Epiphany VI Year B: I Do Choose

II Kings 5:1-14
I Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Jesus heals people. As it happens in our gospel story this morning, so it can happen anytime, anywhere, with anyone. We say to Jesus: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”, and Jesus says: “I do choose. Be made clean.”. We might think the evidence does not support that, but we need to take into consideration how often we ask Jesus to make us clean versus how often we ask Jesus to solve certain problems in certain specific ways. Jesus knows clean – Jesus knows health and wholeness and happiness. We do not, at least not fully. We are not totally clueless about the fullness of human life, but we need to be careful that our partial knowledge does not lull us into thinking that we understand everything that needs to be done, and therefore if things don’t turn out that way, God has failed us.

Of course, there are tragedies in life, but we can’t blame God for what humans do to each other or to the world around us. We can’t blame God for allowing the planet to run the way it does, because if it ran any differently, we would not be here to enjoy it. We can blame ourselves for not living withing the boundaries of physical and social laws and thereby bringing bad consequences upon ourselves and others. Others can also blame us for the trouble we cause them.

But even with all that, there are unavoidable human tragedies that we do have a right to be angry about and question God for letting them happen. God doesn’t seem to mind us doing that, but God also doesn’t seem to be too quick to provide answers that we can understand. The Book of Job is a good example of that. What God does instead of providing answers is to live a human life along with us, with all its tragedies and joys. Jesus had his share of bad times, and never tried to pretend they weren’t bad. He asked God to allow the worst of it to pass him by, and when they didn’t, he asked God why he had been forsaken. We, like Jesus, can be fully human and cry to God for answers, even sometimes doubting God’s presence.

But also like Jesus, we can be fully human and choose to share God’s healing with those around us. We don’t know all the answers, but we can do what we can to help. We can also be fully human and ask others for help. We can live in such a way that our lives don’t add to the problems of the world, and sometimes we can even live in such a way that our lives reduce some of the problems in the world.

Jesus heals people. He doesn’t always do it the way we want it done, but he does do it. We just need to ask to be healed, and we need to allow others to ask in their own way, and in their own time.   AMEN

Epiphany II Year B: 10,000 Hours

I Samuel 3:1-20
I Corinthians 6:11b-20
John 1:43-51

It takes a lot of maturity to live the truth of Paul’s statement that we heard in our second reading this morning: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All thing s are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” All of our appetites and emotions are good. God made them and gave them to us, so they can’t be bad, but we so often allow them to become skewed and harmful to us and the world around us. In their out-of-balance state, they induce us to falsely live our lives as if everything were about us, rather than living in the truth that everything is about God.

Every once in a while, we come to our senses and remember our true vocations as children of God, and realize that we want to make the world a better place – we want to live fully and help others live fully. In order to do that, we need to bring our appetites and emotions back into their natural, beautiful, helpful state, and that involves making free choices to not allow them to become out of order once again. Those things we do to cultivate healthy appetites are known as disciplines. Unfortunately, discipline can sometimes have a negative meaning for us, because we confuse it with punishment, but the two are not at all the same. Discipline is anything that helps us grow in our chosen vocation. Disciplines are things that disciples do.

Many vocations require discipline in order to fully succeed at them. There is a book in our library that mentions a study done of professional musicians. The study found that in almost every musician interviewed it took roughly 10,000 hours of practice before become competent enough to play professionally. It did not matter if the person showed any talent at the beginning of his musical instruction or not; for persons with either natural talent or not, the 10,000 hour rule prevailed. The people doing the study thought that was interesting, and went on to interview professional athletes and mathematicians. In the cases of both of those professions, it also took roughly 10,000 hours of practice and study before the skills reached a professional level. Once again, it did not mater whether or not the subjects showed any talent or not at the beginning.

The world needs more virtuoso clarinetists, home run hitters, and prime number cataloguers. They are all channels of God’s grace to us. But even more so, we need more people who are less petty, impatient, and loudmouthed know-it-all. At least I know I need to show fewer of those characteristics. That is why discipline is so important in Christian vocation, whether or not it is of the monastic variety. We need to constantly be reminded that we are not the center of the universe, that God is the center of the universe. We need to constantly expand our patience and objectivity so that we can become both more tolerant and more honest. We need to free ourselves from so much self-absorption so that we can become freeflowing channels of God’s grace.

