Proper 19 Year B: American Idols

Isaiah 50:4-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Our scripture readings this morning talk about five truths in life:
1 – at some point, everyone and everything will let us down, anger us, and disappoint us
2 – at some point, we will let everyone and everything down, anger them, and disappoint them
3 – at some point, we will let ourselves down, anger ourselves, and disappoint ourselves
4 – at some point, our mistaken self-centered conceptions of God will let us down, anger us, and disappoint us
5 – the true living God will almost always anger, shock and surprise us, but will never let us down or disappoint us

The Letter of James (our second reading) talks about the first three truths – we all make mistakes, even and maybe especially people who are in positions of authority. That does not mean we are stupid and evil, it just means we are human. That doesn’t mean we should have low standards of behavior for ourselves or anyone else, it just means we need to realize that noone can always reach those standards, so we need to deal with the failures in a mature way – giving people time and space to heal from mistakes and being willing to work with them to grow out of them. Failures and disappointments of ourselves and others can lead to either bitterness and scornfulness, or they can lead to wisdom and compassion.

Usually, when we first realize the mistakes and failures of ourselves and others, we are in our early teens and react in the bitter, scornful way. That is normal. However, as we grow, one of the keys to maturity is to develop the wisdom and compassion that deals with failures and disappointments in a positive way. Like all forms of growth, cultivating wisdom and compassion are not easy, but they are necessary for a happy, full life. The bitter, scornful reactions are easier at the beginning, but if they linger, they reduce us to bitter, scornful people whom noone, including ourselves, can stand to be around. The wise, compassionate reactions are much more difficult at first, but if they are pursued, they lead us to become wise, compassionate people who are a joy to be around. The way away from bitterness toward compassionate takes a lot of prayer, insight, thought, and internal examination, but it is worth all the years of work . And of course, the wisdom and compassion do not come from ourselves – they are gifts from God that we just need to empty our own selfish wills in order to receive. We will never be there completely all the time, but we can always strive to get closer to that goal. It is true that we are not always wise and compassionate, but it is even more true to say that we are not yet always wise and compassionate. Not yet. We must wait for it – it will come slowly. And we must work and wait for it not with the resignation of patience, but with the joy of constancy.

The fourth truth is talked about in our gospel story this morning. People had ideas about who Jesus were, but they were not who Jesus was. Peter wanted Jesus to do what Peter wanted him to do, not what Jesus knew he had to do. Trying to make God fit into our comfortable ideas and desires is called idolatry, and idol worship always leads to disaster, because it means we have founded our lives on false assumptions. When the disaster strikes, we have the same choice that we do when our idolization of other people or ourselves is seen to be false – we can live bitterly, or we can be grateful for finally seeing the truth and so start on the long road to living wisely and compassionately.

We don’t always want to give up our idols – not yet, because just as in our disappointment with human idols, learning from our disappointment with divine idols takes a long time of prayer and insight. It takes the loss of our false, selfish life in order to gain the true life that Jesus gives, as he tells us in the gospel story we heard. It is the fifth truth and it involves the pain of the cross, but it leads to the glory of the cross – the glory that is the truth that everything is not all about us and our comfort. The life that Jesus gives us might be more scary than the false life we try to build, but in the end, it is much less worrisome and much more safe. The true, living God will never let us down, and will never disappoint us. Everyone else and everything else will. That is ok, true life goes on, bigger and better than anything we could have ever imagined. God is what matters, not us. We will be happy , healthy, whole, and safe, because God has smashed our idols and freed us from their grip. Let us not fall into their grasp again, but when we do, may we wisely and compassionately give each other time and space to heal and start over.   AMEN

Proper 9 Year B: Carpe Snot

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

Ezekiel has an important word for us today: “Thus says the Lord God. Whether they hear or refuse to hear…” God is constantly speaking to us. Everything in creation is a message from God. We can observe those messages, or we can close ourselves off from God’s efforts to communicate with us. We can realize the importance of everything, or we can pretend that only certain things concern us. Of course, in a practical sense, we can’t take in all the information coming to us. But we can be humble enough to admit that usually, we can do more to take in all the love coming to us from every part of the universe from God.

