A Christian Nation: Independence Day 2013

Independence Day
Deuteronomy 10:17-21
Hebrews 11:8-16
Matthew 5:43-48

It is sometimes said that the United States is a Christian nation, founded on Biblical principals by godly men. We hear that a lot in election years, but it tends to have a false ring to many people. After all, the constitution takes the practice of slavery for granted, and the early history of the nation is full of betrayal and genocide of Indian populations. While it is true that slavery, betrayal, and genocide are all quite Biblical, we have trouble nowdays perceiving them as Christian values, Usually, the same people who like to point back to what they consider to be the Christian foundations of the United States are the same ones who claim that we have lost our moorings and are in need of reestablishing those values in our society. They tend to want to do so by legislating against things that they claim they don’t do. Unfortunately, their claims are often unfounded, and it turns out that they are usually agitating for legislation against things that they in fact do, but want to hide. In such cases, those people are in great need of our love and compassion, for it turns out that love and compassion are the real ways to building a truly Christian nation.

It is not the desire for a Christian nation that is wrong. It is our understanding of what constitutes such a nation that can lead to trouble. We do have a chance to build a Christian nation, but it does not happen by forcing people to act the way we wish we could. A truly Christian nation is one that is based on love, compassion, and peace. It is a nation that respects and honors each person as the image of God, and does what it can to foster the growth of each person into that unique image. It is sometimes a fine balancing act to figure out which political parties and activities will bring about the fairness and justice that we need in order for people to be able to grow into the mature images of God they are created to be. No two people will ever consistently agree on such matters, and while we should stand firm in our own convictions, we must never be shrill or belittling of those who do not agree. After all, they may have prayed about the matter as much as we have, and we might be the ones who are wrong. Just because people disagree with us does not make them stupid or evil, and saying things repeatedly or loudly does not make them more true, so we can simply state our opinions, let others state theirs, and love each other anyway.

We must also be aware that two hundred years from now, people might be perplexed at our idea of what a Christian nation should be. We might all be wrong about a lot of things, because we are not yet fully mature in Christ. We must keep praying and doing our best to grow, always keeping our hearts and minds open to the Holy Spirit correcting us where we are wrong, and guiding us into fuller truth.

The United States are not a theocracy, and not the New Jerusalem, and not the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God resides in the individual acts of God’s subjects, not in the borders of sovereign nations. No one can be or should be forced into a Christian nation. The Christian nation must instead be carried to them and offered as a place of joy, peace, and health. It is up to us to bring that nation to others, but we must first let it grow in ourselves. May we live our lives in such a manner that that nation can take root and thrive in us, while allowing others the opportunity to let it thrive in them. AMEN

Proper 8 Year C: Who’s On First?

1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21
Galatians 5:1,13-25
Luke 9:51-62

At first hearing, our Old Testament story of Elijah calling Elisha to follow him and our Gospel story of Jesus calling disciples to follow him sounds as if they are contradicting each other: Elisha is told it is ok for him to say goodbye to his parents before answering Elijah’s call, while Jesus tells those whom he calls that it is wrong to do anything other than drop what they are doing and immediately follow him. That might be the case; maybe they are contradicting each other, but that is alright if they do. Each story is in a different setting and involves different people, and following God involves doing different things in different situations. Or, they might not be contradicting each other: Jesus does not forbid the people to do the things they request before following him – he merely uses the requests as an opportunity to make some witty points.

We don’t know for sure about the entire situations involved in the two stories, but just for the sake of taking a deeper look at the reading from the letter to the Galatians that we heard in between these two stories, let us assume that the difference between the people making their requests before answering their call to serve God lies in their motives for making the requests. This passage from Paul’s letter talks about two ways of living, or two motivations behind our actions, words, and attitudes. He names the opposing ways the way of the Spirit, and the way of the flesh. Those names might not be the best for us to use, because for many people, they seem to indicate that our bodies are bad. Perhaps some better names might be: the way of love vs the way of fear, or the way of God-centeredness vs the way of self-centeredness, or the way of “it’s not all about me” vs the way of “it’s all about me”. Paul encourages his readers to not fall back into the easy way of slavery to fearful self-centeredness, but to hold onto the freedom of loving God-centeredness that Jesus brings us. He gives a list of actions describing the two different ways, and the two lists are really a reflection of either rising to the glory of full humanity with all our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual desires leading us in ways of peace with ourselves, with God, with our neighbors, and with the world around us, or of the opposite way of sinking into the subhuman pattern of allowing our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual desires to drive us into fear and hatred of ourselves, God, our neighbors, and our world. Another way of denoting the difference is to say that fearful self-centeredness involves disordered appetites, while the way of loving God-centeredness involves well ordered appetites.

