Friends of God: St. Benedict’s Day 2015

Genesis 12: 1 – 4a
Ephesians 3: 14 – 19
John 15: 9 –17

We are God’s friends. We just heard Jesus say: “I do not call you servants any longer… I have called you friends… “. It is good to be with friends. When we are with friends, we can be ourselves without worrying about appearances. We can do ordinary, everyday things and find great satisfaction in them: sitting on the couch, riding around in the car with no particular destination, goofing off at work, talking about silly or stupid things, or maybe not talking at all. Friendships thrive on the ordinary, everyday things in life, not on the spectacular. Spectacular things may happen, but they can not be the basis of friendship, because spectacles don’t last, and neither do those things based upon them.

And our friendship with God is meant to last. Right before Jesus calls his disciples friends, he says “abide in my love”. Right after he calls them friends, he tells them to “bear fruit, fruit that will last”. Both abiding and bearing fruit take time and require stability. They can’t be rushed, and they involve a lot of unspectacular, everyday work. We might not think of abiding taking a lot of work, but just think of all the people you know who can’t sit still for five minutes, much less keep the same address for a year or two. We might have a better concept of the labor involved in bearing fruit, not merely from the viewpoint of having a summer garden, but even more so of planting and tending an orchard or vinyard. Abiding in God’s love and bearing fruit are much the same: they take a lot of work, patience, fortitude, and time, and they might not be the most glamorous thing to do, but they are what God our friend has asked of us.

We heard Paul writing to the Ephesians about abiding and bearing fruit when he prays that they “may be strengthened in their inner being… and that Christ may dwell in their hearts… as they are being rooted and grounded in love.” All of that suggests a lengthy process, not a one shot emotional or spiritual rocket to heaven. Rockets may go off every now and then, but they are not necessary, because heaven is not a place we need to get to – heaven is a place we need to cultivate and abide in. If we abide in Jesus, and allow him to abide in us, then heaven can and should be wherever we are, and that is why we need to work so patiently to bring it to fruition.

We bring heaven to our world in simple ways; making God’s love a concrete thing for those around us. A tv preacher once said an unusually smart thing by commenting that people don’t make love in bed, they celebrate love in bed. Love is made earlier in the day by cooking, cleaning, and otherwise earning a living. That’s what we should do as God’s friends – at home, at work, in the monastery or at our parish – making love for and with others by doing our simple, daily round of chores in peace and joy, thereby slowly and surely helping to bring heaven to those around us. Every once in a while we might have the chance to do something spectacular, and of course we should do the best we can when that happens, but we shouldn’t be disappointed if the opportunity never occurs. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said: “we don’t need to do big things, we only need to do the little things with love”. The big things might seem more important and heroic, but in the end they are much easier than the little things, because the little, everyday, ordinary things never end, and they can easily become drudgery if not done in thoughtfulness and love.

The story of Abram which we heard today is a good example of patiently abiding and bearing fruit. It may sound strange to say that a man who spent his entire adult life wandering around the middle east is a good example of patiently abiding, but Abram’s home was in God, no matter where he pitched his tent. Abram lived in God’s promise through good times and bad, through doubt and surprise, and because of his constancy, produced fruit that is still blessing the world. A lot of spectacular things happened while Abram traveled (including having his name changed to Abraham), and we read about them to help us in our life with God, but it was the ordinary, everyday work that made those big things possible: pulling down the tents, setting them up again, grazing and watering the flocks, finding suitable places to camp, calming fights between wives and concubines. That’s a lot of hard work, even with all his slaves. We should be thankful for his work and patience, and we should follow his example.

And so today, in that spirit, we remember one of God’s most unspectacular of saints —Benedict. He is not very popular, although he is becoming more so. Most people don’t know what he did. When people look for an icon or medal bearing his image, they usually have to search through pages of catalogues filled with pictures and stories of several other more glamorous saints, and even then are lucky to find anything in his memory (although it is getting easier to do that, also). However, the work that he did in setting forth a way of life based on patiently abiding in Christ and bearing fruit from that relationship has had long term effects that most of those other more popular figures can’t claim. We should be thankful for his work and patience, and follow his example, bringing God’s love to our world as best we can in our own time and place with joy, constancy, and peace. And now in his memory and honor as we continue our festival of the mundane, let us with thankful, ordinary, everyday hearts prepare to meet at this familiar table for yet one more meal with the God who calls us “friend”. AMEN

 

Lent III Year B: People Are More Important Than Rules

Exodus 20:1 — 17
I Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2: 13 — 22

We hear the saying a lot: “People are more important than rules.”, and it is a good thing to hear and remember. Rules are good, but people are always more important. That upsets us sometimes, because we all know how much easier it is to follow a set of rules than it is to consistently love other people and treat them with kindness and compassion. We sometimes forget that the reason we have rules is to help us live richer and deeper lives, both individually and corporately, and instead of using the rules to free us from our more harmful tendencies, we fall into the trap of becoming slaves to the rules, fearful of breaking them.

