Sermon by Sue Mosher preached 14 Dec 2014 at Universalist National Memorial Church
More than 150 years ago, a devout Russian man — we do not know his name — went to church. Orphaned at two years old, he was raised by his grandfather, an innkeeper. A childhood accident had left the boy’s arm withered, but the grandfather used the Bible to teach him to read. He also learned to write with his good hand from a clerk who was a frequent visitor at the inn. As he entered his late teens, the young man seemed all set; he had useful skills, a house and a little money inherited from his grandfather, and a wife he cherished. But by age 20, he was an impoverished wanderer. His jealous older brother stole the money and burned down the house, and his wife died of a fever. Left with only his grandfather’s Bible, he set off for Kiev to visit the shrines of people known for their holiness, to ask their help.
And so, some months or perhaps years later, we find him in church. What he heard that particular day was a reading from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the very same text that you heard this morning: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.” He probably had heard it on many other occasions. But on this day, on this day, it sparked a question. Maybe you have asked the same question or one like it. How is it possible to “pray without ceasing”? How is it possible to give thanks and to be joyful at all times, even when your heart is breaking?
I once sat on the steps of a church in Massachusetts with a woman who had fled from the sanctuary in the middle of the Sunday service. “I can’t stay in there,” she said. “There’s too much joy.” She was still reeling from the death of her husband, and the lively hymns and exuberation of the gathered community were all too much for her. The task of unceasing joy seems impossible for such a one. So it is for many in our society today — the widows, the orphans, the disinherited, the victims of injustice.
Or maybe your question, your question upon hearing scripture was, how is it possible to raise the dead … or to feed the poor … or to clothe the naked … or to heal the sick … or to visit the imprisoned … or to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. In short, how can we manage to actually do any of what Jesus and the prophets before and after him have admonished us to do? We know what we are supposed to be doing, but all too often we want to cry out with Paul, in his letter to the Romans,“I do not understand my own behavior; I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I detest.”
Let’s do a little personal check-in here: Have you have ever heard something in a sermon or read something in an inspiring book that you wanted to try to embody in your own life? Did you make a go of it? Are you still carrying on with it?
It’s a bit like New Year’s resolutions, isn’t it? Good intentions may inspire action, but somehow their power to motivate us quickly fades. The result is a gap between our aspiration and our reality that yawns like a black hole before us, draining what little energy we may still have for the work of God. And like a black hole, we dare not approach any closer to investigate this gap, lest it pull us into total despair from which we fear there will be no escape.
Fear. Disappointment. Inertia. All of these stalk our inability to make much of a dent in the screaming needs of the world. Even what good we can do with our alms, our donations, our volunteering, our advocacy seems so puny in the face of the suffering that continues despite the best efforts of the best people.
Was it not always so? Have not prophets always railed against our inability to follow through?
When we search scripture for any person, anyone who can truly stick to their intention, we can spot a few folks who take action, but many of them have doubts enough to send them back to bed on a bad morning … not that the voice of God would let them sleep. But we also find one young woman who heeded the angel’s greeting, “Fear not!” — for that is what angels always say when they arrive, “Do not fear!” — a young woman whose “Yes” triggered the fulfillment of a promise of mercy, a promise of strength, a promise that the mighty would be cast down and the lowly lifted up, a promise that the hungry would be filled with good things and the rich sent home empty. Mary, Mary, did you weigh your options? Did you consider your alternatives? Did you read the opinions from both sides of the situation? Did you take in prognostications and predictions until your synapses snapped?
Or did you simply KNOW?
The picture we are given of Mary is of a woman for whom intention and action were one, seamlessly joined, resting calmly in her love for and trust in God. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior. The Almighty has done great things for me.” Don’t take this as bragging. This is not a shout that “I am special in the eyes of God.” — but a full-throated rejoicing in the One whose grace can close the gap, the One who minds the gap and waits for us there even when we are unable to see it. She surely knows, “The one who calls you is faithful.” Perhaps this clarity fused with God’s purpose is is why the Sufi tradition holds that when the Day of Judgment comes and God calls forward all the people who have true spiritual stature, Mary will be at the head of the line.
You and I may not be Mary, but we can seek to emulate her ability to watch, to be attentive to messages from the Divine, and to ponder all things in her heart. Even the most mundane incident can have meaning. For instance, have you ever noticed that when we do become aware of a gap, a funny thing happens? We almost always wonder how to get over it . . or what will happen if we don’t. Could my kid’s shoe get stuck between the Metro platform and the train car? Can I step all the way over that puddle? What would happen if I made the leap between the job that I have now and the one I really want?
The American philosopher Jacob Needleman dove into the gap with a searing question: Could there be some missing link in Christianity to bridge the chasm between our understanding of our spiritual calling — to bring hope and healing to the world — and our ability to make that actually happen. He followed the same course as that anonymous 19th century Russian pilgrim: He began to ask everyone he could find who might have an answer. As a well known author and teacher, Needleman had access to many potential experts — including two of the 20th century’s popularizers of prayer, Father Thomas Keating and Metropolitan Anthony. But, just as our humble Russian encountered in his travels exactly the people and writings that could further his practice of unceasing prayer, Needleman’s interest also began to attract input from other, serendipitous, even mysterious sources.
