Monday, July 28, 2014

Signs of Jesus People: connected and loved

Be still—breathe
Settle the body, still the mind, listen for the spirit…….
At our Habitat work day, after we got our safety talk, the leader asked for a volunteer to lead in prayer.   All FUMC heads turned to me.   As if to say, this is your expertise, this is what we pay you for, Margaret…so we don’t have to expose ourselves.
But prayer is exactly about exposing ourselves, about being vulnerable.  In today’s reading St. Paul writes, in our weakness we do not pray as we ought.  Weakness?   We don’t like to think of our weakness—it’s downright un-American, when power is what it’s all about, showing strength through might.  But as Jesus people we’re called into strength through weakness, and weakness is a fundamental posture of prayer;  I have to admit my weakness to go deeper than my surface protected appearance, and to admit my weakness I need to shut up and get quiet, set aside all my distracting avoidance thoughts (as Chris said last week), and meet the “God who is down there in the middle of all we’ve hidden”.
This is getting connected with sighs too deep for words.
That phrase, isn’t only about when I’m speechless and don’t know what to say in prayer, this deep sigh is going to that connected place within, where we come to know with more than our heads, that God is unequivocally FOR us, that phrase recurs several times in our text, and that nothing, not even whatever you’re scared you’ll find in there, nothing can stop God loving us….and therein lies the strength of weakness.
We’re going to take some time of silence to experiment with this—don’t worry it won’t be long as I know this can be scary—and it’s a bit unusual to have much quiet in worship……..
Be still—breathe
Settle the body, still the mind, listen for the spirit
Gently move aside the distracting thoughts as they surface and let the Spirit meet you at the deepest place you’ll allow it to go…….
“Be Still” chant


Return with “Be Still” chant
And as you are ready, I invite you to leave the sanctuary of that holy place and come back into this external holy place…..and may you always know that you are inseparably connected to God, and deeply loved.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

signs of Jesus people: turn off minds-Chris

Turn off your mind, relax
And float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying
Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining
That you may see the meaning of within
It is being
It is being
That love is all
And love is everyone
It is knowing
It is knowing

