Benediction Online

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Non-violence and the Reign of God

Luke 6:27–36

Those of us who have been in retreat here this weekend have been pondering the parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow.  Luke tells us that Jesus told the parable of the widow who kept bugging the judge until she got justice as a demonstration of the importance of being persistent in prayer. But it is also a reminder of the importance of being persistent in seeking justice. Our readings this morning are in commemoration of Martin Luther King, a man of God who was persistent in seeking justice. I want to highlight two aspects of his approach to justice-seeking this morning. First, he recognized that oppressions intersect by which I mean that you cannot see any one area of human oppression in isolation. Human trafficking is not a completely separate problem from hunger. Sweat shops are not a completely different problem from soil depletion. Secondly he realized that we cannot fight violence with violence.
In the last couple of years I have come to see non-violence as a vital part of our Christian faith.

We have become used to thinking that Jesus died on the cross to appease God, that somehow God’s sense of justice demanded death, a death that Jesus died for us. Yet when we take the long view of Christian history we can see that this is a relatively new idea. It wasn’t articulated until the eleventh century, so for half of the life of the Church that was not the prevalent understanding of Jesus’ liberating work for us. I have long been uneasy with the idea of a loving God who demands the death of his Son, or of anyone else’s son. Scholars have suggested several other ways that w can read the cross. It makes most sense to me to say that Jesus’ death was the logical outcome of his living a life of non-violence and holiness in a world that was entrenched with sin and darkness.

Jesus, Like Dr King, was not afraid to speak out against the injustices of his world. He was not afraid to point to the hypocrisies of the Jewish religious and legal system. He opened up the vision of the reign of God where there is not injustice and no oppression, and had the audacity to declare that this wasn’t some pie in the sky when you die, but here and now, inside each person. Jesus was giving ordinary people the tools and the motivation to resist Roman rule. It’s not surprising that the authorities were after him.

He was tempted to respond to violence with violence. On the evening that he was betrayed and arrested, Jesus asked his disciples how many swords they had. He knew what was coming and he was tempted to fight back. But in the event he didn’t give in to that temptation. When Peter cut of the servant’s ear, Jesus healed it right away. Violence was not the answer.

Violence always escalates. If Jesus had responded with violence he would have lost the battle against the sin matrix which is by its very nature violent. Jesus was the Lamb of God – the one who was innocent, the one who did not use violence in any way and so he was killed. Violence had done its worst.

But he rose again! Sin and violence were conquered. The system of sin and violence was exposed as powerless. And that is what we are here t o celebrate this morning. The Eucharist is not just a wonderful gift that enables us to connect with God and with one another. It is not just our becoming part of the Body of Christ, becoming one with each other and with Jesus – it is also a celebration that sin and violence have been conquered. We no longer need to fear because the worst that can happen to us is that we are tortured and we die. Jesus has already been there, done that, and risen again. And we know that we who are enrolled in the reign of God, we too will be raised with him. And so we are gathered this morning to give thanks to celebrate the great victory of our God and to look forward to the day when all oppression will cease, when the reign of God is actualized, and sin and misery will be no more.

So, if we see the saving work of Jesus being based in his non-violence resistance to sin, violence and injustice, in his refusal to play the game of returning violence with violence, then as his followers, we too are called to live lives of non-violence. But not lives of non-violent submission but non-violent resistance. We are called to resist violence in all its forms. That is the context for today’s gospel reading. Bible scholar Walter Wink has given us a new understanding of “turning the other cheek.” It is not an injunction to be loving and gentle. It is actually instruction for non-violence resistance. In the culture of the time, striking someone with the back of the hand was a way to assert dominance and authority. If they turned the other cheek then it invited an open handed blow, but this would be seen as a statement of equality. So by turning the other cheek the oppressed person was demanding equality. Similarly, giving your shirt would leave you naked, and nakedness was seen as bringing shame on the viewer as well as the one without clothing.

