October 18: “How to Love Yourself”

Leviticus 26:9-13 ; Romans 8:31-39

[Sung in imitation of Justin Bieber:] “Cause if you like the way you look that much, oh baby you should go and love yourself.”        

Loving yourself should be easy, right? You’ve got to live with yourself. But because we are messy inside, it’s not always so easy. And our inability to rightly love ourselves may lie behind a lot of our problems. So I want to talk about it today. Now, loving yourself might sound like the opposite message I just spent many weeks on: leaving behind your ego in mystical oneness with God. But as you’ll see, they go together quite well.

I remember a friend long ago confiding in me: I’ve been told all my life that God loves me. And I know I’m supposed to love and accept myself. But there are things I’ve done in the past, things I got away with and wasn’t punished for. And there are things I did that I’m not proud of. I may not understand why I did them, but I did them and I can’t forget. And even now—I’m no criminal. I’m not an obviously bad person. But I know what a truly good person looks like. I see some of them here at church. I know I’m not one of them. And I have these thoughts that dart through my head—mean thoughts, petty thoughts, selfish, maybe even violent thoughts. I have fantasies that I don’t want to have, but they’re in my head. And I’ve got this habit I cannot master, I cannot break. I tell myself again and again I won’t do it next time, but then I do. And I kind of hate myself for it. But I don’t let on. I don’t disclose my feelings to anyone. I cover up the discomfort I have in my own skin by masquerading in friendly smiles and busy hands. Or I retreat into indifference. But underneath all that, I don’t know how to love myself, because I know myself too well. Telling me I’m forgiven doesn’t work on me. It doesn’t make me a better person. It doesn’t make me love myself. And it’s hard to love others when I don’t love myself. Love has to come from a fullness within, doesn’t it?

Ok, that wasn’t just one friend speaking a long time ago. IT was a little bit of all of us. The Bible tells us that we are good creatures who do God’s will; but in its capacious wisdom and insight, the Bible also sees us deep down for the sad and broken children of God we are, who don’t know how to love ourselves.

Now we’ve been hearing all our lives that God loves us. God accepts us just as we are. It’s actually hard to find a Scripture that says this. The Prodigal Son does, maybe. Our reading from Romans assures us that “nothing can separate us from God’s love,” but it seems to be talking about threats outside of us—“hardship, distress, persecution, famine…”—not our own inward guilt and shame.

But we’ve made this our message: God loves us no matter what. And that inspires some folk to be able to love themselves. But not everyone. Maybe we need to tweak our message for those folks who hear again and again the God loves you, and still they don’t find the deep-down peace of loving themselves. What about you? Hearing about the love of God that, to quote another bad song, is “soft as an easy chair” may make you feel good temporarily, but has it healed you? Or do you go home after church to the same dismal thoughts? I put that as a question because only you can answer it for yourself. I hope I’m wrong.

If you are not fundamentally at peace with yourself, it can come out in all kinds of bad ways. Maybe you feel the need to boost yourself and show yourself better than other people and even put them down. Maybe you let others put you down and can’t shake it off when they do. Maybe you hold on to hurts and grudges, you nurse them because you need an opponent. Maybe you resent others who think they are more successful or better than you. Or maybe you feel inadequate when you compare yourself to others. If you’re not at peace with yourself, maybe you become more inflexible and insist on your own way. Or maybe you let others push you around and don’t know how to stand up for yourself. Maybe you don’t value yourself enough to do what is good for you, and chaos reigns in your life. Or maybe you clamp tight to maintain control, doing everything you can to hold chaos at bay.

We are complicated and messy. The same lack of self-love, of peace with yourself, can manifest itself in so many contrary ways, depending on everything else that went into us. Sermons aren’t great for addressing this problem, because our challenges and hang-ups are so individual and personal. Counseling is better, and some of you have shared freely with me and I really appreciate it.

But what I can do in a sermon is look at the ideas and assumptions that may be causing us problems. So what is it about our ideas and assumptions that makes the words “God loves you” sometimes ineffective? Powerless? Why do those words often just bounce off of us like a beach ball full of air? They should be sweeping us off our feet; healing us; changing us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Because life is complicated, there are a lot of reasons. For instance, if we hear “God loves us,” but we aren’t loving one another, then those words will sound empty. But at one church I attended, the minister at the passing of the peace told us to greet one another, saying God loves you and so do I. Dare we try that? I won’t, But why do we resist?

So much of our self-love has to do with our parents. Were you raised with a rock-solid love and stability and affection from your parents? If not, there’s so much going on in the world that will make you feel judged and inadequate and not loved. It’s hard to replace the security we should get from early parental love. Again, counseling and therapy can be really helpful.

But is there a general insight I can share with all of you that might help? Here goes. God loves us. What do we mean by love? Do we mean admiration? Liking someone a whole lot? If someone loves me, is it because deep down I am worth it? (I bet Justin Bieber thinks so.) Does it mean I am unmarred by flaws? If so, then if I fail, if I show myself to have flaws, then the one that loves me might not love me anymore.

We expect our parents to love us no matter what. But is that because they look past our flaws, or remain happily ignorant of them? Don’t parents sometimes say, “No matter what happens, you will always be my beautiful baby.” That can be a limit to parental love. As we grow and become more aware of our flaws, it can be hard to share that side of ourselves with our parents. One of those flaws, of course, is a very normal resentment that we carry toward our parents. (We were all teenagers once, right?) Usually it is easiest for both parents and children to pretend that simply isn’t there.

But that leaves a gap between parent and child, an inevitable gap. Sure mom or dad love me, but they don’t know the real me. If love for us means holding on to an image of innocence and purity from my childhood, then it only penetrates so far. Because we carry conflict and trouble deep within our very being. We can never remain innocent and pure. Rooted in our biology are drives to self-assertion and survival and competition; this is part of the fabric of nature. And then there are all these forces of conflict inherent in human society, every human society. (Freud is really insightful about all of this.) There’s a lot built into us that wants to react with anger and violence; we want to assert ourselves at the expense of others; we are going to have uncontrollable thoughts that are disturbing or malicious. We didn’t have these thoughts as babies, although babies are very self-assertive: it’s called crying. We didn’t choose to have aggressive and conflictual impulses. But this is how we are, and it goes all the way down into our deepest selves. And as we mature we become more aware of all of these murky feelings residing in us. Not everything in us is beautiful and good.

But if we think of love as admiration for what is beautiful and good, then we either look deep within and feel we cannot be rightly loved, or we imagine that love must ignore the murky stuff within. And then that love looks superficial. Our parents and friends are good at loving our best selves. But that can leave us feeling deeply alone. Nobody knows the real me.

Maybe it will help if we think differently about love. Love doesn’t mean a blanket approval, or a looking past everything in me that is not beautiful and perfect. It certainly can include celebrating what is beautiful in us. But fundamentally loving each other means something different: simply that we belong to one another. God doesn’t say to us, you are so wonderful, so perfect; don’t ever think there’s anything wrong with you, or that you should change. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” There’s no love like that to be found in the Bible, because that’s not God’s love. Of course we should change. Of course we should be truer to the good in us and leave behind what is false and petty. God’s love is a fire that calls us higher and higher, and that heals us because it changes us.

But fundamentally, God’s love is an unchanging belonging. God declares it to Israel: “I will be your God, you will be my people.” I’m yours, you’re mine. That’s both the fundamental origin of love, as between parent and child, and it is the maturity of love between spouses. That God loves us doesn’t mean we’re so hot or awesome or got straight As. God doesn’t admire us. God simply chose us to belong to God. In our Romans reading, Paul sees election as inherent to God’s love: “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” To understand God’s love, we need to get comfortable with being chosen. God instituted this bond, this mutual ownership by which God is ours and we are God’s, and all of this mutual belonging of God and humanity comes to a head in Christ Jesus.

So if you look deep within and don’t like everything you see, or if you can’t keep those murky thoughts at bay when you lie awake at night, and you say, surely I’m unlovable—then how can you be sure of God’s love? You’ll not going to believe me. By your baptism. And if you aren’t yet baptized, you can be sure of God’s love, sure that you belong to God, just because you are here, listening to God’s claim on you as his very own. It’s a done deal and there’s no going back: you belong to God. And no misdeed, no disordered or nasty thought, no bad habit, no pettiness or small mindedness, no shame or resentment weighing you down from the past, no misplaced pride, no hatred you bear for others, is going to break that mutual belonging between you and God. And that, by the way, is the love that frees you from your ego and allows you not just to belong to God but to be God’s own presence and power.

