The World According to Rohr
By Richard Westley
It’s with some trepidation that I come before you this morning since I have to follow Paula, right? She has presented to us this spring and summer some of the very best sermons and reflections we have had the privilege to hear and give witness to. But that’s fine, too, because, as you’ll see, I am depending on another person’s words and insights to buoy me.
When I first began teaching, my colleagues and I had an expression:
“Steal from the best!” This idea is also found among a range of professions, from artists to singer-songwriters to lawyers and business persons. For me, the best pastoral theologian I have encountered is a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr, a humble servant of God who fully embraces the life of Francis of Assissi in all its wonderful implications and writes about these for the benefit of others. Many of you have either read or heard of Richard–calling him by his last name would be artificially formal since I consider him to be a close friend even though we have never met.
This morning I am going to share some of the seminal ideas Richard Rohr has shared with Richard me. In doing so, I know I am depending on someone else to do the heavy lifting of religious edification for me–but that’s okay–I’m stealing from the best.
One of Richard’s first thoughts that really grabbed me, and Paula too (we originally listened to Richard Rohr on cassette tape), is that Nature is the first sacred scripture giving witness to God’s presence in all things. Before there was an Old or New testament thought to be divine revelation, Nature itself and the whole cosmos announced the presence of God in our lives. Every pre-Chrisitan knew this–just ask any Native American or sub-Saharan African or Pacific Islander. What we call their pagan practices were an immediate response to the Divine presence in nature. One implication of this stunning idea is itself stunning: Everywhere and everything is sacred. Pre-Christians (and even many Christians) have failed to understand this. Richard puts it this way:
All religion begins by the making of a false distinction between the holy (the sacred) and the seeming unholy (the profane). Soon a clerical caste, moral distinctions, purity codes, temple systems emerge to keep these worlds defined and apart and to keep us separate from the unholy…This becomes the very business of religion on several levels: it keeps us clergy busy; it keeps the customers coming back, and it is often a very subtle process of the buying and selling of God. It does give us clergy a good job, and most of us run to the occasion–because the crowds like it, for some reason, and we get to feel important as protectors of the sacred, that is, scriptures, rituals and morality. No one has told them any different, for the most part–except Jesus…(who) refuses and rejects his own religion’s distinction between objectively holy and unholy things…There are only unholy hearts and minds for Jesus, but not inherently holy or unholy places, actions or people.
An impressive critique, don’t you agree? And by reason of the Incarnation, Richard goes on to say, there is no truthful distinction between the sacred and profane. There is, however, a distinction between what he terms surface and depth:
If we stay on the fearful or superficial side of the religious spectrum, religion is invariably defined by exclusionary purity codes that always separate things into sacred or profane. God remains distant, punitive and scary. Then our religious job becomes putting ourselves only on the side of “sacred” things (as if we could) and staying apart from worldly or material things, even though Jesus shows no such preference himself.
…(However,) I find that what makes something secular or profane is precisely to live on the surface of it. It’s not that the sacred is here and the profane is over there. Everything is profane if we live on the surface of it, and everything is sacred if we go into the depths of it–even our sin.
To go inside our own mistakenness is to find God. To stay on the surface of very good things–like the Bible, sacraments, ministry, or church–is often to do very unkind and evil things while calling them good. This important distinction is perfectly illustrated by Jesus’s parable of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke.
So, the division for the Christian is not between secular and sacred things, but between superficial and things at their depth. The depths always reveal grace, while staying on the surface allows us largely to miss the point (the major danger of fundamentalism, by the way).
As any good pastor does, Richard reveals so much about how we think religiously versus who we really are spiritually.
Another wonderful Richard attribute is his absolute confidence in speaking directly about what God is like because he knows he participates in the Divine nature. And he expresses this in wonderful ways. For example,
God is never less loving than the most loving person you know. If you are meditating on a Bible text, Hebrew or Christian, and if you see God operating at a lesser level than the best person you know, then that text is not authentic revelation.
Wow! Richard Rohr has given us the means to discern divine revelation from error. No need to go to seminary or get a degree in theology. No need to ask clergy whether a particular Bible verse is valid or not. Just compare what’s going on in the text to the most loving person you know–and I would include any loving person you know. Richard says that if we do that, we can’t go wrong.
