Being a “friend of God:” A Sermon for September 12, 2021

Being a “friend of God”

Stuart Higginbotham

See the source image
There is a reproduction of this icon, traditionally known to be St. Menas, with Christ, in the Taize’ Community

In this season of my life, I have found how important it is to start each day with meditation, with this core practice that grounds my day. It is a time to name what my intention is for any given day.  What is my intention in going to a meeting, offering a class, sharing a conversation?  Naming intentions is vitally important, because it orients me and shines a light on why it is that I am doing what I am doing.  

Tibetan Buddhist teachers have been masters at this in my own life, and I think we Christians can learn a thing or two from them.  

So, let’s begin by pausing and asking, “what is our intention here today?”   

A way to answer this might be to ask ourselves “Am I happy?”  And by this I don’t mean “happiness” as our culture defines it, because that is not true happiness.  That is a shallow, emotional high that is heavily dependent on a consumer-materialist culture of possession and instant gratification.  I’m talking about true happiness: fulfillment, satisfaction, peace, contentment.  This is the realm of wisdom that the depths of the Christian tradition orients us toward.  Are you satisfied with life?  Are you content?  Are you fulfilled?

If we are not content, we name how we are struggling.  We are suffering these days from many things: the immediate effects of the pandemic and the physical risk and pressure on schools and hospitals and families, the loneliness felt by so many, the economic strain felt by many.  We also look deeper and see the struggle, the restlessness we feel–as Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch, the Dalai Lama, and other wisdom teachers remind us–with climate change, economic and social injustice, greed, and violence. This weekend, in particular, we remember our shared experience these past twenty years since the tragedy in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

We feel pain.  We feel confusion.  We feel anger, grief, sadness.  

We acknowledge this discomfort, this lack of fulfillment.  Naming this is not to be fearful; rather, we are realistic about what the struggle is that we feel. This lack of fulfillment, this struggle, this discontent and suffering weighs heavily on us, and our practice of faith offers us a way to engage with this. 

So, perhaps we can say, collectively and personally, that our intention is to be fulfilled and to be at peace. That is what orients us. That is our driving hope, and we ask ourselves how our faith, our Christian practice actually helps us in this intention.  What does any of “this” “do?”  How does our practice, our shared worship, help nurture our contentment, satisfaction, and fulfillment?  

In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells those gathered around him, “I came that you may have life, that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).  Jesus wants us to have life here and now. Jesus himself says this is why he came, why God became incarnate, so we are called to ask ourselves how our Christian practice can speak to our suffering and nurture in us a deep awareness and reality of contentment.  Otherwise, what are we doing here?  

Indeed, we all know the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and what that means is that, unless we seek to embody what we actually intend, what good comes of it all?

A primary way that we nurture this intention is to orient ourselves toward Wisdom, toward Sophia, the presence of God that shows us what a true and whole life looks like.  Our intention is to nurture the seeds of Wisdom within our hearts, so that our lives bear fruit and contribute to the well-being of society.  We start with our own lives, here and now, as we see how the transformation of each of our hearts contributes to the health of our entire community.  

We may not be able to solve the complex problems of the world, but we are called to cultivate wisdom and compassion in our lives.  And, if we all cultivate this, imagine the effect this could have in our world. Wisdom is key when it comes to our practice, and we see in today’s texts this description from the Book of Wisdom:

For wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,

a spotless mirror of the working of God,

and an image of his goodness.

Although she is but one, she can do all things,

and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;

in every generation she passes into holy souls

and makes them friends of God, and prophets;

for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

She is more beautiful than the sun,

and excels every constellation of the stars.

Compared with the light she is found to be superior,

for it is succeeded by the night,

but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,

and she orders all things well.

What does it mean for Wisdom to “pass into a holy soul?”  What a powerful image this is! What does it mean to embody Wisdom, to be a vessel for Wisdom?  

And, what does it look like to be a “friend of God?” That is an image worth pondering for your entire life, I think, to be a “friend of God.” Incredible.

If we understand our intention this way, to be a “friend of God,” then what embodied steps can we take that will help us nurture this, develop this.  Then, we will be content and fulfilled.  Then, we will be at peace as we embody compassion in the world.

Our practice of faith calls us out into the deep waters of Wisdom, away from the shallow, superficial waters that so much of our culture promotes. The deep waters nourish our souls and soothe our hearts, and it is in these depths that we find true contentment, true peace, true fulfillment.  In these waters, we find what it means to truly be human, to be a person living fully into the potential, the dream that God has in store for each of us. This is what it means, as we see when Jesus pushes back on Peter’s statement this morning, challenging us to set our minds on heavenly things rather than earthly things. 

In those deep waters of Wisdom we discover that being a “friend of God” calls us to purge the distracting, shallow parts of ourselves that obscure the Light of God which Wisdom reflects. Being a “friend of God” means to trust the Spirit’s movement in our lives. Being a “friend of God” means to seek a transformation of our hearts.

In its typical bold and to-the-point style, today’s Gospel from Mark states plainly, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.” A practice centered on and grounded in Wisdom is marked by self-emptying, as Mark describes, of dying to self–that is, the small “self,” so that we live more fully within and out of the larger, truer Self-in-God that is the essence of who we really are.

When we speak of the Christian contemplative tradition, we are simply speaking of this: what it means to ground one’s life in an experiential awareness of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ, so that one’s heart and soul is reoriented to live a life rooted in the reality of God.  The reality that God IS, and that God’s IS-ness is the basis of our life.  Not theory, not social construct, not communal behavior, not custom.  Reality.  Coming into contact with–and embodying–the ultimate reality of existence in our everyday life.  

Being a “friend of God,” having a relationship with God, giving thanks in all things. This is what brings us true fulfillment.

So, here again we pause and ask ourselves “what is my intention?” Can we be honest about this?  Because if our intention is to continue fitting in with the larger culture, to live a life based on the wider culture’s understanding of what it means to be successful and accomplished, we are actually preventing ourselves from experiencing the fullness and deep happiness that we so deeply desire.  How often we want to “fit in”, yet it is this “fitting in” that causes us so much suffering.  

Today, there is  too much fear and anxiety and frustration and political dysfunction.  Too much suffering and death–and ignorance.  It is easy to slide into despair and cynicism.  It is easy to just throw our hands up and yield to the flow of the culture around us, to stop believing that true fulfillment is possible.  

But, when we feel this way, we are called back to this image: what does it mean to be a “friend of God.” What does it mean to cultivate wisdom in our hearts, to seek fulfillment and peace so that we can be present in the world?

So, as we look toward this week, let us reflect wholeheartedly on Wisdom.  When we feel anger or frustration, let us pause and breathe deeply, and remember, as the text says,

Although she is but one, she can do all things,

and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;

in every generation she passes into holy souls

and makes them friends of God, and prophets;

for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

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