Benediction Online

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The People who Walked in Darkness have Seen a Great Light

Isaiah 9:2-7 

I’m sure all of us can look back on any number of embarrassing things that we have done. There is one incident in particular which for years later woke me up at night in a sweat of mortification. It was one Christmas Eve in my late teens. The church was dark and everyone’s candles were lit for the first hymn, and candlelight procession just as we did this evening. A magical moment which I completely ruined. As the choir gathered at the back of the church to process in candlelight, I insisted that it was time to turn the lights on, and even when the rest of the choir disagreed with me, I strode over and turned them on anyway. That year’s candlelight procession took place in full blazing electric light.

Later, when  I realized my mistake and my hubris in being sure I was right and everyone else was wrong, I was horrified. 

Looking back on it now, I wonder what was going on for me. Was it just the moral certainty of adolescence? Or was there something about the darkened church that seemed eerie and uncomfortable?
If you have ever been in a deep cave and turned off all lights you know something of the awe and discomfort that most humans feel in the presence of darkness. We are not usually at ease in the dark. We love to light up the night, and since time immemorial humans have welcomed the return of the light at the winter solstice when the days start once again to get imperceptibly lighter.

As we heard, the main events of the nativity take place at night, in the dark. We aren’t told what time of day Jesus was born but if he was like most kids, it wasn’t a convenient time and it was probably after dark. We do know that the shepherds were on the hillside guarding their sheep in the night. The magi too travelled at night in order to follow the star.  The tradition that it all happened in midwinter didn’t develop until the 4th century but that too adds to our sense that it was at the darkest time that God was born in human form. As Isaiah the prophet thundered, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
I know very little about astronomy but I understand that astrophysicists hypothesize that almost 27% of the universe is dark matter- that is matter which doesn’t respond to light and 68% is dark energy. If they are right we indeed live in great darkness – only about 5% of the universe is visible ordinary matter – the kind we deal with everyday.

Darkness abounds. We have all experienced times of personal darkness when loss or fear or depression has been overwhelming and we could not imagine ever again taking joy in ordinary things. Globally we are experiencing dark times with wars in the Middle East, parts of Africa and on the Russian border; and nationally these are dark days when Congress will not govern, the top 1% continue to get richer, racial unrest grows and there is a hunger epidemic in the richest nation the world has ever known. And now we also know that we are surrounded by the cosmic dark.

Into this darkness comes a baby.

It’s almost ridiculous. In the midst of great cosmic darkness, comes the light of the world. But the light does not come with angels in great glory. The light does not come descending from the heavens. The light is not broadcast simultaneously across the planet in thirty-six different languages. No, the light is born in an obscure town in an insignificant country to a young woman, scarcely more than child herself, who conceived outside of marriage. And this light comes as a baby who is not born in a comfortable palace or even a clean motel but in a stable among animal dung, dirt, and fleas.

That’s the way God works.

God consistently works in ways that we find surprising. God consistently chooses the small and insignificant to bring the greatest blessing. That’s the topsy-turvy nature of God’s reign.

God works among the insignificant to bring hope and change. Here in Los Osos we are hardly at the center of the nation’s mind. Most of us are happy to be in an insignificant backwater where great people with great passion try to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. It can seem as though nothing we do here really matters on the big stage of world politics. It can seem like nothing we do can have any impact on the huge issues like global warming.

But God works among insignificant people in insignificant places. Here tonight God is at work. God is in our midst and God is calling us to open our hearts to his apparently insignificant coming. We often long for God to break into our lives in great power and might, when actually the Spirit moves more like the breeze which we don’t understand and we don’t pay much attention to. “If God exists,” we say, “Let him prove himself by solving this problem, by doing this miracle.” We forget that God’s work begins in the manger with a baby who has to be love and nurtured by humans. We forget that God’s work begins in us.

I long to hear the angels sing. Sometimes I think I catch a note here and there. But that is not what’s important because what is most important is always something or someone we are likely to overlook. Jesus said “Unless you become like little children you will never enter the reign of God.” Unless you become like little children who maintain their sense of wonder; who have not developed a veneer of cynicism or a sardonic sense of humor; little children who notice and delight in small things; little children who can still hear the angels sing because they haven’t filled their minds with worry and strain. Unless you become like that you will not be able to find the reign of God to enter it.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” God’s light is a baby. It is not enough that we see the light once. God’s light has to be cherished and nurtured. God’s light shines in the darkness even when we have turned our heads away so we can’t see it. It is still there, but it is not growing in us unless and until we make an intentional commitment to it.

