Benediction Online

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

‘The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."’

I have a lot of sympathy for Legion. The amazing foreigner who came across the water and freed him from the trouble he’s been in most of his life is about to turn around and leave. Naturally, he wants to go too. But that isn't the ministry that God has in mind for him, it seems. Instead of heading out for some exciting adventure, the man is told to go home. “Go home and declare how much God has done for you.” His ministry is not going to be as one of  Jesus’ close disciples, but spreading the word of God’s abundant grace in his own town.

It seems that most of us fall into one of two camps; either we secretly hope that we won’t hear God calling us to do anything important because we don’t want our comfortable lives shaken up, or we hope that God will call us to something important and well-defined on her behalf. We imagine that maybe one day there will be a flash of lightening and a crash of thunder and we will hear God’s voice saying, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

According to the Prayer Book, the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ; and the Church carries out its mission through the ministry of its members. So our mission is already well-defined – to restore all people to unity with God and with each other. What that looks like is made very clear by the baptismal covenant we re-affirmed when Bishop Mary was here with us two weeks ago.

Ministry is how we translate mission into practice. Jesus told the man who had lived among the tombs that his ministry was to go home and declare how much God had done for him. Our ministries vary from each other, and they will change from time to time in our lives, but they will always include a declaration or a demonstration of God’s all-compassionate love. Ministries which are high profile are no more important than ministries which are behind the scenes. As far as God was concerned it was more important that Legion praised God and witnessed to what God had done for him than that he followed Jesus as a close disciple.

Each one of us has ministries which are important in bringing the reign of God on earth. Each one of us has more than one ministry, and all are important. There are seven areas in which we minister – not necessarily all at the same time – at home, at work, in the church, among our family, among our friends, in the community and in the wider world. It takes a great deal of volunteer effort to build and maintain a faith community, so we tend to recognize those who do a lot among us here at St Benedict’s and think that they are the ones who have an important ministry. They do, but church is not the only place where our ministries happen.

For the first few years that I was a member here, I had a difficult and complex job creating a new non-profit organization in San Luis Obispo. Although I longed to be part of the community of St. Ben’s, I had little time and energy to give. I needed the church to minister to me. And that is true for many of us today. We are juggling multiple ministries. We are called to declare and demonstrate God’s love to elderly parents and struggling children; to the neighbor across the street; to our friends on Facebook; to the church friend who we know is struggling; to those we serve at work – all at the same time as keeping up with the house and yard and paying our bills.

These are our ministries. Some of them are more obviously helping to forward God’s reign than others. It’s easier to see that we are doing God’s work when we are delivering meals on wheels, working in the Abundance Shop or serving at the altar than when we are cleaning the kitchen or watching the news. But our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ and we do this quietly and gently by infusing everything we do with the love of God, and surrounding our lives and the lives of those we know with prayer.

All around us people are living in chains among the tombs. We are in touch with the one whose love brings new life and hope. We are in touch with the one who comes with healing in his wings. Our ministry is to declare and demonstrate that love to all who need it which is, basically, everyone. It probably won’t be as dramatic as the demons coming out of Legion, entering the pigs and sending them plunging into the ocean. But healing happens. Each one of us here can tell some story of having been touched and healed by God’s love mediated through another human. We can each be that person, the one who brings God’s healing love.

Some of us have dramatic stories of God’s healing love entering our own lives, others have much less well-defined experiences, God has come to us quietly over time; God’s love has entered our lives at multiple points and we may not have identified it as God’s love even now. But I am quite sure that each one of us has experienced that gentle power and each one of us has the opportunity to share it with others. Even if I’m living alone and don’t see many people except in the supermarket, I can share God’s love by addressing the checker by name and for just those few moments of interaction seeing the Christ in her. If I spend much of my time watching television, I can still pray for the world situations I see and for the TV anchors and for the actors of my favorite soaps.

God does not call us to ministries that are beyond our abilities, and God does not necessarily call us to a ministry even though we have the ability to do it. It can be difficult to know what is ours to do when we live in a world of such need and such opportunity and when we are by our very nature finite and limited. So I encourage you to explore with God where your unique ministries are and how you can use those to declare and demonstrate God’s immeasurable love to those whose lives are closely linked with yours.

Let us take a few moments everyday to say “Today God, may I be where you would have me, doing what you would have me do, and with the words of love that you give me.” Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Letting go of the past

Two monks were on a pilgrimage. They came to a wide river, and there on the bank was a beautiful but scantily clad young woman. She too needed to cross the river but there was no bridge and no boat. So one monk picked her up and carried her across. He put her down on the other side and the monks continued their journey. After about half an hour, the other monk couldn’t contain himself, “How could you?” he shouted. “How could you, a monk sworn to chastity, carry a woman like that?” The other replied, “Brother I put her down half an hour ago, but you are still carrying her.”

Forgiveness. Letting go of the past. It’s at the very core of Christian spirituality. Whatever you believe, if you are a follower of Christ, forgiveness, love and compassion are at the very center of your life and practice.

