Benediction Online

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Why are you afraid?"

 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

In recent weeks as we have been listening to Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, Mark has shown us Jesus’ power over demons and the forces of darkness, his ability to heal illness, his teaching about the kingdom of God and today, his power over the forces of nature. Jesus was not the only person in first century Palestine who could cast out demons, he probably wasn’t the only one who had gifts of healing, and he surely wasn’t the only itinerant preacher. But this is something quite different. "Who then is this,” his disciples asked, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?" In stilling the storm, Jesus shows that he is one with the Creator who made the heavens and the earth, including the winds and the atmosphere, the heating and the cooling which create storms.

But Jesus doesn’t dwell on this. It seems as though his decision to calm the storm was purely pragmatic. He was exhausted and asleep. His disciples woke him because they were afraid. He solved the problem. And then, before going back to sleep he rather grumpily said, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"

What would have been different if the disciples had had the faith that Jesus expected?

Would there have been no storm? Would there have been a storm but the boat would not have taken on water? Would they have been able to calm the storm?

I don’t think so.

We have a tendency to think that if something goes badly in our lives, God must be punishing us, or we must have done something wrong. “Why did God let this happen to me?” we ask. The psalms tell us that God rewards the faithful and punishes the wicked, so when things go wrong we think we must have been put in the “wicked” category.

That simply is not true. Life happens. The apostle Paul, who was surely in the category of good and faithful people, writes of suffering “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” Suffering is part of being human. Accidents happen. Illness happens. Mortality happens.

"Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"

Fear happens too.

But we have no need to be afraid. Since Jesus has conquered death, the ultimate experience of separation from the source of all life, we need not fear. I think this was the secret of the early church, their ability to take huge risks despite persecution, their tremendous sense of joy and freedom. Their knowledge of Jesus’ power and their trust in his resurrection life made them fearless.

But fear is very present in our lives and it is rampant in our culture. Even though we live in the most affluent civilization the world has ever known, we are fearful. Fear comes from the sin matrix. It is one of the most persuasive and insidious ways that sin continues in our lives. Fear causes us not to be truthful. Fear makes us greedy. Fear leads to pre-emptive strikes so we attack others before they attack us. Fear makes us think there isn’t enough to go round.

If we could learn to be as fearless as the early Christians, we would have an astonishing effect on our society.

Fear is exploited by marketers and politicians. We can’t think rationally about the best way to provide health care for all when we’re afraid that the quality of our own health care will be compromised. We can’t think rationally about peaceful was to resolve conflict when we are afraid of terrorist attacks. We can’t think rationally about building ways to protect our environment and still dispose of our wastewater when we are afraid we’re being ripped off.

Competition can be healthy when it pushes us forward to new heights of personal achievement, but it turns deadly when it is based in fear. We need to be cooperating. We need to cooperate to prevent our children and grandchildren living in a world of famine and extreme weather patterns. But we can’t do it when we are afraid of each other.

"Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"

How do we deal with our fear? The writer of the first letter of John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18) Remember that perfection in the New Testament most often means “that which it was made to do”. So those of us who still fear have not yet allowed ourselves to fully receive and accept the abundant and incredible love of God.

We are still allowing the myths of the sin matrix to tell us that we are bad, that we aren’t good enough, that we need to do more, to be more. Whoever you are and whatever is going on for you, God’s unconditional love surrounds and holds you, always. When the storm is raging and everything is dark, God’s love is holding you. When your boat begins to take on water and you are afraid you will sink, God’s love is holding you. When your boat goes down and you are drowning, even then God’s love is holding you. As Paul said in Romans 8 “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38,39)

God’s extravagant love is holding you even now, in this very moment. But so often we are unaware of it, and allow fear to fester. It is up to us to open up our receptors to God’s love. We can turn fear into a gift.

Whenever you experience fear, or one of the feelings that comes from it – greed, anger, judgment – take this as an opportunity to stop and ask that you may experience the fullness of God’s love. Let your shoulders drop, don’t focus on the fear but focus instead on God’s incredible and undeniable love for you, right here, right now, exactly as you are.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's a Joke!

When we first moved to Los Osos, Jill was very excited to find Matilaja Poppies growing here, and she longed to have some in our own yard. On the next street there were several banks of poppies along the road in a place where it wasn’t quite clear whether it was road or yard. So, one late evening, when it was still just light enough to see, we took a shovel and quietly liberated a small clump of Matilaja poppy. We planted it in our yard with a lot of good compost, watered it and watched over it. It died.

A year or so later we went to the Botanical Garden in Santa Barbara and asked about Matilaja poppies. After a lot of searching they produced a pot with a twig in it. They were apologetic about how small it was and only charged us a few dollars. We planted it in our yard with a lot of good compost, watered it and watched over it. The twig turned brown. The next year it sprouted a few leaves in the Spring and then turned brown. It did this each year for several years, perhaps growing a little taller but not perceptibly doing anything.

