Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sin and Sinners

Fourth Sunday in Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23            
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41       

The concept of sin threads its way through the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday; but "sin" and "sinners" are often misunderstood concepts, even in Jesus' day. 

The disciples wondered if it was the blind man who sinned, or his parents' sins, that caused the man to be born blind.  If a person was suffering it was commonly believed that the root cause of it was that the person, or the parents, were sinners. 
The Pharisees believed that not observing the Sabbath (as they thought it should be observed) was a sin; but others felt that Jesus couldn't be a sinner if he was able to heal the blind man.  But the blind man wisely responded to the Pharisees that he did not know if Jesus was a sinner, but he did know that Jesus healed him.  The Pharisees responded that the blind man had been born entirely in sins, and shouldn't be trying to teach the Pharisees anything.  And Jesus told the Pharisees, "If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.

The problem of sin is at the very foundation of Christian theology.  But what exactly is sin?
Sin has usually been thought of as the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.
But why do we sin in the first place?  The first section of the Catechism on Human Nature says that we are part of God's creation, made in the image of God.  That means "we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God."  But from the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.  It's because we rebel against God, and "we put ourselves in the place of God."
But here's where we start to come up a little short-handed.  We are drawn to look further as to why human beings do this – why do they misuse their freedom and try to put themselves in God's place?  Why do we seek our own will instead of God's will?  Is it because our nature is "sinful, wicked and unclean"?  But how can this be, if we're created in the image of God?
Perhaps we need a slightly different view of what sin actually is.  Let's start with a look at the will of God.  We usually view the will of God as His wanting us to follow His commandments.  A sin is when someone violates God's law, and that person usually therefore in need of correction, sometimes in the form of a punishment.  This is the Law and Order perspective.
But what if the will of God is something different?  What if the will of God has more to do with His desire that we become complete human beings so that we can know, love and serve Him in our own unique way?  That is, our earthly human side and our spiritual being side are fully united in His love?  A Human Being par excellence.  This is the Unity perspective.
But what's the problem?  The problem is that the Human side (flesh and ego) doesn't always work well with the Being side (spirit and soul).  The Human side brings with it some deep instinctive survival needs, along with a brain that generates thoughts based on fear, greed, and a need for power which sometimes overwhelms the soul.  Without discipline, understanding, and guidance in life, a dysfunctional ego develops that shapes a life with a will of its own.  This is the concept of "original sin."  It endangers us all, and can appear in collective form in small groups, corporations, and nations.

The original definition of sin meant someone who is "missing the mark."  Yes, the result may be that the person doesn't follow the laws of God, but the proximate cause is an underlying disconnect between body and soul that needs healing, not punishment.  Sinners were missing the mark because they didn't integrate body and soul – not just because they violated God's laws, but because they missed God's purpose for themselves.  To be in a state of sin is to not understand our overall personal purpose in life; to not know that we're all interconnected with each other, with nature, and with God; to lack awareness to the world and people around us; to fail to discover who we really are, and how we can live life for God to the fullest.
Certainly, sinful acts can hurt others and ourselves, and these need special attention and remedy.  This is where forgiveness, restitution, amends, and restoration come into play.  But the more we can reduce the sinful state of a person, the fewer sinful acts will occur.  And this begins with healing through guidance, counseling, awareness training, and love – not punishment and condemnation.
When we pray, "Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner," we are asking for Jesus' intervention in our lives to reunite body and soul in harmony with God's love.  We are asking for God' grace in our lives, to open our eyes like Jesus did for the blind man, so that we too, can see the truth of His love for us and for each other.  As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the [spiritually] dead, and Christ will shine on you!"  (Ephesians 5) 
We are not sinners and in need of forgiveness; we are sinners and in need of healing, and Jesus' life provides the basis for this healing.  "He restores my soul," says Psalm 23, "He leads me in right paths for His Name's sake." 

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Reign of Christ?