The reality of our human condition does not change with the different ways, just the way we choose to live. We still have the same appetites and urges no matter the path we choose. The difference lies in whether we see our human condition as somehow hopeless and therefore live with the attitude of “what about me!” – fearing that we won’t get our fair share of what we want or think we need, or if we see our human condition as holy and therefore live with the attitude of “I’ll be ok, because I’m with God” – trusting God that we will be more fulfilled than we ever could dream of being if we tried to take care only of ourselves. Only on the surface does the way of self-centeredness seem easy – it actually leads to pain and sorrow. The way of following Jesus into the glory of our full humanity is actually easier, because Jesus is the one who pulls us into freedom in God that leads to joy and fulfillment. Jesus proves to us that the human condition is a good thing, not hopeless or sordid, because Jesus shows us that human life is so beautiful, God chose to have one. Jesus lives the life that Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit, or the way of loving God-centeredness: “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” He shows us that there is no need to live in fearful self-centeredness, always whining “what about me!”, or as Paul describes it: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing…”.

With Jesus as proof that life is precious and we need have no fear, since God is always with us, we can look at our own motives and work to get rid of the self-centered attitudes, while fostering a more God-centered way of life. We can turn from letting the basis of our actions be “it’s all about me, so I had better step on everyone else in order to get what I want” and instead start living on the foundation of “it’s not all about me – I am in God’s heart along with everyone else, and we will all get more than we ever thought we needed or wanted”. We can look at our motives for following Jesus, and stop doing so merely because we are afraid of hell, so that we can follow him solely because we love ourselves, our neighbors, and our God. Then when we answer Jesus’s call, we can go back to take care of our business as good stewards, thankfully letting God have control, instead of going back to our business so that we can be in charge because we fear that God won’t be able to handle it the way we want. Of course God won’t take care of things the way we want, because what we want is rarely what is best. Only by trusting in God can our eyes be open to the fact that our former desires were so petty compared to what God has to offer.

So the two ways lie before us: the way of fear, self-centeredness, ‘What about me!”, or the way of love, Godcenteredness, “I’ll be ok, because I am with God”. Rarely do we stay solely on one path; we tend to waver from one to another. Jesus is calling us, and will help us as we learn to follow him on the path of true fulfillment of our glorious humanity, because he created that path. And Jesus is not the only one calling us; God sends messengers to us, just as Elijah was sent to Elisha. Those messengers are around us everyday – they are the people who live and work with us and whom we see in the news. They are calling us to live together with them in the heart of God, growing in love, peace, and joy. They waver between the two paths, just as we do, so may we all help each other on the way as we follow the call of Jesus. We must not fall into slavery to fear, as Paul reminds us. We are called to freedom. Only by trusting God can we be free. Only then can we live in love, joy, and peace. Only then can we help each other on the path to true life.   AMEN

Proper 4 Year C: Old Time Religion

I Kings 8:22-23,41-43
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

We just heard Solomon pray that people far away from the temple might hear about how great God is and will themselves start praying to the God who is worshiped at the temple. Presumably those foreigners will be attracted to God because of the good examples of the Israelites who already worship at the temple. Then we heard about the Roman centurion who has heard that Jesus heals people – the people introducing him to Jesus say that the centurion can be trusted because he knows about God and is good to God’s worshiper. Presumably, he sees the good things that God’s worshiper do, and that is what attracts him to them and to Jesus.

God is attractive. Jesus is attractive. We are given the job of living lives that attract people to Jesus. Unfortunately, we don’t always do such a good job at giving people any reason to worship God or ask Jesus for healing. That is not usually because any of us live wicked, hateful lives (although there are some hate-filled people who use Jesus as an excuse for their fear and hatred). Most of us live good, loving lives almost all the time. The problem comes when we unwittingly put a barrier between Jesus and others by trying to overexplain him rather than just saying “come and be healed.” The church as a large institution does this more than individual Christians, and it is not intentional, but it does happen. We get so engrossed in Jesus, so we tend to overthink him and come up with theological formulas and definitions of orthodoxy that are fine in themselves, but are not the same as a healing relationship with him. We do that because we love him so much that he is always on our minds, but nonetheless they can still be barriers put in front of people trying to get to Jesus to be healed.

Theology is not bad, it is good and useful. In fact, we even have an early attempt at Christology in our gospel reading this morning when the centurion compares Jesus to a military officer ordering things to be done from afar. His theological musings were a motivated him come to Jesus for help. Other people have been brought to a healing relationship with Jesus through their theological musings. We just need to make sure that our definitions and formulas bring people closer to Jesus, rather than pushing them away.

