The Beauty and Sanctity of All He Has Made
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 23, 2020
Forgiveness, offered, isn’t always accepted or passed on. The unforgiving servant is the New Testament version of the narcissist. Receiving extravagant mercy from his master and caring only for himself, he refuses it to his fellow servant.
“Why ask forgiveness when I’ve done nothing wrong,” the narcissist asks? For such a person there are rarely second thoughts and no effective arguments. It is vain to argue with a fool who believes they are perfect in every way, the very idea of salvation, or rebirth, or transformation is irrelevant.
Is it then the heavenly Father who condemns the unforgiving? I do not think so.
The kingdom of heaven is marked by utter selflessness. Selfishness has no place there. So those who think more of themselves than others could not bear to live there. It’s like CS Lewis wrote in THE GREAT DIVORCE, the doors of hell are locked from the inside. Hell’s inhabitants are cast “into the outer darkness” not by God, but by themselves. As it says in John’s Gospel, “they preferred the darkness.” Of course, they do. Darkness hides their shame.
The selfish person does not seek God out of love for him, but for what he can do for them. If we love God only for what he can do for us, then it is not God we love, but ourselves. Theirs is a transactional Christianity which, I daresay, is no Christianity at all.
The words uttered by the Three Holy Children before they entered the fiery furnace, “We know that our God is able to deliver us and even if he doesn’t, we will still love him,” is the opposite of the transactional approach. As is this, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”Narcissists, like the unforgiving servant in today’s Gospel reading, could never say either of those things and really mean it. Nor could they say and mean what Jesus said from the Cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Or ascribe to any of his other teachings like, “Turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies,” “do good to those who hate you,” “go the second mile,” and “give expecting nothing in return.” Those teachings are foolishness in the transactional world. Why follow a god that does not deliver? The whole of Christ’s teaching opposes transactionalism.
Mechthild of Magdeburg, Medieval author of THE FLOWING LIGHT OF THE GODHEAD, was a Catholic mystic and visionary much like Julian of Norwich, who died sometime around the year 1282. And, like all mystics, she was controversial and influential. She wrote this:
“The soul is made of love and must ever strive to return to love. Therefore, it can never find rest nor happiness in other things. It must lose itself in love. By its very nature it must seek God, who is love.”
Love itself, although we are told otherwise, is not transactional. Love is above that. It loves for the sake of love alone. True love makes no demands and has no expectations. Love does not cling and is never jealous or fearful. The two signs of an unhealthy or unbalanced relationship are 1) fear of loss and 2) the desire to control. God’s love transcends all of this.
Mechthild could have written those words with today’s Gospel reading in mind. Anything that is not love is not of God. And if the search for love is not our reason for being, we must change directions.
Love is the trailhead that leads to God. And love is our reason for being, the very ground of existence. Were it not for the flowing light, love and grace, of the Godhead, we would not exist. We, and everything, are sustained moment by moment by God’s love.
When we say the Lord’s Prayer, what do we think it means when we repeat the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” Does it mean that we want everyone and everything around us to change? I don’t think so. I think it is first of all a call for us to change. Does it not really mean that we are asking God to help us live as if the kingdom really is in us and around us like Jesus said, like the kingdom is already here? That is how I see it.
After I converted to Orthodoxy I made a trip back home and stopped at the University of Tennessee to see a good friend. I introduced him to St. Athanasius the Great’s magnificent book ON THE INCARNATION. He didn’t like it. He read the first page and then handed it back. “I don’t agree with this,” he told me. “With what?” I asked. “It says that God created and sustains the devil in his existence!” “Sure,” I replied, “and if God didn’t create him, who did? If God is not sustaining him, how does he exist?” Of course, I did not expect an answer and didn’t get one. It was simply a bridge too far for him to accept that all things, all of them, are created, sustained and loved by God.
Well, for sure, Orthodox Christianity has a very different worldview. I like this quote (I forget where it comes from) “If you can’t see God everywhere, then you can’t see God anywhere.” I think that pretty much sums it up.
Slowly but surely our spiritual practice should lead us to selfless purity and openness of heart. That means the selfish narcissist in all of us must be transformed. Part of us has to die if we are ever to grow larger and that is the part. Do you remember John 12:24, the verse about how a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die before it can bear fruit? When our hearts, minds, souls, and senses are open then we will know that the kingdom really is in us and around us. And we will see as God sees the beauty and sanctity of all he has made. We will love because we are loved and we will forgive because we are forgiven and we will expect nothing in return for God has already granted us everything.