Lent III Year A: Water From The Rock

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-26,39-42

Here we have yet another story about Jesus breaking foolish taboos and customs by asking the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Of course, not all customs are foolish. Rules help us live together. But there are some customs and rules that should be broken, and they should be broken in the name of love – customs such as racism, sexism, nationalism, tribalism, religious intolerance, homophobia, and xenophobia. Many of those things are often woven into the fabric of societies and are blindly followed by even the most loving, best-intentioned members of the society. We all have our bigotries and prejudices, and we always will – it is not good, but it is true. The mark of a mature person is one who knows her or his own bigotry and yet lives beyond it, breaking free from the harmful rules. For instance, getting a drink of water is more important than dying of thirst because of our need to cling to old opinions and beliefs. We all know that, but it takes this story from the gospel to remind us of the fact.

If we really mean it when we say that Jesus is fully human, then we should be open to the fact that he carried around emotional baggage from his own culture. Any thing other than that would be less than human. But we must also realize from the gospel stories that he viewed and treated people as the holy beings that he knew them to be, regardless of what the social and religious customs dictated. Any thing other than that would be less than human, also. He had his culturally inbred prejudices, just like all of us, but he did not let them get in the way of love and compassion, just like all of us are trying to do (and will one day accomplish). He did not need the woman at the well to inform him that she was a Samaritan and therefore he ought not to be asking her to share anything. He knew it, but he also knew that getting a drink of water, as well as offering the living water of the Holy Spirit to her, was more important than caving in to any social pressure he was feeling. And in the act of sharing both types of water, the cultural prejudices of both Jesus and the woman lost some of the control over their lives.

Even while they were sharing water they had a religious and cultural argument. The same thing might happen to us as we share with people different from us, It does not matter if we consider ourselves to be liberal or conservative, open-minded or firmly-anchored, on the left or on the right. All parties have legitimate questions, and all parties might never come to an agreement, but we can still share the water of life and love that we all need in order to live. We should always ask ourselves if protecting our opinions and beliefs is worth dying of thirst or letting others die. The water is the important thing – our opinions and perceptions of it are secondary.

We live in a desperately thirsty world. Withholding life and love for any reason is wrong. God freely offers us the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit, so that we can in turn offer it to others. This living water has many names and forms, but they are all simply aspects of God’s love and life, from which our love and life spring. Living water is evident in every simple act of kindness, in every word of praise, in every refusal to spread gossip, in every negation of self-indulgence at the expense of others, and in every tear of sorrow and joy. The living water of God’s love and life is shared every time we are joyful at another’s good fortune, as opposed to being jealous. It is shared every time we risk our social standing by defending a less popular person’s rights. It is shared every time we admit to others and to ourselves that we might be wrong about something, or that other opinions might be just as valid as ours, as opposed to desperately clinging to our political, religious, or academic beliefs and loyalties. The living water of love can dwell in us only when our over-inflated and fearful egos are brought under control and denied their desperate attempts to control everything so that they can nestle in their beds of false security. We must be empty enough to let the water in, but strong enough to ask for it and accept it out of love, rather than out of fear.

Having the living water of love in us is no good unless we also let it out. Giving it away is the only way we can receive it. We become channels of love; receiving it from God and giving it to others. But Jesus tells us in this story that we shouldn’t stop at being merely channels. We are to become sources of love and life ourselves – “springs of water gushing up to eternal life,” We are to fulfill our destiny as God’s children, and add our own infinite spring of love to God’s. If we are all honest, none of us could say that we are completely fulfilling that destiny right here and now, We are God’s children, but we are children nonetheless. We all have a lot of growing to do. Sometimes, we throw tantrums and refuse to accept the water of life offered to us by God and the other people around us. Sometimes, we are fearful or greedy and won’t give any of our love and life away. But there are those times when we do open ourselves enough to let God’s Holy Spirit flow through us, and we all know how good and right that feels, because it is in fact our true mode of life. Unfortunately, after that happens, we tend to once again shrink back in fear and close up. Doing that doesn’t mean we are evil. It means that we are human and we just forget how truly holy we are. We simply need to grow. Every time we open up and let the water flow, we grow a little more. What we need to do is keep reminding ourselves of our need for growth.

There are many ways we can use to remind ourselves to grow: prayer, scripture study, service to others, and giving money and time to good causes are all things that can bring us into a state of mindfulness. All of these are good disciplines on the road to maturity. They might seem difficult and inconvenient at times, but those are the times when growth has its biggest potential.

