Benediction Online

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Snakes that Bite Us

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10

This is one of the few Sundays in the year when we can see a clear relationship between the first lesson and the gospel reading. Jesus clearly refers back to the curious incident of the poisonous snakes which was described in the first reading from Numbers.  Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible and is the culmination of the story of Israel's exodus from oppression in Egypt and their journey to take possession of the land God promised to their forebears. We only read from the book of Numbers four times in our three year cycle of readings.

In this short passage, the Israelites, despite having great military victories against the Canaanites, begin to grumble. And suddenly they are faced with something much more vicious than bad food – poisonous snakes. These snakes bite them and many of them die. So they pray for help, and Yahweh tells Moses to make a statue of a poisonous snake on a pole.  All who look at it survive their snake bites and live. It is a curious tale.
And now we have Jesus drawing a parallel of some kind between himself and the bronze serpent. So let’s think a little more about how we might understand the original story. When they looked at what was biting them, when it was brought out into the light, the Israelites were healed. Sounds a bit like psychotherapy doesn’t it? When we look at what is biting us, non-judgmentally and with compassion, we can find healing.

Earlier in the week, I was up in the Sequoia National Park where there are many beautiful sequoia trees which are thousands of years old. In the museum, an exhibit explained how the trees create burls around injuries caused by fire or lightening or by branches breaking. The exhibit told us that a mature sequoia will have healed from many wounds. The same can be said for the mature human. We all have wounds, and while we nurse them and keep checking on them they continue to be causes of pain, and often opportunities for sin, as they keep us stuck in resentments and old patterns. But when we look at them and offer them to God for healing they can become places of growth and new life.

There’s an English expression, a nest of vipers, which is used to describe a group of iniquitous people gathered together. We find it in Matthew’s gospel where John the Baptizer calls the Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers.” Maybe the plague of poisonous snakes in Numbers is a reflection of the Israelites themselves – in their grumbling and complaining they were behaving like a nest of vipers and in creating the model snake, Moses was holding up a mirror to them. Often it is difficult for us to see our shadow sides- it takes others to let us know where we are falling down. Families do that – and so do faith communities. As well as seeing God’s love expressed in each other, we may see our shadow sides reflected, and that can be very hard. Only when we see our shadow side, only when we acknowledge our shortcomings in the light of God’s compassionate love, can we heal those places in us which prevent us from being compassionate and Christ-like ourselves.

Now let’s look at Jesus’ statement. Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and a Jewish leader, came to Jesus under cover of darkness and admitted that he saw Jesus as a teacher sent from God. In their conversation Jesus talks about his role as the Son of God; just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Now we know that the serpent Moses lifted up represented the thing that was biting the people; so how does Jesus represent what is biting us?

Jesus’ life shows us what we might be – we too are daughters and sons of God, we are imitators of Christ. The end of his earthly life also represents what we most fear; being shunned by friends, publicly shamed, wrongfully accused, tortured, stripped naked, horribly killed and dying. That just about covers the gamut of our worst fears.  His death also represents the worst that we humans can do to each other, so as we look on the cross we have to admit that we too can get caught up in scapegoating and violence. Our violence toward one another is kept in check by our civilization but it seems to boil just below the surface until and unless it is redeemed and transformed by Jesus’ redemptive power. As the reading from Ephesians said, “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

Because that was the amazing thing about Jesus. He wasn’t violent. In his very refusal to engage in violence he held a mirror up to the Jewish leaders and they didn’t like the reflection they saw. They didn’t like seeing that in their religious zeal they were oppressing others and even keeping them from God. Jesus’ ministry brought him into direct confrontation with the religious authorities.

So when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he was representing what bites us; our basically violent natures and our deepest fears of each other’s violence. In looking at the cross we see that which is hidden from us… that those whom we blame are not the cause of our distress. The cause of our distress is our own human nature.

