. We are transformed as we choose to be loving and not to play host to the negative stories our minds feed us.

We create through our loving actions. “Become the change you want to see” has become almost a cliché, but in many ways it is true. If we want a loving world, we get to create a loving world by the way we live and the things we do. We help to create a loving world when we do even the most mundane things, like cleaning the church, lovingly and without complaining even in our minds. We help to create a loving world when we go out of our way to help someone else without making a story about how wonderful we are to help, or what a martyr we are to have to do this. We help to create a loving world when we stand up for justice in a way which is clear and calm, not dismissive or hateful towards those with whom we disagree.

God is love. The Trinity is somehow composed of three people who are also one. They live together in a constant state of loving creativity and have chosen to include humanity in that relationship. This is an astonishing privilege and an enormous opportunity as well as a responsibility. Humanity is composed of millions of people who are individuals but also somehow one. The way we respond to the opportunity God gives us is important.

What then shall we do?

Let us commit ourselves to loving creation. Let us commit ourselves to work unstintingly towards thinking only loving, forgiving thoughts, and to always seek to do the most loving thing in every situation.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Think BIG

Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

How many of you were here when we had an occasional worship service on the land before we had the church building? And how many of you were in this building before we had windows? Even if you weren’t here back then, if you have ever tried to get out of your car on a windy afternoon or had the door of the meeting room slam as the wind roared around the side of the building, you’ll know that this is a very windy valley. That’s why we have put up an enclosure for our trash and recycle bins, so that the wind won’t blow them down and send their contents into our neighbor’s fields.

So I want you just for a moment to imagine that we opened all the windows on a windy day and the wind gusted through here.

That is perhaps a little of what the disciples experienced that first Pentecost. Their experience was an extraordinary presence of the Holy Spirit which is described as being like the sound of a mighty wind – so it didn’t actually blow their service sheets into the next field – and like flames of fire which rested on their heads. It must have been an amazing experience.

Recently Donna and I taught a Hollister class which we called “Listening to the Spirit”. We focused on ways that we can hear God and deepen our being with God through scripture. Most of those were quiet, contemplative practices. We didn’t even mention wind and flames of fire!

After the great prophet Elijah had challenged the priests of Baal to a contest and Yahweh had sent fire from heaven to light his own altar, he had a crisis of faith and took himself off to a remote cave, he heard the word of Yahweh tell him,

‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him… (I Kings 19: 11-13)

God was not in the wind or the fire but in the silence that came afterward. And so we tend to expect God to come in silence. But the Holy Spirit of Pentecost not only came with the sound of wind and the sight of flame, she filled the disciples so that they all became like Elijah when he challenged the prophets of Baal. They had been gathered for prayer but now they were out on the streets, speaking the praise of God and telling the Good News of our reconciliation with the divine, not just in Aramaic, not just in Hebrew or Greek, but in many, many languages.

And the next few chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tell us how they went about teaching and performing miracles just like Jesus had done. Because they had been filled with the Holy Spirit.

I wonder… I wonder if we are limiting God’s Holy Spirit by only looking for her in the quiet still places. What if God’s Spirit is equally present in the storms that rage inside us and between us? What if God’s Spirit really wants us to go out into the streets over-flowing with excitement, and knowing that that’s a possibility, we avoid anything that might make that happen? What if the Holy Spirit is longing to do a new work of transformation, a powerful demonstration of God’s Love, in our midst and we are preventing her by our limited thinking?

As the mystic Mother Julian reminds us, God is always courteous and does not force himself upon us. It is our job to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. It is our job to notice the places where we constrict and tighten, the places where we don’t fully trust God, and to open ourselves. Jesus appearing to the disciples, breathed on them. He got up close and personal and they felt his breath on their faces and he said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." If you tighten around your grievances and your anger they will stay, but if you forgive you will be free. If you constrict your notions of God, God will stay small for you.

So let’s think BIG! How big is your God? What limits do you place on him? Perhaps you think that God never speaks to people like you, or that God stopped speaking when the last word was written in the New Testament, or that all the miracle stories are wishful, mythical thinking, or that God only answers prayers which are within the limits of human ability because she always works through humans. Perhaps you think that God is only out there somewhere, looking at this planet from a distance, or that God is only within us, guiding us through our thoughts, or that God is only in the beauty of Creation and the Sunday morning prayers, not in the chaos of your work life.

I challenge you this morning to let go of your limited thinking and to think BIG. Think wind and flame. Instead of the gentle dove we tend to associate with the Holy Spirit, think of the wild goose of Celtic Christianity.

