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

Proper 9 Year B: Do What’s Right, Not What Looks Good

Ezekiel 2:1-5
II Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

In our gospel story this morning, the people in Jesus’ hometown balk at his words and actions; their closed minds and hearts prevent them from receiving the full gift of healing that Jesus offers. Since he was fully human, that rejection probably hurt Jesus. Maybe he was a little angry or flustered at the suspicion of the health he gave to the people. Hopefully, his main reaction was sorrow and grief at their closed hearts and minds. However, whatever his listener’s attitudes and no matter his feelings, he still did what he could to bring God’s peace and joy to them, and then he went on to other towns (and sent his apostles as well) to bring it to others. He did not let either the actions of others or his own emotions prevent him from doing what he knew to be right. He knew it is more important to do what is right than to do what looks good in the eyes of others.

Ezekiel and Paul make similar points in our other scriptures today. God even warns Ezekiel that he will be met with trouble, but that should not prevent him from spreading his message. Paul has already experienced the rejection that Ezekiel is warned about, and he talks about his life as an apostle in this way: “ I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

That last part about being strong when he is weak makes sense only when we remember what Paul heard from God in the preceding sentence: “My grace is sufficient for you”.  In other words, Paul has learned that safety and security are found only in God. We are in the most danger when things seem the most secure, because in those times, we tend to rest in our own power, rather than in God’s grace. We tend to forget God when we think we have done well and saved money for the future and made a good name for ourselves. We tend to rest in the false belief that we are safe and secure, rather than in the truth that nothing is permanent except God.

Everything will change but God. Our financial and political situations, our family life, our health, our feelings and emotions will all change whether we want them to or not, and nothing we do can prevent that. When we finally realize the fragility of our man-made situations and admit how weak we really are, then we can allow God’s power to be the basis of our lives, and we understand God’s assurance to Paul: whenever we are weak, we are strong, because God’s grace is sufficient for us, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We are safe only in God’s hands, and that is why it is so comforting to know that is exactly where we are, whether we know it or not, or whether we like it or not.

We might not always feel that we are safe in God’s hands, and we might not always act like it, but that does not change the fact, because it is the only fact that never changes. Our situations and feelings are temporary; God is eternal. So with that in mind we can go ahead and be more confident about doing what’s right instead of doing what looks good or seems safe. We can live secure in God’s love, rather than on doing or saying things merely to impress others so that they will like us or take us in their circles of power. We can rest in God’s arms, no matter what path our ever-changing emotions take. We can search our own hearts and minds for God’s truth, whether or not in fits any party line or popular agenda.
That does not mean that we ought to be our own source of truth or wisdom. We should still pray, learn from others and from history, and inwardly digest scripture. We ought to be always willing and able to admit when we are wrong, and humble enough to admit when others are right.

We need to realize that others have the Holy Spirit guiding them also, and that our own stubbornness rarely allows us to be fully guided by the Spirit anyway. But once we do all these things, we can tell the truth as we see it – always in a loving, humble, helpful manner. We can be God’s prophets and apostles, like Ezekiel and Paul, carrying God’s love, peace, and joy to the world around us whether or not anyone listens and regardless of our physical situation. We can be Jesus to the world around us, loving them and healing them, but never forcing it upon them. And in those times when our love is rejected, we don’t have to deny our hurt feelings, but we also don’t have to let them determine our actions or keep us from loving. There is an entire universe to love, and we need to get busy loving it, rather than wasting time worrying about ourselves. We will be OK, because we are in God’s love always and everywhere.  May we rest in God, rather than in our own instability. May we realize that God’s grace is the only thing that is sufficient for us. May we be prophets and apostles, bringing God’s love to others, and may we gratefully accept it from all the other prophets and apostles who surround us everyday.   AMEN

