Thus says the Lord: This is what I commanded my people: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways that I command you, so that you may prosper.
But they obeyed not, nor did they pay heed. They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts and turned their backs, not their faces, to me.
Jeremiah 7: 23-4
Today’s readings are filled with a sense of conflict. In Jeremiah the Lord tells the prophet what he is, simply, to preach, that is, to remind the people of God’s command to listen and obey. Yet, the Lord also reminds Jeremiah that time after time, despite God’s efforts to reach his people, they choose to ignore God. In the passage from Luke we hear of Jesus’ driving out of a demon from a mute man, who is then able to speak. Yet, even with such a striking sign of healing and goodness, many accuse Jesus of being demonic. The passage concludes with Jesus telling the people that they have to make a determinative decision about him: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
We all live with a profound inner conflict and, because we are, in fact, free and responsible, life demands of us a choice. In every thing I do today and in every interaction with the personal and impersonal world, I am living out that choice. It can be described as choosing to be with Jesus, the Risen Jesus who lives within me as my own Christ form and among us all, or else to be against him, to gather and heal the world, or to scatter.
As a Congregation, we are currently working to recognize how well we have been listening to the word of God addressed to us particularly through the charismatic gift given to Theodore Ryken and his followers, the gift to be shared with the world that was given to Ryken and those who have and continue to follow him. When have we been faithful and when have we turned our backs on God and that gift? How are we now listening and walking in the ways we have been commanded to walk, and how are we now walking in the hardness of our hearts?
At a recent international gathering the comment was made that: “You guys know what you need to do. You have the Gospel and your Fundamental Principles; just live them.” Of course, this is exactly right. It is possible to be quite complicated about our lives, because sometimes complication is easier than making the choice that the Scriptures and Jesus call us to make, to “listen” and then to “walk in the ways” that we have been commanded.
On Tuesday of this week, we laid to rest the husband of my cousin, who died suddenly last week at the age of 84. As I thought about his life, what occurred to me was how simple and hospitable he was. I remembered how from my first encounter with him when I was just a boy of 11 to my most recent phone conversation with him many months ago, he was always so respectful and kind. The thought that then occurred to me was “No one was ever made to feel less in his presence.” His sense of hospitality meant for him to receive another into his presence with full respect for who they were. As a result, one would always feel comfortable and open in his presence. And so, he would then always, in a welcoming and non-threatening way, listen to whomever he was with in receptive and patient attention.
Although a believer, he was not a particularly religious man. He lived his entire adult and married life in the same house and employed at the same small automotive parts shop. Yet, he lived as an openness to the world through the countess family and friends, and then families and friends of his children and grandchildren, that he and my cousin would welcome into their home. He was such a trustworthy and helpful presence because he had chosen to spend his life welcoming and listening to the other.
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that simple persons just fall into lives of other-centeredness and what we might call virtue. Perhaps we should better understand that they are simple because they choose to listen and to be humble. They choose a life which is open to and centered on the well-being of others rather than themselves. Adrian van Kaam says that we are both a Christ form of life and a pride form. To be human is to live a perennial conflict between an awe of life and so of God that creates in us a trusting and open way of being, and a fearful and defensive stance toward life that makes us closed and self-absorbed. In the words of Jesus in today’s gospel, we can choose to be with him and so gather what is scattered in ourselves and our world, or we can be against him and for the one whose appeal is to our fear, competition, resentment, and self (in the sense of our false self) promotion. We can be a source of gathering, or bringing together, what has been dispersed or an agent of further dispersion and separation.
On paper the choice seems so obvious. So what makes it so difficult? Why do we, called to live the radical Christianity of our own Fundamental Principles, so often choose rationalization for our refusal to do so? Why do we choose mistrust over trust, isolation over honest relationship and communication, complacence over deeper life, the preservation of our comfort and prerogatives over spending all for the good of others? Finally, why do we look for an answer outside of ourselves rather than willingly giving our minds and hearts to a heeding of the call and a walking in its ways? As Jesus tells Thomas, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:4).
In part, at least for me, it is because the choice appears to me at first as a giving up of something that I dare not relinquish. To ponder the scriptures, to truly listen to our Rule of Life would seem to ask of me to give up my life as I’ve come to know it. Even my current discontent and unhappiness is familiar to me. But to really put my life and my future, as short as it may be, into the hands of others (even though I have for life called them brothers) often feels like a step too far. To open the doors of my house, as my cousin and her husband did, and to listen so attentively that I am led to walk in the truth of what I hear, requires a trust that, for all my pretensions of faith, I seem to lack.
In the Fundamental Principles we read:
is to recognize
that all you have and are
comes from God.
is the desire to open yourself totally
to God’s love
and to share it with others.
is the openness to listen and respond
to God’s will
wherever and however it may be expressed.
If all I have and am comes from God, then it is not mine. I am asked to relinquish my control over the way I live and even the way I spend my time. I am asked to be close to the world and to cease separating myself from it (scattering its truth) by means of my possessions and “style” of living.
If my celibacy means that I am to open myself “totally to God’s love,” then I must never cease to encounter my obstacles to openness and to willing that God heal me of them. I must be willing to allow others into my life and to share my life with others in ways that threaten my sense of fear, self-depreciation, and self-centeredness. I must cease being the powerful one, the professional, the competent one in relationships and rather offer that in me which I feel is the poorest and weakest, the least acceptable and desirable.
If living in obedience means “to listen and respond to God’s will wherever and however it may be expressed,” then I have to learn to live with and to attempt to overcome my own arrogance. I must cease filtering my willingness to listen in accord with my preconceived notions and biases about the source of the speaking. Perhaps the most difficult call is to really learn how to practice listening for the truth from those sources and in those places where I am convinced it is absent. To be obedient will require of me to open myself to change all of those ideas, sentiments, “convictions,” that are the very definition of my false or pride form. This mode of obedience means to so trust reality and God, in an ultimate sense, that I can listen without defensiveness to those that I feel convinced are wrong, or stupid, or profoundly mistaken.
So, the reason that the summons of the Gospel, of the most distinctively human in me, is conflictual for me is that to listen, to heed it, and to walk in its ways feels like death to me. It is to offer everything I take to be me, that I may, in the darkness, be given who I really am. I’d like to get to the end, to the goal of receiving the truth without first having to die to my own truth. But that isn’t possible. As the Rule of Benedict reminds us, we have all departed from God, from the truth, “by the sloth of disobedience.” Our life in this world is to return to our true home and to our true selves by listening carefully, that is with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, to God’s word in all the ways and in every moment that it is coming to us, and then to will, to do, what it asks of us, “to walk in its ways.”
Listen carefully, my child,
to your master’s precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father’s advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
To you, therefore, my words are now addressed,
whoever you may be,
who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King,
and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.
Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue