A Christian Nation: Independence Day 2013

Independence Day
Deuteronomy 10:17-21
Hebrews 11:8-16
Matthew 5:43-48

It is sometimes said that the United States is a Christian nation, founded on Biblical principals by godly men. We hear that a lot in election years, but it tends to have a false ring to many people. After all, the constitution takes the practice of slavery for granted, and the early history of the nation is full of betrayal and genocide of Indian populations. While it is true that slavery, betrayal, and genocide are all quite Biblical, we have trouble nowdays perceiving them as Christian values, Usually, the same people who like to point back to what they consider to be the Christian foundations of the United States are the same ones who claim that we have lost our moorings and are in need of reestablishing those values in our society. They tend to want to do so by legislating against things that they claim they don’t do. Unfortunately, their claims are often unfounded, and it turns out that they are usually agitating for legislation against things that they in fact do, but want to hide. In such cases, those people are in great need of our love and compassion, for it turns out that love and compassion are the real ways to building a truly Christian nation.

It is not the desire for a Christian nation that is wrong. It is our understanding of what constitutes such a nation that can lead to trouble. We do have a chance to build a Christian nation, but it does not happen by forcing people to act the way we wish we could. A truly Christian nation is one that is based on love, compassion, and peace. It is a nation that respects and honors each person as the image of God, and does what it can to foster the growth of each person into that unique image. It is sometimes a fine balancing act to figure out which political parties and activities will bring about the fairness and justice that we need in order for people to be able to grow into the mature images of God they are created to be. No two people will ever consistently agree on such matters, and while we should stand firm in our own convictions, we must never be shrill or belittling of those who do not agree. After all, they may have prayed about the matter as much as we have, and we might be the ones who are wrong. Just because people disagree with us does not make them stupid or evil, and saying things repeatedly or loudly does not make them more true, so we can simply state our opinions, let others state theirs, and love each other anyway.

We must also be aware that two hundred years from now, people might be perplexed at our idea of what a Christian nation should be. We might all be wrong about a lot of things, because we are not yet fully mature in Christ. We must keep praying and doing our best to grow, always keeping our hearts and minds open to the Holy Spirit correcting us where we are wrong, and guiding us into fuller truth.

The United States are not a theocracy, and not the New Jerusalem, and not the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God resides in the individual acts of God’s subjects, not in the borders of sovereign nations. No one can be or should be forced into a Christian nation. The Christian nation must instead be carried to them and offered as a place of joy, peace, and health. It is up to us to bring that nation to others, but we must first let it grow in ourselves. May we live our lives in such a manner that that nation can take root and thrive in us, while allowing others the opportunity to let it thrive in them. AMEN

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All Of That Means Nothing If We Do Not Pray: Dedication of the Abbey Church 2013

Dedication of the Abbey Church 2013
I Kings 8:22-30
I Peter 2:1-5,9-10
Matthew 21:12-16

When I was a novice, I drove the prior to a meeting at Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas. At that time, the price of flying into the small airport close to that monastery was so expensive, it made sense to drive. Subiaco is one of the few monasteries I have ever visited, and yet each time I go to another monastery, I learn something. One thing I learn at every monastery is how lucky and blessed I am to be at St. Gregory’s. One of the particular things I learned at Subiaco came from their Br. Paul. His job was to take care of the pigs, and as I was taking a tour of the pig shed, he told me something that their Abbot Jerome had said to the community when Br. Paul was a novice. The monks here know Abbot Jerome from the great retreat he led here last December, so we are not surprised that he said something wise. Subiaco Abbey had been through a difficult period that lasted for a long time, and many of the monks left during those bad times. Shortly after his election toward the end of the difficulties, their new Abbot Jerome made this comment to his community: “It doesn’t matter if there are half as many monks here now as when you entered the monastery. What matters is that you are as much a man of prayer now as when you entered the monastery.”

That comment has stuck with me for these past eighteen years since I heard it. Subiaco has had more ups and downs (in fact, they have no more pigs and no more Br. Paul). We here at St. Gregory’s have had our ups and downs since I have been here, but nothing as dramatic as the upheavals that happen at many monasteries. People have come and gone, buildings have been torn down and new ones built, new psalters and Bibles and liturgical acts have been introduced. But the most important thing that has happened in those years is the fact that we have prayed. We have prayed when we wanted to and when we didn’t want to. We have prayed when we felt like it and when we haven’t felt like it. We have prayed whether or not we have gotten any thing out of it (because the reason we are praying has nothing to do with our own selves.) We have prayed privately and corporately. No matter what else is going on, the bell has rung several times a day, and we have gathered in this building to pray, acknowledging our utter and complete dependence and God and God alone. What a privilege!

