Benediction Online

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Free God

Matthew 20:1-16

In a pivotal scene in the movie Then She Found Me, Holly Hunt plays a devout Jewish woman about to have a medical procedure. Her mother, played by Bette Midler, suggests she prepares by praying. Holly Hunt’s character refuses. Eventually she admits that she feels let down by God. She had thought God was loving and good, but how can he be when he has allowed her to get ill? Bette Midler’s character responds, “What if God is… difficult… awful… complicated?”

And that is my question to you this morning. What if God is difficult, awful, complicated?

When I was living in Scotland my dear friend from Virginia told me about the wonderful birthday cake her mother made her every year. I decided to secretly get the recipe and surprise her with her favorite cake. So I called her mother in Alexandria who seemed oddly elusive and said she’d see if she could find the recipe. A week or two later I received a parcel in the mail. It was a packet of Betty Crocker cake mix.

There are some real advantages to using a cake mix. It takes all the guess work out of it – instead of beating the sugar and butter until soft – how soft? Or adding a spoonful or two of flour, just enough to stop the mixture curdling – how much is just enough? Instead of all that uncertainty - you just add eggs and oil and pop it in the oven and it comes out the same every time. It’s easy – good results are pretty much guaranteed.

Many people want God to be like a cake mix. They want God to be sweet, simple, uncomplicated and the same every time. They want a tame God who shows up on cue to solve their problems and help them out of their difficulties. They expect that if God exists he will answer their prayers and keep them out of harm’s way. If that doesn’t happen then either God can’t exist or if he does, he doesn’t care. How, someone asked me recently, can I trust God when he doesn’t answer my prayers?

God’s primary purpose is not to answer our prayers. Our primary purpose is to relate to God in friendship, love and worship. We are only truly fulfilled when we are living in relationship to God however we understand her. But our gospel reading today suggests that God may be a lot more difficult, awful and complicated than we would like to think. Relating to God is much less predictable than baking a cake from a cake mix.

Jesus is telling a story about some very disgruntled field workers. They started work early in the morning and agreed a fair wage with the owner of the vineyard. But at the end of the day they saw others who had worked only a few hours getting paid as much as they were expecting, and they were excited. Obviously the boss was in a generous mood – and they would get paid handsomely. But when it was their turn they were paid only what had been originally agreed. They were angry. Where was the fairness in that?

This is clearly not a parable about equitable pay for fieldworkers. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven and how it is different from the ways we normally think and behave.

Assuming that the landowner is in some way representative of God, the fact that the landowner can spend his money the way he chooses tells us something important about God. God is difficult…awful… complicated… and free. That means that we cannot control God. We cannot take her out of a box, add the oil of prayer and the eggs of love and get the same result every time. Because it isn’t about us.

That may be the most difficult thing for us to really understand.

Yes God loves the world, and that means you and me, so much that she sent her only beloved Son, part of herself, to die on the cross so that we might know God. But it’s not all about us. It’s all about God. In the beginning was God. The one who is I AM Who I AM.

God is free to do whatever God wants. God created the universe and is continuing to create the universe and if God chooses to do that through DNA or through a creative word or in some totally different way, that’s up to God. God longs to be in relationship with us but it’s not a relationship where we ask for something and God gives it, again and again and again. That’s not a relationship between two free beings, that’s spiritual consumerism. God has already given us the ultimate gift in Jesus.

Now it’s up to us. It’s up to us to dedicate our lives to loving, serving and worshipping a God over whom we have no control. A God who is difficult, awful, complicated and free. A God who can reward people as she sees fit, not according to human systems or ideas of fairness.

None of this lets us off the hook, because it’s not about a relationship of equals. God is free to do whatever God chooses and God may choose to allow Godself to be limited in order to respect our free will. But just because we have free will does not mean that we can forget about ethical holy living. It does not mean that we can forget about loving God.

In fact, it makes everything a bit more demanding and a bit more exciting. Relating to God is not like using a cake mix, it’s more like following a recipe from scratch. A recipe that you haven’t cooked before which has slightly imprecise directions – a ‘dab’ of butter, a ‘rounded’ spoon of sugar, then beat until it coats the back of the spoon – that kind of recipe. You have to give up the need to get it right. You have to surrender to the process and trust that it’ll come out alright and if it doesn’t it’ll still be alright.

That’s the kind of relationship that God calls us into. A deep relationship is one of submission, of saying God’s will not mine, but not one of passivity. We do not get to sit back and say whatever happens is up to God, God expects us to be actively engaged in working for the reign of God. God expects us to be actively engaged in our spiritual work.

Just as God is actively engaged in our lives and the life of this planet. But it isn’t a simple cake in a box, God’s activity is not a panacea which takes away suffering and difficulty. God’s love holds us and supports us but doesn’t mean we avoid pain and suffering. It’s all much more difficult… awful… and complicated than that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Exodus 14:19-31
Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

Our task this morning is to take the readings from sacred scripture and place them side by side with the memories and feelings and understandings we have about 9-11 and how it has changed our world; to create a dialog between the words and experience of our ancient ancestors as they sought to describe their experience of life with God, and the experience of our contemporary world. In so doing we invite the Holy Spirit to inform our thoughts, transform our heart and renew our lives.