We also need to remember that Christian disciplines are never ends in themselves, they are only means to an end. When discipline of any sort becomes an end in itself, it is no longer discipline – it is a neurosis (something odd we do for no good reason). The end is growth toward and in God. Since God is infinite, the end can never be reached, but we must keep striving for it. Since we are finite, we will always be failing in our growth. 10,000 hours is nothing compared to eternity, but Christian discipline has something that practicing scales and arpeggios and lifting weights and solving equations do not have; grace given by God to both begin and complete the task.

We love the world – truly, madly, and deeply, and we love ourselves and our God in the same way. And so we joyfully do what it takes for us to express that love and put it into practice, no matter how slow the process. Our world is worth the effort, we are worth the effort, and God is certainly worth the effort it takes to love ever more deeply. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial all the time and in all quantities. We can share, we can wait, we can give away. It is worth it in the end, because then all things are more precious and real to us. Its all about God, not about us.   AMEN

Advent III Year B: Coming Attractions

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8,19-28

We have been hearing a lot the last few weeks about Jesus coming to us, either for the first time or as a return visit. We hear it in our scripture readings, our non-scripture readings, our sermons, and our antiphons sung before and after we recite scripture. We hear about Jesus coming for the first time many years ago in Palestine (as in our gospel story this morning about John the Baptist), about Jesus coming again an untold number of times as we and others invite him into our lives, and we hear about Jesus coming again to us finally as our world as we know it ends (as in Paul’s letter that we heard this morning).

Jesus is not the only person people are expecting to return. Some people set an extra chair at their table in case Elijah shows up while they are eating. King Arthur is said to be awaiting his return at a crisis time. Tupac Shakur’s return from hiding is also awaited by many people. Where I am from, some people are waiting for Pancho Villa to return and help them fight off the government on both sides of the Rio Grande. Even amongst the people who are waiting for Jesus to return, there are differences in opinion about how he will do so, and many people back up those opinions with scripture verses to prove their point, no matter how different it might be from any of the other return scenarios. Some say Jesus will return by filling our hearts with love and kindness so that we see to it that no one ever goes hungry again and no more wars are ever started. Others say that he will return standing on a big cloud – in fact, he will be so big and the cloud will be so big, every one around the world will see it at the same time. Others say he will return fours years from next Sunday in Earth orbit commanding a navy of heavily armed starships filled with combat angels to drive away the reptile people from planet Nibiru who are using humans as slave labor and a food source (they really believe that).

No matter what we think about the way Jesus will return, we do need to decide what we are going to do until he does return. One of the things we can do to get ready is to get used to having him here by letting him into our lives and getting to know him (and that is not just a one-shot activity as some would have us think). We need to constantly be opening up to let Jesus be the center of our thoughts, words, and deeds (we know we need to do it a lot, because we all know how often our thoughts, words, and deeds do not have Jesus as their center).

Many people speak of sacrificing our own egos in order to let Jesus reign in us. For us right here and right now, the concept of “choosing” might be more helpful than the concept of “sacrificing”. The subtle difference in how we use those two words was made plain by an athlete interviewed on television during the last Olympic Games. She was asked about all the sacrifices that it took to become an expert in her field, and she replied that she did not believe in sacrifices, but rather that she believed in choices. She said if one really wants to do something, then one makes choices to enable her to do it – nothing grander than that.

We might want to take what she said to heart.  Many people say that being a Christian and/or a monk takes sacrifices. Unfortunately in our time and place, sacrifice often implies drama and exhibitionism. We don’t need any more of that in our world. What we do need is thoughtful choices. We need to choose to do certain things and not do certain things in order to live a life of integrity as Christians and/or as monks. Of course in other parts of the world, sacrifice is required, but here in cozy 21st century America, it is unusual to be asked to sacrifice. Every once in a while, some people are asked to do it and we should be grateful for them, and maybe if we made better choices and were consistent in putting them into practice, fewer people would need to make sacrifices. But for most of us, what we think of as sacrifice is really only the feeling of being put-upon when we are confronted with the choices involved in any vocation. Even our smallest actions have consequences, and if we really want to do certain things, then there are other things that we must either do or avoid in order to meet our commitments; in the words of the Olympic athlete: “Nothing grander than that.”

