Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Giving God permission to use us" - a sermon by the Ven. Robert Franken

A sermon preached by the Ven. Robert Franken at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, September 15 2013

"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear."

"I have no Faith - I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and make me suffer untold agony."

"Such deep longing for God and ... repulsed empty no faith no love no zeal. ... Heaven means nothing pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything."

"What do I labour for? If there be no God - there can be no soul - if there is no Soul then Jesus You also are not true."

All of these words, and many more, were written by Mother Teresa during the last 20 or so years of her life. She herself acknowledged the apparent contradiction with her public persona of a tireless nun working to feed the poor and care for the hopeless, by describing her everpresent smile as "a mask" or "a cloak that covers everything."

Some of the writings seem to suggest she doubted God's existence but the Rev. Brian
Kolodiejchuk (who knew her for 20 years and is the postulator for her sainthood) argued that, when read in context, Mother Teresa's faith remained. Her unwavering belief that God was working through her shows that what she missed was the feeling of connection with God. A certainty of feeling God / Jesus’ presence walking with her, and sitting with her as a friend and teacher.

Jeanette Petrie, who co-produced two films on the life of Mother Teresa said 'She had an expression ... "Give God permission to use you without consulting you". Jeanette continued, “I think she must have truly lived that.”

The Rev. James Martin of the Jesuit magazine America, author of "My Life With the Saints," said the window into Mother Teresa's inner life will help doubters and spiritual seekers. "Most of us tend to think of the saints as being in constant union with God, therefore everything they do is easier for them because of this union. This shows that not only do they have it as tough as we do, but sometimes they have it tougher," he said.

This issue of doubt is not unique to Mother Teresa or to Christianity. In another story about the founding prophet of Islam, Leslie Hazleton, a Jew, writing a Biography of Mohammad, explored what happened on a desert night, in the year 610 of the common era, on a mountain outside of Mecca. What happened is seen by Islam as their core mystical question. But Ms Hazelton would argue that even more important is 'what did not happen that night'. Mohammad did not come floating of the mountain. He did not come running down the mountain shouting, Hallelujah. Did not radiate a special light. There were no choirs of angels. Instead, in his own words, he was convinced that what had happened could not have been real. In the very best scenario, he felt that it had been an hallucination or a trick of the mind.

More likely he believed that he had been possessed. In fact, he rapidly became so convinced of this, that his first instinct, when he found himself alive, was to jump off a cliff and put an end to his life, rather that live a life possessed. Mohammed was a man who fled down the mountain - not with joy but with primordial fear. A man overwhelmed, not by conviction, but by doubt.

Whatever we think about Mohammed and where those words came from, inside himself our outside. It really clear that he experience them with a force that would shatter his sense of his world and would transform this otherwise normal man into a radical advocate for social and economic justice."

Even Richard Dawkins, the contemporary evolutionary Biologist and outspoken atheist, registered a small bit of doubt about his own certainty that there was NO God - as he wrote in his 2006 book, “The God Delusion” - when earlier this week he admitted that “he would consider going into a church, and would miss the ‘aesthetic elements’ such as church bells if they were gone.” Why would you miss that to which you had no affinity or small tug - no element of doubt.

When looking at today's gospel, we most often focus our conversation on how wonderful it is that God is so persistent in loving each one of us so much that, regardless of who we are, where we are, or what we are doing God would continue to search for us and to love us.

But the other thing that is important in this story is that the sheep got lost, the silver coin was lost. So why is that important? Because the sheep was once part of the fold, and wondered away - likely, often doubt grew to a point where the allure of other things took over and it wandered away to other pastures. And I am sure that there are other sheep in the flock looking at the greener grasses on the surrounding hills. And if the shepherd is gone too long looking for the lost sheep, others will wonder away also.

Just think of the Israelites while Moses was on the Mountain receiving the Ten Commandments - doubt creeped in so quickly that they melted their gold and made idols to worship. Like the sheep they saw greener pastures and wondered away.

This is the story of the bible over and over again. This is our story. The story of God’s people who come close to God and then wander away in search of greener pastures or a new certainty somewhere else. We would be wrong to think of it as negative, instead it is a part of the faith journey.

It is doubt that is essential to faith - not certainty

Sometimes I hate my own doubt, my own feeling of disconnection from God. It is easy to feel like a fraud standing in front of you talking about the importance of our faith and our relationship with God, with Jesus - with my own doubts and desert periods. But, I am convinced that doubt is actually at the heart of the matter.

- Look at Abraham, the Father of Judaism and Christianity: After God calls him to leave his home, over and over again he and his wife face doubts about God's ability to take care of them. These range from his lying to king of the region that Sarah was his sister, to Sarah laughing at the angels when they said she would have a baby in old age, to their deciding that Hagar was the way in which God would bring them this child.

- Then there is Jacob who stole the inheritance blessing from his brother to help God fulfill his promise of the inheritance, and he struggled through the night and wrestled with an angel to squeeze out a blessing from God.

