In the Wilderness Prepare the Way
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 10, 2019
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost,
Advent Preparation Sunday
and selected verses from Isaiah 60, Mark 1 & 13 and Luke 1
Two hundred people fill this sanctuary on Christmas Eve, yet most never come on Sunday morning. Hundreds more of our neighbors will have Christmas trees, maybe even Advent calendars, but identify as spiritual but not religious. They have no traditional spiritual community.
Last week the sermon talked about how important it is that existing spiritual communities like ours find a way to support the spiritual lives around us that are trying to get by without the benefits of a community or tradition.
We all have a spirit that flows through us—a force of love and life and light that connects us to one another and the universe—that can guide, empower and comfort us. Our spirit naturally develops and evolves over the course of a lifetime if we allow it to, and the great spiritual teachers of all ages and traditions show us what we can mature to be.
Spiritual communities can help us learn and grow and mature, but groups of people have a dominant level of spiritual development, such as fundamentalist or pluralistic, and a spiritual community can not help us grow much beyond that. There can be a more advanced edge of maturity that has enough people at that stage of development to influence a group with its perspective, even if it does not always set the course. For instance, if greed and violence characterize a culture, there can be enough people at a greater spiritual maturity to keep the greed and violence somewhat in check with compassion, generosity and justice. Over time enough people may grow into the more mature level to change the community’s dominant culture.
A healthy spiritual community will keep learning, evolving and maturing. It will help us find our way through a wilderness where we are lost, things like a midlife crisis, parenting challenges, divorce, illness, death, or a time of crisis in the world. A courageous spiritual community will help us confront individual and global problems and comfort us along the way.
We are surrounded by hundreds of culturally Christian, spiritual but not religious people in Strafford who could benefit from the gifts of a spiritual community right now. If I could speak with them on this Advent Preparation Sunday, I would try to explain in spiritual but not religious language the good of entering into Advent as a time of intentional spiritual focus.
I would try to make sense of the words, “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” I would ask them to imagine climate refugees four thousand years ago in the land of Canaan having to flee to the Nile River valley to escape famine and drought. Imagine their fear for their children. Imagine their grief at leaving behind the homeland they loved and losing all they owned.
Imagine their descendants four hundred years later still living as slaves in Egypt, longing for freedom and the Promised Land, having to feel the whip and watch the abuse of those they loved.
Or think of the children today who are justifiably terrified because adults are allowing environmental destruction to continue.
Or imagine someone who is struggling in grief or depression or anxiety, or someone who feels stuck in a job or a relationship that is killing their soul.
If you can feel what it is like to be in that kind of place, then you know the meaning behind the words of “O Come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” You know why Advent longs for Christmas. You know why it could relate to your life or your world.
Emmanuel means “God with us.” To a spiritual but not religious person I would say the song is asking the highest power in the universe for help, the force of love and life and light that formed the earth and sparked the first living cells and led evolution to the point of human consciousness and ever-increasing developmental maturity. Emmanuel means the creative spirit that is in all things making us want to live and be free to fulfill our heart’s yearning. That spirit is what we look to now to help us solve problems that seem unsolvable.
We can trust that our call for “God with us” will be answered. We can be certain that it already has been answered, because that source of love and life is what filled the wisest spiritual teachers. It is what fills us when we are at our wisest, our most intuitive, and it is always working to move us to a new level of developmental maturity.
“O come, O come” is a cry for wisdom to appear among us and inspire our leaders, a cry that says we long to feel the presence of the great teachers of old who attained the ability to see the oneness of all people and all earth, we long to grow to their level of spiritual development, because that is our hope for freedom from what is holding us captive.
The Prophet Isaiah was one of those great teachers. He calls on all those who are lost or captive when he says, “In the wilderness prepare a way.” That is our part of the evolutionary task. We see how we need to change and grow as individuals or as a human race. We know we need the same higher power that inspired every evolutionary struggle over billions of years. We know that its power is within us and around us all the time and yet is not within our control. We cannot force it to act, but we can prepare a way for it.
This is where spiritual communities and ancient spiritual traditions can help us as nothing else can. They offer a variety of ways to prepare our hearts and prepare our world for transformation.
Different ways work for different people or situations. Some of us find our deepest spiritual spark in a service comes from the music, some from the sermon, some from rituals like communion or lighting Advent candles, some from the sharing of Joys and Concerns, and some from the time with children.
A spiritual community that is doing its job will help us find our own way to prepare our hearts outside of worship. Many of us connect deeply with the spirit in nature. Many of us read spiritual writing or find the spirit in poetry or fiction or other kinds of art done by people with spiritual depth. Annemieke’s concerts can be spiritual experiences.
Three forms of preparation especially can help us evolve individually and as a society as quickly and directly as our global crisis requires.
The first is the miraculous renewal in our time of ancient contemplative traditions. By miraculous I mean both in the informal sense of being amazingly good luck and also in the literal sense of being an act of the Spirit working through human hearts and minds to bring about a change that is desperately needed. The mindfulness and meditation or heartfulness and Centering Prayer movements are speeding our entire culture on the evolutionary path toward the wisdom and oneness humanity must achieve to survive.
But contemplative practice by itself can get stalled or take a wrong turn on the path. Spiritual communities need to balance contemplation with action. They need to put the ethic of compassion, the Golden Rule and love of neighbor to work helping those in need and those engaged in the struggle for justice and peace. They need to balance concerns with the eternal spiritual and day to day material dimensions of life in order to serve both soul and body, both individual and global needs.
Most importantly, action and contemplation need to take place within the context of a loving congregation that is experiencing oneness and mutual compassion every week. We can feel the Spirit at work within a loving community and it strengthens our faith and hope. We can see a model of what the world will be like when our whole culture has evolved. There is always someone who can lift us when we are down, and always someone we can lift even when we are struggling. We see the light that shines in the darkness, we marvel at the generous-hearted love, we are deeply moved by the beauty of what happens to us whether in sorrow or in joy.
I understand that many spiritual but not religious people have a hard time with all the terrible baggage that unevolved, immature religions have accumulated. I have a hard time with it, too—violence, oppression and exclusion, hypocrisy, sexism and racism and so many failures to live up to the oneness, compassion and unconditional love of the most mature spiritual teachers. Jesus was crucified by religious elders, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist. Unevolved, immature spiritual leaders of all religions including ours are spreading hate and destroying lives and the planet today.
The wilderness is all around us. We may get lost in it ourselves, but grace comes to us down the paths that we prepare here. We sing, “O Come, O come, Emmanuel” and realize that we are already free in a true and deep sense. We feel what it would mean to witness a new birth of “God with us.” We can sense a great turning taking place, an evolutionary shift that many have longed and prepared for, the advent of a transformed humanity and sustainable civilization that could save our children’s future. We feel this approaching grace and know why the carol says, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”
Let us pray in silence, preparing a way in our heart for Emmanuel to come to us…