One, But Not The Same: Peter and Paul 2006

Ezekiel 34:11-16
II Timothy 4:1-8
John 21:15-19

As Christians, we are all called to be shepherds, priests, and pastors, but rarely does a person’s call fit the usual professional job description associated with those terms. Instead, our vocation to shepherd each other hinges on our being part of the Body of Christ. As Ezekiel reminds us, God is the shepherd. It follows that since we are to be the physical presence of God to those around us, all members of Christ’s Body have pastoral responsibilities, no matter our profession or occupation. Ezekiel also reminds us that we are the sheep, so it follows that our duties lie in both directions; we must be open and available to pastor as well as to be pastored.

We never really know who is looking to us for guidance, and often that person is not fully aware of following our lead, so we must all “fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith” as Paul says, and we must do it in the way that is unique to each of us as different members of Christ’s Body. In other words, we simply need to be our best selves: the image of God we are created to be, because each person’s way of proclaiming Christ is a necessary part of the whole. Even Peter and Paul differed in their approach to evangelism, and the church would have been greatly impoverished had they not accepted their pastoral duties in their own individual ways.

Of course, we should never use the fact of our individuality as an excuse for laxness, stagnation, or complacency. As Paul reminds Timothy: “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out you ministry fully.” Those are not heroic actions in themselves, butt we all know how difficult it is to perform them every day, year after year. Difficult or not, we must never give up, because as was stated before, we never know who is following us as their model and shepherd. Our entire lives must be seen as a function of our priesthood the priesthood of Jesus of which we all partake.

One aspect of being a shepherd which both Ezekiel and Jesus mention is the task of feeding the sheep. A good shepherd leads the sheep to the food and allows them to eat. As good pastors, we must never cram things down anyone’s throat or spoonfeed them when they ought to be capable of sitting up at the table with good manners. Such actions befit tyrannical cult leaders, not church members. As John Chrysostom told his congregation in Constantinople: “Jesus is the shepherd of sheep, not of wolves.” We also need to do ourselves and everyone else a favor and not allow anyone to cram anything down our throats, or demand to be spoonfed when we are capable of doing it ourselves. Just as we never know who is following us (consciously or unconsciously), we need to be aware of our role models and choose them deliberately and wisely, rather than just blindly following someone we do not even realize is leading us.

Accepting our individual status as shepherds, priests, and pastors is difficult at times and can seem a burden, rather than the joy it should be. Perhaps we can take encouragement from another famous pastor: John, a contemporary of Peter and Paul. Once again, John had his own unique ways of shepherding the people around him, the most famous of which was to simply raise his hand and remind the church: “Little children, love one another.” That might seem simplistic, but that is really our only job; everything else is peripheral. If we are faithful to the task of truly and actively loving each other (and sometimes that is quite a chore), then the other duties of being a pastor to those around us will fall into place as Love sees fit. “Little children, love one another.” “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” “Jesus is the shepherd of sheep, not of wolves.” If we truly love God, our neighbors, and ourselves, we will feed and be fed, and we will walk through the valley of darkness and fear no evil; for the Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want. AMEN

Lot Went With Him: St. Benedict 2006

Genesis 12:1-4a
Ephesians 3:14-19
John 15:9-171

Our scripture from Genesis is often used to inspire people to set out toward the unknown, leaving everything behind as we follow God’s lead into a totally new life. However, the very end of the story this morning does not fit that ideal situation. It says very specifically: ” Lot went with him.” If one reads further, one learns that Abram also took his wife Sarai and all of their combined possessions. Abram faithfully followed God in to the unknown, but he did not leave everything behind. We take our past with us always, wherever we go. We can choose to let it be a hindrance on our journey, or we can choose to let God transform it into a help for our journey. Just as we can give God our past, we can give God our future, as Abram did when he left his home and went where God directed. We can choose to worry about our future, or we can choose to rest in the fact that God will use it for our good no matter what it might bring us. Living in the knowledge that our past and future are in God’s hands and trusting God with our lives allows us to live joyfully in the present, as we are ” being rooted and grounded in love ” and as we are ” filled with the fullness of God”, as our second scripture reading from the Letter to the Ephesians puts it. It allows us to ” abide in God’s love ” and lets our ” joy be complete ” as Jesus tells his disciples in our gospel this morning. It frees us from a lot of worry and stress so that we have the time and energy to ” love one another “, and it gives us the stability we need to ” bear fruit that will last ” as Jesus says.

