Benediction Online

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Solemn Dance

Isaiah 64:1-9

This is the time of year when I try to think about writing an annual letter to my family and friends. I haven’t succeeded for the past three years so most of them probably think I’ve disappeared from the face of the earth. My excuse is there just hasn’t been time with all my parish duties. Yet my brother, who was also a priest, managed to write a letter every year.  Yet he often started or ended his letter saying that the world was in such a terrible state that he wasn’t sure we’d all be here by the next Christmas.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve been a priest for a decade now, or whether it’s because of my advancing years  but I find myself thinking more and more like my brother. Are these the end times? It sure looks like it.

Advent has been described as a solemn dance, because it reminds us to be prepared for the end of things as we know them, but also to look forward to that time with joy and hope.  The motto of the season is “be prepared.” We are preparing for three things; in our outer lives we are preparing to celebrate secular Christmas with lights, presents, cookies and parties; in our spiritual lives, we are preparing for the birth of the Christ child once again in our hearts and imaginations; and at the same time, we are preparing for everything to be changed.

Last week we heard the parable of the sheep and the goats. In that story, the king separates people depending on the way they have behaved towards the victims, the outcasts of their society.  I don’t think this was meant to be a stand alone moralistic statement that in the end of time we will be judged, but a corrective statement about the way God really sees things. It says that what is important is not how religious we are, not how wealthy we are, not even how well we care for our own families, but how we care for those who are different, those who are unsuccessful, those on the margins.

In this morning’s Gospel  we heard that the Son of Man will come in great glory. Even though we see Jesus first and foremost as the son of God, he often called himself the Son of Man. This comes from a dream of Daniel which was well known in Jesus’ day. In his dream, Daniel saw four terrifying beasts come out of the sea wreaking havoc, and then one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. The four beasts are interpreted as representing empires who treat the earth and its people as if they are expendable. But the one like a Son of Man brings a different kingdom, a different reign. This is the reign where all beings are treated with respect and love.

This is the reign which we enroll in when we make our baptismal vows. This is the reign we are to work towards bringing on earth; the time when all beings will be brought into reconciliation with God and will live in peace. A time when we will no longer damage one another and our planet intentionally or unintentionally; a time when we will not longer treat one another inhumanely; a time when justice and peace will come to this universe.

And that is our hope. That is the joy in the solemn dance that is Advent.

It is a solemn dance because there is so much to be done. In the first reading from Isaiah, we hear the prophet begging God to come again in power, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he says. “Come and do something about this mess!” Looking at the state of our world with the ever-speeding rate of climate change, the wars in the Middle East and in parts of Africa and the borders of Europe, unsustainable population growth, the devastation of the environment, and governments who can’t govern, we too cry out to God “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down and do something!”

But we have learned that God does not live in the heavens and that God rarely intervenes directly and dramatically in our corporate lives. Yet we have also seen many amazing things in our lives; things that only the hand of God working through humans could bring about. The tumbling of the Berlin wall is a prime example. Who dared to imagine that one day it would come down, that Germany would be reunited? For me, that continues to be a sign of hope even in times of darkness.

We are, each of us, connected to one another in the Holy Spirit. If God is in and through all things, then the very same God who touches us also touches those with Ebola, also touches those fighting in Iraq and Syria, also touches those who have been disappeared and those who are dispossessed. So when we send them love and peace and hope, there is a divine delivery system. When we focus on filling ourselves with God’s peace and sending this out as a blessing, it cannot fail to arrive where it is needed.

There is much pain and darkness and difficulty. It is easy for us to become immobilized, paralyzed by the enormity of the work, the solemnity of the dance. It is easy for us to feel guilty because we live in peace and prosperity. But we are told to stay alert, not to allow ourselves to be numbed either by the easy reassurances of consumerism or by the horrors of our inhumanity.

Staying alert means working for the reign of God here and now.  It means living simply and generously, living our lives in an attitude of service and continuing with our spiritual practice of cultivating and sharing peace and joy. We are the resurrection people. We are the ones who bring hope. We are the ones who dance, not in denial of the times of trial but even in the times of trial.

Our work this Advent, and every day of the year, is to allow ourselves to heal from the pain and trauma we have experienced so that we may be centers of peace and fountains of joy; so that we may dance from our hearts. Our work is to bring that peace and joy to those in need of it. The Son of Man who Daniel saw coming after the beasts of Empire and showing a completely different way to live is the one we follow. We too are called to demonstrate a completely different way to live, a way of blessing for all beings.
And that is our hope, that is our dance. Healing is possible. Healing is happening. The reign of the Son of Man has started and we are part of it.

