Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Easter Sunday Sermon, April 5, 2015: Surprised by Joy

My Parish in my hometown when I was a child used to gather up all the children before the service and they would stand outside the church door and they would shout, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!  About a dozen times before the service began.

I discovered as I visited Easter Services at Eastern Orothodox Churches that this is a custom of theirs.  They leave the church and march around the neighborhood singing, then stop at the door and shout many times, “Christos Anesti, Alethos Anesti” which is Greek, and “Christos voskres! Voistinu voskres”, Old Church Slovanic, which both mean of course, “ Christ is Risen, the Lord is Risen indeed!

Today’s Celebration is characterized by unbridled Joy! 

Joy is delight!
Joy is wonder!
Joy is pregnant with possibility.

We don’t want to confuse joy with Pollyannaish optimism. I got a cup from McDonalds which had a line marked half full, half empty.  This is not joy.  That is making the best of a situation.  Joy is complete and full.

And Joy is also Not ignorance of hardship.  Easter Joy is only possible with the full knowledge of human suffering, fear and despair.  The path to Easter comes through the Cross.  One must pass through the dark and sinister valley of the shadow of death to arrive at Easter.  As Winston Churchill said, “When you find yourself going through, hell, keep going.”  Jesus embraces the least honorable aspects of humanity taking his faith and trust in God, taking his love, his compassion and his mercy there, and in so doing he conquers death.  He asks us not to avoid this suffering but to join him there so that we too can pass through with hiim.  And passing through we shout:.

Christ is Risen.  The Lord is Risen indeed.

I searched the attic of my mind for stories that celebrate this Easter truth and my mind returned again and again to that Easter Favorite, “The Grinch who stole Christmas”

You all know the story.  The Grinch could not abide joy.  He hated joy.  And he lived next to the town that was perhaps the most joyful in the universe, he lived next to Whoville, full of Whos.  He especially hated Christmas when they had all these rituals of unbridled joy.  So he decided he would sabotage it.  You know the story, he dresses up as Santa Claus, goes to town, on a sled, pulled by his miniscule little dog named Max, and he steals all the accoutrements of Christmas.  But what does he discover?  He discovers that the joy the Whos in Whoville had was not an external joy, that needed props.  The Whos in Whoville had discovered in their hearts joy and love.  And then the Grinch also realized that, his heart also longed for that joy!  His heart grew so large that the heart-o-meter broke trying to measure it.

Today our hearts grow large.  Today the joy of Mary Magdalene infects us.  Today the surprise and wonder of the beloved disciple and Peter penetrate our psyches.  Today the faith of two thousand years that goes forward in trust no matter how dark the sky, or bitter the winter, or deathly the plague becomes, that faith that the Divine’s power of love and compassion is exceedingly greater.  Death cannot overwhelm the sheer beauty and delight of Love.  Love prevails.

Many wonder, what was Christ’s rising from the dead like?  Did it really happen?  Could we call it a historic truth, or is it just a spiritual truth.  I am a pretty modern person, I’m good at science, and I value it, but I believe I am a bit of an outlier these days, in that I for one truly believe that Christ rose from the dead.  The stories are so full of excitement, and they are too messy in my mind to be pious fictions.  I believe they really encountered again the Jesus they knew and it changed them.

But also there is a ring of truth for me in the Easter Story.  Christ’s rising from the dead, love conquering death, forgiveness trumping judgment, these things resonate with a song very deep in my being, and I trust.  But even though I believe in the resurrection as history, that is NOT the most important thing about the Resurrection. 

I know too many people who say they believe in the resurrection but who do not live as though they did, and I know too many people who say they do not believe in the resurrection, and yet live as though they believe.  This causes me to believe that  getting it right about the resurrection is not the most important thing.  Being right is sometimes pretty much worthless.

The Resurrection asks us to embrace the more!  The resurrection asks us to explore beyond time and space.  It yells at us that the possibility for grace and goodness exceeds all our imagination.  Easter resurrection begs us to live life in the freedom to love!  It even asks us to love with abandon!  To live joyfully.

