Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: Independence Day 2010

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

Jesus tells us that we should not believe everything we hear. He quotes a familiar saying: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The first part of that saying (“You shall love your neighbor.”) is from scripture (Leviticus 19:18), but the second part (“hate your enemy”) was simply added on to the scriptural part, and it might have been popular at the time because of the political unrest in the area. However, Jesus makes it clear that hating anyone, even enemies, is not acceptable. Jesus tells his listeners that God cares for those people whom they do not like just as much as God cares for those people they do like, and if they expect to be thought of as Children of God, they must do the same.

Moses is saying something similar in Deuteronomy when he describes God as a king who is not partial, takes no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers. He also reminds the people that they were oppressed in Egypt, and that should serve as a reminder to not oppress others in their new home. Our society is a little different from Moses’ listeners, but we still have the equivalent of the orphan, widow, and stranger among us. We still have people who need extra help, and we still have people who do not fit into the prevailing culture. Such people are not problems to be solved or groups to be shunned. Instead, they are pert of our world and as much beloved Children of God as we are. In many ways, when we look at a person whom we regard as different or unpleasant or dangerous, we are actually looking in a mirror and seeing aspects of ourselves – as Moses says: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Moses is instructing the people as they prepare to cross the Jordan to always remember that God is their king – the king who is not partial, takes no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger. That is an important thing for all of us to remember. However, if we also believe that God is one of us through the incarnation of Jesus, and shares our human life, then we are led to believe that God is not only our king – God is also our relative, and therefore we are all members of a royal family with duties and responsibilities toward each other, as well as rights and privileges.

Because of creation, we all bear the image of God. Because of the incarnation, God bears our image. The question we must ask ourselves is: “do we accept the duties and privileges that this relationship lays upon us?” Do we act our part as members of the family of a king who is not partial, accepts no bribes, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger? We are free to refuse those responsibilities, but if we do so, we must also refuse our relationship with God. If we do accept that relationship, not only as children but also as siblings and cousins of God (remember the incarnation), we must remember that we are worth far too much to waste time and effort on anything other than love. As Jesus reminds us: “You shall love your neighbor…”

Jesus also reminds us that we are not to believe everything that we hear. We sometimes hear people expressing a desire to return to the values upon which this country was founded. Many are quick to agree with that desire without carefully considering what it really means. That is dangerous, because although many of our nation’s founders were good people, our country was founded at a time when some of the moral values included slavery, violence toward women, drunkenness, breaking treaties with Indian nations, and slaughter of those Indian nations. We do not need to return to those values. We need to be like Abraham’s family that we heard about in our second reading today, and “desire a better country”. As the Letter to the Hebrews says: “If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind , they would have had opportunity to return.” Like Abraham, we should long to see the new homeland – a place of justice and peace. We are not there yet, but we should be looking to it and traveling toward it, so that like Abraham, we can “see it and greet it” from a distance. We also need to be careful to not be smug about our own most cherished ideas of justice and freedom – just as we are shocked at how many of our founding fathers could support slavery and genocide, we do not know which of our own values will seem barbaric to people two hundred years from now.

Abraham’s goal is mentioned as a “heavenly country”, and at times people have thought of that in terms of desiring to be taken away to a better place. Such an attitude has sometimes led people to allow the world around them to sink into despair as they wait patiently to be transported to paradise. That might be an easy way to live, but it is not an honest way to live as God’s family. We recite a psalm at the end of matins every Thursday that talks about God being in our midst so that: “Justice shall march in the forefront and peace shall follow the way.” That is a wonderful way to speak of God, but can it be said of us? If not, it should. Our vocation as Children of God is not to wait for heaven, our vocation is to bring heaven to our homes and nations.

We have been truly blessed here with local and national governments that are usually good. Of course this country is far from perfect, but we know we have the right and ability to work for its betterment. We should do that without pride or conceit, for in another gospel story, in the same breath that Jesus exalts his listeners as the light of the world and a city on a hill, he also reminds them that they are the salt of the earth – something so common that it is easily forgotten in recipes and is not noticed until it is missed. Sometimes some of us are called to be heroes and prophets like Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman – lights of the world and cities on the hill, but usually, most of us are called to be common people spreading love and compassion as the salt of the world. We are called to live our dull lives in such a way that, like the psalm says: “Justice shall march in the forefront, and peace shall follow the way.

So may we be like Abraham – willing to leave the gods that our fathers served beyond the river and travel to a new home where God is not only our king, but also part of our family. May we see the city that God has prepared for our home, and do all that we can to bring it to the people around us. May we live our lives in such a way that: “Justice shall march in the
forefront, and peace shall follow the way.”   AMEN

Proper 6 Year C: Taken For Granted

II Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Getting used to things can be dangerous. A lot of accidents happen because of carelessness caused by a false sense of security: we are used to our car tires having enough air in them, so we never think about checking them until they blowout; we are used to our oven lighting when we turn it on, so we never think of checking it until one day it doesn’t light and fills the whole house with gas. We take things for granted, and while it is not good to be constantly and neurotically assessing every situation for problems, the complacency that our lives create can in itself be a danger. The gospel story this morning is a good example.