His conclusion, described in the book Lost Christianity, was that the ends had been confused with the means almost from the very beginning of the Christian era: Healing the sick, aiding the poor — these were not the commands of religious morality, but should be the natural outgrowth of an inner force that has the power to move us beyond moral outage and into what might truly be called love, a force that could bridge the gap.
Not only does this inner force exist, according to Needleman, but the gist of the Gospel is that it can and should be cultivated by ordinary people, not just by those we might call saints, but by you and me. Furthermore, to love my neighbor is simple to help him or her develop this force for himself or herself — and that is something I can do only to the extent that I have undertaken the process myself.
Now here we can get into a quandary of terminology, because Needleman gives to this force the name “soul” and defines it as:
“that force or principle within human nature that can bind together all the intellectual, emotional and instinctual aspects of the human being through a mediating relationship to the highest principles of order and mind in the universe”
In other words, soul, in this sense, brings all of our humanity — not just our spiritual qualities — into relationship with God. This may be a surprising way to talk about “soul” — not as “a soul”, a sort of a separate entity that may or may not survive the body, that may or may not need saving, but as a reconciling energy that mediates between humanity and the divine. But let’s think back to what Crystal taught us about salvation in her recent sermon: Salvation comes from the same root as “salve”, so when we ponder the meaning of salvation, of saving souls, we talk about healing the wounds — closing the gaps in the flesh and the spirit, as it were — or about reconciliation . . or moving toward wholeness and fullness, toward the kind of relationship with God that we can imagine for Mary. This is exactly the kind of soul-force that Needleman presents, one that is in touch with everything that is in the human heart, mind, and body — AND in touch with God. With such a soul-force, one could move mountains or raise the dead or give birth to a savior or rejoice always and pray without ceasing.
The first step toward cultivation of this soul-force is to recognize our longing, the big Question that Needleman described in our second reading. The desire for Justice or for God or for whatever bold, capital-lettered principle you want to name as your shining goal — this is what begins the journey. As Jesus said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all else will be added.” Seek first. First seek. In response to the Russian pilgrim’s searching, much was added — the full knowledge of unceasing prayer — so much so that his legacy resonates to this day through a spiritual classic, The Way of the Pilgrim, that has blessed many generations with practical thoughts on how prayer can be part of everyday life.
But what if you feel no longing in your life? What if you are numb to desire, as that young widow was numb to joy? Then lean toward the itch of discontent and be open to the cracks that it presses into the smoothness of your assumed existence. Consider what Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr has to say, that …
“When God has the best chance of getting at us . . is in the gaps, in the discontinuities, in the exceptions, in the surprises. This is what it means to be awake: to be constantly willing to say that God could even be coming to me in this! Even in this!”
Or, as Teresa of Avila might have put it more directly, it is through the crack that the light enters.
In this season when the message is about to be delivered, watch for an annunciation to bring light into the gap so that you can see the glory of God there in the darkness, riding out the uncertainty and the fear, the inertia and the cynicism, with you. May angels of light be waiting for you, as described in this prayer by John Philip Newell:
May the angels of light
glisten for us this day.
May the sparks of God’s beauty
dance in the eyes of those we love.
May the universe
be on fire with Presence for us this day.
May the new sun’s rising
grace us with gratitude.
Let earth’s greenness shine
and its waters breathe with Spirit.
Let heaven’s winds stir the soil of our soul
and fresh awakenings rise within us.
May the mighty angels of light
glisten in all things this day.
May they summon us to reverence,
may they call us to life.
1) Advent wreath lighting - Week 3 - Joy - Psalm 126: 4-7
Leader: Truly God has done great things for us
and we are glad indeed!
Congregation: Restore us to fullness, O God,
like streams and rivers in spring.
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with songs of joy.
They go out weeping,
carrying the seed.
ALL: They come again in joy
shouldering their sheaves.
2) 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
3) “Certainly there are moments in almost every individual’s life when he perceives and feels something of the real suffering of the human race, or of this or that portion of the human race…. What is hardest to understand, and what is most easily lost, is the truth that the act of real seeing — what one may call the experience of the Question — is itself the seed, the embryo of that very force within human nature which has the power to respond to the Question and eventually even act upon it and realize the answer. The appearance in oneself of the Question is already the appearance of the soul, my real Self. But as this fact is not understood, the state of Questioning is not cultivated by ourselves or by our educators. Consequently, the force or spirit that has begun to break through is unconsciously dissipated. One longs, as it is said, for God, or for Meaning, or for Understanding, or for Justice, and does not see that the longing itself is the beginning of the answer one is seeking.” (Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity)