Benediction Online

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Today you get to choose which sermon you want to hear - just like on CNN when you can text in your vote for a news story. Your choices:

How then shall we Pray? (Romans 8:26,27)

The Elect and the Rest (Romans 8:29,30)

God's Love in a Partisan World (Romans 8: 31-39)

How Then Shall We Pray? The Spirit and Us

If, like me, you’ve ever wished you knew how to pray you can take heart from Paul’s words this morning. Even he said, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” His choice of words, or at least the way they translate into English, unfortunately suggests that there is some correct way to pray. There really isn’t, or at least, there’s no one-size-fits-all prayer with the possible exception of the Lord’s Prayer.

Every family has different ways of greeting each other and most have words or catch phrases which have come to mean something within the family but are lost on the uninitiated. In the same way, each one has a unique relationship with God, with ways of connecting some of which are tried and discarded, others that become tried and tested over a lifetime, or in the case of our liturgies, over many lifetimes.

The Good News, for those of us who struggle with prayer, is that the very Spirit is interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. But wait a minute… isn’t this is a curious idea; that God is praying to God for us? There’s a similar idea a couple of verses later, but now it is Christ Jesus at the right hand of God praying for us. Why would God need to pray for us?

If prayer is letting God know our needs then it’s pointless since God already knows them. If prayer is asking or persuading God to do something then why would God pray to Godself for us? So what is prayer?

I think the answer may be found in our understanding of the relationship of the Trinity. If we think of God being three persons united in a relationship which is filled with joy, worship, praise, love, communication, constantly in motion – a bit like our own blood stream – then perhaps that life flow can be thought of as prayer. Perhaps prayer is the creative flow of God, so when we pray, we are connecting in to the life of the Spirit in a co-creative way. So our prayer is not asking that God do something but actually participating in the doing of it.

We know that our physical world is composed of energy. We also know that human thought can influence energy. Is it then so surprising that human prayer can be creative? God has given us free will so that we can choose to be in loving relationship with the Godhead – we can choose to be part of that amazing energy of loving worship and joy which is God – and we can choose to participate in the creativity which is God.

It won’t always be easy. There is so much pain in our world, such pain that it makes even the Spirit groan. When we connect with the deep prayer life of God, we will be connecting not just with the joy of the Godhead but also with the pain, the groaning in childbirth, of creation. But that is no reason to hold back. Because we were made to be Christlike beings, as Paul says, we are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family”, because of that – the spiritual life is deeply satisfying.

There’s a line in the movie “Chariots of Fire” which has become one of the familiar catchphrases in my household. The Scottish runner Eric Liddell is explaining to his sister that running is not against their strict Puritan faith. He says, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

God made us spiritual beings, and when we pray, when we join with the Trinity in creative inner work, we feel God’s pleasure.

The Elect… and the Rest

In April of this year there was a lot of media attention for Pastor Rob Bell of the Mars Hill mega-church in Michigan when he published Love Wins – a book which suggested that there is no hell and we all end reconciled with God or “saved”. Generally called “universal salvation” this understanding of the Christian gospel is not particularly new but it flies in the face of Reformation ideas, especially those of Calvin whose influence on Protestant thinking is still very powerful.

Calvin taught predestination, which put very simply, is the idea that God has already determined who shall be saved and who shall be damned. In this way of thinking, those whom God has chosen to save are the elect – the ones he has elected to be justified and glorified. In the visions of Revelation, there are 144,000 people in gowns of white who were purchased by God. This has led some groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to think that in the whole of human history only 144,000 people are elect and will be part of the New Heaven. God decided who those would be at the beginning of time.

This idea of predestination is one way of interpreting verses 29 and 30 of the reading from Romans 8, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

There are of course other ways to read it. Psalm 139 says “For you yourself created my innermost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” God knew all of us from our very beginnings. “Those whom he foreknew” can therefore be interpreted all of humanity. If that’s how you read it then you have to tend towards the universal salvation idea because “those whom he foreknew’ – all of humanity – “he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” So all of us are destined from the very beginning to become the Christ-like beings we were created to be.

We all want to be special. We want to be singled out for special loving attention and it’s nice to think that God has told us Episcopalians the real story and the Catholics or the Nazarenes or the Methodists only have it partly right! During times of persecution and great difficulty it is particularly helpful for people to feel that they are special and have been singled out by God. The idea of predestination can be quite seductive. It also provides an explanation for why some perfectly nice people just don’t experience a need for God – they, poor souls, are simply not among the elect.