The pharisee in the story was used to thinking of himself as a righteous person, acceptable to God. In fact, although pharisees have a bad reputation, they don’t really deserve it. Most of them were just like us – good, kind people trying to do the best they could with what they had. Their main problem seems to be their habit of taking God’s love and acceptance for granted. They were so used to hearing they were acceptable to God, and that God loved them, that they were in danger of forgetting how good it is to be loved, and that others were also acceptable to and loved by God. The woman in the story apparently does not have that problem. She was used to being told that she was a sinner: unacceptable to God. We don’t have the full background of the story, but it seems that in spite of the way she has been treated by religious people in the past, something she has heard about Jesus tells her that he won’t mind being in her presence, and that he won’t recoil in fear or disgust at her touch. Somehow, she knows she is accepted and loved by him, and so she responds in a way that is puzzling to the pharisee, who is equally loved and accepted by Jesus.

In the eyes of God, the woman and the pharisee were equally sinful, equally forgiven, and equally loved. That goes for everyone. God knows us best, yet loves us most. God knows us better than anyone (including ourselves) ever could. God knows every dark secret, including the ones we think we have hidden even from ourselves, and yet God loves us more than anyone else (including ourselves) ever could. Most of us already know that. We know how wonderful it is to be completely and totally loved by God. Unfortunately, we get so used to being loved that we start acting like the pharisee in the story; we stop returning the love because we take it for granted. Not that God could ever not love us – God is love, and God could never not love.

The danger of not loving is on our part, not God’s. When we forget how wonderful God’s love is, and how our existence is dependent upon it, we start living a life that is indeed loveless. We stop loving others, ourselves, and God. We don’t do it on purpose, and we don’t do it because we are evil. We do it simply because we are human, and we get so busy with the details of life that we forget the reason for living: love

Like the pharisee in the gospel – he was so busy following all the good rules of his denomination that he forgot to show love to his houseguests. Like David in our Old Testament story – he was so used to getting what he wanted as king that he did not fully realize the horror of the crime he had committed. Like some of  the Galatians in our second reading this morning – they were so used to treating gentiles as inferior to themselves that they forgot Jesus had changed all that.

So it is with us. We get so used to hearing that God loves us and that our sins are forgiven and that we are acceptable to God that we forget how good it is to be loved, and how horrible our sins are, and what an honor it is to be accepted as God’s Children. We grow cold in our love and we forget that everyone else is also fully loved as Children of God. We start to feel superior to others because we follow certain rules that they don’t, or they follow certain rules that we don’t – forgetting the only reason for those rules is to help us grow in love. We carelessly hurt others by our actions and attitudes, and we don’t even realize it. All of these things are completely unintentional, because like David and the Galatians and the pharisee that we have heard about today, we are good people. We are good people who have simply gotten used to being good and being loved, and getting used to things can be dangerous.

That is why it is so important to take time every once in a while to look closely at our lives and see how much we need God’s love and acceptance, and be grateful that it is there for us. We need to not be like David, so smug in our secret sins of pride and greed that we readily condemn others while it our own selves who are to blame for certain problems. We need to remember that although God knows us so well, God loves us so much, and the same is true for people whom we find difficult to love.

We also need to let those people who are not used to hearing it know how much they are loved and accepted by God. Our world is full of people who are used to hearing they are sinner condemned by God. They are used to hearing it, because so many people who are loved by God are used to saying it. That is a shame. They desperately need to hear that they are just as much Children of God as anyone else, and we who are used to being in God’s love desperately need to think of them as such and treat them accordingly, lest we run the risk of growing cold in our love and so become like the pharisee or some of the Galatians in our readings this morning.
Of course, we also need to make sure that our understanding of love is not simply one of being emotionally stroked by the way some people sometimes make us feel. We must learn to actively love – to desire and work for the best for every individual, even if and when what is best for some individuals is not what is best for us, and might even make us quite uncomfortable. We must learn to love people, not just the way some people sometimes make us feel.

Love is too important to take for granted. Other people are too important to disregard. We are all loved far too much to treat each other as anything but the very image of God, showing respect and honor to all whom we encounter, including ourselves.   AMEN

Easter VII Year C: Take Me To The River

Acts 16:16-34
Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20
John 17:20-26

We just heard the final words of Jesus at the Last Supper before going to the garden where he was arrested. His entire speech is long – 3 ½ chapters in the Gospel According To John, and towards the end of it, he prays that his followers would be united, as he and the Father are. He gives two reasons for this: so that the world will know that Jesus was sent to us by God, and so that the world will know that God loves the disciple of Jesus as much as he loves Jesus. Jesus does not pray that his followers may be one so that God will love them; God already loves us. The desired unity is only meant to be an outward sign of God’s love for us. That is a good thing, because if God’s love for us depended on anything we did, we would not be worthy of that love, because it is obvious from our own lives and from church history that we are not very good at living in unity with other Christians.