As I said, one of the things I learn every time I visit another monastery, or talk with a monk or nun from another monastery, is how lucky and blessed I am to be here at St. Gregory’s. That statement is not meant to say anything bad about any other monastery – it is only meant to say something good about ours. We have a group of prayerful, self-motivating and self- policing monks, and some of the most thoughtful and careful leadership of any monastery around. Many guests mention that our guest facilities are some of the best anywhere, that the grounds are beautiful and that our monastery is very clean compared to many others. We get letters from people who have been guests or were in the vocation program letting us know decades later what a profound experience their time here was and how grateful they are for us being here. Our newsletter and calendar are high class and reach a wide and diverse group of people around the world. But all of that means nothing if we do not pray.

Taking our cue from Abbot Jerome, it doesn’t matter if there are half as many or twice as many monks here now as there were when we entered the monastery. It doesn’t matter if anyone knows of our existence or if we live in a palace or in a shack. What matters is that we are prayerful – that we are more prayerful now than when we entered the monastery. The only way to become a prayerful person is to pray. The only way to become a prayerful monastery is for the monks to pray together and privately. No matter what else happens now or in the future, the only thing we need to do is to keep ringing that bell several times a day in order to gather us together in this church to pray. We must come to Jesus, the “living stone…and like living stones let ourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices…as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”

We are here to pray because everything is nothing without prayer, because everything is nothing without God. This building is the center of our lives because God is the center of our lives. The monks in the past who sacrificed to have this church built knew that, and we are grateful for their actions and prayers that made this church a reality. Of course, they knew that only God makes things reality. That’s why they realized the importance of a space especially built for prayer. We become more real as we pray, and the world around us becomes more real as we pray with and for it. May we never forget that no matter what we do, all of it means nothing if we do not pray. AMEN

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God Is With Us: Annunciation 2013

Annunciation
Isaiah 7:10-14
Hebrews10: 4-10
Luke 1: 26-38

Today we are given the message: “God is with us.” It is good news. It is the gospel, and it is a prophetic message that will change our lives, but only if we realize that the job of a prophet is not to tell us what to expect in the future, but rather what to do with our present.

We heard the prophet Isaiah give the news to King Ahaz, who is fearful of an invasion from the north. Isaiah tells Ahaz to not worry, because a child will be born whose name is “God with us”, and the child will still be around when the invaders from the north are themselves destroyed. Sometimes this message from Isaiah is seen as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, but it really isn’t, because the child’s name is not Jesus, but it is even more true that the message is about Jesus: God is with us. Our gospel story is about another message to not worry. This time, the messenger is the angel Gabriel, and he tells Mary not to worry about her pregnancy. He also says that the child will be called Son of God. Mary’s acceptance of the news is sometimes seen as proof that she could have prevented the pregnancy by saying “no”, but that can’t be proven by the narrative. The only thing that we can be sure about is that Mary is willing to cooperate with God and make the best of an existing situation. We should be thankful for her cooperation. Because of it God is with us, and God is one of us.

As Mary was willing to open up to God and carry Jesus in herself, nurturing him and eventually letting him go his own way, so we can be open to letting God reproduce and grow in us, so that we can bring God out to the world around us. Just as Mary gave up control of Jesus, so we must not try to control what God does – we must simply let Jesus do what he knows is best, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. We also need to be willing to take Jesus offered to us by others who are growing him in their lives. Sometimes we don’t like the way it is offered, but at least we can be grateful for the gift. God is with us. No need to worry. AMEN

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Framed In Humility: Transfiguration 2012

Exodus 34:29-35
II Peter 1:13-21
Luke 9:28-36

Some scholars think that maybe the story of the transfiguration is out of place in the gospels and that it might be an event that happened after the resurrection, but was misplaced in the text. However, after reading the events surrounding the story, the glorification of Jesus taking place in the midst of some not-so-glorious events becomes not an academic problem, but rather a source of joy. Luke gives a good overview of what took place in the weeks before the transfiguration. The disciples are sent out to preach and heal. The crowd surrounding Jesus grows, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand happens. Herod become interested in Jesus and makes peculation about his nature, as do many other people. In the midst of this, Jesus starts telling his disciples that he will be killed and raised from the dead, and that if they want to keep following him, they too must be ready to meet with difficulty along the way. After saying that, Peter, James, and John go up with Jesus to pray on a mountain, and there they witness Jesus undergo a strange transformation as he meets with Moses and Elijah. Luke seems to suggest that his appearance did not change that much, other than shining. His face did not even continue to shine after coming down from the mountain, so it was not even as dramatic as what happened to Moses, as we heard in our first reading. After the strange events on the mountain, they come back down, they tell no one what happened, and events proceed much as they did before: Jesus heals, the disciples argue, and Jesus talks more about the necessity of being prepared for difficulty if people want to follow him.

