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    Aug 05, 2018

    Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: John 6:24-35

    Preacher: The Rev. Timothy Patterson

    Series: Year B: 2017-2018

    Category: Pentecost

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    Sermon preached by the Rev. Tim Patterson

    Pentecost Sunday, Year B – August 5, 2018

    Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; John 6:24-35

     

    In our Old Testament lesson from the Book of Exodus, we once again join Moses and the chosen people on their journey through the wilderness. They are hungry. Nothing is going like they hoped it would, and they are complaining against Moses, their leader. I am no Moses, but as one who is engaged in leadership, I know that some measure of complaint and complaining simply come with the territory.

     I am sure most of you remember the Exodus story, which is really the central story of the Old Testament. God has called Moses to lead, and, by the mighty hand of God, these Hebrew people whom God has chosen, they have been liberated from suffering and slavery in Egypt. The waters of the Red Sea were miraculously parted, Moses and the people escaped from Pharaoh’s army, and they assumed they were on their way to the Promised Land. The problem is: God did not lead them directly from Egypt, straight into the Promised Land.  Instead - you remember the story - God led them where? - into the wilderness. And not just for a little while, but for forty years! That’s a long time.  

    As you probably know, it doesn’t take forty years to travel physically, to walk, from Egypt to Israel. But this raises an important point that we need to understand. This journey through the wilderness, as with any journey of faith, as with our own journey of faith, it’s not just about physically getting from Point A to Point B. There is both an outward physical dimension and an inward spiritual dimension. The journey of faith also has to do with what is going on inside the person, what is going on inside the people, who are making the journey.  Paying attention to that inward dimension is what the spiritual practice of pilgrimage is about.

     I remember when I first brought the labyrinth to Greensboro. The labyrinth is a powerful metaphor for the journey of life, and a spiritual tool for deepening our experience of this journey and deepening our experience of God’s presence with us on the journey. At that time, the labyrinth was not well know. This was back in 1995. Some of you will remember that Lauren Artress came to Holy Trinity from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and she brought with her a full-size, canvas replica of the labyrinth that is built into the floor of Chartres Cathedral outside of Paris.  The problem was, with those posts in the Haywood Duke Room, we didn’t have the floor space anywhere to accommodate this huge piece of canvas.  So we arranged to use a room across the street at First Presbyterian Church. 

    Now, this is a generalization; but my perception, particularly back then, was that Presbyterians tended to experience their religion primarily up in the head as a largely cognitive experience and they were really good at that. They were comfortable with words and sermons, doctrines and theology, but when you moved out of the head, into the heart or, God forbid, into the body, and walking the labyrinth is a body practice, this was not at all in their comfort zone (at least at that time).

    So we were using their space, but we had colorful tapestries up on the walls, with over one hundred people coming to walk the labyrinth, evocative music, candle light, some people were weeping, some were dancing. And you could see that the Presbyterians were utterly perplexed and very suspicious. They were peeking through the windows, making faces and shaking their heads. They didn’t know what to make of it. What are these Episcopalians up to?

    Then, some years later, when we built the stone labyrinth in our courtyard, at that time there was I guess you would call it a fundamentalist Christian weekly newspaper that focused on religious matters in the region from their perspective. They apparently saw us as “liberals,” representing all that was going wrong with the church and the world, and on occasion, we were their target. I remember one week, on the front page of their newspaper was a huge picture of our labyrinth, with musicians playing and lots of people walking it. I am sure, from their perspective, it looked like a complete breakdown of proper order. And the headline, intended to mock us, was: “God does not call people to walk around in circles!” And I said, well wait a minute. I opened my Bible, took me a little while to find it but I did, in Exodus 13, just a few chapters before today’s reading. And there was that wonderful passage where God explains it to Moses. 

    God says in essence, “I could have led you on the straight road, but instead I led you on the roundabout way through the wilderness.” Why? So that you would learn to put your trust in me.  That’s God’s agenda for the wilderness, and that’s what took forty years.  It wasn’t about just getting from Point A to Point B from Egypt to Israel.  It was about learning to surrender and truly putting their trust in God. That is also God’s agenda for our own journey of faith, our own journey through the wilderness. We too are on a pilgrimage, we too are on a trust walk with God.

    It is a journey with a lot of twists and turns, some expected, many unexpected. It is a complicated journey which continues through all the ages and stages of life. We can’t just live up in our heads.  We are also bodies moving through time and space. We are born, we grow, we change, we mature, we age, maybe we retire, eventually we die. And, as such, it is a journey that can be more than challenging, and sometimes very confusing. 