That is why Jesus’s prayer is so surprising. It is easy to believe that God loves Jesus. Even those who do not accept the divinity of Jesus can understand why God would love him, because he was so good and kind and said spiritual things. Of course God loves Jesus – who wouldn’t? Those of us who believe that Jesus was not really a goody-two-shoes, but was rather God in human flesh, understand that the Father loves Jesus as the only begotten second person of the Trinity (a love that we do not have the power to understand, a love that is the foundation and structure of the universe). And Jesus makes it very clear in his prayer that God loves us in the same manner that he loves Jesus. That is hard to accept. It is hard to understand, hard to believe, and hard to confront. In God’s eyes, we (as petty, judgmental, and conniving as we are) are loved as much as Jesus. In God’s eyes, we are as worthy of infinite love as is God’s own self. God knows us better than anyone else (including ourselves), and yet God loves us more than anyone else (including ourselves). It is almost impossible to believe that we are worthy of any love at all, much less God’s infinite love, but it is true.

We are worthy, but not because we have earned any worth. We can not earn anything in God’s eyes. It is impossible to do, so it is neither asked for, nor expected. Our infinite and unconditional worth is freely bestowed upon us by God. Our second reading from the Book of Revelation talks about the gift of God’s love, as the Holy Spirit calls everyone to come drink the water of life flowing like a river from God’s throne – freely and abundantly offered. No one is forced to come drink, but all are invited. There are no limits on how much we can drink, nor are there any conditions that we must fulfill, other than simply being thirsty for love and life.

A different river is the setting for our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, but it is just as much proof of God’s love as is the river in heaven. Paul and Silas are in Macedonia, going to pray with some people who meet by a river in Philippi. On the way, they meet a slave who makes her masters rich by telling fortunes. The reason she can do this is because she is possessed by a foreign spirit. Paul confronts the spirit and makes it leave her, healing her and setting her free from its power. Her human masters bring legal action against the apostles for ruining their source of income, since the girl can no longer tell fortunes without the foreign spirit controlling her. By healing her, Paul shows us how much more important to God is our health and happiness, compared to our ability to make money. We are important to God simply because we exist, not because we can acquire possessions, wield power, create artwork, achieve popularity, or make athletic,  intellectual or scientific breakthroughs. God creates us out of love; that is our reason for being and our true fulfillment – not any outward sign of supposed success.

God’s river of life and love flows to us, offering us more than we could ever imagine or understand, and its flow does not depend on who we are, how we feel, or what we do. It is not forced upon us, just offered. We can’t do anything to lose it – we can’t be bad enough for God not to love us – but we can, if we choose, decide to not drink from the river, and so not accept God’s gift. We do that every time we think we can live life on our own and have no need for God. When we do that, we are not really gaining independence, we are simply losing our own life. God offers us life, love, and true fulfillment, and all we have to do to receive it is to be humble enough to accept it. We must admit we are nothing without God, and everything with God. We must admit that we can not love on our own, and that we can not live on our own. We must admit that everything we try to do on our own ends in failure and heartache, while everything we do in God is simply a step to something even greater. But we must take the step to the river and drink, taking ourselves out of the center of our lives so that God can fill us with true love and life. God is calling us to drink, no matter how many times we turn our backs on him.

But back to Jesus’s prayer for unity from our gospel reading. Someday, all Christians might be united in the way that Jesus is one with his father (I suspect  we already are, but we just don’t realize it or act like it). At least we don’t act like it yet, and maybe that is because we do not understand the unity of God, either. All we know is that Jesus desires our unity, so it can’t be bad. Our unity is not a prerequisite for God’s love for us; it is merely an outward sign of it. So until we admit and act like we are one as Jesus and the Father are one, we can at least try to remember that the people around us are loved by God, and therefor might be worthy of our love, too. Just as we can not earn God’s love, so the people around us can not earn our love. It must be given by us, no matter the response. May we freely give from the river flowing into us from God, and may we freely accept it from others, who love us even though we have never done anything to deserve it from them. Maybe that is s start toward unity in Jesus. Maybe that is the fulfillment of it.   AMEN

Growing A Life: Dedication of the Abbey Church 2010

I Kings 8:22-30
I Peter 2:1-5;9-10
Matthew 21:12-16

Construction projects take a long time and are wearisome. The monks know this all too well from experience. But eventually they are completed and then we can be thankful for the finished product, much as people have been grateful for this church building for almost sixty years. But as wearisome as building projects can be, it is often even more so with our lives,
wondering if we will ever reach a finished state of maturity and wholeness. It takes a lifetime to build a life, so even though sometimes it seems we will never fulfill our potential – as humans, as Christians, as monks, or whatever our vocation – we must never despair or give up. We should never give up hope even though it really is true that we will never be finished either in this life (because it takes a lifetime to build a life) or in eternity (however we interpret that concept), because since we are Children of God, and God is infinite, we can never reach the end of our growth (there will always be something beyond where we are, no matter how far we progress).

In his letter that we read this morning, Peter talks about our growth in terms of a construction project. He says: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that you may grow into salvation…and like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood…” Peter understands that no matter how beautiful our church buildings are, it is our lives that are the true temples of God.

