Proper 16 Year A: Words And Actions

Isaiah 51:1-6
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Many people have said many things about Jesus, and usually what is said is true: reformer, critic of the status quo, revolutionary, philosopher, kind man, good example, devout and pious prophet. Jesus is all those things (and many more), but the more we get to know him, the harder he is to describe. Maybe the reason for that is because the reality of who Jesus is is so different from our normal experience of others that we just don’t have the words, concepts, or ideas to describe who he really is. In our gospel story this morning, Peter makes an attempt to define Jesus, and he could so only in thoughts with which he was familiar. A “messiah” or “christ” or “anointed one” would have been familiar to Peter as someone who was chosen by God for a special task or kinglike position. “Son of God” would have been a slightly more bizarre concept, but there are hints of the term in the Psalms as someone (once again a royal person) who will carry out justice in God’s name.

We are still trying to say who Jesus is. Maybe one way to express the reality of Jesus is to say that he is the bringer of God’s own life to us – real life – and that all the prophets and teachers in the world can tell us what they think about God, but only in Jesus do we actually experience God. Jesus is God as a human. That description might make some people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, almost every attempt at defining the ultimate reality of Jesus throughout history has made someone uncomfortable, and that leads to refutations and anathemas and councils and more anathemas and sometimes executions and wars. Maybe we should just stop putting so much effort into talking about Jesus, and start living in Jesus, as Paul urges us in our second reading this morning. Theology and Christology are not bad, they can be helpful and good, but they are not the complete story.

Isaiah reminds us in our first reading this morning that God is the one who brings things to fruition, and God is the only stability in the universe. Its all about God. Maybe we can define Jesus only by living in such a way that we show our complete dependance on him rather than on ourselves as the source and sustainer of our lives. Jesus makes it clear in his response to Peter that Jesus builds his church – it is not our construct. Only the church that Jesus builds will stand against the gates of hell. Any facsimile that we try to produce will crumble in that situation. Our desires and wills must be transformed into the desire and will of Jesus in order for us to carry out his work of bringing God’s own life into the world around us. Any time we try to follow our own desire the result is only wheel-spinning.

But maybe we are back now to the beginning of the sermon; in order to know the will and desire of Jesus, we must know who Jesus is. Fortunately, we have the scriptures left to us from the people who saw him closest – we can read and ponder them and compare our findings with others. We also have God’s Holy Spirit in each of us – the Holy Spirit will pray through us and show us more about Jesus if we only give the Spirit room in our lives. We have others in the church around us whom we can observe from their attempts to live in the will of Jesus. We also have the table up here where we gather to be fed by Jesus from his own self. All of these things will teach us more about Jesus and transform our own lives into his, but we must take advantage of the opportunities we have been given – it is our choice. If we do so, then slowly but surely we will know more of and more about Jesus. We may never be able to put what we know into words, but maybe we can put it into actions, and that is what really matters. We don’t have to give up the attempt to theologize (our words can be of great help to others trying to know Jesus), but we do need to make sure that our actions reflect our words. They won’t always, but with God’s help, they will slowly start to match up more and more.
Who do we say that Jesus is? Will we ever fully know, and can we ever fully know? All we can do is our humble best, and allow others to do the same. No one will be completely correct, and we can all learn from each other.   AMEN

Supermodel: St. Mary The Virgin 2011

Isaiah 61:10-11

Mary is a model for all of us who want to bring Jesus into our world, because that is what she is most famous for. When the angel let her know it was going to happen, Mary questioned it because she was not a stupid girl. She knew where babies come from, and she knew she had not done what it takes to make a baby. The angel told her not to worry about that – God would take care of it. So, Mary said ok – Be it into me.

So it is with us. We can have a million reasons or excuses why we can not bring Jesus into our world, and none of those reasons or excuses are too big or complex for God to handle. All we have to do is say ok – Be it unto me. Mary’s story does not stop there – she was not a stupid girl. We get hints that she had family support (her fiance‚ does not dump her, and she visits her cousin), so she probably had the usual prenatal care for the time and place, nurturing the child inside of her.

