“To gather up all things in him:” A Sermon for July 11

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The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10

July 11, 2021

Ephesians 1:3-14

To gather up all things in him

Over 1,600 years ago, an Ethiopian robber and slave owner named Moses had a conversion experience and became a hermit monk. He lived in the Western Egyptian desert and became a renowned elder. It was the custom then that people would travel into the desert to find such elders, hoping for some insight from them that would help them find peace and make meaning of the chaos in their lives.  The common phrase was, “Father, give me a word.” When a certain man came to Abba Moses and asked for a word, Moses told him, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”  

I thought of this teaching throughout the time we spent distanced from each other during 2020 and into 2021, and I held it particularly close during the two-month intensive retreat that my sabbatical time ended up being. “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

I technically only sat in a cell for one week at Mepkin Abbey in May, but I have sat with myself, as it were, for a year and half.  We all have sat with ourselves. In this intensive time, I have learned a lot about myself, and I am still learning. Much of it has not been easy. The deep wisdom of the Christian contemplative tradition teaches us that the Spirit is present within our hearts, so the call to “go inward,” as it were, is an invitation to pray for a greater awareness of how God’s presence is transforming our hearts and lives–from the inside out.  Perhaps we could adapt Abba Moses’ wisdom to pray that, during this time of our lives, we could go sit with ourselves so that our lives can teach us what we need to know. If we have the spiritual courage to look closely.  

I think of what Cynthia said in her sermon last Sunday, when she talked about how the challenge of a community is to stay in conversation with one another rather than grasping onto our preconceived notions.  As she said, we shift from holding onto our limited perspective to opening our hearts to see and know from God’s perspective.  I couldn’t help but make a note that, sometimes, in our spiritual practice, the challenge is also to stay in conversation with ourselves–with our deepest selves (even the parts of ourselves we want to hide away) and with the Spirit who speaks to us in sighs too deep for words.  

Such conversations are hard. Encountering such wisdom about ourselves is often not pleasant.  Change is hard, and such realizations about our lives–both our gifts and our demons–challenge us to live in alignment with the Spirit rather than our own patterns, habits, and agendas.  We are convicted and converted.  We are challenged to move beyond our own self interest.

What we discover more and more, when we enter prayerfully into this transforming space, is that we are called to do hard spiritual work.  I think of how, when Jesus called the disciples to follow him, they did actually get up, walk, leave patterns and habits, and live in the world in a different way.  How many times did Jesus heal someone or offer a teaching that challenged them to actually live their lives a different way?  This was his pattern.  Jesus didn’t leave people where they were; he inspired them to move into fuller life.

Jesus does not want us to be passive, and he doesn’t do our spiritual work for us.  Grace is always present in our lives–the grand invitation that pervades our existence–but, or and, Jesus expects us to live in this grace and act on it.  Embody it.  

Think of how Jesus asked the blind man named Bartimaeus, “What do you want?”  Bartimaeus needed to become self aware and name his desire for his life and actually act on it, move in his life, to be transformed.  Once healed, he got up and lived in a different way. He didn’t stay there by the pool any longer.

No, Jesus does not do our hard spiritual work for us.  Jesus empowers us to listen for his voice, which invites us to widen our perspective and trust God’s desire for our lives.  And, at the heart of God’s desire is a deep yearning for our wholeness, for us to be healed, and enveloped in the fullness of mercy and grace.  This is the deep truth that the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians is describing in today’s reading when he says, 

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

The wholeness that God envisions for us is described as this movement to gather up all things in Christ.  Like a beautiful collect says in our prayer book, we celebrate that, through the hard wood of the cross, all are brought together and held within the arms of Christ’s saving embrace.  All is held, and all is known, and all is loved.

I think it is incredibly powerful to imagine that all in the world, within our communities and families and within our personal lives, is being gathered up in Christ.  We are challenged to pay attention to those tendencies in us that veer toward pride and greed and such entitlement, as well as fear and anger.  We become more aware of the angels of our better selves–as well as the demons that perhaps we want to ignore and pretend aren’t real.