In order to be holy temples, there are some things we should not have in us, lest they defile the temple. Peter gives a few examples of the abominations that we should remove from ourselves in order to be pure temples when he says: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” We all know how hard it is to get rid of
those things, and how quickly they come back when we do throw them out, but if we are to be the holy priests of God that Peter says we are, we can not have those things in us, because when we do, we are hobbled by the darkness in ourselves and can’t do a very good job of bringing the love of God to people. He puts it this way: “You are a chosen race, a royal
priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Our priesthood consists of proclaiming a God who brings people out of darkness into light. So no matter how difficult it is, we need to be always growing away from the darkness – the pettiness, pride, and greed
that Peter warns us about. We will never be fully rid of them, because it does take a lifetime to build a life, but we can take comfort in the fact that we have all our lives to work on them. We can also take comfort in the fact that the growth does not depend on us – we must always put in the effort to grow, but the results are in God’s hands. All we need to do is our best (no more and no less) and then let go, trusting in God.

So if Peter wants us to grow out of certain infantile behaviors, what does he want us to grow into? He sums it up in one word when he says: “grow in to salvation…” There are a lot of opinions about what salvation is, but it seems to me the best view is to understand it as wholeness, fullness, and maturity; reaching our full individual potentials and becoming the unique persons we are created to be, knowing that our intrinsic legitimacy, integrity, and infinite worth are based on the absolute, unchanging foundation of God, rather than on our own or anyone else’s opinions of us. And Peter says to grow into salvation, not to receive it and forget about it. Once again the growth comes from God, but it is up to us to put it into action.

There are many ways to do that. The usual ones include prayer, scripture reading, giving up the need to always have our own way, refraining from gossip, and other disciplines. Since we are all different, we won’t all need to do the same things to help us grow, but we should never kid ourselves into thinking that we don’t need any discipline, or that we can take an easy way to maturity. Doing that only keeps us in our infantile state.

Our gospel story this morning gives us a glimpse of what we are to become as we grow and as the impurities are rooted out of the temples of our lives. First, Jesus drove out of the temple some of the people whom he considered to be symbolic of corruption. There are differences of opinion about how corrupt these people really were, but at least Jesus made a good point. After he did that, he healed blind and lame people, showing the fruit of purified worship – health and wholeness. That is our goal: rooting out the selfish corruption in our lives so that we can bring love and peace to our hurting world.

We all have a long way to go before our temples are completely clean, but on the other hand, we have all come a long way. We can look back on where we have been and look forward to how far we have to go in order to spur us to further growth, instead of causing us to despair. We can be joyful in the knowledge that no matter how much we grow, we have potential for
ever more as Children of an infinite God. We can also take comfort in the fact that no matter how much we fail, we always have another opportunity to begin anew every day. So we have no need to worry, we have an entire lifetime to build our lives. But we shouldn’t waste time, either, because life is too short and too precious to waste.

May we follow Peter’s advice and example: ” Rid yourselves, therefor, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure…so that by it you may grow into salvation…and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual
house…you are…a royal priesthood, a holy nation…in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

We have a great place to do all that, in this beautiful church building. May we have another 60 wonderful years to keep working at it.   AMEN

Lent IV Year C: Yes We Can

Joshua 5:9-12
II Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Our gospel story this morning is famous, and for good reason – it tells us a lot about God, a lot about us, and a lot about the world around us. It has been used as a basis for many sermons, stories, and other helpful forms of  teaching because of the many things that can be gleaned from it. Two of the many topics found in the story are areas we have been hearing and reading a lot about these past few weeks: salvation and repentance. Sometimes the two are confused, as in the often used expressions “get saved” and “repent”. Many people say the two things as if they we the same thing, but they are not. We are saved, because God saves us – salvation is a totally free gift from God that has already been given, and we can do nothing to influence God to save us, because God already has. Repentance, on the other hand, is something that we do – we realize we are doing wrong, and we change our actions in order to stop the wrong and begin doing right. Repentance does not save us, God saves us, but repentance puts us in a position to actually live in and enjoy the salvation that God has given us.

God has forgiven us of all our failings and welcomes us into his own life of joy and peace, like the father in our gospel story. However, until we come to our senses and realize we are on the road away from our true home, like the younger son in our story, we can not enjoy the party that the father has prepared for us. And merely realizing we are on the wrong path is not enough – we actually have to do something to change our path, turn around, and go back home to our father. Repentance involves change in our lives, not merely regret over some of the things we have done, although that is a good way to begin repenting. In order to live as saved people, we need to change our unsaved conduct of pettiness and greed into saved conduct of compassion and gratitude.

Some people say that they can not change their behaviors, but that is not true, for any behavior short of pathology. There are many forms of help available to show us how to change our actions, the easiest and cheapest being the many books in our library with helpful hints on how to change behavioral patterns. Some people say that they don’t need to change their behavior. That is not true, either, because we have all hurt ourselves and others deeply, and will continue to do so if we do not live mindfully in peace and joy. If we think we do not need to change our behavior for the better, that only means we are not aware of our behavior.

Changing our actions for the better benefits us and those around us, and that is good. However, we don’t have to stop at our actions. We can, if we want, also change our thought patterns so that we are not plagued so much by the negative thoughts that drain our happiness and often lead to bad behavior. Many people say that we can not change our thought patterns, but, as with actions, anything short of pathology can be changed – it is merely difficult to do so. Others say that even though we can not actually change our thought patterns, we can learn to become more aware of them so that when they arise we can deal with them in a helpful manner before they do too much harm. Either changing them outright or learning to be aware of them in order to lessen their harm is better than simply allowing our petty thoughts to drag us down into anger or despair. One thing that most people do agree on if they say that thought patterns can be changed is that they are much more difficult to change than are behavioral patterns. But difficult and impossible are not the same thing.  As is the case with behavioral patterns, some people think they do not need to change their thought patterns, but that only means they are not very aware of what is going on in their heads. Once again, there are many forms of help available if one wants to change hurtful thought patterns, the easiest and cheapest being the many books in our library dealing with the topic.

