BISHOP GRISWOLD: Our readings today have been chosen to support the ministry of Thomas Bray, whose biography is found at the end of this morning's service, a teacher and missionary who wandered into unfamiliar places representing Christ and was very important in founding a number of parochial libraries, one of which existed very close to where I grew up in Pennsylvania, so that people could be formed and conformed to the image of Christ by having Christian literature available to them. So we're invited by Jesus to go out into the midst of wolves as lambs. We're invited to accept the fact that the message we're called to proclaim does not always provoke acceptance. It can provoke incredible hostility. And yet that being true, we are invited to issue forth with undefended hearts, undefended hearts, with nothing, nothing to protect us from the encounter and the difficulties that we may have to face -- no purse, no bag, no sandals, and we are to greet no one on the way, which simply means we're to be clear about what we are doing and not be distracted and drawn off, stopping to have cups of coffee here and there when, in fact, we are oriented toward a particular house. And so we enter the house and the only gift we bring, the only gift we have is the piece of Christ, a deep shalom which transforms, heals, and reintegrates all of reality because that piece has been planted within us. And yet we offer that peace with complete freedom. If it remains, God bless you. If it returns, we don't frantically try to impose it through some aggressive means or need for results in order to prove our own competency or worth as message bearers.
I think here of the Russian monk who lived in a hermitage deep in the Russian woods who said, "I will receive you with hospitality and let you go in peace. My door is always open," and people could wander in, ask for a word of life, people could say, "It means nothing to me." He would say, "Peace be with you," and they simply leave. He was simply available, available with that inner freedom that comes from the interiorization of the gospel.
I think here of Francis of Assisi. This is one of the texts that formed Francis of Assisi's notion of the little brotherhood. Without possessions, simply moving around, declaring "Pace e bene, pace e bene." "Peace and well-being, peace and well-being." That to this day is the motto of the Franciscan community. And he also said, "Preach always and everywhere and if necessary, use words," meaning that we are to embody in flesh that gift of shalom which the Risen Christ gives to us, forms in us.
But the text also points to something else, at least as I read it, and a story as we heard it told. There is a process of dispossession that is at the heart of our being conformed to the image of Christ. There is a way of unknowing in order to know more deeply the Risen One as the way, the truth, and the life. "In order to possess what we do not possess, we must go by way of dispossession," said St. John of the Cross, and T.S. Eliott after him. And, of course, this is simply another way of stating what Jesus says in the gospels. "If you cling to your life, you'll lose it. If you yield your life for my sake and that of the gospel, you will find it." Dying and rising is the fundamental law of human life, and yet we so often push it away and declare it other than the truth of our own lives. So not only dying and rising, losing and finding, but when we look at the Hebrew scriptures, we see the same dynamic in the whole sweep from Egypt to the land of milk and honey. They don't simply get there miraculously by magic carpet; they have to go through the wilderness, which is a 40-year process of disillusion, reorientation. They have to confront their own idolatry, their nostalgia for the past and all the rest of it. They murmur, they blame God, and yet through that 40-year process they lose their lives and corporally find their lives and are made ready to enter into a gift that they couldn't possibly receive if they'd simply moved directly from Egypt to Canaan. And so, too, with us. There are endless leavings of Egypt, passing through the wilderness en route to a place yet to be determined, which is fullness of life, which is, in terms of the Book of Revelation, the white stone we will be given with a new name if we endure.
I think here, too, in my own life of how this has meant my notions about God being overturned. I have many idolatries. God is this way and that way and yet this losing and finding means even losing the security of certain ways of thinking about God, certain patterns of prayer which were immensely life-giving and terribly consoling suddenly become dry and arduous and I try harder. I say, "It's my fault," but what I fail to recognize is that God is calling me beyond the easy consolation of that particular mode of prayer, that particular devotion to a deeper intimacy, and God is saying, "You have to let that go, too, because it's not a question of clinging to consolations. It's a question of knowing me, the God of all consolation, and I am a raging fire.” “I am,” to use words of John of the Cross, "strange islands that you have never experienced before," because the mystery of God passes everything we can know and it is a power of love alone that gives us the confidence and the courage to endure and make that journey to that deeper place.
So God is always leading us to new dimensions of ourselves as we come to maturity in Christ. And this happens often through stripping, certitudes being taken away, suffering being entered into, and here, one of the texts that I return to again and again, though I don't fully understand it, but it has power and force in my life, is Romans 5 where Paul says, "Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” -- the whole notion of a profound formation that grows beyond suffering into confidence. And we achieve a character not according to our own images of who we ought to be or what we ought to be, but it is who we are forged into by the grace of the Risen Christ and out of all that emerges hope. And none of this makes any sense logically whatsoever. It's absolute idiocy unless you live it. And clearly this was the truth of Paul's own deep inner experience.
I was struck yesterday when Parker Palmer was talking about being at the bedside of someone dying, and it put me in mind of an experience some years ago when I was called to the bedside of a young doctor, a hematologist ironically, who had just learned that he had leukemia. He was on the parish rolls, but I'd never seen him. It was sort of a hundred-dollar-a-year pledge and we kept them on the rolls and in my visitation patterns I hadn't gotten 'round to them yet. So I went to the hospital wondering what on Earth I would find. And I found a very pleasant person who was grateful that the rector he'd never met had come to see him and over the next two years the relationship grew and grew and grew. There was no discernible faith at the outset that I could see. This was simply because I was the rector and they were on the rolls and I was doing what I was supposed to do and he, very politely, was allowing me to say a prayer and do the nice things that I was supposed to do. But there were strange moments. I remember Palm Sunday he was in the hospital and bringing him a palm cross. And he's quintessential WASP. He never showed any emotion whatsoever. Everything was contained and rationalized. And I handed him the cross. I said, "I just brought this for you, John." And he kissed it and said, "Oh, thank you," with a fervor that I think shocked him more than it shocked me, this sign, this symbol connected with some deep interior reality and brought it into consciousness. And so our journey continued and often it was in the Eucharist that I think he was most deeply fed, beyond my capacity to say youthful or appropriate things, simply knowing that the Risen Christ was there. And then about two years later having gone into remission and out of remission and now clearly journeying toward death -- and I had promised him, "I will go with you as far as I can, John," -- I took him communion on Christmas Day in the hospital. And I remember bending over the bed. His body was just collapsing. There were tubes everywhere. Everything was hemorrhaging and he was a wraith, he was so thin, and I put the host into his mouth and suddenly I was shocked. He was totally transfigured. A joy, a radiance burst out of this collapsing, bleeding body that actually it threw me back and I realized that I, who had sought to bring Christ to him was now meeting Christ in him. The real presence of Christ was in this man. He had been stripped absolutely naked and now the truth of who he was, was revealed, not because he chose to reveal it, but because that word deep within was now absolutely palpably present. And then he did something, again in his kind of WASP-y, careful way. He grabbed my hand and kissed it and then realized he'd done something sort of impulsive and emotional and so he covered the action by saying, "Well, I guess you're my Pope." And I thought, "I'm not going to let you get away with this." And so I bent over the bed and kissed him on the forehead and our eyes met and we knew that a deep love, which was the love of Christ, was between us and had bound us profoundly together.
And as I left, I thought of some words of the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry who says, "A thing is most itself not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away, when a thing is naked." And the stripping of which I'm speaking is not a negative process. It is a stripping that allows the deep truth of who we are in the grace and imagination of God to be revealed, to come forth. And this is part of how Christ is formed in us and this is part of the journey. Suffering, endurance, character, hope because the love of God has been poured into our hearts and the cross ultimately is nothing other than the way of life and peace. Amen.