- August 6, 2017
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for August 6, 2017 (Transfiguration)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Exodus 34:27-35; Psalm 99; Luke 9:28-36
Title: Delivered From Disquietude
My dear friends: is there anyone here this morning who would like to be delivered from the disquietude of this world? Anyone? How about a show of hands?
Well, that’s what we prayed for in today’s Collect. Please look at it again in your bulletin. “Grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty.”
Sounds great, doesn’t it? I’ll bet that most of you instinctively agree that you want this.
But how does it happen? Does God suddenly make all of the disquietude of the world go away? Does the Spirit of God blow away all of the chaos and uneasiness and confusion of life on planet earth?
I think not. That has never happened. To be human is to be confused, uncertain, unsure, anxious.
So what then? What does this kind of prayer even mean? If we cannot realistically expect God to radically change the circumstances of life, perhaps what we are asking is for God to change us.
Yes. THAT is the answer. But how does God change us so that we become unaffected by the disquietude of this world?
My friends, that is where this Feast of the Transfiguration speaks directly to all of us. Both Moses and the Lord Jesus go up a mountain to pray, to be in the presence of God. And both are changed by that presence.
But please notice this: in both cases, God’s presence is known in a cloud.
We cannot see it quite so clearly in our passage from Exodus. This reading is focused upon the change in Moses which occurred from this encounter. The actual encounter with God is described earlier in this same chapter of Exodus in this way: “So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” [And] The Lord passed before [Moses]” (Exodus 34:4-6a).
THIS is where Moses was for forty days and nights! In the cloud. In God’s presence.
Likewise, when Peter and James and John were on the mountain with Jesus and Moses and Elijah, a cloud came and the voice of God spoke to them in their native tongue: “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him” (Luke 9:35).
So here is the question for you: do you want to be delivered from the disquietude of this world? Do you really? If so, then enter the cloud. Go into the cloud to pray and to experience the presence of God.
OK, I know what you are probably thinking at this point: “Well, what does that mean? What is the cloud? And how do I go into it?”
Those are excellent questions! And they have been meditated upon by lovers of God for thousands of years. And, in my opinion, those meditations and reflections reached their pinnacle in a small anonymous book written in the fourteenth century called “The Cloud of Unknowing”.
You see, the cloud represents the presence of God, because it is dark and mysterious. In the cloud, our senses go numb. This is because God can never be known by our senses or understood by our thoughts, by these small human brains.
As the author explains: “Thought cannot comprehend God…By love God may be touched and embraced, but never by thought” (Cloud, Chapter 6).
To enter the cloud of unknowing means to desire and pursue God above all else, and certainly far more than any of our small ideas or thoughts. This desire is what we call love.
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing says that we must “beat upon that thick cloud of unknowing with … our loving desire and do not cease, come what may” (Cloud, chapter 6).
What we are talking about is a strategy for prayer and contemplation that is designed to take us outside of ourselves, free of the thoughts and worries and anxieties which seem to swarm our minds like flies around trash in the summer.
To know God, to experience God as God truly is, we must move beyond our thoughts and enter the simple awareness of God’s presence.
This is the cloud of unknowing.
It reminds me very much of the famous short story shared by Leo Tolstoy of the old tale of 3 hermits on a remote island in the White Sea in the north of Russia.
To summarize it briefly, a Bishop is on a ship sailing across the White Sea with pilgrims going to the famous Solovetsky monastery. On the way, he comes across 3 very old and holy men who have lived together on one small island in a life of prayer and contemplation.
Fascinated, the Bishop asks them about how they pray. They answer that they have never been taught how to pray. All they do is say, “You are Three, we are three, have mercy on us.”
The Bishop was kind, and applauded them for their dedication, and he offered to teach them the Lord’s Prayer before he continued on his way. The Bishop sat down, and the three old men stood around him, watching his mouth, and repeating the words as he uttered them. All day long, the Bishop labored, saying one word twenty, thirty, a hundred times over, and the old men repeated it after him. They blundered, and he corrected them, and they started again.
The Bishop did not leave till he had taught them the whole of the Lord’s Prayer so that they could not only repeat it after him, but could say it by themselves. The middle one was the first to know it, and to say it himself. The Bishop made him say it again and again, and at last the others could say it too.
Satisfied that he had done some good ministry on this day, the Bishop blessed them, returned to the ship and they sailed on toward the monastery.
However, it was now night and the crew was soon terrified to see those very 3 old hermits chasing after them on the water as though it were dry land! All three were gliding along on top of the water without moving their feet! When they finally caught up to the ship, the hermits cried out, all three as if with one voice:
“Servant of God, we have forgotten your teaching! As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but then we stopped, and we forgot a word, and now it has all gone to pieces. We cannot remember the prayer. Please teach us again!”
The Bishop was completely amazed by this and he leaned over the ship’s side and said to them, “Your simple prayer reaches the Lord, O men of God. It is not for me to teach you! Please pray for us, sinners.” And so the old men went back to their island to continue their simple little prayer, as they glided back over the water!
(For the entire story, see this site: http://www.thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2010/november10/leo-tolstoy-one-hundred.php )
What does this old tale tell us? Perhaps that simplicity does far more to connect one with God and the energy of God than our complicated efforts.
Of course, knowledge is important and it is right for us always to be learning and studying and growing. But when it comes to knowing God, rather than just knowing ABOUT God, our knowledge is a hindrance, not a help.
That fourteenth century anonymous author gives this advice: “It is quite sufficient to focus your attention on [one] simple word such as … God (or another one you might prefer) and without the intervention of analytical thought, allow yourself to experience directly the reality it signifies. Do not use clever logic to examine or explain…as if this sort of thing could ever possibly increase your love” (Cloud, chapter 36).
Instead, “Lift up your sick self, just as you are, to the gracious God, just as God is” (Book of Privy Counseling, same author, chapter 2) and let this one word, this simple prayer, keep your mind and heart present with God and away from the chaos of society.
My friends: do you want to be delivered from the disquietude of this world? Then rest in the cloud of unknowing as your regular practice, and you will experience the peace of God.
But there is one more crucial note: this deliverance and this peace experienced in the cloud, in God’s presence, on the mountain – it is a gift designed to bless others.
There is no joy in experiencing God’s presence while the rest of humanity suffers through the chaos of the world. Both Moses and the Lord walked down from the mountain and brought blessing to the people below.
The first thing that Jesus does after the mountain is to go down into the valley, back into the crowd of hurting humanity, and to heal.
By God’s grace, if, through regular practice, we experience some deliverance from the chaos of this world in this cloud of unknowing, then we must know that it is given ONLY so that we can share it with others and guide others to the same place of peace.
And so, by God’s grace, may all of us at Saint Mary’s know the gift of God’s presence in that cloud of unknowing and know the privilege of sharing it with others. Amen.