Our feelings and emotions can also be changed, but they are even more difficult to change than thoughts. Our emotions are given to us as a means of perceiving and dealing with reality, but so often they instead skew our perceptions and we mistake them for reality. We are called to be the salt of the earth – all-pervasive yet usually only noticed when missing, but instead our off-balance feelings and emotions sometimes turn us into the vinegar of the earth (souring everything) or the saccharin of the earth (coating everything with a false and sickening sweetness). With hard work and a big dose of objectivity, we can change our emotional patterns and responses so that they do not constantly plague us and those around us, draining us of our energy and joy. As with the case of altering thought patterns, there are many sources to help us, the easiest and cheapest of course being the books in our library dealing with the topic, and some people think that although we can not completely change our feelings, we can learn to become aware of their onset and so be ready to deal with them fruitfully. Both scenarios involve hard work and humility, but we are worth all the effort it takes to be freed of our irrational reactions. (By the way, this is not a plug for our library – we don’t make any money off of it – it’s just saying that in almost any situation, the resources needed for growth are there, if we are willing to do the work.)

Change is not impossible, it is only difficult. We are created in the image of God to live in love and peace in this wonderful universe God has given us. We are created to bless and be blessed by all others. Heaven is our home, yet we choose instead to run away from our true heaven and waste our treasure, like the younger son in our gospel story. God is waiting for us to repent – to turn around and come back. It is our choice, and we all know in the long run, we do what we want to do. We owe it to ourselves to repent and travel toward our father’s house. Our birthright as Children of God is a life of bliss, but we do not live in bliss when our feelings, thought and actions are centered upon us and our fears, rather than on God and his grace.

Even though we are saved, we are still humans, and we will all fail in our task of repentance. We will all fall off the path back to heaven at some point, but we can always get back on. God is always waiting, and like the father in our story, already has the party supplies. Change will be slow and will come in small stages, but any growth is better than stagnation. The first step of growth is in itself a return to heaven. So may we always – every day and every moment – stop our running from God and turn towards God. God will help us on the way, no matter how often we fall, and will never tire of waiting, and if we only allow him, God will actually carry us when we think we can go no further. We have been saved by God who lives with us – we know him as Jesus. May we, in gratitude for that salvation, repent – turn away from our tiny worlds of ego and travel into God’s infinite world of bliss.   AMEN

Epiphany V Year C: Unclean & Unfit

Isaiah 6:1-13
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

All of our readings this morning involve people who knew they were unworthy of doing anything for God. They knew they were unworthy, and in two of our readings, they told God just that. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul were fully aware of the truth that they, in themselves, were not good enough to do what God wanted them to do. However, God also knows that fact, and it does not bother God, because God also knows that he is the one who makes all of us worthy to do God’s will.

By saying we are unworthy to do God’s will does not mean we see ourselves as evil or stupid or have a bad self-image. It means that we have a proper self-image and grasp on reality, because the reality is: God is perfect, and we are not. No matter how good we are, we are not perfect, and so we can never be fit tools for God’s purposes. We can be really good human beings, as we should all strive to be, but being a really good human is not the same thing as being God – they are simply different categories. However, God breaks those categories and gives us whatever abilities we need to do God’s will.

We don’t always get the same abilities, because God does not want as to all do the same things. However, we are all given something, and to pretend differently is counterproductive and destructive. It might take some time to figure out what our special gifts are, but we can not use that as an excuse for never searching for them or never using them when we find them. We also need to remember that very few people are ever given any kind of spectacular gifts, so just because our gifts are the ordinary kind that allow us to help each other in ordinary ways, we can’t allow ourselves to pout and sulk and not use those ordinary gifts. We are most likely never going to see seraphim or be blinded by Jesus or go fishing with him, like the people in our scripture readings. That is ok, and actually, kind of a relief.

However, we will see God everyday in the people around us – people who are easy to get along with, as well as people who are difficult to get along with, people who make our life easier, as well as people who make our life more difficult, people whom we irritate, as well as people who irritate us. We are called to use our ordinary gifts to bring the joy and health of God to those people, as we accept it from them. We all know how impossible it is to do the job of living with other people without our special gifts from God. So rather than wasting all that time and energy fretting about how difficult it is, all we need to do is admit that we can’t do it on our own, and thank God for his help in doing it. God will bring us through all our daily, ordinary struggles, and turn them into heaven, where in a sense, we will see seraphim, go fishing with Jesus, and even be blinded by his beauty and joy.