Then one year a shoot came up near the twig, and another and another. They grew a foot or so and turned brown. We cut them down in the fall. They came up again in the spring, as did a bump in the tarmac in the middle of the driveway. It broke open to reveal a Matilaja Poppy shoot. That’s when we knew it had come to stay.

Within a few years, perhaps ten years after we planted the twig from Santa Barbara, it became difficult to get both cars into our driveway and we had to admit that a 25foot lot is too small for Matilaja Poppies. But once you’ve got them, they won’t go away. And how could we decide that parking our cars is more important than providing a show of these gorgeous giant white flowers?

The kingdom of God is like a Matilaja Poppy.

We longed for it, we planted it, we blessed it… but when it grew and how it grew is a mystery. It is a mystery of cooperation between us and God and the plant. We did our part with water and compost, but then it was out of our hands and for years we waited and waited, but now we get to glory in the beauty of these huge plants.

Jesus also said the kingdom of God is like – like what? A stand of redwoods? A forest of bamboo?  A magnificent eucalyptus?

No, Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. For the longest time I figured that mustard must grow differently in the Holy Land. I thought it must be quite different from the weedy yellow flowered mustard that grows on the roadside here or in great fields of yellow where it is grown for its seeds or its oil. It is only recently that I realized that Jesus is telling a joke!

He said “When mustard is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." Uhuh… I don’t think so!

If the Bible had emoticons this passage would surely have a passel of smiley winking faces after it! Jesus is telling a joke!

How can he make a joke about something as important and ponderous as the Kingdom of God?

Precisely because the Kingdom of God confounds human expectations. We expect it to be like a show of massive poppies or a stand of magnificent trees but sometimes it’s just a brown twig and sometimes it’s a scrawny weed. And sometimes it’s a joke!

Since the 4th Century the Church has confused following Christ with respectability. But it is not a respectable path, it’s a joke. We are called to repay evil not with evil but with prayer and gentleness. We are called to live in a way that honors the threads of our connections with all life, that uses less resources and strives to reduce our impact on our natural environment to the minimum. We are called to live generous, selfless lives caring for others as much as for ourselves. We are called to embrace the stranger and get alongside the poor. We are called to turn the other cheek to violence and respond with nonviolent resistance.

Just because. Just because that is the kingdom of God.

It doesn’t look like much. It’s just a twig, just a weed by the side of the road. Most people don’t even see it, they drive past on their way to wherever they think they’re going. But for the people of God, that weed is a sign of the kingdom, gradually spreading unseen under ground.  It is a sign that even when we are discouraged and God seems to be far away, even when our plans to help another fall apart, or our hopes for transformation in our own hearts are dashed, that the kingdom of God is at work.

We are not on our own. Even the little faltering steps we take towards living a daring life on the edge of respectability for the sake of the kingdom are blessed again and again. The little mustard seed of willingness which we bring to God becomes a huge mustard tree whose branches are so strong that birds can nest there!

The twig which we plant and water may gradually become a beautiful Matilaja poppy. Our job is to keep watering and hoping. God does the rest.

So take heart. Whatever seed of Christ consciousness you are hoping will sprout, whatever twig of discipleship you are nurturing, God is with you and God will honor that and God will work with you so that it grows and sprouts in ways you may not even notice until one day you realize that what you thought was just another bump in the road was the kingdom of God sprouting up in your own yard.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Forgive for the sake of the Planet

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

This week scientists in Berkeley issued an alarming report. It says that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change are driving Earth toward an irreversible change.  One of the researchers said, "You can envision these…changes as a fast period of adjustment where we get pushed through the eye of the needle. As we're going through the eye of the needle, that's when we see political strife, economic strife, war and famine." It’s not new news. We are heading towards a planetary catastrophe.

Today’s reading from 2 Corinthians says, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day…. we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

It’s certainly comforting, as our bodies age, to know that this is not everything there is. Even though our bodies are wasting away, we are being made new on the inner planes, even though all that we see is temporary, we have hope in the eternal love of God and the eternal life we have in the Spirit. The way we live our lives is what will endure – the qualities of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness and mercy are what will last. The rest is just passing.

But we have to beware of the distortion. The distortion which says, since all this is temporary, since all this is just providing the setting for the real work which is internal and eternal, we don’t need to take care of the world we’re in, here and now. That is a distortion of what Scripture says and it is a temptation which comes straight from the sin matrix. “Take what you want and don’t worry about other people. Look after number 1. There’s not enough to go round so make sure you get your share.”

With more and more humans being born everyday, it seems inevitable that by 2050 our global population will have reached 9 million. That means we’ll have to become much more efficient to sustain ourselves.  Even today millions live hungry, but in this country there’s an epidemic of obesity. We are using far more resources than we need. Many of those resources are not renewable.

