Sermon from June 2, 2019

Why Are You Looking Up to Heaven? 
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
June 2, 2019 Seventh Sunday of Easter, Ascension Sunday
Psalm 139; Acts 1:1-14; John 1:1-5;
Gospel of Thomas, Logia 24 & 77

Here is the haiku in the bulletin from Mel Goertz today:

A branch of Shad is out.
I looked up
and the whole tree was in blossom.

I love this with its Japanese-looking Shad blossoms.

A satisfying haiku captures a moment of awakening, of noticing, of seeing a deep connection.  A single branch of Shad reaches out and says, hey, look at me, I’m blooming, and suddenly we are awake to the whole tree in blossom.

Haiku at their best have spiritual depth.  Mel’s shows how the Holy Spirit works.  We are walking along caught up in our self-concern or thoughts about the world and suddenly the Spirit tugs on our sleeve or tickles our nose or, if we are really asleep, it hits us over the head with a glorious Shad branch.  We become aware and immersed in the present moment and sense the richness and presence of the sacred in it.  That is when we experience the full beauty and meaning of being alive, and it transforms all of life.

We see the whole universe is in blossom.

Inspired by Mel, I have four books about haiku on my bedside table.  One is by Jane Reichhold, a leading translator and teacher.  Her website is called “Aha! Poetry” which is a good description of haiku.  Reichhold says that if we are serious about them we need to follow “The Way of Haiku,” a spiritual path through daily life.  She describes six attitudes or practices of the Way of Haiku in her book, Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide:

  1. Being aware, practicing mindfulness and heartfulness, being centered, emptying and letting your thoughts go so you can be fully present to what is.
  2. Being nonjudgmental, avoiding stereotypes, accepting people and things as they are without quickly naming them good or bad, so that we see the world in all its complexity and condition of becoming.
  3. Being reverent, treating all life, all the earth, all the universe as sacred including the tiniest of things and briefest interactions—meeting everyone and everything that way.
  4. Having a sense of the oneness of all people, all life and all the universe, and delighting in finding how disparate entities are connected at a deep level and are truly one.
  5. Cultivating simplicity as a way of relating to the complexity of life, simplicity not just as a style but as a responsible ethic in relation to the world around us.
  6. Having humility, bowing before the majesty of a baby’s hand or one square inch of forest soil, feeling awe at the patterns and intelligence and higher power flowing through the entire universe, recognizing that we each are just another manifestation of that Spirit, and realizing that life’s true meaning comes when we empty ourselves and let go of self-concern and let the Spirit fill and guide all that we do, so we live in its flow.

What struck me immediately in reading those six attitudes or practices of the Way of Haiku is that they are all part of what the Christian mystics teach, and the Way that Jesus himself taught: awareness—1. be watchful and awake; 2. do not judge; 3. life is sacred and worthy of reverence; 4. all creation is one—God is in all things and all things are in God; 5. simplicity—sell all you own and serve the poor and live in simple trust like the lilies of the field; 6. humility—the first shall be last and the last shall be first, kneel and wash your neighbor’s feet, what you do to the least of creatures you do to Christ.

So there the disciples were, gaping up at the sky where they had seen Jesus disappear, and the angels came and asked, “Why are you looking up to heaven?”  Go follow the Way that Jesus taught you.  Go find a haiku to write!  Go find the Holy Spirit everywhere within and around you.  Go build God’s realm of justice, mercy and peace on earth.  Go be the church, the body of Christ living in the world, able to do far more than Jesus could alone.

That is what God and the angels want us to do, but sadly, many churches today are still looking up at heaven.  They care most about their personal salvation and about directing the gaze of others to heaven so they can win their own tickets there.  They completely miss the subtlety of Paul’s teaching about the flesh and Spirit, which is that when we empty ourselves of the ego’s agenda, when we stop letting selfishness (“the flesh”) drive our lives, we gain the richest life imaginable, here and now.  We become instruments of the Spirit’s love transforming the world around us into heaven on earth.

Jesus said, we have to lose life to gain life, and he was not talking about dying and going to heaven, he was talking about the life that truly is life here in the flesh.

I was outraged by a recent article in the New Yorker reviewing Yale professor Martin Hägglund’s new book, “This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom.”  Hägglund claims that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not religious, he was secular, because King was trying to create a better life on earth.  Hägglund’s understanding of religion is that it is all about gaining eternal life, and any part of religion that is about this life he calls secular.  It is religion when the disciples stare up at heaven, it is secularism when they turn back to Jerusalem.

This is a common misunderstanding but it is distressing that it would be held by a Yale professor and the New Yorker reviewer, James Wood, one of the most respected literary critics today.  Atheists and secular humanists often criticize religion as if it is all fundamentalism and Biblical literalism and about getting into heaven.  They fail to recognize that fundamentalism is only one developmental stage of faith.  They do not realize that Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and Jesus and all the mystics moved beyond that spiritual stage to one like the Way of Haiku, and like what Hägglund calls by the arbitrary name secularism.

In the end I forgave Hägglund because what matters is that as many people as possible progress beyond fundamentalism to a developmental stage that seeks to save the earth and establish a golden civilization, whether as Christians, Buddhists, Muslims or secularists.  We need more people living by the way of haiku or the Tao or Christ, we need more people being awake and aware and nonjudgmental, treating all life and earth as sacred, seeing the oneness of all, cultivating simplicity, having humility.

We need more people blooming like Shad branches shining the Spirit’s light into the darkness, each of us doing our part so that the whole world awakes, so that generations to come will see and celebrate the whole beautiful tree of earth in blossom.

Let us do our part to see and fill with light by praying in silence and opening to the presence of the Spirit here and now…


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