Friday, March 16, 2018

Gospel text for Sunday 18 March 2018


John 12:20-33         Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
Reflection       Every summer while living along a craggy canyon in Northern New Mexico I was amazed when I looked down into my neighbors property and saw an explosion of salmon, flamingo and bubblegum roses dressing up their dusty driveway, never watered, pruned or fertilized. How is this possible? My courtyard garden is well mulched and regularly drenched. Still, my surpassing TLC comes to nothing. When I visited a local garden nursery and issued my complaint I was shocked by what I learned. 

“The key to a prolific rose bush is stress. If you take inordinately good care of it, it has no reason to bloom. You may have to let your rose bush die back before it comes to full life again.”   Jesus’ words echo in my mind, “… but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 

The Episcopal priest, The Very Rev. Alan Jones writes of his contemplative prayer practice, “In my tradition we try to practice dying every day so that we can be fully alive. What I understand of my prayer life is to place myself on the threshold of death, to participate in my dying, so that I may live each day and each moment as a gift… each moment becomes a new thing.”* I  have no idea if Jones tried to grow roses, but I believe Jones has taken Jesus’ exquisitely crafted word painting to heart, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The rhetorical effect of Jesus’ words is profound. Assuming Jesus does not mean we must literally die, what does he mean? I believe the death to which Jesus points is death of our over identification with our individual selves, death of our striving to water and fertilize and mulch ourselves excessively. To the extent that we only experience ourselves as physical beings in need of constant provision, we will surely die. But when we recognize we are spiritual beings intimately connected with God and with all people, we die to the notion of our separate selves and discover new and eternal life in divine and human relationship.  

Being fully human, when facing physical death Jesus’ “soul is troubled,” nevertheless, rather than cling to his separate self he remembers his spiritual relationships with God and humanity…. calling out to God for the benefit of others and he lives on.  

  • Excerpt from Graceful Passages: A companion for Living and Dying, (Novato, CA, New World Library), 2001, p31. 

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Gospel text for Sunday 11 March 2018

John 3:14-21            Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Reflection          If God is God, in and of, with and for all things, that means God is not other than us. Though we are not God, we are not, not God either. Nothing separates us from God. Nothing separates God from us which means our image of ourself is not other than our image of God. Conversely, our image of God is not other than our image of ourself. Humanity and God are intimately interwoven. We cannot be torn apart.

Which brings us to face the questions, “What is my image of myself? What is my image of God?” It really does not matter which question we begin with because we cannot tease the two apart. Let’s begin with our image of our selves. When we see ourselves as a disappointment, not measuring up or fundamentally not good enough by implication we are seeing God as displeased,  demanding and disengaged; God the judge. By contrast, when we see ourselves as dependable, devoted and desiring God by implication we see God as trustworthy, loving and true, God the benevolent. The thing is, just like our image of our selves, our image of God is not etched in stone. It is up to us to choose the image with which we want to live. 

When we choose to believe in a harsh and judgmental God we have every reason to remain in the shadows, hoping against hope that miraculously we will be transformed into something acceptable, unless of course we reject God entirely. But if we chose in favor of a sympathetic, life-giving God then we can dare to reveal ourselves, step out of the shadows into the light. The moment we do this we are set free, free from the shackles of a shameful self image, free to claim the truth of our identity with God. 

At the same time every one of us has some skeleton in the closet, some secret or foible we fear to expose about ourselves. For as long as we keep this hidden we remain prisoners of the darkness. But when we choose to bring our deepest truth into the light we are seen in the light of God’s love, love that does not condemn us but counsels us to choose life in the light of God.