Another message from the sin matrix is “there’s nothing you can do anyway.” That is a lie, but a very tempting one. It’s more comfortable to think that there is nothing we can do and just go on living in the same way. But if we do that, we will be responsible for suffering and misery which could have been avoided. Caring for our neighbor is no longer just giving a dollar to the Foodbank or helping at an overnight shelter. Caring for our neighbor means caring for those we don’t know, can’t see and will never meet, it means caring for those who aren’t even born yet.

Our baptismal vows call us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. That includes those who will live with the legacy of our greed as well as the poor of this country and the poor of the Sub-Saharan countries who are already affected by climate change.
We can do something. Here are a few things we can do:
Eat less meat – the beef industry is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases. Meat is also an inefficient way to produce protein – it takes far fewer resources to grow a pound of protein from vegetable sources than a pound of protein from animals
Eat food that is seasonally abundant and buy it locally – it reduces the greenhouse gases used to transport food long distances
Use a smaller car and ride share whenever you can
Use as little plastic and other packaging as possible and recycle everything you can

None of those are new ideas, and they’re all important. But here’s something else to think about.

One of the authors of the report I quoted also said, "We have created a bubble of human population and economy ... that is totally unsustainable and is either going to have to deflate gradually or is going to burst.”  "We desperately need global leadership for planet Earth."

When Jesus said, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand,” he wasn’t talking about the United States in 2012. But he could have been. We will never get the global leadership we need when everyone is busy fighting each other. Our leaders can no longer lead because they are embroiled in partisan battles. And we are allowing it.

We are allowing our culture to become a place where you cannot respect someone with whom you do not agree. Here in Los Osos, we have seen the sewer wars turn neighbor against neighbor. Nationally it is impossible it seems for Republican and Democrat to speak to one another. The rhetoric between those who disagree is now based on contempt, and it’s only going to get worse as the election approaches.

We need to stand up against this kind of divisive thinking. And the first place we need to stand up to it is in our own minds. It could not be the mindset of the country if it were not the mindset of the people. Like me, you’re probably already thinking, well it’s not us, it’s them. But that’s the problem. It’s all us. We are in this together. We all live on this planet. Yes it’s easier for some people. It’s easy to get resentful when we think about people who are richer or more powerful than we are. But they have their own problems too.

Every time you have an “us and them” thought you are helping to perpetuate the problem. Every time you blame or get angry, you are perpetuating the problem. Which isn’t to say that you have to give up your own opinion, but know that the other opinion, however misguided it may seem, is being held by a beloved child of God.

So here’s my challenge for the week. Think of someone you find quite awful. I’m thinking of Rush Limbaugh, but you can make your own choice. It doesn’t have to be someone whose politics you dislike, it can be anyone who comes to mind. Now you get tot pray for them everyday. And you also get to ask God to transform your own heart and mind so that you can forgive them.

Forgiving does not mean pretending there are no differences. Forgiving does not mean that you have to agree or be best friends. Forgiving means that you let go of the anger and the contempt and the hurt and think about that person as a beloved child of God rather than the person who did you wrong, or the person who says such awful things.

It’s not easy. But at a fundamental level it is the lack of forgiveness of ourselves and others which is destroying this planet. It’s not a coincidence that we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” and then immediately, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us”. The flow of forgiveness, of forgiving and being forgiving, is as important to sustaining life as is bread.

It is here in the bread, God’s sacrifice of reconciliation, that we know God’s forgiveness. My our offering, our gift to the world, not just be food for the hungry, but forgiveness for the good of the planet.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

God in God in Us

Isaiah 6:1-8
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

It must have been a challenging task to come up with the readings for Trinity Sunday. Because the Trinity is not in the Bible.

God the Father or Creator, God the Son or Word and God the Holy Spirit – they are all there – but there’s precious little information about how they are distinct from each other. In the early years of the Christian church some people thought that there were multiple gods, and it became very important to define God and establish exactly how God could be three in one. And how three God persons relate to one another.

We tend to think that there was one original Christian truth which then got distorted by heretics. History suggests it was the other way round – there were lots of different ways of thinking about Jesus and about his Father, and it was only over time that some ideas were accepted and others dropped.

So this morning let’s investigate this particular set of readings for what they tell us about God, with as open a mind as we can muster.

