Benediction Online

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Opening the Door, to/through Love

From time to time I get to go to court with someone who has been charged with a crime and cannot afford an attorney.  It is always a scary and anxious time. But at some point during the morning, the court appoints a public defender to speak on behalf of my friend. It is always an enormous relief. Although in a way nothing has changed, in another way, everything has changed. Now there is someone with whom we have a connection, someone who understands how the system works, someone who will look out for us. An advocate.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises that his disciples will be given an advocate, the Spirit of Truth. “On that day, he says, “ you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  The Holy Spirit is the one who understands how the system works and will help us to live in God.

We know that the Trinity is a complex life form in which there are three persons who are also one. It is the Holy Spirit who works in us and who works in the world through us. The Holy Spirit who is in us is also one with Christ so those of us who are enrolled in the reign of God are also in intimate connection with Christ and with Jesus’ Father, the Creator. The Spirit of Truth, Jesus says, will reveal that to us.

The Holy Spirit is a bit like the blood stream of the Trinity. She is in constant motion, constantly connecting and communicating. By our participation in Christ, we become like cells to whom the Spirit is constantly bringing oxygen, nutrients and information from the endocrine system. But cells do not always participate fully in the work of the bloodstream. My cells, for example, are not very receptive to insulin. It is as though they have wedged the cell door so only a little can get in.

We too can wedge our spiritual doors so that the Holy Spirit cannot get in. Our participation in the Body of Christ does not take away our free will. That is one of the central challenges of the spiritual life; our tendency is always to want to run everything ourselves. Our tendency is to keep closing the door, whereas the very best way cells function is to keep their doors open so they can be in the full flow of life in cooperation with the blood stream. For us to take full advantage of the gift of the Holy Spirit, for us to fully experience living in the abundance of life which is available to us in our relationship with the Trinity, we will need to keep consciously opening our doors.

There are at least two ways we can do that. The first is by love and the second is also by love, but in a different form.

Jesus taught that there are two commandments which sum up the law; to love God and to love our neighbor.  When he says, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them,” the commandments he is referring to are those two deceptively simple ones – love God, love your neighbor as yourself. That is all it takes to keep our doors fully open to the Holy Spirit who sustains and sanctifies us.

So the first way is by loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength. This can be summed up as surrender. It’s not a popular term, but if we are modeling our lives on Jesus, it’s something we need to take seriously. Jesus dedicated his life and will to the service of God and God’s reign… even to the extent of being willing to die on the cross. We are called to dedicate our lives in the same way. This is an inner process, the offering of our life to God as a gift in response to our knowledge of God’s unconditional love for us. It is a gift that we need to make over and over again, because our human tendency is to gradually sneak it back.  Which is why, most of the year, we collectively confess our sins together on a Sunday morning… we are confessing our tendency to stop surrendering to Spirit; we are confessing our tendency to push the door gradually closed. There are times in our lives when we find ourselves responding to the call for a new or deeper level of dedication which comes in a time of great significance. But if we wait for those moments, then it becomes easy to fool ourselves that we are keeping the door open to the Holy Spirit when in fact we are gradually and subtly closing it.

So loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength is first and foremost an inward bowing of the heart; a surrender to the Spirit of God. Not just a one-time big gesture but a day by day giving our lives and wills over to God.

But Jesus says, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me” so keeping the second commandment , to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is just as much an act of love for God as the inner surrender and devotion.

Ours is a faith of relationship. The Holy Spirit is above all relational, and so it is not surprising that we are called to love not just God, but our fellow humans as well. And as Jesus taught is, in the great parable for the Good Samaritan, our neighbor is not the one we get on with, the friend we know well, but the one who is different from us.  We are told to love the one who is different as if they were just like us. This isn’t a nice, kind reminder to love our friends and family. This is a commandment to love those who are NOT our friends and family as if they were.