As we start to glow with the Christ light in us we are making a difference.  We too become the light in the darkness. As we nurture that inner flame and allow it to grow, dissipating the darkness of our own personalities, the baby light grows and fills our whole being and connects with other lights. The insignificant becomes significant in the great web of connection that we share with all beings. We may be an insignificant group of people in an obscure town on the edge of a continent, but as we commit to the light, not just seeing it and going away but nurturing its growth within ourselves as individuals and within our community we too become part of the Christ light that shines in the cosmic darkness.

We don’t need to turn all the lights on to dissipate the darkness, because within ourselves we carry the hope that is the gift of Christmas; the hope of peace on earth, goodwill to all. The hope that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light and are now carrying that light and nurturing that light and that one day spiritual light will completely dissipate the darkness of ill will.

That is our hope. The baby in the manger is a symbol of God’s gift to us. The gift of light and renewal.
My prayer for you and all our world today is that we may all be blessed with hope, and that people of the light everywhere will allow themselves to shine with the glory of God.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Angels Abound

by Lorienne Schwenk.

In the name of the one whose incarnation we celebrate every day, Amen.

Look at all of you! You look like angels to me!
I don’t have to remind you that it can be tricky to be a Christian in our modern world and culture. All of us sitting in this room have a map in our minds and hearts that not everybody shares. We know somebody in our work, or family, or wherever who isn’t here in the pews us today and who stands for that world. We call this time Advent, this day Advent 4, while the world has been in the “Christmas season” for quite some time. While the culture debates whether it’s okay to say “Merry Christmas,” some of us are trying to restrain from saying it because it is not yet Christmas. A season like Advent can be a little hard to explain. This Sunday is a perfect example. Virgin birth alone can get people tied up, but how about angels? I want to send you out to proclaim that "We are all called to be mothers of God for God is always waiting to be born" ~ as Meister Eckhardt puts it. How can I tell you also to be the angels you are?

Nowhere for me is the clash with culture more odd than that figure of Gabriel. Frankly, I don’t have an organized system of thought about angels. I don’t have angel ornaments (those ladies in nightgowns) on my tree. I do not have a theology of angels. I can’t tell you the difference between an archangel and Marley’s Ghost. I don’t mean I don’t believe; I just haven’t thought much about it. I may say the kitty curled up purring on my lap is an angel. If someone does a great favor for another, I might say that person was a real angel. I’ve heard great cheese described as smelling like the feet of angels. I use the word without thinking about it. Some folks believe in Guardian Angels or that those who have gone before us become angels and watch over us.

Culture has lots of thoughts about angels and about Gabriel. In art, there appears to be a centuries long convention, perhaps begun in Orthodox iconography: Figure in red on the left kneeling. Figure on right in blue, kneeling. The one in red is Gabriel. Blue is Mary and she is often holding a book. During the Renaissance, the point of these paintings seemed to be a contest to show who can do the fanciest floor tiles and the deepest zooming perspective. The figures seem equal and Mary does not seem the least bit perplexed, or terrified. She barely looks up from her book.

Musically, Gabriel means cue the trumpets. In fact, last night, pumped up from yesterday’s concert, I was listening to the BBC and not sleeping. They had a story about the celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. {Oh! “Evangelist.” Hear the Angel in there? Hmmmm.} Anyway, in the course of the story, they played a bit of “Blow Gabriel Blow” from Cole Porter’s musical Anything Goes. Synchronicity? Back to evangelist. A bringer of good news. That’s what the word means. An angel is a messenger with good news. So where does the fear come in?

In the past 20 years, there have been six Hollywood pictures with a character named or based on Gabriel. They are all horror films to some extent. As a protagonist, this character is either seeking to destroy evil people or announcing the end of the world. In two of them, Gabriel has morphed into the main antagonist. How did Gabriel suddenly become the bad guy? Who’s afraid of the Big Good News?

The angel Gabriel gets three mentions in scripture. We see in our first reading that David is not to build a Temple. His son, King Solomon does and it is during the Babylonian exile when the Hebrews are torn away from that Temple that Daniel has an encounter with one like a man, called Gabriel. Gabriel explains the visions Daniel has and gives him hope. In the restored Temple, the priest Zechariah is met by Gabriel, now called an angel, and is informed that he and Elizabeth will have a son called John. In the very next verses, Gabriel visits Mary.

In all three biblical encounters, those Gabriel meets are terrified. This bums me out a bit, because it says Mary was very perplexed, but it’s apparently the same word as terrified. My guess is that is how he gets connected with the apocalyptic stories and even becomes the scary bad guy.

