Benediction Online

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The most important

I’m going to start this morning with a question. What is the most important rule to live by as a Christian? I’m not going to ask you to share your responses, but just take a moment to think about it…

What is the most important rule to live by as a Christian?

Judging from news reports it would seem that for some Christians being opposed to abortion is the most important rule whereas for others its carrying firearms, and there are still those in this country and many overseas who think heterosexuality is the most important.

When the Pharisees ask, “Teacher, which of the commandments in the law is the greatest?” they don’t really want to know – they are trying once again to trick Jesus. But Jesus steps back from all their partisan bickering and draws from the deep Hebrew tradition when he says the first and greatest law is to love God. Not to love God in a generic way but to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” In other words, with your entire being.

I don’t know about you, but I find this difficult. I can be quite sure I love my cats because when I look at them I feel warm and gentle and when I stroke them I feel peaceful and, yes, loving. But I don’t get to look at God, let alone cuddle with him. There are times when I feel deeply connected and deeply loved and loving. But it’s not every day.

Sometimes people say to me “it’s really all about love” and I don’t know how to respond because that is true, that is what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel, but it’s not about the warm sweet love that I feel when I look at my cat or my spouse. If we look at the larger narrative of which this passage is part, I think it raises some serious questions about how we understand love.

The story starts off with Jesus raising hell in the temple, knocking over tables, being rude and disruptive. Then when he’s asked what right he has to do that – by whose authority he acts – he tells three parables which are increasingly puzzling. The Pharisees follow this up with a series of three questions; should we pay taxes, who will be resurrected and finally which is the greatest commandment. Jesus doesn’t mince words. He gives back as good as he gets. “Your problem,” he tells them, “is that you don’t understand the scriptures or the power of God.” and then he turns the tables on them yet again. “If the Messiah is David’s son then how come David describes him as Lord?” That’s the clincher – they know they’re beaten and slink away.
So what in all that is loving? Jesus is difficult, argumentative, edgy. This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild. If this is love then it’s different from warm sweet cat love.  It’s not being nice to people or giving gifts or feeling warm and loving about our friends and family.

Of course Jesus had a particular personality, particular gifts and a very particular ministry. But since he is our model of being human and God – since he is the ultimate human-made-in-the-image of-God we have to pay attention to his behavior and his teaching. Clearly there were times when he believed that loving God and his human neighbor required him to be in-your-face and argumentative. There are times when loving means that we stand up for what we believe to be right, when we take the risk to get involved with difficult debates.
But that is not all. Anyone can get involved in arguments, so that in and of itself is not loving God.

Hindus have many images of God which they display on every available surface – a constant reminder of the presence of the divine. We too have constant reminders of the presence of God. We don’t need multiple crosses or icons because each person we meet, each person we see on the news or connect with on the web, is made in the image of God. Loving God means loving our neighbor – each one made in God’s image. We see God in creation – every hill, every dew drop, every banded dune snail, is an expression of God. So loving God also means caring for creation.

To love God, then, with all our heart, soul, and mind, is to love far beyond our immediate life of friends, family, and neighbors.  Trees fall within this love, and oceans.  The air itself; rivers; species struggling to find habitat; seabirds in distress for want of fish; coastlines littered with refuse, some of it ragged, starving humans, the refuse of brutal economies and vicious politics – these are the neighbors Jesus over and again holds up for us to see.[1]

Loving God is to enter into the mystery of our deep connection; our deep connection with God and through the Holy Spirit with all beings, with the entire universe. Because love is about connection and caring. Love is about opening to intimacy and allowing ourselves to be changed, Love is about caring fiercely and taking action.

We take action to protect those whom we love. If we are loving God, and therefore loving all the expressions of God, how can we take action to protect them? Do we just dissolve into paralysis because all is of God and we are called to love all? No, because sin is real. Even those who are made in the image of God behave in un-Christlike and godless ways.  Even those of us who are enrolled in the reign of God don’t always realize the effects of our actions or the effects of our words. We often hurt each other and creation unintentionally. We often go on doing so because we don’t know how to stop. Sin is the opposite of loving God and our neighbor.

Loving God means speaking up and taking action when we see injustice, when we see harm, when we see disempowerment. But it means doing it with respect for those we oppose.  For they too were made in the image of God. That image may be rather tarnished, it may not be shining very brightly but it is still there. The Pharisees were made in the image of God; the people of the Islamic State were made in the image of God; members of the Tea Party were made in the image of God, and so were the Democrats.

