Grant us, O Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure. Or in the idiom of an older time, to cleave to those that shall abide.
How many times have you and I sung or read that perfect gem of a collect for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost—a prayer which crystallizes such a vast expanse of Christian doctrine. In the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, I have a new appreciation for its meaning. And yet—this gem of Christian eloquence notwithstanding with all its strong sentiment expressed therein, I have been anxious, very anxious, probably sinfully anxious about earthly things: my wife and sons, my friends, the Church where I work, this Community that I love, my present, my future, indeed my self, my life, not to mention my new apartment, and my retirement portfolio, and my health and dental insurance. I am also worried, very worried, probably sinfully worried about the immediate prospects for our dear country, and Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that the exercise of worry is so futile it won’t add even one cubit to our span of life.
After hearing George Bush’s call for revenge, his promise of bloodshed, and his pledge to root out all evil with the exercise of infinite justice, I don’t seem to be able to find a comfort zone, I haven’t been able to find those familiar touchstones inside where I go for serenity. Quite frankly, I have not been able to sleep. Yesterday I celebrated mass at St Helena’s Convent in Vails Gate, and the lesson for Ember Saturday was Matthew’s dictum: For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Just a few days ago I was running down the street at top speed to do the very thing against which Jesus cautions us: saving our lives. And if you were to hear and see what I happened to have heard and seen, no doubt you would run also! I kept hearing screams, “Run, run, run for your life,” and I obeyed without hesitation. Once again I plead guilty for yet another infraction of Christian imperative.
I am anxious, and I am worried, and I am likely to run like a bat out of hell if my life is hurled into jeopardy as it was on September 11, and I am the first to admit that I need a good spiritual talking-to to get straight on this horrific incident and what it has meant to me and to mine. What my boss calls, a “straight talk with Jesus out by the barn.” Were I a spiritual director with sage advice to pour on the likes of me, I might start out like the Buddha with a stern reminder that everything is always changing—nothing is static; if I were spiritually directing me, I might read the ordination collect which says that things which are cast down are now being raised up; and that things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to perfection, to wholeness, in Jesus Christ; I know I would give me a stemwinder of a sermon about holding fast and cleaving to the things heavenly whatever in the world heavenly things are. What in heaven’s name are they? Purple liturgical prose to fill up empty ritual space? My guess is we have to go back to Christian basics to find them; and I suspect we couldn’t go wrong with focusing on, and doing some creative brooding upon, such fundamental radical basics as faith, and hope, and love. In times of crisis which feels more like catastrophe then chaos, we can’t go wrong or too far afield with this Corinthian trio.
Faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That pulse-quickening new translation of Scripture called the Message gives this definition from the 11th chapter of Hebrews a dose of salsa, real zest: The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God: this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. We can never grasp God; God is much too elusive for that kind of domestication. But we do have a handle on God, and that handle is faith. My alanon friends tell me that faith means to give as much energy as I can possibly expend to the better things in life, never ever the worse. Faith is not knowledge, and it’s not vision, and it’s not security, and it’s not much of a net when you you’re falling over the edge. It is, however, the only handle I’ve got at those unsettling times when I cannot understand, and when my seeing is myopic, and when my safety is threatened. A handle on God—God whom I believe to be my light and my salvation, my strength, my help in ages past, my rock of ages, my merciful Savior, my living Redeemer. The God of Exodus, the God Resurrection who is notorious from before time and forever for bringing good out of evil—given time, and patience, and a rather huge quantity of quiet prayer.
Hope is another one of those mysterious, intangible, numinous heavenly things to which I would very much like to cleave at a perilous time like this. I like the word “cleave.” It not only means “to stick” or “to adhere,” but “to remain faithful.” Strangely, it also means to divide, to sever. We’ll stick with fidelity today. Faithless fears and worldly anxieties disintegrate, they evaporate, when you and I are able to remain faithful to Him who promises abundance of life be it here, or over there just over the horizon where can just barely see the forms and shapes in that province beyond the river. Perhaps the shimmering and indistinct shape of a heavenly WTC. After witnessing first-hand the United jetliner crash into the 2nd tower of the World Trade Center, I high-tailed it for Trinity Church, as did many others; men and women of all sorts and conditions, terrified and terrorized people looking for refuge, sanctuary, God’s House, a place to get out of the nuclear winter with its lethally dark cloud and its destructive rain of debris and rubble.
