The wise and humble servant of God, Frederick Buechner, the bard of Vermont, is one of my all-time favorite writers. This week he turns 87 and I want to return thanks to God for his ministry of letters because they have enriched and, indeed, changed my life. St. Frederick once wrote: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments - and life itself is grace.”
To my mind, more than many, Buechner both understands and explains what it means for us to trust that Christ became God’s word in the flesh – full of grace and truth – and it has to do with knowing that every moment and every thing is saturated with the sacred. “Listen to your life – all moments are key moments – not just the sweet and lovely ones but also the harsh and confusing ones – they too offer us a taste of the holy because all of life is grace.” Not just the so-called spiritual things, but all things – the fleshy things, the political things, the sexual things, the artistic things – the things that make you weep as well as laugh, the dark as well as the light – all things – for all of life itself is grace.
Thinking about Buechner, I came across this insight that speaks to our readings from the Bible for today. As you heard, the lessons for the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time invite us to consider the healing ministries of the Hebrew prophets: from the mystical Elijah of ancient Israel to the works of grace given shape and form by both Christ Jesus and St. Paul. And here’s what Buechner has to say about miracles:
The fact that I did not understand (the truth of one of my dreams)did not keep it from being in some sense also a blessed dream, a healing dream, because you do not need to understand healing to be healed or know anything about blessing to be blessed.
· Did you get that? As in blessings, so too in healing: we need not understand healing to be healed any more than we need know anything about blessings to be blessed.
· They are both beyond our control and of the Lord – signs of grace, truth and love – shared out of divine compassion not obligation, debt or necessity.
That’s why I’ve come to believe that for most of us it takes most of a life time before we’re able to simply and joyfully receive God’s gifts of healing or blessing with anything like gratitude. If you are like me, you’ve been conditioned to believe that no matter what the Bible says about grace, you really need to EARN God’s love in your life. You have to work hard at being a good person, obeying the commandments, following the rules, practicing obedience and all the rest. And if not that then some of us have been so shamed and wounded that we don’t – and even won’t – accept and trust God’s grace when it is freely offered. There are even some of us who are so addicted to our brokenness that we can’t even imagine an identity beyond the shadows.
· All of which is wrong when it comes to God’s compassion: we can’t earn it, we rarely deserve it and it is totally beyond our control.
· It is after all a gift – a sign that God loves us beyond all reason and worth – because that is who God is regardless of whom we are and how we might act
And God’s prophets – whether we’re talking about Frederick Buechner or Buddha, St. Paul of Jesus Christ – point to the Lord’s identity and truth not our limited wisdom, perspective or insights, ok? Is that clear? God’s prophets point to the Holy – and that’s what each of our appointed readings for today have in common – they herald something of God’s amazing gift of grace. So I want to try to share with you this morning two broad insights:
· First, I want to use part of the Apostle Paul’s autobiographical statement in Galatians to give you some background into the role of prophet in our tradition – and why that is important.
· And second to playfully suggest how the prophet can help us become ever more receptive to grace and gratitude rather than all the alternatives, ok?
Now the key sentence for me in all of the readings for day is this funny and obscure line from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia that says: But when the God who set me apart from my mother’s womb had called me through his grace and was pleased to reveal his son in me, so that I might be his herald among the nations, at once I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but rather I went away into Arabia and then returned again to Damascus.
I am fascinated by the little details in this passage that tell us that Paul not only understood his life and ministry to be that of a prophet, but that after he had mystically encountered the Spirit of Jesus while on the road to Damascus, he spent three years in solitude in Arabia before returning to Syria. What is that all about? At first blush, if we read these lines without any biblical background, it would be easy to conclude that Paul was going on retreat to get himself ready for this new phase of ministry – and that would be completely wrong – as is often the case when we try to read the Bible without a context. So let me break this down for you in three steps because each one reveals to us something that is related to the other readings, too.