So it is with us. Once we take Jesus inside of us, we need to nurture him. That is where disciplines (or if we would rather call it “discipleship”) come into play. We need to feed ourselves well so that Jesus can grow in us by prayer, scripture reading, and other classic Christian disciplines. We won’t lose Jesus if we don’t do those things, but we won’t be able to bring him forth into our world unless we do those things.

Eventually, Mary finally gave birth. It was not in a fancy or important place, and it was not among fancy or important people. So it is with us. We can bring Jesus only into the world that we know, not the world we do not know. Our families, schools, businesses, neighborhoods, parishes, and monasteries are where we bring Jesus forth. We do not need to save the whole world, but we do need to let Jesus into our part of the world to save it.

Mary was not a stupid girl, and she was not a stupid woman. She let Jesus grow and when the time came, she let Jesus go. The only story we have of the two of them as adults before his crucifixion is the story of the wedding at Cana. There was a problem, and she let him know, but she did not tell him what to do.

So it is with us. Once we let Jesus into our world, we need to not tell him what to do. We need to let him know the problems, but he is much better at solutions than we could ever be.

Mary – the supermodel for us all. May we be like her – let Jesus into us, nurture Jesus in us, let Jesus out of us, and then let Jesus go to do what he needs to do.   AMEN

Proper 13 Year A: Wisdom Satisfies

Isaiah 55:1-5
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Some people say that the real miracle in our gospel story this morning is not the fact that the food multiplied, but rather that the example of sharing the loaves and fishes prompted other people in the crowd to give up the food they had been hoarding and share it also, so that everyone was fed. Others will explain the miracle by saying that being with Jesus was so satisfying that even the tiny amount of food that was shared (five loaves and two fishes divided amongst thousands of people) was enough for all those people. Maybe those explanations are true. I tend to think that strange things happened when Jesus was around, so I have no problem with any explanation, even the traditional one of the loaves and fishes multiplying enough to feed all the people and still have leftovers. It is true in our own lives that whatever we have, if we are willing to give it to God, becomes enough for us and for the people around us. When we think we don’t have enough strength or courage or time to go on, we are absolutely right. So we can choose to give up, or we can choose to give what we have to God and allow God to satisfy our needs in ways that we could never have imagined. We can keep pretending to possess things to keep us secure, or we can realize that we are only temporarily given stewardship of things, and by acknowledging that all belongs to God, we can all share what we have so that no one is in want.

But it is obvious we don’t do that. We need to be like the crowd in the gospel story – we need to let Jesus satisfy us. Instead, we try being satisfied by everything else, and while everything that God created is good, it is not God. If we let God satisfy us, then everything else is gravy – wonderful when we have it, but quite alright if we don’t.
Isaiah talks about this same matter in our first reading this morning: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” He is wondering why we waste time hoarding things while God is offering so much more for free. Once again, the things are not bad – it is how we substitute them for God that is the problem. Isaiah is trying to get us to listen to wisdom when he says: “Incline your ear and come to me, listen, so that you may live.”, and in so doing echoes what the monks know so well from the beginning of Benedict’s Rule: “Listen with the ear of your heart.”

Listen to the truth that only God satisfies. We can never be full of God, and we will always want more, but it is a life-giving hunger, rather than a life-killing greed for things. Like the crowd in the gospel: we can share, we can be satisfied with little, we can allow God to multiply what we have – whatever the miracle really was doesn’t matter, because the crowd allowed Jesus to satisfy them in whatever way he knew best. May we allow God to satisfy us. May we incline the ear of our hearts and live.   AMEN

Humbly Listening: St. Benedict 2011

Proverbs 2:1-2
Colossians 3:12-17
Mark 10: 17-31

Those of us who have been in the monastery for some time probably had our memories pricked by the first verses of our reading from the Book of Proverbs this morning, because it sounds so much like the opening verses of Benedict’s Rule. Those verses from Proverbs are: “My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your ear to understanding…then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find knowledge of God.” The verses from Benedict are similar: “Listen carefully, my child, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a parent who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.”