Jesus visits the home of Simon of Pharisee, and to Simon’s disgust a woman comes in who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and then anoints them. Simon is disgusted because this is not the way things are done. As far as he is concerned, the woman is a sinner – she is unclean – and Jesus is letting her touch him in a very intimate way. Simon is critical and judgmental whereas Jesus is allowing and loving. Simon sees the outer, Jesus sees the inner essence of the woman.

Hearing his criticism, Jesus asks one of his famous questions… two men went to a loan shark who, in an unprecedented move, offered to write off their debt. One man owed $500, the other just $50. Which one was the more grateful? “Well” replies Simon reluctantly, knowing that there’s trap in there somewhere, “the one who owed more, I suppose.” You’re right,” says Jesus. Of course you, as a Pharisee, don’t need much forgiveness so of course you aren’t as loving as this woman who has shown me hospitality with her own body and done everything you didn’t – washed, dried and anointed my feet.

And of course the irony here is that there are no degrees in sin – in Romans we hear “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. In God’s eyes Simon has sinned just as much or as little as the woman. But Simon is stuck in his criticism and his self-righteousness whereas the nameless woman is moved to tears by her gratitude and her love for God in Jesus. She allowed the knowledge of God’s love to touch her and move her and she responded with gratitude and love expressed through her emotions, her body and her gifts.

We are forgiven. We are totally and absolutely forgiven, no ifs, ands or buts…
If we are forgiven, why is it often so hard for us to forgive others? Like the monk who couldn’t let go of his anger at his brother, we continue to carry heavy loads around in our minds and hearts. And those knots of un-forgiveness tie up our energy and slow us down. Imagine for a moment that we get up everyday with 50 units of energy to spend. For one person the weight of un-forgiven past that she is carrying uses perhaps 5 units of energy and so she only has 45 to spend on today, but for another the weight is much greater and eats up 25 units so she only has 25 units available for living today. Forgiveness is not only a spiritual imperative because we follow the one who is forgiveness, but it makes practical sense. How can you live in today if you’re dragging yesterday around like a ball and chain?

In the first reading, we heard about one of David’s big outrageous sins. He fancied Bathsheba and so he had her husband Uriah sent into the front line of battle without back-up. When Uriah was killed, David took Bathsheba for his own wife. The prophet Nathan made him see that he had misused his power to oppress another, and that that had consequences. Unlike the ancients, I don’t think that the baby died because David sinned. God does not punish us. Illness happens, tragedy happens, it’s part of life in this world. But I do know that sin often has real-time consequences.

In fact, I used to wonder why it really mattered that God forgives us since it didn’t make things magically better. If I lose my temper then however much I know that God forgives me, I still have to deal with whoever I lost my temper with. God forgives us again and again but we still get to deal with the consequences of our actions or inactions.

The trick, I think, is in forgiving myself. If God forgives me, then why should I not forgive myself? In fact, it might even be rather arrogant to go on accusing myself when God has already forgiven me.

Once I have accepted God’s forgiveness and forgiven myself, then I am like the monk who put the woman down. I can move on. I can deal with the consequences of my behavior without the added burden of self-accusation.

A couple of days ago I needed an important document in a hurry. I have many large stacks of papers containing things I hope to get around to dealing with, some important like unpaid bills, others less so, like book catalogs I want to peruse just in case I need another book. So there were many untidy places where this document could be. As I searched I berated myself with how annoying it was that I couldn’t keep my papers in better order, that I would be so much more efficient if I just put things away in the right place and on and on… until I heard myself. I realized that my inner conversation was not helping, in fact it was getting in the way of my finding the document.

When I can approach the clutter and mess in my office with the equanimity that comes from accepting God’s forgiveness and forgiving myself, then I can deal with what’s there without the anxiety and recrimination that makes it much harder to get anything done.

Often, forgiveness does not come easily. Especially when we have made it a lifetime’s habit not to forgive ourselves, or not to forgive our father or whomsoever we blame for the inadequacies and disappointments of our lives. It’s also especially difficult to forgive when someone has injured you in a major way. In those times when an injury or injustice is too recent or too ingrained to be forgiven quickly, we can offer our willingness to forgive. If, whenever the problem comes to mind, we cannot say “I forgive…” we instead say “I am willing to forgive…” then before long that willingness will turn to forgiveness. And with forgiveness will come greater equanimity and grace.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

The gentle and humble in heart can see themselves clearly, knowing their persistent faults and shortcomings and, being gentle with themselves, can also be gentle and humble with others.

So let us respond to God’s great gift of unconditional love and forgiveness, by disarming our critical selves, and embracing forgiveness and generous self-giving love.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Inner or Outer?

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Luke 7:1-10

I struggled with today’s sermon because there are two different possibilities that called to me.

The first possibility was to consider the “foreigner”. In today’s first reading, Solomon has built a temple for God whose presence, signified by the Ark of the Covenant, has been living in a tent. Now he has built a temple to be the house of God forever, and the reading is part of his prayer of consecration. It’s quite a long prayer in which Solomon asks God to show favor to the people of Israel and forgive them when they sin. We only heard the section in which he asks that God will also hear the prayers of foreigners who turn to him and pray towards the temple.