This is what it means to “be saved,” not that some parts of us are cut off but that all parts of us are healed by God’s love, a love that heals all separation and pain.  As we hear in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we are called to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” recognizing, of course, that it is God who is at work within us.  So, we see these two parts of how wholeness is nurtured: our willingness to do our soul-work and God’s work within our souls.  We are called to partner with God in the practice of Christian maturity, owning the responsibility for our spiritual transformation while giving thanks for the grace that infuses our lives.  

Is it too strong a thing to say that, while our salvation does not depend on us, it does count on us to actually live into it?  We have to close the circuit so that the current of the Spirit can light the bulb.

Now, I can’t say anything more about this without switching to the first person at this point and opening up a bit about my own experience.  I want to be vulnerable with you and share some of what I have learned about myself, especially in my practice of prayer during these past two months of retreat, with the hope that our reflection can move from the abstract to the embodied in your own life.  

What did I learn when I sat in my cell, or as I sat with my own self, as it were–as I continue to sit in my cell?  Well, I can tell you that it wasn’t all pleasant–but it has all been necessary.  It is all healing.

In a nutshell, I realized how much of my life has been driven by fear.  It is a specific type of fear that manifests as a fear of other people’s emotional intensity, of their negative reaction to circumstances.  We all inherit patterns and tendencies from our childhoods, from our families of origin, and, as Father Thomas Keating teaches us, part of our struggle is that we can grow to overcompensate by relying too much on our Emotional Programs for Happiness.  Given our wounds, such overcompensation looks like three broad tendencies: an over-fixation on safety and security, affection and esteem, and power and control.  For a while, I thought my particular tendency orbited around needing others’ affection; however, during these pandemic days, as I sat with myself and prayed for the grace to see my own heart more clearly, I realized that I was actually very fixated on power and control–specifically in wanting to feel in control in uncomfortable environments so that any emotional intensity within others would not rise to the surface and disturb the equanimity of life.  It is my own way to avoid conflict, as it were.  Thanks to my family of origin, I am an expert in it!  

During the past year and a half, I noticed how my anxiety would spike when I felt overwhelmed when others’ emotional intensity reached too high a point: when someone was upset about guidelines I had no control over but had to bear the brunt of, when someone was angry at not being able to worship or meet how they wanted, when someone was grieving so deeply and I was cut off from them and unable to really be present to them.  There were countless instances of feeling out of control, but each of them found their root in a fear that others’ heightened emotional intensity, their negative reaction, would cause “this” to come crashing down–whatever “this” was at that moment.  My equanimity and peace of mind.  The entire parish.  The cosmos itself. 🙂  Take your pick.  Since I was stuck at home like everyone else for so long, I found myself unable to do anything to pre-emptively alleviate that anxiety and intensity.  It felt awful.  I felt out of control.  I felt like a failure.  Sometimes I lost sight of the joy that comes from the privilege of being a priest.  I know we all struggled so much, and it’s important to be gentle with ourselves and be honest about the effect this experience has had.

I have with me here the directory that I have used for the last year and a half.  It is full of notes for each call I made to check on someone or times I saw someone on a Zoom call or had other contact with them with texts and emails and such.  It is beaten up, marked with notes, and scratched through.  Cynthia has one too.  All the staff team does, and we kept these close.  I made notes here of each person who died during this past year and half, with the last two being Carlton Gates, Reba’s dad, and Roxie Goble.  It has become a sort of relic for me.  I am going to frame it and hang it on my wall to remind me of what I have learned during this time.

Sitting with myself these past two months, I was surprised to notice that I didn’t reach out personally to many people my own age.  The staff did an exceptional job sending out weekly emails and video updates with children and youth, but I became aware of how I didn’t really sit down and call people my own age, or at least it didn’t feel like I called them as much as older folks in the parish.  I began to be curious about why that was.  

This is how a practice of prayer works, how things are gathered together in Christ and healed: I began to see how my soul couldn’t stand the intensity of feeling powerless with parents my own age.  What would I tell them when they shared how angry they were or upset or afraid?  How could I hold that emotional intensity?  How could I fix their anger or grief for them when, the truth was, I felt like hiding in a blanket fort most of the time myself?  I didn’t consciously avoid them–you, but I do realize that my heart was so heavy that it happened sometimes.  And I am sorry for it and apologize.  

