Benediction Online

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Living in the Gap

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
As Paul reminds the Christians in Rome – we do not hope based on what we see. Our hope is based on the confidence and assurance that the risen Christ is present in the world, bringing all things to what they are meant to be, closing the gap. God’s focus is on closing the gap between what is and what ought to be. This is the work of God from the beginning of creation. We are called to join in this work, to be co-creators in making God’s vision become reality.

If you go the gym you will hear a lot of grunting and groaning from the free weights section. Weightlifters often groan. They groan as they strain to push weights off of their chests, or over their heads, or pull and heave them off the floor.

Engines also groan when they are straining. If you strap a heavy trailer to a pickup truck and head uphill, you will hear the engine groan. Gears push against gears, the engine revs, and the truck groans as it strains forward.

This is the sound of creation. Groaning is the sound of creation. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” This is a vivid image which reminds us of the difficult work of creation. It isn’t always “God said and it was so…”  That Creating something can be hard. It can be groan-inducing.

I groaned a lot over this sermon until I went to an excellent church resource called “Sermons that Work.” And there I found this wonderful sermon written by a priest called Matt Seddon. So this morning’s sermon owes more to Matt than to me. I have taken advantage of his groaning in his creativity.

Groaning happens in a gap – the gap between where we are and where we hope to be. Groaning reminds us that the time spent in the gap between what is and what could be is a place of hard work.
Our readings from the New Testament today are about living in this gap. In the reading from Romans, we heard about the gap between creation as God intends and wills it, and where we are now. Paul talks about how to live in optimism and hope in a world that so often doesn’t fulfill what God has promised to us. He calls this life in the Spirit. Paul’s whole ministry, in a way, was driven to close this gap.

Paul believed that he had seen the fulfillment of creation in Jesus, and so he knew that fulfillment was within reach. He also knew that the communities he preached to still lived with injustice, war, poverty and suffering. He knew both the glory that is to come and the very real sufferings of the present time. At the very same time he also saw the glory that is just beyond the gap.

So he exhorted the Christians in Rome to live in the Spirit, because life in the Spirit is a life characterized by the confidence that through Christ we have been freed from all the things that can increase our suffering. A life in the Spirit is a life lived free of hatred and violence, and instead filled with joy and reconciliation. A life in the Spirit is a way to live in the gap between what is and what shall be, in joyful exertion, not in desperation.

The gospel parable also speaks to life in the gap. The Reign of God – a reign that Jesus preached was here and now – is described as glorious. Jesus compares it to a grain field. A field of grain is the source of not just one loaf of bread, but an abundance of bread. This is an image of an abundance of the basic source of life. Yet, in the midst of this vision of an abundant life, there are weeds. The weeds gum up the works. They cannot be removed easily. This parable is about having to wait in the gap – to live in a world of both abundance and weeds. The parable is there to comfort those who live in the gap with the assurance that at the end, the weeds will not ruin the harvest.

It is easy to get hung up on the end of the parable with its images of fire and destruction which seem so out of sync with the rest of Jesus’ teachings. When we read the Bible we need to remember that there are many voices. Matthew’s focus on the bad guys being destroyed is not shared in the same way by the other three gospellers, so I think we can safely remind ourselves not to take things too literally and see the furnace of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth as not being about God’s wrath but instead being a sign of hope for those living in the gap.

It is extremely difficult to live in a gap. It is difficult to see the glory beyond the horizon and still live in a place that is not yet fully glorified. The first Christians must have felt this very strongly. Those who actually knew Jesus had known in their minds and felt in their souls the goodness and love of God in creation, the Reign of God in the here and now. Paul had seen the glory of the risen Christ, and his conviction, faith and excitement must have filled the minds and souls of the people in the churches he planted. Yet, just outside the door of each house church, every time the communion meal ended and people returned to their lives, they were confronted by the realities of a world that did not meet that vision.

The parables Jesus told about the end of time, the words Paul gave to his communities, were written to help them understand and overcome the gap between what is and what ought to be. They are also words written for us today. We still live in the gap. Many of us know the feeling of God’s love and have experienced it in our lives. We have seen it in grand acts of compassion and small daily acts of kindness. We rejoice when justice triumphs and celebrate when sickness turns to health. These are signs of the Reign of God come near. Yet, we also wake daily to news of war and rumors of war, of violence in homes and communities, of soul-crushing poverty in every country, of injustice, and all the many ways the dignity inherent in every person is neglected.