So our calling as Jesus’ disciples is not only to work for justice but also to resist violence in all its forms. To be merciful is to be non-violent. When we see people suffering around us, to show mercy is to respond with love. It is easy to go through our day with only peripheral vision for those who are around us. Loving mercy looks carefully at them and sees them as individuals whether they are our equals, our bosses or our subordinates. Loving mercy knows the name of the janitor and waves to the trash collector.
But it Is not OK for us to only give charity when it is justice that is needed. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters are important work, but they are providing charity when what is really needed is a change in the system that creates homelessness and allows hunger to continue. Justice means working to change the system. It is much more difficult than giving charity.

Following Jesus means doing everything we can to unhook ourselves from the system of oppression and violence in which we live. In an interconnected and interdependent world that is almost impossible. The food we eat is produced in ways which include violence to animals, often oppress farm workers, pour methane gas into the atmosphere and deplete the soil. The only way to avoid any oppression in the food you eat is to grow it all yourself. But short of that there are steps you can take – you can buy organic, you can reduce your consumption of animal products and only eat sustainable fish. The clothes we wear are manufactured as inexpensively as possible because we don’t want to spend a lot of money on clothes – and so they come from places like Bangladesh where factory workers work long hours for little money in unsafe conditions. This is not a challenge I have yet taken on for myself, but it is possible to find clothing that has not been made in sweat shops.

These are some ways that you can non-violently resist the system of violence, oppression and coercion that we live in. It is important that we take positions of resistance in our lives, but it is just as important that we take positions of resistance in our minds. Refusing to get involved in scapegoating is an important part of this. Our political system is built on defining who is in and who is out. In the reign of God everyone is in. Building communities where everyone is in and where we are able not just to accept, not just to tolerate but to welcome, to like and to celebrate those who are different from us is the work of non-violence.

The work of Integrity in the Episcopal Church in the last forty years has been to make the church fully inclusive of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. To put an end to us and them. That work is far from over. Most gay and transgender people still do not think that they are welcome in church. There is much to be done before LGBT people feel as comfortable and as confident among the children of God as their straight brethren. But even when the church is fully inclusive, if we stop there then we will have failed, because there are still hate crimes. It is still ok for nations to decide that being gay is reason to be imprisoned or even executed. If we stop there we will have failed, because the Church is not here for our benefit; the church is here to serve the world. As long as there are young people being thrown out of their homes because they are gay, as long as there are people unable to get work because there are not enough jobs, as long as there are people homeless because they are mentally ill, as long as we continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, our work is not done.

No-one can do it all. But I encourage you to follow the example of Martin Luther King - find that place where the cry of the world connects most deeply with your soul and work there for justice and an end to violence. I encourage you to find ways in your life to unhook yourself from the system of violence and end the cycle of judgmental violence in your own mind. Whenever you find yourself judging and criticizing others remember that they too are the beloved of God and turn your judgment into a prayer that they may know God’s peace.  And be persistent. Don’t give up.

Because in Jesus the cycle of violence is already broken and the reign of God has begun. Alleluia!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What is God calling you to?

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

“What is God calling you to?”  “What is God calling us to?”  are two questions I frequently ask, and in fact the second “What is God calling us to?” is one of our Mutual Ministry Review questions this year.

The readings from Isaiah and from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians both begin with words about being called, about being set apart by God. In the first reading Isaiah says “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me” and in the second, Paul declares himself, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”

This focus on call fits right in with today’s section of John’s gospel, in which we hear his account of what is usually called “The Call of the First Disciples.” John the Baptist points to Jesus and says of him, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Two of the Baptist’s disciples hear this, decide to check out this Jesus guy, and end up abandoning John and going off with Jesus instead. It’s this call, the call of these first two disciples, that is the one we need to pay special attention to if we want to understand what it’s usually like to be called by God.

After all, this business of being called is a tricky and an important thing. It’s easy to get confused about it. We often imagine being called in terms of the language and context in 1 Corinthians and Isaiah. That is, with being told by God to do some specific thing, usually a pretty major thing. When I was a teenager and trying to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up, I was told that God’s will for my life was in the Bible, but I found reading the Bible a frustrating way to make a career choice. There was no chapter entitled “Which college you should go to” or “How to discern your major.” For most of us God’s call doesn’t come in big letters we can’t ignore and most of the time it isn’t a big thing at all. Which is why we should pay special attention to the account of these first two disciples.