Who we are is defined by our choices. In John’s gospel text Jesus counsels Nicodemus and us to choose, choose to believe. The thing is, belief is not a commodity that we mine like copper or grow like corn. Belief is not something we can find or buy or bargain for. Belief is a state of mind in which we choose to accept something as being true or existing without any empirical evidence to prove it with factual certainty.*

What we believe really matters because what we believe guides our action and determines whether we live in the darkness or in the light. For as long as we believe that we are fundamentally flawed,  not good enough or cannot measure up, we will hate the light and avoid the light because we do not want our shameful self to be exposed. But when we choose to believe that we are essentially good, we will seek and love the light and let our selves be exposed in the light “so that it may be clearly seen that (our) deeds have been done in God.”

The light and life and love of God is in and of, with and for all of us. Do you choose to believe? 

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Friday, March 2, 2018

Gospel text for Sunday 4 March 2018

John 2:13-22        The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Reflection     What a great example of market economy in action. The elite Judean religious and political officials are selling access to God and it is very profitable. The way this works is simple. The political and religious authorities conspire to keep something that is very desirable to the people (access to God)  scarce, and as a result the price the people are willing to pay for it goes up. The rich get richer. The powerful gain power. The masses of people sacrifice and fall behind as long as they agree to participate in the exchange. 

For as long as the masses believe the only way to experience the presence of God is to make a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, the only way to escape the torment of being separate from God is paying a temple tax, the only way to insure access to a happily ever after life is to sacrifice a pair of doves and an unblemished lamb, they will continue to turn their wallets over to the money changers in exchange for their heavenly insurance policies. Until someone like Jesus comes along and shouts, “Stop!” 

God is not in-prisoned in the temple of Jerusalem. God does not require you pay tax. The religious and political elites are not the only ones with access to God. God is with you, each and every one of you, in spirit and in truth. Quit your deal making. You do not have to sacrifice a pair of javelina, fresh fish or pay a temple tax. You do not have to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. All you have to do is stop, be still and know that God is with you right here, right now, in spirit and in truth. The true temple of God is not made of stones and mortar. As it is with Jesus so it is with us. The true temple of God is our bodies.

The question is, how do we inhabit our bodies as the true temples of God? I believe we must dismantle the bricks and mortar of our market economy lives that depend on differentiating those who have from those who have not. We must divest our greed and narcissistic striving. We must dismember the chains of our market driven guardianship. All of this ideology we must allow to crumble like Jesus’ proverbial temple walls so that we too will rise up into new, reasonable, holy lives, being humane, restrained and sane; humble, faithful and moral; awake, alert and alive, so that we embody in spirit and in truth the ubiquitous Presence of God. 

To delve into the way of embodying the presence of God in ordinary life, please listen to the audio book "Practicing the Presence of God" with Brother Lawrence by clicking on image above and to the right.  

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Gospel text for Sunday 25 February 2018

Mark 8:31-38        Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Reflection       From the time I was twelve or thirteen years old I was certain there was a single capital “T” Truth and my mission in life was to find it. While babysitting I discovered Hermann Hesse’s book describing the spiritual journey of a young man named Siddhartha. It is the story of Gautama Buddha and I grabbed onto it as Truth, until, it was hard to find a Bodi tree in New Jersey, and of course there were the intrusions of school and parents. This is not working for me. So I set down Siddhartha and decide I will find and master Truth in the breathing and bodily postures of Yoga until I realize twisting my body into pretzel forms is not it, so I stop doing yoga and become certain that capital T Truth is hidden in consciousness. This launches my exploration of altered states, which are quite exotic, but at the end of the day they fade away along with the big T Truths I thought I grasped. So I turn to the writing of Lao Tzo, a mythic sixth century Chinese philosopher, poet and writer and nail my hat to that peg for a decade, certain that Truth arises from living in harmony with the Tao, until that too emerges empty. My litany of failed certainty continues today.

Do you see the pattern? First I am certain that I know the way to Truth. I stumble along, life happens and I realize, not so much. And the litany of certainty continues, each chapter whittling itself away, making room for more questions until ever so slowly I have come to realize that in all things I am mostly uncertain. 

