Article | January 22, 2023
Sermon: Where Your Thoughts Never Think to Wander
Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear” (Ps. 27)?
What new season of life are you entering? How will you need to change? What relationship will you have with God?
In the 1970’s anthropologist Dana Raphael coined the word matrescence. It sounds like adolescence, and is also a developmental stage. It refers to the process of becoming a mother. This changes every aspect of a woman’s life. Whether one adopts or gives birth, it is a physical, hormonal, psychological, social, political and spiritual change.
And yet because we did not know the name for it, many of us were so focused on caring for the new child, or “bouncing back” to our career, that we did not fully realize the vast changes accompanying motherhood. After having children, we are not supposed to just get our old bodies and lives back, to return to how things were. We are changed and the process of being changed is uncomfortable.1
I wonder what new stage of life Peter and Andrew, James and John are entering when they first encounter Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus retreats away from the political tensions and violence of Judea. He leaves home in Nazareth, and settles (kataoikeō) in Capernaum (what Isaiah calls Galilee of the Gentiles).2
Matthew quotes an Isaiah passage for the coronation of a king.3 In an eight century BCE conflict that might make you think of Ukraine today, Israel successfully defended itself against an Assyrian military campaign. Announcing a new age of peace, freedom and justice, the prophet exclaims, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isa. 9).
Matthew quotes these verses that were already hundreds of years old to show how Jesus is also inaugurating a new era. Jesus tells everyone to repent. He uses the word metanoia. It means to change the deepest patterns of our minds. We need to do this to experience the full magnitude of what God offers us.
The Greek word basileia means kingdom, reign, rule, realm, empire. Jesus directly compares the brutality and greed of the Roman basileia with a new heavenly basileia, the kingdom of God, in which all people will be liberated from oppression.
For thirty years I have studied this passage. This week for the first time I realized that Peter and Andrew are wading in the shallow water of the sea throwing their nets when Jesus invites them. The biblical scholar Herman Waetjen hypothesizes that they are very poor, engaged in seasonal work to supplement the other jobs they need to survive.4
James and John come from a higher social class. With their father, they own a boat. Dragging a net across the water they catch far more fish. Both sets of brothers are required to buy fishing rights from the Roman governors and are severely taxed. Both suffer under the occupying Roman armies. This might give us a hint of their state of mind when Jesus says simply, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mt. 4).
My friend Matt Boulton points out two ways of reading this. First, we can take it at face value. Jesus simply says two words and miraculously the brothers drop everything. Or second, he suggests that perhaps the brothers already feel a kind of dissatisfaction with their lives or dream of something better. The Greek verb “to leave” is aphiēmi. This is also the word for being freed from debt, slavery and sin. It is forgiveness and release. It is a jubilee word.5
Becoming a parent freed me from illusions that I had carried with me from my own childhood, it opened up a deeper experience of love, taught me about cooperating and that ultimately in the really difficult things we can depend on God’s grace.
Jesus does not tell these fishermen to believe something, or to join a political party, or defend a constitution. He just says, “follow me.” Walking alongside Jesus has been one of the greatest blessings of my life – especially in moments of change. This morning to all of us I simply say “follow him.”
The preacher Frederick Buechner accurately describes my experience in falling in love with my wife Heidi. I did not begin by fully understanding her and then coming to love her. With my limited experience as a twenty-three year old, I was not capable of understanding a woman from such a different world. But out of love understanding is born.
For this reason Buechner writes, “Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”6 Elsewhere he writes that at
times we may even sense Jesus directing us, putting his hand gently on our shoulder. This has been the case for me when I really listen.
Today on the Forum I talked with Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner about his book Awe. After studying various expressions of awe in 26 cultures, Keltner believes that it is a fundamental part of being human, of experiencing meaning. He describes awe as an encounter with the vast mystery beyond our understanding. It is when we become free of our ego in the face of something far greater. It is a primary source of our happiness.7 Perhaps awe is what led Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow Jesus.
Wonder is not exactly the same thing as awe, but it is close. The scientist Rachel Carson writes, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”8
Someone in the Episcopal Church must have heard this because in our baptism prayer we ask on behalf of our children for, “the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”9 For me, awe is the experience of intuiting that we are loved by God.
Although surrounded by awe-provoking possibilities in the smallest and grandest experiences, sometimes we do feel alienated from the source of our strength. Sometimes fear or suffering makes us blind to joy and wonder. In moments like these we need to remind each other what we once knew.
In her autobiography, my teacher Margaret Miles quotes St. Augustine’s prayer to God, to himself and to us, across seventeen centuries. He writes, “You will bear us up, yes, from our infancy until our hair is gray, you will bear us up. Let us return to you, Lord so that we may not be overturned… [for] you yourself are our good. And we need not be afraid of having no place to which we may return…” Augustine repeats “Return, return to the source of life. Jesus himself calls you to come back. Return to your heart.10
Let me conclude with a poem and a blessing from John O’Donohue. I encourage you to shut your eyes and let yourself be addressed by these words.
“In out-of-the-way places of the heart, / Where your thoughts never think to wander, / This beginning has been quietly forming, / Waiting until you were ready to emerge. // For a long time it has watched your desire, / Feeling the emptiness growing inside you, / Noticing how you willed yourself on, / Still unable to leave what you had outgrown. // It
watched you play with the seduction of safety / And the gray promises that sameness whispered, / Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent, / Wondered would you always live like this.” “Then the delight, when your courage kindled, / And out you stepped onto new ground, / Your eyes young again with energy and dream, / A path of plenitude opening before you. // Though your destination is not yet clear / You can trust the promise of this opening; / Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning / That is at one with your life’s desire. // Awake your spirit to adventure; / Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk; / Soon you will home in a new rhythm, / For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”11
Although I looked cool on the outside, on the day my wife Heidi gave birth to our first child, I was terrified that she was not going to make it. She had first felt labor pains three days before and her whole body was shaking and shivering because of the cold in the operating room and a large incision across her abdomen. But then we took that baby and laid by her chest. From the look in her eyes, I could see that she had become something stronger and new.
We have walked in darkness and seen a great light. The deepest patterns of our minds are being transformed by Jesus and his nearby realm of heaven. What new season of life are you entering? How will you need to change? What is coming to birth in you?