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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cherub Rock: St. Michael and All Angels 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 20 Year C: Small Time Crooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 16 Year C: Karma Chameleon

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

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

They are both right.

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

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

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

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

Proper 12 Year C: Try And Try Again

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

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

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

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

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

A Christian Nation: Independence Day 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 8 Year C: Who’s On First?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 4 Year C: Old Time Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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