Proper 12 Year C: Try And Try Again

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 8 Year C: Who’s On First?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 4 Year C: Old Time Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism Of Our Lord Year C: Rights Or Gifts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 26 Year C: Poke And Prod

Isaiah 1:10-18
II Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12
Luke19:1-10

Our scripture readings this morning include a wide spectrum of motivational tools, from threats at one end to pleas and rewards in the middle, to modeling of behavior at the other end. The middle reading from Paul’s letter to Thessalonica is threatening, both to the righteous and the unrighteous. We only get the beginning and the end of the threats this morning, but what lies in the middle goes like this: the righteous are told they are in the midst of persecution in order to make them worthy of the kingdom of God. The persecution was seen as an opportunity to build character, and so what at first looks like a threat is actually a means of reward. The real threat in this reading comes from Paul’s words about those persons who were the persecutors – they are going to get into all kinds of trouble when Jesus comes back with his angels. Maybe Paul was hoping the threat of eternal destruction might turn some of the persecutors from their ways, or maybe he thought they had already gone beyond the point of repentance and redemption.

The first reading from Isaiah is also full of threats, as well as pleas. In this instance, the ones who are being threatened and pleaded with have not gone beyond the point of no return, and God is desperately trying to get them to turn around to come back to him. God is telling them that he is tired of their hypocrisy; doing all the right religious things while the rest of their actions were cruel and merciless. God says he won’t even look at them or listen to their prayers – two serious threats. But he also begs them to change, and even offers to discuss the situation with them. He pleads for them to seek justice and in so doing prosper, instead of continuing on their wicked course which leads to death.

The gospel story from Luke is basically a story of modeling correct behavior: Jesus comes to town, Zacchaeus  the crook sees him and is so drawn to him that he changes his ways. It would seem that we would all strive to need only the modeling form of motivation. We should all have our attention so fixed on Jesus that we automatically base all our actions on his life.

But that is not how we really live. Our actions and attitudes don’t reach the goal of selfless love all the time. So even though it sounds barbaric and makes God seem mean, maybe threats are actually an act of kindness. Maybe even though the pleas and rewards make God sound like a frustrated parent, they merely reflect the reality that we act like spoiled children. The ultimate reality is that we have been taken into God’s eternal life, but the immediate reality is that we are not there yet. So no matter how true the ultimate reality is, we must deal with daily life as it is now. We all sometimes need the threats, pleas, and rewards, as well as the model of Jesus – who took on our human nature so that we might take on his divine nature.

Hopefully, as we grow in Christ, we will need less of the other forms of motivation as we more readily model our life on him. But as we grow, we will occasionally fall and  need some of the threats and pleas and rewards. One might wonder if we will ever get to the point of complete trust in God so that we don’t need the lower forms of motivation to help us grow more into him. Our life in God is eternal, so who knows – maybe we do eventually come to complete union with his will, or maybe we just keep getting closer and closer for eternity, like an asymptote in math class. The one sure thing is that all of our growth in Christ comes solely from him. We can only take the growth he gives us and put it to work. Of course, we also have the option of throwing that growth away.

Tomorrow we celebrate all those who have gone before us in their growth in Christ. Maybe some of them are completely there, maybe they are just always getting closer, but it is good to know that there are others on the way to God with us. And of course, we are all surrounded by each other, on the way to God. So may we gather with each other, as well as all those who have gone before us and come to the table up here to be guests as God feed us with everything we need, because all we really need is God. We might need threats later on in the day, or a plea or promise of reward tomorrow, but right now what we are offered is God giving himself to us and for us. May we imitate the model and give ourselves to God and to those around us.   AMEN

Proper 19 Year C: Run Away

Exodus 32:1,7-14
I Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Our scripture readings today are about God’s acceptance of people who run away from him, or turn away from him, or reject him, or however else it might be described. The stories, of course, are about us – we don’t trust God, so we make other gods out of our own supposed abilities and possessions (like the Hebrews in the first reading from Exodus); we think others who are different from us are sinners repugnant in the eyes of God, so we persecute them in our own petty ways, doing so in God’s name, thereby smearing his name and reputation (like Paul’s remembrance of his past in our second reading from his letter to Timothy); we wander away from God because wee don’t trust his judgement about the best place for us, or we separate ourselves from everyone else because we think we are either too good or not good enough to be counted among them, like the sheep and the coin in our gospel reading from Luke.