The way to join in this work is to live a life in the Spirit. This isn’t a life that tries to ignore the gap. It is a life that can stride confidently into the gap – angered at injustice, grieving at suffering, striving and straining and groaning. Groaning is the soundtrack of creation. It is the sound of the gap closing, of the Spirit overcoming resistance. Life in the Spirit strains and groans to close the gap. It is a good, honest groaning, the soundtrack of what will be coming into being.

Life in the Spirit is a life that closes the gap between the weight on the chest and the weight lifted high and triumphantly overhead. Life in the Spirit closes the gap between the engine straining against the gears and finally reaching full speed, running like a well-oiled machine.

Our calling is to be gap closers; To see the distance between what should be and what is, and strain, and heave, and work, and lift to close that gap. It may be necessary to groan, but the groans sing the soundtrack of creation.

May we stay true in the struggle, groaning if need be, laughing at our groaning when we can. The gap is closing, let us hear the soundtrack of creation as we raise our voices in work and strain and joy.

With thanks to Sermons that Work and Fr Matt Seddon.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finding the sweet spot

Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Benedict, our patron saint. Benedict was born towards the end of the fifth century, and he is known as the founder of western monasticism.  Educated in Rome, he was disgusted by contemporary society and withdrew to live a holy and contemplative life. For many years he lived alone or with one or two others in a cave in the mountains but was known as a man of wisdom and even of miracles so others gathered around him. He eventually moved with his followers to Monte Cassino and founded a monastery there, but he is best known for his “Rule” of monastic life. This was written about 540 and like most human endeavors, it is not completely original but draws from at least one or two other sources. It was become the foundation upon which most of western monasticism has developed.

In the introduction to the Rule, Benedict describes his purpose as creating a school for the service of God.  He focuses on two main areas – how to live a Christ centered life, and how to run a monastery successfully.  He brings together the spiritual and the practical. One of the distortions of spirituality in or time is the idea that it is in some way separate from the rest of our lives. We imagine spirituality to be somehow holier and more rarified – a beautiful inner place which is uninterrupted by the cares of the world. Clearly we all can and do have experiences of that inner calm and inner peace when we are connected with the divine in a way that is quite lovely. But that is not the whole of spirituality, neither is the goal of the spiritual life to feel good. Spirituality is as much running the monastery – the school for God’s service – in which we find ourselves, in efficient, balanced and holy ways as it is about inner peace.

For us, the monastery is a place to go to be quiet, to focus on God and to deepen our prayer life. But for those who are living in it every day, it can be a place of conflict and discomfort, of petty jealousies and power plays; it is a place where you are brought face to face with yourself and your shadow again and again. We are not called to live in residential community, but we are called to live in community with one another. The faith community can be just as strongly a school for God’s service as the monastic one – here in our everyday lives we also get to deal with conflict and discomfort – we also get to explore what it means to be spiritual while we are living a practical day to day life in the material world.

Benedict did not call for extreme spiritual practices. His rule was, if anything, a little prosaic and mundane. Just like our lives. The monastic rhythm he created was a balance of prayer, work and rest. He understood that people differ and so he allowed for some flexibility within the fixed rhythms of the day. He understood that we are not just spirit but also we are bodies – bodies which need attention, bodies which age, bodies which are just as much part of our spirituality as our souls. Throughout the centuries there has been a tendency to distort Christian spirituality by separating our bodies and our souls – seeing one as mundane and material, the other as holy and Godlike. Yet we cannot separate body and soul and remain alive in this world. The way we express our deep spirituality is through the actions we take with our bodies.

But there is a tension here. We live in the tension between the calls of the material world and the calls of the spiritual world. So often our relationship with the material world leads us deeper into the sin matrix even as our relationship with Spirit is leading us out.  The material world is seductive with its opportunities to acquire things and to do more. The accumulation of stuff is tempting and is in itself not necessarily a bad thing, but we humans tend to give the stuff we acquire symbolic value over and above it usefulness.  I have a guitar that I never play and which just gathers dust but it is a symbol of my hope that one day I will devote more time to music. My piano is also a symbol of my hope and at the same time, a connection to its former owner. Neither of them serve any practical use in my life. Both of them require a degree of maintenance, if only to make sure they get dusted from time to time. But they are generally benign presences in my living space. 

