A Life Born of Wisdom
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 23, 2018 Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
The scriptures addressed human behaviors and attitudes that were problems thousands of years ago. Today we have reached a point where those same problems threaten to destroy human civilization and the conditions on earth that have nurtured our evolution. The Psalm talks about problems with people who do not follow God’s way, who carry out evil devices, violent people pursuing wealth and power who bring down the poor and needy and attack people who try to live rightly.
Jesus and James condemn selfish ambition as a central human problem. James talks specifically about cravings that are at war within us. He could be describing today’s addicted, consumerist and corporate culture when he says we want something and don’t have it so we kill or steal or engage in divisive politics and conflicts.
Thousands of species are going extinct every year now, a global food shortage looms ahead and the catastrophic effects of climate change are in the news daily, economic inequality and refugees and wars plague the earth, but selfish ambition and addictive cravings affect our own personal lives and families and friends as well our nation and world. People we love are struggling, we are struggling, lives around us are falling apart, and we want and need to find a way to help.
Today’s scriptures do not just name the problems, they also offer solutions.
Zen Buddhists developed a teaching method using short riddles called kōans.
The great 18th Century Zen master, Hakuin, is credited with one of the most famous: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”
The purpose of kōans is to force us to a new expanded or enlightened level of consciousness. Jesus used similar methods, shocking his disciples by turning old ways of looking at the world upside down, using words and symbolic actions that challenged them to see the world from a new perspective, the perspective of the heart and mind of Christ.
Today’s gospel passage shows the disciples competing for leadership positions, seeking power and control over something that was important to them. This is natural human behavior. Our parents and schools teach us to value self-ambition. Our society rewards it, our egos thrive on it, but it is not the most enlightened, mature human behavior.
Jesus sits his disciples down and delivers a first rate kōan: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he makes it even more shocking by picking up a little, lowly child, not something considered respectable or dignified for spiritual master of his day to do, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus is trying to get us to go beyond our old self, beyond our former way of seeing shaped by social standards of ambitious, competitive success, beyond our narrower level of consciousness, and expand our perspective. As Thomas Keating says, “Growing in consciousness, we are…growing in God’s Self, in God’s presence, in God-consciousness.” If we keep growing, Keating says, “The ultimate consciousness is total Oneness in which God is all in all.” (from That We May Be One: Christian Non-Duality Reflection Booklet)
So let us try to look at life for a minute with something like this ultimate God-consciousness, the perspective that informs all Jesus’ teachings. If we have the mind of Christ we can see that God’s presence is all in all. God is in natural laws that bring the universe into being, laws that gather gas and dust to form stars and planets, laws that gather people to form loving communities, laws that spin things as diverse as galaxies and flowers and the DNA in our cells all into the same spiral pattern.
God was in the natural creation of perfect conditions on a lifeless earth that let the first living single cells form. God was in the inner unconscious intelligence that drove life to become ever more complex through the first reptiles crawling out on land to birds and mammals. God was present in each tiny evolutionary step over billions of years to reach the most complex life form yet, the conscious human mind. The impulse to grow that we can see as God at work has led the mind to evolve through earlier developmental stages to the dawn of the Christ-like nondual, God-consciousness stage that is emerging more widely today.
God is in the oneness and peace and justice for all that naturally arises when human hearts and minds approach the ultimate evolutionary stage. We see this in Christ and many saints, most dramatically in the effect Mahatma Gandhi had on his society.
We can see how the force that we call God has been working in what Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology call “the Journey of the Universe.” (They have a 50-minute PBS special by that name, narrated by their colleague Brian Swimme.) Imagine how God wants to respond to climate change and economic inequality and racism and all the ways in which our human minds are busy plaguing our world with threats to human civilization. Imagine having worked for 13 billion years to bring the universe to consciousness and then watching humans destroy their own conditions for survival.
I have put this in cosmic, universal terms, but that child on Jesus’ lap was not just symbolic. Children are being caught in hurricanes and wildfires, children are refugees, the poorest children always suffer most in any catastrophe, and God is in every one of those children. God is all in all—in all creatures that are suffering from what humans are doing.
