Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

https://soundcloud.com/user-688328025/ash-wednesday-pastor-steven-cauley-february-14-2018

Increasing as I age, I become more aware of my sinful nature. It’s not as if I’m a terrible person, but I realize the powerful effect sin has on my life and the world God loves. Perhaps it is the realization I have that I have the power to destroy and great potential to create distress and havoc. Not that I would ever wish to access my ability to create harm and hurt others, but I am aware of my power and limitations.

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St. Ignatius described sin as putting our hope in the wrong things. From this perspective, I can see how far off my inner drive and thoughts are from the will of God. I think for some it would be just easier to give into sin and live a life without any internal examination to discover the beauty of one’s self. In other words, it is so tempting to live life in these times of transition with the motto, “Do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone.” After all, it is the beginning of the age of authenticity. The point in time where our own experience directs our life and if we don’t like doing something we might as well quit the practice because the cost of missing out on something else is too significant.

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The world is getting smaller every day and more focus on the self. Losing sight of the inner relatedness of life is easy.

As Dr. King taught, “all people see in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In other words, what affects one person impacts us all. We might not consciously be aware of, but we are all, as Dr. King suggests, woven together into one fabric of life.

Moving away from our self-centered way of living to a concern for the Commonwealth of all people was Dr. King’s vision of what he called the “Beloved community” in which he meant the Body of Christ dwelling together under the Reign of God. The sin manifests itself when we divide the world into the “good” and the “bad.” Of course, we are always the good ones; the others are bad. The ones who have a problem are still outside of us, and therefore we tell ourselves we must struggle against those outside our group.

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But a real community is different because of the realization that the evil is inside of us – not just inside the community or group, but inside of me. Jesus talks about this as thinking about the need to remove the speck of dust from my neighbor’s eye but overlooking the log that dwells within my eye. Sin dwells within me. Warfare is within me, within my community. We confess that we aren’t living the life God desires for us and that we place our hope in things that do not create an experience for all.

Jesus calls us into living a different vision for life. A life where, through our baptism into Christ’s death, we too are called to live a different narrative. A narrative where we are called to be agents of peace amidst the violent nature of the world while recognizing the warfare that is going on inside of me.

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Jesus calls us to seek the wholeness, in that our souls are restless until they abide with God. Nothing else will satisfy this longing. Many will attempt to fill their spiritual needs with things that are not spiritual, and as a result, they can never find that inner peace as they continuously battle their own self.

Jesus gives us words of great hope this Ash Wednesday. He tells us that he is God’s “Way, Truth, and Life.” There is a need in all of our souls that we cannot meet. It’s impossible for a human to be completely satisfied on our own. We seek for meaning and life outside ourselves.

This is the day we remember how we have placed our hope in those things that are not God. That we have all wondered from the Truth, Way, and Life that God desires for us. This is the day we remember that we are not at peace. We wrestle with far more matters of life than we care to admit. This is the day where we remember that we have neglected God’s call to live peacefully in community with the world God loves. And because of all this, one day our life on earth will eventually come to an end.

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This is a heavy day. But there is hope. Hope is found in the alternative vision Jesus offers in which there are many places to dwell in God’s house. In Jesus, there are many kinds of people who stay and live out what Dr. King called a “beloved community.”

This Lent, we will dig deeper what it means that Jesus is the “Way.” Not “one way” or “a way” but “The Way.” Jesus words in the Gospel speak to us in ways that our culture cannot and will not talk. So, remember to listen to his words as if you were hearing them for the first time. Think about what you are seeing in your life and what God wants to show you. For God is there, ready to receive us and forgive us even in spite of ourselves.

Hear his invitation to repentance and the possibility of growth in your faith again. Trust that where Jesus is, there we may also be. Amen.

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Pouting in the Pit or Preaching to the People?

If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today.  First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.

I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.

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I would keep Deborah, for sure.  And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right? 

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Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.

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Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)

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In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. —    (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

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And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah.  Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish.  But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.

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Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.

In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind.  God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites.  Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away.  And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them.  Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites.  So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.

Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine.  Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.

Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.

I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy.  I presume they must have ample stomachs.

But one big enough to hold a person, for three days? 

Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?

I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.

At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh.  God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.

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I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish.  He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot.  Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?

But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh.  Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message. 

So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo.  His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.

We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh.  We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.

Why did Jonah dislike them so?  Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah?  Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?

Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture?  Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’?  Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?

Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.

Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life?  Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know? 

Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God.  Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking.  You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?

God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken.  I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses.  Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.

I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.

There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.

It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news.  It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules.  It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.

And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy.  It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world. 

It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done. 

There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen.  There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.

And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.

These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments.  We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities. 

But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits.  God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news.  God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.

And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security.  God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way.  God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity.  God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways.  We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.

Because God loves it away. 

God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish.  God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.

God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land.  God loves us out of our shame.  God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.

But the story doesn’t stop here. 

God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.

God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others.  And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.

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But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.

God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.

Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.

Amen.

