Benediction Online

Sunday, May 26, 2013

People of Hope

Romans 5:1-5

When I did high school biology we started by studying a single celled creature called an amoeba and gradually worked our way up the life forms through worms and caterpillars until we finally reached… rabbits. As I am always better at starting things than completing them, I remember far more about amoeba than about rabbits.

The largest amoeba are 0.000039 inches across. They don’t have brains so I don’t know whether they can think or speculate about the world. If they did, I suspect these single cell creatures would have a very hard time imagining a multi-cell organism as complex as a worm, let alone a rabbit or even a human being. We all have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to be something other than we are. I cannot truly imagine being a rabbit, let alone a worm or, heaven forbid, an amoeba without eyes, ears, arms, legs, heart or brain – without any of the things that I find vital to my life.

So it’s not surprising that we also have a hard time imagining a more complex organism than us. But today is Trinity Sunday, and so we get to try imagining the Trinity which must be a more complex Being than we are. Three in One and One in Three.

We are monotheists. We trust in one God who is also three.  It doesn’t seem to make sense, and nowhere is it explained in the Bible. The early Church was not at all sure how to understand this new concept of God that Jesus brought, with his talk of his Father and the new gift of the Spirit, and it was really not until the end of the second century that the idea of the Trinity – the tri-une God was firmly in place.

Does it matter?

Yes and No. God is God and God is far more than our brains can imagine. That’s not going to change, however we talk about him or her. But how we think about God has some important ramifications for how we think and act.

If we imagine that God is like a triangle with the Father at the top and the Son and the Spirit as the lower two corners, then we are seeing the Godhead as a hierarchically fixed structure. That will make us tend to believe that the cosmos also has a hierarchically fixed structure. It’s a way of thinking that some Christians use to support patriarchal structures where women are subordinate to men.

If we think that the Trinity is like a sphere of ever-moving energy, with the three Persons constantly in motion, spinning around one another, and that the energy which keeps them moving translates in our consciousness into praise, love, mutual surrender, joy and creativity, then we develop a much more egalitarian way of thinking about the world, including human functioning.

From that incredible creativity came the cosmos. It has been said that the created world is the pillow talk of the Trinity. And God –all three of her – longs for the whole of creation to be reconciled to Godself and to become part of that dancing sphere of light, love, praise and glory. That is our higher calling.

But it is not an individual calling – we cannot be fully reconciled to God until the whole of creation is redeemed. Which leads me to wonder, what if… what if we are not individuals as we seem to be, but are in fact, cells in a much larger more complex being? What if the whole of creation is actually one complex being and we are its cells?

I wonder how it would change our behavior if we saw ourselves like that?

From that perspective I notice that neither the New Testament nor the Gospel reading today are talking about individuals. The passage from Romans says that we have peace with God through Jesus through whom we have been given grace; that we hope to share the glory of God and that God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Likewise in the Gospel reading Jesus is telling a group of the disciples that the Spirit will come to them and that even she will not be acting alone. Clearly there are no lone rangers in the reign of God!

So we are being called into reconciliation with God, and with us we bring the whole of creation. There is some fascinating research which suggests that we humans directly influence each other’s behavior. In a phenomenon known as “social contagion” researchers have shown that we can transfer emotional states directly from one person to another. In fact, a number of behaviors including obesity, smoking habits and school performance have also been shown to be catching. We are so interconnected that we directly influence one another – we are responsible therefore, not just for ourselves, but for all those in our social network, to live in a way that brings praise and glory to God.

God the Trinity is a community in constant connection, filled with love, praise, joy and mutual surrender, constantly creating beauty; creation is also a community in constant connection, but our communication is not always filled with love, praise, joy and mutual surrender, and the things we create are not always beautiful.

So we are called to make a difference. We are called to make sure that we are behaving like the Trinity, that the conversations we have in our heads and the conversations we have in our homes and work places and on the internet are characterized by love, praise, joy, mutual surrender and the creation of beauty. As Paul says in Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

How do we do that when we see a world filled with atrocities, hatred, fire, flood and melting icepacks? I don’t think that the answer is simply to turn off the television and turn our backs on the reality of the struggle that creation is experiencing.  But there is a place for limiting our exposure to the violence and mayhem constantly being reported on CNN and other news channels. We need to balance our mental diet with a focus on things that are beautiful, on the people who are helping, on the ways that we too can help.

We are the people of hope. We are the ones who can bring hope to the world. Through our own spiritual practice and through the grace of God, as we change the places of anger and bitterness within ourselves and within our families and community through a practice of radical forgiveness and reconciliation, so that hope will spread. It’s not just bad things that are socially contagious.

