3-18-18 “Finding Your Mystic: Listening Behind the Voices”
“Finding your Mystic” sounds like one of those quizzes that pop up from time to time on Facebook doesn’t it, like “What Star Trek Captain are you? Take this quiz.” Or, “Find your St. Patrick’s Day Name - take this survey!” Right? So how do we find our mystic? For that matter, what is mystic?
A mystic is one for whom God is not something merely to be believed in, but is an experiential reality. As theologian Marcus Borg put it, a mystic is one for whom God is “a first-hand religious experience rather than a second-hand religious belief.” Mystics are people who have decisive and typically frequent first-hand experiences of the sacred. And while mysticism is not exclusive to any particular faith, there are many people in the Christian tradition who are considered to have been mystics: Theresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, and more recently, Thomas Merton, just to name a few. Jesus was certainly a mystic in that same tradition, and maybe Paul was as well. And as we think about that, we understand that these are people who have not conformed to the patterns of the world, right? They’ve been transformed by the “renewing of their minds” to discern God’s will - what is good and pleasing and mature, as Paul put it.
So, how are we, as the message proposes, to find our mystic? Does the title suggest that we should search through a list of people considered to be mystics and choose one, or go online and find a quiz about “What Mystic Is Best For You?” I don’t think so, because as followers of Jesus we have already found a mystic to follow, so this must point toward something else. But what? The reading we heard earlier talked about finding our own inner mystic, but many of us may not feel like we have one, so then what? Let’s see how scripture can guide us.
Romans 12 is one of the most difficult passages on which to preach because it deals with two very touchy subjects; sacrifice and change. And as much as most people don’t want to sacrifice, not really, they REALLY don’t want to change. Change is hard.
Today we’ll use the passage from John as a case study of what Paul means. If we consider this reading through the lens of what Paul suggests, we see an extreme example of what it means to conform to the patterns of the world. To conform here means, in one sense, to go along with the crowd, to give in to peer pressure, to take the easy way out, to maintain the “status quo.”
We can also get an idea of what Paul means by the “patterns of the world” through this reading.
What patterns are we talking about? Well, it depends on what aspect of the world we’re talking about. For example, the pattern of the business world is capital gain, accumulation, transactions, and profit, right? The pattern of the military world is training, discipline, strategy, strength, conflict avoidance, and when conflict cannot be avoided, victory at nearly any cost. There are also patterns of violence that are increasingly common across the world, often stoked by fear, greed, or hatred of another group. There are patterns of greed that occur when people feel that there is not enough of whatever in the world so they seek to accumulate more for themselves in order not to run out - not trusting that God will provide. Those are just some of the patterns found in the world at large.
A more common way that many might think about patterns is in making clothing, right?How many of you have ever made clothing from one of those store bought paper patterns? My mom used to do that occasionally. Those patterns would guide one to make a reliably predictable piece of clothing if the pattern is followed. The patterns of the world lead to reliably predictable outcomes when we conform to them. Good or bad.
Thought of a different way, think about our own daily lives - perhaps we experience patterns as well. Patterns are different than our routines, for example, “I always get up at 7, drink my coffee, read the paper, get dressed, go to work, have lunch at 11:15…,” etc. is a routine. No, a pattern is, according to Merriam Webster, “a reliable sample of traits, acts, tendencies, or other observable characteristics of a person, group, or institution, such as a behavior pattern, a spending pattern, or a pattern of speech.”
We follow a worship pattern in the Christian church. Our worship opens with what is commonly referred as Gathering. And Gathering always includes music, some words of welcome, an Opening hymn, and some kind of opening prayer or liturgy. Then the service moves into Centering, where we begin to focus our worship. We hear or read scripture and music, we have prayer or meditation, and there is a message or teaching. Then we move to a time of Reflection or Response, where we’re invited to respond to what we’ve experienced.
