The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Not As the World Gives: A Sermon on John 14:23-29

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, May 1, 2016

“I do not give to you as the world gives.”

Well, there’s the problem right there, isn’t it?

We like how the world gives. When it gives, at any rate.

Because comfort, money, distractions—you know I could write this sermon on a phone while watching a cat video?—yeah, we’re basically ok with how the world gives.

After all, the world is falling over itself to give us what we want.

Not so much what we need, but what we want, as long as we can afford to pay.

I know what some of you are thinking—is this going to be one of those dreary sermons where everything that’s fun is held up as a sin. And the devil, to steal a line from Bernard Shaw, gets to have all the passions as well as all the good tunes?


I’m not going to suggest you scatter ashes all over your brunch so that the taste of your food doesn’t distract you from the contemplation of God.

That would be St. Francis.

And I’m not going to suggest that you should agonize at length over whether your pleasure in enjoying that brunch is sinful, because it doesn’t serve the purpose of preserving your health, it’s simply gratuitous. That’d be St. Augustine, and he was a great example of the reformed rake who may be much more decent than he was in his unreformed days, but is nowhere near as much fun.

No, I’m not going there. But here’s where I’d like to go: When Jesus says he doesn’t give as the world gives, he means that the gifts of God are not conditional.

What we build up, what we are given by the society in which we live, the careers we pursue, those gifts are conditional. Lose a job, and a whole cherished way of life can be stripped from us. Homes, relationships, status—all of these can be lost, because they’re never really ours.

But what is really ours, then?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says it’s peace—“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”

It might help focus our attention on what he’s giving us if we remember where we are in the Gospel. You and I may be six weeks into Easter season, but Jesus is at the Last Supper. He’s washed the feet of his disciples, he’s looking ahead to Judas’s betrayal, and Peter’s, and he’s saying that right there, right then, he is giving them peace.

So, really not as the world gives. Not power, not possessions, not status, not conditional. Something that will get the disciples through the ordeal of the morning, and strengthen them for their journey as an Easter People.


Peace doesn’t mean quiet here, or ease. But it’s hard to define what it does mean. The peace of God, which, according to Paul, surpasses all understanding, isn’t going to be captured in a single homily.

But we can begin to see aspects of Jesus’s gift of peace by watching its effects gift in the lives of the apostles.

Peter and the other apostles weren’t exactly profiles in courage prior to the Crucifixion. When the guards came to take Jesus, they ran away and hid; Peter denied knowing him. Thomas refused to believe the testimony of his sisters and brothers in God that they had seen him.

In their different ways, the Twelve were paralyzed by fear.

But after their encounters with the risen Christ, these unimpressive, deeply frightened disciples all went out and taught openly, defying the authorities. And they did it calmly, good naturedly even—not making scenes, but sharing their truth with all who would listen.

Not afraid anymore, and not with bravado—the false courage that hides fear. They knew who they were, and were going about their Father’s business.

And that self-knowledge and that calm certainty that their following Jesus was the most meaningful thing they could do freed them to communicate that self knowledge and self-acceptance to others—to Steven, the first deacons, even to Paul, who persecuted them until the discovery of his own best self knocked him to the ground. It was the very people he had persecuted who helped him to come to terms with the revolution in his own soul.

They were at peace.

But that peace isn’t that of the world—they weren’t accepted by society, they weren’t rich and respected, they weren’t popular with the Establishment.

What they were is themselves.

In his Confessions, St, Augustine writes, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

When St. Augustine wrote those words he was describing his own experience. This was a man who had tried living for pleasure, tried living a life of the intellect, tried living for others.

None of it worked.

He even tried the life of a religious believer. He’d joined the sect of the Manichees, who believed that the world was divided between the Light—which represented the life of the spirit—and the Dark, which represented the life of the flesh. It was a subtle faith, for educated people. The religious life structured around a parable of guilt over the desires of the flesh.

Which, as someone who was brought up a Long Island Catholic, sounds like old times to me.

But Augustine couldn’t function in that atmosphere. He couldn’t flourish in a faith that required him to embrace only part of himself. And when he learned more about the Christian faith, more about the incarnated God, something in the idea that God could be with us, could be like us, could be one of us, spoke to him with a truth that the subtleties of the Manicheans could not.

That’s because Christ promised integration, not division of the Self.

So many faiths ask us to abandon who we are, to conform to some external standard that has been imposed on us. Be a good consumer, a good employee, a good Democrat, a good Republican, a good Christian—

--oh, yes, the Church can sometimes try to divide us between the Light and the Dark, and keep only the Light. Think of the Prosperity Gospel. Think of anytime the Church or a church has stoked up anger against the other, and let us off the hook, while we cherish our own righteous indignation. We’re being invited to take one facet of ourselves as defining our whole self, and defining that Light against the Other, who is cast as the Dark.

Nice and easy. Christianity on the cheap. I’m OK because you’re not ok. Or I’m ok, because I’m not you.

But what drew Augustine in, why Augustine matters nearly 1600 years after his death, was that he lived today’s Gospel. He was restless with his life—which was a pretty good one, by most standards—until he found himself in God. He found peace, the peace Jesus left with the disciples.

How can we find that peace?

We can begin by not confusing the parts of our lives with the whole. Don’t let the roles we play in various parts of our lives become a mask to hide under. Recognize that there is more to each of us than our jobs, our careers, ourhobbies.

Do you feel restless, dissatisfied?

Good. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” If your heart is restless, you’re on the path.

So be patient with yourself. If we’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’d better have some love for ourselves. And that means patience.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you find yourself impelled to do something different from what you’ve done before. Ten years ago, having just turned 40, I felt myself tugged towards ordained ministry. Here I am now.

As mid-life crises go, it’s been pretty good.

Because the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is trying to teach you something. She’s not pleading on your behalf to some hostile judge or jury. You’re the one she’s arguing with, pleading with sometimes. You’re the one she’s trying to help lead to integration, to wholeness.

If you let her, the Advocate will lead you to “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [1]

And in so doing, lead you to the Peace of Christ, which is not given as the world gives, but can be yours no matter where you are in life.

May the peace of the Lord be with you.



[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC at pp. 118-119.


Claude Scales said...

"The Holy Spirit" "She"

I like that.

Anglocat said...

Thanks, Claude--I do too.