As Helen Keller said, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it." It is our belief, our trust and our hope that God’s love “which has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” is so great that resurrection will happen and that we - and we means all of this great organism of creation of which we are part – that we will come to share in the glory of God. And ultimately we, will become part of the Triune Godhead, that great shining sphere of ever-spinning, ever-dancing light and energy.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Discerning the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21

As some of you know, for several years I lived in the Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual community in north-east Scotland. The community of Findhorn was formed around the spiritual guidance received by one of its founders, Eileen Caddy. Each morning the community gathered to hear the guidance that Eileen had been given for them that day. Sometimes it was very practical, often it was inspiring and uplifting. Everyone in the community met before breakfast to start each day with meditation and Eileen’s guidance. Until the day came when the guidance was that there would be no more guidance.

Eileen had heard that the time had come for the community to stop being dependent upon her spiritual inspiration and to start getting its own. Which of course created quite a problem – how does a diverse group of people including some very strong-willed individuals, work together without a central leader laying out the vision and setting the pace?

This was a problem for the early church too. The disciples were used to following Jesus and listening to his teaching. Now it was time for them to become teachers. Now it was time for them to learn how to be faith community without a single leader. And so in the gospel reading Jesus reassures them,
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

Instead of an external leader, they were to have an intangible, inner Spirit or Advocate – one who would speak for them and who would teach them all things. The focus of their lives was to go from outer to inner; from a physically present Master to an inner listening. When they had had disagreements with one another they had had someone to turn to to adjudicate – now when they had disagreements they were going to have to solve them by a process of listening, discussion and discernment.

It was not as though they suddenly all started to agree because the Spirit was abiding with them. Sometimes it seems as though the Spirit tells different people different things.

Early in the Old Testament there is a myth of the coming of multiple languages. The people are cooperating to build a tower which will reach into the heavens. This is called the tower of Babel. God is threatened by this apparent encroachment upon his territory and so he prevents the completion of the tower by giving the people different languages so they cannot communicate and cooperate easily.

Theologians sometimes see that story as a bookend with today’s reading about the day of Pentecost when suddenly the disciples are speaking many different languages and being understood by people from all over the known world. This new outpouring of the Spirit enables people very different from one another to understand the Gospel. This is a demonstration of the reign of God which is one of cooperation between humans and between God and humanity. But while the tower of Babel myth shows one human language being shattered into many, Pentecost does not extinguish difference. Pentecost doe snto make everyone suddenly and miraculously speak the same language. The Holy Spirit doesn’t bring red and blue together and make everyone think in purple!!

Our unity as Christians comes not through sameness but through a focus on the same goal – brigning the reign of God on earth, and through listening to the same Spirit.  That kind of cooperation is quite different from having an external Teacher who brings us inspiration and guidance that we can all follow. It it is often easier to have an external authority -  throughout history we see examples of charismatic leaders who have gathered large followings for good or ill – but that isn’t our calling.

The Holy Spirit does not operate in the same way with each person or with the Church in each age. We have not experienced her as a roaring wind and tongues of fire. We may experience him in a sense of knowing, in a moment of quiet ecstacy, in an event filled with synchronicity, in the word of a friend. Each one of us will have different ways of hearing, different ways of discerning. Some of us have a strong feeling of the Spirit’s presence; others just trust that God is with them and that God is speaking. There is no one right way.

Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, and the Church was born in diversity. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs”-- in their own languages they heard them speaking about God's deeds of power. And in their own languages, people from all those places would come to know God through the power of the Holy Spirit. What draws us together with Christians from around the world, with Christians from across the street is that we are all looking to the same place – we all have our eyes on Christ and our ears open to hear the quiet voice of the Spirit.

After Eileen’s guidance stopped being shared with the Findhorn community it developed structures for discerning together. It found ways to make decisions in community rather than waiting to hear the guidance. It found ways to share inspiration, hope and new understandings of Spirit. As each person developed his or her own spiritual understandings through meditation and spiritual reading, so these became part of the communal search for Spirit.

It is the same for us. The Spirit is moving on our midst. Our task is to be attentive to her subtle promptings. Our task is to choose to cooperate. To allow ourselves to be swept up in worship, to allow ourselves to see what God is doing and to be willing to get involved. The Holy Spirit abides with us and the Holy Spirit is patient, waiting for us to choose to know his power in our lives.

The disciples gathered in that house in Jerusalem were expectant. They had been promised. And they had been promised by Jesus, who was a man of his word. So they were ready when the Holy Spirit came. Let us too become expectant. Let us expect to see God answering prayer, God transforming lives, God bringing comfort to the bereaved and freedom to the captive. We increase our level of expectancy every time we report a God-sighting. Every time someone tells me they think maybe the Spirit was at work in their heart or mind, it increases my own sense that God is at work here. Every time someone shares their sense of God it increases my own faith. This is what is important, not what we know or what we have studied, not our belief system or whether we can recite the Nicene Creed without crossing our fingers.

What matters is that together, however different we may be, that we discern ourselves as the Body of Christ and that we discern the presence and movement of God’s Spirit. And then we can welcome the stranger among us as one who may bring us new insights, new words of God’s amazing love and power.

The Spirit is here. The Spirit is with us. May God open our eyes to see her at work and open our lips to share our experience of her presence.