So there you have it: God loves you. But just be aware of something else. God’s love is a belonging love, not a “everything you do is just perfect, don’t ever change” kind of love. Because we belong to God, God will also judge us. When we are ready, God will show us that we are not yet what we need to become, for the same reason: because we belong to God. If you don’t believe me, keep reading in Leviticus 26.

Mysticism final (10/11): “Jesus, the Mantra”

 (Ezra 3:8-13; Romans 10:5-13)

         I have a confession: I never liked this verse in Romans. Everything in Romans before this passage is so profound, and I think backs up what I’ve been saying all along in this series on mysticism: that the essential meaning of placing faith in God is to let go of your ego, and to lodge everything that you are in Christ, and through him, in God. Freed from your ego, your usual entrapment in me and mine, you are able to love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself. And this is the mysticism of faith.

But then we get this verse: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That’s the line that always stuck in my craw. So is the name Jesus now just a password? When we get to heaven, as if arriving at a speakeasy, Peter will slide open the little window and ask, “password?” And if you say Jesus, you’re in. But those in other religions I guess will be excluded. Nothing else about you matters, only whether you know the right name.

My friend Peter told me a story of an evangelical-oriented man who crossed the ocean and rode a bike around the country roads and rice fields of China. And his mission was this: as he rode, he would shout “Jesus,” so people could hear the name. (And therefore have no excuse, I suppose.) If that’s what Paul is talking about, then no thank you.

And how would you reconcile this password-Jesus with the message in so much of the Bible that tells us salvation is all about what you do for others. One of the best passages is what we heard last week from Matthew 25. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” Even if you didn’t know you were doing it for Jesus! I will repeat what I said last week: especially for those of us who live in comfort, who are busy striving for success, who enjoy the respect of many because of our savoir-faire and good manners and white skin, one of the best ways to escape from your ego is to step away from our privilege and stand with the poor and marginalized. It is good for your soul. And we should all be grieving the temporary stop to Lance Humphrey’s ministry, Cathedral in the Light, because of covid concerns. That was our main chance to eat and pray with the kind of people Jesus likes to be with. Let’s pray that the Cathedral ministries can soon come back safely. (And wouldn’t it be nice to share some chicken pie with them?)

So if your daughter or son should decide to go into a career that involves solidarity with those in need and forgoing success to help them, I urge you to give thanks and bless their choice. What does it profit someone if they should gain the whole world but lose their soul? But not all of us can take up such a career, or we haven’t, anyway. And then, all of us grow old and can no longer do as much to help those in need.

And, anyway, if the best spiritual medicine is helping others, why are we wasting time in worship? And prayer? Why do we bother with maintaining this temple? Surely the heart of our life together as a church has something to do with freeing us from our ego so that we can be one with Christ and one with God. So assuming we really want to be free from our ego, how can we make that happen?  

I should be honest. Prayer and meditation techniques are not something I’ve studied in depth. Some of you have found methods of prayer and meditation that work for you; please share them with me.

But I’ve learned a few things. Less is more. Repeating something simple is a good technique, one used in many religions. Take a favorite verse from the Bible, and just repeat it slowly out loud, with pauses in between, over and over again. Or try what is called the “Jesus prayer:” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is an ancient prayer from the Eastern church. But let’s just try repeating that a few times. …

Our minds need something focused and powerful to throw us out of our normal self-centered patterns of thought. You don’t have to grovel in shame. The tag, “a sinner,” was added later; you can omit that if you like. You could swap it for, “your beloved.” Whatever takes you out of this [being turned in] and gets you flowing out. Whatever takes you out of your usual self-doubts, anxieties, resentments—you know it’s working when you stop feeling all that.

Here’s another tip: use your senses. I think psychedelic drugs bring about mystical states in part because they intensify our sense perception. Ordinary things suddenly seem extraordinary. So, don’t do the drugs. But use something sensual as a focus. Hold a cross in your hand, recall the crucifixion for what it was. And then repeat something like Galatians 2:19: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Spend five minutes each day repeating that and see what happens.

Do it every day, same time, same place. Ritual is good. We congregationalists have a bias against ritual and sensual objects—that’s Catholic, we think. No, it’s every religion that ever existed until Protestants decided you are supposed to find God simply by sitting still and not falling asleep. Nonsense. Use the water of baptism. Use food, and make every time you eat bread and take the cup into communion. But by all means use the cross, which we rightly hold as the primary symbol of God’s self-giving and our own losing ourselves in God.

Because the cross brings us before the reality of death. If our society were able, we would deny death altogether, because it’s such a downer; it’s so bad for business. We can hardly face up to covid. We would very much like to believe that I and my projects and choices are of permanent importance. And so the centrality of the ego becomes unshakable. All that matters in life is what I make of myself, what I can accomplish.

The way we invest everything in our achievements is being writ large right now in politics, of course. Everything, supposedly, is hanging on this election. The future of the whole world depends on my party winning. The glory of having so much at stake seems to thrill us, but then it’s really disempowering too, because there’s not much I as an individual can do about it. I get my one vote. Well, is your one vote and all your projects and achievements really enough to find meaning in life?

It is tough medicine, but at some point we must face the reality that everything we know and do, everything we control and that controls us, is mortal. It perishes. We will be forgotten. I have only a vague sense of who my great-grandparents were. I don’t expect to fare any better. This ego that I’ve put so much time and energy into building up and winning attention for, it will cease. So will the organizations and institutions I care about. This building will not stand forever. What would you experience, I wonder, if you were to meditate on the “falling steeples” that we sung about earlier? Our highly-functioning American democracy is a blessing of creation for which so many labored and died, but it will not last forever. It’s impermanence feels more real than ever before.

The point isn’t to give up on who you are and your work, nor on this country, and certainly not on the church that we currently are. But there is an undeniable truth to this meditation. And if that truth can help us let go of a false attachment to me and mine, as if these are what will save me, these are forever—then this kind of meditation can be very powerful.

The goal is not to realize that nothing matters, nothing endures. Now, I can’t speak for what will happen a billion years from today. But let’s return for a moment to the name Jesus. It’s not a magical name, a password to heaven. Jesus is an ordinary name. But Jesus the Christ stands for one person who showed for all time what it looks like to be united to the eternal God, here and now in the flesh. And that shape of being united with God became the basis for a people, an organization, a community, a tradition, that is the largest religious body in the world, larger than any other nation. That’s the church. (It’s very flawed, don’t get me wrong. And I’m not saying that the size of the church is proof of its greatness.) Who else can you name that has so attained, especially by giving up himself to rejection and death, such a union with the eternal? And this name, and the individual it stands for, and everything he showed us and stands for, is ours to confess. This name that has endured even death is right here, on your lips. To confess that Jesus is Lord just means my ego, my identity, is lodged in this other name. Not in my own. And believe it or not, that’s really liberating. I can honestly say I have no desire to be Bill Wright for all eternity. I’m pretty tired of me already. I’m still very attached to my loved ones and to all of you. But I’m about ready to give up me. Which doesn’t mean nothing matters, nothing is left. It means my whole little being can do nothing better than speak of the glory of the name Jesus.

I’ve even started wondering recently how important my mystical experience is. I still think it’s something for you to strive after, something that can press you further in your spiritual journey. But what is better for getting over yourself than confessing with your lips and believing with your heart that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead? Amen.

Mysticism series (10/4): “Starts and Stops to Mysticism”

Psalm 73:1-12, 21-28; Matthew 25:31-46

         There is a closeness with God that we can and do experience under the right circumstances. It is mystical experience. Mystical comes from a Greek verb which means to shut the mouth or close the eyes. And that is fitting, because we defined a mystical experience a few weeks ago as one that is so overwhelming we don’t know what to say or to do. We saw that Isaiah and Paul and others in the Bible had an overwhelming experience of God that left them not sure of what to say or do, even though they went on to say and do much in the name of God among their fellows.

