Benediction Online

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Invisible Powertool

Genesis 18:20-32

One of the things I haven’t been able to do very easily since I hurt my shoulder is to use a screwdriver. So I am very grateful to whoever came up with the concept of power tools! It takes far less effort to get a screw in the wall using a power drill.

I think our approach to prayer is often rather like trying to use a screwdriver when you have a weak shoulder. You put it off because it’s going to be difficult, but then you think you really should get it done, but when you try it’s all rather unfocused and tiring because you keep slipping and you can’t seem to get any traction.

Quite a different experience from Abraham’s. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was living in Sodom with his family. Abraham was determined to stop God destroying his relatives and any other people who were living in alignment with God’s will. So Abraham persisted until he had God’s word that he would not destroy the cities if even ten righteous people could be found there.

Some of us will have a hard time relating to this story, as it presents God as an external force – someone out there who can, and does, destroy cities on a whim, or who can choose not to if asked persuasively enough. That view of God becomes problematic for us when we try to hold as true both that (1) God is love and that (2) suffering happens. It’s made even worse when we have stories which depict God causing destruction and killing those he is meant to love.

It is often easier for us to think about God as the creative force in the universe – that which keeps pulling us forward - the energy that moves atoms and subatomic particles – the movement that is the expansion of the cosmos – that which makes one plant a rose and another a daffodil – the light within. But if God is within, then to whom do we pray?

Trying to decide whether God is inside us and inside creation or whether God is a transcendent being quite separate from Creation is like asking whether light is a particle or a wave – the answer is “yes”. God is light, and God is the energy within and God is a transcendent, radically free Being who brought us into being, loves us intensely and is thrilled when we pray.

So how do we change our prayer life from being a fumble with a screwdriver to an invisible power tool?

I think the secret lies in one word: intention. Jesus says “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find” but you have to do the asking, you have to do the searching. You have to have the intention.

Sometimes we do something without intending to and it works out well. Other times, not so much. But when we do something with intention then we summon our energies, we marshal our resources; we focus on it with the intention of making it happen. We engage our wills. When two or three or more people get together and decide to make something happen, when they align their wills in a common purpose, they are often successful. When two or three people get together and align their wills with divine will and intention then miracles happen.

That is I think a more useful way of thinking about Jesus’ teaching about persistence. God is not a recalcitrant parent who withholds things from his children until they say the magic word the right number of times. God is not an ATM which requires that you remember the code and enter it correctly, and that you have sufficient funds to start with. God’s love is freely available, God’s abundance is not dependent on our saying the right words or repeating our prayers ad nauseam. But when our intention is aligned with God’s intention, things happen.

In response to the disciple’s request that Jesus teach them how to pray he gives them a short version of the prayer that we use as our family prayer,
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial."

“Father” is a term of intimacy and also honor. Many people find it an uncomfortable way to address God, but what’s important is to find a way that helps us to remember that God is as close as our breath and yet also the Creator of the universe. Aligning with the divine requires us to have an understanding, a lived experience of God as both present and beyond our comprehension The movement here is first to praise God “Hallowed be your name” and then to align ourselves with God’s will, “thy kingdom come.” Only then do we turn to the things which we most need – our daily bread and forgiveness.

It seems to me that praise and thanksgiving are the very energy of the universe. Just think for a moment how good it feels when someone appreciates you or thanks you. It gives you energy. I don’t for a moment think that God has a bruised ego which needs constant stroking. Rather, praise and thanksgiving generate joy and together form the creative energy of the ever-moving ever-growing Trinity. When we praise God it takes our attention away from ourselves and puts it where it belongs; on the reign of God.

Sometimes I hear people saying “How lucky I am” thinking that they are praising God, when in fact they are making a statement about themselves. When we praise and thank God we are turning our attention away from ourselves and instead focusing on the sources of our abundance – the Mother-Father-Creator God.

Once our attention is focused on God then we can know more profoundly the movement of the Spirit and we can align ourselves with that movement as we pray. As we bring the focus of our own intention to furthering the reign of God then we are aligning with Spirit and suddenly it is not our will alone but our will in co-creation with the great creative force. The juice is turned on and our prayer becomes an invisible power tool.

So if you want to experiment with this, here are the steps again:
Hallowed be your name, heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest
Your kingdom come; may the whole cosmos be brought into full and glorious relationship with you

Then - not because you’ve recited a magic formula, but because you have brought your intention into alignment with Spirit – you can focus on that which you are bringing to God. Remembering of course that prayer is not a passive thing; you are called to be part of the change you want to see happen. As we ask for forgiveness so too we are asked to forgive.

The kingdom of God starts at home. But it’s much easier with a good power tool!

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Celebration of a Same-Sex Blessing

What a joy it is to have Brian and Dennis, and their family and friends, celebrating their wedding with us with us this morning. As we are doing this during our regular Sunday service, our readings are the ones for the day, not those for a wedding. So you can imagine that I was a little nervous when I first looked at them – would they be at all relevant? Fortunately for me we heard this morning about Jesus sending seventy disciples out on mission trips – two by two.

