Benediction Online

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I believe...

On the afternoon of Good Friday I joined Suzan Vaughn on a talk show to consider the meaning of Good Friday and to discuss the differing beliefs that have been held by faithful Christians over the centuries. Although we were deliberately somewhat controversial, there was only one caller, Alan, who said he wanted to ask me about faith but who took so long setting up his question that we never got to hear what he was actually asking.

This morning’s Gospel reading highlights the question of faith and belief. Some scholars think that this passage was the result of a conflict at the time that it was written between the Johannine community who produced this gospel and the followers of Thomas who had a different take on Christianity.
Talking about Christianity as a faith suggests that there are certain core beliefs that all Christians share. That’s probably true, but when you look at the different branches of the church that developed in the first few centuries and since:  Syriac, Coptic, Orthodox with its many ethnic variations, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Reformed Catholic, Holiness and Pentecostal , it’s very quickly clear that Christians differ. That’s not surprising when you realize that there are very few things that Jesus asked his disciples to believe – he didn’t teach a coherent, systematic theology - and the apostles like Peter preached simply that Jesus is resurrected and Jesus is Lord.  What has become clear from recent scholarship is that there was never one true faith which heretics departed from, but that there have always been different understandings of Christianity as a belief system.

Contemporary western Christians often have difficulty with the idea of evil spirits, of miracles of healing or miracles of bread, fish and wine multiplying, difficulty with the Virgin Birth and difficulty with the resurrection. In fact, if you define Christianity as a belief system, then many of us feel like we’re being asked to check our brains at the door, or to believe three impossible things before breakfast.

The Judaism of Jesus’ time was a way of life founded on ritual and keeping the law of Moses. In contrast, Christianity was astonishing freedom where salvation came, not from rigid codes of behavior, but from believing that Jesus was Lord and joining the new movement which was discovering the joys of living with the Spirit.

And so in today’s Gospel we have Thomas saying that he needs proof. How many times do you hear that? “I’ll believe in God when he starts answering my prayers” as one friend told me. Yet the proof of the pudding is in the eating as the old adage goes. You get to believe in God as you experience God. You get to experience God as you believe in God. Saying “I believe in God” but doing nothing about it is like looking at the pudding but not tasting it.  To really experience God you have to at least willingly suspend your disbelief for a while.

To some extent, faith is learned behavior. Certainly there are those of us who have had experiences like Paul’s on the road to Damascus where suddenly we see and we know that God is real and God is present and life is changed. But for most of us, it’s a more plodding experience. As we turn to God, so God turns to us and we have glimpses of the Spirit’s presence and as we share those glimpses and hear about other’s experiences, so we wonder and reflect and we see more and more God moments. Until we realize that actually we do believe. One of the reasons that Bible reading and Spiritual reading is so important is that it helps to build and support our faith.

But now I’ve slipped into talking about “our faith” as if we know what that means.

For me, faith is not about believing as historical and factual things which we don’t know for sure actually happened. There are plenty of things that I take on faith without actually experiencing them. For example, I believe that there is a country known as Afghanistan which has been the site of many wars. I don’t actually know it personally, but enough people talk as if it is true and I see no reason why it should not be true. Similarly I believe because I have been told so, that the chair I have been sitting on this morning is not actually solid but is made up of rapidly moving particles.  That is as counter-intuitive as the idea that the earth rotates around the sun when it is clear to my eyes that the sun moves across the earth. There are many things that I have faith in, many things that I believe to be factual that I have no way of proving.

For me, our Christian faith goes much deeper than the merely factual and historical. It points to deeper and higher and broader and greater truth. So my faith is not in a set of unascertainable data. My faith is in the world and the love to which all the stories point.  Perhaps it’s a bit like the Higg’s Boson which was just a scientific hypothesis for forty years. It needed to be true in order to make sense of the data. The scientific stories all pointed to it but it could not be proved until last year, and even last year’s experiments leave a lot of questions. In the same way my faith in God is based on the truth that all the spiritual stories seem to point towards and my trust in God increases every time I test the hypothesis. God needs to exist to support the data of my life and experience.

