The problem with “last sermons” is they can get very top-heavy, and the trouble with last sermons before retirement is that they can topple over. But I want to say both farewell and fare forward in light of our final time together as your interim and in response to today’s Gospel too; so that might take some time.
When I was in seminary in Berkeley in the 1980s I wrote a paper outlining something called “The Merton Centre,” which would offer courses, gatherings, resources for people who didn’t find their needs or desires met by existing religious structures. The four sides of the structure were: formation, education, celebration and transformation. This template led me in the work I did in chaplaincy and education in California in the 1990s and then found a new form as “The Merton Centre at St Peter’s Eastern Hill” in Melbourne from 2002 to 2009. It changed a bit when I moved to Wangaratta, but certainly influenced various diocesan offerings, chiefly under the name of “St Columb’s Fair,” in the last five years. Now that I am retiring I think that it might be time to let The Merton Centre come forth again, because in my experience it outlines good ways to learn, to lean into, to live out the great summary of the Gospel we hear today from Matthew:
“’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. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
So, based on my old model, here are four ways to get there from here:
Formation means that the first fact, the place where we start, is that God loves us; exactly as we are, here and now, always and everywhere. God makes us, meets us and mends us, all the time, all out of love. And that love lives before we were born, after we die, in every instance of our lives. But even if it seems simple, it isn’t easy. William Blake writes, “We are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love.” and so that we might learn to look at everyone in that light, even sometimes looking in the mirror, and this can be problematic:
As Thomas Merton writes:
For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like [and]… Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny….
And this means looking at where we are not, who we are not, why we are not: for while God creates time and space and innumerable paths to freedom and perfection, we tend to take the most expeditious shortcuts, and there has to be a commitment to take the long way home, in order to find by Grace, as Zen puts it, “the face we had before we were born”.
Some books that speak to this for me are by Rowan Williams, Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and Gerald May’s, The Awakened Heart; along with A Path with Heart by the Buddhist Jack Kornfield as well as mystical poetry by people like Rumi, TS Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Now Education: I often say that, “No one would go to the gym one hour a week and expect to get stronger, but I still do!” But we also can come to church that way, and we need to allow more take time to stretch, discern, learn, listen to where we are and where God calls us to be. For here we have the most expansive history and tradition of aesthetics, ethics, poetry, politics, wisdom, cosmology, compassion, beauty the world has ever known, and we don’t take time explore it, to get lost and found in it, glory in it.
We need to allow time and space to listen and come to know the tradition. Some options I’d recommend today are using the Daily Office, either in your prayer book on online (I use the C of E app on my iPad), to schedule a weekly hour or two with the Sunday Gospel on textweek.com. and look at current authors like Diarmaid MacCulloch, Diana Butler Bass, Karen Armstrong, Brian McLaren, and again, Rowan Williams.
Celebration means Liturgy and that is the work of the people together, of the polis, the ecclesia, those on the way together; and I always go back to a quote by Tennessee Williams: “In a world where so many are alone, it would be an unforgivable sin to be lonely by yourself“ In many ways the church is where we learn to be deeply ourselves while most deeply together. It is the place where, as Philip Larkin writes, “… all our compulsions are robed as destinies” and that is our call as community! For the church offers sacramental moments: “Patterns of countless ways God uses material things to reach out to creation,” and then we can see it is all part of the mix: birth, puberty, sex and relationship; both vocation and vacation, with room for sin, illness and death. In eating, bathing, cooking, cleaning, making love, poetry, justice, community, silence. Looking for God everywhere can enlarge the universe and Celebration and liturgy are where we practice to be a new people, a new being, the new creation that St Paul talks about.
I haven’t read much on liturgy lately but always loved Charles Price and Louis Wiel’s book, Liturgy for Living.“The Wisdom of Confucius” and “Confucius, the Secular as Sacred” by Herbert Fingarette also fit here.Also the work of Thomas Moore, author of The Life of a Soul, who puts it this way, “My life work is an attempt to ground the pure, visionary spirit in the imperfect, intoxicating sensuousness of worldly life.” His books are worth looking at too.
And, finally, Transformation: There’s a great line in Annie Hall where Woody Allen turns to Diane Keaton and says, “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. I think what we’ve got on our hands is a dead shark.” Our relationship with God in community has to move forward, because it is, in the end, the act of changing the world. But listen to what Mother Teresa said fits here: “Don't look for big things, just do small things with great love.” Continuing formation, education, celebration all lead to transformation, where we learn to live the life, to walk the talk of the Good News of God with us, Jesus Christ.
As Merton writes:
And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech,and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear [sisters and] brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are."—
We are the body of Christ,
His Spirit is with us.