Benediction Online

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Christ Victorious

Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Today is the first Sunday of Lent and as we start the countdown towards the annual celebration of the Paschal mysteries in five weeks, our gospel reading is Mark’s take on the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

During this Lent we will be studying together a book by J. Denny Weaver entitled the “Non-Violent Atonement”. We won’t have a weekly meeting but in the sermons and in the Benediction Weekly we’ll be following some of the discussion presented by Weaver about why Jesus died and what it means to us – how Jesus’ death and resurrection reconcile us to God. So as I look at today’s gospel I am doing so through that lens.

Mark is known for his brevity – he doesn’t tell us much about Jesus’ baptism, and he doesn’t go into the details of Jesus’ temptations in the way that Luke and Matthew do. He just gives us a quick sketch. We can assume that these aspects of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry are the ones which he believed were most important. I am going to focus on two of the things he chose to tell us.

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan”. Mark’s gospel sets out to show that Jesus is able to conquer Satan. More than any other gospel we see Jesus casting out demons. So here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry we have the curtain opener – forced into the desert by the Spirit of God Jesus is confronted by his arch-enemy.

Most of us are unsure about this Satan character – it doesn’t make sense to us to personalize the forces of evil, to imagine a cosmic Dr. No who is plotting the overthrow of God in order to have complete power over humanity. Evil seems far less personal and more ingrained in the way things are. For others, our encounters with forces of evil leave us convinced that there is a nasty power at work in the world and unclean spirits are not just an archaic way of describing epilepsy and mental illness.

Wherever you stand on that question, there is no doubt that there is evil in the universe. It seems to be a necessary part of our freedom that in order to choose to be in relationship with God, we have to be able to choose not to be. In the early chapters of Genesis we read how quickly violence escalated among the first families of the earth, and we know from our own experience that violence often breaks out between humans and that every human institution seems to have a dark side.

Imagining our world as a battleground between the forces of dark and light is not just for comic books. As any of us who have battled with addiction, or even tried to lose weight and keep it off, can attest, there is even a battle within ourselves. Mark’s thesis is that Jesus’ ministry is to show that God has power over evil in all its forms, personal or not. So his ministry starts with a confrontation with Satan and ends with the ultimate triumph over evil, resurrection.

The Christian church of the first few centuries saw this as the basis of atonement – that Jesus has conquered Satan, and as our second reading said, “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” Through our baptism we are able to participate with Jesus in this new reality.

Now to the second thing I want to mention. Most of our gospel readings this Lent will cover what Jesus said about himself, his ministry and his impending death. In today’s reading we hear “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’"

Jesus had not yet been crucified so the good news he was preaching could not have included his death or resurrection. The gospel writers seem to differ about whether Jesus knew from the beginning of his ministry that he would end up on the cross or whether it gradually dawned on him. But there is no mention, not even a hint, here in Mark’s account, that the good news Jesus was preaching was about his own death and resurrection. So what was the good news?

When we think about spreading the good news I suspect that most of us think that we need to talk about Jesus dying for us. As an evangelical teenager I certainly thought that spreading the gospel meant explaining to other people exactly how and why Jesus had died for their sins. I thought I knew how it all worked, but by the time I was in seminary I was much more confused about the whole thing! Still I think that most contemporary Christians and their observers assume that the good news must involve the cross.

So if Jesus was proclaiming a good news which didn’t include the cross because that hadn’t happened yet, what was it that he proclaimed? ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’" It seems like it has two components – “the time is fulfilled” and “the kingdom of God has come near”. Could it be that Jesus’ life was to be a demonstration of the kingdom of God, and that those who repented were invited to live in the kingdom?

If the good news is that we are invited to participate in the kingdom of God, then what does that mean? Facing Pilate, Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." (John 18:36) So the kingdom of God stands in contradistinction to the kingdom of this world. As befits the Prince of Peace, it is a kingdom of non-violence – its members do not fight violence with violence.

By the end of his earthly life many people expected Jesus to lead a rebellion against the Roman occupiers. But that is not what Jesus was about – we can get a much better idea of the kingdom of God by taking seriously Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ example. When we do so, like Dr. King, we have to oppose the structures of society which oppress our brethren. The kingdom of God is not just an inner spiritual state, the kingdom of God is also a society where all beings can flourish – in King’s words, the beloved community.

