Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prayer as Service I

[Sermon given at Holy Apostles Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 20 October, 1985]

Some of you may know that I came to New Mexico from central California via Oregon—about a thousand mile detour, but a necessary one. I wanted to visit a Cistercian monk who has been very much of a spiritual father to me. He has been faithful over many years in helping my vocation unfold—indeed, as have two other Cistercian communities—but we had never laid eyes on each other. Since I had a few days free, and since there is no telling when I will pass that way again, I decided to visit him.

It was a wonderful meeting, and in the many miles that followed as we drove through the Columbia Gorge, across Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, I had plenty of time to contemplate his loving-kindness, and the immense service he has rendered to me and to so many others by his faithfulness to his vocation to prayer.

The texts for today all speak of service—service in forms we never expect; service that is there if only we have the eyes to see; service that does not do but is done by being.

In Isaiah we see the suffering servant, rejected, bruised, the image of the Crucified One who seems to fail but in his very failure defeats death. In the Epistle we are warned of the two-edged nature of the Word who has known us from the beginning, and that if we would serve we must be prepared to be naked and known, and must know our selves under the eye of this God who has become one of us.

Lastly, the Gospel tells us that the one who would be great is not the one who knowingly wields power but rather the one who will follow the Lord into full self-emptying, not knowing—and implicitly not really caring, because his or her vision becomes so fixed on God, self becomes so found in God, that comparison to others in some imaginary geometry of ‘achievement’ becomes entirely irrelevant.

There is a marked contrast among the images of suffering that today’s readings give us. On the one hand, there are the dramatic images of the suffering servant in Isaiah and the baptism of the apostles in the fulfillment of that prophecy. On the other, there is the bleak exposure, the awful nakedness of being known by the God whom we would love but from whom we often want to hide.

In 20th century America we usually think of service in terms of action. The readings today suggest something quite different. If the image of God in which we are made is one of a kenotic God, that is, a God who is self-emptying, then that is the vision of our fulfillment as human beings—a fulfillment that paradoxically is less and less important to us as it is realised.
We often think of God as the Creator, the one who acts, and thus we automatically think of our own worth in terms of action.
But sometime go through the New Testament and note the number of times not that Jesus acts but that he allows himself to be acted upon.

Let’s carry this image a little farther. What do we mean by the “will” of God? I have come to believe that what we mean is not that there is some linear track stretched out in front of us on to which we must groove our lives or perish: that would be the will of a god who is a tyrant and a controller, and would justify to our selves all our desires to have power and control. No, I think rather that it is possible to think of God in quite another way, and thus to know the divine will which is wondrously malleable, which is self-emptying.

The rabbinical tradition is full of astonishment that the glory of God could become so dense, so small, that it could fit between the cherubim of the ark. This is a way of talking about God’s self-emptying for the people and the creation. I think the God we see in Jesus the Christ in the glory of his Body nailed between two pieces of wood is our model of this total self-emptying.

Now, this model has often been misunderstood and mistreated. And we often think of the sayings about losing one’s life as referring to our state of mortality. I think we rather need to understand it as the death that we choose, the death of self-consciousness, the death of all our striving for power and place, the willingness to know our selves as God knows us, as starkly revealed as the Sandia mountains to the east of us; the willingness to be transformed.

As some of you know I have been working on the subject of tears [later published as "The Fountain and the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire"]. I’ve written the larger part of this new book, and like most books, its creation is full of surprises. At its heart I have discovered that the meeting of God's will and ours is the meeting of our mutual self-emptying in the mingling of God’s tears and ours: God’s over us, and ours not only over our sins but also, and more important, the astonishment of forgiveness and the glory in us It is in this other-directed gaze, the gaze away from our selves, that God is able to work out of our sight to transform us. And this is at the heart of our service: not so much in what we do but in what we are willing to be enabled to become.

This willingness is not passivity but, as T.S. Eliot has pointed out, costs us not less than everything. The story of the Garden of Eden tells us how eager we are to control our selves, to control everything and everyone around us, and ultimately to control God. To become willing to be transformed, to let go control, to allow the possibility—God’s possibility far beyond our knowing—is the most costly and valuable service we can render, and all our activity is useless without this entering of God into us, which God can do only as we are willing to be emptied of our lust for power and our self-concern.


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