But even though we so often reject God’s efforts to bring us to fulfillment, God doesn’t give up. God still leads us through dangerous places to our promised land flowing with milk and honey, like the Hebrews in the first story. God shows us our mistakes and puts us on the right path, like Paul in the second reading. God finds us wherever we try to hide, like the shepherd and the woman in the gospel story. If we look at our lives, we can see how often this happens, and besides making us grateful, it might cause us to stop and wonder if God ever finally lets us have our way and follow our own delusions as we take ourselves to the hell we have created.
Some very holy people have said yes: God respects our decision to do that, if that is what we choose. Some other very holy people have said no: God realizes that when we choose to turn away from him and follow our own dangerous path, we are doing so only out of ignorance, and so God will save us from our mistake.

Who knows the answer? God knows – only God knows what is best for us, so the best thing for us is to admit that, and stop wandering off to rely on the false gods that we make – whether they are of money, or personal abilities, or religious denominations, or political parties. All those things are good, but they are not God, and when we rely on them instead of God, they can’t substitute. Everything we do must be built upon the foundation of God, and the other things are merely decorative or functional depending on their foundation on God. Everything we build upon anything other than God will eventually collapse on top of us and everyone around us. How much easier it is to trust God in the first place, rather than always be waiting for him to dig us out of the rubble. How much easier and safer it is to stay in God’s care than to run away or separate ourselves from the others in his care, shivering in the dark and cold as God once again picks us up and brings us back to his heart full of joy at our return. How much easier it is to take care of our own relationship with God, than becoming so obsessed about others relationships with God that we neglect ours and it falls apart.

Life is short. It is too short to waste so much time bringing misery upon ourselves and those around us by rejecting the fulfillment that God has in store for us and instead trying to create and control a fake world of our own. But we do just that over and over, and God rescues us over and over. Maybe the goal for us  is to do it do it a little less each time – tho trust God a little more each time we are rescued and to spend a little more time in God’s care between each successive episode of going astray. One way to learn to trust in God is to do what we are doing right here, right now: praying for guidance for ourselves and others, listening to Bible stories of others like us whom God repeatedly rescued from their dangerous paths, and joining together for a meal in which God feeds us with his own self. In addition to the time spent here together, we also have opportunities to spend time alone listening to God as we pray and read scripture by ourselves, and by simply enjoying the world God has made by finding joy in our work and leisure activities. All those things can be tools to keep us from wandering away from the abundance of God, and they all work together, but they must be honestly done with good intention in order to be of any use.

True life is in God, not away from God, like the sheep and the coin in the gospel story. True life comes from trusting God, not in making false gods of our gold, like Aaron and the Hebrews in the Exodus story. True life comes from working on our own relationship with God, rather than trying to destroy others’ relationships with God, like Paul in the letter to Timothy. True life is offered to us over and over, even after we repeatedly reject it. May we accept it, hold on to it, and offer it to others. Life is short, but if lived in God, it is eternal, it is good, and it is real.   AMEN

Proper 15 Year C: Holy, Holy, Holy

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

The Bible readings we heard today are about holiness. The prophet Jeremiah, whom we heard first, reminds us of the holiness of all creation when he reports God saying: “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off…Do I not fill heaven and earth?” God’s presence makes the entire universe a holy temple. We all know people who say they never go to church because God is everywhere and they can worship God anywhere, such as the great outdoors or a neighborhood bar. They are right. We also know people who go to church all the time, yet treat the rest of the world around them like a trash heap. I would much rather be around the first kind of person than the second kind. Of course, since God is everywhere, it is perfectly acceptable to worship God in church as well as in the surrounding countryside or neighborhood bar. In fact, the two concepts can and should reinforce each other. As Jeremiah tells us: “Who can hide in secret places so that I can not see them? Says the Lord.” The care with which we treat the holy things in church should be matched by the way we treat every other good gift of God. We need to be careful not to defile the temple of God, which includes everything that ever was or will be.
The Letter to the Hebrews (our second reading) reminds us of the holiness of the people around us. We are told that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”. The author is talking about all the holy people of former times, but we don’t have to think of saints as people in the past.