A Buddhist Monk I love very much, Thich Naht Hahn, who I quote very often here, exemplifies I think this freedom.  I love the prayer or mantra he suggests we pray in the morning.  He recommends we welcome the day saying, “Hello Morning.  Hello a brand new 24 hours to experience peace and joy.”  I find this outlook to contain an insight to the resurrection life.

C.S. Lewis wrote a biography of his conversion to theism and then to Christianity, entitled “Surprised by Joy”.  He wrote it before he ever met his wife, whose name was Joy.  In it he examines the moments in his life when something greater broke through, and he came to realize the best thing to call those moments is joy.  It created cracks in his understanding that allowed light to shine in.  There is in joy a quality which allows one to transcend the ordinary and experience the more. 

A key in his journey was he realized that his century had made an idol of the modern so much so that people had failed to realize the relevance of the past.  We deny ourselves treasures from our spiritual ancestry because we have come to believe we can progress ever forward to a better world.  Well I personally think that idea is pretty much shot now.  When I encounter the writings of the ancient world I often find incredible wisdom and insight that resonates with that song within me.  I think this is what C. S. Lewis meant.

Joy is something we celebrate as a people.  Jesus did not seek his own salvation, rather he sought the salvation of all.  He asks us to be a community supporting and enjoying one another.

Today we bring Gabriel to this community, to the experience of an ancient faith.  He will be baptized in water, that mysterious element in which we cannot live, and without which we cannot live.  He will pass from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to Joy, from a world bound by time and space to a world of love pointing ever towards more!

Baptism, Holy Communion, and indeed all the traditions of this day, including our new bells, remind us of the important differences between life focused on time and space and life focused on the the More of life.  Humanity has discovered ancient time tested ways to express the inexpressible.  We use symbols.  We use Light!  We use Water!  We use handshake.  We use bread and wine.  We talk about crossing thresholds, slavery to freedom, darkness to light, death to life.  We sing things rather than say them. We change our posture so that our bodies align with our souls.

But one of the most important ways we move into the the more of our lives is Joy.  Let go.  Celebrate.  Do not worry about worthiness!  God makes us worthy!  Do not worry if you have never done this before.  There was a time when you had never had chocolate, or kissed some new love, or cried at a story, or looked into a baby’s eyes. 

Do not feel it is irresponsible or that you might be mistaken.  We cannot live if we take no risks.

Let us Surrender to Love!  Let us Surrender to Forgiveness!  Let us Surrender to Compassion!  Above all, this day, Let us be surprised all over again, and surrender, like the Grinch did, to Sheer Joy.

Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! 

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Meditation for Easter Day: April 5, 2015: An Easter Egg Hunt

Inside the Golden Easter Egg

I opened up the Grand Prize Golden Easter Egg at the Hunt and it was empty.  Puzzled I opened the Second Prize Silver Egg and inside was a vial of water, a candle, a bell, and a copy of Plato’s Republic with the page of the “allegory of the cave” dog-eared.  If you smell one allegory there might be two.

You may remember he allegory of the cave.  People were sitting in a cave enjoying the shadows cast on the far side of the cave, intrigued and delighted.  But someone had the idea of turning around and when he did, he saw the light of the sun shining in through an opening to the outside.  The shadows in the cave were lovely, but they were only images of a greater reality.  The Allegory asserts that there is so much MORE to life for us to discover.  This must be why Plato’s Republic was in my egg.  

St. John, our patron at this church, writes that Jesus is the light of the world.   Each year at the Easter Vigil a new candle is lit to shine in the darkness.  This Sunday morning we bring this candle into our church and each of us lights a candle from its fire as a sign that we too carry God’s light into the world.  And so the candle in my egg makes sense.

We recollect on Easter Day that the Children of Israel passed safely through the deadly Red Sea on their path to freedom from slavery in Egypt.  Water is a powerful element.  From water crawled the first life on earth; in water, inside our mothers, our infant bodies formed, and through water came slaves to freedom.  This is why Baptism is a symbol of cleaning and also passage to new life.  It is immanently understandable that a vial of water is in my second prize egg.