It would be easy to assign both sets of instructions to condescending swaggarts if we did not know the history of the authors. Although Solomon is not a good pattern for any ruler or father to follow, he did gather a lot of experience during his long and interesting life, and upon reading the Book of Ecclesiastes, one realizes that he did finally learn from his excesses and gathered much wisdom. Benedict also struggled with his own authority, but after his first monks tried to murder him and his sister had to bring on a storm to get his attention, he has become a pattern for many people (not only nuns and monks) in living good and fruitful lives.

So instead of dismissing the authors of these words as know-it-all blowhards, we would do well to listen to them and consider what they say. And what they seem to be saying to us is the fact that we need wisdom. Furthermore, they are saying that wisdom must be sought after – it doesn’t simply land in our laps. As Solomon says in the Proverbs “…cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding…seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures…” Even further, by telling us to seek wisdom, they are also implying that we must first be humble enough to admit that we don’t have it. The words of Benedict about “listening with the ear of your heart”, “welcoming advice”, and “faithfully putting it into practice” all speak of a humble type of listening, because only an open, humble, and accepting heart can take things in – cold, closed, self-righteous hearts will only deflect wisdom, because those kinds of hearts think they are already whole and self-sufficient. Paul gives a good list of things to do in order to cultivate humility and open our hearts and minds to wisdom in his Letter to the Colossians that we heard in our second reading. He says that we ought to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” He also says that we should be forbearing, forgiving, loving, peaceful, and thankful. He wants our lives to be filled with the word of Christ so that everything we do or say is an outpouring of God in us. All of those things both require and cultivate humility, and one of the most important things that Paul reminds us of is the fact that God doesn’t love us because we do these things; we do these things because God loves us. We do not earn our place in God’s heart, it has already been given to us. Once we learn that, the foundation for humility and wisdom is laid, because then we are open to receiving our existence from God alone, and never form our own efforts.

Just as we can’t rely on ourselves to give us life, we also need to stop relying on the things around us for a sense of security and legitimacy. In the gospel story this morning we heard Jesus telling Peter that only those who leave behind their families, homes, and businesses for his sake will inherit eternal life, as well as receive back much more than they gave up. Jesus is not saying that any of these things are bad (in fact they are all good), but we must learn to stop deceiving ourselves into thinking that our possessions and abilities can bring us life and joy. By relying on God alone, we learn that every moment is an infinity of peace and fulfillment, and so as Jesus says, we “inherit eternal life”.

But learning to stop relying on our possessions and abilities to give us a false sense of security does not come easy to us. That is why we must humble ourselves and open our hearts so they can hear and soak up the words of encouragement and wisdom that come to us from people such as Solomon, Jesus, Paul, and Benedict whom we heard today, speaking to us from the past. There are others who speak to us from the past: authors of books in our library, parents and grandparents, old friends and schoolteachers, and we ought to take time to remember their words and examples and see if they offer anything to us now. Likewise, we are surrounded by people offering us insight in the present moment: people in our own families and monasteries, followers of other religions, and friends and correspondents. Since they are human, none of them will have a complete understanding of life, and some of them will be consistently wrong, but we still need to listen to them so that we can glean the bits of wisdom that each one does have, and we need to listen to the Holy Spirit weaving all those bits of wisdom together for us.