Which, according to the song, is also how the animals went into the ark. That, of course, was for the purpose of procreation, and as the opponents of gay marriage like to point out, gay people cannot reproduce. Their argument suggests that the main purpose of marriage is reproduction, and for many years that is how the church saw it. But then the marriage rite was revised to emphasize first the importance of mutual joy, help and comfort and only then, procreation… And in today’s gospel reading it is very clear that the reason the disciples are sent out two by two is to help and comfort or strengthen one another.

Like the seventy disciples, it is the mission and ministry of all of us, as followers of Jesus to demonstrate and declare the reign of God. Some of us are called to do that within the covenant of marriage. Because it is there, in the daily mundane and intimate life of two people living together, that the mystery of the reign of God can be expressed in a unique and life-giving way. Living intimately together in equal partnership is not easy. It requires the development of unconditional love and mutual surrender. It requires a great sense of humor. And it can be highly creative and a great blessing to the world.

In fact, a holy marriage celebrated between two humans and God can become an expression of the life of the Trinity, that amazing always-in-motion sphere of mutual love, adoration, submission, praise and joy which is boundless creativity and hope. When a couple live consciously together, celebrating their joys, mourning their losses, turning every day toward God and toward each other, then they become not only one flesh, but a vibrant demonstration of the life of God.

I know that Fr. Brian is uncomfortable with the idea of submission, proclaiming that in his humble opinion, no human should ever submit to another. But when I called him on Wednesday with a question about the rings for today’s wedding, he said “Oh we can take them off if you like”. I said it was their decision, and so he asked me to hold. I could hear Dennis speaking in the background. Then Brian came back to the phone, “Dennis thinks, he said, “well we both think, it would be better to keep them on.” That my friends is an example of mutual submission, where a decision is made with equal respect for each other’s perspective.

Returning to the gospel reading; the first thing that the disciples were told to say when they entered a home was “Peace to this house” to see whether anyone there would share in their peace. This is the proclamation of the reign of God, “peace to this house,” and today as we are blessing Dennis and Brian, we are blessing them with God’s peace, that they may take it as a gift - not to be prized and placed in a cabinet - but as a gift to be shared. God’s peace is not a make-nice peace where feelings and experiences are withheld because it’s easier to say nothing and to “keep the peace”. God’s peace does not come easily because it requires justice and equality – unless there is true mutuality there is not true peace in the relationship. Those who share God’s peace do so knowing and believing that we are all equal in the eyes of God. God’s peace is based in forgiveness and humility. God’s peace is the true peace which the world craves.

It is this active peace, the living out of the fruits of the Spirit, which is our demonstration of the reign of God. This is the purpose of every holy relationship, not just the covenant of marriage. We are not all called to be married. In fact 43% of Americans over the age of 18 are not married. The apostle Paul thought that it was better for Christians NOT to marry because then they could better devote their time and energy to demonstrating and proclaiming the reign of God. There is a long and sacred tradition of those whom God calls to celibacy. But most of those 43% unmarried Americans probably do not have a call to celibacy!

At different times in our lives God calls us to live in different ways. We are blessed in this church by many couples who have lived together in covenanted relationship for more than fifty years. They are a model for us of lifelong fidelity and love. We have others who have been married but are now widowed or divorced and yet others who have not yet married. God is calling all of us to live our lives in covenant with God; God is calling all of us to develop holy relationships, not just with friends and lovers but also with others in faith community.

Holy relationships are ones where God comes first - where every irritation and conflict becomes an opportunity for forgiveness, and an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to explore a new facet of the reign of God. Holy relationships are a demonstration of the reign of God. Observers of the early church said, “see how these Christians love one another” – God’s love was evident in the way they lived and shared what they had. Today Christians are better known for back-stabbing and pettiness, for infighting and excluding.

It is up to us to turn that around. It is up to us to demonstrate the unconditional and all-inclusive love of God in our own lives. It is up to us to tell other people that God loves all of us, gay and straight, black and white, Republican and Democrat, and it is up to us to prove that that is true by the way we show hospitality. Hospitality to each other and hospitality to those who are different; to those we don’t understand; to those we don’t even like.

Brian and Dennis have a wonderful gift of hospitality and they have been called to share that gift and their many other gifts together in a way that amplifies them. For together, Dennis and Brian are more than they are apart. Together they can demonstrate God’s reign in a way that could not do separately. God has called them together for mutual joy, help and comfort in God’s service. We are here to witness their covenant and to bless them as they continue on their life’s journey.

So without further ado, let us do just that…

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Maturing in service

Sermon given by Lorienne Schwenk

Psalm 16Galatians 5:1, 13-25

How do we mature in service? That is the question I keep in mind when I read Luke. It is like a lens through which the scripture comes off the page and comes alive to my particular situation. It works nicely when the Gospel text contains a healing, a miracle, some evocative teaching, or an interesting parable. 