Our readings start with the Hebrew people escaping from bondage in Egypt. This is a wonderful story and one which encapsulates a keynote of our understating about God. God delivers us from slavery and sets us free. That’s an underlying promise which continues to give us hope. Regardless of the difficulties we get into, whether we find ourselves trapped by unemployment, addictions, habits or life circumstances, God is faithful. God is with us in bondage and God will set us free!

The fate of the Egyptians in this story is however, troubling. When we are released from the things which bind us we want to be rid of them so it’s not a bit surprising that the Hebrews rejoiced in the demise of their enemies. But how do we handle a God who apparently wreaked revenge on those Egyptian soldiers who had survived the plagues, by killing the entire army and their long-suffering horses? Personally I am relieved that so far no independent historical record has been found that supports this story as it is passed down to us. Although Egyptian records exist back to 3900 years ago they do not mention a slave uprising nor the Egyptian army being drowned. The only similar account is the expulsion of the Hyksos about 1550 BCE which the Egyptians recorded as a great victory.

When we try to put the story into a historical context like this, it seems to tell us more about the Hebrew people and their understanding of God than it does about God’s way of dealing with their enemies. We do not have to imagine a vengeful God but rather a God who brings us out of Egypt and sets us free. A God who leads us by night as well as by day. A God who hears our lamentations and shares in our celebrations.

The New Testament reading concludes our series from the letter to the Romans. Paul has turned his attention to community life and the importance of honoring one another and accepting each other’s beliefs without judgment. Then he says, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Taken out of context this could be the manifesto of a fundamentalist suicide bomber, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord”. But that’s taking it out of context. Paul is actually talking about living entirely for Christ so that the decisions we make about our diet, the way we care for our bodies and our homes and our loved ones, the religious festivals we honor and those we don’t, all these decisions are to be placed in the context of living for Christ. If you are vegetarian be vegetarian in order to honor Christ, if you eat meat, eat meat in a way that honors Christ. Our lives are no longer our own; they are God’s. Which means that we are responsible to God for how we live and the actions we take.

I am not totally a pacifist. I am the product of my country and family and I believe the war against Hitler was a necessary one even though it meant more people suffered pain, loss and death. However there has not been a war since which seems to me to have been fully justified. As followers of Jesus our calling is to bring life and hope. So the way we live and the decision we make must point towards life and towards wholeness.

We will never know how much the motivation of those who plotted and carried out the 9-11 attacks sprang from their faith and how much it came from political ambition tied up with religion. We can see only too often in our own country how politicians can exploit religious fervor and how preachers can exploit social issues to their own ends.

Love of God and love of country must lead us as Christians to that which promotes life; that which promotes human and planetary flourishing. Because God is creating a world and God sees that it is good and it is our task to co-create that good.

And so to the Gospel reading. That challenging passage about forgiveness. How it makes us squirm. We don’t want to let go of the “strands we hold of other’s guilt.” We continue to justify ourselves. “Yes I forgive her for spilling the communion wine but she should realize that…” “Of course I forgive her, I just wish she would be more careful…” That is holding on, forgiveness is letting go.

When a tragedy happens, large or small, we struggle to make sense of it. We want to blame someone for it, it’s a way of trying to make sure it won’t happen again. If we can just understand how it happened, who was at fault, then we can prevent it. To forgive is to let go of trying to apportion blame. It is to accept that what happened happened and to move on with life. Jesus once said to a potential follower “let the dead bury the dead”. Let the past be past.

So today we remember the horror of that morning ten years ago when the twin towers fell. We remember those who died and join in the grief of their families. We remember those who contracted serious illnesses from inhaling the debris. We remember those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of our country’s response.

We remember.

But let us try to remember with God’s eyes. As well as the tragedy, the horror, the anger and the loss let us see the heroism. The people who worked selflessly to bring relief, to find those who could be found, to clear up the remains of those who were lost. We remember the firefighters who kept going into the buildings even as others were running for their lives.

That is our calling. To be those who bring life and hope. Those who come with gentleness of heart, but firm resolve and great courage to bring hope and life, to nurture flourishing, to foster peace.

I finish with a few lines from W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland,

We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Love your neighbor as yourself

Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

What do you do for a living? Are you forgiving? Giving shelter? Cris Williamson

There is no way that we can read the whole of the Bible in church on Sunday mornings over three years. Sometimes it’s almost as interesting to see what we don’t hear as what we do. Although we have been following Paul’s Letter to the Romans since June our readings have skipped quite a lot. The two verses immediately before today’s reading tell us that we shouldn’t cheat on our taxes. Now I wonder why we leave that out?

Understanding the context helps us understand the beginning of this passage. According to Paul we should pay our taxes and owe nothing to the government or anyone else except love. Then our only debt is to wholeheartedly love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And of course we know from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is anyone in need.