One area where that commonly occurs is in our relationship with God, or our spiritual life, if you would like to call it that. Human history is filled with examples of hatred, persecution, and even war caused by disagreements concerning religious matters. Sadly, many of these unfortunate episodes are sparked by disagreements over surprisingly petty things: the proper way to hold one’s hand while crossing oneself, the use of musical instruments in public worship services, the wearing of neckties by men. Of course, these minor incidents are only the excuses needed to start the trouble – the real reasons are an abundance of fear and a lack of love. We are fearful of breaking the rules and upsetting God, so we forget about loving other people. Yet, as Christians we say that God’s most complete revelation is not as a set of rules, but as a person – Jesus.

We see Jesus today as he comes to the temple in Jerusalem, which was supposed to be a focal point in the nation’s relationship with God; the place where God and the world met. He sees it filled with people making business deals to help them meet their ritual duties. This story often brings images of corrupt merchants being driven out by a Jesus who is angered because they are taking advantage of the people coming to the temple to worship. However, we shouldn’t automatically jump to that conclusion. It may very well be that many of these merchants were not cheating their customers – they were simply selling them the materials they needed to fulfil their religious obligations. People would travel long distances to the temple, and transporting the animals needed for sacrifice was sometimes not feasible, so they would bring money (no less a sacrifice) to the temple and then exchange it for the prescribed animal. In a similar fashion, those who came to give money could not offer the common currency, since it contained forbidden images – perhaps that of the emperor or a pagan deity. So they exchanged the money they had (once again, often not a small sacrifice) for acceptable temple coins. Of course there probably were some cheats among the merchants in the temple courtyard, and there most likely were some shady business deals going on. But in all likelihood, many of the people were quite sincere in what they were doing – trying to follow the rules as best they could.

If that is the case, then Jesus’s actions might seem a little rash. That notion might make some people uncomfortable, but if we truly believe that Jesus is God in human form, then we shouldn’t be surprised when he acts like a human being. Jesus is frustrated by what he sees: so much worry and fuss over the details of religion, while the essence of it – love – is so easily forgotten. In fact, some of the religious laws that had slowly come into being over the centuries since the exodus from Egypt and the Ten Commandments were so difficult to obey that many of the poorer people could not fulfill them, and the minority of the people who could looked down upon them as sinners. Jesus was witnessing the triumph of rules over people, and he is so grieved by it that he not only disrupts some of the details of the temple worship, he calls into question the temple itself.

He does not say the temple, or any of its laws and rituals, is bad. He merely asserts the authority of another temple: his body, where God and the world were united. By doing so, he upholds the sanctity of all human bodies as temples of the most high God. After all, we are made in the image of God. Furthermore. God was made in our image when God lived a human life as Jesus of Nazareth. Because of creation, we bear God’s image; because of the incarnation, God bears our image. We are doubly holy temples, where God and the world meet; each one of us bringing the presence of God into our world as we become channels of peace, love, joy, and health.

We have rules now in our society and church that are different from some of the biblical laws – that is fine, we are in slightly different times and situations. Still, the rules are there to help us grow in our vocations as temples, but we must never forget that it is the people who are holy, not the rules – no matter how good the rules are. That does not give us the license to follow only those rules that we choose to obey, but it does give us the responsibility to follow them prudently and mindfully – purposely using them as tools to help us grow in love for our God, our neighbors, and ourselves – which as we recall, Jesus says is the essence of all religious laws.

As living temples, we have built into us all the requirements we need to fulfil that law, even though we might not always nave the inclination to do so. That is why we still study the biblical rules gaining insights into how they can help us live in our, own time and place, and that is why we pray seeking to know God and ourselves better as we build our relationship with God through time spent in silent conversation and contemplation. We also look at the current laws and regulations, both in our church and in our nation, to see now they might be changed or interpreted differently to help us live together in peace and flourish as the unique and wonderful individuals God has created us to be.