When I sat down on my chair this morning, I had faith that it would hold me up despite its lack of factual solidity.  That kind of faith is more like trust. It is a working faith, a trust that the hypothesis holds. Theoretical belief systems are pointless unless they provide the framework that we can trust and live with, and trust to hold our weight.

As Episcopalians, we are in the stream of Christian tradition which developed from the resolution of an ancient and passionate argument. The church of the fourth century argued about the nature of God. The so-called winners declared that God is three in one. And so we regularly recite together the creed that developed from that conflict as it played out in the year 325 in the Council of Nicaea. This is a way of honoring our ancestors and declaring our own identity. We are the ones who stand on the ground of the Trinity. Just as I sat on my chair believing and trusting that it would hold me up, so I believe and trust in the God who is a Trinity, the God who is in constant relationship, the God whose infinite love and creativity led to the creation of the cosmos, including the elusive Higg’s Boson.

So when we say the creed together, I am not saying that I believe every aspect of it to be historically or even cosmically factual, but that I trust that this way of thinking about the divine is solid because it has held the weight of almost two thousand years of our spiritual ancestors. And every time I test it, it holds my weight too. I am saying that these are my people, this is the tribe to which I belong, those who see God as a complex, astonishing Triune Being.

Holding a set of intellectual beliefs is irrelevant unless they stick to your ribs. They are only valuable if they provide a framework which helps make sense of life. Christians are often criticized for being hypocritical – for saying that we believe in love and forgiveness but in living in a way that belies that. Jesus breathed the Spirit upon the disciples so that they might experience God within not just through him. When our beliefs help us to connect with God within ourselves and the Christ in each other, then and only then do they become valuable.

One of my clergy colleagues recently said “I don’t know if I’m a Christian anymore.” He was half-joking, but underneath the humor was the question that I often hear, do I have to believe all this stuff, because you know, I really don’t. And my answer is that all this stuff is not the moon but the finger pointing at the moon. All this stuff is what the church has developed over the centuries as it has tried to live the life of the Spirit. Some of it is still relevant, some of it is timeless and eternal and some of it is probably quite silly. We are , after all, human.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." That’s us. We are the ones who have not seen but are coming to believe. We are the ones who have not seen but are coming to trust. It’s a journey, and one I am glad that we are on together.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


One day last week I found one of our church members in a local coffee shop, hunched over her laptop. I had time to spare and she was more than willing to put her work aside so we talked for nearly an hour, not so much about resurrection but about friends and death and grief, and how life goes on but is different. As I stood to leave she said, “I’m so glad we had this conversation – God must have meant it, oh, listen to what they’re playing.”

It has been the subject of a book and an hour long radio documentary. It was been voted one of the best 500 songs of all time and performed by more than 300 artists, but when it was first recorded in 1984, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” received little attention. Cohen himself spent hours laboring over it and has written a total of 80 different verses, just 5 of which he uses in recordings.  

It is an extraordinary poem set to haunting music which contrasts two quite different experiences of Hallelujah. The first comes to us when we have peak experiences – a sense of oneness with the divine which comes unbidden in a moment of prayer or worship; or a sense of oneness with all creation as we watch the sun set over the ocean; or the joy of new life in a baby or a kitten; or the thrill of recognition in a moment of deep intimacy. At all these times, a rousing, growing, thrilling Hallelujah bursts up and out – as Cohen recalls, “every breath we drew was Hallelujah.”

He contrasts that glorious Easter morning “Hallelujah” with times of sadness and difficulty when, he says, “it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” that we sing.

Today we celebrate the resurrection. We celebrate that Jesus the Christ rose from the dead. Our song is one of Hallelujah because we know that in his resurrection he has opened for us the path to our own resurrection. This is a day of joy, of celebration and of song. Yet it comes in a bundle. It comes in a bundle with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. We cannot comprehend the joy of Easter unless we also know the sadness, failure and grief that come before it. We cannot truly sing the Easter Hallelujah without acknowledging the cold and broken hallelujahs of the days preceding it.

In his resurrection, Jesus turned the tables on the darkness of the sin matrix. It thought it had him. The worst that sin can do is lead us into spiritual darkness and death. In that final confrontation, all the forces of darkness were arrayed against the light of the world. They used betrayal, threats, humiliation, pain, shame, taunts, agony but they could not persuade Jesus the light of the world, to use violence or anger against them. They could not force him to play their game.

