Sermon from October 1, 2017

Make Me to Know Your Ways, O God
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
October 1, 2017
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, World Communion Sunday
Psalm 25; Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2; Matthew 21:23-32

“Make me to know your ways, O God,”
the Psalm prays.  “Teach me your paths.
You lead the humble in…your way.
All your paths are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

The children of Israel lost the way in the wilderness.
They despaired, argued, became divided.
They were not humble, not steadfast
in love and faithfulness.  But this is human nature.
We are born thirsting for oneness,
yet so often it remains buried,
like the desert water of Meribah, in hearts hard as rocks.

A man and woman are on a trip far from home.
The man—it is always the man—is insisting
he is on the right road, but he has no idea really.
A gas station appears. The woman says, let’s ask.
The man says no.  It’s a matter of pride.
Mile after mile they drive deeper into despair
and farther apart. The Psalmist is in that back seat
singing quietly, “God will teach the humble the way!
The way you are looking for
is the one of patient love and faith!
Get on that path and you will find the right road!”
And they pull off and both throw him out of the car!

It’s the Phyllis Diller school of couples counseling:
“Never go to bed mad.
Stay up and fight!”

But as the Psalmist flies out one door,
Paul sneaks in the other.
He leans forward and says,
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard the other as better than yourself.
Let each of you look not to your own interests,
but to the interests of the other.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something
to be exploited, but emptied himself…”
And of course, Paul gets thrown out of that car, too,
because it is much easier to stay up and fight
than to let go of selfish ambition and conceit
and love our neighbor or enemy as our self.

It is hard to acquire a vision of oneness
when we cannot see past our narrow self-interest,
and if we cannot see oneness,
we are not likely to live as one
no matter what anyone says.
That is why Jesus and Paul were not about rules,
they were about changing our way of seeing,
about transforming our minds, about experiencing
oneness in our hearts, because without that,
we will keep throwing the wise voices out
of the back seat, when push comes to shove.

Astronauts have the opportunity to see
with a Gods-eye perspective.
It can transform their minds.
Roger Chaffee said, “The world itself
looks cleaner…more beautiful.
Maybe we can make it that way—
the way God intended it to be—
by giving everybody that new perspective from…space.”
Frank Borman said, “When you’re finally up
at the moon looking back on earth,
all those differences and nationalistic traits
are pretty well going to blend,
and you’re going to get a concept
that maybe this really is one world
and why the hell can’t we learn to live together
like decent people.”  (December 23, 1968 Newsweek)
Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud was the first Arab and Muslim
in space.  He said, “The first day or so
we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day
we were pointing to our continents.
By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.”

We cannot all go into space, but we all
can learn to have the heart and mind of Christ.
The Spirit will lead us in the paths of oneness,
the paths of steadfast love and faithfulness,
if we humble and empty ourselves like Christ
and allow ourselves to be led.

I do not need to say much about why
it is so important that we find a way to be one
on this small blue home afloat in space.
65 million refugees,
121 million people in danger of starvation,
right versus left, white versus black, rich versus poor,
sea levels rising versus climate change denying,
nuclear weapon versus nuclear weapon…
Make us to know your ways, O God!

The good news is,
the wisdom of the ages teaches us the way.
We print it on the cover of our bulletin every week:
“We covenant with one another
to embody the love of Christ,
to nurture contemplation and action,
and to offer our gifts, talents and energies as we are able.”
This is an exciting time when the church is rediscovering
what Jesus called the better part of that twofold path.
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest and founder
of the Center for Action and Contemplation.
Rohr writes, “Many Christians are scared of the word
‘mysticism.’ But a mystic is simply
one who has moved from mere belief…
to actual inner experience of God….
Basically, to experience non-separateness, or nonduality
[oneness]…one must move to the mystical mind.
Any other mind—or heart—
is utterly inadequate to the task.
Until people have had some mystical,
inner spiritual experience, 
there is no point in asking them
to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus.”

Rohr uses the words mystical and contemplative
interchangeably.  The contemplative path
is the way to oneness with God, with ourselves,
with our neighbors and even with our enemies.
It is the way to self-empty
as Jesus did.  Traditionally this involves practices like
centering prayer or meditation, watchfulness
or mindfulness, and the lectio divina reading of scriptures.
But one of the first things the path asks of us
is to stop being too busy
to nurture the Spirit within us.

Abraham Lincoln believed that the practice
of keeping the Sabbath empty and Spirit-focused
was what kept America from falling completely apart.
We no longer keep the Sabbath, and look at us now.
Thomas Merton said, “To surrender
to too many demands,
to commit oneself to too many projects,
to want to help everyone in everything,
is to succumb to violence…
It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s own work,
because it kills the root of inner wisdom
which makes work fruitful.”
(from My Argument with the Gestapo)

This puts an interesting spin on Jesus’ parable.
The father says to go and work in the vineyard,
and one son says he will but doesn’t,
and the other says he won’t but does.
If what God means by working in the vineyard
is to overfill our lives with good actions
and drain ourselves dry for our children or church
or community, then we are all in;
but what if God is saying that working in the vineyard
means to let go, do less,
open up time in your life for Sabbath
and daily prayer and just being instead of doing?
Sometimes we say that we will go into that vineyard,
but we do not even really try.  Other times we say, no,
we couldn’t possibly, but we try and miraculously we find
that we actually can fit that vineyard into our busy lives.

Serving the world with our gifts, talents and energies
is important, and we can do that
wherever we are in our spiritual development,
but seeing that we truly are one and living it
requires the inner transformation that comes
from self-emptying and finding God within,
and finding our oneness with all.
This is what Christ asks of us.
This is where he says our serving needs to begin.
It requires a wilderness journey
or an astronaut journey through inner space
to undergo that transformation.
As the Sufi poet Kabir wrote
(in the English of Daniel Ladinsky),
“I felt in need of a great pilgrimage
so I sat still for three days…”

Make us to know your ways, O God.
We need this.
Our world needs this.
Please, lead us on the path of oneness.
Let us pray in silence…

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