Imagine how God wants to respond to that suffering. Imagine how God wants to work through the small percentage of humans who have enough God-consciousness to see how insane and unmanageable things have become. How can we make ourselves available to the force that created us so that we evolve further to be the best instruments of God’s peace and love and well-being that we can possibly be?
The good news is that the higher power that created the universe is ready to help us do this. God does not give us instructions for every possible set of circumstances, but a way of expanding our consciousness to discern the right action and sacred way that leads through every situation.
Today’s scriptures tell us how to do it, as does Mel Goertz’ haiku in the bulletin. Mel writes,
The orb spider sits in the center
of its web.
The wind blows, the thread holds.
The Psalm says to be like that spider: “Be still before God, and wait patiently; do not fret.” Find the center of the web in you, the place that holds steady whatever wind may blow.
The Psalm says, “Those who love God utter wisdom… those following the sacred way speak justice, for the law of the universe is in their hearts.” Wisdom rises from our center.
James says, “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” Jesus says to be least and last, be the servant of the lowliest—that is how to live the greatest, most centered life.
James was so wise to say that the problem has to do with our cravings. We are addicted to our old way of life and stuck in our way of looking at the world. As we approach rock bottom situations as individuals and a global civilization, we may find the most practical wisdom from those who have struggled with and overcome addictions.
I remember when President George W. Bush said that we as a society are addicted to oil. It was a shockingly honest statement from someone who was both a recovering alcoholic and steeped in the oil business, but I don’t think he applied his own personal wisdom of recovery to it.
One evening long before becoming President, Bush was at a dinner party with his parents and distinguished friends. He was so drunk that he loudly asked a woman at the table about her sex life. The response of his family became the rock bottom he needed to hit. He quit drinking he said because he saw that it was violating the love of his family and because he saw the truth of his old self and he did not like it.
The wisdom of 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous is extremely pragmatic and deeply spiritual. It begins as George Bush did, seeing the truth of our lives and not liking it. We can apply the 12 Steps to our society’s addiction to oil or any personal craving or selfishness or lack of wisdom. The first three steps are first to see that our lives have become unmanageable, second to believe there is a higher power that can restore us to sanity and third to make the conscious decision to turn our will and our life over to that higher power. The 11th Step is to draw ever nearer to God through meditation or contemplative prayer.
The force that created the universe and gave us consciousness needs us to do this. God needs as many of us as possible to evolve to the ultimate God-consciousness, and it is more a matter of letting go of our addicted old ways than having to learn or earn anything new.
As the contemplative teacher Richard Rohr says, “You can’t accomplish or work up to union with God, because you’ve already got it.” The Christian contemplative tradition that we learn and practice here every Thursday evening is designed to help us experience that oneness that we already have.
To solve the problems we face, to reach a life of peace and happiness, we need to cultivate silence and listening more than talking, and gentleness more than aggressiveness, and letting go and yielding more than craving and grabbing. We need to draw near wherever we feel God’s presence, out in nature, in through these church doors, into the presence of loving community. We need to find a lowly child literally or figuratively and give her our love and help. That is how we co-create with God a life born of wisdom. It is how we save the world.
We need Christ’s wisdom from above
That says be least, be last,
A consciousness advanced in love,
Before this chance has passed.
Our earth, our sacred, perfect home
Let human minds evolve,
But we have plagued this fragile dome
With threats God’s mind must solve.
In human minds, vain cravings war,
We murder, waste and take,
Our culture’s rule and goal is more,
Not caring what we break.
But Christ-like wisdom says to yield,
Be gentle, caring, kind.
Earth will have peace, be freed, be healed,
When humans have God’s mind.
Draw near to God, be reconciled
To God’s right, sacred way:
To serve the lowest, poorest child,
Love’s laws the wise obey.
What hurts that child will hurt us all,
What saves her saves the earth.
Christ’s heart and mind and wisdom call
God-consciousness to birth.
Let us pray in silence, and if any phrase or line of that hymn speaks to you, you can take it into the silence and see where the Spirit leads you with it…