We can choose to dry up and shrink away, rather than overcome our fears and prejudices in order to accept the water of love from a dubious source, and we can choose to let others go thirsty because we are uncomfortable with their opinions and beliefs, rather than simply offering them water and a place to sit in the shade. Or we can remember that the important thing is the water. Our opinions of it and the person offering it are secondary and changing. There is a story from the Egyptian desert monks about a young monk walking with his elder by the seashore. The younger monk is thirsty, so the older monk prays over the sea water and it becomes fresh. After the monks have drunk their fill, the younger one begins to fill his water bottle. The older monk asks why he is doing that, and the younger monk explains that they will likely be thirsty again before their journey is over. The older monk tells him that is not necessary, as he says: “God is here, God is everywhere.”

God is here, God is everywhere. Just take the water as it is given to us. If we are worried about impurities, at least take the water and leave the impurities behind. The very fact that the water is offered to us in love makes it holy. And lest we start feeling all magnanimous and benevolent because of our acceptance of gifts from those deemed less acceptable, we need to remember that it just might be that in the eyes of the person offering it to us, we are the unclean Samaritans.

Getting a drink of water – sharing life and love, growing into our full potential as children of God and helping others grow – is much more important than our perceptions and opinions about the water. God is here, God is everywhere. May we share our love and life freely, and may we freely accept it from all of God’s children.    AMEN

Epiphany V Year A: Particle Or Wave?

Isaiah 58:1-12
I Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20

Our gospel reading this morning is kind of a pep talk from Jesus; he wants his hearers to make the world a better place for other people. But then he turns the pep talk into a warning; if we don’t keep rules and laws even better than religious freaks do, then we won’t go to heaven. Maybe the pep talk and the warning are really the same thing – maybe we make the world a better place by keeping laws and rules, and maybe entering heaven is another way of saying “make the world a better place”.

Saying all that does not contradict the truth that we are saved by the grace of God. – we exist by the grace of God. But God is gracious and has given all of us free will and allows us to choose whether or not we will either join God in making heaven, or obsess on ourselves and make hell. We all know that we choose a little bit of both everyday (that is why the grace of God is so necessary to free us from those hell-bound choices). We also now that almost always, those choices are about tiny things: using or not using turn signals and letting or not letting people in our lane on the highway, cleaning up or not cleaning up our messes, repeating or not repeating gossip. We have the choice to turn all those situations into tiny bricks to build either heaven or hell. Maybe that is why Jesus says we are salt, because salt is usually not even noticed until it is missing, and you don’t need a lot to bring out the flavor of everything else in the recipe. But then again, sometimes those seemingly small choices have consequences that are bigger than we will ever know. Maybe that is why Jesus also says we are light, because we never know when our good actions will enlighten the path and show others the way to heaven, or our bad actions will darken our world and cause others to stumble into hell.

Our actions are important, because even though we exist only by the grace of God, God does not put us in a universe populated solely by God and ourselves. We have to live amongst other things and people, and the way we live has consequences for ourselves and those other things and people. If we act in a selfish way (in other words, if we sin), then everyone including us is hurt. Only the grace of God can undo that sin and hurt, and the grace of God does undo that sin and hurt, but if we would only listen to and obey Jesus and choose actions that do not cause the hurt (in other words, refrain from sinning), there would be less hurt in the world, and who would not want that? We do all try to live in a less sinful way, but we all know we fail a lot of the time. Even though the grace of God is growing us into less sinful people, none of us in this room are there yet. So we need to spend a lot of time and effort training ourselves to be obedient to Jesus and sin less. We need to spend a lot of time with Jesus in the scriptures, at the communion table, in prayer, and in communion with each other so that we do grow into full maturity as images of Jesus. But until we get to that full maturity, we need to work hard to ensure that our choices are ones that build up heaven around us, and spread the light of Jesus to our world, and spread the salt of goodness around us.

The prophet Isaiah whom we heard this morning is telling his listeners that they need to change their actions from sinful ones to righteous ones. Part of the sinful actions he describes are religious observances that don’t do anything to help the practitioners or the people around them. Some readers have taken those and similar descriptions as a decree that all religious observances are fake and the people who practice them are fakers, but that conclusion is not correct. Religious observances can be a very helpful part of one’s growth into the salvation that God’s grace has provided for us, but we do need to be mindful of the reason we do them: their purpose is to glorify God, not ourselves. The more we do things that glorify God, the less we are apt to do harmful actions. The more we do things to glorify ourselves, the more apt we are to do harmful actions.