Maybe Paul is talking about something similar in our second reading this morning. He is upset that the church in Galatia is turning to a different gospel that the one originally taught to them. Hopefully they are not turning away from Jesus and toward another god. Maybe they are just becoming more in love with ideas about Jesus than with Jesus himself. There was a need for solid theology at the time, because people were using Jesus as a basis for mystery religions and gnostic societies. Those types of religion really did portray Jesus as a harsh demanding semi-god rather than the healing presence of God among us, so there was good reason for solid theological and christological definitions. But we must never forget that the savior of the universe is a person, not an idea. The gospel is Jesus, because he is good news. We must base our lives on the person of Jesus, not on some ideas about him, no matter how helpful those ideas might be. We must not be like the church in Galatia, turning away from the gospel of Jesus and turning toward anything else.

Our lives can be an example of the creative power of God and the healing power of Jesus, and the love that is the basis of all of that. Orthodoxy and theological exercises can certainly help us live such lives, but we need to make sure that we are not substituting theological minutiae for Jesus himself. And we must make sure that our theological pronouncements help people come to Jesus, rather than blocking them from him. All of that can be difficult, but we have Solomon, Paul, and the Roman centurion praying for us. All of those guys have some theology attributed to them, and they all did not live good, attractive lives all of the time. That takes some of the pressure off of us, knowing that we can and will mess up at times, and we will overthink God sometimes, and yet still be channels for the Holy Spirit of God, bring life, health, joy, and peace to the world around us.   AMEN

All Of That Means Nothing If We Do Not Pray: Dedication of the Abbey Church 2013

Dedication of the Abbey Church 2013
I Kings 8:22-30
I Peter 2:1-5,9-10
Matthew 21:12-16

When I was a novice, I drove the prior to a meeting at Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas. At that time, the price of flying into the small airport close to that monastery was so expensive, it made sense to drive. Subiaco is one of the few monasteries I have ever visited, and yet each time I go to another monastery, I learn something. One thing I learn at every monastery is how lucky and blessed I am to be at St. Gregory’s. One of the particular things I learned at Subiaco came from their Br. Paul. His job was to take care of the pigs, and as I was taking a tour of the pig shed, he told me something that their Abbot Jerome had said to the community when Br. Paul was a novice. The monks here know Abbot Jerome from the great retreat he led here last December, so we are not surprised that he said something wise. Subiaco Abbey had been through a difficult period that lasted for a long time, and many of the monks left during those bad times. Shortly after his election toward the end of the difficulties, their new Abbot Jerome made this comment to his community: “It doesn’t matter if there are half as many monks here now as when you entered the monastery. What matters is that you are as much a man of prayer now as when you entered the monastery.”

That comment has stuck with me for these past eighteen years since I heard it. Subiaco has had more ups and downs (in fact, they have no more pigs and no more Br. Paul). We here at St. Gregory’s have had our ups and downs since I have been here, but nothing as dramatic as the upheavals that happen at many monasteries. People have come and gone, buildings have been torn down and new ones built, new psalters and Bibles and liturgical acts have been introduced. But the most important thing that has happened in those years is the fact that we have prayed. We have prayed when we wanted to and when we didn’t want to. We have prayed when we felt like it and when we haven’t felt like it. We have prayed whether or not we have gotten any thing out of it (because the reason we are praying has nothing to do with our own selves.) We have prayed privately and corporately. No matter what else is going on, the bell has rung several times a day, and we have gathered in this building to pray, acknowledging our utter and complete dependence and God and God alone. What a privilege!

As I said, one of the things I learn every time I visit another monastery, or talk with a monk or nun from another monastery, is how lucky and blessed I am to be here at St. Gregory’s. That statement is not meant to say anything bad about any other monastery – it is only meant to say something good about ours. We have a group of prayerful, self-motivating and self- policing monks, and some of the most thoughtful and careful leadership of any monastery around. Many guests mention that our guest facilities are some of the best anywhere, that the grounds are beautiful and that our monastery is very clean compared to many others. We get letters from people who have been guests or were in the vocation program letting us know decades later what a profound experience their time here was and how grateful they are for us being here. Our newsletter and calendar are high class and reach a wide and diverse group of people around the world. But all of that means nothing if we do not pray.