But, as the writer to the Ephesians says, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Or to put it in other words, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Healing is available. Healing is available from whatever is biting you. Your snakes may be inner ones – fear of growing old, of being a failure, of having never achieved much, of not being able to make a living, of not having enough to survive – or they may be outer ones. When you lift these things up into the light of God’s love healing happens. I hasten to add that that does not mean that you will be rich and prosperous – we only have to look at Jesus’ life to know that healing does not mean an end to struggle. But healing does mean inner peace and serenity.

Because when we are healed we know the truth of God’s love deep down in our innermost selves. We know that we too have been raised up and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. That is our reality as the children of God. When we are able to live in that reality, the problems of this life take their rightful place not as disasters, not as things that bite and kill us, but as nuisances which we can use to bring us closer to God. Our reality is that snake bites are just snake bites because our life comes through the unconditional and eternal love of God.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Selma and the Temple

John 2:13-22

In a couple of weeks, Bishop Mary will be visiting St Benedict's, and will be receiving several people into the Episcopal Church. This is a time when we all get to renew our baptismal vows, so this morning I want to take a little time to reflect on a couple of them. So please turn to page 305 in the BCP;
Celebrant      Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
                 your neighbor as yourself?

Celebrant      Will you strive for justice and peace among all 
                 people, and respect the dignity of every human 

Please find one or two other people and reflect together on what these mean to you and how you try to live them out in your life. I’m not going to ask you to report back to the whole group, so you can be totally honest.

Today’s gospel reading shows Jesus gripped by passion. This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but Jesus “consumed with zeal”. Under Jewish law, people would bring animals to the priest to be ritually slaughtered and then they were usually cooked and eaten. These sacrifices were made for many reasons including thanksgiving and to end ritual impurity. Jesus would have been very familiar with this system, and it is unlikely that he was wanting to get the market itself out of the temple forecourts.

What incensed him was that the people selling animals or changing Roman money into the Jewish or Tyrian money that was used to buy them, were cheating the poor. They were charging high prices and putting an obstacle in their way to God. This may have been especially true at the Passover since Jerusalem would have been filled with as many as 3 or 400,000 people come for the celebration. Merchants put up their prices because everyone wanted a sacrificial animal.

So instead of being a service, providing animals had become a racket – it would be like us charging everyone high prices to come to church at Easter.

At the beginning of Lent, our season of special intention, we read a passage from Isaiah in which the prophet declares that God isn’t interested in sacrifices or fasting. Why not? Because these shows of piety are hollow unless they are accompanied by social justice.
Is not this the fast that I choose, says Isaiah,
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 

Piety without social justice is empty. Jesus dramatically disrupts the marketplace of those who are scalping pilgrims. Prayer does not take place in a den of thieves.

How does this apply to us today? We live in a world where the richer are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The top 1% of the world’s population own as much as 50% of the world’s wealth and the next 5% own 42% of what’s left.  You and I are somewhere in that top 6%.

We live in a country where inequality continues to grow; and a county where you can’t live comfortably on minimum wage even if you work full-time, which has a very poor record of providing housing for the homeless, and where 40,000 people - that’s almost 15% - will worry about putting food on the table at least once this year.

Here at St. Ben’s we have a good record of providing meals and offering breakfast items for those who are homeless and need to use the Prado Day Center. We also provide inexpensive clothing and household items through the Abundance Shop – and even give clothes away when asked.

But these good deeds do nothing to address the basic issues of social justice in our time. They do nothing to address the causes of inequality. They do nothing to prevent homelessness increasing. They do nothing to end hunger, even here in this food rich place. Our good deeds do not require us to give sacrificially, to have a lower standard of living, to live simply so that others may simply live.

What would the prophet say to us today? Is our piety empty, betrayed by the way we continue to exploit others and do nothing to try to change our social system? Most of us are winners. Most of us have nice homes and food on the table. Yes, we may worry about how to pay the bills but most of us don’t worry about where we will sleep or whether we will eat. We are winners in the social system and so there is little incentive for us to change anything.

Little incentive except the moral imperative of our faith.