    Let me remind you of a biblical principle that has been helpful to me and may be helpful to you. It is drawn from this experience in the wilderness. I call it the “I am with you” principle. Remember, that’s what God promised Moses when God called him and Moses questioned that call. God simply said, “I will be with you.” No more, no less. The basic deal is that if you truly do trust in God’s presence, God will provide that which you need to make the journey and God will guide your steps on the journey. Even if you don’t really know where you are going or how you’re going to get there - God does! The invitation is to put your trust in God.  

     I first really “got” this at a deep level many years ago when my predecessor, John Broome, announced his impending retirement as rector of Holy Trinity. Now, as I very briefly re-tell this story which I have told before, I do so with an awareness that I am now nearing the opposite end of my vocational journey - and I do so with an awareness that about half of you are going to stop listening to me and go off on a mental fantasy trip along these lines. “I wonder what will happen when Tim does finally retire..?” ......Well, you never know.

    When my dear friend, John Broome, announced his retirement, you will understand that, as his young assistant, it threw me into a vocational and spiritual crisis. Because I was operating out of such a strong and vivid sense of God’s call for me, to continue this Servant Leadership work and, simultaneously minister and bring that teaching and practice to this church community. The Bishop and the rules and the “powers that be” could not have been more clear. My staying here as rector was simply not an option. It’s not going to happen. Don’t even think about it. But that clear, animating sense of God’s call for me never wavered. 

    Outwardly, I was doing everything I could to accept reality, to obey my bishop, to comply with the rules. I was interviewing with all these other churches, but that deep, clear sense of God’s call to be here never waned, it never flickered. So, I was confused. I was disoriented. It truly was a wilderness experience. I kept praying and journaling and trying to figure it out, but there was no shift, no signal, no clear guidance. Until late one night up at Kanuga Conference Center. I was praying in the midst of this darkness and inner turmoil.  And I don’t usually hear voices, but this is the truth. That night, in the silence, I heard two words very clearly coming from somewhere, beyond me or maybe very deep within me. It was not my own voice, but it was very clear. Just two words, “follow me.”

    And it wasn't like a tone of command. It was more like a warm, intimate, inviting voice that seemed to say, "relax and just come along with me. You don't know where you're going, but I do. And I am with you. So you don't have to worry so much. All you have to do is stay close to me, and I will show you the way you're supposed to go." Follow me. And with those two words I simply surrendered, suddenly the weight was completely lifted from me; I felt a wonderfully liberating sense of peace and confidence in God's guidance. 

    And from that moment on, that's exactly what I did. I just went along, one day at a time, staying as close to God as I could in prayer, and trusting that God would lead me to where I was supposed to be.  A little more than a year later, to my own astonishment, against all odds, against all possibility, it was like the waters of the Red Sea suddenly parted, the path miraculously opened, and I became the rector of this church; and there is no doubt in my heart or mind that God guided the whole journey.

    Some of you will remember how Tony Campolo puts it. He says, "If I wanted to direct you, to some place that’s hard to find, say, to Glory Ridge for example, there are two ways to do that.  I could draw you a detailed map, or write out a set of detailed directions. And you could try to follow that map and those directions. And you might be able to find that place.  Or I could do something much better. I could climb right into the car with you, sit there beside you, and prompt you every step of the way. Turn left at this corner, slow down and bear right here, go up this hill, just go around this bend, and, you see, here we are. This is what God does for us on the journey of faith. Usually, God does not give us a detailed map, an exact plan and timetable for our lives. Instead, God gives us something better. God's own presence. God says, I am right here with you. And I will be with you for the entire journey. Just trust me; and I will get you to the place you are to go.

    And that's precisely what God said in the wilderness to Moses and the people of the Exodus. I will be with you. That's it. There's no map, no exact timetable, no detailed directions through the wilderness—just God's promise. I am with you. The I Am Presence. Do not be afraid.  Just move forward in faith. I will be there. Trust in me. My presence - The I Am Presence - will provide all the sustenance you need on a daily basis, one day at a time, and all the direction you need in the moment you need it. And that is the faith out of which I have tried to live ever since - though I sometimes do need a reminder.

