Benediction Online

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Monkey Business

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Mark 10:46-52

As many of you know, Jill and I recently bought a new car, a sea-foam-green Prius. I had never noticed before how many Prius’s are sea-foam-green. Now everywhere I go there’s at least one, often two of them. I’m thinking about a bumper sticker to help me identify ours from a distance – it seems only a question of time before I absent-mindedly attempt to drive off in someone else’s sea-foam-green Prius.

I know you’ve all had similar experiences. Things which we hadn’t really noticed before suddenly stand out. They are there in our environment all the time but we screen them out. Until something happens and we start noticing them. There’s far too much going on for us to be able to take in everything all the time, so we constantly screen out a lot of information.

Back in 1999, a research study revealed that when people are asked to focus on a video of two teams passing basketballs, about half the viewers fail to see someone in a gorilla suit walk in and out of the scene thumping their chest. This experiment became so well-known that the researchers tried again – this time most people saw the gorilla because they were expecting to see it but they missed two other things that happened in plain sight. Which led the researchers to conclude, “When you’re looking for a gorilla you often miss other unexpected events.” They called it the monkey business illusion.

There’s a lot going on around us all the time that we just don’t see.

Bartimaeus knew he was blind. But often we don’t. We imagine that we see everything that’s going on and are in full possession of the facts. But that’s just not the case.

“When you’re looking for a gorilla you often miss other unexpected events.” In our lives there are a lot of unexpected things happening and some of them have the Holy Spirit’s fingerprint all over them, but do we see? Do we notice? I imagine that most of us have had sudden “Aha” moments when we realize that God is at work in our lives. But much of the time we simply don’t notice. We’re not attuned to the ways of God.

Every vestry meeting we start by sharing “signs of God’s grace” in our lives. When we started doing it we tended to think of people who were ill but getting better. As the years have gone by we’ve branched out into a whole range of different things. But it’s still a little difficult. We’re still having to train ourselves to see and remember and share God’s touch in the small, subtle things.

Because that’s often the way God works. Today in our first lesson we heard the end of the story of Job. Having spent months in terrible discomfort having lost everything, Job has an amazing and awe-inspiring meeting with God. But that wasn’t enough for the author, who needed to add that everything turned out OK for Job. In fact more than OK – he ended up with even more cattle than he started and more children who were beautiful and prosperous and he died a happy old man.

We know it doesn’t work like that. God loves the people in Syria just as much as he loves us. God loves the people who suffered and died in the Nazi concentration camps just as much as she loves you and me. So seeing God’s grace in our lives is not necessarily seeing that everything is working out beautifully. God’s grace is present with us and is working in us even when our outer lives are not working out the way we wanted. Even when we’re out of work and hurting for money; even when we’re in pain with little sign of relief; even when our bodies are letting us down day after day, God’s grace is present.

Opening our eyes to God’s grace is not simple optimism – it’s not just seeing the glass half-full. But it is seeing with the eyes of hope. Bartimaeus had hope when he heard that Jesus was coming. We can always have hope that whatever is happening for and around us will eventually pass, and it is not the only reality. We have enrolled in the reign of God and it is the reign of God which is the reality unfolding in our lives. At the same time as we live in the limitations of this time/space environment, we are simultaneously living in the unlimited reign of God.

We are the daughters and sons of God. That does not translate into wealth, riches, handsome sons and beautiful daughters in this world. Those things are minor in comparison with the knowledge of God and a relationship with her. The book of Job is the story of how he refuses to give up hope even though disaster after disaster befalls him. And eventually God meets with him. This is not a Disney-style meeting with beautiful music and pretty angels. This is a scary meeting with the Creator of the Universe who reminds Job that as Creator, he is completely free.

Our God is not a neat Martha Stewart style household god – he is the God who created the world with all its beauty and also its earthquakes and storms. This is the God with whom we dare to join in co-creative relationship.

“When you’re looking for a gorilla you often miss other unexpected events.” When we expect God to work in one way we often miss the ways she does work. Sometimes it only takes a subtle shift in perception to enable us to see things in quite a different light. At other times God has to hit us on the head with a two by four in order for us to start seeing more clearly.

The reign of God, Jesus said, is neither here nor there but is within us. The reign of God is not some future event but is here and now, present with us on the inner. Our challenge is to allow our eyes to be opened so that we see it. Our challenge is to see the reign of God and to actualize it on the outer. Our challenge is to allow our consciousness to expand so that we can see more than meets the eye – so that we can see God’s grace at work – so that we can see the reign of God here and now.

When Bartimaeus received the gift of sight he followed Jesus. When the gift of inner sight is given to us – even if it’s just a glimmer – it is given so that we too may follow Jesus. It is not glamorous – not something that makes us special – not something to boast about – but something to be treasured and cherished. As a community we can inspire each other to greater sight by sharing those God moments that happen to us - the unexpected things which happen on the spiritual path – the times when in the ordinary events of life a gorilla crosses the road.
But let’s be careful not to limit God to the person in the gorilla suit. “When you’re looking for a gorilla you often miss other unexpected events.” Let us ask that our eyes may be open to see God working in unexpected events every moment of every day. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Secret Teaching: Open Hands

There’s nothing in the ten commandments that says you can’t be rich, so why did Jesus make such a big deal about it? Why did he say that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the reign of God? I’m sure you’ve all heard that the text is unclear here and by the needle Jesus may have meant one of the gates of Jerusalem - or the camel could be a nautical rope – however you read it, it’s still the same picture – something thick or fat trying to squeeze through much too small a space.

