When Words are not Enough

September 20, 2016 Length: 13:07

"A 'thank you' toward Heaven is nice, but how much more does it mean when it flows from sincerity—from a changing life? The human being says 'thank you' to God by becoming more like him."

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Here is a charming bit of internet philosophy.

The three most important words are: I love you.
The two most important words are: Thank you.
The one most important word is: Sorry.

We’ll come back to that in a while.

Two thousand years of Christian theology has not been all sweetness and light. We have occasionally gotten it wrong by slipping into wrong ideas, rooted in speculation of what God is like rather than actual experience of who he is. For example, some early religious philosophers tried to understand the Creator through excessive contemplation of creation. This excess led to what early Latin speakers called analogia entis, or the analogy of being. It was an attempt to understand God by understanding the world he made.

Understanding how a house is built reveals the mind of its architect. Understanding how a water wheel works reveals the mind of its maker. So, the reasoning went, examining the world with its natural laws and human behaviors, reveals the nature of the God who made it all and what that God is like. But this thought experiment went awry, resulting in heretical ideas about who God is and what he is like. Everything from the notion that God must love violence because the nature he made is violent, or that God is an authoritarian figure whose approval is won by bribes because the world is run by authoritarian figures whose approval is won by bribes.

If you feel some discomfort with this kind of analogy of being, you are not alone. The saints who carried the day tell us that creation reveals that there must be a God, but creation does not reveal anything of what that God is really like. Why? Because there is no similarity between the created and the uncreated. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, saith the Lord,” as quoted by the Prophet Isaiah. “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world, saith Christ,” as quoted by the Apostle John.

For an example of how this transcendence of God frustrates human understanding, we may look at the virtue of gratitude. To the child who’s just been handed a new toy by a relative, the mom says, “What do you say…?” “Thank you.” To the wedding guest who gave a gift, the bridal pair sends a note that says, “Thank you.” To the attorney who just got his guilty client off on a technicality, the criminal says, “Thank you.” To the parents who don’t require their stolen credit card to be paid off, the wayward teenager offers a grudging “Thank you.” In each of these examples, gratitude is understood as something you feel or something you say or something you express. This is good. It is good and right to feel gratitude, to say, “Thank you,” and to express appreciation. This is how the world works. To express gratitude, you speak it.

However, notice also that in each of these examples, no actual change in the person is necessary. The child with the new toy may still be selfish. The bridal pair with the new gift may throw it away. The criminal guilty of the crime is just glad he’s a free man. And the wayward teenager is now thinking about how he can get away with it the next time, without getting caught.

There is something right about saying, “Thank you,” but isn’t there something hollow about it when it comes from insincerity? The insufficiency of words alone, without a reflection in behavior, is what the poet William Carlos Williams was conveying in his very brief poem titled, “This is Just to Say.”

I have eaten
the plums
[that were] in
the [icebox]

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poet says he is sorry, but we sense that he doesn’t really mean it. It’s as if he thinks the words alone, “Forgive me,” should be enough, without any sincere action.

But ask a parent this: How would you prefer your child express thankfulness for all you have done for them? By saying, “Thank you,” but never developing into the kind of person you trained them to be? Or by developing into the kind of person you’ve trained them to be, who also says, “Thank you”? Ask a good attorney or a good doctor or a good nurse: How would you prefer your client or your patient express gratitude for your efforts? By saying, “Thank you,” while remaining criminal in behavior or careless about health? Or by turning away from the harmful path they’re on and toward a better life?

When we look over the vast array of holy Scripture, of prayers and services and hymns of our historic Christian faith, we find very little of what we would call a human understanding of thanksgiving. We don’t spend a lot of time telling God, “Thank you. Thank you. We really appreciate all you’ve done for us. Nice job. We super appreciate it down here.” This is one area where the Creator is not like us creatures. When you and I do something nice for someone, we might want a word of thanks or a card marking the gesture or something nice said or done for us in return. But what happens when, by analogy, we transfer that same attitude to God? We discover that it does not fit him. God is not moved by what holy Scriptures calls “many words.” “And when you pray,” Christ says in the gospel of Matthew, “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

So how do we rightly thank God? How do we properly live our gratitude for all that he has done and is doing for us? What the Divine Liturgy calls “the cross, the grave, the third-day resurrection, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming,” not to mention the daily grace and mercy he extends to us freely. The answer may be found in the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ, found in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 17, on Mount Tabor. The human being thanks God by transfiguring more and more into his likeness. Like a hopeful parent, our Father in heaven wants us to develop into the kind of person he is training us to be. A “Thank you” toward heaven is nice, but how much more does it mean when it flows from sincerity, from a changing life? The human being says, “Thank you,” to God by becoming more like him.

Not long ago, a priest in West Tennessee retired from long years of service, and his congregation hosted a beautiful banquet. Expressions of gratitude filled the place. A lovely video was put together that showed dozens of parishioners expressing their appreciation. It was wonderful. And then the bishop, who had been invited to the banquet, rose and stepped toward the microphone. “These expressions of love and thankfulness are wonderful,” he said, “and for his long years of service, Father should hear them. Father,” he said, turning toward the priest, “we do thank you and we do love you.” Then the bishop turned and looked into the eyes of the crowd, and his tone turned serious. “But I will share with you what every priest wants. There is no greater thanks a priest can receive than to behold his parishioners living the life in Christ.”

Every priest wears a vestment wears a vestment called an epitrachelion. It’s a holy-sounding name that in Greek simply means “around the neck.” At the bottom of this vestment hang small fringes. They are more than decorative for the priest. They are symbolic of the many souls who, over the years, joined their struggle for salvation to his own. Every individual fringe represents an individual soul for which the priest will give account before God at the judgment seat. Over his years of service, the longer the priest wears the stole, the more some of the fringes break off and are lost. “What happened to him?” God will ask. “Why didn’t you do more? What happened to her?” he will want to know. “Why were you so negligent?” Because transfiguration in Christ is all that matters in the next world. It is all that matters in this one.

Through all the love and all the good and the beautiful work unfolding in any parish, including ours at St. Elizabeth’s, there remains an honest truth. If another priest can come and fire your hearts with greater love for God, greater zeal for the faith, greater forgiveness for each other, greater devotion to the hurting, greater experience of the services and sacraments of this glorious treasure of the Church—then he should. If another priest can come and, because of his prayerfulness, invite you more deeply into the mystery of Christ, because of his repentance, inspire you even more toward your own union with God, because of his purity, provide a more shining example of the unconditional love of Jesus—then he should. Nothing in this world matters more than salvation: our personal transfiguration from old to new, from sick to cured. And whether you’re a parent or a friend or a caregiver or a priest, you know in your heart that there is no greater thanks you could receive than beholding those you love welcomed into the kingdom of heaven.

About that charming bit of internet philosophy? Only one thing is needed in all three cases.

How do we say the three most importance words of “I love you”? Transfiguration.
How do we convey the two most important words of “Thank you”? Transfiguration.
How do we express the one most important word of “Sorry”? Transfiguration.

The journey toward our true identity in Christ is one step at a time, one day at a time, one forgiveness at a time, one grace at a time. We stumble, we fall, we rise, we begin again, but let us walk the path, for nothing is more important in this world—or the next.