Year A, Proper 25--What's the Church For? A School for Love
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Year A Proper 25: Deuteronomy 34:1-12: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest in Charge
We’ve been journeying with Moses and the Israelites for a few weeks now—God’s appearing in the Burning Bush, the passage out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, the dusty trek through the Wilderness of Sin and feedings with manna and quail, the little hiccup at Mt. Sinai involving a Golden Calf and a nervous Moses cooling God down from a fit of pique…. Now we finally get to the end of the journey. With God as a kind of tour guide or real estate agent, Moses surveys the Promised Land—Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, the land of Judah as far as the Western sea, the Negeb, the plain. It’s a beautiful place, and we can imagine Moses—after everything he has been through leading his band of stiff-necked grumblers out of slavery into freedom—being over-joyed at finally having arrived. It’s over. The work is done. At last, he can take his sandals off, put his feet up, kick back with a cool quail and manna cocktail, and watch the kids play a game of locusts, lice, boils, and frogs.
Except that’s not what happens. Moses glimpses the Promised Land, but he himself doesn’t enter in. “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there,” God tells Moses. Look, but don’t touch. That hardly seems fair, does it? We expect someone like Moses, having gone through so much, to get a little reward for all his efforts. Instead, he gets a tantalizing glimpse of the land of milk and honey only to drop dead. If we think back to last week’s story from Exodus, we can tease out a similar theme. Remember, Moses asks God to show him God’s Glory. God agrees. But it’s not in the way that Moses might expect. The Glory of God is revealed to Moses as that which passes by. The always-arriving always departing God who cannot be contained, pinned down, mandated, managed, or manipulated is on the move. There is no final, finished, once-and-for-all revelation of God’s Glory to Moses (or to us) that will allow us to wash our hands of God’s claim on us, that will exempt us from God’s insistence, God’s pressure, in our lives. Moses sees the backside of God because for now we see only in part, but also because God has already headed off down the road beckoning us to follow as he disappears around the bend. It is the journey, the following after, the faithful, steady walking between glimpses where God passes by, to which we are called. We make the road by walking it. It is in stepping out that we find ourselves most at home. It is in the midst of the journey that we know God’s rest.
Clearly, the story of the Israelites is our story. The movement from slavery in Egypt and tyranny under Pharaoh through the Red Sea and eventually into the freedom of the Promised Land is the story of a people, but it also charts the journey of the individual soul slowly, hesitantly, yielding to the reality of love. We all have our Pharaohs who keep us chained to the production economy of being “useful”—churning out lots of good bricks and measuring our worth by how much we get done. We all have those hankerings for safety and security when we find ourselves in transition times in the wilderness periods of our lives that interrupt our best laid plans. We all have those times when Pharaoh’s flesh pots start to look pretty good. We’ve all got our Golden Calves which we’d rather worship than follow the pesky Living God who slips through our fingers, and won’t sit still long enough for us to tame and domesticate. But as the arc of the story of God’s people makes clear, there is an alternative to the various strategies we employ to shore up our existence—power and control, safety and security, affection and esteem. These substitute forms of happiness never last. They are like dew on the grass, and straw in the fire. Like a kid on a sugar high, they might give a brief little jolt, but the lasting peace, God’s “rest,” eludes us.
The spiritual journey is really all about seeing through these illusory pursuits of substitute happiness, and learning to depend on the only true source of peace, comfort, and safety—God and God alone. Just as the Israelites are shown again and again the various ways they would rather rely on something concrete, tangible, and manageable than follow a pillar of fire or see Moses disappear up into a dark cloud, so are we shown—gently, lovingly, and always for the purpose of drawing us into ever deeper love and ever deeper interior freedom—the various things that get in the way of living a happy life. Near the end of the prologue to his “little rule for beginners,” St. Benedict speaks of the gathered community as a school of the Lord’s service. Today, we might call it a community of love. Either way, this image of the Church as a school that teaches us that we are loved and how we can share that love with others gets to the very heart of what we are doing here at St. Mark’s.
