Monday, August 23, 2010

Pentecost 13: Drawn by Desire to God

You could find Bob
in the same parish
in the same pew
sitting with his wife
every single Sunday.

He was as traditional
as traditional gets;
in his choice of cloths,
in his manner of speech,
and in his preference
for worship:

Kneeling in silence,
Rite One Holy Eucharist,
altar against the wall.

I once asked the congregation
what about it’s life
would appeal to a visitor:
the solid stone architecture?
the gorgeous stained glass?
the intricate wood carving?

Bob said it would be
the reverential demeanor
of the people at worship.

That was his manner,
which most people
experienced as being
gruff and off-putting.

Bob was not happy
with liturgical innovation,
livid with the new
center altar location,
longed for the old prayer book,
lamented a day gone by.

What would happen
I wondered
if at the pearly gates
St. Peter welcomed him
with word
that Rite 2 communion
was set to begin
in half an hour

but the devil whispered
Rite 1 would begin
in just five minutes
at his place?
Where would Bob
chose to be?

What is it that draws a person to the True and Living God? Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel invites us to ponder this question as a seeker approaches Jesus and asks, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

It is a question that most every religious tradition has mulled over. Buddhists and Hindus believe that all living creatures are reincarnated after death. Toaists believe that only an enlightened person achieves immortality. Judaism teaches that the righteous dead will be resurrected in a messianic age that is still to come. Muslims hold that everyone will be resurrected, but that those who have lived a bad life must undergo correction in hell for a time. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach the righteous will live eternally on the earth, which God will one day turn into paradise. They also believe that the 144,000 most righteous people will go to heaven: Jesus was the first of this number, more are being added, and once the group is complete our present age will come to an end. Mormons think that heaven (or glory) has three levels, each of these having sublevels. The lowest level will be here on earth and it is reserved for those people who have not lived a good life.

Jesus’ response to this question (here and throughout the Gospels) is less concrete, more nuanced, not nearly as specific, and consists of a multiplicity of images. What we hear this morning suggests that some who thought they were ‘in’ will be shut out, while others who never knew about it will be drawn it. It is an image that portrays God as both exacting and generous.

Several years ago I led a senior high youth conference in an exploration of C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. It is an allegory where various people find themselves on a bus which takes them to heaven. Once there, each person is met by an escort who is assigned to guide him or her on a journey to meet God. In most every instance the person resists, each for a specific and personal reason. In one of the most challenging chapters, a mother is met by her brother, but years early she had lost a child and it is her long-departed child that she most wants to see. Her brother assures her that she will be reunited with her child, but first and foremost she must want to meet God because everything else flows out of that desire. But her burning desire is to be reunited with her child. It is one that we can all understand, and yet it is not the most important thing. In the end, she leaves heaven angry and bitter that it does not give to her immediately the thing she wants.

After our discussion I worked with a group of students who were assigned to plan that evening’s worship service. We agreed that each would write a description of what he or she hoped heaven would be like. That night, after they put their thoughts together, I listened to descriptions of heaven as being a place where you could play your favorite sports and never get tired, as being a place where you could eat all that you want and never get fat; as being a place where you could be with your friends all the time and never have to go to school. After listening to them, here is what I asked them: Is heaven a place where you get to be with God, to know God, and to experience God’s love? And is any of that important to you?

What is it that draws a person to the True and Living God?

Jesus suggests that it has little to do with being a part of a church or holding to the tenets of the Nicene Creed or being a good person. He suggests that it has everything to do simply with what you desire. St. Paul found the same thing as he traveled the Roman Empire preaching the Gospel to those who had never even heard the name of Jesus. He found that there are people who, quite apart from the Christian faith and culture and ceremony and language, live with a desire to be like Christ, although then cannot name it as such. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul argues that there are Gentiles who live according to God’s law even though they are completely unaware of it. These people, Paul says, will be deemed as righteous; in other words... they are people who desire to know God and live their life in pursuit of this.

In today’s reading, Jesus hints that our challenge is to live every day in this world while being less and less of this world, to desire to know God, and to develop specific practices which can nurture this desire.

Last Sunday I showed you two chapters from the film Baraka, a Sufi word which means “the thread which weaves all life together.” This week I want to show you another chapter called “Monk with a Bell.” It is shorter than last week and not nearly as disturbing. Last week’s chapters portrayed how modern life is creating what I called an assault on the God-given gift of our humanity. This chapter shows one person in the midst of the madness practicing the ancient spiritual art of mindfulness. While I am not advocating this eastern practice, I want to close with it because it is a visual image of how one person manifests a desire to know God. Your desire and my desire will look different, but this image helps me to keep in focus the practices that enhance my desire to be with God.

[Monk with a Bell]

“Lord, will only a few be saved?” “Many will seek to enter and not be able, but others shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the Kingdom of God.”