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Look – Br. Curtis Almquist

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Ephesians 1:17-19; Matthew 13:13-17

This concludes a four-part Advent preaching series entitled “Practicing Patience,” as we wait, watch, listen, and, this evening, look for the coming of Christ.  What about looking?  Where, at what, why, when should be looking?  There is a difference, after all, between our experience and those who were waiting, watching, listening, and looking for the Messiah 2,000 years ago.  We are not in the position of Mary and Joseph or Elizabeth and Zechariah, nor are we in the position of the shepherds in the hills, nor the magi in the east, nor nasty King Herod on the throne who were waiting for the first coming of the Messiah.  As Christians we recognize Jesus born in Bethlehem as the Messiah, and that was 2,000 years ago.  What we now celebrate on Christmas Day is a remembrance.  It’s not a reenactment, nor is it a re-visitation – Christmas is not “the second coming” of the Messiah – but a remembrance, a living reminder, that Jesus the Messiah was already born among us, and is really present to us now, which invites a whole different way to look at life every day.  That’s a promise, and that’s also a problem.

In our Gospel lesson from Matthew, we hear Jesus warn that it’s possible to look but not to perceive, to not get it, as we say in slang.  The Greek verb translated here as “perceive” –  εἴδω – literally means not just to glance, but rather to observe, to behold, to discern, to discover, to ascertain the meaning of what you are seeing with your eyes.1  This same verb is used in our first lesson from the Letter to the Ephesians, “that the eyes of your heart be enlightened [so that] you may know….”2   So where do you look, or how do you look, or at what do you look to know Jesus’ presence, and power, and provision? You look at now.  Now is the most important time.  Where Jesus’ real presence will be most real is in the present, now.

The great 18th century spiritual director, Jean Pierre de Caussade, called this “the sacrament of the present moment.”3  Remember that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inner grace.”  Life – our outward life – is sacramental, every moment of it teeming with God’s presence.  How we can know the real presence of Jesus is by being really present to life.  That’s not virtually present in multiple platforms, but by “being there,” now: the practice of the presence.  It’s to live our lives with a kind of attentiveness like when someone grabs your arm and then, pointing at something says, “Look!”  And you’re all eyes to take it all in.  That’s real living: being really present to Jesus’ real presence, now.

In the ancient vocabulary of the church, a word for this practice is panentheism.  Not pantheismPantheism, from the Greek pan = everything, and theos = god, i.e., god is everything: god is rock; god is sun; god is water; god is thunder, your choice.  That’s pantheism; that’s not our word.  Our word is panentheism: God is in everything.  God’s wonder and God’s ways are being revealed in everything.  God is in it all.  So the whole of life is like an icon, a window through which to see God and be seen by God.  Life is like an icon; life is iconic. Don’t miss a moment of it.  This is the way to look and live: in the sacredness of now.

Presume that your life is surrounded and informed by God’s daily visitation.  Start with yourself.  You are ingodded.  In your baptism, Jesus the Messiah came to live within you, and so you must treat yourself with great respect, great kindness, great dignity, great love.  You may not “diss” yourself, ever.4  You may never denigrate yourself, ever.  Ever!  You are one in whom God has chosen to dwell, and it is also so with your neighbor.  There is no such thing as a mere mortal; everyone has been created in the image of God.  We’re all immortals.5 I’m not in any way implying therefore that there’s no such thing as right or wrong, nor that anything goes.  But I am saying that underneath the most amazing or appalling behavior of another person is a child of God, with whom God plans to spend eternity.  That’s especially important to remember for those whom we could easily judge as among the least or last or lost.  God has plans for them, and we’re to co-operate with those plans.

Where do you look, at what, how?  Look now; begin with yourself, and pray that the eyes of your heart be enlightened to look upon yourself as  God does, with a heart of love, mercy, and hope, and then extend your gaze to behold others in the same way.  People are walking miracles.  You certainly are, and you will see other living beings the same.  Life is so full of God’s wonder and splendor.  That’s a Christmas promise.  But there’s also a problem here, actually two problems.

For one, we can see so little.  Life unfolds in stages.  When we look at life, at the now, we should practice a posture of humility: we’re probably not seeing everything there is to see and understand.  There’s always more.  It’s certainly true in our relationships with other people.  We only see them in part, and sometimes in a bad way.  If we knew their whole story, we would probably genuflect rather than judge.  There is always more going on than meets the eye.  In the fullness of time, God’s time, we will see and understand more.  As we look forward, we should practice a posture of humility.

