Benediction Online

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Song Goes On

Last week’s readings were about the end times – when life as we know it ends – in contrast today, the last Sunday in Pentecost, our readings are about the stability of the true world order. Even though things in our lives are fleeting and temporary, there is an underlying stability which tends towards peace and justice.

In the first reading we heard one of the visions of Daniel. Those of you who went to Sunday School may remember Daniel as the guy who was throw into the lion’s den but came out unscathed; you may also remember his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into the fiery furnace. They also escaped unharmed. The book of Daniel is also the place we get the term “to see the writing on the wall” – at a feast given by King Belshazzar a disembodied hand writes an undecipherable message on the wall. Daniel is called and interprets it as meaning doom and the end of the kingdom. That very night Belshazzar loses his throne to Darius the Mede.

Obviously the book of Daniel makes pretty exciting reading! It is the Old Testament book of the apocalypse. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, is the New Testament equivalent. Apocalypse means revelation – the revealing of supernatural events which will happen in the end times. Fortunately, the good guy – God – always wins in the end though along the way his people often suffer terrible wrongs. Apocalyptic writings were very popular whenever there was persecution and especially in the tumultuous years 200BCE to 100ce when these texts were written.

They are very popular today too. It seems that we have just as much need today to read novels and watch movies in which terrible things happen to other people. But today it’s not at all clear that the good guy wins, or even that there is a good guy.

Daniel tells us that in his vision,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

This idea of a king who has complete dominion is not one which sits very easily with us today unless we find it in a myth or fairytale. Yet it is an important image in our faith narrative - the king whose kingdom shall never be destroyed – the one who will bring peace, justice and stability for evermore.

When the image is picked up in our second reading, this time in an excerpt from Revelation, we hear
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
This makes it clear that this king is not a distant dictator but one who knows his people and has made us into a kingdom  - has knit us together into one society -  in fact making us all priests in our own right, why? Because he loves us.
So the image of Christ the Sovereign is a powerful one. The ruler who is in control and whose reign is one of love, justice and peace will eventually be fully revealed to us and the problems and injustices we suffer will all disappear. The matrix of sin will be fully exposed as having no power and we will find our fulfillment in serving as priests before the heavenly throne.
This is the reign of God. It is in the future but it is also here and now. Scripture is very clear that Christ is not waiting on the sidelines for the heavenly coach to call him on to the field. Christ is already on the throne. The kingdom of peace and justice is both here and now as well as not-here and not-yet.
We can call it the inner planes, heaven, the imaginal realm, the reign of God – it’s all trying to express the same thing. There is much more to life than meets the eye. We all live in the outer, visible world, but those of us who are disciples of Jesus are also called to consciously live in the permanent, unchanging world where Christ already has dominion. It is in that world that prayer functions. It is in that world that our intentions, aligned with the Spirit of God, bring powerful change in this world.
In the gospel reading we see the two worlds collide. Jesus is not a king in the way Pirate understands kingship. Jesus says, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."
So the reign of God is not one of fighting and violence. It does not look like any earthly kingdom however peaceful. In fact, its values are quite different from this world’s. What we imagine as success may not be at all important in Christ’s reign. The things that our government is concerned about – the fiscal cliff, economical stability and growth, health care, debt, job creation - are not the concerns of God’s reign.
The apocalyptic writings show us a kingdom where, after the great battles are over, the principal activity of the people is praise and worship.
This week I was deeply moved by a poem of Rainer Maria Rilke’s:
Oh, tell us, poet, what you do?
I praise.
But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,
how do you bear them, suffer them?
I praise.
And then the Nameless, beyond guess or gaze,
how can you call it, conjure it?
I praise.
And whence your right, in every kind of maze,
in every mask, to remain true?
I praise.
And that the mildest and the wildest ways
know you like star and storm?
Because I praise.
Because we praise. This is the foundation of the reign of God. I am not for a moment suggesting that if we praise God we can sit back and do nothing else. We still live in this world and, as you know, I am sure that as disciples of Jesus, as priests of God, as servants of the God of peace and justice, we are called to work for peace and justice to the best of our ability. But I am suggesting that the fuel for our work comes from praise.
God does not need us to praise him. She does not need us to keep telling her what a good job she’s doing. But praise is what gives us the energy to go on, it is what keeps us in touch with the reign of God operating right here right now, seen and unseen. The very energy of the universe is a song of praise and joy. It is the song of the Trinity, it is the song of creation, it is our song.
Even when the end times are upon us let us be sure to keep the song going, loud and clear. God is love. God is sovereign. God be praised.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Serenity in the end times

