No More, No Less: Thanksgiving Day Year C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Philippians 4:4-9
John 6:25-35

Everything comes from God; nothing comes from us – that is the theme of today, and we are grateful for all that God has given. But from our narrowly human point of view, God is good at providing only raw materials; it is up to us to put in the work required to turn these raw materials into things which are (once again, only from our narrowly human point of view) useful. So we are thankful not only for the things God has given us, but also for the ability to work – for blessing us with memory, reason, skill, and most importantly: opposable thumbs. We must also remember to work not instead of God, but with and because of God.

There are a few things to help us work in gratitude and thankfulness. The first is to remember that we get the most satisfaction from our work when we do our best. We usually do that in terms of doing no less than our best, but we also need to be careful to not get caught up in the frenzied attempt to do more than our best. We have limits, and trying to go beyond them is as harmful as never trying to reach them. Work is our area of responsibility; results are God’s area of responsibility (and it is not our job to tell God what the results should be). We do our best and let God take care of the rest – that takes a huge burden off of our backs that we mistakenly took up in the first place.

We also need to work not with patience, but rather with constancy. The difference in the two words is subtle, but can have a big impact on our lives. Patience means we are merely waiting until things get better, so we work with a stiff upper lip and hope for the better. Constancy means we choose to do what we consider to be the right things no matter if things ever or never get better. Patience can lead to bitterness. Constancy is already infused with joy.

And we need to work out of love, not out of expectations for outcomes. One of my biggest prayers is that I hope to never see the fruit of my labors, and that we never see the fruit of the monastery’s labors (not that there will not be fruit, but that we will not see it), because when we see the fruit of our labors, we are tempted to work for results rather than out of love.

And so, the human race takes this wonderful planet that God has given us and makes wonderful things like donuts, spacecraft, and Olympic curling teams. I am thankful for all of those things. We at the monastery take this wonderful corner of the wonderful planet God has given us and we make guesthouses, meals, letters to prisoners, and calendars. Most importantly, we make prayers.   AMEN

Proper 23 Year C: Drama Queens Need Not Apply

II Kings 5:1-3,7-15c
II Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

The prophet Elijah is a lot more famous than his successor Elisha, but the stories about Elisha are a lot more interesting than Elijah’s, like the one we heard at our first reading today. The story has a large cast of characters: two kings, a general, a prophet, the general’s wife and her slave, and the prophet’s servants. On the surface, the story seems to be about God’s healing power, and it is. However, on further reading and pondering, two other lessons are seen in the story: 1 – that of the harmfulness and uselessness of overreacting, or blowing things out of proportion, or unnecessary drama at hearing or seeing unwanted news; 2 – of the usefulness of calmly hearing or witnessing the entire story and getting other people’s opinions before making a decision about what to do in reaction.

The characters in our story who prematurely overreacted are the king of Israel and Naaman (the Aramean army general). Their fits of drama could easily have started wars, as is alluded to in the text. The calmer people around them saved the day by assessing the entire situation and looking at all options for response. By following the advice of the calmer people around them, the general was healed, both kings scored diplomatic points, and God’s love for all people was made known.

We live in a world much like that in our story this morning with too much drama, and it hinders us from taking care of things that really need our attention, because we are too worn out by all the yelling and pouting (our own and others’). How much easier it would be just let other people talk sometimes and listen to their entire point without interrupting. We can then think about what was said and calmly respond with something that might bring about good for everyone. We can get our information from a variety of sources rather than solely from sources that merely soothe our consciences by simply restating opinions we already have. We do not have to agree with everyone, but we do need to know what they are saying without it being filtered through other people whose goal is to skew things to fit their agenda. Then we can calmly ponder and pray for guidance about what we should do to bring about good, rather than making things worse with our emotionally overwrought first reactions. We just might learn the truth that not everyone who thinks differently than us is stupid and evil, and they might actually have a good idea every once in a while, and we just might be wrong sometimes. We can make room for others when we reel in our own smug haloes.

Doing all this is not easy, but it is good for us and everyone else. We don’t always react to things well, and neither do the people around us – it is understandable, but still inexcusable. May we give each other the time and space to work on becoming better at accepting unwelcome news, and may we never give up working on it – God never gives up on us. And – slowly we will be healed and wars will be averted, like in our story this morning. It is not just another weird Bible story – it could actually happen.   AMEN

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Good Enough For Him: Holy Name Year C

Exodus 34: 1-8
Phillipians 2: 9-13 or Romans 1: 1-7
Luke 2: 15-21

A preacher in Georgia once had this to say about Jesus: “He did not come to put us to shame with his divinity. He came to call us into the fullness of our humanity, which was good enough for him.” (Barbara Brown Taylor — God In Pain). Human life is important to God. Individual humans are important to God. Human activities are important to God. In fact, all of those things are so important to God that God freely became an individual human and participated in all the common activities associated with that particular human — Jesus of Nazareth. Today we celebrate two of those common human activities: the naming of a child, and the circumcision of a child.

The naming of a child is usually an important decision for the parents. They come up with lists of names and then come up with new lists of names and then come up with other lists of names, until eventually they settle on a name or two or three to give the child. Our gospel story tells us that Mary and Joseph were spared all the work of choosing a name for their child, since an angel had already said that he was to be called Jesus. Where I grew up in Texas, Jesus was a common name, although most of the Hispanic boys in my school with that name usually went by a nickname like Chuy or Beto or Junior. It was only on the first day of school when the class roll was called that you heard their real names (usually mispronounced by the Anglo teacher as Geezus instead of Haysoos). The name Jesus is not all that uncommon up here in the midwest, either, although most of the time it is pronounced Joshua, which is simply the anglicized version of the real semitic form of Jesus. The name Jesus (in its semitic form) was not all that uncommon in Jesus’ time, either. There are several Jesuses in the Bible. Some English translations have them as Jesus, some as Joshua. In fact, the prisoner who was released instead of Jesus by Pilate was named Jesus Barabbas, which means Jesus Son of the Father.

