Benediction Online

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Are we having fun yet?

Philemon 1-21

Are you having a good time this morning? Are we having fun yet?

Jesus was being followed by a large crowd who were fascinated by him. He had become a first century celebrity. People were getting on the Jesus thing as a way to have a good time, a way to have fun. So today’s gospel is Jesus’ response. “Look,” he says, “following me isn’t a fun daytrip. It’s not a way to get out of the chores at home and hang out with friends while listening to great entertainment. Before you decide to follow me you need to think about what you’re doing, because it isn’t going to be easy.”

Which probably wasn’t what they wanted to hear, anymore than it’s what we want to hear. Some of us have been reading and thinking about a book by theologian Sally McFague in which she challenges the basis of consumerism – the idea that everything is available for our enjoyment and that the more stuff we have the happier we’ll be. It is hard for us to disengage from that mindset because it’s so prevalent – every time you turn on the television, pick up a magazine or log onto the internet, there’s a new opportunity for you to get something that will be wonderful. It will solve your problems or make you feel better or help you have more fun in your life.

It’s rather easy for us to think about spirituality in the same way. Why choose to follow Jesus or why choose to make God the center of your life? Because it will solve your problems, make you feel better and help you make new friends and have more fun.

But Jesus gives a corrective – if you want to follow me you will have to take up your cross. Doesn’t sound much like fun does it? Many of the early Christians did follow Jesus into martyrdom, but many more didn’t, so what did Jesus mean by this?

Our New Testament reading was from the unusual letter to Philemon. This is a personal letter sent by Paul to his friend Philemon, because one of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away and ended up in Rome getting to know Paul. Now Onesimus is going back. This must have been a terribly difficult thing to do because most slave owners would punish a runaway slave with severe physical punishment if not death. Why did Onesimus go back? We can’t be sure, but my guess is that he went back because he felt it was the right thing to do. He was still owned by Philemon so he still owed him his life and labor.

I imagine that for Onesimus going back was taking up his cross. Because of his relationship with God, he was no longer able with integrity to be on the run. Going deeper into our spiritual life means that we have to face the things that prevent us from being fully transparent. We have to face the places that scare us as tell ourselves the truth about who we are with all our baggage. That is never easy. We all have shadow places that we’re not proud of, things that trip us up again and again.

Following Jesus means staying with the pain, our pain and other’s pain instead of throwing ourselves into fun activities, over eating or buying more stuff so we can numb out. Staying with the pain isn’t fun.
But following Jesus offers a lot more than an entertaining time. Getting to know God is the only thing that truly fulfills us, because we were made to be in relationship with the divine. It is the one thing that stretches us to be all that we can be.

As we are able to stay with the pain and continue to open ourselves to God, healing happens. Life continues to have times of great pain, but we know that we are held in the everlasting arms. We know that life is full of suffering but it is also full of the overcoming of suffering and so we are able to develop a sense of inner peace which doesn’t go away even when life is definitely not fun.

Jesus said that he had come to bring life abundant and it’s that life which comes from facing our own cross and being willing to carry it, because we never carry it alone. Jesus went to the cross alone so that we might never need to. Jesus took on the matrix of sin and defeated it so that we are walking a path which has already been cleared. We are walking a path which brings great joy.

Fun is light and easily broken, joy is deep and resilient. Joy remains even when fun and happiness are distant. Joy comes as we pour out our lives in service to God and find in that deep relationship that we are truly known and we are unconditionally loved. Relating to our God is not entertainment, it is the deep stuff of which abundant, lasting, true life is made.

Why not become entirely green?

Los Osos is a pretty dry place most of the time. For much of the year those of us with yards need to water regularly to keep them beautiful and our plants healthy. But here and there are unexpected places of dampness and greenery where springs rise up and creeks flow. There’s a riparian section like that down past the library and the Catholic church. Suddenly you go from sand and chaparral to dense willows and greenery. The water provides an environment where different plants flourish and different birds live, the willows are a better habitat for small mammals who in turn sustain the coyotes.

That is the image from today’s psalm. We can be like trees planted by the waterside who provide shelter and sustenance for others. We do that when our roots go deep into the soil and the water that is provided by God’s word. For me, God’s word is not an instruction book, not is it a set of laws; God’s word is that which sustains and nourishes our souls. God’s word can be found in nature, in poetry, in film, in relationship, in prayer and in stillness. God’s word speaks to us of hope and courage; of gentleness and holding; of the overcoming of suffering; of love which cares and repairs; of the Spirit which is in and through all things that inspires and leads us when we choose to surrender to it.
There is a story from the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th century which I love to tell.  The younger brother goes to an older one and says, “Brother, I have sat in my cell and I have said my prayers and I have fasted and done all that I should. What else is there?” and the elder brother lifts up his hands, and as he does so flames shoot from the ends of his fingers and he says, “Why not become entirely fire?” A friend dreamt a different ending: as the monk raises his hands, leaves shoot from the ends of his fingers and he says, “Why not become entirely green?” Why not become entirely green?

When we dwell in the places that feed our souls we become green. Our inner selves become verdant and sprout leaves as our roots go firmly down into the nourishment of God’s word. One way to do this is to “go among trees and sit still.” As we sit still, the parts of ourselves that are scared and the parts that scare us gradually make themselves known and we can become friends. The more that we befriend ourselves, the more we gather and nurture the broken, wary parts, the more we are able to drink deeply of God’s word and to sing our songs, which like the songs of the orcas and the humpback whales are unique and special and healing.