As we hear in that glorious passage from the beginning of John’s gospel which we read every Christmas, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

It looked for a while like it might overcome it, on Thursday night when the disciples couldn’t stay wake with Jesus and when the soldiers came to arrest him. It looked even worse on Friday when Jesus was nailed to a cross and hoisted into the sky to die of suffocation from the weight of his own body. Even on Sunday morning when both Marys came to the tomb and found it empty, it seemed as if the darkness had won.

But the stone was rolled away and the Christ had gone on before and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!

We know that Christ has completely conquered the sin matrix, yet it still does its best to keep us trapped. Yet we are a resurrection people. We are those who have been called to live the hallelujah of the resurrection even in the cold and broken places. So it becomes our spiritual practice to declare hope, to declare hallelujah even when hundreds of people die as a ferry capsizes, to declare hallelujah even when Russian forces mass on the Ukraine border, to declare hallelujah even when grief and pain assault us.

If there is one thing the powers of darkness cannot withstand it is hallelujah, even a cold and broken one.

Yet as we develop the practice of hallelujah, as we live the truth of the resurrection more and more until it becomes a part of us, a strange thing happens. “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid… he has been raised… go quickly and tell his disciples… he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.'” As we sing hallelujah even in cold and broken places so we begin to see, to perceive more quickly the possibility, the probability, no the certainty of resurrection. We come to trust that even when we are standing in shock looking at an empty tomb, even when we have no understanding of what just hit us, God is both standing next to us and is already ahead of us, moving forward, waiting for us to catch up.

Galilee was the disciple’s home turf. It was where they spent time with Jesus. It was where they first learned to sing the hallelujah that would resonate through the rest of their lives. Our Galilee is here in faith community, and in our hearts. In our Galilees we learn to discern the presence of the Christ, we learn the stories of his revelation not just in the distant past but fresh and new in our own lives and the lives of those around us. In our Galilees we learn the teachings of the Christ, prompted by the Holy Spirit, and quietly at first, then more and more confidently we sing the songs of resurrection until every breath we draw becomes an hallelujah!

Love in the Horror

John 18:1-19:42  (Good Friday)

We don’t often focus on the cross, preferring instead to celebrate the release and hope that it signifies. Today we get to redress that balance. Today we get to remember that Jesus died in horrible pain, when he didn’t have to. He could have used his powers and walked away. He could have fought off the soldiers and fled the country, or as he did with a mob early in his ministry, he could have just walked through them and left. Instead he stayed and allowed himself to be betrayed, he allowed himself to be humiliated and beaten and nailed to a cross and to die in agony.

And he did that for us. I don’t for a moment believe that my personal sinful actions nailed him to the cross. I think he was killed as the consequence of living a holy life in human society. A holy life which challenged again and again all the firmly held rules that were preventing people from seeing the liberty of God; a holy life which challenged all the machinations of the sin matrix.  We are all born into that matrix of human sin which creates a shadow side to everything we do, which turns good things like community into things which oppress, like exclusion and shaming.

Jesus died on the cross because of humanity’s sin; because of our tendency to turn away from God instead of towards God; because of our tendency to see God as someone angry and condemning, someone to be feared. In Jesus’ death, God allowed humanity to do its very worst. God allowed that dark sin matrix which is the shadow of our brilliance and creativity to kill God.

It was a dark day indeed.

And yet we call it Good Friday because it was also the turning point in our relationship to the sin matrix and to God. In Jesus’ refusal to give in to violence, in his declaration that God’s reign is different, and in his willingness to go to his death rather than fight back, he conquered the sin matrix. And that means that we have the hope that we too can be free. Humanity has the possibility to turn towards God not towards sin.
And  this is the result of love. Of God’s love which is so great that he sent her only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Let us remember that believe here means more like trust or belove in. So God’s love sent Jesus, the Godman,  who demonstrated that love by allowing himself to experience the worst the human beings can do to each other, and our response to God’s love is to love in return. Whosoever believes, trusts, loves in Jesus the Christ will also be resurrected with him.