It is the underlying state of sin which encourages us to attack one another rather than work for each other’s flourishing. Whenever we criticize, whenever we roll our eyes, whenever we make snide comments, even in our own heads, we are attacking. Attack thoughts are as much part of the sin-system of violence as murder or war. Even when we attack ourselves we are participating not in the kingdom of God but in the kingdom of sin. The horrific situation in Syria today is a graphic picture of what sometimes goes on in our heads.

The message of Mark’s gospel is that Jesus has power over Satan, over unclean spirits, over the whole sin-system in which we are caught and in which we are complicit. Repentance is to acknowledge that we are caught up in it and that we often give energy to that underlying stratum of violence rather than claiming the power of Jesus to step away and to live it the new kingdom, the kingdom of love and peace for everyone.

That is the good news – that there is deliverance, that there is an end to the sin-system – and that we are called and invited to enroll in God’s kingdom and work to bring a complete end to the domination of evil.

The Fast that God Chooses

Isaiah 58:1-12

Often people tell me that they don’t want to come to church because they don’t hold with “organized religion.” When they say this they most often mean one of three things: church is one more thing they could feel guilty about not doing, so they opt out; they are uncomfortable with a hierarchy which seems to serve itself not the people; they feel that the church has and continues to oppress those who are not white, heterosexual males.

In the past thirty years theologians from minority groups have pointed out that theology has traditionally been done from the perspective of white males and then extended out as if its insights applied to everyone else. New theologians have arisen who are women, black, Hispanic, gay or any combination of oppressed groups. They are challenging many of the ideas that have been dominant for the past 500 to 1000 years.

Black theologians, for example, ask how our traditional understanding of Christ has allowed us to perpetuate slavery. Although we know that people-trafficking and servitude still go on it is difficult for us to imagine overt slavery in this country today, 157 years after it was abolished. It is also difficult for most of us to imagine living with apartheid. Yet for centuries people were convinced that both were somehow sanctioned by God. Black theologians have pointed to our understanding of the atonement – the way we are reconciled to God – as allowing us to separate our spiritual ideas from our ethical behavior.

If we believe that Jesus died in our place on the cross so that we are forgiven our sins then there is no obvious requirement that reconciliation with God involves anything we do. So we can go on oppressing other people and trashing the planet while happily knowing that our sins are forgiven and Jesus loves us.

Of course, if we actually read what Jesus taught then we have to change our behavior, but over the centuries people have justified not doing what Jesus said by arguing that he was talking about an ideal time in the future, not here and now.

However, the issue from the black theologians’ perspective is that when we say we are saved by Jesus’ death then we are taking atonement outside of human life and spiritualizing it, which allows us to divorce it from our behavior. Slave owners thought nothing of worshipping God on a Sunday morning, giving thanks for their redemption and then going home and mistreating their slaves.

This is an old, old problem. I think it’s what the prophet Isaiah was talking about in our first reading – separating our ideas of spirituality from our daily busy lives. Or individualizing salvation so my spirituality is just between me and God and has no practical bearing on the way I live in the world and the way society lives.

When Isaiah said

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

I don’t think Isaiah was just speaking just to individuals about the need to change their behavior – he was speaking to the whole of Hebrew society. Not just to those who acted unjustly but also to those who condoned it.

Our calling is not to have a lovely holy spiritual life with Jesus but to work for the kingdom of God. That is what Jesus was doing. He was working to bring the kingdom of God on earth – to enable each person and every society to know God’s peace - and it led to his death but he did not abandon his task because of his great love.

In a few minutes I will invite you to the observance of a holy Lent. The traditional language strangely omits to mention the importance of ethical behavior. It is implicit in the idea that we will observe Lent by self-examination and repentance, but unless we really think about how we oppress others and how our society oppresses others - our repentance will be at the level of repenting for being irritable or for not paying attention during the sermon!

