The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Epiphany 4, Year C
I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
February 3, 2019
Our Struggle with God’s Promiscuity
When I was a kid, we would take a family vacation to the beach each Summer, and while I didn’t care for sand, I loved swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. While the others would lay out to “get some sun,” I would take my goggles and swim out into the water. I think I would be nervous if our daughter did this now, but I loved heading out on my own to explore.
I would swim out past where the waves would break, into water that must have been about ten feet deep or so. Sometimes there would be a few people with rafts, but it was often just me out there.
Taking a deep breath, I would dive down and float, suspended between the sand and air. I would stay there, with my arms and legs stretched out, as the water held me and I rocked back and forth with the flow of the waves.
Then, I would turn to face out to sea. I would use my arms and legs to stay in place, suspended there, as I looked out at nothing but water that turned darker and darker. Even as a child, I recognized an odd mixture of feelings in those moments. As my body was suspended between sand and sky, my soul seemed to be suspended between excitement—even a kind of strange comfort—on one hand and fear on the other hand as the immensity of the water pressed upon me. To encounter that—to be encountered by it was soul-shaping.
But I couldn’t stay there for long. Something in me needed to return back to more shallow water, to be able to put my feet down and feel the sand between my toes. Some part of me needed to go back to the shore that felt safer, more controlled, more secure. Yet, I would often go back late in the evenings, as the sun was setting, to sit on the beach and look out to sea as my soul remembered feeling that expansiveness press upon me.
I have long been intrigued by the tension I felt in the water: on one hand being held there and feeling boundlessness while on the other hand recognizing some part of me that craved to be back on land, more in control.
I want to reflect with you today: Might this be an image of God’s love for us? This expansive reality that presses upon us from all sides, in which we find ourselves suspended? In which we are invited to lose ourselves? Which comforts us on one hand and terrifies us on the other?
Today’s readings are an invitation to focus deeply on the mystery of God’s love. I could not believe today’s assigned readings were from I Corinthians when I first heard of all that we might experience today. I must remind you that we do not choose the readings for Sundays. Think about that: today’s readings were set in place over fifty or so years ago when the lectionary was developed in its three-year cycle. So, ponder that when you consider how the Spirit blows where She will!
Today, St. Paul offers us familiar words: And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. We hear this text all the time at weddings, even at funerals. I have never heard them with protestors and counter-protestors until today, but they work.
I don’t think we can ever fully comprehend this love that St. Paul speaks of, this Divine Love, this energy that seeks always to create, to bring forth life—at least not on this side of things. It seems we only experience it at moments in our lives, perhaps catch glimpses of it. And in such moments of awareness, we are shocked to discover that we are not grasping hold of it; rather, it has been holding us the whole time. We find that we are suspended in it, and in that moment of awareness, the temptation comes to resist it.
The struggle of our spiritual practice is our limited vision, that we far too often act—or react—out of a limited awareness, that we see through a mirror dimly, or as the King James Version describes see through a glass darkly. You’ll recognize the word actually used in the original Greek: that we experience life as an enigma. Our vision is obscured and we cannot make sense of the riddle of our lives.
My experience is that this Love, this Incarnate Christ-energy that pours into our lives, is so expansive that our souls struggle to consent to its embrace. There is, within us, an odd juxtaposition of spiritual dynamics: on one hand something in our heart recognizes the ground of our own being and yearns to relax in, to consent to, this embrace of God. Yet, on the other hand, some part of us, what dear Thomas Keating and others describe as this level of ordinary awareness, this space of our ego-grasping and urge to control, drives us to return to more shallow water, to put our feet back on the beach where the sense of safety and security lets us relax not into God’s embrace but into our own patterns and complacency. The norm of our own expectations, judgments, categories, agendas and our familiar fears and anxieties then perpetuate our blindness.
A core piece of our spiritual practice is to ask ourselves what drives us to the shallow spaces where we rest into the complacency of our fears, our prejudices, our judgments, and our categories rather than consent to the expansive love of God that we encounter in Jesus.
