July 9, 2017, the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Sermon preached by Rev. Lynne Spellman
Come Holy Spirit, fill our hearts and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen.
Early one morning a couple of weeks ago as I was walking our younger dog Madison, a four year old lab mix, around Lake Lucille in the middle of Fayetteville, a hawk landed in a tree. Suddenly the air was full of dozens of crows I hadn’t known were there. They converged on that tree from all the other trees, mobbing the hawk and chasing it across the sky. Alarmed by the commotion overhead, the geese who live on the lake but often sun themselves on our neighbor’s grass leaped to their feet and ran as fast as they could toward the safety of the water. Then Madison, excited by all the squawking, tore the leash from my hand and chased them to the water’s edge. And of course, though I couldn’t keep up with any of them, I scrambled as fast as I could after our dog.
I am sure I would have much darker memories of that morning had anyone been hurt. Fortunately, no one was. But I know that, for myself, I am deeply, utterly, completely, tired of conflict. So, it seems, was Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” The crowds were consumed with arguing, and probably some in them criticized both John and Jesus, all the while having no clear idea what they wanted. But Jesus knew what they really wanted. What they really wanted, as our collect this morning puts it, was to be devoted to God with their whole heart and united to one another with pure affection. What they wanted, whether they knew it or not, was to know that they were loved by God.
The Greek church fathers believed this because of what they believed about who we really are and who God is. They would say that God is a unity, but not the unity of sameness. God is a unity of relationship, and for Maximus the Confessor, the great 7th century Greek church father, the unity which is God includes all creation.
Like other Greek church fathers, Maximus draws on the opening of John’s Gospel to understand the relation between God and creation. There Christ is identified with the “Word,” which is how we most often translate the untranslatable Greek term “Logos.” But Logos also means the nature or essence of a thing; in other words, it is the conception or idea of what a thing is to be. Thus Christ as the Logos is the conception of the world, and given the story in Genesis about how God creates, this means that, for the Greek church fathers, it is Christ who is the creator. In creation, the Logos is embedded, incarnated, in each and every thing that exists.
Christ is in each thing in its uniqueness because being relational, a Trinity, is who God is, and creation is an unfolded image of that relationality. What all the individual creatures of every species want, Maximus thought, whether they are capable of being conscious of it or not, is to be woven together into a unity, the complex unity which is God. But since Christ is in everything, the way in which creatures are woven into that complex unity is by growing into relationship with everything else. Their individuality, their uniqueness, does not in any way cease to matter; it is rather that since each of them exists in Christ who is also, in an undivided way, in all the others, their individuality can only fully exist in relationship. Being in love with God, being in love with the world, is the way, the only way, that creatures can become fully themselves.
I find myself thinking about Maximus the Confessor now because he helps me to calm down. Instead of being endlessly obsessed with how we cannot seem to make headway with our political disunity, Maximus allows me to remind myself that sometimes countries long at enmity with one another, or countries locked in civil war, have resolved those conflicts. And if I just stop and look around, I can see how much love there already is between individual human beings. I can see the cooperation and mutual respect which lets there be community. I can remember the saints. And I can think of my brother and how at age 65, for the first time since childhood, he came to have a room of his own.
This is not the first time I have said how awed I am at the dedication of the staff of a state institution in another state where my intellectually disabled brother lives. Several years ago when he had a detached retina in the only eye in which he has vision, the staff sat with him round the clock during his recovery to help him remember not to lift his head; he had to keep it face down. No one then could know the outcome, but in fact he did retain the sight he had had. Then a year or so later, some of the living units were converted into apartments, not unlike the many student apartments around Fayetteville, four individual bedrooms and bathrooms, a shared living room and kitchen. Ed seemed to be becoming more anxious, and his social worker thought he would be helped by living with three other guys instead of a bunch, while still having all the staff and medical support of living at the institution. Because he still had his sight, it was possible.
I watched the sensitivity and skill with which the question of moving across campus was raised with Ed. He had long had a preoccupying fantasy, or maybe it was a hallucination, it was hard to be sure, that he already had a room of his own. But over a period of six months the staff gradually introduced him to the reality of it. He visited the apartment already occupied by three guys he liked and staff he knew. He ate supper with them. After a while he stayed overnight, and finally he and a staff member went shopping for furnishings. When the move came, it all happened so smoothly that in a matter of weeks the psych clinics convened to discuss problems were discontinued; there were no problems. A new staff member even asked me if Ed had always been so happy. Remember, we are talking about staff at a state institution. Why did they go to so much trouble to make this idea work? Why did it matter so much to them? How did they come to care so much? Maximus the Confessor would say that it is because we are, in all our diversity, a unity, a part of the diversified unity which is God. And Maximus, more explicitly than any other church father I know, extends his view to include more than us.
Obviously crows and geese already think of themselves as connected to other crows and geese. But I can imagine how crows feel about hawks, or geese about a dog who thinks that giving chase is great fun. One could say, of course, that in their well-founded suspicions they are all just creatures of different kinds being themselves. But that is exactly what Maximus did not say. He does not think that the nature of crows or hawks is confined by their present habits any more than is the nature of humans defined by all our conflicts. Christ the Logos is present and active still; creation is not yet complete.
We could dismiss Maximus’ vision as fantastical, a sort of Disney world. But should we? After all, we do, right now, see the sort of love across species that Maximus is talking about. All we have to do is to think of the deep bond that already exists between humans and dogs, or our other companion animals. Nor is it all about our relationship with other creatures. When Madison does his very best play bows for our neighbor’s pot-bellied pig, what is that but the presence of God?
In the name of the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.Download the Sermon PDF