The Grace of Desire
The Rev. Harold E. Masback, III, February 5, 2006
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,a
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
17 One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.f 18 Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus;g 19 but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowdh in front of Jesus. 20 When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend,i your sins are forgiven you.” 21 Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” 25 Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 26 Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”
Our scripture lesson today raises the question of desire. What is the nature of desire? What is the relationship between our heart’s desire and our experience of God, our experience of grace, our experience of faith? These are universal questions, for everyone of us has a heart’s desire.
My kid brother’s heart’s desire was track and field. For many years it was an all-consuming passion – the center of his life in high school, college and beyond. But all good things come to an end, and some time after Craig hung up his spikes, he picked up a set of law books and headed off to law school.
Well, come early September, Craig found himself anxiously sitting through a civil procedure class being taught by the great Yale scholar, Harold Koh. Koh was lecturing from prepared notes on seminal case, when suddenly a student interrupted with a random question about an obscure, and barely related issue. Koh politely accepted the question, and, departing from his prepared notes, launched into a fifteen minute digression on the history of the obscure issue. Decade by decade, case by case, he traced how majority opinions and dissents had evolved over time until the issue had finally been settled in the middle of the 20th century.
Craig was heart-sick. He lined up at the lectern after class, and when his turn came he said, “I don’t know how you did what you just did in class, but if that’s what a lawyer is supposed to do, I know right now I’ll never be able to do it. Seriously, I’m wondering whether I should just withdraw from the school today and save myself the time and money. Koh looked down from the lectern and smiled. You’re Craig Masback aren’t you? Let me ask you this: Who first broke 4:15 in the one mile run. Craig said, “Oh that’s easy, the great Walter George from Great Britain ran 4:12,8 in 1886.” “Who first broke 4:10?” Koh asked. “The great Frenchmen, Jules Ladoumegue, 4:09.2 in 1931, said Craig, “Gunder Hagg of Sweden broke 4:05, Roger Bannister of Great Britain broke 4:00, Herb Elliot of the United States broke 3:55, and John Walker of New Zealand broke 3:50 in 1975.”
Koh’s smile broadened even further. “You see, Craig, you just have to care.” You just have to care.”
“You just have to care.” Most of us have long since internalized this idea in our secular lives and professions. We say today, “the wish is father of the deed” or “be careful what you wish for, for you are likely to get it.” But Jesus was already counseling this as a spiritual truth 2000 years ago. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7-11.]
Our heart’s desire is never a mere emotion, it is a nuclear dynamo of energy that galvanizes our energies, orders our priorities, colors our perceptions, and shapes our destinies. Thomas Merton went so far as to write, “desire is the most important thing in the contemplative life. Without desire, we will never receive the great gifts of God.”
Our Gospel story surrounds Jesus with three groups of seekers, each of them galvanized by a different heart’s desire: the Pharisees, the teachers of the law and the paralytic and his friends. Over there on Jesus’ right you can see the Pharisees. The Pharisees were deeply religious folks. The Gospels are usually pretty tough on them, but they took their religion very seriously. Their heart’s desire was to do their religious duties as perfectly as possible. They wanted to be sure to wear the right prayer shawls, pray at the right times, fast on the right days. If you asked the Pharisees what they were seeking, they would surely tell you they were seeking God, but their heart’s desire was set on the doing, not the seeking. Sometimes you can be so focused on doing religious stuff that you can miss God sitting right in your midst.
Over on Jesus left you can see the teachers of the law. The teachers of the law were deeply religious folks. The Gospels are tough on them too, but they also were serious about their religion. Their heart’s desire was to study the religious law, the Torah as perfectly as possible. They wanted to interpret Torah, teach Torah and apply Torah to questions from daily life. If you asked the teachers what they were seeking, they would surely tell you that they were seeking God, but their heart’s desire was set on the learning not the seeking. Again, you can be so focused on learning religious stuff that you can miss God sitting right in your midst.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law surrounded Jesus, listening attentively as he spoke. You can almost see them sitting back weighing his words. The Pharisees sitting back surveying whether Jesus was doing the right religious stuff, the teachers sitting back assessing whether Jesus knew the right religious stuff. And just as they were all sitting back running their little internal appraisals, you could see these guys struggling up the outside wall to get on the roof. They’re shouting at one another, straining, laboring to haul up this dead-weight body with them as they climb. We hear them clambering across the roof and kind of pacing off some measurement, and then suddenly dust starts flying right inside the room. They’re up there pounding away with hammers and a pry bar. Roof tiles start breaking up, shards falling on our heads. They’ve got a shovel and they’re digging away at the mud and branches that make up the under-roof. Suddenly they break through, daylight pours into our room, and they start lowering their paralytic friend right down through the hole, and right at the feet of Jesus.
Now it’s just as plain as the pile of rubble on the floor these roof breakers haven’t given a moment’s thought to religious manners or rituals. And while we’re not quite ready to assume they’re illiterate bumpkins, it’s pretty clear that religous scholarship doesn’t seem to be their strong suit either. They haven’t given a second’s thought to religious duty or learning, they are consumed with yearning, with desperation, with desire for one thing and one thing only: to experience the healing power of God. We’d be fools to ask them what they’re seeking – their entire being is consumed with seeking their heart’s desire, the desire to be healed by Jesus.
Our Gospel story surrounded Jesus with three groups of seekers, and each of them had worthy aspirations – but only one of them got the blessing. The breakthrough went not to the most practiced, and not to the most learned. The breakthrough went to those who cared the most, the ones who cared the most to experience the presence and power of Jesus.
Now I’m pretty sure nobody here this morning has been breaking through any roofs recently, and I’m not suggesting that climbing up on the pitched roof of the meeting house would do you much good either. But I do believe that this wild little Gospel story has a word of comfort and assurance to speak into most of our hearts.
So often I hear folks say, “oh, I’ve never had an experience of God. Lord knows I’ve wanted one. I’ve wanted one, but I guess I’m just not holy enough or learned enough to get one.” My answer to you my friends is two fold: first, if your heart desires an experience of the living God, then, like the roof breakers, you already have everything you need. And second, if you do feel a longing inside to experience God, then that longing is itself already an experience of the God you seek.
None of us can compel our heart to desire. Can you compel your heart to love a woman you don’t love? Of course not! And neither can you compel your heart to desire God. The God who is all in all is himself the source of your desire, it’s how he draws you into the search. As Blaise Pascal put it, “you would not seek him if you had not already found him.”
Thomas Merton wrote that we have always understood the experience of God to be a gift of grace, a gift we can neither earn nor control. But, Merton wrote, the real mystery is why some people desire the experience of God.” For, as Jesus taught, those who desire the experience will find it. The real mystery of grace, said Merton, is the grace of desire, for it is not we who choose to awaken ourselves. It is God who chooses to awaken us.”
Do you feel a void in your heart, a restlessness for something more, a desire to experience God? Then give thanks to God, for God’s Spirit is already at work within you. Don’t despair that the gift seems incomplete or partial, for the grace of desire is organic, you can always use the little mustard seed of desire you have received to ask God for more. As Saint Theresa of Avila prayed, “Lord, I do not love you. Lord, I do not want to love you. But Lord, I want to want to love you.” In the end, it proved enough. You just have to care.
Would you pray with me? In the 11th century words of St. Anselm of Canterbury, “O Lord our God, grant us grace to desire you with a whole heart, so that desiring you we may seek you with a whole heart, so that desiring you we may seek and find you; and so finding you, may love you; and loving you, may hate those sins which separate us from you, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.