The Holy Spirit works in many different ways and brings many different gifts. We may not all have the gift of healing but let us pray that some of us will. We may not all have words of wisdom or knowledge or faith, but let us expect and hope for some of us to have these gifts. St. Benedict’s does not have the same gifts as the Baptist church or the Methodist church down the street, we have our own unique gifts as the Holy Spirit gives to each one as he chooses.

But what if we are not fully receiving those gifts because we are not fully open, because our limited thinking is getting in the way of God’s gift? Every American child knows that on your birthday you get presents. And every child is ready for those to be really BIG and every child knows that you have to unwrap your gift before you can play with it.

So on this birthday of the church let us think BIG. Let us open ourselves individually and a faith community to the possibility that God’s Spirit is not just in the still small voice, but is also in the wind and fire.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Jesus Ascended - So What?

Acts 1:6-14

This morning we are remembering Jesus’ Ascension. This event, when Jesus levitated and disappeared into a cloud, is described at the end of Luke’s gospel and again at the beginning of Acts, the passage we heard this morning. Both books were written by the same person but he starts Acts as a separate scroll or volume – it’s not like he just ran out of room on one scroll and had to start a new one – because Acts starts with a preamble explaining its purpose. Neither Matthew nor John’s gospels mention what happened to Jesus. Mark just says, “Jesus was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.”

So two of the gospel writes don’t mention it, one mentions it in passing, but Luke mentions it twice – once at the end of his account of Jesus’ ministry and then again at the beginning of his account of the early church’s ministry. Obviously Luke thought it was important, not just as the end of Jesus’ story, but also as the very beginning of the church’s story.

How important do you think it is?

Do you think the Ascension

(a) is a made-up story

(b) really happened

(c) is a myth intended to reveal some deeper truth

(d) something else altogether

If it did happen on some level what difference does it make to you?

Whereas Matthew and Mark both end with Jesus telling his disciples to go and preach the gospel to all people and all creation, Luke is setting things up for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is a theme in John as well – last week we heard Jesus saying that he would not leave the disciples as orphans but would ask God to send them an Advocate.

There is a connection in Luke and John’s minds about Jesus’ being lifted up, glorified, ascended, and the Holy Spirit coming powerfully upon the disciples. The Holy Spirit has been around for ever - this is not a new manifestation of God, but it is a new experience of the relationship between God and humanity. We tend to take for granted the idea that God is within us, but for the disciples and for humanity this was a radically new idea.

It was one of those shifts that completely changes the way you see things. No longer was God solely an external Being like other humans, but God was to become internal, as close as their own spirits. As we shall see next week, this experience of God was not the still, quiet voice which we often seek in prayer and contemplation, this experience of the Spirit was wild and expansive and led to the disciples being able to perform miracles, speak in other languages, discern spirits, preach powerfully – all the things that Jesus had done.

So why the ascension? If Jesus just disappeared what would he have done with his body?

In Jerusalem, the Chapel of the Ascension is a Christian and Muslim holy site believed to mark the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. In the small round church/mosque is a stone. On this stone is an indentation which is claimed to have been made by Jesus’ feet as he ascended. I know that stretches the imagination a little, but it emphasizes the physical nature of Jesus’ ascended body. One of the characteristics of being human is that we have bodies, and it is through our bodies that we negotiate our way through our physical world. Certainly our bodies are not all that we are, but the interaction of body and spirit is what makes us the people we become. That’s why our sacraments all have a physical element – because God touches us not just through our minds but through our bodies.

So Jesus’ body is an important aspect of his humanness. If he had returned to God as a disembodied spirit he would no longer be fully human. The fact that he ascended as a fully-embodied human means that humanity is now part of the Godhead.

The difficulty with bodies is that they have to be somewhere, so when we talk like this it sounds like there is a place where God is and now there’s embodied Jesus with God the Creator and the Holy Spirit. I expect that’s the way that the early church thought of it, which is why Mark talks about Jesus being on the right hand of God. We think of God as being outside the space/time continuum so she is nowhere and everywhere because there really is no there there. Jesus ascended in his resurrection body which we know was different from ours because he could move through time and space, suddenly appearing here or there. So we don’t have to stretch our incredulity to think that Jesus is now sitting on a cloud somewhere.

Jesus ascended because the dominant paradigm of the day suggested that God lived in the heavens. The god-man left the limiting dimensions of time and space in a way that enabled his followers to know that humanity was now fully with God, that just as in the incarnation God became fully human, so in the ascension human becomes fully God.

This new relationship goes both ways. After a suitable period to integrate what just happened, a time when the disciples devoted themselves to prayer and praise – almost a spiritual retreat to prepare themselves for a new initiation – after a suitable period, God enters humanity in a brand new way.

But that’s a story for another time…

What difference does it make to you?