The bell also makes sense.  Easter is the time we put away the solemnity and self-reflection we began for Lent.  In Easter we abandon our souls to sheer joy.  We shout the festive cry “Alleluia” which means “Praise God”, and we repeat it over and over again with relish.  This Sunday we take up again the Angelic hymn, “Glory to God in the Highest” and to add to the joy we ring bells.  Lots of bells.  Loudly.  This year we also ring again our carillon after many years repaired from a lightning strike.  Yes the bell makes sense.

But these symbols were in the Second Prize Egg.  Why was the First prize egg empty?  It was empty because the tomb was empty.  Death has lost its sting.  Hell gives up its prisoners.  Jesus rises from the dead.  Alleluia!  Death has no dominion over him!  God has raised him as he promised!  Mary Magdalene announced it to the disciples!  Shout and sing, ring out your joy!  Alleluia!  Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Let me wish you all a happy and blessed Easter.  With love ~ Father John+ 

Meditation for Good Friday: April 3, 2015: The Shy turned Black

The Sky Turned Black

The death of Christ on the Cross is a liturgy of despair. Because the disciples believed he was the one to save Israel seeing him defeated, brutally executed, and shamefully exposed assaulted their faith. The very ungodly forces they wished to exit the Holy Land are victorious and seemingly permanent.
The different people respond in different ways. Some are filled with overwhelming grief and despair. Heart-broken, they flee and keep a distance. Some are afraid for their very lives because of guilt by association. They even deny knowing him. Others, motivated by affection for Jesus, show courage and stand by him, yet their faith is deflated. They stood in solidarity, but they stood defeated, dejected.

This episode is more than the death of a religious leader. It is actually the trial of religious faith at all. It asks the question whether it is reasonable or fool-hardy for a person to maintain faith when the power of human evil and wickedness prevail over and over again. Does it make sense to open ourselves to divine power when goodness is so easily overcome? Does it make sense to see love as the most powerful force in the universe? Does indeed the sky not turn black as pervasive human cruelty and indifference batter down the advocates of non-violence and compassion? What we see on the cross uncovers a greater truth. We see humanity rejecting the healing of our ills, humanity rejecting the way of love and compassion. On the cross is nothing less than humanity killing God.

The sky turns black. God dies, exiting our lives, leaving us hopeless and inconsolable. This is what is happening on a spiritual level for the disciples, and this is what happens for us as we re-live these events: the Death of God.

Yet just as the barren ground of winter can spring to life in flower, events will transpire to declare a truth which is far from self-evident. God’s strength is perfected in weakness, as St. Paul said. The cross is not the location of the defeat of God, it is the victory of Love. A man chose to give up his life for love, for compassion, for us. Even though he was afraid and gave into despair at the end, in his actions and in his living he never betrayed love. This is true power.

God is surprise. Did the vast emptiness that pre-existed our universe expect to be filled with stars and light and wonders? Did that plane out west ever expect a trickle of water to sculpt out the Grand Canyon? Did our forebears ever picture us their children here pondering the meaning of our lives? God is surprise. The disciples could not anticipate the joy that would fill their souls on the third day. Brothers and Sisters, this is not God’s death; this is God’s victory because God accompanies us through our darkest fears to bring us into love and joy, into new life, on a higher plane. This is indeed Good Friday.

Meditation for March 29, 2015: Drama

Oooooh the Draaaah-maaaah !!!!!

I love my friend Irwin (not his real name), however it took me a while to enjoy his company.  Irwin is dramatic.  Someone has always wronged him, or something fabulous is always happening to him, so that if you get him going, you will need to spend a while, maybe reschedule some stuff.

The drama used to annoy me.  I would feel a prisoner.  It became hard to feign interest. It was too much emotion, too often.  Eventually I learned this is just who Irwin is, and I appreciate him, and I can experience it without being drawn in, and without being overwhelmed by the desire to escape.  I learned to let Irwin be Irwin, hear the drama, be his friend, but not let his drama become my drama.  It takes all sorts to make a world. 