We have a wonderful reminder of our vocations as temples of God here at the altar. Soon we will have the opportunity to come to the table and receive concrete and visible signs of Jesus into our lives. We might not understand exactly how that happens, but by faith we can then take the Jesus in us and give him to others. As the altar is prepared, it is treated with great respect, as is the bread and wine that we believe becomes for us the body and blood of Christ – the life of God in humanity. It is right that we show such reverence to holy things, but only if we are prepared to show the same reverence to everyone we meet everyday of our lives, for they too are holy. It may be more difficult to respect those around us than it is to respect the special things at the altar, and that is why we need to be aware of the reason we come to this table. We do it in remembrance of Jesus – God’s revelation to us that people are important: far more important than any rules.

So let us make this trip, and every trip to the altar into a time of growth as we become more and more aware of the holiness of the Body of Christ on the table as well as in the people around us. Let us reverence each other and ourselves as God’s image. Let us bring God’s grace to our world while never forgetting to accept it from others, as we grow in love and truth as living temples.  AMEN

Take On Me: Holy Name Year B

Numbers 6:22-27
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

It is eight days after Christmas and it is time to name and circumcise the child. By naming him we recognize that he is an individual person, and by circumcising him we recognize that he is part of a group.

We are all individuals and we are all parts of several groups. One group we are part of is the church: the community that has its origins in the people who hung around Jesus. That community has grown and changed over the years, and one of the biggest changes was when it finally decided to verbally express what it had been thinking, feeling, and praying all along: “Jesus is God.”

The community has spent a lot of time and energy trying to refine and define that expression, and in the process has sometimes lost sight of another thing they knew all along: “Jesus is human.”

“Jesus is human, Jesus is God.” Human life now is part of God – not only in the sense that everything is made by God, but now also in the sense that human life is actually a part of God’s life. Since human life now belongs to God, human life is holy. Jesus had a name (given to him eight days after his birth), body parts (circumcised eight days after his birth) and was part of a group (post-exilic Roman-occupied Palestinian Jews). Therefore, human names, body parts, and groups are holy.

We should treat all of those things as the holy things that they are. But we know we don’t and so we have these recurring celebrations to remind us of what we need to do. We also need to remember that holy simply means special – set apart for a special purpose (usually in terms of things set apart for God to use.) We as individuals, as physical bodies, as groups are specially purposed to be used by God – loving the world around us as we give of ourselves.

It is eight days after Christmas and it is time to be holy.   AMEN

Proper 29 Year A (Christ The King): The Kingdom of What Is

Ezekiel 34:11-17
Ephesians I:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Our scripture readings this morning are about our relationship to God and to each other, reminding us to let God be God, and let others be themselves. When we do those things, then we can truly be ourselves, because we stop spending so much time and energy trying to take care of God’s business and the business of the people around us, giving us time to work on becoming the best person we can be. By doing that, we will truly bless the world and the people around us, and truly bless ourselves.

The prophet Ezekiel, whom we read first this morning, is reminding us that God is the shepherd and judge of all, and we are not. We should all be thankful for that, because God is a much better shepherd and much more merciful judge than any of us could ever be. As Ezekiel puts it: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep … says the Lord God … I shall judge between sheep and sheep..,” Our job is to be sheep, not the shepherd. Of course, our job is to be the best sheep we can be, and to show others by example the best way to go, but we must never try to force them to go our way. Saying that is not a call to fatalism or not caring about others and the paths they follow; we can never just happily let people wander off onto ways that are dangerous (like sheep getting lost), but really the only way we can show people the best way is to go there ourselves and offer help to those who want to follow. We must also remember that just as there are many dangerous paths, there are also many good ones — the best path for us is not always the best one for others. As the song says: “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” (U2 — One)