What to do when we grow up is a secondary call question. The primary one is the call to follow Christ. The two followers of John the Baptist who Jesus asked to “come and see” were called exactly as we are called. They were called to be disciples – just as we are called to be disciples. They were called to be disciples in their place and in their time, for the sake of their generation.

One of the things this means is that we don’t have to imitate Andrew’s, or John’s, or Peter’s actions in order to see how their call is like the call of Christ to each of us, and to all of us. Notice that Jesus does not first, or primarily, call them to do a particular task or to fill a particular role or to follow a particular career path. Indeed, he didn’t ask them to do anything. Our call as Christians is not initially for us – as it was not, initially, for his first disciples – a call to tasks.

It is, instead, an invitation to relationship. Jesus does not say, “Do this”; he says, “Come and see.” Only later does he give specific content and direction to where that might lead. There’s a big difference between a call to a task and an invitation to relationship.

To respond to a call for relationship, for intimacy, is a very different thing from signing up to do a piece of work – in the same way that falling in love is very different from getting hired. To set out to do a job requires some clarity about what is involved, it’s negotiable, it has its limits, you know what it looks like when the job is over, and so on. To be called into relationship – to be called in love – this is an invitation to enter a mystery; it’s to move out, blindly, into uncharted waters.

When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is calling us first to himself – to a personal intimacy and a shared life. That’s what matters, that’s what is primary. Everything else is left behind; everything else becomes secondary.

Now, if we look at Jesus’ call from the perspective of what’s left behind, it’s a call to repent. But if we see that same call from the perspective of what comes next, then it’s a call to seek God first, to know her better and to move toward making that relationship the central focus of our lives.

It is not always easy. In fact there are often painful times, because an intimate relationship with God means breaking down some of the personality structures that we have put in the way. When everything falls apart in our lives this is often a sign that God is calling us into deeper intimacy, that we have heard God’s call on a new and more profound level. Without times of uncertainty and difficulty we might never have cause to really turn to God and throw ourselves upon God’s grace. The life of Jesus tells us that the intimate relationship with the all-compassionate God is not always easy and does not always lead to fame and fortune.

Yet it is from that primary relationship that the secondary question gets answered. Sometimes there is a deep inner knowing but more often the answer to “What is God calling me to?” is a simple “I don’t know.” Sometimes it is only as we look back across our life that we can see the call and the following. But that “I don’t know” is important because it opens us up to Spirit. As we continue to abide in God, living in ever-deepening relationship to the divine, and ask the question listening for the answer, we are open and ready for the Spirit to blow through us and use us and direct our paths.

It is a process full of inklings and wonderings and perhaps some false starts, rather than a clear unequivocal directive from heaven. I know at times many of us would rather get the telegram, “Your mission, if you choose to accept it is…” We would like God’s call to be big and obvious, a call to ordained ministry, a call to a specific job or a specific location. But more often we get to put one foot in front of the other trusting that as long as we keep asking, God will direct us unto his paths and will continue to call us along the road of our life’s unfolding.

This is what happened to those first disciples – they stayed close to Jesus. They learned what they could and came to know him a little. Each day they got up and did what was in front of them, always within the context of their growing relationship with him. Then, admittedly long before they thought they were ready, Jesus gave them things to do. For some, these tasks were dramatic, for others they were quiet and invisible.

The call to Jesus will always, in one form or another, find expression in ministry. But the call comes first. There can be no real, abiding and sustaining ministry without relationship with Christ, without obedience to him as he calls us to himself.

We are called to be disciples. Each one of us. That call comes with our baptism, and the call to relationship and ministry will haunt us, and track us down; it will trouble our sleep and whisper in our ears at the worst possible times. It will grow stronger and weaker and stronger again. It may seem to go away, but it always comes back. Because finally, it’s God calling us to Godself. It’s his call to life, to joy and to true peace. It’s a call to all of us.