My friend may be an extreme, but the reality is drama is an important part of our life.  I may have a calmer life than Irwin, but it has its share of upheaval, injustice, and delight.  There are events that move me deeply with sadness, with joy, with confusion, with a whole myriad of emotions.  This is life, and I have spent decades trying to unravel the meaning and significance of some of it.  Drama demands attention, propels us to reflection. 

This Sunday is a day of drama.  The fickle crowd welcomes Jesus because they think he will expel the Romans from Judea.  However, when they learn he is non-violent, they themselves cry out for his brutal execution at the hands of the very Romans they despise.  Then imagine a few days later women say Jesus’ body is gone and he is raised from the dead.  This is drama.  This series of events is so pregnant with significance that we have been reenacting it, pondering it, talking about it, for almost two thousand years. 

We may not like the extremes in emotion, but the dramatic events of our lives point to the depth of our being.  They propel us to find meaning in our losses, our loves, our wonders.  This is why symbol, myth, legend, story and yes, drama, assist to explore that meaning.  Drama is an important tool in exposing our souls, and discovering our depth. ~Father John

Meditation from March 22, 2015: Finding Treasure in the Snow

Finding Treasure in the Snow

 It was a mess around the church because the snow melting had revealed all the trash that had been buried by successive storms and flurries.  It was both horribly ugly and delightfully surprising at the same time, and my playful imagination went to work.  I knew there was a metaphor buried in this fact and I was determined to dig it out!

One of the things I realized is that my week is like that pile of snow with things buried in it.  I go through the week accumulating moments of joy, pain, excitement, wonder, discovery, the list goes on.  But during the week the daily occupations and obligations of my week are like the snow covering it all up.  The important thing is, it is all still buried there.

It dawned on me that prayer and meditation is the time to let the snow of our busy-ness melt and to sort through the objects buried in it.  Unlike the mess around the church, in the snow of our week there are also treasures as well as trash.  The day my temper was short because I had a bad encounter with my friend, trash.  The glimpse of the Palisades that overwhelmed with joy for a few seconds as I turned on Lamartine Avenue, treasure, the tear I shed as a television program reminded me of a beautiful and yet unrequited love in my teen years, both treasure and trash at the same time.   

In our meditation the richness of our lives is freed from the busy-ness and we are able to say thank you to the Divine, or Sorry, or sometimes both as is needed.  We can connect to the deeper significance of the events that are around us.  The trash we throw away, the treasures we find ways to give to others in a way that will help them and increase our connection. 

My hope is that each week, our worship, our reflections, our rituals with their strange rhythms and frequent repetitions might be one resource in remembering and celebrating our life.  We do not want it to remain buried in the snow forever.    ~Father John

Meditation For Sunday, March 15: Trust More than knowledge

Trust more than Knowledge

My dad was standing in the deep end of the pool holding out his hands inviting me to jump.  I loved playing in the shallow end.  But my father wanted me to jump into the deep end.  I knew viscerally deep water was dangerous.  I also knew my father took care of me.  Now, however, I had to hold these two facts in competition, to either jump or not.

People think knowledge is the most important thing in life, but wisdom is actually about relationships, about imperfect knowledge.  It is about trust, faith, belief.  I knew deep water was dangerous, but the relationship with my dad, after some reluctance, said it was okay to jump.  I did not know it would turn out okay, but I decided to trust the relationship.

Today’s gospel says God so loved the world he gave his son, that all who believe in him will not perish. Many have misread this text.  They think it means that if we believe some fact about Jesus we get a reward.  The text does not mean that.  It says believe in HIM, not in some FACT about him.  It is about relationship, not fact.  Everlasting life is not a reward to those who believe the right things are true.  Everlasting life is a gift received when entering a trusting relationship with the mystery lying behind life, and all that is, whom Jesus calls Father.

