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Claiming Wonder – Br. Curtis Almquist

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Deuteronomy 30:11-20

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

This past October Br. David Vryhof and I were among the leaders in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where we explored the development of Christian monasticism in the early centuries. The first monastery we visited was in the desert just outside of Jericho near the Jordan River: St. Gerasimos’ Monastery, a very beautiful, active, welcoming Greek Orthodox community.  On that site in year 460, Abbot Gerasimos built the original monastery.  Today, when you enter the monastery precincts, the first image you confront is not a cross, nor stained glass window, nor ceramic tapestry, nor an icon – all of those are there – but rather at the entry you first confront a lion, a full-size bronze-cast lion.

Since the early centuries, the story has been told how when Gerasimos was walking one day along the Jordan River, he came upon a lion roaring in agony because of a large splinter imbedded in one paw.1 Gerasimos felt great compassion for the suffering lion.  He said a prayer for protection and courage, and then approached the lion, removed the splinter, cleansed the wound, then bound up the paw, presuming the great beast would return to its den in the desert. Instead the lion meekly followed Gerasimos back to the monastery, where the lion became the abbot’s devoted companion. The monks were absolutely amazed at the lion’s seeming-conversion to a serene life – the lion even eating the monks’ diet of  bread and vegetables and dates – and the monks were equally smitten by lion’s absolute devotion to the abbot.

Abbot Gerasimos gave the lion a special task: to guard the monastery’s donkey, which grazed along the Jordan. One day, while the lion was napping, the donkey strayed away and was stolen by a passing trader. After searching without success, the lion returned to the monastery, its head hanging low. The monks assumed the lion had finally been overcome by a craving for meat, which was the donkey’s end. As punishment, the monks gave the lion the donkey’s former job: the drudgery each day of carrying water from the river to the monastery in heavy saddle packs.

Months later, it so happened that the unscrupulous trader was coming back along the Jordan with the stolen donkey and three camels. The lion recognized the donkey and roared so loudly that the thief fled in fright. Taking the donkey’s rope in his jaws, the lion led the donkey and the three camels back to the monastery.  The monks realized, to their chagrin, that they had misjudged the lion, who was now to be honored with the name, “Jordanes.”  And so the lion was once more an inseparable companion to the abbot, until he died.  The day of the abbot’s burial, the great lion Jordanes lay down on the grave, roaring his grief and love, and then rolled over and died with his master.

Isn’t that a charmed story?  And there’s no reason to think it is not true.  This story, like so many enchanting tales and legends we hear going way back to our childhoods, taps our God-given, innate capacity to wonder: to dream and imagine, to marvel and delight, to be astonished and amazed, to be surprised and savor the sheer joy of being alive.  Life is wonder-full.  Life is also hard, and for some people, some days, crushing.  And inevitably, life includes death and dying and diminishment.  Life also offers the daily doses of wonder.  Remember the delightful prayer poem of e. e. cummings: “i thank You God for most this amazing day…”

The first lesson appointed for today, from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30 – ends with a curious charge: “choose life.”   It’s as if to say you could live life, biding your time, waking and sleeping and navigating in between, and still miss the real invitation to taste and touch and delight in the wonder of life.  Your life.  You don’t have to go anywhere to claim the wonder of life.  Just take it in, and with gratitude: each breath you’re given, what you can see and sense, touch and create.  Life is an absolute wonder.  It is wonder-full.  The gift of wonder has been seeded into your soul, and that seedling wants to burst through the ground of your being. You don’t have to go anywhere to tap wonder; you don’t have to change; you need only to choose, choose life.  Say “yes” to your life.  Back to our lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. …Choose life.”  The wonder of life is within your grasp.

