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June 19, 2005
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Lose Yourself in the Presence of God
The Rev. Canon Reneé Miller

Gospel: Matthew 10:24-39
(This sermon is also available in audio.)

The marketers have figured it out. They have figured out that we are all on the search to find ourselves. They’ve also figured out that we don’t really know how to find ourselves and that we will pay thousands of dollars in pursuit of this elusive goal. There’s therapy, self-help books, support groups, and religious fanatics who cleverly capitalize on our deep need to discover who we are. We are willing to follow any plausible trail because we believe that if we find ourselves, it will then become clear what we are here for, what our place is, how and to whom we belong. And when we have all that in place, we will finally have peace. We will be safe from struggle and tragedy, and find the harmony and tranquility that we hope will ease the craziness, the stress, the angst of our lives. Yes, the lure for calming peace hooks us every time – but one.

It is that one of which I want to speak. Like a thief in the night – unexpected, and often unwanted, we find ourselves in an encounter with the Holy One. We are like Jacob awakened from sleep proclaiming, “how dreadful is this place – it is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.” We are like Saul on the road to Damascus, dropped to the ground and blinded for three days and nights. We are like the woman of Samaria meeting the One who knew everything about her – even her darkest deepest secrets. Like these Biblical figures, in the space of an instant, we find ourselves in the presence and grasp of God and we suddenly realize we no longer need to find ourselves, and we discover that the peace we sought is something that claims us rather than calms us. In that crucial moment we understand that when we let go of all that we think is our life, we find our true life.

We are in the habit of thinking too narrowly about peace. We understand it as being released from trouble or disorder, or having the chaos of our lives stilled. Because of this narrow understanding , we find Jesus’ words very disconcerting. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” These words sound harsh, even hostile. We have lived our lives thinking that we are supposed to pray to God to bring peace, calmness, and serenity into our lives. But, these words seem to indicate that the peace of God is anything but calmness and serenity. This kind of peace seems to disturb more than calm, stir up rather than soothe.

The Sanskrit word for peace is pac and means to bind or to fasten. It is the word we know as pact – to make a bargain. Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that the peace we think we want is, in fact, a peace that will bind us, fasten us to a pleasant, boring, but ultimately nondescript life, while the peace offered by heaven is full life – life rich, varied, raw, and real. Life in all of its deepest reality. Life that is fully alive, if you will. Perhaps, Jesus is reminding us that he does not make bargains with anything less than that full life. The sword that Jesus brings cuts and cleaves us until we are unfastened from what is only a false peace and freed for full life.

Contented, peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful and broke them too.

By William Alexander Percy, from The Hymnal 1982.
© 1985 by the Church Pension Fund

What I am trying to tell you is this: life with the Holy One is a dangerous and risky affair. We like to keep our relationship with God as mild-tempered as a soft evening breeze on a warm summer night. Pleasant, delightful, temporary, free of scratchy edges and sharp prods. But, such a life with God is ultimately as tasteless as the pablum served to an infant. We opt to keep God close enough to call out to and get help from when we need it, but not so close that we feel the sharpness of holiness. We would rather God stay at the fringes of our life rather than come face to face with the wildness of a God who loves us so much that he will not let us go.

What do you suppose would happen if we were cut in two by the sword of peace, unfastened from the sugary peace we think we want? What do you suppose would happen if instead of finding ourselves, we lost ourselves in God? Well, I think three things would happen.

First, we would wake up to life, not a facsimile of life. Most of us go through our days and nights without even noticing the heat and beat life offers. We go to work, play with our kids, pay our bills, go to church, watch TV, surf the net, prowl around the shopping mall, stress over our relationships, our inner imbalances, our lack of passion. We talk about current events, the newest diet or book review, visit with our friends, do what we can to help those who are in need and try to fit in a prayer or two. Then, in our quiet, more reflective moments, we wonder where the days and years have gone.