That is the mystery. We are all interconnected through the web of life, through the Spirit of God moving in and around, and touching each one of us. When we love, we are making connection with that web, we are participating in God. But love is not a feeling. The warm sweet feelings we sometimes have are the result of the deep connection, not the other way around. Love is the connection and we build that connection by the way we live.

When we live with a generous spirit, giving of ourselves and taking risks to benefit others; when we live in the knowledge that we are all interconnected; then we live simply so that others may simply live, then we share what we have so others may have enough, then we work for a world where there is justice and equality and respect for all beings. That is what it means to love God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

[1] Nancy Rockwell

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taxes and Spirituality

On the face of it it seems like a simple solution; "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."  But how do you work out which is which? If, as the psalmist says, “The Lord is King” then surely everything belongs to God and nothing to the emperor
Yet the idea of everything belonging to God tends to take us back to that picture of God as a man with a white beard who thinks of this world as his territory while we are just tenants. That’s a very different picture from God the Spirit who flows in, through and around all created matter. Spirit is not the “owner” of territory but the energy that creates the territory itself. So God is the essence of creation so everything does not belong to God but is of God.

Which doesn’t mean it belongs to Caesar either.  Nothing actually belongs to Caesar. Just like nothing actually belongs to you or me. It is all gift. It is all God.

So what then is due the emperor?

The trick question which turns out to have a trick answer was about taxes. Jesus was living in Palestine which was occupied by the Romans. They taxed the citizens not to improve the Palestinian roads or to provide education but to pay the costs of the occupying forces and to make Rome richer. And the tax collectors were notoriously on the make so you might end up paying a lot of tax which never went further than the tax collector’s own pocket. No-one was pleased about paying taxes to the Romans.

The Romans actually allowed the Jews to mint and use their own money although Roman coins had to be used for paying tax. No self-respecting religious Jew would have the occupier’s tax money in his pocket.  So when Jesus asks for a tax coin and they manage to produce a denarius he is exposing these Jewish leaders for the brown-nosers they really are. They of course wanted to get him into trouble with the Roman authorities by tricking him into saying no they shouldn’t pay taxes, but he has once again turned the tables on them and exposed their own hypocrisy.

Now, if it is all God and nothing is due Caesar, should we stop paying taxes?

I don’t think so. Our taxes are our contribution to the common good. Now, of course, we can argue from here to eternity about what exactly the common good is and how to achieve it. Is it better to have regulations aimed at protecting people and environment or is it better to allow companies to take care of their social and ethical impacts themselves? Does it enhance the common good to have military bases in other countries or should we spend less on the military and more on education?

Questions of how our money should be spent for the common good are resolved through the political process. If we are to be good stewards of creation, cherishing and nurturing all that brings life, and caring for our material world, then we will be concerned about how we use our money, not only our household money, but how we as a nation spend our corporate money.

I know that it’s tempting, in these times when political decisions seem to be made not by “the people” but by corporations and the 1% who have more money than they know what to do with, it’s tempting to opt out. I know that it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether or not we vote, or who or what we vote for. Yet our moral imperative is to seek the common good and to use our resources wisely in ways which bless not just ourselves but the whole of creation. Which means doing all that we can to ensure that our taxes are used wisely. And that means being informed and active citizens. I encourage you to vote in two weeks. The California Council of Churches has provided a guide to the propositions which are on the ballot and there are some copies available on the ushers’ table or you can find it on their website. The League of Women Voters also provides an independent assessment of the propositions. I encourage you, as part of your practice of stewardship to think and pray about how you will use your voting power.

The Pharisees and Herodians asked a question about taxes, but Jesus’ answer had nothing to do with taxes. The coin had Caesar’s image on it; we are made in the image of God.  He is essentially saying, “This has Caesar’s image on it – give it back to Caesar, but give to God that which is made in God’s image.” Stewardship is not just about money, nor even about “time, treasure and talents.” Stewardship is about living in every area of our lives as if we really are made in God’s image and as if we really believe that God’s Spirit is in and through and around all things.

This is where the rubber hits the road.

Spirituality is not about feeling good, though it certainly can feel good. Spirituality is about living as though we really are God’s beloved, made in God’s image, and intended to live as the children of God.  Which is exactly the same as stewardship.

Stewardship of our money means knowing that all we have is to be used wisely in the furtherance of God’s reign. It is easy for us humans to want to hang on to money or to use it to get all the stuff or all the experiences it can buy. But that is not living as though we are the children of God. The children of God, when we are at our best following the example of Jesus, practice an ethic of restraint. Instead of spending everything we can and maxing out our credit cards, we aim to live simply and within our means. We don’t compete with each other for who has the smartest clothes, the newest car, the biggest house or the most stuff – instead we live within our means so that we can be generous with all that we have been given. The early church sold their stuff and pooled all their resources so that they could look after the needs of the poorest among them.

