Easter 7B: Mountain Top & Market Place--God in All Things and All Things in God
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5: 9-13; John 17: 6-19
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
There’s something very tempting about the notion of escaping from the world. I’ve noticed, in the last few years or so, a marked up-tick in the number of television shows that follow people who have gone “off the grid” seeking to live out their lives in the wilds of Alaska. Part of the rise in popularity can be attributed to our fondness for good old-fashioned American individualism—we just can’t help ourselves when someone goes off into wilderness to test their mettle against Mother Nature in true pioneer spirit. The television executives have caught up with what Jack London was doing a hundred years ago.
But there’s another reason for the predominance of the these shows. We live in a complicated, messy world where we are fed a steady diet of violence, imminent environmental catastrophe, corruption, racism, sexism, terrorism and scandal. It’s exhausting. It’s draining. And it sometimes feels like we are little bit like that chaff in our psalm that the wind blows away—scattered this way and that and waiting anxiously to see where the next gust will carry us. The temptation is to want to just drown it all out, get away from it all, unplug, and retreat into a zone of untouched beauty where the world that is “too much with us” might fall away and we recover a measure of our sanity.
In case we think we are somehow special and unique in human history, it’s useful to remind ourselves that it was ever thus. John’s community—the community of the beloved disciple—faced many of the same pressures that we face today. Near the end of the first century after Jesus’ death, they found themselves in the midst of intense conflict with the authorities. They were branded blasphemous outsiders, expelled from the synagogues, and under constant threat. How tempting it would be for this fledgling community to simply want to withdraw into itself, circle the wagons, tell stories about the good old days when Jesus walked the earth, share fellowship, worship in peace, and celebrate Jesus’ presence in the meals of bread and wine they shared.
Our Gospel for today is from what is known as the high priestly prayer of Jesus who, in a manner similar to Moses, serves as the meditator between God and God’s people. Notice, however, that there isn’t a shred of Club Med in Jesus’ prayer on behalf of the disciples to the Father. He doesn’t say run and hide. He doesn’t pray for the disciples to stick their heads in the sand. He doesn’t instruct them to build walls to separate themselves from the authorities who view their communal life together with suspicion, fear, and distrust. Rather, Jesus prays for the disciples to be surrounded by God’s providential care, God’s guardianship, God’s benevolence, and loving care: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Jesus is praying for the same loving care of God for the disciples, as Jesus experienced from the Father. It’s what T.S. Eliot is talking about in “East Coker” when he writes of the, “absolute paternal care/That will not leave us,but prevents us everywhere.”
It’s being rooted, grounded, and built up in that “paternal care”—the ever-present loving-kindness of God that goes before us, and accompanies us through the hills and valleys of life’s journey—that makes it possible for us to be in the world, but not to belong to it. It’s a subtle distinction, but it gets to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a witness to something other than the fear-driven, tit-for-tat, snappy-comeback culture that passes for true engagement, dialogue, and listening that once characterized what now seems a rather quaint and old-fashioned notion—working together for the common good. If we are to be witnesses to another way of being in the world, it all begins with knowing, in our own experience, the unconditional love for us—faults, foibles, and failings included.
That’s just basic Christianity 101—knowing ourselves to be known, chosen before it occurred to us that was a choice to make, marked and loved as Christ’s own forever. When that reality begins to sink in, then, like the apostle Paul, we might begin to have the sneaking suspicion that if God loves us just as we are, it’s just possible that God loves everyone that way too. Instead of us and them, insiders and outsiders, goodies and baddies, we see that everyone is an unexpected insider in the life of God, friends of God in Christ though the Holy Spirit, but also friends, brothers and sisters, of one another. Jesus’ relationship with the disciples enacts and embodies how our lives should be with God and one another. It’s a life that is mutually supportive and nonhierarchical. A life that makes space for the other to be themselves without our trying to recreate them in our image of they should be. A life given over to fostering a community of loving care that nurtures the full-flowering of each person’s gifts in co-operation with God’s grace.