First, the words, God had set me apart from my mother’s womb, are not just Pauline poetry in pursuit of autobiography, rather they are part of a rhetorical formula used by all of Israel’s prophets to describe their unique calling.
· The prophet Jeremiah, writing about 400 years before Jesus was born, speaks of God’s calling him as a prophet like this: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born, I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1: 5)
· Likewise the prophet Isaiah, writing about 100 years later, observed that: “The Lord called me through his grace from the womb.” (Isaiah 49: 1)
· Psalm 139, a song from the harp of David, tells us: For it was you, O Lord, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
This is the same prophetic formula and truth that the birth narratives of Jesus point towards, too: that before time God had set Jesus apart for a sacred ministry. And so what Paul is doing is claiming the same truth for HIS life: like the prophets before him – including Jesus – he, too was set apart for ministry even in his mother’s womb.
And the reason this is so important to Paul is the second insight: prophets do not receive their calling from other human beings – that is they are directly inspired by the Sacred – and their calling is for all time - an eternal vocation. Now why would that be important to Paul? Why would he insist that from the beginning of time – from his gestation in the womb through his service to God as a rabbi and now an evangelist – he had received NO guidance from human beings? Do you have any thoughts?
· If Paul was influenced by people, rather than directly inspired by God, those in the synagogues could dismiss his new ministry as misguided and those in the early churches could do likewise. You see, Paul was doing something radical – we was bringing together civilized and cultured people with those who were unschooled and sometimes barbaric.
· He was inviting outsiders into the inner core of God’s grace – and NOT because they had earned it or proven themselves special, but because this was God’s plan since before the beginning of time. Are you still with me?
· Paul insists in his autobiographical testimony that after his change of heart – after his mystical encounter with Christ and a profound change of heart born of grace and forgiveness – Paul literally and figuratively changed directions.
Remember his story: he once was a prophetic rabbi filled with zeal following the image and intensity of Elijah. Paul was living in bold opposition to the new Jesus movement; in fact, he was committed to killing the prophets of this new spirituality. And if you know anything about the prophet Elijah, who lived about 800 years before Jesus, he too was a man of zeal who was committed to killing the false prophets of Baal. N.T. Wright makes a strong case for saying that Paul saw himself as one of a long line of Hebrew prophets who were on fire for the Lord. They used rhetoric and violence to oppose God’s enemies when necessary and I think this accurately describes Paul throughout his life.
With one important exception: Paul realized at some point in his life – namely when he met the Spirit of Jesus on his way to do violence to some Christians – that he had become confused about God’s will. The way of the Lord was NOT about slaying and destroying those who did not agree, but rather loving and embracing them in the very way God loves and embraces us.
· In fact, even Paul’s change of heart is related to the story of the prophet Elijah. It seems that after Elijah had done battle for the Lord God of Israel, and was certain that his ministry involved even more acts of violence and destruction, he was sent out into the wilderness where Elijah reconsidered his ministry.
· During that time he encountered all manner of powerful symbols – earthquake, wind and fire – but in none of them did he find the presence of the Lord. No, only after he was quiet and completely surrendered to the mystery of the holy was God revealed in the “still small voice of solitude.”
And this, of course, is where that weird little Arabian detail takes on deeper significance for Paul – and I hope for us, too. After Paul heard the still, small voice of Christ offering him grace and forgiveness on the road to Damascus what does he do but… goes to Arabia for three years before heading back to Damascus, Syria. And in this, Paul’s story parallels the story of the prophet Elijah, too. In 1 Kings 19 God also tells Elijah to first go to the wilderness – and then return to Damascus.
· So what does this zealous prophetic rabbi who understands his life as shaped by the zeal of Elijah do but head to the wilderness, right? And not just any wilderness – any desert – or barren border land. Paul tells us he went to Arabia which is where the prophet Elijah went, too in order to refocus his prophetic work.
