Monday, July 7, 2014

A Deafening Whisper

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on July 6, 2014.  The texts was Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I must admit: sometimes I find myself annoyed by Jesus.  I really do.  An author recently remarked, “Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while. He has a way of completely screwing with a popular view of Christianity in which what’s thought to be important is the finely calibrated modulation of the individual soul, rather than the “works righteousness” involved in actually living like Jesus said to live.” The author’s point, as I understand it, is to remind us all that even after 2000 years, Jesus still surprises, still upsets, still turns the tables upside down.  Ultimately, he remains a cryptic figure that can be known and loved but never completely understood, never completely domesticated, never completely grasped.  His life and his teaching can never be fully exhausted.  And that’s what annoys me about Jesus.  He can never be truly mastered by my own attempts to take him and make him less wild and revolutionary than he really is.  

I find it terrifically funny that people like me, seminary graduates, are given the degree Master of Divinity.  Well, if divinity can truly be mastered, than it isn’t really divinity at all.  It’s an idol.  So, in spite of my annoyance at the way Jesus continues to upend and upset our attempts to control him with our words and theologies, I’m thankful that Jesus is not an idol that can be mastered.  I’m thankful that Jesus reminds the Church, time and time again, “You haven’t quite seen the whole picture yet.  There is yet more light and truth to break forth.”  Strangely, I’m thankful for Jesus reminding us all today that if we want to follow him, to learn from him, to be a disciple, we’ve first got to admit that we are all a bunch of infants.

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.  All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  These words form part of a public teaching Jesus was giving in response to the imprisonment of John the Baptist, followed by addressing the crowds that were gathered around him and rebuking a few cities that did not faithfully respond to his deeds of power:  ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

This teaching, this reflection on the privilege of being an infant wasn’t given to a select few in an upper room, away from the ears of those who might be offended or taken aback.  Jesus was right in the thick of things, surrounded by crowds who may have been pressing him for information, surrounded by a people who were looking for technical answers about the Messiah but weren’t willing to commit to a life of discipleship, of putting on the restful and transformational yoke of Jesus Christ.  Maybe he even uttered this prayer to his Father out of frustration at the way the crowds, and even his disciples, were obsessed with prophecies and signs but could not discern the deeper reality that a new kingdom was being ushered in…a new age had dawned.  The old has passed, the new way of being human in relationship to God was bubbling up.  And so he makes his frustrated prayer because the people simply can’t grasp his message: “You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

In his masterful autobiography The Confessions, St. Augustine offers a reflection on reading Scripture, and in a sense encountering the Living God, that has haunted me since I first read it: “I resolved, therefore, to direct my mind to the Holy Scriptures, that I might see what they were. And behold, I perceive something not comprehended by the proud, not disclosed to children, but lowly as you approach, sublime as you advance, and veiled in mysteries; and I was not of the number of those who could enter into it, or bend my neck to follow its steps…for my inflated pride shunned their style, nor could the sharpness of my wit pierce their inner meaning. Yet, truly, were they such as would develop in little ones; but I scorned to be a little one, and, swollen with pride, I looked upon myself as a great one.”

But I scorned to be a little one.  I’ve been following Jesus for 10 years now.  That’s not an eternity, but it is enough time for me to have gained knowledge and insight about the Christian tradition, about Scripture, about the Church’s theology.  I should know by now that the Lord we serve is a Lord still veiled in mystery, however intimately connected we may to him as his disciples.  And yet I, too, scorn to be a little one.  I allow my pride to get in the way of experiencing the depth of Jesus’ grace and mercy.  Because I, having mastered divinity, need not be like an infant…impressionable, malleable, in need of guidance.  Or so I tell myself.  Like Augustine, and like those crowds pressing themselves upon Jesus, the assumptions and expectations about Jesus that I bring to this life often prevent me from being transformed more fully into the person Jesus is calling me to be.  But let me make something very clear, however: Jesus doesn’t call us to check our minds and intellects at the door when we become a disciple.  In fact, the Episcopal Church has a very rich tradition of valuing study, learning, and intellectual pursuit.  Even still, it is ultimately a question of what we privilege in our relationship with this wild and uncontainable Messiah.  

In a way, what I am talking about is the art of Christian contemplation, the art of learning to sit and listen for the whisper of God while living a loud and confusing world. Rather than projecting our assumptions about who Jesus is onto the static and distant idol that we make of him, contemplation requires that we listen first with a spirit of humility and an ear towards wisdom. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said this quite profoundly: "To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts.  With our minds made still and ready to receive, with our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves reduced to silence, we are at last at the point where we may begin to grow.  And the face we need to show to our world is the face of a humanity in endless growth towards love, a humanity so delighted and engaged by the glory of what we look towards that we are prepared to embark on a journey without end to find our way more deeply into it, into the heart of the Trinitarian life.  St Paul speaks (in II Cor 3.18) of how ‘with our unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord’, we are transfigured with a greater and greater radiance.  That is the face we seek to show to our fellow-human beings."

Admitting our fallibility, our finiteness, our inability to fully grasp the riches of the mystery of Jesus is the only place to begin a life of contemplative discipleship. Despite what we have learned and what we think we know about Jesus, will we be a people who allow ourselves to be taught, to be led by the Lord that is dwelling among us even now, unseen as he may be? “There is yet more light and truth to break forth.”

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