To believe in Jesus is to trust him.  He gives us counsel, we try it out.  He sets an example, we imiatate it.  He tells us the strength we need will be provided, we launch out courageously.   As we trust our frienship more, he gives us life more abundantly.   

Moses and early church theologians tell us God is beyond our knowledge: God is  mystery.  If we desire to explore the mysterious leadings and longings of our hearts, we must leave the safety of the shallow end, of knowledge alone.  We can embrace Jesus and the gift of life, trusting in hope that our hearts’ longings will be satisfied.  We jump in the deep end believing that loving arms will catch us, and show us wonders heretofore unimagined.   ~Father John


Friday, March 06, 2015

All Sorts and Conditions of People: Meditation for March 8, 2015

     In today’s gospel Jesus drives the money-changers out of the temple. This should challenge our meek and mild view of Jesus. The money-changers were needed because coins with images, thus idols, could not be put in the temple offering. Other gospels imply the money changers were dishonest, but John’s Gospel, the one read today, offers no reason. The reader must speculate. Scripture frequently invites us to struggle for understanding in order to grow in wisdom.
     One suggestion is that Jesus disapproved that this part of the temple was unavailable for worship. It was the part meant for non-Jewish people. Jesus was not against commerce, but commerce had made the place unusable for worship, the only place for foreigners.
     The temple in Jesus’ day was a series of courts one situated within the other, each intended for a different group of people. The center was the holy of holies, entered only once each year by the high priest. Next was the sanctuary for the daily evening and morning offering of incense. Then a court for Jewish men, then one for Jewish women and children, and finally one for non-Jewish people, the nations, or Gentiles. Jesus cleaned this last one.
     That Jesus would want this area available for the nations is consistent with his teaching. He would care that their part of the temple was unavailable. Jesus opted to dissolve boundaries between peoples, and his disciples ended ethnic distinctions in the community they oversaw. Strong evidence also suggests neither social status nor gender mattered, though gender apparently reemerged in the Second Century, only to be challenged again in modern times.
     This interpretation strongly suggest two insights. First we should not allow other activity to crowd out the care of our spirits. And secondly, we should honor Christ’s teaching that all people have spiritual needs, and we must promote the inclusion of all into our communal spiritual life. It is this latter sensitivity that leads this parish to make our worship more friendly to the spiritual, but not religious. ~Father John

Friday, February 27, 2015

Liturgy, Liminal Space, Ritual and Meaning

When Spiritual communities gather to perform weekly rituals it is called a "liturgy". The word comes from Ancient Greece. It is a compound of the word for people, "laos", and the word for work, "urgy".   As a community project the whole village would repair a road or a bridge together: it was the work of the people, public works.
The word is used to designate communal rituals. All the people present are important in a ritual, though some have more prominent roles than others. In a sense it is a performance offered by the community to the divine mystery that is behind, and some would say within, all things. We offer our bodies, minds and spirits to the divine in a time and space. The creation gathers to honor its creator. 

The Celts describe this encounter as a liminal space and time. It is a border line, a thin place where the ordinary and the divine merge, where the relationship between mystery and reality impinges on our hearing, our sight, our imagination. Liminal means frontier. If you know the movies and television programs called "Stargate", you can think of the stargate itself, the door one could enter and by taking a single step travel millions of light years through space. For tens of thousands of years humanity has sought these liminal places, has engaged in rituals to discover the meaning and depth of life.

On the face of it, the Christian liturgy we celebrate today is very simple. We read from ancient texts, we say carefully crafted prayers, we sing songs ancient and modern, we take a little piece of bread, and a few drops of wine and we remember a fateful meal some two thousand years ago, the night before Jesus died. They are ordinary acts, but the liturgy transforms these humble actions into liminal space, space where we spy the divine. In that holy espionage we discover an important truth about humanity. We have purpose, our lives are meaningful, we are cherished, delighted in by Eternity itself. ~Father John

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Evil Spirits We ALL Have

Sermon 20150201
St. John's Church
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Psalm 111
Mark 1:21-28

The story today is pretty simple.  Jesus goes to his hometown synagogue in Capernaum, which is Simon Peter's hometown, and he teaches in the synagogue.  In those days people would be invited to read the passage appointed for that day, and comment on it.  The people were amazed at how Jesus taught.  It was a different style.  He taught with authority.