The second reading is the very beginning of the book of Galatians. We’ll be hearing from this letter several times in the next few weeks. Paul wrote to the people of Galatia about the vexed question of whether foreigners had to become Jewish in order to be Christian. Some people were saying you had to convert to Judaism in order to be part of Christ but Paul was adamant that God’s grace is freely available to everyone through Jesus.

Then in the gospel reading, Jesus is speaking through intermediaries with a Roman centurion – an officer in charge of one hundred men. Jews usually had as little to do with Gentiles as possible… There were Gentiles.  And there were Jews.  The Jews were God's chosen people.  And the Gentiles were not.  Jews ate clean food.  Gentiles ate unclean food.  And God only knew what other detestable things Gentiles did.  Yes, there were good Gentiles, like the centurion.  They believed in God and they tried to follow God.  But they were still Gentiles.  The law said that a clean Jew, who observed the law, could not enter the house of an unclean Gentile who did not observe the law.  The law also said that while an unclean Gentile could enter the outer court yard of the temple, the Gentile could not go inside the temple.  That was the law.  That was the natural order of things.[1]

But Jesus was heading towards a Gentile’s house. And that Gentile stopped him, saying that he did not need to come – he could just say a word and the slave would be healed. Jesus responded that he hadn’t found such strong faith anywhere in Israel.

Gentiles, foreigners, are a big issue in this country but we call them immigrants. When things go wrong it’s easy to blame “immigrants” with their different ways and different languages. It’s easy to say that they’re taking the jobs, that they’re causing the economy to tank, even when the evidence is quite the opposite. Especially here in California we need migrant agricultural workers and migrant workers in our hotels and motels. Where would the hospitality industry be without them?

There is an important immigration bill in Congress right now. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t include gay or lesbian households. But it may be the best that we can do right now to try to improve a system which leaves people trapped miles away from their families for years; which allows workers to be exploited and made to work in circumstances no American would put up with; which makes desperate and hopeful people try to cross the border despite the possibility of injury or death because there is no accessible, legally agreed way for them to come.

Jesus didn’t avoid immigrants. In fact in today’s reading he holds one up as an example of faith. Paul went so far as to say that in Christ there is no longer Gentile and Jew. In Christ all ethnic divisions disappear because we are made one through our baptism.

As Christians we are called to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. That means treating people of every ethnic group with respect. It means trying to help those who are injured by our system. And it means working to change the system so that there may be justice for those on whom we depend for our food and our prosperity. There’s a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church next Sunday evening to start organizing a local faith lobby to work towards making sure that an immigration law is passed by this Congress which is fair and equitable.

So that’s one possible sermon. I could also talk about how we all experience ourselves as foreigners from time to time and how as a faith community we can be sensitive to those who are different. I could mention that it’s always easier to talk to people we understand and people who we know well, but that God calls us to step outside our comfort zone and connect with those who are quite different from us. And that includes here, today, during coffee hour.

The other way I could go is to focus in on the centurion’s statement about authority. He said “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,' and he goes, and to another, `Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,' and the slave does it." The centurion saw Jesus as having the authority to heal his slave, but also being under authority himself – under the authority of God.

I wonder whether we are willing to be under the authority of Jesus, whatever that means and whatever it takes.  The Methodist Covenant prayer says:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
Rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Some people have declared this prayer just too pessimistic, but I think it’s a helpful corrective in this time when we tend to think that if we follow God and maintain our spiritual practices that everything will work out happily. Now we know that everything will work out because we are held in the hand of God, but it may not work out in the way we hope and expect. Crises happen. Life threatening illness happens. Horrific violence happens. Disappointment and disillusion happen. Asking for God’s blessing and walking in her paths does not necessarily lead to worldly success or even comfort.

Rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

Now that really is putting yourself under God’s authority, letting go of the need to be seen as successful, letting go of expectations that God’s blessing will mean a happy upbeat life, just trusting that ultimately your greatest fulfillment will be in following Christ even when it doesn’t feel good.

So those are the two sermons I could have preached. One focused on our call to follow Christ in the world, working to bring God’s reign on earth; and the other focused on our inner journey, our spiritual formation.

I couldn’t choose, because both are equally important. And both are equally easy to slough off. It’s easier to stay home than to go to a meeting or rally. It’s easier to watch television than to write to our representatives or the local paper. It’s easy to think that Congress is so stalemated that there’s nothing useful we can do. It’s also easier to go to church on Sunday and say grace before meals than it is to deeply dedicate oneself, to put oneself under the authority of God, to surrender fully to Spirit.

And I think that both are equally important messages for us to hear. There is no either/or – the Christian life is one which holds both inner work and discipline in balance with outer work and service.

Here at St. Benedict’s we are much better at talking about social justice than working for it. We do many things to help people in need, but we have a really hard time focusing on actual change which would make our society fairer and better for all beings. I also know that I am better at thinking about spirituality than at practicing a deep consistent inner discipline, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Yet it is that deep commitment, that turning ourselves and our lives over to the authority of Christ that fuels our ability to demonstrate the reign of God in our world.

In the silence before we affirm our faith, let us each take a moment to commit or recommit ourselves to the authority of Christ and to our active involvement in bringing God’s reign on earth.