Much of what we do in church involves talking a lot, like I’m doing. God help me! And doing a lot, like the ways we help each other and help our community, like our food drive today. And so it’s easy for us to get in the habit of thinking that church is all about this stuff we say and do. And it is, but ultimately it’s not. It is the being, the reality of God beyond us, which is what church is finally all about. The things we say and do have something to do with God, they reflect or participate in God’s being, because God is gracious and embraces who we are in our human smallness. But what we say and do is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a massive, mysterious reality to God that we never see, and we don’t know how exactly to describe, and precedes all our saying and doing. But it’s upon that massive iceberg of God that we float. Our spiritual life and our whole attitude toward life will be greatly aided if we can be in touch with that massive, unseen depth that is the God who invisibly underlies us.

I’ve shared my thoughts these past few weeks about how mystical experience works. There are many paths that lead to mystical experience. It shows up in many different religions, and is colored differently in each one. It shows up variously in Christianity: there’s the mysticism of nuns, monks, and others who practice an ancient contemplative path in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. There’s the born-again experience of evangelicals today. There’s the speaking in tongues and dramatic slaying in the Spirit by Pentecostals. And there’s a quieter sense of God’s nearness that is more typical of churches like ours. But even artists and scientists who aren’t religious at all talk about having breakthroughs and moments of realization in which they no longer feel like themselves. And I mentioned users of psychedelic drugs who report achieving a cosmic consciousness.

Ok, this mystical crew is kind of motley. We need to be comfortable admitting that there is a similar kind of experience people have that we can call mystical, but still the paths that lead into them and out of them, back into normal life, often remain very different. But I tried to identify the common element: when you have a mystical experience, whatever path got you there, you find your ego disappearing. Your normally firm grip on who I am and what is mine is loosened. Loosening that grip on me can allow you to feel a deeper oneness with God—you kind of sink into that submerged part of the iceberg. And it can also allow you to connect more deeply with others, because there’s no me getting in the way. And it unlocks an amazing potential for creating a loving community, because it’s not about me anymore, it’s about us.

Now, I’m still waiting to hear about your experiences. Maybe you’ve felt that loss of ego. Maybe your closest moments with God looked very different. Whatever you’ve experienced is helpful for me to hear—and you can keep it anonymous if you want. I’ve only rarely experienced this loss of ego and the great love and joy that comes with it, when it’s connected to a faith in God’s love.

But I know that this mystical capacity is already with us. Mysticism isn’t something only for people in robes chanting on a mountain peak. It’s already a part of our church.

I know some of you have had moments in your life when you realized you couldn’t make it alone. You needed God to pull you through. You needed God to walk with you and bear you up. Not doing alone is just another way to say, I can’t go through life as an isolated ego. I need that unseen iceberg to ride on.

And someone shared with me the phrase, “Let go, let God.” You ever hear that? The “let go” part means exactly to let go of your ego, you will, your desire to be in control. Have you ever come up upon the limits of your ability to be in control in life? It can lead you to despair, to panic—or to turn things over to God. Now, turning things over to God can mean different things. But that loosening of the ego is genuinely mystical, and I bet many of you have felt a great sense of relief and refreshment and new life when you stopped trying to be in control.

And I’m sure you have experienced something of this in prayer. For Christians, the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is a paradigm of prayer, a kind of perfect example. We as creatures bring our desires and concerns before God, as Jesus brought his most basic desire to live, to be spared a terrible death. But then he says, “If it is not possible, then not my will, but thine be done.” There’s the release of ego, and the submerging of yourself into the greater reality of God. And so at the heart of our prayer life is a release of ego: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

The groundwork for mysticism is laid among us. Many of you get it already on your own terms; it is set deeply within our prayer life, our baptism—dying to self, rising to Christ; and our communion, when you are made one with Christ and one with each other. So why haven’t the testimonials been pouring in? I can’t speak for you, but why have my mystical experiences been so few and far between? I think few people in our church will say that there’s no room to improve our spiritual life. And it could well be that many of us have never felt especially close to God, and certainly not so much that we lost our ego or were so overwhelmed we didn’t know what to say or do.

We will be tempted to blame God: “I guess God just didn’t choose to zap me with a mystical experience.” I don’t buy that. I don’t think God zaps anything, probably. I believe God works through nature, through human history, and in and through my soul, not around them. I believe God works through God’s own creation, rather than bypassing what God has made to intervene directly. You may not agree; we’d have to have a long conversation about that. But if you believe God can intervene whenever and wherever God wants, then you’re left with an uncomfortable question: why doesn’t God do so more often? And so it’s hard not to blame God.

But let’s not blame ourselves too quickly either. I have no doubt that I have held myself back from God, because I like owning my own life. (As if God wants to take it away!) But my experiences of closest union with God have been the most beautiful, joyful moments of my life. So why should I want to hold back? There’s not much reason to.

So rather than choosing to hold back, I suspect we have been seduced away by the “world,” to put it simply. But we are complicated creatures. In my case, I think I stepped away from God’s embrace because I was committed to becoming a writer and scholar. Not the worst thing to be; I want to influence the direction of Christianity and build up the faith of the church. But do you know how hard it is to be a selfless, egoless writer? You have to get your name out there! You have to show why the other 10,000 books on my subject are wrong or at least inadequate, and the world needs me and my book to understand God truly. There are ways that training to become a scholar makes you humble, but it also fills you with ego and ambition.

But this is true with just about every institution in our society. We are trained from early on to make a name for ourselves, to build up value in ourselves by getting good grades and accumulating “valuable” experiences. Just about every kids movie or book is about discovering your hidden power or potential and succeeding in your destiny. And we are attracted to competitive sports where there is a clear winner and loser. We are a competitive, capitalist society, no doubt about it. And that has produced many impressive achievements. But competition does not make for mystical experiences. Competition builds up the ego, or makes you feel like a loser—either way, it does not take you out of yourself. When has success ever made you feel one with God and with all humanity? When has the wealth and comfort that comes with success made you feel one with God and with humanity? It can make you grateful, but not egoless.

The human spirit is not always and everywhere the same. We should realize that living in the kind of society we do—competitive and ambitious—comes with many benefits, but also spiritual costs. You may wonder why young people in your family do not always take to church as easily as to sports, or the arts, or entertainment. Well, those interests play into our competitive system much better. A church that teaches you to give up your life to love your neighbor does not. We’re so uncool.

I’ll conclude next week with sharing what little I know about spiritual practices—things that you can do to prepare yourself for mystical loss of ego. But I don’t want you to be naïve. There is no quick and easy self-help fix to our lack of spiritual experiences. But it has to include getting in touch with the opposite of success: with suffering, with poverty, with hunger. Our mission projects like Cathedral in the Light have given us some of our most powerful spiritual experiences. We’ll see that we don’t do these things just because they help others; they are necessary for our own souls.

Mysticism (9/27): “Naked Before God”

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-13 ; Matthew 18:1-5

         I am continuing my series on mysticism today. I’ll get to that. But today is Ingathering Sunday, a little later than usual in this year of weirdness. But we are taking today to mark the end of summer—you wouldn’t know it from the weather—and our return to the vigorous days of autumn. For that reason, Ingathering marks the official beginning of our Sunday School year, and after the sermon we will bless our teachers and students.

         So we normally turn our attention today to what our young ones need to learn to become like us wise adults. We often think of education as stuff for kids. We adults are educated, kids are not yet educated. But our Scripture readings today make me wonder about that. They make me think that maybe Sunday School isn’t where we transmit our knowledge to the younger generation, at least, it’s not only that. Maybe instead it’s where our children enjoy their own excellent and meaningful relation with God, a relationship that in many ways is more complete and perfect than the one adults enjoy. Isn’t that something like what Jesus is saying? He doesn’t tell the children: you must become like adults to enter the kingdom of God. You must graduate from Sunday school, at which time we will welcome you to adult worship.

Just the opposite. “Truly I tell you, unless you [adults] change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Maybe we should spend our time in adult worship trying to undo whatever it is we’ve gotten wrong as adults so we can be re-admitted to Sunday School.