Proper 29, Year C

Jeremiah 23:1-6             
Luke 1:68-79                  or         Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20                                            
Luke 23:33-43   
The last Sunday of the three year liturgical cycle presents us with a rather surprising image – Jesus crucified on a cross between two other condemned men.  This Sunday is often referred to as "the Reign of Christ."  What we expect after three years of Gospel lessons about our King is someone sitting victoriously on a high throne, ruling the world in all glory and power. Instead, we see what appears to be a broken man, suspended between two others who can't agree about who this person between them is.
Why are we presented with this image from the Passion experience as the culminating lesson after three years? Perhaps the explanation can be found not on a throne in some far away kingdom, but at the core of every human heart.
Let's remember the key messages from many of the previous Gospel lessons: God is love itself; God dearly loves us; God came to earth through Christ to show us what God is like, and to teach us how to live; God wants us to be loving, too, and have a personal relationship with Him. 
But love has to be a choice, or it cannot be love.  And to have a choice, we had to be given free will to make that choice.  With that free will, however, also comes the possibility that we will make some bad choices.  So, a tension arises within us, a tug-of-war between doing the will of God and all the worldly forces that sometimes hold us hostage. 
Internally, we are pressured by our survival and procreation instincts; because we are contained within human flesh, we seek safety and comfort, we want security and power, and we want to experience the pleasures this world has to offer.  These things are not evil, because they are part of who we are as flesh and bones. 
It's how we manage them that can create or avoid problems, which is often greatly influenced by external forces.  We are shaped by the norms of our culture, marketing propaganda, peer pressure, social illusions, and past personal experience – all of which may press against our spiritual values, morals, and the conscience of our God-given soul.
The soul part of us often struggles with the worldly part of us.  This is a battle we fight all of our lives.  It's what makes us human, and what helps us to grow as children of God, especially when we deal with this tension in a proper way. 
The two condemned men hanging on the opposite sides of Jesus represent the two sides of this battle.  One of them joined in what the crowd was saying: "If you are the Messiah, save yourself!  If you are the King, save yourself!" And they mocked and scoffed at Jesus.  Our false self can easily accuse, reject, deny and disconnect from the truth. It's our worldly side getting the better of us, covering up our true self and our true identity – creating a world of darkness.
The other man represents our soul side. This man could see deeply, he could see the truth, and he was humble.  Full of openness, understanding, and compassion, he surrendered himself to Jesus: "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."  As St. Paul wrote in Colossians 1, "He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us in to the kingdom of His beloved Son..."
And there, in the middle of this personal struggle inside each of us, is Christ.  Arms outstretched to bring the two sides together, he is always present between the tension of our worldly self and our true soul.  He is the mediator that knows and understands what we face as humans. He is the instrument of God to heal us, to bring us peace, to make us whole.  Not there to accuse, condemn or punish, but ever-present to unite, redeem, and refresh.
The Reign of Christ is not on some throne in a far away kingdom, but rules within our very heart.  He stands in the midst of our troubles and personal sorrows, mending and resting, healing and soothing.
The psalmist writes, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth itself should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea...The Lord of Hosts is with us...Be still and know that I am God."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

When Kingdoms Collide

Proper 28, Year C

Isaiah 65:17-25              or         Malachi 4:1-2a
Isaiah 12:1-6                  or         Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13                                      
Luke 21:5-19     
The presence of God’s love and wisdom in this world has always created a tension at some level.  Even Jesus said that his arrival here would bring trouble: “Don’t think that peace follows me to earth; it’s not peace that comes, but a sword.”  (Matthew 10:34)   This is not what one normally imagines would happen upon the arrival of the Lamb of God, the Great Shepherd. But even for him, this tension resulted in his execution on the cross.

So, why is there such tension in the world at the presence of God in Jesus, even today?  We find the core of the answer in Isaiah, when he writes, “And God said, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

God is love, and God creates out of love.  God wants us to be loving, too.  But love can only exist when it’s a choice, and that means there must be free will to make that choice.  With free will, however, comes the possibility that bad choices will be made – choices that stem from things that cloud the soul, such as avarice, arrogance, power, wealth, prejudice, fear, and illusions.  These ways are not God’s ways.

Historically, and even in today’s world, many of mankind’s social, economic, political, and religious systems are based on these bad choices.  As a result, we end up with poverty, famine, diseases, unfair discrimination, economic inequality, waste, wars, and pollution.  Some people benefit greatly at the expense of others by creating the power to nurture these lop-sided conditions. But these systems are sustained only when those controlling them maintain the power to do so.  Change begins to happen when those who are oppressed are empowered to act. 

This is where the tension emerges.  Those in power (who do not want change to happen) strongly oppose those that do want the change.  Current power structures are threatened; those in power could lose prestige, wealth, power, and visibility (all things of the dysfunctional ego).  So they fight back, not realizing what the truths in life really are.  It turns into a battle between egos versus hearts. 