So let us both individually and as a community of faith say “Yes” to a life of intimacy with Christ. The psalm for St Benedict, our patron saint says “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” (Psalm 34:8) Let us taste and see, and once we taste let us go on to feast on the love of Christ, and then we will find ourselves being called along the paths that he is creating for us. And we will look back with 20/20 hindsight and say, “This is what God was calling us to.”

With thanks to The Rev. James Leggitt and Sermons that Work.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

No Half-baptized

I expect that many of you, like me, will not remember your baptism. I was baptized in England on a Sunday in late March when I was four weeks old. I was not a sickly child, there was no rush to baptize me before I expired. It was simply the fourth Sunday in Lent, and therefore Mothering Sunday, a day which had come to be associated with mothers similar to Mothers Day. The vicar wanted a Mothering Sunday christening and my family was happy to oblige.I don’t know how my mother thought about the service. I imagine she saw it as thanksgiving for my safe arrival, and to give me my name – Caroline after my great aunt who drove ambulances in France in the First World War, and Jane because it was rhythmically fitting. She may have seen it as giving me back to God, as making me a member of the church, but I doubt that the words “Full initiation into the Christian faith” were in her mind, let alone on her lips.

Much has changed since then. Baptism is no longer a nice tradition for acknowledging and celebrating babies. In fact, when approached by proud grandparents about baptizing their new grandchildren I always ask, “Will she be brought up as a Christian and a church member?” The answer is rarely an unequivocal “Yes” and so I decline. Because in the 1970s, the Church re-discovered baptism. We rediscovered it as full initiation into the Body of Christ. We re-discovered it as a rite of passage. We rediscovered how the early church practiced baptism and it made us rethink the whole thing.

So today, most of us - those born before the mid-70s - have two competing visions of baptism; one a nice family tradition and the other, something more rugged, rather more demanding yet also more relevant to our lives. Because in our baptism we were marked as Christ’s own for ever. In our baptism we were made ministers and missionaries in Christ’s covenant people, the Church - and in the world beyond. Our baptism initiates us into the church and sets us apart as the daughters and sons of God.

John was baptizing in the River Jordan as a sign of repentance. There had been some significant periods in Jewish history when the people repented and were restored to their rightful covenant status with God. Since the prophets consistently declared that right relationship with God would lead to national stability and independence, I am sure that many who came to the river came in hopes that a mass revival would lead to the overthrow of the Romans and a new reign of God in a free Israel.

But Jesus did not need to be baptized into repentance. He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness, and as his followers, when we are baptized we too are baptized into righteousness in him which means new life for us. We are baptized into the New Covenant, God’s daughters and sons, God’s beloved. God’s beloved. I often wonder how different our lives would be if when each of us were baptized, the rafters parted and a divine voice declared, "This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." So often we find ourselves anxious, concerned about the future, our inner voices telling us that we’ve screwed up or that we won’t be liked; what a difference in those moments to remind ourselves, “I am God’s beloved - a child of God.”

With great honor comes great responsibility. That wonderful prophecy we heard from Isaiah applied originally to the people of Israel, but now it also applies to us, their spiritual heirs. We are also the ones that God has chosen. Each son and daughter of God sitting here – we are the ones that God has called in righteousness and taken by hand. We have been chosen to bring justice to the nations, we have been given as a light to open the eyes that are blind and bring the prisoners out of the dark. This calling is our calling as a people, as the beloved ones of God – we were made to be a covenant people bringing justice, light and freedom to the world.

Yet the news is depressing. Chemical spills, war, refugees, abuse of power, corruption, unprecedented weather events fill our television screens. In a political climate where to obstruct your opponent is more important than to protect the poor or work towards reducing the greenhouse gases that we know are going to kill millions of people if left unchecked, in a political climate like this, how can we do anything?
Yet we are the ones who have been baptized. We are the ones who have been called. We are the ones whom God is leading by the hand. How can we stand by and not act?