Words are merely words; the important thing is that we make straight  the way of the Lord for his coming into our world, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, whether we do that by sacrificing our selves or by simply choosing certain things and not choosing other things. Jesus said he would come back. We don’t know how or when. We just need to be as ready for it as we can be. He was with us once in Palestine, he is with us still in his disciples and in the food at the altar, he will be with us again. May we choose to welcome him.   AMEN

Proper 28 Year B: And Then The Reading Ends

Daniel 12:1-13
Hebrews 10:31-39
Mark 13:14-23

Our scripture readings today have caused a lot of confusion and anxiety for many people, because they are often interpreted as a prediction of future calamities and the end of the world as we know it. However, even if these scriptures are about future calamities and the end of the world, we don’t need to be worried.

The first reading from the book of Daniel is the strangest of our three readings today, but that is to be expected because Daniel is one of the strangest books in the Bible. The passage we just heard is part of a longer story describing a vision Daniel had that lasts for three chapters. The vision happens in the third year of the Persian shah Cyrus (which means that Daniel is an extremely old man when it happened), and it involves future Iranian and Greek kings, as well as someone identified as the ‘king of the south’. Other characters include angels and a shiny guy with a loud voice and a woman used as part of a plot to destroy a kingdom. The vision also includes a list of destructive wars between all these kings. When Daniel asks about the outcome of the destruction, he is told to keep silent about it, and that good people will come out of it ok, but the bad people will not, so he is advised to persevere in doing good even though times are hard, because someone is coming to the rescue of all the good people. So Daniel, after being told to keep silent about it, writes it down in a book. Maybe he feels that is not really disobedient as long as he does not read the book out loud to anyone.

Moving on to the New Testament, the author of our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews is reminding his listeners of the struggles they have had in the past, and how they kept good attitudes throughout their problems. He encourages them to remain confident until someone comes to the rescue of those who have faithfully endured. Then in our gospel story, Jesus is warning his disciples that bad times are coming. He even quotes a phrase from the book of Daniel describing how bad it will be. He says that people will be duped into following false hopes of rescue, but we do not need to be fooled by them, because he has told us everything.

And then the reading ends! What has he told us that will save us? He goes on after our reading stops and says that he will send his angels to gather his chosen, but how are we to endure until that happens? What has he told us that will save us? He gives no secret timetables of the end of the world (unlike what many tv preachers say). In fact, his description of events leading up to the end of the world sounds very ordinary and no different that what has always been happening: wars, earthquakes, people doing business and getting married. When have those things not happened? Maybe what he is saying is this: the world will continue as it always has; people will be just as cruel and petty as they always have been, and it is up to you to remain faithful to and endure in my way until the end of time. His way is the way of compassion, kindness, joy, peace, and forgiveness. We are to live this way even with all the hardships we encounter. We are to live by faith, not by sight or by emotion – abiding in the love, joy, and peace of Jesus no matter what is going on in our world, and passing that love, joy, and peace on to others around us.

It is not always easy, but we are to do it anyway, whether or not help comes to end the hardship around us. We are safe in God’s hands no matter our situation or the situation of the world around us, and we can faithfully endure all things because Jesus endures them with us. Our job is not to worry about if, how, or when we will be saved; our job is to trust in God, because by trusting in God, we are saved. So there is really no need to worry, even if these and other scriptures are frightening – nothing can take us out of God’s hands except our own decision to go it alone, thinking we can take care of things better than God can. But God knows our situation better than we ever could, so the safest place to be as the world falls apart around us is in God, trusting him with our lives. There will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and global warming, debates about the number of planets in the solar system and celebrity couples getting married and divorced, business mergers and bankruptcies, but God is eternal, and in God, so are we.   AMEN

Proper 24 Year B: Human Nature

Isaiah 53:4-12
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:35-45

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah has been used to describe the vocations of Israel, of Isaiah, and of Jesus, because no one really knows who it is talking about. The subject is usually called the “suffering servant”, and depending on one’s religious or academic preference, the suffering servant is usually seen to be whomever it is that will bolster one’s opinion. It is a beautiful part of scripture, and the part we read today is only a small part of the entire “Song of the Suffering Servant”. One of the verses we read today is used to describe the human condition of falleness: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way…” That verse, as well as many other parts of scripture, are cited as examples of depraved human nature; we have gone astray, we have fallen from grace, we are bound for hell. However, it seems that if human nature was really one of depravity, then doing evil could not be conceived of as “going astray” – it could only be described as “following the correct course”, because we would be doing exactly what God made us for. If human nature were truly bad, then doing good would be going astray.