In the gospel reading this morning, Jesus continues this idea of helping people along the way rather than forcing them to follow. He makes it clear that righteousness does not involve making people behave the way we think they should; righteousness involves offering help to people who need it. By offering help to people, we walk the path of righteousness, and others are free to follow. This is where the analogy of humans as sheep breaks down: humans are not dumb animals. We are free individuals made in the image of God and worthy of the utmost respect. Until we realize that fact and practice it as the guiding force in our relationships with others, we really can’t offer help to others, because truly helping people is in no way akin to throwing scraps to dogs. Our desire to help people must spring from the recognition that we are all equally unique children of God, that we all have something to offer others, and that others have equally valuable gifts to offer us. We are free to offer and accept gifts, but we can never judge their validity. God is the judge. In order to make a right decision, a judge must have all the information about the case, and God is the only one who ever really has all the information. For that we should be thankful, because as was stated before, God is a much more merciful judge than we could ever be,

Of course we can use our discernment and wisdom regarding the things that are offered to us, in order to decide if accepting them will be the best for our own growth. We should also use our wisdom and discernment regarding the paths that we see others following, so that we can warn them if they are heading toward danger. But we must always do those things with prayer and humility, making sure we are motivated by love, rather than by our own preferences, fears, and prejudices. Learning how to do this — how to make valid judgments to guide our actions and words rather than invalid judgments concerning the worth of others — takes a lot of prayer and honesty about ourselves, but it is work that is well worth the effort, because it helps to make the world a little better place.

There is a famous saying from Lord Acton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The idea was not original to him; William Pitt in 1770 said: “unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” And before that Alphonse Lamartine said: “absolute power corrupts the best natures.” Of course the same idea was around long before these recorded instances, but they are all wrong – power does not corrupt us; we corrupt power. Things don’t corrupt people – we corrupt things. Power, like food, sex, and all the other good gifts from God are given to us to help us live good lives. Yet we sometimes (not always, maybe not most of the time) let those things ruin our lives and the lives of those around us. Only God has absolute power, and God is not corrupted by it .We should let God reign, not try to subvert God’s reign by assuming that we should judge others and make them follow the path we see fit. We should let God be God, let other people be themselves, and by doing so, let ourselves be ourselves.

We don’t do that because we are filthy pests crawling in the dust before the throne of a cruel God who rules according to arbitrary whims. We do it because our true dignity lies in the fact that we are children of God, and as heirs to the throne, we have a share in divine authority and power. So we must base all our actions on the integrity and legitimacy inherent in ourselves and everyone else as royal offspring. God rules by living with us, serving us, and showing us the right path by traveling it with us. The responsibility we have for each other should take the same form — leading by serving and acting, rather than by demanding and legislating.

Of course, we do have certain functions in society that put some in positions of authority over others – such as civil government, superiors in a monastic setting, and hierarchy in a work situation — and we should faithfully carry out our duties in those situations, whether it is to obey or to command or a little of both. Our world would soon fall to subhuman standards if those types of structures were not honored, and it will fall to subhuman standards if those who are given power choose to corrupt it. But as far as personal dignity and ultimate freedom go, we are all equals in the eyes of a God who also choose to partake of our equal status by living as one of us in Jesus. God is God, We are not. How lucky we are to be ourselves and no one else. May we be the best selves that we were created to be, and may we help others do the same.    AMEN

Proper 25 Year A: ABC

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18
I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

It sounds so simple: “Love God, Love you neighbor, Love yourself.” Then why don’t we do it, and why are there so many different religions, denominations, books, sermons, and other means of trying to do that simple thing? – Love. Maybe it is because it is not so simple after all, or maybe it is because we turn it from being something simple into something complex and difficult.

We think Love is difficult because Love involves others, and others freak us out. With The Other, we get scared, or infatuated, or obsessed or repulsed (that includes The Other that is ourself). But it is really only the hurting, fearful shell that we have built around our true selves that finds Love difficult. So in order to keep the greatest commandment, we need to either get rid of the shell, or heal it, or at least learn to work around it. That is the difficult part – once we do that, Love is easy, because it is the natural state of our true selves underneath the fearful hurting shell. And since we all have different shells around us (some would call it the ego, or false self, or the flesh, or fallen man, or sin), we all need different ways of breaking through it – hence all the different traditions and methods of Learning to Love God, neighbor, and ourselves. But we all do need to do something to break through the shell, and we need to not negatively judge others for choosing a different method. We need to stick with our method and persevere even with the knowledge and faith in the biggest truth that it is God alone who heals and saves us. God does that because God is Love, and since we are made in the image of God, so are we.