So it is appropriate that today we look at the cross with clear vision; that we see the horrors of human inhumanity; that we see the waterboarding, the drone strikes, the chemical weapons, the starvation that we humans inflict on each other and the hatred that we cultivate. We are not separate from these things, because as humans we are all interconnected. It is appropriate that today we take time to acknowledge the horror.
But is it also appropriate that today we see all these things though the lens of God’s love. God is present in the horror. God loves us despite the things that we do to one another. God loves our brilliant loving selves and God loves our angry, resentful dark selves. We are totally embraced by God’s all encompassing love.
Today is Good Friday because today God’s love was manifest in the darkest places of human hatred. And today God’s love is manifest in the darkest places of human hatred.

Including our own hearts and minds.

Radical Humility, Radical Love

I popped into the Abundance Shop, our thrift store on 9th St one morning this week to drop something off and met one of the volunteers who I hadn’t seen for a long time. She is not a church member but wanted to tell me how much she appreciates both the shop and the church. She talked about the Abundance shop as place of healing where she feels grounded and gets to meet people and listen to their stories in a unique way. She talked about St. Benedict’s as a place where she felt welcome when she visited, but also as a place where everyone is accepted. “That,” she said, “is a rare thing to find.”

In the gospel reading today we see Jesus in his last evening with his disciples doing something very odd. He picks up the towel and water, and taking the role of the servant, washes their feet. This was unheard of - the teacher washing feet -the master being a servant. And so he explained,
"Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

This is a call to radical humility. We are used to people who are powerful in an organization not doing the dirty work. Washing feet is for those at the bottom. Our society is based on inequality. Last year the typical corporate CEO was paid more than $15million. But caregivers, those who wash our feet and other body parts when we are unable, are paid very little, hardly enough to get by. They are often unseen and unacknowledged. Yet they are doing everyday exactly what Jesus taught us to do.

Jesus says, “servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” The words make sense, but his symbolic actions turn conventional wisdom on its head, because it shows that he too considers himself no greater than his master or the one who sent him. He is saying that we humans are all equal in God’s sight. We are all servants of the Most High, we are all messengers sent by the same One.

Even though we have been listening to these scriptures for about 2000 years, I don’t think we have begun to really take in what they mean or to find a way to live them. No-one is intrinsically more important than anyone else. We all have different gifts and skills and we take on different roles. But in the reign of God, in the Church, no-one is more important or more valuable than anyone else. Everyone is equally acceptable. Everyone is equally loved by God.

Jesus goes on to say, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

We tend to read that in the light of the cross, of that ultimate act of love and pouring out of Godself in order to give us life and immortality, but if Jesus said this to his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, then they would have heard it in light of the way he had lived with them and loved them over the previous three years.

So, in order to better understand how we are to live and love together, let us think about how Jesus loved his disciples.

It was obviously a close relationship of teaching and learning. We get glimpses of their life together in the stories we hear about their travels through Galilee and Samaria and eventually to Jerusalem. We know that they ate together. We know that the disciples quarreled. We know that they got tired and that Jesus took time out to rest and to pray. We also know that it was a life with purpose – the purpose of proclaiming and demonstrating the reign of God.

It was a life lived closely together, a life in the round. Jesus did not set himself above the disciples even though he was their acknowledged Lord and Master. This is the life that we are called to live. A life of equality, a life where all who enroll in the kingdom are treated and respected equally, regardless of their wealth, regardless of their personal charisma or talent, regardless of their ability to engage in easy conversation.

It is not the way the world operates.

The world rewards those with talent, good connections and good luck. It rewards those who are able to garner financial wealth. It rewards those who are able to speak eloquently. It rewards those who play the game.

The early church was seen as a totally different society, a society of love. Tertullian, writing in about the year 200, said that others say “See how these Christians love one another.” The members of the early church sold their assets so that they could share what they had with each other and with those who came to them.
That experiment didn’t last very long, but it is a reminder to us of how we are really called to live. We are called to live as though we take Jesus’ words seriously. We are called to be counter-cultural in our care for one another. It is kind of fun and kind of uncomfortable to wash each other’s feet once a year. It is good to remind ourselves that we are called to be servants to each other.