God’s gifts are not for hoarding. Remember the parable of the talents? The guy who took his money and buried it so that he wouldn’t lose it was not a big winner.  God’s gifts are for using in a way which is consistent with the gospel imperative to love God with all of yourself and your neighbor as if she were yourself.

We tend to think that spirituality and church are in one pocket and money and politics in another, and they should be kept apart. But this gospel reading where we see Jesus talking about taxes in a highly charged political situation is an important corrective. Our spirituality manifests in the way that we handle our resources and in the way we use our political power for the highest good of all beings.

Is the budget of this country, this state, this county and ethical one which seeks the common good and provides for those who are vulnerable at the same time as ensuring that there will be a planet of our children and grandchildren to enjoy? And what about our own budgets – do they reflect gospel values?
If not, it’s time for us to take stewardship seriously.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The man who didn't wear a wedding garment

Today we heard a parable about a great banquet. It’s the third in a series of parables which Jesus told after the Jewish leaders asked by whose authority he was teaching. It is similar to a parable in Luke and also one in the Gospel of Thomas. But it’s different, and it’s that difference which makes it hard for us to hear and to understand.  In Luke, the friends who have been invited to the banquet all make excuses so the man throwing the party sends his servants out to invite everyone in so that his house will be full. It’s a lovely picture of the great banquet in the reign of God and a warning that not everyone who is invited will make it. Apparently the custom of the time was to issue invitations without a definite time and then when everything was ready, servants were sent to say “That party you said you’d come to – well its now!” But even if the timing was unexpected, the excuses of the guests in Luke were pretty lame.

The guests in Matthew’s story were quite different. They didn’t bother with lame excuses. They just refused to come. And some went so far as to beat up the king’s servants and even kill them. Does this remind you of last week’s parable where the vineyard tenants beat up and killed the servants who came to get the rent and ended up murdering the heir to the vineyard?  But in that parable it was the crowd who said they should be severely punished. This time it’s actually there in the parable. The king himself was enraged and sent his army to destroy those who had killed his servants, and their city.

Doesn’t sound much like a God of love does it?

And what about the wedding garment? When I was a teenager I was told that in those days everyone had special robes for weddings and this man had been so rude that he hadn’t bothered to go home and get his. This puzzled me. If the servants were rounding up everyone they could find on the streets – good and bad alike we’re told – did all the beggars and homeless people have wedding garments, and if so where did they keep them? It’s also been suggested that the host himself might have had a big supply of suitable wedding garments, and this one person just didn’t bother to put one on.  Very bad manners. And really rather stupid when we remember that this king had just annihilated his supposed friends for not coming to the wedding feast of his son, who incidentally, never appears.

I heard a story about a pastor who regularly gave a children’s sermon about Jesus. One morning he started with “Now boys and girls, can you tell me what this is?” and he held up a stuffed squirrel.  There was silence. Again he asked, “Now don’t be shy, what is this?” One brave child said, “Well I know I’m meant to say Jesus but it sure looks like a stuffed squirrel to me.”

We are so used to Jesus telling parables where God is the central character – the sower and the seed, the father in the prodigal son, the owner of the vineyard and so on, that we assume the king in this parable is meant to be God. Even though it looks like a squirrel we think we’re meant to see Jesus; even though this looks like a pretty evil and bad-tempered king, we think we’re meant to see God.

But we don’t actually know that the king is meant to be God. Jesus starts this parable differently than he does others. Instead of saying “The kingdom of heaven is like a king…” he says something more like “The kingdom of heaven may be made like a man, a king…” Some commentators wonder whether in fact Jesus is describing the way the Jewish religious leaders described it. According to those scholars, the different introduction suggests that this isn’t Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of heaven – it is more like a satire. I confess that I don’t find that totally convincing.

For me, a more plausible idea is that Jesus’ listeners would have immediately thought of the flesh and blood king, Herod, who acted rather like the man king in the story. If that is the case, if the man king is Herod whom Jesus opposed, then we need to ask who Jesus intended to be seen as embodying the kingdom of heaven. [1]

Could it be the guy who doesn’t have a wedding garment?

In not having a wedding garment, this character acts as a lightning rod for the wrath of the king who we know can be pretty violent.  It might bring to mind another verse from Matthew (11:12) “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.”  Human kingdoms survive by violence but the kingdom of God is the opposite. The Kingdom of God is one which suffers violence and does not retaliate because forgiveness and love are known to be the greatest powers.