What does Jesus mean, exactly? What is it about being a child that makes one fit for the kingdom of heaven? The only thing he mentions specifically is “becoming humble like this child.” That’s an important clue I’ll pick up on later. But since Jesus doesn’t say much more, we tend to fill in his praise of children with whatever romantic notions we carry about childhood: a time of innocence, purity, cuteness. We use childhood as a symbol of the natural condition from which we are now estranged. By the way, I don’t think children appreciate being made into our symbols. If you hang out with children for very long, you soon realize they don’t like when we see them as cute, or innocent, or pure. They like being seen as they are. Just take that hazy screen that you see childhood through, and set it aside, so you can see and listen to this person right in front of you. That’s my advice on being with children.

But there is something different about children that we need to respect. I think that is the same message we get from the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. A lot of the teachers in Christian tradition thought of Adam as a guy who had it all and blew it, a fully-formed adult who couldn’t resist temptation, and so earned God’s curse for the rest of us. I think there’s a better way to read this story. Adam stands for us. His name means “the human.” The story of Adam in the garden is the story of how we go from an easy closeness with God to a troubled distance from God. And this story largely corresponds to our growing from childhood to adulthood. Other people have suggested this. But my initial clue that this is about childhood comes when the man and his companion gain the knowledge of good and evil, and the first thing that happens is they know they are naked, and immediately they find something to cover themselves up.

Now, the ancient Israelites were very careful about nakedness, unlike some other ancient people. Remember Noah getting drunk and passing out all exposed? (You been there too?) His good son averts his eyes and comes in to cover him up. For an Isralite, you don’t want to be naked, even in front of your own children. But they must have recognized that little kids just don’t care. Good luck trying to keep a 2, 3, or 4 year old properly dressed all the time. They just love to be naked sometimes. Isn’t it great! You get some great pictures as a parent. But what are you going to do with them? Our culture also has become much more cautious about naked children, with good reason.

When we run naked, we are just joyfully expressing ourselves, lost in exuberance. It probably just feels good. Years ago, my little nephew Will got home from church when we were there for a summer visit, flung himself on the floor and pulled down his pants. My brother asked, “Will, what are you doing?” And he said, “Dad, I need air.” Air is good.

What is going on in our young human minds when we hit that threshold at age 4, 5, or 6, and we don’t want to be seen naked anymore? It’s a very dramatic change that every parent notices. The author of our Genesis story must have spent some time thinking about that.

I think we suddenly realize that others can see us. We can be judged by others. We are accountable to others. There are dress codes that we can adhere to, or fail to, causing us shame. I bet you’ve had a dream where you are naked or somehow wearing something really inappropriate. And it starts to dawn on you, Hmm, I should probably put something else on. It is like the dawning of the knowledge of good and evil, and I’m realizing that I’m in violation of the codes.

Let me tie this in to what we’ve been talking about the last few weeks. Last week I talked about how the loss of ego is so central to mystical experiences. In the times of our greatest closeness to God, we stop being so aware of me and mine. We are suddenly in life directly, taking it all in without our ego in the way, feeling close to nature and to other human beings in a way we usually don’t, because we have this ongoing awareness and chatter in our minds about, what kind of person do I want to look like? What are they going to think of me? Oh, I haven’t forgotten what she said to me, 8 years ago.

That’s all ego chatter. Some of it is useful and necessary at times, a lot of it is unhealthy for us, separating us from others, getting in the way of appreciating life—then it’s downright sinful. I mentioned that brain scientists just 20 years ago came up with a theoretical description of this brain chatter. They now call it the Default Mode Network. It’s a network of brain regions that produces all our reflection and self-evaluation, including my sense of how others might see me.

They have found that the Default Mode Network isn’t fully formed until adulthood. One study found significant development occurs between 10 and 13. Such a critical age, is it not? When suddenly a youth can become very quiet, reserved, turned inward. Hard to connect with. And very subject to peer pressure. It’s also the age we start to see depression become common; little kids almost never get depressed. For most of us, our happiest memories are from childhood. Before the Default Mode Network kicks in, a child can run naked and not care what anyone thinks. (A child can also break rules and not see it as a question of good or evil.)

I’m not sure exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said to his disciples, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But being freed from our adult egos might fit. We need to escape from the narrowness of ego that makes everything about me. Note that Jesus doesn’t say you must look down on yourself, realize what a worm you are. You must be humble like this child, he says; humble in a way that you just can’t be bothered thinking about yourself and obsessively evaluating yourself. And then you will really be ready to welcome another as that one is, not as a chance to look at yourself in the mirror of this person. This is our ticket to really enjoying life and loving others. But you have to change and become if you really want the kingdom of heaven. Let’s talk next week about how.

Mysticism (9/20): “What Makes an Experience Mystical?”

Isaiah 6:1-8 ; Second Corinthians 12:1-10

         So, news flash: we live in a time of anxiety. Corona virus, a contentious reckoning with racism, and the specter or disorder and violence hanging over our approaching election. We should be thinking of ways we can respond as a church to bring healing and calm and to defuse tensions in our community. But each of us should begin with finding peace within; we have in our faith the greatest source of peace and assurance. Patricia said to me the other day: “I don’t see how anyone can make it through life without a spiritual grounding.” Of course, there are some really nutty religious people; but we know how our centeredness in God has carried us through hard times.

         And that’s why I’m talking about mysticism. (Well, ok, I’m working on a book on it too.) Mysticism is a less familiar word for the most interior, personal side of our spiritual life. When I say mysticism, you may think of crystals and new-agey stuff. But let’s just quick define mysticism: it’s about the times when the presence of God is so personally overwhelming that you don’t know what to say or do; you just marvel and take it in. And there’s nothing new-agey about that; mysticism is is all over the Bible. We mentioned Moses’ shining face. We also read about Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple. Now we think of the mystical union with God or presence of God as being suffused with love. But Isaiah’s vision of God is suffused with God’s holiness, God’s overwhelming justice. And just as Moses is sent back down the mountain, so Isaiah is sent out to bring a hard word to his people.

         Isaiah’s experience of God is mystical. He experiences a presence of God so overwhelming that he doesn’t know what to say or do, but the deadlock he finds himself in before God is broken by God’s charge to go and do. Our worship should be like that; we should settle for nothing less.

         We are familiar perhaps with Paul’s conversion experience as described in Acts—he’s knocked off his horse, blinded, and hears the risen Christ calling him. But here in 2 Corinthians we get Paul’s own description of some very profound spiritual experience he had, and it’s totally mystical. He is caught up to the realm of God. He can’t say if he was taken there bodily or in a vision. And he hears things that are not to be told—mysteries, secrets. Notice how hesitant Paul is to talk about this. He’s annoyed that the troublesome Corinthians have forced him to pull out all the stops. He prefers not to talk about his dazzling, secret experiences; he’d rather boast in his weaknesses, for this is where we find the power of Christ. There’s much more we could say about that.

         Now maybe a few of you have had experiences like Paul and Isaiah. I haven’t. Last week I described my rather tame mystical experience when I was 16. That’s probably more common. Today I want to try to figure out today what’s happening to us when we have a mild mystical experience, if not something more dramatic like Paul and Isaiah.

         I recently read an interesting book by the excellent journalist, Michael Pollan: How to Change Your Mind. Anyone read it? It’s actually all about psychedelic drugs. Pollan is a very secular, skeptical guy who goes on a quest to try magic mushrooms, LSD, and something called “the toad,” to see if he could have the kind of meaningful spiritual experience that he’s never had, but that users of these drugs report having. Along the way, he examines how these drugs are being used to treat depression, addiction, and end of life anxiety. These are interesting applications that need to be studied with careful scientific rigor. But the book left me with no greater interest in taking these illegal drugs, especially for spiritual purposes. While the people he interviews report having amazing feelings of being lovingly united with the cosmos—and there is truth in these experiences, no doubt—they have a very limited view on religion. Religion for them is about private experiences, and Pollan never questions that. But I have come to believe that religion is about more than private experiences—if that’s all you want, then stay home and take these drugs. More than that, religion is about how you live your whole life, and even more so religion is about community. You don’t get community from a pill. It takes commitment, and coming together around a shared tradition, and it takes the difficult practice of loving real people, especially when you disagree. Isn’t it, after all, easier to love the cosmos in your head than to love real people sitting around the table at a board meeting?