The difference to other stories about Jesus teaching in a synagogue is that the story is followed almost immediately by the casting out of an unclean spirit.  In fact, the casting out the unclean spirit takes up more of the story that the fact that Jesus taught.

It is interesting that the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is, and is afraid, whereas the people around Jesus notice that there is something special but they miss his power.  This is pretty important.  It is a theme in Mark.  Jesus often tells spirits not to say who he is.  It is a puzzlement.

I read this week an amazing observation about his story which increased my understanding of just how subtle and insightful a teacher Mark the evangelist can be.

The fact that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, and the fact that an unclean spirit was cast out of this man, are not unrelated.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Jesus' authoritative teaching can free us from the powers that grip us, cause us pain and fear, keep us from loving God with our whole heart, keep us from loving our neighbor as ourselves, and rob us of our true joy.

The most powerful destructive powers in our lives are ideas and thoughts that take up residence in our minds and control our lives.  Mark is telling us that the teachings of Jesus can free us from these things.

But it is even more subtle than this.  These destructive powers that take up residence in our minds and control us know they are false, but they deceive us.  They know Jesus for who he is, but they try to convince us that Jesus is not the one who can help us.

These makes complete sense to me because I have learned some of the philosophy of 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Al-Anon.

In these groups the only way to address addiction to some substance or compulsive behavior is to maintain clarity.  Many people turn to alcohol, or drugs, or food to avoid the pain in their lives.  The alcohol, drugs, food, sex whatever help them check out, take a   break from all that they find hard in life.  The obvious thing is that on an occasional basis taking a break from our hurts, fears and challenges can be a blessing.  But when we turn to these escapes more than we actually live it begins to destroy our lives, our careers, our relationships, our spiritual life.

People begin to say I need this drink, I need this "toke", I need this piece of cake in order to feel better.  They say I will stop tomorrow.  Or I can stop anytime I want to.  These destructive powers are powerful and take hold often because they are half-truths.  But when confronted with the whole truth their folly is not hard to understand.

Addiction is an unclean spirit, it is a destructive power that can take possession of one's life.

The wisdom of the twelve steps is that by constantly confronting this with the truth, and by claiming the willingness to act on it, a person can receive the power from above to live one's life and abstain from the compulsive at or additive substance.

It is called clarity.  In religious tradition it is called wisdom.  In spirituality it is called awareness.

Our Christian insight is that this lack of clarity does not just affect people who have addiction or compulsive behaviors.  We all have destructive ideas which take possession of our minds, and we are often unaware just how much they have taken hold in us.  They fool us because  there is some small element in them that is true or attractive, and so we do not dig dipper, encounter the whole truth.

There are people who say they are not religious.  But I do not agree with them.  They think that religion is about belief in a God.  I do not agree.  Religion is the way you practice your philosophy of life in your everyday existence.  All of us have ideas about our world and our lives, we all have a philosophy of life, even though we may not know it.  And that philosophy of life causes us to make choices every day.

Jesus who teaches with authority wants us to have a philosophy of life that is life giving, satisfying, healthy, wholesome, joyful, blessed.  He wants to cast out of us the destructive ideas that take possession of us and keep us from having this type of life.

In my life as a Christian, but essentially in my ministry, I have met many of these destructive ideas that take over people's lives.  Each and every one of them have been operative in my life and I have to constantly feed on the teaching of Jesus and ask God to keep them at bay.  I will list some here to help explain what I mean, even though each of these is probably worth a sermon in its own right.