Those lyrics were written by John Lennon in 1966, after the Beatles had become interested in a variety of Eastern and Western philosophies. Fellow Beatle and meditator George Harrison later said of his friend’s song, “It describes perfectly what happens in meditation. When the songs says, lay down all thought, it is pointing out the fact that from birth to death all we ever do is think: we have one thought, another thought, another thought, but in meditation you can go beyond that to that shining, loving, pure being within. Now, coming from 60’s rock stars some might think that just seems weird or psychedelic, maybe even dangerous or non-Christian. But when we consider the following quote from Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, we can see that John Lennon just might be touching on something Jesus would recognize. Borg says of first century Jewish mystics like Jesus, “Of them it is said in the Jewish tradition that they would still their hearts before God before they would heal, the practice of wordless meditation is not simply an Eastern tradition, but is central to the Jewish-Christian tradition as well”. When early Jews and Christians used the imagery of the heart, they often did so to speak of internal transformation—stilling the heart was stilling the mind, they would as the songs says, “lay down all thought”--so they could know God directly—and that is surely transformative. This practice goes way back before Jesus. Think of the Psalmist’s words, “Be still and know that I am God”. In other words quiet your mind down and know God.
Jewish mystics like Jesus and Paul would still their minds, or enter a state of consciousness beyond thought through meditation—when I say thought I mean our ideas and the conditioned response of memory.  As I was looking at the scriptures and commentaries for today—I kept looking at the surface meaning of the text and thinking, no, these words don’t exist in a vacuum; this all fits into the larger vision of Jesus and early Christianity. Which is, as Thomas Keating says, “The transmission of the experience of Ultimate Reality or God that Jesus had.” Christianity is meant to bring us into the close, direct, immediate presence of God.
Our Gospel reading for today, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, a story about the human condition, appears in Matthew, the version we just heard, and the Gospel of Thomas. I think this is significant, for Matthew and Thomas are both heavily indebted to Jewish mysticism. In other words, scholars have identified these texts as being especially concerned with human beings directly encountering God.  Also, we heard the explanation of the parable—but that is written in very old symbolic language—so for us, the parable requires an explanation that gets at the human experience those symbols are referring to.
The beginning of the story tells us that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field—meaning -our existence is rooted in and comes out of God. Spirit-filled people like Jesus certainly believed this was so. The myth of the fall was operative for first century Jews and this parable reflects the themes of the story of the fall. Mythically, Transformation or salvation involves a return to that state of closeness that existed between God and humanity before Adam messed it all up. In our epistle reading, Paul describes a return to that state as being adopted—being an heir of God. I contend the modern Christian must go beyond the myth or the story—must go beyond the ancient and symbolic description toward the actual experience those words are pointing toward. And the experience of being close to God was brought about for people like Jesus and Paul by stilling their minds through meditation and deep forms of prayer. The modern Christian must remember that closeness or even union with God was not only for ancient people.
So in the beginning there was just someone sowing good seed in his field. And then, while everybody was asleep—or not paying attention—an “enemy” comes and sows weeds among the wheat. This is interesting—the Aramaic word Jesus would have used that we translate as enemy can mean “owner” or the “head of a family”. So we start with God and now, when nobody is paying attention,  this owner comes in and sows weeds among the wheat—and the tricky thing is, the weeds looked exactly like the wheat.  I ask you—who sows weeds among your wheat? Is it the devil? Some evil “other” or is it yourself, the owner or possessor of your thoughts? I don’t know about you but it’s my thinking that causes me problems--That keeps me from really experiencing God or the eternal. Why? Because thought is time—psychological time, and the eternal is beyond time. Thought is measurable and conditioned and the eternal or God is immeasurable and unconditioned. The tricky little enemy sowing weeds among God’s wheat is myself or my thinking, really, the problem is often thought itself. In the story all this happens when there is no one paying attention—because thinking itself is often why I’m not paying attention to God or reality—even when I think I’m thinking about God—because I can’t really think about God—God can be experienced—not thought about—What I think about is a projection of my own mind. Ideas about God are not God, although humans have a nasty habit of confusing their ideas about God with God—and then we use them to divide people, or worse kill people. We confuse our ideas about truth with Truth; in other words our weeds look like wheat to us. Did you ever really look at your own thoughts? Not think about your thoughts but just observe your thinking. My sense of myself and so many other things depends on conditioned responses. And this can cause me great problems for I tend to confuse past and present—and allow the past to dominate the present. For instance, I hear something about a person or a group of people today and that helps form the image I have of them tomorrow. Why are we so controlled by thought; that manipulative, clever, cunning thinking that has caused so much division, war, anxiety and fear.  Have you ever noticed how thought is always chattering, running on and on, not even stopping during sleep sometimes? Did you ever notice how lost you can get in your thoughts—so that you are isolated, cut off from the world? All, and I mean all of the great mystical traditions, including, as I said earlier, Jesus’ own, have emphasized going beyond thought—so that the mind can be still and know God, or the ultimate reality. My weeds are my own thoughts—and again, they often look deceptively like God’s wheat so I mistake them for that which is ultimately important or real. Surely, the real problem is not thought—because obviously it has its uses—just like the weeds in the story, the actual problem is the supreme importance we give thought—turning ideas into God—confusing the wheat and the weeds. Just look at the world today, from Jesus’ homeland, to Ukraine, to our own local news.
So many of Jesus’ parables challenge our way of thinking— challenge our ideas—especially when it comes to ideas about God. Think about the parable that immediately follows the parable of the weeds in Matthew, the Mustard Seed parable—Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Mustard Seed---to his first listeners Mustard was a weed—a nasty weed that they tried to keep out of their fields—but yet Jesus says the Kingdom is like a mustard seed. He is saying the kingdom is not what you think it is—God is not what you think she/he is. Jesus is challenging thinking—challenging thought itself.  Parables work that way—just like Zen koans, they defy the logical mind.
Now, back to the story—so, after the wheat comes up the weeds came up as well. And some people come and ask the householder if he wants them to pull up the weeds. He says, no, for if you do you will confuse the wheat and the weeds and pull out the wheat as well—so let them grow together until the harvest.
We can’t separate the weeds and the wheat because we can’t control our own transformation. We can’t use the discerning mind, the thinking mind, to get rid of the problem—because it is so often the problem! We have to let go of the desire to control our transformation. We have to let go and let God. This is so difficult for us because all we know is the conditioned mind, our ideas, our thoughts. And we want to use that to engineer our spiritual transformation. The thinking mind may help us design cars, I phones, pills, and bombs, but we cannot think our way into God. If that were possible, brilliant scientists and theologians could all be Christs. Brilliant science or theology can modify the old creation but it cannot bring in the New Creation. Only the Christ can do that!
The householder says at the harvest time he will tell the reapers to get rid of the weeds and gather the wheat into his barn. In other words, at the harvest or when the so-called rule of God is established—when we truly let go and let God--that part of us that is temporal and  conditioned will be separated from that part of us that some call the True self, or the unconditioned Self that lies deep within us. In the end, ultimately,—God runs the show. God is the one who controls or engineers our transformation.
So, turn off your mind, lay down all thought, relax and float down stream.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Signs of Jesus People: listeners