Today’s Psalm says “You show me the path of life.”
Paul reminds us that the whole law is a single commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself.”
This passage from Luke says to “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” All of these are in harmony with the question of “how do we mature in service,” but the rest of the Gospel reading is a tough one. That instruction from Jesus is deep in the middle of rebuke, three frustrating interviews with potential disciples, and some weird breakdown of hospitality, not to mention a glaring lack of clarifying detail!

This text is the concluding passage of the 9th chapter of Luke, a chapter which does include a feeding, a healing, commissioning and sending out the Apostles, and the Transfiguration. The last verse before our reading begins is “Whoever is not against you is for you.” That fits with our mission, as Caro reminded us last week, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other.” How jarring then, for me to ponder the encounter in the Samaritan village.

What does it mean for Jesus not to be received in the Samaritan village?  This village is in what was formerly the northern kingdom of Israel, where Elijah prophesied. Overrun more than 700 years before the life of Jesus, these current residents of Samaria were not on good terms with the Judeans. And yet, Samaria is between Judea and Galilee and we see Jesus crossing that region frequently. There is so little detail in this story, allow me a small flight of fantasy. It won’t be the last one.

I imagine the messengers, let’s say they are James and John, laying the groundwork for Jesus’ time there. One night? Several? Did he plan to teach? The disciples may have had some inkling that their teacher was opening his message to all people. I hear them assuring the villagers “Hey you’ll like this guy. Let’s have him talk over at Jacob’s well; he’ll love the common root you people share with us chosen people. You are going to feel God’s love. We promise!” At this point, I can guess how to mature in service. Common ground, unity.

But Jesus was not received because his face was set toward Jerusalem. The comments I have read on this conflict lay the blame on the Samaritans disagreeing with Jesus about the need to worship in Jerusalem. We usually don’t see Jesus hung up on particulars that exclude, however, so I want another explanation. And, to mature in service, what does this mean for us? If I am a Samaritan, am I afraid of what it means for Jesus to make this difficult journey and face his arrest and death in Jerusalem? For us today, when do we turn away? be it from difficulties or risk we may perceive? If maturing in service also means trying to be like Jesus, what must we do despite the fact that others disagree with us, not accept us, or even turn aside from us? Will we be able to set our face toward our own Jerusalem? And can we do and be who God is calling us to be without condemnation of those who turn aside?

It is at this point, between the two stanzas of our text, that I have to ask if ministry is only any good if it makes me uncomfortable? Looking at this second stanza, my inner judge pouts: “is it wrong to have a nice bed? Wrong to grieve the dead? Wrong to love how it was yesterday?” Paul helps me here by contrasting the life of the spirit with the life of the flesh. Those comforts and “pressing excuses” enslave us if they keep us from setting our face like flint on God’s call to us.
In the three encounters of this second stanza of today’s Gospel, we don’t know how the three responded to what Jesus said. So, in my second flight of fancy, I imagine all three saying yes to Jesus. Why not? It does not say in this case that they turned away and quit. It does not say they went home satisfied that they were doing enough and didn’t need risk, difficulty, or uncertainty.

Let me share with you about my friend Sam and his yes. Sam had a successful business, was more than comfortable, generous with his time, talent, and treasure at church and in the community, and lived an active life of competitive tennis and sailing. Picture a middle aged Thurston Howell the Third! There was no doubt he was living his ministry. Senior Warden, choir, EFM, lots and lots of volunteering. He was doing enough. Yet somehow, Jesus got a hold of Sam. A different wind filled his sails. In what feels like a rapid blur, Sam’s yes led him through discernment on to Divinity School at Yale on the one hand, *and* on the other, immersion lessons in Haitian Creole and multiple trips to Haiti. This morning, he is preaching on these same texts, not at some wealthy suburban church where he plays tennis with his senior warden or golf with the big donors, but where he serves his tiny Haitian congregation in Brooklyn. The contrast of before and after is only surprising if you don’t see today’s Gospel alive in Sam’s life. 

By the way, Sam’s parish is called the church of the Good Samaritan. So, lastly, I want to consider briefly the placement of this text within Luke’s Gospel. These two stanzas stand alone, and don’t really connect to the rest of the fullness of chapter 9. Jesus seems in a big hurry to get to Jerusalem, but doesn’t get there for another ten chapters. And, it’s not hard editorially to go from verse 50, right before our reading starts, to chapter 10. You can check it out. The placement is kind of cool, though, because it’s not the last word on Samaritans. We are not left with this strange, strained encounter. The next chapter of Luke has the parable of the good neighbor, whom we call the Good Samaritan. 

I’m glad, because I believe the path of one’s life, loving one’s neighbor, and proclaiming the Reign of God are three “sides of the same coin.” God is calling us and, as Caro reminded us last week, your ministry is really not beyond your ability. It just might look like it. What excuses are there? How will you respond? How will you mature in service?

This prayer is from a little book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Let us pray:

Lord, turn our praises into hands that clothe the naked, arms that comfort the afflicted, tables that host the stranger, and shoulders that support the weary so that your name may be praised by those who live and die with their backs against the wall. Amen. (From Common Prayer a liturgy for ordinary radicals- May 11 Morning Prayer)