Much more difficult are the things we invest with power and prestige.  We buy bigger cars than we need, which emit more carbon than necessary; we buy bigger houses than we need and then waste resources heating and lighting them; we buy the latest electronic gadgets and then spend hours playing with them.
And so Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." What hard words these are for us to hear. Does he really mean that? Can we really not be his disciples unless we have an enormous yard sale and get rid of all our possessions? And if we did that, how would we live afterwards? I think this is one of the times that Jesus challenges us by making a big statement that we then chew on, and even choke on.

Our relationship with material things is a challenge for us. To what extent do the things in our lives support us in living a life of service to God? And to what extent do they get in the way of our living that life of service? To what extent do our possessions enable us to serve and love or neighbor and to what extent do they prevent that?  We are increasingly understanding our interconnectedness with all life. The things that we have have an impact not just on us privileged Americans but on people across the planet who are struggling just to get by.  Our electronic equipment seems quite harmless but it depends upon heavy metals that have to be mined and which later end up in landfills and can contaminate water supplies. 70% of the heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronic equipment. Yet many electronic recyclers send the waste overseas where it is recycled without proper precautions, causing toxic emissions which are damaging to human and animal life. So even our cell phones can cause human suffering. Even our cell phones can lead us into a failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I don’t know the answer. I think it is different for each one of us.  St Benedict recognized that different people have different needs when he wrote, “Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but those who need more should feel humble because of their weakness, not self-important because of the kindness shown them.” Those who need more should feel humble because of their weakness. That certainly turns our normal thinking upside down doesn’t it? Instead of feeling proud of how much we have or how beautiful our things are, Benedict tells us to be humble because of our weakness and our need for them.
We are human beings living in a material world and we are called to be good stewards of that world. We are called to treat every part of our environment with the care we would give it if it were a holy sacramental vessel. Because it is.  Every part of the material world is a gift from God and is, at its heart, an embodiment of God.

The tension comes for us in living with the vertical pull of our spiritual natures which long to be reconciled with God and to live in constant prayer, praise and thanksgiving; and the horizontal pull of our physical nature through which we relate to the material world and to those around us. This is one way we can think about taking up our cross – living consciously in the tension between the vertical and the horizontal.
And this is one of the reasons that St. Benedict’s rule has had such a powerful influence in the last 1500 years and continues to do so today – because he knows that a school for the service of God is not just about how to live a Christ-centered spiritual life on one’s own, but about how to live that same life with others and in the midst of the material world. We are not disembodied light beings; we are embodied – we are planted here in the midst of God’s material creation.

Which is what is so wonderful about the incarnation – that God chose to take on the same body that we have, and to live in the material world so that we might know what a person who is truly living that tension of being spiritual and material might look like. And God chose to become human so that God too might know first hand what it is to be living in this tension. In Jesus, God became human without giving up any part of Godliness. In Jesus, we can become part of God without giving up any part of our humanness.

That is our calling as Benedictines, not to give up all our possessions and live as beggars, but to find the sweet spot where soul growth happens at the same time as ministry and the demands of everyday life in a human body; to discover what it means to be God with flesh on and to persevere in the school of God’s service in which we are all enrolled.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

When I want to do good...