Once we let Love out of our shells, we start seeing that others are Love, and they are also made in the image of God – they are not scary or repulsive or objects to possess or be possessed by. They are beautiful, and so are we.   AMEN

Pastors And Priests: Peter and Paul 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16
II Timothy 4:1-8
John 21:15-19

Whether we like it or not, we are all pastors. The only choice we have in the matter is whether we will be good pastors, bringing others to God, or bad pastors, leading ourselves and others away from God. Of course, God is our ultimate leader and shepherd, as Ezekiel points out, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but if we say we are the Body of Christ, then we must recognize that some of that pastoral office falls on us. With that office comes authority and duty, both of which can either be burdensome or joyful. The vast majority of the time, our individual pastoral vocation is not expressed intentionally, but rather passively in the words and deeds that those around us hear and see.

We usually don’t know who is looking up to us for leadership, and we may never know. Most likely, the people looking to us as pastoral figures don’t know it, either – it is often unconscious. In the same manner, the people to whom we look for guidance will probably never know that we are following them. However, that doesn’t relieve any of us of our duty or authority. In fact, the knowledge that someone of whom we are unaware is learning from us should cause us to examine our lives to make sure we are setting a good example. That doesn’t mean that we should abandon our own personalities, it means that we should be always be growing into our complete, mature selves – the best unique individuals that God wants us to be. Then maybe the people around us will follow that example and be encouraged to mature in Christ, being filled with the fullness of the Godhead that Jesus brings to us.

We have heard from two good examples of pastoral leadership today: Peter and Paul. They didn’t have much in common beyond their Jewish ancestry and their relationship with Jesus. In other matters, they were often quite different. One was urbane and educated, the other uneducated. One was a citizen of the empire, the other not. They differed on their approach to spreading the gospel. They weren’t pals. However, their bond to Jesus and their desire to share him with others were far more important than their differences, and they seem to have realized that.

There are two themes in these scriptures today about Peter and Paul: perseverance and death. On the one hand, Peter is told repeatedly by Jesus to feed his sheep. On the other hand, Paul is in turn encouraging his young protege to “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully…”(II Tim 4:5) “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable”(II Tim 4:2). Those two examples speak to us of perseverance – “feed my sheep in good times and bad, feed my sheep even while you are suffering, feed my sheep to the best of your ability.” We also see a chain forming as experienced pastors hand over their duties to others: from Jesus to Peter and Paul to Timothy, and eventually down to us. That is where the theme of death appears in today’s readings. Jesus mentions Peter’s eventual death and Paul talks about his own, but neither event is seen in a morbid or fearful way. Both deaths seem to be taken for granted (and why not, it’s going to happen no matter what we do), and therefore the need for perseverance is seen in a truer light – work while you can, because one day, you can’t – work while you can, and then let others take up the task. No heroic measures are necessary, simply the need to be the strongest link in the chain that you can be.

Paul mentions a crown coming to him from the Lord after all his work. Some people see this as a reward for all his efforts, but it might be better to see it simply as work itself. After all, he doesn’t call it a crown of riches or power, but a crown of righteousness. He has done the best he could, and that knowledge is the best reward he can have at his death. It is the best reward any of us can have: standing before God, knowing that although we are far from perfect, we did our best in our own time and in our own place. Maybe we faltered sometimes, but we got back up. Maybe we strayed and led others along, but we learned our mistake and found the right path again. Maybe we didn’t even find the right path, but were looking for it to the best of our ability. All of that takes perseverance and is not easy, but we must do it anyway. Of course we should never think that it is our good work that makes God love us. God loves us because God is love. We do the right thing because of that love, not the other way around.

We have a good book in our library by a very wise nun who talks about the importance of perseverance. (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere by Ayya Khema) She says that it is better to live and work with an attitude of constancy than with an attitude of patience, because patience implies that things might get better, while constancy asserts that it is perfectly alright if they don’t. Patience means that we are working hard and biding our time until something better comes along, while constancy means that we are working hard simply because it is the right thing to do, and when we do things simply because it is right to do them, then we can live contentedly in joy and peace, instead of merely waiting for joy and peace to come. It is a little like the difference between making our world heaven or making it purgatory.

Patience, constancy, perseverance – the words we use are not as important as the life we live. The important thing is that we take seriously our roles as pastors and priests to those around us who follow our example. We all know how hard it is to always do the right thing and to live with an attitude of joyful perseverance. That is why it is so important to realize that although we do have to put in a lot of work, the result of that work is not our responsibility. It is God working through and in us who makes the whole thing possible. We merely become channels of God’s love and grace for the world around us, doing our best to open up ever more to accept that grace and pass it on to others, and in the meantime growing in love so that we can then add our own to the mix. Then after a lifetime of growth as vessels of God’s love, we can joyfully pass that job on to others, confident in the knowledge that God can and will work through others just as he does through us.