It takes humility to admit that we are not in full possession of all knowledge and wisdom and so need to listen to others, and that is not easy. But if we really want to grow and be happy and healthy, we have to do it. May all the great cloud of wise witnesses surrounding us pray that we may heed the words of Solomon and Benedict as they lovingly say to us: “My child… accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding…cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding…seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures…Listen carefully, my child, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a parent who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.”   AMEN

Proper 9 Year A: I Beg To Differ

Matthew 11:25-30

Jesus just said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. I beg to differ. To truly follow Jesus means to love, and love is hard work. To love means to take ourselves out of the center of our universes and allow God to take God’s rightful place there. To love means to admit that it is never about us – it is always about God. To love means to allow other people to be who they are, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us feel. To love means to allow ourselves to be who we are, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us feel. The yoke of self-centeredness seems so much lighter, because it is easy to judge people and situations by our own checklist of appropriate actions and attitudes. Love does not have such clearcut guidelines, and so it seems more difficult.

But of course, our feelings deceive us. The weight of self-centeredness pulls us down until eventually we close in ourselves, creating a black hole where nothing can escape: a tiny, pitiful false universe called “the world of me”. We all know that, because we all carry the burden of pretending to be self-existent at some point each day. Jesus calls us out of that burden into the realization that only God is self-existent, and yet God freely and lovingly gives us existence so that we can enjoy the wonderful world around us. It is all about God, and when we live in that realization, our only job is to be ourselves and be thankful for all that we have been given. On the other hand, when we try to live in the falsehood of “it’s all about me”, we take on the burden of making sure everything and everyone fits into our categories of propriety, and that is a lot of hard work. Of course, all that work is for nothing, because anything we create, including our own petty worlds of fear, are destined to dissolve. But the true, wonderful world God creates is destined to grow ever more and become ever more real.

So, maybe Jesus is right. His yoke isn’t really all that easy, and his burden isn’t really all that light, but in the long run, it is much easier and lighter than the yokes and burdens we impose upon ourselves. Of course, in order to learn to live under the yoke of Jesus, we need the help of discipline so that we do not slip back into our own yokes. And of course, the word “yoke” come from the same root as discipline, anyway – hence the resemblance to the word “yoga”. Discipline is good – it is something a disciple does. Unfortunately, we often confuse discipline with punishment, but the two have nothing to do with each other. Disciplines are techniques for growth.

One path of discipline that has helped many disciples follow Jesus is the monastic way. Some have confused it with punishment, but if followed willingly and openly, it is a path of discipleship that can help us live more and more in the truth that it is not all about me. It can seem difficult and frightening at times, as can any way of following Jesus. But as Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run in the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

It is our choice: whose yoke do we want, and how will we learn to live with that yoke.   AMEN

Easter VI Year A: To An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31
I Peter 3:13-22

As Paul tells the Athenians, we all worship an unknown God, and we are all ignorant in our knowledge and worship of God. That is not God’s fault, and it is not our fault. God is just too different from anything we can know for us to comprehend anything about him. So we must never be smug about our religious beliefs or practices. That doesn’t mean we should not be sincere about our religious beliefs and practices – it just means we should always realize that when we try to make the ineffable effable, we will and do fail.

However, we do have the best and ultimate revelation of God in Jesus. We also have the best and ultimate revelation of humanity in Jesus. (Fully God; Fully Human). So, we can be sure that as long as we are truly modeling Jesus, we are worshiping the true God. Of course, we know that the definition of modeling Jesus has had many variations throughout history, and even know everyone has their own idea about how to do that best. So we should do what we can do get to know the people who knew him best by reading the scriptures with an open mind, heart and life. We can also get to know him through praying with an open mind, heart, and life. We must do all that with the realization that even with a lifetime of scripture reading and prayer, we can never fullly know Jesus. However, we can be assured that God knows us fully, and that God will honor our search by opening up to us as we open up to God.