That is why, when these and other scriptures are used as a basis to claim the total depravity of human nature, those scriptures are being used wrongly. Human nature is good, because, as other scriptures tell us, God made humans, and all that God made is good. We have gone astray because we have not followed our good nature. We have instead created a second nature for ourselves: a second nature of pride, self-centeredness, and fear. This second nature is a shell we have encrusted around our true natures of joy, peace, and God-centeredness. Our nature only seems to be totally depraved because we have done such a good job at covering up our God-given good natures.

Of course, God knows this, or God would not be calling us to repentance. If we were made to be bad, then there would be no reason for God to want to save us from that, because going to hell would be our proper function. But we know that God does want us to repent from our false nature of sinfulness and return to our true natures of love. God sees through our façade of evil and into our true selves B the selves that God created in God’s image. As our second scripture reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” We are created in God’s image, and nothing we can do will change that fact, or hide that fact from God.

The embarrassing thing is that we humans have chosen to cover up that divine nature for so long that we really can’t break out of the second nature we have made for ourselves. God knows that, and so God chose to become one of us so that by refusing to be lulled into crawling into that second nature, Jesus could break it open and pull us out. As Hebrews goes on to say: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” God knows firsthand how easy and tempting it is to want to cover ourselves in a shell of pride and hatred, but he also knows how much better it is to refuse that temptation. God has done it himself, and offers us the only escape from our second nature by standing with us, holding out his hand for us to grasp so he can pull us out of our shells of corruption. We can’t do it ourselves B that is obvious. Only by accepting God’s help can we be reborn back to our true selves.

Before we accept God’s offer to pull us out of the hell we have made for ourselves, we ought to be warned about what God’s offer of heaven is like. Jesus tells us about it in our gospel reading this morning: “whoever wishes to become great must be servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all – not to be served but to serve”. That describes the opposite of our self-serving second nature, so it is difficult for us because we are not used to it. But it is who we are created to be, and in the end it will bring us eternal joy. Sometimes we slip back into our fallen state, but Jesus is always there waiting to pull us out again if we accept his help. It is our choice, and we are confronted with it every day and every moment. Will we stay in our false second nature of sin and greed, or be pulled out of it to be born again into our true nature as God’s Child? Jesus is offering his hand, but we must reach out and grab it. AMEN

Proper 19 Year B: Take Up Our Crosses

Isaiah 50:4-9
James 2:1-5,8-10,14-18
Mark 8:27-38

The prophet Isaiah in our first reading reminds us of two truths of life: life is difficult, and God is always there with us in the difficult times and is stronger than our problems. In the second reading, James reminds us about the difficulties in life; he alludes to the fact of poverty. He makes it plain that we should not add to the suffering of the poor by treating them as less worthy than rich people. Rather, we should prove we are on God’s side by doing what we can to ameliorate other people=s problems. In the gospel story, Mark reminds us that God chose to suffer and die along with us as a human, and if we want to follow Jesus, we must also be willing to suffer and die.

Jesus does not say that suffering and death are in themselves good. He says that losing our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel is good. There must be a reason behind the suffering to make it a good thing. There must be a reason to take up our cross, and maybe that reason is because if we don’t take it up, it means that someone less able to avoid it will have it added to his own already heavy and deadly cross. This is a good thing for us middle class Americans to ponder. We ought not feel guilty about enjoying such good fortune, but we do need to examine our way of life so that we are not causing others in the world to suffer because of our greed or laziness or chauvinism (whether or not any of those things are intentional).

God could have avoided the crucifixion of Jesus, but that would not have put him in union with all the others who had been and would later be crucified in Jerusalem, and had he not died, there would have been no resurrection. We have that same opportunity to not use our fortunate circumstances to run away from the plight of the rest of the world. We can do with less so that others can have more. We can stop shouting about how righteous we are so that others can let us know how we can all learn from each other. That seems so painful to us because we are so spoiled, but if we jump off that cross of pain and death, we miss our chance at joy and resurrection.