So let us be thankful for those pastors who have gone before us, and for those who lead us now, and let us set good examples for those who will come after us. For at the same time that we are all part of God’s flock: straying at times, and always needing to be fed and protected, we are also God’s arms: gathering other sheep who have strayed, feeding those who are hungry, and leading them all to safety. May we do so with joy and thanksgiving, with constancy and confidence in the knowledge that the Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want. AMEN

Proper 12 Year A: Wisdom, Understanding, Trust

I Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Solomon has wisdom and understanding, and the disciples understand what Jesus says – or so our first and third scripture readings just told us. But then we see how badly Solomon managed his own family and allowed idolatry to appear in his kingdom, and we see how much the disciples (including us) really so often don’t understand what Jesus is saying. Our middle scripture reading has Paul telling his Roman readers all about the joys of trusting God. He is right, of course. But we know how often we do not trust God – if ever.

There is nothing wrong with wisdom and understanding (in fact, they are good things), but they won’t help anyone unless they are used. Our scriptures are correct in pointing out that wisdom and understanding come from God: unless we live in the reality that God is the source of everything, we have no wisdom or understanding. But to be truly wise (to live in the reality that everything is about God, not about us) also involves trusting God as the source of everything (everything is about God, not about us). To be truly wise and understanding involves not only knowing that God is the source of all, but also living in God as the source of all.

The two really should go together: the more we understand the sovereignty and love of God, the more we can trust and rest and live in the sovereignty and love of God. The more we trust, rest, and live in the sovereignty and love of God, the more we will recognize it intellectually. Of course, we can never fully comprehend God, because God is infinite and we are not. But, we can grow more fully into our beautiful human nature, and the more we do that, we become not only more our individual unique selves, but we also become more like God (and so we can understand and trust a little bit more all the time).

There are many ways we can grow more in knowledge and trust of God: reading scripture, praying individually and corporately, being around others who are intentionally seeking to grow, giving to and serving other people, and coming to this table to be fed by God’s self. We don’t have to be immediately wise or trusting, and we will fail in those areas over and over (look at Solomon and all the disciples), but we can always grow. The people around us will also fail (even our most trusted role models will fail), so we ought to compassionately give them the same slack to grow that we would want them to give us. We all go up to the table together to get wisdom and understanding. We trust God to give it to us. And then we come back for more, because we all know how much we need it, and how much we need to trust in the only One who can give it.   AMEN

Proper 8 Year A: Proactive Humility

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Our scripture readings this morning talk about the inevitable fall that comes from self-exhaltation and the inevitable rise that comes from humility, or as Paul puts it: our sin leads to death, but God’s gift is eternal life. It is easier for us to see the truth in the first part of that statement because we have examples from history about downfalls caused by selfishness and self-centeredness and sin. It is harder for us to remember examples of humility leading to true exhaltation, because we tend to think of humility in a negative or weak way – as a way of letting people walk over us or as a way of giving up our needs because we don’t think we are worthy of having any sort of happy life. It shouldn’t be that way, because true humility requires strength and brings us a sense of our true self, rather than the common belief that humility is a sign of weakness and a source of self-negation. We are of infinite value, but that value is not of our own making; it is a gift from God. That is good to remember, because it means that our infinite worth can be taken away by nothing – it does not depend on our own opinion or the opinions of anyone else. It also means that others’ infinite worth does not depend on our opinions of them. It is not about us, it is always about God.

Maybe one of the reasons that we so often think of humility as leading to self-negation is because we have a false sense of where our legitimacy and integrity – our true selves – lie. We get caught up in the idea that our worth is based on what others think of us, and so we desperately try to look good in the eyes of others in order to boost our standing – we try to have the perfect family or the biggest business or the nicest stuff, or we try to look cool through sex or drug and alcohol misuse, or wearing the right clothes or hairstyle, or being good-looking. There is nothing wrong with having nice material things or with others having a high opinion of us, but that is not where our worth as a person lies. Our infinite worth comes solely from being a wonderful creation of God. The flip side of worrying about our existence being dependent on others’ opinions of us is just as dangerous – the false view of living only for ourself and our own pleasure, regardless of what anyone else thinks and regardless of how many people we hurt in the attempt to have our own way in every situation. That way is just as unstable as worrying about our standing in the eyes of others because we never know how long we can maintain our grip on things and control them the way we want.