This is what I am learning: I did my best, but, or and, my best was heavily laden down with fear and anxiety around not being able to ameliorate others’ emotional disturbances.  Fear that they would pull their pledge out of anger, fear that they would be in pain without support.  Fear was everywhere.  My best was riddled with brokenness.  

But, hear me out!  This is where grace came pouring in these past two months in particular.  Here is what happens, I think, when we allow our practice of prayer to open our hearts to recognize how God’s presence pours into our lives.  Like we heard last week through St. Paul’s own reflection on his life: in my weakness I am strong.  This means, in our weakness, we are strong in that we become aware of a certain strength–not on our own strength but a holy strength that comes in and through our realization that God’s grace is always present to us.  This is the spiritual alchemy, if you will, the heart transformation that takes place when we are able to be honest with ourselves, standing naked before the presence of God–or in David’s case, as we hear in our first reading this morning, dancing before God “with all his might.”  What if we added that as a part of the liturgy!

When we hear in the letter to the Ephesians that the plan of God in “the fullness of time” is to “gather up all things in Christ,” this is what I have learned about myself and about all of life.  All things are gathered up.  All parts of me–all parts of you–all is gathered together and made whole through Christ’s redeeming love.  There is no part of me that is cut off or deemed unworthy.  There is no part of you that is considered unworthy.  We can be honest with one another–we can be honest with ourselves. 

I have spent thirteen years of my vocation feeling as though I had to work on my brokenness over here so that I could be present and competent over here.  I had to deal with this so that I could deal with that.  But here is where the joy comes in for me: whatever “leadership” looks like as a priest, it is done not in spite of brokenness but because of it.  I–we–always have the opportunity to turn toward our woundedness and be honest about it–and be honest about how we struggle to trust that God is holding us in it.  Out of this turning, this conversion of heart, we experience a deeper trust in the Spirit’s presence.  And we draw closer to one another.  And that is a beautiful thing.

This realization becomes a heart-felt prayer.  “God, I believe.  Help my unbelief.”  How many times, when they experienced Jesus taking something broken or impossible and turning it around, did someone ask Jesus, “How can this be?”  How many times did Jesus tell people “Do not fear”?  How many times did he say, “My grace is sufficient for you?”  

During this retreat time, I felt my joy come back. Although that demon of fear always seems to sit beside me, I can recognize it better.  I can continue my inner work that enables me to be present with you in the community–present with myself.  And in a sense, I heard the Spirit tell me to get over myself.  I could imagine the Spirit saying, “Let me get this straight, you weren’t able to hold it all together and fix everyone’s problems and meet everyone’s expectations during an unprecedented global pandemic and toxic political climate for over a year?  How could you be such a failure?” With that perspective, I could relax with an undefended heart and tell you all that I missed the mark in so many ways, and I have learned even more about how much I depend on God’s grace to make it through another day.  To ask forgiveness for my own shortcomings even as I celebrate my colleagues who pour their hearts out, to give thanks for this extraordinary parish community who shows me more and more how God’s love brings us together and makes us whole.  Yes, I have joy!  Maybe you can relax and be gentle with yourself as well. 

So today, I want to ask you to consider a few questions: what parts of yourself do you want to be healed? What have you noticed this past year and a half–or longer–that you recognize needs healing?  What limits have you been shown?  To push it a bit, how have you resisted being shown those limits?  (Now, that is a vulnerable place, indeed!) What pieces of yourself do you pray can be brought together in God’s embrace and drenched in a love that transforms your life?  How have you glimpsed the joy of God’s presence, and how is the Spirit calling you to step up and offer yourself in all your glorious brokenness? 

This is what salvation looks like, for each of us.  This is what it means to work out our salvation.  We cannot do it for each other, but we can do it alongside each other.  And that is where we are at this moment: standing alongside each other, with an invitation to recognize our connection as brothers and sisters, our dependence on God’s grace, and the invitation to own our spiritual work and rebuild this Christian community.

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