After all, the same Holy Spirit who was in Moses and Mother Teresa is in each of us, as well as every person sitting around us. One way we can become more saintly is to treat the people around us as the saints they are. We know we do not do that, and that is why the Letter to the Hebrews goes on to stress the importance of discipline in our lives. Discipline helps us grow. If we really take seriously our status as Children of God, then we will do what it takes to grow and become more Godlike. There are various disciplines that can help us in our growth, and no two people are going to need or benefit from the exact same set of disciplines. The important thing is that we don’t lie to ourselves and pretend that we don’t need to grow or don’t need discipline in order to grow. Every time we pass judgment on someone else, every time we allow anger to simmer in us, every time we whine about something is a reminder that we still have a lot of growing to do. We must grow until we see the holiness of the universe around us and the holiness of the people around us, and we need to remember they are growing too, so we should give them as much slack as we give ourselves.

Finally, our gospel story reminds us of the holiness of time. Jesus rebukes his listeners for being so adept at interpreting the signs of future weather, while never bothering to interpret the present time. He might as well have been rebuking me, because I am not sure what he means by the phrase: “interpret the present time.” Maybe what he means is that we worry so much about the future or either yearn for or regret the past so much that we never really live in and enjoy the present. His listeners were worrying about the weather that is not here yet, just as we worry about the future that is not here yet. Of course it is not wrong to plan for things and have a vision for the future, but to have the future consuming our present with worry is not right. It is also good to remember, honor, and learn from the past, but to hold on to the past so strongly that we do not live in the present does no one any good. After all, we heard Jesus himself  say that he is bringing fire and division to the world, so the one thing we know is that the future will be just as unstable and insecure as the past and present. With that in mind, one might as well enjoy the present moment that God has given us. Since it comes from God, it is infinite, eternal, holy, and completely full of love.

The present time is all we have, and we can use what it offers to help us grow in love, or we can be afraid of what it offers and shrink in upon ourselves with worry, greed, and pettiness. We can look upon the fire that Jesus brings as something that will destroy us, or something that will purify us. We can look upon the division that Jesus brings as something that makes us bitter and angry at those on the other side from us, or as something that can make us sweet and open us up to those on the other side. That’s where the discipline that the Letter to the Hebrews talks about comes into play. The time to grow is now. We can’t wait for the weather to change, as Jesus tells his listeners. Instead, we must interpret the present as the time to act. The entirety of creation is filled with God. Everyone around us is an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Every moment is an eternity of love streaming from the heart of God. We are surrounded by holiness. It is up to us to constantly grow in order to be able to see the holiness surrounding us. It is up to us to use the present in order to redeem the past and plant seeds for the future. God gives as all we need in order for us  to do this, because God gives us God’s self. May we give ourselves to God. AMEN

Proper 6 Year C: Taken For Granted

II Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Getting used to things can be dangerous. A lot of accidents happen because of carelessness caused by a false sense of security: we are used to our car tires having enough air in them, so we never think about checking them until they blowout; we are used to our oven lighting when we turn it on, so we never think of checking it until one day it doesn’t light and fills the whole house with gas. We take things for granted, and while it is not good to be constantly and neurotically assessing every situation for problems, the complacency that our lives create can in itself be a danger. The gospel story this morning is a good example.

The pharisee in the story was used to thinking of himself as a righteous person, acceptable to God. In fact, although pharisees have a bad reputation, they don’t really deserve it. Most of them were just like us – good, kind people trying to do the best they could with what they had. Their main problem seems to be their habit of taking God’s love and acceptance for granted. They were so used to hearing they were acceptable to God, and that God loved them, that they were in danger of forgetting how good it is to be loved, and that others were also acceptable to and loved by God. The woman in the story apparently does not have that problem. She was used to being told that she was a sinner: unacceptable to God. We don’t have the full background of the story, but it seems that in spite of the way she has been treated by religious people in the past, something she has heard about Jesus tells her that he won’t mind being in her presence, and that he won’t recoil in fear or disgust at her touch. Somehow, she knows she is accepted and loved by him, and so she responds in a way that is puzzling to the pharisee, who is equally loved and accepted by Jesus.

In the eyes of God, the woman and the pharisee were equally sinful, equally forgiven, and equally loved. That goes for everyone. God knows us best, yet loves us most. God knows us better than anyone (including ourselves) ever could. God knows every dark secret, including the ones we think we have hidden even from ourselves, and yet God loves us more than anyone else (including ourselves) ever could. Most of us already know that. We know how wonderful it is to be completely and totally loved by God. Unfortunately, we get so used to being loved that we start acting like the pharisee in the story; we stop returning the love because we take it for granted. Not that God could ever not love us – God is love, and God could never not love.