Mutual Shepherds: Peter & Paul 2012

Ezekiel 34:11-16
II Timothy 4:1-8

The prophet Ezekiel tells us in our first reading this morning that God is our shepherd, and God will take care of us sheep. God will feed us and protect us and heal us. Although God is our true shepherd and pastor, today we celebrate two of God’s deputy or assistant pastors: Peter and Paul. By celebrating two of God’s most famous assistant pastors, we also celebrate ourselves, because we all serve as pastors to each other in some way. We all lead others by example, and we all follow others’ examples.
In many ways, those of us who are not official pastors actually fill a more pastoral role than those who are, because we tend to think that church officials are too different from us to be seen as example to follow. We often unconsciously dismiss what the preacher says, because we think he is merely telling us what he is supposed to say, and we are merely listening because we are supposed to listen. However, on another unconscious level, we all have people whom we observe and try to emulate, and we all have people who are watching us and taking our lead. We rarely know who is molding their lives on our pattern, and we rarely know who we are imitating.
That gives us two reasons to be careful of our actions and our observations. We need to be careful of our observations, because we need to make sure the people whom we idolize are good examples for us to follow. And we need to be careful of our actions, because we do not know who is following us. We might not want to be role models, but all of us are to someone. So, like Peter in the gospel story, if we say we love Jesus, we need to make sure we are feeding his sheep good examples to follow. Paul goes into more detail about feeding our fellow sheep in his letter to Timothy that we read today: “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching…be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
That last attribute of a good pastor is the sum of the whole list: “…carry out your ministry fully.” In other words, living our vocations fully (no matter what our vocation may be), and being the most honest and mature persons we can be (no matter what our particular strengths and weaknesses are) are the most important things we can do as God’s assistant pastors. Others will then see our fulfilment and be encouraged to grow into their own true selves and live their vocations, maturing in the fullness of Christ as they take their honored place in his body.
Of course we all know instances where we have failed to live up to our potential, or when we have not met our duties as Christ’s ambassadors, unintentionally leading others astray by our actions. There are also times when we have been unwittingly led astray by those whom we follow. That is why it is so important to set good examples for others, and that is why we need to be more conscious of the people whose lead we are following, realizing that God is our head pastor, so we must follow God always, especially in those times when we – his assistants – fail in our tasks. God will overcome all of our blunders and set us in the right path to joy and peace. God is our shepherd, as Ezekiel reminds us. We merely have the honor of being his helpers. May we fulfill our tasks with joy. May we set good examples and follow good examples. May we remember our task is simply to do our best and not worry about the outcome. Results are God’s job.   AMEN

Proper 7 Year B: Out Of The Whirlwind

Job 38:1-11
II Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Job is one of the most famous persons from the Bible, mostly because of the phrase: “the patience of Job.” However, if one reads the Book of Job, one sees that he is not patient at all. Job wants God to answer him and explain why God has allowed Job to suffer so much after being so righteous. It is Job’s friends who might be considered as being patient – they sit around and talk about God and explain to Job why he should calmly accept what is happening to him. After many pages of complaints by Job and scoldings by his friends, God finally joins the conversation by telling Job that God is the boss and does not need to answer any of Job’s complaints. However, God goes on the say that it is Job’s friends who are wrong, not Job.

On the surface, that does not make sense – if God is the boss and does not need to answer to us, then aren’t Job’s friends right for telling Job to accept what has happened, and isn’t Job wrong for complaining? Maybe God is more concerned with how the characters are dealing with the situation than with their words. While Job’s friends are talking about God, Job is actually talking to God. And even more importantly to a person in a monastic setting, Job spends a lot of time listening to God – the first part of which we heard in our first reading this morning.

So maybe the answer to all our questions about God and the universe are answered not by solutions, but by relationship. God does not solve all our problems the way we want or tell God to. Instead, God goes through our problems with us  – by being in relationship with us and also even more concretely by being one of us, and experiencing human life first hand as Jesus of Nazareth. We can talk about God all we want (there is nothing wrong with that – theology can be very helpful), but talking with God is where we grow into our full personhood. And we must remember that it is usually good to let God do most of the talking, although it is true that sometimes God uses our own words and thoughts to show us the answers – as William of St. Thierry says: “Let your question be your prayer.”

Maybe Job’s words do not seem patient, but in the long run, his approach does take more patience than his friends’. Anyone can claim to have all the answers about God and in a comparatively short time write books containing all those answers. Anyone can read all those books in a comparatively short time and claim to have learned all the answers. But listening and talking to God with no expectation of any answers takes a lifetime. In fact, it takes more than a lifetime, because lifetimes are finite and God is infinite. So, the way of Job – the way of relationship with God is slow, and often seemingly useless, but it is really the only way to the real answers in life.

