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Sermons

Seeking and Being Found

September 08, 2013

Bible Reading

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.

Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.

The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

(Psalm 34)


“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

(Matthew 7:7-11)

Sermon

This sermon was preached in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I want you all to know that being here has a very special, personal significance for me. It was right here, on this campus, nine years ago almost to the day, that I was ordained into the ministry of our church. It was all rather a blur at the time, but nonetheless, I recall being very aware of the irony conferred by my surroundings.

There I was, a proponent of the New Church, being ordained at a school affiliated with the old, and in a city named for the apostle whose letters are foundational for the old faith, both Catholic and Protestant, but of little account in the new.

Well, ironic maybe—but also, I think, a perfect metaphor for every human life. All of us are this mix of old and new at one and the same time, the person we were and the places we’ve been and the person we may yet be and the places we hope still to go. We carry both with us, and the regenerative life we seek to live is all about integrating the two, bringing our past into the light of God’s present, that we might both journey together into a new future.

But “old” and “new” are loaded words, aren’t they? New is fresh and exciting and good; old is stale and boring and bad. New ways versus old ways, New Testament versus Old, New Church versus old church—in this neat, black/white, us/them kind of formulation, it can become so easy for us to forget the One in whom we, and all things, live and move and have our being, the One who works to bring all things into the light—usually in surprising and unexpected ways.

With this in mind, I’d like to tell you a story. This happened years ago, when I was completing an internship as a hospital chaplain and assigned to the ICU, the intensive care unit. One morning my supervisor called me in to attend my first so-called “family conference.”

These, I quickly discovered, are always difficult meetings, a mixture of dread and hope, as the doctor lays out the options and risks for the relatives of the patient. Questions are posed, answers are given, and decisions are made. People struggle to understand and to find words, but ultimately there are no words for what is felt in those moments, the anguish and longing and love for someone so intimately known, so precious, and yet so terribly far away.

On this particular morning, it was a weary, middleaged woman who was the lonely witness to this truth. She’d come in from far, far out of town, only to hear from the doctor that the prognosis for her elderly mother continued to be very poor. Whatever happened, her mother wasn’t going home again. However, there was a faint possibility, a procedure that would first require that all her mother’s medications be temporarily suspended while certain tests were done. If the daughter agreed, would she then please come in to be with her mom to help keep her calm during those difficult hours when her mom would be without the aid of any drugs to allay her pain and anxiety?

At this, I recall how all eyes shifted to the woman, so silent, looking down at her hands. Finally, she nodded slightly and said yes, yes she wanted the procedure for her mother but then, no—and here the tears came—she just couldn’t possibly come in on the day in question, and there wasn’t any other family member around to take her place. In a pleading voice she said, “All my mom really needs is someone to say the rosary with her. She believes in God, and if she was ever upset about anything, I’d pray it with her and then she’d be okay.”

Well, my supervisor and I exchanged glances, and I was promptly introduced as the ICU student chaplain who’d be glad to pray the rosary with her mom. The woman looked at me a bit uncertainly and asked, “So, you’re Catholic?”

“No,” I said, “I’m Swedenborgian!” At this, of course, her face went completely blank. “Swedenwhat?”

So I did my best to explain. Swedenborgians, I said, were sort of “universalist Christians.” We recognize the presence of God in all churches and religions, all paths which honor the truth of God’s love and share that love for the well-being of others. So of course I’d be more than happy to pray the rosary with her mom. All she needed do was write out the words of the prayers to be said, and I’d take it from there.

Well, it was immediately agreed, and, with relief and gratitude flooding her face, the woman took her leave and the meeting ended. Needless to say, I felt great to have this chance to make such a positive difference in someone’s life. In fact, truth to tell, I felt a little like the Lone Ranger coming to the rescue. He had silver bullets, as I recall, but, thanks to a purchase I had made that very evening, I now had a lovely silver cross. It came attached to a string of highly polished beads, made of real cedar wood from the Holy Land, at least according to the package—and only $24.95. With my shiny new rosary in hand, I was good to go.

However, things began to unravel the next morning when I dropped by the chaplaincy office to pick up the daughter’s instructions for what I was to say. My eye was caught by the one prayer most associated with the rosary, the famous “Ave Maria” or “Hail Mary.”

For those of you who don’t know it, it goes like this: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

For us as Swedenborgians, there are some big problems with this prayer. For a start, we don’t pray to Mary. In the writings, Swedenborg reports how he once spoke with Mary in heaven. She was a radiant young woman, he said, who was distressed and amazed that people on earth would venerate her as some kind of quasi-divine being. And why?

Because Mary is not “the Mother of God” but the mother of the human child Jesus, who wasn’t simply born God but who grew to become one with God, in all the ways that make his life a model for our own. Then there’s that part about “us sinners.” As evangelists of the New Church, we know that we’re not helpless sinners, abject and unworthy, but the free co-creators with the Lord of our spiritual destinies.