If we believe in a loving God who sent his only Son that whosoever believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life, then it becomes difficult to imagine that same God looking at all of us as we are conceived and saying, Paul –yes, Jane, no I don’t think so, Mary – yes, Sam – yes, Judas definitely not… We usually don’t treat our own children that way – why would we imagine that God does?

I do think that we have different callings and some of us are called to the spiritual life in a deeper and more profound way than others. But that in no way makes us better. It gives us greater responsibility because we are entrusted with the furtherance of God’s reign. We are called to be the light of the world so that others may also know and find God’s abundant and unconditional love.

It is the knowledge of God which gives us abundant and eternal life. If we are made in God’s image then we are free beings with the ability to make our own decisions – right or wrong. When we form a relationship with the divine it is a mutual relationship of two free beings – we are free to choose God who in God’s freedom has chosen to create us and invite us not relationship with Godself. That is so awesome. But it does not make us morally superior to others, because Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

So our calling leads us always to service of others, however menial and however unnoticed. That is the calling of the beloved people of God.

God is on Our Side – God’s Love in a Partisan World

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” are comforting words for anyone who is experiencing adversity, but they also have a dark side because they imply that God is not “for” all beings. I can imagine that all those who are grieving loved ones killed in Norway’s massacre are feeling right now as though God is not on their side. The actual motivation of the killer is not completely clear, and may never be, but it is chilling that he is described as a fundamental Christian. You don’t need me to remind you how many people have been slaughtered over the centuries in the name of Christ.

I am not a complete pacifist. Watching the movie The King’s Speech reminded me again of the resolve and determination of the British people that Hitler should be stopped. I know a little of how that was for my own family, and am almost certain that had I been there, I would have felt that God was calling us to take action. I do think that we have to stand up against evil and injustice wherever we see it. But that does not mean that God loves Hitler any less than me.

We live in a time of tremendous polarization; a time when the people we elected to govern think it’s more important to try to unseat their political opponent than to find solutions to the country’s problems. At a time when the whole planet is facing extraordinary threat from human activity, our leaders are paralyzed by the need to keep fighting each other. This is exacerbated by mass media which loves to emphasize difference and controversy – people getting along together doesn’t sell, we’re not as gripped by stories of cooperation as we are by stories of conflict. Moreover, now we get to choose our news sources, we less often hear opinions which seriously challenge our own.

So we slip into bad habits. Quite unconsciously we find ourselves taking sides. We decry other people’s opinions and assume that because we differ politically or religiously we cannot have conversations and enjoy one another’s company. We have a tendency to think that the beliefs we hold are God-given and anyone who doesn’t see it the same way is just plain wrong. And then we put them down or dismiss them.

I don’t think that’s the model that Jesus gave us. He certainly wasn’t a wimp. He stood up for what he believed even against great opposition. (Of course he had the tremendous advantage of being God and therefore being right 100% of the time!) But even though he was executed for his beliefs and his opposition to the way religion was being practiced, he never cursed his opponents. He never told his disciples to shun anyone. He never suggested that some people were more valuable in God’s eyes than others. In fact he went as far as to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

How would it be if we developed a spiritual practice of praying for those we oppose, those we think are stupid or wrong? Right now it would be a really good spiritual practice for me to pray for Michele Bachmann and her husband. In my little mind, they have come to stand for everything that I find repulsive about self-righteous, white heterosexual evangelical Christians. But I don’t even know them. I have never sat down with them and talked with them about their ideas and beliefs. I have created them into a stereotype of people I dislike and oppose. And partly that’s because they scare me. It scares me that people with such obvious prejudices against people like me think that they can run this country. I am sure it would scare them if I ran for office and they thought that someone with such obvious prejudices against them might get elected. We are coming from fear.

We are coming from fear.

There is no reason to be afraid because there is nothing, nothing that can separate us from God’s love. And there is nothing, nothing that can separate Michele and Marcus Bachmann from the love of God.

We need to pray for our enemies and those we dislike and distrust because holding on to our fear and our prejudice stops us from fully experiencing that incredible love of God. We also need to pray for discernment so that we can standup for the values of the kindom of God, so that we can fight evil where it raises its head, but still know that everyone, everyone is loved by God.

God loves all of us, no exceptions.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Glory of God is the Human Being Fully Alive

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Today is one of the very few opportunities we have during the three year cycle of our lectionary to read from the Song of Songs, a wonderful book of love poetry situated at the very heart of our sacred writings. Over the centuries there have been two major ideas about this book of poetry – firstly that it allegorically portrays the love between God and God’s beloved who is Israel, the Church or the soul depending on the interpreter’s perspective, and secondly that it is what it seems to be, an extended love poem expressing the intimacy and delight of heterosexual love.