         Michael Pollan, by the way, ends up having some very potent experiences using psychedelic drugs in a carefully guided way. He comes out appreciating much more what people see in them, and what mystics have been talking about for a long time before these drugs became popular. But he is not convinced that he has found God or some cosmic consciousness in these experiences, and I respect him for that. Instead, he thinks that the most important effect of these drugs is that they temporarily dissolve the ego—that sense of me as a separate entity who has self-control and self-responsibility. Let me quote Pollan:

Of all the …effects that people on psychedelics report, the dissolution of the ego seems to me by far the most important and the most therapeutic. …Consider the case of mystical experience: the sense of transcendence, sacredness, unitive consciousness, infinitude, and blissfulness people report can all be explained as what it can feel like to a mind when its sense of being, or having, a separate self is suddenly no more. [During one of his trips Pollan sees his ego spread over the universe like paint.] Is it any wonder that one would feel one with the universe when the boundaries between self and world that the ego patrols [this is me, that’s not me] suddenly fall away? …When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more open-hearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life” (389-90).

         Now, isn’t that what we should be going for? Taking some drugs did this for Michael Pollan, at least temporarily. And without detracting from what an amazing thing this mystical loss of ego is, the fact that a drug can bring it on kind of de-mystifies it. It can connect us better with God and neighbor, but it’s still something happening in our brain.  

One of the most interesting things in the book is that he explores recent brain science that is trying to figure out how these drugs did this to him. He comes across scientists who think they have identified where in the brain we find this thing that Pollan calls the ego. They call it the Default Mode Network. It’s the default because it is what is always running, even when we are not responding to external stimuli. Especially when all else is quiet, our brain turns its attention to inward activities like self-reflection, mental time travel or day dreams, imagining things about yourself, moral reasoning or the operation of your conscience, and trying to imagine the thoughts of others. Brain scans show a network of brain regions lit up, taking stock of myself, when all else is quiet. The default mode network is what is buzzing busily when you are lying awake at night, thinking to yourself: wow, remember that first kiss! Or: should I have said that? I must have looked like a schmuck. Or: What if I stood up and told everyone how I really feel? I bet they’d finally fall in line.  And you can spend hours letting that default mode network do its thing.

         But it’s not only in the middle of the night; the default mode network is usually quite busy, governing the rest of our brain. We are constantly filtering reality through this self-reflective buzz. And the more active our default mode network, the more everything we see and hear and every conversation we have is really just about me. Pollan calls the ego “that stingy, vigilant security guard [who] admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality.”

Now, brain scans show that these default mode network brain regions are quieted or shut down by psychedelic drugs (and some forms of meditation, apparently).  And Pollan finds being relieved of the activity of this default mode network, the ego, incredibly refreshing—his fear, resentments, and insecurities are suddenly gone. What Pollan and the brain scientists are talking about with the ego and default mode network is really the same thing St. Augustine, that great 4th century theologian, described as the sinful self being curved in on itself.

         I don’t think we can or should ultimately dissolve our ego. But there’s no question that much of the activity of this default mode network is not good for us. That activity may be telling us how great we are, but just as likely, we are worrying about how inadequate we are, or how others disapprove of me, or how I can never make up for that mistake I made. There’s a healthy and good way to employ your default mode network; but you may need to bust it down first. And so much of the Gospel message is saying precisely that: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

         What Pollan and these brain scientists are describing matches perfectly with the very particular feeling I had during my mystical experience at 16. Maybe you’ve felt the same thing, and it changed your life as much as it did mine. Write it down for me! I’ve never had that feeling again with such power and presence; but it has stayed with me. Let’s work in the next few weeks on how to open ourselves for God to free us of our self-reflective brain chatter so we can see clearly and flow out to our neighbor in love.

Mysticism series: “Sharing Experiences” (9/13)

Acts 19:1-6 ; 1 Corinthians 2:10b-16

You regulars know that I put a premium on the Word of God. Not just the Bible as written, but on our shared language and tradition that gives us a shared access to God, and shared accountability. We must rely on this Word to find our common identity and make decisions together. I don’t think we should come to board meeting and say, I had a personal revelation last night. I can’t describe it to you, but now I know we should divest our stock holdings.

But this series on mysticism is going a different direction. When we talk about our inner spirituality, it’s inevitable that the Spirit takes first place. Because the spirit works uniquely in each of us. I can use the Word to guide you to the Spirit, but I can’t experience the Spirit for you. The gifts of God’s spirit are spiritually discerned, as Paul puts it. So we must attend to our inner experience to understand the spirit.

In that spirit, I invite you into a brief meditation. Talking about mysticism only gets us so far; we need to taste it and take the Word into ourselves.

Meditation. Recall when you most felt the presence of God. (If never, don’t panic. You don’t have to be a mystic, but then you should rejoice that others around you have that gift. And it might come to you yet.) Recall when you most felt the presence of God or of something uncanny, some extraordinary presence that you didn’t have a name for. Go back to the time and place. Recall what was going on in your life. Recall the feeling.

How old were you? Was it a calm time in life? Or were you suffering? In trouble? Not sure where to turn. I bet it was more likely there than when everything was going well and the world was singing your praises. We have a just God who comes to us when we are helpless and vulnerable.

Was it anything miraculous? A wonder? Or just an awareness, a feeling?

Really important: what did you do with that experience? How is it still with you? Do you remember it often? Did it change you and how you live? Did it make you connect more closely to the church, and did the church help you make that experience bear ongoing fruit? Or did that experience wither and drop into the recesses of your memory?

I encourage you to write down your experiences. My father just  a few years ago shared a spiritual experience he had as a young man. I’d love to read about your experiences. You can email me. Or It can be anonymous (leave an envelop in the offering basket or slide it under my door.) •••

We benefit greatly from the inner depth and power that comes with spiritual experiences, what I want to call mystical experiences. We face such uncertain times, scary times. We need a source of inner strength to get us through, and to keep us from being driven by fear. So many people want to manipulate us with fear. “Perfect love casts out fear,” as Paul says elsewhere. People think of mysticism sometimes as emotional and subjective, and contrast it to rational belief that can be demonstrated. But we need a deeply rooted spiritual center to insulate us from the manipulative use of fear. So actually, mysticism is our greatest tool for staying rational in an emotional time. Paul … rational perception and thinking, what Paul calls “discernment.” The Spiritual discerns all things ….

Now, what was your experience like, when you felt closest to God? Maybe you experienced a wonder or minor miracle. I’ve heard some stories like that from some of you. And there are amazing stories in the Bible. I can’t speak to them personally. I’ve had very little by way of spiritual experiences that defy natural law. And what Paul talks about in Corinthians, spiritual discernment, does not sound miraculous. Speaking in tongues, as happens in our passage from Acts, is amazing, and we must respect the power of the Holy Spirit. But it’s not necessarily miraculous. And that’s fine for me. It may be that God intervenes in the natural world, sending rain, stilling the wind, working healing. And experiencing wonders like these is very powerful. But we have to admit that most of the time, God works through or alongside ordinary natural processes. Either that, or you must believe that when a miracle isn’t happening, God is absent. That’s not the God I know. I know a God who is a daily guide and presence.

So if for me mysticism, which involves the Holy Spirit working in me, is not about wonders and miracles, what’s the big deal? What makes it so great and so helpful and life-giving?

         I’ve mentioned my primary mystical experience before. I was sixteen. I had joined my family’s Presbyterian church two years before. But like many mainline kids, joining the church didn’t stick. I pretty much stopped going after I joined. (I’m so glad that never happens here!) I’m not sure why it didn’t take. I was pretty into science, and perhaps the idea of God being born as Jesus raised too many questions for me. I was spiritually interested, however. I was open to a basic belief in God; one of my sisters was interested in Judaism, which made some sense to me. I was also interested in Chinese culture, and learned a little about Daoism, which has a rich connection to nature that attracted me.

