Benediction Online

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Express Lane

Down by the back bay, on Pasadena Drive where there’s beach access, someone has taped a cartoon to the top of the dog mitt box. It shows a long line of people waiting to get into heaven and next to them a sparsely populated elevator going up into the clouds. The sign above the escalator says “Express Lane for those who always pick up after their dog.”

In today’s Gospel, the chief priests and elders reckoned that they were going to be in the express lane, but Jesus said “not so fast,” "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

 “Tax collectors and prostitutes” – after a lifetime of hearing about tax collectors and prostitutes this verse has lost some of its shock value. What might Jesus say today?  "Truly I tell you, drug dealers and call girls are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”? Or “the Tea Party and Sarah Palin are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”? Or for those on the other side of the aisle, “Steven Colbert and Hillary Clinton are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”? Or perhaps he’d go even further – after all Jesus often exaggerated in order to make a point – “Sex traffickers and gun runners are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you good Episcopalians.” I know it seems pretty improbable… but it must have seemed just as improbably to Jesus’ audience that prostitutes and tax collectors would get to take the Express Lane escalator.

Why would they? Not because they picked up after their dogs, but because they heard the voice of God and changed their behavior. It can be challenging for those of us who have always been good people to see the need for repentance and change in our lives. Like the chief priests and elders we’re doing a pretty good job of being nice people. And so we lose sight of the tremendously challenging mission we have been given. We have been called to love God with all of ourselves, and our neighbors as if they were ourselves. To love means to serve not to have nice warm fuzzy feelings, and Jesus told us that the neighbors we are to love are those towards whom we may have deep-seated animosity, not just the ones we like.

One of the distortions of spirituality is to think that it is about feeling good. When we are “in the flow” and feeling peaceful and centered we tend to think we’re at our most spiritual. When we go to church and come away feeling uplifted we imagine that God has blessed us more than on the days when the person next to us keeps chatting or squirming so we can’t get centered, and the sermon is dull and the hymns unsingable. We become consumers of spiritual trappings, thinking that it’s all about us and how we feel. That’s a distortion because spirituality is not actually about us, it’s about God however we understand God and it’s about participating in God’s work of creation and redemption.

Our mission is not to be good Episcopalians but to get down and dirty with the business of loving and serving God and our neighbors. Our mission is to change and to change and to change so that more and more we have the mind of Christ who, according to the reading we heard from Philippians “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death”.

Obedience is not a popular word. Obedience doesn’t on the face of it seem to be about feeling good. We think obedience is doing what someone else wants, not what we want. The origin of the term is “listening to.” Obedience is listening to God and then doing what we hear. Serving God is letting go of our small ego and instead becoming part of something much bigger. It is giving up being the center of our world. That is what it means to humble ourselves- not believing that we are little higher than a worm, but stopping behaving as though it’s all about us.

To humble ourselves and become obedient is to take our small egos off the throne and put God there instead. This is not something we do just once, because our small egos love to play “I’m the King of the Castle” – they want to be in charge, they want to wallow in distrust and self-reproach, they want to eat more than our bodies need, they want to be satisfied. And they can be hard taskmasters. Our mission as followers of Jesus is to repent again and again; to dethrone the little ego and put God at the center of our lives. That is what it means to follow Jesus; that is what it means to love God and our neighbor.

Each one of us is different. I don’t know what drives your little ego – where it gets its energy. Mine gets its energy from emotion and guilt and self-pity. I had a breakthrough a few days ago. I was trying to do centering prayer when I began to cry and immediately I thought “oh, I’m crying” and my focus went away from God onto how sad it was that I was crying… and then I thought “so you’re crying – let it go,” because when you’re doing centering prayer you just let your thoughts go by instead of climbing aboard and getting involved in them – so I noticed that I was crying and instead of getting involved with the crying or with feeling sorry for myself, I let it go.  That was a first. Instead of allowing my little ego to get caught up in my emotion I was able to turn back to the presence of God.

My little ego wanted to draw me back into my emotions but for once I was able to repent and turn back to God. It was a moment of repentance; a moment of humbling myself; a moment of putting God first.

I want to be very clear. Loving ourselves is not the same as allowing the little ego to be in charge, even though it often feels like it. The little ego is very seductive and tells us that letting it be king of the castle is self-love. But that’s a lie.

We are called to be the daughters and sons of God. That is our true heritage, and what an amazing one it is. We are called to join the family of God, of which Jesus the Christ is the first-born. Loving ourselves is doing what it takes to be part of the family of God; loving ourselves is imitating Christ whose entire life was focused on obeying God his beloved father. Loving ourselves is cultivating the mind that was in Christ Jesus who humbled himself and was obedient. Loving ourselves is loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbors as if they are part of us.

That’s what’s going to get us into the express lane.

 Jesus didn’t say that the elders and chief priests were not going to end up in the kingdom of heaven but challenged them because they were complacent. "Truly I tell you, sex-traffickers and gun-runners are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” because they understand that they have to change.  They understand that it is hard but oh so rewarding to repent and follow Jesus. We good Episcopalians, we too get to repent and change, again and again as the Holy Spirit reveals to us little by little the places where our little ego is in charge rather than God.

Obedience means to listen to and act. Let us have the humility and the courage, when we hear the Holy Spirit prompting us, to repent and change, so that we may take our rightful place as the daughters and sons of the living God.