Although “patience” may or may not be a good way to describe Job, we should strive to be patient. Even more than “patient”, we should strive to be “constant”, because “patience” often implies that we are waiting for things to get better, while “constancy” implies that it does not matter whether or not things get better – we will abide in God and trust God with our lives no matter how good or bad things get. Paul talks about constancy in our second reading this morning, and like the disciples in our gospel story this morning, we need to remember that Jesus is in the same boat with us. He may or may not do what we want him to do, but he will always do what we really need him to do (even when we do not perceive it that way).
We don’t and can’t know the whole story of life and the future and the universe and why things are the way they are. But we can talk about it and try to figure it out, like Job’s friends, and we can also do even better and (like Job) talk and listen to God, even though the answer is beyond us. Out of the whirlwind God answered Job. May we, with patience and constancy, listen to God, even if confronted with a whirlwind.  AMEN

Easter VI Year B: Punch The Clock

John 15: 9-17

We just heard Jesus say we are his friends, not his servants. That is not as freeing as it might seem. Friendship is a lot more work than servanthood, and there are fewer tangible rewards. If you are a servant, you either get a job description or are told what to do, and then after you do a good job, you either get paid (if you are a hired servant), or you get to be not beaten or killed (if you are a slave servant).

Friendship comes with no job description, and sometimes it is hard to figure out what to do to be a good friend. It also has no schedule, so you are never really off-duty. And there are no tangible rewards involved, except that of the friendship itself. But the intangible rewards of friendship are really greater than any salary or wage, because when we befriend someone, we are given the amazing chance to affirm that person’s legitimacy and integrity, and we in turn have our existence confirmed and affirmed. Such a need for existential assurances might be selfish, but they do seem to be necessary for human growth and happiness.

So, when Jesus says we are his friends that truly affirms our right to exist. We respond by doing what friends do, but with Jesus it is a little complicated, because he makes it clear that we respond to him by responding to all others. So, we have to treat everyone as friends: trying to do the best for them, even though we are often confused as to how to go about that, knowing we are never finished with the job of friendship, and often being ignored, harassed, or taken for granted. But all of that is ok, because the rewards of friendship with Jesus are like the rewards of friendship with others, only better, because the work is so much greater and more difficult.   AMEN

Easter II Year B: Troublesome Gods

Acts 4:32-35
I John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Our first two readings today talk about living in peace and harmony – true life centered on God  – instead of the false sense of life that we sometimes think we have when we think the world is centered on us. Just because real life is centered on God, that does not mean that God minutely manages every detail of everything that happens, even though God is in fact in control of everything. God is in control because God is love, and love allows and encourages the integrity and individuality of every part of the universe. We can sometimes think of God as sitting on a throne making decisions that we must follow if we are not to face his wrath, but that is an immature notion. As silly, but telling example of that attitude was shown in an episode of Star Trek – one of the staff members of the garrison on Deep Space Nine was having some personal problems and decided to stay at a Klingon monastery for a while to work through them. Another of the soldiers was surprised to hear that Klingons had any kind of religion, and the reply he got from a Klingon was: “We have a religion, we just don’t have any gods. We used to, but we killed them thousands of years ago because they were so troublesome.”

This may come as a shock to some people, but there really are no Klingons. It will probably come as a bigger shock to more people to know that the true God of the universe is not an arbitrary lawgiver who punishes people for not following his whims. God is love, and so fashions the universe in such a way that all parts of creation find their fulfillment in becoming their own unique self, rather than in bending to our desire to become what we want them to be. That frees us to become who we truly are instead of always worrying about controlling the world and people around us. The will of God is love – it is the way of the universe ( the underlying law of existence), and if we follow it, we thrive; if we fight against it, we are crushed by our own movement against the flow of the cosmos, and we create painful and destructive eddies that bring sorrow to the people around us. It is we, not God, who form the wrath of God. Going forward in peace is love; going backward into ourselves is wrath.