We usually hear the first reading, Isaiah’s vision, as a story about how God calls and sends us, but let’s see what it says about Godself.
“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him.”
This is a beautiful mystical image which we can’t really translate into our everyday language. But we can get the sense of an astonishing presence, so great that just the hem of his garment filled the temple. Seraphs, or angels, were ministering to the Presence and singing the hymn which we sing in the Eucharist: Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." This same image of God occurs and is expanded in the book of Revelation where we read that the one who sat upon the throne “had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne.” And the seraphim cried, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev.4:3,8)

To describe this God we really have to use words that we rarely use; majesty, glory, awe, wonder. It’s not our normal vocabulary. This is an other worldly vision which leaves mere mortals like Isaiah and you and I, stuttering and speechless. This is a God who is the lord of hosts - lord of the armies of Israel, but also of the hosts of heaven – whose glory fills and can be seen in the whole earth. Who was and is and is to come – who is eternal. So this is a God who is glorious and above everything and is intimately connected to Creation. Everything that is glorious and awe-inspiring is a reflection of this God.

The canticle we sang was a hymn of praise to this God,
Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; *
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.
Glory to you, beholding the depths; *
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.

The passage from Romans takes quite a different tack – it feels a bit like a let down after those beautiful, poetic and awe-inspiring images of God.

Paul’s talking about us and our entrapment in the sin matrix. But, he says, we don’t have to stay there. We can be led by the Spirit of God to become the adopted children of God. And here we find a statement of the trifold complexity of God. Paul says
When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.                        

It is the Spirit working in us who enables us to know ourselves as the children of God and relate to that glorious majestic Presence as our Parent, in that intimate relationship that Jesus modeled, calling God “Abba, Father”. And as children we are also the heirs of God, along with Christ.

Sometimes people tell me that they don’t believe in a God who’s out there somewhere, just in a Spirit who is inside us and all around us. In theological terms they are rejecting a transcendent God – one who is independent of, and beyond the created world, and only accepting an immanent God who is within the created order. We don’t have to choose! God is the Creator, who was and is and is to come; God is also the Spirit who works in our hearts and is that quiet gentle voice within. When we say the prayer Jesus taught us and we start, “Our Father” we can only say that with conviction because of the Holy Spirit praying in and through us.      

Our language is gendered. We cannot easily call a person both he and she, though it is the lived experience of people who identify as gender queer, that we can live and experience ourselves as both/and/or/neither.  In the society in which he lived, the best way Jesus could describe his relationship with God the transcendent was to call God “Father.” Since Jesus is our model for living a full spiritual life, it is appropriate that we too call God the transcendent, “Father.” But for many of us, that word comes with a lot of baggage. So it is also appropriate that we find our own name for the one whose hem fills the temple but who adopts us as his or her children.

Finally we turn to that beloved but perplexing passage from John’s Gospel; Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Just like Paul, he talks about us as the children of God but here we are the children of the Spirit – the twice-born - born of water and Spirit. So which is it – are we the adopted children of the transcendent Creator God or the born-again children of the immanent God?

And the answer of course is, Yes. Both ideas are pictures of our relationship to God because they are attempts to put into human language something which is essentially undesirable. And since the immanent Spirit and the transcendent God are one and the same there is no essential difference.

Talking about the Trinity is a bit like talking about Black Holes. I am told that a black hole is a region of spacetime whose gravitational field is so strong that nothing which enters it, not even light, can escape. But that really means nothing to me. The Trinity is a more complex being than I can easily grasp, just like the complexity of the human body is much greater than the complexity of a single-cell amoeba.

And it’s not just the immanent and transcendent - there’s Jesus too. The Son. Talking about the Son is putting Christ into relationship with the Father. Chicken and egg. You can’t have a Son without a Father, you can’t have a father without a daughter or son. We cannot separate Jesus Christ from either the transcendent or the immanent God. In his earthly ministry he was always, constantly, in relationship with both Father and Spirit.

Jesus is the embodiment of God. God with flesh on. And it is in Jesus that we most clearly see the distinctiveness of the persons of the Trinity, because to the naked eye, Jesus appears to be separate. And on the cross he experienced separation – I’m not saying that he was separated – but that he experienced separation from the Godhead. Just like we experience separation from God, even when we are not at all separate.

In becoming human and then allowing himself to be brutally killed, Jesus broke the hold of the sin matrix and set us free so that we too may be born in the Spirit and become what we were created to be, the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

The Trinity is in constant relationship. You cannot talk about Jesus apart from God or Spirit apart from God or Creator Father apart from Jesus and Spirit. And as the children of Spirit we too are part of that relationship. You cannot talk about us apart from God.
You cannot talk about us apart from God.

That’s your take-home. If you don’t remember anything else I said today, remember – you cannot talk about us, the children of God, apart from God. It’s easy for us to hear the voice coming up from the sin matrix, the voice that has been with us for as long as we remember which tells us that we are separate, that we are bad, that we are sinful. But that’s no longer true! That’s not the voice of the Spirit. Jesus said, "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

We are called into relationship with God. That is where we become fully ourselves. It is challenging. It is a new birth and births are rarely instantaneous. Being born of the Spirit may take us the rest of our lives but once we are in that process, once we have chosen and asked to become the children of the transcendent God, then the immanent God is in us just like she was in Jesus.

You cannot separate the children of God from God.