Dean Travis' Evensong Sermon
The Very Rev. Douglas Travis
Evensong, May 13, 2013
St. Teresa of Avila was one of the great mystics of the church. Born after Columbus came to this continent but before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door, she spent her entire life reforming not only her order, the Carmelites, but the larger Roman Catholic Church. She is one of only four women “doctors” of the Roman Catholic Church.
There was very little that scared Teresa including, apparently, God. She founded and visited Carmelite convents all over Spain, and so she rode her donkey a lot! One day her saddle slipped, and she found herself head down under the belly of her donkey as she crossed a stream. Complaining to the Lord of her treatment, she heard him reply, “Teresa, whom the Lord loves, he chastises. This is how I treat all my friends.” She replied tartly, “No wonder you have so few!”
I must confess to you there were days during the earlier years of my tenure here when being president felt more or less like riding a donkey upside down in a slipped saddle with my head under the water. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to determine whether I complained to God about how he treats his friends!
But I will share this: the older I’ve gotten the more convinced I’ve become that the essence of being a mature Christian leader is resigning oneself to being a friend with God. I say “resign” because by many conventional standards being God’s friend is often not much fun . . . but it may ultimately be the only thing that makes life worth living.
I recently shared with one of my good friends, Cynthia Kittredge, that to my mind the gospel story could nearly be summed up in two passages from the New Testament – Philippians 2 and John 15, our New Testament and Gospel lessons for this evening. Indeed, so convinced am I of this notion that in preparation for this evening’s service I did that most un-Anglican of all things: I completely disregarded the lectionary and chose the readings myself! There is a certain license that comes with being the retiring dean of the chapel!
Let me tell you why I chose these two passages.
Fully a third of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. In many contemporary versions of the Bible, the Greek word for slave is often gently translated as “servant”, and one can understand why. A servant is a wage owner. She can quit. In contrast a slave is property. He can’t quit! Slavery is perhaps the most horrible of all human institutions. It implies the complete objectification of one human being by another. Despite being human, a slave is little more than a beast to service the needs or pleasure of the master. The horror of that reality is served by accurately translating the word douloV in the Greek text, because it brings home the shocking drama of the biblical message.
The word “slave” appears in both our texts this evening:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Phil. 2:6-7)
And in John:
I do not call youslavesany longer, because the slavedoes not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:15)
Sometimes the biblical vision is assumed to be so pre-modern that contemporary folk cannot find it meaningful. We’re told that in the world of modern science we can no longer believe in the three-tiered universe. We just celebrated the ascension of our Lord, and I have to confess that stained glass windows showing the bottom of Jesus’ feet as he disappears into the cloud do stretch credulity. But I don’t think that’s the biblical idea. Philippians 2 makes the point: The ever present God, the God who knows the number of hairs on my head, the God who names me and calls me gives me identity – this God is far too big for any of my senses or even my mind to grasp. This God is hidden in light inaccessible and is ineffable. I can only yearn to see this God’s face.
And yet, Paul tells me, in his overwhelming humility and love for me, this God empties himself, taking the form of a slave, and is born in human likeness – so that we who are so very, very small and so very, very limited can see, touch, hear, and know him. As John reminds us, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I was raised with a profound bias against Baptists. As a kid I could sum up the difference between the Baptists and the Presbyterians with this: the Baptists had “Jesus”. We Presbyterians had “Christ” because, being more sophisticated and less credulous, we were on a last name basis with the Lord. But then I discovered the mystics, people like Teresa of Avila, and I began to have an occasional experience of riding donkeys upside down through streams, and I realized that the only thing really wrong with the Baptists constantly talking about having a personal relationship with Jesus was that they weren’t being biblical enough. The Gospel of John doesn’t talk about having a “personal relationship.” The Gospel of John talks about being friends with Jesus!
Think about the extraordinary elevation that’s occurring in our passage from John. Think about what Jesus is saying! You’re not slaves! You’re not my property! You’re not here simply to serve me! Rather you’re my friends. You are my friends! But there is a price. “You’re my friends if you do what I command you: Love one another as I have loved you! Not just “love one another” but, “love one another as I have loved you!”
