Benediction Online

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Way of God with a Soul

Many protestant preachers announce the title of their sermon in advance, often a month or more ahead of time so that it can get in the church newsletter. Fortunately, this has not yet become the norm among more catholic preachers - I don’t think I’ll ever be sufficiently disciplined to plan my sermons a month in advance. Today, however, a title came before the bulk of the sermon, so the title of this sermon is “The Way of God with a Soul”. I’m going to be picking up again on the image we met last week of God as a ‘consuming fire’.

But before going there, let’s take a closer look at this morning’s gospel reading. The society Jesus lived in was very concerned with honor. People who were seen to be contributing to society or who excelled in some way were honored and brought honor to their extended family – whereas those who were rejects in some way, brought shame and dishonor. It was important for people to have a sense of where they and their family were within the honor structure so they knew their proper place. This is a parable about not paying proper attention to who you are.

The word that sticks out for me is ‘parable’. Luke says ‘when Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.’ If it’s a parable then it’s not just about how we behave when we go to parties or other social events. It’s about life in the reign of God, it’s about how we are inside. Often we think about the importance of our behavior, the importance of Christian ethics, the importance of working for social justice. Following Jesus involves those things but it’s not just about how we behave outwardly. It’s also about how we behave inwardly. They go hand in hand. Being a prophet is not an alternative to being a mystic. We need both aspects

It is the mystical aspect I want to address today. It is in our hearts, minds and souls that God works to make us more Christ-like.

Here is a poem by Emily Dickinson which we used in our Quiet Day two weeks ago.

He fumbles at your soul
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on.
He stuns you by degrees,
Prepares your brittle nature
For the ethereal blow
By fainter hammers further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool,
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.

When winds take forests in their paws
The universe is still.
This is an image, actually multiple layers of images morphed together, of God’s power and the way God works with the soul. They’re very different images from the ones we have of God as lover, as good shepherd, as friend. Here God is a musician who plays us like a piano or perhaps a blacksmith who beats the metal into shape. The last two lines are quite thrilling:

When winds take forests in their paws
The universe is still.

Perhaps She wraps her paws around the universe and it is still, in peaceful contentment, or perhaps God is like the wind of a hurricane, like a great tiger playing with the trees, and the universe waits silent and still to see what will happen next.

Is God the blacksmith hammering us into shape, preparing or brittle nature, or is God the fire he uses?

The correct answer is, ‘Yes’.

Our God is a consuming fire like the great fires used to create molten iron. In the process the impurities are burned out. A consuming fire burns up. It is not something to be taken lightly. As we deepen our commitment to the life of spirit, God takes us seriously and acts on our souls like a consuming fire.

You don’t interact with a consuming fire, you submit to it. Submission to God is not something we talk much about. We are independent people and we are happy to co-create, to be friends with God but to submit?

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed “Not my will, but thine.’ This is the prayer of submission. It is also, paradoxically the prayer of freedom because it is the prayer that leads us to be most fully the people we were created to be. God does not want us to be anything less than our full potential. God does not want us to be smaller or lesser in any way. ‘The glory of God is the human being fully alive’. Submission to God brings us more fully alive than ever before.

As our souls burn in the love of God everything that gets in the way of us being fully and completely ourselves gets burned away. We are made to be radically and totally consumed by our love for God and consumed in God’s love for us. We are only completed in Christ, and the action of God-the-consuming-fire is to burn away those things that prevent us from being totally Christ filled.

This is the process of sanctification, of being made holy. It is also the way of the cross because it is a process of being stripped away, of being stretched, of releasing our attachment even to life itself. Our souls are like a precious metal which has to be heated and pounded until it is malleable and can be shaped into the beautiful creations God had in mind when we were first created.

Submission does not mean being passive. Our participation in sanctification is two-fold. First we seek God in prayer, offering ourselves to God and seeking to be transformed, and secondly we actively cooperate with the process. We submit to the process of sanctification as active participants. There are many ways of doing this, perhaps through dream work or journaling or participating in a spiritual journey group, but most importantly by engaging with Holy Scripture and participating in the sacramental life of the church.

An important part of the process of sanctification is learning who we are and what our true place is in the universe. Our little egos want us to be the centre of everything, and put a lot of time and attention into criticizing other people or comparing ourselves favorably or unfavorably with other people. Our egos spend a lot of energy bolstering our self-esteem or conversely telling us what lousy people we are. This can masquerade as humility, but true humility does not allow the little ego to be the centre of the universe. True humility puts Christ at the centre.

I have a friend who once told me how important today’s parable was for her. ‘I always like to take a lower seat’, she said,’ and wait to be invited up higher.’ However she made it very clear that she expected to be invited higher and became quite resentful if I failed to do so. This is not humility. This is putting oneself at the centre of the universe.

During the process of sanctification, as God takes our souls into her paws, we learn just how important we are as the beloved of God, as the ones for whom God became human and died. We also learn just how unimportant human ranks and pecking orders are. It doesn’t matter where we sit at dinner or in church, we am still God’s beloved. So we can be flexible, we can respond to the moment, we can have the seat of honor or we can take out the trash and only eat left-over potato salad. Whatever.

Our little egos don’t want us to make the prayer of submission. They fight against it and pull back control again and again. They don’t want to give in to the God of wind and flame, the God who demands.

But it is the only way to become truly who we were made to be. It is the way to become truly alive.

Just five words,

‘Not my will but Thine.’


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