As we look backward on our life, when we remember our life, we will glean wisdom.  When you’re on good speaking terms with your life, when you remember your life, you will bring your perspective into high definition.  We miss so much if we only live life looking straight ahead.  Remembering, looking back, gives shape to life, a 3-dimensional form, and allows us to see the shadows, which makes the perspective so much more interesting and revealing. Looking backwards, remembering your life, will give you wisdom.  Things which you had missed or discounted you can now see, in remembering, and they may have made all the difference.  Wisdom comes from looking deeply.  We tap God’s gift of wisdom by looking backward, remembering, which will give a whole new perspective on life.  Life then is no longer just stray threads but rather a tapestry that wants to be woven together into the most amazing shapes and colors and forms. For every tapestry, there is a front side and a back side; they complement one another.  Remembering your life, looking backward, will give you wisdom.   Projecting your memory into the future will give you hope.6 One problem looking at life, living in the now, is that we see so little.  An elixir to this is a posture of humility as we look forward, and a gleaning of wisdom as we look backward.

The other problem living in the now is suffering.  The English word patience comes from the Latin, patientem, to suffer or endure.  For most people, most of the time, patience is imposed on life’s terms, and often times at a great cost of suffering and requiring endurance simply because there is no alternative, no quick fix.  When we are suffering, it is very difficult to look beyond the pain.  It is very difficult to see clearly through tears.  What I know about suffering – what I have personally experienced and what I have witnessed in others – it’s oftentimes only when we come into a clearing, when at least a measure of healing has come, that we can begin to make sense of the experience, to glean the treasure that has come out of the crucible.  For some people, it will take eternity for things to come round right.  In the meantime, when we suffer – when patience is imposed upon us – sometimes the only comfort we can claim is Jesus’ promise that he will never abandon us, that he is with us always, even to the end.  This does not spare us of suffering – Jesus certainly knew suffering in this life, and not just at the cross – but it does gain for us companionship: Jesus being really present in the present… which is sometimes a very bad present.  St. Catherine of Sienna, the great 14th century mystic, endured a terrible time of suffering in her soul, made all-the-worse by her sense that she had been abandoned by Jesus.7  She cried out to Jesus, “Where were you when my heart was so tormented?”  She heard Jesus respond, “I was in your heart.”

Open your eyes and look for wonder.  Pray that the eyes of your heart be enlightened, and look for wisdom.  Presume you see only in part, and what you cannot see or understand – because of your soul’s myopia or because of your pain – God sees and understands.8  In the fullness of time, you will.  Life is an amazing experience, and it will take an eternity for us to see it all.  In the meantime, live the eternal now.9

 

1 Jesus says, ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive,” Matthew 13:14.  Jesus here appeals to the Prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-12.

 

2 Ephesians 1:18-19   “…With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know [εἴδω] what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

 

3 Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) was a French Jesuit priest and spiritual director, most remembered for his profound work Abandonment to Divine Providence, which is still in print.

 

4 “Diss,” shorthand for disrespect.

 

5 C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), the Oxford don and Anglican spiritual writer, said: “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

 

6 St. Paul writes, “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” –Romans 8:24-25.

 

7 St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), a Dominican Tertiary, mystic, religious reformer.

 

8 Draws on St. Paul’s insight, writing “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:9-12.

 

9 Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a German-American philosopher and Christian theologian.  He was a prolific writer, one of his works entitled, The Eternal Now.

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18 Comments

  1. Susan Zimmerman on May 18, 2016 at 18:46

    …also hearing…we’re surrounded by sounds

  2. Anne on May 18, 2016 at 06:28

    It doesn’t affect the argument of this lovely sermon, which I’ve really appreciated, but the verb in Ephesians 1:18 is the verb to know (eidenai) not the verb I see (eido)… (How much I’d prefer to send this privately, not post it!)

  3. Anders on January 24, 2016 at 09:27

    I keep on sending friends links to this sermon. It helped me to listen to Gods word though the Chciago River to help a friend going through cancer testing. He was very grateful and inspired and all I know is that it wasn’t anything I could come up with. Panentheism teaches me to keep on showing up and to try to listen occasionally, and all shall be well.

  4. David Cranmer on January 14, 2016 at 09:54

    Thank you for these many thoughts. As I was reading about looking forward and looking backward, I was reminded of something I heard years ago: life is lived forward but understood backwards. I have found that so true in my own life. I will now add to this what you have said about living in the “now.”