Of course we can always ask the age old question of why God doesn’t just make life sweet for everyone. We can ask all we want, but it won’t change the fact that God doesn’t do that, at least not right now. Right now we have the opportunity to be like God, standing with people in their difficulties and giving them strength to face the world as it is. We also have the opportunity to allow others to stand by us in our troubles, as Jesus was surrounded by the women at the cross. God loves us all, but life is still difficult. May we help others as best we can, whether they are near or far. May we always be sure that God is with us, going through our difficulties with us. May we be willing to take up our cross with Jesus, so that we may one day be resurrected with Jesus.   AMEN

Proper 15 Year B: The Banquet Of Wisdom

Proverbs 9:1-6
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:53-59

Our first two scripture readings today are both pleas and exhortations to live wisely. The first was from Solomon, telling us that Wisdom is calling to us to the banquet she has prepared for anyone who chooses to come to her house. The second is from Paul, telling us that since God has given us a new life in Jesus, we ought not to go back to our old selfish ways, but should wisely make the most of our lives by being thankful for everything God has given us. These two pleas for us to live wisely come from two very different settings: Solomon was a powerful and wealthy king; Paul was a powerless and poor preacher. The two lived a thousand years apart from each other, although they both spent time in Jerusalem. In many of Solomon’s writings, one gets the hint that he believed that some are born wise and others are born foolish, and that can’t be changed; in Paul’s writings, the predestination of the wise and foolish is sometimes hinted at, although some people have made a lot more of that hint of predestination than others.

The aspect of wisdom that is common between the two authors is the fact that wisdom is a gift from God, whether or not we are born with it or are offered it later in life as a choice to make by our own free will. Wisdom is not something that we can produce. Most people now would agree that wisdom is something that all people are offered, and most people would also agree that although it is a gift, it is not fully functional when it is given. We have to show our gratitude and appreciation of God’s gift of wisdom before it can work in us. We have to be diligent in listening to other wise people and in calmly and humbly taking criticism from others, whether or not that criticism is meant to be constructive or destructive (sometimes we can learn more from destructive criticism than from the constructive kind, because even though it is meant to harm us, it is usually true, so we should be grateful for it and do what we can to help the person trying to hurt us). We also have to keep our appetites for food, sex, alcohol, and partying in check, because even though they are good gifts from God, they can easily take over our lives and cause us to be harmful to ourselves and the people around us if we are not careful. All four of these disciplines of gratitude, listening, humility and moderation are based on the truth that we are not the center of the universe and getting what we want when we want it is not the most important thing in the world. True wisdom consists in living the truth that God is the center and source of everything.

Each of us is only a part of God’s wonderful world, but that does not negate our importance, because without everyone living their parts to the fullest, we are all impoverished. Our world is a fallen world because when we choose to put ourselves in the center, we throw everything off-balance and leave a hole in our spot so that others can’t receive what they need from us. God has not built the world around himself because he wants or needs attention. God has built the world around himself because that is the only way the world can be built, and God does not want it to go to waste by being the only one to experience it. The problem for us is that the universe is so wonderful, we want to claim it as our own. There is no need for that, because there is more than enough to go around, and when we are so busy trying to run the world our own way, we forget the joy of watching God run it the way it should be. We deserve more than the tiny universes we create for ourselves; that is why God made the infinite one for us. God gives us the world, as well as the wisdom to realize how wonderful and beautiful it is, whether or not we can ever begin to understand how it works. Our job is to take the wisdom offered to us and live our lives in such a way that it can grow in us and help us live wonderful and beautiful lives in harmony and peace with all the other elements of creation.

God not only gives us the world, God gives us his own self (that is what our third reading from John’s Gospel is all about). We will soon gather around the table up here to be fed by God’s own being. All the wisdom in the world won’t ever help us to understand how that is possible, but wisdom will let us know that we need it. We might not be the center of the universe, but the center of the universe wants to be in us. God loves us so much that he wants to be taken into us. We are offered God’s own life as we gather together at God’s table. Just as we cannot produce wisdom on our own, so we can not produce life on our own. We have to take it from God, who thinks we are worth enough for him to give his own life for us and to us. Taking the center of the universe into us should be a much higher goal than trying to create our own tiny universes revolving around us. One important step to that higher goal is to realize and remind ourselves that the center of the universe desires to be in everyone else gathered around the altar with us also. With God’s gift of wisdom, we will slowly learn to live, think, and speak that truth. It all comes from God, but we have the choice of accepting it or denying it. We will waver between the two every day and every moment, but by admitting that life and wisdom are solely gifts from God, God will help us take those gifts and make our lives better than we could ever have imagined on our own.   AMEN

