Proper 4 Year C: Old Time Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Is With Us: Annunciation 2013

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

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

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

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

Baptism Of Our Lord Year C: Rights Or Gifts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 17 Year B: The Gospel According To Stravinsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 16 Year B: Choose Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framed In Humility: Transfiguration 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 13 Year B: Sin And Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mutual Shepherds: Peter & Paul 2012

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

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