Jesus went to the river to be baptized. He was dunked in cold and probably somewhat dirty water. It was a shock to his body – something that he would remember. But most of us were sprinkled with water or had it poured gently over our heads – the minister careful to make sure he didn’t spill it down our clothes or on to the floor. It’s not something we remember. We don’t have a kinesthetic memory of our baptism – it’s more a concept. And because it’s more conceptual than physical it’s easier to forget. It’s easy for us to leave here this morning and quickly forget that we are the baptized. But it doesn’t change the reality. You can’t be half baptized. You either are or you aren’t. And if you are, then you have a wondrous gift and an important calling.

It’s time for us to stop behaving as if somehow our baptism didn’t take, as if the minister got it wrong or God stayed in bed that morning or somehow we weren’t fully baptized. For we were and we are. We are the ones who God is leading by the hand. We are the ones who are called to bring justice, light and freedom. And the sooner we take that seriously the better. For, as Paul says in Romans 8, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). Creation is waiting for us to get our act together. Creation is waiting for us to realize that we are not half-baptized but the fully baptized and empowered sons and daughters of God.

There are many things we can do to work towards justice and peace. We can cultivate the attributes of non-violence in our lives, we can reduce our energy usage and eat less meat. We can work locally to ban fracking and to establish clean energy sources. I thank you for all this congregation is already doing. I thank you for your support for People of Faith for Justice as we seek to draw people of faith in this county together to work for the coming of God’s reign. I thank you for your decision to become a Welcoming and Reconciling congregation. As a young woman coming to realize that I was gay, I thought I had to make a choice between taking my place among the people of God, and enjoying love and intimacy. I wish then that there had been churches with open doors.

Yet as much as you are already doing, there is so much more to be done. The people of Jesus’ time went to the Jordan in response to John the Baptizer’s call to repentance. They hoped that they would be beginning a mass revival. That didn’t happen, but something far more profound happened. Jesus the Christ came among them and proclaimed the reign of God had begun. They couldn’t see it, but the world was being transformed in front of their eyes.

Transformation is happening. Our world today is astonishingly different from fifty years ago. Even thirty years ago I could not have imagined being legally married to my partner; or that we would have an African American President; or that we would be able to connect to all the information on the internet with just a few clicks.

Transformation is happening and we are called to play our parts. And as the beloved children of God, we have another, quiet way to make things happen. We can pray. And I ask you to take this opportunity very seriously. There is only so much I can do about the people of Syria; there is only so much I can do about greenhouse gases; there is only so much I can do about all the things that need to be transformed. But I can pray and I can enroll in the work of the baptized who are changing the world on the inner level. If you want to change the course of a river you have to change the river bed. Prayer changes the river bed. If you want to change people’s behavior, you have to change their hearts.  Prayer changes hearts. Let us be diligent in engaging God in prayer, because the Holy Spirit uses the energy of our prayers to speed the transformation that she is bringing.

Let us pray without ceasing for God to raise up leaders like Martin Luther King and Mandela, men and women who will be able to gather us around a clear vision. Let us pray without ceasing for the political will to reduce greenhouse emissions to safe levels. Let us pray without ceasing for an end to killing and the re-homing of all those who are displaced. And even as we meet on inner planes with the covenant people, the baptized who are praying, let us continue to work on the outer planes for an end to homelessness and an end to hunger, let us continue to work for justice and peace.

You cannot be half baptized. Let us not be half-hearted baptized but throw ourselves, body and soul into the adventure of God’s beloved, bringing God’s reign on earth.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Bringing our Gifts

A few months ago the choir spent an evening together at John Cribb’s home in San Luis Obispo singing  through the program for Christmas. As I was driving home along Los Osos Valley Road, I was almost to the church when there was a flash in the sky. A shooting star, but so much more than a shooting star - the biggest meteorite I’ve ever seen. It was astonishing to see this sudden bright light streak through the sky. I went on thinking about it for days afterwards. I don’t know what the wise men from the East saw that made them set out for Palestine, but I know it was an even more powerful event– a star in the sky that was new and called to them.

