A Troubled Spirit
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
March 18, 2018 Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 51:1-17; Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
Two views of the universe have competed in Christian tradition. One view is that God is separate and above, watching and judging us from heaven. The other is that God is in all things and all things are in God.
The view of God as separate from the material world leads some Christians to see no reason to protect the environment or respect people who are of different religions. They take literally Jesus’ words that hating this life and world will win you eternity. They do not understand that he is talking about a healthy detachment that lets go of self-interest in its treatment of the world. Their worldview is the opposite—the whole point of life is self-interest, earning personal salvation, winning their way to heaven.
On the other hand, the worldview of God in all things and all things in God makes clear that everything is sacred and needs to be treated with reverence as we interact with it or use it. It means that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as our self, he means that all people and all the earth and all the universe truly are our self. We are one because we all find God’s presence within us, the true life of all. This seems to be the view of the universe that Jesus had: “The realm of God is within and among you.” (Luke 17:21)
This second view pictures God not behind an Intelligent Design curtain like the Wizard of Oz, but present and immersed in the Creation as a sacred way or flowing Spirit that evolution and developmental growth follow. We can see God moving through the history of the earth as it forms out of the remnants of a star and planets that had died. We can see God made manifest in the miraculous combination of elements and conditions to create the first living single cell. We can see God flowing and growing into ever greater complexity of life until after billions of years humans evolve who have consciousness and mental capacity far beyond anything yet seen.
Human consciousness begins at a primitive level, but then comes the tremendous awakening in the 5th Century BCE in Greece, India and China. We see another developmental leap as the Enlightenment or Age of Reason rises from the Dark Ages in Europe, and another leap into the era of liberation and pluralism that we are in today.
Developmental growth in human consciousness is the universe evolving its own intelligence for its own reasons. There have been people over the ages who have evolved to the deepest spiritual state and found there a sacred way, a Tao, a Great Spirit, a force flowing through the human heart and through all creation. Always the purpose of that force is to promote love and life and light, to increase compassion and forgiveness and lovingkindness, to establish peace and justice and mercy, to make earth a paradise, an Eden, a Promised Land, a place where life flourishes in harmony.
Human consciousness needs to evolve further now to help the universe shepherd the world in that direction, because human exploitation and violence have brought us to the edge of a cliff that is rapidly eroding.
One of the people leading the way toward this new consciousness is Joanna Macy, a friend and colleague of our neighbor in the Upper Valley, the late Donella Meadows. Macy has systems science training as well as a Ph.D. in religious studies.
She writes about a conversation she had with John Seed, the Director of the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia. She said to him, “You talk about the struggle against the lumber companies and politicians to save the remaining rain forests. How do you deal with the despair?”
He replied, “I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rain forest protecting itself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into human thinking.”
We are the part of the universe, the part of the earth that has recently emerged into consciousness. God was present in the creation of the first living cell, God was in the struggle to grow, to shed one skin after another, God was in every struggle to raise human consciousness and God is in our struggle today to a yet higher consciousness that can save this planet and create a society more like the realm of God. We are the part of God’s creation capable of thinking the thoughts needed to make a sustainable paradise of earth where love and life can flourish. And we sure have a struggle ahead of us to get there.
It is so much easier to think the other way, to think that God is in heaven apart from this material world and all we have to do is play our cards right and we can escape this condemned world and fly up to the pearly gates and live in paradise there. It is so much harder to think that God is here in us and all around us now, that our work is not individual salvation to get us into heaven but universal love and care to make earth as much like heaven as we can.
No wonder Jesus said, “And now my soul is troubled.” The sacred way leads us into conflict with a world of greed and violence and oppression. Humanity develops ever more destructive technologies and powers and systems, and the consciousness of the universe that wants to protect the creation needs to keep growing ever more insightful and intuitive in order to reassert the laws of love and the ways of God.
That would be plenty of reason for our soul to be troubled, but the struggle is also within ourselves. Last week I told the fable of the acorns who were proud of their glossy shells and jaunty caps. Their souls were deeply troubled when an old wise acorn told them that their natural development was to let their shells crack and rot and die so they could grow beyond them to become great oaks.
The nature of the universe is both to grow and evolve, and also at the same time to resist change. We need both the progressive and conservative impulses so that we grow carefully, but grow we must.
Our old, small self does not want to let go and die even if it can become a tall oak. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Sometimes we need to hit rock bottom in order to make the needed change. That is what happened to David that led him to Psalm 51. He had murdered Uriah and lost the baby he had with Bathsheba and finally acknowledged how far his heart had strayed. He was like Eustace Scrubb in today’s children’s time story about Narnia—he was ready to tear the dragon skin off, and he realized that he would need God’s help to do it.
We reach a point in our individual lives or in response to the world where we are finally ready to die to our old ways. We ask that God fulfill Jeremiah’s promise and write a new covenant on our heart, and give us a new and wider consciousness that can help us transform our lives and our world.
Christ is our model in this. Today’s passage in John is surreal, with one strange twist after another, and the angst in his poignant groan, “Now my soul is troubled,” is followed too quickly by the shift to heroic triumph, “What should I say? Save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason I have come to this hour.”
In the midst of this unreal passage, two messages come through that are at the heart of what Christ wanted to teach us. First, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” And second, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth [meaning “when I die on the cross”], will draw all people to myself.”
We are the consciousness of the universe in this time and place, we are here to think the thoughts of God, we are here to do what the universe and God need us to do, and that is to die to our old self and our old ways, to let go of our shell and crack open and let the seed within us sprout and a new creation come into being within and around us. The Spirit of God needs us to be its consciousness and its instruments, and if we follow Christ and serve his cause, we will draw all people to us, because we will see and enact our oneness with all. Our death into new life will bear much fruit—the very fruit the earth now needs.
We do not have to understand this—I think that is the ultimate meaning of the surreal gospel passage. Don’t try to understand now, just do it, just follow the sacred way as seen in Christ and God’s creation, and with the higher consciousness that results we will look back and understand. So for now, let us pray in silence, in pure faith, saying in our own words or without words, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put in me a new and right spirit.” Let us pray…