God is the only true and stable reality, so anything not based on God will crumble, while those things based in God (with love as the true foundation, rather than fear of other people’s opinions or self-aggrandizement as false foundations) will flourish and bring joy and peace. By grounding our life in God, rather than in the need to impress people, we can live as our true selves and be happy, instead of living a fake life wasting time and energy building a false image. Living in God’s love rather than in fear of our own or other people’s opinions of us is true humility, but it doesn’t bring us down in a negative sense. It brings us down in a positive sense – rooting us in the sure foundation of love so that we can flourish, growing taller and stronger than we ever could by trying to ride the waves of self-centeredness. Basing our life in God rather than our own needy egos does not stifle our true selves. It allows our true selves to grow and flourish, unhindered by the constant need to worry about our social standing or our domination of others. The humility that comes from living in God’s love is not negative. It is positive – a proactive form of humility that says: “I am a wonderful, beautiful child of God, and so is everyone else, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks.” Once we live in that way of humility, we are free to allow ourselves and others to grow as the unique children of God that we all are without the worry of fitting into anyone else’s mold or trying to force others to fit our mold.

This goes against business as usual, and that is why Jesus describes it as a sword, setting families and everyone else against those who chose to follow his path of humility. It is new to us and so we are frightened by it and fight it, because it threatens our false sense of security based on our own abilities or projected image. It is not unpeaceful because God makes it that way, it is unpeaceful because we make it that way. We want ourselves and our loved ones to be happy and fulfilled, and since we are so used to looking for happiness and fulfillment by the unstable means of self centeredness, we balk when the people we care about abandon that road and look for their fulfillment in the security of God’s loving acceptance of them, regardless of their material wealth or societal status. We fear that they might not be happy, and we ourselves are afraid of following the path of humility because we are afraid that we will not be happy. The truth, however, is that the only way to happiness is by letting go of worrying about ourselves and instead trusting in God, because God is the only stable reality. God is the basis of all existence, and therefore only those things based in God really exist.

All of this is not to say that families and businesses and cultural aspirations are bad, or that having good material things and being popular are wrong, but we must choose to base those things in God and act with love, instead of being driven by the constant need to promote our own over-inflated sense of importance, or worrying about anyone else’s judgment of us. We are important, but our integrity and legitimacy are not based on anyone else’s perceived opinions of us or on our own ability to dominate the world around us. Our infinite worth lies solely in our stature as beautiful, unique creatures of God. That is a good thing, because our ability to dominate the world around us and to look good in the eyes of the people around us will constantly change, while our status as children of God will not. That is why we heard Jesus say in the gospel this morning: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” – it is not about us, it is all about God. That is why we heard Paul say in the Letter to the Romans this morning: “…present yourselves to God…” – it is not about us, it is all about God.

We are good and of infinite value, but we need to make sure we base our good and precious lives on the truth of God’s love, rather than on our own wavering emotions and desires. Only then we will be free to be our true, wonderful, beautiful selves because only then can we do what’s right instead of worrying about doing what looks good; only then can we love ourselves instead of worrying about getting more stuff to love; only then can we love others instead of worrying about how others make us feel. Only then can we be free to grow into the fullness of joy and peace that is our birthright as God’s children. God is love. If we live in love, we live in God, and our lives will have no end, because every moment will be an eternity of joy and fulfillment.   AMEN

Easter VII Year A: Staring Into The Sky

Acts 1:6-14
I Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11
John 17:1-11

One of the few things that Jesus told us to not do is to try to figure out when he was coming back. And so, one of the things that Christians have done most (at least in America back in the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st), is to try to figure out when he was coming back. It is a waste of time, and has always ended in embarrassment or worse.

One of the things that Jesus does want us to do is to be one as he and the Father are one. And so, one of the things that Christians have done most is to split apart from each other (at least organizationally). What is wrong with us?