Proper 10 Year B: Called

Amos 7:7-15
Ephesians 1:1-14
Mark 6:7-13

Many times, guests come to the monastery to spend time trying to discern the path that God wants them to take. Sometimes they are so concerned about doing the thing God wants them to do that their lives are crippled and at a standstill because, since they can’t figure out their exact calling, they simply do nothing out of fear of going against God’s will. They want to hear a definite call like Amos in our first reading, or like the twelve apostles in our gospel story. But for most people most of the time, our vocations fit more with our second reading: we are simply called to live and grow in Christ and spread his kingdom in our own normal daily lives. That reading (from Paul’s letter to Ephesus) describes our vocation as normal daily Christians, and it quickly becomes apparent that our seemingly unglamorous calling really has cosmic dimensions and implications: “…he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world…he destined us for adoption as his children…according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will…as a plan for the fullness of time…having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel…”

So even though sometimes, and for certain periods, we might discern specific instructions from God like Amos, Paul, and the twelve apostles did, even when we don’t discern those instructions, we can be assured that our lives are more meaningful than we might ever know. We need to always be open to specific calls from God, and we also need to be open to the fact that they might never come. But we can always use the many opportunities presented to us in our daily lives to be apostles and prophets to the small corner of the world where we find ourselves. We can be assured that by doing just that, we are fulfilling our vocations and being obedient to God. No need for agonizing and doing nothing out of fear of disobeying God’s will. God does have a plan for each of us, but it is probably not nearly as specific and detailed as some people would lead us to believe. The parameters of God’s plans for us are as wide as God’s love for us. The instructions for following those plans are as specific and detailed as our every breath. All we need to do is base every thought, word, and deed on love and respect for ourselves, our neighbors, and God. Of course, we don’t do that, and that is why we always need to admit our need for God’s grace to live our vocations as God’s children. We will fail to follow that path as God’s children every day, and God will forgive us of that failure every day.

There is a book in our library that opens with the statement that the most important question we can ask ourselves at the end of each day is: “Have I loved?” Of course the answer is always yes and no, because throughout each day we both succeed and fail in our vocations. And so we pray every day for God to help us be better apostles and prophets. We read scripture and let it slowly form us into better apostles and prophets. And we come here to gather at God’s table to allow God to feed us with himself as he makes us just what he wants us to be – no more, and no less. God calls us every day and every moment, and that call can be answered every day and every moment by simply living our dull, daily lives with faith, hope, and charity as we spread God’s kingdom in our own dull, daily worlds.   AMEN

Trinity Sunday Year B: Temple Of Words

Exodus 3:1-6
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-16

On May 9th (the yearly remembrance of the dedication of this church building), we read about Solomon constructing and dedicating the temple in Jerusalem. Solomon admits that God could not be contained in the temple, or even in the whole of heaven and earth. But Solomon also realizes that the temple can be a focal point for people to encounter God, and so asks God to hear the prayers of those praying in or toward the temple. Today we celebrate the construction and codification of a system of beliefs about God. Like Solomon, we need to remember that God cannot be contained by words, or even in any religion or philosophy anywhere at anytime. But we can remember that our historical trinitarian creeds (just like the temple in Jerusalem) can be a place for us to encounter God and grow in our relationship with God.

Solomon was guided by God in building the temple, as were the church councils in building our orthodox, catholic, trinitarian creeds. But just as the temple was built using human hands, hearts, and minds, so were our creeds. Being human constructs, both the temple and the creeds are therefore imperfect and incomplete. That does not mean that they are wrong; it simply means they are not perfect and complete. Only God is perfect and complete, and only God is truth. Anything else can only be a tool to reach truth.

Creeds, confessions, prayerbooks, catechisms, and councils have sparked violence and hatred throughout history. Maybe one day we will be over that phase. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t have to) believe every theory of God that is put forth, but we can see if pondering them can strengthen our own beliefs, and we can politely disagree with people while not condemning them. We can also be more comfortable with letting the mystery of God remain a mystery rather than always trying to systematize and coordinate our beliefs. The church councils were made of men who were necessarily products of their time and culture – steeped in the philosophical framework of their day, no matter how prayerful and holy they also were. If the creeds were to be hammered out by church councils today, they would be different, because even though the Holy Spirit would be guiding the framers, those framers would be products of a different time and way of thinking. That doesn’t mean they would be wrong; it just means that they mystery of God would be expressed using different concepts, and the unspeakable would be spoken of using different words.

We should be grateful for the work our ancestors did in hammering out the current orthodox understanding of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we must always remember that it is God who is to be worshipped, not our system of belief. Just like this church building or the temple in Jerusalem, a codified system of belief is meant to be a tool to bring us closer in our union with God, and to constantly strengthen that union. We must never misuse the tools God gives us. We must never use them to harm others or to bar them from God. With prayer, thought, and work, we can use our official doctrines to help bring even those who do not accept them closer to God. Instead of the all-too-common abusive pattern of using them to hurt people, we can instead choose to use them to help bring the healing, joyful peace of God to the people around us. That is why we are here and why we say we believe what we believe. We are worshippers of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of us all and the entire universe – the God who loves us all dearly, no matter our ability or inability to put our love into formal statements.   AMEN

Easter IV Year B: Know Thyself

Acts 4:23-37
I John 3:1-8
John 10:11-16

Our readings from John this morning speak of knowing and seeing ultimate reality, and both acts hinge on Jesus. In the gospel, Jesus says: “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, I know the Father.”, and in the Letter from John, the author speaks of our relationship to Jesus, saying: “when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” Putting the two together, we can make the conclusion that by coming to know Jesus, we come to know God and ourselves. As we pray more and live more like Jesus, we slowly learn the meaning of life.

That knowledge of God, Jesus, ourselves, the universe and everything in it that we obtain from living in God is not really intellectual or academic knowledge, although that is a part of it. It is existential knowledge – built into our bones and our soul; it is experiential knowledge – something we do; it is intimate knowledge – like the Biblical term for sexual union; it is instinctual knowledge – like knowing how to breathe; and it is habitual knowledge – like learning how to ride a bicycle or play a musical instrument by practicing so that one eventually does not need to think about it in order to do it.

The knowledge and vision we receive from abiding in God and following Jesus is the knowledge and vision of reality, because God is the basis of reality. God is the only means of existence. Everything else exists because God brings it into being, and so the only way to ever experience truth is by seeing God as the source and basis of everything, including ourselves. The more we come to know God, the more we come to know ourselves, because we are made in the image of God. So as this existential, experiential, intimate, instinctual, and habitual knowledge grows in us, the more we become like God (our origin). We become more peaceful, joyful, and creative as we become more like the creator and source of peace and joy. We become more loving, merciful, and tolerant even while keeping the highest standards of morality as we become more like the loving, merciful, and tolerant judge of the universe who expects mature behavior from us and yet knows firsthand from his incarnation as Jesus how hard it is to always exhibit it.

As we grow in this knowledge and vision of Godliness and humanness, all the fear and falsehood that we put between ourselves, God, and each other slowly melts away as we realize there is no need for fear. We become more like God and more our true selves. We are not God, and we do not become God – that would be short-changing our humanity. We are beautifully human and will become more proud of and grateful for our humanity the closer we grow to God. Sometimes it seems like we grow too slowly, or even regress. We can’t control our growth (only God does that), but we can foster the growth that God gives us, and we can avoid those things that we know will cause us to regress. God has a high enough opinion of us to give us the freedom to discipline ourselves, rather than forcing maturity upon us. If God’s opinion of us is so high, ours should be, too. As Jesus says: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” John tells us what Jesus and the Father know about us: “Beloved, we are God’s children now”. He goes further and tells us what we need to always remember about ourselves: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

One way to purify ourselves is to stop living the lie that we and others are not good enough for each other, for ourselves, or for God. We are God’s children now. We don’t need to wait to start acting like that. We can be grateful for and respectful of our lives and the lives of those around us. We can honor our common humanity and encourage each others’ maturity as we all struggle with the temptation to stop growing or even regress back to an infantile state. God is with us the whole way. We are worth enough for God to call us his children, and we are worth enough to call ourselves and each other that, too.   AMEN