Easter IV Year B: Fruit, Or Lack Thereof

Acts 4:5-12
I John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

In a few days, we will be celebrating the completion of our latest building project, and hopefully, the last building project we will have, at least for awhile. Our new bell tower is the fruit of a lot of labor expended by the community, by our donors, and by all the people around the world who pray for us daily. We should be proud of it, and of the work done to finally finish it. It is good to see fruit of that sort.

However, it is not the same for our prayer life, our monastic life, and our Christian life. Contrary to the joy of seeing our new building and hearing the bell, I hope none of us ever sees the fruit of his monastic life, his prayer life, or his Christian life. I do not say that I hope our lives have no fruit – I just hope that we never see it. Because if we see the fruit of our work, then we are in danger of working in order to get the results, rather than working out of love. Basing our lives on results is a sure plan for disappointment and grief, while basing our lives on love is a sure plan for joy. The results of our lives are not our business, they are completely up to the Holy Spirit. We just need to willingly put in the work, and knowing we are working because of love for ourselves, our God, and our neighbor is a joy that never depends on any results.

There is a book in our library (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere by Sister Ayya Khema) by a nun who state that it is always better to practice constancy than to practice patience, because often, patience implies that we are waiting for thing to get better, while constancy often implies that it doesn’t matter if things ever get better. If we are waiting for things to get better, we are in for never-ending disappointment. If we are living in the joy of God’s love even within our imperfect and difficult situation, we are already in heaven, and we bring heaven to the world around us.

I must admit that this past winter, I was not to apt to live in joy and constancy. I chose instead to grudgingly wait for the building to be finished, for the post office to stop changing things,for the snow to stop, for our new database to be finished, and for a dozen healthy people to join the monastery and do most of the work. It was not a happy winter, and that was my choice. I chose to allow everchanging things control my thoughts, words, and actions, rather than choosing to allow the always reliable God to form my life. I chose to demand happiness rather than to live in joy. I wanted everything but me to change, or more accurately, I wanted everything I didn’t like to change, rather than growing up and dealing with reality.

Maybe someday, I will learn better. Maybe, someday, I will learn the truth of what John says in our second reading this morning: “..God is greater than our hearts..” No matter our fears, worries, and uncertainties, God is greater. No matter our physical, financial, or organizational state, God is greater. We only need to heed John’s words and: “…have boldness before God…and obey his commandments…” Then we will “…abide in him, and he abides in us…”, and we will know it because of  “…the Spirit that he has given us.”

Abiding in God and having God abide in us is so much better than choosing to be dragged around by the ever-changing happenings around us, and by our ever-changing reactions and emotions. The only real thing is God, everything else is quickly gone and unreliable. As Peter says in our first reading this morning: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” God is real, and is constant. We can be real and constant, but only in and through God. Our fears, worries, and conflicts will not go away, but they will no longer be the bases of an ever-shifting queasy way of life. Real life is found only in God. May we choose that constancy and reality. May we choose the unspeakable joy that comes with constancy and perseverance. Our lives will have fruit, but none of it is our business. We monks are lucky and blessed in that area- we hardly ever get to see the fruit of our prayer common life and prayer. Rolling up our sleeves and working, gathering in the church to pray, being grateful for all the things everyone else does for us – all of that is our business.

Even with our new buildings, they will need to be cleaned and repaired, and someday fall down. Even without snow on the ground today, it will be back soon enough and need to be shoveled. Even with a new database in the office, it will need to be maintained. Even with new members in the monastery, we will always be wanting more to lessen the work load. Right now, we can simply be ok and abide in God. Right now, we have work to do, gathering at God’s table, and even though we are the guests, we have to set the table.   AMEN

Lent IV Year B: Encrusted By Our Fear

Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Contrary to what a lot of people say, or what a lot of people used to say, human nature is not bad, corrupt, or sinful. Human nature is good, as Paul says in our second reading this morning: “..we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” In fact, if human nature were not good, then murder, greed, hatred, and oppression would not be corrupt or sinful – they would be laudable because those things would be a fulfillment of our created purpose. However, it does not take a very hard look to see that we do not live up to the good nature God has created for us. Instead, we quickly and profoundly create a second nature for ourselves, and we are so used to it that we forget about our true good nature and think that our self-imposed second nature is the true one.