That’s a lot more difficult, and I honestly don’t know how we are to do it well. Most of us don’t have a lot of contact with people we don’t know. Fortunately, we do have opportunities through the Abundance Shop and through People’s Kitchen to show loving care to people we wouldn’t normally meet and to treat them as one of us. I suspect that loving the ones we don’t know grows from cultivating a generosity of spirit.
I am constantly impressed with how Jesus makes time for people. When someone I don’t really know stops me in Ralph’s parking lot and starts into a long story about people I don’t know, I confess that I quickly become impatient.  I have important things to be doing. I want to be on my way. A greater generosity of spirit enables me to be completely present to that person as they talk, even if I also set boundaries about how long I listen.

Generosity of spirit enables me to forgive and to allow people to be who they are with their own lives and their own values.  It enables me to love them as they are without judging and without imposing my own standards and my own perspectives on them.

I don’t know how to love well those whom I don’t know. I have been wondering all morning about what how to love the families of those who died or were injured in Santa Barbara and those who were traumatized. But I think that this is where the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, comes in. The advocate knows how the system works. The advocate prompts and guides us to be in the right place at the right time and gives us the words. Sometimes it is not our task to be in the middle of the action. Sometimes our role is to watch and pray.

As we become more and more attuned to the Holy Spirit, as we live a life of surrendered devotion to God, so we will learn more and more how to love our neighbor as ourselves. It isn’t a straight line, first you love God, then you learn to love yourself, then you learn to love your neighbor – it’s more like a self-reinforcing circle. As we surrender to God so the Holy Spirit teaches us to love and we develop greater generosity of spirit which in turn helps us to love more fully and so that deepens our devotion and willingness to dedicate ourselves  to God’s reign and so it goes on.

Paradoxically, the way to life is the path of surrender and the path of service.

As Jesus said, you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day, you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

It's not about being Good, Nice and Fair

Today’s gospel reading is a troubling one for many of us.  Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. “ So far so good … but here comes the kicker – “No one comes to the Father except through me.” We’ve all heard that used to support an elitist view of Christianity, where only Christians are ok and only Christians get to heaven. It’s been used to impose a kind of martial law – you have to do whatever it takes to become and stay a Christian, or else. Not surprising that many of us would like to cut it out of the Bible. It’s like the reading last week about the sheep in the sheep fold when several of you were concerned about the sheep who were not in the fold.

We have heard these words interpreted one way, but there are others. Jesus did not say, “no one comes to God except by believing in my existence and by praying to me.” Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  His disciples were people who were living with him and listening to his teaching and watching the way he lived his life. So they didn’t hear these words as believe in my existence and pray to me – that would not have made sense to people who saw him every day. 

So I want to suggest that, when he said it, Jesus was talking about his life and his personhood.

Once Jesus had been resurrected and ascended, the disciples no longer had the same relationship to him. At that point, they began to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit no longer in Jesus but in themselves and in each other. So his personhood was, and still is, primarily experienced through the personhood of the Holy Spirit who we know blows like the wind and burns like divine fire but speaks in a still small voice.

The Holy Spirit is not separate from Jesus. They are both part of that complex and divine organism which we call the Trinity. So when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life” he is also saying “The Holy Spirit is the way, the truth and the life.” In fact, in those first two words, I AM, he is also claiming to be one with Yahweh the God who told Moses that he was to be known as I AM THAT I AM.  As he said specifically a few chapters earlier, “I and my Father are one.” So of course we come to the Father through Jesus because they are one. And we come to Jesus through the Holy Spirit because they too are one.