If you find yourself these days only taking life hard, or taking life for granted, or taking life resentfully rather than grasping the wonder of life, of your life, here’s some clues for picking up the scent on the trail:

  • Wake up surprised.  If you awaken to yet another dawn, wink as you blink your eyes open.  So it seems, God has given you breath for as much as one more day to know God and to love God and to serve God in the corner of the world where you live.2 Whether you delight or dread the day ahead, giggle that God thinks you’re up to it.  Take Jesus at his word that he is with you – God Emmanuel, God with you – to the very end. You have what you need.  Live your life as a “Yes!”
  • Take nothing for granted.  Notice life.  It is so wonderfully mysterious.  If you’re not now in touch with the mysterious majesty of life, look again.  It’s just as mysterious as you thought it was as a child.  Reclaim that very word in the vocabulary of your soul: mystery.  The English word “mystery” comes from the Greek, mysterion, meaning a divine revelation.  When the ancient Greek Bible, the Septuagint, was translated into Latin, the Vulgate, mysterion became in Latin, sacramentum, from which we get our word “sacrament.”  And you will remember from your Confirmation that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  Life is an amazing mystery; life is to be lived sacramentally.  The reason we are celebrating here this Sacrament – the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist – is not just a momentary elevation of what is otherwise a pedestrian existence on a flat earth.  Rather we celebrate the Holy Eucharist as a living reminder, as a template, of how to be living life all the time, gratefully, with a sense of wonder and majesty, with the presumption that God is with us and within us – “on our lips and in our hearts” – in the most amazing, intriguing, transformative, mysterious ways.  Look for it; watch for it; wait for it. God is up to something with each passing moment. Don’t think for a moment that P. D. James is your only access to mystery.  Life is so mysteriously wonderful.  Notice life unfold.
  • Tell yourself a story about your own life.  You might want to tell someone else your story, but first of all, tell yourself a story about your own life.  It can be a make-believe story, but make sure it’s your story.  Once upon a time there was this little boy…  Once upon a time there was this little girl.  And she lived in…  (Where did she live?)  She always felt that… (What did she feel?)  When she heard…  When she saw…  When she smelled… (What was it?)  There were some big people in her life.  (Who were they?  Were they good?  Were they bad?  Were they silly?  Were they frightening?)   She always felt safe and loved by…  (Who was this?  Was it a stuffed animal or a pet?  Was it your grandfather?  Who was it?)  And she decided, “When I grow up, I am going to…”  (What?  What did you want never to happen again?  What did you want to happen always?  Who were you going to be and become?)  Just keep telling yourself that story until you come to now.  And this is what will happen.  You will be reminded of how miraculous life really is, and how miraculous your life really is.  And you will realize – I’m sure of this – that somewhere along the way God broke through to you.  Somehow the story you are telling about your life is actually a story you are repeating; it’s what God whispered into your ear about what your life is to be about.  Pick up that story line again: the absolute, amazing, wonder of your life script.

The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says that “to pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings.  Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living… our gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill.”3 Life is full of wonder.  And you are wonder-full.  Take it in; be grateful to God for each passing moment, which is so pregnant with God’s mysterious presence and provision and power and splendor.  Take it in, and then pirouette your way through the day.

1 The story behind comes from St. John Moschos, a monk of St. Theodosius’ Monastery near Bethlehem and author of The Spiritual Meadow, a book based on his pilgrimages in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

2 “To know God, love God, and serve God” comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) in the “Foundation and First Principle” for his Spiritual Exercises.

3 Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) from his Quest for God (Crossroad, 1982), p. 5.

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16 Comments

  1. Ruth West on July 30, 2016 at 20:51

    God bless you, dear Br. Curtis, for this sermon, one to remember and read again. What a great portrait of words to remind us of our value in God’s sight! My life is so blessed, so full of wonder, but too often I am not aware of my blessings each moment of every day. You have honed my awareness, sharpened the inmost consciousness of living in His presence, in the wonder of life itself. Thank you! Words fail me in expressing what this has made me feel. I hope I can retain it, so that I can wake up tomorrow filled with life’s wonder, taking none of it for granted. God bless you!

  2. Dee Dee on July 29, 2016 at 12:49

    God invites us all to live in joy and wonder — all we have to do is accept the invitation, and it saddens me when people choose not to. What a beautiful sermon filled with truth and love, beautifully written and delivered. I thank God for your wisdom, Brother Curtis.

  3. Sally Baynton on July 28, 2016 at 08:34

    I cannot wait to start my story!!! Once upon a time there lived a girl…..