One of the most destructive idea people have is that they are not important, or that they have no worth.  They forget that God loves them and could not imagine the world without them.  They want to hide from God or others, or are afraid that if they are truly known they will not be valued.  They forget that they have qualities and gifts that will make the world a better place if they will only truly love themselves and live in this world with joy.   We are often tempted to think that because our life is not the way we would prefer it, that it is not wonderful.  We often miss out on the blessings in our life because we are constantly wishing we had other ones.

Another very destructive idea I see people have is that they thing that they are a good person.  THey think, "Sure, I'm not perfect, but I am not really awful like other people."  This thought is destructive because it stops us from looking deeper.  All of us have much to learn in the art of love, and all of us cause hurt to people around us through either action or inaction.  All of us have growing edges.  When we start to think that we have nothing to confess to God and to ask for forgiveness it is very destructive.  When we begin to think we are okay we begin to judge others and this is very dangerous.  When we stop scrutinizing our life we open ourselves to all sorts of spiritual danger.

A third destructive idea that I think people have is that they believe they are okay if they just take care of themselves and try not to harm anyone.  This idea causes us to miss out on the greatest blessing in life which is to be in generous relationships with others and to discover our gifts that can be used to honor God and serve our neighbor.  It is an idea we get from the rabid individualism of our  culture.  This is why many people believe they do not need to go to a worshiping community.  They do not realize that in a community we help one another.  Sometimes I am the one being helped, sometimes I am the one helping,  and very often just by being with each other we are helping each other.  If we simply seek to do no harm, the awful consequence is we also do not good, and do not have the joy of generosity.

Our collect today asks God to grant us his peace.  May we listen to the teachings of Jesus in scripture and tradition, and allow it to bring us spiritual clarity and wisdom.  May Christ free us from the destructive ideas, the unlearn spirits, that hold us back spiritually.  May Christ make us eager to grow in love for God and one another, receiving from him the power to live lives that give him honor and bring us peace.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Kingdom of God: Living in the World as if not.

St. John’s Church, Getty Square

3rd after Epihany

1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Psalm 62: 6-14
Mark 1:14-20

When I lived in Poitiers France I participated in the University Chaplaincy and I met a lot of very memorable people.  One person I remember a great deal, Michelle (a pseudonym) had long blond hair and always had a very genuine sweet smile.  It was not a fake smile, or a put on smile, or a temporary smile like some people carry.  It came out of a place of peace and calm.  She told me people sometimes ask her why she always has this smile and she would tell them,”Because God is so good and I am thankful for my life.”  She was a student but she struggled in deciding what she intended to do with her life.  She lived very simply. 

I stayed with her in her apartment when I went to Poitiers in part to attend her wedding to Jean-Denis (a pseudonym) and I noticed a very used prayer corner, complete with Bible, Candle and Icon of Jesus.   Jean-Denis lived in an intentional community called Emmaus and it was a place where homeless people could come and live.  They would eat and pray together.  I am not sure about what other ways they helped the homeless, but I admired the dedication of both Jean Denis and Michelle.  Both of them were very well respected in the church at Poitiers and at their wedding there were some ten priests at the altar. 

I tell you about her because I think Michelle is an example of someone who seemed to me to be living the kingdom of God.  She dwelt in this world as all of us do, yet she had a peace and a joy that came from above.  I have been privileged to know a few people in life who I think reflected this reality, however, most of the people I admire are like me, they are on the path to that place, but struggle, and maybe even fight and resist the whole way there.

Sisters and Brothers, when Jesus calls his disciples in today’s gospel, and asks them to follow him, I see his asking them to follow him into the kingdom of God, to live in the world but to reside in the kingdom of God, to live by god’s wisdom, to trust completely in God, to seek the will of God in all things, to not be afraid, and to have quiet confidence and solid hope that God’s purposes are not thwarted.  I am encouraged by the fact that the apostles seem more like me than Michelle.  For each of them their discipleship to Jesus was troubled and a struggle, like mine, but the tradition conveys that many of these common ordinary people, even fisher people, that Jesus called, showed a peaceful powerful joy by the end of their lives.  They truly followed Jesus.