We have access to Jesus through the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. In my mind, there is no reason to think that for this to happen people have to know the name of Jesus or believe that Jesus existed. As the Presiding Bishop said a few years ago, to insist that Jesus is the only way to God is to limit God. “God is, at the very least,” she said, “a mystery. God’s intention is for a restored relationship with all humanity. My job is to proclaim the good news of Jesus, but I cannot deny God is at work in other ways,”[1]
Our particular calling is to dedicate ourselves to following Jesus as his disciples and to proclaim the all encompassing love of God expressed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But others may access the Holy Spirit in different ways and through different paths and in doing so encounter Jesus and his Abba. As Christians, we relate to Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life” through the person that he was and is who we can know directly through the activity of the Holy Spirit present and working among us even at this very moment.  And because God is one and undivided we are also relating to the Creator, the Father, the Abba.
So now let’s turn to Jesus’ life. The disciples of any great guru seek to imitate the life, attitudes and values of their master. And we are no different. But we need to understand who it is we are imitating. There’s a general feeling in American society that Jesus was a good, nice and fair person and that that’s what God wants us to be. Good, nice and fair.
But that leaves out a lot. Why would a good, nice and fair person be hated by the authorities and killed?
Last week we heard that the early Christians “spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” It sounds like they were good, nice and fair people and everyone liked them. But this week, something has changed quite radically. Apparently the new movement was getting so big that the authorities, the Sanhedrin, felt threatened and decided this needed to be controlled before it all got out of hand. Even some of the temple priests were becoming followers of the Way, as it was called.
But others were angry that these people were suggesting that God could be worshipped outside the temple and so they began to argue with Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin on trumped up charges, just like Jesus before him.  Stephen, who was filled with the Holy Spirit “so that his face was like the face of an angel” responded to their accusations by recounting the history of God’s plan for salvation and then declaring that they had betrayed and murdered God’s Righteous One.  When they heard this “they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” But Stephen didn’t take any defensive action. He did not get fight them or try to get away. Instead he had a vision of the glory of God and while he was being stoned to death prayed for his attackers.
Does that remind you of anyone?
It’s remarkably similar to Jesus, isn’t it? Stephen wasn’t just a good, nice and fair person. He was someone whose connection with the Holy Spirit empowered him to speak truth to power and when power turned on him, he did not respond to violence with violence. He followed in the steps of Christ by taking a stand against the ruling authorities and taking a stand against the violence of the sin matrix.
Our society is based in violence. It has been from the earliest days. Violence is not just the visible ugly murder of a good, nice and fair man. Violence is paying less than a living wage. Violence is benefitting from the profits of companies who exploit the earth and exploit workers. Violence is buying clothes made in sweatshops. Violence thinks there isn’t enough to go round and grabs all it can get. Violence lives in our hearts and minds whenever we judge another or ignore them or see them as less than the beloved children of God. It is this violence which we call sin. It is endemic in our way of life and so I call it the sin matrix.
But Jesus refused to give in to it. He refused to return violence with violence. He loved so deeply that he allowed himself to be falsely accused, betrayed by his friends, treated with contempt and then murdered. And in his resurrection he turned the whole thing upside down and demonstrated once and for all that the way of God, the way of the Prince of Peace is more powerful than the way of violence and hatred. In so doing he reconciled us to God whom we had imagined as the most violent of all. And Stephen, the first martyr, followed his example. He too refused to respond with violence to violence. And he was murdered.
This is not about being good, nice and fair. This is about being fearless in the face of tyranny. This is about learning to love so much that we are willing and able to sacrifice our own desires and our own selves for the reign of God.
That is the Way, the truth and the life. That we love so deeply that we resist violence in all its forms. That we love so deeply that we set one another free by our forgiveness. That we love so deeply that we give ourselves to the Holy Spirit to be transformed and to become part of the reign of God, that alternative society which is based not on violence but on love. 
Whatever the cost.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

The gateway to life

1 Peter 2:19-25 
John 10:1-10 

What a nurturing image – the Lord is my shepherd. It’s not surprising that this is a favorite psalm for funerals and times of crisis. The Lord is my shepherd. When everything mortal falls away that loving relationship is still there and we can rely upon the good shepherd to lead us in green pastures. Even when we are in the worst of circumstances, in pain or abandonment, we can trust that the good shepherd will be at our side.

Jesus’ use of the metaphor of the shepherd in today’s Gospel is a little different. He is talking not so much about nurturing the individual as about leadership and community. He is the shepherd, and his sheep know his voice and follow him. In ancient times, wealth was not amassed in banks or investment accounts but in land and livestock. Sheep were very precious. The shepherd was hired to guard them, and to keep them safe and healthy. They were not allowed to wander alone which is why the parable of the lost sheep is so effective. The shepherd’s job was to guard the flock and make sure they had what they needed to flourish, and to keep them together in order to do this most effectively.