And so we get back to the warning form Jesus in our gospel story: if we aren’t more righteous than religious freaks, then we don’t go to heaven. If our actions glorify ourselves, that means we are hiding the light of Jesus and souring everything and building hell for ourselves. If our actions glorify God, then the light of Jesus can shine through us, and the things we touch will have a good flavor, and we are making our small part of the world into heaven. Fostering growth by turning attention away from ourselves and toward God might not make sense in our consumer society that advocates self-fulfillment through material gain, but that might be just what Paul is talking about in our second reading when he mentions the wisdom of God and how much it differs from our conventional wisdom. It is not all about us, and as soon as we start living in that truth, life really becomes much better for us and for those around us. We won’t succeed living that way all the time, but we have tools to help us get better at it, and the grace of God will bring us to heaven eventually. We don’t have to understand it all, we just need to try to trust.   AMEN

Christmas II Year A: Happy Jeremiad

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a
Luke 2:41-52

The first reading that we heard  this morning proves that Jeremiah has an undeserved reputation as a prophet of doom and gloom. There is even a type of literature named after him — a jeremiad — that is given to writings that emphasize the wrongs in society and forecast doom. But the passage we heard is anything but frightening; it is an announcement of good news and an assurance that even though bad things were happening, God was going to use those events for good. Jeremiah was not a prophet of doom and gloom, he was just honest about what was really going on around him. Jeremiah was just telling the truth, and it is to our advantage to listen to him, just as it would have been to the advantage of his listeners at the time.

We really can’t blame his audience for branding him as a man of woe and putting him into prison. We don’t like to listen to the truth of how hard life is, just as they didn’t. Their country was falling apart and being invaded by foreign powers. The popular prophets of the time were the ones who were pronouncing victory for Judah and defeat for everyone else. They were popular, but they were wrong. Jeremiah knew that Judah was no match for the empires competing for their land, and he knew that part of the reason for that was the fault of the people of Judah. They had turned away from trusting in God to trusting in the false gods of wealth, politics, and military might. They were soon to be conquered and sent into exile, but God was going to use that tragedy to make them stronger in the end. That horrible experience as a conquered and exiled nation turned them away from the misunderstanding that their status as God’s chosen people meant that they were God’s favorite people, and taught them the truth that God had chosen them not to be superior to everyone else, but instead had chosen them to bring the good news to the surrounding nations that all people are God’s favorites as his adopted children. If the tragedy of defeat and exile had not happened, the true understanding of their mission would not have occurred, and the entire world would be a worse place.

There is some argument as to whether or not God allows or even makes bad things happen in order to teach us lessons or to test our faith and make us stronger. I sure don’t know about that. What does seem more certain is that God uses the bad things that occur to our eventual advantage, even though sometimes we are so involved in the tragedy that we can’t see that fact. Knowing that God uses everything, even the pain and grief in life, for our good does not make the pain and grief go away, or dismiss it as a passing phase or as an illusion. Bad things really do happen, and evil really does exist, unless you are a philosopher and want to argue about what the word “exist” means. We know that bad things happen to all, because bad things even happened to Jesus — God in our midst. The gospel story this morning tells about the time he was left by his family in Jerusalem as they traveled back home from a festival. To a twelve year old boy, being lost and abandoned in the city is a truly frightening thing, even though it was an accident, and even though he put up a brave front to his parents when they found him. That wasn’t the only bad thing that happened to Jesus, as we know from his later years; he was betrayed by friends, tortured, and executed. Just because those things happened to God in the flesh does not make them any less real or bad, in fact, it would seem to make them more real and painful, because God is the most real thing in the universe —everything else exists through God’s existence.

None of those painful things that happened to Jesus were good, but they were all necessary for his life and for ours. God turned them into a resurrection that gives hope and meaning for our lives. We can be assured that God knows our pain and grief, and suffers along with us, since Jesus was not spared any of it. We can also be assured that God will use those tragedies to help us in ways we could never imagine, such as resurrection. We tend to think of the birth of a baby this time of year, but we need to remember that the birth was only the beginning of a process of resurrection. That resurrection is the goal of all of us, and there will be pain and grief on the road there, but God has gone before us, in order to be with us on the way. We don’t need to either pretend that the road is not difficult, or that it is impossible to travel. We need to be like Jeremiah, acknowledging the trouble ahead, while also announcing that God will bring us through it better than we were before.

We are all chosen by God, just like Judah in Jeremiah’s day. But that adoption as God’s children does not mean that we are better than anyone else, it means that we are chosen to bring God’s message of love and forgiveness to all of God’s other children. Our second scripture reading from the letter to the Ephesians mentions a few things that are our destiny as children of God: wisdom, enlightenment, hope, and glory. Those things grow in us even as we go through the pain and grief of life. No one will be spared difficulties, but it is up to us to choose how we will react to them: either allowing them to make us bitter and closing ourselves off from God and our neighbors, or offering them to God to use as tools to change us into more open and loving people. It is not easy to choose the path of resurrection, but it is certainly better than choosing the path of ultimate death. May we follow the baby whose birth and growth we have been celebrating these last few weeks, and who has opened the path of glory for us. May we not pretend that all will be well on the way, but may we also never forget that all will be well in the end. Our God has gone before us and is with us on the way. AMEN

Advent IV Year A: Are We There Yet?