Taking our cue from Abbot Jerome, it doesn’t matter if there are half as many or twice as many monks here now as there were when we entered the monastery. It doesn’t matter if anyone knows of our existence or if we live in a palace or in a shack. What matters is that we are prayerful – that we are more prayerful now than when we entered the monastery. The only way to become a prayerful person is to pray. The only way to become a prayerful monastery is for the monks to pray together and privately. No matter what else happens now or in the future, the only thing we need to do is to keep ringing that bell several times a day in order to gather us together in this church to pray. We must come to Jesus, the “living stone…and like living stones let ourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices…as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”

We are here to pray because everything is nothing without prayer, because everything is nothing without God. This building is the center of our lives because God is the center of our lives. The monks in the past who sacrificed to have this church built knew that, and we are grateful for their actions and prayers that made this church a reality. Of course, they knew that only God makes things reality. That’s why they realized the importance of a space especially built for prayer. We become more real as we pray, and the world around us becomes more real as we pray with and for it. May we never forget that no matter what we do, all of it means nothing if we do not pray. AMEN

God Is With Us: Annunciation 2013

Annunciation
Isaiah 7:10-14
Hebrews10: 4-10
Luke 1: 26-38

Today we are given the message: “God is with us.” It is good news. It is the gospel, and it is a prophetic message that will change our lives, but only if we realize that the job of a prophet is not to tell us what to expect in the future, but rather what to do with our present.

We heard the prophet Isaiah give the news to King Ahaz, who is fearful of an invasion from the north. Isaiah tells Ahaz to not worry, because a child will be born whose name is “God with us”, and the child will still be around when the invaders from the north are themselves destroyed. Sometimes this message from Isaiah is seen as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, but it really isn’t, because the child’s name is not Jesus, but it is even more true that the message is about Jesus: God is with us. Our gospel story is about another message to not worry. This time, the messenger is the angel Gabriel, and he tells Mary not to worry about her pregnancy. He also says that the child will be called Son of God. Mary’s acceptance of the news is sometimes seen as proof that she could have prevented the pregnancy by saying “no”, but that can’t be proven by the narrative. The only thing that we can be sure about is that Mary is willing to cooperate with God and make the best of an existing situation. We should be thankful for her cooperation. Because of it God is with us, and God is one of us.

As Mary was willing to open up to God and carry Jesus in herself, nurturing him and eventually letting him go his own way, so we can be open to letting God reproduce and grow in us, so that we can bring God out to the world around us. Just as Mary gave up control of Jesus, so we must not try to control what God does – we must simply let Jesus do what he knows is best, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. We also need to be willing to take Jesus offered to us by others who are growing him in their lives. Sometimes we don’t like the way it is offered, but at least we can be grateful for the gift. God is with us. No need to worry. AMEN

Baptism Of Our Lord Year C: Rights Or Gifts?

Isaiah 43:1-7
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17,21-22

Things move slowly in a monastery, and there is good and bad in that, just as there is in any other type of human organization. Things move so slowly in a monastery that even though Christmas has been over and forgotten by most people, it is still lingering on here, and will do so until the celebration of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2nd. Christmas also has its good and bad side – it is way too busy in the office processing donations and sending out calendars; it is way too busy in the kitchen making special meals for all the holidays; it is way too busy in the church flipping back and forth between books. Those things are part of the bad side of Christmas (and really they aren’t too bad at all). However, the good side of Christmas far outweighs the bad side – Christmas is all about gifts (our gifts to others, others gifts to us, but most importantly God’s gift to all of us). That gift God gives to us at Christmas and throughout the year is simply himself.

In fact, everything we have is a gift. We speak of human rights, and it is good to work for the expansion of human rights throughout the world. But in the biggest picture, standing before God, we have no rights; life owes us nothing – everything is a gift. Rights are granted to people who are merely tolerated; gifts are given to people who are loved. And we are loved – deeply, madly, unconditionally. This existential freedom from rights is (unlike in the human political sphere) a great freedom, because instead of demanding and expecting to have certain things, we are instead able to take everything that comes to us and be grateful while we have it and then gratefully let it go when it is gone. Demanding and expecting brings worry; while humbly accepting and receiving produces gratitude. When we expect to have our rights fulfilled or to be given our due, we are prone to bitterness and disappointment, because almost everything will not meet our expectations. But when we receive everything as a gift, everything exceeds our expectations, and so we are joyful. That works not only with things and situations, but also with people. Expecting people to meet our demands won’t ever work, because people are not created to meet our demands. Instead, seeing other people as gifts in our lives whom we love, and joyfully desiring their happiness relieves us of the burden of expectation and self centeredness.