Sometimes we cannot sit still. Whether in our cells or among trees, stillness is frightening because what we are afraid of is too frightening and threatens to overwhelm. Then it is time to sit with a trusted friend. I spent many years in therapy when to sit still alone was frightening. When I could not find the good soil and the water to put my roots into. I had to heal before I could find and drink from God’s word for myself. Faith community allows us to put our roots down together, like the redwoods which have surprisingly shallow roots but which intertwine and even fuse together with the roots of other redwood tress thus creating a strong matrix of roots.

The reason to drink deeply of God is not just so that we may thrive, but that our thriving may in turn feed others. Like the mustard in Jesus’ parable which provides shelter for birds, so our greening provides shelter and sustenance of others who may as yet not be able to tame the things of which they are afraid. My greening supports your greening and your greening inspires mine.

Why not become entirely green?

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Table Manners

Proverbs 25:6-7Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

My father was a stickler for manners. I know he would be horrified if he saw me now. I don’t use my knife and fork together. Occasionally I put my elbows on the table. Sometimes I even eat standing up! At first glance today’s gospel might appear to be Jesus’ version of Miss Manners – how to behave at the table. And in a way it is, but it’s also something much bigger.

It has been said that what characterized Jesus’ ministry was that he was willing to eat anything with anyone anywhere. The central mystery of our faith is expressed in the language of food, of banquets, of feasting, of bread and wine. So the way we behave at table becomes an important metaphor for the way we live our spiritual life.

In Jesus’ time, people didn’t rank each other in terms of how much they made, how big their house was or what sort of car they drove. They ranked families according to honor and those who came from more honorable families got preferential treatment at weddings, banquets and other social gatherings. So Jesus tells his followers that they should follow the verse we heard from Proverbs and choose a place of lower honor. Then they might be asked to move up higher rather than being asked to take a lower position.
I don’t think we’re meant to take this literally any more than I think that we are expected to throw parties for homeless and disabled people we don’t know and never invite our friends and family to dinner. So when we have our gratitude dinner on the auspicious Friday 13th, I don’t expect that we’ll all be fighting to sit at the least honorable table!!

Jesus is not a Miss Manners talking about how to avoid social embarrassment by sitting in the wrong place. The point that he is making is that we should never think that we are better than another, because we are all equal in God’s eyes. Just because we have academic degrees or we have a special artistic gift or we have a particular role in society or we have surmounted some particular problem does not make us better or give us a right to judge anyone else. Jesus was just as happy to eat gourmet food with the rich as to eat cornmeal with the poor because both are just as important. Next Saturday we have the opportunity to serve food for those who are homeless or living on the edge and as followers of Jesus we welcome this not just as an occasion of service but also as an opportunity to meet God’s beloved.

As the writer to the Hebrews says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” And today we have to add, “Remember those who are living in fear in Syria, as though you yourselves were there.”

I am sure we are all deeply troubled by the horrors of civil war that we have been witnessing in Syria for two and a half years. Yet I cannot believe that for the US to intervene militarily will bring less suffering. It may be time for us to send humanitarian aid, to airlift massive quantities of gas masks into Damascus, to put pressure on the Arab League to press for diplomatic solutions. But we have seen in Iraq and in Afghanistan that war is not the solution… it just multiplies the problems. But on the other hand, can we stand idly by while others are being slaughtered?

These are big questions.

We have them in smaller ways in our own community when we see someone in difficulty and say “Something should be done about this…” “his family should do something…” “her pastor should do something…”. But it is very difficult to intervene effectively in another adult’s life. And when we start to try to give advice and take responsibility for decisions which are theirs to make, we get ourselves into deep water very quickly. It is as though we are seating ourselves too far up the table, actually at the head of the table and playing God.
I do not know what is best for you anymore than you know what is best for me. If you see me doing something which is damaging to myself or others I do hope that you will take me to one side and quietly let me know what you see. But I may disagree with you. And if I am not such a danger to myself or someone else that you need to call the sheriff, then you will have to live with my decisions and my behavior. To say that you know better than another competent adult how they should live is a form of hubris.

We can and do influence each other all the time, but it is the Holy Spirit who uses that influence to change hearts and minds. When we are dealing with each other we get to do so with a deep respect for each other’s integrity and limitations and mindset. We need to hold each other with a mutual love that allows space, that allows independent action, that allows change and growth and even occasionally crazy behavior. I can never get fully inside your head and know what motivates you and what trips you up. Only God can go there.
Which is not to say that we should be uncaring, saying “Oh well, it’s her life” and walking away. We can still support people with loving detachment – allowing them to make their own choices, to develop their own relationship with God. Our job is to continue to love them and to support them in prayer and perhaps find other ways to meet their needs.

Military intervention in Syria seems likely to cause more problems than it solves. One million Syrian children are now refugees and in need of help. Their homes have been reduced to rubble, their lives destroyed. You and I can help them with safe water, latrines and other critical supplies. Organizations like Oxfam are working to support the millions of refugees but what is needed is peace. Our job is to urge our leaders to work for peace, to pray for a peaceful solution and to do what we can to support the victims of this conflict.

I am more and more convinced that non-violence is the heart of the gospel. It is not the wimpy option. To resist nonviolently is often much harder than to be aggressive and to fight. To resist non-violently is not to turn away and pretend it isn’t happening but to resist aggression peacefully. How we do that internationally I don’t know. But I do know that we can disarm ourselves and I do know that one part of doing that is to come to the realization that everyone has a place at the table and that everyone has an equal place so there is no-one that I am better than, there is no one that is less honorable than I.

In fact, we serve the one who taught us that we are to be servants. And the servant always takes the lowest place.