It was with these objections turning over in my mind that I then made my way to the intended recipient of my good deed. There my sense of unease only deepened, as I looked upon the elderly lady before me. She was very small lying there on this big, raised bed, wires and tubes leading from her to the usual array of machines and bags of fluids on poles.

I remember wisps of iron-gray hair framing this small, round face, the features somewhat distorted by the big breathing tube pushed into her mouth. The eyes looking back at me spoke plainly of her distress and fear. They’d fastened straps across her body to keep her from moving or tearing out any of the tubes. She was utterly helpless. This was the moment to which life had brought her and also brought me. It was time to pray. I moved as gently and slowly as I could, smiling and carefully showing her my new rosary. She nodded ever so slightly, and so I began.

But here’s the thing: the more I recited that Hail Mary, the harder it got. Because I knew I was saying something that I didn’t believe, and what’s the good of mouthing words you don’t believe?

Soon I was berating myself for letting my doubts and selfish concerns get in the way of my praying. When that didn’t work, I began to condemn myself for my inadequacy as a spiritual guide and support— because I certainly wasn’t helping this lady. Every so often she’d suddenly twist and turn against the straps that held her down, her cries muffled by the breathing tube into soft gasps and groans. It made me want to call the nurse, but of course they couldn’t give her anything—after all, that’s why I was there. So I began to feel terribly alone, filled with a sense of shame and unworthiness, unable to find God anywhere and not knowing where to look.

How long this sorry state of affairs might have continued I don’t know, but fortunately for me, as for us all, God is merciful and God is good. Just when I felt most completely helpless and lost, a word suddenly formed itself in my mind, as clear as a bell, as clear as I see you now. That word was simply “pray.” Not think or analyze or judge—just pray.

So I did. “Hail Mary, full of grace . . . Holy Mary, Mother of God . . .” over and over and over again. That’s all I did, all I could do—for five minutes? Twenty-five minutes? More? Less? I don’t know.

All religions have prayers like this. Their real purpose is to help get us past our big, noisy selves, our need for control, our notions of what’s right and proper—to get all of that to one side, so we can let ourselves simply be and be open to the Mystery beyond thoughts to know or words to describe, the power of love present in the depths of our being.

So I prayed, and then, at some point, I opened my eyes—or perhaps, rather, I had my eyes opened. Because I looked down, in amazement, to behold the miracle accomplished: this lady, hands folded over her heart, breathing slowly and evenly, eyes closed, looking utterly at peace—in fact, serene. No pain was troubling her; where, and in whom, she was resting, no fear could reach her. In today’s lesson, Jesus says to us, “Seek and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Yes.

Here is the truth I have learned from my nine years of ministry and that I continue to learn: that our task is not so much to seek for God as to let ourselves be found; that all the forms our religions take—whether as a string of prayer beads or thirty big volumes of theology—these things serve as useful but only very partial attempts to point us toward the Mystery. They are not the Mystery. The love which surrounds you and me, flowing through us and breathing us into life at every moment, willing everything good for us, is of an order of grace and wonder and saving power beyond all our limited ways to comprehend.

And here is my final witness to that saving power. The best memory I have of that student chaplaincy long ago came on the final day. I paid a last visit to that same elderly lady, only this time she was sitting up in bed, a regular hospital bed, her daughter by her side. I remember they both had these huge grins on their faces, from ear to ear. Because that lady had made a complete recovery, to the utter astonishment of the doctors, and, that very day, she was going home!

We, too, are pilgrims on our homeward way, our hearts often anxious, doubting, distracted, but nonetheless always seeking the love for which they were made. Let us always remember that, whatever may happen, love has already found us. Home is wherever we are, in whatever moment we are, and in that love all things are possible and our way is sure. Amen.

Prayer

Show us, O Savior, the silence of humility and the silence of love. Show us the silence that speaks without words and the silence of faith; and grant that in the silence of our hearts we may know the deep movement of your Holy Spirit.

- Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)


Jesus, love of all loving,
in the ploughed-up earth of our lives
you come to plant the trusting of faith.
A small seed at first,
faith can become within us
one of the most unmistakable Gospel realities.
It keeps alive the inexhaustible goodness of a
human heart.

- Brother Roger of Taize (1915-2005)


Remember, O Lord, what you have wrought in us,
and not what we deserve;
and as you have called us to your service,
make us worthy of your calling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

- Leonine Sacramentary (fifth century)


God our Father, in all the mysteries of life,
help us to know in whom we have believed,
and in that knowledge may we find the love
that beats at the heart of creation;
through Christ our Lord.

- A. S. Peake (1865-1929)

Rev. John Maine