 

“Keeping the Edges Hot” a Reflection on Matthew 25

https://player.fm/series/1526279/191428889

Each year, after we hear God’s promise of eternal life on All Saints’, we focus our attention on the return of the Son of Man. When we reflect our awareness to what happens around us, it seems to be fitting that following our remembrance of God’s promise on those who have already entered eternal life through our commemoration of the saints, at some point, all we have known and will know will come to an end. We call this the cycle of life, and while our culture does it’s best to distract us from thinking about the end of things, the gospel calls us to be aware of the reality of life.

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         Jesus tells the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids as a way of inviting our attention to the details of our life. In a real sense, it is a parable about spiritual literacy which, according to our passage means being alive to what life is telling us and an awareness of the presence of God in the darkness of the night.

         There are all kinds of delightful and essential things that are happening in front of us, but we often miss most of them because we are either too busy to notice or not awake to realize what is happening. Which seems to be Jesus point in telling this parable.

         This past week in our confirmation class, our class discussed how Christianity is similar and dissimilar to other world religions. Our youth talked about Buddhist and how meditation can lead to Nirvana or an enlightenment as a life path. Buddha says everything in life comes down to one thing- staying awake and being aware. And you remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Watch and pray,” Jesus says. “Remain with me.” He tells the disciples. And yet, the Bible reports that the disciples are unable to remain awake.

         God is in the details, and if we are not paying attention, we will miss the message. Paying attention requires disciple and practice. As a community of faith whose core is the Gospel message, we lift up and affirm our spiritual practices as a way in which we remain aware of the presence of God as a way to express our faith in Jesus Christ as a different way to live and be in this complicated world.

What does it mean to pay attention? Being alive and awake in the case of Jesus parable is to live intentionally without reservation in the here-and-now. To be attentive, we must put ourselves in a place where we are open and receptive and entirely present. This takes work and practice. There is no one “right” way to practice an awareness. Psychologist tells us based on brain scans that people who have a spiritual practice of consciousness and alertness have created more Alpha waves in their brains which in turn translates into a less stressful life and peaceful feeling. And conversely, if we are not aware and alert we can be distracted and eluded from what is supplying energy to our lives a thousand times over.

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         How often has each of us not fully embraces those moments of grace, epiphanies, and great insights because we have been too wrapped up in a hurried pace of life? Too busy to slow down to appreciate the good stuff that gives our lives meaning.

         Spiritually, too many Christians are just playing church. Just going through the motions. We say we want to follow Jesus as long as following Jesus fits nicely into my schedule and doesn’t require any time or monetary commitment from me. We might show up on a Sunday morning, but the message we come away with doesn’t do for us what it does for some of the other folks. We might not be aware of God’s presence in our life because we haven’t given any thought to the matter. And then we are in a rush to start the week ill-prepared because we’ve been so busy during the weekend that by the time Monday rolls around, and we get to the office, God’s message of life and meaning is as distant to us as last year’s vacation. Like the foolish bridesmaid who was ill-equipped for the darkness of the night, they were not alert for the moment at hand.   

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         Each day, each moment has its own needs. Each day has its own set of thoughts and words. Are we living in tune with what God is speaking to us? Because as the parable expresses no moment is trivial since each moment in time contains a spark of the divine. If we are not aware and present, we miss what God is speaking.

         Jesus parable of the bridesmaid is like our reminder of God’s grand banquet that is spread out before us, and God desires that we partake and seize the present moment to recognize God’s presence with us without any regret for the past or the future. Pledge to yourselves this moment and let the moment teach you. Surrender yourself to the moment and make it preach to you because the quality of each moment we are aware of the Life inside us determines the quality of life we lead.

         Where do we start? “Pastor, how can I be more in tune with the life that lives inside of me?” How can I be like the bridesmaid who was alert and awake? The starting point in the recognition that we are already on the journey. We can’t attain the presence of God anymore because we are already entirely in the existence of God. What is missing is our awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us with every breath we take in. Maybe the best way to be aware is not so much about what we need to learn or even attain, but rather what things do I need to unlearn so that I am more aware of God’s presence?

         I mentioned that our confirmation students class time was about world religions. Some might wonder why it would be essential to teach the students about other religions when we are instructing them in faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a fair question to ask, and I would answer that all religious teachers without exception have recognized that we humans do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see.

         And what that might mean for many of us is that to be aware of God’s presences in our lives, we have to accept what is often difficult to realize that it is God who walks alongside the problematic moments in lives. That’s why Buddha and Jesus say with one voice, “Stay awake! And Remain watchful.” We have to learn to see what is there because if we want to remain awake and engage in spiritual practices remember what a spiritual exercise is designed to do – religious traditions help us to get rid of the illusions we hold so that we can be fully present. Spiritual methods exist to help us see who we are, what is happening in life and what is True. On the contrary, our mass culture is like scales over our eyes. We only see life through the material eye which will always desire to acquire more and more.