That might include prayer, the giving of our gifts, the sacrament of Holy Communion or something else. And finally we move to a time of Departure, sometimes called Scattering or Sending, where we are challenged as those sent by God to go into the world as a living embodiment of the pattern we experience in worshiping God in the world.
The patterns of the world Paul alludes to here assume control when our values or actions are determined not by our faith or how our faith shapes us, but by our culture and the world around us. And these patterns of the world are often driven by the loudest voices in our society aren’t they - like celebrities, politicians, business leaders, and the media. And often, those outer voices shape our inner voices.
So we need to consider, what is behind these loudest voices in our culture?
Is it greed, a desire to accumulate more money or more wealth?
Is it about position or power, a desire for control?
Is it an attempt to set one group over and above another, and if so, for what reason, to divide and conquer? The voices behind the patterns are often as important as the patterns they represent.
When we look at the story of Jesus’ trial in John’s Gospel, we see represented the patterns of the world.
In today’s story, to whom do the loudest voices belong?
The crowd, the Jewish religious leaders
And what is behind their voices?
Fear of loss of power, or fear of having their power and authority undermined, fear that the Temple system that supported their livelihoods would be challenged, fear that if they didn’t silence this Jesus Rome would enforce their Pax Romana, their Roman peace, by military force.
Do you recognize the “patterns of the world” in play here?
So we see the crowd conform to those familiar patterns. They single out those who threaten the status quo, who threaten their power, or threaten to upset their plan, they plot to kill those who might to upset their apple cart. And this pattern has persisted throughout history:
- Cain didn’t like how Abel’s offering to God was preferred over his own, so he killed his brother.
- Four decades before Jesus’ birth, a group of Roman Senators, fearful of the power he was accumulating, assassinated Julius Caesar.
- In 1865, stoked by anger over the Union victory in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer, who is in turn killed by government troops before he can be brought to trial.
- In the 1950s and 1960s assassination became the de-facto replacement for lynching for white racists in dealing with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
- In 1980, after Archbishop Oscar Romero called on Salvadoran soldiers to refuse to follow their orders to kill innocent civilians, he was assassinated while presiding over Mass in a hospital chapel by a government death squad.
The pattern of employing violence in order to protect power, wealth, status, or any other thing of value is ingrained, has been ongoing throughout the centuries, and has been a common tool of both the so-called “good guys” and “bad guys.” In their cries to “Crucify! Crucify!” the crowd simply follows the pattern desired and promoted by the loudest voices.
But it’s not just the crowd who gives in to worldly patterns is it? The soldiers conform in how they so easily play the school yard bully in mocking and causing harm to those not like them, those with less “apparent” power, those who are somehow different or who appear weaker.
And Pilate is a conformist as well, isn’t he? He’s willing to let Jesus die even though he knows he’s not guilty of the crimes of which he is accused.
He turns a blind eye to the injustice of which he’s a part in order to protect his own powerful position. The high priest Caiaphas had said it was better for one man to die than for the entire country to be destroyed. Pilate allows those outer voices to shape his inner voice and then he just conforms.
And so this compels us to consider, when have we contributed to or accepted injustice done to others, simply to conform with one of the well-worn patterns of the world? Upon whom have we consigned the status of “other,” either openly or by failing to stand up or speak up on their behalf, and allowed the powers-that-be, the loudest voices in the world, the nation, or worse yet the church, to consolidate their own power, wealth, or position at the expense of the marginalized, the minority, those who are in some way different?
Paul says that rather than conform to the patterns of the world, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern God’s will—what is good and pleasing and mature. To renew our minds that we might be transformed requires intention on our part. We must be intentionally open toward those things that will lead to our renewal in Christ. As disciples of Jesus, people who have made covenant to follow this mystic who, more than anyone, had a first-hand experiential relationship with God, how do we understand what it means to do God’s will? If doing God’s will is doing, as Paul says, what is good and pleasing and mature, what does that look like? The prophet Micah, perhaps also a mystic, said that what is pleasing to God is to love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And as Jesus told us, to love God and love our neighbor.