Which is a shame because I think a key point is lost. In the case of both Daniel and Zechariah, Gabriel’s visitation has something to do with the Temple, either serving in it or the hoped for return and restoration after the exile. With Mary, the news becomes very clear: we are the Temple, we are the Body. Emmanuel! God is with us! While we fuss over “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” her “Here am I” is the line that should be on our lips. And so is Gabriel’s “The Lord is with you.” Is that too scary to say to one another in this season?

I offer a vision from the mystic writer and artist William Blake. One evening he had just finished reading, closed the book, and spoke aloud, 
Blake: “Who can paint an angel?” 
A voice said, “Michelangelo could.”
Blake looked around the room and saw nothing save a greater light than usual. Blake: “And how do you know?”
Voice: “I know for I sat for him. I am the archangel Gabriel.”
Blake: “Oh ho! You are, are you? I must have better assurance of that than a wandering voice. You may be an evil spirit - there are such in the land.”
Voice: “You shall have good assurance. Can an evil spirit do this?”
Blake looked whence the voice came and was then aware of a shining shape with bright wings who diffused much light. “As I looked, the shape dilated more and more. He waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me moved the universe.” An angel of evil could not have done that. It was the archangel Gabriel. (from Blake’s writings quoted in Peter Ackroyd’s biography) I hope you’ll look up Blake’s painting of his vision.

So do not be afraid. You all look like such angels to me. In this season of the Incarnation, move the universe and see the mother of God in everyone around you!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Enough Talking About it

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

One of the wonderful things about Christmas is putting out the crèche.   I love all the little figures which replay the stories we have heard all our lives. These stories of the stable, of shepherds and angels and wise men come from just two of the four gospels. It was customary in the first century to develop great myths about the birth of emperors and other important leaders. Matthew and Luke both follow the custom and give us extensive birth narratives to emphasize how important Jesus is.

But Mark and John, the earliest and the latest gospels, don’t bother. This morning we heard from John’s gospel. It tells us that there was a man sent from God whose name was John. His job was to testify to the light. He was a witness. This was a legal term – rather like a notary today – someone who certifies that a person is who they say they are. So John was sent from God to declare that Jesus really was the light coming into the world.

There are other people in this story who were also sent – the Jewish leaders sent priests and Levites. They were sent to check John’s identity and credentials.  There was no-one to testify to him. He had to be his own testifier and he responded to them in words that they would know only too well from their scriptures “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.'" But they had been sent by the Pharisees who needed to know exactly what was right and what was wrong and so they demanded to know with what authority John was baptizing. After all, a voice in the wilderness is not a baptizer.

But in trying to pin him down, the Jewish leaders were missing the opportunity to find the reign of God.
It’s a little like being invited to a reception at a very fancy hotel with a doorman and instead of going in and enjoying the party you stop outside to ask the doorman a lot of questions about himself and why he’s a doorman and what the reception is about. If you stand on the street asking questions you’re never going to enjoy the banquet. We often sing verse 8 of Psalm 34 “Taste and see that the Lord is good” – if you go to a banquet and spend all evening interrogating the doorman, or if you go in but have a whole load of questions for the chef about the ingredients and the recipes and where the food was sourced, you may end up knowing all about it but never eating any. What use is that?

Food is to be eaten. The reign of God is to be lived.

At the time of Jesus, baptism was an initiation into the religious life just as it is for us. Proselytes to Judaism had to be circumcised, baptized and make a sacrifice. Baptism cleansed the proselyte from the impurity of idolatry, and restored him to the purity of a new-born man. Unlike Christian baptism, you could be baptized again and again. In fact baptism was considered a part of holy living and was frequently repeated by those wanting to live a sacred life. John the Baptizer may have been a member of the Essene sect. The first century scholar Josephus said that his instructor Banus, who was an Essene, ritually "bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day" as did all the Essenes.

In the Acts of the Apostles when the apostle Paul was travelling in Ephesus he found Christians who had been baptized in the baptism of John for repentance but not baptized in the name of Jesus so he went ahead and baptized them. Paul’s understanding of baptism in the name of Jesus is that it is baptism into the new life in Christ, and that in the waters of baptism we enter into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, effectively being joined to him. This is a once and for all thing – we don’t have to be baptized again and again.

Meanwhile, back at the River Jordan…For the Jews baptism could take place in any cold water bath but baptism in the waters of the Jordan was very special. It was thought to restore the unclean man to the original state of a new-born "little child."[1] That reminds me of Jesus words “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt18:3)

John’s preaching and baptism for repentance were preparing people for the coming of the Christ and the declaration of the reign of God. It was like a great community drama. A communal purification so that Jesus’ ministry could begin and he could speak to a people who had become like little children, ready for his words and his demonstration of God-in-human.