It also relieves us of the burden of godhood. When we expect things and people to be and do what we want, we have taken God out of the center of our universe and replaced him with ourselves. We become the gods of our own pitiful little hells. No one wants to be around us, and people cringe when they see us coming. We become picky, pushy, easily offended and high-maintenance, and we think we know better than others. We set standards for other people and become angry when they do not meet them, but we are really angry at ourselves for not meeting even lower standards. We become whiners, and as Maya Angelou said: “Don’t ever whine – whining makes you ugly and lets a bully know there is a victim around” Why do we choose to be ugly? Why do we choose to be victims? It is so much better to choose to let God be God and allow ourselves to be our true selves: God’s beautiful children, living in heaven and bringing heaven to the world around us. When we demand our self appointed  rights or expect our desires to be met, we are never satisfied and the little things annoy us and drive us crazy. When instead we joyfully accept gifts, the little things delight us.

But we know it is hard to see everything as a gift. We so easily fall into demanding and expecting – Benedict calls it “murmuring” in his Rule. That is where the discipline of constancy comes to our help. Constancy can help us because it does away with the need for patience. Patience so often implies that we are simply waiting for things to get better, and that brings disappointment. It means enslavement to our emotions and surroundings. On the other hand, constancy means that we choose to do our tasks and live our lives in a way that is helpful no matter if things ever get better, no matter our feelings, and no matter what is going on around us, and that brings joy. We can patiently wait until our rights and expectations are met, growing more bitter by the day. Or we can receive and give gifts with constancy and joy. It is our choice. Why not choose joy?

There are three events coming up that call us to choose either the paths of impatiently demanding things or joyfully receiving things. First, we have an abbatial election this week. Of course, this is not a perfect monastery full of perfect people. That is good, because usually a perfect setting full of perfect people is the opening scene for a creepy horror movie. Instead, we are real people, not pod people, and so anything we touch, including this monastery, will be imperfect. But on the whole, the problems we do have here are amazingly small, compared to any other monastery I have ever heard of or visited, and compared to the wonderful things that happen here. We touch people’s lives around the world, and it is humbling to know all we have to do is gather together to pray – everything else is merely to support that. So, we can choose to dwell on the tiny amount of problems we have and inflate them out of proportion (demanding that things change to suit us), or we can truthfully acknowledge them and get on with the good things of the monastery. This monastery is an incredible gift to us monks, giving us a place to be monks. And it is an incredible gift to those who know us and count on our prayers. The second thing confronting us is our celebration of  the baptism of Jesus, which is also a celebration our own baptism. We can choose to be angry with the way God rules the world and the church, or we can choose to accept the gift of baptism as a means of grace giving us strength to change the world and church for the better, working with constancy. And lastly, we are about to come to this table to receive God’s gift of himself. We can choose to dwell on the imperfections of the other people who gather up here and the imperfections of our celebration. Or we can choose to joyfully receive God into ourselves and be grateful to know that others are doing the same.

Let us choose joy. Let us choose to receive. No one else makes the choice for us. Let us choose to be good to ourselves and put off our bondage to self. Let us choose to let God be God so we can be God’s beautiful children.   AMEN

Proper 17 Year B: The Gospel According To Stravinsky

Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9
James1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

In music school, we read a lot of letters written by composers about different aspects of their lives and music. One letter was from Igor Stravinsky, who at the time was thought to be a wild man, throwing all rules of composition out the window. However, in the letter he said : “ the more rules I place on my compositions, the freer I am to compose”.  He let the rules be a structure for his music, so he could make something meaningful and beautiful on top of that structure. Rules are important. Anyone living in a monastery knows that. Monastic rules help us live together as a group in relative peace while at the same time giving individuals room to flourish and reach maturity. Just as there are many different sets of  monastic rules, so are there many sets of rules in the Bible. Our first reading is an account of a speech that Moses is giving to the Israelites just before they cross over the Jordan and take possession of Canaan. Moses make it clear that the rules will help them prosper and will be a good example to other nations. He also says that they must never change the rules, but that is a little problematic, because a careful reading of all the lists of rules promulgated between Mount Sinai and the Jordan shows some differences between them. So which list are they to obey? The latest version? Or the version that makes them feel best because they are already keeping them while others whom they fear are breaking them? Or the version that helps the most people grow in their individual vocations while also helping the group live together in peace? Of course, that is the question we always need to ask, whether or not we live in a monastery: which version of the rules should I follow?