When the gospel today says the disciples left their father in the boat with the hired, this is a jolting phrase.  In our culture it is not unusual to go off into the world on one’s own and to leave father and mother.  However in Jesus day this was a huge break.  It tells us that Jesus was calling the disciples to do something huge, life changing, even a shift in their identity and loyalties.

I propose this is what St. Paul describes in our Corinthian readings.  St. Paul was very clear that life in Christ is living in the world in a very different way.  He describes all of these every day major parts of our life, marriage, grief and joy, business as things we do as if not doing them.  Some have interpreted this as meaning a very rigid life, an austerely ascetic life,  where we are married but do not have relations with our partner, or as a rejection of emotions, where we keep a very steady emotion and are not moved by grief or joy, or where we shun commerce and live a life like that of a hermit.  I truly do not think so.  I think that is too concrete.  I think that kind of reading probably misses the main point.

St. Paul is saying we live in this world, we marry, we have our emotions, we conduct our life affairs, just as human beings will do, but all along we keep such great hope and faith in God, that it is as if we are not living in the world.  There is a way in which we are truly and fully present to the world, but we also transcend the world by having utter confidence in God.

It is this strain in our faith that causes many people to make positive comparisons of the Christian faith to Buddhism.  In fact one of the most popular Buddhist writers of our day, Thich Naht Hahn, claims to be both Buddhist and Christian because he sees Jesus as someone who invites others to enlightenment. He believes Jesus asks us to dwell in this world where there is so much suffering and violence but to be the presence of peace, love and joy.

And that is what I saw in Michelle.  I saw in her someone who brought the peace, love and joy of Christ, to her everyday living.  And I pray God will make me more like that.

As I prepared for today I came across a very good observation about this kind of life.  The author points out that living in the world as if not, that living the life of Christ, means two things.  First, by God’s power we escape the fears that beset us and so are freed from gripping anxiety, but also that we gain a new urgency to do the kind of things Jesus would have us do.  Our greatest passion is no longer to struggle to survive in this world, we give that to God.  Our greatest passion becomes to do the things Jesus would have us do.

To do this we must have an active prayer life.  If we are not intentionally focusing on God in prayer, if we are not seeking fellowship with other Christians as we are here doing today,  if we are not seeking the strength we receive in this liturgy of word and sacrament, I do not see how we can accomplish this call to have peace and hope.  If we do not pay great attention to God I think our weak human nature will succumb to the assaults of a troubled world.

If we stay connected to God and other people of faith, he we focus on service of others, we escape what 12-step group participants might call the prison of self.  Instead of always thinking of ourselves, our needs, our hurts, our wants, we make a positive effort to serve other people and to relieve their hurts and needs.  We no longer just see horrible things in the world, we see places where we can take the mercy of God, and show love to others. 

And of course the others do not always act lovingly.  Frequently they are users, abusers, dishonest, selfish, ungrateful, ill-behaved people.  And we have to learn to respond to people like that with compassion and great wisdom.  Sometime our hearts will go out to them because we will perceive in them great need for spiritual healing , and yet we feel helpless seeing them stuck in a prison of hurt, avoidance, and in self delusion, the very opposite of humble wisdom.  We can serve others, we cannot rescue them.  Much prayer will be required as soon as we come to understand the sufferings of those around us.

And yet some of the people we reach out to, some will hear the call of Jesus to follow him.  They will take his hand and embrace the path of forgiveness and healing.  They will start down a path which seeks first God’s kingdom.  They will say a prayer that truly means, “Thy will be done.”  They will find Jesus through our love and compassion.  And Jesus will turn and say to us, “See, I told you I would make you fishers of people.”

Let us pray, sisters and brothers, that God will cast out our fears.  Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will give us confidence in God.  Let us put our whole trust in God and invite him to address the hardships that beset us.  Let us open our eyes to ask him where and how he would have us serve others.  Let us pray that we might in some way help others find Christ’s offer of peace and love.  In doing these things I think we truly live in the world as though not living in it.  In doing these things I think we truly leave all and follow Jesus