· But once again careful biblical context is important lest we think this means he was wandering around modern Saudi Arabia – he wasn’t. In his time Arabia was short hand for the vast desert regions both south and east of Palestine. Paul clearly tells us that he didn’t go to Jerusalem after his change of heart, rather he went to Arabia like Elijah.
· And most scholars have come to conclude that just like Elijah, Paul’s sojourn to Arabia meant he had made pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai. Later in chapter four of Galatians Paul writes that Mt. Sinai – where Moses received the 10 Commandments and the covenant between God and Israel was struck – is a mountain in Arabia. So it is very likely that this zealous prophetic rabbi wanted to return to the source of his tradition’s spiritual inspiration in order to sort out the new direction God had called him to celebrate.
He had heard the still small voice of God – and needed time to grasp what this meant. He had experienced deep forgiveness for his failures and sins needed time to accept God’s grace as a free but costly gift. And just like you and me, Paul needed time to honor this gift and make it real in his life because it is so totally upside down. To bring St. Buechner back into the picture, after a life of moving in one direction – only to discover it was off track – Paul was confronted and saturated with grace that was unearned, undeserved and totally beautiful. Buechner puts it like this: “There's no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth."
And as Paul gave himself time to savor this gift – to embrace its radical joy on Mt. Sinai – he discovered something else that Buechner got right – what it means to be called. St. Frederick wrote: The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.
And that, of course, is why all this Bible study matters. As Christians – those who follow the way of grace and joy, discipleship and compassion as made flesh in Jesus – our calling is the marriage of our deepest gladness and the world’s deepest hungers. Our calling has NOTHING to do with being good – although being good has its place. It has NOTHING to do with converting others to our way of thinking or praying or understanding the holy. And it has absolutely NOTHING to do with forcing our moral insights and codes down anyone else’s throat. All of that has broken the way of Christ and his grace in the world – and we have a lot of work to do in reparations.
No our calling is about spreading grace – and healing – and justice and compassion. And we can learn a lot from St. Paul because truth be told we’re a lot like him. I know some of you will hate me for saying that, but I think it is true:
· We’re at LEAST as wrong as St. Paul was most of the time, but still cock sure we’re right.
· We know what it means to go off into the world dead certain we’re on the right path only to wake up some years later to realize: OMG I’ve blown it.
· We have experienced what it feels like to look at ourselves in mirror and say: I don’t know how any of this works anymore and I don’t even know who I am.
To which the legacy of Paul says softly: that’s ok, I’ve blown it, too. Why not let the gentle and quiet Spirit of Jesus bring you grace? Why not trust him to heal you? You don’t have to understand his healing to be healed any more than you have to know anything about blessing to be blessed. It is a gift. And like any gift, all that is required is that you open your hands and receive it.
So I’m going to ask you to do something with me right now that some might think is too crazy – or too Christian – or too who knows what: I want you to try a little prayer exercise with me that’s all about receiving. And here’s what you have to do:
· First, put down everything you have in your hands – free them up – and put your feet firmly on the floor so you can be totally relaxed.
· Second, close your eyes – and make a tight fist with your hands. And you have to close your eyes so you won’t see anyone and they won’t see you because as intellectuals we often don’t want to let anybody see us being prayerful, right. So close your eyes and make a tight fist with your hands.
· And then as you sit there, when you are ready, say to yourself – and to the Lord – Come, Lord Jesus and heal me as you know best. And when you say that release your fists so you let go whatever you’ve been holding on to. Open your hands like you are throwing it all away and letting it go forever.
Three simple steps: get comfortable and quiet, close your eyes and make a fist and then pray saying: come Lord Jesus heal me as you know best – and let it go. Will you try that with me now? Oh, I know someone is already thinking, “This is so random – this is a child’s prayer – and I’m a grown adult.” But remember: unless we become like a child – innocent and trusting – we shall not taste the blessings of God’s grace. So let’s give it a try: close your eyes, make a fist and then release it with the prayer, “Come Lord Jesus and heal me as you know best.”
Quiet moments for prayer