The first reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah are the words that Jesus used to announce the beginning of his ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth.
“And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. And he opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Then he sat down, as was the custom, to teach and began by saying "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

So this, we could say, is Jesus’ mission statement, “to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to set the oppressed free; and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

As his followers, it is also our mission statement.

This is the reign of God. This is practical stuff. For a poor person good news is that there’s the money to pay the rent; good news is that you won’t get evicted; good news is being able to pay the utility bill; good news is getting a job or a raise.

So these readings today combine mysticism and mission. We have John calling for us to become pure and open to God like little children – not just individually – but as a community – and we have Jesus’ mission statement proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah. It is a call for the healing of the nation.

We live in a nation which is in great need of healing, in a world which is in great need of healing. We are aware perhaps more than ever before of the incipient racism which creates a society in which more black than white people are incarcerated and black people are treated more roughly by police than white. We see the horrors of civil war in many nations and the use of religion as ideology to support violence. Closer to home we see house prices forcing people onto the streets and jobs paying so little that having a job doesn’t guarantee being able to pay rent.

Holistic spirituality transforms our souls and enlivens our spirits but also expands our level of awareness and compassion. As we grow in the knowledge of the reign of God we come to see that we are all kin – that the well-being of others and ourselves is one dynamic reality.  We are called to repent of our individualism; of the idea that it’s all about us. Yes we need to repent and make a change in our lives so that we can be reconciled with God. Yes we want to be one with the Spirit, but that is not something that comes as an individualistic high – it comes along with the knowing that we are all deeply interconnected. In the intricate web of relatedness we cannot distinguish between the authentic wellbeing of ourselves and others.
This is the reign of God – where the two great commandments– to love God with all of ourselves and to love our neighbor as if she or he were ourselves - are fully lived. No we do not wait until we love ourselves before we love others because there is no separation. These two go hand in hand.

We can spend a lot of time debating the reign of God – is it like this or is it like that? We can come up with all kinds of issues about how we do things religiously or spiritually. Like the Pharisees we can try to make sure that everything is religious correct or politically correct before we commit ourselves. But that isn’t the reign of God.

“Taste and see that God is good.” In order to taste you have to commit yourself, even just a teensy weensy bit to the food. Those of us who have been baptized have made a commitment not just to tasting but to eating. And we have made a commitment to engage in the mission of Christ “to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to set the oppressed free; and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Yet I am pretty sure that most of us have some reservations about jumping in. We have some reservations about the reign of God, because it means giving up our self-centeredness. And no-one wants to do that. It takes a great leap of faith to commit ourselves to follow Jesus. It’s not just getting a cold bath in the river. It’s living a life of self-sacrifice just as he did. But in the amazing paradox which is the reign of God, because we are all connected that self-sacrifice turns round and becomes the greatest blessing. As we are able to give up our attachment to it all being about us, and increasingly make it all about Christ our lives of compassion become lives of deep fulfillment. Because that is how we were made to live.

We were made to be set on fire by the Spirit, to be anointed “to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to set the oppressed free; and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

There’s an old joke that upon arriving at the pearly gates a pilgrim soul was puzzled to see two signs, one which pointed to “Heaven” and one which pointed to “Discussions about Heaven”. St Peter explained that that was for the Unitarians who love to talk about everything.

The urgency of Advent is that the time to indulge in discussions about the reign of God is over. It is time for us to pluck up our courage and jump with both feet into the River Jordan, and renew our commitment to living the gospel. To renew our commitment to the compassionate life. To renew our commitment to holistic spirituality.


Sunday, December 07, 2014


Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a

Some of you will remember the beginning of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral  where the Hugh Grant character wakes late and realizes that he is horribly late for a friend’s wedding. 

In the couple of years after I graduated from college, several of my friends got married. Often in towns I had never visited. As the owner of a car it was my job to collect other friends and get us all to the church on time. Even then I tended to under-estimate how long things take and so we were often, like Hugh Grant, in a mad dash to get to the church on time. On one occasion we were cutting it very close and were having a very difficult time finding the church, when we passed the bride riding in a be-ribboned chauffeured car. She was going in the opposite direction.

You can be sure that we turned around as quickly as we could. Fortunately she had seen us too and took a leisurely drive around the block so that we were well in our seats, though a little breathless, when she made her grand entrance.