Sometimes we too have powerful callings -times when God seems to split our skulls open with new perceptions and new understandings - times when suddenly everything becomes clear. But for most of us those times are few and far between, however much we long for them – we long for God to reveal Godself and God’s plan for our lives, and nothing seems to happen. I’m sure for the magi it was a once in a lifetime experience. They saw a star that was special. So special that it sent them outside their comfort zones, away from their own country, away from everything they held dear, with only a general sense of their goal – to find the child who had been born King of the Jews and to pay him homage.

And so they took gifts with them, gold, frankincense and myrrh. I imagine that they worried along the way about whether their gifts would be acceptable to a king who was so important that his birth was writ large in the heavens. Perhaps they may had previously taken gifts to other kings and recalled how those were received. Perhaps they even argued as to whose offering would be most acceptable.
It seems to be a natural part of being human, to compare ourselves to others. Am I as well-liked, as attractive, as intelligent, as organized as the next person? Will my gifts be acceptable? Will I be accepted and loved?

It can be difficult for us to remember that we are all equally loved and equally valuable even though that is completely true. We are all as valuable as each other. In fact, each one of us has our own calling, our own areas of ministry, and each one of us has exactly the gifts that are needed for those ministries. We are called to minister at different times in as many as six different spheres of life:
·        in our homes, caring for ourselves, our environment and those live with and ministering with our use of money;
·        in our families – ministering to and for those who are related to us;
·        at work - ministering to co-workers as well as customers and clients;
·        in volunteer activities –ministering both through the tasks we undertake and also in the relationships we build;
·        among our friends,
·        and finally, last but not least, in the church – playing our part in building up the Body of Christ.

These are all important ministries but they may not be glamorous or exciting. We imagine the magi coming on their camels with beautiful robes and extravagant gifts, though the observant reader will notice that the camels are strangely absent from the Bible narrative, and the reality is that it probably wasn’t an easy journey. It probably wasn’t exciting or glamorous or even very pleasant. And it’s not just the camels who are absent from the Biblical narrative – we hear nothing about the support staff. There must have been an entourage of people travelling with the magi to carry food and supplies, put up the tents, dig the latrines, feed the animals and take care of everything that a long journey requires.

Their work was as important as the three magi’s call and their journey and gifts. Without the support staff they probably wouldn’t have gotten very far.  It takes a lot of people ministering in support positions for a few people to take center stage and look good. The majority of ministry isn’t upfront and obvious. The majority of ministry is behind the scenes and often over-looked.  Yet it is still vital. In fact, the work behind the scenes is not only vital but it is more honored in the reign of God where the last shall be first and the first last. Here in the church you see Donna, Mary Elizabeth and I upfront, together with the Eucharistic Ministers and the lectors but it takes a whole team of people working together to make it seem relatively effortless . Like the swan who glides smoothly along the surface but whose legs and paddling fast beneath her, so all of us are called to minister often in unseen ways which make the community’s life and worship possible.

And we are given the gifts we need for ministry. We already have them. Sometimes they need to be developed or discovered, but we are always given what we need for the ministry that God is calling us to do. Whenever a baby plays with his toes, or an archaeologist makes a huge new discovery – both are just discovering what is already there.  It’s like that with our gifts. They are already there, because God has already given us everything we need, we just have to discover them.

As we start to think about every area of our life as a form of ministry, and as we offer our gifts to God for God’s work, so we will begin to discover them in a new way. The question then becomes one of discerning exactly what is yours to give in each area of your life’s ministry. The answer will change over time and so it’s good at the beginning of the New Year to review our ministries. How are you ministering at home, at work, in your family, in your volunteer activities, among your friends and in the church? Perhaps its time to make some changes or to identify gifts that are waiting to be discovered or developed. What is God calling you to?

You probably won’t get the answer to that question by discovering a new star or seeing a message in the clouds. It may come as dramatically as a meteorite in the night sky, but chances are that it will come quietly as you look at the gifts you have already discovered, and the needs of the people and situations around you. You may even have some false starts along the way. After all the wise men made the mistake of heading for the Palace – thinking that surely the King of the Jews would have been born there. But make no mistake, your gifts are as important as theirs in God’s service and your ministries are vital in building the reign of God.