         My social life was in shambles. My three best friends had turned on me and harassed me regularly. I spent a year trying to be proudly friendless. I turned inward and began rethinking my whole world. But I took too much pride in my thoughts; I suppose I was desperate for some way to affirm who I was, and I tried to rely on no one but myself. But suffering primes us for grace. I became friends with another intellectual classmate, but he was a serious Christian. One night, amid a conversation that included religion, he confronted me about my arrogant attitude. Like a good narcissist, I sprung to my own defense, but something began to break in me. Soon I was an emotional mess. I think my friend didn’t know what to do with me, so after tending to me briefly, he left.

         I was overcome with repentance that night; in retrospect, I dwelled too much on feeling guilty about teenage hormones. But when I woke the next day, I felt like a new person, and this lasted through the day. Everything seemed bright and clear and buoyant. It’s not that I was absorbed in my relation with God. I didn’t spend all day looking up, although I was quite conscious that I now belonged to God. Nor did I spend the day looking inward, lost in my thoughts. In fact, I was more self-aware that usual, but in a new way. As I went through the day, I had to laugh as I recognized the bitter, defensive way I normally acted and felt. And I had become intensely aware of how my little actions could affect others. But I was only briefly detained in my own thoughts, mostly shaking my head at my old self.

Instead, I spent most of the day looking out. Suddenly, I could see the people all around me, as if for the first time—friends, enemies, and people I had never noticed. I could call it love, but to us love suggests overlooking faults, seeing only the good in people. But I saw people clearly. I saw their faults, and I also could begin to see the sad ways they had fallen into their faults. I saw them warts and all, as I saw now saw myself. But everyone was so beautiful.

         So it was love I felt, meaning I effortlessly desired the best for everyone I encountered. But it wasn’t just lots of feeling in here [the heart], mostly it was focused attention to people as they were, unclouded by my usual self-obsessions. I call it seeing with the eyes of Jesus. Because when we read the gospels, we don’t hear Jesus going on and on about his mystical experiences, about his incredible consciousness of God. Mostly he is really attentive to people he meets. He sees them, really well. He’s not full of gushy sentiment. In fact, Jesus can really cut people to the quick. But he does it for their good and for the good of the whole world that is being reborn through him. He can do this because because he never stops to ask, what’s in it for me?

         This new way of being came upon me from I know not where. I would never have guessed this power was possible for me. I was very ignorant of the Bible and Christian faith, and I had many questions to work out. So this joyful attention streaming out of me was a miracle to me, and I credit it to the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in me. This power faded after that wonderful day. But it was enough to keep me hungering for more, and I began a long quest to understand the Christ who had brought God to me.

         Three and a half decades later, I am still coming to understand better what happened then. I’ll talk more next week about how this wonderful power may not be some inconceivable miracle, a zap from the finger of God. Instead I see it as God’s Word working with the natural wonders of our mind and human being. And that means it’s not so far out of reach for any of us. We can’t master this power, but we can prepare for it, or we can hold it at bay. The right baptism, the right laying on of hands, as our Acts passage shows us, can bring the Spirit upon us.

         So as you reflect on your own experiences of nearness to God, maybe your experience was like mine. Or maybe it was something very different. I hope you’ll share it with me and challenge my understanding of how God works in us.

Fall Series Introduction: “Find Your Inner Mystic” (September 6)

Psalm 119:33-40 and Galatians 2:16b-21

         I want to talk about our innermost spiritual lives in this series. So I can’t just talk at you; maybe I never should. I want to begin each week with a meditation; and I’ll give you some short phrases and concentrated images to chew on, meditate on. I hope you will make them your own and let them sink in.

         I want us to meditate on just one verse from our Galatians reading: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Can you say that for yourself? Can you insert yourself as I in that verse, and mean it? (repeat) What would it feel like if you could say that for yourself and really mean it? What would life look and feel like if I no longer lived? If I no longer said, “Well I think…” “I’d rather do this…” “I don’t care what you think…” What if we never said or thought or felt I, me, mine. And not because I denied myself, and had no thoughts, feelings, or desires; but because this I was so overwhelmed with the presence of Christ living in me, so powerfully aware that the words coming out of my mouth and thoughts in my head and desires in my heart truly belonged to Christ, and though him to God, that talking about me was just not very interesting anymore. / Imagine to yourself what that would be like. How it would change you. How even the ordinary things you would be experienced and done differently. Then breathe slowly, close your eyes if you don’t mind, and repeat this verse three times with me, to yourself: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

•••

         When we meditate on it in this way, this verse can become for us a perfectly mystical verse. What does the word mystical or mysticism mean to you? I’m writing a book about it, because I think lots of people have experiences that are mystical. I don’t think mysticism is some exotic trippy pasttime for people sitting on mountain peaks. Lots of us have mystical experiences of at least a mild sort, and lots more of us probably could. Now, I’m no mystic. I’ve had a few mild mystical experiences. Some of you are far more accomplished as mystics than I am. But even a little mysticism can go a long way toward addressing a great need within us, which is: how can I feel closer to God? How can I know God more intimately—the real and true God, who has power and authority in my life, not something I pretend is God. I want to write a book that will help people find God in that way.

         Now you may be saying to yourself: “I didn’t know I needed that.” “I’m doing just fine without being a mystic, thank you.” So right, I’m not trying to make everyone into a mystic. Like I said, I’m not really one myself. And I doubt if any of us can say Paul’s words, “Christ lives in me,” with the same conviction he had. Let us remember what he says elsewhere: we each have spiritual gifts. The church needs all kinds of gifts. We need practical people who can run the organizational side of things, others who can focus on acts of justice and compassion, others to be counselors and encouragers. But you can do any of those things and be a mystic too.

And what Paul is talking about is not just an activity of the church, it is what we confess when we baptize any Christian: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In other words, baptism means: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Probably none of us perfectly lives into the full meaning of our baptism, not even Paul. But we all confess as the ultimate goal and are all called to die to myself and rise into having Christ live in me.

         And that is mysticism, so say I. In the weeks to come we’ll come back to defining it. But what this baptismal faith of Paul, and this one verse from our reading show us is that faith, religion, our relationship to God, is not at its heart a transaction. Not a deal between God and me. You might think the religion goes like this: I do something for God, and God rewards me for being good. I stay out of trouble, and I even donate to the food pantry or the clothing drive, and God rewards me with eternal life. Quid pro quo (remember when that phrase was in the news every day)? And we use prayer to negotiate the deal with God.

Religion for the mystic is nothing like this. Faith for the mystic is not about what I do for God and what God does for me. Actions matter. Paul mentions how the Son of God “loved me and gave himself for me.” But the heart of the matter is not deeds and actions. It’s being, not doing. It’s not what you do that makes you a Christian, it’s who you are. It’s about my identity. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Not just my loyalty is to God, my obedience, my hope, but my very identity is in God. That’s mysticism.

 Now, I would love to leave it at that, but I just can’t just lift one verse from a reading and ignore the context. The scholar in me won’t allow it. So let’s look at this reading a little more. Why is Paul here sounding all mystical on us? Well, it appears that the Christians in Galatia, who were probably not born Jewish, have been trying to adopt Jewish Torah practices—keeping dietary regulations, observing festivals, or whatever. Now Paul says elsewhere that Jews like him who now believe Jesus is the Messiah can continue their Jewish traditions; Paul does himself. And there’s nothing wrong with the sincere, spiritual devotion to the law that we heard in our Psalm reading. But he gets very concerned when he hears that the gentile Christians in Galatia are trying to follow Jewish law.

What’s the problem? Well, if dietary regulations and dress and festivals aren’t just your habit, then you are probably using them to prove something about yourself. Look at me! I’m no longer just another Gentile! I’ve taken on God’s ancient commands to the Israelites. And you are still eating that disgusting pork. It pains me to think about it.” If that’s my attitude, then it’s clear that these practices are all about me. “Look what I’m doing. I’m proving what a holy person I am. And I’m distinguishing myself from you by these outward acts.” That kind of ego-driven showboating is very bad for community; and community is central to Paul’s message, especially the famous verse in chapter 3: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Christians today are not going to adopt Jewish Torah practices like the Galatians did. But the essence of what Paul is saying is valid for us and indeed vitally important. If we want to restate that wonderful quote today, we’d have to add: “There is no longer Republican and Democrat; there is no longer “Thank you, Granby Police” or “Black Lives Matter,” for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I tell you that in this election season we are going to be severely tested. We will want to display the practices that distinguish our kind of people from those kind of people. Lawn signs, buttons, liking posts on Facebook—these are our works of the Law. There is so much pressure to carve this nation up into two tribes, us versus them, and there is so much pressure on each one of us to show whose side we’re on. And many of us will take sides, because the issues are important. I’m not telling you not to put up lawn signs. I think we should be very active politically, and I pray that each of us has tested our political views against our Christian commitments. (That’s not easy to do. I’d love to help you do that; but you probably have no interest in my help.)

