Jul 17th, A Divine Love Affair, with Rev. Brian Heron
Jul 17th: A Divine Love Affair, with Rev. Brian Heron.
High on this mountain, the clouds down below I’m feeling so strong and alive from this rocky perch I’ll continue to search for the wind and the snow in the sky. I want a lover, I want some friends, and I want to live in the sun and I want to do all the things that I never have done. Off in the Netherlands I heard a sound like the beating of heavenly wings and deep in my brain I can hear a refrain of my soul as she rises and sings anthems to glory and anthems to love hymns filled with earthly delight like the songs that the darkness composes to worship the light.
Those are the lyrics from Dan Folgelberg’s song Nether Lands. I’m sitting here atop Angel’s Rest in the Columbia Gorge after making a 2.5 miles romp of a somewhat steep trail from the Columbia River Gorge. And I can’t imagine a better place to preach a sermon about falling in love with God. For the signs of God are all around me and in me. The river 1600ft below Portland on the distant horizon, the sun almost beginning to set, and of course, my body buzzing with the vitality of hiking and being in motion and being one with the mountain.
I do feel especially alive when I’m up in places like this. I want to let you know that I’m preaching the sermon really with two hats on. I’m preaching it as the executive presbyter for the Presbytery of the Cascades, a region of 98 churches in western Oregon and southwest Washington. And I’m also preaching it as a person who could best describe his relationship with God as a love affair, but first wearing my hat as an executive. A big part of why I’m preaching this sermon is to start paving the way toward the return to our ancient religious mysticism.
Millions of people today think of themselves as spiritual, but not religious. And even though we might consider it a new development, to my trained eyes as a student of religious history, it appears that what is actually happening is that the ancient tradition of religious mysticism, something that we’ve almost completely forgotten, seems to be returning. So what is a religious mystic or spiritual mystic? Simply put, it’s a person who longs for who yearns for or as the psalmist says, pants for. I love that particular interpretation.
Who pants for a direct experience of God or the sacred? It is a person who is not satisfied with adherence to doctrinal and credible statements. You see, a mystic is less interested in a belief in God and more interested in a lived out, embodied experience of God.
I’m also sharing this sermon as a person whose faith can best be described as a lifelong love affair with God or a mystical orientation to my life. I have to admit that I have at times been a bit of a puzzlement to the institutional church. Most of us who serve the church talk about our love for the church, but I have to admit that the church has always come second for me. It’s my love affair with God that has always come first. It just happens to be that I’ve been able to express my lifelong love affair with God mostly by serving in the church.
And because of that, my life looks to some as if I haven’t planned well or used good judgment at times. You see, I did not get this executive position through the usual climbing of the professional career ladder. Rather, I got here by following this passion that I have for God, which sometimes have brought me sweet success and sometimes even abject failure. But I’ve always followed my passion, and that has sometimes led to living in low income housing and being on food stamps, but also it’s led me to being on Mount Everest. I’ve truly been on the top and the bottom, but the one consistent thread in my life has been this wonderful and troubling love affair with God.
Wonderful and troubling? I think those words capture the interchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, as is found in this Scripture from John. As we pick up the story, those religious leaders were gathering stones to kill Jesus for the sin of blasphemy. And you can see where they got their evidence. Jesus was making such assertions as, I and the Father are one, and the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.
In other words, he was making himself equal with God, putting himself on the same level as God. And two, conventional thinking, this is very problematic even heretical, and blasphemous. But you know what? It depends on? How one sees God.
25 years ago, I remember being at a workshop taught by a fairly well known New Testament professor, and he was working through this same text. And a few minutes into his lecture, as he was setting himself up for his teaching moment, he turned to the 30 of us at the workshop and asked us all to raise our hands if we agreed that making yourself equal to God would be considered blasphemous. Now, I didn’t actually count the hands, but I’m quite sure that I was the only one who did not raise my hand. And the professor noticed that, and he asked, so is there anyone here who disagrees with that statement? And I sort of timidly raised my hand, and the professor asked me to explain myself, and I responded, Well, professor, it depends on whether you see God in a vertical relationship or a horizontal relationship.
And I will never forget how the pastor stared at me for a bit and then turned away. What had happened was that I had just short circuited his lecture, and a half hour later, he finished his lecture saying, the charge of blasphemy here only comes from those who see God in a vertical relationship.
