Homily for Pentecost 21, October 29, 2017 – The Rev. Stephanie Shepard
St. John the Apostle
“Life Belongs to God”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I want to share with you something that happened while I was on retreat this week. Coming in late from a walk around the lake with some of my colleagues, I did not have time to wash my hands before the next session. To begin, our retreat leader led us in a breathing meditation that goes something like this. You may stand and try it with me if you like:
Breathe in as you bring your hands together in front of you in the classic Christian position of prayer.
Breathe out as you cup your hands together and offer them up.
Breathe in as you wrap your hands around you in consolation.
Breathe out as you extend your hands away from your body in a giving away motion.
Thank you. This is a powerful body exercise in what God offers to us and how we respond in love. We were doing it in the context of how our heart, soul, body, and mind were being touched by God’s creation around us. And as I lifted up my cupped hands, I realized in horror that they were filthy. In the moment, it became a powerful metaphor for my complicity in what I personally have done to this planet, and what I have not done when I could have made a difference. I was ashamed, for life belongs to God, and I had neglected to offer up all that I could. My longing was indeed for the wholeness of creation and the coming of the kingdom, but what had I done? Here I was caught with my hands dirty.
But then I reflected on the hike I had taken. The rocks I had scrambled over, the tree trunks I had clung to for support on the steep sections. I remembered holding onto a friend’s hand to help him down the path. Of the sense of belonging I felt for nature and for my fellow walkers in that time. And I saw that there was another side to those uplifted hands offered to God. My hands were engrained with dirt because I had touched creation. And in lifting up my hands, I was receiving its life and its pain into my care. Belonging in love means getting our hands dirty.
Life begins and ends with breath. And through our breathing, we are connected to God, the One who gives us life and breath. We belong to God, and we also belong to everything around us. When we breath in oxygen, we are receiving what the green plants have released to us. And when we breathe out carbon dioxide, we are returning it for growing things to use. What a wonder: that we live in a sacramental universe where everything is able to speak to us of the love of the Creator. When we pay attention, we find communion. We find signs of that great love.
When the religious leaders ask Jesus which commandment is the greatest, for them it is but one question in a long series they hope will reveal some heresy for which they can have him arrested. The Pharisees have already tested him on authority, taxes, and the resurrection. No doubt they have a few more surprises ready to spring at him, like the question about the Messiah that follows. But Jesus takes their inquisition at face value. They themselves should know the answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment”. But he doesn’t stop there. “And a second commandment is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus links the love of God, the love of neighbour, and the love of self together. They belong together. Together, they express the orientation of the faithful person.
Our spirituality is not one of isolation, but of intimacy. This is why we cannot withdraw from the issues around us in the world and pretend that they do not affect us. What hurts one part of creation hurts God in God’s very being and wounds each of us inside too. We each long for a world where there is security and justice and enough for each of us not just to survive, but to live abundantly. But if I want that for myself, I have to want it for others as well. Loving my neighbour means that I have to think about “ours” rather than “mine”. This is what belonging is about.
It seems a little overwhelming. There are big scary topics like climate change and reconciliation with First Nations peoples, terrorism and hatred and world hunger. When we lift our hands to God, they don’t seem to hold much that will help. But God will give to each of us as much as our hands and hearts are able to hold, and assist us in distributing what we have as widely as possible. Even the little we are able to receive will help, if we are willing to get our hands dirty.
For me, that breathing exercise is the ultimate act of stewardship. I bring myself to God: through prayer, through awareness of the beauty and joy of creation, through the touch or sight of my neighbour. I cup my hands to receive what God is passing into my care. I steady myself to ready myself for action, reassure myself that I am held in God’s love as I commit to love. Then I release what I hold into the hands of others so that God’s work of love continues in this world.
Our retreat leader offered us four practices to help us stay rooted in the knowledge and love of God, and of his beloved child Jesus:
- Simply taking time to be quiet and pay attention to small things. A child, a bird, a leaf. What can it tell us of God’s love?
- Practice gratitude. Say thank you more often to remind yourself that everything is a gift.
- Honour your body. It is the little bit of God’s creation with which you alone have been entrusted.
- Live a more natural life. Find touchpoints to the rhythms of creation in what is local, sustainable, or renewable.
If we do this together, as a family, as a church, then too deepen our lives in belonging. We are never alone. As long as we have breath, we have God with us to act in love. A God who longs for us as much as we yearn for belonging. The Anglican mystic, Julian of Norwich writes,
I saw three kinds of longing in God, all directed to one end. We have the same three in us, of the same virtue and for the same end. The first is that he longs to teach us to know him and love him ever more and more, as is suitable and profitable for us. The second is that he longs to have us up in bliss, as souls are when they are taken out of pain into heaven. The third is that he longs to fill us full of bliss, and that will be accomplished on the last day, to last forever.” (p. 218)
When our days are done, love reclaims us as His own, and satisfies all our longing at last. Until then, life belongs to God, and we belong to life. Amen.