Baptism Of Our Lord Year C: Rights Or Gifts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 26 Year C: Poke And Prod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 19 Year C: Run Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 15 Year C: Holy, Holy, Holy

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 6 Year C: Taken For Granted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter VII Year C: Take Me To The River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent IV Year C: Yes We Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany V Year C: Unclean & Unfit

Isaiah 6:1-13
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

All of our readings this morning involve people who knew they were unworthy of doing anything for God. They knew they were unworthy, and in two of our readings, they told God just that. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul were fully aware of the truth that they, in themselves, were not good enough to do what God wanted them to do. However, God also knows that fact, and it does not bother God, because God also knows that he is the one who makes all of us worthy to do God’s will.

By saying we are unworthy to do God’s will does not mean we see ourselves as evil or stupid or have a bad self-image. It means that we have a proper self-image and grasp on reality, because the reality is: God is perfect, and we are not. No matter how good we are, we are not perfect, and so we can never be fit tools for God’s purposes. We can be really good human beings, as we should all strive to be, but being a really good human is not the same thing as being God – they are simply different categories. However, God breaks those categories and gives us whatever abilities we need to do God’s will.

We don’t always get the same abilities, because God does not want as to all do the same things. However, we are all given something, and to pretend differently is counterproductive and destructive. It might take some time to figure out what our special gifts are, but we can not use that as an excuse for never searching for them or never using them when we find them. We also need to remember that very few people are ever given any kind of spectacular gifts, so just because our gifts are the ordinary kind that allow us to help each other in ordinary ways, we can’t allow ourselves to pout and sulk and not use those ordinary gifts. We are most likely never going to see seraphim or be blinded by Jesus or go fishing with him, like the people in our scripture readings. That is ok, and actually, kind of a relief.

However, we will see God everyday in the people around us – people who are easy to get along with, as well as people who are difficult to get along with, people who make our life easier, as well as people who make our life more difficult, people whom we irritate, as well as people who irritate us. We are called to use our ordinary gifts to bring the joy and health of God to those people, as we accept it from them. We all know how impossible it is to do the job of living with other people without our special gifts from God. So rather than wasting all that time and energy fretting about how difficult it is, all we need to do is admit that we can’t do it on our own, and thank God for his help in doing it. God will bring us through all our daily, ordinary struggles, and turn them into heaven, where in a sense, we will see seraphim, go fishing with Jesus, and even be blinded by his beauty and joy.

We are unclean, we are unfit to do God’s will. What happy news! By admitting that, we give ourselves room to take in God’s gift to us, so that the new reality can grow – the reality that in God, we are clean, we are fit, we are ready, willing ,and able to do all that God asks of us. And all that God asks of us is to live in love, joy, and peace with ourselves, with others, and with God. That sounds like a good job description.   AMEN

Christmas II Year C: A Very Special Sermon

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a
Luke 2:41-52

Christmas time is here, finally. All the extra work to prepare is over, and now all the extra work to clean up kicks in. After almost a decade and a half in the kitchen, and now after three years in the office, I still think that if Jesus had known about all the business people did to celebrate his birthday, he would have had second thoughts about being born. But, there seems to be a need for some people to do all the special stuff around Christmas time – the rest of us just get caught up in the whirlwind of it all. Maybe the reason is because it is one of the ways we can tangibly express our conviction that the birth of Jesus is special, and is in fact the most important birth to ever have occurred, because his birth really is about God and creation becoming one.

I have a Hindu friend who emails me to talk about religious things, and he has no problem with saying that Jesus is God, because to a Hindu, everyone and everything is God. I tell him that I prefer the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim view that there is a difference between God and creation. The reason I prefer that view is because I really do hope that God is Love, and I really do think that it takes more than one party to love. If we are all God, and we love each other and God, and God loves us, then all that means is that God has a healthy, well-rounded psychology. It is important to love oneself, but if all there is is just one person loving that self, then I will be greatly disappointed.

I want the God who takes the true risk of love – opening Himself to others who have every right to refuse that love and walk away. God does just that. God loves us, even when we do all we can to pain him and spurn his love. God makes himself so vulnerable that God became one of us just so we could have more opportunities to accept his love, as well as more opportunities to reject it. Jesus is indeed special. He is God, here and now in this universe, on this planet. He is God, and we are not, but we are in a very real way, equal partners in love. Not that Jesus ever spurns our love, but that we can reject his. Jesus reaches out to us every day and every moment with the hope that we will take his love and by so doing become truly human, just like him. If we can remember back in junior high how scary it was asking that special person to our first school dance, or as adults asking that special person to marry us (this example would apply only to guests, of course) – how anxious we were and maybe still are in our dealings with people whom we want to love us – that is how vulnerable God is nonstop with six billion people on this planet. Usually, we say no to his advances. Hopefully, slowly, by doing what we do in this monastery every day, and by doing what others do in their homes and parishes, we all are becoming more apt to say yes to God’s gift of love, and so are being made not only more fully human, as Jesus is, but also even divine.

Jesus is special in a way we are not – he is God and we are not. However, we are made in the image of God, and God sees us all as special in our own ways. As we heard Paul say to his listeners in Ephesus in our second reading this morning, God: “….chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…”. God has adopted us – in other words, God has chosen to love us. That makes us infinitely special, and since God sees us all that way, we should also see everyone as a special, chosen child of God.

