Tuesday Bonus--I wrote this sermon on lectionary readings for Year B Proper 14 before realizing that we were celebrating the Transfiguration
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Taught by God: The Way of Love
Back in Philadelphia some years ago, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Fr. Martin Laird, an Augustinian friar and professor at Villanova University. Fr. Martin is the author of what Maggie Ross calls the best book on Christian prayer in the last 200 years—Into the Silent Land. He is possessed of profound insight into the life of prayer, and, perhaps just as important, knows his poetry. His is as apt to cite Rilke, Mary Oliver, or Gerard Manley Hopkins as he is one of the Church fathers. So it was with great excitement that I sat down for lunch with Fr. Martin, even if I was rather self-consciously preoccupied with what it might look like to eat a bacon cheeseburger and fries contemplatively.
All sorts of questions swirled in my mind as we talked about the Christian tradition of prayer going back to Jesus himself as a teacher of contemplation, Evagrius and desert fathers, John Cassian, the works of St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. In his gentle way, he was instructing me in lineage, the transmission of the way of love in the Christian tradition—from Jesus’ experience of the Father as Abba and down through the centuries. Tradition comes from the Latin traditio, which means handing over and Fr. Martin wanted to demonstrate to me the very embodied and relational way in which this handing over takes place—"warm hand to warm hand” as the Zen folks like to say.
I finally mustered up the courage to ask a question. We were talking about how St. John Cassian learned to pray from Evagrius who in turn was a student of Origen. I was amazed at the intimate relationships between teacher and student, at the living and vital thread of the practice of prayer that wound its way down the generations. “Who,” I ventured, “was the greatest teacher of prayer in your life?” Without hesitation, Fr. Martin replied, “Why God, of course!”
That simple reply marked a sea-change in my life, and I think it points to the essential nature of what it means walk the path of discipleship. So much of our contemporary sound-byte driven culture is obsessed with the acquisition of information. The ubiquitous presence of smartphones means the “answer” to any question we might have can be instantly ascertained. I can’t tell you how many times during my visit to Canada the conversation was interrupted by someone fact-checking something on Google.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding out when the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series (’92 and ’93 by the way), but the deeper impulse—that life is all about us figuring things out on our own and acquiring information is something we need to question when it becomes our dominant mode of being in the world. The Christian life is not so much about acquiring information as it is opening and receiving, allowing ourselves to be “taught by God” as it says in our Gospel for today, removing and dismantling the sandbags that prevent us from being “drawn to the Father.”
Our information-obsessed culture (did you know that a snail can sleep for three years?), we get duped into thinking that we can approach discipleship, walking the path of love, in the same manner. The trouble is, information won’t transform your life. Words don’t reach it. They may point, they may remind, they might help us recognize that which is already present, but they themselves are not the reality of God to which they point. At best, our creeds are a fence around the mystery, springboards or launching pads into participation in the very of God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We quibble over springboards forgetting all the while their main purpose—to launch us gleefully into the air.
So if the Christian life is not simply about the acquisition of more information about Jesus, the Church, and what each of the vestments is called, what is it about? It’s about being taught by God. It’s about formation and not simply information. It’s about what the potter is doing with clay of our daily lives, and not our tale of the tape about the potter which is the focus of so much God-talk. If God is present and active in the midst of our lives, the challenge, the invitation, the opportunity, is not so much to figure God out, as it is to participate in his very life.
Do you see the difference? Our culture puts us at the center and tells us we need acquire information to be happy. The Gospel turns that whole paradigm on its head—God is at the center and we come to knowledge and love of Him by allowing ourselves to receive, as sheer gift, with wonderment and awe, the mystery of God in Christ. We come to know, by becoming like little children, by entering into the clouds on Mt. Sinai, by dying to our ideas about God that might reveal Godself to us as God is. Our culture tells us that we are to devour a book, consume platefuls of information. But the Gospels put it another way—it is we who are devoured by a reality too real to be, in Augustine’s terms, dragged back into the mind’s manipulations. In the words of Gospel for today, it is in allowing ourselves to be devoured by God that we find our hunger for depth meaning and love sated. It is by being eaten that we are fed.
It turns out, wonder of wonders, that the Church has figured out some basic dispositions that open us to the process of being devoured by God. Bishop Michael Curry’s The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life is the Episcopal Church’s map of the journey. The golfer Gary Player was fond of saying that “The more I practice the luckier I get.” Simple enjoyment of the truth is always a gift from God and not something we accomplish under our own steam through our brow-furrowing efforts. But (and it’s a big but) there are practices we can engage that dispose us to the gift, that earth-shattering realization that the full stature of Christ is available to each of us, without exception, right here and now.
Bishop Curry lays it out in six different aspects, six spokes of the wheel that rolls towards deeper and deeper union and communion with God. We Turn--pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus. We, Learn—reflect on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings. We Pray—we dwell intentionally with God each day. We worship—gathering in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God. We Bless—sharing our faith and learning to give and serve unselfishly. We Go—crossing boundaries, listen to the stories of the least of these and practice living like Jesus. We rest—learning to receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.
Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest. Each of these movements is at heart a gentle practice to move away from acquisition to openness, from the accumulation of more information, to allowing ourselves to be taught by God that we might by imitators of Christ and more than imitators—that his mind might be ours, that he might live his life in us and through us, that he might devour us so completely that not only is our hunger sated, but that we might become the bread of life for all those forgotten, marginalized, and disenfranchised others.
There is no one way to live out what it looks like to Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go and Rest. That will look different for each us. But the essential thing is that we recognize that we are on the path, walking the way of love that puts Jesus Christ at the center. To be Christian is to be a person of the way, a wayfarer, a pilgrim away from fear, oppression, sin and division into love, joy, peace, generosity, and delight. The gentlest of efforts is all that is required. Like a little baby with jaundice who needs only a little bit of sunlight in order to purge the toxins from her system, all we need to do is open ourselves the love and light of God, to allow ourselves to be taught, to take the bait of the Good Lord who lures and woos us to Himself. The rest is in God’s very very good hands.