The Wisdom of Uncertainty aligns with recent theories of the cosmos that suggest only four percent of the universe is made up of matter and energy that can be measured (this includes all the billions of stars in each of the billions of galaxies.) The remaining ninety-six percent  of all that is is made up of dark matter and dark energy that cannot be seen. ** In other words, the cosmos is rather like God or consciousness, somehow we infer it is there even though we cannot see it. 

Much as religion relies on faith, so too does science when it admits, we cannot base our understanding of the material world on our five senses. Every time we discover something it raises more questions than answers. And there we have it ,  the Wisdom of Uncertainty. When we are certain that we are right, it is like living in a box from which we cannot escape. But when we are liberated from the confines of our certainty box, we are free to move on, to live and grow and ask new questions.

In Mark’s text Peter is certain he is right. His friend, the Messiah, with whom God is please, cannot not possibly“undergo great suffering,  be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter is certain and Peter is wrong. 

This is especially important to consider as we navigate the Lenten season of self examination, the season that prepares us to receive the ultimate foolishness, “we must lose our lives to gain our lives.” The Wisdom of Uncertainty presents us with questions we all must ask ourselves. About what am I certain that I am right? With whom do I argue to prove I am right? How does my certainty that I am right close my ears and eyes and heart to another person’s perspective? to a more expansive point of view?   What if I am not right? What if I am setting my mind not on divine things but on human things? What if I am wrong? 

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Gospel text for Sunday 11 February 2018

Mark 9:2-9        Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Reflection       When Peter witnesses the dazzling Presence of the Spirit of God and the prophets Moses and Elijah with Jesus, Peter wants to keep the Spirit with him and so suggests “let us make three dwellings.”  Here is the thing, along with countless theologians I have preached a fair few sermons chastising Peter for trying to cling to Jesus and the dead prophets by securing them in dwelling places. I have berated Peter’s notion of making an earthy dwelling for the Spirit of God as if the spiritualization of matter was not a good thing.

Here is another perspective. The Episcopal priest, teacher of our Christian Wisdom tradition and author of numerous books on contemplative theology and practice, Cynthia Bourgeault puts it this way.  “If the heart is awake and clear, it can directly receive, radiate, and reflect the unmanifest divine Reality.”*  Sounds like we (matter) are intended to be a dwelling place for Spirit. 

When we choose to turn toward God, our lives are transfigured which basically means any barriers or false notions of separation between God and us melt away. The dark cloud of unconsciousness recedes as we wake up to the truth of our being, that like the exemplar Jesus, we are aflame in the Spirit of God with us. We are both human and divine.

In order to “be” all we are intended, we must receive our full inheritance and radiate Divine fire in the way we choose to live our lives. I believe when Peter protested, “Let us make three dwellings, one for (Jesus), one for Moses and one for Elijah,” he was expressing in concrete terms a deeper spiritual wisdom and longing to “receive, radiate and reflect the unmanifest divine Reality.”

Christian life is a both-and process; receiving and radiating the Spirit of God. When we consent to our full inheritance as both human and divine beings, (which means no more justifying our less than Divine behavior professing, “I am only human,”) we wake up, fully alive and cannot help but radiate the dazzling glory of God with us. 

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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Gospel text for Sunday 28 January 2018

Mark 1.21-28        Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Reflection        The musical extravaganza, The Greatest Showman, roughly relays the story of P.T.Barnum’s rise from impoverished childhood to founding the one hundred and forty six year continuously running big top Barnum circus. From the beginning Barnum breached polite society’s boundaries. Daring to burst beyond his birthright boundary Barnum invites society’s untouchables; a dwarf, a bearded lady, siamese twins, as well as those with unusual talents, flying on a trapeze, dancing with elephants, into center stage, dresses them in glittering costumes and gives them the opportunity to sing and dance and claim their lives in the limelight, instead of in the shadows.