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

The scriptures we just heard from Isaiah and Matthew are about waiting for a baby to be born, so that makes them perfect for today’s reading. It has always been hard to wait for Jesus to be born and Christmas to arrive. It was hard as a kid, because we wanted to be out of school and at our grandparents house so we could open our gifts. It is hard as a monk because we want all the extra work to be over so we can go to bed.

But Christmas takes time to get here because babies take time to be born. Life takes time – an entire lifetime. And we don’t know how things will turn out, either for babies being born or for our own life. We just have to wait, and unless we want the waiting to be torture, we have to trust – as Isaiah tells Ahaz and the angel tells Joseph. Everything is in God’s hands, so even though we might not like some of the short-term things that happen, we can be sure that in the big picture, everything will be ok. No need to worry about anything, ever.

Jesus will come – again and again, to ourselves and everyone else – and Christmas will break into our worlds, ready or not. And like the presents under the tree, sometimes we are in for big surprises when Jesus comes to us. Surprises are always full of tension and can make us happy as well as fearful. We never know what kind of surprise it will be when Jesus breaks into our lives, but since it comes from the all-good giver of gifts, we can always be thankful and know that in the long run, each surprise is in our best interest – so no need to worry about anything, ever. We just have to wait, trust, and work.   AMEN

Proper 29 (Christ The King) Year C: Everything Else Is Commentary

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:35-43

I have read and heard a saying a few times that I wish I knew the source of, but I don’t, so I will just say it and hope that the originator will eventually get the credit. The saying is this: “Our only dogma is ‘Jesus is Lord’; everything else is commentary.” That can sound trite to some people, but deep down, I think it is true. We can’t explain God, or life or the universe, and we have not yet come up with a real explanation of Jesus, but at least with Jesus we have accounts of eyewitnesses of his life, and we have a connection with the still-thriving community that gathered around him and eventually called him Lord.

So: “Jesus is Lord” is basically the only theology we can hang on to, but the interpretation of that dogma is as wide and diverse as anyone who has ever dealt with at least two humans could expect it to be. There are, however, two main interpretive tools of that dogma that can be recognized throughout history (there are probably more). These two main interpretive tools have produced divisions in the church as a whole, as well as within denominations, families, and even within individuals. The two interpretive tools are: Love and Fear.

Using Fear as the lens through which we see Jesus as Lord emphasizes “Lord” as a dread force to be placated, and “Jesus” as a judge who condemns people. Using Love as the lens through which we see Jesus as Lord emphasizes “Lord” as a merciful benign catalyst for peace and joy, and “Jesus” asa a judge who discerns evil and cleanses us of it so that we can be free and happy.

Some people have trouble with the word “Lord” as sexist and oppressive, and one can see why, but it need not be that way. “Jesus, the cleansing agent who brings peace, joy, and health as the foundation of a community of peace, joy, and health”: that is the interpretation that hopefully we will choose as we ponder our only dogma through the lens of Love: “Jesus is Lord”.   AMEN

Proper 25 Year C: Keep Silent, And Do Not Compare Yourself With Others

II Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

The story from the gospel this morning tells us of the triumph of humility; the humble tax collector acknowledges his many faults, asks God for mercy, and goes home justified, while the cocky Pharisee reminds God and everyone else of his accomplishments, belittles the tax collector, and does not go home justified. The point of the story is that while we should never pull ourselves down into a spiral of despair by constantly dwelling on our faults, we do need to be aware of them, honestly confess them, ask God to heal them, and then work on them (cooperating with and fostering the healing that only God can give to us). Doing all that sets us on the road to freedom and maturity.

On the flip side, the road to bondage and immaturity is shown to us by the Pharisee, because when we brag only of our supposed triumphs, we blind ourselves to the parts of us that need to be healed. Everyone else sees our sins, and God sees them, but we are too busy gloating to notice our open wounds that are getting worse everyday, making life difficult for those around us, and eventually crippling us. We don’t need to hide or deny our good qualities (for that is just as dishonest as hiding our sins), but we do need to realize that everyone has basically the same amount of virtue as well as the same amount of vice. It is merely the particular virtues and vices that differ from one person to another. But the cocky Pharisee didn’t understand this because he was so busy yelling: “Hey everyone, it’s all about me!” that he could not hear the humble tax collector admitting: “It’s not all about me – it’s all about God.”