We are the flock of Jesus. We grow and flourish most effectively when we are in community with one another. Often people tell me that they don’t need to go to church to know God, and I am quite sure they are right. We do not have a monopoly on God. It would be limiting God to say that in order to know God you have to go to church. It would be like saying that if you do not spend the night in the fold you are not a sheep. So you don’t need to go to church to be a member of the flock of Christ, to be enrolled in the reign of God. You don’t need to. But in order to flourish, in order to grow spiritually, most of us need to be in deep connection with others doing the same thing.

Abba Anthony, one of the Desert Fathers who chose to live away from the cities in the the Egyptian desert said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor.” He was not living physically close to others but he knew that even in the desert we cannot ignore our human relationships, they are vital to our spiritual growth and health. In faith community we get to have relationships with people we really would not have picked. In faith community, the Holy Spirit can teach us through each other. In faith community we are brought face to face with our own shortcomings and can love each other into truth.

Jesus talks about himself as the shepherd but the gospeller tells us that the disciples did not understand him. So he uses a slightly different metaphor. “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." I hope the disciples found that more understandable. 

So what do you think?… How is Jesus like a gate?...

[Congregational input]

Some people read this “I am the gate” as meaning that you have to be a Christian in order to be saved. I don’t think so. I especially don’t think so because Jesus never defined what it means to be Christian - of course he never used the term. So rather than thinking about Jesus as gateway to a religion I wonder if it is helpful to think of Jesus’ life as the gate to abundant life. In other words, if we look at how Jesus lived and the qualities he exemplified, perhaps that is the gate.

We know that Jesus lived in close relationship to his Abba, an example that we copy in prayer and worship. We know that Jesus lived in close relationship to his disciples, an example we copy in faith community. We know that Jesus struck up conversations and friendships with strangers and with those on the margins of society. We may not be so good at copying this example but we do it when we treat each person with complete respect regardless of their situation in life, never looking down at others even when they seem to be making a complete mess of their lives and never speaking down to an elderly person or a child.
But I think the reading from the letter attributed to Peter that we heard in our second reading gives us a challenging and life-affirming insight; ‘"[Jesus] committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.’

That is a picture of non-violence which is astonishingly difficult for us to follow. But I think more and more that it is the gate. Non-violence is the gate into the fold of Christ and it is the gate to more abundant life and it is the gate to the reign of God.

We are called to live holy and blameless lives, and yet not to self-righteously proclaim our innocence and our virtue but to accept the stuff that happens even though we don’t provoke it, and to respond not with a knee-jerk of anger but with gentleness. I always need to add the proviso that this does not mean we put up with abuse without resistance. Practicing non-violence is never a reason to stay in an abusive situation. Practicing non-violence is the position of strength.

The resurrection is the ultimate non-violent answer to violence of all forms. Despite the violent attempts of humanity to get rid of God, God came back. Like the faithful shepherd he is, Christ returned. And our entryway into the reign of God is the life-changing acceptance that as the reading said, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” Our wounds are the result of human violence emotionally if not physically. Our sins are sins of failure to love, our sins are sins of violence against God and others. They may not look like much taken individually but each one violates the sanctity of another or violates the path of Christ and together they add up to a violent mind, and violent minds lead to violent acts and that is what Jesus took the brunt of when “he himself bore our sins in his body.”

But precisely because he did not respond to violence with violence but with love and by trust in God, “the one who judges justly,” by his wounds we have been healed.  

We are the sheep of Christ because we have heard the call to follow him. We are the sheep of Christ because we commit ourselves to follow the example not just of Jesus’ teachings but also of his life. We are the sheep of Christ because we share not only in his sufferings but in his death and resurrection.
We are a resurrection people, Alleluia!