Much like Jesus, P.T. Barnum (notwithstanding his considerable human flaws) reaches out to people whom social, political and religious convention deems unworthy to be seen, heard or included. Like Jesus, Barnum bridges the boundaries of the status quo by seeing value in the outcast and bringing it to light. I believe this is what Jesus was doing when he walked into the synagogue in Capernum, taught “as one with authority” and then proceeds to heal a man possessed “with an unclean spirit.”

In the first place, Jesus is simply not authorized to enter the synagogue and teach. We have no evidence that he succeeded through the Sanhedrin rabbinic ordination process, nevertheless Jesus enters the synagogue, teaches and the people are astounded. This is the first boundary we watch Jesus bind. 

The second boundary has to do with orthodox Jewish tradition. As an observant Jew Jesus understands his duty to maintain purity in order to approach God. Yet, he reaches out to a man possessed by an unclean spirit. By healing the man Jesus is breaching a central religious boundary and making himself unclean. If that is not enough to provoke ire, Jesus also crosses a third boundary by daring to work on the sabbath. The issue that undergirds most controversies about boundaries is really that of authority. Who has the privilege and power to define boundaries? or borders? or gerrymanders?  What is the source of their authority?

In secular culture there are institutions devoted to credentialing people, conferring on them the privilege and power to teach or govern, to make decisions, exercise judgments and define boundaries. We have already noted that Jesus’ authority does not come from social or political institutions. Jesus’ authority is rooted in his relationship with God. We hear this clearly in John’s gospel when, after healing the blind, the lame and the paralyzed, once again on the sabbath, the Jewish officials begin to persecute Jesus, and he says to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise… for just as the Father has life in himself he has granted the Son also to have life in himself and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” (John 5.19, 26) Oops, another boundary is breached with Jesus claiming his identity with God.

Much as the nineteenth century 'invisible' people were invited to step out of the shadows cast on them by polite societies’ judgments into the limelight of P.T. Barnum’s circus stage we too are invited to step out of the shadows of social, political and religious belief systems and boundaries. Today we are invited to step onto center stage and follow Jesus’ example, the way of direct experience of Spirit.  I believe the heart of Jesus teaching is showing us a new way of finding our authority and claiming our identity in relationship with God. When we turn away from the shadows cast by social, political and religious systems, we find ourselves on center stage, aligned in the spirit of God and imbued with the authority to sing and dance and claim our with God lives.  Come alive!

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Gospel text for Sunday 21 January 2018

Mark 1:14-20        After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Reflection      Paul warns the new church in Corinth, “For the present form of this world is passing away.” (I Cor 7.31)  But no one warned Simon and Andrew, James and John when they put down their nets and followed Jesus of the apocalyptic change they would face. Paul is spot one, when we choose to follow the Way of Jesus, life as we have known it passes away. It is apocalyptic and no wonder that two thousand years later so few of us have been able to respond “immediately” as did the four famous fishermen who quit their jobs by the Sea of Galilee when Jesus called to them.

Most of us are more like Jonah. When the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, he tried to run away from “the presence of the Lord.” He found a ship, got on board and before long the ship was ravaged by a great storm. The seamen figured out that the storm was likely the result of Jonah trying to “flee the presence of the Lord,” so they decided to toss him overboard, which indeed quelled the storm for them but Jonah’s trial was not over. Jonah was swallowed by a large fish where he lived for three days and “as his life was ebbing away (he) remembered the Lord, and (his) prayer came to (God), into (God’s) holy temple.” (Paraphrase Jonah 1 & 2) 

It took a shipwreck and three more days for Jonah to figure out that by turning away from the presence of the Lord he set himself up for disaster. Finally he turned around, Jonah called out to the Lord in his distress, and he was saved. What does it take for us to turn around and set down the nets of life as we have known it to follow the Way of the Lord? How much must we suffer before we say, “Uncle” and admit our dependence on the presence of God with us? 

The lives that we cling to are like a fisherman’s net, full of holes and more than enough string to get ourselves all tangled up. What will it take for us to set our old lives down and believe “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near?” How much suffering must we endure before we decide to turn around, to change our minds and our lives?

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