Humility allows us to be grateful for our virtues as gifts from God that we can foster in order to receive ever more of them, rather than gloating over them as if they were our own accomplishments, and humility allows us to be honest about our vices as problems that God can heal, instead of overwhelming obstacles that must out of necessity lead us to hell. Humility allows us to say with confidence: “I am a beautiful, wonderful child of God, and so is everyone else. I am a sinner saved by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus, and so is everyone else. I have vices that need healing, as well as virtues that need expanding, and so does everyone else. Only God can do those things for me, and only God can do it for everyone else.” Humility allows us to follow the advice of an ancient desert monk in an old story who answered the question of how to be saved with the simple answer: “Keep silent, and do not compare yourself with others.”, rather than following the example of the pharisee in our gospel reading, who opened his mouth solely in order to make himself look better than the tax collector.

Saying all of that is in no way meant to be a defense or excuse for wrongdoing. Since we are children of God, having low expectations for our own or anyone else’s behavior amounts to disrespect and shows misunderstanding of our true potential, We all fail and we all sin, but seeing that as no problem degrades humanity. If we are honest about it, we can all say that ninety-nine percent of the time we know full well when we do something wrong, and yet we go right ahead and do it. That is why we need the humility to say that although we are made in God’s image, we don’t always live up to our calling, and we need help, like the tax collector in the gospel.

We need to be more willing to confess our own faults and less willing to point at others’. We are too apt to change rules, ignore traditions, and interpret some parts of scripture literally while interpreting other parts figuratively or simply ignoring them in order to make our lives easier and soothe our own consciences while at the same time accusing those with whom we do not agree of abandoning the same scriptures and traditions. That happens on all parts of the supposed spectrum that runs from conservative to liberal; humility is needed on the left and on the right. Just because someone is a Pharisee does not mean he is bad (in fact, most of them were good), and just because a person is a tax collector does not mean he is good ( in fact, they were in collaboration with oppressors).

Humility also gives us the freedom to be joyful even in our worries, because all we can do is our best – no more and no less – and once we have done our best, the outcome is up to God. We heard Paul talk about this in our second reading this morning. He suspects that his life is coming to an end, but he is ok with that. He tells Timothy in his letter that he has: “…fought the good fight… finished the race … kept the faith.” He goes on to say: “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” In other words, he knows that righteousness comes only from God, but it takes a lot of work on our part to realize and experience that gift in our lives. He also understands that many more people besides him are given the gift of righteousness, which he calls a crown. Paul talked a lot and wrote a lot and preached a lot, but when it came down to the end, all he could do was what was mentioned earlier about the monk in the desert: “Keep silent, and do not compare yourself with others.”

That is good advice. God will give us exactly what we need to cure our vices and strengthen our virtues, and the grace that we receive will never be exactly the same as anyone else’s gift. That is ok, since we don’t need to be like the Pharisee in the gospel story, worrying about other people’s sin. Instead, we need to be like the tax collector in the story, coming to God alone and defenseless, humbly trusting in God’s love to heal us. God wants to heal us, but won’t force it upon us. God wants us to bring his healing, peace, and joy to the hurting world around us, but won’t force us to do that, either. The gracious gift of eternal life is offered to us every day and every moment, but we must be humble and honest enough to confess that we need it, and that we can’t get it for ourselves. May we freely take the gift of life that comes to us through Jesus. May we freely pass it on to others, and may we freely receive it from them, as they in their turn, bring it to us from our most gracious and merciful God. We are created in the image of God, and our God was humble enough to hang on a cross for us, forgiving others for their ignorance in killing him. May we be humble, as he was. May we have standards and values, but may we also make sure they are the same as those of Jesus, and may we be humble enough to change in order to more closely conform to his image. That’s not easy — we need to admit that we don’t know everything, and that some of our most cherished ideas might need to change, but that’s ok, because it’s not all about us; it’s not all about our country or our race or our political party or our church — it’s all about Jesus. Only Jesus can help us conform to himself. Every time we come to this altar we publicly affirm our acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Savior as we freely take his body and blood that he freely offers. May we do so seriously and allow Jesus to change us as we take him into our lives. May the meal we are about to share with Jesus and his other disciples around the world and throughout history be part of an ongoing pattern in our lives of coming to Jesus to humbly learn from him as we humbly kneel at his feet. It’s not all about us — it’s all about Jesus. May we humbly accept his humble help. May we be humble, and in so doing may we reach glory.   AMEN