And Richard goes on to address particular qualities God has and shares with us all. As he puts it,
When grace does happen, we know that we did nothing to deserve it. It is God’s pure graciousness. So be open to surrendering to such ‘radical grace’. God’s love is never determined by the worthy or unworthy object of love, but only by being true to what God is. We may, at times, be unfaithful or unfaith-filled, but God is always faithful.
God’s faithfulness leads Richard to reveal even more about Divine Selfhood:
God meets us where we are and makes a healing and expanding presence known to us in the exact way we are most ready to experience it. God fills our own hearts in whatever measure we are open to the Spirit, just like any true lover desires to do.
One of the most powerful statements of this idea comes from a colleague of Richard’s named Paula D’Arcy. I have read three separate texts where he quotes it: God comes to you disguised as your life. As Richard often says, just think about that for a moment. We can spend the rest of our lives contemplating, grasping, renewing and coming to terms with such an awesome truth.
Another Divine trait, one which I’ll admit used to embarrass me and which I resisted for a long time, is that God seeks intimacy with us. Richard calls it The Big Secret:
The big and hidden secret is this: An infinite God seeks and desires intimacy with the human soul. Once you experience such intimacy, only the intimate language of lovers describes what is going on for you: mystery, tenderness, singularity, specialness, changing the rules ‘for me’, nakedness, risk, ecstasy, incessant longing and, of course, also, suffering. This is the mystical vocabulary of the saints.
We don’t like to think of love leading to suffering, but God’s Incarnation in Jesus and his death on the cross is deeply connected to Love itself. Richard expresses it this way:
Jesus hung in total solidarity with the world…After the cross we know that God is not watching human pain, as much as God is found hanging with us alongside all human pain. Jesus’s ministry of healing and his death in solidarity with the crucified of history forever tell us that God is found wherever the pain is…This is exactly how Jesus redeemed the world “by the blood of the cross”. It was not some kind of heavenly transaction, or paying a price to an offended God, as much as a cosmic communion with all that humanity has ever loved and ever suffered. If Jesus was paying any price, it was to the hard and resistant defenses around our hearts and bodies.
This is not everyone’s view of the meaning of the cross but I want you to know how much this idea of suffering as cosmic communion has helped me understand one of the central symbols of our Christian faith as well as get through some really difficult times.
I’d like to emphasize one more big theological point Richard Rohr makes and it has to do with his abiding trust in Life’s Great Mystery and how we come to live in it. Richard is a self-professed mystic who reveres other mystics, among whom he names the Apostle Paul, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bergen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux among others–note how four of these named mystics are women. What all mystics have in common is the joy of being intimately known and loved by God. Richard is quite eloquent on this point:
Mysticism is not just a change in some religious ideas or affirmations, but an encounter of such immensity and intensity that everything else shifts in position. Mystics have no need to exclude or eliminate others, precisely because they have experienced radical inclusivity of themselves in something much bigger…The mystics are glad to be common, ordinary, servants of all, and just like everybody else, because any need for specialness has been met, once and for all.
Another of Richard’s key statements of the Great Mystery God reveals to us is encapsulated in the statement Everything Belongs. And this includes our weaknesses and failures:
Until you can forgive and include all of the parts–every part belonging, every part forgiven, even the tragic parts seen as necessary lessons–you cannot come home. The full gift of the final journey is discovering that you are already home. I hope you have seen it in at least some elders in your lifetime (he means us, by the way). They are at home in their bodies, their own lives and their own minds.
When you succeed at your real task…then wherever God leads you, it doesn’t really matter. Home is no longer a geographical place. It is a place where everything belongs, everything can be held, and everything is another lesson and gift. The saint and true elder grow from everything, even and especially their failures.
I don’t know about you, but I see so many true elders in our community here at Union Church. And it makes me glad.
Richard constantly preaches that being held in God by God is the only way we can become fully and authentically who we are. Here again is Richard Rohr in his own words:
I believe that we have no real access to who we are except in God. Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are and less than we are. Only when we live and see through God can everything belong. All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of purity. Apart from taking up so much useless time and energy, this effort keeps us from the one and only task of love and union.
As I said before, Richard Rohr is a personal friend whom I’ve never met. Perhaps you too are beginning to feel this way, knowing always, as Richard does, that he is only expressing God’s highest hopes for us. And so I’ll close with Paula D’Arcy again, along with my hope that you can meditate, as I continue to do, on its mystery and meaning:
God comes to you disguised as your life.
And to this I say Amen.