May our solemn Advent dance be a blessing of peace to all creation.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


That reading was from an article, "The Best Part Of Life Is Realizing Why It’s Better That Things Didn’t Work Out" that Sabrina shared on Facebook the day before she died. It’s a bit uncanny isn’t it? Thanks to Johnny for pointing it out to me. We just heard a small part of it and I suggest that you read the whole thing at

I don’t know about you but my mind still can’t wrap itself around the idea that Sabrina is gone. I’ve been out to the crash site a couple of times but even so it’s not quite real yet. I keep expecting her to show up and say it was all a mistake. My mind keeps worrying about how it happened and why it happened and what it all means, like if you have a tooth extraction or a mouth canker your tongue keeps going back and checking it out again and again.

That’s the way we humans are. We want to make meaning out of everything. It’s the way we handle all the ups and downs of life. Many of us find that meaning in spirituality, when we experience the connection with the holy which sustains us.

So I want to share with you some things I don’t believe about all this:
·        I don’t believe that God needed Sabrina more than we do.
·        I don’t believe that God planned this.                   
·        I don’t believe that Sabrina’s death was a lesson for us, except perhaps to be careful when we’re driving at night. I drove home on Highway 1 last night and believe me, I’ve never driven so carefully.

I do believe that there is a crack in the universe which means that horrible things happen to perfectly wonderful people. I do believe that God’s love sustains us and brings new life even out of the most terrible tragedies. I believe in life.

Just as Sabrina did.

She was a woman who loved life. She loved to plan special things; she loved to cook; she loved softball and fishing; she loved to make people happy.

Though I have to admit, the earliest memory I have of Sabrina is one where she was not very happy. About 22 years ago, some of us from St. Benedict’s went camping up the coast at Plasket Creek. I pitched my tent next to Diana’s. Camping can be a little overwhelming for a two year old, especially at night, and Sabrina was not happy. As I remember it, when it was dark and time to go to bed she screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed.  But that was just at night. During the day she ran around and had as good a time as any kid could.

As a teenager, Sabrina was always interested and involved in many things. She thought about life deeply and always had great questions and great ideas. She was also game for anything fun. One year we decided to sleep over the night before Easter Sunday in the church. At that time it was still in construction, and at night it seemed cavernous and eerie. Sabrina loved it, except for one thing. We didn’t have a kitchen.  We didn’t have a refrigerator. In the morning when I got out the milk for cereal she was quite disgusted. Even though it had been in a cooler she couldn’t drink it; it made her gag.

I don’t know whether she had more discerning taste buds than me or whether it was her love of beauty and her desire for everything to be the very best it could be. Whichever it was, it stood her in good stead as she became a wonderful chef and a great hostess. I admit I was looking forward to Sabrina managing the Back Bay Coffee shop because there’s nothing like her cheerful face and bright welcome when you go for your morning cup of coffee. And I knew that she would pull her team together, making each one feel valued and at the same time make sure everything was done just right. Because that’s the way she was.

We don’t have much information about what happens after we die. It’s not something Jesus talked about in any detail. His focus, like Sabrina’s, was on abundant life, the life that comes from knowing and trusting in God’s unconditional love. But we do know that those who have sought God in this life will know God much more intimately in the next life. We do know that Jesus promised to prepare a place for us –promised to be ready for us. I like to imagine that Sabrina has connected with her grandfather and is making a whole load of new friends; I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t already persuaded her to make lemon slices.

Our task today is particularly difficult. It is to let Sabrina go to her new life, whatever that might be, while at the same time holding her memory lovingly in our hearts and living the life she wanted for us.  We have loved and cherished Sabrina; we have watched her grow up, learning from her mistakes; we have been there for her as the screaming two year old blossomed into a strong, powerful young woman. Our job is over. It is time now to give her into God’s care. Of course, she has always been in God’s care but most often that care was made real through us, her family, friends and community. Now she gets to go direct and we get to let go.
And how painful that is. Grief is a hard taskmaster. It saps our energy, it recedes like a wave and then, when you least expect it, it comes crashing back over your heard until you feel completely swamped and think you’ll never be able to breathe again. It snatches you up and flings you down on the shore, with all the breath knocked out of you. But you are on the shore, on the firm ground of God’s love. That is what we get to hold on to. Underneath us are the everlasting arms.