I just got back from a week away, and even though I ate carefully, I confess that I’ve put on two pounds in weight. As many of you know, for the last seven or eight years I’ve been trying to prevent my body from developing full blown diabetes. To some extent I have succeeded but it seems to be getting less and less easy. I’ve been putting on and taking off the same four pounds for the last year. Sometimes I get angry about it; sometimes I feel ashamed that I can’t just deal with it once and for all, especially when I meet people or read articles that make it sound very easy. For them it may be, but for me with my body and my personality it just isn’t.
So I find today’s New Testament reading quite reassuring. Apparently the blessed Apostle Paul also had some difficulties with his behaviors and his personality. “For I find it to be a law,” he writes, “that when I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.” Paul was contrasting the Jewish religious system where holiness was a matter of keeping the law, with the new understanding that in Jesus we are reconciled to God without having to obey a complex legal system. God still loves us even if we work on the Sabbath, forget to wash our hands before dinner or fail to lose weight. None of that is really important to the divine. What is important is that we turn towards God at every opportunity, which includes when we realize that we have done or thought something which is less than Christ-like. What is important is that, as we promised in our baptismal vows, we “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”
So the fact that we often fail to live up to the standards set by Jesus’ example; the fact that we often get caught up in the sin matrix of the world’s violence are not reasons for despair. As Paul says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” we are not left to sink further and further, unless we ourselves make that choice.
Which is why, on most every Sunday, we make our confession together. After the Prayers of the People, or during Lent at the very beginning of the service, we together confess our sins against God and our neighbor. This is not my favorite part of the service and I know it is difficult for some of you too. It seems to smack of God as judge or school principal, demanding  that we recite what we’ve done wrong so that we can be suitably punished, or suitably forgiven.
It’s hard to let go of images of God which are ingrained in our minds and our culture, but I suspect that this is one of the places that we need to consciously choose to image God differently. I’ve been reading Marjorie Suchocki’s book about prayer and I’m looking forward to sharing some of her ideas with you on Thursday evenings later this month. Suchocki is a process theologian which means that she thinks of God as a process that is in constant movement and change, like the wind or water, rather than as someone static like a judge.
If God is like water, then he’s not sitting in judgment somewhere waiting to hear about our sins. Suchocki thinks of God as being utterly relational, always in communication with us, constantly prompting us towards greater life, and at the same time being changing by the ideas and behaviors we have.  Why would we confess our sins to such a flowing God who knows them all already?
Because it is part of being honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are. If you don’t know who you are or you hide from your less than wonderful aspects, you cannot have true intimacy with anyone, and that includes God. As we name ourselves before God acknowledging the harm that we have done to ourselves and others, we are beginning the work of transformation. God always works with us toward our good and the good of all life. When we pray prayers of confession, truly acknowledging that we have not always worked toward the good we give God material to work with. We realign ourselves with the work that Spirit is doing in our world.
So confession is not a way to appease an angry God, or a way to persuade God to forgive us. It is a way to open ourselves on deeper and deeper levels to Spirit. It is a way to acknowledge our brokenness and our dependence upon God. It is a way to humbly realign ourselves with the divine. When we are full of ourselves and our abilities and our thoughts, we do not have the space or the attention to hear the quiet whisperings of the relational God.  Confession is the way to clear-headedly acknowledge that we are not perfect and that we do need the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and our lives in that process of constant conversion which we call sanctification – being made holy.
God does not demand our confession in order for us to be forgiven. We are already forgiven. We need confession in order to be open to the promptings of Spirit. When we make our confession whether privately, in common worship, or in the individual sacrament of reconciliation, we are turning towards God and letting go of the things that pull us away.
Now, because this fluid God-like-water is in touch with all beings just as she is with us, we are connected with all beings through her. And so within the act of confession is contained the beginning of the making of amends towards those we have harmed.
Sometimes we can see overt and outrageous sins that we have committed, but more often our sins are subtle; the hoarding of ourselves by closing down and keeping others out or, alternatively, exploiting the vulnerability of others; the failure to open ourselves to God, preferring  to dwell in the superficial parts of our lives; and the failure to look after the richness Go d has given us, especially in our own bodies. As we confess these subtle sins, so we are giving God permission to work with us in the process of transformation so we are made new and whole and able to live life to its fullest.
In the old communion service, after the confession and blessing we would hear the so-called comfortable words – words of encouragement and strengthening. The end of today’s gospel includes some of those comfortable words. "Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
When we turn to God in confession of our own weakness and failings we are letting go of the burdens which the world lays upon us; the burden to perform, the burden to appear cleverer than we feel we are, the burden to have answers to all the questions; the burden to be a wonderful father or a loving daughter; the burden to have a slender and attractive body. In confession we can let all these things tumble away as we offer ourselves to God in our nakedness, without all our public faces - and in their place he offers us gentleness, humbleness and rest for our souls.
So today, when we come to the confession together, let us use it as a deep prayer of our souls. Let us stand together, naked before God, with no pretence of cleverness or artifice of beauty, but just as we are, warts and all, and let us together acknowledge our complicity in ill-being and our desire to turn toward God and to live humbly in conscious cooperation with Spirit.