Jesus was deeply concerned with the poor and the marginalized, those living on the edges of society. As his followers we too are concerned and that leads us to take action to make things different. We live in a “free” society where there is no dictator to tell us how to do things and no centralized economy. But with that freedom comes great responsibility because we are corporately responsible for those who govern and for the decisions they make on our behalf. The capitalist system rewards the acquisition of capital and so it will always make the rich richer and the poor poorer; we need leaders and decision makers who will govern for the good of all the people, not just the rich, not just special interests.

But if we, the voters, do nothing, they have no incentive to do that.

The Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, famously said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” As its International Women’s Day today we should probably change the language to “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Many of us feel that church and politics should not mix, but we are called to bring God’s reign on earth. We are called to work for social justice. We are called not just to feed and clothe the poor but to stop them getting poorer.

The only way we can do that is by exercising our rights as citizens, by using the political process provided in our civil society. Of course it’s a screwed up system; anything human made gets screwed up by the sin matrix. But we serve the Christ who has shown the sin matrix to be a big scam.

If our piety is not to be empty, then we too must be filled with zeal for God’s house – which we understand to be the cosmos and all that is in it. And our zeal will lead us to work for change. And that will lead us to write letters to editors and elected representatives; to sign petitions, and attend meetings and vigils and demonstrations. Because that is what it takes for us to use our God-given power to work for equality.
The civil rights movement did not succeed by prayer and sermons. It succeeded by taking non-violent political action. There is no incentive for our world to change for the better unless we, the people of God, take action. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was a symbolic act just as the Selma to Montgomery march was a symbolic act. It was one of the events that led to his death, just as the violence of Bloody Sunday when 600 marchers were attacked by police was the result of their determination to make the world more equal.
Fifty years later, the world is still unequal. I am sure, like me, you have been horrified by the reports coming out of Ferguson of police discrimination and fines being used to shore up the finances of the city. I don’t need to tell you that although African-Americans constitute only 12 percent of America's population, they represent 40 percent of the nation's prison inmates. Race continues to be an issue in this country. In our comfortable, predominantly white church it is easy to pretend that this is nothing to do with us.

But we know that we are all inter-connected in the great web of life through the Holy Spirit. Race is our issue. So is hunger, so it homelessness, so is political corruption, so is climate change.

And now it is time to revisit our baptismal vows. Please turn again to page 305.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
                 your neighbor as yourself?

Celebrant      Will you strive for justice and peace among all 
                 people, and respect the dignity of every human 

Please take a few minutes to consider them. You may want to share again with a neighbor or just on your own, ask what God might be saying to you this morning.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

God in the Darkness

One of the wonderful things about living in Los Osos is how dark it can get at night and how many stars we can see. One night just over a week ago, my spouse went out in the dark to empty the trash. She was alarmed by a looming, moving, rustling presence around my car. It took her a few moments to identify this mysterious being. A bouquet of birthday balloons had been tied to the side mirror. What appeared to be a dark monster turned out to be a loving gift.

On Thursday mornings during Lent, Lorienne Schwenk and Faye Hogan are leading a conversation about Walking in the Dark, based on the book of that name by Barbara Bradford Taylor. In her book, Taylor points out that in the language we use to describe our faith we often contrast light and dark, with light being good and darkness being bad. Taylor criticizes churches which emphasize the positive, suggesting even if subtly, that if you are experiencing a time of darkness in your own life then somehow you have moved away from God, and just need to step back for the darkness to dissipate. She calls these full solar churches – where you have to live in the sun.

The idea that goodness and light follow those who love and serve God while darkness is the heritage of those who turn away from him, is definitely found in the Bible. Scholars identify four different strands of tradition in the early books of the Old Testament. One of these is known as the Deuteronomist. This tradition maintains that if Israel kept their covenant with Yahweh then all would be well with them, and it interprets all the bad things that happen as the direct result of their failure to keep the law. This concept is echoed in the Psalms and Proverbs which often talk about how the wicked are laid low and the good are exalted. But the book of Job offers a corrective. As you will remember, Job is a good man who is prosperous until suddenly everything goes wrong in his life; his children are killed when a building collapses, his livestock are decimated by illness and he himself developed a terrible skin disease. But this was not because he failed to keep the law or because he was not faithful to God. It was just ‘cos. Life happens. And it’s not always pretty.