Psalm 16

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25

Mark 13:1-8
We are coming to the end of the Church’s year so today’s readings turn to the end times. Less than fifty years after Jesus’ words, the temple was indeed destroyed. There was a successful Jewish rebellion in the year 66. Four years later Rome laid siege to Jerusalem and decimated it. The first century historian Josephus claims that over a million people were killed. The temple was never rebuilt. It was the end of religion centered on the temple and the sacrifices offered there.  After this, Judaism developed as it already had in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean. Instead of the Temple and sacrifice led by priests it was based on the synagogue and the Torah taught by rabbis. The Jews of Jesus’ day really were living in the end times. The end times of the world as they knew it.

Today people all over the world are living in the end times: the people of Palestine, the people of Syria, the Congo, parts of the Sudan, Somalia. Farmers’ livelihoods have been devastated by drought in Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Mid-West. The people of the New Jersey shore are experiencing the end times as their homes and businesses are left devastated by storm and flood.

We are fortunate here to have a mellow climate but we too are living in end times. Climate change is affecting us. Bird migration patterns are changing. The monarch butterflies are becoming more scarce as they have to live through more extreme weather on their migration routes. Our weather is more extreme – both hotter and colder. Los Osos is becoming a different place.

Personally too we are living in end times. Our lives change overnight. One day we are secure and doing well but then disaster strikes – an accident, an illness, unemployment, bankruptcy. Relationships end. People die. Nothing is secure. The people and places in our lives which provide the security that the temple provided for the Jewish people are all subject to sudden change, even without the catastrophe of war or nuclear meltdown.

My brother Richard was a priest. In his Christmas letters he almost invariably talked about the immense problems the world was facing and wondered how and whether we would all survive. I used to think his letters were deeply depressing. But now I have a similar sense of the impermanence of everything. Our faith narrative keeps us aware that everything is temporary, except for God and God’s love.

So, just as we balance living in the reign of God which is both here and not yet here, so too we balance living in the moment and enjoying the blessings that abound around us, with the knowledge that this is all passing much more quickly than we would like and everything could change overnight.

How do we do it? How do we stay present even when the present is undependable?

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews gives us some ideas.

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Even when the ground is shifting under our feet, even when everything seems bleak and we don’t know what will happen next, we know that “God who has promised is faithful.” We only have to look at Jesus’ life and death to know that God’s faithfulness does not guarantee us an easy and comfortable life. But our confidence in God’s faithfulness, in God’s love for us, enables us to live with serenity in times of grave difficulty.

Yet serenity requires some work on our part, because we have to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” What is our hope? Our hope is that underneath it all is something substantial. Underneath all the changes, underneath all the difficulty is God’s love. Our hope is that God loves us more than we can imagine. The deepest, most faithful love we have ever experienced with another person or companion animal is only a weak reflection of God’s love which wraps us round and holds us up. Given that God loves us that much, we no longer need to cling to our anxieties and our fears. If God be for us, who can be against us?

Serenity takes practice. If we cannot deal with the little irritations of our day to day lives when things are going well, how will we deal with them when things are not going well? I encourage you to practice letting go of how you think things should be and living serenely with how things are. Your spiritual practice will not suddenly develop depth and consistency when you need it most. Now is the time to be learning serenity. Now is the time to be practicing meditation and contemplative prayer.

The writer to the Hebrews continues “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” So this isn’t just about our individual lives, it isn’t just about personally letting our fear and judgmental nature go as we develop the serenity to live in this impermanent world, it is also about living together and supporting one another.

As the Day approaches – the Day of the Lord – the end time for the world as we know it – as that day approaches, it is important to meet together to worship God and to remind ourselves that God’s love underpins all things. It is important to meet together to encourage one another and “provoke” one another to love and good deeds. Ours is not a path of spiritual bypass where we look away from the things of this world and focus instead on some heavenly plane. No, Jesus’ disciples are called to be practical, canny, engaged people, always looking for ways to further God’s reign and demonstrate God’s love. And we are called to do it together.

Going back to the gospel reading - Jesus tells us that there will be difficulty – there will be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famine, but we are not to let our hearts be troubled. I don’t think he meant that we should be uncaring, and that we shouldn’t do everything we can to prevent war and to help those who are victims of human violence and natural disaster. I think he meant that we should not lose our hope in the reign of God, our confidence that resurrection always comes, that God brings new life out of death and destruction.