It is important that we grieve. It is important that we talk about Sabrina and what she meant to us and how she was killed so unexpectedly, so young. It is important that we have these conversations however painful, because it is in the crying and laughing that we are re-membering Sabrina. We are putting her back together in a new way in our hearts so that she becomes part of who we are - so that her life lives in us, not just as a memory but as an everyday reality. She will not live her dreams in the way she expected, but we still can.
If Sabrina were here today I think she would say, “’It is living that is beautiful and as human beings we know how to live life to the fullest…’ so do it, don’t wait. Don’t push away the experience of grief because it is part of life, but don’t wallow in it either.” The way we will honor Sabrina is to live our lives to the fullest; to take all that God has given us and make it into something beautiful. The way we honor Sabrina is to cherish our friendships and nurture our relationships; to forgive and move on in loving connection with each other. The way we honor Sabrina is to get up every morning grateful that we are alive and ask, how best can I show love today? How best can I create beauty today?

As Paul Hudson said in the article, “The moment you realize that not even loss itself can stop you, that sadness, despair, anger and fear cannot hold you back, is the moment you become perfect. Perfectly flawed, but perfect nonetheless.”

That is what Sabrina wants for us.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Left Behind?

In October a new movie Left Behind came out starring Nicolas Cage. Even if, like me,  you didn’t see the movie, I imagine most of you have heard of the very popular Left Behind novels on which it’s based. They imagine a world in which Jesus returns and calls to heaven 140 million people, leaving behind billions of stupefied, confused, and grief-stricken others. In the HBO show of the same name, a mother loses her baby, who disappears. A boy's father seems to have vanished as he pushes a shopping cart. Cars collide as drivers go missing. Chaos strikes in the fictional Mapleton, New York -- and throughout the world.

If you haven’t heard about Left Behind, I’m sure you will have heard something about the rapture during which it is said that God’s chosen will be snatched up to heaven. For some Christians this has become a core belief, and they ask whether you will be one of the lucky ones, or whether you will be left behind to endure a time of tribulation. Usually, Episcopalians are not considered good candidates.

The main passage on which this idea is based is the first reading we just heard – the one from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Let’s take a look at that together.

 It seems that Paul is responding to questions about what happens to those who have died before Jesus’ Second Coming.  This must have been quite a problem for the early church because they expected Jesus to return at any moment. Now some of their number were dying – did that mean that they would miss Jesus’ coming and the resurrection of all believers?

Paul tells them not to worry. We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” In other words, “Don’t worry - God will include all those who have died.”

“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.”  We’re in this together regardless of whether or not we are physically alive when Jesus comes again.

“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” This is a picture, a metaphor. We know that because it draws from three important images.  The first is Moses coming down the mountain after he’s been given the law – a trumpet sounds and a loud voice is heard before he descends form Sinai. The second is from Daniel in which the saints – the people of the Most High - are vindicated over their pagan enemies by being raised up to sit with God. The third and final picture is that of an emperor visiting a colony where the people would go out into the countryside to greet him and then accompany him into the city.

The Greek word translated meet is one used for a gathering of visiting dignitaries, so the people of God will go out to greet Jesus as he comes from heaven. Given that they figured heaven was in the sky, it makes sense that people would meet him in the air. But the word for air used here is not one for the stratosphere but for the air we breathe. So the image is not of people suddenly being lifted off their feet or “snatched up” and jet-propelled into heaven, but rather of God’s faithful people going out to meet him in a wonderful and wondrous celebration.[1]

The idea of the so-called Rapture is quite a new one. It was invented in the 1830s by John Nelson Darby, an Anglo-Irish theologian with a fundamentalist bent. Darby read Revelation as being a literal description of the end-times and created a theology based on how he understood it. His ideas were later popularized by Cyrus Scofield who published a reference Bible in 1908 on which generations of American preachers cut their teeth. Although it’s poor theology, it has become part of the thinking of many Christians because it’s very useful to revivalist preachers.

When you want to make people feel that they should immediately repent and commit their lives to God it’s very helpful to have a theology which suggests that if they don’t they are in eternal peril. The theory of the end times of which the Rapture is an integral part suggests, correctly, that we don’t know when it will happen. So we need to be prepared at all times and in a place of communion with God lest we be left behind. None of us wants to be abandoned in an unruly and terrifying world, so the fear of being unprepared may lead us to long for a new conviction, a revival, in our spiritual life. Which spells success for the revivalist preacher.

The gospel reading today lends itself to that same interpretation. Be prepared because you don’t know when Jesus is going to come and find you out! Better not be found napping or without enough oil because then the doors might be locked against you for ever. Wake up! Wake up!