We can see now that this parable is not a picture of God’s behavior but the opposite; a picture of the violence of the kingdom of this world. So in this man without a wedding garment is Jesus talking about how he will be treated in the not too distant future?

It is the king who notices a man not wearing the right clothes. Perhaps it is the king who decides who is properly dressed, as arbitrarily as he decided whom to kill and declared that those people were not deserving of his invitation.  The good and bad alike are gathered into the wedding feast but the king singles out one person who seems different and demands to know why he’s not dressed like everyone else. Could it be that this one man is making a statement of non-violent resistance? He came but he didn’t dress right in defiance of the violent nature of this banquet?  Just like Jesus at his mock trial, the man does not answer the king. He does not explain his clothing. He does not try to defend himself against the violence that the king symbolizes. He knows that violence feeds on anger and fear.

That’s something we’re seeing very clearly right now. Violence is rampant in the Middle East and parts of Africa, and it’s also ramping up in the streets of this country with growing mistrust between law enforcement and the people they are charged with protecting. Fear of being shot or attacked leads to police over-reaction; fear of the police leads to people refusing to cooperate and making defensive moves which only escalate the situation, especially when race is involved.

We have a Center for Disease Control which works to understand and contain and reduce communicable disease. We need a Center for Fear Control.

And that is our challenge.

We are the people who have enrolled in the kingdom of heaven. We are the ones who are called to live in love and forgiveness and trust in God, not in fear and grasping and violence.

It’s difficult.

As I read that another person in this country has contracted Ebola, I feel concern, even fear. I don’t want an epidemic of Ebola to hit us. When I listen to the reasons for the US military going to war against the Islamic State and I hear of cold-blooded executions, I feel fear. Especially when our leaders declare that ISIS is a threat to us here at home. When I think about the effects of global warming and the possibility that we will have another winter of drought, I feel fear.

There is much that we can be afraid of. But fear leads quickly to wanting to make sure I’m ok even at your expense. Looking after number 1 leads quickly to imagining that other people really are out to get me and then it’s a short step to buying a firearm just in case and another short step to using it when a stranger comes to the door even if they have come for help.

So we have to get off the cycle of violence before we get caught up in it. We, the people of God, who follow the one who allowed himself to suffer violence and in doing so showed that it is ultimately powerless, we are the ones who are called to replace fear with love, anger with patience, violence with peace.

Herein Los Osos we live in a privileged place where there is plenty of food and we can walk unafraid in our streets, even at night. But we are interconnected with all life and we are connected by the God who touches all beings and all things, even the most violent mind on the planet. The Islamic State fighter dressed in dramatic black is no stranger to us, nor is the terrorist plotting to disrupt our society. They are connected to us through the Holy Spirit who is in and through all things.

So as we resist fear, as we resist violence in our own minds, we are helping them also to find alternatives to the fear and anger that motivate them. Now when I talk about resisting fear or resisting anger or violence, I am talking about non-violent resistance. We all experience fear, we all experience anger; the trick is not to get caught up in them – to notice them and let them go and in their place offer forgiveness and love. One of us mentioned yesterday that she has started a practice of saying “I forgive you” whenever she thinks of someone – not just people she feels anger towards, but everyone. “I forgive you.” How differently we would approach our lives if we train ourselves to approach every encounter, every person with “I forgive you.” Then God’s love, which is the strongest force there is, would move unimpeded through our lives bringing healing all around us.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man, a woman, a group of people of all shapes and colors and sizes, who refused to get caught up in fear, who refused to allow violence to dominate them. And when a violent king forced them to his feast, they wore the clothes of peace and they did not eat the meats of violence. And although the king was enraged, they forgave him and they knew that all he could do was… nothing because they were already living in the kingdom of heaven where life continues and grows more abundant every day.

[1] See

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Living Life as a Blessing

Today’s Gospel reading gives us a difficult parable. It is the second in a series of three – last week we heard about two brothers, one of whom said he would work in the vineyard but didn’t and the other who said he wouldn’t but did – and next week we’ll hear about the wedding guests who didn’t show up. One major problem with these three parables is that on a quick reading they can be used to justify anti-Semitism. We can hear in today’s gospel of the vineyard tenants who killed the rent collectors and eventually even the heir to the vineyard an allegory of the Jewish leaders who didn’t listen to the prophets and then didn’t listen to Jesus and killed him.

The danger is that we sit in self-righteous judgment on these “terrible” Jews and this parable becomes justification for despising them. And when a people are despised it is only a small step to the terrible crimes that have been committed against ethinic groups, especially those against Jewish people, in the name of Christianity but actually in the service of ideologies that prey on fear and hatred.