The danger of not loving is on our part, not God’s. When we forget how wonderful God’s love is, and how our existence is dependent upon it, we start living a life that is indeed loveless. We stop loving others, ourselves, and God. We don’t do it on purpose, and we don’t do it because we are evil. We do it simply because we are human, and we get so busy with the details of life that we forget the reason for living: love

Like the pharisee in the gospel – he was so busy following all the good rules of his denomination that he forgot to show love to his houseguests. Like David in our Old Testament story – he was so used to getting what he wanted as king that he did not fully realize the horror of the crime he had committed. Like some of  the Galatians in our second reading this morning – they were so used to treating gentiles as inferior to themselves that they forgot Jesus had changed all that.

So it is with us. We get so used to hearing that God loves us and that our sins are forgiven and that we are acceptable to God that we forget how good it is to be loved, and how horrible our sins are, and what an honor it is to be accepted as God’s Children. We grow cold in our love and we forget that everyone else is also fully loved as Children of God. We start to feel superior to others because we follow certain rules that they don’t, or they follow certain rules that we don’t – forgetting the only reason for those rules is to help us grow in love. We carelessly hurt others by our actions and attitudes, and we don’t even realize it. All of these things are completely unintentional, because like David and the Galatians and the pharisee that we have heard about today, we are good people. We are good people who have simply gotten used to being good and being loved, and getting used to things can be dangerous.

That is why it is so important to take time every once in a while to look closely at our lives and see how much we need God’s love and acceptance, and be grateful that it is there for us. We need to not be like David, so smug in our secret sins of pride and greed that we readily condemn others while it our own selves who are to blame for certain problems. We need to remember that although God knows us so well, God loves us so much, and the same is true for people whom we find difficult to love.

We also need to let those people who are not used to hearing it know how much they are loved and accepted by God. Our world is full of people who are used to hearing they are sinner condemned by God. They are used to hearing it, because so many people who are loved by God are used to saying it. That is a shame. They desperately need to hear that they are just as much Children of God as anyone else, and we who are used to being in God’s love desperately need to think of them as such and treat them accordingly, lest we run the risk of growing cold in our love and so become like the pharisee or some of the Galatians in our readings this morning.
Of course, we also need to make sure that our understanding of love is not simply one of being emotionally stroked by the way some people sometimes make us feel. We must learn to actively love – to desire and work for the best for every individual, even if and when what is best for some individuals is not what is best for us, and might even make us quite uncomfortable. We must learn to love people, not just the way some people sometimes make us feel.

Love is too important to take for granted. Other people are too important to disregard. We are all loved far too much to treat each other as anything but the very image of God, showing respect and honor to all whom we encounter, including ourselves.   AMEN

Easter VII Year C: Take Me To The River

Acts 16:16-34
Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20
John 17:20-26

We just heard the final words of Jesus at the Last Supper before going to the garden where he was arrested. His entire speech is long – 3 ½ chapters in the Gospel According To John, and towards the end of it, he prays that his followers would be united, as he and the Father are. He gives two reasons for this: so that the world will know that Jesus was sent to us by God, and so that the world will know that God loves the disciple of Jesus as much as he loves Jesus. Jesus does not pray that his followers may be one so that God will love them; God already loves us. The desired unity is only meant to be an outward sign of God’s love for us. That is a good thing, because if God’s love for us depended on anything we did, we would not be worthy of that love, because it is obvious from our own lives and from church history that we are not very good at living in unity with other Christians.

That is why Jesus’s prayer is so surprising. It is easy to believe that God loves Jesus. Even those who do not accept the divinity of Jesus can understand why God would love him, because he was so good and kind and said spiritual things. Of course God loves Jesus – who wouldn’t? Those of us who believe that Jesus was not really a goody-two-shoes, but was rather God in human flesh, understand that the Father loves Jesus as the only begotten second person of the Trinity (a love that we do not have the power to understand, a love that is the foundation and structure of the universe). And Jesus makes it very clear in his prayer that God loves us in the same manner that he loves Jesus. That is hard to accept. It is hard to understand, hard to believe, and hard to confront. In God’s eyes, we (as petty, judgmental, and conniving as we are) are loved as much as Jesus. In God’s eyes, we are as worthy of infinite love as is God’s own self. God knows us better than anyone else (including ourselves), and yet God loves us more than anyone else (including ourselves). It is almost impossible to believe that we are worthy of any love at all, much less God’s infinite love, but it is true.