It seems as if Luke is trying to affirm the glory of Jesus, while at the same time placing it in a frame if humility. Jesus shines on the mountain, but before and after, he was just Jesus. One of the events that Luke says happened before the transfiguration involved Jesus asking his disciples what people thought about him. They answer that maybe he is John the Baptist or another prophet come back to life. When Jesus asks what they thought about him, Peter answers “The Messiah, The Christ”. It is only after that answer that Jesus takes three of them up the mountain. It seems as if Jesus wanted them to come to terms with who he was before they witnessed his glory on the mountain, so that the transfiguration was a response to, not a cause of, their faith.

Peter’s confession of Jesus as messiah came after traveling with him for a while. During those travels, the disciples had plenty of time to see Jesus in his full humanity: eating, drinking, sweating, sleeping, using the latrine, and everything else we all do. But it was in the context of this ordinariness and humility that Jesus found opportunities to perform miracles, and it was the extraordinary, glamorous events that he avoided. As they traveled, they heard Jesus preach and teach, but again his subject matter always involved things in everyday life, rather than theological treatises. They also heard him talk a lot about the difficulty and pain that lay ahead of all of them. He seems to be saying that everyday things and human despair are important enough to be of concern to God, and he wanted to make that point clear before he let them in on the transfiguration. The crowds wanted to witness heavenly signs, and they missed out on his heavenly appearance; the apostles witnessed earthly signs, and they saw heaven on earth.

That’s the part of the story that can be so joyful, because like the apostles, we don’t receive many signs from heaven, but through our normal, nonglamorous, often difficult surroundings, we can see heaven on earth – if we are willing to make them the arena for the miraculous. The miracles may not always come when we think they should, and heaven might be difficult to see all the time, but unless we are at least open to the existence of heaven in our ordinary lives, we will never see it, because glory comes along with, rather than instead of, humility. Even the conversation on the mountain between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah was about the upcoming arrest and execution of Jesus, and afterwards, Jesus does not tell the crowd that they will get a taste of the transfiguration by following him. Instead, he talks about more difficulty. Peter, in his letter of which we heard a part of today, also wants to make sure that such unusually glorious events serve only to confirm, not act as the basis of, his reader’s faith. In the verses that come before the ones we read today, he gives a list of things involved in Christian life, and they are all quite plain: goodness, self control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. But no matter how plain and ordinary those things are, he makes it clear that it is by these means that we grow in faith and knowledge of Jesus, becoming “participants in the divine nature” through his “precious and very great promises.” Peter does not outright say, but other reliable sources do, that the reason we can participate in the divine nature is because divinity has participated in our nature. We can see heaven on earth because in Jesus, heaven is on earth and earth is in heaven, and since we are the body of Christ, we can be transfigured just as Jesus was. As a certain preacher from Georgia put it: “He did not come to put us to shame with his divinity. He came to call us unto the fullness of our humanity, which was good enough for him.”

It is up to us to open our eyes to see all this heaven on earth – all this divinity flowing through the humble aspects of our humanity – because like the three apostles on the mountain, sometimes our eyes are shut because of our drowsiness. So we must always be mindful and live with intention. It is also up to us to not pretend that heaven is in places where it is not – we are surrounded by people going through hell, and it is our duty to do what we can in our own way to help those people out of their pit. So, as we go through our daily tasks, may we see the miracles occurring around us, and may we do what we can to make those miracles happen. May we always be aware of the heaven in our midst. May we show it to others, accept it from others, and bring it to those who need it most. AMEN

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Mutual Shepherds: Peter & Paul 2012