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   So then, if we are to believe and take to heart these words of Jesus, then we must start with what spiritual teachers coin a “beginner’s mind.” That is to be aware of the voices inside us that presume that we already see what God wants us to see. A beginner’s mind starts with the reality that I know nothing and has everything to learn. A beginner’s mind understands there may be no sufficient answer and that the questions we ask or more important than any answer given. A beginner’s mind is merely an awareness. An awareness that we cannot live in the presence of God, but rather that we are entirely surrounded by God.

         St. Patrick said it like this: “God beneath us, God in front of us, God behind us, God above us, God within us.”

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         To be aware and live means that we cannot earn God. We can’t prove ourselves worthy of God, but rather than that to be awake and alert is to be attentive to the reality that God is already present and because of that, we can enjoy the present moment. Right here. Right now. For sure, there are moments when this happens smoothly for us. When life makes sense, and all is right with the world.

         But Jesus doesn’t leave us there. Jesus pushes us further to see past our social edges. Can you see the image of Jesus in the least of your brothers and sisters? How about your enemies are those whom would cause you harm? Notice this parable says nothing about commands, or church attendance, nothing about church law. Jesus parable is only about our ability to see.

         Perhaps what it means to have oil in our lamps is when we can see the image of God where we don’t want to look and see, then we know not with our own eyes, but with the eyes of Jesus. Amen.

 

Searching for Hope….

“The local church is the hope of the world.”- Bill Hybels

But why? Because when the local church stewards the message of Christ, it truly is the hope of the world.

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If you don’t already have a community of faith.  Find one.

Be patient.  There is no perfect faith community.  We’re all dealing with serious issues.  But don’t loose your hope, having issues just validates the fact that we are all searching for hope.

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Stay alert and watch.

And above all else, trust in the slow work of God. 

“Celebrating God’s Saints” A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

All Saints’ Sunday is exactly as the name suggests; we celebrate all saints.  Saints living and those who’ve entered the church triumphant.   We remember how the saints have showed us what the Book of Acts calls The Way.  The first Christians were known as people of The Way.   Many of those saints we remember not because they sought to be rich or happy or well-fed or popular, but because they made sacrifices, often without knowing the names of those for whom they were sacrificing.

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Do we take their Christian witness for granted?  You bet we do.  That’s why we need days like today to remind us of the Christian forerunners of thousands of years who remind us even to this day to keep our lives’ priorities in check with the God’s values.  Those lives of the saints whom we’ve never met, but who put their lives on the line so that we might gather to worship the risen Christ.   Saints from hundreds of years, or even thousands of years ago who gave on our behalf.  Sacrificing their happiness for a greater joy that comes with serving in the name of Jesus Christ.   They sacrificed their own fulfillment so that others could be filled. They sacrificed their own need to acquire more so others might have enough. They sacrificed their own popularity in their fight for the well-being of others.

This is All Saints’ Day, a day we honor those saints who have gone before us and whose memory is precious to us. It is no accident that these challenging words from Luke are chosen for this special day, for it is wrestling with these words that we come to understand the faith of a saint.

Today’s Gospel tells us that death and resurrection are the great levelers. Status things which seem so important to us now — money, gourmet food, entertainment, and popularity — should not seem important to us in this world; and they will be worthless when we are saints in the life that is to come.

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We live in a time when winning and success are so important, that coaches who lose too many games are fired, the bottom line of a company’s profit-or-loss statement gets the most attention from stockholders, and even congregations are judged as “successful” or “unsuccessful” by comparing this year’s average attendance with last year’s. All Saints’ Sunday is a good time for us to hear once the sports cliché:  The question is not whether we won or whether we lost, but how we played the game.

Because, when we get down to it, we have to admit, it’s not easy living the life of a saint. Jesus talks about that life, and it just sounds backward. “Blessed are you who are poor,” but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who weep,” But “woe to you who laugh.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Oftentimes, these words get twisted. “What are we supposed to do?” we ask. “Be a doormat? Lie down and let people trample all over us?” How in the world are you blessed when things are going badly? We think we are blessed when things are going well for us and we’re healthy and happy and safe. But the saintly life isn’t about wealth, popularity, or comfort. It’s about faith and hope, resurrection and life, compassion, love, and purpose.

The saintly life is not just about staying out of trouble. It’s not passive. It isn’t wimpy to live as a saint. To live as God’s holy people takes courage. Turning the other cheek is courageous. It’s bold and it’s tough and it’s impossibly gutsy. “No,” it says, “you will not win. I will not give up. Jesus died for me, rose for me, called me holy, and I will not let that go. I will not let anger and revenge and sin get the upper hand.”

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That’s backward to our way of thinking. It’s not natural. What we want to do, what we are inclined to do, is still largely our selfishness talking, our fear talking, and our sin talking. The good, the noble, the righteous, the merciful, the generous, and the loving — that is God talking. That is God calling. To live the life of a saint is to live in God’s mercy. To live the life of a saint is to live in the often-uncomfortable paradox of being the sinners we know ourselves to be, and at the same time, being the holy person God says we are. Maybe you don’t feel especially holy, but you are. God is calling us to be holy. God is calling us to be his. God is calling us forward. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally. But God is with you and will always be with you, just as God is with all the saints. Amen.