Monday, January 26, 2015

The Kingdom of God: Living in the World as if not.

St. John’s Church, Getty Square

3rd after Epihany

1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Psalm 62: 6-14
Mark 1:14-20

When I lived in Poitiers France I participated in the University Chaplaincy and I met a lot of very memorable people.  One person I remember a great deal, Michelle (a pseudonym) had long blond hair and always had a very genuine sweet smile.  It was not a fake smile, or a put on smile, or a temporary smile like some people carry.  It came out of a place of peace and calm.  She told me people sometimes ask her why she always has this smile and she would tell them,”Because God is so good and I am thankful for my life.”  She was a student but she struggled in deciding what she intended to do with her life.  She lived very simply. 

I stayed with her in her apartment when I went to Poitiers in part to attend her wedding to Jean-Denis (a pseudonym) and I noticed a very used prayer corner, complete with Bible, Candle and Icon of Jesus.   Jean-Denis lived in an intentional community called Emmaus and it was a place where homeless people could come and live.  They would eat and pray together.  I am not sure about what other ways they helped the homeless, but I admired the dedication of both Jean Denis and Michelle.  Both of them were very well respected in the church at Poitiers and at their wedding there were some ten priests at the altar. 

I tell you about her because I think Michelle is an example of someone who seemed to me to be living the kingdom of God.  She dwelt in this world as all of us do, yet she had a peace and a joy that came from above.  I have been privileged to know a few people in life who I think reflected this reality, however, most of the people I admire are like me, they are on the path to that place, but struggle, and maybe even fight and resist the whole way there.

Sisters and Brothers, when Jesus calls his disciples in today’s gospel, and asks them to follow him, I see his asking them to follow him into the kingdom of God, to live in the world but to reside in the kingdom of God, to live by god’s wisdom, to trust completely in God, to seek the will of God in all things, to not be afraid, and to have quiet confidence and solid hope that God’s purposes are not thwarted.  I am encouraged by the fact that the apostles seem more like me than Michelle.  For each of them their discipleship to Jesus was troubled and a struggle, like mine, but the tradition conveys that many of these common ordinary people, even fisher people, that Jesus called, showed a peaceful powerful joy by the end of their lives.  They truly followed Jesus.

When the gospel today says the disciples left their father in the boat with the hired, this is a jolting phrase.  In our culture it is not unusual to go off into the world on one’s own and to leave father and mother.  However in Jesus day this was a huge break.  It tells us that Jesus was calling the disciples to do something huge, life changing, even a shift in their identity and loyalties.

I propose this is what St. Paul describes in our Corinthian readings.  St. Paul was very clear that life in Christ is living in the world in a very different way.  He describes all of these every day major parts of our life, marriage, grief and joy, business as things we do as if not doing them.  Some have interpreted this as meaning a very rigid life, an austerely ascetic life,  where we are married but do not have relations with our partner, or as a rejection of emotions, where we keep a very steady emotion and are not moved by grief or joy, or where we shun commerce and live a life like that of a hermit.  I truly do not think so.  I think that is too concrete.  I think that kind of reading probably misses the main point.

St. Paul is saying we live in this world, we marry, we have our emotions, we conduct our life affairs, just as human beings will do, but all along we keep such great hope and faith in God, that it is as if we are not living in the world.  There is a way in which we are truly and fully present to the world, but we also transcend the world by having utter confidence in God.

It is this strain in our faith that causes many people to make positive comparisons of the Christian faith to Buddhism.  In fact one of the most popular Buddhist writers of our day, Thich Naht Hahn, claims to be both Buddhist and Christian because he sees Jesus as someone who invites others to enlightenment. He believes Jesus asks us to dwell in this world where there is so much suffering and violence but to be the presence of peace, love and joy.

And that is what I saw in Michelle.  I saw in her someone who brought the peace, love and joy of Christ, to her everyday living.  And I pray God will make me more like that.

As I prepared for today I came across a very good observation about this kind of life.  The author points out that living in the world as if not, that living the life of Christ, means two things.  First, by God’s power we escape the fears that beset us and so are freed from gripping anxiety, but also that we gain a new urgency to do the kind of things Jesus would have us do.  Our greatest passion is no longer to struggle to survive in this world, we give that to God.  Our greatest passion becomes to do the things Jesus would have us do.

To do this we must have an active prayer life.  If we are not intentionally focusing on God in prayer, if we are not seeking fellowship with other Christians as we are here doing today,  if we are not seeking the strength we receive in this liturgy of word and sacrament, I do not see how we can accomplish this call to have peace and hope.  If we do not pay great attention to God I think our weak human nature will succumb to the assaults of a troubled world.

If we stay connected to God and other people of faith, he we focus on service of others, we escape what 12-step group participants might call the prison of self.  Instead of always thinking of ourselves, our needs, our hurts, our wants, we make a positive effort to serve other people and to relieve their hurts and needs.  We no longer just see horrible things in the world, we see places where we can take the mercy of God, and show love to others. 

And of course the others do not always act lovingly.  Frequently they are users, abusers, dishonest, selfish, ungrateful, ill-behaved people.  And we have to learn to respond to people like that with compassion and great wisdom.  Sometime our hearts will go out to them because we will perceive in them great need for spiritual healing , and yet we feel helpless seeing them stuck in a prison of hurt, avoidance, and in self delusion, the very opposite of humble wisdom.  We can serve others, we cannot rescue them.  Much prayer will be required as soon as we come to understand the sufferings of those around us.

And yet some of the people we reach out to, some will hear the call of Jesus to follow him.  They will take his hand and embrace the path of forgiveness and healing.  They will start down a path which seeks first God’s kingdom.  They will say a prayer that truly means, “Thy will be done.”  They will find Jesus through our love and compassion.  And Jesus will turn and say to us, “See, I told you I would make you fishers of people.”

Let us pray, sisters and brothers, that God will cast out our fears.  Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will give us confidence in God.  Let us put our whole trust in God and invite him to address the hardships that beset us.  Let us open our eyes to ask him where and how he would have us serve others.  Let us pray that we might in some way help others find Christ’s offer of peace and love.  In doing these things I think we truly live in the world as though not living in it.  In doing these things I think we truly leave all and follow Jesus