We also need to take that information and allow it to foster our growth in love and compassion, rather than in bitterness and hatred. There is a lot of sad news in the world, and it can be a catalyst for either action and prayer, or for numbness and indifference. There are a lot of people in the world, and we can take their often inept and imperfect attempts at loving us as a catalyst for either growing a friendship, or for growing contempt. The choice is ours. We can be a rebellious house, as God says to Ezekiel in our reading this morning, or we can allow God to replace our stony hearts with hearts of flesh, as he says to Ezekiel in another part of the book.

We are confronted with those choices everyday, every hour, and every minute: listen or isolate, love or bitterness. The listening and love take a lot more work, but in the long run, they don’t wear us out – they make us healthier and happier. The isolation and bitterness are easy in the short term, but eventually turn us into shriveled grumps that no one, including ourselves, can stand to be around.

Why choose shriveling? Life is too short to waste on bitterness. I know that, and we all know that, because we have all chosen the bitter route several times in life. But now is the day to hear the voice of God and allow it to sink into us and grow us.  We can seize every opportunity every day to take in the love that God gives us and give it out to others, and we can accept the love that others give us, no matter how flawed it is. We can be like Jeremy, the main character in the cartoon ZITS, who had a good day and came home shouting “I seized the snot out of today!” May we seize the snot out of every day, opening our hearts and minds to God’s word coming to us from all of creation. As God says to Ezekiel, we have been rebellious, stubborn, impudent transgressors, but God still calls to us. God knows us, and still loves us and wants us to be healthy and joyful. May we know the truth of what God says to Ezekiel: “…there has been a prophet among them.” Every thing and person around us can be prophetic, if we listen closely. May we listen, obey, and slowly but surely find peace with ourselves, our God, and our neighbor.   AMEN

Easter IV Year B: Fruit, Or Lack Thereof

Acts 4:5-12
I John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

In a few days, we will be celebrating the completion of our latest building project, and hopefully, the last building project we will have, at least for awhile. Our new bell tower is the fruit of a lot of labor expended by the community, by our donors, and by all the people around the world who pray for us daily. We should be proud of it, and of the work done to finally finish it. It is good to see fruit of that sort.

However, it is not the same for our prayer life, our monastic life, and our Christian life. Contrary to the joy of seeing our new building and hearing the bell, I hope none of us ever sees the fruit of his monastic life, his prayer life, or his Christian life. I do not say that I hope our lives have no fruit – I just hope that we never see it. Because if we see the fruit of our work, then we are in danger of working in order to get the results, rather than working out of love. Basing our lives on results is a sure plan for disappointment and grief, while basing our lives on love is a sure plan for joy. The results of our lives are not our business, they are completely up to the Holy Spirit. We just need to willingly put in the work, and knowing we are working because of love for ourselves, our God, and our neighbor is a joy that never depends on any results.

There is a book in our library (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere by Sister Ayya Khema) by a nun who state that it is always better to practice constancy than to practice patience, because often, patience implies that we are waiting for thing to get better, while constancy often implies that it doesn’t matter if things ever get better. If we are waiting for things to get better, we are in for never-ending disappointment. If we are living in the joy of God’s love even within our imperfect and difficult situation, we are already in heaven, and we bring heaven to the world around us.

I must admit that this past winter, I was not to apt to live in joy and constancy. I chose instead to grudgingly wait for the building to be finished, for the post office to stop changing things,for the snow to stop, for our new database to be finished, and for a dozen healthy people to join the monastery and do most of the work. It was not a happy winter, and that was my choice. I chose to allow everchanging things control my thoughts, words, and actions, rather than choosing to allow the always reliable God to form my life. I chose to demand happiness rather than to live in joy. I wanted everything but me to change, or more accurately, I wanted everything I didn’t like to change, rather than growing up and dealing with reality.