We are unclean, we are unfit to do God’s will. What happy news! By admitting that, we give ourselves room to take in God’s gift to us, so that the new reality can grow – the reality that in God, we are clean, we are fit, we are ready, willing ,and able to do all that God asks of us. And all that God asks of us is to live in love, joy, and peace with ourselves, with others, and with God. That sounds like a good job description.   AMEN

Confused & Ordinary: The Presentation of Jesus In The Temple 2010

Malachi 3:1-4
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

Malachi and Luke have spoken to us about purification. The Hebrews, like many ancient cultures, were interested in ritual purity. Life was a mystery, and anything associated with the beginning or ending of life was surrounded by ritual: birth, death, loss or exchange of body fluids, etc. So, after the birth of Jesus, Mary needed to participate in some ceremonies to be purified after giving birth. There was also a matter of a ceremonial “buying back” of first born sons from God, since the Law stipulated that every first born male belongs to God.

Luke is perhaps a bit confused about all the details of the ritual in the story, but that is not surprising, seeing how our own traditions and customs have changed over time. The truly striking thing in this story, though, has nothing to do with any temple ceremonies – the ceremonies only lead up to the last couple of verses: “When they had finished everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of the Lord was upon him.” That is an awfully ordinary ending to a story that includes angels announcing the pregnancy, angels announcing the birth, wise men offering expensive gifts, and prophecies sung by two old saints. After all that: they go home, like any other family. But the very ordinariness of it is one of the biggest causes of joy that we have: Jesus is just like us. Jesus is God, of course, but Jesus is also fully human.

We don’t have a lot of details about the family after they left the temple and went home. The information we do have suggests more ordinariness, with only a few hints here and there that God in the flesh was growing up in their home. It would be safe to assume that Jesus had a childhood and adolescence similar to other boys in Nazareth – perhaps he played games and received the schooling that was common at the time. Maybe as a teenager he was moody, perhaps he had a crush on someone. All the while, he remained fully human, and fully God.

The Letter to the Hebrews we just read speaks of how Jesus experienced life the same way as the rest of us: “Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…”. The letter then explains why he had to experience all of human life: “so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” Gregory of Nazianzus puts it this way:” What is not assumed is not redeemed.” Thinking about it can lead to a lot of speculation about the full extent of Jesus’s experiences: did he experience every single emotion that anyone has ever felt, did he experience every single temptation that anyone has ever had? Maybe he did – maybe we all do. What we do know is that God loves us and likes us so much that he became one of us , so that, in a way we can never fully understand, he could bring us back to himself and back to the fullness of life that we toss away through pride, pettiness, and greed.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes on to say: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” None of us can honestly say to anyone else: “I know how you feel.” God can say that, though, because God knows exactly how we feel. Once a friend’s daughter asked the adults sitting in the room if God cries. No one answered, we were so blown away by the profound question of a kindergarten student. The answer, of course, is – Yes, God cries. God cries whenever we do, and thankfully, God cries at times that we can’t or simply won’t cry. God really does know how we feel. God took on all our human experience willingly – the good and the bad. Just as Jesus was presented in the temple, so we can now present all of our life to God – the good and the bad, and God will understand it and accept it. Every tear, every sigh, every lump in the throat and knot in the stomach, every trembling hand and knee – we can know full well that God knows and God understands. Even at our weakest moments when we are ashamed of ourselves, we can stand before God and present ourselves as an acceptable sacrifice. When we are not too sure if we can follow Jesus by carrying our crosses, God understands that, too, because when Jesus was carrying his cross, he stumbled and had to have help.

Of course, we can’t simply fall into complacency or despair, because for the same reason God knows our weaknesses, God also knows our strengths. God knows that we can persevere and achieve amazing things because he did, and he offers us help in doing all that we set out to do.

So here we have little baby Jesus, being presented in the temple to God. Like Simeon and Anna, we can rejoice in this light to enlighten the nations. We can also present ourselves to God, with the assurance that we are perfectly acceptable, since we are God’s temple, and Jesus our high priest has purified us.   AMEN

Christmas II Year C: A Very Special Sermon

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

Christmas time is here, finally. All the extra work to prepare is over, and now all the extra work to clean up kicks in. After almost a decade and a half in the kitchen, and now after three years in the office, I still think that if Jesus had known about all the business people did to celebrate his birthday, he would have had second thoughts about being born. But, there seems to be a need for some people to do all the special stuff around Christmas time – the rest of us just get caught up in the whirlwind of it all. Maybe the reason is because it is one of the ways we can tangibly express our conviction that the birth of Jesus is special, and is in fact the most important birth to ever have occurred, because his birth really is about God and creation becoming one.

I have a Hindu friend who emails me to talk about religious things, and he has no problem with saying that Jesus is God, because to a Hindu, everyone and everything is God. I tell him that I prefer the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim view that there is a difference between God and creation. The reason I prefer that view is because I really do hope that God is Love, and I really do think that it takes more than one party to love. If we are all God, and we love each other and God, and God loves us, then all that means is that God has a healthy, well-rounded psychology. It is important to love oneself, but if all there is is just one person loving that self, then I will be greatly disappointed.