  5. Paul on December 23, 2015 at 11:53

    On the subject of being “in-godded,” once when I was wallowing deep in depression and making everyone’s life miserable, my spiritual director told me that the literal meaning of the word “enthusiasm” (from the Greek) is: “the state of being en-godded.” I came to see that enthusiasm was more a way of being than it was a feeling, and that I could “be” enthusiastic while at the same time not denying the authenticity of my feelings.

  6. Joan Cleary on December 20, 2015 at 08:28

    Thank you so much, Br Curtis, for this beautiful reflection on God’s presence in our lives and in creation. Christmas blessings to you and the SSJE community.

  7. Anders on December 20, 2015 at 07:08

    Now I have bookmarked this because I keep on referring to it in discussions. I say panentheistic, they say panthesist. I am making progress on my journey of healing from numbness and next hope to recapture my breathing which is irregular. God is moving through it all from the wounds to the glory and it is good. Thank you!

  8. Ruth West on September 20, 2015 at 22:00

    Br. Curtis, this is one of those I wanted to reread. It is so meaningful! Thank you.
    I think of a song I have heard, “Open mine eyes, that I may see, Visions of truth Thou hast for me…” Also I remember that great little booklet written about Br. Lawrence, “Practicing the Presence of God.” He truly saw with the eyes of his heart. I so pray that, in looking back and looking forward, I can see Jesus in the present.
    He is my constant companion.

  9. Fred Adams on September 20, 2015 at 01:09

    Powerful! I read it slowly, aloud, as if i were preaching it. (I am not a preacher), Now. How powerful to be in the now, and to see Christ in the Now.
    Thanks you.

  10. Barbara M on September 19, 2015 at 17:38

    This is one of the best essays I have ever read on the meaning of Jesus Christ in our lives now, today! It is so simple yet so powerful! And I am learning how, finally, to live my life in the present moment, and understand that there is always so much more to the stories around us. I do still struggle with why there is so much suffering in the world ( right now the migrating people from the Middle East are so compelling, and such a sad story), but do understand the teachings of how as a Christian we should open our hearts to it all.
    Thank you so much Br. Curtis, these are words I will kepp and cherish!

  11. anders on December 2, 2014 at 16:41

    Thank you. St. Catherine of Sienna´s words help verify my life experience. Upon discovering that I had been numbed for most of my life due to an early childhood trauma, I cried to God: How could you forsake me like that? The immediate response, using a verb tense unfamiliar to me: “I never forsook you. It just took you 37 years to listen.” Now I am learning to listen to God in everything, and it is good.

    • Christina on September 19, 2015 at 09:07

      This is going back a few months to your reply, but thank you for reminding me to “listen.”
      I have a middle-of-the-night reflection with Nan Merril’s Psalms for Praying (45).
      ‘You, who are closer than our breath ; Speak to [me] from the silence.’

  12. Sister Louise on July 7, 2014 at 12:14

    July 7, 2014
    I think that this has to be one of the hardest parts of our interpersonal relationships with each other and that we need to accept it as truth. But hearing it does also remind me that I too am one of God’s children and allows me to accept my own frailties with a gentler heart. Thank you for your words

  13. Margaret Dungan on December 17, 2013 at 14:55

    Thank you Br. Curtis.

    These are words to tresure and to live by.
    Margaret.

  14. Anders on December 17, 2013 at 10:42

    Wow. Powerful stuff. Sometimes I feel like popular authors such as Eckhart Tolle in the Power of Now capture “the sacrament of the present moment” better than contemporary churches. In fact, churches often seem threatened rather than ingodded by panentheism and create suffering rather than grace. Yet I am grateful that grace happens despite if not because of us. In our brokenness, God appears among us, Emmanuel. Happy Advent!

  15. Dianne Smith on December 17, 2013 at 09:02

    Thank you, Brothers, for your “O” reflections and song! Your words sustain me every day of the year, but these are especially remarkable gifts of the spirit. I am trying very hard to “wait patiently in the Lord” and not sneak a peek at the messages for the days ahead! God’s peace and my gratitude to you all, especially this season.

  16. Derald Stump on March 17, 2012 at 11:33

    Thank you Bro. Curtis for your remarkable insights in “Look”….. John Coburn, my tutor when a senior at ETS, loved the phrase “sacrament of the present moment”….. your sermon was packed w/interesting illustrations of “presence”…… we are blessed by your meditations and those of the brethren.

  17. Lynn Paff on March 8, 2012 at 11:23

    Thank you, Brothers, for the Framework for Freedom. It has provided me with many insights and a feeling of closeness to all of you during this Lent.

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