But, if we would lose ourselves in God, suddenly we would feel the pulsing energy that infuses every single act of life. We would find ourselves in places of potential and promise, and we’d find ourselves in places of rugged sadness and despair, but instead of wanting to escape the rugged sadness and be steeped only in promise and potential, we would be aware – awake – alive to every moment no matter what it brought. We would be unfastened from the need to search for a false peace in order to keep chaos at bay. We would see the deep spiritual truth that sadness is just another side of joy, disappointment just another side of fulfillment, despair just another side of happiness, death just another side of life, and we would want to experience all of it equally. Life would be fully real.

Secondly, we would begin to see our relationships through the eyes of Jesus. The other seemingly harsh words of Jesus from today’s Gospel reading are these: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law… whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.” We so easily jump to the conclusion that Jesus must mean that we will be separated from those we love if there is any hint that we love them more than we love God. But, could it be that Jesus is calling us to a new way of seeing, a new way of interacting, a new way of understanding the relationships that are so crucial to our lives? When we lose ourselves in God, we are unfastened from unhealthy dependence on those we love, we are unfastened from the greed and selfishness we can easily exhibit toward others, we are unfastened from destructive patterns of anger and resentment, we are unfastened from love that is really not love at all.

When we lose ourselves in God, we are no longer compelled to choose less than the best in our relationships. We are freed to include others, love others, extend welcome to others, and share with others in a way that is un-self-conscious. Let me give you an example.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta could have felt human concern for the poor and dying in Calcutta and could have dedicated her life to caring for them, loving them through her own earthly power, seeing them through her own human eyes. But, on her annual retreat, she was grasped by God and had one of those face-to-face encounters that unfastened her from her comfortable existence. She was called to serve the poorest of the poor. When she saw the first person on the streets covered with maggots, she felt repulsion, but then, because she had lost herself in God, she began to see the person through the eyes of Jesus. She herself said, “There in that one I saw Jesus in his distressing disguise. If I had not picked up that first one, I would not have picked up 42,000 more.” Her life thereafter was not marked by the sweet and calm peace she had known when she had been teaching children of wealthy Indian families in a lovely convent. The rest of her life was spent dwelling in that peace that claims rather than calms.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless on Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head down was crucified.

By William Alexander Percy, from The Hymnal 1982.
© 1985 by the Church Pension Fund

Third, we would get the big picture. We’re so often lost in the details. You know how this works. We’re hurt by someone we love and we can’t seem to forgive. We’re passed over for a promotion and can’t get over our anger. We’re struggling and can’t get over our feeling that life isn’t fair. We lose someone we love and can’t get over our hurt. We’re stressed beyond our limits and can’t get over our anxiety. We get sucked in to the daily issues of our lives and get as buried in them as a mole tunneling in dark earth. We hardly come up for air, much less to see the light spreading across the entire horizon. The Sufi poet Ghazali tells this story:

One day Jesus saw a group of people by the road who were sad and in obvious despair. He asked them what had caused their sadness and they said, “The fear of hell has made us like this.” Then he saw a second group of people in equal despair and asked them what their problem was. “The longing for Paradise has made us like this.” He then found a third group who had clearly endured much suffering but were still smiling. He asked them why they still had joy in their hearts, and they replied, “The Spirit of Truth itself has made us like this. We have seen Reality, and have turned away from everything less than it.”

When we are grasped by God and lose ourselves in the presence of that God, we are unfastened from the thinking and living that keeps us small in the midst of a life that is bigger than we can even begin to imagine.

Perhaps our greatest danger is falling prey to the marketers’ seductive claims that they can provide us with the means to find ourselves. Because when we follow their voices, looking around every corner for the next method of discovering who we are, we risk missing the one encounter that has the possibility of waking us up to real life, helping us see those we love through the eyes of Jesus, and crawling out of our darkened hole of smallness to gaze upon a picture larger than we can imagine. When once we have that encounter, our lives will never again be the same.

The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing –
The marvelous peace of God.

By William Alexander Percy, from The Hymnal 1982.
© 1985 by the Church Pension Fund


Copyright ©2005 The Rev. Canon Reneé Miller
Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN

Gospel Reading: Matthew 10:24-39
" A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)

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