St. Paul reminds us that, when it comes to whatever we claim in life, our skills, accomplishments, agendas, etc., without being anchored in this expansive love of God that we experience in Christ, we are nothing more than noisy gongs or clanging cymbals. Or, to translate it into today’s context, we are nothing more, perhaps, than angry signs, chanted slogans, and clanging cowbells.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love…
Friends, life is hard these days. The news we see makes me feel as though we are stuck in some sort of house of egotistical horrors. If we’re willing to look closely, we see, writ large, the perpetual call of God’s love and our resistance to it. We can see the tendency we have to consent to the patterns of fear and control rather than God’s guidance and the call to compassion and wholeness.
We encounter the tension with protesters, who seem to have honed the posture of fearful control to a warped art form. In situations like this, some part of us wants to react, to lash out, to scream our message of God’s love so loudly that they will suddenly realize how wrong they are. See if you can identify the physical sensation in your body that you hold, being here today and encountering this tension. What does it feel like to stand in this space? Sit with that sensation for a moment. Bring your attention to it. Where do you feel constriction?
While we may find ourselves tense with anger and confusion at the protesters, we cannot afford to forget that this tendency to consent to our own fears and anxieties rests within each and every one of our hearts—I know it does mine. So, we experience it in terms of global politics, in terms of community dynamics, and in terms of our personal spiritual practice. All the same dynamic. All the same invitation to cultivate a posture of awareness and compassion.
I love the image of Jesus in today’s Gospel, as he encountered the angry mob who were so upset by him that they tried to throw him off a cliff! Pay close attention to how the text describes that moment, and the way Jesus maintains his compassionate posture. When the crowd became rageful at Jesus’s insistence that God’s graceful love could not be confined to constrictive categories, he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Only a posture of awareness and compassion can enable one to hold steady in the face of anger, fear, and even violence. Only love can solve the riddle, the enigma, of our existence.
There is something about the expansiveness of God’s love that is threatening to our urge for power and control. There is a certain holy promiscuity to God’s love that just rocks our world and makes something in us draw back. This is not a promiscuity such as we may think, with an anything-goes-attitude and a yielding to superficial sensation; rather, it is a holy promiscuity in which boundless, indiscriminate love and absolute commitment walk hand-in-hand. God’s promiscuous love beckons us to consent to the Divine embrace.
It reminds me of an exchange I had with Thomas Keating, when we were gathered in Snowmass. Fr. Thomas was reflecting with us on how we are called to participate in the very life of God. We are called to partake in, to share in, God’s own dynamic life. At a certain point, he said, there becomes no division between you and God. There is not, he stressed, numerically one; rather, we share in God’s life in such a profound way that there is a reality of indwelling between us.
As Fr. Thomas painted this picture for us that day, I looked at him and said, “That’s a lot to live up to!” He laughed and told me, “Well, you don’t have to live up to anything, because the secret of the Christian life is to lose yourself—to lose yourself in God.”
As St. Catherine of Siena would describe centuries ago, we are called to become aware that, just like the fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish, so are our souls in God and God in our souls. How can you separate it out?
Or, as Howard Thurman would imagine:
How good it is to center down!
To sit and see one’s self pass by!
The streets of our mind seethe with traffic.
Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences
while something deep within hungers and thirsts
for the still moment and the resting lull.
Can we be honest about this desire that we all share? To rest in this awareness of God?
Now I know only in part, but then I shall know fully—even as I am fully known.
We will always find ourselves in situations such as this, if not with protestors with megaphones and horrible signs, then in countless ordinary moments like family dinners, committee meetings, can we just make an observation, with Facebook posts everyone and Twitter posts. Come on, my friends…we are better than this.
Those moments when we are called to rest in God’s love—to be suspended in it—even as we become more aware of that place within us that craves more shallow, more comfortable waters.
We will forever be convicted by this image of Divine Love, by the teaching and person of Jesus, that challenges our impulse to scream, to over-power. We will be given countless opportunities to do the deep spiritual work God has called us to do, in the face of affirmation and resistance. We will always have the opportunity to be aware of the way our fear lures us to those shallow spaces, even as the Spirit of Christ calls us out into the deep waters. This, my friends, is what it looks like to practice our faith, to be a disciple of Jesus, to embody the light and love of Christ.
Perhaps we can let Madeleine L’Engle have the last word:
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.
Now, I can think of nothing more appropriate than to reground ourselves in our Baptismal Covenant. If you would join with me on page 292 in your Book of Common Prayer, let us stand together and center down in these words.