God certainly calls us to clean up our acts as individuals. But our responsibility as disciples of Jesus goes much further than that. We are called to find ways to end oppression, to share our bread with the poor – although the famine is officially over on Somalia and thousands have died – there are still thousands who are desperately hungry; to bring the homeless poor into our houses – we are still collecting money to help rebuild the cathedral in Haiti to provide a spiritual home, a school and an place of assistance for the poorest of the poor. We are called to build the kingdom of God – then says Isaiah “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

We cannot separate our reconciliation with God from our behavior. We cannot oppress others and believe that we are building the kingdom. As we wear our ashes today as a symbol of our mortality, let us remember that mortals have bodies and mortals have needs and that we are called, not to be God, but to offer our own lives as a gift in co-creation with the divine so that together we may release the captives and together we may find eternal life.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Proclaim the Good News

Mark 1:29-39

Have you ever noticed that when you learn a new word suddenly it seems to pop up everywhere? Or you start thinking about buying a new car and suddenly you’re noticing every time you pass that model on the road – and it’s quite surprising how many of them there are? I think it’s often like that with God. She speaks to us through what seem to be coincidences. When we see them it’s time to pay attention.

We have a coincidence this week. On Tuesday in Vespers we read from Luke 4 which says,

As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. Demons also came out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah. At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

Does that sound familiar?

It should because it’s almost the same as this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark. Both Matthew and Luke seem to have used Mark’s gospel as a source for their own writing so it’s not unusual to find two passages which are very similar, but it is unusual for us as a faith community to read such similar passages within the same week. So we need to pay attention.

What might God be saying to us through these two short readings?

Jesus apparently doesn’t want the word to get around that he is the Messiah. Instead he feels a pressing need to keep moving on in order to proclaim the message which Luke tells us is the good news of the kingdom of God. He could have stayed in one place and healed people day after day but that’s not his primary focus. He’s not willing to be sidetracked by being heralded as the Messiah before it’s God’s time to do so, and he’s not willing to be sidetracked by healing people however good a thing that is to do. He says in Mark, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And in Luke, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’

I wonder whether we allow God is reminding us about the importance of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom?

At the end of this month I will have been your priest for six years. When I first came, the question on all our minds was whether we would have enough money to pay our bills or whether we would have to sell the church and go back to being a nomadic church in a box, or even close altogether. I used to pray for St. Benedict’s to grow so that we would have enough money.

When we were calling our bishop, I went to the meeting to meet the candidates and listened to Mary-Gray-Reeves talk about church growth. She said if you wanted to get new people so that you could pay the bills, that was the wrong reason and you probably wouldn’t grow. I knew that she was right, but we needed to pay the bills and unless we found a parishioner with very deep pockets, in order to do that we needed new people, as we still do.

So I prayed about it.

I thought about why I would want St Benedict’s to grow if we had enough money. In a quick phrase it was so that more people might find a life-giving relationship with God. That was fine but there was no getting away from the fact that I still wanted us to grow so that we could pay our bills. Soon I came to the conclusion that God could handle mixed motives so when I prayed for people to be drawn to St. Benedict’s I tried to concentrate on their need for a life-giving relationship with God and not on the bills. Over time my focus on paying the bills dropped away and I have become more and more focused on asking God to bring people who can serve and worship God with us, and to use our ministries to bring hundreds and thousands of people into a life-giving relationship with God.

That doesn’t mean bring hundreds and thousands of people to St. Benedict’s – people coming to church is not as important as people finding a life-giving relationship with God. I like to think the two go together. They certainly do for me. Coming to church helps to keep my inner fires burning. But there are those who come to church and never really allow God into their inner lives. There are others who have been so hurt by church or have such a negative image of it that it isn’t helpful. God made us all unique and so there’s no one size fits all recipe for the spiritual life. But I do believe that we were made to be in relationship with the divine and to be fed by the movement of the Spirit and the knowledge of God’s unconditional and transforming love.

And I think that is the message that we are called to proclaim - that God’s unconditional love is available for everyone, that everyone regardless of their life experience, regardless of who they are, everyone is welcome in the kingdom of God. One way of doing that is inviting people into church, into faith community with us. But that is just a symbol of the much greater truth, the good news, that God’s love is freely available for all beings and that in loving, worshipping and serving God, Creator, Word and Holy Spirit, we become liberated. Our hearts rest in her and our spirits are set on fire with the hope and joy which is ours in Christ Jesus.

In our baptism we promised to do it. We promised to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We promised it again when we were confirmed and we have renewed that promise every time we have participated in someone else’s baptism or confirmation.

There are plenty of good things to do which take all our time and energy. There were always more people wanting Jesus to heal them, always more demons to be cast out, more people declaring him as Messiah without knowing what that meant. But Jesus knew his priority. "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do," he said.

There are always good and wonderful things for us to do, but its time to keep our promise. It’s time for us to get serious about our priorities. It’s time for us to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.