We are worthy, but not because we have earned any worth. We can not earn anything in God’s eyes. It is impossible to do, so it is neither asked for, nor expected. Our infinite and unconditional worth is freely bestowed upon us by God. Our second reading from the Book of Revelation talks about the gift of God’s love, as the Holy Spirit calls everyone to come drink the water of life flowing like a river from God’s throne – freely and abundantly offered. No one is forced to come drink, but all are invited. There are no limits on how much we can drink, nor are there any conditions that we must fulfill, other than simply being thirsty for love and life.

A different river is the setting for our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, but it is just as much proof of God’s love as is the river in heaven. Paul and Silas are in Macedonia, going to pray with some people who meet by a river in Philippi. On the way, they meet a slave who makes her masters rich by telling fortunes. The reason she can do this is because she is possessed by a foreign spirit. Paul confronts the spirit and makes it leave her, healing her and setting her free from its power. Her human masters bring legal action against the apostles for ruining their source of income, since the girl can no longer tell fortunes without the foreign spirit controlling her. By healing her, Paul shows us how much more important to God is our health and happiness, compared to our ability to make money. We are important to God simply because we exist, not because we can acquire possessions, wield power, create artwork, achieve popularity, or make athletic,  intellectual or scientific breakthroughs. God creates us out of love; that is our reason for being and our true fulfillment – not any outward sign of supposed success.

God’s river of life and love flows to us, offering us more than we could ever imagine or understand, and its flow does not depend on who we are, how we feel, or what we do. It is not forced upon us, just offered. We can’t do anything to lose it – we can’t be bad enough for God not to love us – but we can, if we choose, decide to not drink from the river, and so not accept God’s gift. We do that every time we think we can live life on our own and have no need for God. When we do that, we are not really gaining independence, we are simply losing our own life. God offers us life, love, and true fulfillment, and all we have to do to receive it is to be humble enough to accept it. We must admit we are nothing without God, and everything with God. We must admit that we can not love on our own, and that we can not live on our own. We must admit that everything we try to do on our own ends in failure and heartache, while everything we do in God is simply a step to something even greater. But we must take the step to the river and drink, taking ourselves out of the center of our lives so that God can fill us with true love and life. God is calling us to drink, no matter how many times we turn our backs on him.

But back to Jesus’s prayer for unity from our gospel reading. Someday, all Christians might be united in the way that Jesus is one with his father (I suspect  we already are, but we just don’t realize it or act like it). At least we don’t act like it yet, and maybe that is because we do not understand the unity of God, either. All we know is that Jesus desires our unity, so it can’t be bad. Our unity is not a prerequisite for God’s love for us; it is merely an outward sign of it. So until we admit and act like we are one as Jesus and the Father are one, we can at least try to remember that the people around us are loved by God, and therefor might be worthy of our love, too. Just as we can not earn God’s love, so the people around us can not earn our love. It must be given by us, no matter the response. May we freely give from the river flowing into us from God, and may we freely accept it from others, who love us even though we have never done anything to deserve it from them. Maybe that is s start toward unity in Jesus. Maybe that is the fulfillment of it.   AMEN

Lent IV Year C: Yes We Can

Joshua 5:9-12
II Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Our gospel story this morning is famous, and for good reason – it tells us a lot about God, a lot about us, and a lot about the world around us. It has been used as a basis for many sermons, stories, and other helpful forms of  teaching because of the many things that can be gleaned from it. Two of the many topics found in the story are areas we have been hearing and reading a lot about these past few weeks: salvation and repentance. Sometimes the two are confused, as in the often used expressions “get saved” and “repent”. Many people say the two things as if they we the same thing, but they are not. We are saved, because God saves us – salvation is a totally free gift from God that has already been given, and we can do nothing to influence God to save us, because God already has. Repentance, on the other hand, is something that we do – we realize we are doing wrong, and we change our actions in order to stop the wrong and begin doing right. Repentance does not save us, God saves us, but repentance puts us in a position to actually live in and enjoy the salvation that God has given us.