I want the God who takes the true risk of love – opening Himself to others who have every right to refuse that love and walk away. God does just that. God loves us, even when we do all we can to pain him and spurn his love. God makes himself so vulnerable that God became one of us just so we could have more opportunities to accept his love, as well as more opportunities to reject it. Jesus is indeed special. He is God, here and now in this universe, on this planet. He is God, and we are not, but we are in a very real way, equal partners in love. Not that Jesus ever spurns our love, but that we can reject his. Jesus reaches out to us every day and every moment with the hope that we will take his love and by so doing become truly human, just like him. If we can remember back in junior high how scary it was asking that special person to our first school dance, or as adults asking that special person to marry us (this example would apply only to guests, of course) – how anxious we were and maybe still are in our dealings with people whom we want to love us – that is how vulnerable God is nonstop with six billion people on this planet. Usually, we say no to his advances. Hopefully, slowly, by doing what we do in this monastery every day, and by doing what others do in their homes and parishes, we all are becoming more apt to say yes to God’s gift of love, and so are being made not only more fully human, as Jesus is, but also even divine.

Jesus is special in a way we are not – he is God and we are not. However, we are made in the image of God, and God sees us all as special in our own ways. As we heard Paul say to his listeners in Ephesus in our second reading this morning, God: “….chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…”. God has adopted us – in other words, God has chosen to love us. That makes us infinitely special, and since God sees us all that way, we should also see everyone as a special, chosen child of God.

Yet, how often we don’t do that. Instead, we spend a lot of our time dismissing others as worthless or evil. No one is either of those, since we are made in the image of God – of infinite worth and holiness. We do tend to do worthless and evil things, but that does not change our underlying dignity. The people who need our love and prayers most are the people who fly airplanes into office towers, or who legislate discriminatory laws, or who con money from elderly people. They, just like us, are wonderful, beautiful children of God who are ensnared by sin, and for whom God lived among us and died for us. And we must be careful to never denigrate others as persons, even when they differ with us in religion, politics, or culture. It just might be the case that they pray, read scripture, and want to help others just as much as we do, even though they have come to different conclusions about things. We must learn to discriminate between actions and persons. Persons are always images of God, no matter how much our actions have obscured that image.

We all know that we do not do a good job at always honoring the worth of the people around us, or the people we read about in the news. That is ok, our job is growth, not immediate perfection. We just need to always look at Jesus until we start seeing his face in everyone, and everyone’s face in him. Paul has something to say about that growth, as we heard in our second reading this morning: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer – no better time to start on that road to holiness and joy.   AMEN

Advent I Year C: Better Than The Best

Jeremiah 33: 14-16
I Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36

For the next four weeks, we will be hearing a lot about hope. The Hope of the World is coming to us, the One in whom we put all our hope, the only True Hope. We will be hearing about letting go of our fear, because we have hope, and we can hope in the Savior of the World, who will be coming among us, who is among us, and who will be among us again. Moving from fear to hope is good, and is something we all desire to do every moment and every day. We are not created to live in fear, and anything we can do to bring hope to the world is good.

However, as we heard in our Compline readings from The Conferences of John Cassian a few weeks ago, hope is not the end of the journey. Both fear and hope imply a certain amount of self-centeredness (we fear for our selves and hope for ourselves), although we can also fear and hope for others, which is good. But Abba Chaeremon says there is another stage of the journey after hope, one that involves no self-centeredness at all:Love.

When we truly love, we take our wants and desires out of the picture and work for the best of everyone and everything. We don’t try to control things so that we can be comfortable, we let others grow into their best selves no matter how uncomfortable that might make us feel. Love frees us from all the time and effort we would otherwise spend trying to make everyone and everything act the way we think it should be. When we love, we realize that the only things we can control are our own actions and reactions, so we spend time and energy working on ourselves so that we can make the world a better place. That doesn’t mean that we deny any other’s wrongdoings, it just means that we work to become the best persons we can be so that we can confront and help change others’ wrongdoings in an objective and helpful manner. It also means that we look at others with compassion, acknowledging their faults while giving them some slack to work on them, as we would want done for us. Maybe even more importantly, it means that we look on ourselves with compassion – acknowledging our own faults while giving ourselves some slack to work on them, and then honestly working on them.

Love also frees us from self-centered motives in our work. In love, we do things not because those actions might one day bring us some benefit. Instead, we do things simply because they are good things to do and will make the world a better place and help some people. Working out of love lightens our workload and makes us happier, not because we do less, but because we are freed from the burden of making sure we see the fruits of our work. In love, we simply do our work to the best of our abilities and then let God take care of the results. Of course, that has the unexpected consequence of us actually doing a better job than if we were working from self-centered reasons and worrying about the outcome of our work. The question of “what’s in it for me” is never raised, consciously or unconsciously, but amazingly, all of our deepest desires are met more profoundly than we ever could have imagined. We actually slowly learn to love people, not just the way some people sometimes make us feel.

I know that I have never moved from hope to love, and I am not sure if I have ever met anyone who has. (I am not even sure I have moved from fear to hope yet, but someday, maybe that will happen.) There is a Buddhist proverb that says: “There are no enlightened people, only enlightened actions.” Maybe we can make that into a Christian proverb: “There are no loving people, only loving actions.” By doing things out of love, we slowly become loving people. Like Aristotle said: “One becomes a virtuous person by doing virtuous things.” One slowly becomes loving by doing loving things. And it is slow, and sometimes it feels fake, but that is ok, we are to be judged by what we do, not by how we feel. But the more we get used to doing loving actions, the more we actually grow into a loving person. There will always be times when we fall down in our attempts to love, but we can always get back up again and try some more.

