Sermon from March 8, 2020

Go to the Land That I Will Show You       
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
March 8, 2020    Second Sunday in Lent
Psalm 121; Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-21

How are we ever going to find our way out of the mess we have made of this world?

Humanity has allowed forces of greed to rule and ruin the planet for their own profit even though like cancer cells they are killing the host they need for survival.  Western culture has cultivated selfishness and pride as if they were the highest virtues, while marginalizing or corrupting spiritual communities whose scriptures stand unequivocally against selfishness and greed in favor of the Golden Rule, love of neighbor as our self, and compassion for the vulnerable and for all.

We are a long way from the Promised Land of the realm of God on earth, it seems, and a long way from our ideal selves.

How are we going to change?

We are not the first to struggle with that question.  Religion is the collected wisdom of people who have gone through a wilderness and found a way to a Promised Land.  The Bible is full of such stories.

God called Abraham to “Go from your country and your kindred…to the land that I will show you.”  The purpose of that wilderness journey was for Abraham to be blessed so that he would be a blessing to others, or to put it in other words, to be transformed so that he could transform the world.

Abraham had to leave his secure, known way of life and go on nothing but faith into a new land, a whole new way of being.  God asked him to make a dangerous, courageous journey for the sake of future generations.

Surely God is calling us to make a similar journey of faith now.

“Go from your country…to the land that I will show you.”

God’s land, God’s realm: we know from Jesus and the scriptures of all spiritual traditions what that Promised Land is like.  It is a land that follows laws of compassion and love, where all dwell in justice, peace and oneness, where the earth is a garden we steward well and hand on in better shape than we found it so that life may be sustained and enjoyed for generations to come.

This has been humanity’s wisest, highest vision for thousands of years.  The time has come to be as brave and faithful as Abraham.  We need to make our own journey to the land God is showing us.  Humanity’s survival depends on us evolving to the blessed way of being that Jesus and so many others taught.  We know full well the inner and outer obstacles. The forces of greed and selfishness are aligned against us.  And yet we know all too well the consequences if we do not do make this journey.

So how do we get there?

Martin Smith wrote in his classic Lenten book, A Season for the Spirit, “The Scriptures speak of a breaking down of the old way of being a person and the discovery of a completely new one.  They speak of our need to be born again.  They speak of crucifying the old self with Christ.  Nothing milder than these expressions will do justice to the radical change in our living meant by ‘metanoia,’ the repentance Jesus proclaimed after he emerged from the wilderness.”  (p 37 f)  This is as true for corporations, governments and society as a whole as for individuals.

Go to the land that I will show you, the scriptures say, the land you will find by completely changing your mind and your life.

Albert Einstein said, “The release of the power of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking.  Thus we drift toward a catastrophe of unparalleled magnitude.”

The American General Omar Bradley said, “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.”  He said, “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

It is understandable why our society has made a god out of technology and turned away from the God of the Sermon on the Mount.  Technology changes things quickly, and with some degree of certainty in the short run.  Faith, on the other hand, has uncertain results by definition, and often leads us more deeply into the wilderness rather than straight to the Promised Land.

Thomas Merton wrote that the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers saw the Roman Empire around them as a shipwreck from which they had to swim for their lives.  They saw that the best contribution they could make to the world was to go to the desert wilderness and create there a society guided by Christ’s way.  Then, having swum to safety from the shipwreck, they could reach back to help others.

They practiced contemplation, a form of prayer that opened them directly to the Spirit’s guidance and power, and they created a counter-culture of communities that lived by laws of compassion and love.

Our hope today is that we will have the faith to set out through a wilderness of transformation in search of the new land God promises, and once we find it, reach back and help others make the same transformation.

The story of Nicodemus shows us what we need to do to transform our consciousness as Jesus, Einstein, Omar Bradley, Gus Speth and many others say we must in order to reach that Promised Land.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jewish establishment, who came to Jesus by night.  Night represents confusion in the Gospel of John, the condition of being lost without vision, but there is hope in the night for those who long for the light and keep seeking until they find it.

Nicodemus clearly has the longing.  He yearns for the new land God will show him.  Jesus understands this and begins, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the realm of God without being…” and we can picture Nicodemus leaning forward.  Yes?  Yes?  Being what?  What do I have to do?  Make it clear, tell me the steps.

And Jesus finishes the sentence, “without being born anew, born from above.”  Nicodemus is dismayed.  This is absurd.  He responds, “How can anyone do that?  It is impossible.”

Jesus answers even more absurdly, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

It seems as if Jesus is intentionally confounding Nicodemus’s mind, the way a Zen koan does.  He is leading Nicodemus not by a clear path of light, but into a wilderness or dark night of soul.  Thomas Merton wrote about it this way: “The spirit enters a wilderness and travels blindly in directions that seem to lead away from vision, away from God…. The prospect of this wilderness…so appalls most [people] that they refuse to enter upon its burning sands and travel among its rocks.”  (New Seeds of Contemplation, p 235)

On the other hand, Merton says, if you can endure and choose to keep your will occupied “with a blind, groping…desire of God, if you allow yourself to remain in silence and emptiness you may find that this thirst, this hunger that seeks God in blindness and darkness, will grow on you and…peace will establish itself in your soul.” (p 241)

This is a contemplative path, and a path of faith. We need to be forced out of our head into our heart to start on this path.  Heartfulness is the name of our contemplative circle here on Thursdays, where we learn to let go of our thoughts and cultivate the different way of knowing that Jesus tried to awake in Nicodemus.

The path of transformation through the wilderness follows a Spirit that comes and goes by ways that no one knows, ways that take spiritual intuition to discern.

Nothing is going to change in this world, nothing is going to change in ourselves unless we change our thinking, unless we abandon our old way of seeing reality and let the Spirit lead us in completely new and unexpected ways.  Maybe that seems like a slim hope, but it is real, and it is happening.  Social scientists are documenting a change of consciousness in growing numbers of people today to a level more like Christ’s.  Its greater wisdom and capacity for love may be enough to change the world in ways that seem impossible now.

Michael Nagler wrote the book, The Search for a Nonviolent Future.  In it he talks about the people who founded the community in Columbia called Gaviotas as a model of self-sufficiency and sustainability, living nonviolently in the way they treat others and the earth,  healing a damaged, barren landscape.  They went into a treeless wilderness and made it a Garden of Eden.

Miracles happened because of their faith.  For instance, they found a certain pine tree could survive in acidic soil, and they planted millions of them.  The trees changed the micro-climate, increasing annual rainfall, and then in the shade of the pines a richly diverse primordial rainforest sprang up, “evidently from seeds that were hiding in the shallow soil, waiting who knows how many eons for the right conditions to bloom again.”  (p xxi)

The seed of the realm of God is waiting everywhere, dormant in earth’s sacred ground.  God’s realm is under our feet, and within and among us.  All it needs in order to rise is people who believe in its possibility, who seek it with all their heart, who open to the Spirit and listen for its guidance and wait for its power, and who give their lives to the journey—people who are willing to be transformed in the wilderness who will then transform the world around them.

“Go from your country and your kindred to the land that I will show you and I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.”  Go with the faith that everything can change, that even the greed of contemptuous corporations and governments, even our darkest nights of pain and doubt can change, and by going through this wilderness toward the Promised Land, Earth’s new day will rise.

Let us pray in silence, making clear our intention to seek that land and that new day, choosing against the culture that is destroying this world, pledging our lives to the creation of the counter-culture of God’s realm of compassion and love on earth, beginning in our own heart.  Let us pray in silence…

 

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