The Letter of James (in our second reading) is asking that very question, and the answer it comes up with is: “follow the law of liberty – help people in need, speak and act lovingly and wisely, listen more than you speak, clean the greed and fear from your hearts and minds, and don’t let anger control your actions.” The Letter suggests doing all this by “welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”. That sounds a lot like what we call “lectio divina” – prayerful reading of scripture. Of course, merely prayerfully reading scripture or anything else that we do can’t save our souls – only God can do that. But the things we do will have an affect on whether or not the salvation already given by God can be seen in our lives. We are given life, but it is up to us to take care of that life and do what it takes to help it grow. So we are given rules to help us grow, but at first, many of the rules don’t make sense because we need to see the big picture in order to see how they all work together to help the individual as well as the community. We also need to make sure that we are following the rules with mindfulness and intentionality – realizing that we are doing things a certain way in order give ourselves and others space to grow. And in those times when the rules just seem too much for us to handle, we need to keep on following them with constancy and perseverance so that we can eventually follow them with love and joy. It is our choice to either let the rules free us and help us flourish, or to let them become a prison and suffocate us. It is our choice to either let the rules teach us the liberating truth that it is not all about me, or to let them make us whine : “what about me?”

Constancy and perseverance are two good tools to teach us the liberating truth that it is not all about me. The quotation from James: “welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” also sounds like what we do every day up at the altar – we hold out our hands to take Jesus into our lives. Jesus is the word of God, and all we need to do is open ourselves in order to take him in. We can’t let Jesus in to our lives fully when we are preoccupied with ourselves.

Our gospel story is about the dangers of thinking that it is all about me. Jesus makes it clear that sin is not necessarily defined as breaking the rules, but rather as anything we do when we let our own pride and greed direct our actions, whether or not any rules were broken. The Pharisees that started the discussion with Jesus have an undeserved bad reputation. Most of them were not bad people – they were good, sincere people who were trying to do the right thing. Jesus just showed them that doing the right thing involved more than following the rules. He did not say the rules were bad, only that they were part of the picture, not the whole picture. Rules are important, because they are there to help people, but people are more important than rules. Sometimes, breaking a rule is the right thing to do, even when it makes us uncomfortable or look bad in the eyes of others; sometimes, keeping a rule is the right thing to do, even when it makes us uncomfortable or look bad in the eyes of others. Knowing when to break rules takes a lot of maturity and prayer, and knowing when to keep rules takes a lot of maturity and prayer.

It is also true that rules are not necessarily universal or helpful in all times and places. One gets a glimpse of that in the different lists of rules in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Sometimes, the lists begin with the phrase: “When you cross the Jordan…”, so it sounds like the rules were meant only for life in the promised land. They did not have many of the rules before the exodus, and they could not keep many of the rules after the exile, but that did not make them any more or less faithful to God. So we should be aware of when rules need to change – in our private lives, in the monastery, in the church as a whole, and in our society. As with knowing when to keep or break rules, knowing when to change rules take a lot of maturity and prayer, and should not be done rashly (but neither should it be forbidden). As the two old sayings go: “don’t fix something unless it is broken” and “the past has a vote, not a veto.”

We are called to a life of maturity in Christ, and we all know from growing up that one needs boundaries and structure to grow up. One also needs wisdom and prayer. So may we be grateful for the structures of our lives – in the monastery, in the church, and in our nation. May we wisely and thankfully follow them, and may we be open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting when they need modification or overhaul. May we, like Stravinsky, find great freedom in the gift of rules, so that we can make something meaningful and beautiful out of our lives.   AMEN

Proper 16 Year B: Choose Today

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

In our first and third readings today, people are confronted with a choice. Our Old Testament story is about Joshua telling the Israelites to choose either the God who brought them out of Egypt or the gods that their ancestors served; the people choose the God who brought them out of Egypt. Our gospel story is about the disciples seeing a lot of Jesus’s followers leave him, but they decide to stick with Jesus. It might seem to us that we are not in danger of worshipping Baal or Mithras or Apollo, like the people in our story could have chosen. But we are always confronted with a choice of whether or not we will trust God or try to be our own gods. We are also always confronted with how we will Iive our lives: either honoring our marriage or baptismal or monastic vows, or trying to sneak around them. Rarely do we deny God or break our vows in big dramatic ways. Usually, we do trust in God and honor our vows, but even when we are unfaithful it is not in big ways – and we always start out rationalizing our behavior anyway, so we convince ourselves that we are being faithful or at least as faithful as should be expected. There are also times when we even think we are being faithful, and we do not see how our actions and attitudes are belittling our relationship with God and others in our chosen vocations.

Of course, then at some point we realize what we have done or what we have been doing and we admit our guilt and ask for forgiveness and strength to be more faithful. And of course later we catch ourselves being just as unfaithful in the same minute ways as before. None of that means we are bad people, it just means we are people, and we are at least good enough to come to awareness of our mistrust of God and misuse of our chosen vocations.