It’s from the sense of our belovedness, our basic goodness, our sense that God has not left us comfortless, that we as church start to proclaim, not just with our lips, but in our lives, the belovedness, the sacredness, of all of God’s creatures from mud-snails to Montezuma, from Monroe, TX to Mongolia. And it’s true that rooting ourselves in the love of God does require some kind of retreat. We can’t just go about business as usual expecting different results. The pattern of Jesus’ own life demonstrates this in spades. Especially in Luke’s Gospel, we see that every significant moment in Jesus’ ministry is preceded by prayer, retreat to a quiet place, intimate communion with the one he calls Abba, or daddy, away from the pressing demands of his followers, and the steady diet of fear and hatred he received from the authorities intent on maintaining the unjust social arrangements from which they benefitted. Prayer and action, retreat and engagement are interdependent parts of the same basic shape of what it means to be Christ’s love in the world. We come to worship, dwell upon God’s word in scripture, set aside time for daily prayer so that we might be reminded of who we really are and the grand destiny to which we are called.
Just think of the Transfiguration—the disciples go up the mountain, leave the ordinary hum-drum world far behind and behold Jesus transfigured in all his glory (which is simultaneously an unveiling, a revelation, of their own divine potential in Christ). Peter wants to camp out, set up three pup tents and a Coleman stove, but following Jesus means that Peter, James, and John have to follow him back down the mountain, back into the marketplace, back into direct confrontation with the powers and principalities of the world that destroy and distort the children of God and God’s good creation. Following Jesus takes the disciples up to the mountaintop where they know the love of God for them intimately (their joy is “complete” in the language of John’s Gospel), but then it leads right back down into the midst of human misery and pain in the form of a distraught parent at wits-end whose child is demon-possessed.
Our reading from Acts—which is a little like eaves-dropping on an election at Diocesan convention—is there to remind us that of this twofold movement of Christian—knowing that we are known, chosen, and beloved of God, and going forth as the shape that love takes in the world. Notice that the criteria for becoming the substitute apostle for Judas is that the person have “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” Knowing Jesus—both in the time that he went in and out among us and in his resurrection and ascension—is the essential criteria for being an apostle, a messenger, one who is sent, to a world that is tearing itself apart through the endless cycle of violence, scapegoating, and the devilish claim that God, in whom there is no over-against, is on our side against those dirty others who can’t seem to get their act together.
Knowing Jesus, not just notionally, not just in the realm of getting our beliefs about his person and work in line with creedal orthodoxy (though that helps to know him), but really knowing Jesus as the ground of our being, is what allows us to navigate the ups and downs of world without fear—to boldly witness to our common humanity, our oneness in Christ. Knowing Jesus means we grow in the knowledge of who and whose we are like those trees planted by streams of living water bearing fruit in due season. Knowing Jesus, undergoing Jesus, and allowing ourselves to be transfigured by that knowledge is what allows us to be in the world, but not to belong to it. In the midst of all those competing voices that vie for our attention, loyalty, and allegiance we can choose what voice to listen to. John’s admonition, John’s plea, is for us each to abide in God’s loving care, to dwell in belongingness and listen the song of God’s love for us is already singing in our hearts.
When we learn to listen to that voice, when our life is ordered and punctuated with times wholly given over to that self-forgetful listening, we see that we don’t need to run away from it all and hide, to escape the world, to hang out on the mountaintop in perpetuity. Instead, we find that because we belong to God and not to the 24-hour news cycle, or Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, we can step out as baby Barsabbases and mini Mathiases,as embodiments of a resurrection freedom our culture of death and fear is hungry for. My prayer for us this week is that we learn the art of arts, to abide in in God’s love for us and live from that fertile ground. My prayer is that having known that love, we go, following Jesus, trusting in God’s protection, benevolence, care, and attention back down the mountain, into the dusty streets of the marketplace witnesses to the new thing God is up right in our midst. My prayer is that we might discover the mountaintop right in the midst of the marketplace, retreat in the midst of engagement, Alaskan wilderness in the inner city—God in all things and all things in God.