The amazing thing is, every single person who has ever lived has been successful at creating their own self-centered second nature that so easily crusts over their true God-centered nature. Some people have created their second nature with a lot of help from their families and societies, others have done it in spite of the warnings of their families and societies. There has been only one exception ,and that is why Jesus is called fully human – he lived his true nature (the true God-centered human nature).
One of the amazing things about the second natures that we impose on ourselves is the fact that even though we make them, we can not escape them. We can and should do a lot of things to lessen their poisonous effects on ourselves and our surroundings, but we can not get rid of them. Only God can and does crack them open so that we can crawl out of our little hells and live in the heaven he has created for us. Only God can and does call us to live fully human lives along with Jesus. We often think heaven is too much for us and crawl back into our second nature, but God is always calling us to come out again to taste and see how good real life is.

God lives a true human life in Jesus and calls us to do the same. All we have to do is ask God to save us from ourselves and keep looking toward Jesus who calls us to share his life. We deserve the heaven that God has made for us, because we are good. God created us that way, and nothing we can do will ever change that, no matter how hard we try. We just need to stop pretending that we are doomed to follow our sinful nature. We will keep on sinning, but that is certainly not natural.

It takes a lifetime to get used to not living in our second natures, so we must never be discouraged when we do sin. We must simply acknowledge the truth of it, accept the responsibility for it and consequences of it, and know that God forgives us. Then we must once again rely on God to help us grow into our true natures. God will help. He offers himself to us and feeds us with himself. May we take that help and that food and keep growing, grateful for ourselves and our vacations as God’s children.   AMEN

Epiphany VI Year B: I Do Choose

II Kings 5:1-14
I Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Jesus heals people. As it happens in our gospel story this morning, so it can happen anytime, anywhere, with anyone. We say to Jesus: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”, and Jesus says: “I do choose. Be made clean.”. We might think the evidence does not support that, but we need to take into consideration how often we ask Jesus to make us clean versus how often we ask Jesus to solve certain problems in certain specific ways. Jesus knows clean – Jesus knows health and wholeness and happiness. We do not, at least not fully. We are not totally clueless about the fullness of human life, but we need to be careful that our partial knowledge does not lull us into thinking that we understand everything that needs to be done, and therefore if things don’t turn out that way, God has failed us.

Of course, there are tragedies in life, but we can’t blame God for what humans do to each other or to the world around us. We can’t blame God for allowing the planet to run the way it does, because if it ran any differently, we would not be here to enjoy it. We can blame ourselves for not living withing the boundaries of physical and social laws and thereby bringing bad consequences upon ourselves and others. Others can also blame us for the trouble we cause them.

But even with all that, there are unavoidable human tragedies that we do have a right to be angry about and question God for letting them happen. God doesn’t seem to mind us doing that, but God also doesn’t seem to be too quick to provide answers that we can understand. The Book of Job is a good example of that. What God does instead of providing answers is to live a human life along with us, with all its tragedies and joys. Jesus had his share of bad times, and never tried to pretend they weren’t bad. He asked God to allow the worst of it to pass him by, and when they didn’t, he asked God why he had been forsaken. We, like Jesus, can be fully human and cry to God for answers, even sometimes doubting God’s presence.

But also like Jesus, we can be fully human and choose to share God’s healing with those around us. We don’t know all the answers, but we can do what we can to help. We can also be fully human and ask others for help. We can live in such a way that our lives don’t add to the problems of the world, and sometimes we can even live in such a way that our lives reduce some of the problems in the world.

Jesus heals people. He doesn’t always do it the way we want it done, but he does do it. We just need to ask to be healed, and we need to allow others to ask in their own way, and in their own time.   AMEN

Epiphany II Year B: 10,000 Hours

I Samuel 3:1-20
I Corinthians 6:11b-20
John 1:43-51

It takes a lot of maturity to live the truth of Paul’s statement that we heard in our second reading this morning: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All thing s are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” All of our appetites and emotions are good. God made them and gave them to us, so they can’t be bad, but we so often allow them to become skewed and harmful to us and the world around us. In their out-of-balance state, they induce us to falsely live our lives as if everything were about us, rather than living in the truth that everything is about God.

