Good morning! I am delighted to be here, and I would like to thank Pastor Mike for calling on me to speak in his absence. The scripture readings for today have special meaning for me, and I’ve always found them compelling, even difficult. Because of this, it was important to me to accept his invitation.
The scripture readings deal with communication – how God communicates with us, and what we can expect when we don’t listen – and also how we communicate with each other, and even how we can communicate with God. The scripture suggests that real communication is a two way street, with communication back and forth. It’s only when it becomes one-way, when we start talking to ourselves, so to speak, that we are wayward and get in trouble. For communication to be two-way, the first requisite is to be a good listener, keep an ear out for truth. And then, when you hear, respond. That is conversation. Anything else is just talk, talk, talk to the ends of the earth.
In Proverbs, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?…Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, would have none of my counsel, and despised all of my reproof, they shall eat the fruit of their [italics mine] way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them;”
Busted! Wisdom is crying out in the streets, but few are listening. On the other hand, if we do listen to Wisdom, and choose “the fear of the LORD,” a benefit is promised, and it’s a good one: “those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”
It’s worth noting here that the fear of the LORD does not mean quaking in abject terror at the feet of divinity. To fear the LORD, in ancient times, was to turn toward him in awe and respect and reverence. That’s still what fear of the LORD means, I believe. But, in the blinking of an eye, you can turn away from divinity, even if you’re trying to lead a holy life. You can be deaf to the voice of Wisdom.
Last week, when I was reading “Mike’s Meanderings” from the Philippi newsletter aloud to my wife, Anna, I changed one of the words to create a pun; it turned Mike’s meaning ‘on its head.’ I often do that in conversation, or other very similar things. I play with words all the time.
“Among Christians of all denunciations around the world,” I read, “there seem to be two main visions of God’s will, both claiming biblical authority, that are both almost diametrically opposed to each other.”
Suddenly Anna broke in to my reading: “Does it really say that?”
“No,” I said, “I made it up. It should say ‘denomination,’ not ‘denunciation.’”
“Did you do that on purpose?”
“Wyatt, why did you do that?” Anna scolded. “You know, you really must examine why you do things like this. On the one hand you embrace all kinds of spiritual knowledge, you’re always reading about it, you regularly practice meditation and sudarshan kriya (a breathing technique we both practice) and on the other hand you hold it all at arm’s length, even deny it. Why do you do it?”
Busted! Wisdom cries out in my own kitchen, and I had better listen.
In Psalm 19, one of my very favorites, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” It seems the entire creation is a silent shout proclaiming the divine glory of God. A shout that is not speaking in human speech. The only way to hear this shout is the way it is presented, in silence louder and more perfect than any words or speechifying, because “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple.” To hear this shout you have to train yourself to listen. And then, the simple are made wise when they do.
The psalmist continues, listing qualities of the LORD that “rejoice the heart…enlighten the eyes…endure forever…are true and righteous altogether… More to be desired than gold, even much fine gold.” There are two things I’d like to point out at this juncture. One is that every time I have referred to the LORD so far, it appears in the Bible all in capital letters. It was translated like this because the word itself is untranslatable into English. It’s an ancient word that means – sort of – “I am that I am,” the words God spoke out of the burning bush to Moses. “I am that I am.” In other words, pure spirit, the very spirit that “I am that I am’s” creation tells the glory of. The other is that the qualities – dare I say human speech – of “I am that I am” – the law, the decrees, the commandments – are the precepts of that Spirit, that “I am that I am,” and they keep the people of God safe in the presence of Spirit. The next time you read the word LORD all in capitals, you may want to substitute “I am that I am;” It gives a different feeling, and meaning, to the passage.
The psalm ends with a prayer of petition, the kind of prayer where something is asked for. It’s perhaps the most common prayer, certainly one we’re all familiar with. “But who can detect their errors?” the psalmist asks. “Clear me of hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless…”
It’s a wonderful, heart-felt prayer. Clear me of hidden faults, because I cannot see them. And keep me back from the insolent, do not let them have dominion over me.
