Sermon from August 26, 2018

Doers of the Word        
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
August 26, 2018   Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This month I have been reading two books by the former Harvard neurosurgeon and research scientist, Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven and Living in a Mindful Universe.  Eben was a year ahead of me in high school, and what I knew of him inclines me to trust him.  The credentials he has garnered since then make him even more trustworthy.

Eben was an agnostic, maybe even atheist Episcopalian.  He refused to believe anything his patients told him that they experienced in their brain damaged states that seemed spiritual or supernatural.  Then Eben himself suffered a seven-day coma with almost total brain death.  He was given a two percent chance of surviving and zero chance of returning to anything more than a vegetative state.  He regained consciousness just as his doctors were proposing withdrawing life support.  Eben not only fully recovered, but he remembered having over the course of that week an extensive, vividly detailed experience of another realm of reality that his brain could not possibly have had in such a severe coma.  He had encountered angels and beings of light and received instructions about life.  He came back amazingly the same man in almost every way except now he was a spiritual believer on a scientific quest for understanding.

Eben had what is known as a Near Death Experience.  Near Death Experiences are not new.  One of the earliest recorded is in Plato’s Republic.  What is new is their sudden proliferation in recent decades as medical technology has advanced.  Thousands of people have come back from the dead to report on their experiences.  There is now a field of scientists who are exploring what this means about consciousness and mortality.

For instance, if consciousness keeps going when our brains shut down, then where and what is consciousness?  If our consciousness does not die when our bodies do, if we enter another, vaster and realer dimension and encounter beings of light as Eben and thousands of others have, then what is this human life and what does death mean, or do we never die?

Near Death Experiences are fascinating and the questions are mind-blowing, but what are the practical implications?

Well, for starters, when we read the passage from James and hear about a character called the Father of Light who gives us gifts, we now have eye witness accounts from agnostics and atheists and hard-headed scientists that align with the same kind of visions of a spiritual realm that are common to contemplative mystics of all religions.

Even more importantly, many of the people who die and come back to life receive instruction about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life.  Nobody comes back saying that it is a dog eat dog universe.  Nobody comes back saying material gain or political power or lying around eating bonbons are the points of life.  Nobody comes back saying that only their particular religion or race or political party deserves respect or gets into heaven.

Everyone who receives a message comes back sounding like Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela or like Bishop Michael Curry at the recent royal wedding.  They come back saying that we are all one, all people and all creation are connected, our neighbor truly is our self, and they have seen that at the heart of the universe and at the heart of every atom and at the heart of every heart lives the source of universal, unconditional acceptance and love.  They come back saying that lovingkindness is what we are here to do—to establish that realm of love on earth.

Our dominant, materialist culture still scoffs and acts as if this is not real or practical, but look at what those who have heard this word have done.  Jesus changed the world more than any single person in history.  Gandhi, King and Mandela showed how the meek can inherit the earth, overturning empires, totalitarian regimes and powerful repressive systems.

Love is the word that they heard, and when they became “doers of the word,” as James calls it, the deeds of love they did turned the world upside down.  One of the most astute and influential historians of human civilization, Arnold Toynbee, said “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

Human civilization has never faced the severity of global threats that it does today.  We need to hear the word of Jesus and James and the heroes and saints who came before us and are now among us, and like them we need to become doers of the word in order to change the fate of the earth.

So what do we have to do, and what stands in our way?

Before we can be a doer of the word we need to be a hearer of the word.  Jesus talked about people having ears to hear—even in his day most could not hear God’s words of compassion and justice and peace coming through all the other noise within and around them.

If it was true before radio and television and the internet, before the decades of materialist propaganda of the all-powerful, brainwashing advertising and entertainment industries that have been inflicted on us, it is exponentially truer now.  To paraphrase Mark Kutolowski’s sermon last week, ‘what we must realize is that, because our hearts are occupied territory, our efforts to open to the word of God and to spiritual truth will be met with opposition from other forces.’

The first thing we need in order to be a doer of the word is to tune out all the other words and become attuned to the word of the Spirit, the still, small, silent voice within our deepest hearts.  Tuning out other words is what we practice here every Thursday evening in our Heartfulness Contemplative Circle.  This inner work is the crucial struggle in our society today, because as Gus Speth and many others have pointed out, a change of consciousness is the essential first step to confront climate change and the many other civilization-threatening problems we face.  We urgently need to free ourselves to hear a new word.

As Jesus said in today’s passage, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”

The Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians, “For freedom, Christ has set you free.”  James referred in today’s passage to “the perfect law, the law of liberty.”  Mark Kutolowski called our most important task in life a process of spiritual liberation.

We do not need to add anything to ourselves, we need to free what we already are.  As Jesus said, we need to lose life to gain life, we need to lose the life full of noise and distraction and misguided intentions in order to hear the word that is our innermost truth at the core of our being, and then do that word.

This can be a struggle, but it is tremendously joyful in the end because as James says, the God of Light has given us each gifts and a yearning to share them generously with the world.  We each have our own form of light that we were born to create and shine.  We each have something we love to do and people we feel drawn to serve with our love.  Our purest, most undefiled love goes out to those Christ loved and served the most, the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, even our enemies.  To feel our God-given, true gifts flowing through us in the service of love is to experience the greatest joy life offers.

And it is also to wield the greatest power in the universe.  Gandhi said the force of our inner word of truth is the only power on earth greater than the atom bomb.

The good news is that it does not take many people wielding the power of love to revolutionize the world.  Arnold Toynbee’s study of civilizations affirmed what Margaret Mead said, that a small group of committed citizens is what has made the difference at every turning point in history.  Modern research by the United States Army and Navy has proven that it takes only ten percent of a population to make a tipping point, if that ten percent is made up of doers of the word and not hearers only.

That ten percent will not be found in the monolithic towers of wealth or halls of power, it will be found in the kind of villages where Jesus spent most of his time preaching, villages like Strafford, Vermont.

We can do something to shape the future.  We can do something to save human civilization.  We can transform the world by transforming our hearts and lives, opening to the light and letting it shine, listening for God’s word and being doers of it.

Let us pray together in silence, opening to hear with our heart the silent word that the Spirit is speaking within us each right now.  Let us pray…

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