But if we can all find that mystical center, in which I no longer live, but Christ Jesus lives in me, then not only will we find a peace from all the political anxiety; but we will be able to participate in political debate without having it all mixed up in defending my identity, my I. If I no longer live, if I have been crucified with Christ, then I won’t be so defensive towards those who disagree. I’ll be willing to admit that I could be wrong. (One of my favorite recent bumper stickers simply say, “I could be wrong.”) If I no longer live, I won’t put defending my views and my party above caring for the human being in front of me. I won’t try to build up my self-righteous self by putting down this one, even in my own thoughts: “What an idiot.”

So go ahead and challenge each other. Call out those dubious claims on Facebook. And let yourself be challenged; indeed, be thankful that someone cares enough to disagree with you. We as a nation need to work this thing out somehow, because I genuinely fear where our division is heading, and it’s right here among us. But if you want to do debate peacefully and effectively, learn to find your inner union with Christ; learn to say and mean it, “I no longer live.” Then you too can love the one in front of you and give yourself to that one, as Jesus did.

July 12: “Sow What?”

Once again, this sermon was recorded on GCAM’s Youtube Station.

Genesis 25:19-34 ; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

I love this parable of the sower, and it really hits home with those of us who have been gardening this summer, probably more than we normally would, thanks to covid-19.

If you are like me, then you know that gardening does not come without its frustrations. I’ve been trying to outwit the aphids—including squadrons of creepy red ones; to purge the relentless weeds; to amend our poor Pelham soil; to rescue a few strawberries from the chipmunks of Satan; and I’ve had to confess my utter helplessness before the deer and bears marauding our raspberries.

Jesus likewise does not sugarcoat the challenge of growing things from seed. He gives us a very realistic assessment in this parable of how many ways growing fruit from the word of the Kingdom can be thwarted. But I’ve heard others say this parable is all about making us attend to what kind of soil we are. True—the Word is not the problem; it’s all about what kind of soil it lands on. But Jesus’ message is not just that it’s all on me to improve my soil; and if the Word doesn’t grow in me then I have no one to blame but myself. Any gardener knows that some plants fail, and it wasn’t because you didn’t try hard enough. That’s why I say that Jesus’ parable is very realistic about the different reasons that the Word grows or fails to grow.

So notice that there’s only one crop failure in the parable that we bring upon ourselves by our choices—and even there maybe not: the Word sown among thorns, which represent the cares of the world and the lure of wealth. So let’s take that first. This is Jesus (and Matthew, who is interpreting Jesus here) giving us a warning to change our lives. He is speaking to those who hear and understand the word—that should be us. But the cares of the world and the lure of wealth are like thorns that prevent the word from coming to fruit. Now, the problem here isn’t that we are too ‘worldly,’ too focused on earth, and not focused solely on getting to heaven. The goal, remember, is to be fruitful with the Word of the Kingdom. For Matthew especially, fruitful means producing good works, or being an effective disciple, precisely on earth.

One reason that doesn’t happen is that we are seeking after our own gain and success, and that may be material success—having money and lots of goods—or social success—being well-connected—or political success—being an influencer, getting people and institutions to do what you want. And Jesus is absolutely right about this: the more you give yourself to wealth, popularity, and power, the smaller place will be left in your life for living as a disciple, for being God’s agent in the world, for doing the real work of the church (which has nothing to do with wealth, popularity, or power). Thorns do indeed choke the Word.

Now I think this parable was said in one of Jesus’ more uncompromising moments. He’s telling people what it means to be a serious disciple, even if that means persecution and death. I don’t think we all need to be acting as disciples to the death all the time. But we should celebrate and uphold this ideal of discipleship, of laying it all on the line for Jesus; and if few or none of us ever lays it on the line for Jesus, I’m not sure we are still his church.

So we can do something about being thorny soil, at least I hope we can. We can cut out some of our often subtle obsessions with wealth, popularity, and power, and give the Word room to grow. But that’s not easy. Thorns have strong roots and are a tangly, painful mess to clear out, as my fellow gardeners can testify. When you let the thorns grow out of control, it is nearly impossible to get clear of them. Still, we can probably do something to make ourselves better soil for the Word.

But the other causes that prevent the Word from growing and being fruitful are not necessarily things we can do something about. Go back to the first: the Word sowed on the path. Jesus says this means those who do not understand the Word, and then Satan (symbolized by the birds—sorry about that Sandy) snatches the Word away. This saying is confusing, but also very realistic and I think insightful. I think it’s no accident that the ill-fated ground is the path—the well-trodden ground. And gardeners know to avoid compacting soil where you want things to grow. I think Jesus is talking about people who have follow conventional thinking—the ground that get packed down by so many footsteps that nothing fresh can grow there. If your soil consists of nothing but hard-packed platitudes and conventional wisdom, then the Word cannot grow there; you need soft, receptive, pliable soil to receive the Word, to take it in. The Gospel word is not just conventional wisdom—‘follow the rules if you know what’s good for you; be good to your friends; work hard to succeed.’ The Gospel is a seed, or to use another of Jesus’ image, leaven, a bit of yeast (which also grows) that God sends to break up the hard, packed soil of convention, so it can bear fruit for the Kingdom. Now the paths of convention aren’t themselves evil; they are useful. Even the sower uses the path. But those birds of Satan know enough to hunt for stray seeds of the Word on the soil, because convention deadens our mind to the strange and wild ways of God.

So those on the paths of convention cannot understand the Word of God at all, and so soon the seed is gone and they don’t even miss it. I don’t think that’s us. I would hope that we wouldn’t be in church if we simply don’t get the Gospel at all. But then again, unlike in Jesus’ day, we carry the risk of assimilating the Gospel into conventional thinking. We can reduce the Word to the clichés of conventional wisdom. Then we are certainly not understanding it, and our path of convention can even become paved with all those lifeless seeds that were the Word of God.

Then there is the seed sown on rocky ground, interpreted here to mean those who understand the Word and receive it gladly, but have no root. So when trouble and trials come—covid-19 anyone?—they fall away. They stop coming, drop out. Here the problem isn’t a lack of initial enthusiasm or understanding; nor is it the thick, thorny growth of other cares, interests, and commitments. So there may be nothing you as an individual can do about your rocky soil. You can’t fix it by trying harder.

I think the rocky soil for us today is the thin, crumbly soil of our church culture, and for me the great concern is whether that rocky soil can nurture the faith of our children especially. Let’s go a little wild with this metaphor. We have good individual pebbles here at Granby—individuals with real faith who find meaning in the church. We have some rocks, the way Peter was a rock. But you can’t grow seeds in a pile of rocks. I don’t think we have a really nourishing common culture, a rich growing medium, where faith can germinate and send out deep roots. The proof is in our high drop-out rate among teens; and this is a common problem among mainline churches—I’m sure Center Church can relate. It is just as Jesus described: Do not many children growing up in the church receive their first taste of the Word with enthusiasm and joy? If you just bring a child to church and teach your child the basics in a loving environment, that Word will joyfully sprout. It’s not hard, with a dedicated and loving team like we have doing Sunday School, to create enthusiasm and joy. But how long will it last? How many will eventually fall away? Never mind for now the thorny cares of the world that compete with faith more and more in the teenage years: how will that Word continue to flourish when our children encounter the impressive challenges of science to traditional religious belief? When they start to really notice how much pain and evil there is in the world, despite our assurances that it’s under the all-powerful care of a loving God? When they don’t hear the message from church saying anything different from the benign but blandly positive messages they hear at school? And how will the Word continue to grow in them when they start to notice hypocrisy in the church (and teens are often mercilessly sensitive to this; I know I was)? Our children need deep, rich soil if that early, enthusiastic faith is going to grow and bear fruit; and only all of us together as a church can provide that soil, that culture, in which they can really send roots of exploration down into something rich and nourishing. And not just our children; we adults need this too. I think we who are rocks and pebbles may need to let ourselves be broken down, to cling less to what we know, and to allow God to dissolve our trusty assurances a little, so we can form a loamy, more coherent soil. (Sorry, I was supposed to be done with church vision stuff. Jesus made me do it.)