And so our second reading gives good tips on how to remain faithful to God and our vocations. Paul says to clothe ourselves in truth, righteousness, peace, faith, prayer, and perseverance. He mentions those things in the context of a suit of armor, and it is true that it is often a battle to teach ourselves to stop worshipping our own abilities and to instead trust in God to work through us. It takes time and effort to put to good use all the gifts that God has given us to grow, but it is worth all that time and effort, because we are worth the time and effort. Slowly and surely, the encrustation of fear and greed that our false selves have covered us in will start to crack open and our true, beautiful selves will shine through.

But we are still people, and no matter how much we grow, we will still fail at times. That is where the truth of God’s faithfulness comes in to play. We can always rest in the fact that God will always be our God, no matter how hard we find it is to trust him. We can always rest in the truth that God will honor our vows – marriage, baptismal, monastic – no matter how lightly we take them at times, or no matter how seriously we take them and yet still fail. We fall down, we get back up. But no matter how often or how hard we fall, we are still held closely by God. God is the basis of everything and is the source of reality, and as soon as we start living in that truth, things become more real and we become more real.

So, as Joshua says: choose today whom we will serve. We can add to that: “choose tomorrow, choose every moment of everyday – whom will we serve?” May God help us answer: “we choose God.”   AMEN

Framed In Humility: Transfiguration 2012

Exodus 34:29-35
II Peter 1:13-21
Luke 9:28-36

Some scholars think that maybe the story of the transfiguration is out of place in the gospels and that it might be an event that happened after the resurrection, but was misplaced in the text. However, after reading the events surrounding the story, the glorification of Jesus taking place in the midst of some not-so-glorious events becomes not an academic problem, but rather a source of joy. Luke gives a good overview of what took place in the weeks before the transfiguration. The disciples are sent out to preach and heal. The crowd surrounding Jesus grows, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand happens. Herod become interested in Jesus and makes peculation about his nature, as do many other people. In the midst of this, Jesus starts telling his disciples that he will be killed and raised from the dead, and that if they want to keep following him, they too must be ready to meet with difficulty along the way. After saying that, Peter, James, and John go up with Jesus to pray on a mountain, and there they witness Jesus undergo a strange transformation as he meets with Moses and Elijah. Luke seems to suggest that his appearance did not change that much, other than shining. His face did not even continue to shine after coming down from the mountain, so it was not even as dramatic as what happened to Moses, as we heard in our first reading. After the strange events on the mountain, they come back down, they tell no one what happened, and events proceed much as they did before: Jesus heals, the disciples argue, and Jesus talks more about the necessity of being prepared for difficulty if people want to follow him.

It seems as if Luke is trying to affirm the glory of Jesus, while at the same time placing it in a frame if humility. Jesus shines on the mountain, but before and after, he was just Jesus. One of the events that Luke says happened before the transfiguration involved Jesus asking his disciples what people thought about him. They answer that maybe he is John the Baptist or another prophet come back to life. When Jesus asks what they thought about him, Peter answers “The Messiah, The Christ”. It is only after that answer that Jesus takes three of them up the mountain. It seems as if Jesus wanted them to come to terms with who he was before they witnessed his glory on the mountain, so that the transfiguration was a response to, not a cause of, their faith.

Peter’s confession of Jesus as messiah came after traveling with him for a while. During those travels, the disciples had plenty of time to see Jesus in his full humanity: eating, drinking, sweating, sleeping, using the latrine, and everything else we all do. But it was in the context of this ordinariness and humility that Jesus found opportunities to perform miracles, and it was the extraordinary, glamorous events that he avoided. As they traveled, they heard Jesus preach and teach, but again his subject matter always involved things in everyday life, rather than theological treatises. They also heard him talk a lot about the difficulty and pain that lay ahead of all of them. He seems to be saying that everyday things and human despair are important enough to be of concern to God, and he wanted to make that point clear before he let them in on the transfiguration. The crowds wanted to witness heavenly signs, and they missed out on his heavenly appearance; the apostles witnessed earthly signs, and they saw heaven on earth.