I’ve started to think that it’s impossible for us to love other people without knowing ourselves to be loved unconditionally by God. We are loved into loving. It’s in knowing ourselves to be held—always and everywhere—in the tender, loving palm of God that love is born in us. Those old images of ourselves—as unlovable, as unworthy, as the one person on the planet undeserving of God’s free, unmerited grace—start to collapse like the Tower of Babel. Love, like the smelter’s fire, melts away the Golden idols we’ve inherited from our culture, our parents, our education, our religious upbringing and that keep us chained in a feedback loop of shame and self-hate. We start to see ourselves with the same eye with which God sees us—as a precious, beloved child of God whose unique gifts God is calling forth into the world.
When we get this little taste of God’s boundless love for us, when we experience for ourselves the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we slowly but surely learn what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. When the parched ground of soul finds true refreshment in God’s love, our appetites for those poor substitutes starts to fall away. Our individual journeys all look different, but since Paul is talking about flattery and praise, take the classic approval junky as a quick example. What difference does God make? In this case, knowing God’s unconditional love for them frees the approval addict up from having to seek it in the eyes of other people. And instead of using other people to get the approval they think they need, the recovering approval junky learns to let other people be just as they are; knowing themselves to be loved as they are, they can let others be as they are. Rather than using and manipulating others as approval dispensers to shore up their sense of self, the recovering approval junky who knows God’s love, actually begins to let others be other in their otherness. Instead of the other person being a vehicle for our needs—an object—something different arises. Freed of using the other to fulfill an unmet need in ourselves, the other is allowed to flower in their uniqueness. We are simply present with the other without predatory intent. And the other experiences themselves as seen, held, loved, without agenda. They are no longer a pawn in the someone else’s game of earning affection. They’re not an object, but a subject. A living, precious, child of God.
This is just one example of the difference God’s love makes, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The transformation is astounding. And I’m sure each of you has a similar story you could tell. When we get right down to it, today’s gospel reminds us, as a community journeying into love, what we are here to do. This place—these walls, these windows, the liturgy, the music—exists for the sole purpose of helping us to know God’s love for us and then to go out and be the shape that love takes in the world. The Cathedral exists to pry open a little space in each of our crowded lives in which God can act. A school for the Lord’s service, it trains us in openness and receptivity that love might get a word in edgewise through all the chatter. I sometimes think of liturgy as analogous to the way water can drip through stone—slowly but surely, year after year, Sunday after Sunday our hardened hearts are battered upon by the waters of God’s love until one day they crack open and there is just love within love within love.
And what happens next? Having been fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, we are charged with going out and being the Body and Blood of Christ broken open and poured out for the whole world. God’s love for us sends us out to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Having been searched out and found by God’s love, we now go out in search of the last, the least, the lost, and left behind. And what do we do when we find them? Well, that takes many forms—sometimes it’s a jacket, or a meal. Sometimes it’s as simple as listening to their story. Sometimes it’s welcoming someone whom others have cast out, pushed to the margins, or declared unclean. Sometimes it means speaking up against injustice and oppression and caring for the alien in the land, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
Whatever form it takes, the key thing to remember as we enter our stewardship season is the whole reason why St. Mark’s is here—as a school for love, a school of the Lord’s service, a place where we boldly step out of our comfort zones, and practice following after the God who is always passing by. It’s a place where we come to know God’s love for us and learn how to be God’s love in a broken world. A community/place where our imaginations are nourished, fed, deepened, and opened up, and where God’s possibilities find flesh in us. A community/place where God’s dream for the world becomes our dream, that we might help the world awaken from its nightmare. A community.place where we practice making Abraham and Sarah’s and Mary’s “yes” our “yes” that Christ might be born in our lives. A place that we leave for future generations—that there might always be a place where prayer has been valid, and where God can be listened for and heard in the midst of all the chaos and the tumult.
In the next few weeks, please take some time to prayerfully consider what value this training ground in love we call the Cathedral has in your life. Consider what gifts of time, talent, and treasure you devote to other areas of your life, and see if what matters most in your life is reflected in how you portion out those resources. The world needs more of the kinds of people who walk out the doors of the Cathedral ready to do the work God has given us to do. Help us be a place where God feeds them that they might feed others.