Sermon from September 27, 2020

Get Yourselves a New Heart and a New Mind
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 27, 2020   Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:30-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 15:10-11, 17-20

[You can watch a video recording of this sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here.]

The sermon begins with a series of five linked haiku written by an anonymous author in the Taoist tradition:

streams seek low places

humble, emptying themselves

oceans bow to them

 

headwater marshland

distills bogs into pure streams

soiled heart pumps new life

 

little brown trout swim

air rich pools of falls, life thrives

torrent or trickle

 

old sage kneels on bank

still as heron, thrusts in hand

pure hearts fish pure streams

 

giving what it takes

what it makes of stream flow

love fills the falls pools

I have an important announcement to make.  This may shock some of you, so brace yourself.

The world is still going to exist after November 3rd.

The election may or may not be decided.  Your side may or may not have won.  The consequences will most certainly be dramatic.  But life will go on, the earth will go on.  The problems that threaten our existence will still be there after November 3rd no matter who wins, and so will the beauty, joy and love.  Our nation will still be divided and certain media and leaders will be doing all they can to make the divisions more violent, but others will continue to try to heal divisions and help us live as one.

What is more, after November 3rd God will still be God.  The Spirit of love and life and light that created the universe and evolved every living being will still be moving over the face of the earth.  The heart and mind of Christ will still be found among humans in and out of churches, overflowing with universal, unconditional compassion and love.

We know this about the world beyond the election.  What we do not know is how will we have endured the extreme anxiety and likely outrages, what condition our heart and mind will be in by November 3rd.

It remains to be seen what we will have done with these precious thirty-six days both outwardly and inwardly to bring into being the world that we long for, the world that the Spirit of the universe longs for us to create.

The Buddhist tradition tells a story about the superpower of heart and mind that we could attain to transform the world around us in miraculous ways.

Once a brutal samurai warlord was rampaging through the countryside murdering everyone who did not bow before him and become his vassals.  A village got warning that the samurai was coming and all the people fled to the hills except one, a monk who lived as a hermit on the edge of the village.  People urged him to run, but he calmly said he would stay.

When the samurai heard about the monk from his soldiers he was enraged that anyone would have such nerve, so he burst in on the monk, drew his sword and thrust its tip against the monk’s bare chest.

“Do you not know who I am?” he screamed.  “I am someone who could run you through with this sword without batting an eye.”  The monk quietly replied, “And I am someone who could let you without batting an eye.”  The samurai looked at the monk in shock for a moment, and then bowed down before him and left the village in peace.

The Christian tradition has a similar story.  It is called the gospels, the story where Jesus calls us to lose life to gain life—what Paul called self-emptying or kenosis, laying down our lives for the sake of Christ-like love.  It is the story of crucifixion leading to resurrection leading to a Spirit flowing through humble people like us and overturning empires, the story of the meek inheriting the earth.

There is a story from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early centuries of Christianity that goes like this:  Abba Lot went to old Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I chant the psalms, I fast some, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

In this time of history it is not enough for Christians to be good people.  We need Christians to be Christs, we need Jews to be Jeremiahs, we need Buddhists to be Bodhisattvas.  The best hope on either side of the election is that we will be instruments of the soul power that Gandhi said was the only force on earth stronger than the atom bomb.

We need that power because we know the struggle will continue and intensify, no matter who wins on November 3rd.  That could be a depressing thought if we focused on the problems and forces that threaten to overwhelm us.  But that is not where the monk focused, nor is it where the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition tells us to focus.

The Prophet Ezekiel, the Apostle Paul and Jesus faced seemingly invincible empires and injustices.  If they kept their focus only there they could have been paralyzed by despair.

But Ezekiel cried out to the people, “Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”  Jesus cried out, listen and understand, it is what comes out of the heart that matters.  And Paul delivered that beautiful wisdom teaching in Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” a mind or heart that empties itself out of love, humbles itself to the point of ultimate sacrifice, and through that reduction of the ego to zero, releases the power of the Spirit that no emperor or samurai warlord can ultimately withstand.

The next five weeks could leave us incapacitated by anxiety or despair, but Paul assures us that if we focus on the spiritual path to a new heart and mind we will not only be more effective in our actions but we will come through encouraged by the model and teaching of Christ, consoled by the love that fills and surrounds us, guided by the collective Spirit moving among us, comforted by the oneness of compassion, and blessed by joy in the midst of sorrow and struggle.

The instructions Paul gives for this path are simple.  Not easy, but simple: do nothing from selfish ambition, reduce your ego to the role of serving and obeying the Spirit, seek the lowest place in relation to the people around you and the rest of creation, and look to their interest and not just your own.

Spiritual traditions provide two ways to accomplish this.  One is through action, and I hope you will use the next five weeks for increased action, particularly to fight the injustice of voter suppression and to work tirelessly for the interests of those being oppressed.  The other way is the contemplative path, and of the two, it is the one specifically designed to get a new heart and a new mind by self-emptying, by reducing our self to be the servant of the Spirit, by changing our consciousness to see the true oneness of all people and all creation.

Please be in touch with me if you would like some direction on either action or contemplation.  I am eager to help.  In the meantime, let us practice a moment of self-emptying contemplative prayer now, putting our thoughts and feelings aside on a shelf for this minute and turning to the Spirit in the silence of our heart, opening to its movement, its loving presence, its transforming action.  Let your thoughts and feelings go and turn your will gently toward the Spirit within you.  Let us pray in silence…

 

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