  4. Heidi Tessmer on July 28, 2016 at 07:22

    What a gift to wake up, grab my coffee and sit on my front porch, open email and read today’s give us a word- Notice… As I then turn my gaze to the tree in front of me, I am witnessing a mother bird bringing food to her newly hatched children!!! The activity of birds fluttering around, chirping, I can only imagine they are all celebrating the birth of these little guys- how blessed am I to witness and hear the beauty!!! To be still…and notice….

  5. Marta E on August 29, 2015 at 14:42

    It seemed to be a challenging task, to “giggle” (I am way too serious). Then, I “giggled” (and smiled) at the story of the lion and the donkey and the camels, remembering that donkeys were chosen as bearers of kings. I try to be grateful of every day and every day’s events, and to see the blessings and look for the miracles. This task was a pleasant (and joyful) relief. It is an image to carry about when life gets too weary. Thank you!

  6. Anne on August 28, 2015 at 19:45

    We are all stardust. Stand amazed. The mystery of it all is so vast.

  7. Gary Davis on August 28, 2015 at 09:53

    Brother Curtis: Your contextual
    statement, with the command to giggle, made me giggle! For
    at least thirty seconds I giggled!
    The surprise command did nothing but redirect my attitude
    and state of being.
    Thanks From
    Gary Davis

  8. Michael on August 28, 2015 at 09:34

    So easy to miss the wonderful when caught up in the self

  9. Margaret Schwarzer on August 28, 2015 at 08:14

    Brother Curtis,

    Yes!!!! Wise and happy words to remind me- when I know and when I forget- that (the sacramental life and) God Godself, invites us to play “Hide and Seek” with the grace sown for us. This sermon was just what I needed to day.
    blessings to you; may gracious mysteries and surprises be many.

  10. Ann on July 28, 2014 at 08:25

    Just what I needed today. Thank you!

  11. LindaR on July 26, 2014 at 09:19

    Thank you for this! My own story is at a transition point and I tend to get very troubled about the uncertainties of both present and future. Thank you for this reminder to look for the wonder and appreciate it all along the way. God is with us! Thanks be to God!

  12. suzanne robinson on January 7, 2013 at 07:46

    Last evening, wonder of wonders, Love gave me an opportunity to “Claim
    Wonder.” I had just returned home from what would seem to be a very
    disillusioning meeting about the lack of gratitude to God being manifested
    at a particular church. All the way home, my prayer in the car was
    “Lord, Thy will be done.” Over and over and over again this beseeching
    sang itself within my soul. On arriving home, I went straight to Google
    and typed in the “drought of the fishes”. There on Wikipedia was the
    illustrated manifesting invitation for the congregation… “Luke 5:1-11; John 21: 1-14
    Awe swept through me.. The glorious, magnificent ever -present
    Presence – the loving, guiding, Spirit of God was leading us out of timidity to
    put our hand in the: “hand of Man who walked the water,” that in utterly
    trusting the Lord and acting upon that trust we may see the nets full
    up and flowing over, ready for the togethering, onanothering work the Lord
    desires us to be in His Name. To God be the glory!

    Thank you Brother Curtis for a sermon which so completely illumines
    and focuses the gratitude I am feeling in my heart at the revelation
    above. In faith, by grace, suzanne

  13. Fred Rose on May 24, 2011 at 16:38

    This sermon was excellent. I love this message and reminder to be present to the every day wonder of this world of this creation. What a gift. Thank you, Curtis. The calibre of preaching at SSJE is very high, and this one is right up there with my all time favorites.

  14. Kalita Blessing on March 6, 2011 at 20:14

    Brother Curtis:
    Thank you for this delightful sermon. I can just picture your delivering it with such a kind smile. Life is so much about telling our story as it unfolds! I will share this with our Covenant Group led by Shelly. With kindest regards, Kalita

  15. Brian Flanagan on February 22, 2011 at 13:06

    Thanks for a word of comfort here in (wonder-full) Washington, D.C.

  16. Jeff Jones on February 19, 2011 at 09:37

    Thank you Br Curtis for this sermon. We will read it this Monday at our Centering Prayer gathering. The longer I live the more I recognize what a mystery and blessing life is. We take so much for granted that we forget what miracle every second is.
    Thanks again.

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