Signs of Jesus People 3:listeners                                                                                                                                   Matthew 13:1-9
Before delving into the story Jesus tells, let’s look at what’s happening.  There’s some controversy around Jesus in the previous chapter; he leaves the house and goes to the beach—a move out of safe tradition into a larger unknown that Chris talked about last week.  The people gather around Jesus, he’s at the center, he’s a man of the people…but then he moves to a boat so he can sit down, the sign of a teacher, so he’s now a man of authority.  So we listeners perk up our ears, he has something important to say.
All three synoptic gospels have this parable – even the Gospel of Thomas has it, so it must be important.  But, how many of you have heard this story before and know what it means?  Many of us have heard this linked with its allegorical interpretation later in the chapter.  But it’s not an allegory in its first form, it’s a parable.  By its nature, a parable is open to the hearer’s interpretation.
So if you haven’t heard it before, all you need to do is listen.   But if you have, maybe we need to re-brand the story, as one website suggested, like prunes are rebranded into dried plums, Diet Deluxe was rebranded to Healthy Choice, or Diet Coke to Coke Zero, or light or whatever.
Familiar or not, we need to LISTEN, not just with our ears, but as St Benedict says in the opening words of the Rule, listen with the ear of the heart—a disciple isn’t just one who hears a story, but one who puzzles about it until she gets a message for her life.  We’ll try (as we have before) to imagine ourselves into the story.  (slide change)
Choose to picture yourself as a seed, or the path, or a bird, or rocks or sun or weeds/thorns or soil.  Ready?  Hear it again with some moments of silence after
Read it again….quiet reflection
Now let’s hear it again with some musings as we go…
A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed, some seeds…..
Seeds: a small thing, a pretty insignificant image for what we think some grand divine scheme might be about…it’s sown indiscriminately, at the mercy of chance, with no choice in its landing place.   A bird might eat it …thorns or weeds might choke it, or the sun bake it.  By itself, it doesn’t have much control
Some seeds fell on the path…..
Path: trodden down and hard, not receptive.  Literally “alongside the way”, on the edge perhaps…yet it offers the seed to the
Birds: hungry, opportunistic, grabbing what they can in competition with others.  Yet even the birds pass the seed along somewhere quite unwittingly…again perhaps we’re not in charge of the seed doing its work
Other seeds actually land in soil, but it’s rocky ground where they didn’t have much soil, shallow, not prepared or worked over, so it can’t develop deep roots and is easily destroyed by the fierce heat of life.
Some makes it into soil full of thorns, or weeds in some translations…so many distractions that get in the way, that keep out the light.  Tho many weeds look attractive, and thorns be on pretty stalks, they can hurt us and end up choking the life out of us.
And some seed, thank goodness, falls on well-tended, fertile soil, where rocks have been removed and weeds kept under control, where turning over happens but is used to enrich the soil……

It’s tempting to think we have to be one or other kind of soil, that’s what the church traditionally teaches, based on the later interpretation.  But the reality is that the four landing sites – hard path, rocks, thorns and fertile soil are all reflections of the human condition—we have them all at various times of life.
Our calling as disciples, as a community of faith, is to keep our ears, and our hearts open, so we recognize what is going on in our life as it’s happening, so we can be open to having our hard places loosened, our rocks recognized and removed, our thorns kept under control and our shallowness deepened.

BUT, it’s also a parable about the Sower.  Did you notice how careless and extravagantly the sower sows?  No farmer would waste so much seed, surely.  The crowds listening to Jesus would gasp in surprise at such poor agricultural practice.  Surely such wastefulness will come to a bad end; but no, the yield is extravagantly high!   It’s counter-cultural.
If we model our lives on this sower, as if he or she is God, we’d share extravagantly and not judge what is worthy of our gifts or time or effort, and what or who is not.  You and I might not waste our energy on the worn out, the downtrodden, the hardened, but God does.
It reminds me of the scene in the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone, where Hagrid goes to all sorts of lengths and places to deliver Harry’s letter from Hogwarts—like the sower, Hagrid scatters the good news in abundance so that somehow he will come to know who he really is and move into a new, though unknown future.
The extravagance and grace and determination of this sower makes me think of the kin-dom of God, the way it’s supposed to be, not the way the church often does it.  In our Friday Benedictine group Betsy shared
If The Church Were Christian......Philip Gulley   

1.  Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship
2.  Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness
3. Reconciliation would be valued over judgment
4. Gracious behavior would be more important than right belief
5. Inviting questions would be valued more than supplying answers
6. Encouraging personal exploration would be more important than communal uniformity
7. Meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions
8. Peace would be more important than power
9. It would care more about love and less about sex
10.  This life would be more important than the afterlife 


Later on, Matthew says Jesus explains the parable as God sowing the ‘word’, the LOGOS, that is the Christ, absolutely everywhere….so not only was it counter-agricultural, it would have sounded counter-religion—God does not sow everywhere, but only in Israel (or America, or only to a particular faith).  Some of Jesus’ listeners would have blocked their ears in horror.  And still do.