Jesus brought us a message of love that was welcomed by many people, but despised by others.  Ultimately, his opponents arranged a mock trial and got him executed.  But, as we know, even that didn’t stop him from promoting God’s love.  And it shouldn’t stop us either!  As Jesus stated in Luke 21, “You may be hated by all because of my Name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

Regardless of what happens to us, “all will be well,” as Julian of Norwich reminds us.  We may suffer some trials and tribulations, but in the end, God will bring us to complete restoration and refreshment in His kingdom. 

As Jesus and his disciples walked past the temple, “adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God,” Jesus predicted that not one of the stones will be left upon another – all would be thrown down.  This lead to a description of what we often think of as the “end times.”  Perhaps this is the final period of change, when Christ returns to establish what Isaiah calls “new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17)  The eternal tension between mankind and God comes to a final resolution, and a new world order is instituted for all our good for all time.

But we don’t know when these end times will be.  In the meantime, we have work to do here.  We must continue to fight the good fight of love.  And the best way to do this is to become the person you were truly meant to be, and to live your life to its fullest. 

Each of us has been given some special gifts, talents, interests, and skills.  Our main task is to find out what these are, and then use them to our fullest.  Each person contributes to the overall good of God’s plan, regardless of what he or she does, as long as it’s being who were truly were made to be.  We must learn to appreciate gifts not only in ourselves, but in others as well.  Just because we have differences does not mean some are better and some are worse.  They are all important to God!

Did you know that stopping to admire the beauty of a flower, or to appreciate its fragrance, is creating admiration and appreciation in this world?  This is a wonderful creative gift that some people have!

Did you know that offering someone a smile or a kind word strengthens the invisible connections we have between each other, thus creating a stronger family of God?  How powerful this talent of creation is!

Did you know that offering a prayer for someone else can actually create a new life in that person (or even in yourself)!  The Kingdom grows stronger through this gift!

Don't measure your gifts and skills based on mankind’s standards.  Remember that God’s ways are higher than our ways.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Are Marriages Made in Heaven?

Proper 27, Year C
Haggai 1:15b-2:9                                   or         Job 19:23-27a
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21     or Psalm 98     or         Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thess. 2:1-5, 13-17                                         
Luke 20:27-38   
The Sadducees were part of a Jewish religious group active during the time of Jesus' ministry.  They were associated with the upper social and economic classes of the time, and managed the Temple activities.  They generally didn't believe in the resurrection of the body, or even that a person had a soul, and therefore sometimes clashed with Jesus.
In Luke 20 we encounter another example of this.  They challenged Jesus again, this time pressing him with a somewhat sarcastic question about marriage in the afterlife.  They asked him about a woman who married seven times in her earthly life and, after her earthly death, "Whose wife shall she be in the resurrection?"
Jesus squashed their challenge with a simple response stating that marriage was a human institution, and not something that is needed in the time of resurrection.  It's something people do in this life, but not in the next.  Why?  Because in the next life we will all be considered as brothers and sisters – children of the one God – and won't be marrying anyone.  It just won't be necessary.
Marriage is indeed a human institution, and took many forms throughout history.  Even today there are many types of marriage.  Some cultures allow polygamous marriage, some allow inter-racial marriages, some allow same-sex marriages.  In some cultures, marriages are arranged by force.  Other marriages are created to simply designate who belongs to whom, as one would hold title to property.  Many cultures prohibit marriages between close relatives for genetic reasons.  Others simply arrange them for political reasons or for succession of property.
Jesus was in no way diminishing the value of a good marriage when he answered the Sadducees.  In fact, he knew that good marriages add much to a culture, and serve to strengthen a society, not to mention the value it can have for one's immediate family. 
But Jesus was trying to keep things in perspective.  There is a much larger marriage going on, a marriage between God and all His children, bringing them into a much larger family.  This is a marriage of our spirits – our souls – a blessed union that lasts forever.  By pointing this out to the Sadducees, he was also emphasizing that people do, indeed, have souls.  His exclamation point to the Sadducees was, "God is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to Him all of them are alive."
It would benefit all of us if we could start viewing ourselves in this life as the brothers and sisters we'll be in the next.  It has always been God's intent to bring His kingdom to earth, and that's what we pray for when we offer the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
If a marriage here on earth can bring two people (any two people) closer to God, and helps these two people build a loving relationship with each other (which, in turn, helps them to learn how to love their neighbor), then we are stepping out of bounds if we stand in their way.  It is, after all, a small reflection of a much bigger family reunion that is coming soon!
From the inside out, we are all in the same family of God.  We are all interconnected as brothers and sisters. That's why we sometimes call each other "brother" or "sister".  When we call ourselves "Brother" or "Sister" it's a reminder for us to know our place in life – not above anyone else; not beneath anyone else.  It should be a humbling reminder. 
How much would this world change if we could greet the stranger as a family member?