As Paul quotes the poet: “in him we live and move and have our being”, so must we make sure that we are living, moving, and taking our existence from God, not in our own self-centered desires and whims. Jesus never turned anyone away, but he did warn them not to be smug about their religious beliefs and practices. It is all about Jesus, not about us. Others will seek and find him in ways different from us. That is ok. Our job is to do what we can do and trust God.   AMEN

Lent II Year A: The Chain

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first two readings this morning are about Abram (or Abraham as he was later named). The story from Genesis recounts what is sometimes termed “the call of Abraham”, when God tells Abraham to move away from his own country and family into a new land where God promises to make him a great nation and a blessing to all the families on earth. If one reads the whole Bible, one learns that the movement away from Abraham’s native land into the promised land did not begin with Abraham, and the promised great nation did not come about until several centuries after his death. It was Abraham’s father Terah who moved them out of the city of Ur and halfway to Canaan. It was Moses who brought the great nation to the promised land and it was Joshua who finally led them into it. Abraham did a lot of great things and was obedient to God, but the work did not begin or end with him. He was only one in a long chain of people doing God’s work.

Paul talks about Abraham in our second reading this morning. He says that Abraham was righteous and did great things, but it was not the work that made Abraham righteous. Rather, it was Abraham’s faith that made him righteous. Abraham believed what God said and so he did the things he did. Paul hints that it should be the same with us: we should work because we have faith in God. We can’t do anything to gain God’s favor, because God already loves us. Nothing we do can get us on God’s side, because God is already on our side. Our work must spring from our belief that God loves us and our faith that God will take care of us. Any other basis for our life is false and bound to fail. When we trust in God’s love for us, we will work to make the world a better place for everyone, not just in order to make the world safer and more comfortable for us. We will understand and be ok with the fact that (just like Abraham) the work did not begin with us and won’t finish with us – we are merely links in a chain of people working to spread God’s peace and joy. In fact, our most fervent prayer should be that we never see the fruit of our work – not that our work should have no fruit, but that we should never see it, because if we see the fruit, we tend to work for results instead of out of faith, and we can even fall into pride because of our fruit. That is something important to monks, because from our vantage point, sometimes we can’t see the fruit of our prayer and life, and so we can become discouraged. We must continue in our discipline of prayer simply out of love, because the fruit of it is more than we can ever hope for our imagine. We do get a lot of letters from people thanking us for our prayer and life here, and it is always good to get those letters, but sometimes I wish we did not know of those people, because it can make us smug, rather than relying solely on God to carry us through or monastic vocations. Constancy and perseverance are keys to joy in monastic life, not knowledge of others’ appreciation of us.

Sometimes the chain of people doing God’s work seems to take a strange course, and sometimes the evidence of any good works being done is scant, and sometimes we worry about who will do the work after us, but there is always someone continuing to do the work of God – picking up where generations before left off and passing the chores on to generations yet to come. It is the same in our own lives; sometimes we can’t see how anything we are doing will amount to any good for anyone. Jesus says to not worry about that. John quotes him in our gospel story this morning as saying: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Just like Abraham, we won’t always see the results of our work done in faith, but just like Abraham, the important thing is to have that faith so we can and will do those good works. We must be born from above, as Jesus says in the gospel. He doesn’t explain much about that, except saying that anyone who believes in him has eternal life.

This new life in Jesus comes from faith in God and trust that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The new birth and new life that Jesus offers us brings us into the chain of faithful workers bringing God’s peace, joy, and health into the world. Like Abraham, we did not start the work, and we will not finish it. God is the beginning and ending of the chain. God lets us in on it because God loves us and wants to share eternal life. We just have to accept that love and life. Like Abraham, God will make us a mighty nation that brings a blessing on all families on earth. We might not ever see whom we are blessing, but that is ok, because we live by faith, not by sight, or feeling, or emotion. Righteousness and new birth are offered to us daily and hourly. May we believe, and so be reborn into the righteous nation of Abraham that brings blessings to all. May we then do good works and be a blessing to others out of gratitude for the new life, and may we be thankful for the blessings we receive from all the other members of the nation of righteousness. May we be faithful links in the chain.   AMEN

Epiphany VII Year A: Like Father, Like Son

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
I Corinthians 3:10-11.16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