At Bend First Presbyterian Church, you have this wonderful open ended approach to Christian community called Spacious Christianity. And what I love about your congregation is that you make room for the various ways that people connect with their faith, understand the relationship with Jesus, and honor the place for God and the sacred in their lives. And one of those ways that seems to be getting more traction both within the Church and beyond the church is the way of mysticism. You see, mystics tend to see God more as a horizontal relationship with God rather than a vertical relationship. So when you listen to folks who land more on the mystical side of faith, you will hear them speak less of loving God and more of being in love with God.
Over 100 years ago, G. K. Chesterton, an English writer, art critic, philosopher and lay theologian, got this when he said, let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. Isn’t that marvelous? Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.
And 1500 years before him, St. Augustine said, to fall in love is the greatest romance. Oh, my gosh, isn’t that great? To fall in love with God is the greatest romance. To seek Him the greatest adventure.
To find Him the greatest achievement. Romance and achievement, my friends, that’s the kind of faith that I get up in the morning for. Now, I do want to be very careful to make the point that the mystical approach to God is not the one right approach. It’s just one approach that many of us today have found is the most authentic and lifegiving for us. Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and writer, writes that all doctrines actually start with a mystical experience.
What’s happening today is that many of us are trying to return to the mystical experience that is the source of the doctrines of the Church.
A few years ago, I preached a sermon about the difference between religion as a moral foundation and religion as a mystical experience. In fact, you often can’t tell the difference between a person who does things out of a sense of moral obligation and the person who does the same thing as an expression of their mystical connection. The difference is not in the act itself, but in what motivates the person. Take, for instance, the person who is being helped alongside the road, as in the Good Samaritan story. You see, the moralist tends to lend aid because God has said that we ought to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It’s just simply the right thing to do. Correct? But the mystic lends the same aid because in so doing, they believe that they are experiencing the presence of God in that intimate connection. It’s the same action, but different motivation. Simply put, the moralist lives a faithful life carrying out the greatest commandment to love God and to love neighbor.
And the mystic lives a faithful life because in their cores. They believe, like Jesus, that I and the Father are one, that the Father is in me and I am in the Father, and that there is nothing more satisfying than being in the actual pulsating presence of God in the world.
We hear language like this as new forms of spirituality emerge in our communities, that we are one with all beings and all things, that God is in us and we are in God, and even that each one of us is actually made up of particles of stardust. And maybe some of that language sounds a bit woo woo to you, but you know what? I think it’s only a modern version of what Jesus said that I and the Father are one, and that the Father is in me and I am in the Father. It’s the actual taste of God that drives the mystic. It’s the feeling that our heartbeat is actually God’s heartbeat that motivates the mystic, just like two lovers who become one flesh.
But before you fall for this hook, line and sinker, I want to provide a warning. You see, seeing God as your lover can be dangerous. Bruce Cockburn captured this well in his song Lovers in a Dangerous Time, he writes, when you are lovers in a dangerous time, sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love is a crime. Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. You got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime. In other words, sometimes people might be uncomfortable with you or ignore you or ridicule you or ostracize you, or avoid you, or, like in our scripture lesson today, they might even threaten to throw rocks at you. You see, the thing about love affairs is that they’re messy, they’re unpredictable, they don’t follow the rules of convention. They’re problematic for institutional structures. The reason is because love affairs are based on passion and yearning and longing.
Or, like the psalmist says, a panting for experience. Love affairs are up and they are down, and one day they propel you to the height of human experience, and the next day to the depth of despair. Love affairs tell the story of both ecstasy as well as volatility. Love affairs make room for the full breadth of human experience. For when we fall deeply in love, we can’t help but to commit to that person in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in earth.
Which reminds me of Ecclesiastes, whose author just had to have been a mystic. Listen for how the author doesn’t just limit the experience of God to all of the, quote, good things in life, but how the author makes room for the full experience of life, just like a good, passionate love affair. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter. Under heaven. Under heaven a time to be born.
But oh. Also a time to die. A time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, but also a time to laugh. A time to mourn and thank God.
A time to dance, a time to embrace yes. And a time to refrain from embracing. A time to seek but also a time to let go and to lose. A time to tear wow, that hurts. A time to tear or be torn and a time to sow.
A time to keep silent, and a time to speak. My friends, love, real love is messy, but it’s also rich in experience, rich in life, and rich in God.
I will close with a quote from Pedro Arrupe, a 20th century Jesuit priest who was serving as a missionary in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on that city. He writes this:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, What you will do with your evenings, How you spend your weekends, What you read, Whom you know, What breaks your heart, And what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
I and the Father are one. God is in me and I am in God. God is in you and you are in God.