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Salvation is a Journey that Begins Now

Proper 26, Year C
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4               or         Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 119:137-144                    or         Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12                                         
Luke 19:1-10     
Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, felt some deep dissonance within himself, something that persistently disturbed his peace, letting him know that things were not right in his heart.  His money didn't satisfy him, and his power didn't satisfy him.  He was living a false life, he was living a lie, and he knew it.
Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus, and felt the nudge to find out if this man could provide the answer.  Now Jesus was coming to Jericho, so Zacchaeus was determined to at least see him.  Climbing a tree to get above the crowds, Zacchaeus was stunned when Jesus stopped and invited himself to Zacchaeus' house.  Once the encounter with the loving Christ happened, there was no turning back – Zacchaeus was now a changed man, and Jesus proclaimed that "Today, salvation has come to this house."
Salvation has a beginning, but perhaps has no end.  It becomes a way of life that starts now and continues on through eternity.  Salvation means that one's past is surrendered to the mercy of God, the future is left to the Providence of God, and the present moment becomes filled with the love of God.  There is no room left for anything but the love of God.  Each moment becomes a new past, and shapes a new future.
The tugging that Zacchaeus felt in his heart is something put there by God.  It won't go away, because His love for us won't go away.  It's steadfast and enduring.  It's an invitation to be open to God's love, to His guidance, and to His presence.  If we accept this invitation, as Zacchaeus did, we meet God through the living Jesus, and we see in him what we are meant to be. 
Salvation is taking the next step to become that person.
What happened to Zacchaeus?  He ended up sharing his wealth with the poor.  He made restitution for his past wrongs.  And he viewed his life very differently from that moment on.  He become the person that he was made to be.  As Paul wrote in II Corinthians 5, "A person in Christ is a new creation; everything old has passed away, everything has become new."  That is salvation.
Our task is to discover who we were made to be, to become what we really are – not what other people want us to be.  We need to find our place in the body of Christ, wherever that may be, and realize that whatever it is we're doing, it's equally important to the body as every other part.  Read Paul's description of the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12.  He does an excellent job of keeping things in perspective.
The crowds of people (things and pressures of this world) can keep us from seeing this truth, much like the crowds that kept Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus.  Zacchaeus separated himself from the crowd so that he had a chance to see the one who would bring him salvation.  Find your own sycamore tree and climb it.  As the psalmist writes in Psalm 119, "Give me understanding that I may live."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mistaken Identity