People have always been trying to live up to the scripture that Jesus quotes at the end of our gospel story this morning – “Be perfect…”. The ways they have done that have changed with time and place. In our society, people don’t worry much about ritual purity, but we still try to be perfect either by doing things or by not doing things. A contemporary example of trying to be perfect by doing things would be ‘recycling, driving a Prius, and being welcoming and affirming of others with different lifestyles’. A contemporary example of trying to be perfect by not doing things would be ‘not drinking, not smoking, not fornicating’. Both of those ways can and do produce some very cruel and self-absorbed people. The reason that happens is because we so often forget the second part of that quotation about being perfect – “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, be fully you, as God is fully God. Since God is love, and we are made in God’s image, it follows that to be fully us means to also be love.

The problem is, we all know that none of us ever is fully love. That is because we are so full of ourselves. We are not created that way, but we all choose to be that way, and we do it from the first time we are able to choose anything. And so we have rules to live by that help us curb our self-absorption and steer us toward loving actions. That is what our Old Testament reading was all about this morning. We often think of the Old Testament as being full of arbitrary rules mandated by a capricious God, and some of it is, but many of those rules were simply attempts to get people to do the right things toward others. There is a lot of love in the Old Testament if we are patient enough to look for it. We need to not be smug about our own ideas of morality, because two thousand years from now they will seem as barbaric to people as a lot of the Bible seems to us now. Instead of smugness, we need to take great care to make sure that all of our rules are geared toward loving ourselves, our neighbors, and our God. If we define love as the action of helping all to grow into the unique, beautiful individuals we are all created to be, then we need to make sure all our rules help us with those actions, not hinder us by causing us to be judgmental toward those not following our rules or interpreting them differently.

Aristotle gives the good advice that to become a virtuous person, one must do virtuous things. That mangled semi-quotation is only partly right, because to become truly virtuous action must be a follow up to desire – we must first ask God to heal us of our self-absorption so that we can be the loving persons that God made us to be. Desire and action can also be called faith and works, and there has been a debate about which of the two is more important for as long as the church has existed. Of course faith is the more important, because it needs to come first, but works are just as important, because they need to follow. Only God makes us perfect and holy, but only we can act perfect and holy. God makes us who we are, but we have the responsibility to live who we are.

Our second reading this morning talks about this in terms of our status as living temples of God. Jesus is the only foundation for our lives as temples, but we must be careful what we build on top of it. Faith and works go together. Even people who say they have no faith in God and yet live loving lives really do have faith in God – they just think they don’t. On the other hand, people who say they have faith in God and yet live unloving lives really have faith in something other than God – usually rules or Bible knowledge or doctrinal minutia. That last sentence should not make us worry every time we fail at loving – it doesn’t mean we have lost our faith or we are hypocrites, it just means that we have a lot of growing to do. We are not perfect without God. We cannot act perfect without God. God makes us perfect, but it takes a long time for that perfection to become apparent. Constancy and perseverance are both major constituents of both faith and works. If we have Jesus as the foundation of our lives, then no matter how often we fail in love, we can always try again. We can recycle, drive Priuses, welcome and affirm others, not smoke, not drink, and not fornicate, and all of those things can be instruments of love toward ourselves, our neighbors, and our God, if we do them in the spirit of Jesus. As our heavenly Father is perfect, so will we be. We are already now in God’s eyes, and we will be ever more so in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us. We will be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.   AMEN