- And even Jesus was tempted for 40 day and nights in the wilderness. It is easy to dismissthis time as something that was easy for the God Jesus to do, but the reality is that in order for a temptation to be real - it must actually have had the chance to that Jesus would succumb to those challenges.

- The writer of 1st John asks us a poignant question: "If you cannot love your neighbor whom you have seen, how can you love God, whom you cannot see."

In each of these examples in holy scripture, from Abraham and Sarah to Jacob to Jesus, doubt exists.

In Hebrews the 11th Chapter the writer says: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." In the translation of the bible called the Message those same words are translated as: "The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living."

In neither of these versions, or any of the other that I looked at, including the dutch, is the word certainty is never mentioned. Instead words like hope and trust are used instead.

The simplest definition of certainty is: "without a doubt".

Certainty is not faith - doubt is. But doubt tempered by those words in the book of Hebrews - Hope and Trust help lead us to the conviction - that give us faith.

- It was hope and trust that convicted Abraham and Sarah leave all family behind to go to the promised land.

- It was hope and trust that convicted Jacob to wrestle with the angel

- it was hope and trust the convicted Jesus to turn down the tempting offers of power and wealth.

- it is hope and trust that guides your journey and mine through our life with God.

- But just as Peter could walk on the water with faith - he started to sink with Doubt and Jesus was there to lift him back up. In exactly the same way Jesus is there for each one of us, each and every moment, even in - maybe especially in - our moments of doubt.

So what is wrong with certainty?

The elimination of all doubt leaves us with an absolute certainty. And then as a person of certainty, you know you possess the Truth. And. it takes little for this certainty to devolve into dogmatism.

There is also a growing sense of pride in being right. Having the perfect answer. It feels good knowing that you are a little better that those who aren't quite as sure, or who have things a little bit wrong. Like the Pharisee praying in the temple; ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.’ It feels good to know that you are that much closer to God. This is the pride of fundamentalism.

In fundamentalism there are no questions, only answers. Absolute certainty – fundamentalism - is a perfect antidote to thought and thoughtful conversations - and a real refuge from the demands of faith.

People who live in this place - even you and I when we live in this place - don't have to struggle like Jacob did while wrestling through the night with the angel or struggle like Jesus did with temptation for 40 days and nights in the wilderness.

We live in a world where this kind of Fundamentalism corrupts not only Islam and Judaism - but it corrupts Christianity in exactly the same way. Whether it is our certainty about Christianity being the perfect road to God for everyone in everyplace, or even our views on homosexuality, abortion, the inerrancy of scripture, charismatic expression, or a host of other issues - it corrupts the very faith we strive to hold so dear.

It is one of the beautiful thing about the Anglican tradition that we hold Scripture, Tradition, and Reason in the three-legged stool that generates constant dialogue, change, and even doubt.

Real faith has no easy answers - it is difficult and stubborn - an ongoing struggle.

Are you and I the sheep of the flock starting to wander over to greener pastures? Are we more interested with building up our 401(k) plan than we are in the poor or homeless of our community? Are our eyes set on getting that next promotion rather than the needs of our neighbors in Sudan or Malawi, who struggle to gain the basics of life, and the beginnings of good education? Are we more focused on planning our next vacation than we are about the mentally ill or depressed, who live down the street from us.

Do we wrestle with what to do with the homeless man who is begging for money? Or do we easily walk by caught up in our own lives.

Do we even lift our eyes to see our neighbor lying on the side of the road, or do we consciously cross the road and walk by him or her - rather than stopping to help?

This summer riding our bikes around the lake in Frisco, Colorado, Nancy and I crested a hill only to find two young boys horsing around laying in the middle of the bike bath. It was only as we went by them, and I was saying that it was a bad place to be laying, that we heard the one crying about lots of blood. It would have been easy to keep riding, after all 13 and 14 years olds are prone to exaggeration, But we stopped. It turns out that Zack's cousin had a small mishap on his skate board, causing Zack to hit the brake full on, going down this steep hill. He had flipped over his board and punctured his front lip with his teeth and managed a large gash under his chin. After we stopped more people came and we were able to keep him mostly calm, clean him up some and finally get ahold of his mom. When she came they went on their way to go to the ER. And we went on our way.

How many Zack's do we miss as our busy lives cruise towards our carefully planned futures?

So the question for today is: How do we convert our hope and trust - and "yes" our doubt - into a living faith?

It does not take certainty - Mother Teresa and Mohammed, Jacob, and even Jesus have proved that to us. What we can do is, rather than gazing of to distant greener pastures and making lofty plans for a grand future, is, like Mother Teresa, to "Give God permission to use us without consulting us"

Give God permission to use us, like we have already promise God we would do, in our baptismal covenant - to open our eyes and ears - to be the hands and feet of Jesus - as we:

- Seek and serve Christ in all persons, and love our neighbor as ourself. As we:

- Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

So how and where is God try to use you to accomplish these promises? Will you give Him "permission to use you without consulting you"?

I share these words in the name of God who Creates, Redeems, and Sanctifies us -AMEN

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