It is another thing to live it out and to embody humility. How many of us stay to help clean up after pot lucks? How many of us take the time to get to know another church member or a visitor whom we find a little difficult to like or to communicate with? How many of us are willing to serve behind the scenes doing what it takes to make a church run smoothly?

Creating a faith community where all are accepted is a wonderful thing to attempt, but unless we are constantly living acceptance and mutual respect, it won’t be long before someone feels excluded. I salute our friends at Trinity for declaring this year that they are a welcoming and reconciling congregation and I challenge both St. Benedict’s and Trinity to think about how we can become even more inclusive.

Bug Splat

Matthew 26:14- 27:66  (Palm Sunday)

Bug Splat. That’s what the people who operate drones call the images of the damage they do. The pictures of the dead people and destroyed buildings that result from a “successful” drone attack apparently resemble the death of a large insect on your windscreen. So they call it bug splat. In Pakistan, a group of artists have printed and installed a 100 by 70 foot banner of a child whose parents were both killed by a drone strike in 2009. It’s about the size of a tennis court and can be seen by satellite. It can also be seen by drone operators flying their weapons over the area. It puts a human face on “bug splat.”[1]

Today we enter what a friend of mine called “the hell hole of Holy Week” with today’s curious and painful juxtaposition of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey with everyone cheering and having a good time, and his subsequent betrayal, sham trial, humiliation, torture and death. Bug splat.

In the last hours of his mortal life, Jesus experienced in some way all the things that make our own hell holes. Pain, fear, terror, embarrassment, humiliation, impotence, betrayal, abandonment, not being able to breath… all the things that we humans experience when things are at their very worst, Jesus experienced. And because Jesus experienced it, God experienced it.  God experienced the hell hole of humanity. God experienced bug splat.

In this very public execution – so public that all around the world this week there will be people like us reliving and remembering its horrors – in this very public execution God gave us a graphic image of the effects of sin. It is easy for us to turn our gaze away from the effects of human sinfulness. But now it’s up there on the cross, raised up for all to see. Bug splat on a cross.

I don’t believe the story we were told in Sunday School, that Jesus died because of the lies that I have told or because I stole bubble gum from the corner store or because I was rude to my mother or took God’s name in vain. I don’t believe we can understand the mystery of the cross at that individual level. I think it’s much more complex and much more profound than that.

Most of our sin is at arm’s length. Most of the effects of our sin we don’t see. We don’t see the way the world is effected by our thoughts and the power of our judgments and attacks –we think they’re just in our minds – but they fuel the collective atmosphere and that is what leads our government to act in ways we find unconscionable and that is what leads to ghettos and crime. We don’t just allow it to happen, we help it to happen and at the same time we feel utterly powerless because even when we are aware of our part in the hell holes of the world, we don’t understand how they happen and we have little idea about how to change them, so even in these days of rapid communication, we turn away. It’s just bug splat.

Jesus’ death was the result of human sinfulness. It was the inevitable result of teaching and living a holy life and engaging in public non-violent resistance.  On a cosmic level, it was also God’s teaching moment. Look, God says, this is what you do to each other. This is the result of your behavior. This truly innocent man experiences a speeded-up hellhole event which leads to his painful and public death, suffocating under his own weight with nails through his hands and feet, every movement an agony, not because of anything wrong he did but because of human sinfulness.

The cross is God putting a human face on the results of our thoughtlessness and recklessness, our exploitation and oppression of each other. God didn’t put a picture in a field that can be seen by drone operators and satellites; God put his humanself on a cross in the middle of the Roman Empire for all the world to see and to remember again and again. Godsplat.

And so what is our response as we go through this week of gathering gloom? The challenge I think, is to keep our eyes open and not to make excuses. Not to think, as we watch the news, that this is happening to someone else, but to remember that we are so connected that it is happening to us. To remember that Jesus the Christ is in every human being and all that we see happening is also happening to him. Every day the Christ is being tortured, every day the Christ is being starved, every day the Christ is being imprisoned. Every day the environmental disaster of global warming comes closer. Every day of inaction is another day of bugsplat/Godsplat.

And let our hearts be broken. Let our compassion flow. Let us cry out to God for forgiveness and mercy.