Not What They Were Expecting: The Presentation of Jesus In The Temple 2011

Malachi 3:1-4
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

The book of Malachi and the letter to the Hebrews from which we heard our first two readings today seem to have a few things in common. They are both anonymous and they are both messages of encouragement to people who might be frustrated and disappointed. Malachi is speaking to the exiles who have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and are discouraged because the return has not lived up to its expectations: economic conditions were bad, moral values were lax,the temple was in disrepair, the priests were offering impure sacrifices, and the political situation was a pale and sad reminder of the former kingdoms. The good old days were not returning, and better new days were not coming. To these despairing pioneers who were trying to rebuild their nation, Malachi tells of one who is coming to purify the temple and set things right. The letter to the Hebrews is speaking to people whose frustration is not as obvious, but can be guessed at from the various exhortations to “hold fast”, “do not become sluggish”, “rouse one another”, and “encourage one another”. The reason the people are told to throw off their frustration is because the purifier has already come – Jesus, a “merciful and
faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” But once again, things did not turn out they way they were expecting. The temple had been rebuilt, but it was by a king they did not like or trust; Jerusalem had been rebuilt and the economy was not too bad, but they were under occupation from a foreign power and political unrest was abundant, and anyway, pretty soon all of that would be destroyed. Things weren’t turning out as they had hoped – the good old days had not returned, and better new days were not coming. The purifier had not done the job they were expecting.

Maybe we are not all that different from those other discouraged people. Sometimes, we despair because things aren’t turning out the way we had hoped. We can be easily disappointed, and in many instances we should be (because we should expect many things to change for the better), and in our frustration, we are sent messengers to tell us about the purifier coming to cleanse the temple and set things right. We heard two of these messengers today: Simeon and Anna.They knew about the purifier because they held him in their arms. But once again, the purifier does not meet many people’s expectations, and that’s a good thing, because he far surpasses anything we could ever hope for. This purifier cleanses the temple and sets the world right by bringing them into direct contact with God. This purifier makes
us his temple and his priests. The letter to the Hebrews tries to explain how this happens, and perhaps the best explanation can be condensed this way: whatever belongs to God is pure and holy. If Jesus (being God) lived a human life, then human life is pure and holy. We heard a little bit of that human life this morning, and one of the interesting things is the fact that the way Luke reports them, the sacrifices and the reason for the sacrifices don’t exactly match up with the Old Testament prescriptions. The purifier was in the temple, and they still got the temple ritual wrong. That could easily disappoint some people, but it did not seem to affect Simeon and Anna. Maybe that’s because they knew the real purification was still to come as Luke repeats in the last verses we heard today: “When they had finished…they returned to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of the LORD was upon him.” In other words,the living God had entered the true living temple, dwelling among the people as one of them.

The living temple of Jesus took an entire lifetime to build, and so do we. As Jesus “grew and became strong”, so must we,and that takes time and effort. Sometimes it seems as if we are merely spinning our wheels – going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. Other times, it seems as if we are being thrown into a furnace, with too much expected from us. We can easily become frustrated and God knows that, because Jesus went through the same slow, difficult process of growth. He went through the same wheel spinning, the same furnace, the same daily disappointments as we do, and in so doing, he made them holy. He comes to us now, if we let him in, as a purifier to make our own lives into a holy temple. It may happen in ways that we don’t expect, but we can’t let that cause us to despair. We may not see what we think are the good old days coming back, or what we think are the good new days appear, but as we slowly grow into living temples, we can bring the presence of God into our own worlds – helping and healing those around us, and setting things right in our own small circles of influence. We can also more easily recognize the temples being built around us, as others grow in their lives,bringing God to us.

Knowing all of this does not automatically free us from our frustration. We are still imperfect people, and we don’t always let the purifier work on us – sometimes we shut him out completely, other times we don’t cooperate with the work he is doing. That is why it is important to listen to the messengers still being sent to us to remind us to open up and let Jesus do his job.The need to listen is daily, and the need to open up is daily. Sometimes the daily listening and opening up seems like drudgery, but as God’s temple, God’s priests, and God’s body, we are worth the lifetime of work it takes to make us complete. Frustration, disappointment, and discouragement will come – we can count on that. But messengers from God will also come. May we never stop listening, and may we never stop being messengers ourselves.   AMEN