A common human name was good enough for God.

The circumcision of a child — a male child — is also an important decision for the parents. Now days the matter to be decided is “should we or shouldn’t we”. Once again, Mary and Joseph were spared this decision because in their time and place, it was simply the thing to do. It was a common, although quite meaningful human activity, and it was good enough for God. The circumcision of Jesus also shows us that Jesus had all his human parts.

A common human body was good enough for God.

If we keep reading the gospel after the section we heard today, we hear a little about Jesus’ childhood and adolescence. Not many details are given, but twice in this chapter Luke mentions that Jesus kept growing. A common childhood and adolescence seem to have been good enough for God, also, and even though his later years were a little extraordinary, they were lived out in the ordinary society of the time and place. In fact, if we really believe it when we say that Jesus is fully God and fully human, we are saying that we believe that every human bodily function, every human urge and desire, and every human fear, joy, pleasure, and pain were experienced by God in Jesus. All of those things belonged to Jesus, and therefore they belong to God. Since whatever belongs to God is holy, then all of human life is holy — every bodily function, every urge and desire, and every fear, joy, pleasure, and pain. Because of the creation, we bear God’s image — because of the incarnation, God bears our image. We are doubly holy.

We are also doubly responsible for treating ourselves and each other as the holy beings that we are. We must take care of our holy human bodies, as well as our holy human spirits and souls. Our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits need proper care to function as best as they can. Our intellectual, sexual, social, and family lives must never be forgotten, abused, or neglected. Mistreatment or improper use of any parts of our lives degrades their holiness and lessens us and the entire human race. We don’t always seem all that holy to ourselves or to others, but that’s because although we are holy, we are human, and humans grow. Our holiness must grow, and in order to grow it must be fostered and cultivated with love. As the years and decades of cultivating our holiness roll by, we will seem ever so slightly more holy.

More importantly, as our holiness grows, we see the holiness in others more clearly. We begin to realize that our immature ideas of holiness might have been wrong, and we realize that even though others are different from us they are holy, nonetheless. However, even before we reach total maturity in Christ, we are obliged to treat every other person we meet as the doubly holy image of God that they are created to be, whether or not they are growing in that image, or are stagnant, or even actively trying to erase the image of God from their lives. That is not an easy task, treating everyone as the holy image of God. It is hard work, and we fail at it a lot of the time. We all need to work at it, every day and every hour. We can grow only with God’s help, but we still need to put that help to work, through prayer, meditation, honest self-examination, and other disciplines. Fortunately, we have an example of growth and holiness set before us in the particular, common human life of Jesus of Nazareth. As that preacher in Georgia said: “He did not come to put us to shame with his divinity. He came to call us into the fullness of our humanity, which was good enough for him.”

May we all grow in our holy human lives, while encouraging and helping others to grow. May we see the holiness of God in every person we meet, and treat them accordingly. And may the doubly holy images of God that we are created to be grow ever brighter, spreading the love, peace, and joy of heaven to the entire world. AMEN

 

 

Advent IV Year C: Prenatal Care

Micah 5:2-5a
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

Our gospel story this morning is about two pregnant women (relatives) who greet each other. The women are affected by each other’s presence; they both say things that are now some of the most quoted verses from the Bible. The children in their wombs are also affected by each other’s presence (at least the one in Elizabeth’s womb is excited about the one in Mary’s womb), and they would have more influence on each other as they grew up: Jesus and John the Baptist.

The story is good for us to remember, because we are also influenced by what is inside the people around us, and what is inside us influences the people around us. Of course, we are not our thoughts and we are not our emotions – we can not take the credit or the blame for our psychological makeups. But we can foster some of our internal habits and dilute others. We need to choose wisely the ones we will foster and the ones we will dilute, and some will take a lot of work and effort to dilute and will always be with us as constant nagging sores, but that is no reason to give up working on them. Difficult and impossible are not the same. And we shouldn’t compare ourselves and our internal habits with anyone else – just because a person seems to have no problems on the outside does not mean he is not struggling on the inside.

It takes a lifetime of work to foster our helpful internal habits like compassion and love and dilute the harmful ones like greed and fear, but it is worth the effort, because doing so helps not only us, but also the people around us. Our thoughts influence our actions. Like anything else in life, our internal happenings will be a series of ups and downs. When we find ourselves in a period of being controlled by our harmful internal patterns like selfishness or judgmentalism, we simply need to acknowledge it and do what we can do to change it – no need to condemn ourselves – that is never productive. Then we can get on with the work of fostering our helpful patterns like joy and tolerance.

The women in our gospel story were both carrying children conceived by miraculous means, but once they were pregnant, they did have to take care of what was in their wombs so that the children could be born healthy. We also need to take care of our God-given helpful internal habits so that they can become stronger and so we can eventually bring them out as actions that help others – much as the children inside Elizabeth and Mary were brought forth from them to help the people around them. We can take care of our God-given internal habits such as kindness and cooperation by using the time honored classical disciplines of prayer, scripture reading, obedience, and constancy. Then, slowly but surely, we will actually start acting out those helpful habits and so become a blessing to ourselves and the people around us.

It wasn’t easy for Elizabeth and Mary, and it won’t be easy for us. But it is worth it. We will often fail, but that’s ok. We fall down, we get back up again. God is always there, picking us up and pouring grace into us. We just have to take his gifts and bring them out to the world around us.   AMEN