Sermon from February 11, 2018

The Perfection of Beauty Shines Forth
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
February 11, 2018
Last Sunday after Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday
A selection of verses from Psalms and II Corinthians 4;
Mark 8:34 – 9:9

Metanoia is the Greek New Testament word that was the core of Jesus’ teaching.  “Meta” means to change and go beyond our “noia,” meaning where our heart and mind are now.  Mark Kutolowski said yesterday during the Centering Prayer workshop that Christ calls us to change the eyes of our heart so that we can see the realm of God within and around us all the time.

Psalm 50 says of God, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, you shine forth.”  The Hebrew poets loved the hills of Zion, as much as we love the hills of Strafford.  The poets could see with the eyes of their hearts that it was God shining through the perfection of that beauty.

I walk along a stream on sunny April days where a trinity of maroon Trillium bloom, each of the three with its three leaves and three sepals and three petals and three-patterned pistil and stamen.  Every year I look at their design and see the perfection of God’s beauty shining forth.

One of our most perfectly beautiful hymns says,

Fair are the meadows, Fairer still the woodlands,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring:
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,
Who makes the woeful heart to sing.

The perfection of beauty shining forth from Jesus is fairer even than the spring wildflowers because humans can do transformative acts of mercy and justice and love.  People can heal the sick, feed the hungry, challenge the oppressor, work for peace, uplift hearts through words and music and self-emptying lovingkindness—we can be instruments of the Spirit in ways that other creatures cannot, and Jesus was as filled with the Spirit of God as a person can be.

I have not seen anyone’s clothes suddenly become dazzling white, but I have seen people transfigured so that they shone.  I walked into the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital once expecting to find a woman dead whom I had been with the day before when she was barely responsive and her face drained of color.

I was shocked to find her sitting upright, greeting me with a smile, her face literally glowing.

It turned out that in the night she had experienced a vision where Christ came to her and helped her let go of all her attachments to this world and become pure love and light. I saw nurses gather around her after that, taking comfort and counsel from her, immersing in her glow.  She had undergone a dramatic experience of metanoia.  She died three weeks later still shining through her last waking moments.

The Mahatma Gandhi said, “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect.  This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”  The beauty shining through Christ and through that woman was irresistible.  It changed the world around them.

This is what Jesus calls us to do when he says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  The woman in intensive care truly did die that night when I expected her to, but the death was losing her false self, her materialistic, attached and addicted self, so that her true self, the Christ self within her, could bloom and shine forth in the perfection of beauty.

Christ calls us to lose our life for the sake of metanoia, for the sake of being transfigured and transformed.  He calls us to take up our cross and follow him up the mountain to the highest developmental stage and deepest spiritual state.  So today, before we get lost in the trackless wilderness of Lent, let’s go up that mountain and fill our sight with where we can go if we keep dying to our old small self and rising with Christ.

Scholars and spiritual leaders from all traditions have described the developmental stages and spiritual states that humans naturally pass through as long as we continue to grow.  Their studies find that our perspectives on the world naturally evolve as the eyes of our heart are changed by metanoia.

For instance, there is a level of development that is called mythic-literal.  Humans tend to go through the mythic-literal stage during elementary school, but some people get stuck there all their lives.  The mythic-literal stage is characterized by a fundamentalist interpretation of scriptures and is ethnocentric, meaning that it considers its group right and all outsiders or people of other beliefs wrong.  At this stage we interpret Christ’s great law to “love thy neighbor as thyself” as meaning to love those who are part of our group, while feeling free to hate those who are not like us, who are not our literal neighbors.

Humans can grow from there to what is called the Rational Stage where we stop interpreting scriptures literally and can begin to think that “love thy neighbor as thyself” could sometimes include people outside our circles of race or religion or nation if there is good reason.  Then beyond the Rational Stage we can grow to a still higher one, called the Pluralistic Stage, where the eyes of our heart come to see that all people and all creatures truly are our neighbors, and that to “love thy neighbor as thyself” means to love everyone no matter who they are.

Jesus was at an even higher level than that.  Jesus was at what is called the Universalizing or Integral or Nondual stage.  The perfection of human beauty shines forth at that level, God shines forth through us, because the eyes of our heart have gone through such profound metanoia that we see as God sees.  We love our neighbor as our self because we see all humanity truly is one and the same self, because we all are manifestations of the same force of love and life and light that flows through every single cell and star and galaxy in the universe.  The self-emptying that Jesus calls us to do by losing life to gain life has become complete.  We have attained the abundant life that truly is life, the eternal life, that Jesus held open to us.

This is half of what the disciples saw shining on the Mountain of Transfiguration—the highest developmental stage—but they also saw the deepest spiritual state, which is different.  Everyone passes through developmental stages and can grow in the normal course of life from one to another, but it takes intention to move through spiritual states, usually involving some form of contemplative practice.

The spiritual states in Christian tradition move from spiritual awakening to purification to illumination to a dark night of the soul and finally to oneness with God.

A young woman named Holly was in a car accident and became addicted to pain killers.  She suffered and struggled for years and finally hit rock bottom.  She found her way into a 12 Step program, and it led to a spiritual awakening that turned her life around.  She saw God’s perfection of beauty shining forth in the world, but at the same time she confronted her own imperfections and set out to make amends and mend her ways.  It was purification by losing or letting go those parts of her life that got in the way of growth and love and peace.

Holly was diligent about her spiritual practice of purifying prayer and self-improvement and serving others.  It gradually brought her to the state of illumination.  She became a sponsor of other people who saw a Christ-like light shining through her.

Those were good years, but Jesus was deeper still.  The Eleventh Step is to seek through prayer and meditation to improve conscious contact with God.  The more Holly did that, the more clearly she saw her flaws and weaknesses.  One summer out of nowhere she entered what is known as a dark night where she lost all the good feelings of virtue and love and light.

She felt lost in the wilderness, she felt crucified, but she kept showing up at church and meetings and prayer, and when that night finally lifted, she emerged with a clear sense of being Spirit led, and she had moments of experiencing oneness with God and with all creation.  She had moved through all the spiritual states, awakening, purification, illumination, dark night and finally oneness with God.

Others on the outside saw a humbler, quieter Holly who was accepting of everyone.  She showed infinite compassion.  Sometimes her sponsees saw the depth of her light revealed and it inspired them to work toward what she had.  She changed the world simply by being, as well as by doing.

We each have the potential within us to follow Christ all the way to the top of that mountain.  The highest developmental stage and deepest spiritual state are attainable by every person here.  They are our birthright, just as in the bulb there is a flower.  There are things we can do to help ourselves, and ways that church can help us even more.

Lent nurtures our flowers so they will grow and bloom.  Lent was designed by the wisdom of the ancient church fathers and mothers as a time to deepen our spiritual practice and become more open and connected to the Holy Spirit, and more Christ-like inside and out.

Mindfulness and meditation, or heartfulness and Centering Prayer, are tools that can speed our progress through the stages and states, and we have the opportunity to be learning and practicing them this Lent.

The journey up the mountain begins with knowing that there is a path and forming the intention to follow it.  If we have that knowledge and that resolve, we will find tools and practices to help our metanoia happen.  It can be a hard climb, and also the most exciting, meaningful and transformative time of our life, and the most joyous and full of light.

The question is, will we commit ourselves to a path of metanoia, as Christ calls us each to do?  Let us pray together in silence listening for our intention to make itself clear…

 

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