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Be known to us Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread

It is a story that resonates down through the centuries. The breaking of bread has become the central act of our mysterious, magical celebration of holy communion in which we ask, as the prayer we sometimes use from Iona says, “as the bread and wine which we now eat and drink are changed into us, may we be changed again into you, bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh…” That’s big. Very big.

We are asking to become the very Body of Christ.

And in that moment, the breaking of the bread is not just a necessity so that we can all eat it, but a graphic symbol of Jesus’ great act of giving in which he allowed his physical body to be broken, and a symbol of how we too must be broken like bread and poured out like wine in order to be God’s gift of redemption to the world.

Yes, us.

Us, with all our faults and difficulties, all our temptations and times of blindness and fear… we are the ones who are called to become one in the mystical Body of Christ and to be broken and given to feed the world, so that it may be reconciled with God.

And just as the disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread, so in our symbolic meal of holy communion, we know God in a deep and intimate way which is like no other.

We may not feel God’s presence. Sometimes it is rather mundane, just a dry wafer and a sip of cheap port, not a very prepossessing act for coming into deep communion with the divine. But we know that in that act we are somehow drawn into deeper relationship with God, almost whether we like it or not… but in the act of walking up and putting out our hands we are consenting, we are asking, we are willingly participating in that deepest and most mysterious of activities; the sacrament of the body and blood. The sacrament of holy communion with our God however we understand him or her in that moment. The celebration of the Eucharist – the Great Thanksgiving in which humans come as representatives of the whole of creation, the planet, sun, moon, stars – the whole shebang – and give thanks for our redemption and reconciliation with God in an act which is itself the redemption and reconciliation of the world.

As with most aspects of Christian doctrine, there is a lot of debate about how we understand God’s presence in the Eucharist. There are those who believe that when they are blessed, the bread and the wine become no longer bread and wine but the literal body and blood of Christ. There are those who believe that the miracle, the transformation is in the faith of the believer and so if you receive communion in a state of unbelief it is nothing more than a tasteless wafer and cheap port. Then there are others who believe that God is really present in the bread and wine regardless of how you happen to be feeling or thinking when you receive it. Our eucharistic prayers are carefully written so that you can make up your own mind and we don’t have to worry our pretty heads about it.

I will go on record as believing in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. I don’t know how or when he gets in and though I think we should always treat the blessed elements with deepest respect, I also believe that if we spill them or otherwise make a very human mess, Christ can get himself out again.

There are those who believe that the consecrated bread and wine continue to host the deep presence of the Christ and that this presence can be dishonored either carelessly or willfully. That is why it is my normal practice to consume the leftover bread and wine in front of you all, so that there will be no concern that Jesus is being dishonored. That is not always practical or possible and so the altar guild are trained to either consume the leftovers themselves or give them to the earth. It doesn’t take a priest to clean up and so when Ari asked me for extra bread a couple of weeks ago I shared the leftovers with her.

There is one important difference between our reformed understanding of the eucharist – a title which comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving – and that of the western or Catholic church in the middle ages and it is important to understand. To put it simply and starkly, the belief then was that the priest re-sacrifices Christ in each mass. That is not our understanding. Christ died on the cross two thousand years ago and he doesn’t need to do it again day after day in churches across the world. His gift of himself in obedience to his calling, his sacrifice, was good and efficacious once and for all. And so we tend to avoid the word mass, in order to be clear that while we commemorate the gift of God in the Passover lamb who is Christ, God giving himself in the meal of redemption, it is our gift that we bring each eucharist – our gift or sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

And it is in our offering of ourselves, it is in our offering of our praise and thanksgiving to God, however weak our faith, however much we doubt, that we join with the disciples on that road to Emmaus. And as God is made known to us, God’s real presence, in the breaking of the bread, so we too say “were not our hearts burning within us?”

And so I end with some more words form the Iona prayers:

The table of bread and wine is the table of company with Jesus, and all who love him.
It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world,
with whom Jesus identified himself.
It is the table of communion with the earth,
in which Christ became incarnate.
So come to this table,
you who have much faith and you who would like to have more;
you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long
you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.