Ezekiel 34:11-16
II Timothy 4:1-8
John21:15-19

The prophet Ezekiel tells us in our first reading this morning that God is our shepherd, and God will take care of us sheep. God will feed us and protect us and heal us. Although God is our true shepherd and pastor, today we celebrate two of God’s deputy or assistant pastors: Peter and Paul. By celebrating two of God’s most famous assistant pastors, we also celebrate ourselves, because we all serve as pastors to each other in some way. We all lead others by example, and we all follow others’ examples.
In many ways, those of us who are not official pastors actually fill a more pastoral role than those who are, because we tend to think that church officials are too different from us to be seen as example to follow. We often unconsciously dismiss what the preacher says, because we think he is merely telling us what he is supposed to say, and we are merely listening because we are supposed to listen. However, on another unconscious level, we all have people whom we observe and try to emulate, and we all have people who are watching us and taking our lead. We rarely know who is molding their lives on our pattern, and we rarely know who we are imitating.
That gives us two reasons to be careful of our actions and our observations. We need to be careful of our observations, because we need to make sure the people whom we idolize are good examples for us to follow. And we need to be careful of our actions, because we do not know who is following us. We might not want to be role models, but all of us are to someone. So, like Peter in the gospel story, if we say we love Jesus, we need to make sure we are feeding his sheep good examples to follow. Paul goes into more detail about feeding our fellow sheep in his letter to Timothy that we read today: “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching…be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
That last attribute of a good pastor is the sum of the whole list: “…carry out your ministry fully.” In other words, living our vocations fully (no matter what our vocation may be), and being the most honest and mature persons we can be (no matter what our particular strengths and weaknesses are) are the most important things we can do as God’s assistant pastors. Others will then see our fulfilment and be encouraged to grow into their own true selves and live their vocations, maturing in the fullness of Christ as they take their honored place in his body.
Of course we all know instances where we have failed to live up to our potential, or when we have not met our duties as Christ’s ambassadors, unintentionally leading others astray by our actions. There are also times when we have been unwittingly led astray by those whom we follow. That is why it is so important to set good examples for others, and that is why we need to be more conscious of the people whose lead we are following, realizing that God is our head pastor, so we must follow God always, especially in those times when we – his assistants – fail in our tasks. God will overcome all of our blunders and set us in the right path to joy and peace. God is our shepherd, as Ezekiel reminds us. We merely have the honor of being his helpers. May we fulfill our tasks with joy. May we set good examples and follow good examples. May we remember our task is simply to do our best and not worry about the outcome. Results are God’s job.   AMEN

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Shining Star, No Matter Who You Are: Epiphany 2012

Epiphany 2012
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Paul just told us in our second reading that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” That is good to hear, but it would also have been good to have heard that the wisdom of God is being made known to the rulers and authorities in earthly places, as well as in heavenly places, because we all have been given at least a little authority over some earthly things, and we sorely need the wisdom of God in order to wisely and justly fulfill our duties as stewards instead of as the capricious tyrants that we usually are. Matthew told us a story this morning about one capricious tyrant who was not pleased to be told of the light shining in the darkness, showing the way to be free of our own tyranny.

We are like Herod in Matthew’s gospel story this morning, because like him, we don’t want to give up the rule of our own petty worlds. But we must, because before we can bring the good news of the light shining in the darkness to others, we ourselves must wake up to that light. We must listen to what Isaiah told us this morning and “arise and shine, for our light has come.” We must “lift up our eyes and look around, see and be radiant, for the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.” We must abdicate our pathetic little thrones and freely allow God to rule our lives so that we can become truly alive and fully human the way we are created to be. Once that happens, we can then be light bearers to others who are in their own dark worlds created either by their own self-centeredness and self-righteousness or by that of others around them. We can be like the wise men, leading others to Jesus by our own search.

Of course, we swing back and forth between the light and the dark; sometimes joyfully letting God reign in our lives, at other times miserably and mistakenly living under the false assumption that we can do a better job and so pushing God off the throne of our hearts. We don’t usually push God away on purpose. Instead, we most often crown God out of our lives by cramming so much of our own self-importance inside us. It might be better to say that instead of chasing God away, we block our view of God, because God is always there, waiting for us to stop dreaming about ourselves so that we can open our eyes and see the real world bathed in the glory of God. When we do that, we also see ourselves bathed in the glory of God as we are meant to be.

That is why we are here today. We are practicing opening our eyes, our hearts, and our lives to God by seeing God in the scriptures, in the bread and wine, and in each other. Once we get used to seeing God in those things, we will start seeing God in all things and treat every person and object with the same respect that we give things to in the church. (The monks will remember that Benedict tell us to do just that.) We know we don’t do it yet, or we don’t do it all the time or consistently yet, so we need to keep practicing opening our eyes to God not only when we gather together, but also in our own daily private prayer, scripture reading, work, and encounters with other people. We will slowly start seeing Jesus more fully in everything the more we train our eyes away from ourselves. We will see his star rising and slowly loosen our grip on our own petty kingdoms so that we become less like Herod and more like the wise men – joyfully and freely bringing him our treasures as he becomes the treasure that we bring to others. AMEN

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Supermodel: St. Mary The Virgin 2011

Isaiah 61:10-11
Galatians4:4-7
Luke1:46-55

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

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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

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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

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