When Anna asked why I turned Mike’s words on their heads, I replied that I honestly didn’t know, but that I was painfully aware of the habit. Upon reflection though, I partly pun because there is almost always humor in it, and I think I tend to be entirely too serious about life and work, and for that matter, spiritual matters. It’s nice to inject humor into discussions about eternity, about salvation – these are weighty matters that people have been nattering about for millennia. Sorry, but there’s part of me that thinks this nattering is just talk, talk, talk, talk. The chattering goes on and on to the ends of the earth and prevents us from experiencing the very things we talk about – eternity and salvation. And I think a lot of that experience is structured in silence. So when we speak, our words should count for something. And maybe what they should – or could – count for would be to lead us back to silence, where we can more fully hear the silent shout of the spirit through God’s creation. Because, are we not part of this creation? Are we not part of the silent shout? And if we hear it, is not every human heart part of that shout? Yes. I think so. But to hear it, we must first listen for it.
Another reason I turn words on their head is because I enjoy the mental shock of challenging others’ ideas. I like using language in provocative ways. Those of you who have spent time around me know that this is a habit with me, but I’m not sure the habit adds to the discussion of ‘truth’ and ‘what is truth’ that I do love to engage in. It’s more playful frivolity. I like the humor and the laughs. But, in fact, playful frivolity can hinder discussion, hold it at arm’s length, and be a distracting hindrance. I’m mostly listening to myself, and there is no real dialogue. I’m laughing at my own joke. On some level, it is insolent. Just as the psalmist says – LORD, “I am that I am,” save me from the insolent, that I may be blameless.
Busted! By the psalmist – I have met the enemy, and he is me!
When we are talking we are not listening. We cannot hear the wordless voice of God emanating from the silent shout of creation. The danger is that we separate ourselves from a loving God and feel separation. Even worse, we give up our union so that we can think that we are correct, right, even righteous! And we are seldom aware that that is what is happening. But, as soon as we start thinking that we are important, we start feeling that we are alone. We talk, talk, talk to the ends of the earth; we feel that we are ‘right;’ we make our points; and, in making our points, we can miss the Point of the silent shout altogether. We feel our energy depleted in aimless talk, while the creation is shouting all around us, unheard.
As James notes, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…no one can tame the tongue…with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.”
Busted! This time by James.
To use another example from my life, and one I’m sure many can relate to: When I was a young man, I liked to drive fast. I did not hesitate to speak badly of the slower drivers on the road, the ones who held me up.
I willfully told them to go to heck, because they didn’t believe in gosh. (You can laugh, that was a joke).
Now that I’m older, and a much safer driver, I find myself occasionally becoming impatient and angry with the drivers that buzz by weaving in and out of traffic – me at a younger age, of course. Shut up, Wyatt, just shut up; pay attention to your own driving, not the driving of others. Judge not lest you be judged. One difference between the old me and the young me is that I am aware of these things.
So, busted! This time by me. You might think I’m extravagant, but to paraphrase Jesus for the 21st century – the Kingdom of Heaven is like driving all the way to Washington, D.C. without having a single unkind thought for any driver on the road! (That’s not a joke, I’m serious).
But how would you feel if you were busted by Jesus? That’s what happened to Peter in the passage from Mark. Jesus has just finished teaching his disciples that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter is listening, all right, but he can’t accept what he hears! Peter takes Jesus aside and starts arguing with him. The actual word the passage uses is "rebuke." Kind of like, "Jesus, how dare you say such things!" I imagine it may have continued something like this: “Hey, let’s just go down to Nag’s Head for a while, until this all blows over. There’s lots of folks there who need your teaching, and the weather’s always great this time of year. There will be other Marys and Marthas there, good cooks and good places to stay…think how welcomed we’ll be!”
The response from Jesus is swift and unequivocal: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Peter is busted.
Then, it gets even worse for him – Jesus turns to the crowd and the rest of the disciples, and says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Sometimes you can be standing right next to God, and he’s talking to you, and you just don’t want to hear the message. And you’ll start arguing with him. And you’ll try to cut a deal to get your own way. And He will bust you, every time, and lead you away in the handcuffs that you’ve designed yourself. But there’s something else he’ll do, too. He’ll teach you how to remove your handcuffs and throw them away. He’ll teach you how to live in freedom. And He’ll always be there for you.