It’s hard for a rich person to get into the reign of God.

We need to take that very seriously because even the poorest person here is rich by the standards of the global community. We are among the 16% of the world’s population who are consuming 80% of the world’s resources. And it’s difficult to stop.

I wonder what the rich man expected Jesus to say. He runs up to him, kneels down and asks his big question, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" I wonder whether he felt that Jesus’ public words weren’t sufficiently clear, whether he was looking for a special teaching just for him, or whether he thought there was some hidden message that he had missed.

We often long for a special teaching, a hidden message. Each Sunday we listen to the readings and we participate in the liturgy but still we wonder, is this all there is? Isn’t there something more, some hidden path, some hidden truth? That’s part of the attraction of books like The Da Vinci Code or the book some of us are reading together on Tuesday nights, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene.

The Christian mystics offer us glimpses into a deeper, more intense contemplative path, but whether it’s the interior castle of Teresa of Avila or the bridal chamber of the apocryphal Gospel of Philip, every Christian teacher and mystic is just expounding what it truly means to love God with our whole selves and our neighbors as ourselves. That is at the root of every path to God. That is the riverbed.

So why is it so difficult for a rich person to get into the reign of God?

I think it’s for the same reason that a millionaire I once worked with always made sure to get the exact change when he took a cab. He always made sure he had what was his, down to the last penny.

The rich man of the gospel reading was unable to give away what he had. He was holding on to it. We can’t come into the reign of God with our hands clenched shut, holding tightly onto what is “ours.” We can’t come into the reign of God holding tightly to anything, because the very essence of God is to have open hands. The very essence of God is open hands.

We open our hands when we greet someone else. We open our hands in gestures of welcome, of hospitality. We open our hands to caress. We open our hands to give, and also to receive.

That is the secret teaching. God is radically free and we too were created to be free but we constantly weigh ourselves down by holding on, by keeping our hands tightly closed. We hold on to grudges, we hold on to old patterns, we hold on to stuff, we hold on to those we love. Holding on stops the flow of energy.

When I was in my twenties there was a popular spiritual saying, “If you love something let it go – if it’s yours it’ll come back.” Good advice, but hard to keep especially when you’re in your twenties and searching for a mate. It wasn’t long before a poster appeared which said, “If you love something let it go – if it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and kill it!”

If you love something, let it go – that’s exactly what the rich man couldn’t do.

I want to be very clear that when I talk about letting go of what you love, I’m not talking about a cold detachment. I don’t for a moment think that having open hands means not passionately loving, not making deep attachments to other sentient beings – to people or companion animals. But I do think it means coming to a place in yourself where you are so at peace and so confident in God’s incredible and abundant love that you don’t have to cling.

When we have open hands we can allow other people to be fully themselves and to make their own journey through the world to become the Christ-like beings they were created to be. When we have open hands we are open to the flow of God’s abundant love in and through us. When we have open hands we can give generously and remain confident that all is well.

I think this is the way we truly experience God’s abundance -- in having open hands which can both receive and give generously. There are those among us who have taken the adage “it is more blessed to give than to receive” to heart and who close their hands to the gifts of love that others would give them. Some of us have been wounded early in life and find it difficult to trust, or even to know that we are loved. It is as though the hands of our hearts have been slapped so many times that we have closed them in fear.

There are others who are caught in the fear of scarcity. The fear that if I don’t hold on tightly to what is mine then it will be taken from me and I won’t get anything more. There won’t be enough to go round. But the reality is that when we live with open hands, we are receiving even as we are giving and the flow of God’s resources moves through us, blessing us and all around us.

It is not easy for a rich man or woman to enter the reign of God, but it is certainly not impossible. For God all things are possible.

We will be gathering again this morning at the table of God, to participate in the banquet which she prepares for us. Between now and then we will be preparing ourselves to receive that great outpouring of love which is symbolized in the eucharist. Let us use this as a time to practice opening the hands of our hearts.

As we respond to the proclamation of God’s word by affirming our faith, let us open to the truth of our connection and trust in God;
as we pray for others let us do so with an attitude of open giving;
as we make our confession let us be especially aware of the times we have held back, the times we have held on;
as we exchange a sign of God’s peace with one another let us practice allowing each other to be -- being especially careful not to honor those who only wish to shake hands;
and then in our offertory let us offer ourselves to God, asking that we may learn to give generously with open hands to the work of God’s reign and to his people throughout the world.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Marriage and the Reign of God

Those of you who follow national affairs more closely than I, will know that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has just published a new book, 567 pages long. Part of this new book is a polemic explaining why textualism is the only way to interpret the Constitution. By textualism Scalia means applying the Constitution in the way its writers understood it. So, for example, Scalia argues that same-gender marriage is unconstitutional. The framers of the Constitution didn't agree with it so, he says, and so neither does he.  Scalia argues that to read the Constitution any other way is to make the Constitution mean exactly what you think it ought to mean.