The call to give God our past, present, and future comes only from God, but it is not given only to famous saints or biblical figures. God want every one to freely give their lives to him so that those lives can be real. Life comes only from God – it is not under our power – and until we recognize that, our lives aren’t real; at best they are pale imitations of true life, at worst they are walking deaths. We can choose to pretend that our lives are under our own control and in so doing lose them, or we can choose to acknowledge and rest in God as the source of our lives and so live more truly than we could ever have imagined. Abiding in God won’t necessarily make life easy we can see that by looking the human life of God in Jesus but it will be fruitful, based on love, and eternal. There’s no denying that some events in our past can be crippling and we ought not to make light of them. In the same manner, sometimes events looming in the future can be overwhelming. We shouldn’t deny all that; it is right and good to grieve over those things, but we don’t have to let that paralyze us. God can transform it into good grief that helps us to learn from our past and prepare for the future, while not letting them consume our lives. Our past, present, and future are all parts of us that God can use to bring us to true life. We must not deny them, fret over them, or pretend that we are in charge of them. They are from God and God will give us what we need if we only take it from him and abide in him as the source, meaning, and completion of our lives.

That is true not only for us as individuals, but also for us as a monastery. There is good and bad in our past. We don’t know what the future will bring, but most likely there will be good and bad in it, too. The only thing we can be sure of is that no matter what has happened and what may happen, God can make good out of it for us, if we only allow it. It may not turn out the way we expect or want, and we should be thankful for that, because our hopes and desires are so tiny. God will make things better than we could ever expect or desire. May we look with love on our past as we take it with us into the future, knowing the one sure thing is that God is with us. AMEN

Show And Tell: Epiphany 2002

Isaiah 60:1-6,9
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

At first hearing them, Paul’s words in our second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians might sound a little pompous when he speaks of “the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you”. It sounds like he thinks he is some kind of special dispenser of God’s grace. However, after thinking about it for awhile, we realize that he is in fact a dispenser of God’s grace, and that his statement is not at all pompous, because we are all supposed to be very special and unique dispensers of God’s grace to the world around us. Just as God was revealed to the wisemen through Jesus, God still reveals himself; only now, God uses us (the Body of Christ here on earth now), and it is not only rich wisemen that seek him.

We hear a lot about our responsibility to see Jesus in those around us, and that is good and true. But we must also remember that we have the responsibility to make sure that others can see Jesus in us. We may never realize it, and we may never know who it is, but each one of us has someone looking to us for a revelation of God. They may not know that that is exactly what they are doing, and they may never put it in those words, but that is in fact what they are doing, and we do it to others, even though we might not realize it or put it in those words. We rarely feel adequate to the task of being divine revelations to the world around us, and certainly we will fail and disappoint some people, but that doesn’t take away our responsibility.

As Isaiah says in our first reading: “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you;”. We must never forget that no matter how difficult and draining it is, many people look to our monastery, and to the different families and congregations represented amongst our guests, for a glimpse of Jesus. We might not like that fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true. It is very easy to be like Herod in our gospel story this morning when the wisemen came to him seeking Jesus. Matthew says: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;”. Another translation says that Herod was “perturbed”. It is indeed easy to be frightened or perturbed when so many people count on us for a glimpse of Jesus, because we don’t feel adequate to the task of being a divine revelation. But if we read the rest of the story, some of the pressure is taken off.