The destruction of the temple was not the end of Judaism. The death of Jesus was not the end of his teachings. Both events led to new possibilities, new hope and a new way of life which has sustained billions of people over thousands of years. But at the time, they seemed to be terrible disasters.

Let us never forget that our hope is in the God who loves us extravagantly, who always brings resurrection and who, in the end times, will prove to be the one who is faithful and powerful.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What are You Holding Back?

Yesterday I went to the afternoon rehearsal of the San Luis Symphony. I had a great seat where I was able to see a lot of people. As I listened to the music I wondered about them and even made up little stories about them. In today’s gospel reading, we find Jesus taking a break and indulging in some people-watching of his own. Mark tells us that Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury and watched.”

And what did he see?
I think he saw two things.
He saw a woman who was probably invisible to everyone else around her. A woman who was invisible to the wealthy folks tossing their spare change into the tall jars that held the offerings; invisible to the crowds who had just listened to and delighted in Jesus’ teachings; invisible to his own disciples who had wandered off, who Jesus had to call over and say, “Look! Look there. Do you see what I see?”

It’s no accident that Jesus saw the widow and made her visible to those who were ignoring her. Sprinkled throughout the Bible there are scores of references to widows. In many of those verses, we find God either commanding God’s people to care for widows or criticizing them for the failure to treat them with compassion and justice.

Why did God mention widows in particular? Because, though becoming a widow did not automatically mean a woman would become impoverished, most women without husbands were indeed poor. When in the first part of the reading Jesus warned the crowds against scribes who devour widows’ houses, he was describing a reality of his day and time. A woman without a male protector could easily be forced into debt. Widows, like orphans and immigrants, were systematically oppressed. There is a special place in God’s line of sight for people whose economic and political power is slim to none.

It is not always easy or comfortable for us to see who God sees. For when we open our eyes to the suffering of others, we also come face-to-face with our own complicity in systems that maintain our comfort while keeping today’s “widows, orphans and strangers” in their place, out of sight and out of mind. We don’t want to see the people who have to beg to get by. We don’t want to see the people who are constantly beaten down by a system which never lets them get ahead.

But however difficult it is, we cannot ignore Jesus when he calls us over to sit with him for a moment and watch; watch who participates in the life of our church, our community, our schools, who shop in our grocery stores, and see their need. Look into the dark corners of the world and see the people who are in need of food, clothing, shelter, decent wages, a helping hand, an advocate, a friend.

And then don’t simply observe. Help those whom we see. Not just by giving a few dollars here and there although that is an important and tangible sign of our love, but by working for systemic change to create a society and a world where there are no losers.

Two days before he was arrested and crucified, at a time when he could have been drawing his attention inward to ponder his own fate, Jesus sat in the temple and watched. He invited those he loved to watch with him, to acknowledge one woman who was otherwise lost in the crowd.

As Jesus watches, he does not judge. He watches with compassion as the woman drops two small coins into the offering. "Truly I tell you”, he says, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

Jesus not only sees a person who is often invisible to most of us, he sees a faithful and faith filled daughter of God. And in his commentary on her gift is a second calling to us. To make an equal commitment.
An equal commitment, not equal gifts.

We don’t know anything else about the widow. Perhaps Jesus never saw her again. Perhaps she didn’t know that he saw her, but her gift is remembered by Jesus’ disciples everywhere, in every age. Because she gave everything she had.

Today is Ingathering Sunday. We have asked you to make a commitment to give to the work and mission of St Benedict’s in 2013. The people of St. Benedict’s are a generous people and I know that each one of us has thought long and hard about how much of our giving should be through the church and how much we will give elsewhere. But I doubt that any one of us has pledged all that we expect to have in income in 2013. I expect that we have all considered how much we need to pay our bills before making any commitment to St Ben’s.

But God asks us to give everything – to give ALL of our money and ALL of our lives to God’s service and to the direction and use of the Holy Spirit. What are you holding back?

What are you holding back, thinking that you can make better decisions about it than can the Holy Spirit?

We cannot meet all the needs of the world, and sometimes they seem overwhelming. But as we allow the Holy Spirit to use, in God’s service, all that we have been given, the needs of the world will be met. Because there is enough, once we all stop hoarding and holding things back for ourselves thinking that we know best.

Sitting in the temple Jesus saw the widow and invites us his disciples to see her too, and to open our eyes both to her need and to her faithfulness. Jesus calls us to make an equal commitment.

What are you holding back?

With thanks to Sermons that Work and especially the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek and The Rev. Christie M Dalton.