A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Epiphany 3B: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31;; Mark 1:14-20
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
“For God alone my soul in silence waits…”: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
Today’s Gospel got me thinking about the professional golfer David Duval, whom some of you might remember. In 2001, having reached number one in the world rankings, Duval won the British Open—one of golf’s four major championships and the oldest professional major. Duval seemingly had it all. Stoic behind his ever-present blade sunglasses, he played with an almost machine-like precision and without fear. The funny thing, however, is that when Duval woke up the next morning expecting to feel differently, he didn’t. He was the same old David. He had reached the pinnacle of his profession, and yet it didn’t change anything and a deep or fundamental level. The ache was still there. The gnawing sense of lack. Not too long after that, after a series of injuries and aborted comebacks, Duval quietly faded from the professional scene. He found love, became a step-dad, and a new life as a television announcer. I can’t help but think, though, that what Duval experienced was essentially a spiritual crisis—even if he might not call it that himself. He saw through the transitoriness, the fleetingness, and the flimsiness of his attempts to secure happiness on his own terms, through his own efforts, and realized that that is as illusory as frog’s hair and pigeon’s milk.
Our psalm, epistle, and Gospel appointed for today all challenge us with the question of what it means to place our trust in God, to abandon ourselves to Him, to surrender and yield to the love that always already present at the center of our being as a beloved child of God already at the Banquet of the Lamb. Recall St. Augustine’s words from The Confessions,
Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new. Too late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you! In my weakness I ran after the beauty of the things you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you.
“You we with me and I was not with you….” Augustine looked for God outwardly in the things of the world—carnal pleasures, intellectual prowess, the philosophy of the Manichaeans—but only when he stopped looking did he realize that the Living God for whom he yearned, for whom he was made, was present all along. As he writes, “You were within me, but I was outside of myself and there I sought you.” Only when Augustine called off the search did he realize that he was already in possession of that which he sought. Even more, he already was, just as he was, that which he sought. The pearl of great price was buried in the field of his heart the whole time while he went on endless archeological digs in foreign lands in search of it. Only when Augustine stopped and became still, and simple, and (perhaps the biggest challenge for someone as eloquent as Augustine) silent, did he realize the gift that had already been given him as a beloved child of God, created in God’s image and likeness, and made for union, communion, and enjoyment of God’s very life. The words of the psalmist—“For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly my hope is in him”—sudden became true for him and the rest, as they say, is Church history.
From a theological perspective, human beings are made for union with God. That’s why you hear me hammer away each week at being made in the image and likeness of God. The Fathers of the Early Church remind us that the image is our potential in Christ, and that the progressive journey to likeness with Christ is the goal of human existence. If you asked Athanasius or Irenaeus what the meaning of life is, you’d likely get an answer along these lines—to move, by grace and our consent to God’s presence and action in our life, from image to Christ-likeness, from potential to the realization of that potential. The trouble, of course, is that we often think that something other than union and communion with Source of All Being, will bring us happiness. Trappist monk Father Thomas Keating calls these various strategies for finding fulfillment in a transitory world—“programs for happiness.” I’ve come to think that very few of us actually deliberately go about harming others, or committing sin. Certainly, there are exceptions, but I think the most common source of destructive behavior is that we are trying to find happiness, but are looking in the wrong spot. Like the prodigal, we stray far and wide, end up with the pigs eating pods, before it occurs to us that the love we went in search of—the riches and abundance, the inheritance of being a member of God’s family—was right under our feet all along. The Prodigal, “comes to himself”—he suddenly knows who and whose he is and returns home. The search is over—“For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him.”
There are lots of different versions of this outward search. Our psalm does a good job of naming a few—seeking esteem in the eyes of others (“Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath”), seeking wealth, power, and dominance over others (“Put no trust in extortion; in robbery take no empty pride; though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.”). Fr. Thomas provides a good schematic for this search for happiness in highlighting three predominant strategies—power and control, safety and security, and affection and esteem. It’s not that each of these is a bad thing in itself—we each need a measure of power and control in our lives and the #metoo movement shows us the way women’s voices and experiences as the playthings of patriarchal dominance need to heard, honored, and power imbalances redressed. Similarly, we each need to experience safety and security as children in order to form a proper attachment and eventually be able to differentiate ourselves, individuate, and become integrated, whole, human beings. Children lacking a secure attachment, those who experience a chaotic home life with no measure of predictability (like those homeless children in our very own community we pray for today) have all sorts of problems.