     This summer, Kathleen and I made our third pilgrimage to Chartres and to that magnificent medieval cathedral outside Paris. Chartres has been a place of pilgrimage, literally, for over 3,000 years. Before the Christians arrived, the Druids and the Celts had established Chartres as a very important center of spiritual energy and power. The cathedral is actually built directly above an ancient holy well around which, many centuries ago, the Celtic priests would gather for their sacred rites. And the present cathedral, built around 1200, is actually the fifth cathedral built directly on that site. Dedicated to Mary, Notre Dame de Chartres, it truly radiates a palpable, very powerful and distinctly feminine spiritual energy. Joseph Campbell called Chartres “the womb of the world.”

    Once again we were participating in a Wisdom School centered around the cathedral, and this year the theme, the subject, was Sacred Geometry. More on that another time, but there could be no more perfect an illustration of Sacred Geometry than the cathedral itself.  Viewed through that lens of geometry, everywhere you look are lines and shapes and spaces in perfect proportion and harmony. Circles, arches, trefoils, quatrefoils, spires, a visual and spatial symphony that seemed to vibrate with spiritual energy and evoked a sense of both intimacy and profound awe in the human beings blessed to enter that space, myself included. Andrew Harvey calls Chartres Cathedral a “resurrection machine.”

    As described by Ann Baring, the central line of the nave may be understood to represent eternity and the two transepts the world of time. The high altar marks the place where time and eternity intersect, and it is located, proportionally, right at the place of the heart in the human body. One of the cathedral’s best-known features is the labyrinth, built into the floor of the cathedral, which is the inspiration and pattern for the labyrinth in our own courtyard. The labyrinth symbolizes the pathway through life in this world as a sacred journey, and as a conscious preparation for life in the eternal world, whose presence is indicated by the great rose window above it on the western wall. 

    And here is an example of how the sacred geometry works. The labyrinth is here. If that western facade were to be folded down to the floor, the rose window would fit precisely over the labyrinth, powerfully emphasizing the relationship between them. The labyrinth itself acts like a spiritual vortex, drawing the pilgrim toward its sacred center, causing you to lose your habitual orientation as you follow the multiple twists, turns and folds of its winding path, finally coming to the six-petalled white rose at the center, whose dimensions match exactly the rosette at the center of the rose window which holds the figure of the risen Christ.

    The entire week was amazing, but the center of the experience was, once again, walking that labyrinth. I am at a different stage of my own life, moving at least toward the latter part of my vocational journey. I am trying to discern God’s will in this chapter, where I am to put my energy, the next steps forward, as well as what it would look like to bring some closure to what has been a rather wild and multifaceted ministry over these many years. Also, this spring has been an unusually challenging time, an experience of pain - for me, and I know for some of you. I have found myself sometimes struggling to connect with that sense of joy - the energy of joy that has animated most of my life and work through the years. As I approached the labyrinth, I was carrying all these questions and emotions with me. What I experienced was the recovery of joy, rooted in an overwhelmingly powerful sense of God’s presence with me on the path.

    I may not succeed, but I will try to put it into words. When I stepped onto that labyrinth, it was as if the time/space continuum shifted and telescoped outward to include the entire journey of my life. All the twists and turns and folds, the way seeds planted in one phase bore their fruits in another, the way seemingly dead ends suddenly became new beginnings. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the sense of God’s love, God’s intimate presence and guidance each and every step of the way. On the human level, it is never perfect, we never get it completely right, but on the divine level with God, the I Am Presence, always with us, in the words of Julian, “all is well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It was an experience of deep communion.

    And as I left the center of the labyrinth and continued walking the path outward, as I walked, I suddenly became acutely aware that my time on the labyrinth would soon come to an end. It would soon be over. And, at that moment the time/space continuum again telescoped outward beyond my own life, bringing into view the larger multi-generational reality of which I and my ministry are just a little part. And we never finish, and it’s never complete and we never totally bring closure, but as each of us faithfully do our little piece, the larger puzzle of which our piece is an integral part, that larger picture does indeed emerge in God’s time. And ever since that time at Chartres, I feel like I am carrying that labyrinth pattern right here, in my body, as a felt sense of God’s intimate presence and guidance every day, each and every step of the way.

    Let me just close by saying, wherever you may be on your journey, wherever you may be on your pilgrimage through this world, you are not alone. You are never alone. God has called you, and with that call comes the promise, “I will be with you.”And with the I Am Presence sustaining you one day at a time and guiding your way, whatever life may bring, “all is well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Amen.