God has forgiven us of all our failings and welcomes us into his own life of joy and peace, like the father in our gospel story. However, until we come to our senses and realize we are on the road away from our true home, like the younger son in our story, we can not enjoy the party that the father has prepared for us. And merely realizing we are on the wrong path is not enough – we actually have to do something to change our path, turn around, and go back home to our father. Repentance involves change in our lives, not merely regret over some of the things we have done, although that is a good way to begin repenting. In order to live as saved people, we need to change our unsaved conduct of pettiness and greed into saved conduct of compassion and gratitude.

Some people say that they can not change their behaviors, but that is not true, for any behavior short of pathology. There are many forms of help available to show us how to change our actions, the easiest and cheapest being the many books in our library with helpful hints on how to change behavioral patterns. Some people say that they don’t need to change their behavior. That is not true, either, because we have all hurt ourselves and others deeply, and will continue to do so if we do not live mindfully in peace and joy. If we think we do not need to change our behavior for the better, that only means we are not aware of our behavior.

Changing our actions for the better benefits us and those around us, and that is good. However, we don’t have to stop at our actions. We can, if we want, also change our thought patterns so that we are not plagued so much by the negative thoughts that drain our happiness and often lead to bad behavior. Many people say that we can not change our thought patterns, but, as with actions, anything short of pathology can be changed – it is merely difficult to do so. Others say that even though we can not actually change our thought patterns, we can learn to become more aware of them so that when they arise we can deal with them in a helpful manner before they do too much harm. Either changing them outright or learning to be aware of them in order to lessen their harm is better than simply allowing our petty thoughts to drag us down into anger or despair. One thing that most people do agree on if they say that thought patterns can be changed is that they are much more difficult to change than are behavioral patterns. But difficult and impossible are not the same thing.  As is the case with behavioral patterns, some people think they do not need to change their thought patterns, but that only means they are not very aware of what is going on in their heads. Once again, there are many forms of help available if one wants to change hurtful thought patterns, the easiest and cheapest being the many books in our library dealing with the topic.

Our feelings and emotions can also be changed, but they are even more difficult to change than thoughts. Our emotions are given to us as a means of perceiving and dealing with reality, but so often they instead skew our perceptions and we mistake them for reality. We are called to be the salt of the earth – all-pervasive yet usually only noticed when missing, but instead our off-balance feelings and emotions sometimes turn us into the vinegar of the earth (souring everything) or the saccharin of the earth (coating everything with a false and sickening sweetness). With hard work and a big dose of objectivity, we can change our emotional patterns and responses so that they do not constantly plague us and those around us, draining us of our energy and joy. As with the case of altering thought patterns, there are many sources to help us, the easiest and cheapest of course being the books in our library dealing with the topic, and some people think that although we can not completely change our feelings, we can learn to become aware of their onset and so be ready to deal with them fruitfully. Both scenarios involve hard work and humility, but we are worth all the effort it takes to be freed of our irrational reactions. (By the way, this is not a plug for our library – we don’t make any money off of it – it’s just saying that in almost any situation, the resources needed for growth are there, if we are willing to do the work.)

Change is not impossible, it is only difficult. We are created in the image of God to live in love and peace in this wonderful universe God has given us. We are created to bless and be blessed by all others. Heaven is our home, yet we choose instead to run away from our true heaven and waste our treasure, like the younger son in our gospel story. God is waiting for us to repent – to turn around and come back. It is our choice, and we all know in the long run, we do what we want to do. We owe it to ourselves to repent and travel toward our father’s house. Our birthright as Children of God is a life of bliss, but we do not live in bliss when our feelings, thought and actions are centered upon us and our fears, rather than on God and his grace.

Even though we are saved, we are still humans, and we will all fail in our task of repentance. We will all fall off the path back to heaven at some point, but we can always get back on. God is always waiting, and like the father in our story, already has the party supplies. Change will be slow and will come in small stages, but any growth is better than stagnation. The first step of growth is in itself a return to heaven. So may we always – every day and every moment – stop our running from God and turn towards God. God will help us on the way, no matter how often we fall, and will never tire of waiting, and if we only allow him, God will actually carry us when we think we can go no further. We have been saved by God who lives with us – we know him as Jesus. May we, in gratitude for that salvation, repent – turn away from our tiny worlds of ego and travel into God’s infinite world of bliss.   AMEN