Which makes loving our neighbor very difficult. In Jesus’ day there were just 150 million people on the entire planet – that is half the current population of the United States. Today 1 billion 150 million people live in India alone. So Jesus’ disciples had far fewer neighbors than we do, and lacking rapid communication, they had no way to know about people in need outside the Mediterranean which reduced the scope even further. Today we know about far more people in need than we can possibly help.

So what do we do?

I think the temptation is to harden our hearts and do nothing. The pain of the world is overwhelming and we feel that we need to guard ourselves against it. But that is exactly what Jesus did not do. We are told that when he planned to take a retreat and five thousand or more women, men and children followed him, he had compassion on them. When Jesus was hanging in agony on the cross he saw his mother’s tremendous grief and instructed his favorite disciple to care for her. Jesus did not turn away from grief and suffering but stayed present to it.

I would much rather not know that people are starving in Somalia. I would prefer not to think about a one year old called Mason who was killed in a tragic accident this week. But I do know about them and since we are all connected, however much I try to close down, I am affected by their suffering.

So part of our spiritual calling is to learn how to stay present and open our hearts to the suffering of our neighbors without being overwhelmed by it. As we seek to become more Christ-like we will not only be astonished at the beauty of the world and the joy of living, the glory of God in humanity, art and nature, but we will look with God’s eyes of compassion and God’s breaking heart on the pain; the pain of humanity, the pain of the planet.

Earlier in this same letter, Paul made the astonishing statement. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the daughters and sons of God to be revealed… in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:19,21-22)

We are the daughters and sons of the living God and as we realize our own heritage, as we come closer and closer to God, as we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, so the terrible pain of the world will be lifted. It is time for us to wake up. As Paul says, “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Our heritage in Christ Jesus is waiting for us. What are we waiting for?

The pain of our neighbors makes us want to close down. We want to change the channel, find something else to think about. But when we close down to the pain we also close down to our hope. Our hope is in Christ Jesus.

There is a strange reciprocity between our ability to love others and our ability to hope and to be truly free ourselves. One version of the Lord’s Prayer as it is translated from the Aramaic says, “Loose the cords of the mistakes that bind us, as we release the strands we hold of others' guilt.” As we forgive and set others free so we find ourselves being freed. As we love our neighbor so we find ourselves truly loved.

We often hear the axiom “You can’t love others until you learn to love yourself”. The gospel turns that on its head. It is in loving others, because God first loved us; it is in giving ourself to others, because God gave himself for us; that we deepen our experience of God’s love.

Some of us have not experienced the human love that we needed as small children to be able to feel loved deep down inside. We live with a feeling of deprivation which makes it difficult to truly give to others because we’re constantly thinking, “What about me?” When this is the case, the second part of the great commandment to love your neighbor “as yourself” becomes important. Loving yourself means having compassion on your broken places, the hurt feelings, the tendency to over-react and to take things personally. Loving yourself means having compassion on yourself when you just want to tell everyone to get lost and leave you alone, or when you take on too much or when you just feel downright grumpy for no reason.

Loving yourself means opening up to receiving God’s love, knowing that it’s not just for others but is truly ours.

When we forgive others we release them from their debts to us. When we forgive ourselves we release ourselves from the cords that bind us. I think that’s one way to understand Jesus’ statement “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” God’s incredible unconditional love and forgiveness are available to everyone but we have to want them. We have to allow ourselves to be forgiven and to let go of the ideas, memories and resentments that bind us.

The more we forgive ourselves the more we can open up to others and forgive them. But the converse is also true, the more we forgive others, the more we can forgive ourselves.

Before I close I want to reflect for a moment on the main part of the Gospel reading about what to do if another member of the church sins against you. (Not that that ever happens around here, but just in case.) When we play the game, what did Jesus really say? This gets a definite thumbs down. Why? Because there was no church when Jesus was alive. If his disciples had a disagreement they took it to Jesus. There was no organizational structure within which this scenario could have taken place. Perhaps it was a conflict resolution model which worked so well they thought Jesus must have created it, or perhaps it was a model that they thought people SHOULD use so they tried to give it authority by putting words into Jesus’ mouth.

My point is that we are not tied to this because Jesus said it. But the principle of going to the person who offended you rather than talking to other people is an important one. If I do something that bugs you please come and tell me, rather than complaining to two other people. Just as important if someone tells you that I annoyed them, ask them to come and talk to me and don’t pass the news on. This is one way that we love each other in community, by not feeding gossip and disagreement, and by always thinking the best of one another.

It seems on first reading as though the “sinner” who doesn’t admit his fault and make amends will be cast out of the church, treated like an outsider. But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He talked with them, he healed them, he had dinner with them. There are times when, for our own healing, we need to set firm boundaries and end relationships for a time. But as we mature as Christians, as we become more and more healed, the less we need those outer boundaries, the more we can like Jesus have compassion and indeed genuinely enjoy people who we once would have shunned.

Spiritual teacher Marilyn Williamson describes complaining to God about someone she didn’t like only to hear God say. “Really? I rather like him.”

As the sons and daughters of God it is our hope and our heritage to explore the amazing love of God and the forgiveness that is unconditionally available. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is not a chore but a joy as we discover the depth and breadth of God’s love for us.