Jesus asks us to use the ears we have, mostly because what he is saying is so counterintuitive, from such a different paradigm, that it’s hard to really hear.

So what did your ears hear?  More importantly, what did your heart hear?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

into the unknown-Chris

Come gather round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changin’.
I am convinced Paul would have liked that song. For he was a person that had experienced a great change in his life—a change that had happened and was still happening when he wrote his letter to the Romans.
 I have three quick observations about the verses we heard from him this morning. One, they are an important and fascinating look at an early Christian convert’s experience of following Christ. Two, this text is a piece of scripture that acts as a kind of mirror for us—we read it and we say, yeah, that is me—I can relate to that. And three, Paul repeats himself a few times in this text because he wants us to hear his message—for he is in many ways describing the fundamental religious experience.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book “the call of discipleship” wrote, “It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him”. This quote points out the backstory of Romans 7—in fact the backstory of everything in Paul’s letters. Paul, prior to his conversion or call, was a Pharisaic Jew. That was the religion he had been raised in. and that means he had been taught to have a strong commitment or attachment to the law—in many ways the law and Paul were inseparable—just like we are inseparable from or attached to many of things we have been taught or raised to believe. And then he was converted—he was called by Christ.  In his letter to the Philippians, he describes this radical change…”I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. He regards everything as loss because of the value of knowing Christ—this is another way of saying he has been called away from the his old life, his old self, he has been called way from the known, called by Christ into a new life, which is always the unknown. Now recall Bonhoeffer’s quote, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Paul had been called away from one way of being in and knowing the world to another—he was called from Pharisaism to life in Christ. In romans 7 he shows us that this was not always easy or simple—he is telling us what we know from our own experience—real change or transformation can involve struggle and must be renewed every day. These verses are not the personal confession of a man who is somehow immature in his faith, it is an honest description of a person called by Christ—of a person called away from his nets—called away from his old self—called away from the things and the way of life he had previously known.
Our text today demands a closer look, so I am going to go through these verses, if you like you can open your bibles to Romans chapter 7 verse 15. In verse 15 Paul says he doesn’t understand his own actions. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”. I have read several contemporary psychologists who really appreciate this statement of Paul’s, for by exposing his own inability to do what he really wants to do, he exposes a basic truth of the human condition. So much of what motivates our behavior is unconscious—it is the result of very early conditioning experiences and our responses to them. Don’t we see this play out in our individual lives and by extension, our communities? Let’s say I know there is a change I need to make involving some behavior of mine—the way I eat, the way I drink, the way I’m a slave to my bank account, or maybe even the way I do church—and let’s say for a while I actually pull it off—through God’s grace I am able to keep off the cookies, the booze, the old habitual road—but then I am tempted to go back to my old behavior pattern—I find myself staring at a bottle, hanging out in the bakery at Wegmans, or rejecting outright a new way relating to God—I have gone back to the law—the law of the known, the law of me that was written years ago. That is what Paul is describing here—even after his conversion he still found the ceremonial law a backsliding temptation—but here is the problem for Paul, he now knows since his experience of the risen Christ that his old way of doing things will not bring salvation—but he goes back to it anyway—just like all of us –he finds the familiar, the known—the law of me, of the old self—very difficult to resist. And we have to remember that what our text calls the law can stand for all our conditioning. The Hebrew word Torah simply means “teaching” or “instruction”. Anything that is taught to us or conditioned into us is by definition the known—it is of the past.  This teaching or instruction was inseparable from Paul’s old self—it was an integral part of his conditioning. It was what he knew. Life in Christ however was not something he was taught—he tells us that much in Galatians. “For I want you to know brothers and sisters that the gospel that is proclaimed by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human source nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”. The Gospel is really something revealed to us by God, not taught to us the way a technical skill might be. In fact our reading from Matthew today supports this, the wise and the intelligent certainly knew the law but the mysteries of God are hidden from them. Laws inform; the Gospel transforms.
