From Whence Cometh Our Help
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
March 15, 2020 Third Sunday in Lent
Psalm 121; John 4:5-14; 7:37-39
[You can watch a video recording of this sermon at the end of this text.]
The title of this sermon is adapted from the 121st Psalm, “From Whence Cometh Our Help.” In the King James version that is a statement, in most modern versions it is a question, but in both cases the next line says from whence the help cometh: it is from the highest power in the universe, who made heaven and earth, what we call God.
The amazing thing about Jesus was that the Spirit of that creative power filled him to overflowing. It was his source of comfort, guidance and power, and he poured it into those around him. It welled up in him during the wilderness time that we celebrate at Lent and he emerged transformed into a force of transformation such as the world has never seen.
He described that inner Spirit as “living water,” and said that if we would only open ourselves to it in faith it would become a spring gushing up within us. He said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
The earliest church was not just a spring of water, it was a geyser exploding into the world. The members of the church had all kinds of powers far beyond their natural abilities, and they created a completely egalitarian, socialist community, even communist, where they pooled all their resources and shared as any had need, and they took care of all the most vulnerable and needy in society around them.
The church was so revolutionary, so pure in its Spirit of justice and compassion for all, so courageous in standing against the forces of wealth and power that ruled their world, that both the Roman and Jewish establishment persecuted the followers of Christ. Many were arrested and executed.
A conservative movement arose within the church and put a lid on the Spirit in order to make the church conform to society. Women were put back in their inferior status, rules and dogma stifled the free Spirit and the goal shifted from becoming like Christ to believing in Christ, from transforming this world to saving the believer’s soul.
The original Spirit-filled way of Christ went underground, a hidden spring that came out now and then in mystics and saints, in the nonviolent peace churches, in some of the early Pentecostal churches, in the contemplative tradition, and in moments of intense love or grief, but the world-transforming potential of a Spirit-filled church remained most of the time like a wet corner of a field that hints at the spring beneath it.
Meanwhile the mainstream of the church served the empires and establishments whose gods were wealth and power. The church taught ethics, morals and values, it produced many fine upstanding citizens, the words and life of Jesus continued to call us to a higher level of consciousness, and we inched forward toward the realm of God on earth, but the church grew weaker as the powers of selfishness and greed grew monolithic in the world around it.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a prophecy in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” He said, “There was a time when the church was very powerful…. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…. Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound… If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning.”
A very different voice said a similar thing. A contemporary Eastern Orthodox Christian writer named Hieromonk Damascene wrote a book entitled, Christ the Eternal Tao. It laments how the church has lost the essence of Christ’s teaching and Way. It says it is understandable why so many people who grew up in the church turn to Asian religions because they find there the spiritual path that the church largely abandoned. Damascene says:
“In the traditions of ancient China, the Western spiritual seeker can learn the basics of spiritual life which the churches failed to teach…: how to be free of compulsive thinking and acquire stillness of thoughts, how to cut off desires and addictions, and how to conquer negative emotions.”
The book goes on to lay out the Way of Christ that accomplishes those benefits through the ancient, traditional Christian contemplative path that we practice in our Thursday Heartfulness Circle.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a powerful need in these days of checking the news every hour “to be free of compulsive thinking and acquire stillness of thoughts, to cut off desires and addictions, and to conquer negative emotions.”
I don’t know about you, but I look at what is happening in our world and feel the need for a sacrificial church that could be a thermostat that transforms the mores of society.
We need more than ever the spring of living water, the river flowing out of our hearts that transforms us and transforms the world around us, the unstoppable power that brought the universe into being and evolved life from single cells to the human mind.
We need the comfort of the Holy Spirit. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need the higher power of the Holy Spirit working through us. Now is the time for us to get serious about it, because it is our one hope. We need it now, when a global pandemic is forcing us to face the fragility of what we thought was so solid and immutable. Now, when we know we have only eight years left to save the earth from even more fearful threats.
Jesus said that only one thing was needed, and that was the part that Mary, the sister of Martha, chose. Mary resisted the temptation to race around responding with panic the way Martha did. Mary turned fully to Jesus, she sat down at his feet thirsting for the spring of living water flowing through him, she opened her heart wide and let that Spirit fill her. Then she rose and poured out her creative compassion and love.
Jesus taught us to look for the Spirit flowing in every moment. To find it we need to undergo “metanoia,” we need to go beyond our narrow ego focus, our condition of distraction or denial, and turn our entire being to seek the Spirit first, letting it be what we strive to express in everything we say or do.
We were created by this force that made the universe, so we have a built-in capacity to feel its movement and discern its sacred way of love and life and light. If we strip away all that is false or artificial in our lives, that Spirit is the true nature of our being, and it is “from whence cometh our help.”
Our calling as individuals and as a church is to tap into that source. That is what both we and the world desperately need. So how do we do it?
Part of the answer is to become active. We need to keep following our yearning to serve the needs around us. The Spirit guides us through the compassion we feel, it comforts us through the comfort we give others, and it empowers us with gifts it gives us to share.
Part of the answer is to become active, but the better part of the answer is also to become still, like Mary, listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through the voices around us and digging deeply to hear the heart of the universe whispering within us. We need music and poetry, mindfulness and centering prayer. We need to ponder our sacred scriptures and good stories for the wisdom they offer so we can find our way through this wilderness to the Promised Land.
One great story comes from Martin Smith, the Episcopal priest and author of the book, A Season for the Spirit, that some of us are reading this Lent. In it he tells about a hot summer day when he was a student at Oxford. He rode his bicycle into the countryside to see if he could find an ancient spring, lost since the Middle Ages, which had been said to heal eye diseases. He had read an account of an Edwardian expedition that had gone in search of it, but failed to find it. Smith searched the fields where tradition said it should be, poking around with a spade in every likely spot, but to no avail.
Finally he retreated dejectedly to the shade at the edge of the field to rest. After a while he noticed that the cows were standing in a wet spot. He jumped up and drove them off and dug down in the mud and dung. After twenty minutes his spade grated against stone. He uncovered an ancient carved platform from which a wooden pipe still protruded. Pure water poured out of it in a steady flow.
Smith points out that the “fastidious Edwardian ladies and gentlemen had failed to find the spring because they had hurried past the stinking mud patch.” (A Season for the Spirit, “Finding the Spring,” p 17)
He reminds us that the creative Spirit of love and life and light works in the midst of messes and dark places. It can lie buried under mud and dung accumulated for generations and then resurface in all its purity and power. The Spirit is always at hand, it is here right now, in the chaos and danger of this time. It is waiting only for us to turn to let it heal our wounds, restore our vision and guide and empower our life, renewing the earth.
Humanity has the wisdom and love it needs to get through the planetary crisis of health it has created. We have the comfort, guidance and power we need to do our part for our families, our neighbors, our town, our nation. Our task, each individually and all together, is to seek that sacred spring, that treasure hidden in a field, and bring it to the surface and put its gifts to work here and now. We do not need to solve the problems of our time, we need to let the Spirit solve them through us.
Let us open our hearts and minds in silent prayer to the Spirit from whence cometh our help…