Having warned us of all the ways the word of the Kingdom can languish and wither, Jesus concludes the parable by turning to the promise of what can happen with good soil. “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” We do have that soil here at Granby and at Center Church—good soil like that underneath us here on the Common. Despite our thorny patches and our rocky bits, we are that soil—thanks be to God. And the proof is in the fruits. It’s not how eloquent and sophisticated we are in our beliefs and theology. This parable points us to the fruits. We have lots of people here who live each day differently because of their faith in God and their following Jesus. Some of you are hundredfold folks, constantly finding ways to express your faith in deeds of love to those around you who are hurting. Some of us are thirtyfold folks. Jesus doesn’t make a big deal about one being better than the other. There are different gifts, and differing grades of soil in which we were nourished. But we are bearing fruit, and our Board of Missions, along with the Deacons and Christian Ed, are constantly pruning us to increase our yield. Center Church is doing so many amazing things. I love their Saturday vigils. And we in Granby can attend and support them. They are contributing to the broader conversation in their town.

Let us follow Jesus in celebrating and rejoicing in the fruit being borne in us by God. For even though Jesus is calling us to be active in cultivation, all things are God’s: the Word most especially; the soil produced by generations of breaking up convention and breaking us down into a rich medium, and our very bodies, created by God for the possibility of bearing fruit of the kingdom. To God be the glory, Amen.

 

 

 

July 5: “When to Dance, When to Mourn”

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I began a series in the last two weeks that I planned to continue, but I think I’ve said all that needs to be said. And it didn’t seem like a good idea to me to preach a series so internal to our congregation when our friends our joining us. I made my point and am ready to move on.

And to get back to the beautiful weirdness of the Bible. There are beautiful, easy to love sentences here. Who doesn’t love: “Come, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (We all seem to feel weary, don’t we?) “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Well Amen to that.

Then there’s some things earlier in the passage that we might not be so comfortable with. In fact, our lectionary just skips over a bunch of verses that we’re not sure what to do with. This is when Jesus condemns whole Jewish cities who did not respond to his message and works of power. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! … It will be more tolerable for the land if Sodom than for you.” I guess we’ve decided that these don’t apply to us.

But what about those first verses, do they apply to us? That’s what I want to talk about. These verses have always perplexed me. First of all, Jesus is talking about “this generation,” the people he has encountered in Israel in his own time. He is critiquing his culture. Let’s not assume it applies to us directly. We may have to take responsibility for critiquing our own culture. But let’s figure out what Jesus is saying in his time and place and what we can learn from it.

This generation is like children sitting as we are, out in the market-place, out in public. And they tell one another: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Ok. Whom are they talking to? Jesus explains further that they are talking to the prophets of God that have visited this generation—a generation exceptionally blessed with important prophets. He means John the Baptist and himself. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they saw, ‘He has a demon.’ the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” (Jesus often refers to himself as the Son of Man.)

Now as is often true with the Bible, this gets really interesting, the more sense you begin to make of it. Jesus and John are opposites. John is the abstinent messenger of repentance. He lived in the wild, and ate only the food of the wilderness—locusts and honey. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” he warned. So John calls each of us individually at the right time to personally examine ourselves and renounce the falsehoods and foibles of our existence. The right time for us to do this all together is Lent, but it could be any day for us individually. But for the generation Jesus finds himself frustrated by, John was an annoyance. They played the flute for him and he wouldn’t dance. “Lighten up!” they jeered. We have the temple, which sits at the very heart of Jerusalem! The Kingdom of God is ours already! Let’s just sit back and enjoy it. Even if there are all those Roman thugs bearing down on us.

But Jesus looks like a real contrast to John. He celebrated the Kingdom in our midst, happening now. But even though it looks the opposite of John, Jesus knows that they belong together. He just spent the first half of chapter 11 praising John: “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” But greater than repenting and preparing for the Kingdom is inaugurating it, declaring it in effect, here and now: Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those hungry for justice, and the meek, for there is the Kingdom. And so Jesus represents the feast, the banquet to which all the outcasts and downtrodden people have been invited by God.

If Jesus came to Granby, I don’t think his first stop would be our church. (And not Immaculate Heart either, with all due respect.) He might pay a visit to the Phinn’s Hill neighborhood, or some of the less illustrious streets where the houses are small and need a little work, and the lawns aren’t sprawling and immaculate. Or he’d go hang out with the immigrant labor working at Red Fire farms. (I don’t know this for sure, but based on the people we see him hang out in the Bible, that’s my guess.) And he’d gather them together into a new community. He’d challenge them, sure—to abandon their prejudices, to give up bad habits, to reconcile with their spouses and children. But he’d feast with them, and go down to Bruso’s for something to enliven the party. I think he liked the people for whom, what you see is what you get. I think he felt sad and frustrated with the pretentiousness of the Pharisees (and that would be me, I’m guessing)—those who are all about appearing a certain way, showing themselves to be the right kind of person, setting themselves apart from the rest. Perhaps by manners, or erudition, or by espousing enlightened political views. Jesus preferred to lift up those who had been put down by such people. But he didn’t exploit them for political gain, either, like the populists of our day; he rejected power and its egotistical machinations. Instead, he would simply want to get down to real life with real folks.

But back to Jesus’s day: when he came among the unsavory types and celebrated the Kingdom of God among them, the stuffy sorts, instead of humbling themselves and joining in the party, “wailed, and [Jesus] did not mourn.” ‘Why are you eating and drinking with those people,’ they said. A friend of tax collectors and sinners, indeed. And they got all self-righteous on him: a godly man doesn’t drink Budweiser while munching on beef jerky! (Drinking from a can, no less.)

Sorry—that’s not “this generation.” It’s awfully tempting to go back and forth, isn’t it?

The ones who wailed and complained that Jesus didn’t mourn were probably the Jewish elite. They complained about Roman oppression, and how hard it was to fulfill our religious duties at the temple, and how all this oppression cramps the purity of our lifestyle. About how it’s more important than ever to maintain pure worship, especially when those common people in their ignorance muck everything up. We have to be the bearers of propriety, good taste, right thinking, good morals. We have to preserve our noble tradition against those Samaritans and impure types who can only live in the present of their own needs. So they wailed.

And Jesus didn’t join them in mourning. He said this is not the time to get all into our personal, individual purity, separating ourselves from the people that our prejudices tell us are impure. No this is a time to get off our high horse, drop our pretenses, and get together to celebrate. And so when “this generation” zigged, John the Baptist zagged; and when they zagged, Jesus zigged.

Notice that “this generation” rightly understood that there is a time to dance and a time to mourn. They just had the wrong rhythm. But they still made a serious mistake. They sounded all the right notes, and so unfortunately they thought they had it right, but they ended up playing exactly the wrong tune. So John wasn’t dancing, and Jesus was not mourning with them, he was mourning at them.

Our generation is in no better position. What makes the things we say and do right and good? It’s not just what we say and do, but how, and when, and to whom, and in what context. Jesus spoke very differently and partied more joyously and forgave more bounteously among the neglected and disdained. But he spoke soberly and critically to the powerful, those with prestige, and those who supposedly knew better. We must each consider for ourselves how our attitudes and our social standing would map onto the generation to which Jesus spoke, if we desire him to speak to us.

And we find ourselves at an extraordinary time in which we need to ask: is this a time to dance? Or time to mourn? Do we gather together and celebrate our victory over covid-19, or keep practicing the mood of quiet repentance and isolation? And on this July 4th weekend, already knocked off kilter by the restrictions, do we boisterously celebrate our nation’s greatness? Or practice a quieter repentance, taking stock of why we have failed the covid test; repenting the continuing legacy of racism; and confessing the unfinished nature of what we call the American dream? Let us pray for the wisdom to discern the answers to these questions, because Jesus wasn’t talking to this generation—was he?