Subtraction—sermon for 18 February 2018—Lent 1
February 18, First Sunday in Lent:
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
We’re still hearing voices.
That same voice that we heard on the first Sunday of Epiphany, the voice we heard last week…it echoes again today.
Noah hears it. Jesus hears it…(maybe we do too).
We’ll hear it once more at the end of Lent…Just as we’re about to enter Jerusalem in triumph. Just as it looks like everything is going to be great! Just before all our hopes get crushed, and we are left with nothing but that empty, black pit—the reality of our denial…our betrayal.
Jesus hears that voice and is immediately driven into the wilderness. From this wilderness he begins a journey—a journey he keeps beaconing us to accompany him on—and we do…a ways…but it’s hard…and we fall, and fail…Because the journey moves from this voice declaring “You are my Child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,”—it moves from being bathed in this glorious proclamation, to a voice in agony, crying from the cross, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me!”
The journey moves from hearing God’s voice, and knowing God’s presence, to knowing only God’s silence…sensing only God’s absence. Of course, there’s more to the story than that…but confronting that absence is a crucial part…
Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German mystic, said: “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” [Source]
God is not found by adding anything, but by subtracting.
That’s what this journey is…it’s a process of subtracting…of letting go…of clearing out what is not needed…and discovering, and holding onto the only thing that is needed.
We have to remember that this is also the journey God takes with us…this is God’s own journey. We heard the story today of how God established a covenant with Noah, and every living creature—(I think that’s really interesting—that early covenant is not just with us, but with every living thing). God establishes a covenant yet remains aloof…somewhat apart from all us creatures. God’s got that reminder in the sky (I think that’s really interesting too…apparently God needs reminders). But you know the rest of the story…and you know that remaining aloof doesn’t work out so well. So God, in Jesus, does something radical. God subtracts. God gives up…God empties…Describing this in a letter to the church at Philippi, Paul says “Though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself,…taking human form…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8).
Jesus emptied himself…God empties God’s self…even to the point of death…even to the point of non-existence…for us…for the sake of all of us creatures…because it’s out of that black pit of nothingness that Easter, and ultimate reconciliation, is birthed.
The spiritual journey is more about subtraction than addition.
There’s a pretty well known Zen story, about a student who goes to seek out a master.
The master invites the student in and offers tea. As the student talks about how excited they are about working with the master…and how influential the master has already been the students life…the master gets the tea pot and two cups…and the student goes on about all their studies, and accomplishments, and struggles…and the master begins pouring the tea…as the student talks the master fills the cup to the brim, and then keeps pouring, and the tea begins to overflow and pours down the sides of the cup and over the table and onto the floor…and the student—still talking—finally realizes what is happening and thinking the master may have lost it says, “Stop. What are you doing? You’re spilling it everywhere.” The master stops. Looks at the tea cup, and then at the student and says…”You are just like this tea cup…you’re already so full of all your own ideas…I can’t teach you anything until you empty your cup.”
The spiritual life is more about subtraction than addition…What do you need to do to empty your cup? What do you need to let go of? What do you need to clear out of your life?
In Lent, as in our whole spiritual life, we begin with that reminder that we and everyone (everything) else is a beloved child of God, and along the journey we shed or lose or deny or betray that belovedness…until we are aware only of God’s absence. God walks this path with us…picking us up when we fall, healing us, teaching us…and emptying God’s self out…for us…relinquishing all the power that God has until all that is left…all that remains…is love.