In that passage from Luke this morning,
Jesus drives us off the ledge like Thelma and Louise.
He’s taking no prisoners
and he clearly does not care what we think
about his declaration.
“Hate your mom and dad,
hate your husband or wife,
hate your son or daughter, or sister or brother –
heck, while you’re at it,
hate life itself.
Be miserable, why don’t you?”
By the way,
whenever we encounter Jesus using
the image of the cross,
we should be suspicious.
Like today, when Luke quotes him as saying,
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
The cross metaphor
would have had no meaning until after Jesus was dead.
Telling folks to pick up their cross
in order to be a disciple,
is clearly an early church metaphor
from people who had to make sense
out of the fact that their messiah was ignobly executed
instead of triumphant.
To take the instrument of death,
and in fact, the instrument of state execution,
and turn it into a positive metaphor,
was a powerful and slick move by the resistance.
But it was not likely an image Jesus promoted.
Personally, and this is just me, I do not think
the cross has a lot of spiritual value when it comes
to trying to understand the teachings of Jesus.
In fact, I think the cross is a big, fat distraction to us –
it keeps our theology focused on suffering
and magical thinking,
instead of on the very practical spiritual wisdom
embedded in the teachings of Jesus.
Now clearly, that is a minority report.
But it isn’t only me either,
there are other Christians these days
who also promote Christian theology focused
on LIFE and LIVING and active SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
instead of suffering, death, and afterlife.
But I won’t pretend it is anything other than what it is,
aimed at reformation
and the re-creation of Christianity.
So, please take my remarks in that context
and nothing more.
“What king,” Jesus asked incredulously,
“What king, would go out to wage war
against another king, without first figuring out
whether his 10,000 soldiers
will be able to subdue the 20,000
What king would do that,” Luke has Jesus ask.
That is a fine question given the parable,
but I am going to poke what I think
Jesus may have been getting at
with a 21stcentury perspective,
and come at it
with a metaphor of peace instead of war.
I want to talk about Mother Theresa.
More accurately, I want to use Mother Theresa
to talk about all of us – and God.
You may be aware of the magnificent
and disturbing posthumous revelation about Mother Theresa.
It turns out, the woman who became a virtual icon
of faithfulness and service,
had about a 40-year dark night of the soul
in which she experienced the silence of God.
Mother Theresa kept a dairy
and it reveals an intense struggle
she had for four decades
as she experienced the silence of God.
It is not the image of faithfulness
most people imagine about the spiritual life
of someone like Mother Theresa,
or anyone who contends with God as a vocation
and for a living.
But believe me when I tell you,
that for some of us who have a whacky job like mine,
it is not a surprising revelation.
From what I have read, it seems that Mother Theresa
had a number of visions
or religious experiences at a young age,
and that these included
a very specific invitation for her to do the work
for which she subsequently became famous.
And then, after a few years of dark distance from God,
she had a five-week respite in 1959,
when she felt acutely close to God again.
Then, for the rest of her life, nothing.
Of course, we don’t know what her experience
of dying was like,
but before the end, her relationship
with the God that sent her into the streets of Kolkata,
was perhaps a theoretical and formal one.
When I first heard this news, I laughed out loud.
Now, I know many people find it deeply disturbing
and profoundly threatening to their faith,
to ponder this intimate revelation.
“If someone like Mother Theresa
couldn’t live in close proximity to God,”
some wonder, “then how can I?”
Or more frightening to some:
“maybe there is no God.”
Call me strange,
but instead of threatening, it tickles me.
It tickles me
because my experience of God
is of someone quite capricious and rascally
rather than the Great Oz emanating from a bush.
That said, it is still a wonder
how Mother Theresa got through it.
Just as it is astounding how Moses, Ruth, Mary,
Jesus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin King
got through the horrific darkness
that each one of them encountered,
and without so much as a peep
from the very God they pursued –
or more accurately,
who pursued them.
And there is the punch line.
We go looking for God
but it is God who finds us.
It is a one-way street.
You see, in order to make God more marketable
in this consumeristic world of ours,
a culture in which we only go after
that which can enhance, engorge,
or flatter us,
we have turned God into the hunted –
we have made God a commodity
to be gotten.
Well guess what?
The hunted is the hunter!
God will not be consumed or gotten in any way.
God is the one who makes the rules
and sets this thing we call life in motion.
God will not be revealed
by any of our efforts.
God is God
and cannot be gotten,
or in any way consumed.
The more we try
the darker the night of the soul.
You see, God knows us but we do not know God.