At the same time, though, Paul says to us, in our consideration of how we will or won’t seek to do the will of God, “don’t think of yourself more highly than you to ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you.” Now, we can think about that message in a couple of ways. One way we might hear those words is, don’t think that your way of practicing or understanding the faith is the only way, the end all and be all, because God has only given you a partial faith, so that your mind might be renewed by growing in faith. And another way we might hear that is, don’t think that the things we prioritize for ourselves, many times those things he earlier named the “patterns of the world,” are more important than those things which please God, that because God has measured out only a portion of faith to each one of us, our faith is incomplete. It is immature, only a portion of what God could give us, would give us, if our desire were for those things that renew our mind, that are pleasing to God, that stand up to or go against the patterns of the world.
And Paul makes this point by comparing our faith and our gifts to the many parts of the body. All of the parts of the body are not the same he says, yet together they make up the whole body. My incomplete faith, your incomplete faith - on their own are limited - but when joined together as the body they glorify God. The gifts that any of us bring to the body of Christ, on their own, are but a partial picture of God’s desire, but when joined together to do what is good, pleasing and mature in the eyes of God, bring glory to God.
6 We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. 7 If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. 8 If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.
Whether or not we are transformed by God is a choice we make. James Hopewell offers these thoughts: “Ponder this: the Greek metamorphousthe, (from which we get the word metamorphosis) [grammatically] is a passive imperative. Imperatives imply Go do this — but the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, or don’t actually go, just let it be.
“This metamorphosis goes hand in hand with the decision to abandon conformity. The passive imperative is all about God’s doing; and yet we are responsible.” (MM)
“We are responsible,” he says. The choice is ours, this suggests. We have the freedom to choose, to choose which outer voices we let in, because we know that the outer voices influence the inner voice that determines our actions.
God gives us a portion of faith. John Wesley considered that portion a grace of God, prevenient grace, grace that goes before us, grace that is present in and within us before we are even aware of God. It’s a grace that draws us nearer to God, that seeks out God. Thought of another way, the image of God in which we are made plants a seed within our Spirit that seeks God, that seeks union and unity with our Creator. A partial faith, or the desire or potential for faith, is built into us, whether we use it or not.
Paul declared rightly that we all have gifts; they differ from person to person, but we all have gifts that are given us by God. And he goes on to say, basically,
“If your gift is this….do this, and if your gift is that…do that.” This is how we allow God to transform our minds, by using the gifts God has given us to God’s glory, to God’s pleasure, to seek God’s will - for us AND the world. NOWHERE does it say that we are to sit on our gift, that our gift is not valuable, that our gift is to be reserved, saved, retired, or DENIED. It’s not to be put under a bushel.
And then he concludes that we are to love without pretending. We are to hate evil but love what is good. Remember, love is an action, not an emotion.
Our love is measured by what we do, not by what we feel. We’re to love the other, he says, like members of our own family. Paul wrote,
“Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer.”
It is in doing those things, Paul suggests, that we are renewed or transformed, like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar that emerges from its cocoon a beautiful butterfly. When we allow God’s voice in Jesus Christ to guide our renewal, our experience of God borders on the mystical.
The voices of the world would have us conform to the ways that maintain patterns of greed, violence, mistrust, and hatred and which represent evil in the world. And these voices are loud - hard to ignore. But when we take time to listen, when we are intentional about silencing the voices of the world, we begin to hear that still small voice of God. And behind the voice of God, the voice of our mystic Jesus Christ, is nothing less than love, compassion, and justice. That is the way of Christ and is to be the way of Christ’s followers.
They say change is inevitable, even for those who resist it. And intentional change can be particularly hard. But if we follow Paul’s words about how we are to be followers of Christ, we can’t help but be transformed - we can’t help but resist being conformed to the world and being renewed in our minds, our thinking, and our living.
So, what’s behind the voices you listen to? Amen.