I imagine that if Jesus were telling this parable today he might tell it rather differently. He might tell us that the five foolish bridesmaids had brought too much with them. They brought two or even three suitcases, not to mention their ipads and ipods. So when the bridegroom was delayed, they started going through their things and checking Facebook, playing games at the same time as sending selfies to their friends and looking for that special pair of pink shoes that they’re sure they packed and they wished they’d put on.  So when the bridegroom came, they weren’t ready. They weren’t ready because they had to put their shoes on, repack their suitcases and finish their games and by the time they’d done all that it was too late.

This week I saw an ad on CNN which shows a man in an airport focused on his ipad. We’re told that he’s worrying about his insurance. While he’s doing that, another man sits down nearby and attempts to start a conversation, but then leaves because he can’t get the worried man’s attention. The advertisement tells us that worrying about his insurance just cost him a big business deal.  Then the scenario replays. This time, he consults a friendly insurance agent so by the time he sits down at the airport he has taken care of all his worries. This time he starts the conversation and, yes, you guessed it, gets the big business deal.

Now you may not be worried about what insurance you have or where you put your pink shoes, but I’m prepared to bet that there are things that take your attention away from the moment. Things that stop you from being fully present in your life. Most of us are only half here much of the time. We’re either tied up in the past nursing old resentments, grieving for what was or what might have been; or we’re planning and worrying about the future. It’s as though we’ve been given 100 units of energy everyday but instead of having them to use here and now, 25 of them are spent thinking about what might have been and another 25 on what may happen and so we only have 50% of our energy available for the moment.

All the great spiritual teachers of our time agree that living in the moment is one of the most important goals of spiritual practice. In the moment, we have what we need. In the moment, God can break through into our lives with a sudden glimpse of the holy. It only takes a holy instant to transform our lives – to change our understanding of God and the universe for ever. But if we are distracted by many things we may not notice that instant and it will be gone. God does not give up on us, so there will be other opportunities – but who wants to miss the first?

Centering Prayer and meditation are practices which help us to live in the moment. Because when you are sitting in silence, opening to the presence of God, you are creating a time when you consciously choose to be present to Spirit. During this time you let go of all the thoughts and feelings which crowd into your mind– you don’t get involved.  It’s tempting to allow the activity of your mind to pull you away from your central focus, but when that happens you just gently pull your attention back and continue to sit in silence, in the presence of God. It isn’t easy and it isn’t just emptying your mind. It is a practice, like going to the spiritual gym, which builds up your ability to be present in the moment and open to the movement of the Spirit within and around you. It also increases your serenity and your ability to be centered in your life rather than reacting to everything that happens around you.

This week I visited with a woman in her late 90s who wanted to talk with me about dying. She is a lively person who is annoyed by her increasing need to sleep and her body’s reluctance to continue the active life she is used to. Unfortunately she did not develop a meditation practice when she was younger. If she had, it would help her to be far more comfortable with herself in the moment and not so concerned about how she will die. Waiting to start centering prayer until we need it does not work. We have the opportunity to cultivate inner quiet and inner listening today. It’s like a muscle – you can’t expect it to work when you need it if you haven’t used and exercised it – if you haven’t trained it.

Although God goes on giving us opportunities to turn towards God, the older we get and the more we have ignored, the harder it gets to spot them. So there does come a point where turning towards God is almost impossible. There does come a point when our minds are so distracted by the effects of old age that we cannot easily begin to practice mindfulness. We can no longer begin a meditation practice. So the time to begin is now.

And that is I think what this parable is pointing to. I do not believe that God intends us to be fearful or wants us to turn to her out of fear. I am not a revivalist preacher threatening that unless you turn to Jesus you will be left behind!  But we do live in a space-time continuum and as we know time flies – can you believe it’s nearly Thanksgiving already? So we need to be aware of that. We have opportunities today to deepen our spiritual walk, to serve our world, to open to the unexpected moments when the holy breaks through.

If you are like the traditional bridesmaids and you need to have more oil in order to be ready for those moments now is the time to get it. If you are like the modern bridesmaids and need to cut loose of your baggage so that you can be present to the moment when it happens, now is the time to do it.

One thing John Nelson Darby had right is that we don’t know. We can’t predict Jesus’ Second Coming. We don’t know if it will be a cosmic event in our physical lifetimes or a personal event after we die. Neither do we know how long we will live – we can’t predict our own deaths. We don’t know and so there is no room for complacency. Now is the time to do whatever it is you know in your heart of hearts that you need to do. Now is all that we have; the past has gone, the future is yet to be revealed.

When Jesus the Bridegroom comes we want to be ready to go out and meet him, whether he comes in our hearts or in our world. Now is the time of preparation.