Empty Your Cup
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark on the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, September 8, 2019 by the Very Reverend Tyler Doherty.
I was thinking this week of those lines from Paul’s Letter to Philemon where he sends Onesimus the former slave back to Philemon no longer as a slave, but as a brother, as his very own heart. It put me in mind of those lines in John’s Gospel—“I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends” (15:15). What difference does it make if we consider ourselves, no longer servants, but friends of Jesus? It’s so easy for the religious life to turn into a dull, grudging, mechanical performance of duty and obligation. We’ve got the checklist of boxes to check and dutifully perform all the right tasks and chores. On the outside we’re doing all the right things, but on the inside we’re dried up like a milkweed husk in October after its loosed it seed.
There’s really two places we can come from in life—love or fear. And duty and obligation often come from a place of fear—fear of judgment, fear of not getting it right, fear of not looking good in the eyes of others, fear of not being enough, fear of somehow falling out of favor with God. Friendship with Jesus, on the other hand, presents us with an entirely different picture. Imagine Jesus saying that word to you, “Friend.” Of course, we’d all line up to serve Jesus if he showed up (as the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming, look busy”). But how many of us would allow ourselves to be served, to be called friend? Isn’t there something a little too intimate about that word? Doesn’t that imply a depth of relationship that might unsettle us, and ask us to set new priorities in our lives?
In a way, being a servant is safe and easy. It’s a known quantity. We know what we have to do and we do it—perfect for a git-r-done, task-oriented 21st century Christian with too much to do and too little time to do it. But friendship is a little riskier, isn’t it? Friendship bids us to be open, vulnerable, attentive. Friendship asks that we allow for the possibility that the relationship will change us. Friendship asks that approach the person with a degree of not-knowing, as a depthless mystery to be explored rather than something to be possessed, known once and for all, firmly under our control.
In our Gospel for today, Jesus tells us that, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” It was Dad’s birthday yesterday, so I sent him a text message—“Jesus tells me I should hate you, but Happy Birthday anyway.” But seriously, whatever does Jesus mean by this? If we are to love our enemies, surely mom and pop deserve a little love as well? What happened to family values? What happened to, “A family that prays together stays together?” We get a little hint at the end of today’s Gospel where Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Possessions here refer not just to material wealth, but also to those thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and preconceptions that blind us to the mystery of what God is up to right under our noses. “Cast off the richness of thought and imagination,” says St. John Cassian in his famous 10th Conference on Prayer, “and you will arrive swiftly and without delay at the first of the beatitudes: poverty of spirit.” Cassian calls this a “grand poverty”—a poverty where in possessing nothing we possess all. A poverty where the other person is allowed to be who they are without us trying to make them over in our image by piling shoulds all over them.
There’s a fun story from the Zen tradition that gets at this nicely. Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away. One day an important man, a man used to command, and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way. The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally, the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this teacup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”
I wonder if Jesus isn’t getting at something similar in our Gospel for today. Do we have everything so buttoned-down and sewn up tight that there is not room for God to get at us? Have we sheltered in safe, secure, known reality of our ideas about God, our neighbor and what it means to be a Christian that ignore the invitation to relationship, the invitation to love? Have we traded the dutiful servant identity for being a lover, a sloppy, head-over heels, scattered-brained lover who can’t quite remember all the rules of correct behavior? Is our cup a little too full with how things “should” be, that we miss the celebration, the Eucharist, that is at the heart of each moment?
Perhaps that is one dimension to what Jesus is getting at here. The call to “hate” mother and father is not about unfriending your mom on Facebook or blocking her calls on your iPhone. It’s a call to a kind of radical openness to what is, just as it is, free of the conceptual safeguards and toeholds of what we already know. That’s what it means, in a way to carry the cross and follow Jesus. We hold our ideas about how things should be and ought to be a little more lightly, and we journey—by Him and with Him and in Him—into the breath-taking, startling freshness of each moment, where we discover that Christ really is making all things new, where we discover that in letting go of the controls and opening our tightly-balled fists the Holy Spirit is doing some housecleaning, healing us from what keep us from seeing the Onesimuses in our lives as our brothers and sisters, indeed, as our very own heart.
Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Dominican friar got in trouble for saying in one of his sermons, “I pray God to rid me of God.” This sounded like blasphemy to Church authorities at the time. But Eckhart was getting at the same thing Jesus was pointing to in saying that we should “hate” mother and father. Even our ideas about God, our images of God, our rituals and traditions, can become ways of putting us to sleep, lulling us into a kind of complacent stupor where true encounter with the Living God is skipped over in favor of mechanical, rote, repetition.
So praying God to rid oneself of God is really just a call to empty our cups. To take the risk of not-knowing, and being vulnerable in friendship with Christ. It’s about holding what we think we know about God, our neighbor and ourselves, lightly and letting the love that is closer to us than we are to ourselves get at us and do its transforming work upon us that we might become a little more like Him—the one we follow after, tripping and stumbling, down the way of messy, unpredictable, besotted, love.
Just think what seeing God, our neighbor, and ourselves, with this unencumbered eye of love might lead to. Imagine what a difference a little bit of not-knowing, a little bit of holy wonder and awe for the other might do to our political discourse where we’ve got the other person figured out before they’ve even opened their mouth. Imagine what a difference allowing our old images of God as judge, policeman, checklist author and scorekeeper to fall away might lead to in our spiritual lives. Imagine what poverty of spirit might bring to difficult interpersonal relationships mired in unreleased hurts and fixed images of who and how the other person is. And imagine if instead of always telling ourselves we’re a no-good so and so, always a day late and a dollar short, never enough… imagine if instead we just let ourselves be and stopped bothering ourselves with our old stories, “the possessions” that clutter up our recognition of who we really are, that obscure the reality of love that’s always already present like a stream of living water at the very ground of our being.
That’s the jailbreak love affects in our lives. We free God from our ideas about God so that God can be God. We free our neighbor from our ideas about them so they can be as they are. And with Onesimus we see that we ourselves are no longer prisoners. We’ve stopped believing all those old stories that have possessed us for so long and we discover ourselves waking up refreshed in Christ whose freshness is new each and every moment, whose hand writes our lives moment-to-moment in one unending hymn, a hymn that sounds a lot like, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”