Every once in a while, we come to our senses and remember our true vocations as children of God, and realize that we want to make the world a better place – we want to live fully and help others live fully. In order to do that, we need to bring our appetites and emotions back into their natural, beautiful, helpful state, and that involves making free choices to not allow them to become out of order once again. Those things we do to cultivate healthy appetites are known as disciplines. Unfortunately, discipline can sometimes have a negative meaning for us, because we confuse it with punishment, but the two are not at all the same. Discipline is anything that helps us grow in our chosen vocation. Disciplines are things that disciples do.

Many vocations require discipline in order to fully succeed at them. There is a book in our library that mentions a study done of professional musicians. The study found that in almost every musician interviewed it took roughly 10,000 hours of practice before become competent enough to play professionally. It did not matter if the person showed any talent at the beginning of his musical instruction or not; for persons with either natural talent or not, the 10,000 hour rule prevailed. The people doing the study thought that was interesting, and went on to interview professional athletes and mathematicians. In the cases of both of those professions, it also took roughly 10,000 hours of practice and study before the skills reached a professional level. Once again, it did not mater whether or not the subjects showed any talent or not at the beginning.

The world needs more virtuoso clarinetists, home run hitters, and prime number cataloguers. They are all channels of God’s grace to us. But even more so, we need more people who are less petty, impatient, and loudmouthed know-it-all. At least I know I need to show fewer of those characteristics. That is why discipline is so important in Christian vocation, whether or not it is of the monastic variety. We need to constantly be reminded that we are not the center of the universe, that God is the center of the universe. We need to constantly expand our patience and objectivity so that we can become both more tolerant and more honest. We need to free ourselves from so much self-absorption so that we can become freeflowing channels of God’s grace.

We also need to remember that Christian disciplines are never ends in themselves, they are only means to an end. When discipline of any sort becomes an end in itself, it is no longer discipline – it is a neurosis (something odd we do for no good reason). The end is growth toward and in God. Since God is infinite, the end can never be reached, but we must keep striving for it. Since we are finite, we will always be failing in our growth. 10,000 hours is nothing compared to eternity, but Christian discipline has something that practicing scales and arpeggios and lifting weights and solving equations do not have; grace given by God to both begin and complete the task.

We love the world – truly, madly, and deeply, and we love ourselves and our God in the same way. And so we joyfully do what it takes for us to express that love and put it into practice, no matter how slow the process. Our world is worth the effort, we are worth the effort, and God is certainly worth the effort it takes to love ever more deeply. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial all the time and in all quantities. We can share, we can wait, we can give away. It is worth it in the end, because then all things are more precious and real to us. Its all about God, not about us.   AMEN

Advent III Year B: Coming Attractions

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8,19-28

We have been hearing a lot the last few weeks about Jesus coming to us, either for the first time or as a return visit. We hear it in our scripture readings, our non-scripture readings, our sermons, and our antiphons sung before and after we recite scripture. We hear about Jesus coming for the first time many years ago in Palestine (as in our gospel story this morning about John the Baptist), about Jesus coming again an untold number of times as we and others invite him into our lives, and we hear about Jesus coming again to us finally as our world as we know it ends (as in Paul’s letter that we heard this morning).

Jesus is not the only person people are expecting to return. Some people set an extra chair at their table in case Elijah shows up while they are eating. King Arthur is said to be awaiting his return at a crisis time. Tupac Shakur’s return from hiding is also awaited by many people. Where I am from, some people are waiting for Pancho Villa to return and help them fight off the government on both sides of the Rio Grande. Even amongst the people who are waiting for Jesus to return, there are differences in opinion about how he will do so, and many people back up those opinions with scripture verses to prove their point, no matter how different it might be from any of the other return scenarios. Some say Jesus will return by filling our hearts with love and kindness so that we see to it that no one ever goes hungry again and no more wars are ever started. Others say that he will return standing on a big cloud – in fact, he will be so big and the cloud will be so big, every one around the world will see it at the same time. Others say he will return fours years from next Sunday in Earth orbit commanding a navy of heavily armed starships filled with combat angels to drive away the reptile people from planet Nibiru who are using humans as slave labor and a food source (they really believe that).

No matter what we think about the way Jesus will return, we do need to decide what we are going to do until he does return. One of the things we can do to get ready is to get used to having him here by letting him into our lives and getting to know him (and that is not just a one-shot activity as some would have us think). We need to constantly be opening up to let Jesus be the center of our thoughts, words, and deeds (we know we need to do it a lot, because we all know how often our thoughts, words, and deeds do not have Jesus as their center).