After all, when God was revealed to the wisemen, it was in very humble circumstances. They found him at home, sitting on his mother’s lap. Knowing that God can be revealed in such a mundane way makes our job easier. It means that the mundane things we do can serve as revelations of God. For those of us who live outside the monastery, it means that every time we are thoughtful enough to use our turn signals when we are driving, or every time we honestly fill out our tax returns, or every time we wait our turn in line at school, or every time we do our chores at home without complaining or being a smartmouth to our parents, we are revealing a little bit of God’s love to the world around us. For those of us in the monastery, it means that every dish we wash, every floor we mop, and every difficult letter or phone call we answer is an opportunity to show God’s love to the world around us. In fact, the thing that we put the most effort and expense into, and in which we receive Christ most intimately here in the monastery and in the home congregations of our guests, is the humble setting of a meal, as we gather around the table up here as guests of Jesus.

So, in the words of Paul to the Ephesians, “the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you” is not pompous. It is a simple as letting people in front of us on the highway, or rewinding a videotape before returning it, or refusing to repeat gossip. Like Paul, we have been given grace so that we may give grace. We are the only revelation of God that many people will ever see. Every kind word we say and every loving deed we do in our own unique way and in our own little part of the world lets God shine forth. So let us come up here and share a simple meal with Jesus, so that we can share Jesus with others in simple ways. AMEN

All Saints Day 1999

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14
Revelation 7:2-4,9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

We can’t choose the life that is given us. Some of us are be wealthy, others poor. Some are famous, others unknown or even infamous. We are black, white, brown, red, or yellow. We are gay or straight or something else in between. Male, female, undecided; uneducated, highly educated, overeducated, or undereducated. Our first reading makes a point of all these differences.

But even though we can’t choose the life that is given us, we can choose to use the resources that we have been given to make the world a better place, or a worse place. We just heard Jesus give a list of the people in this world who are blessed. Nowhere on that list do we find: “blessed are those who made sure that everyone around them behaved “, or: “blessed are those who made a lot of money or won elections or were good-looking “. Instead, we heard Jesus saying: “blessed are those who had their share of trouble in life and have loved and lost, but were still merciful, peaceful, and hungry for righteousness.” Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

In a very real way, they are already in heaven, and heaven is in them. In the same way, we can be in heaven right here and right now every moment off our lives. We can see the world as the heaven it is created to be a beautiful place full of the blessing of God yet which is also full of sorrow and sin – and we can rejoice in the beauty while trying to alleviate the suffering. Unfortunately, we can also see the world as the hell that we make it a place full of our own fears and perceived inadequacies which we desperately try to cover up. The choice between heaven and hell lies in our own decision of how we will relate to the world around us.

Even though we can not choose the life we are given, we can transform it. When we choose heaven when we choose righteousness, mercy, and peace, then our own lives can bring heaven to those around us. In a similar manner, when we choose hell when we choose greed, condemnation, and strife, then our own lives bring hell to those around us. We all know that we have made both choices at different periods of our lives, and we still make both choices at various times of the day. We may not be super saints or super sinners, but we do influence people around us with our daily lives. As Mother Teresa said: “We don’t need to do big things, we need to do the little things with love.” In a way, doing big things to help people is easier than doing little things, because once the big thing is done, it is over and we can relax from being good. The little things, though, never end. We so often slip into the mode of bringing hell to our world by doing the little things in life without love, but rather with anger, greed, or pride. It is so easy to slip into that mode, because we just get tired from the daily grind of little things. That is why we can rise to the mode of doing the little things with love only by the grace of God.

God knows how difficult it is to always live in love, because God is one of us, and lived a life just like the rest of us with its ups and downs and never-ending chores. We might ask that since God knows how difficult life can be, why does God not make it better, not just for us fairly healthy and wealthy people, but especially for all those people in the world who live in desperation, sickness, hunger, and fear. We don’t know the answer to that question, but we do know that we can choose to have compassion on those whose lives are so much more difficult than ours, and use our own lives to make the world a better place. We can use our own lives, no matter how unimportant we might seem, to transform the world around us by bringing heaven to our own little corner of the world through our own actions.