He asks you to deny yourself and pick up your cross and follow after him. He doesn’t ask you to pick up his, though clearly, once you have picked up your cross, you must have the courage to be crucified for – or by – the truth of your cross. You have nothing to lose but your handcuffs. You have everything to gain – freedom – Paradise and Eternity, in fact – and all you have to do is pick up your cross, whatever it is, and follow after Jesus, who demonstrated that death has no power.
And be advised, more than anything, the power of Jesus’ words in this passage from Mark come from the Resurrection: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,…and be killed, and after three days rise again.” It is the Resurrection that gives power to Christianity, not the crucifixion. In fact, the crucifixion means nothing without the Resurrection. So ask yourselves “What is my cross?,” or “What are my crosses?” and pick them up, and love them, for they are the way to freedom. This is good news. It is also hard news.
Maybe complacency is your cross. It’s awfully easy to just “kick back” and enjoy here in Deltaville, but the psalmist tells us that “the complacency of fools destroys them.” There’s no eternity in being a couch potato, that’s for sure. Or maybe it’s an eternity of boredom.
Maybe it’s one of the seven deadly sins – maybe gluttony – “O no! I overate again! The devil made me do it!” No, not the devil – you made yourself do it.
Maybe it’s greed, and the desire for money and possessions burns like a fever in your brain – “O, it’s OK, that’s the way God made me!” No, that’s not the way God made you, that’s the way you made you. You might think of any of these sins as a covering you’ve put over your true image – the image of God, of divinity, of love – as a pale substitution for your real image. The pale substitution is your cross. On the other side of it is life that is more full and abundant.
You see where I’m going. Your cross is your cross. The pale substitution is exactly what separates you from God. It’s what you’ve put in place of God; it’s an idol. It is exactly what has to be unmade in ourselves to heal a separation that, after all, we have imposed on ourselves. Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are always there, in and with love, saying "follow after me!" It’s a journey we must make; we each have our own journey, but as Christians, we also travel together in community. This is what, for me, the church is for.
The journey starts for me – and maybe ends – in prayer. I mentioned the prayer of petition earlier in this talk, when the psalmist asks and entreats "…who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults." I’m sure we all pray like this, and it’s necessary to do so. There is also another kind of prayer, a prayer of surrender. This kind of prayer asks for nothing. I’m speaking of meditation. There is a long and rich tradition of meditation in the Church, but in recent centuries it seems to be a prayer skill that has been relegated to monks and mystics. Brothers and sisters, it need not be so.
I have practiced meditation for decades now, and it is in the silence experienced in meditation that a lively personal spirituality has grown in me. I mention it here because a short time devoted to meditation each day has immeasurably increased the joys in my life, and I think it would improve the quality of anyone’s life. Diving in to silence has made me a better listener. Sometimes the ‘silent shout’ of the creation is a palpable force that shakes me from the inside out. My speech is no longer inflammatory, but informed by silence.
In Matthew, Chapter 5, the first beatitude is "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." When I was a child, I could not figure out how being poor in anything could lead to the Kingdom. Then, as a young man, I realized that the passage probably referred to being "humble in the spirit." That made more sense to me. But then I started to meditate; in experiencing meditation I began to think that the passage had been mistranslated. Maybe it should be "Blessed are the poor within the spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." First of all, meditation is a denial of self. When I meditate well, the world falls away, and my self with it. Things become very quiet. There is a feeling of expansion. There is a palpable sense of timelessness and eternity. I become peace. And when I come back to the world, it seems fresher and more alive than before; it’s been made new. Through the years, many of my bad habits – not all of them yet, but many – have just naturally fallen away.
I wish this for all. I pray that our crosses, as soon as we recognize them and pick them up, may naturally fall away, and leave us smack dab in the middle of heavens telling the glory of God; the firmaments proclaiming his handiwork. The Peace that Passeth All Understanding.