God knows us, but we do not know God.
God cannot be known by us,
any more than a tiny part of anything
can know the whole
within which it is embedded.
Jeremiah’s image of going down to the potter’s house,
is much more apt for us,
than much of the religious language and metaphors
we use for the divine-human relationship.
God is the potter who forms us,
whether or not we know it
or feel it
or think it
or imagine it…or in any way are aware of it.
Chances are, most of the time,
we have no consciousness of the potter’s touch,
the potter’s hand,
or even the motion of the wheel.
We do not get to know.
This is really the core understanding
at the heart of the sun
that gives light to all there is:
God cannot be known.
We may get glimpses now and again.
We may be fortunate enough
to be part of a mystical experience
once or twice in our lifetimes.
We may hear a whisper here or there,
a song sung with what seems to be our name on it.
We may get a nudge
a shove, a soft caress,
a warm embrace,
or a terrifying rattle.
But nothing we experience from the holy
will enable us to know the unknowable.
God cannot be known
and the more we try the darker the night.
All we can do is be open.
All we can do is refine our sensing apparatus.
All we can do is be as sensitive
and knowledgeable as possible,
so when the presence of God
intrudes into our lives
we will be awake enough to perceive it.
That is why we do all this ritual stuff
and do it in community:
to sensitize ourselves to
the essential mystery of God.
We do it to remind ourselves
that God can be experienced but never known.
We do it to normalize what is
99% of the time,
but then it isn’t.
When we are doing our job in churches,
that is what we’re doing.
But when I look around, it seems to me
that mostly we build our churches on false promises
and emphatic statements about God.
Anyone who reads the Bible
ought to know that from beginning to end,
the history of stories and poetry
from prophets and sages,
tells us over and over and over again,
that God cannot be known.
God is the knower
and we are the known.
Of course, that is a problem for church
and religion in our world:
what kind of product do we have to sell
if God is God
and cannot be known?
I want to answer that question,
but need to work backwards in order to do it.
A man came to see me once,
in another congregation in another city,
but in truth, there have been many like him
in every place I have lived.
He was an extremely successful professional.
He had accomplished all the life and career goals
he had ever set for himself,
beginning at an early age
when he knew he wanted to be a doctor.
But somewhere in the middle of his life –
wherever that is, since we don’t know
until the end – he fell into a deep despair.
He was not happy.
His work was just work.
His relationships often seemed shallow.
His goals that had seemed so powerful
when they launched him into adulthood
now seemed anemic and self-absorbed.
It is not a remarkable story
except the depth to which his disequilibrium
was taking him.
I have been there myself,
and I reckon that most of us who live long enough
have been there also or will be one day.
Our first mistake is in thinking that
the truth that will set us free,
is some big secret we have to uncover.
It is no secret;
it has been voiced by every religion
and every true prophet
and every religious mystic and poet
that we have ever heard about.
The first truth that sets us free
is that we need to be deeply connected
with other people in a matrix of relationships
that forms a family or community
that is bigger than us.
This is where a sense of life’s fullness begins,
with knowledge and awareness
of our smallness
and the larger circles surrounding us.
The second truth that sets us free
is that we need to be engaged in a life
that is aimed beyond our own
even while grounded in a love for ourselves.
A life lived primarily for oneself
and for one’s own benefit –
or even for the benefit of a few others
whom we benefit from loving –
is a life that will burn out before leaving orbit.
We require a life lived beyond itself,
if we are to thrive instead of just survive.
That, by the way,
is also the spirituality
Mother Theresa and all those other spiritual greats,
probably employed, to make it through
the dark nights of their souls:
They were deeply connected to others
in a strong,
wide spiritual community,
in which the greater part of their energy and work
was aimed at something beyond self-orbit.
We may not know God
but when we see sacred community
in these terms,
and presume that God
is the author of such community,
we will begin to have the sense that God knows us.
Eventually, if we keep working at it,
we may replace our desire to know God
and gain secret knowledge that makes everything
seem like it will turn out okay,
with gratitude –
gratitude that God knows us…
simple gratitude, that God knows us.
Now that may not seem like enough
for a lot of people,
and in truth, it probably won’t sell out a mega-church.
But as far as I can figure it out,
we have these two core threads to hang on.
The first truth that sets us free
is that we need to be a strand of silk
in a web of spiritual community
and holy relationships.
The second truth that sets us free,
is knowing it is not about us…and then
living that way.
That may not sound like what Jesus was talking about
in that story from Luke,
but that is what I hear.