Cherub Rock: St. Michael and All Angels 2013

Gen 28:10-17
Rev 12: 7-12
John 1: 47-51

The call of Nathanael by Philip to come and see Jesus is a somewhat familiar story to those who either read the Bible or listen to it read in church. One of the best parts of the story comes at the end, when Jesus alludes to another Bible story one that he was perhaps familiar with from his own time spent listening to and reading the scriptures. The strange and familiar story of Jacob’s dream is quite memorable, and has even inspired a lot of artwork through the years: songs, paintings, movie titles. Seeing heaven open up and watching angels travel back and forth between different planes of existence would in fact be awe inspiring, both in its beauty and in its terror. However, one of the most important parts of the story that we should remember is the setting that brought about this vision of Heaven’s Gate Jacob (liar and cheat that he is, like all the rest of us) is on a long journey, camping out with a stone for a pillow. No matter how well ail the other parts of anyone’s life are going, sleeping on a rock is painful. It is painful during the night, and it is worse the next morning. Yet it is now, while he is in this uncomfortable position, that Jacob receives the wonderful vision along with God’s promise of bountiful and blessed posterity, not while he is back in his father’s comfortable home.

Jesus tells Nathanael that he will also see heaven open up and angels ascending and descending, but not in exactly the same way Jacob witnessed the scene. Jesus says that the angels will be ascending and descending upon himself. In the same way, if we want to see heaven, all we need to do is look to Jesus, and, like Nathanael, follow him. By doing so, we will often come to the same situation as Jacob when he saw heaven and received God’s promise of blessing traveling, tired, with only a stone for a pillow, But at least we have that stone. Jesus said that he had no place to lay his head. There is a lot of other suffering that Jesus went through that we might not experience. That is fine with me. Suffering in and of itself is never good. Many people become bitter and spiteful toward God and everyone else because of the pain that they can never get rid of, and who could blame them? But then again, living in complete comfort is not good, either, if it keeps us from seeing heaven. Comfort can blind us to God just as easily as discomfort can. On the other hand, both can be means of growth, helping to bring us to maturity in our life with God and other people, because our situation is not always as important as our response to it, it is up to us to take the raw material given to us and build a life of love out of it. We all most likely know examples of people who have taken their difficult lives and turned them into blessings for other people, just as we all probably know of those who have allowed their suffering to turn them into a source of pain for those around them. Conversely, we all know of those fortunate ones who use their good fortune to help others, as well as those who make life miserable for the people they meet, We might ask, then, if it is true that we don’t have to suffer like Jesus or like so many of his followers to see heaven’s gate open up, and if we can live in perfect health with no problems and be as close to God as those who are suffering, just as those who suffer can turn away from God as their suffering continues, why it is that some have it so good while so many others experience such difficulty in life. I think we have a perfect right to ask God that question. The danger comes when we think we have the answer, for it seems that God, instead of simply giving us an easy answer, has chosen to experience the mystery along with us.

As we look to Jesus, the Gate of Heaven, we see God living with us and experiencing all of life’s pleasures and pains along with us. Jesus seemed to know that the wealthy and powerful were blessed only if they used their resources rightly, and that the poor and suffering were just as likely to forget God’s mercy as they were to be thankful for it (like the ten lepers he cured, only one of whom thanked him for it). However, that didn’t stop Jesus from having compassion for the suffering, and healing all those he could. So must we, if we want to follow Jesus, do all that we can to help stop or at least alleviate the suffering of those around us. We must be the angels of God, showing the way to heaven to those who are in trouble, sleeping on rocks. We must be the angels of God, casting Satan out of people’s lives, as he tries to deceive them and tell them that they are not God’s children. We must be the angels of God, ascending and descending on the Son of Man, drawing people to Jesus as he lives their sorrows with them. We must also be the angels of God, rejoicing with people in their prosperity and health, while at the same time reminding them not to turn their backs on the Stairway to Heaven, or to pretend that they can simply buy their way up the ladder when the time comes.

We must do all those things even while we ourselves are going through bad times. God knows how much we hurt, because God hurts, too. Jesus is our God of Compassion, not our God of Pity, because Jesus knows firsthand how painful life can be, and has chosen to hurt along with us. It is true that sometimes we are sleeping on a rock because we are just too lazy to get a pillow or too stubborn to move the rock. Even worse, at other times we put our rock under someone else’s head and make them sleep on it. In both of those cases, we need to simply get up, take care of the rock, and be done with it. But there are times when our difficulties are too much for us to bear the rock is too heavy for us to move, or the rock has landed on top of us, trapping us with no means of escape. In those times, we need to remember that God is there with us, even if we don’t understand how or why. The Gate of Heaven is near, even if we can’t see it clearly, like Jacob. Jesus is hurting with us and his angels are taking care of us, too. If it seems as if the angels God sends are not quite what we expect, or take a long time getting there, or don’t do as thorough a job as we would like, remember that they, too, might be having some difficulty in their lives, because the angels that God sends might be the very people sitting next to us. May we in turn be God’s angels to them. AMEN