Proper 25, Year C
Joel 2:23-32        or         Sirach 35:12-17 and Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 65             or         Psalm 84:1-7
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18                                     
Luke 18:9-14     
The most important thing that each of us has to do in life is to find our true identity.  We need to know our roots, who we belong to, and what unique gifts, interests, and talents we have been given to become who we were made to be in this life. This is a job of the heart, not of the head.  If we let the head do it, we could very well end up with a false identity.
"The secret of our identity lies in how we can reveal our inner quality of aliveness.  When we fail to be who we really are, we sicken."                       - Cynthia Bourgeault
Our true identity rests deep within our soul, waiting to be discovered, anxious to be released.  Often, as we travel through life, our true identity gets covered up, like a dirty light bulb, with illusions, desires, prejudices, fears, arrogance, shame, or worry.  We develop a false self, someone truly foreign to us, but who nevertheless finds a place in mankind's system of things. What's shining on the inside never makes it to the surface. 
This was true of Saul, until he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9)  Saul was a persecutor of the Church, sending some followers to prison.  On his way to Damascus to continue this persecution, he was intercepted by Jesus: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" The encounter with Jesus caused temporary blindness in Saul, but eventually was relieved by Ananias, a disciple of the church.
Ananias laid hands on Saul, and "Immediately something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and his sight was restored."  The false self of Saul dissolved, and Saul's true self was able to shine through.  From then on Saul (soon to be known as Paul) understood what the love of God was really about, and worked for the Church until his earthly passing.
"To become God-like is to identify ourselves with the divine element which in fact constitutes our essential nature, but of which, in our mainly voluntary ignorance, we choose to remain unaware."                                                          - Aldous Huxley
Jesus further described this huge difference between the false self and the true self in the parable recorded in Luke 18.  Two men went to pray in the temple.  The Pharisee (and certainly not all Pharisees were like this) was living through his false self, much like Saul was.  He thought he was in God's good favor because he went above and beyond what the rules required.  He thought the way to God was through his status and behavior.  He was depending entirely on himself, a mistaken identity.
The other man, a tax collector, was at a different place inside.  He had discovered his true self, and because of this he understood his connection with God and with other people, and how his thoughts, words, and deeds either hurt or helped God's creation.  He grasped the idea that we're all interconnected, and connected with God.  This discovery led him to changing his life, much as Saul did.  In the words of Jesus, he will become "justified" – to be made complete as an individual that is part of the whole, part of the family of God.
Some people discover their true identity early in life. Some people never do.  It all depends on how thick the false self is that covers the true self.  It may be a soft word or gentle touch that cracks the tough exterior coating.  It may take a life-threatening situation or financial disaster.  It Saul's case, it took an intervention by Christ himself. 
Once we discover this inner true self, it gradually manifests itself in our outer purpose in life.  We begin to make changes in our life that represent who and what we really are.  Our outer life is in harmony with our inner identity.  Some of these changes are risky, and may be costly in terms of material position and security; but they nevertheless lead us to a fullness in life that can't be achieved anyway else. Our mind, body, and soul grow together in harmony.
One thing we must remember is that regardless of who we meet and deal with during the day, how irritable or annoying they may be, underneath what we see and hear rests a true self waiting to be discovered.  Their false self is not all their fault – we don't know what they've been through in life, or what they're facing at the moment.  So be gentle.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Persistence and Prayer

Proper 24, Year C

Jeremiah 31:27-34          or         Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121                       or         Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5                                           
Luke 18:1-8       
Luke 18 provides a difficult passage that offers richness in possibilities.  Commonly considered a lesson that "persistent prayer brings results," we find that the reason for this is perhaps different from what we think.  Let's remember that the widow wasn't praying to the judge persistently, she was assertively confronting him until she won her case. But she probably couldn't have kept this up unless she had the spiritual power to do so.
Jesus opens his lesson with two important points: the need to pray always, and not to lose heart.  There was a widow, Jesus said, who sought justice from an unjust judge.  This widow probably had no power or money, two things that are advantageous in a worldly system of politics, greed and power.  But the widow did have persistence!  She finally got what she wanted by pestering the judge persistently, never giving up. 
She didn't give up in pursuing her cause, which was one of Jesus' points to this story: don't lose heart, particularly when battling a secular system that is indifferent to justice for all.  One must keep fighting for what is right and just, even when the odds seem insurmountable.
But how does one maintain the energy, the passion and the motivation to keep fighting the good fight?  That is the second point Jesus was making: the need to pray always.  The basic function of prayer is to get us in touch with God.  When we do this, we connect with His power source, His love for us and the world, and we are re-energized, refreshed, and renewed once again. 
This is the balance we need in the dance of life – sometimes we need silent time, prayer time, contemplative time; and sometimes we are out engaging the world, serving as God's hands, feet, and voice in our day-to-day activities.  This, I believe, was the contrast that Jesus was trying to make in this story.
Jesus affirms that the unjust judge is not like God by comparing what the judge did with how God responds to His children: "Will He delay long in helping them [like the unjust judge]?  I tell you, He will quickly grant justice to them."  No need to beg, grovel or pester.
Justice in Biblical times had a broader meaning than what we think it is today.  Back then it meant to restore equity to a person – not just in monetary terms, but in a sense of wholeness as a human being.  A person became just when they were connected with God through prayer and were given the wisdom and understanding of His love.  They achieved a harmony between mind, body and soul.  Armed with this, he or she could engage the world in a powerful way, to overcome even the worst of the unjust judges.
It's true that we need to be persistent in prayer, but in doing so it's meant to give us the fuel to venture out and confront the wrongs in this world.  The widow had the power to maintain her persistence because she prayed often. 
Jesus concludes this lesson with an admonition: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"  That is, he who has ears to hear, let them listen to this advice!  The person who stays secluded from the world will have little impact on it.  But the person who never prays, who never takes time to renew, refresh, or recharge one's spiritual batteries will burn out too quickly, and also have little or no impact on the world.  Once again, balance is the key.

Jesus has sent us the Advocate to teach us; but we have to take time to listen to the Teacher.