The Greek word for that kind of U-turn is metanoia. It’s quite a pragmatic word, which doesn’t carry a lot of emotion or other baggage. We saw the bride and immediately performed a metanoia because we realized we were going the wrong way. Like High Grant, we probably used a few choice words, but we didn’t wring our hands or fall on our knees in anguish.

In the account of John the Baptizer calling people to repentance, the Greek uses this same word, metanoia, to turn round. Many of us have come to think of repentance as a big emotional thing. It has gotten tied up in ideas of being convicted of sin, or revival meetings, of coming to God with tears running down our faces as we realize that up until now we have been worthless sinners. Now those all have their place and if that has been or is your experience, I’m not knocking it. But I want to point out that John the Baptizer says nothing about looking back at your past life with sorrow, regret or reproach.

If your intention is to follow Jesus and as you’re headed down the road you see him coming towards you, what are you going to do? You’re going to turn around and go the way he’s going. It’s metanoia.
John the Baptizer is an important figure in the Gospels. Today’s reading is the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. He doesn’t bother with Jesus’ incarnation but instead has one prophet pointing to another prophet. Isaiah points to John who points to the “one who is coming.” Every one of the four gospels includes John as a precursor or a witness to Jesus. This is really quite remarkable since they often tell a story in different ways, or include different narratives or have Jesus taking different routes. Their unanimity on John means that we can’t just treat him like a garnish on the plate, where Jesus is the real thing.  We can’t just push the decorative leaves aside and eat the meat.

We have to take John the Baptizer seriously. His is the voice literally in the wilderness – outside the city, beside the iconic River Jordan, calling for us to make a u-turn.  Before Jesus comes, the prophetic voice calls for us to change.

John does not ask us to regret our past actions. John does not ask us to be sorry. John asks us to completely change our lives. This understanding of repentance is foundational to our spiritual path. A fundamental change in heart and mind, a metanoia, is a necessary ingredient, in fact the single most important ingredient in accomplishing God’s plan for salvation and community for everyone. Without it, we are just going along in the same way, fondly imagining that we are headed in the right direction but completely missing the point.
John the Baptizer baptized as a sign of metanoia; a sign of the intention to live differently. When Jesus started his ministry his message was a little different –“the kingdom of God is close at hand, undertake metanoia and believe the good news.”(Mark 1: 15) Metanoia is a prerequisite of the reign of God.
We are called to participate in God’s plan for salvation. We are called to work towards a new heaven and a new earth, a commonwealth based on love and compassion. But in order to do that, we have to change our minds and our behaviors. We have to start living as though that new commonwealth is here and now, not just some future hope but a present reality.

This is not quite as simple as a u-turn in the street because we are complex beings and our attitudes and behaviors are influenced by so many different factors. It is a u-turn that goes on and on and on. There is always some part of us that is in need of metanoia. There is always some part of our lives which is not yet fully turned around. There is always more to learn and more to transform. That is part of the great project, the great cosmic metanioa, in which we are engaged.

It can seem overwhelming, especially when we are dealing with an entrenched pattern or an attitude which we can justify a million times over. But that’s where the power of the Holy Spirit comes in. We are friends and servants of the all-Compassionate, living God who can use our intention and our desire for metanioa to bring about so much more than we can imagine.

Sometimes we feel like Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, who in spite of all his best intentions, despite all the alarm clocks he has set, oversleeps and has to run, cursing, to try against all odds to do what he has intended - to support his friends at their wedding. Our own strength is not enough. But we are given divine support, divine power. Whenever we make a metanoia at the level of our intentions and give this to God, powerful things follow.

But the object of all this is not just that we become happier better-adjusted nicer human beings. The point of all this is that we take our full part in the work of building the reign of God, of developing kinship with those who are different from us, of giving up privilege so that others may have enough. John the Baptizer preached and baptized for metanoia in the hope of the one who would come after him, but we have the joy of knowing the one who came after. We are called to follow Jesus in working for the reign of peace and justice.
When the angels sang “Peace on earth and goodwill to humanity” they were not just singing a Christmas card from God; they were proclaiming the reign of God that was beginning. That reign is still unfolding and you and I are part of its unfolding. We have the joy and the privilege and the hard work of being an integral part of that new reign.

And it starts in metanoia. It starts in a complete re-orientation of heart and mind. It starts with the cultivation of inner peace. As the second reading said, “beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”  What a difference it would make if each of us were to be peace.

Our peace comes from trusting that underneath are, always, the ever-lasting arms. As Isaiah said,
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Metanoia is allowing the great Shepherd to feed us and gently lead us in the paths of peace.