Epiphany III Year A: The Means Is Not The End

Isaiah 9:1-4
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

“Jesus came to give us a new life, not a new religion.” That is a good thing to remember. Of course, one of the best definitions of true religion is simply ‘the way that one leads one’s life’, but if we are thinking of religion in the lower sense of a set of prescribed doctrines and rituals to which one must adhere, then the saying is true – Jesus came to give us a new life, not a new religion. We hear in the gospel this morning about Jesus traveling through Galilee teaching and preaching good news and curing diseases. He was busy spreading new life around. In other parts of the gospel, we hear about Jesus sending others out to do the same thing, and at least one time, they come across some people whom they do not know who are also spreading new life around. When they tell Jesus about it, he says to not worry about it – if those others were not working against the apostles, then they were working with them.

Paul confronts a similar situation in our second reading this morning. He mentions the partisan spirit which has sprung up there in the church, and warns them about how silly it is. He reminds them that although different people brought them the news of Jesus, the messenger and the way the message was presented is not important. Jesus is the important thing, and their new life in him is the important thing. We need to be told the same thing. New parties and denominations are being formed all the time, and often the people in the various denominations and organizations forget that the reason for their existence is to proclaim the gospel, not to bolster the public image and membership rolls of their particular group.

Sometimes new Christian groups are formed because the founders see a specific need that is not being addressed by existing groups. Sadly, more often new groups are formed because of disagreements and bitterness within existing groups. It does not matter how or why the denomination was formed – if its members are open to God’s will, then good will come of it. People will be healed, good news will be spread, and new life will be given to people. That is what matters – not total conformity in every detail of doctrine and practice. But we must remember that no matter what good comes from any organization, the group is merely a channel of grace, not the source of grace. All life comes from God, and the new life being spread by any group comes solely from God, not from the organization, so we must be careful never to cling blindly to any denomination – they are all merely tools that God can use or dispose of as different needs arise. We should remember that our gospel story this morning begins with the arrest of John the Baptist; John did not claim loyalty to himself or his followers.
Instead, he pointed to Jesus and faded away after his task was done.
We need to have the same willingness to fade away after we and our particular parties have pointed to Jesus in their various ways. Church organizations and denominations are means to an end, not the end itself.

The goal is spreading the gospel – the good news that Jesus brings new life. The gospel story this morning says that where Jesus went, a prophecy was fulfilled: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,”. We always need to check the goals and accomplishments of our parties against that standard. If people have light brought to them because of what we are doing, good. If not, we need to do what we can to change the course of our group in order to align with that goal. No organization, no matter how great its history, is exempt from the danger of forgetting its purpose, and that forgetfulness will eventually bring about its downfall.

Our purpose is to spread the good news of Jesus to a world that needs good news. That news can be spread in many different ways, as we have seen throughout history. There is no need for competition between the various groups spreading the news. Instead, we should be ready and willing to support each other, and be joyful at the successes of others as well as mournful at their losses. Our criteria should be whether or not people are being healed and hearing good news, not the details of internal organization and discipline, and certainly not whether or not other groups offend our sense of style. Of course, there are times when harmful things are preached in the guise of Christian doctrine. Most of these negate either the full humanity of the full divinity of Jesus, and therefore water down the good news that God really is with us. We do have the responsibility of refuting those groups and their message, but we must always do so with love, compassion, and kindness.

However, having said that about bad news in a Christian veneer, we must always remember that there have always been and always will be non-Christians of good will who do a wonderful job of spreading the kingdom of God in our hurting world. In fact, some of the most Christlike people I know would not call themselves Christians. That is quite alright. Every person is unique and therefor has a unique relationship with God that no one else can judge.

So we need to be careful about judging people with different opinions about how best to spread the gospel. We can be proud of our own denominations and parties in a good sense – acknowledging past accomplishments and carrying visions for the future – but we should never let that good sense of pride twist into an attitude of superiority toward other groups. There is one Gospel: God is with us. There is one Jesus: God with us. There is one goal: sharing God with others. Jesus came to give us new life. May we all work together to spread that life around.   AMEN