Sermons from St
Saying 'Yes' to God
Fr Mark Waters, Sunday 9th September,
Mary said ‘Yes’. That’s the heart of this morning’s gospel reading. She said ‘yes’ to God.
A few verses earlier in Luke’s gospel we heard Mary makes her ‘Yes’:
‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.
And in today's reading that we have just heard Elizabeth praises Mary’s ‘Yes’:
‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
And down the Christian centuries this ‘Yes’ of Mary has been a hallowed spiritual benchmark, representing the authentic calling of the Christian disciple.
She invites us to say ‘yes’ too.
But Mary’s ‘yes’ is not as simple as it may at first appear.
This gospel story – of necessity - is a compressed account of a complex process over time.
Saying ‘yes’ to God is a journey more than an event.
So I want to invite you this morning to follow me in an exploration of what saying ‘yes’ to God actually means, how it happens, and what it involves.
And we’re going to begin in early childhood. In fact we’re going to begin with my grandson Rhydian, just over two years old.
What is happening to Rhydian at the moment – as happened to all of us once upon a time – is that he is learning to engage with the world about him as it begins to press in upon him and makes its mark on his budding personality. As he looses himself a bit from his mum and dad and begins to encounter new territory.
He doesn’t consciously know it yet, but little Rhydian is struggling with 3 things as he engages with the ever bigger world that he is beginning to encounter:
- His first struggle is - how can I be sure I will be safe and secure wherever I am?
- His second struggle - how can I develop relationships with a wide range of people in which I get both affection and self-esteem – in which I can be loved and valued and be who I am without fear.
- His third struggle - how and to what extent can I exercise power and control over my world so that I can to a certain extent shape what happens to me. Ever seen a two year old’s temper tantrum – that’s a struggle or power and control.
And as he tentatively negotiates these three crucial areas of human functioning Rhydian will begin to build his ego - his sense of himself. And hopefully, this ego will be robust – yet flexible enough to help him begin to shape his life through school and friendships, through new experiences of the world, into college or university, a career, and building a loving partnership with an other, and maybe choosing to have a family of his own one day.
This is the path that the ego – if strong enough – enables us to negotiate. This is the path that anyone over the age of 30 has trodden.
It has largely been the thing which has made us who we are and brought us here this morning.
And the at one level the ego is a wonderful thing. It enables creativity, motivation, determination……
But the ego has a darker, less helpful side. It sees the world in either-or terms. It tends towards superiority thinking because it only shows me the world through my own eyes. It generates ways of behaving that are addictive. And so encourages me to repeat ways of behaving instinctively.
Rhydian’s three struggles are our struggles too and follow us all of our lives.
Have you ever met someone who if they are going on holiday have to have every detail of their trip sorted out definitively six months before they are due to travel – or someone who is absolutely loathe to try anything new? - they have a problem with security.
Have you ever met someone who always defers to other people, or alternatively someone who is always abrasive and pushy – they have a problem with affection and self-esteem.
Have you ever met someone who always has to have the last word – or is obsessed with tidiness or some other compulsion – they have a problem with power and control.
And of course we all have these sorts of foibles – these tendencies - no-one is immune. And our egos encourage us to keep on repeating those same tendencies in behaviour and attitude and thinking over and over again – even if it clearly makes us unhappy.
The big problem with living through the ego alone is that it makes us think that this is who we are – the person we have created, and the strategies we have devised to try and make us happy.
All of our striving to achieve what we think we need for happiness, is simply that – what WE think we need for happiness. This creates a huge spiritual problem for almost all of us.
Richard Rohr in his book ‘Breathing under Water’ says:
For many well-intentioned Christians and clergy, their religion has never touched them or healed them at the unconscious level where all of the real motivation, hurts, forgiveness, anger, wounds, and illusions are stored, hiding – and often fully operative…..we are addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defences, and most especially, our patterned way of thinking, or how we process reality.
The good news, the gospel, is that our ego-identity is only a small part of who we really are.
Who we really are, who we are summoned out to be, is known only to God.
And spirituality – the path of faith is not about believing a certain set of beliefs – it is about having the courage to find out who we are on the other side of our egos. Who we are in God! And that is the spiritual journey.
How? How do we do this?
Well, read all the great spiritual writers and mystics of the church down the ages you will discover that there is only one way of finding out who we really are under God – and that is by the act of utter surrender – either by some way of letting go into God, or by some experience – some suffering – which brings us to our knees.
Mary, and all the saints, found some way letting go of all that our egos want to cling to so tenaciously. The ego hates change. It hates to admit it is wrong or misguided. It prompts us time and time again to make the same mistakes in life over and over and over, and to stubbornly resist any real and transformative change in our lives.
Only in the act of surrender, the attitude of surrender, a life of surrender do we discover a vast freedom which before we could barely imagine. If you’ve ever met someone who has been able to do that that sense of freedom is palpable. It radiates out of them. They have a new horizon. They are no longer limited by the shallow and narrow demands of ego. They have found their identity in God and have been radically transformed. They no longer see the world through the critical ego which divides into either/or, good and bad. But they see the world and everyone in it as fresh and new. Not a projection of their own ideas, but seeing things as they are.
The gospel story of the visitation shows us that this was Mary’s path.
She chose not to be defined by her own view of herself – or others views of her- or her circumstances – but to let go utterly into God and become the person he was calling her to be – the Mother of God’s only Son. To surrender to that love that will not let us go.
So why is all this worth thinking about today, on this feast of a patronal festival?
Because what happens in the ego development of individuals also happens in institutions, in organisations – it happens in churches.
If the false self is the person I think I am, the false church is the church we think we are.
All churches have a view of who they are, and quite often it is not accurate, and quite often it is not the church that God is calling them to be.
And that’s because churches are often as confused about their identity as we are as individuals. They too, tend to do the same things over and over with very little reflection on why. They often have the same defensive attitudes to change as most of us do as individuals. And they are as threatened as we are by the other, by those who are different and who challenge us and make us feel inadequate and wanting.
Richard Rohr again: ‘Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else’
One of the difficulties with all this is that none of it is usually conscious. It goes on in the realms of the group unconscious – below the radar - and so is often not open to scrutiny. We don’t even know we’re doing it.
So what’s the answer? The answer for the church is the same as it is for us as individuals.
Surrender – only in a corporate rather than individual way. Most of us leave this far too late in our lives – sometimes too late.
To find our identity in God as an individual or as a church can only be through finding some way of stopping what we ordinarily do for long enough, and often enough, to allow God to reveal to us who God is. Some sort of contemplative practice – the attentive use of silence - individually and/or corporately – is the only way to heal the unconscious, and to discover who we are in God. To break down the either/or thinking, the superiority thinking. In computer language – to change our operating system.
And that’s what Mary did. Mary pondered all these things in her heart.
And that’s the heart of what a patronal festival is – recognising that we don’t really know who we are – or what God is calling us to – and determining to recommit ourselves to the task of opening ourselves to God that we might know even as we are fully known.