We can be sure that Jesus did not intend this parable to be read like that. After all, Jesus was a Jew himself and so was Paul, and proud of it. So we have to use a different interpretative lens – one which is in keeping with the values that Jesus himself taught and lived. Using that lens we quickly notice that it was not Jesus who said that those wretches should be put to “a miserable death.” That was the response of the crowd, but it is not God’s way. God’s way is to offer grace even when we turn away from her.

The people listening to Jesus would have been very familiar with the passage in Isaiah about the vineyard that goes wild, and would noticed Jesus’ take on the old story – here it is not the vines that go wild and produce poor fruit but the people looking after the vineyard who fail to live ethically, instead giving in to their greed and the resulting plotting and murderous intent. They were not living the values of the reign of God. And just like last week’s parable, we hear that the reign of God is manifest not among the religious people but among those who truly live the values of God. Jesus says,” the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Because that’s what’s important – not that we keep to the letter of the law, but that we produce the fruit of the kingdom – that we use all that we have been given to honor the One who gives us everything and in whom we live and move and have our being. Like the tenants in the vineyard, this planet, this life has been given to us to use in God’s service. It is not ours to use as we wish but is a gift of grace, a gift of love, and we can use it to bless or to curse.

The people who produce the fruits of the kingdom are the ones who use their God-given life and gift as a blessing to the world around them. They are the ones to whom God gives life abundant as they pour out their lives in love and in service, not hoarding for themselves but understanding that energy moves in a circular fashion. As we give, as we bless, without reservation and without expectation, we too shall be blessed.
The kingdom of this world believes in scarcity and so hoards what it has. The very fear of scarcity leads to scarcity as people keep more than they need because there may not be enough in the future. Start a rumor about an upcoming shortage of TP, and before you know it there’ll be none available on the market shelves because we’ll all have got extra tucked away “just in case.” We get jealous and greedy because we believe that there isn’t enough love, there isn’t enough to go round.

In the reign of God scarcity does not exist. The paradox of course is that one can run out of TP in the reign of God.  Because the reign of God is not of this world but intersects with this world. To say that there is no scarcity does not mean that those of us enrolled in the reign of God always have everything we want and need in this physical world. But the general principle is that when we - the ones who are called to show the fruits of the kingdom - when we share what we have there is enough. When we give, we too are blessed.  It is when we withhold out of fear that we plug up the system. Instead of our hands remaining open in blessing and gratitude, they curl up and begin to grasp. And then we can’t receive what we are being given.
The tenants of the vineyard may have had a really good deal from the landlord. Presumably they wanted a vineyard in the first place and for some reason did not have their own family land. But it wasn’t enough for them. They wanted more. It’s not clear to me whether they wanted all the produce or whether they wanted to be autonomous and not have to answer to someone else. If the landlord let them alone they could pretend that they were the owners, whatever the legal paperwork might say.

In contrast, those who are producing fruits in the reign of God remember that all we have is a gift. Our abilities, our families, our friends, our homes, our church, the land upon which we stand and the air that we breath. Gift.  Pure gift. That’s partly what Paul was saying in the second reading this morning. The law was a gift to the people of Israel – part of their becoming a people – law is a gift to us today because it helps us avoid crashing into one another. But the Jewish people of Paul’s time had started to see it as something to be fought over and argued about, forgetting that it was a gift, a sign of God’s grace. They had started to idolize it: instead of seeing at as part of God’s plan it had become everything.

Those who are producing fruits in the reign of God are those who know that we are but stewards of what we have. And so we cherish our lives in all their comforts, not as things to be hoarded but as God’s sacred things to be cared for and used as a blessing in his service and the service of those around us. And that includes water and soil; oil and wood; food and drink. It includes this planet which is God’s gift to us; we are called to cherish it and bless it. It includes this church, which is a great gift; we are called to cherish it and bless it – not just the building and gardens but the community of faith which is the core of this spiritual center. We did that on Friday evening at our Gratitude Dinner – what a wonderful evening. Each one who came and participated gave themselves as a blessing.

Every time we come to church, every time we call another person, every time we choose to build up the Body of Christ with words of encouragement and caring, we are offering a blessing. And every time we share the wealth we have been given, we are giving a blessing to others and to God.

So instead of allowing ourselves to fester resentment and greed and the desire to call all the shots like the tenants in the parable, let us seek to be the people who produce the fruits of the reign of God. Let us remember that it is all gift. And in turn let us live our lives as gift. May our lives be poured out in gratitude, a rich red wine of blessing to God, to the earth and all who live on her.