That’s how we can all be saints by living our daily lives with mercy, peace, and meekness, helping to bring righteousness to our world. It is true that we should mourn over mournful things and not try to cover up or try to hide the wrong and harmful things in our world, but we must never confront those aspects of hell with our own hell. Instead, we should meet those things with the transforming love we are created to give. It’s our own choice: to fulfill our vocations as saints by bringing heaven to our world, or to go our own way and bring hell to our world. It all revolves around the little things. May God help us in our daily lives as saints as we mourn, as we hunger and thirst for righteousness, as we grant mercy, and as we make peace. AMEN

Make Do & Make Good: Gregory the Great 1998

Wisdom 7:7,15,16
II Corinthians 4:1-2,5-7
Luke 22:24-30

Our scripture readings today, as well as sources which tell us about Gregory the Great, seem to point to the conclusion that the wise person – the true leader – is the one who takes what life gives and makes the best of it; not being content with a bad situation, but working to improve matters with joy and confidence in the future; not being complacent with a good situation, but working to maintain what is good and possibly even improve on it so that it can be passed on to others. As Paul writes to Corinth: “…since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”, as Jesus says: “…the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves…”, and as Gregory writes: ” good rulers…should share the troubles of the weak…” (Pastoral Care).

It is also apparent from our readings that the true leader gains wisdom by learning when to listen and when to speak. We all know how difficult it is to listen, especially to things we don’t want to hear. Maybe that’s why Benedict began his Rule with the instruction to “incline the ear of our heart”. Just as we are encouraged to listen with our hearts, Solomon advises us to speak with our hearts as he prays: “May God grant me to speak with judgment, and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received…for both we and our words are in his hand…”. Gregory sums up the need for listening and speaking wisely when he says that a leader should “be pure in thought, exemplary in conduct, discreet in keeping silence, profitable in speech.” (Pastoral Care)

As mush as we know how hard it is to listen wisely, it is even more difficult to be “discreet in keeping silence” and “profitable in speech”; to use words that build up instead of tear down, words that praise instead of belittle, and in those difficult times when we must correct others or tell them something they don’t want to hear, to do so with care instead of spite – speaking the truth in love. This wise use of words was what Benedict was talking about when he said that “those who live there should bless God and not grumble. Above all else we admonish them to refrain from grumbling. Or As Maya Angelou says : “Don’t ever whine. Whining makes you ugly.”
Gregory was not immune to the possibility of despairing, grumbling, whining, and feeling like giving up instead of working with confidence in God’s goodness. We get a glimpse of his thoughts as he slips them into a sermon: “Since I assumed the burden of pastoral care, my mind can no longer be collected; it is concerned with so many matters. I am forced to consider the affairs of the church and the monasteries. I must weigh the lives and acts of individuals. I am responsible for the concerns of our citizens. I must worry about the invasions of roving bands of barbarians…” (Homily on Ezekiel). It is good to know that someone of his stature was so honest about his stressful burden, and it is good to know that he didn’t give up. Perhaps he drew strength from the belief that he was shouldering the burden in order to make things a little better for those around him. Perhaps he kept coming back to the realization that no matter the size of the task in front of him, God was there with him.

A book in (Kitchen Table Wisdom – Rachel Naomi Remen) our library talks about a woman looking at a statue of Shiva, and was perplexed at the figure of a little man doubled over under the weight of Shiva’s foot, looking at a leaf in the ground. She interpreted the figure to mean that God was dancing on the man’s back, and if he were not so absorbed at looking at the ground, he would realize that God was there with him. That interpretation is not orthodox, but we can learn form it. Like Gregory, we may be “no longer collected…and concerned with so many matters”. Like the little man in the statue, we nay feel doubled over by a great weight. Like Paul, we nay feel “afflicted in every way…”. But if we so choose, we can look around and see that God is there dancing – not to taunt us, but to encourage us.

