“To Nurture Contemplation and Action”
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
October 22, 2017 Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 96; Exodus 33:12-23; I Thessalonians 1:1-8; Matthew 22:15-22
How did Jesus do that? How did he manage to come up with such a brilliant way out of a trap that could have destroyed him? How can we find a path like that through our own problems that seem far beyond our ability to solve?
To understand how Jesus did it we need to look more closely, starting with appreciating how threatening his situation was. The Pharisees were powerful enemies. Herod’s people were worse. They had arrested and executed John the Baptist, and Jesus was leading the same revolutionary movement as John, recruiting people to the kingdom of God against the kingdom of Herod. It was obvious that the Herodians would want to kill Jesus, too.
The question of whether to pay taxes to Rome was highly controversial and defined which side you were on, the rich and powerful empire or the common people of God. Not long after Jesus, an armed rebellion broke out over those taxes.
If Jesus said no, Jews should not pay taxes to Caesar, he would be pronouncing his own death sentence.
If he said yes, he would be reviled as a collaborator and rejected by the vulnerable and oppressed people he most wanted to help. Even the coins were abominations to them, bearing the emperor’s image and words honoring him as a god.
Jesus’ response is astounding in that moment of decision with destruction facing him in either direction. First, he shows the people watching that he does not have the coin in his possession. He makes his attackers incriminate and pollute themselves by touching and reading the coin.
Then Jesus comes up with a counter-trap to spring on them. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” God made the heavens and the earth, as today’s Psalm said. There is nothing that is not God’s. The Pharisees and Herodians are trapped—they cannot fault Jesus without going against either God or the empire.
It was a truly amazing reversal. How did he come up with it in those circumstances? How can we be as adept at responding to conflicts between the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of God in our own time?
Wag Dodge was a forest fire fighter in the 1940s. One day he led a team of fifteen men into a remote canyon in Montana to put out what was supposed to be a small fire. They found it burning out of control, but walked down into the canyon to fight it, with the wind at their backs. Suddenly the wind shifted, and a fifty-foot high wall of flame came howling toward them on a fierce updraft. Wag screamed for them to run, but the flames were moving at seven hundred yards a minute. Wag looked over his shoulder as he ran and saw the fire only fifty yards away. He knew he had only seconds to live, and he thought there was nothing to be done.
He stopped running, and in a flash of insight, he suddenly saw exactly what to do—something no one had ever thought of before, as far as he knew. He lit a fire ahead of him even as the flames came up behind. The fire ahead of him quickly made a large area of burned grass with no fuel left for the wall of flame. He threw himself into the smoldering embers ahead of him, covered his mouth with a wet handkerchief and a few minutes later arose shaken but unharmed. The fire had jumped over him. Most of the others died.
Brain scientists have researched how we have insights like that. In one study a Zen Buddhist meditator was given a set of puzzles to solve. He was getting nowhere as he strained his focus to figure them out, but then he shifted his approach and used meditation skills to relax and unfocus his mind. He became “an insight machine,” and solved puzzle after puzzle. (“The Eureka Hunt,” The New Yorker, 7/28/08)
It turns out that we have a much greater chance of finding a way through a pressured situation if we surrender and allow our mind to relax. Insights come when people step away from their laboratory or desk and go for a walk or take a shower.
The problem was that Jesus could not walk away from the attack, just as we cannot always walk away from a confrontation with someone who has hurt us, or from a friend having a severe crisis, or from the problems of the world that wake us in the night like a wildfire roaring toward us.
How we respond in these situations can affect our lives and the world in significant ways. Followers of Christ need a way to find the hidden path of love and light that leads through every moment, we need the tools that make a way where there is no way, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it.
King had a moment early in the civil rights movement when he felt defeated. He and his family had been receiving death threats, there seemed no way the white community was going to change, and he had no idea what to do. He came home late one night and sat at the kitchen table exhausted with just enough faith left to pray. He turned to God and surrendered completely, confessing that he did not have the strength to go on. In that hour, grace came to him. He heard a voice telling him to get up, that God would be with him, that a way would open. He went on to receive just the insights he needed.
Gandhi’s miraculous power to overthrow empires came from the same source. Gandhi said, “My greatest weapon is mute prayer.” He meditated twice a day, and prayed without ceasing by simply repeating a name of God. It connected him to a source of guidance and strength in impossible situations.
Jesus, too, was a man of prayer. The Bible does not tell all the ways he prayed, but we have hints that it was the kind of prayer the Christian tradition early on began to call contemplative, which is very similar to Gandhi’s “mute prayer” or the meditation that the Zen Buddhist used to become “an insight machine.”
The last sentence of our church covenant says, “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.”
The word “contemplation” is at the heart of what we promise we will do and be, and yet we lack a common understanding of what that means. Most of us grew up unaware that there is a Christian contemplative tradition with practices similar to mindfulness and meditation that dates back to the early church.
Contemplation’s defining feature is opening to God’s presence and God’s realm as a lived experience here and now. Jesus praised it as “the better part” in the story of the sisters Mary and Martha.
Contemplative prayer is not an end in itself. The purpose of all true prayer, whether wordless or full of complex sentences, is to open ourselves to God’s force of love and light and let it transform us so that we transform the world around us.
Prayer is a tool like a sextant, with one eye on the North Star and the other on the waters we are trying to navigate. To get a true reading, we need to make sure we have the right star. We need to be careful that our prayer is serving our true God, not an idol god that we shape out of selfish desire or spiritual pride.
I learned Transcendental Meditation or TM, in 1976, which has roots in the Hindu tradition. I had grown up in a fundamentalist Christian setting that had taught me to be concerned about praying to the wrong god, so I began each meditation session by stating my intention that it serve the God of Christ. Then I discovered the Christian contemplative tradition and I have been meditating in a form known as centering prayer twice a day for the past twenty-five years.
Every prayer we make is at risk of being to the wrong god. The human mind is adept at fooling itself into serving our ego. We would do well to end every prayer as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”
The fruits of prayer are in our lives, not in the prayer time, enabling us to step into a situation as impossible as the one Jesus was in and find the right words to speak or the right gesture to make.
Words that arise out of silent prayer are more likely to be the Spirit’s words, actions that arise out of contemplation are more likely to be the Spirit’s actions, small miracles of love and life and light.
Does it matter whether we in this little church nurture contemplation and action? Well, the church Paul wrote to in Thessalonica was small, too. He wrote to them, “We always give thanks to God…. because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit…. so that you became an example to all…. In every place your faith in God has become known.”
We cannot be certain how the Spirit will use us as we nurture contemplation and action, nor how far our example will reach. I will talk more about this as we approach Advent. In the meantime, I am so excited to be here with you as we undertake this adventure together. Let us pray together in silence, not thinking or talking so much as emptying and opening to God’s presence as if we were sitting at rest quietly beside our best friend…