A Place Both Strange and Wonderful
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 26, 2017
The lawyer had eyes and he could not see. He stood before God incarnate and did not know him. "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear," Jesus often says. The same is true, of course, of eyes. The lawyer had healthy eyes and could not see and healthy ears and could not hear. He did hear something with his ears and saw something with his eyes, it is plain, and yet he did not know what he was hearing or seeing.
Richard Rohr writes, “I could tell you that God is not elsewhere and heaven is not later, but until you come to know that personally and regularly experience that, you will not believe it.”
So, today, the Lord invites the lawyer to experience the nearness of God and of his kingdom and, as we know from our reading, he grew very sad when he heard that in order to experience what Jesus was talking about, he would have to leave behind his attachment to his wealth.
We must not be hard on him for Jesus does not tell the story to give us an excuse to judge or a straw man to beat down. What Jesus was asking of him was not easy. What he asks of us is not easy.
"To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires,” writes Jack Kornfield, “we need tremendous courage and strength." Emptying and opening, the process of letting go, is like taking a flying leap into the unknown. Our minds resist the idea! What will be left after we empty ourselves so completely? The word is emptiness. It seems dangerous to our minds to even entertain the word. The word emptiness sounds Buddhist, doesn’t it? But the word in Greek is kenosis and means exactly the same thing! So it is definitely not foreign to our Orthodox spirituality. It is, in fact, the very heart of our spiritual understanding.
Yes, it sounds dangerous and perhaps it is, at least to our egos, and Cornel West (and many others before and after him) writes of the peril of living an authentic Christian life saying, "To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely - to step out in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping." Like Abraham who accepted the invitation to leave his homeland and travel to a new land. As difficult as it sounds, accepting that crazy, dangerous journey is the beginning of faith.
As we see, the lawyer was comfortable with religion, the Judaic law, and he was not able to embrace faith. There seems to be a security in clinging to something, although it is really an illusion. And there appears to be insecurity and fear in letting go of clinging, although there is really nothing to fear at all. There is simply growth and change, a sacred journey, a caravan, an experience of spaciousness and freedom into a new and sacred place. Until we experience the joy and freedom that comes from letting go, we will never believe it is so.
Oddly enough, this sacred journey does not require that we really go anywhere. We need only to be where we are, wherever we find ourselves, and follow the advice of St. Thalassios the Libyan and "enclose our senses in the citadel of silence." There we divest ourselves of all the mental constructs that disguise themselves as truth, an asceticism of the mind, and open ourselves to each moment as it rises and falls and rises and falls once again.
When we turn away from our clinging self-concern we discover that the door to heaven and earth open to us. Religion cannot take us there. Only faith has that power. The land of faith and freedom to which God calls us is not familiar. It is a place both strange and wonderful where heaven and earth intersect. It is a place of perpetual change and growth in love where every precious and unrepeatable moment is revealed as the place where God dwells named by the great French Jesuit priest Jean-Pierre de Cassaude, a sacrament – the “sacrament of the present moment.”
One final citation from Evelyn Underhill, the English mystic, Mysticism is "the art of union with Reality." The presence of God and the presence of his kingdom is the only reality.