We fight against God and against grace because we are scared when things are out of our control, because we think we know what is best and we think we can make what is best come about. Both of those assumptions are wrong. We don’t know what is best – not because we are stupid, but because we simply don’t have all the information. Only God knows everything, so only God knows what’s best. We can’t make the best come about because we don’t have all the power. Only God is all-powerful, so only God can make the best come about. Our job is to cooperate with grace, not to second-guess it. We can understand this by using our hindsight – remembering times when we desperately wanted something and prayed for it to happen, but it never did. Now we look back at those times and are extremely grateful that what we wanted did not happen, because we realize how much better things turned out instead. God answers all prayers, and sometimes the best answer is “NO.” Actually, the answer is more likely “NO, I have much better in store for you.”

Realizing that God has much better in store for us than we could ever imagine is hard to see when we are in difficult circumstances. The gospel story this morning talks about that. The disciples were in a difficult situation: their master had been executed and they were hiding behind locked doors. But in that situation, Jesus appears to them and brings them peace. He had better things in store than they could ever had imagined. In fact, not only could they not have imagined it, they had trouble convincing others of Jesus’s resurrection. Even one of their own, Thomas, did not believe it.

Thomas’s doubt does not make him a bad person, just a sane one. How could the disciples ever have understood the resurrection without seeing and touching the proof? How can we ever believe God has better thing in store for us when we cooperate with grace and live in love than when we try to wrest control away from God in order to make things and people behave the way we think is best? It is not easy, it is simply necessary. We must allow God to rule, no matter how bothersome it seems sometimes. We must not try to get rid of God and ask for something else that we can more easily manipulate, like the crowd in Jerusalem asking requesting Barabbas, or the Klingons, or every other culture and society that has replaced love with fear and control. God’s ways are usually strange and scary to us, but in the end they bring about far better things than we ever could have imagined. May we rest in the fact that security come only in God. May we cooperate with grace, no matter what form it takes. May we realize that all our prayers are answered, and sometimes the most merciful answer is: “No, I have much better in store for you; you are worthy to receive much better than that; you are worthy to receive better than you could ever imagine.”   AMEN

Lent I Year B: Remember

Genesis 9:8-17
I Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

We have heard a lot this morning about remembering. We began with a story telling how God promised to remember a covenant made with Noah. It seems strange for God to promise to remember something, since God knows everything. It is precisely because God knows everything that he promises to remember, because one of the things God knows is the fact that we need reassurances of God’s love for us. The promise to Noah was that God would never again destroy the world with water. Actually, the story makes it clear that it is not only to Noah, but to every creature that came out of the ark that the promise was made.

In our second reading this morning, Peter mentions Noah, but does not mention the promise to Noah. Instead, he mentions another promise God makes to us involving water. God promises to bring us to himself through Christ, and the reminder of that promise is the water of baptism. Our translation calls it “an appeal to God”, but many translations call baptism “a pledge from God.”

Our gospel story this morning from Mark also talks about baptism – the baptism of Jesus. We might wonder why Jesus was baptized, but we might never know the reason. The important thing is that we can be grateful for what it shows us. Like Noah, Jesus came safely through the water. Like Noah, Jesus had a dove bring him good news. Like Noah, Jesus went through a difficult forty day period. Like Noah, Jesus was given a pledge from God that has been passed down to all who come after him: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” After Jesus heard this good news, he went out into the wilderness, where the scripture says he was tempted by Satan. We sometimes think of Satan as an evil prince dressed in black, plotting against God and causing us to sin. That image may or may not be correct some or all of the time. Actually, the word “satan” is a legal term meaning “accuser” or “one who gives false information.”  Maybe the main way that Satan was tempting Jesus those forty days after his baptism was by trying to get him to doubt what he heard at his baptism: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

We don’t put a lot of emphasis on Satan as a dark prince, and that is probably good, because that was over-emphasized in the past and used too often as an excuse to take the blame of our wrongdoings off of our own shoulders. The fact is, we are usually our own worst satans, casting doubts on our relationship with God – either by telling ourselves we don’t need God, or by telling ourselves that God would not want us. Sometimes it seems we are like Jesus in the wilderness for a long time facing these temptations, hoping and praying that God will give us a sign of his love for us. Yet the whole time, God does give us a sign, or as Peter says, a pledge. Like Jesus, we need only to look back at our baptism to know that God has called us to be his children in whom he is well pleased. As one of the psalms we recite every day at Lauds says: “the Lord takes pleasure in his people.”

God takes pleasure in us as his children, and also as his bride, his friend, and his own body here on earth. God takes so much pleasure in us that God freely chose to become one of us. Whenever we feel lost in the wilderness, falsely accused of uselessness and abandonment by God, we can always remember our baptism and Jesus’s baptism and say: “Yes, I am a child of God. God is please with me. I know it because I was told so at the water.” But we can’t stop there, because baptism also involves promises that we make to God. Sometimes, they are made out loud, sometimes they are implied, sometimes they are made on our behalf, depending on the tradition of the denomination. The promises usually involve forsaking Satan and choosing to follow Jesus as our only Lord, recognizing and working for the dignity of all whom we encounter, and continuing to grow in faith and knowledge by meeting with other baptized people to pray and break bread together. We have the choice of keeping them or breaking them. We also have the choice of merely paying them lipservice, which is the most dangerous choice of all, and is the one we do most often.

However, God is still there, keeping his promise. It may seem that we are the ones asking God to remember his faithfulness and love, but more often it is God pointing to the water saying: “Remember my covenant. You are my child. I take pleasure in you.” God remembers. We forget. We might wander in the wilderness, falsely accusing ourselves and the people around us, but God remembers. God remembers what it was like to be tempted by false accusations, and God remembers his love for us. We are God’s – always accepted and beloved, and pleasurable.   AMEN

Epiphany IV Year B: Puffy Or Firm?

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
I Corinthians 8:1b-13
Mark 1:21-28

What we do matters. It matters to God, it matters to us, and even though we might not know it or like it, it matters to other people, even if they don’t know it or like it. That is what Paul is talking about in our second reading. He knows that following Jesus is not about following rules, but he also knows that not everyone else knows that. He also knows that no matter how mature one becomes in Christ, we are all still human, and we all still have something in our psychology that makes us want rules. It is good that we want rules, because rules help us do good things. The problem comes when we confuse the rules with the good things we are supposed to do. In Christian life, rules are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The goal is growth in Christ. One way to grow is by lessening the frequency of some actions and attitudes, and increasing the frequency of other actions and attitudes. Maybe the most important way to grow is to always trust God more and more and rely on what we think are our own possessions and abilities less and less.

We are all different, and we all grow in different ways and at different rates. Some people need more discipline to foster growth, some people need less. Neither group is superior or inferior, only different. The trouble comes about when those who need less discipline flaunt their more relaxed lives, and when those who need more discipline try to impose their needs on others. We see this happening in church history, in political life, in families, and in monasteries. It is, of course, perfectly ok for those who need discipline to lovingly exhort others to a more regulated life. It is, of course, perfectly ok for those who need less discipline to not follow those exhortations. What is not good is when more relaxed people become smug and belittle the stricter people to the point that those who need it give up their discipline out of embarrassment or confusion and become stunted in their Christian growth. And even though the more relaxed people might not be doing it on purpose, their more relaxed ways can sometimes cause others to drift away from love of God. That happens because whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not, we are all role models for others, and we model our lives on others.

As our first reading stated, God gives us prophets, and some of our most influential yet hidden prophets are the people we see everyday, either in person or in the newspaper. And we are influential and unknown prophets to others who see us everyday. We need to be careful about whom we emulate, and we need to make sure that we do it willingly and purposefully, not blindly as we usually do. We also need to make sure that we set good examples to those who emulate us (knowingly or unknowingly). We should not be fake about who we are, but we can be discreet about some of our actions and attitudes depending upon our audience. We do not have to act the same way around everyone – that is not hypocrisy, it is loving care for those around us.

Our gospel story mentions people who knew that Jesus had integrity in his actions. He did not flaunt his religious freedom, nor did he rebuke religious people who were truly loving God and their neighbors. He had some very religious habits (he was baptized and went to the synagogue regularly), and he did other things that made religious leaders mad enough to kill him. Yet, it seems that every time someone asked him how to have eternal life, he gave a different answer, tailored to the inquirer’s needs. He told people to follow him, not to do everything exactly as he did. He said to pick up our own cross, not anyone else’s.

So we must not succumb to a superior attitude and think that we need no discipline, nor should we be overly scrupulous and neurotic in our approach to growth in God. We should be careful in the examples we show others, and we should be careful about whose examples we follow. As Paul says in our second reading: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” May we not be bloated know-it-alls. May we instead be loving servants.   AMEN