Well, maybe we are not all that bad. There have been some notable mergings of Christian denominations in the past century: Evangelical Lutheran Church In America, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, Church of South India, and the closer ties between the Episcopal Church and the ELCA. Nonvisible, unofficial church unity is not doing too bad in some spots: the guest ministry, Confraternity, and Oblate program here at St. Gregory’s are examples of that, as are the many “emerging church” activities around the world. But even with all that, those denominations just mentioned are constantly having members leave to form new churches in reaction to things going on in those denominations.

It is usually the case that denominations that tend toward openness to other denominations are much less prone to spend a lot of time trying to figure out when Jesus is coming back. Some might say that is because those denominations are wishy-washy in their beliefs about Jesus. I do not think that is the case. I think that more likely, it is because they are actually doing what the disciples did after Jesus physically left them: praying and waiting for power from the Holy Spirit.

Maybe we wait too much, or are timid to use the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit that has already been given us. We can use it for so many things other than figuring out when Jesus will come back – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead. We can all do it together, and when we do, we are united in a far deeper way than denominational record books can show.

All we have to do is stop staring into the sky, go home and pray, and then act in the power we have been given. We are one because Jesus is one.   AMEN

Easter III Year A: Two (Or More) Sides To Every Story

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
I Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

One of the interesting things about testimonies at court trials is the fact that even when people are telling the truth, almost every witness has a slightly different version of the events under investigation. That doesn’t mean that one person is right and all others are wrong; it means that all the witnesses are human and therefore have grasped only part of the truth about the situation. The gospel story today is an example of this: the two Emmaus-bound travelers tell their version of the story, and then Jesus tells his. The two travelers had the facts down fairly well; Jesus supplied them with the meaning and reasons behind the facts.

We are like the travelers – we can report what we perceive to be facts about the world, but without Jesus, the facts don’t always make sense. Sometimes we don’t even get the facts right, because our perception is skewed by our psychological makeup, physical condition, personal history, and cultural bias. Then we take what we perceive to be that empirical evidence of the world around us and try to make sense of it all, but then again our ability to construct a world out of those facts is tempered by those same conditions just mentioned. That is why we must see the world through the lens of Jesus, and also that is why Jesus must be the basis of our world. Only through and with and in Jesus can we hope to experience reality. Of course, sometimes, even with Jesus as the basis of and operating system of our lives, the world around us doesn’t make much sense. That is ok – things might make sense to us in the future, or they might not, but at least with Jesus we are grounded in reality and we can be at peace with our confusion, because we know that things don’t depend on us; they depend on God.

So we need to always have Jesus as our lens through which we perceive the world, and we must have Jesus as the logic by which we understand the world. But even our understanding of Jesus is affected by our personal and cultural history. That is why it is so important to always grow in our knowledge of Jesus –not just knowledge about Jesus (although that is helpful), but even more importantly in our personal relationship with the living Jesus who is not only Lord and Master of the Universe, but is also a frail human being just like us. We can grow our friendship with Jesus by hanging around him through prayer, scripture reading, serving him by serving others, and letting him serve us through others. Of course, our personal relationship with Jesus must always be measured against the community’s relationship with him to make sure we are not falling into a fantasy relationship with a fantasy lord.

That is why one of the most important ways of getting to know Jesus is mentioned in the gospel story this morning, and that is why it is the very thing we are preparing to do here and now – breaking bread together with Jesus and each other. It is an act which is both communal and individual. We as individuals gather together, we pray together and individually, we receive the meal as a group and consume it into our individual bodies. We come to the altar as a group and receive Jesus as our personal savior without the need to doubt our acceptance of him or his acceptance of us, because we hold the evidence and guarantee of it in our hands as bread and cup. That might not make sense to us, but it does not have to, because it doesn’t depend on us; it depends on God.

The world is a strange place, full of frightening events and dubious futures, just like it was to those travelers in the gospel story. But by walking with Jesus and letting him feed us, we can know that all will be well. That doesn’t change the facts of the world around us, but it will help us to perceive them more accurately and to understand the reason behind them. Of course, knowing the facts and understanding the reason behind them does not always make them less frightening, but the more we know Jesus, the more we realize that he goes through the frightening situations with us and is able to heal them and give them meaning if we allow him to. The road to Emmaus is a long one for some of us, but Jesus is on the same road, just waiting for us to ask directions. The first steps are the ones to this altar. Let us break bread together with Jesus and each other, so that our eyes may be opened, and let us not stop at this first step, but rather make it only one of many as our lives progress toward our final destination in God. AMEN