Priest that I am, I was properly attired for the occasion. I jumped into a cassock and surplice, ran up the steps of the pulpit, and began corporate worship of Almighty God by praying, reading Scripture, and singing the hymns of the Church. I had with me my now-worn copy of “The Message” and began reading all the things I could possibly recall wherein God might speak a word of assurance: the Beatitudes, the 23rd and 27th and 91st psalms, selections from the prophet Isaiah and the Revelation to St. John the Divine. When the roof began to fall, Romans 8 provided an immensity of comfort when it became all too clear that our deaths were imminent; that we probably would not leave the church house alive. As the lights went out, and our hopes began to fade, I was reading some rather remarkable prose in a translation that caught the ear of every person in the room. Saint Paul said to the Church at Rome, as he said to us a few days ago at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway:
Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us, it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling birth pangs. With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen.
Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: As Scripture says, They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one. None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. To me that is nothing but unadulterated, unmitigated hope, and would that I could cleave to it and all its implications with all the days I have left—whatever kind of days they turn out to be. And for the short-run, at least, I don’t believe they are going to be pleasant ones.
Finally there is love. Love abides. Love covers a multitude of sins. When all else fails, love abides. Everyone who loves is born of God, and experiences a relationship with God. God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God, and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house. For the past ten days, I have written letters and e-mails and made many telephone calls to so many people in all the arenas of my life, past and present, far off and close by. And in many of these communiqués where it is appropriate and heartfelt, I have tried to be very clear about the love I have for them. If I love someone, I no longer want to be diffident or equivocating or cagey about stating it, I want them to know. And if there be any doubt about their love for me, I’ll ask them to declare it. I may not be around to say it or to ask it when tomorrow comes, so Lord let me live this day as if it were my last day! I also want to be loving of me—if indeed these are end-times. To treat myself with hospitality and charity, just as I would hope to do to others. Lately, I’ve felt the need to step up both the spiritual direction and the therapy from which I benefit so greatly. I do not want to go to my grave without facing headlong some of the issues which frighten me, and paralyze me, and sometimes cause me great pain. My resolve post WTC is to be willing, in love and in the knowledge of God’s love for me, to face whatever it is I need to face, to do whatever it is I need to do, to be whatever it is I need to be—without any more dilly-dally. There is no longer a luxury of leisure time to get on with living. There is an urgency to live fully, and to do it now.
And of course, loving God is primary. To fall in love with God is to be ravenous for those niches of time and space and place to be with God—to pray, to brood, to rest, to find comfort in those everlasting arms even when comfort seems to be in such short supply. For whatever it is that is ailing us in this present, love is the antidote. I saw some of you on Thursday at St Thomas for the memorial for British Nationals. Tony Blair’s quotation of Thornton Wilder stays with me: that there are times in life when answers to hard questions just don’t come, and that in those times, love has a way of pointing us in the direction of satisfaction nonetheless.
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy, but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, JUMP, and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives us. Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut.
Doesn’t have a swelled head.
Doesn’t force itself on others.
Isn’t always “me first.”
Doesn’t fly off the handle.
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.
Doesn’t revel when others grovel.
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth.
Puts up with anything.
Trust God always.
Always looks for the best.
Never looks back, and keeps going to the end..
Grant us, O Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure. All it takes is one quick look at our city’s skyline to experience the sobering and saddening reality that we are placed among things that pass away. The World Trade Center is gone, and for many of us that is a big problem. It frightens us, makes us anxious, fills us with faithless fears and worldly anxieties. Our solution, of course, is God. Always has been, always will be. An investment in things of the spirit, the heavenly things, a refocusing of our perspective, a shift in attitude, a very sharp reminder that we must cleave only to those things that shall abide: heavenly things: certainly the basics being faith, hope, and love.
When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears, and the sun shines bright. We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us. But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead toward that consummation. Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is Love.