Maybe someday, I will learn better. Maybe, someday, I will learn the truth of what John says in our second reading this morning: “..God is greater than our hearts..” No matter our fears, worries, and uncertainties, God is greater. No matter our physical, financial, or organizational state, God is greater. We only need to heed John’s words and: “…have boldness before God…and obey his commandments…” Then we will “…abide in him, and he abides in us…”, and we will know it because of  “…the Spirit that he has given us.”

Abiding in God and having God abide in us is so much better than choosing to be dragged around by the ever-changing happenings around us, and by our ever-changing reactions and emotions. The only real thing is God, everything else is quickly gone and unreliable. As Peter says in our first reading this morning: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” God is real, and is constant. We can be real and constant, but only in and through God. Our fears, worries, and conflicts will not go away, but they will no longer be the bases of an ever-shifting queasy way of life. Real life is found only in God. May we choose that constancy and reality. May we choose the unspeakable joy that comes with constancy and perseverance. Our lives will have fruit, but none of it is our business. We monks are lucky and blessed in that area- we hardly ever get to see the fruit of our prayer common life and prayer. Rolling up our sleeves and working, gathering in the church to pray, being grateful for all the things everyone else does for us – all of that is our business.

Even with our new buildings, they will need to be cleaned and repaired, and someday fall down. Even without snow on the ground today, it will be back soon enough and need to be shoveled. Even with a new database in the office, it will need to be maintained. Even with new members in the monastery, we will always be wanting more to lessen the work load. Right now, we can simply be ok and abide in God. Right now, we have work to do, gathering at God’s table, and even though we are the guests, we have to set the table.   AMEN

Lent IV Year B: Encrusted By Our Fear

Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Contrary to what a lot of people say, or what a lot of people used to say, human nature is not bad, corrupt, or sinful. Human nature is good, as Paul says in our second reading this morning: “..we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” In fact, if human nature were not good, then murder, greed, hatred, and oppression would not be corrupt or sinful – they would be laudable because those things would be a fulfillment of our created purpose. However, it does not take a very hard look to see that we do not live up to the good nature God has created for us. Instead, we quickly and profoundly create a second nature for ourselves, and we are so used to it that we forget about our true good nature and think that our self-imposed second nature is the true one.

The amazing thing is, every single person who has ever lived has been successful at creating their own self-centered second nature that so easily crusts over their true God-centered nature. Some people have created their second nature with a lot of help from their families and societies, others have done it in spite of the warnings of their families and societies. There has been only one exception ,and that is why Jesus is called fully human – he lived his true nature (the true God-centered human nature).
One of the amazing things about the second natures that we impose on ourselves is the fact that even though we make them, we can not escape them. We can and should do a lot of things to lessen their poisonous effects on ourselves and our surroundings, but we can not get rid of them. Only God can and does crack them open so that we can crawl out of our little hells and live in the heaven he has created for us. Only God can and does call us to live fully human lives along with Jesus. We often think heaven is too much for us and crawl back into our second nature, but God is always calling us to come out again to taste and see how good real life is.

God lives a true human life in Jesus and calls us to do the same. All we have to do is ask God to save us from ourselves and keep looking toward Jesus who calls us to share his life. We deserve the heaven that God has made for us, because we are good. God created us that way, and nothing we can do will ever change that, no matter how hard we try. We just need to stop pretending that we are doomed to follow our sinful nature. We will keep on sinning, but that is certainly not natural.

It takes a lifetime to get used to not living in our second natures, so we must never be discouraged when we do sin. We must simply acknowledge the truth of it, accept the responsibility for it and consequences of it, and know that God forgives us. Then we must once again rely on God to help us grow into our true natures. God will help. He offers himself to us and feeds us with himself. May we take that help and that food and keep growing, grateful for ourselves and our vacations as God’s children.   AMEN

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