We don’t have to drop everything in order to dance with God. The world around us is beautiful and worthy of attention. Whatever jobs lay ahead of us, we can use our minds, our muscles, our skills, and our thoughts and words to make the world a little easier for ourselves and others. May we strive to acquire wisdom to do so. May we take some of Paul’s advice and let God shine in our hearts, putting treasure into the clay jars that are ourselves, and may we come to know that the clay jars are just as beautiful and precious as the treasure inside. AMEN

True Foundations: Independence Day 1996

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

We just heard, in our first reading from Deuteronomy, some instructions that Moses is giving to the Hebrews on how to live once they finally cross the Jordan River. Moses won’t get to cross the river into their new home, so he is preparing the people for a change of leadership from him to Joshua. The short passage from Moses’ long speech on the plains of Moab is similar to many other documents from the area. It was customary for a king to prepare his subjects and his successor by reading a covenant between the king and the people. Some of these covenants from the Assyrians and Hittites have been found, and they are much like what we just heard, with one big exception. They might read something like: ” for Ashurbanipal is king of kings and lord of lords “, or: “Esarhaddon is mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice…” Deuteronomy, however, says: ” for the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice…”. This covenant served as a reminder to the Hebrews that God was their king, and even though they should show respect to Joshua and follow his lead, any human government was merely an extension of God’s kingship and authority.

Part of the covenant that makes up the Book of Deuteronomy is a list of the laws that God expects the people to obey once they cross into Canaan, as well as a list of the good that will come to them if they obey the laws, and a list of the bad that will come to them if they disobey. God is giving them laws so that they can have good lives, not so that they can worry about obeying arbitrary laws. It also says that they should circumcise their hearts to live the law, not just obey its outer form. We are not Hebrews living in Canaan, and we are not bound to obey all those Old Testament laws that was decided by the apostles in Jerusalem but we still need to be aware that our sovereign ruler is God. Our king is Jesus, whose throne is a cross, and whose robes of state are woven of blood and sweat. Our covenant might be something like: “Jesus our God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice “.

Even though we are not bound to follow all of the laws in the Old Testament, we are bound to follow Jesus, who is the foundation and fulfillment of those laws. Jesus expects us to live a certain way, and he sums it up in our gospel reading this morning by saying: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Some commentators note that the word perfect in this instance could also be translated as “true” or “complete” or “whole”. “Be truly complete and whole, just as your heavenly father is truly complete and whole.” The truth is something that is stable, can be relied upon, and can be built upon. A foundation that is complete and whole can support the building on top. We are to build our lives on this truth, and have the reality of God as our foundation, so that our own lives are real, whole, and true. The letter to the Hebrews, which we heard this morning, mentions that very thing when it talks about Abraham, who ” looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Although Abraham was always on the move, he was a citizen of that city of God. He and Sarah kept going, even though scripture says they had the opportunity to go back to their old home in Mesopotamia, seat of human civilization and empire built on the incomplete and false non-reality of the idols of human pride. So we must also always turn away from our false desires and go ever further into the truth that is Jesus, and let him build us on his foundation into an ever more glorious city that is the light of the world. As we are being built into this city on a hill, we must not keep the light of God’s grace and peace to ourselves.

Christians have often been puzzled by the question of our place in national and political life. We might be able to solve that puzzle by remembering that although God is our sovereign, we are to be respectful and obedient to our human governments, even when we do not agree with the particular people in various offices. We are also to love the stranger, help the poor and the needy, the sick and imprisoned, the oppressed and the outcast. We are to be Jesus to our world Jesus who ate with sinners and healed on the sabbath. We also need to keep our patriotism in line with the truth that the United States are not the promised land, or the New Jerusalem, or even the Old Jerusalem. We must also remember that we are all children of immigrants even Native Americans came from somewhere else – and we should still be traveling and making our home ever more peaceful and heavenly. Like Abraham and Sarah, we must never turn back to false gods of human foundations. When we hear people urging us to go back to the moral foundations of our nation’s founding fathers, we need to remember that what the signers of the Declaration of Independence were doing was illegal and treasonous, and many of the legal things they did were quite immoral: slavery, drunkenness, wife beating, and genocide of Indians (what we would call ethnic cleansing) were common in their society. We need to turn our backs on all that and more, and never go back to worship the gods whom our fathers served beyond the river. We need to live the truth that Jesus is our God: “the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice ” . AMEN