October 27, 2013
The 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, Year C, Proper 25
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Last week we talked about evil. More specifically, we talked about the age-old problem of evil: why do bad things happen to good people? And my conclusion? Well, that is not an answerable question. Bad things happen, and where God is in that calculus is a mystery. But remember, a thing is evil in that it causes suffering. Now if God is rather opaque when it comes to why evil exists, bells toll resoundingly across Christendom as to God in Christ responding to the suffering in evil’s wake. God won’t/can’t/doesn’t stop bad things from happening, but God is always, always there to help you through the suffering. “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
God is with us. This is very, very good news. Bad things will happen, but no matter what, no matter what we are going through, no matter where that leads, no matter where you are, God is with you, and there is deep consolation in that. Remember, a lot of prayer, the best prayer, probably, happens in death beds and hospital waiting rooms, 2:30 AM waiting for the prodigal teenager to come home, walking up the gallows steps… the light of Christ shines brightest in the darkest places. Although it seemed it at the time, God did not forsake Jesus Christ on the Cross. And God will not forsake us, either.
God can get us through suffering. That is the blessed assurance we are offered in our Baptisms. And this is one of the points, one of the most important points in our entire religious universe that our grip on rational thought, on logic and reason must be loosened, because everything we will talk about here on out is predicated on faith. And faith is a very slippery fish. We all have faith in all sorts of things, it is a requirement to be alive. We have faith that the sun will rise, that the crops will grow, that our currency will be worth something tomorrow, that that guy is going to pay attention to the red light, that the doctor does have our best interest in mind. Those are examples of faith that we sort of take for granted, and all of it is right there on the surface. Besides the sun not rising, which brings up a whole different set of issues, there would be discernable reasons as why the crops didn’t grow, the currency collapsed, the light was run and the doctor corrupted. Painful, fatal, even, but understandable, describable. But that cancer diagnosis? Schizophrenia, that depression? I didn’t know someone could be that depressed? That addiction? That draft notice? That attacker? That tornado? That child getting that sick? How did it happen here, to me, to this family, in this neighborhood, in this town? Now those are the kinds of questions that I don’t think we can even begin to wrap ourselves around until we have wrapped ourselves in the blanket of faith.
Our culture is rather uncomfortable with true faith. We are good with blind faith, but not true faith. We are more or less supposed to believe that things are as they seem: Work hard and you’ll survive. Work really hard and you’ll thrive. The ghost of Horatio Alger lives strong. Equal opportunity for all. Everyone has the same chance of making it. Everyone has access to the very best health care in the entire world. We’re from the government and we’re here to help, just don’t pay attention to that clicking sound on your phone. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need is a primary heresy in our culture. We’re actually entitled to very little in this society besides a legal framework that does not officially recognize caste or class. Not much to have faith in in the long term.
True faith, though, has no conditions, no limits, no sunset, not even a distant horizon to consider. True faith is as limitless as the God in whom we have our faith, in whom we live and move and have our being. And this happens, because faith is a process of surrender, of surrender to the will of God. And when we surrender to the will of God and it is so very, very, very not about you any more. And that, I believe, is another hint about our salvation.
Surrender. What a counter-cultural notion. “To give our will over to Another whom we trust more than ourselves.” That is how the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr defines the kind of surrender we need to make. Or more familiarly to many of us, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” Step Three of the prophet Bill W’s divinely inspired 12 Steps. “…who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Those are Paul’s words, taken from amongst the earliest of Christian hymns, written to the church in Philippi. And of course, “If anyone wants to follow me, let them renounce themselves.” The words of Jesus as related by Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke. Surrender. Surrender.
Surrender is difficult. But don’t fret. Surrender has been as difficult for humans over the past two thousand years as it is for us right now living in stage 4 free market capitalism here in the American imperium. Various definitions of original sin help us understand why this is so, but just don’t feel too bad if the notion of surrender is an anathema. It always has been.
The great relief is that the answer, the solution, the path to surrender is exceedingly simple. Incalculably difficult perhaps, but achievable, try-able at least, and very, very simple. For here, we come right back into the rich domain of prayer.
Our gospel for today brings us right to the heart of the matter, with the simple parable of the ones who trust in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. The Pharisee comes to the temple and thanks God that he is better than all the rest of them, he fasts more, gives more, is just over all better then all of them, like the tax collector there next to him. And the tax collector, one who knows that he himself is a notorious sinner, he wouldn’t even profane God with turning his eyes towards heaven. He just prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He humbled himself, like Paul’s hymn. And Jesus concludes the short lesson, “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all that humble themselves will be exalted.”
Prayer is our primary time and place of encounter with God. We’ve had a fruitful class over the past seven weeks that concludes on Wednesday with Marsha Shankman teaching about zazen, a Zen Buddhist form of meditation. Prayer happens in as many ways as people attempt to encounter God. Right now we are in the midst of Anglican Common Prayer. Sitting on a cushion in Centering Prayer or saying the Holy Rosary, or praying the intercessions we use as the prayers of the people… sitting at a stoplight thinking about that lady from church or tenderly holding your mother-in-law’s worsening dementia. This is prayer. Intentionally drawing nearer to God, intentionally orienting yourself on what you can best figure to be God. Doing this, opening ourselves as fully as possible, as honestly and authentically as possible to God, the source of light and life, that is the beginning of our submission. That is the beginning of our surrender.
Submission and surrender are complicated themes for some of us, particularly those of us condemned to submit and surrender our lives, our bodies and minds to systems of violence, patriarchy and oppression. Surrender to God, though, is nothing akin to surrender to an abusive spouse, and unjust employer or a corrupt government. Surrender to God Almighty is categorically different for all who bow down before the Lord are equally humbled, equally exalted, are indelibly loved for your humility. The powerful have a lot more trouble finding the love of God in submission because we are existentially out of practice. Submitting to God is safe. To the church? To the guru? To a culture and its economy? Even to a religion? Now that is a different thing entirely.
But surrender in prayer… that is just what we need. And contemplative prayer in particular is very potent medicine for the sin sick soul. Contemplative prayer is all about making space. Space for God. By contemplative, I mean silence. Clearing away the baggage, the constant chatter of not only the outside world, the deluge of advertisements, information, interaction, and activity, but also the constant internal chatter we all suffer. I spent 10 days on a silent retreat some years ago, and the great insight after that much silence was that I didn’t recognize the voice in my head as mine. “Whose voice is that?” I remember so clearly, asking. That is an extremely profound question.
When we surrender ourselves to the process of contemplative prayer, to clearing out the clutter, to being actually where you are, when you are there, then we have a chance to encounter God in God’s self. And it is in those fleeting, momentary encounters with the eternal and actual God, a sacramental encounter with the root cause of existence, the ground of being, mighty counselor, Prince of Peace, Lord God Almighty, in meeting God again and again on God’s terms, not our terms, our hearts and minds and bodies will be opened, gently opened for the Word to dwell within. That is surrender. That is the surrender that God in Christ is begging us to make. If you want to learn more about this, talk to me. Talk to Mother Jo. To Diane Beuerman and Helen Reed. Come join us here, in this place on Friday’s at 5:30 as we explore silence together. You have nothing to lose but your life, and nothing to gain but life eternal. AMEN