So Fr. Thomas is NOT saying that we don’t need safety, affection, or control. What he IS saying is that when these pursuits become ends in themselves, when we see them as strategies that will make us happy in any lasting, ultimate, way—we are mistaken. These strategies disappoint, but only 100% of the time. True and lasting happiness, that is not dependent on outward circumstances, is found in God and God alone. It is only when we see the fleetingness, the transitoriness, the passing-awayness of these habitual ways of securing our identity and finding happiness that true happiness can emerge—“For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him.”
This perspective puts a different spin on the various ups and downs of our daily life. If God’s love is steadfast, and unconditional, and if God’s deepest desire is to draw us ever more deeply into union, communion, and enjoyment with Himself, then that means God is present and active and all circumstances of our life. Not just the good bits. Not just the “holy” bits—like hearing Bach at the offertory and kneeling at the altar in front of beautiful Tiffany windows to receive communion. God is present and active in ALL of it—and if we consent to God’s presence and action we will always be drawn into a new place, a deeper place, a place where having learned to let go and surrender a little more wholeheaertedly we find the peace that can’t be talked about, theologized about, earned, or extorted, but only experienced as we learn the true meaning of the psalmist’s words—“For God alone…” This means that our daily life is a laboratory of surrender, of what de Caussade calls “abandonment,” a way of deepening or practice of letting go of all the various ways we’ve tried to make it under our own steam. When conflict, stress, or afflictive emotions arise, we might ask ourselves—“What am I holding on to right now that is causing me so much pain? What is God asking me to to surrender that I might step into that open place? If I drop that notion of how things should be and consent to them as they are, what’s missing? What’s missing?
That’s one of the reasons, I think, that we have such an emphasis on nets and boats in today’s gospel. Nets, of course, catch things. They trap. They bind. They constrain. And in order for the disciples to follow Jesus—the always on the move one, the passing by one, the one who can never be contained or controlled—they have to drop their nets. They have to learn to let go of their habitual ways of securing their identities—to stop mending their nets and painting the gunwales—in order to learn the reality of surrender, of letting go, of being open, receptive, and vulnerable, of falling into the endlessly radiant ocean of God’s mercy and love that buoys us up through thick and thin. Losing their so-called lives, they find the stronghold, the strong rock, the refuge, safety and honor, steadfastness.
We don’t have to sell all our possessions, change or names, run off to a monastery, or live celibate lives of sleeplessness, hair-shirts, and watery gruel. The early Church fell into that trap, and it was Martin Luther who reminded us all that the life of surrender, of waiting upon the lord, of abandonment to the ocean of mercy, is found right here, and right now in the midst of our so-called ordinary life. God works with us just as we are, in and through the unique circumstances of our daily lives. We can learn surrender changing a diaper, talking to an agitated customer on the phone, behind the wheel on our morning commute, in relationship with a loved one, or in the midst of illness. We don’t have to go anywhere to consent to our lives as the laboratory of surrender, as a school for love. This very place, these very circumstances, are all we need to realize God’s love for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit and move from image to likeness.
One way or another it all has to be surrendered—everything must go, and will go, whether we like it or not. At our deaths we leave this world as naked and empty-handed as when we came into it. We can practice the way of surrender now, we can die before die to all the ultimately unsatisfying way of finding happiness, and realize “that the present form of this world is passing away.” Or, we can continue the struggle, fighting ’til our last breath, fearfully grasping, and clinging. We’ve all seen it go both ways in those we love. The choice is ours, but the invitation is clear, and promise is a real one witnessed to in the lives of the saints, those sinners who know they are sinners and that God loves them anyways. The Kingdom of God has come near. In fact, it’s closer than the nose on your face. The question is, “Where will we look?” “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him.”