Verses 16 and 17: “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it but sin that dwells within me”. He can see the usefulness of the law—in fact he enjoyed it when he was a Pharisee—but, since his call,—following the law inevitably leads to sin—to going back to his old self, a relatively self-centered way of doing things, cut off from God. Why was it a relatively self-centered way? Because it did not call him out of self and into Life in Christ—it did not reconcile him to the divine. He sees that now that he has directly encountered a radically new life in Christ. Isn’t that often true of ourselves? We may, after we experience a new way of being—a new consciousness, be able to look back and see the usefulness of maybe even a bad habit—we might see that it worked for us at the time. I know a recovering alcoholic who said that he now realizes that if he hadn’t drank at a certain time in his life he would have committed suicide—but to drink now would certainly lead to spiritual death. And for other old habits, like maybe the way we do church or reject new ways of relating to God—this is also true. We might look back and say, yes, the old way worked then and it was and is good—but it isn’t working now. Modern western Christians have been saying since the days of Bonhoeffer something has to change about church—but the church keeps on in the old way—out of habit—out of the law of the old self.  Here I want to be clear—it is not really “the church” that needs to change—in some sense there is no “church”—there is only us—we ourselves as individuals and communities that need follow the Christ into a radically new, unknown way of being . In my opinion, this is not, fundamentally, about institutional leaders changing, this is not about tearing down tradition, not about pop music in the sanctuary, not about being entertained, not about church shopping or getting what we want—this is about each of us being radically open to the Spirit, maybe through adding a meditation practice, a prayer practice, or participation in a small group to what we are already doing. In short, it is about each of us being willing to do what our scriptures call “picking up your cross daily”. Christ is eternally calling us away from our nets—and many of us, at least in the contemporary west, seem to be standing on the shoreline with our net in our hands. And if this keeps us subject to the law of our old selves and afraid to change—then it surely keeps us in what Paul calls sin or what we might call self-centered fear.
Verses 18--20, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is in my flesh. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Whoa. Unfortunately, this has been misunderstood and used to demonize the flesh. Paul tells us he can decide to do what is right, but he can’t actually carry it out. I can relate. I can say yes, I am going to go in a new direction, do a new thing, be a new guy—but usually my actions tell a different story—the same old story. Paul is again talking about ceremonial law or teaching --and that is his old self, the old familiar way of doing things. It is easier to go back that old way—but he now recognizes that to follow the old way—to live the self-centered life he lived before he was called by Christ into the unknown is to be in sin. This is so true for so many—the old familiar way often uses fear or insecurity to call us back…sin can stand for that old relatively self-centered way we know—the old way that has been conditioned into us. It is not that any of these teachings or learned behaviors are in and of themselves bad or sinful—it is rather sin or self-centeredness that is the real problem—that is what cuts us off from the unknown or God. That is what causes us to hold onto to our nets and refuse the call of Christ.
Verse 21 “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand”. Of course it does. Because when “I”, the old self that is all my old conditioning, is in the driver’s seat—I tend to act out of that self-centeredness—and I usually do not recognize it—in fact I often think I’m pretty righteous. Isn’t that the nature of sin? To obtain flattering remarks, power, or position for itself? To be the powerful one who decides good and evil. The problem is sin never sees its own sinfulness…only God reveals true sin to us—and God calls sin what we often call good, in particular our own self-righteousness. That is why when I or my ego wants to do good evil lies close at hand.
Verses 22-25 “For I delight in the law of god in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to god through Jesus Christ our lord! So then with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin”. Paul is here really summing up the human condition. He has had the experience of being called by Christ—he knows that he is intimately connected to the divine within. But he also knows that as a human individual he struggles with self-centeredness. He sees it in his members, in the action of his body—in his appetites, in his cravings, he recognizes his own self centeredness. As many of us know our appetites, our addictions, can get out of control. We can be addicted to just about anything—drugs, alcohol, our own way of thinking especially. Our culture encourages this, has made it a way of life and it leads self-centeredness. Americans are consistently shown to be some of the loneliest people on earth even while surrounded with all their stuff and ideas. Isn’t that because our appetites and cravings so often make relationship a process of isolation with each person out for their own gratification. We often love people as long as they can satisfy us, as long as they agree with us. That is the law of sin or estrangement dwelling in or members. But I don’t think we see that until we encounter the great unknown in Christ, when we have something to contrast the old way with. Once we feel the call of Christ to leave our nets we then become aware of or conscious of our own condition---in other words, we see ourselves more clearly. And we become aware that it is only by venturing into the unknown with Christ that we can leave the old creation we know and experience the great unknown, the new creation.
I will close with this…Paul felt it—and I think we feel it too…The Christ is standing on the shoreline and he is calling us…come gather round people where ever you roam…for the times they are a changin’.