In the Jewish tradition it is considered a very sacred book – Rabbi Aqiba in the second century argued that “all the world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the holy of holies.” It is now especially associated with Passover. Passover is the feast of God’s great love shown in delivering the Hebrews out of Egypt and in that context the Song of Songs is a song of praise for God’s love. It is also an important text in the mystical system of Qabala, as it brings together the masculine and feminine, and is seen as a description of the creation of the world, the passage of Shabbat, the covenant with Israel, and the coming of the Messianic age.

I don’t think Christians today really know what to do with it. As I said, it hardly ever shows up in the Sunday readings, and today it was one of a couple of choices. I suspect that if we did a poll of Episcopal Churches, we would find that most have chosen to read Psalm 45 instead. Yet in the past it was highly regarded; Bernard of Clairvaux wrote eighty-six sermons based on the Song of Songs, and the sixteenth century reformers, particularly Luther and Calvin, preached on it frequently.

Their approach was that this book provides an allegorical picture of the relationship of the Church to Christ, drawing on the idea found in the New Testament that Christ is the bridegroom and we, the Church, are his bride. Today I want to focus instead on what it might mean to us that at the very center of our sacred writings we have a highly sensuous erotic poem.

I want to suggest to you that eros, erotic connection, is at the very heart of our relationship with God as well as with each other. We tend to think of eros as being limited to sexual love but the Greek god Eros embodied not only the force of love but also the creative urge of ever-flowing nature, the firstborn Light for the coming into being and ordering of all things in the cosmos. John’s Gospel, of course, places Jesus as that first-born Light when it says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world,” and also as the creative force, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

It’s as though John is taking the Greek idea of Eros and applying it to Christ. When we think of Christ in that way, it is not so outrageous to make the connection between eros and Christ’s abundant life which is like never-ending spring inside us. The life force which we express sexually and in our most passionate encounters with life is on the same continuum with the passionate love of the Trinity which brought all of Creation into being, incarnated as a human and suffered the torture of the cross only to rebound with total love, forgiveness and resurrection life.

It’s like musical notes. There are several different notes, all of which we call C. They are different, because they are at different pitches, but they are all recognizably the same. The eros which is the creative juice of the Trinity is like a high C and the eros which is our creative juice is like a lower C… they are both recognizably the same and yet they are different.

The first reading this morning was the account of the servant who was sent back to the homeland to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. This marriage looks very different from what we expect today. It was arranged by a servant acting for their parents, they did not have any legal ceremony, they did not have a blessing by a priest… as far as we can tell, Rebekah moved in with Isaac’s mother into the women’s tent, they had sex together and that was it. Surprisingly for the time they seem to have been monogamous – unlike Abraham and Sarah or Isaac’s son Jacob.

Together they created a marriage within which the creative force of eros could be cultivated and expressed. For many of us who are married today, or living in covenanted relationship, our marriage becomes the primary place where we express the loving, creative force that we call eros. It is also the primary place where we experience sanctification – the daily living close with another person calls out not just the best in us but the worse in us too, to be blessed and transformed as we become more and more Christ-like.

As a sidebar, I am delighted that the state of New York this week voted for same-gender marriage. There is no legal reason that makes sense to me why gay and lesbian people should not marry. There is certainly no religious reason within Christianity which would deny the possibility of expressing eros and experiencing the cleansing fire of sanctification within marriage to lesbian and gay people. I look forward to the time when once again California encourages all those who wish, to make this kind of commitment to life.

But many of us are not living in intimate relationship with one other person. In fact 43% of all Americans over 18 are single – in other words they have never married or are divorced or widowed.[1] Eros is just as important for single people. It is at the heart of who we are, humans made in the image of an erotic God. We may express it in our relationship with the divine, we may express it in our work, in our relationship with our cats, in our poetry, in the joy we experience when we fix a broken engine, or play a great round of golf… there are a myriad ways that we experience that great connecting, creative energy. We express it in our relationships and in our worship, we experience it in our minds and our souls and our bodies.

God created the world of matter and bodies and God saw that it was good. All our sacraments involve our bodies – we baptize with water, we anoint with oil, we eat the brad and wine - because it is through our bodies that we experience the world. It is through our bodies that we express that powerful creative force we call eros.

So it makes sense that at the very center of the Bible should be an erotic poem. Because eros is at the very center of our life with God and each other. Last Tuesday was the feast of Irenaeus, the second-century bishop who said “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” That is the power of eros – to bring the human being fully alive and to glorify God.

[1] America's Families and Living Arrangements survey of 2009