Proper 20 Year C: Small Time Crooks

Amos 8:4-12
I Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Like so much of the Bible, the story that Jesus told about the dishonest manager is not meant to be an example of how we should run our lives. It is instead an example of something we should avoid. Jesus is trying to make the point of how silly and ultimately dangerous it is to flirt with dishonesty. If the manager had simply been honest in his business dealings in the first place, he wouldn’t have had to go to all the trouble that he did in order to cushion his landing when he was fired. We don’t know a lot about his boss, but it seems that he was also dishonest, or he would not have been so congratulatory to his servant for cooking the books. It all sounds like an episode of “I Love Lucy”. How sad. Unfortunately, it also sounds like episodes from our own lives, because we so often act like the people in the gospel story or “I Love Lucy” –wasting our time with dishonesty to get what we want, instead of simply doing the right thing and trusting God to take care of the outcome.

So many of our problems could be avoided if we simply went about our tasks honestly and were satisfied with the good things that are already in front of us. We heard Paul recommend such a way when he instructs Timothy to pray for everyone, “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” There may have been a hint of worry about persecution in Paul’s instruction, but we can still relate to his desire that we live with dignity. Dignity can not mix with dishonesty, and it has no need for silly schemes. All of us are of infinite worth. Our lives are important, as are our jobs, no matter what they may be. There is no need for us to pretend to be anything other than who we are, or to have more things than we can afford. After all, God chose the life of a carpenter, not the life of a senator. If being middle class and ordinary is good enough for God, it is good enough for the rest of us. If there were no carpenters, the world would be in much worse condition than if there were no senators.

Of course, none of this is meant to say that we should accept any sort of poverty, sickness, or lack of opportunity as being ordained by God. We should work to eradicate those things, but we don’t all have to have the biggest house on the block, or the fastest car, or the most glamorous spouse. Most of us have more than we could ever use or need. Most of us have lives full of people that we could never run out of love for. There is no need to waste time desperately trying to get more, or creating false images of ourselves so that people will be impressed and pretend to like us, because usually the only ways we can figure out how to get more stuff is either by making sure other people don’t get it or by working ourselves to death (which is selfish), and the practice of putting up false images of ourselves to impress people is destructive to our own personalities, and is dishonest. Selfishness and dishonesty can only lead to disaster for ourselves and everyone around us.

The prophet Amos just told us about some of the disasters that selfish dishonesty brings. He addresses those who “trample the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land … practic[ing] deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweeping of the wheat.” Amos was pointing out the fact that the laws that God had given Moses to insure that everyone got a fair chance at a decent living were being broken, and disaster was looming because of it. If you read the entire book, it becomes apparent that some of those who were breaking these laws and hurting the poor were the very same people who were quite scrupulous about following the proper religious customs of the time. They were careful to treat God with respect, and yet treated the people around them like trash. What they failed to
realize is the fact that one of the ways we encounter God is through other people. Any dishonesty or callousness shown to our neighbors is dishonesty and callousness shown to God. The way we run our businesses and lives is the way we run our relationship with God. As we heard Jesus say: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If you then have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Most of us have not been burdened with wealth, and most of us are quite honest in our business dealings. But we still so often go through life comfortable with the petty falsehoods that we pass along to others to make us look more impressive, and we all have times when we commit petty misdemeanors to get things we want (like pretending to understand a conversation when we don’t, or sucking in our guts when a romantic prospect walks by). We don’t do these things because we are evil; we do these things because we forget how truly holy we are. We are perfectly adequate and acceptable and beautiful without the false fronts. So is everyone else. It is our job to realize that fact and leave behind the petty falsehoods that separate us from God, from others, and from ourselves. It is up to us to realize that we have more than enough of everything we will ever need. Then we can let others know that it is ok for them to be themselves; to come out from behind their facades and to stop killing themselves and those around them by constantly grasping for more stuff. They can stop doing those things because they are acceptable to us and we love them, not their possessions or their false images. Pretension is not beautiful, people are. Wealth is not valuable, people are. Image is not real, people are.

We can not love what is not real, and we can not love until we are real. As Paul wrote to Timothy: “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” May we all come to the knowledge of the truth that God knows the real us, and yet still loves us. God sees us naked and with no possessions, and yet still loves us. There is no need to falsify our accounts, like the dishonest manager in the gospel story. We have God and we have each other, and that is all we will ever need.   AMEN

Proper 16 Year C: Karma Chameleon

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Isaiah and Jesus are both telling us in our readings this morning to do good things. We would expect that. Isaiah says that if we are good to people and keep religious laws, then good things will happen to us. Jesus says that we should be good to people even if it breaks religious laws – and he says nothing about anything good coming to us as a consequence of our good actions.

They are both right.