Yet, how often we don’t do that. Instead, we spend a lot of our time dismissing others as worthless or evil. No one is either of those, since we are made in the image of God – of infinite worth and holiness. We do tend to do worthless and evil things, but that does not change our underlying dignity. The people who need our love and prayers most are the people who fly airplanes into office towers, or who legislate discriminatory laws, or who con money from elderly people. They, just like us, are wonderful, beautiful children of God who are ensnared by sin, and for whom God lived among us and died for us. And we must be careful to never denigrate others as persons, even when they differ with us in religion, politics, or culture. It just might be the case that they pray, read scripture, and want to help others just as much as we do, even though they have come to different conclusions about things. We must learn to discriminate between actions and persons. Persons are always images of God, no matter how much our actions have obscured that image.

We all know that we do not do a good job at always honoring the worth of the people around us, or the people we read about in the news. That is ok, our job is growth, not immediate perfection. We just need to always look at Jesus until we start seeing his face in everyone, and everyone’s face in him. Paul has something to say about that growth, as we heard in our second reading this morning: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer – no better time to start on that road to holiness and joy.   AMEN

Advent I Year C: Better Than The Best

Jeremiah 33: 14-16
I Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36

For the next four weeks, we will be hearing a lot about hope. The Hope of the World is coming to us, the One in whom we put all our hope, the only True Hope. We will be hearing about letting go of our fear, because we have hope, and we can hope in the Savior of the World, who will be coming among us, who is among us, and who will be among us again. Moving from fear to hope is good, and is something we all desire to do every moment and every day. We are not created to live in fear, and anything we can do to bring hope to the world is good.

However, as we heard in our Compline readings from The Conferences of John Cassian a few weeks ago, hope is not the end of the journey. Both fear and hope imply a certain amount of self-centeredness (we fear for our selves and hope for ourselves), although we can also fear and hope for others, which is good. But Abba Chaeremon says there is another stage of the journey after hope, one that involves no self-centeredness at all:Love.

When we truly love, we take our wants and desires out of the picture and work for the best of everyone and everything. We don’t try to control things so that we can be comfortable, we let others grow into their best selves no matter how uncomfortable that might make us feel. Love frees us from all the time and effort we would otherwise spend trying to make everyone and everything act the way we think it should be. When we love, we realize that the only things we can control are our own actions and reactions, so we spend time and energy working on ourselves so that we can make the world a better place. That doesn’t mean that we deny any other’s wrongdoings, it just means that we work to become the best persons we can be so that we can confront and help change others’ wrongdoings in an objective and helpful manner. It also means that we look at others with compassion, acknowledging their faults while giving them some slack to work on them, as we would want done for us. Maybe even more importantly, it means that we look on ourselves with compassion – acknowledging our own faults while giving ourselves some slack to work on them, and then honestly working on them.

Love also frees us from self-centered motives in our work. In love, we do things not because those actions might one day bring us some benefit. Instead, we do things simply because they are good things to do and will make the world a better place and help some people. Working out of love lightens our workload and makes us happier, not because we do less, but because we are freed from the burden of making sure we see the fruits of our work. In love, we simply do our work to the best of our abilities and then let God take care of the results. Of course, that has the unexpected consequence of us actually doing a better job than if we were working from self-centered reasons and worrying about the outcome of our work. The question of “what’s in it for me” is never raised, consciously or unconsciously, but amazingly, all of our deepest desires are met more profoundly than we ever could have imagined. We actually slowly learn to love people, not just the way some people sometimes make us feel.

I know that I have never moved from hope to love, and I am not sure if I have ever met anyone who has. (I am not even sure I have moved from fear to hope yet, but someday, maybe that will happen.) There is a Buddhist proverb that says: “There are no enlightened people, only enlightened actions.” Maybe we can make that into a Christian proverb: “There are no loving people, only loving actions.” By doing things out of love, we slowly become loving people. Like Aristotle said: “One becomes a virtuous person by doing virtuous things.” One slowly becomes loving by doing loving things. And it is slow, and sometimes it feels fake, but that is ok, we are to be judged by what we do, not by how we feel. But the more we get used to doing loving actions, the more we actually grow into a loving person. There will always be times when we fall down in our attempts to love, but we can always get back up again and try some more.

We will sometimes despair of ever growing, but at least that means that deep down, we want to grow, and that is a major step in itself. The only way we grow at all is through the grace of God, and God will give us growth when God knows we need it, and maybe even more importantly, when we can handle it. All we can do is admit that we need hope and love. Doing that is not easy, but it is necessary. It takes work and humility but is worth it when we finally do it. And we need to do it every day and every moment, if we are honest with ourselves and with God. Like Paul in our second reading this morning, we need to pray that God will “make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all, and may he strengthen our hearts in holiness so that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus…”

God will save us from ourselves, that is his job, and when he does so, we enter into bliss that we never knew could exist. We live in a fearful world, but our hope is in Jesus, who is Love and brings us to love. As Jesus says in our gospel story this morning, when we see all the fearful things in our world, all we need to do is : “…stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.” So for the next four weeks, we can hear with confidence all the prophets, evangelists, angels, wise men, shepherds, and little drummer boys singing “Do you see what I see?”. We will see one day – in our fear and doubt we will see the Hope of the Universe who is Love Himself, coming to us to live in us and among us. He is here right now and invites us to share a meal with him as he feeds us with himself.   AMEN