“I Will Teach You the Way You Should Go”
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 3, 2019
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost,
All Saints Day Sunday
Psalm 32; Luke 6:20-31
We just heard Luke’s version of the Beatitudes which is much more difficult than Matthew’s. One of the hardest parts is that Luke includes “Woe to you” statements as well as the beloved but challenging “Blessed are you” statements, and some of those woes are coming to people like us, people who have plenty to eat, people who are laughing.
Jesus is turning things upside down, making us dizzy, intentionally confusing our intellects with reversals of our usual thinking. Wisdom sayings in other traditions like Zen Buddhism lead us in the same direction, out of our old way of seeing and into a disorientation where we have to look to our heart and spirit in order to make sense of the world. That is really the point Jesus is trying to make, within and beyond the words he is saying. We need to evolve to a new level of consciousness in order to see the oneness and follow the path of nonviolence, unconditional love and the Golden Rule that he teaches in this passage.
The Psalm we read comes at the same wisdom from a different approach. It talks about times when we are lost in life, when we have done wrong or gone wrong, when our guilt or grief or anxiety eat away at us until we feel sick and can’t think straight. We hit rock bottom, as the wisdom of the 12 Steps puts it, and finally look to our higher power for help. We turn our heart and spirit to seek to a source of wisdom beyond the reach of our ordinary intellect.
The reason that Jesus, the Psalmist and all wisdom teachers try to get us to this place is that when our hearts, minds, souls and bodies are aligned toward God, we find what has guided and empowered and comforted all the saints before us. The same Spirit that was in Jesus wells up in us.
The Psalm speaks for the Spirit when it says, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go.” The Psalm tells us not to be like a stubborn mule that lacks enough understanding to return to the barn where it will find the source of its life—hay and water and shelter. We have the exact help we need, we have the blessings of the beatitudes, we have the answer to our woes, we have guidance, power and comfort ready at hand, if only we will turn and open to the Spirit’s grace.
On All Saints Day Sunday we think of people who model this for us. We remember great ones like Malala and Greta who have overcome great opposition and despair. We remember Gandhi and King who turned their entire beings to the spiritual source and found exactly what Jesus and the Psalmist promised.
We also remember saints among us, some gone, some still here, who overcame terrible trials, who passed through dark nights of soul and found the light that shines in the darkness. They might not have been able to see it, but we saw it in and through them: the light of their courage to keep going, the light of their increased compassion and acceptance, the light of their love. Later in the service I will invite you to name those saints who have inspired or comforted you with the goodness and virtue they embodied.
We can feel tremendous hope if we look at our situation through the lens of what the saints of the past have been and done. They assure us that we will find the path through places where we feel hopelessly lost.
We need this, because the entire human race is in such a wilderness together right now. Every week I am hearing from more parents and teachers about the anxiety and despair their children are feeling. Every week we have more studies and news stories showing a world in upheaval. Every week we see more evidence of how utterly paralyzed or intentionally negligent our governments are as they fail to respond to the emergency.
Our hope is that we can rise as the saints of old rose in their times of crisis. Our hope is that the same spirit can be in us that drove the generation of the American revolution to find a path to freedom and the Bill of Rights and pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the cause, as Jefferson put it.
Our hope is that the same spirit can be in us that drove the Abolitionists to give “the last full measure of devotion” so that “this nation, under God, should have a new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln put it.
Our hope is that the same spirit can be in us that drove “the greatest generation” to make personal sacrifices and mobilize their collective resources for a cause that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt summed up in the extraordinary Jefferson Day speech he wrote the night before he died. Listen to these amazing words:
We seek peace—enduring peace. More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars—yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman, and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between governments. We must go on to do all in our power to conquer the doubts and the fears, the ignorance and the greed, which made this horror possible.
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another. Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.
The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
Roosevelt wrote those words almost seventy-five years ago. They were born out of suffering, both his own personal physical pain as death drew near and the torment of his soul seeing the horrific suffering of World War II. The war was not over. The fear, ignorance and greed that caused the horror of it still dominated the world. The worst mass slaughter of innocent civilians, the destruction of whole cities by firebombing or atomic blasts, was yet to come. He was writing from a dark and pathless wilderness, and yet he saw the way to hope, and he saw that, “if civilization is to survive,” we absolutely must take that path to oneness and peace.
We now have arrived at humanity’s final chance. We need the wisdom Roosevelt and Lincoln and Jefferson and Jesus and the Psalmist and Greta and Malala and Julia Ward Howe and mothers and grandmothers throughout the ages have held out as our hope. We need to rise to the greatest courage and consciousness that humans can attain. We need the spirit of those saints who have worked miracles before.
And so we need our spiritual communities to undergo a transformation in order to help us evolve our consciousness and open to the guidance of the Spirit through this wilderness. We need spiritual communities to help us see the oneness of all creation and treat all people and creatures as worthy of love and respect, including enemies and strangers and the most vulnerable around the world. We need spiritual communities and the practices they teach to help us bridge polarizations so that we can move forward to a transformed civilization together.
Our Future Directions Vision statement has much of what we need in it. We also have the wisdom of people like Richard Rohr who are being guided by the Spirit to envision transformed spiritual communities that can meet today’s crisis.
Rohr sees that churches are waking up to Jesus’ neglected teachings about “nonviolence, simplicity of lifestyle, peacemaking, love of creation, and letting go of ego, both for individuals and groups.” Churches are “acknowledging Jesus’ radical social critique to the systems of domination, money, and power.” Rohr says, “There is a common-sense and growing recognition that Jesus was clearly concerned about the specific healing and transformation of real persons and human society ‘on earth as it is in heaven….’” He says, “We are recovering the older and essential contemplative tradition within Christianity,” which is crucial to changing consciousness.
Rohr cites Quaker pastor Philip Gulley who adds that for churches to invite questions is more valuable than to supply answers, and to meet actual needs is more important that to maintain traditional institutions.
In that spirit I will close with questions for us to consider together: What does our time and place need the United Church of Strafford to become in order to help our children’s world survive? How can we nurture, train and equip children and adults to work the cultural transformations we need? And how can we help ourselves find resilience and comfort in an increasingly discomforting world?
Let us pray in silence, asking for the Spirit that guided the saints before us to guide, empower and comfort us now…