That’s the part of the story that can be so joyful, because like the apostles, we don’t receive many signs from heaven, but through our normal, nonglamorous, often difficult surroundings, we can see heaven on earth – if we are willing to make them the arena for the miraculous. The miracles may not always come when we think they should, and heaven might be difficult to see all the time, but unless we are at least open to the existence of heaven in our ordinary lives, we will never see it, because glory comes along with, rather than instead of, humility. Even the conversation on the mountain between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah was about the upcoming arrest and execution of Jesus, and afterwards, Jesus does not tell the crowd that they will get a taste of the transfiguration by following him. Instead, he talks about more difficulty. Peter, in his letter of which we heard a part of today, also wants to make sure that such unusually glorious events serve only to confirm, not act as the basis of, his reader’s faith. In the verses that come before the ones we read today, he gives a list of things involved in Christian life, and they are all quite plain: goodness, self control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. But no matter how plain and ordinary those things are, he makes it clear that it is by these means that we grow in faith and knowledge of Jesus, becoming “participants in the divine nature” through his “precious and very great promises.” Peter does not outright say, but other reliable sources do, that the reason we can participate in the divine nature is because divinity has participated in our nature. We can see heaven on earth because in Jesus, heaven is on earth and earth is in heaven, and since we are the body of Christ, we can be transfigured just as Jesus was. As a certain preacher from Georgia put it: “He did not come to put us to shame with his divinity. He came to call us unto the fullness of our humanity, which was good enough for him.”

It is up to us to open our eyes to see all this heaven on earth – all this divinity flowing through the humble aspects of our humanity – because like the three apostles on the mountain, sometimes our eyes are shut because of our drowsiness. So we must always be mindful and live with intention. It is also up to us to not pretend that heaven is in places where it is not – we are surrounded by people going through hell, and it is our duty to do what we can in our own way to help those people out of their pit. So, as we go through our daily tasks, may we see the miracles occurring around us, and may we do what we can to make those miracles happen. May we always be aware of the heaven in our midst. May we show it to others, accept it from others, and bring it to those who need it most. AMEN

Proper 13 Year B: Sin And Ignorance

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Like the Israelites in the desert, God gives us everything we will ever need (raining food down upon us), and like the Israelites in the desert, we still want to go back in to the safety of slavery (where we are fed the stingy food of our stingy masters). We are surrounded by opportunities to be selfless, loving, and compassionate – opportunities that will help us grow in joy and peace, and instead we so often choose to be slaves to our fear – caring only for ourselves and in so doing shrinking in despair. We are offered grace, and we choose sin. We so often think of sin as something to do with sex. Our society is starting to include power and money in that list, and that is a good start. But sex, money ,and power are all good things. It is only when we misuse the good things God has given us to thrill ourselves no matter how much it hurts others that it becomes sin. So sex, money, and power can be joined by religion, monastic discipline, words, and thoughts in the list of things that should come to mind when we think of sin. When we become proud of our own lives in comparison to others and judge others in a negative way, we are sinning as much as the Wall Street fat cat cheating on his wife with a child prostitute and then using campaign donations to cover it up as he runs for office so that he can have the power to gain more wealth.

So, should we despair because we are mired down in so much sin? Yes and no. We should not despair, because God can and will pull us out of sin. But we should take sin seriously, because it impairs our relationship with God, and without God, we are not in true existence. Nonexistence is hell. We do not need to think of sin as something we do that displeases an angry God with an arbitrary list of rules who sends us to hell. Sin is simply misuse of the good things God rains down upon us everyday, and that misuse keeps us from living in a good relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, and our God. Some other traditions have other names for sin: foolishness, ignorance, unskillful behavior. It might be helpful to think of those names as we assess our own lives. And even though it is God who pulls us out of our sin, God allows us to stay in if that is what we choose (and that must be the greatest heartbreak of all, but love must include the possibility of heartbreak).

God pulls us out of our sin in dramatic ways sometimes, and that is where we get the term “amazing grace”. But most often, God gives us tools to change ourselves so that we are drawn out of our sin and fall back into it less and less. Disciplines are the tools God gives us to help us grow more skillful and less foolish and ignorant, or if we want to be old fashioned – less sinful. So we need to be grateful for the grace of discipline and pursue it with mindfulness and charity, never allowing it to become an occasion for sin in itself. In our first story this morning, God rained down manna and quails upon the Israelites, but they had to do the work of gathering and storing. So we have to put into action those disciplines that God has given us, making sure we never compare ourselves with others. We are all different and have all been given different strengths and weaknesses by God, as our reading from the Letter to the Ephesians reminds us, so we should never expect others to do exactly as we do, and we certainly should never negatively judge them if they do not do exactly as we do.

Sometimes, if we lose sight of our promised land as we trek through the desert, we want to give up and go back into Egypt – into the easy slavery of our selfishness and fear. We don’t really want that, and we don’t want that for others, which is why we must practice constancy in our monastic vocations so that we ourselves grow and so that we can be a good example to others. Our ferver will ebb and flow, but our good zeal does not need to, because we live by faith, not by sight or emotion. Jesus is our bread form heaven. We do nothing to receive him other than holding out our hands. We just need to make sure our hands, hearts and minds are free enough to take him.   AMEN