Job did not experience full solar living, and today’s gospel shows that we cannot expect it either. We cannot expect everything to go well all the time. We follow Christ whose life led him to horrible persecution and a painful death. Jesus’ personal covenant with God was such that in order to fulfill his destiny, in order to be truly who he was called to be, he had to keep going despite the consequences.

And Jesus lets us know that we too have crosses to accept and carry.

It can’t have been easy for Jesus to anticipate his death. It is never easy when we are told that we have a limited time to live; coming to terms with impending death is one of the hardest challenges of age or sickness. The will to live is such a strong force within us that our mortality is hard for us to bear. So Jesus seems to over-react a bit to Peter, who was just trying to be helpful. “Get thee behind me Satan!” Whew! Haven’t we all done that? Having decided to do something we don’t really want to do, we snap at someone who suggests that we don’t really have to do it.

Jesus’ cross was a natural outcome of his living a life which challenged the religious and political authorities of his time, just as Martin Luther King’s assassination was a natural outcome of his living a life which challenged the religious and political authorities and demanded equality. Neither of them felt that they had a choice. It was what they got to do. Our crosses are not something we have to seek out, but pain and suffering that occur as a natural part of our own struggle to follow our calling to live authentic lives of holiness and compassion. Some of us have suffering which is evident to other people, but all of us have inner difficulties which can also be extremely painful as we seek to became whole and to let go of the patterns and traumas of the past which hold us back from following the joy of our own true nature.

Truly living in the light is knowing that darkness is part of the package, and supporting each other in those difficult times when it all seems overwhelming. Taking up our cross means accepting the challenges that we have been given and working with them instead of trying to run away, or allowing ourselves to feel like victims or unloved because God allows us to have these problems. Jesus accepted the challenge of his life which was to bring him pain and suffering. He accepted the cross. The first thing we get to do is to accept our cross, and then we can work with it, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

We live in an age when the world seems to be falling apart. The threat of climate change and environmental catastrophe is overshadowed by the horrors of the violence and war in Syria and Iraq to mention just two places; the rise of radical fighting groups in Nigeria and Libya who seem to count human life as worthless; and the martyrdom of Christians who stand in their way.

Jesus lived through great darkness and in the grace of God he conquered it, by living non-violently and refusing to return evil for evil. He is our model. Whatever the darkness in our own lives, God is as present there as she is in the light. We will conquer the darkness not by using its own methods to fight it, but by practicing forgiveness and compassion and working for justice. In fact, talk of conquering the darkness is not always the best frame. Jesus has conquered the ultimate darkness, and for us the challenge is to live courageously through it, knowing that it is not nearly as powerful as it seems.

Sometimes we sing the hymn “I want to walk as a child of the light” which says in the refrain, “In him there is no darkness at all, the day and the night are both alike.” God is present in the dark times as well as the sunny, solar powered days. Our experience of the cross is that it is dark and burdensome, but even there God has not forsaken us. For God the darkness is not darkness at all. It is a part of human life.
In fact, some darkness is friendly or at least, benign. Rather than gathering everything we think of as dark into one bundle and labeling it bad or scary or to be avoided, darkness needs discernment. Some of it is personal. Some of it is global. Some of it we have to live with and come to terms with, some of it can be changed and enlightened as we grow in God. God is present in all of it. “Yea even though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me,” says the psalmist.

This is the great hope and the great promise of our faith. Not that we will live in happiness every day of our lives, not that everything will turn out well and we will be prosperous and comfortable, not that if we turn to Jesus we don’t need to suffer. No. Our hope is that even in the darkest moments, God is still present. In fact, God may be most present when we least feel his touch.

Whatever the challenges you are facing right now, whatever the pains and the fears, God is with you. God’s blessing surrounds you. You are beloved. You can accept your cross, knowing that you are not alone and that as you live out the inevitabilities of your life, seeking always to love God and your neighbor as yourself, you are following the path of Christ. And it is in that path that we find our true fulfillment.

Let us pray

Holy One, give us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.