In regards to doing good things, we should do good things not merely in order to have good things come our way, but quite often, living a lifetime of kindness does make life easier for everyone around us, including ourselves. That is not always the case, or maybe more accurately we should say that it does not always seem to be the case as far as we can tell. Sometimes good people have horrible things happen to them – but even then, people who are used to doing good seem to take all the horribleness with a much sweeter attitude than those who have been mean to people all their lives. Maybe Aristotle is right: to become a good person, one needs to do many good things. But even so, there are those cases where truly good people have truly bad things happen to them and they are crushed by the circumstances and lose their faith. So Isaiah is mostly right about the consequences of good behavior, and Jesus just leaves the subject alone, but no matter the consequences, we ought to do good things – at least  for the others around us if not for ourselves.

In regards to religious laws, Isaiah and Jesus are also both right. Religious laws and other rules and laws are in place in order to help us and everyone around us have good lives as individuals and as groups. So when we obey rules, good things are more likely to happen to us and to those around us. However, people are always more important than the rules. If a rule hurts instead of helps, then the rule needs to be disregarded (if it is an isolated incident) or changed (if it is an altogether harmful rule). Knowing when to follow rules and when to break them takes a lot of maturity and prayer. Knowing when to change rules or keep them takes even more maturity and prayer.

Maybe our guidelines in the area of breaking or keeping rules in order to do good should be based on both Jesus and Isaiah (with Jesus trumping Isaiah when necessary): do good always, follow rules usually, and don’t do it solely in order to get something good in return. Our actions do have consequences – for ourselves and for others. Let’s do good so that good consequences result. But when we do slip up and do bad things, always remember that grace overrides karma – God does eventually clear up all messes, but it is so much easier to not make the mess in the first place. And of course, we don’t do good things so that we will be saved; we do good things because we are saved.

Isaiah, Aristotle, Jesus – do good, do lots of good, let the rules help you rather than keep you from doing good. And when confused about what to do, pray and do the best you can.   AMEN

Proper 12 Year C: Try And Try Again

Genesis 18:20-32
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-14

The story in Luke this morning about bothering your neighbor until he gets up and gives you what you want is often used as a prescription for praying a lot until we have bothered God enough that we get what we want. However, there is no set way to interpret the stories that Jesus tells – he just tells the stories. There are some times when he explains the stories (like the one about sowing seed in different types of soil), but usually, he just tells the stories and lets us figure them out. So – how about interpreting this story in a different way than what is usually done. How about interpreting it as meaning that we should pray a lot so that God bothers us enough that we finally do what he wants us to do. The same can be done for the similar story about the corrupt judge and the cranky old lady – we often think of God as the judge and we as the woman wanting justice, but shouldn’t it really be the other way around? – we are corrupt (judging everything according to our own twisted standards) and God wants us to change and be just. The reality is: we need to pray a lot so that God can finally convince us to do what we ought to do, not so that we can get God to do what we want. We need to pray a lot.

The same technique of turning the usual interpretation around 180 degrees can be used in the story from Genesis this morning. Maybe God is not giving in to Abraham’s pushiness about not condemning a whole group of people because of the actions of some; maybe God is teaching Abraham that it is not right to condemn whole groups of people because of the actions of some or even most of the people in the group. Once again, it is God using our prayer time to finally make us aware of what we ought to do, not we bugging God so much that God finally gives in and gives us what we ask for. But just as Abraham had to make several petitions for that to happen, so we need to pray a lot. Of course, God did eventually wipe out all but four (three if you count Lot’s wife) of the residents of the plain, but that’s the Old Testament for ya! – it wouldn’t be the same without a good smiting here and there.

So, maybe we can also read this part from the letter to Colossae in the same way of turning the interpretation around. Paul says to not let anyone ensnare us with the need to engage in certain religious practices, and there are indeed some dangerous religious practices. But there are a whole lot of religious practices that are simply different than what we prefer or what we are used to. So we should turn the warning about dangerous practices around a little and remind ourselves not to condemn others for engaging in practices that are not dangerous, but merely different. He makes it clear in the reading that it is all about Jesus anyway; Jesus only condemned people’s religious practices when they did not follow them up with love and compassion. People are different, and everyone’s relationship with God is different, so different things will help different people. We should be thankful when we find what we need to help us grow in Christ, and we should be thankful when others find what they need.

We see a lot of people with some strange religious practices come through our doors here at the monastery. Some of them are actually dangerous. Many others are merely bothersome and disruptive in a group setting such as we have here. Other times, they are just different and we can let them bother us if we want to. But the truth of the matter is the fact that we all need to pray a lot. So let’s allow each other to do that, and let’s all do it in ways that help each other – not being pushy or flaunting our different ways. Let’s pray a lot so that God can finally convince us to do what we need to do.   AMEN