Many people speak of sacrificing our own egos in order to let Jesus reign in us. For us right here and right now, the concept of “choosing” might be more helpful than the concept of “sacrificing”. The subtle difference in how we use those two words was made plain by an athlete interviewed on television during the last Olympic Games. She was asked about all the sacrifices that it took to become an expert in her field, and she replied that she did not believe in sacrifices, but rather that she believed in choices. She said if one really wants to do something, then one makes choices to enable her to do it – nothing grander than that.

We might want to take what she said to heart.  Many people say that being a Christian and/or a monk takes sacrifices. Unfortunately in our time and place, sacrifice often implies drama and exhibitionism. We don’t need any more of that in our world. What we do need is thoughtful choices. We need to choose to do certain things and not do certain things in order to live a life of integrity as Christians and/or as monks. Of course in other parts of the world, sacrifice is required, but here in cozy 21st century America, it is unusual to be asked to sacrifice. Every once in a while, some people are asked to do it and we should be grateful for them, and maybe if we made better choices and were consistent in putting them into practice, fewer people would need to make sacrifices. But for most of us, what we think of as sacrifice is really only the feeling of being put-upon when we are confronted with the choices involved in any vocation. Even our smallest actions have consequences, and if we really want to do certain things, then there are other things that we must either do or avoid in order to meet our commitments; in the words of the Olympic athlete: “Nothing grander than that.”

Words are merely words; the important thing is that we make straight  the way of the Lord for his coming into our world, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, whether we do that by sacrificing our selves or by simply choosing certain things and not choosing other things. Jesus said he would come back. We don’t know how or when. We just need to be as ready for it as we can be. He was with us once in Palestine, he is with us still in his disciples and in the food at the altar, he will be with us again. May we choose to welcome him.   AMEN

As He Really Is: All Saints Day 2008

Revelation 7:9-17
I John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we are not celebrating people who are holy, we are celebrating a God who is holy and makes holy what belongs to him. We from every nation, tribe, people, and language are claimed by God to be his own, marked by his own blood. Since that blood is human blood, it means that human blood is holy. As the world did not recognize Jesus, it does not recognize his mark on all of us. We should, however; we should see every person as God sees them – as his children.

We are God’s children now, but we are still waiting for the time when we will be mature enough to understand what that means. As John tells us this morning: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” Maybe that means that only through understanding God can we understand ourselves. While we are waiting for that to happen, we can respond to God’s love for us by living as best we can, which is a part of the process of understanding and becoming more like God, as John puts it: “And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

Of course we can not really purify ourselves. God does the purifying, but we are given the choice of allowing God to do that or not. It is a scary choice to make, because it means we have to admit that God knows what is better for us than we do. So we must rely on those who have gone before us to show us that it can be done, even though they were often reluctant to go through the process. We can rely not only on their example, but on their prayers. As we gather around the altar, they are there with us, forever praising God, growing in holiness as we and they grow closer to God.

We are and will be holy, because we belong to God, and belonging to God is the definition of holy. Someday, that holiness will be more evident to ourselves and others around us, as it is already evident to God. Then we will join with the poor in spirit, the gentle, the mournful, the upright, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the truth, and we will see each other and God as he truly is, because we will be like him. AMEN

Proper 21 Year A: Karma Land Mines

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32
I have often thought that Ezekiel’s proclamation that we heard in our first reading of God’s absolution of children from the sins of their parents is incomplete. It is true that people are liable only for their own sins, but it is also true that many people suffer from the consequences of other people’s sins, including the sins of the people who came before them in the past. We can see that in children who were born of mothers who ingested dangerous substances during pregnancy. We can see it in generations of families caught in cycles of abuse. We see it in first world countries suffering from terrorists fueled by the hatred and frustration of people living in their former colonies that were pillaged by the earlier governments and business interests of those first world nations. We see it in the seemingly unsolvable racial problems caused by our own nation’s history of slavery. We see it in church denominations separated from each other because of the what seem to us to be trivial matters, but were seen in the past as issues important enough to split churches.