We will sometimes despair of ever growing, but at least that means that deep down, we want to grow, and that is a major step in itself. The only way we grow at all is through the grace of God, and God will give us growth when God knows we need it, and maybe even more importantly, when we can handle it. All we can do is admit that we need hope and love. Doing that is not easy, but it is necessary. It takes work and humility but is worth it when we finally do it. And we need to do it every day and every moment, if we are honest with ourselves and with God. Like Paul in our second reading this morning, we need to pray that God will “make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all, and may he strengthen our hearts in holiness so that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus…”

God will save us from ourselves, that is his job, and when he does so, we enter into bliss that we never knew could exist. We live in a fearful world, but our hope is in Jesus, who is Love and brings us to love. As Jesus says in our gospel story this morning, when we see all the fearful things in our world, all we need to do is : “…stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.” So for the next four weeks, we can hear with confidence all the prophets, evangelists, angels, wise men, shepherds, and little drummer boys singing “Do you see what I see?”. We will see one day – in our fear and doubt we will see the Hope of the Universe who is Love Himself, coming to us to live in us and among us. He is here right now and invites us to share a meal with him as he feeds us with himself.   AMEN

Where We Are: Thanksgiving Day Year B

Joel 2:21-27
I Timothy 2:1-7
Matthew 6:25-33

Usually on Thanksgiving Day, we focus on the blessings we have received from God regarding the outward things in our life: material possessions, food, family and friends. All of those things are good, and we should be thankful for whatever we have in those areas. But it might be good every once in a while to stop and think about how we have been blessed in the intangible things in life, and how we ourselves are growing in our life with God. We can do that not only in regards to our personal individual lives, but in our families, monastery, parishes, denominations, the church as a whole, our nation, and our world as a whole. How are all those things growing in their lives with God? After all, in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness…”

If people were honest, they would all have to say that they are not where they should be as individual Christians, as monks, as a monastery, denomination, church, nation, or world. Of course, we also need to realise that we might never reach our fullest potential in any of those areas, because our goal is God, and we as finite humans in finite human organizations can never match up with any part of the infinite God. I tend to think of it as the asymptote from math class (there is a limit toward which certain functions tend to get closer to, but can never reach) so it is in our life with God, we can always get nearer, but we can never reach the goal. And anyway, if we are honest, we would have to say that our relationship with God is erratic – we draw close for awhile and then we drift apart, we draw close, and drift apart again. That might seem depressing to some people, but it need not be if we understand the growth or journey or whatever metaphor is used is a goal itself. The moment we admit that we can not save ourselves and we need God to help us, we have reached the kingdom of God. And we must not pretend that the admission of our own incapacity to live as we should is a one-time thing, as so many preachers say it is. We must admit to ourselves and to God every day and every moment that only God can carry us where we need to be. God will not fail to do for us what needs to be done to insure our best life, but we do need to accept the gift of life he offers us, and stop pretending that we can give life to ourselves.

Sometimes, it might seem that God is not giving us any life at all, but as God’s words speak to us through the prophet Joel that we heard in our first reading this morning, we should “not fear…for the Lord has done great things”, he has “dealt wondrously” with us, and is “in the midst” of us. Actually, in our first reading, God is talking to the soil, telling it not to worry about being able to produce a harvest. Likewise, we do not need to worry about the fruit that we bear – what kind, how much, or when it will ripen. We also don’t need to compare our fruit with any other, either individually or as groups. God will use us to produce just the right harvest at just the right time, and it need not be like any others. We just need to prepare the soil of our lives with humility, gratitude, and constancy, and let God do the rest. We can look with gratitude at all our failures and shortcomings and inabilities, because they are the things that bring us to our knees in the knowledge that we desperatley need God’s help, just like everyone else.

So, no one person or group is where we should be as mature Christians, monks, monastery, denomination, nation, or world. However, we can enjoy who we are now and what we have now, because since it is in God’s hands, it is good. We can look with gratitude at where we have been and the people who have helped us along the way. We can look with gratitude and joy to the future, knowing that God has more and better in store for us than we could ever imagine. Things aren’t as they “should be”, but they never are. A book in our library talks about the imprisoning obsession with how things “should be” ( the author always puts that phrase in parentheses, because often it i s a subjective judgement base on our ever changing moods) as compared to the freeing acceptance of life as it is coupled with the knowledge that it can always be improved. All we have is now, and now is pretty good. Someday, things will be different, and if we are intent in our humble relationship with God, that difference will be better – on the other hand, if we insist on angrily and exasperatedly telling God how things should be, that difference will be a hell for us and those around us.

We need not fear, God is in our midst. We need only to seek God’s kingdom with humility (admitting things aren’t as they should be), gratitude (knowing that God will give us life), and constancy (willing to do the work that it takes to admit our need for God). Every day can be a harvest festival, enjoying the little bits of heaven God gives us. We can start by coming to be fed at God’s table as we continue our Great Thanksgiving and sacrifice of praise. God feeds us by giving us Godself. The way we take the food is by giving God ourselves. AMEN