Now who can pull that off? The answer is, nobody. Nobody – absolutely nobody – is capable of loving as Jesus loved. So why would he give us a command we can’t possibly fulfill?
Frankly I think the only way we can love as Jesus loves is to love with the selfsame love with which Jesus loves, and to be able to love that way can come only as a gift, a grace. You and I are able to love with the selfsame love with which Jesus loves only through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit – the Holy Breath of God – the breath with which Jesus fills us.
Now think about this: might not Jesus empty himself, becoming small enough for us to see, touch, hear, and know him that he then might breathe his breath into us that we might become like him, returning with him whence he came. Athanasius put it well: “God became human that human beings might become divine.” And to become divine with Jesus is to become Jesus’ friend.
Now what, you may all be wondering to yourselves, has any of this to do with Seminary of the Southwest?
Together as a community and an institution we have enjoyed extraordinary success these last six years, and the world has noticed. Believe me, the world has noticed.
Success is fun. Success is measurable. If you’ve been successful you can prove it, and you can say, “I” did this.
But there’s the rub – the temptation to say, I did this.
Who can love with the love of Jesus? Can I love with the love of Jesus? Can I be Jesus’ friend? Can you?
I’m convinced it is a law that our strengths are also always our weaknesses, and our greatest strengths are always our greatest weaknesses. We have been remarkably successful, and that puts us at great risk.
Let me quote two great 20th century mystics on the notion of success. Regarding success, Thomas Merton said, “If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”
Strong words. Now let’s be clear. Merton is not counseling that we do our jobs poorly, and he’s certainly not suggesting that the church (or the Seminary of the Southwest) ought not grow. He’s just suggesting that, perhaps more than anything else, success will give the appearance of being what life’s all about at the expense of our discovering what life is truly about. And the Gospel is about nothing if it is not about what life is truly about!
And Mother Teresa had this to say: God does not call us to be successful. God calls us to be faithful. We must figure out what God wants us to do and do it.
You nor I can love as Jesus loves except as we allow Jesus to love through us. You nor I can ascend with Jesus except as Jesus breathes his Holy Spirit, his Holy Breath into us – the same Holy Breath he breathed into those frightened disciples in the upper room after his crucifixion.
Success is fun because it’s measurable and I can say, “I did it.” But it’s as seductive as it is precisely because it so calls me into my “I” - it so calls me into my “ego”.
That’s not how the love of God works. The Love of God calls me out of my ego into the infinitely larger universe of God’s Presence and Love. There miracles happen. Success is measurable, but the General Thanksgiving that we pray at the end of both Morning and Evening Prayer reminds us that the Love of God is immeasurable.
So, how can we live into God’s immeasurable love?
Sisters and brothers, there were times early in my tenure here when I really did feel like I was riding upside down on a donkey with my head in the water, just like Teresa of Avila, with this exception – Teresa was a very short woman. I’m a tall man. As that donkey traversed that stream I kept banging my head on the rocks at the bottom of the stream!
I could not figure out how to get the various constituencies of this community to see and so truly appreciate each other. Everybody seemed to be in a fighter’s stance.
What has changed is this: Before the enrollment grew, before the annual fund doubled, before the Campaign for Leadership proved successful, before the world began to notice – we had to become friends. Our eyes had to be opened so we could see each other, as God sees us. That’s what the love of Jesus does. That’s what the Presence of God’s Holy Breath does.
It is more important that we be friends than it is that we succeed. It is more important that we be friends than it is that we be professional. It is more important that we be friends than it is that we use the latest marketing technique. It is more important that we be friends than it is that we be colleagues.
As we are such friends – as we are friends in Christ – there is a third one always with us, the one who gives us breath, the one who gives us energy. This one who makes it all work, and then it is not “I” who am succeeding. It is “we” who are succeeding, in Christ.
Have this mind among yourselves, the mind of the one who emptied himself taking the form of a slave.
And always recall what this one said: I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends . . .
Focus on your friendship in Christ first and, to quote yet another mystic, all shall be well.