However, there is also the truth that just as children suffer because of the sins of their parents, we also benefit from the good things they have done. We live in a wonderful monastery associated with a wonderful denomination in a wonderful country because even though all of  the people who came before us in those institutions were sinners who sinned, they also did many good things of which we are reaping the benefits.
So we too must be careful in our actions. We are sinners who have, do, and will sin, and the people who come after us will suffer because of it. We must heed Ezekiel’s proclamation to repent and turn from our transgressions, and get new hearts and new spirits; to turn from our own selfishness and turn towards God, turning from death to life. We heard Paul talk about that in our second reading this morning, when he wrote to the church in Philippi to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard each other as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” That doesn’t mean that we should not enjoy life here and now, but it does mean that we should enjoy it in such a way that it does not leave a mess for others to clean up after us.

Of course, most people do not do evil on purpose. It does happen occasionally, but that is a topic for another sermon. Most people do selfish things without thinking about it, because human society is selfish, and that is what we are used to. First world countries pillaged their colonies because that is what first world countries were expected to do. Large landowners in this country kept slaves, because that was how things got done. People split churches because they thought the issues of the time were important enough to do so. We just can’t think outside of our box, or culture, or zeitgeist, or whatever we want to call it, and that is why it is important to pray about our occasional big decisions, as well as our daily patterns of little decisions and behaviors. Everything we do will have an impact on future generations (even the most trivial things), and even though we can never be certain of the situations in which those generations will find themselves, we must always try to put ourselves in their shoes and see how our actions and decisions will affect their lives. We must base our lives on the desire to be a blessing to all, and when we do that, we will be ever more able to think outside our box, guided by the Holy Spirit.

We are responsible only for our own actions, but we are also responsible for the impact that those actions have on everyone else throughout time and space. May we act wisely and prayerfully, always as servants whose Lord of the Universe is servant of all.  AMEN

Proper 6 Year A: Chosen People

Exodus 19:2-8a
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:23

Our scriptures today describe our job and what to expect as we perform it: our job is to bring people and God together, and we are to expect trouble while we try to do that. In our Old testament reading, God tells Moses to remind the Israelites of the dangerous path God has carried them through out of slavery in order that they might be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” They were God’s chosen people, but not chosen because they were superior or to be superior; they were simply chosen to fulfill the task of transmitting the truth of God’s love to the world around them.

The gospel story this morning is about Jesus commissioning twelve people to travel around, bringing the loving, healing mercy of God to the people around them. Jesus warns the twelve that their message will be unpopular with some powerful people who will harm them, but to do their best to keep their message of hope alive. Like the twelve, we are still disciples of Jesus, and we still have the task of bringing God’s grace to our own world. Like the Israelites, God chooses us, not because we are superior or to be superior, but to humbly serve others as God’s priests: being channels of God’s love, joy, and peace to the world around us.

And so, just like the Israelites escaping from slavery and walking through the wilderness, and just like the twelve disciples upsetting harmful social and religious structures, we will encounter trouble as we live out our vocations as God’s ambassadors. One source of trouble is the fact that being associated with God in any way brings with it high expectations of moral behavior. We will all fail to meet those standards and so will be rightly branded as hypocrites, but it does not mean that we should not expect ourselves and others to strive for them. One thing we do need to work on is to have a better understanding of morality than the often encountered childish view of morality only meaning prudishness, but that is fodder for another sermon. But even the most pure and respectable disciples of Jesus will be offensive to many of the power-holders of our greed-driven culture, because by pointing to Jesus, the disciple points away from greed.

We in this building are not in much danger of physical abuse for following Jesus, unlike the people of Myanmar or Zimbabwe or North Korea. We are much more likely to be slowly numbed and seduced by the consumer culture around us, and to slowly substitute merchandise and military strength for God. We are prone to buy disposable, polluting items to try to fill our emptiness, rather than realize that God already fills us infinitely. We won’t have horrible persecutions that we can use to help us grow, as described by Paul in our second reading today. But we do have the choice of letting our daily minor trials and our occasional major catastrophes making us either bitter or sweeter. Choosing the sweeter option is not easy, but it does make our job as disciple of Jesus easier. We won’t always choose the sweeter option, at least not at first, but hopefully we will come around to it, and help each other choose it so that we may be better channels of God’s grace to our world, living out our vocations as a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” as we travel the difficult road from slavery to our promised land, bringing as many others along as we can.   AMEN