The problem with textualism is that we no longer live in the 18th century and so things which were normal then are no longer so today and things we take for granted simply didn’t exist when the Constitution was written. Same-gender marriage, as we know it, was unheard of back then.

Similar problems exist when we interpret the Bible. Except that parts of the Bible may have originated as long as 4,000 years ago and we can’t possibly know exactly what it meant to the people who wrote the words down. Like it or not, we do have to bring use an interpretative lens. This is especially true when we talk about something which is as socially conditioned as marriage.

Marriage has changed through the ages. It looks very different today than it did even fifty years ago. Several of you are living in marriages that have lasted more than fifty years (raise a hand - congratulations). If we were to get you together with a couple of newly-weds, say Breanna Hammerlund and her new husband, I think we’d find that though there are many similarities there are some real differences. And if we look back at one, two, three hundred years ago the differences would be much more obvious.

Just as there are different patterns of marriage among those of us here today, so there are different patterns of marriage in the Bible. At one extreme Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, at the other Paul recommends that Christians don’t marry unless they can’t control their sexual desires. So when we hear today that from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' And "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." We have to think carefully about the historic and social context.

But, this is the Word of God that we’re considering, so that we need to resist any impulse to dismiss it on contextual grounds without allowing ourselves to be challenged by it. Justice Scalia believes that failing to interpret the text as it was intended by its writers is to make it mean whatever we wish. In Biblical interpretation that is not always the case. When we interpret a specific passage, especially one which comes out of a particular cultural reality, we do so in alignment with the broad sweep of Biblical witness. So understanding God as a gracious being of infinite love, any interpretation which is not loving will be inaccurate. But God also has standards for God’s people – we are called to love and, like Job, to live with integrity. So a loving interpretation is not necessarily an easy and comfortable one.

So when we hear that from the beginning of time God made humans male and female, we have to read that in the context of contemporary medicine which knows that some people are born of indeterminate sex – late in 2009, a South African runner was found to have both male and female characteristics. It’s not as uncommon as we might think. We also know that gender – what it means to be male or female- varies a greater deal from culture to culture. And Paul said “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Yes we have different sexual characteristics so that we can produce children, but in Christ that is not our primary identification. We belong to the reign of God first and foremost and our gender and sexuality are secondary.

Which is why Paul thought it was better not to marry. The work of God’s reign was so important and so pressing that marriage was a distraction. Marriage is a vocation, just like celibacy. Some of us are called to live in a covenanted relationship with one other person in lifelong faithfulness. Most of us live much of our lives alone. In fact 44% of Americans over 18 are single.

Whether we are single or married there are two Biblical themes which can underpin our understanding of our calling. One is covenant, the other the reign of God. God calls each one of us into relationship with Godself, into not just any kind of relationship but a covenanted relationship – one in which we promise to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As we enroll in the reign of God – as we respond to God’s call – so we venture into this covenanted relationship.

Marriage is a particular expression of this. As we live intimately with one other person, our best and our worst characteristics are mirrored to us and we are given the opportunity to transform them as we grow more Christ-like. Marriage is a particular manifestation of the reign of God. As we practice expressing God’s unconditional love for our partner so we are changed and become as a couple more than we can be separately, one flesh which is able to express God’s love more fully in the community and the world in which we live.

Whether we are married or not, our primary allegiance is to God and to living out God’s reign of peace and healing in the world. God’s love can be demonstrated in our love for our companion animals, in our love for our friends and chosen family just as much as in our love for spouse and given family.

Jesus’ teaching about adultery was an advance for his time – Jesus sees both man and woman as being equally bound by their marriage- at a time when men could divorce women for little or no cause but women could only divorce for adultery. But I think we can see adultery as something more than just sex outside marriage. The Bible often uses adultery to mean something akin to idolatory – putting something or someone before God. So adultery is breaking our primary covenant with God. This may be in sexual infidelity to the one who we have covenanted to have as a special partner for living out our covenant with God, but it does not have to be.
I wonder if that is why Mark immediately jumps to children. Children have a capacity for open hearted wonder and passionate love which we often lose as we age. But it is precisely that quality of open-hearted passion which we experience at our best moments in our intimate relationships. It is open-hearted passion which God longs to receive from us, because that is how God loves each one of us.

The reign of God is like the love of a child, like Job’s love for God before he was tested in the ups and downs of human misfortune. Whether or not you have a marriage partner to knock your ego day after day, the process of human maturing and of spiritual transformation is challenging. Even in difficult times, God’s love is always constant, always there, even though sometimes we can’t feel it.

Our challenge is to allow life to open us up more and more, to break our hearts open so that we can love God not out of duty but with open hearted passion. And then we can experience God’s love flowing in and through us and touching all around us with peace and healing. Then our eyes will be opened to the reign of God all around us and we will see it with the wonder of a small child.